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Purist, Catchy, Artfully Arranged Tunesmithing from Guitar Goddess Ann Klein

Ann Klein may be best known as one of the most distinctive, exciting lead guitarists in any style of music, but she’s also a first-class tunesmith. She’s got a new album, Tumbleweed Symphony streaming at Soundcloud, which turns out to be more about tunesmithing than spine-tingling fretwork. She’s likely to deliver more guitar pyrotechnics at her album release show coming up on July 16 at 7 PM on an eclectic triplebill at the big room at the Rockwood: Icelandic glamrocker Ívar Páll Jónsson and his band follow at 8, then at 9 explosive Americana crew the Brothers Comatose (the latter for a $10 cover).

The album opens with Tango Wrangler, a funky soul tune spiced with violin, about an irrepressible WWII vet who “had a way with the ladies if the ladies had the lust.” Klein keeps the soul vibe going, but in a completely different direction, with the slow-burning Start a Fire: the blend of acoustic and electric piano is eerie and texturally luscious, as are the tersely multitracked guitars of Klein in tandem with producer Eric Ambel.

Her clear, uncluttered vocals linger over an artfully arranged backdrop of guitars and organ on the breakup ballad Remember to Forget. She follows that with the darkly scampering, rockabilly-flavored I’m Gone, So Long, and a tantalizingly brief, noisy guitar solo. Likewise, the broodingly gorgeous Sunday Morning has an uneasy, mandolin-fueled sway.

Real Love floats along slowly on a bed of watery guitars and electric piano: it’s part pastoral Pink Floyd, part Americana. Rodents in the Attic is a sardonically funny, swinging number about an old country house, Klein cutting loose on guitar with an icy, echoing tone through a vintage analog delay pedal – and when’s the last time anybody used the word “rodent” in a rock song? Then she switches gears with Rocking Chair, a nostalgic, dobro-driven country number.

Klein’s growling slide guitar contrasts with spiky mandolin on the album’s hardest-rocking track, Break Out. The final cut, Promised Land is not the Springsteen classic but a stomping, chirpy garage rock original. Why does this album sound so good? A little backstory: Klein is married to Tim Hatfield, partner with Eric Ambel at Brooklyn’s legendary Cowboy Technical Services studio, where the album was recorded.

An Enticing New Single from Demolition String Band’s Brain Trust

Since the late 90s, guitarist Boo Reiners and mandolinist/singer Elena Skye have led Demolition String Band, the well-loved New York-based punk-inspired roots rock band. Part oldschool bluegrass crew, part anthemic highway rockers, they’re sort of a more electrified version of what John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X did with their Knitters side project.

Over the years, Boo and Elena have done a bunch of gigs as an acoustic duo – their next one is upstairs at 2A as part of Tom Clark’s Sunday acoustic thing on Jan 5 at around 9. They’ve also got a new single from their forthcoming Eric Ambel-produced album streaming at Bandcamp. The A-side, Sailor Girl is a sparkling banjo tune sung fetchingly by Elena. The B-side, Loving Cup, is a Stones cover, and it’s a revelation. That song is the best track on Exile on Main Street; the two do it here with just guitar and mando. Mick only wish he could have sung it like Boo does – and you can understand the lyrics! What a beautiful buzz!

Ellen Foley Gets Back in the Rock Groove

Before she made a name for herself in film, on tv and in the theatre, Ellen Foley had a brief but arguably just as successful career as a singer. Her Mick Ronson-produced 1979 debut album Night Out bombed in the US but scored big in several European markets. Her classic remains 1981’s Spirit of St. Louis, generally regarded as the great lost Clash album since Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (Foley’s boyfriend at the time) produced it, played on it and wrote most of the songs. Then there was 1983’s Another Breath, a pretty forgettable detour into synth-pop. Oh yeah – Foley also sang on that famous Meatloaf monstrosity as well as a bunch of Joe Jackson hits. After a similarly eclectic acting career, it was good to suddenly see her fronting a band again, starting about six years ago when she had a more-or-less monthly residency at the late, great Lakeside Lounge. And now she’s got a new record, About Time, with her Lakeside band, assembled by former Five Chinese Brothers leader Paul Foglino and produced by Eric Ambel. The album, her first in thirty years, confirms for anyone who missed her Lakeside shows that the chameleonic chanteuse is just as adept at deliciously guitar-driven highway rock as she is with cabaret, powerpop and elegant chamber-rock. The whole thing is streaming at her Bandcamp page. She’s doing the album release show at the Cutting Room at 8 PM on Nov 4; tix are $20 and still available as of today.

