Last fall, I was invited to attend a live musical performance at the Jalopy Theater and School of Music and write about it for Big City Folks. It was the release show for “Sidetrack My Engine”, the second album by 16-year-old Brooklyn-based banjo virtuoso Nora Brown. I gladly accepted. Below is my account of Brown’s 25-song, two-set show, with some added bits of information that I researched after the fact and included here for context. Plus, a bonus interview I conducted with Brown after the show.
By Ben Bar
On September 25th at 8:30pm, I arrived at the Jalopy, which I’d never been to, admittedly. The venue—a small, cozy space with an exposed brick interior and stringed instruments on the walls—occupies the ground floor of a 90-year-old building tucked away in the Columbia Street Waterfront District, right by the border of Carroll Gardens (though some old-school Brooklynites consider this to be part of Red Hook). Founded in 2006, the nonprofit theater-school-bar-café even has its own label, Jalopy Records, with a roster of 28 artists, including, of course, Nora Brown.
The album itself is a 7-track LP clocking in at just shy of 20 minutes, containing the kinds of old-time (a type of American folk music) traditional songs played in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee that Brown is known for. It also features Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton on bones, and Jackson Lynch on fiddle, the latter of whom would later accompany Brown on some songs during her release show, as would fiddler Stephanie Coleman. Though Paxton was originally scheduled to accompany Brown during the show, he unfortunately could not make it.
Image courtesy of Norabrownmusic.com
Dressed in a light blue, short-sleeved, button-down collared shirt, and tall brown boots under dark blue slacks, Nora Brown took a seat on stage. Her light brown, balayage hair, which she wore up, caught an extra blondish tint from the strong stage lights. Eli Smith, a singer-songwriter who runs Jalopy Records, gave a brief introduction while an animated Brown emphatically expressed her approval in real-time, using comical gesticulations. After a hearty applause from the audience, Brown plucked a nearby banjo string to get in tune, and got things started with an a cappella performance of the Nimrod Workman ballad “Oh Death”. Free from the distractions of other sounds, we were able to take in the pure sound of her earthy, quasi-whispery voice as it hit, and sustained, satisfyingly low-pitched notes punctuated by delicate high ones. Continue reading