Three top women artists playing here in the same week may not be that unusual, but women artists of this high caliber come round only rarely. One is homegrown (Rory Block), one near-legendary and even more seldom seen (Syd Straw), and the third is from a remote island (Christine Salem).
Rory Block, the blues
When I complained to Pat Metheny that he didn’t play here enough, he said he always wants to bring fresh songs and sounds. Block has that same regard for her audience and her material so, while she lives in Chatham, she plays here no more often than touring blues artists. Metheny, either.
In recent years, Block has been recording tribute albums to the first-generation blues masters. She met and learned from many of them, growing up in Greenwich Village, where her father’s sandal shop was a folk and blues mecca. After “The Lady and Mr. Johnson,” her tribute to Robert Johnson (she also plays beautifully the songs of lesser known Tommy Johnson), came “Blues Walkin’ Like a Man/A Tribute to Son House”; and next she plans “Shake Em On Down/A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell.”
For Block, the blues are a bottomless treasure house full of feel and fancy licks. She explores them with the avid hunger of an archivist, respecting their fragility, but challenging their resiliency as well; and she presents them with the flashy flair of a born entertainer who appreciates the power (and responsibility) of getting them right, right now.
Block plays the Van Dyck (237 Union St., Schenectady) on Friday, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Admission is $18 in advance, $22 on Friday. Phone 348-7999 or visit www.vandycklounge.com.
Syd Straw, the Surprise
When I first pulled the inner sleeve holding Syd Straw’s 1989 “Surprise” CD from its extra-tall outer jacket, it popped and grabbed my hand like a cardboard mousetrap. The bigger surprise was the music on it: rock and folk and blues and country, lots of country. Who is this?
A thin wispy woman when she first made her mark here, Syd Straw looms large in local lore for her loose and lovely shows, most at the late, great Central Avenue hot spot QE2. She played the best show I ever saw there, and my colleague Greg Haymes of Nippertown — who goes to way more shows than I do — said that’s the only place he’s seen her. We both missed her spring 2011 show at the Bearsville Theater, but I digress.
When I saw her at QE2, Straw was musically stunning and charismatically mesmerizing. This was right after “Surprise” launched her from background harmony roles into the spotlight on her own. I don’t remember a thing about her band, but she was unforgettable. She went on around midnight and sang past 3 a.m.
She was astounding. She rocked the house so the walls shook, she took us down to whisper-quiet with “Almost Magic,” she told great stories, and she bummed a cigarette, saying she was trying to start smoking, but it wasn’t working.
Like Neko Case with Northwestern punk bands then the New Pornographers, or Sheryl Crow with the Monday Night Music Club then Michael Jackson’s touring band, Straw started in bands and recording sessions; forming their musical identities before going out on their own.
Straw harmonized with Pat Benatar, then became a co-star in the Golden Palominos, alongside Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet and Anton Fier. Like Case, she can belt; and like Crow, she can sing anything, in any style. She’s recorded her own music only sporadically since: “War and Peace” with the Skeletons (1996), “Live at the Triple Crown” (2001), “Whole Wide World” (2005) and “Pink Velour” (2008). But she has sung on albums by Rickie Lee Jones, Leo Kottke and others.
Straw sings her own music on Saturday at WAMC’s The Linda (339 Central Ave., Albany), second show in the venue’s new American Roots Series hosted by Michael Eck, who’s been in more bands than Case, Crow or Straw combined.
Show time for Syd Straw on Saturday is 8 p.m. Admission is $18. Phone 465-5233 ext. 4 or visit www.wamcarts.org.
Christine Salem, the islander
Christine Salem sings Maloya, the once-outlawed political and mystical music of her La Reunion island homeland, a crossroads in the Indian Ocean where African, South Asian, American and European styles mix like the trade winds.
It shares some sounds with other island musics, from Madagascar, the Cape Verdes, Jamaica and Trinidad. But her voice has its own very distinctive flavor, whether recording with the transatlantic rockers Moriarty or touring with her percussion-powered trio.
Salem performs on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Sanctuary for Independent Media (3361 Sixth Ave., Troy). Admission is $10. Phone 272-2390 or visit www.mediasanctuary.org.
On Sunday at the Sanctuary, the durable, powerful, poetic Scottish group the Battlefield Band plays at 7 p.m. The Battlefield Band has changed members a few times in its 40-year (so far) run, but their sound remains consistently strong. Admission is $10.
Changing members while retaining what’s familiar is also what Lee Ranaldo is all about. Since the breakup of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon split up Sonic Youth, the band’s guitarist-singer Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley have enlisted guitarist Alan Licht and bassist Tim Luntzel and renamed themselves Lee Ranaldo and the Dust.
On Tuesday, Lee Ranaldo and the Dust play at Club Helsinki (405 Columbia St., Hudson), celebrating the release of their new album. Admission is $18 in advance, $20 at the door. Phone 828-4800 or visit www.helsinkihudson.com.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.