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Contemplating the Closure of Beloved New York Music Venues

Bad Cop: RIP Rodeo Bar.

Good Cop: Rodeo Bar didn’t close. They just stopped having music.

Bad Cop: That’s a tragedy. Rodeo Bar was Americana Central in New York for decades. Bands relied on that place for a living. It was one of the few remaining scenes here. It’ll be missed, badly.

Good Cop: I hate to burst your bubble, but you’re romanticizing. And you can still go there for the food. Which is pretty good, believe it or not.

Bad Cop: It won’t be the same. The Rodeo was my local back in the day when I was rolling in the dough and living in Gramercy Park. Drinks weren’t all that expensive and the bands were great. Big names would come through on a regular basis: the Hot Club of Cowtown, Wayne Hancock, Rosie Flores. Big Lazy actually played there a couple of times. Might have been the best show I ever saw there. And so many New York bands made the place their home: the Hangdogs, Buddy Woodward’s band, Simon & the Bar Sinisters. A slice of prime Manhattan real estate like the Rodeo can’t be replaced.

Good Cop: But it’s not prime real estate. Prime real estate for a music venue now is Bushwick. Manhattan isn’t a destination anymore. And crowds just weren’t coming out to the Rodeo for the music, and hadn’t for a long time. And that’s not to say that they ever really did anyway. OK, I did get to see a bunch of good shows here, but there was always some issue, having to dodge crowds of drunk Baruch college kids, screaming and hollering and not paying any attention to the band. And as a business model, it just didn’t make sense for the Rodeo to keep paying bands when they weren’t bringing a crowd.

Bad Cop: But the Rodeo could have made a go of it if they’d really wanted to. You know what they did that was really dumb? Rockabilly on Saturday nights. That’s just pandering to a Long Island and Jersey crowd. Why not put New York bands on Saturday nights and create a scene?

Good Cop: Because the Saturday night crowds there are so loud that it made no sense to book a good band because nobody would have listened.

Bad Cop: Not true. I remember going to see the Hangdogs there on more than one Saturday and the place was packed, and, sure, it was loud, but people were there for the music.

Good Cop: Another reason that wouldn’t work these days is that the New York bands are all playing Brooklyn on Saturday nights. You yourself can vouch for this: if there’s something happening in your neighborhood, or at your local, aren’t you going to stay put rather than going into Manhattan, especially on the weekend when the trains are all fucked up?

Bad Cop: It’s not like the Rodeo was Roseland. You brought fifty people, you packed the place, at least on the side with the stage. That’s not unrealistic, even now.

Good Cop: I think that’s wishful thinking. And another thing, the Rodeo was never able to keep up with how the music scene here changed. Maybe back in the 90s, when you were going there, there was an audience for honkytonk, and alt-country, and heartland rock. But that was then. Now if you’re playing Americana, you’re probably playing more or less acoustic – country blues, or bluegrass. And if you tried to do that at the Rodeo, the crowd would drown you out. So you’ve got a situation where the new crop of Americana players wouldn’t play there anyway – and those people are the ones with a following – and the older bands draw an older crowd that doesn’t drink much and just keeps getting smaller and smaller. And to be honest, I thought that the quality of the bands at the Rodeo in the last couple of years wasn’t all that good anyway.

Bad Cop: That place actually had to fight to stay in business more than a lot of people realize. Remember a few years ago when they got shut down by the health department and had to spend a fortune on new ductwork? There was something fishy about that, like maybe somebody didn’t get paid off enough. Or maybe it was just another Bloomberg anti-nightlife crusade. I still think it’s a horrible shame that we’ve lost another good venue.

Good Cop: You can always go to Hill Country…

Bad Cop: No way! Completely different crowd. If you think the crowd at the Rodeo didn’t listen, you haven’t heard the din at Hill Country. The one in Manhattan’s a tourist trap, the one in Brooklyn’s totally ghetto. Nobody pays any attention to the music. Talk about a lousy business model! The only reason I can imagine why Hill Country would continue to hire bands is that they’re making such a killing on the food that they don’t feel the pinch.

Good Cop: But the restaurant at the Rodeo always seems to be pretty full…

Bad Cop: They don’t have anywhere near the markup that Hill Country does. The markup for barbecue is four or five times higher than what it is at most every other kind of restaurant, sometimes more. Paying the band three hundred bucks when that’s how much one party of four is going to spend there is a drop in the bucket, profitwise.

Good Cop: I never realized that. I guess that makes sense, considering the prices…

Bad Cop: Now that we’ve lamented the loss of the Rodeo, at least as a venue, let’s move on to Roseland. [to Good Cop]: When was the last time you went to Roseland?

Good Cop: I never went to Roseland.

Bad Cop: And why not?

Good Cop: Um, they really didn’t have a lot of music there anyway. Once a month? Once every couple of months? And when they did, tickets were insanely expensive.

Bad Cop: My point exactly. As far as the loss of a venue is concerned, Roseland barely qualified as one, at least since around 2000. I personally hated the place. [to Good Cop]: You would have really loved this place. The bouncers would grope you as you went in.

Good Cop: Really?

Bad Cop: They’d feel you up, all right. Your tits, your ass. I had a guy grab my balls there once.

Good Cop: What did you do?

Bad Cop: Ordinarily I would have decked the guy but I was with a bunch of people. A Wallflowers show, I think. And I didn’t want to get separated from them, plus, I’d dropped twenty-five bucks or so on the ticket.

Good Cop: Do you have any good memories of Roseland?

Bad Cop: Actually I do. I saw the Sex Pistols play their first ever New York show there. That was pretty amazing, even though the sound was ass, like it always was there. And I have a recording of their show there the following night, which I actually didn’t go to. But those shows were the exception rather than the rule, and as the years went by, the place was empty most nights of the week. You wanna know what the deal with that place was? It’s the one commercial property in a large residential portfolio. The scion of this particular real estate fortune would use it as his living room: he’d book the Eagles or the Rolling Stones for a private show, that sort of thing. Strictly a vanity operation, at least at the end.

Good Cop: I think it’s a shame to lose such a big space, one that’s so easy to get to.

Bad Cop: But remember what you just said about the Rodeo not being prime real estate! And also remember that Roseland really wasn’t functioning as a music venue, and hadn’t, for a long, long time.

Good Cop: Since I never went there and don’t really have anything to contribute to that discussion, let’s move on to Maxwell’s, who closed last year. Now I think that’s a great loss…

Bad Cop: It was. Maxwell’s was to Hoboken what CBGB was to Manhattan, except better. It’s unbelievable how many great bands played that little space. I loved that place. The sound was fantastic, the people who ran it were nice, drinks were cheap and the food was good. And where CBGB phoned it in, lived off its reputation, past its prime, for a long, long time, Maxwell’s booked a ton of good bands. And different kinds – Americana, garage rock, punk, songwriters, you name it.

Good Cop: Again, I hate to burst your bubble, but in the last couple of years at Maxwell’s, there weren’t more than a half a dozen bands I would have wanted to see.

