New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: acoustic music

Muddy Ruckus Bring Their Darkly Inventive Americana to the Rockwood

Portland, Maine trio Muddy Ruckus call their music “stomp and swing punk.” They’re bringing their uneasy guy/girl harmonies and unique blend of string-band swing, Tom Waits-inspired circus rock and oldtimey blues to the small room at the Rockwood on Sept 27 at 9 PM. They’ve also got a stylistically diverse, carnivalesque debut album streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Crawl on the Ceiling sets the tone, a brisk noir swing romp fueled by Brian Durkin’s steady bass pulse, Erika Stahl’s torchy vocal  harmonies enhancing the darkly phantasmagorical ambience. The band work their way up from skeletal to anthemic on Come with Us, lowlit by Marc Chillemi’s torchy muted trumpet. Ruby Red rises from a doomed, slow-burning electrified minor-key blues groove to a frantic sprint to the finish line, frontman/guitarist Ryan Flaherty channeling pure desperation with an unhinged solo.

Mother Mud blends oldschool 60s soul with a string band sound from forty years previously, driven by Phil Bloch’s violin. The scampering swing shuffle Bulldozer will resonate with anyone who can’t wait to get out of the “shitty town” where they grew up, as Flaherty puts it. “I don’t need your family money or drugs, ’cause I’m high on all the lies I told myself as I grew up,” he drawls sarcastically.

Butterfly Bullets adds a little cynical hip-hop edge to Waits-ish noir blues. Worse Things mashes up lazy indie rock and oldtime blues: it’s a kiss-off to an evil boss and dayjob drudgery in general. “There’s no romance that compares to the rug that’s pulled out from under your prayers,” Flaherty insists.

Convalescent Angel builds from creepy oldtime gospel ambience to anthemic menace. Infinite Repair returns to the noir swing, with a neat, flatpicked guitar solo that’s part Appalachian, part Romany jazz. Lightning, a slow waltz, mines an oldtime fire-and-brimstone vernacular anchored by Durkin’s stygian bowing. Stahl sings Bag of Bones, a dancing, dixieland-flavored swing tune. The album’s final track, On and On, is a loping, hypnotic rock nocturne: thematically, it’s out of place, but it’s not bad.

Trampled by Turtles Bring Their Catchy, State-of-the-Art Americana to Terminal 5

Duluth, Minnesota’s well-regarded Trampled by Turtles personify the drift many of this era’s top tunesmiths have taken away from rock into Americana perhaps better than any band around. Imagine Andrew Bird plus Low, divided by O’Death in somber, lush mode, and you get a good picture of what their new album Wild Animals (streaming at Spotify and produced, appropriately enough, by Alan Sparkhawk of Low) sounds like. They’re at Terminal 5 at around 10 this Friday, Sept 12, with Hurray for the Riff Raff, a.k.a. torchy oldtimey Americana songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra opening the show at 9. Cover is $25, and with Trampled by Turtles as popular as they are, advance tix (available at the Mercury Lounge 5-7 PM Mon-Fri) are always a good idea.

The new album – their seventh, if you can believe – opens with the title track, a waltz, managing to be rustically bittersweet yet rousingly anthemic at once. It’s a good tablesetter for everything that follows, frontman/guitarist Dave Simonett’s gentle, unassuming vocals always just a hair below pitch – he’s sort of a male indie-era counterpart to the B-52’s Kate Pierson. White noise – ebow guitar, maybe – whooshes in and raises the lushness factor behind him.

The second track, Hollow, motors along on the graceful midtempo bluegrass groove of Dave Carroll’s banjo and Erik Berry’s mandolin as Ryan Young’s fiddle soars tersely and somewhat warily overhead. Repetition, another waltz, is where the stadium-rock-disguised-as-country really starts to take off, Berry’s mando cutting a Milky Way through a deep-blue nocturnal backdrop. Then they pick up the pace Are You Behind the Shining Star, which comes across as something akin to a vintage ELO hit with newgrass production values…or ELO doing newgrass. You might not think it would work, but it does.

