Alina Simone, Live at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, July 23

The kid at the door came out front and asked me to smoke on the back patio. "When you're finished with that cigarette," he mumbled. I suppose I could have given the impression of loitering, but I was eavesdropping on Alina Simone, the Ukrainian-born and now Carrboro, North Carolina-based songwriter-rocker, who paced back and forth along Lemp Avenue, chatting on her cell. She was making her first appearance in St. Louis – in fact, it was apparently her first visit to Missouri -- and I wondered how the bombed-out-beauty of Lemp and Utah struck her, but she was regaling her listener with tales of the Arctic.

Inside Lemp Arts Center, the best run-down clubhouse in the city, the couches were filled, even the demolished one in back. I had a seat at the chess table and Joyce Carol Oates' youngest daughter (or so she seemed), challenged me. I took the bait and played to a draw, at which point the lights went down, save one lamp with a Whitman quotation scrawled on the shade. Opener Amanda Cochran picked at her cheap guitar without amplification and sounded, in her bluesiest moments, not far from Jolie Holland's post-old-time confessionalism. Self-involvement is genetically coded in whatever genre strummers like Cochran play, but get past that narcissistic regard and you'll hear some honest lines: "The only way I want to die is when I'm not afraid to" being the best. A few hooks, a few more years woodshedding and Cochran might be on to something. She has a wide-orbiting vocal reach and a gift for true-to-the-inner-life images.

Alina Simone, who recently broke up her band, was traveling with only a drummer, John Lynch, and a pretty maroon Danelectro guitar, a tiny backpack guitar (or maybe a backpack Balalaika) and an autoharp. In a shimmery, lacy red blouse and skirt and near knee-high boots (hey, I'm a music critic, not a fashionista) and hair piled up high, she looked as out of place as a Geisha in a soup kitchen. "Can you give me a touch of reverb?" she mic-checked. No chance.

Simone opened with "Pacifica" from her new album Placelessness (54 40 or Fight!): her guitar sounded like the friction of rusty knives and Lynch's drums struck metronomic death knells. As I wrote in last week's RFT, those expecting the next Cat Power will be disappointed. Simone doesn't whisper or beguile or quaver jazzily. She wails, but musically, pitch-precise, and in control of her wild range. Her second song, "Blackwater," rocked even meaner, as Lynch slammed on the one, put never pushing harder than Simone sang. They moved on to a gorgeous traditional Russian folk song (the Ukraine back story isn't just publicity fodder -- she and her parents moved to the U.S. as political refugees) and then through the heart of Placelessness, with a bent but not broken version of her best song, "Saw Edged Grass," with a low-slung groove aided by stand up bass from Brother Eric of Strawfoot.

The audience of thirty or so sat quietly through the eight or nine song set but responded after every tune. Simone's finale on autoharp began demurely, atmospherically, and then she raised her fist and struck the zither-like instrument in her lap like she wanted to kill it. Lynch shook off his martial attack and swung, really swung, through the very last of Simone's howling melody. Here's hoping they both come back for a longer set -- and soon.

-- Roy Kasten

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