Bad Cop: I think that’s more a function of a sea change than a reflection on the venue. I know, it did get really indie towards the end, which is why it pretty much fell off my radar. But back in the day I went there a lot, considering that I was coming from here. I remember walking those long twelve blocks from the Path train, and then back, in the middle of the winter and freezing my ass off. But it was worth it. Did you know, I saw Richard Thompson there?

Good Cop: Whoah! That doesn’t surprise me. I saw the Saints there. And Madrugada, I think it was their first American show.

Bad Cop: Notice how nobody’s tried to replace Maxwell’s? That’s because it can’t be replaced.

Good Cop: Now that’s a function of gentrification. I don’t think that had anything to do with Roseland or the Rodeo though…

Bad Cop: Oh yes it does. Without gentrification, there’d be no explosion of uber-pricy Brooklyn barbecue joints, for that matter, no proliferation of Brooklyn venues and the Rodeo would still be a viable spot.

Good Cop: Well, ok, I see your point. Next on your list is Max Fish, which I didn’t even know had live music.

Bad Cop: Max Fish hadn’t had live music in a long time. I think they stopped having it in around 2001, 2002 or so. But before then, a lot of great bands played there. Douce Gimlet, who I know you never saw, had a monthly residency there….

Good Cop: I know, I’ve heard you talk about them. But Max Fish was a tourist trap, wasn’t it?

Bad Cop: Not in the beginning. Back in the 90s there were two bars on the block, Max Fish and the Ludlow Street Cafe, which also had live music. The Fish was basically a local bar, and a music bar because, hard as this is to believe, a lot of musicians lived on the Lower East Side because – I know this is almost comical to say – rents were cheap. At least relatively cheap.

Good Cop: That’s hard to figure. To be honest, I didn’t like the place. It was the kind of bar you’d go to on a Monday, maybe..

Bad Cop: Every bar is a good bar on a Monday. Monday is professional night…

Good Cop: It was too crowded and too shi-shi for me. The crowd, at least. And a meat market, from the looks of it…

Bad Cop: Yeah, there was plenty of that too. But back in the day, it was the kind of place where on any random night, Elliott Smith could be chatting with Chan Marshall, and so many other good players would be hanging out. You’d meet all your friends there because there weren’t a lot of other places to go down there, and the Fish was probably the first place you went to the first time you went out in that neighborhood. Back in the day, they had the best jukebox in town, all these great obscure New York bands. The Tom Otterness sculptures on the bar, the trippy polka dots on the walls. Yeah, I know it got crowded, and as the neighborhood went to hell, so did the Fish, but I still have a lot of good memories of the place. I miss it.

Good Cop: It’s too bad I missed out. Are you going to the new one when it opens on Orchard Street?

Bad Cop: Hell no. That was a time and a place and it’s over now. Next on our list here is Kenny’s Castaways…you have got to be kidding. Kenny’s Castaways?!?

Good Cop: Hey, they had a good sound system…

Bad Cop: But the bands sucked! And it’s on the Bleecker Street strip! C’mon, when’s the last time you went to Kenny’s Castaways?

Good Cop: I went to see my friends’ band play there once.

Bad Cop: Did you have a good time?

Good Cop: Actually, yeah. Although I remember there was a big posse of Jersey girls with ironed hair that came in at the end and started yelling.

Bad Cop: We needed Kenny’s Castaways like we needed a hole in the head. If that whole strip turned into a mini-mall tomorrow, that would be an improvement.

Good Cop: Still, it’s too bad to lose another Manhattan space…one with a good sound system, too…

Bad Cop: Give ya a little history. For a blip back in the late zeros, or maybe the mid-zeros, this would have been around 2006 if I remember correctly, Kenny’s Castaways suddenly because a really good venue. Dave Foster from Bubble booked the place for a few months and all of a sudden there were a whole bunch of good bands playing there. And then they fired him. Must not have been what the Jersey tourists wanted.

Good Cop: Wow, I never knew that. Working backwards, roughly speaking, next on our list is the National Underground. Now this place never made any sense to me…

Bad Cop: Me neither. Remember when they first started, they were trying to be a country bar?

Good Cop: Yeah. Lots of Jalopy people, as I remember. But that space is cursed. It’s a tourist bar now.

Bad Cop: Again. Do you remember when it was that airplane theme bar?

Good Cop: Before my time.

Bad Cop: You didn’t miss anything. And I get the impression that the owners never gave a damn about the place, they were just using it for seed money to start a branch in Nashville. You know who owned it, right?

Good Cop: No, who?

Bad Cop: This guy Gavin DeGraw. A sappy corporate singer-songwriter prettyboy.

Good Cop: Never heard of him. Must have been busy with his sappy corporate gig because the bar was a trainwreck. The last time I was there, there was a huge rat in the corner. Didn’t the health department close it down?

Bad Cop: Come to think of it, yes! And the sound was frightful. Drink prices were absurd especially for such a scuzzy space. And there was this one time I was there when there was somebody playing onstage but the bartender left an album, or his phone or the radio or something, playing over the PA during the show. As you can tell from how this conversation has evolved, I’m usually the first to lament the passing of a viable space for music, but the National Underground wasn’t one of them.

Good Cop: Next on the list is Zirzamin. Which I don’t understand. That place had so much going for it, and it closed so soon…

Bad Cop: I don’t want to betray any confidences – let’s say that there are structural issues with the building which preclude the use of the space for any purpose, really. Things may have gotten worse in recent years, but it’s still pretty amazing how long Zinc Bar, and then the frat bar that followed it, managed to last in that space.

Good Cop: They were so dedicated to good music. Where else could you see a weekly residency by Gato Loco, or Beninghove’s Hangmen?

Bad Cop: Barbes, for one. It was sort of Barbes Manhattan. But there were legal issues, related to the building, that nobody knew about, basically from day one. And that pretty much put a damper on any kind of long-term strategy for the place – other than the weekly salon that this blog hosted there, of course.

Good Cop: The sound was incredible. It was so intimate and so Twin Peaks back there in that room…

Bad Cop: And you remember how the air conditioning would suddenly cut out, and how some days the kitchen would be open and then it wouldn’t be, and the bar would be out of this and that…it was a great scene while it lasted, and considering what they were up against, it’s a miracle it lasted that long. A year and two months. I was just walking past the corner of Houston and LaGuardia the other day and they were finally clearing out the basement. All the fixtures and furniture were still there. Sad.

Good Cop: Did you take a souvenir?

Bad Cop: I did, right before they closed. I took some silverware. One of the knives fell down behind my stove and it’s still in there somewhere.

Good Cop: Next on the list is Bar Four. Which as I see was in Park Slope. I never went there so you have the floor for this one…

Bad Cop: Thank you for that introduction. And this is where I get to vent about everything that’s wrong with the live music scene in New York. Bar Four was a nice enough neighborhood bar. Kind of a small place, little stage in the back, pretty friendly, not very expensive. And as it turned out, they had a surprisingly good songwriters’ night there. Too bad I never heard about it til after they closed.

Good Cop: Did you ever go there?

Bad Cop: Once, to hear a jazz group. Who were great. I would have gone back if the bar had made the slightest attempt to publicize what was happening there. But they didn’t.