Foglino contributes most of the songs here – and they’re some of the best he’s ever written. The opening track, If You Can’t Be Good has Foley showing off the big resonant vibrato that became her trademark back in the 70s, over a tastefully arranged web of jangly guitars. Nobody Ever Died from Crying looks back to Blondie with its steady backbeat pulse and coyly vengeful lyrics, while All of My Suffering goes in a swaying, anthemic highway rock direction with Stonesy piano, organ and slide guitar, followed by a tasty wee-hours version of Randy Newman’s Guilty.

“If you had a mind, you would be losing it, if you had a soul, it would be shaking…torture me, torture me, open your eyes and tell me what you see,” Foley intones with understated rage on the catchy, soul-tinged If You Had a Heart. She turns in her best vocal over a sultry saloon-jazz groove on Madness, then goes back to the glam on the T Rex-flavored Worried Woman, with its wickedly soaring chorus. And then she brings it down with the Memphis soul-tinged Any Fool Can See.

Around the Block and Back keeps the vintage soul vibe going, defiantly alluding to the twists and turns of a long career. Another standout track is I Can See, Orbison noir as peak-era 70s Blondie might have done it. She looks back in time another ten years to the early Who with the stomping Carry On and winds up the album with a lullaby of sorts, Everything’s Gonna Be All Right. It’s good to see a cult heroine from thirty years ago still at the top her of game, picking up like she never left off.

The Del-Lords’ First Album in 23 Years Picks Up Like They Never Stopped

In the case where a band releases their first album in 23 years, it’s typically either a reissue, a grab-bag of rarities or a half-baked attempt to revisit the group’s glory years, assuming they had any.  In the case of the Del-Lords, had they never made their new album Elvis Club- their first since 1990’s Lovers Who Wander- their place in rock history would be secure. They came up as a fiery highway rock band with deep roots in Americana, in an era when theose roots were being rediscovered and a four-star review in Rolling Stone actually helped a band sell records. If it’s possible to say that a band had a huge cult following, the Del-Lords had one. Their live performances are legendary, including a series of 1987 New York shows where they opened for Lou Reed and his band and blew them off the stage. The new album  – as well as two albums’ worth of rarities and esoterica – is streaming at the Del-Lords Bandcamp page. Much as it might sound extreme to declare it the ballsiest Del-Lords album ever, it just might be. The band is playing the album release show on June 27 at 9 PM at Bowery Electric with excellent female-fronted Americana punk rockers Spanking Charlene opening the night at 8; advance tickets are still available as of today but won’t last much longer.

The irony is that this probably wouldn’t have happened had a promoter not contacted them in 2010 and persuaded them into doing a brief Spanish tour. The quartet – guitarists Scott Kempner and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, bassist Manny Caiati and drummer Frank Funaro – reunited, played a handful of reunion gigs at the now-shuttered Lakeside Lounge to warm up for the tour (under the pseudonym the Elvis Club, which explains the album title), and decided, what the hell, let’s pull some new songs together. It’s a good thing they did. Kempner’s tunesmithing is as strong as ever and as it turns out both he and Ambel have never sung better. The songs run the gamut from anthemic Willie Nile-ish janglerock to fiery riff-rock to various rootsy styles, with a choice Neil Young cover to cap it off.

The music is a rich blend of jangle, twang, clang and roar. Layers of guitar get tweaked artfully for just the right tinge of reverb or distortion or tremolo; the playing is terse and powerful. This time around, Ambel handles all the leads except one; almost all of them go on for no more than a couple of bars. He always leaves you wanting more. He also produced the album with his usual purist touch (the inside cd cover shot is an early morning view of the East River from inside Ambel’s Cowbow Technical Services studio, home to scores of great albums in the years since the Del-Lords first disbanded). That has a lot to do with why it sounds as good as it does: strong as the band’s albums from the 80s were, there’s a distinct 80s feel to them, while this one sounds timeless. The rest of the band is as strong as they were 23 years ago, in the case of Kempner maybe stronger. This time out, Caiaiti wasn’t available, so a rotating cast of bassists including Ambel’s Yayhoos bandmate Keith Christopher, Jason Mercer, Steve Almaas and new fulltime member Michael DuClos share the four-string chair.

