Two Madison-based openers make this Central Park Session a standout. Info
The singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle headlines this edition of the Central Park Sessions, with Toronto's rollicking rockabilly/country/surf melders The Sadies serving as his backing band. It's a good fit, as Earle's latest album, Kids In The Street, tumbles together cheeky R&B and plaintive, restrained folk, spanning from the New Orleans boogie of "15-25" to the eerie country blues of "If I Was The Devil."
But the two Madison-based acts on the bill are arguably doing more interesting work, and bring just as much charm to this outdoor show.
First up is Mal-O-Dua, in which guitarists Chris Ruppenthal and Cedric Baetche make their playful way through a mix of fluttery Hawaiian music, swooning French pop (complete with Baetche's raffish crooning), and Django Reinhardt-inspired swing, with a tinge of country acting as a through-line. It sounds like an ambitious hybrid, but in Mal-O-Dua's live sets all these elements sit together with warmth and ease, and Ruppenthal's guitar leads (as also heard in Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble) skip across styles with conversational grace. The duo's releases so far have tried to showcase different aspects of its repertoire—Hawaiian slack-key guitar on 2015's Mahalo Dua and mostly the French and swing side on 2016's Duo De Choc—and new recordings are on the way soon.
Up second here are singer-songwriter Nick Brown and the electric band he assembled after putting out a sparse solo debut, 2013's Slow Boat. Brown and band developed an amiably rugged electric sound on 2017's Contender EP, and Brown's songwriting delved further into character sketches that balance humanity with wry humor. On the title track, Brown uses his sly baritone to tell the story of a guy who can't stop fucking up but also can't be defeated, at least spiritually: "I'm running on empty / I'm running my mouth / I'll put my shit up against anybody's in this town / 'Cause I'm a contender, that's what I am / Throwing my punches with bandages on my hands." He's got his tender moments, too, especially Slow Boat's opening track, "Living That Way," but I wouldn't be surprised if his set here favors his rowdy, smart-assed side. —Scott Gordon