Good Cop: It was pretty small, right? Maybe they figured they didn’t need to, that the bands themselves would bring a crowd…

Bad Cop: My point exactly. Or rather, sort of. None of these venues seem to want to grow, to create something that’s going to expand beyond where they are. They’re just content to have enough of a crowd in the house so they can pay the rent. Nobody has any ambition. In the case of Bar 4, part of it is the fault of the musicians. You want to know what that songwriters’ night was called? Local Correspondents…

Good Cop: Sounds like a news organization. Bad branding, if you ask me…

Bad Cop: That’s part of it. But as you know, I have from time to time been known to pitch in and help with putting together the monthly live music calendar at this blog. So when I’d go to the Bar 4 website and I saw “Local Correspondents,” I assumed it was something like what you just described. Did the bar even bother to mention who was playing? Or that it was a music event at all, instead of the guys from the tv trucks on their night off? No. And that I blame on the venue. I don’t know if it was a lack of bodies, or the end of a lease, or what it was, that put the bar out of business, but they didn’t do themselves any favors by not telling the world what was happening there.

Good Cop: But do you really think that people went to their website to see what was happening? Maybe they just figured, you know, we’ll do a twitter feed and leave it at that…

Bad Cop: Maybe so, and that speaks for so many other venues that still are in business. They take and they take from musicians and give back nothing. Max Fish was front and center in the rock scene ten, fifteen years ago. Kenny’s Castaways was part of the West Village folk scene back in the 60s. Maxwell’s was Ground Zero for New Jersey bands, Yo La Tengo and the Feelies and the Bongos and a whole lot of other bands got their start there. Roseland was a hotspot for latin dancing in the 50s and 60s and for big band jazz before then. And the Rodeo we already talked about. Will any of the latest crop of Brooklyn bars be remembered after they’re gone? I doubt it.

Good Cop: Neither will most Manhattan bars. I think you’re romanticizing. Again. Max Fish just happened to be the one bar on the block where all the musicians went. For the longest time, Maxwell’s was the only club in Hoboken. Kenny’s Castaways just happened to be there when Bob Dylan was coming up. And there were a lot of dance halls for big band jazz, Roseland wasn’t the only one. I think that people with ambition and the desire to build a scene are the exception rather than the rule and have always been. Most bar owners just want to make money, they don’t care how and there are plenty of ways to do it other than having bands on the weekend.

Bad Cop: We forgot the Living Room.

Good Cop: Ha, you can have that one too…

Bad Cop: Did you ever go to the Living Room?

Good Cop: Yeah, once or twice. And I can honestly say that I hated the place. I remember the waitress swooping down on me, like a vulture, the minute I walked in. And security was really tight, just getting inside was like going to the airport. Which was weird, and off-putting. And the sound was bad, and drinks were expensive. Which is why I didn’t go back..

Bad Cop: Let’s be completely fair about this. The Living Room, in its original space at the corner of Stanton and Allen Streets, was a perfectly OK place. Back in the day, if you were a singer-songwriter, there were two main places to play on the Lower East Side, CB’s Gallery and the Living Room. There were other places: the original Sin-e, which was a tiny little joint, but then they closed. And there were Fez and the Bottom Line, but both of those places had a cover charge and expensive drinks, and bad reputations for not paying bands. So if your music was on the quiet side, or if you were doing what the Jalopy bands are now, you’d probably end up at the Living Room sooner or later. And it wasn’t a bad little spot: drinks were on the pricy side, but there usually wasn’t a cover and a lot of good people passed through there. I went there a lot. Then when they moved to Ludlow Street, the place went completely to hell.

Good Cop: What was better about the Allen Street location?

Bad Cop: Everything. The sound was ok – it isn’t a huge space, anyway. And there wasn’t the security gauntlet that they suddenly had at the location on Ludlow. What I always found so ironic is that Cake Shop, next door, had such a relaxed atmosphere and such nice people working there, while the Living Room was like a Nazi death camp. Let’s wrap this up with a true story, this would have been around 2006 or so: guy with his guitar onstage at the Living Room, and he’s not young, probably in his 40s. His dad is sitting in the audience, trying to figure out how to work a digital camera. He’s got to be at least 70, maybe 80. Finally, the old guy figures out how to work the camera. From out of nowhere, the sound guy leaps out of the sound booth, sprints down the aisle and snatches the camera out of the old man’s hand. The old guy is mortified: he thinks he’s being mugged. Sound guy snootily confiscates the camera and tells the old man that there’s no unauthorized photography at the Living Room. Which speaks for everything that was wrong with that place.

Good Cop: I recorded a show there and never had any problem…

Bad Cop: Yeah, I did too, but after I heard that story I was more discreet about it. And then it just hit me, why even bother with this shithole. All the good acts who played there would also play Pete’s, or the Rockwood, where the sound would be good and you wouldn’t be treated like shit. I’m cynical about venues in general, but the Living Room was my least favorite club in the world. I’d rather get my balls fondled at Roseland than spend another minute at the Living Room.

Good Cop: Blog Boss had a funny quote about that place. Remember Mike Dukakis? Ran for President against Bush I? Dukakis said that a fish rots from the head down, and that’s why the Living Room was what it was. Supposedly the owner there was a nightmare, and everybody who worked there was miserable, and that’s why they treated the customers like shit.

Bad Cop: Clubs in general have a lot of turnover, but I knew a lot of former Living Room employees and not a single one had anything good to say about that place. Good riddance.

Good Cop: I hope this is our last requiem for dead venues…

Bad Cop: I’ve been bugging Blog Boss to do a dead venues page. For history’s sake. Are you down?

Good Cop: No thanks. You can have all the nostalgia. I’m in this for the here and now. Wait – we didn’t even mention Lakeside!

Bad Cop: I don’t have it in me to talk about that. That was really sad, even though you could see the end coming a mile away. And anyway, there were a couple of things about Lakeside closing here, back around the time it happened. They’re here and here.

New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon: Blowing Our Own Horn

Sooner or later, every music blog seems to get into the business of booking bands. For this blog, that means coming full circle, having come out of booking into blogging and then back again. It makes sense: if you do your homework, you’re connected to a vast musical network. Some blogs do it for the money, booking acts everybody else does. The indie rock blogs do it for status. New York Music Daily does it to be part of history. That’s ultimately what this blog is about, anyway: an attempt to chronicle some of the most important musical things happening right now. Unlike the Bushwick blogs’ loft shows, the weekly 5 PM Sunday Salon at Zirzamin isn’t a clique. Quality artists are always welcome to participate, and anyone is welcome to watch the show. Today’s review is a shout-out to the core of brilliant New York artists who’ve kept the Salon going since its debut right after last year’s hurricane, with a look back at the last few weeks of shows by those acts and some others who’ve been featured on this page in recent months as well.