One of the album’s most memorable tracks, the harmony-fueled Silver Light brings to mind another first-class Minnesota band, the Jayhawks circa 1997 or so. Come Back Home is another cross-genre mindfuck: Mexican son jarocho, chamber pop (those multi-tracked strings by Young are killer) and a brisk bluegrass romp. Ghosts aptly looks back to Orbison Nashville noir, but through the prisms of newgrass and post-Coldplay stadium rock.

“I think it’s time to go/The bartender is mean and slow,” Simonett warbles morosely midway through Lucy, an ethereal wee-hours lament. Then they blast through the lickety-split yet brooding Western World, a showcase for some searing banjo and fiddle that would fit in perfeclty on an album by The Devil Makes Three, Tim Saxhaug’s bass driving the beast forward. The most oldtimey track here is the country gospel-tinged Nobody Knows, followed closely by the closing cut, Winners, a warmly catchy Appalachian theme reinvented as a late 90s Wilco-style sway. Pretty much everything here is the kind of stuff that you find running through your mind long after the concert’s over.

Summer Memories: Two Darkly Funny Solo Shows by Tunesmith Walter Ego

Good Cop: We’re baaaack!

Bad Cop: We refuse to be farmed out.

Good Cop: We’re back by popular demand! People like us! They request us!

Bad Cop: Au contraire. People hate us. Especially artists. Artists specifically request not to be reviewed by us. We scare them. [under his breath] Because we tell the truth.

Good Cop: But that’s not so scary! Maybe that’s why Blog Boss sent us to out to see not one but two Walter Ego shows this past summer. You notice we’ve gotten the call to cover all this summer’s primo shows?

Bad Cop: Hmm, maybe. But you know the real the reason we got the call to cover these two is because Blog Boss is a sadist. You think Blog Boss would have hesitated to go see Walter Ego if those two shows had been anywhere other than Sidewalk? This is Blog Boss’s way of saying to you and me, “You’re really nothing, the B team, you don’t really rate [waves his hand dismissively], you go to Sidewalk and suffer while I hang out in the VIP tent at Lincoln Center.”

Good Cop: Blog Boss’s loss. The sound at Sidewalk was actually pretty good both times Walter Ego played there, in mid-June and then last month. He’s playing there again this month on Sept 13 at 8 PM.

Bad Cop: Oh jesus, does this mean we have to go to Sidewalk again? Why can’t this guy play somewhere else?

Good Cop: C’mon, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed, the music at Sidewalk has improved a lot lately! You wanna know why that is? It’s because Somer is booking the place now…

Bad Cop [surprised, taken off guard]: Wow. That would explain a lot. I know her as a good singer and an excellent sound person so I guess this means she also has good taste. Although there’s still too much of the annoying Beck wannabes and dork-punk crowd there for my taste…

Good Cop: You’re so conditioned to everything in this city going to hell that you’re oblivious when anything good happens.

Bad Cop: I will say that I had fun both times we went to see Walter Ego. If I’m remembering correctly, the first one was quite the party…

Good Cop: No, that was the LJ Murphy show.

Bad Cop [rolls his eyes]: Omigod, you’re right. I don’t remember anything about that…

Good Cop: You’d better because we may be called on to report on it…

Bad Cop: You’re on your own with that one. But I do remember Walter Ego. The June show was longer and featured a lot more of his piano songs – in fact I think the August show didn’t have any piano songs. Which was too bad because I like the songs he plays on piano better than the ones he plays on guitar.

Good Cop: But the guitar songs were great too. The one that the audience really got into, which he played at both shows, was Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar. A lot of Walter Ego’s songs are devastatingly funny and this is one of them.

Bad Cop: There’s a line in the song that goes, “He taught Berry to duckwalk and Frampton to boxtalk.” That kills me.

Good Cop: Yeah, I’m with you. In case you’re reading this and you’re not from New York, Dan Smith is sort of an urban legend: he’s a guitar teacher who festoons the city with flyers with his face on them…

Bad Cop: And has for 25 years and if the photo is to be believed, he hasn’t aged in 25 years. Needless to say, this is a sarcastic song and the crowd loved it. Another big hit was Mitterrand’s Last Meal. See, François Mitterrand was the President of France back in the 80s, he was ostensibly a socialist but, uh, you could say he kind of straddled the fence. And after a long battle with prostate cancer….

