Watching Eilen Jewell in her black dress in daylight, leading her brilliant band earlier this evening outside City Winery, was surreal. The self-described Queen of the Minor Key is best appreciated after dark under low lights. But the unlikely early hour didn’t stop her from turning the parking lot out back of the club into a noir movie set, sonically speaking at least. Jewell’s jeweled voice works the corners of dark Americana with a casual menace that’s just short of lurid: she’s always a step ahead of you, never giving in to the temptation to go over the top.
Her band was phenomenal. Guitarist Jerry Miller (not to be confused with the guy from alt-country pioneers Moby Grape) was, as he’s put it before, “Duane Eddy, Link Wray and James Burton rolled into one.” At this show he was also Otis Rush, and Steve Cropper, and Buck Owens, sometimes all of them within the span of a few bars. Miller’s twangy, tremoloing blue-flame nonchalance made the perfect counterpart to Jewell’s aching, angst-tinged restraint. Drummer Jason Beek did the Tim O’Reagan thing on harmony vocals – the guy’s an excellent singer – while bassist Johnny Sciascia hit hard and tersely and kept the shuffles on the straight and narrow. Dark as Jewell’s music is, between songs, she was deviously charming, at one point giving a shout out to the club’s sangria. You know, the one thing that a wine bar wants to be known for.
In over an hour onstage, they gave a clinic in just about every style of elegantly dark Americana, ending pretty much everything they played with a big crescendo from the guitars and a ka-THUMP from the drums. Let’s hope somebody had the presence of mind to record this show and put it up at archive.org, where there’s more tantalizing live stuff from her. They played up the honkytonk energy in Loretta Lynn’s Give Me a Lift and the countrypolitan sophistication of Stonewall Jackson’s That’s Why I’m Walking, gave Eric Andersen’s Dusty Boxcar Wall a dusky southwestern gothic edge and ended the night with a long, haphazardly dangerous version of Shaking All Over with Miller flatpicking his way up to a wry Gloria quote.
But the originals were the best. The band got the after-hours neon ambience going with the bluesy, noir Where They Never Saw Your Name, Miller channeling Otis Rush’s All Your Love, and segued into the equally shadowy, even catchier Sea of Tears. Jewell brought it down and let her voice tremolo out a little at the end to match Miller’s guitar on a slowy, achingly Lynchian version of her torch ballad Only One, followed by the swampy shuffle Bang Bang Bang – which casts Cupid as a psychopath – and then the apprehensively swinging High Shelf Blues, more of a lament than a drinking song.
This blog once likened the swaying oldschool country ballad Breathless to Laura Cantrell covering X, and Jewell validated that description. A haunting new song possibly titled One More Time featured Miller playing at the murky bottom of his strings, as if on a baritone guitar. Going Back to Dallas, from Jewell’s first album (which her old label refused to supply her with for this show, she told the crowd) was just as purposeful and brought back the foreboding edge – could it be a Lee Harvey Oswald reference, maybe? They followed with the slow, regretful summery sway of Boundary County, a homage to Jewell’s native Idaho, then the uneasy janglerock of Home to Me, then began the encores with the defiant If You Catch Me Stealing and then the haunting, Julia Haltigan-esque I’m Gonna Dress in Black with its St. James Infirmary vibe. Fans in Westchester county can catch Jewell tomorrow night, July 10 at the Turning Point in Piermont at around 7:30.