The Salon typically finishes with a 7 PM set.  Sunday Salon #27 was a cancellation, so the acts took turns working out new material and showcasing a few audience favorites. Acoustic blues singer/guitarist Lola Johnson was a highlight of this show, joined by her excellent washboard player, whose custom-built instrument had bells and all sorts of other percussion built into it. Working her way from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, Johnson impressed the most with a gospel-fueled version of Fred McDowell’s You Gotta Move that was a lot closer to the original than the famous Stones cover. Songwriter Tamara Hey – who’s playing the 7 PM set on August 11 – also wowed her fellow songwriters with her wry, bittersweet, vividly detailed, quintessentially New York tales of playing gigs in Lower East Side dives and metaphorically-charged explorations of the dilemma between gluttony and self-discipline, with soaring, maple sugar vocals and intricate guitar fingerpicking. And Kelley Swindall treated the crowd to yet another creepy new murder ballad, this one a purist, oldtime country blues.

At that show, Lorraine Leckie did what she often does, opting to sit on a table with her acoustic guitar and belt to the audience without any amplification. A founding member of the salon, she’s never stopped growing as a songwriter. Her show here the first week of May spotlighted her elegant, brooding chamber pop songwriting, including many of her collaborations with journalist/gadfly/social critic Anthony Haden-Guest from her album with him, Rudely Interrupted. Her following two shows here, at Salons #30 and #34, featured her scorching rock band the Demons. Whether she’s playing ornate art-rock, Britfolk-influenced open-tuned pastoral themes, snarling retro glamrock or the Steve Wynn-esque Canadian gothic she made a name for herself with in the late zeros, there’s no one more interesting, or more at the top of their game as a songwriter than she is right now. Her band has been solidified by the addition of a regular bassist; her vocals, stronger than ever, have been bolstered by the amazing Banjo Lisa and her spine-tingling high harmonies. Her not-so-secret weapon is guitarist Hugh Pool, whose maniacal yet nuanced, Hendrix-inspired lead playing gives the songs a volcanic intensity.

Walter Ego is another songwriter who’s never sounded better. A mainstay of the Salon since it began, he likes to challenge himself, whether that’s playing solo on drums (an instrument he’s just picked up), or taking a stab at playing totally unamplified at Sidewalk after Salon #30. And it turned out to be a format that works for him. Without a mic, he had to pick up his cool, crisp vocals a little; his sardonic humor and tuneful songs, played both on acoustic guitar and piano, spoke for themselves. A couple of his best, recent numbers reminded of vintage Ray Davies. The most haunting one was 12/9 (subway code for “passenger under the train”); the funniest one was Mitterand’s Last Meal, a cruelly detailed account of the late French President’s final supper whose final course was an endangered species which in France is illegal for human consumption. Double entendres, puns and clever jokes met with catchy, sometimes Beatlesque changes throughout a mix of upbeat and more pensive tunes.

Chanteuse Carol Lipnik has also been a mainstay of the Salon. Since the late 90s, her four-octave voice has been stunning audiences across this city, yet she’s also grown in the past year: there is simply no diverse or captivating singer in New York right now. Her work spans the worlds of noir cabaret, the avant garde, British folk and art-rock. Her headlining set at Salon #32 featured her Ghosts in the Ocean project with pianist Matt Kanelos, mixing haunting, raptly atmospheric songs with more aggressive material including a machinegunning cover of Nick Drake’s Black Dog Blues. A couple of weeks before that, she treated the crowd at Barbes to over an hour and a half of her Coney Island phantasmagoria, backed by her band Spookarama with jazz pianist Dred Scott (Kanelos was also summoned from the crowd for a couple of unexpected and very welcome contributions). She’s been busy this year, with several shows at Joe’s Pub and le Poisson Rouge; she’s also appearing with her frequent collaborator, crooner John Kelly, at Joe’s Pub this Sunday, July 14 at 7:30 PM.

And the guy who’s arguably been the Salon’s most reliable anchor, John Hodel – the Bukowski of the New York acoustic music scene – plays a full set at 7 PM this Sunday the 14th.

A Month’s Worth of Nightcrawling, Part Three

Those of us who run music blogs are discouraged from every side from publishing concert coverage.  The publicists all want us to “preview” live shows, which is understandable: let’s get the crowd out to the gig!!! The reality is that we are in a deep, deep economic depression. The corporate media pretend it doesn’t exist because to acknowledge it would anger advertisers. The Bushwick blogs are oblivious to it because indie rock is by and large made by and for trust-funded children whose only connection with the daily reality experienced by most New Yorkers is their late-night slobbberfest at whatever trendy taco truck stays open the latest. But in spite of it all, incredible live music that has no connection whatsoever to the indie trust fund machine persists. So this final segment in three parts is dedicated to the working poor who make up an unpublicized majority of the audience at most New York concerts.

Walter Ego headlined Sunday Salon 25 at Zirzamin. The Sunday Salon began right after the hurricane last fall: it continues, unabated, a gathering of some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trading licks and songs. In an hour onstage, Walter Ego played every instrument within reach. Backed by brilliant drummer Josh Fleischmann, he began on guitar, switched to piano, eventually took over on bass for a slinky version of the Beatles’ Baby You’re a Rich Man and ended up behind the drum kit. In between, he acknowledged the horror of being behind the wheel of a subway train that runs over a passenger, went deep into Lennonesque piano mysticism, fired off jaunty, wryly amusing songs making fun of new agers and killjoys, evoking the Zombies, Beatles, Elvis Costello and ELO along the way.

Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina played a gorgeously eclectic solo show the following Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum. She’s a musician’s musician, taking the time to explain her background and how she survives in a world of magical musical niches, an American girl determined by the time she was in grade school to master styles she had little background in. Playing and singing solo with just her accordion, she held a standing-room-only crowd rapt with haunting songs from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece and the Jewish diaspora. Rising from a hushed, sultry alto to an anguished, microtonal wail, she held the crowd breathless as she brought to life ancient stories of mismatched marriages gone drastically awry, love lost to wartime casualties fighting the Ottoman empire, and an unexpected detour into American Appalachian folk music, another one of her specialities. A rugged individualist from day one, she now teaches music all over the world and collaborates with a similarly diverse cast of the world’s most sought-after players, from trumpeter Fank London (with whom she has a new album coming out) and modern accordionist Merima Kljuco. Her new solo album is a subtly beautiful hint of the careening chromatic intensity she pursues with London and an all-star cast of Eastern European players.

What is the likelihood that on a Monday night, an 11:30 PM Brooklyn show would be sold out? If it’s Rev. Vince Anderson, that’s always a possibility. He’s reached the point where he’s just about outgrown his weekly Monday residency at Union Pool, which is not a small venue. With a raw roar, he crashed into his signature song, Get Out of My Way and kept a packed house dancing throughout a somewhat abbreviated first set this past Monday night. Is there any jam band in New York who can match Anderson and his Love Choir? Doubtful. Firing off funk riffage on his trusty Nord Electro keyboard and backed by brilliant downtown baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson and Dave Smith on trombone plus guitar, bass and drums, he kept a resonant, murky minor-key mix going, then quoted both Hendrix and Jesus Christ Superstar in a slinky version of his own song Down to the River. A new number, Fallen from the Pray explored an existential crisis for the “dirty gospel” bandleader and minister (click here for his most recent sermon). “People are curious. They see me on the train and they come up to me and ask me, am I the Rev. Vince Anderson, and I say yes. Then they ask me why I’m depressed. and I say, do I look depressed? Am I acting for you? You mean I’m not animated like I am onstage? Then they ask me if I’m a believer. Today? Stone cold atheist, tomorrow who knows?”

