It’s hard to think of a more brilliantly chameleonic songwriter than Jenifer Jackson. She can switch from honktonk to bossa nova to oldschool soul to psychedelia and absolutely own all of those styles. Throughout her career – from the Beatlesque tropicalia of her first full=length album Slowly Bright, through her most previous, more mistily bucolic The Day Happiness Found Me – one constant has been how economically she writes. No wasted notes, no wasted words, always straightforward and direct with an unselfconsciousness that can be downright scary. The other constant is that she’s always had an amazing band. She did a long stretch in New York for about ten years, ending in the late zeros, before setting down new roots in Austin. The change did her good, inspiring her to follow the Americana muse that always seemed to be perched on her shoulder somewhere.
Her latest album, Texas Sunrise, is streaming at Bandcamp. Jackson opens it with the gently evocative title track, fingerpicking her guitar against the warmly wistful backdrop of Kullen Fuchs’ vibraphone and Chris Meitus’ mandolin, Tony Rogers’ cello adding a stark undercurrent. A Heart With a Mind of its Own goes deeper into 50s C&W, period-perfect down to the fluttery cello multitracks. By contrast, the album’s other vintage country tune, Sad Teardrops is a hard-hitting hard-honkytonk kiss-off anthem worthy of early Loretta Lynn. And Paint It Gold, a duet with co-writer Fuchs, takes the idiom forward twenty years to the early 70s proto-outlaw sounds of bands like the Flatlanders.
Jackson’s voice can be fetchingly poignant, as on the warily introspective ballad Easy to Live, or the evocative, balmy atmospherics of the nocturne When Evening Light Is Low. And her gently ambered, vibrato-tinged vocals on the dreamily regretful Ballad of Time Gone By will give you goosebumps. Yet her most nuanced and quietly impactful moments are actually on the more upbeat material here, particularly the Rosanne Cash-esque In Summer, a blend of Americana and the elegant pop tunesmithing of Jackson’s early days, lit up by Fuchs’ one-man horn section.
Similarly, the most energetic songs here are the real knockouts. All Around, with its windswept angst and desolate shoreline milieu, evokes Steve Wynn at his most haunting and wintry. Fuchs colors the uneasy Texas shuffle On My Mind with accordion washes and swirls and then a soaringly aching brass section. A Picture of May plunges more broodingly into southwestern gothic, a plaintively stately, bolero-tinged number. The most quietly devastating track here is White Medicine Cloud, a hypnotic, metaphorically bristling anthem with an understated antiwar message, Jackson painting a great plains tableau that’s genuinely touching.
On a more sobering note, over the past few weeks Jackson has been battling an injury that’s forced her to switch to piano. Although she’s a competent player, guitar is her main axe, and not being able to play it has thrown a wrench in her ability to just pack up and perform pretty much anywhere. She’s pretty tough, so the longterm prognosis is optimistic. But if there ever was a time to support this resolutely individualistic artist, now is it. You can pick up the album at Bandcamp or Jackson’s merch page.
Pianist Julian Shore’s new Filaments is not a particularly edgy album, but it is an unselfconsciously attractive one – and it isn’t shallow by a long shot. While a student at Berklee, Shore found a muse in Gretchen Parlato, and jumped at the chance to sub in her band when Taylor Eigsti was out of town. That influence is clear here: it could also be said that this is a less demanding version of what Sara Serpa is doing with vocalese-based third-stream sounds. For Shore, less is more: his soloing is spacious, usually establishing a warm early-evening ambience in tandem with the plush vocal harmonies of Alexa Barchini - who also wrote lyrics to a couple of the tunes – and Shelly Tzarafi. Phil Donkin on bass and the reliably excellent Tommy Crane on drums maintain a deceptively energetic pulse underneath.
