Mary Lyn Maiscott

Howard Fishman Collects Himself

Howard Fishman at Joe's Pub.

When Howard Fishman walked onstage at Joe’s Pub last week, I had two nearly simultaneous, somewhat opposing thoughts (indicating “first-rate intelligence”? Doublethink?). They were: 1) It doesn’t make sense for Howard—in a suit—to be wearing a cowboy hat. 2) That hat looks cool.

This says a lot about Howard, who is often described as “genre-bashing,” or something along those lines. The singer-songwriter—and superb guitarist—draws from country, folk, rock, and certainly New Orleans jazz, but the thread that runs through his work is a sublime musicality combined with a witty and literate sensibility.

Re the first: He knows how to put a hot band together. My friend the actress Laralu Smith, who went with me to the concert, commented on both the musicians’ technical skill and their abandon, saying that at times the music seemed to “stand alone in the air above them, as if they were just the facilitators.” Re the second: Even—especially?—a non-sports person such as myself could delight in the unexpected lyrics of “Baseball,” which ruminates in a rather existential way on the thought “I wonder why I hate the Red Sox/They really never did anything to me.” Other endearing and/or evocative lines included “Maybe one day I’ll seduce/A like-minded recluse,” from “When It Rains.”

Howard, whom I met a few years ago through the equally fascinating and unpredictable singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, was performing songs from his new CD, Uncollected Stories—13 tracks that had not made it onto his previous albums for want of space. Howard explained to the audience that he always stops at 13, as he has a thing for that number—going once again against the grain. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the first song he did (and the first track on the CD) is called “Luck.” That one goes: “Your luck’s about to change/Everything’s about to go wrong.”

Could be. But at least we’ve got the guy in the white hat.

With Russell Farhang on violin, Nathan Peck on upright bass, Jordan Perlson (behind Howard) on drums, Etienne Charles on trumpet, and Scott Barkan on guitar.