Brooklyn-based singer-songwriters — even political Brooklyn-based singer-songwriters — constitute a crowded field. Jean Rohe, who grew up playing music with her family across her home state of New Jersey and has since taken her own rich blend of folk, jazz, Brazilian, and other musical forms across the country and internationally, stands out in that field with her rare tunesmithery, her occasionally goose bump-inducing lyrics and her sweet, deceptively gentle soprano. (Both in the melodies and in the way she enunciates the words, one can often hear glimmers of Joni Mitchell.) Although she’s been well received with her band, Jean Rohe and the End of the World Show, she plays alone about equally often, and gave a wonderfully minimalist solo performance on August 3 at Le Poisson Rouge.
The set explored love, politics and impressions of nature and the city, inviting us into the minds of everyday people looking for a fleeting song under a street lamp or a roll in the hay with a charming rogue. (Here is where the lyrics sneak up on the listener. Despite Rohe’s manner and delivery, which can be almost humorously wholesome, she’s not afraid to allow her narrators some adult straight-talk: apparently, the roll in the hay wasn’t that great.)
Rohe’s use of her go-to instrument, the guitar, is subtle. One might not have noticed the guitar line for most of the performance unless one was listening for it, but upon closer inspection it revealed a studied simplicity: a bass line rather than finger picking, a three-note pinch rather than a bigger chord. Rohe is, of course, past the clunky strumming of a greener player, but she also doesn’t try to do too much with the instrument and get in her own way.
The real showstopper of the evening was “Footsy,” a play-by-play account of two people — you guessed it — secretly rubbing and poking each other with their feet under a table. For this, Rohe put the guitar aside and accompanied herself on a traditional Brazilian pandeiro, a tambourine-like hand drum that really needs to be struck, and not just shaken, in order to jingle. To my ears, she nailed the elements of traditional samba percussion on that instrument: the rubber-bouncy pitch modulation that’s achieved by digging the thumb into the drum skin and quickly releasing the pressure as it’s struck, and the particular syncopation with its ever-so-slight speed-up, slow-down, speed-up, slow-down that can’t be notated visually, something like a cart with ever-so-slightly elliptical wheels. The beat itself was vigorous and sexy, and when Rohe dropped it to let her voice jump the precipice alone, her rock-steady internal metronome kept ticking with only a few exquisitely placed, super-offbeat clops on the drum to outline the contours of rhythm before the beat returned.
Rohe ended with a very powerful “message” song: her alternative national anthem, “Arise! Arise!” It can produce the aforementioned goose bumps if you’re not careful, and she coaxed the audience into joining her on the chorus. (Look on YouTube for a handsomely filmed music video of her performing it, accompanied by a diverse “Citizen Choir,” in Judson Memorial Church.) Rohe joked, optimistically, that this song, complete with its uncompromising references to botched illegal abortion, the cruelty of capital punishment, and ethnic cleansing by state and non-state actors, will replace our current national anthem around the year 2030. God only knows where the country will be by then — but if Jean Rohe is still around, all is certainly not lost.
Jean Rohe will be playing at Rockwood Music Hall on Monday, August 19 at 9pm. For more see rockwoodmusichall.com.