Good Cop: …which he may or may not have gotten from eating oysters from the English Channel that were contaminated by that awful French nuclear waste pipeline…

Bad Cop: …Mitterrand had one last meal before he literally pulled the plug on himself, more or less, and the meal began with an endangered bird that is actually a protected species and is illegal to eat in France. So right there you have a scenario that’s ripe for satire and Walter Ego made the most of it.

Good Cop: There were also a lot of other funny songs, more of those at the August show than the one in June. I really liked the one about simplifying your life, starting out with cutting back on clutter and ending up back in ocean as an amoeba…very Handsome Family, don’t you think?

Bad Cop: I liked the June show better. He did that creepy art-rock anthem I Am the Glass and really aired out his low register. Really Nick Cave-class, that good. And I think, I’m not clear on this, this was awhile ago, there was another morbid one, more of a straight-up noir cabaret tune, Half Past Late. If he didn’t do that one he did A Big Life, which is kind of a bittersweet waltz, a carpe diem message song that didn’t turn out to be trite or maudlin.

Good Cop: I liked the country song about the magician who makes magic disappear, in other words, what a killjoy. And that catchy, bouncy one that sounds like the Kinks, about getting knocked down, starting at the bottom of a new career, etcetera.

Bad Cop: Reputedly – I can’t personally vouch for this, but I’ll pass along the rumor – the September 13 gig will be the one where Walter Ego actually plays his original instrument, the bass, with a band behind him. It’s been awhile since he’s done that.

Good Cop: I can’t wait! Sidewalk, here we come!

Bright, Catchy, Eclectic Newgrass Instrumentals from Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers

Mandolinist Vivian Li‘s newgrass band call themselves the Pickled Campers. They’ve got a delightfully springlike, intriguingly eclectic new instrumental album, Growing in the Cracks streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show on August 16 at 8:30 PM at GSI Studios, 150 W. 28th St. Does this band like to get pickled? And go camping? Maybe both at once? As it turns out, yes! Their sound is a lot tighter and more eclectic than that might suggest: imagine Nickel Creek with a chamber jazz edge, sans the indie affectations, and you’re on the right track. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist Zach Brock, a brilliant jazz bandleader in his own right, with a great new album of his own just out. Flutist Darren Ziller adds more unexpectedly acerbic textures alongside guitarist Ross Martin, horn player Chris Komer and bassist Todd Grunder.

Throughout the album, the playing is tasteful and elegant to the nth degree. The opening track sways along brightly through some uneasy changes, with edgy solos from violin and flute before Li’s mandolin takes it in a sunnier direction. Moses (Free) pairs exploratory mando against washes of violin and flute before the bass brings it together as a pensive waltz; it’s a shadowy, cinematic, intriguing newgrass/jazz hybrid. Brock and Li team up for some gently bouncy riffs to open Grit, then the guitar and flute take elegant solos before Brock turns up the heat.

Likewise, The Next Tune – that’s the title – coalesces into a waltz and then a stroll with more than a hint of Romany jazz, a thoughtful horn solo grounding Brock’s lithe, dancing lines. Lasagna Sky – a trippy sunset image, maybe? – leaps right into a graceful, blues-infused Stephane Grappelli-esque sway, with precise, articulate solos around the horn.

Moth in a Dustpan opens with a sardonic sense of abandonment channeled by a flute/horn duet before the bass and guitar kick off a brisk strut for Brock and Li to dance over; then the band indulge themselves with a droll improvisational interlude. Trickster juxtaposes a trickily kinetic jazz violin theme with indie classical harmonies, sprightly flute, terse horn and guitar, Li capping it off with a warmly incisive crescendo. The album ends up with the jauntily syncopated Golden Apple, the album’s most trad number. None of this music is particularly dark but it has plenty of wit and it’s absolutely unique: there’s no other band that sounds like Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers. Highly recommended for bluegrass and jazz and even classical people.