The album’s opening track, Grey Lights, Green Lily sets the tone, a distantly bucolic theme that reminds of Jeremy Udden, or Bill Frisell but without the persistent unease. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s biting prowl contrasts with Shore’s terse, warm approach and Tzarafi’s nebulous atmospherics. Barchini’s clear, high soprano shows off a Jenifer Jackson-esque wistfulness on Made Very Small, Rosenwinkel’s high-beam sostenuto lines mingling tersely with Shore’s crepuscular twinkle. Big Bad World, a jazz waltz, takes chances with clutter as Jeff Miles’ guitar spirals around the piano, but they sidestep it, the women’s harmonies driving a series of lush crescendos.
Whisper, a fetchingly direct, hushedly lyrical Shore/Barchini co-write, shows off a crystalline purity throughout her range; the song is reprised briefly at the end of the album as a piece for Kurt Ozan’s solo dobro. Give brings Rosenwinkel back for oldschool charm and then spacious bite as Godwin Louis’ alto sax, Billy Buss’ trumpet and Andrew Hadro’s baritone sax join forces for a catchy late-period Weather Report style chart. Donkin nimbly intersperses his own muted solo amidst the glimmer of the tastefully, low-key jazz waltz I Will If You Will, while Crane does the same with a surprisingly effective, hard-hitting drive alongside Miles’ judicious incisions and the wash of vocals on Like a Shadow.
For one reason or another, the single most intense track here, Misdirection/Determined is a lot closer to art-rock than jazz, Barchini evoking a Mingus-era Joni Mitchell longing over Shore’s moody modalities. And the most overtly balladesque of the tracks, Venus, features Noah Preminger’s tenor shifting artfully between the boudoir and the highwire. This album sneaks up on you: there literally isn’t a bad song on it. It’s a step in an auspicious direction: let’s hope there’s more where this came from.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album was #472:
Jenifer Jackson – Slowly Bright
This 1999 release was Jackson’s quantum leap: it established her as one of the world’s most astonishingly diverse, intelligent songwriters. Her vocals here are memorably hushed and gentle: since then, she’s diversified as a singer as well. The songwriting blends Beatlesque psychedelia with bossa nova, with the occasional hint of trip-hop or ambient music. Every track here is solid; the real stunner that resonates after all these years is When You Looked At Me, with its understated Ticket to Ride beat, swirling atmospherics and crescendoing chorus where Jackson goes way, way up to the top of her range. The title track, Anything Can Happen and the vividly imagistic Yesterday My Heart Was Free have a psychedelic tropicalia feel; Whole Wide World, Burned Down Summer and I’ll Be Back Soon are gorgeous janglerock hits; So Hard to Believe balances tenderness against dread. The catchiest track here may be the unexpectedly optimistic, soul-infused Look Down; the album closes with the lush, hypnotic, blithely swaying Dream. And believe it or not, this classic is nowhere to be found in the blogosphere or the other usual sources for music, although it’s still available from cdbaby. Her forthcoming one, The Day Happiness Found Me is every bit as good, maybe better; it comes out in December.
This is the list we like best for so many reasons. When we founded this blog in 2007, live music was our raison d’etre, and after all that time it’s still the biggest part of the picture here. While along with just about everyone else, our 100 Best Albums of 2010 and 100 Best Songs of 2010 lists have strayed further and further from what the corporate media and their imitators consider the “mainstream,” this is still our most personal list. As the year blusters to a close, between all of us here, we’ve seen around 250 concerts – the equivalent of maybe 25% of the shows on a single night here in New York. And the ones we saw are vastly outnumbered by the ones we wanted to see but didn’t. The Undead Jazz Festival, where all the cheesy Bleecker Street clubs suddenly became home to a horde of jazz legends and legends-to-be? We were out of town. We also missed this year’s Gypsy Tabor Festival way out in Gerritsen Beach, choosing to spend that weekend a little closer to home covering punk rock on the Lower East, latin music at Lincoln Center and oldschool soul in Williamsburg. We worked hard to cast a wide net for all the amazing shows that happened this year. But there’s no way this list could be anything close to definitive. Instead, consider this a sounding, a snapshot of some of the year’s best moments in live music, if not all of them. Because it’s impossible to rank these shows in any kind of order, they’re listed chronologically:
The Disclaimers at Spike Hill, 1/2/10 – that such a potently good band, with two charismatic frontwomen and so many catchy, dynamic soul-rock songs, could be so ignored by the rest of the New York media and blogs speaks for itself. On one of the coldest nights of the year, they turned in one of the hottests sets.
