The Louisville, Ky., singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has a strong contender for my album of the year: Over and Even, which came out in September on the No Quarter label. The beautiful folk songs from this record were breathtaking to hear in a live performance — when Shelley played on Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Szold Hall. Shelley has one of those unfussy voices that hit each note with a calm, cool precision. At the end of almost every song, audience members said, “Wow.” Meanwhile, Nathan Salsburg plucked out melodies and patterns on his guitar with highly impressive dexterity, giving the perfect accompaniment for Shelley’s vocals. The seemingly ubiquitous Chicago guitarist James Elkington, who plays on Shelley’s album and helped to record it, joined her and Salsburg for a few songs. The set included a cover of June Tabor’s “Where Are You Tonight.”
Shelley was the opening act for this concert; the headliner was another fine artist on the No Quarter label, Toronto singer-songwriter Doug Paisley. Shelley and Paisley have another thing in common: Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) has sung on records by both of them. Accompanied by Ben Whiteley on the upright bass, Paisley sang low-key country songs, revealing a wry sense of humor with his stage banter. He noted that Szold Hall — a square room with black curtains along the walls — was giving him a “Twin Peaks” vibe. During Paisley’s encore, Shelley returned to the floor and sang a couple of songs with him, bringing this enchanting evening to a lovely conclusion.