The opening track, When the Drugs Kick In sets the stage for what’s to come with its wickedly catchy four-chord hook and beefed-up janglerock vibe. The second track, Princess might be the strongest one: the beat is deceptively funky, the reverb-fueled minor-key riffage burns and slashes, with a couple of searing Ambel solos fueled by resonant chords and nonchalantly savage tremolo-picking. The sardonic Chicks, Man is one of those classic one-chord songs (give it a listen, it’s true), while Flying works some vintage Memphis licks into a gorgeous, midtempo anthem in the same vein as Kempner’s classic Forever Came Today (from the 1986 Roscoe’s Gang album), with a sudden, explosive crescendo midway through.

Fueled by more of that soul guitar, All of My Life is a casually celebratory ballad from the point of view of a survivor who never expected to get as far as he has, Rob Arthur’s lush Hammond organ picking it up out of a thoughtful Ambel solo. Everyday – co-written with early rock legend Dion DiMucci – is the closest thing to  Willie Nile here. Ambel takes over the vocals on Me & the Lord Blues, an evil, slinky, slow-burning tune that builds to a sunbaked Ron Asheton-like wah guitar solo.

The low-key but catchy Letter (Unmailed) sways along with a hint of Tex-Mex and a subtle reference to the Church, followed by You Can Make a Mistake One Time, which has the feel of an oldtime chain gang song set to raw, electric rock, Ambel getting a rare opportunty to cut loose for more than a couple of bars and making the most of it, Funaro’s snare drum like a sniper in the dark.

Silverlake evokes Steve Wynn with Kempner’s  brooding lyric – “It’s just a matter of trying, it’s just a matter of crying, it’s just a matter of lying to yourself” – and forceful, jangly tune. The album winds up with a take of Neil Young’s Southern Pacific – the best song from the 1981 Reactor album – which turns out to be a lot more sonically diverse than the original while maintaining an angry mood all the way through. Considering that it’s told from the point of view of a guy who worked his whole life only to get laid off, it’s an apt way to wind up an album released in these new depression days. It’s inspiring to see a bunch of guys who’ve been going as long as these guys have continuing to put out music that’s as vital and entertaining as what they were doing almost three decades ago.

The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed chronologically:

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Reliving October

Who in New York would want to relive October, 2012? Actually, if you can make the big, stormy elephant in the room disappear, it wasn’t such a bad month – and there were plenty of good shows happening, right up until a couple of days before the hurricane. This month’s account is part of an ongoing feature on concerts that for various reasons escaped front-page coverage here. Although most of the artists involved have already gotten plenty of space here before, it wouldn’t make sense to neglect what they’re doing because in one way or another, it’s important.

Early in the month on a deliciously cool Saturday, Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair played their usual careening mix of haunted, noir rock and contrastingly sunny oldschool soul songs at a gig at Freddy’s in Brooklyn’s south slope. Warnick is a keyboardist; he stands deadpan, sometimes with just the hint of a smirk and intones surreal, historically-inspired lyrics while the band motors behind him. This particular version had the blazing guitars of both Ross Bonadonna and John Sharples plus tenor sax and a rhythm section. Other than the utterly blissful soul sway of My Troubles All Fall Apart, the songs had a persistent unease. Catchy as the pulsing new wave of I’m a Stranger Here and the slower but equally catchy Lost in Place were, they both spoke to youthful alienation. Likewise, The Great Calamity didn’t shy away from potential disaster – Warnick has walked away from several in his life – and delivered a persistent defiance.

Other songs were considerably darker and ran the gamut from reggae, to bluegrass, to an a-cappella cover of an old chain gang song from the 30s. Cop Car, a stomping blues tune about a stoner being tailed by the po-po, had the guitars gleefully sirening in unison on the bridge – yikes! A Little Space worked a leering Tom Waits vibe, while Keep Me Movin’ rose and fell with a moody, Doorsy-y ambience. This time out, the big hit was The Impostor, with its chromatically-fueled menace and macabre crescendo on the chorus. As strange a segue as these guys made with the opening act, Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain, they kept the surreal energy going.