Jenifer Jackson at Banjo Jim’s, 1/21/10 – on a welcome if temporary stay from her native Austin, the incomparably eclectic, warmly cerebral tunesmith assembled a killer trio band and ripped joyously through a diverse set of Beatlesque pop, Americana and soul songs from throughout her career.
Gyan Riley and Chicha Libre at Merkin Concert Hall, 2/4/10 – Terry Riley’s guitarist kid opened with ambient, sometimes macabre soundscapes, followed by the world’s most entertaining retro 70s Peruvian surf band synching up amusingly and plaintively with two Charlie Chaplin films. Silent movie music has never been so fun or so psychedelic.
The New York Scandia String Symphony at Victor Borge Hall, 2/11/10 – the Scandia’s mission is to expose American audiences to obscure classical music from Scandinavia, a cause which is right up our alley. On a bitter, raw winter evening, their chamber orchestra sold out the house and turned in a frenetically intense version of Anders Koppel’s new Concerto Piccolo featuring hotshot accordionist Bjarke Mogensen, a deviously entertaining version of Frank Foerster’s Suite for Scandinavian Folk Tunes, and more obscure but equally enlightening pieces.
Masters of Persian Music at the Skirball Center, 2/18/10 – Kayhan Kalhor, Hossein Alizadeh and their ensemble improvised their way through an often wrenchingly powerful, climactic show that went on for almost three hours.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra playing Prokofiev and Shostakovich, 2/21/10 – like the Scandia, this well-loved yet underexposed ensemble plays some of the best classical concerts in New York, year after year. This was typical: a playful obscurity by Rienhold Gliere, and subtle, intuitive, deeply felt versions of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto along with Shostakovich’s dread-filled Fifth Symphony.
Charles Evans and Neil Shah at the Hudson View Lounge, 2/28/10 – February was a great month for us for some reason. Way uptown, baritone saxophonist Evans and pianist Shah turned in a relentlessly haunting, powerful duo performance of brooding, defly improvisational third-stream jazz.
AE at the Delancey, 3/8/10 – pronounced “ash,” Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker’s innovative duo vocal project interpolates Balkan folk music with traditional Appalachian songs, creating all kinds of unexpectedly powerful connections between two seemingly disparate styles. They went in and found every bit of longing, intensity and exquisite joy hidden away in the songs’ austere harmonies and secret corners.
Electric Junkyard Gamelan at Barbes, 3/20/10 – most psychedelic show of the year, bar none. Terry Dame’s hypnotic group play homemade instruments made out of old dryer racks, rubber bands of all sizes, trash cans and more – in a marathon show that went almost two hours, they moved from gamelan trip-hop to rap to mesmerizing funk.
Peter Pierce, Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Paula Carino, the Larch, Solar Punch, Brute Force, Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair, the John Sharples Band, the Nopar King and Out of Order at the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, NY, 4/10/10 – this one’s the ringer on the list. We actually listed a total of 21 concerts on this page because even though this one was outside of New York City, it’s as good a choice as any for best show of the year, anywhere. In order of appearance: janglerock; haunting solo acoustic Americana; country soul; more janglerock; lyrical retro new wave; jamband music; a theatrical 60s survivor and writer of novelty songs; a catchy, charismatic noir rocker; a band that specializes in obscure rock covers; soul/funk, and an amazing all-female noiserock/punk trio to wind up twelve hours of music. And that was just one night of the festival.
Rev. Billy & the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir at Highline Ballroom, 4/18/10 – an ecstatic, socially conscious 25-piece choir, soul band and a hilarious frontman who puts his life on the line every time out protesting attacks on our liberty. This time out the cause was to preserve mountaintop ecosystems, and the people around them, in the wake of ecologically dangerous stripmining.