A Killer Andrew Bird Concert Sets the Stage for a Similar Show from Tift Merritt

What’s the likelihood of seeing Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt on the same stage, let alone in the same band? It happened at Central Park Summerstage this month when the two Americana music icons joined forces, Bird on violin and a little guitar, Merritt on rhythm guitar as part of a dynamic five-piece band with pedal steel, bass and drums, jauntily exchanging verses with the Chicago songwriter in a set heavy with Handsome Family covers from Bird’s new album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of.

“In my opinion, Brett and Rennie Sparks are the greatest living American songwriters,” Bird told the sold-out crowd, and he could be right. And Bird, whose own songs are as haunted, and morbid, and literate, and relevant as the Handsome Family’s catalog continues to be, is the ideal person to cover them, if anybody is. Bird and Merritt continue on Bird’s summer tour; Merritt gets a momentary break for a rare, free duo show of her own with Americana guitar genius Eric Heywood coming up on August 7 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center Atrium. Early arrival is a must: 6 PM wouldn’t be too soon since she’s one of the rare artists who still sells out pretty much every room she plays.

Bird opened his show with a handful of intricately rhythmic, solo songs, fingerpicking his violin like a mandolin, his Spinning Double Speaker Horn behind him providing spooky, keening effects as he built layers of loops that spun back hypnotically through the mix. From there the band joined him, eventually gathering in a circle around a central mic before dispersing as the concert built momentum. They moved methodically through a nonchalantly bouncing take of the Handsome Family’s Danse Caribe, a moody, allusive version of Sifters, all the way through to the first encores, the fire-and-brimstone cautionary tale MX Missiles, which made a creepily apt segue with Handsome Family’s Cathedrals. On the way there, the young, touristy crowd were treated to uneasy versions of Tin Foil, Dear Old Greenland, Effigy and the understatedly savage post-9/11 anti-Bush/Cheney parable When the Helicopter Comes. The group also took their time through a lingering, ominous version of Pulaski at Night and the sardonic Something Biblical. With his wary, precise vocals matching the incisive focus of his violin playing, Bird was an intense presence, holding the group together as if they were on a secret mission. Merritt’s indomitable energy and soaring harmonies made a strong complement, livening the more upbeat, country-flavored numbers with her smoke-tinged wail.

A Free Show and Two Contrasting Americana Albums by the Howlin’ Brothers

It’s hard to keep up with the Howlin’ Brothers. The trio of bassist Ben Plasse, fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Ian Craft and guitarist Jared Green are one of those well-loved Americana acts who make a living on the road, but they also make excellent albums. They’ve got a brand-new one out, Trouble, streaming at Spotify and a free outdoor show on July 1 starting around 5 in the parking lot out back of City Winery.

A quick listen to the new one reveals it as both more electric, more intense and darker than the band’s previous material. The album before that is an acoustic ep, the Sun Studio Session, where the band went into the legendary room where Elvis and Johnny Cash and so many other legends recorded and put down four originals, a remake of an earlier tune and a cover of a Sun classic, Carl Perkins’ 1956 single Dixie Fried.

What’s coolest about that tune is that you can hear as much Chuck Berry in it as you can bluegrass – and Craft’s banjo solo is as wild and fun as anything Brandon Seabrook could wail through. There’s also a spare, brooding, piano-driven, Tom Waits-ish version of Tennessee Blues, which originally appeared on the band’s Howl album.

The first of the new tracks, Til I Find You sets lickety-split banjo over a steady bass pulse, with that rich Sun Studios natural reverb on the vocals. True to its title, the slow Troubled Waltz, another banjo tune, has an oldtime Appalachian feel. Take Me Down, fueled by Green’s dobro, works a swaying, dead-of-summer delta blues groove. Charleston Chew, a slightly more modern (if you consider 1954 modern) take on a 1920-style one-chord blues, is the lone electric track here, the slow-burn tone of Green’s guitar contrasting with Craft’s energetic fiddle. Taken as a whole, the ep is a smartly lower-key counterpart to the band’s raucous live show. It’s gonna get hot in the parking lot on Tuesday evening.

