Jesse Malin & Lucinda Williams

“When you’re young/And you run/And you’re burning like a star/And it’s fun/And it’s done/And it leaves you with a scar” — “When You’re Young,” by Jesse Malin 

We might call Jesse Malin, who grew up in Queens and lives in the East Village, the spirit animal of New York City, or at least an underbelly segment that involves bars, the street, punk rock, non-punk rock, clubs, middle-of-the-nights, addiction, chaos, and generally the kind of edgy existence he evokes in his new album, Sunset Kids. Starting out in bands like Heart Attack and D Generation, Malin eventually went solo, turning a sharp eye and reflective mind onto his own “little life,” as he calls it in the last track of this cri de coeur. 

For help on Sunset Kids, he reached out to someone far from NYC (but perhaps near at heart), an “American treasure,” as he called her at his recent concert at Bowery Ballroom—one who speaks like a southern belle but turns that idea on its pretty little head with her provocative, incisive lyrics. “You talk like an angel/You spit on the floor,” from the heated “Dead On,” might describe (well, partially metaphorically) the woman who co-wrote those lyrics: Lucinda Williams. During the show, which re-created the record and then some, Malin spoke of his trepidation at showing his lyrics to the vaunted songwriter, though the setting for this, the kitchen table belonging to Williams and her husband, Tom Overby—the two co-produced the album—sounded cozy. 

Jesse Malin at Bowery Ballroom.

While not exactly cozy, the Bowery Ballroom was (maybe literally) spruced up for the holidays—evergreen garlands hanging from the balcony rails—and a very welcoming place for Williams, a special guest. The crowd went crazy when she appeared for “Room 13” and then every time she popped back out to lend her piercing voice to such songs as “Shane” and “Dead On.” 

Though she never backed away from that raw, searing, signature sound, Williams, wearing a “City of Angels” T-shirt and glittering silver necklace, brought a surprisingly sweet vibe to the stage. Perhaps because she and Malin are longtime friends—they also share an Aquarian birthday, a couple of days after mine—and run in similar circles. (Or maybe there was another cause: “Peace and love, y’all,” she said at the end, “we’ll celebrate the impeachment.”) 

Lucinda Williams (and her phone image) singing "Changed the Locks."

“Shane,” referring to the Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, was inspired by an event in Ireland that Malin took part in, when MacGowan was in a wheelchair because of a serious injury. Malin told a charming story—he is quite the raconteur (“If the music thing doesn’t work out, you can be a comedian,” Williams told him)—about holding a weighty trophy that had been given to MacGowan and trying, unsuccessfully, to palm it off on Bono. 

That song contains the lyric “Wanna die in Dublin,” and several of Malin’s friends and loved ones, including his father, died this past year. That is an altogether different kind of weightiness, one that Malin takes on in such songs as “Friends in Florida” and “Shining Down.” For her part, late in the show, Williams sang her song “Drunken Angel,” about a hard-living friend who was killed during an argument. 

Mortality hangs over us all, but the now 50-ish Malin, curly black hair emerging from a sideways newsboy cap, appeared ageless when he rushed into the crowd during a song, trusting us to hold aloft his long, wandering microphone cord, as though with it he could wrap us all up in that moment, when, with him, we were young burning stars, however scarred.

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