The Big Small Beast: Spottiswoode, Barbez, Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch, Bee & Flower and Botanica at the Orensanz Center, 5/21/10 – this was Small Beast taken to its logical extreme. In the weeks before he abandoned this town for Dortmund, Germany, Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – creator of the Monday night Small Beast dark rock night at the Delancey – assembled the best dark rock night of the year with a mini-set from lyrical rocker Spottiswoode, followed by amazingly intricate gypsy-tinged instrumentals, Little Annie’s hilarious poignancy, and smoldering, intense sets from Bee & Flower and his own band.
The Grneta Duo+ at Bechstein Hall, 5/27/10 – Balkan clarinet titans Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski joined with adrenalinista pianist Alexandra Joan for a gripping, fascinating performance of Bartok, Sarasate, Mohammed Fairouz and a clarinet duel that stunned the crowd.
The Brooklyn What at Trash, 5/28/10 – New York’s most charismatically entertaining rock band, whose monthly Saturday show here is a must-see, roared through a characteristically snarling, snidely funny set of mostly new material – followed by Tri-State Conspiracy, the popular, noirish ska band whose first few minutes were amazing. Too bad we had to leave and take a drunk person home at that point.
The New Collisions at Arlene’s, 7/1/10 – Boston’s best rock band unveiled a darker, more powerpop side, segueing into one killer song after another just a couple of months prior to releasing their stupendously good second album, The Optimist.
Martin Bisi, Humanwine and Marissa Nadler at Union Pool, 7/2/10 – darkly psychedelic bandleader Bisi spun a swirling, hypnotic, roaring set, followed by Humanwine’s savagely tuneful attack on post-9/11 paranoia and then Nadler’s pensively captivating solo acoustic atmospherics.
Maynard & the Musties, Me Before You, the Dixons and the Newton Gang at Urban Meadow in Red Hook, 7/10/10 – the one Brooklyn County Fair show we managed to catch this year was outdoors, the sky over the waterfront a venomous black. We lasted through a spirited attempt by the opening band to overcome some technical difficulties, followed by rousing bluegrass from Me Before You, the twangy, period-perfect 1964 Bakersfield songwriting and playing of the Dixons and the ferocious paisley underground Americana rock of the Newton Gang before the rains hit and everybody who stayed had to go indoors to the Jalopy to see Alana Amram & the Rough Gems and others.
The Universal Thump at Barbes, 7/16/10 – amazingly eclectic pianist Greta Gertler and her new chamber pop band, accompanied by a string quartet, played a lushly gorgeous set of unpredictable, richly tuneful art-rock.
Etran Finatawa, los Straitjackets and the Asylum Street Spankers at Lincoln Center, 8/1/10 – bad segues, great show, a perfect way to slowly return to reality from the previous night’s overindulgence. Niger’s premier desert blues band, the world’s most popular second-generation surf rockers and then the incomparably funny, oldtimey Spankers – playing what everybody thought would be their final New York concert – made it a Sunday to remember.
Elvis Costello at the Greene Space, 11/1/10 – as far as NYC shows went, this was the best one we saw, no question – along with maybe 150-200 other people, max. Backed by his most recent band the Sugarcanes, Costello fielded questions from interviewer Leonard Lopate with a gleeful defiance and played a ferociously lyrical, assaultively catchy set of songs from his latest classic album, National Ransom
Zikrayat, Raquy & the Cavemen and Copal at Drom, 11/4/10 – slinky, plaintive Levantine anthems and Mohammed Abdel Wahab classics from Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, amazingly original, potent Turkish-flavored rock and percussion music from Raquy & the Cavemen and then Copal’s trance-inducing string band dancefloor grooves.
