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The Top 40 NYC original music acts to catch live in 2021

BY EVERYNIGHT CHARLEY CRESPO | Toward the end of each year, editors ask their writers for Top 10 lists in their specialty. My editors often have asked me for my favorite new albums, but I doubt that I even listen to 10 new albums in a year.

I am all about live music in New York City. Rather than naming the best concerts, a measurement which would be a near-impossible task, I compose a list of the best local music acts that play original music, trying not to duplicate the same names every year. My first The Top 40 NYC Original Music Acts to Catch Live list was published in The Aquarian Weekly probably in the late 1970s. This year, for the very first time ever, my list debuted on my blog.

Only the bravest and most committed musicians dared perform before live audiences during the pandemic of 2020. For the past nine months, while all the major stages have remained dark, many musicians performed frequently in parks, sidewalk cafes, art galleries, even in a laundromat, on a fire escape, and on the back of a pickup truck.

With no definite signs that the live music landscape in New York City will change for the better in 2021, these are some of the outstanding musicians that we expect will continue to rock live with original music for as long as the pandemic lasts.

The criteria for this list has always been that the artists had to be based in New York City, write original compositions, and perform before live audiences throughout the year rather than just a few scattered performances. Livestreams do not count for this list. Here I present my top 10 recommendations for 2021, plus 30 more, each list in alphabetical order.

Cancion Franklin. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Cancion Franklin (blues)

Cancion Franklin normally plays with two accompanists in Cancion Franklin & the Fam Band, but recently has been playing solo at City Winery, Marshall Stack and the Juke Bar. He plays blues rock with a lot of slide guitar.

Diane Gentile. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Diane Gentile (singer/songwriter)

Lead singer of Diane and the Gentle Men, Diane Gentile is a sensitive singer/songwriter with pop hooks. In recent weeks, she played City Winery and the Classic Car Club Manhattan.

James Maddock. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

James Maddock (singer/songwriter)

James Maddock is a British singer/songwriter with a raspy voice like Rod Stewart. In recent weeks, he played a residency at City Winery and many livestream concerts from his home.

Rob Mastrianni. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Rob Mastrianni (instrumental)

Rob Mastrianni is an amazing guitarist in the style of Leo Kottke and John Fahey, except that for accompaniment he uses loops like Joseph Arthur does. He comes with five guitars, one of which sounds like a sitar on the main strings and a harpsichord on some extra little strings. He plays frequently at Marshall Stack and the Anyway Café.

Pinc Louds. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Pinc Louds (indie rock)

Pinc Louds saved the summer in the East Village with a series of shows in Tompkins Square Park, on Astor Place, at B-Side and other outdoor spaces. Vocalist/guitarist/kalimba player Claudi Love performs solo, with a bassist, or with a bassist and drummer. For bigger shows, the band expands with dancers, puppets and props. The music is very indie but with roots in very old American and Spanish music.

Dina Regine. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Dina Regine (singer/songwriter)

Dina Regine has been playing the local circuit for decades. Bruce Springsteen suggested she start her own band. In recent weeks, she played City Winery and the Classic Car Club Manhattan.

Michelle Shocked. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Michelle Shocked (rebel folk)

Michelle Shocked’s songs speak the history of protest in music. In recent weeks, she performed numerous performances in community gardens and Tompkins Square Park.

Rebelmatic. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Rebelmatic (punk)

Rebelmatic’s music is loud, fast and furious. The band played in Tompkins Square Park and Brooklyn venues.

SoulCake. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

SoulCake (folk, pop)

SoulCake is a trio that consists of Joff Wilson on guitar and vocals, his wife SaraFe on electric bass and Laura Sativa on flute. The band recently played in Tompkins Square Park, at the Anyway Café and several flea markets.

Lein Stern. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Leni Stern (jazz, world music, jam band)

Leni Stern and her band combine African sounds with jazz and funk jams. Lately, the quartet plays frequently at the Front art gallery.

Under the Radar: 30 More Must-See NYC Music Acts in 2021

Joy Askew (singer/songwriter) sings original songs and plays piano, either solo or with a rhythm section. She recently performed a residency at City Winery.

B.B. YTK (stoner rock, punk) plays stoner rock regularly in Tompkins Square Park.

Benny Benack Trio (jazz, pop) is a front musician for Postmodern Jukebox, the vintage music collective that plays canny old-school covers of modern pop. He also leads a trio, frequently performing at Rue-B.

Bobby Blue the Balladeer (rockabilly, ranchero, country) is a singer/songwriter who includes rockabilly and rancheros in his act. He plays solo, with a stand-up bassist or with a small all-acoustic band. He recently performed on the sidewalk on St. Mark’s Place.

Eli Bridges (singer/songwriter) is an actor who was in the films “Motherless Brooklyn” (2019), “Jessica Jones” (2015) and “Gotham” (2014). He also performs bluegrass and folk songs at Marshall Stack, the White Oak Tavern and Washington Square Park. He plays his music as a solo artist, with the Eli Bridges Duo and with a trio called Mama Juke.

