Most artists concretize their style by the time they’ve learned to play. Mark Sinnis keeps reinventing himself. Last night upstairs at Madame X on Houston Street, of all places, the Hudson Valley noir Americana songwriter and his five-piece band played a mix of mostly new, unreleased material with a deeper, rootsier sound than he’s ever had. Sinnis got his start in Manhattan in the late 90s fronting Ninth House, who have been through many incarnations: post-Social Distortion county punk band; epically orchestral art-rock group; savagely bluesy jamband. Theyr’e still together, still playing occasionally and mixing up the ornate with the darkly pastoral.
But in the last few years, Sinnis’ main focus has been his career as an acoustic songwriter. He was one of the first New York artists to play what one critic called “cemetery & western” music, and the name stuck. You might call his new stuff Hudson Valley gothic – Washington Irving would approve. Sinnis offered one explanation for how he fell under the region’s darkly bucolic spell: he and his wife were out making a video for a new version of the Ninth House concert favorite Down Beneath, in a cemetery not far from their Peekskill home. “The song is about dying and joining somebody in the afterlife,” Sinnis told the crowd. “As you know from the name of my band, 825, I was born on August 25th. So I went to cemetery, was walking around just like this, playing my guitar, my wife was shooting me, and I just randomly put my guitar down, lay on a grave, sat up, got up, walked around, finished the video and went home. The next day I got up, made my coffee, and I’m working on the video, and when I got to the scene where I was laying on the grave and sat up - the person in that grave died on August 25th. Now I’m telling you right now, I randomly did it, I didn’t choose any particular grave. You can go to Youtube, check out the video and you can see that scene – I’m still trying to figure out who’s in that grave.”
And the new songs have that same kind of eerinesss. The band – Stephen Gara on banjo, James Brown on lead guitar, John Goldberg on bass, plus Brian Aspinwall on pedal steel and Michael Lillard on drums - opened with a darkly slinky minor-key bluegrass tune It’s Been a Long Cold Dark Lonely Winter, a theme that would recur later. Another new song, with a stinging guitar lead over resonant steel and the resolute plink of the banjo might have been about the woman in the grave. Even in a netherworld where “we never grow old, and the sun never sets,” the anguish was relentless.
They reinvented Sinnis’ Johnny Cash-style dirge Sunday Mourning Train with a briskly spiky bluegrass groove and echoed that even more darkly toward the end of the show with Cold Day in December, imagining the deadly solitude of an overnight funeral train ride emerging into a Tennessee morning. And then followed with a saturnine front-porch folk version of That’s Why I Won’t Love You, taking a Johnny Cash sway back in time a hundred years. They closed with a cover of Ernest Tubb’s Driving Nails in My Coffin, which when you think about pretty much defines Nashville gothic as well as any other song possibly could. By his own admission, Sinnis doesn’t play many shows in the five boroughs anymore; watch this space for increasingly rare NYC sightings.
And for those in the Hudson Valley, Sinnis is also the owner-operator of the Beale Street Barber Shop at 907 South St. in Peekskill, which does double duty as antique and vintage store, art gallery and occasional music venue, with monthly shows on the little stage in the back. Sinnis is there with this band on Nov 2.