Every day, we count down the best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #910:
Jenifer Jackson – The Outskirts of a Giant Town
Quietly and methodically, Austin songwriter Jenifer Jackson has built an eclectic and pantheonic catalog of songs. She started out as a teenager in Boston playing loud guitar rock, moved to New York and released the classic 1999 album Slowly Bright, a masterpiece of bossa nova tinged, Beatlesque psychedelia. Birds, in 2001 followed, stark and Americana-inflected, followed by a prized limited edition album of Brazilian and latin covers, the psychedelic pop of 2004’s So High and then her greatest one so far, The Outskirts of a Giant Town (reviewed here in 2007). Jackson’s gentle yet worldly, wounded voice, her gemlike lyrics and an even broader mix of styles take centerstage here: the wrenching Beatlesque ballad Saturday, the jaunty tropicalia of Suddenly Unexpectedly, the Philly-style soul of I Want to Start Something, the bitter noir Americana of Dreamland and the shapeshifting garage rock of For You. And from the look of the material she’s been working up live over the past year, the follow-up to this one promises to be every bit as diverse and enchanting.
Who’s your Dadi? If you’re Brazilian, it’s probably Eduardo Magalhaes de Carvalho. Over the course of a long and eclectic career as a sideman, he’s worked with everybody from Marisa Monte to Caetano Veloso to Mick Jagger. This new album, his second as a bandleader is recently out on Sunnyside, and unlike what you might expect from that label it’s not a jazz release but instead a tersely arranged, irrepressibly sunny, indelibly Beatlesque collection of sixties-flavored three-minute pop songs. For those who were smitten by Os Mutantes, whether the first time around or later, this is considerably more direct yet equally cheery and captivating. Carvalho sings in Portuguese with a casual, thoughtful understatement.
The album kicks off with a Stax/Volt style shuffle transported to even balmier surroundings, followed by a fetching duet with Monte over swaying, vintage 70s style janglepop driven by tasteful electric guitar and organ. The title track is sparse nocturnal bossa-pop with acoustic guitar, piano and cello; likewise, Passando echoes hypnotically with distant piano in a Jenifer Jackson vein. Nao Tente Comprender (You Don’t Get It) nicks the chords from the Beatles’ You Won’t See Me; the strikingly minimalist, swaying 6/8 rock ballad Quando Voce Me Abraca (When You Embrace Me) blends tropicalia with deliciously glimmering layers of guitars and piano.
There’s also an ominously swinging, 6/8 Os Mutantes-inflected psychedelic number capped by fat blues guitar solo; another Beatlesque tune that could have been a Brazilian version of a top 40 hit from Let It Be, right down to the watery, George Harrison-esque chorus box guitar; and another Harrison-inflected song, the gorgeous, slowly crescendoing jazz-pop anthem Por Que Nao (Why Not). The album ends on a surprisingly dark note with a fiery, bluesy, early Santana-esque one-chord rock jam, hinting that this guy may rock harder than he lets on here. If Dadi’s lyrics were in English, he’d be huge with the American indie pop crowd, the Shins et al. As it is, it’s a breezy, fun album, the kind you find yourself humming and wonder what that tune could have come from.
Back from a trip to Austin, Jenifer Jackson’s got a band together again: Greg Wieczorek on drums and Jason Mercer on a gorgeous Danelectro SG copy bass. A couple of songs into the set, beaming, she announces that she’s rediscovered that she actually likes music. She should, with this band. Her songs are pretty and haunting when she plays them solo; with a rhythm section behind her, they are transcendent. She’s a pretty intense guitarist, and this comes across especially on the Ticket to Ride-inflected Down So Low as she wails on the downstrokes, on the beat. The band has re-energized her.
But this is Mercer’s night. Choice, tasteful pieces of broken chords on the slower, country-flavored ballads; slinky slides and bends on the more rocking songs, and every now and then he winds up a crescendo with few sweetly, quietly boomy chords. It’s a clinic in how to play bass and it’s free.
Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band gets cajoled into playing Telecaster on a handful of numbers and the effect is the same. He knows every country lick in the book, but instead he goes counterintuitive with bends and passing tones and immediately the songs go to the next level, and it’s effortless, or at least it looks that way.
