A fixture on the regional singer/songwriter scene and about as gracious and gentle a fellow as you’d want to meet, Jude Roberts must tire of making his fellow performers feel kind of bad with his boutique-grade, triple-threat skill set. He fingerpicks with the delicacy, assurance and color of Nick Drake; sings with the bell-like clarity and gentle high end of a lost Finn brother; and writes Anglo- and pop-inflected folksongs with the offhand grace and deceptive sophistication of early James Taylor, Richard Thompson or Sir Paul himself.
Roberts can rock, as anyone who has ever seen him in his erstwhile role as the house ringer at Market Market’s Tributons will attest. He steps up to meet McCartney, Bowie or Mercury on their own turf and in the original keys while most everyone else is stuck figuring out creative ways around the vocal problem. But his 2016 EP Perfect Shell finds Roberts in his element: live and intimate in a luminous trio setting, accompanied by the fleet and subtle pedal steel and guitar of Rob Stein and spot harmonies, perfectly executed, from Julie Parisi Kirby.
Comprising seven original songs and one traditional, and recorded live at the Cabin in Saugerties, Perfect Shell opens with “The Flood,” an almost-Biblical end-times folk prophecy that is only distinguishable from a traditional or a hymn by the modern social psychology of its lyrical content and by the long-forestalled, Elliott Smith-flavored harmonic payoff that blossoms at the end of its repeated verse form. That Old World ambiance extends through the next two tracks, a pair of original historical narratives: the Civil War, antiwar soldier’s lament “Honey Hill” and a new version of one of Roberts’ staple songs, the Irish myth “Amanda McRae.”
“Summer Girl” breaks the antique spell of the first three tracks, but also provides one of Perfect Shell’s highest highs: a sophisticated, depowered power-pop tune with a million exquisite chord changes worthy of comparisons to Crowded House, Elvis Costello or Squeeze at their very best. The winding prog/folk of “Kiss of Steel” takes the record to its darkest place, while “The God Within” delivers its wearied redemption.
If solo folk, no matter how finely executed, is a little Spartan for your tastes, Rob Stein is here to deliver a richly dimensional musical experience. A member of Mike + Ruthy’s band and a featured player on the new Amanda and Jack Palmer father/daughter record, this roots ace provides traditional folk filigree as well as a wonderful simulation of modern ambiance with his pedal steel, Dobro and six-string electric and acoustic counterpoint. Stein’s playing is elegant, imaginative and flawless, but it hardly obscures Roberts’ own stunning game as a guitarist, making Perfect Shell a left-field nominee for one of the best two-guitar records you’ve heard in a very long time.
Roberts is recording a studio follow-up presently, but Perfect Shell makes you wonder why anyone who can make a live record like this would ever want to do it any other way.
Jude Roberts performs in an ideal venue – HVSS Music Night in Glenford, a few miles north of Woodstock off Route 28 – on Friday, August 26, splitting the bill with Dorraine Scofield. Mor Pipman’s otherworldly meal is served at 6 p.m. and the music begins at 7. The suggested donation is $5, which does not include dinner. The site is located at 210 Old Route 28 in Glenford. For more information, visit www.hvssmusicnight.org.