New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: vienna carroll

Vienna Carroll’s New Album Reveals the Defiant, Transgressive Roots of Gospel and Blues Classics

Vienna Carroll could be called a New York counterpart to Rhiannon Giddens. Both artists share a deep, historically-informed, often witheringly insightful knowledge of the roots of African-American music, and can be riveting performers. Carroll’s new album, Harlem Field Recordings – streaming at youtube – includes both politically-charged reinventions of classic blues and gospel themes as well as more traditional numbers and originals which sound like 19th century standards. It’s classic music as you’ve probably never heard it before. Carroll also has a show tomorrow night, March 6 at 5:30 PM at a familiar haunt, the American Folk Art Museum; admission is free.

She opens the record’s first track, Strawberries and Glory with the shout of an oldtime urban fruit vendor. This is a one-chord gospel jam sung rousingly over a backdrop of Michael O’Brien’s fat bass chords, Keith Johnston’s stingingly resonant dobro and Newman Taylor Baker’s subtly swinging washboard percussion. Midway through the song, Carroll switches to a hilarious subway vendor scenario, bringing this story into the present day: over the years, good entrepreneurs may change their pitches, but ultimately, business savvy hasn’t changed much. Happily, Carroll’s story doesn’t include what could have happened to this enterprising businesswoman, when she moved to another car on the train…and got busted by an undercover cop, simply for trying to make an honest living.

The group follow with a bouncy, country blues-tinged version of the old spiritual You Better Mind. Carroll’s slowly simmering 6/8 take of Come Into My Kitchen draws a straight line back to the Howlin’ Wolf classic Sitting on Top of the World, with a sparkly guitar solo at the center. She half-sings, half-speaks her way through the grim narrative of No Mo Freedom, the vengeful promise of a wrongfully convicted prisoner at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm. She uses the same technique a little later on in her spare bass-and-vocal arrangement of Grinnin’ in Your Face.

Prison Blues, with the full band adding a funky sway behind her, is just as harrowing – and just as vindictive, in keeping with a familiar theme in Carroll’s work, four hundred years of defiance and subversion against racism and repression. Her interpretation of Let’s Go Down to the River is several levels more fervent than the wispy version you may have heard on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

With the band blending in a thicket of psychedelically-influenced guitar (and a wry Coltrane quote), Carroll’s approach to I Just Wanna Make Love to You reinforces its origins as a transgressive slave anthem. Likewise, Carroll’s stark remake of All the Pretty Little Horses, spiced with Melanie Dyer’s viola reveals a level of crushing sarcasm in what’s usually interpreted as an innocuous lullaby. The black nursemaid sees a bright future for the slaveowner’s kid in her arms; meanwhile, her own baby is crying from hunger in the slave quarters.

Carroll’s rousing Make the Devil Leave Me Alone leaves no doubt that this is no mere hymn; it’s an escaped slave’s anthem. She winds up the album triumphantly with Singing Wid a Sword in My Hand, a thinly veiled tale that takes that escape to its logical conclusion. It’s a party for our right to fight, something we really need to take seriously at a point where the DNC is shooting itself in the foot, handing over the 2020 election to the Trumpies just as they did in 2016.

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.