The songs, as they always do, run the gamut – the joyous white soul jangleforest of Suddenly Unexpectedly; the practically noir, nocturnal pop of Maybe; a new country song that would elevate Carrie Underwood’s game to the big leagues if she or someone like her could find it and cover it; and a couple of big, hooky, upbeat rockers to close the set. The unrestrained joy shining in Jackson’s voice makes the contrast even more striking when she turns down the lights. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that it’s cold outside and that there’s a long train ride lurking ahead. In a word, transcendence.
Czech-born, New York-based chanteuse/songwriter Marta Topferova has carved herself out a niche as a first-class avatar of latin music. Her new cd Trova (a Cuban style, though she explores considerably more terrain here) is quite a change from the pensive melancholy that runs throughout much of her previous work. It’s a mix of oldschool latin styles with a Caribbean tinge, like something out of San Juan, 1955, recorded with her band at an old farmhouse outside Prague fresh off a European tour. The album features Topferova on guitar and cuatro along with big band leader Pedro Giraudo on bass, Aaron Halva on tres and accordion, Roland Satterwhite on violin and Neil Ochoa on percussion. It’s got a quiet joy that simmers and bubbles over once in awhile for extra flavor. Frequently, the star of the show here is Satterwhite (formerly with Jenifer Jackson and also Howard Fishman), whose imaginative, casually intense phrasing adds an unexpectedly biting edge to some of the quieter material. As is typical throughout the cd, its unexpected moments are subtle but compelling, as in the case of the infectious opening bomba, Juligan, a nocturnal street scene whose central character, a bum, turns out to be something completely different. And yet the same.
She follows that with an effervescent, percussion-driven dance tune, a stately, delicately pensive tango and a symbolically charged midtempo number rich with chordal jangle and gorgeous acoustic textures. Largo el Camino (The Long Road) winds along on a catchy, swaying four-bar hook and a couple of nice introspective tres solos, the latter closing the song on an optimistic note.
Descarga de la Esperanza (The Hope Jam) is hypnotic, like the Dead gone latin and acoustic. Madrugada (Dawn) is a pretty, sad waltz with a buoyant Satterwhite solo, one of those kind of songs that, thirty years ago, would have had record executives scheming over the prospect of a crossover international hit. Topferova saves her grittiest vocal for the tricky Argentinean changes of Entre a Mi Pago Sin Golpear (Come On Over and Don’t Knock), Satterwhite’s jovial fiddle adding contrast.
The cd winds up with the vividly lyrical La Amapola, inspired by a poppy native to Czech Republic, showcasing Topferova’s seemingly effortless ability to shift between styles; the dusky las Luciernagas (Fireflies) and an old bolero cover usually sung by a male vocalist. Topferova puts her own spin on it, a woman in an arranged marriage displaying quiet defiance. This album has the same kind of rustic quality that spurred the Bachata Roja Legends’ surprise crossover success and could just as easily resonate with anglo as well as latin audiences. Not bad for Czech expat for whom Spanish was a second language. She’s at Barbes on Jan 22 at 10.
Of all our year-end best-of lists (the 100 Best Songs of 2009 and 50 Best Albums of 2009 included), this is our favorite, because it’s the most individual (everybody has a different list) and it’s closest to our raison d’etre, live music in New York. Last year’s was difficult enough to narrow down to twenty; this year’s is criminally short. We could have put up a top 100 concerts list and it would be five times as good.
This was the year of the Beast – Small Beast at the Delancey, New York’s most exciting weekly rock event. We caught onto this slowly – the concert series ran for about a month before we discovered it – but when we did we were there almost every week. Occasionally someone will ask, since you have a music blog, why don’t you start booking shows? With Small Beast, there’s no need: it’s your weekly chance to discover the edgiest, smartest rock-ish talent from Gotham and across the globe. You’ll see a lot of those shows on this list.