The Rev., as he is lovingly known, is not an atheist. He followed that angst-ridden romp with a solo piano version of Precious Lord, Take My Hand. then a deep-fried soul vamp titled I Like My Lettuce Fried (you can actually do it if you use the heart of the vegetable) and then his hot sauce theme, Tangalicious. And that was just the first set. By the time that was over, there was no possible way to get into the room at Union Pool: you have been warned.

Alison Tartalia has an impossible 11 PM Tuesday residency this month at Spike Hill. It’s a great venue to not have to worry about drawing a crowd: it’s right by the train, the bartenders are super friendly and it’s the antithesis of the fussy trendoid bars immediately to the south. And the sound is great. Her first night here saw her working creepy noir cabaret, stagy theatrical piano songs, a ferocious blast of guitar rock and more delicate, pensive sounds. If you’re in the neighborhood, check her out – you’ve got a month to do it.

From an audience perspective, there were also a couple of shows last month that should not have happened  That ferocious Balkan brass band that plays that beer garden in Williamsburg shouldn’t advertise their shows there: dudes; just take the money and run. When the bartenders blast cheesy eastern European jazz while you’re playing, it’s time to quit while you’re ahead – and you are not easy to drown out wth the PA system. And that blues guitarist who’s gotten so much ink here on the live calendar needs to play some solo shows instead of with that hack who’s been kicking around the hippie scene here since the 70s.

A Month’s Worth of Nightcrawling, Part One

Don’t you just want to smack people upside the head when they say ignorant things like “There’s no good music in this city anymore?” Obviously, those people are either spending time in the wrong neighborhoods (Bushwick), or they aren’t paying attention. This past month has been amazing as far as live shows in New York are concerned. What’s the likelihood of seeing Katie Elevitch and Matt Keating back to back, for free? It happened, after Sunday Salon 23 at Zirzamin. She was the special guest to play after a characteristically lively exchange of tunes bristling with puns, double entendres and catchy hooks from the likes of Walter Ego, LJ Murphy, Lorraine Leckie, Tamara Hey and other usual suspects. Keating was a last-minute booking.

Elevitch’s music is more about setting a mood and building to a feral crescendo, or a quieter, more mystical ambience; Keating’s songs are narratives set to catchy changes that build to a similar angst-fueled intensity. While Elevitch’s music looks to soul and jazz and Keating draws on Americana for his tunes, ultimately they both reach back to punk rock for their energy. Keating is a cynic; Elevitch finds hope against hope despite crushing reality (during last year’s hurricane, a tree came crashing through the roof of her house and caught her on the head – she seems none the worse for it). Keating has a cult following across the country and in Europe; Elevitch plays the Hudson valley circuit and is well liked there.

What were they doing in Manhattan? Having fun. Elevitch played solo on acoustic guitar, stripping down a mix of new material and songs from her previous album Kindling for the Fire to their skeletons. From a sultry whisper to a full-on roar, she worked her way through pain and exasperation and emerged triumphant and sweaty from the workout. Likewise, Keating ran through a mix of slowly unwinding favorites like Lonely Blue and The Fruit You Can’t Eat as well as a handful of more soul-influenced songs from his latest album Wrong Way Home. But the highlight of the set was a LMFAO cover of Twist and Shout, done as Lou Reed would do it, Keating said. And he nailed it. It’s as good a song to parody Reed with as you could imagine: where the melody jumps around, Keating did just the opposite. It wouldn’t be fair to give away any more of the joke – when the video comes out, it’s going to go viral. Watch this space for future Elevitch shows in NYC; Keating is back at Zirzamin at 8 PM playing after the Dog Show’s equally lyrical, intense Jerome O’Brien on May 13.

The following Saturday night, Dawn Oberg played her second-ever New York show (the first one was the previous night at Desmond’s). A popular draw in her native San Francisco, she’d come to do the dives of New York. Somehow she’d found herself at the dreaded Bar East (the former Hogs and Heifers space on the upper east), playing solo on electric piano. What’s the likehood of getting what was essentially a private show from someone so entertaining? Well, it happened – only in New York, folks. Much as her new album Rye may be one of the year’s best, Oberg is even better in person: she airs out her vocal range, she’s a terrific gospel/soul pianist and she brings her intricate torrents of wordplay, endless puns and literary references to life with more energy than you would expect, considering how subtly and carefully rendered the studio versions are. And for someone whose music is fueled by a seething anger spun through layer upon layer of sardonic humor, she’s more lively and upbeat in person (it’s tempting to call her vivacious or even sweet, but she might take exception to that). She opened the set with the deviously funny Old Hussies Never Die, a track from her previous album Horticulture Wars (she cannot resist a pun, ever), then later did the wry (pun intended) title track from the new one along with the unselfconsciously wrenching, doomed, elegaic Cracks and the wickedly catchy, personal-as-apocalyptic alienation anthem End of the Continent, working its earthquake metaphors for all they were worth. From here she went on to far better-attended shows in Nashville and Austin before winding up her tour in her hometown. Here’s hoping she makes it back to town sometime.

The following night, salonniers John Hodel and LJ Murphy kicked off the feature set at Sunday Salon 24 with nonchalantly slashing songs about imperfect strangers who should avoid each other no matter what, and also the kind of crowds you find in bars on a typical Tuesday morning: not pretty. But the music afterward was. Americana songwriter Sharon Goldman had been booked for a solo show, but fortuitously, her pals Nina Schmir and cellist Martha Colby were in town. Back in 2009, Goldman and Schmir released a tremendously good, eclectic album as the Sweet Bitters, so this was a rare NYC reunion of sorts. Both Goldman and Schmir are brilliant singers – Goldman being more crystalline and Schmir more misty – and gave the sound guy a workout as they switched back and forth between mics, necessitating constant tweaks to make sure both voices were where they needed to be in the mix. The harmonies were exquisite, especially as Colby grounded the songs with a moody, haunting sustain. The show reached a peak with Goldman’s haunting, ominous Clocks Fall Back, a chilling early winter narrative set to a ringing, funereal guitar melody. “Women in gowns sparkle downtown as the tired crowd walks their route,” the duo sang, painting as evocative a portrait of current depression-era New York as anyone has written. Finally getting a chance to hear this song live was arguably the high point of the year, concert-wise. The trio also made their way nimbly through the machinegunning vocal gymnastics of Schmir’s Tom Thumb (On Brighton Beach) as well as Goldman’s nonchalantly ominous 9/11 memoir, Tuesday Morning Sun. Goldman will be at the First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn on June 1, joining her co-conspirators of the Chicks with Dip songwriters’ collective in their celebration of their remake of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

Catching Up on Concerts…Again

The point of this blog’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is to create a scene. There are other good scenes in New York: all the good things happening at Barbes; oldtime Americana at the Jalopy; latin jazz at the Jazz Gallery, Jan Bell’s country and blues thing at 68 Jay St. Bar, Alexandra Joan‘s thematic classical series at WMP Concert Hall. But there’s no central rock scene in New York, unless you count the loser indie rock thing, whatever that is, in bush-WECK, as the gentrifier children there say in their funny accents. Because this blog’s focus is global, it’s been awhile since there’s been any report here on all the under-the-radar happenings at Zirzamin and elsewhere around town. So here we go!