Where Did All the Live Coverage Go, or, A La Recherche De Concerts Perdus

New York Music Daily was originally conceived as a live music blog. In the very first month or so here, there was more concert coverage than there’s been in all of 2014 up to now.

What’s up with that? Has New York Music Daily morphed into just another generic “look who’s on tour” blog? Not necessarily.

OK – a cold winter, followed by a temporary lack of general mobility, made it awfully easy to focus on whittling down an enormous stack of albums instead of stumbling through pools of salty sludge night after night. And the abrupt closure of Zirzamin last summer – where this blog ran a music salon for the better part of a year – put an end to one of the few remaining genuine scenes in a town further and further balkanized by the proliferation (some would say overproliferation) of outer-borough neighorhood bars with live music. Zirzamin made a blogger’s job obscenely easy – it was one-stop shopping, sometimes three or four good acts on a given night. Since then, keeping track of the best acts who passed through there has become a lot more time-consuming. In the spirit of keeping a scene alive, this is a long-overdue look at some usual suspects who haven’t let the loss of that venue phase them.

Full disclosure: Lorraine Leckie was a partner in booking the Zirzamin salon. And why not: she has impeccable taste and likes residencies (beats having to pay for rehearsal space, right?). She’s been doing a monthly Friday or Saturday night show going way back to her days in the Banjo Jim’s scene. When Banjo Jim’s closed, she moved to Otto’s, but that place isn’t really set up to handle to loud bands with vocals (and her band the Demons can be LOUD). So Zirzamin, with its pristine sonics, was a logical move. Lately she’s had a monthly Friday night gig at Sidewalk – her next one is June 20 at 11. Sometimes she plays a rock set with the Demons, sometimes she does her quietly menacing chamber pop stuff. Her January show there (yeah, this is going back a ways) was a showcase for her Lou Reed-influenced glamrock and lots of Hendrix-inspired pyrotechnics from lead guitarist Hugh Pool, capped off with a long, volcanic take of one of her signature Canadian gothic anthems, Ontario. The show before that was a solo set where Leckie alternated between Stratocaster and piano, featuring a lot of sardonic, brooding chamber pop songs, many of them from Leckie’s collaboration with Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted.

Baritone crooner/powerpop tunesmith/sharp lyricist Walter Ego is another Zirzamin regular who’s more or less migrated to Sidewalk. Like Leckie, he’s been doing about a show a month there lately – the next one is on June 19 at 9 – as well as playing bass in Mac McCarty‘s gothic Americana band. Walter Ego was most recently witnessed doing double duty, playing both a solo set – including a rare cover, an impassioned version of Peter Gabriel’s Biko, dedicated to the late Nelson Mandela – followed by a careening show with McCarty’s band at the Path Cafe back when there was still snow on the ground. As much fun as that bill was – McCarty’s lickety-split take of Henry, Oh Henry, an absolutely creepy cemetery-folk tune, being just one of many highlights – that venue proved itself completely unsuitable, sonically and spacewise, for full-band rock shows. Walter Ego’s previous solo show at Sidewalk was a lot more sonically accomodating (if you can imagine that), emphasis on similarly creepy material like the subway suicide narrative 12-9, the gorgeous noir cabaret waltz Half Past Late and the even more darkly gorgeous, metaphorically-charged chamber pop song I Am the Glass.

J O’Brien is the latest A-list songwriter to turn up at Sidewalk, coming off a monthly Zirzamin residency. His solo set on twelve-string guitar there last month followed a pretty wild, high-voltage show by wryly howling punkgrass/oldtimey band the Grand. Most of their songs are about drinking. They’ve got fiddle and cajon and resonator guitar and standup bass and a girl on harmony vocals who also plays the saw. They sound like a stripped-down, more punk New Brooklyn take on the Old Crow Medicine Show and they drew a big crowd who loved them. O’Brien fed off that energy, mixing animated acoustic versions of surreal, hyperliterate mod-punk flavored songs from his days with cult favorites the Dog Show, as well as some newer material with a biting political edge. Like Ray Davies, somebody he often resembles, O’Brien remains populist to the core.