Yet 2009 was a weird year for us – running a New York live music blog and not being in town much of the time made it problematic, to say the least. Week after week, we watched from a distance, enviously as half the city got to see stuff we never did. In August, the Brooklyn What did a killer triple bill with Palmyra Delran’s garage band and amazing latin ska-punk-gypsy rockers Escarioka at Trash Bar, but we weren’t there. The second night of the Gypsy Tabor Festival just a few weeks later looked like a great time, but we missed that one too. As the year winds down and we finally (hopefully!) start to reap the rewards of a whole lot of hard work, it appears, pending some absolutely transcendent show exploding onto the radar, that this is it for our Best Shows of 09 list. Needless to say, we can’t wait for 2010.
Since any attempt to rank these shows in any kind of order would be an exercise in futility, we just listed them as they happened:
The Brooklyn What at Fat Baby, 1/15/09 – since we’d just reviewed a couple of their shows in the fall of 08, we didn’t even review this one, fearing overkill. But on what was the coldest night of the winter up to that point, they packed the club and burned through a characteristically fun, ferocious set, maybe fueled by the knowledge that one of their idols, Ron Asheton, had left us.
Kerry Kennedy at Rose Bar, 1/21/09 – the noir chanteuse was at the absolute top of her game as quietly resilient siren and southwestern gothic bandleader.
Paul Wallfisch and Larkin Grimm at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/9/09 – the Botanica frontman (who books Small Beast) turned in a typically fiery set, followed by the avant-chanteuse who battled and finally lashed out at a crowd of clueless yuppie puppies who just didn’t get what the show was all about.
Kotorino at Pete’s Candy Store, 4/13/09 – the quietly multistylistic, gypsyish band filled the place on a Monday night and kept the crowd riveted as they all switched instruments, beats and genres over and over.
The New Collisions at Arlene’s, 4/23/09 – Boston’s best new band blazed through an early 80s inflected set of edgy powerpop.
Paul Wallfisch, the Ulrich-Ziegler Duo and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/23/09 – after Wallfisch had set the tone for the night, Big Lazy’s Steve Ulrich and Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler played hypnotic, macabre guitar soundscapes followed by the ferociously lyrical retro 60s chamber pop of Joe McGinty and Ward White.
The American String Quartet playing Irving Fine and Robert Sirota’s Triptych at Bargemusic, 4/26/09 – a sinister ride through works by one of the leading lights of the 1950s avant garde followed by a haunting, intense performance of contemporary composer Sirota’s 9/11 suite.
Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/30/09 – after Wallfisch got the night started, Beren roared and scorched her way through a pummeling, macabre set. Then Spottiswoode impressed with a subtle set of nocturnes, setting the stage for Wynn, playing together with his friend and ex-lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in several years, a feast of swirling, otherworldly guitar overtones.
The Friggs and the Chrome Cranks at Santos Party House, 5/8/09 – a triumphant return for the popular 90s garage girl rockers followed by the equally triumphant, reinvigorated, snarling sonic attack of another one of NYC’s best bands of the 90s.
The French Exit at Local 269, 5/13/09 – NYC’s best new dark rockers playing one of their first shows as a four-piece, rich with reverb, tersely incisive piano, haunting vocals and defiant lyricism.
Chicha Libre on the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Boat, 5/15/09 – definitely the best party of the year that we were party to, a swaying excursion through psychedelic, surfy cumbia music, past and present.
Paul Wallfisch, Darren Gaines & the Key Party and Alice Texas at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/4/09 – Wallfisch kicked it off, Gaines and a stripped-down trio impressed with gutter-poet, Lou Reed/Tom Waits style rock and then Alice Texas turned in a swirling, incandescent, gently assaultive show that reminded how much we miss Tonic, the club where she used to play before it was torn down t0 put up plastic luxury condos.
Paul Wallfisch, Marni Rice and the Snow at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/22/09 – another Wallfisch night, this one featuring the great LES accordionist/chanteuse/cabaret scholar and then Pierre de Gaillande’s clever, haunting art-r0ck crew.