Eclectic Canadian songwriter/chanteuse Lily Frost and her brilliant multi-instrumentalist husband Jose Contreras (not the guy who inadvertently springboarded the phrase “evil empire“) began their  most recent show at Zirzamin by cranking up Contreras’ phone, setting the mood with a delicious mix of vintage Hawaiian guitar tunes. Much as Frost had her sultry voodoo lounge voice in full effect, she was a whirlwind onstage, alternating between vocals, guitar, keys, percussion and theremin. She and Contreras gave a southwestern gothic menace to hazy Mazzy Star jangle, did Billie Holiday as gypsy jazz and Pink Floyd’s San Tropez as the cruel proto-Margaritaville satire that Roger Waters didn’t have the range to pull off. But Frost’s originals were the most memorable: lush Gainsbourg/Birkin style psychedelic pop, the deceptively biting if sugary bounce of Do What You Love and an especially menacing, noir cabaret-infused take of Grenade, the darkest song on her latest album. At the end of the set they channeled the Dream Syndicate and encored with an unexpectedly carefree Buddy Holly cover. Frost has been making frequent return trips here: let’s hope she makes it down again soon.

The featured artists at Sunday Salon 17 were Black Sea Hotel and they were as breathtakingly haunting and otherworldly as always. The trio of Sarah Small, Corinna Snyder and Willa Roberts have made a name for themselves in Balkan music circles for their original arrangements of large-scale Bulgarian choral works: that these Americans were invited to perform at the Bulgarian consulate pretty much speaks for itself. Small’s register-smashing range, Roberts’ wild ornamentation and Snyder’s powerful, soul-mutating wail matched against each other with eerie close harmonies, minutely gleaming microtones, rapidfire lyrical gymnastics balanced by lushly sustained passages. When Roberts announced that one of their songs had been featured in a horror film, that came as no surprise. They took care to explain the songs’ topics, from the idea of shoes as ghetto bling among the peasantry, to strange, shapeshifing, lethal dragon-men, to the town of Zborinka which apparently drew all the guys in centuries past since it was rumored you could always get a girl there. The more things change, etc. The trio closed with a new song which included a verse translated to English, and a brand-new arrangement with slinky polyrhythms and interwoven harmonies so tight they could have been a string section. Their debut album from a couple of years back is amazing, and they’re working on a follow-up. Canadian gothic songstress Lorraine Leckie – who’s been the most consistent star of the Sunday Salon since it debuted right after the hurricane last year – kept the lushly haunting intensity going with a stripped-down trio performance highlighted by several numbers from her most recent chamber pop album, Rudely Interrupted, a collaboration with social critic/journalist/personality Anthony Haden-Guest. And she and her band the Demons are back at Zirzamin on May 5 at 7.

The following Saturday at the National Underground, powerhouse ragtime pianist Jack Spann opened with a sizzling solo set of originals ranging from the haunting Roly-Poly Man – a chilling story of murder and karmic payback – to an unexpectedly pensive, catchy ballad written by his wife. Spann then joined lyrical rocker Walter Ego, amping up one of his bluesier numbers. Walter (to call him “Ego” just doesn’t sound right) was similarly on his game, running through a set that ranged from a morbid art-rock piano number told from the point of view of a subway motorman who’s just hit someone on the tracks, to the gorgeously, cruelly metaphorical I Am the Glass, to a couple of catchy guitar tunes that evoked influences as diverse as the Kinks, Elvis Costello and of course the Fab Four (this guy knows the Beatles like few others). The best of these – it’s hard to choose – could have been a sardonically catchy, jangly number about minimizing one’s life, to the point where the womb and points even lower on the evolutionary scale begin to look appealing. Walter Ego is at Zirzzmin after the Salon on Apr 28 at 7.

Raquel Bell headlined Sunday Salon 18 with her Mesiko bandmate, guitarist David Marshall  joining her for a characteristically uneasy, electric Neil Young-flavored tune. Bell has a history of brilliant collaborations: she co-led Norden Bombsight, an art-rock band who will be legendary someday when they’re rediscovered; lately she’s been singing and playing keys with violist Jessica Pavone in Normal Love, as well as fronting Mesiko with their dusky Americana menace. Bell has grown into an adept guitarist, playing solo on electric, shifting from distant jangly ominousness to an unexpectedly cheery, funky pop song titled Harry Partch. Then she switched to her vintage analog synth, sounding like a young Patti Smith backed by Tangerine Dream. The occasional moments where the synth went out of tune only added to the creepily carnivalesque atmospherics. Her voice lept and dove as the loops pulsed; she ended her set with a brooding, Marble Index-ish tone poem of sorts. She and Mesiko are at Zirzamin every Sunday for the remainder of April at around 10:30 PM.

Salons and Suspects

This blog’s raison d’etre extends beyond publicizing the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin. But while the Salon was created to provide a forum for the best rock and rock-related songwriters in town to work up new material, it’s also designed to be a show that, if all the performers are on their game, is as fun to watch as it is to play. The last few weeks have been pretty amazing, with steady contributions from art-rock cellist Serena Jost (who’s got a brand-new album coming out next month, and a gig here on the 17th at 7); barroom sage John Hodel, who brought out an understated and absolutely haunting elegy for the Newtown massacre; Walter Ego (more about him a little later on this page), Chris Fuller, who held the crowd rapt with his edgy gypsy and bluesy sounds; and LJ Murphy, who with his band the Accomplices scorched through one of the hardest-rocking, intense sets the club has ever seen, to wind up Salon #14.

Chanteuse Carol Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos headlined Salon #15: both are pushing the envelope harder than ever toward the avant garde, with a spacious, pillowy, psychedelic yet often clenched-teeth intensity. The high points of their show were their hypnotic, apprehensively trance-inducing originals, although their covers were just as interesting. A few of the highlights were a nocturnal, enveloping version of Harry Nilsson’s Life Line; a jaggedly stunning, percussive version of Nick Drake’s Black-Eyed Dog with some cruelly difficult crosshanded work by Kanelos; and a tale of Richard Thompson’s The Great Valerio so intense that you could hear a pin drop between chords, They’re playing Joe’s Pub on an excellent doublebill with historically-informed, theatrical Poor Baby Bree this Sunday the 17th.

The joke going around the club afterward was that this was the coldest night of the year, yet Asheville, North Carolina bluegrass band Town Mountain packed the place. It makes you wonder how much crazier the crowd would have been if this was a summer evening. Frontman/guitarist Robert Greer sang with a soulful twang over Jesse Langlais’ rippling banjo, Bobby Britt’s fiddle and John Stickley’s bass. They did the first instrumental that Britt ever wrote, a killer tune with lots of unexpected changes, along with a mix of originals and covers that ran the gamut from the moody moonshine anthem Midnight Road, to a version of John Anderson’s Wild and Blue that gave new meaning to the song’s half-crazed drunken menace, to a couple of lickety-split romps including what seemed like a bluegrass update on the old Irish ballad Whiskey, Oh Whiskey. “Now for the doxology,” Greer announced to no one in particular, and then launched into the pensive drinking ballad Leave the Bottle, the shapeshifting title track to their excellent new album. It was a fun show, a cool reminder of how much good new bluegrass there is pushing up through the weeds not only here but everywhere.

