Brittain Ashford / Letters & Numbers
Northeast Kingdom; Brooklyn, NY

Brooklyn's Northeast Kingdom is a restaurant that manages to look like a proper bistro while surrounded by decaying industrial architecture. On the ground level, people babble loudly through their arugula. Downstairs, in stark contrast, hides a quiet-looking room reminiscent of every musty suburban basement of the day, save for the smell, which is actually quite pleasant. Faux-wood trim creeps halfway up the wall, meeting the wallpaper that is adorned with mirrors and lamps everywhere. It is an intimate venue, its only notable flaw being that the soft light lining the room fails to illuminate the standing performer.

It's raining outside, and everything is far away from Manhattan, but the room is still as full as it can comfortably handle. Normally consisting of a wider lineup, the two that make up the group Numbers & Letters tonight -- Joe Lops and Katie Hasty -- are seated in the performance area, near lamps, holding guitars. They play a sort of folk tune that sounds familiar, but probably isn't. Lops plays his guitar carefully, including some great slide guitar in his last song, while Hasty's curiously small voice yelps in the lower register and bolsters more control and delicacy in the upper. The overall sensation is inviting, reminiscent of Alela Diane. Katie is clearly the dominant focus of the group, and perhaps she should be. They play five songs, give out free CDs, and are friendly throughout the evening.

Brittain Ashford occasionally plays with a band, but she too performs tonight as a duo. Caitlin Steitzer begins the set with a dedicated tone of melodica and later contributes tambourine, xylophone, and sweetly sparse vocal harmonies, as Brittain alternates between auto-harp and a dulcimer lain flat on a high platform. She sings in a beautiful, trembling voice that sounds closely mic'ed, with a passion that is as visible as it is audible. Limning the perimeter of the crowd, she jumps up and tears about, face constricted with emotion, as if overwhelmed by the gravity of her own words. The crowd is silently focused throughout the set, save for warm laughter when Brittain jokes about buying a Subaru between songs.

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