In a rendition of a traditional ballad called "Old Stepstone," the singer, who goes by the name Al Spx, opened by harnessing the power of the P.A. Wearing a rhinestone-collared black dress, Spx sang of "strange faces we see every day" like she was the lone face amid a crowd of blurry heads, with pitch-perfect drama and a purity of expression.
Spx had ample time to season that throat Wednesday night. Highlighting songs from her new album, "Neuroplasticity," the followup to her 2012 debut, "I Predict a Graceful Expulsion," the artist and her four-piece band had already presented a dozen songs that merged Southern field hollers with cavernous rock-based arrangements and a dollop of timeless blues.
The artist is best known to mainstream America for her work with producer-musician Moby on his recent album, "Innocents." To fans of pummel-rock, Spx has earned points for a cameo on Swans' epic new record, "To Be Kind," while jazz fans may recognize her from a collaboration with Blue Note artist Ambrose Akinmusire. Her cover of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' "We Know Who U R" at the Echo added further context.
But live, Cold Specks was its own thing, beholden to only the artist, her band and her fans.
During the cavernous "A Broken Memory," she sang of those who would "cast you away like a broken memory" while her band spun out a heavy barroom romp. As the song gradually lost momentum and crawled to a stop, the singer, physically slight but wildly charismatic, concluded with a haunting line: "All is calm, nothing is right."
During one of the set's highlights, the new "A Formal Invitation," Spx and her band hit on a throbbing blues groove that suggested a strange mix of Nina Simone and the Bad Seeds. Swirling around the song was bass clarinet player Chris Cundy, whose work on sax and woodwind punctuated most songs. In "Invitation," his runs scribbled through the bars like a birdsong interrupting an argument.
But back to that encore, "Old Stepstone." Lost amid those strange faces, our hero phrased her lines with a fragile grace: "Each heart-string of mine is broken in time/ When I think of my dear ones at home." It's a devastating song, simple but universal, first committed to paper in 1904 but no doubt older than that.
As she moved through the chorus, Spx pulled away the microphone, held it behind her back and presented the final stanza as it would have been heard a century prior: unplugged. The room went quiet. The mirror ball above may have stopped spinning. The world collapsed on that voice and those expressive eyes.
Traveling an entire lifetime through a set of rhyming couplets, she conjured the memory of her departure, when "that wind whispered by with a moan." She pushed forth with resolve: "The fields may be whitening, but I will be gone/ To roam o'er this wide world alone."
Spx will roam alone -- that is, unless she continues to draw the deserved attention of more unknown admirers.