The following night, former Dog Show bandleader Jerome O’Brien took the stage with that group’s lead guitarist Jack Martin for the first time since a Kid Congo Powers show sometime in the mid-90s. Both musicians share a wry sense of humor, Martin’s biting slide work and emphatic, hard-hitting phrases complementing O’Brien’s sardonic lyrical torrents. As underground NYC rock nostalgia, this was just about as good as catching the band at their peak at the C-Note or Tonic about ten years ago. As low-key as the show was – just two guys with guitars – the positive energy was through the roof, through the nonchalantly cruel Saturday Nights Are for Amateurs, a bouncy reinvention of If I Laugh Anymore I’ll Break – a slyly exuberant celebration of pre-gentrification nocturnal entertainment – and a knowing take of the big audience hit This One Thing. O’Brien has a monthly residency here and if all goes according to plan will be back at Zirzamin on April 8 at 7 PM.

Beninghove’s Hangmen played afterward. They’re another band with a residency here, Mondays at around 9:30, and as usual they rampaged through an assaultively psychedelic set of noir jazz and original film themes as well as the macabre surf rock of Surf n’ Turk and Surfin’ Satie. Frontman/saxophonist Bryan Beninghove likes Middle Eastern sounds, finds the missing link between Ethiopian melody and Erik Satie and knows his way around a latin tune. Guitarist Dane Johnson led them in a surprisingly low-key, oldschool version of Tequila before they got rolling, through a moody reggae vamp and a creepy new waltz. A little later they took Quatro Loko, a salsa groove that’s so cheery it just begs to be ripped to shreds, and did exactly that, with high-voltage soprano sax from Beninghove and a careening, tumbling Rick Parker trombone solo. They closed with a cover of Led Zep’s Kashmir that did justice to the original, right down to the bassline, while turning loose the stoned monster inside.

Salon #16 was one of the best ones so far, featuring an absolutely sizzling set by Trio Tritticali, who did double duty as the house string section, most notably in providing a lush, haunting backdrop for a couple of creepy Lorraine Leckie chamber pop songs. Who says classically trained players can’t improvise? Violist Leanne Darling, cellist Loren Dempster and violinist Helen Yee are brilliant composer-performers, “daring to go where no string trio has gone before,” as Darling made clear early on. They gave a raw nonchalant intensity to Osvaldo Pugliese’s tango La Yumba, Yee’s arrangement of Mark Orton’s Helium also spiced with brooding Argentinian flavor. Was the best song of the night Darling’s artful new arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab bellydance classic Zeima, or her ingenious baroque ska take on A Message to You Rudie, or Yee’s powerfully crescendoing Candles in the Windows, or Dempster’s haunting, chromatically-fueled anthem Who Knows Yet? It’s impossible to choose. The three wrapped up the show with Darling’s funky, Bowie-esque Issue No. 1 (title track to their most recent album) in an explosive flurry of chamber metal. They’re at Freddy’s on March 22 at 8.

Molly Ruth: A Force of Nature at Sunday Salon 12

Molly Ruth sings with a wounded, raw but crystalline wail that will peel your skin. Sunday night at Zirzamin after the salon that this blog puts on every week, the charismatic songwriter left the crowd stunned and silent with her assaultive and wickedly catchy blend of oldtime acoustic blues, country and punk rock. Easy as it is to mix sex and religion for shock value, Molly Ruth does it as entertainingly as Tammy Faye Starlite. But Molly Ruth looks way back to guys like Blind Blake and before, sometimes mixing her metaphors, sometimes letting loose with a murderous exasperation. She barely said a word between songs, but she didn’t need to: her songs speak for themselves. Playing solo, she nonchalantly shifted between subtly fingerpicked blues, nimble ragtime, and a little straight-up country. The opening number, My Revelation’s Taking a Long Time to Come set the tone immediately. As funny as it was – “It may be little and weak, or it may break me into a million pieces,” she deadpanned – the not-so-hidden subtext that mingled with the mix of gospel and juicy innuendo was raw rage, the personal as political. Like a young Bob Dylan, she blends oldtime blues vernacular with a stream-of-consciousness surrealism. But she doesn’t rip off Dylan, lyrically or vocally, and she varied her vocals depending on the content of the song. She took that idea to its logical extreme on the night’s funniest number, where she played two characters, one more and more desperate for some kind of validation, the other sadistically playing oblivious and numb.

Maybe unintentionally, a bit of a Lucinda Williams vibe crept into the fullblown jealous insanity of the long, crescendoing punk-blues anthem A Million Fucking Whores (click the link above for a killer video from the Mercury Lounge last year). Ironically, the song that Molly Ruth belted the most intensely was a seemingly sincere, righteous (yeah, right) cover of Stand By Your Man. A casually biting fingerstyle blues sent her off searching for an alter ego who might have dropped everything and gone off to Africa “to escape expensive rent.” Loaded imagery – desolate extraterrestrial vistas, people cowering from some unnamed calamity or evil force, blood and guts and fire and brimstone – ran amok, but the plaintive, piercing way she delivered those scenes, they didn’t come across as over-the top. But they did pack a wallop. The narrator in the last song didn’t want to be cremated: she pleaded to be dismembered instead. And God, whatever he or it may be, was to be feared 24/7 –  for all the right reasons. Molly Ruth has been writing up a storm lately but hasn’t played a lot of shows (maybe that explains why) – she’ll be at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club sometime in April.

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, where some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trade songs and cross-pollinate in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. There’s never a cover charge; the club has cheap beer, good Tex-Mex food, and the public is welcome to attend. Participation is by invitation only: you never know who might show up. The featured set at 7 PM this Sunday, Feb 3 is by brilliant guitarist and wry, purist Americana songwriter Homeboy Steve Antonakos.

Sunday Salons 9, 10 and 11: Going Full Throttle Now

Some of you might see the weekly calendar for New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon  at Zirzamin here week after week and wonder what’s up with it. Obviously, some of you have been in the house, either performing or watching, so this is a shout-out to you for being there and supporting, as well as to the musicians who make it so much fun. Case in point: cellist Serena Jost, whose own music is elegant and nuanced to the nth degree, wailing and thrashing her way through a long improvised solo on an even longer Rick Snyder country blues ballad. Rachelle Garniez graced the stage with her wickedly subtle, edgy, occasionally gospel-flavored retro rock and soul; Martin Bisi brought his pedalboard and haunted the room with casually menacing, slowly unwinding Lynchian art-rock songs. Jon Ladeau brought his original, soulful oldtime Americana; Carol Lipnik wowed everybody with her four-octave vocal range and mysterious, mystical, phanstasmagorical material. LJ Murphy ,with his thousand-yard stare and withering, politically-fueled lyrics, and  Walter Ego, with his nimble basslines and tough stance on gun control have also made frequent appearances.

