Let's get straight to the bait: California old-time syndicate Frank Fairfield is one of the best performers I've ever seen. Though his songs—and his stories between them—sometimes sparkle with the light of levity, Fairfield's gaze as he plays antediluvian murder ballads, sad-eyed laments or bright little instrumentals on fiddle, banjo or guitar is one of spooky conviction. As he saws the fiddle or stomps his boots beneath the heavy-handed strum of his six-string, Fairfield seems as if he's summoning the spirits of folk music—that is, the raw, unadorned and unapologetic music of the people everywhere—far and wide into three-minute séances.
A self-critical aesthete, Fairfield likely will tell you that his versions of these songs are too similar to the ones he learned them from, or that at his worst, he's simply conveying a history lesson that otherwise might have languished unheard on an old 78. But Fairfield, who has moved slowly into the realm of writing his own songs, does more than recite history: He presents it again with the seeming belief that it is still alive, still important and still vital. Both of Fairfield's albums for Tompkins Square Records are treasures; night in and night out, so are his live shows. The 6–8 p.m. show is free. —Grayson Currin