Resonator guitarist/bluesmama Mamie Minch most likely never played Zirzamin, probably since she’s such a staple of the Barbes scene. She’s also opened her own guitar repair shop, Brooklyn Lutherie, in the old American Can Company building in Gowanus where Issue Project Room was for several years. They’re New York’s only woman-owned guitar and stringed instrument repair shop – how cool is that? Being an experienced luthier, Minch has a deep address book, and has staged a couple of excellent acoustic shows in the space since she opened. The first featured New Orleans Balkan/Romany band the G String Orchestra doing a hauntingly exhilarating trio show with violin, accordion and bass. No doubt there will be more.

Willie Watson Brings His Colorful Oldtime Songs to the Mercury

It’s easy to see why David Rawlings would want to produce Willie Watson‘s debut album, Folk Singer Vol. 1. Watson has a terse, economical, low-key fluidity on both the guitar and banjo and is a connoisseur of dark folk music from across the decades and for that matter, the centuries. The album is a solo acoustic project with a colorful choice of songs. In the same vein as his approach to the fretboard, Watson lets the stories tell themselves, singing in an understated twang with a little shivery vibrato that tails off at the end in a 1920s blue style. He’s at the Mercury on May 21 at 8 PM; advance tix are $10 and recommended (the box office is open Monday-Friday, 5-7 PM).

Watson’s version of Midnight Special sets the stage: it’s got the feel of an old blues record from the 20s without the pops and scratches. At the end, Watson leaves no doubt that this is no party anthem: it’s a cautionary tale. He follows that with a briskly swaying, one-chord banjo version of the bankrobber ballad Long John Dean and then the similar, slightly slower banjo tune Stewball, a nonchalantly grim horseracing narrative. As the race kicks off, “Old Stewball was trembling like a criminal to be hung.”

The delta blues tune Mother Earth is sort of a slightly more upbeat take on Death Don’t Have No Mercy. The fastest number here, Mexican Cowboy, has a bitter end you can see coming a mile away, but it’s still a fun ride. Watson follows a slow, steady pace on James Alley Blues up to a vicious payoff at the end, then gets even more murderous on Rock Salt & Nails, an old song that’s as alienated and angry as anything Hank Williams ever wrote. It’s the high point of the album.

After that, Watson picks up the pace with the upbeat blues Bring It with You When You Come, an oldtimey weed-smoking anthem and then switches back to banjo for a muted take of Kitty Puss, a dance number. He ends the album with Keep It Clean, which sounds like a prototype for John Prine at his weirdest. This one gets Watson’s best guitar work here, spare and uncluttered but sprinkled with all sorts of crisp, nimble accents.

The Infamous Stringdusters Catch Lightning in a Bottle

 

It’s no secret that jambands are at their best onstage. Sure, the Infamous Stringdusters will probably sell busloads of copies of their forthcoming album Let It Go (due out April 1) at shows – a cynic would say that if you’re drunk or stoned enough, you’ll buy anything. But believe it or not, the album actually manages to capture the kind of livewire intensity that the band generates night after night in concert. They’re at Bowery Ballroom on March 27 at 10ish; general admission tix are $23.

The secret to this band’s onstage alchemy lies in the dynamics between Andy Hall’s dobro and Chris Pandolfi’s banjo. Sometimes it’s a tug-of-war, sometimes their snaky lines intertwine and harmonize alongside Andy Falco’s guitars, Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle and Travis Book’s bass. What makes the Stringdusters different from so many of their newgrass brethren is that a lot of their songs, especially on this album, are basically blue-sky rock anthems with acoustic instrumentation. This band doesn’t just recycle a ton of oldtime folk and bluegrass licks: they have their own distinctive style. Case in point: the album’s opening track, I’ll Get Away, where Garrett’s dancing lines give the song a bit of a Celtic tinge. Or the second track, Where the Rivers Run Cold, with Pandolfi’s flurrying, rapidfire, genuinely hard-rocking banjo.