The featured sets after the salon give some of New York’s best invited performers an opportunity to take some chances and do some unexpected things in Zirzamin’s intimate space. For Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons, that meant pulling back a little on the Canadian gothic ferocity, putting her excellent drummer on cajon, letting guitar genius Hugh Pool work his quieter side (it’s true – such a thing exists) and exploring the secret corners of some of her louder, more glam or punk-inspired songs.

For Mark Sinnis, longtime leader of artsy, dark Americana rockers Ninth House, justifiably acclaimed for his solo “cemetery and western” Nashville gothic stylings, that meant a rare Manhattan performance with James Brown (one of the living James Browns) playing gorgoeusly retro rockabilly and country lines on his big Gretsch guitar, mingling with the virtuoso banjo intensity of Stephen Gara. With his big baritone voice, Sinnis often evokes Johnny Cash, with this project now more than ever. And this past Sunday, Tracy Island a.k.a. Liza Roure and Ian Roure from the Larch (and the late, great WonderWheels) romped through a hypnotically jangly, psychedelically edgy mix of old favorites and darker new material. Ian brought out his new pedalboard, chock full of old effects for fiery 80s-influenced solos and fills while Liza channeled her classical training into a rapturous take of Leonard Cohen’s Stories of the Street as well as cynical versions of originals like Where’s My Robot Maid, Land of Opportunity and a warmly evocative new song inviting everybody down to Freddy’s Bar in South Brooklyn for the Mermaid Parade afterparty.

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, where some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trade songs and cross-pollinate in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. There’s never a cover charge; the club has cheap beer, good Tex-Mex food, and the public is welcome to attend. Participation is by invitation only. The featured set at 7 PM this Sunday, Jan 27 is by charismatic, ferociously intense acoustic punk-blues songwriter Molly Ruth.

Sunday Salon 8: New Blood, Old Blood, Bloodbath?

Not quite. The final Sunday Salon of the year at Zirzamin featured both usual and unusual suspects. It was good to have Joe Yoga, frontman of the ferocious, southwestern gothic-tinged Downward Dogs join in and play a couple of songs, the first a fiery minor-key number that screamed out for a band behind him, the second somewhat more subdued. Carol Lipnik also contributed a couple of considerably quieter songs that were just as passionate in their enveloping, hypnotic lushness. Playing guitar, she kept time with an Indian ankle bracelet she’d picked up in Jackson Heights. And from a spectator’s perspective, maybe the most interesting moment of the evening happened off to the side, when those two artists joined in a spontaneous duet on the old Jefferson Airplane psych-folk song Coming Back to Me. Neither Carol Lipnik nor Joe Yoga sound anything like the Airplane; just to see that both of them knew the song was cool.

The rest of the salon was fueled by passion and booze. Lorraine Leckie sat on a table facing the crowd and channeled lurid menace, making the need for a mic redundant. LJ Murphy put on his thousand-yard stare, completely locked into showtime mode for the surreal nocturne Waiting by the Lamppost and the big crowd-pleaser Barbed Wire Playpen, a tale of Wall Street dungeons and dungeonesses. John Hodel represented for the oldschool barroom contingent with tales of sordidness and not a little menace. Homeboy Steve Antonakos then followed with a solid hour of solo acoustic songs ranging from gypsy rock – based on a Georges Brassens lick nicked from his old pal Joe Flood – to the surreal bluegrass ballad Baptized in Rain, to the wryly gorgeous janglerock hit I Don’t Miss Summer. Before his set, torchy Americana chanteuse Drina Seay joined him for a couple of catchy, sophisticated countrypolitan tunes. While Antonakos didn’t take any of the sizzling solos that he’s known for, as a member of psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7 or Greek rembetiko surf band the Byzan-Tones, he’d break up the songs with subtle changes in the chord voicings, or run a half a bar of a bluesy riff, or fingerpick delicate filigrees in the slower tunes. It was a clinic in purposeful, impactful playing. Antonakos returns to the featured slot here at 7 PM on Feb 3.

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, where some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trade songs and cross-pollinate in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. There’s never a cover charge; the club has cheap beer, good Tex-Mex food, and the public is welcome to attend. Participation is by invitation only. The featured set at 7 PM this Sunday, Jan 6 is by Canadian gothic rocker/chanteuse Lorraine Leckie.

Sunday Salons 6 and 7: Nocturnal Transcendence

New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon series at Zirzamin took off slowly in the wake of the hurricane but hit a peak two weeks in a row, with transcendent sets from LJ Murphy and the Accomplices and then this past Sunday with Katie Elevitch and her equally intense, virtuosic band. Thanks to Maya Mitter, virtually all of Murphy’s careening set is up at youtube: it’s the NYC noir rock legend at the top of his game. He’s got a new album due out next year with many of these tracks on it; at this point, it looks like a lock for best of 2013.

This past Sunday, Elevitch brought her feral, sultry vocal power and often shatteringly cathartic, shamanic songwriting to the Salon. Swaying and shimmying in front of the band, she began with a couple of haunting new tracks and ended with a vividly wounded version of Corner of Love and Fear, a standout cut from her most recent album Kindling for the Fire. In between, playing acoustic guitar, she led the band through a swirling, improvisational cauldron of originals plus a couple of smartly chosen covers, a luminously hypnotic duet on Neil Young’s Birds with lead guitar genius Riley McMahon, and a little later a lusciously torchy take of Because the Night, by Patti Smith (an artist Elevitch is often aptly compared to).

Drummer Tim Vail felt the room and kept his accents nimble and subtle – this is an intimate space, and it took him only a few seconds to match up perfectly with the ambience. Bassist Pemberton Roach, one of this city’s most consistently interesting and original players, added all kinds of subtle colors as well: booming octaves, the occasional chord to drive a crescendo home, and on a long, epic, unearthly jam on Elevitch’s Oxbow Legacy, tuned way down to Plutonian sonics under McMahon’s searing, sunbaked atmospherics.

Although this show emphasized the darkly psychedelic rock aspect of Elevitch’s music, ultimately she’s a soul singer. She never sings a song remotely the same way twice, which is why she’s always worth seeing live, and this show was characteristic. Moving from an aching alto to stratospheric, angst-ridden highs that suddenly parted the clouds and brought the beams down, she held the crowd in the palm of her hand. Often she’ll take a lyric and make a mantra out of it, as she did with one of the evening’s best songs, the offhandedly savage Man Boy Numb, a new number from her soon-to-be-released new album. She did the same with Hurt People, a relentless, hard-hitting track from the Kindling album a bit later on. Having survived a brush with death when the hurricane knocked a tree over on her house a couple of weeks ago, that song took on a special resonance, and an unlikely triumph. Watch this space for news about the upcoming album which promises to be equally intense.

Before the show, the Sunday Salon mixed usual suspects along with some welcome new participants: highlights included a raw, fiery, completely unplugged mini-set from unstoppable Canadian gothic rocker Lorraine Leckie and some intriguing gypsy-tinged chamber pop from the duo of Kotorino’s Jeff Morris and Sweet Soubrette’s Elia Bisker. The Sunday Salon continues this Dec 23 at 5 PM followed by a 7 PM set by brilliant guitarist Homeboy Steve Antonakos.