The Sunday Times

Sad Guitar, Fronting a Curtain of Snow

By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: February 26, 2005


Nan Melville for The New York Times
Laura Cantrell in the American Songbook series on Thursday. 

s the country-folk singer Laura Cantrell performed "Khaki and Corduroy," her sleepy-sad reflection on being a Southerner transplanted to New York City, on Thursday evening, a light curtain of snow drifted behind the stage-to-ceiling rear window that makes the Allen Room at Frederick P. Rose Hall a drop-dead-gorgeous concert setting.

The cry of a steel guitar curled up and around her plain, lovely voice, and the auditorium was awash with the kind of cosmic wistfulness that the best country and folk music can conjure when it dreams of the past.

"Khaki and Corduroy" was the headiest moment in an evening in which Ms. Cantrell, joined by Richard Buckner and Laura Veirs, made up a triple bill in Lincoln Center's expanded American Songbook series. All three performers make the kind of rigorously personal, far-sighted music that the toxic pop mainstream keeps out of earshot.

One reason such nourishing sounds float below the radar is that magnification into an arena-size sound would destroy them. Another darker reason may be that acknowledgment of real quality in a culture of mediocrity threatens the security of audiences conditioned to believe that bigger and coarser are better.

Ms. Cantrell devoted more of her set to songs by her peers than to her own material. "When the Roses Bloom Again," an early Tin Pan Alley song handsomely outfitted with a new melody by Wilco and Billy Bragg, was offered as what she called "the folk process."

And Ms. Cantrell and Mr. Buckner elevated the Texan songwriter Terry Allen's fatalistic ballad "Dogwood Tree" to the same timeless plane.

Mr. Buckner's spellbinding set was an uninterrupted suite of five songs in which he used a guitar sequencer to connect them with subtle, shifting instrumental drones to create a brooding, volatile musical stream-of-consciousness. This kind of intense, reverberant minimalism is the sort of thing Nick Drake pursued three decades ago in his final album, "Pink Moon." Technology enabled Mr. Buckner to carry it farther, singing in a raw, husky voice inflected with hints of violence.

Ms. Veirs, a Seattle-based singer who recently released her debut album on Nonesuch, practices a sparer, plainer variation of the same purism, inspired by a punk-rock aesthetic. Her song "Rapture" refined complex emotional reflections into a compelling, bare-bones folk shorthand. Her singing matched her language in its concentrated search for the elemental and essential.