As most of the music world seems to be leaning towards electronic and digitally-produced music, I find myself more and more drawn to the simplicity of the acoustic guitar. Luckily enough, I’ve managed to wander into a lovely little New York City folk music scene, heavily populated by incredible performers and brilliant songsmiths. Much as I might want to keep this to myself, I can’t help but feel compelled to get these people all the attention I possibly can. So without further ado, here’s a sampling of where you should go and who you should hear.
Brendan O’Shea – Brendan is one of those musicians who, when one of their songs comes up on shuffle, makes me want to angry-whisper “WHY AREN’T YOU SO FAMOUS” at my iPod screen. Brendan’s the real deal: he’s got all the musicianship and talent you can fit into a moderately short Irish person. His expertly-crafted songs, pushed over the line into excellence by an endlessly earnest voice, feel like a warm hug from an old friend.
Jenna Nicholls – Whenever I hear Jenna sing in front of people who don’t know her, it only takes about a minute before someone leans over to their friend to whisper, “who is that?” As soon as she opens her mouth to sing, she makes an impression. On top of that, she’s the kind of songwriter who will make you question the justice of a world that lets someone like Taylor Swift be more well-known than she is. Her most recent album, The Blooming Hour, is so beautiful, you will just die – but make sure you catch her live so you can see what I’m talking about with the voice.
Niall Connolly – Niall might look a bit more like a gingery IT guy than a folk rocker, but his fuzzy appearance belies an explosive stage presence and raucous musical style. You expect him to croon, and while he certainly can at the right moment, he also has an astounding ability to bring the rock. The only thing about Niall is that his albums to date haven’t been able to do his live sound justice. Thankfully, he’s in the midst of recording a new one. In the meantime, you can hear him play pretty much any night of the week – he heads up open mics all over the city.
Anthony Mulcahy – Hailing from the coast of Ireland, Anthony injects all of his music with a quiet, wind-swept sensibility. His live band includes a violinist and a cellist, which only adds to the feeling that you should just sit back, relax, and listen closely. Mulcahy knows what he’s doing, especially when it comes to clever lyrical turns of phrase and ear-catching melodies that are easy to sing along to. He’s currently recording a new album as well, and frequently plays in and around New York City.
Fife & Drom – Technically not a folk group, Fife and Drom takes the best of old blues singers, writes original material inspired by them, and sticks your face in it. It’s highly enjoyable. The duo of Abby Ahmad and Mark Marshall is pretty hard to beat – her vocals blow the doors off whatever place they’re in, and his guitar playing has the singular quality of always being exactly where it needs to be, doing exactly what it needs to be doing. On top of that, the two of them have been performing together for so long that their onstage synergy is a real treat to watch and hear.
Kelley McRae – For the past few years, Kelley has been touring around the country in an old VW bus. Ironically, her music is exactly what you would want playing over the stereo if you were doing that. It’s got just the right flavoring of country, sprinkled with folk and topped off with a strong-female-singer-songwriter garnish. When you see her perform live, you’re utterly captivated by her stage presence and (again) stunning voice. She’ll be releasing her new album in September, and if you’re in New York, you can even make it to the release party at Rockwood Music Hall on the 14th of September.
Michael Brunnock – If you lived in Italy, you might know Michael Brunnock’s name, since he recently won the Italian equivalent of an Oscar for one of his songs. Although he may not have reached quite that level of popularity here, his new album The Orchard might bring him a few more steps closer. Michael’s distinctive voice is couched comfortably in lush arrangements and beautiful harmonies. He’s also a treat live, as I was reminded at his album release party at the Rockwood Music Hall last weekend. In a set filled with catchy tunes and lovely melodies, the highlight (for me, at least) was his final number – an a cappella performance of “Down By the Araglin”, a traditional Irish song he learned from his grandfather.
The Scratcher – My favorite bar in the whole world, located in the East Village. Sessions on Sunday nights, featuring performers from America, the UK, and Ireland. Created, curated, and hosted by Brendan O’Shea.
Rockwood Music Hall – Two stages, an artist on every hour. The Rockwood answers the question, “how much music can we fit into limited space and limited time?” The answer turns out to be “a lot, and it’s usually really good.”
Path Cafe – Lovely little cafe in the West Village. Open mic every Monday from 7 PM – 10 PM hosted by none other than Niall Connolly.
Buskers – I actually haven’t been there yet but I hear it’s delightful. Open mic every Tuesday at 7 PM, hosted by Niall Connolly.
Ceol Pub – Cozy Irish pub in one of the best neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Open mic every Wednesday at 8:30 PM. Guess who hosts it!! You only get one guess.