The Carvels NYC (rock, punk) combine the punk sounds of the 1970s like the Ramones with 1960s female pop vocal groups like the Shangri-Las. In recent weeks, the band has played the Avenue B Flea, Tompkins Square Park and a livestream at the Bowery Electric.

Leo Coltrane (freestyle rap, jam band) raps freestyle as his band plays jam-band style music in Tompkins Square Park. If the band is not available, he raps to his prerecorded rhythm tracks.

Dirty Circuit (rock, psychedelic), formerly known as the Employees, are four musicians who are still in high school, yet they mastered the primitive psychedelic garage rock sounds of their dads and grandads. The band has performed recently in Tompkins Square Park and McCarren Park.

Jill Fiore (rock) has been creating a buzz with her band’s rocking performances on her fire escape, renamed the Fiore Escape. She recently also played at Marshall Stack and drew a big crowd.

Amadou Gaye (rock, singer/songwriter) plays frequently both solo and with bands at Café Wha? and Groove. He plays a full range of music, including rock, soul, funk, pop and Top 40, and a year ago released an album of original songs.

Ghostwood Country Club (rock, singer/songwriter), led by Shawn Ghost, rocks like a classic rock band. Ghost performs either solo or with a side musicians at Marshall Stack.

Allen Gogarty (singer/songwriter) is Irish and really sounds like it. He played a monthly solo acoustic gig at the Red Lion for most of the year.

The Head Peddlers (experimental) play unconventional folk punk music in Tompkins Square Park and a community garden.

Hello Mary (rock, indie) is comprised of high school and college students who are pushing the envelope with their loud grrrl rock at Tompkins Square Park and McCarren Park.

Seth Kessel (singer/songwriter, country, jazz) specializes in reinterpreting midcentury American roots music but he has a lot of solid originals also. Before the pandemic he led several bands, but recently he has played solo at City Winery and the Red Lion.

Caroline Kuhn (singer/songwriter), formerly in several local bands, now sings original songs and plays acoustic guitar solo at City Winery.

Piers Lawrence (jazz, rhythm & blues) has been playing weekly gigs both solo and with other musicians at David’s Café and Pinky’s Space.

Robert Leslie (singer/songwriter) is a British folkie with soft, sensitive songs. Formerly on the local folk circuit, he now plays most often in Washington Square Park.

Magic Forest (psychedelic folk) is Stuart Richards on vocals and acoustic guitar, Max Isaacson on flute and Ron Bongo on various handheld percussion instruments. They play in Tompkins Square Park and the P.S. 20 playground.

The Milkman & Sons (jazz, blues), led by Marcus Milius on vocals, harmonica and guitar, specializes in vintage blues and jazz music, along with new original music that fits that genre.  In recent weeks, the band played several times at City Winery.

PLM Music Revue (blues rock) is two guitarists playing swampy blues from the back of a pickup truck on Avenue A and in Brooklyn.

Spike Polite & Sewage (punk) became known in local circles for their hard punk music, though the band’s songs have been getting softer lately. The band has been playing in Tompkins Square Park and a community garden.

Puma Perl & Joe Sztabnik (poetry, experimental), a collaboration between an award-winning poet and the vocalist/guitarist in New York Junk, recall the early days of Patti Smith — and it works. With the addition of a percussionist, Dave Donen, the trio plays at the Anyway Café.

David Russell (singer/songwriter) is a transplant from Nashville, Tennessee. He has been playing acoustic guitar solo and is now forming a band. His original songs speak of loss, heartbreak and redemption. Recently he has performed many times in Tompkins Square Park.

Solid Goold (new wave) plays keyboard-based pop  in Tompkins Square Park. The band performs hits from the 1980s peppered with originals that sound like they were written in the ’80s.

Strange Majik (rock), led by vocalist/guitarist David Pattillo, plays rhythm & blues-inflected rock jams. Pattillo has been accompanied by a keyboardist at Marshall Stack and a full band at City Winery.

Kelley Swindall (country) innocently poses a question: Can a country music singer make it in New York City? Swindall recently played City Winery and the Classic Car Club Manhattan.

Alfonso Velez (singer/songwriter) is a singer/songwriter with a lot of stage charisma and strong potential. He has been playing at City Winery.

Kelsey Warren (experimental) has been performing recently as a solo artist under his own name or his band name, Blak Emoji, at City Winery. He sings original songs and plays guitar, piano and a laptop, all with left-of-center arrangements.

Gass Wild (rock), the stage name for Tom Edwards, is British and was a founder of the Pretenders and other rock bands. He now sings and plays guitar in a Rolling Stones-type band called Love Pirates but also does solo sets of original acoustic rock. In recent weeks, he has played at the Avenue B Flea, in Tompkins Square Park, and on many live streams from home.

One Comment

  1. Jeff Wright Jeff Wright January 10, 2021

    Great coverage!

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