Onetime Dog Show frontman J. O’Brien has hardly been idle since the breakup of the band late in the zeros. His Vibedeck page has tons of name-your-price goodies, including both new songs and newly stripped down, mostly acoustic versions of Dog Show classics. He also has a monthly gig at Zirzamin, Manhattan’s newest and most exclusive venue for A-list songwriters. His October show featured a lot of his more pensive, darker material, including a welcome return of the offhandedly savage, bitter kiss-off ballad All About Wrong, as well as fueling  pre-election unease with the politically-charged Black Eye and Hold Me Down. His November show was more upbeat and drew more heavily on his more recent songs, notably Cottonmouth, a hilariously snide litany of characters on the train between Manhattan and south Brooklyn. He’ll be back at Zirzamin, solo on twelve-string guitar, on Dec 10 at 7.

Spanking Charlene, leaders of the scene at the late, lamented Lakeside Lounge, made a rare trip uptown to the Ding Dong Lounge for frontwoman Charlene McPherson’s birthday. The band’s new rhythm section – Patti Rothberg’s bass player and Drina Seay’s drummer – gave them extra punch and kick, and semi-permanent lead guitarist Eric Ambel got plenty of opportunities to sear and burn with a noisy, bluesy menace. Their long set mixed in a few covers along with many of the roaring Americana-punk songs on their latest album Where Are the Freaks – notably the stomping, sludgy title track, inspired by a drunken walk through increasingly yuppified Stuyvestant Town. McPherson wailed with her usual high voltage against the squall of a huge tenor saxophonist who looked like he’d just come in from Giants practice, as the band made their way through the sarcastic crash and roar of You Suck, Secrets, Tie Me Up and Stupid Me. As the show wound up, they made the connection between Black Sabbath and the Sonics and then a version of Heat Wave that owed more to the Martha Reeves original than the Jam. Spanking Charlene’s next show is on the road, on Dec 8 at the Record Collector in Bordentown, NJ.

A day before that, Niall Connolly played the weekly acoustic series at the American Folk Art Museum a few blocks north of Lincoln Center. He’s a band guy at heart and writes like it, buildling to anthemic choruses and leaving plenty of space for guitar breaks and other interesting stuff. In an all-too-brief set, he alternated between gloomily sardonic, spare, fingerpicked reflections on relationship dysfunction, and more upbeat, politically-fueled acoustic rock. Connolly is Irish by birth and not a fan of the post-9/11 American police state, and has plenty to say about it that’s both amusing and insightful. Connolly plays a LOT of shows; he’s at Caffe Vivaldi tomorrow night at midnight and then on Tuesday (officially, early Wednesday) at one in the morning at the Red Lion on Bleecker Street, where the tourists might have actually cleared out by then.

Closing Night at Lakeside

How do you play your own funeral? Obviously, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and the Roscoe Trio have plenty of life left in them, as they made clear last night when they played the closing night at Ambel’s beloved Lakeside Lounge. An East Village fixture for sixteen years, Lakeside was home to literally hundreds of excellent New York bands: its absence leaves a gaping hole in the New York rock scene. Still, it’s no wonder that Ambel – someone whose muse is not booze – had already gone through three pints of red wine (ok, somebody kicked one of them over) by the time their practically three-hour performance was over. The energy onstage bristled with raw anxiety, echoed by the crowd packed into the back room and lingering on the sidewalk outside: people were not happy to see their favorite rock club being priced out of the neighborhood for yet another effete, shi-shi gentrifier bar. Neither Ambel nor the band – Alison Jones on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Ambel’s pal Chip Robinson on guitar and also vocals – alluded to rage or resentment: they just let the songs do the talking and gave the club the sendoff it deserved. Taken out of context as an especially raucous Lakeside show, or as a harbinger of possibly worse things to come, this was something people will be at least thinking about for a long time.