The wary, biting Winds of Change segues out of that, with a stark twin fiddle solo and then some deliciously intense tradeoffs between the dobro and banjo. Rainbows starts out as a gentle folk-pop tune and then picks up with a big anthemic chorus, while Summercamp takes doo-wop rock to the country. The tersely dancing instrumental Middlefork mashes up a country waltz with Mexican folk and the Grateful Dead in acoustic mode

By My Side reverts to an anthemic acoustic highway rock vibe, followed by Colorado, an even mightier, more soaring newgrass anthem. There’s a hint of the Dead classic Franklin’s Tower in the catchy, shuffling Peace of Mind, the fiddle leaping joyously over its steady backdrop. Light and Love offers hints of oldtime country blues, while the album’s closing track, Let It Go is a civil war tune at heart. All of this has an intricate weave of instruments and the kind of incisive, meaningful jamming that usually gets the squeeze when you take a jamband out of their element and stick them in the sterile confines of a studio. The album’s not up at Spotify yet but it ought to be next month because the rest of the band’s studio stuff is there.

The Steel Wheels Bring Their Catchy Acoustic Americana to Joe’s Pub

 

Isn’t it funny how whenever pop music goes completely to hell, classic Americana always makes a comeback? It happened in the 50s before rock took over the airwaves, when regional hitmakers from previously obscure places like Nashville and Nova Scotia broke through to a mass audience. It’s happening now, if on a smaller scale, since the radio airwaves – aside from college and nonprofit radio – have gone completely dead. “The beginning starts at the end,” Steel Wheels frontman Trent Wagler sings at the end of the second verse of his band’s brooding banjo ballad Walk Away, and he’s right. The Steel Wheels perfectly capture the newschool oldtime esthetic, which no doubt has a lot to do with their popularity. They’re at Joe’s Pub on March 9 at 7 PM for $15.

Their latest album, streaming at the band’s site, is titled No More Rain. It’s sort of a slower take on what grasscore jambands like the Infamous Stringdusters are doing, or, for that matter, what the Grateful Dead were doing in an acoustic vein thirty years ago, albeit more song- than jam-oriented. It’s a mix of mostly midtempo anthems and slower ballads that sometimes work an oldtime vernacular, and are sometimes just your basic jangly rock with acoustic instrumentation and rustic arrangements. Eric Brubaker’s fiddle is the usual lead instrument, although Wagler’s elegant guitar flatpicking, Jay Lapp’s banjo and mandolin and Brian Dickel’s bass all figure equally into their tasteful sound. The songs are expansive, with plenty of room for solos that tend to be on the pensive side. And the songwriting is very catchy, drawing on oldtime Appalachian music as well as country gospel, country blues and bluegrass. If the Steel Wheels were based in New York, they’d be a Jalopy band.

With its fire-and-brimstone country gospel vibe, the album’s aphoristic opening track, Walk Away, is its strongest – and it’s the only one that’s in a minor key. The slow waltz Until Summer sounds like the BoDeans but with a fiddle in place of the electric guitars and an upright bass replacing the rock rhythm section, a formula the band works frequently through the rest of the album. The casual syncopation of Kiss Me draws on oldschool soul music, while Go Up and The Race blend equal parts country gospel and Appalachian mountain music into warmly inviting singalongs, the latter with some spot-on three-part vocal harmonies.

Story has a neat handoff from mandolin to fiddle midway through, while So Long, another waltz, sets an unexpectedly gloomy lyric – the guy’s talking about seeing his ex-girlfriend in heaven – to a sunny melody. Whistle is newgrass with a dash of oldtime Britfolk; I Will, the album’s final track, a newgrass take on a hook-driven highway rock anthem. Corinne could be a Sam Llanas ballad, Oh Child the Grateful Dead – with a Burning Spear-style litany of directions that could either make you grin or roll your eyes. And the expansive neo-hobo tale Water’s Edge sounds like a parable of a modern-day drifer finally finding his niche in New Orleans, or Berkeley, or Bloomington maybe. You know the deal. If this is where catchy, easygoing hitmakers are making their home now, it’s a good place.

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