Ian Hunter at Rockefeller Park, 6/24/09 – the former Mott the Hoople frontman, at age 70, has simply never written, played, or sung better. This show was a real revelation.
Daniel Bernstein at Sidewalk, 7/9/09 – the underground songwriter/lyricist/tunesmith casually burned through one haunting, haunted, ridiculously catchy tune after another.
Randi Russo and the Oxygen Ponies at the Saltmines, 7/10/09 – another haunting show opened with the absolute master of the outsider anthem, who did double duty playing in Paul Megna’s equally dark, intense, lyrical indie band.
The Main Squeeze Accordion Festival: Musette Explosion, Suspenso del Norte, Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet, the Main Squeeze Orchestra, Roberto Cassan and John Munatore, Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica and Peter Stan at Pier One, 7/11/09 – squeezebox heaven.
Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Damrosch Park, 8/5/09 – cutting-edge Middle Eastern-inflected jazz followed by one of the great ones, undiminished and still inventive at 89.
Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/19/09 – the panstylistic rock goddess played several good New York shows this past year, but this one with Matt Kanelos on piano and glockenspiel and Billy Doughty on drums and melodica was pure transcendence.
Carol Lipnik, Bonfire Madigan, Rachelle Garniez, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 11/23/09 – what seems at this point to be the single best show of the year (if only because it’s the most recent one on the list) matched Lipnik’s phantasmagoria to Madigan’s equally artful chamber pop, Garniez’ irresistible charisma and ferocity, Beren’s contralto classical punk assault and then Ward White took over where the sirens had been and sang what could have been his best show ever.
It’s a fine line in the music blogosphere – nobody wants to come off as a cheerleader for a particular artist or band, yet there are some acts who inarguably deserve a lot of attention. Jenifer Jackson is no stranger to regular readers here. But even by her rigorous standards, her show at the Rockwood on the nineteenth was transcendent, the best one she’s done – in New York at least – in a long time. And there have been some good ones in between, just to go the music index above and you will see plenty. Is this overkill? Not if you consider how the much ink the Village Voice gave the Ramones in the summer of 1977, or how much press Coltrane got back in the 50s. That’s not an overstatement. Jackson and her bandmates pianist Matt Kanelos (who leads a fine Americana-rock band of his own) and drummer Billy Doughty gave a clinic in tersely, wrenchingly beautiful songcraft, Jackson’s vocals gentle but with the steely resolve that underscores the intensity of the emotion in everything she writes.
Kanelos gave notice that he was in particularly bluesy, soulful mode right from the start, beginnining with the psychedelic ballad The War Is Done, from Jackson’s 2001 Birds cd. Good Times Roll (her original, not the B.B.King standard) was hypnotic, even mesmerizing, Kanelos playfully working a glockenspiel in tandem with his lefthand rhythm. The understated frustration anthem Words got a particularly propulsive treatment; by contrast, the hopeful ballad Spring (yet another unreleased gem) was lush and sultry, Doughty playing the lead line on melodica.
The angst-driven existentialist anthem Maybe, pondering the point at which it might make sense to let hope – of whatever kind – fall by the wayside was driven and insistent, part post-Carole King riffage, part sprightly post-Bacharach pop, part countrypolitan. Wherever the song led, the dark undercurrent beneath the catchy, glistening pop surface was always there.
Her most countrypolitan ballad, After the Fall (also from Birds) got the benefit of an absolutely psychedelic, hypnotic, percussive jam out. She wrapped up the set with two new ones – a chorus-driven, Mary Lee’s Corvette-style Americana pop hit, another that matched early 70s radio pop to a sweaty Philly soul groove, and a particularly wistful, gently lovely take on the unreleased 6/8 ballad The Beauty in the Emptying, whose title pretty much speaks for itself. Doughty again took the lead on melodica, enhancing its gentle resilience. Wow. What a show. You’ll see this on our Best NYC Concerts of 2009 list in about a month.
The Rockwood has been Jackson’s home for awhile but now that she’s back, who knows where she’ll be next – watch this space for upcoming dates.