They opened with Girl That I Ain’t Got, a twangy country-rock number from Ambel’s cult classic solo debut, Roscoe’s Gang, and closed with Cinderella, an obscure riff-rocking R&B song from Lakeside’s famous jukebox. Was it deliberate when Ambel’s wife Mary Lee Kortes, singing a rampaging version of Tangled Up in Blue (which also appears on her iconic 2002 live recording of Blood on the Tracks), gave special ferocity to “all the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now?” Who knows. Ambel did make a point of giving shout-outs to Lakeside regulars now gone, notably Ff bandleader Tom Price and multi-instrumentalist genius Drew Glackin, who, “If he would have lived, would have played more gigs here than anybody.”

Guitarist Mark Spencer, originally with the Blood Oranges, added some seriously searing rock leads on a couple of tracks. Lenny Kaye memorialized the place as “a place for musicians, and people who like to hang around them,” then led the band (with Ambel moved behind the drumkit, replaced on guitar by Demolition String Band’s Boo Reiners) through “the national anthem of rock n roll,” Gloria, with an interlude where he imagined the girl lifting her shirt in Lakeside’s photo booth for the benefit of Ambel and co-owner/jukebox archivist Jim Marshall, a.k.a. The Hound. John Mellencamp lead guitarist Andy York also beat a path through the crowd from the bar to the stage several times, notably for an absolutely luscious cover of Raw Power where he switched to bass and played wave after wave of Ron Asheton melody.

The New Heathens’ Nate Schweber sang Thousand Dollar Car, by the Bottle Rockets (who’d played the opening night party here on April 10, 1996 if memory serves right). Robinson delivered a subdued, pensive one from his Mylow album [memo to self - must dig that one out again] that picked up with one of an endless series of growling, sideswiping Ambel solos. Spanking Charlene’s Charlene McPherson took centerstage for a volcanic take on I Wanna Be Your Dog. And was that Schweber singing the night’s most brooding, downcast song, Dylan’s I and I? That’s the problem of not having any video to go with the audio, 24 hours later.

With Ambel out front, they blasted through familiar favorites like Garbagehead – written in five minutes for a particularly high-energy New Year’s Eve show – as well as blistering versions of the angry, overdriven, Beatlesque Song for the Walls along with Ambel’s inimitable version of Swamp Dogg’s Total Destruction to Your Mind. But this wasn’t just the hits. Ambel’s shows here with his trio have always been a party, part live rehearsal, part focus group for new material, and as usual he brought some of that, including a particularly hard-hitting, riff-rocking new collaboration with Kasey Anderson. The band had never played the Kinks’ Where I Belong – the anthem that Ambel had picked out specially for the night – but they made it through that one without embarrassing themselves thanks to Ambel somehow managing to play lead guitar and simultaneously signal chord changes via sign language (musicians understand those things). A Mississippi mandolinist named Jimbo, who’s currently recording with Ambel, joined the band for a killer honkytonk song about homeless people on the streets of Hollywood who should be diamonds rather than lumps of coal. As the set went on, Ambel called up Alex Feldesman, the club’s tireless soundman and gave him a guitar in appreciation for his years of service. “Now I have to learn to play the thing,” deadpanned Alex (he was being sarcastic, as usual – maybe this is what he needed to get a new band going).

Whoever ends up taking over the Lakeside space, you can be damn sure they won’t be handing out guitars to loyal members of the staff. Nor is it likely that they’ll be there sixteen years like Lakeside was. Back in 1995, a friend may have responded to Ambel’s news that he was the proud owner of a New York State liquor license by telling him, “That’s like giving a monkey a gun.” That comment would later become a song title; going on twenty years later, the guy would have to eat his words. By the time the show was over, the line to the bar was five deep and growing and at this point, at least from a blogger’s perspective, there was no reason to stay: anything that anyone might have said or drunk at that point is strictly personal business. Thanks for the memories, Lakeside Lounge.

By the way, if anybody has video, please don’t keep it to yourself and hide it on Facebook where nobody can see it: put it up on youtube, or on your blog, and send a link over here!

Thanks for the Memories, Lakeside Lounge

Lakeside Lounge has been sold and will be closing at the end of April. After just over fifteen years in business, the bar that defined oldschool East Village cool will be replaced by a gentrifier whiskey joint, no doubt with $19 artisanal cocktails and hedge fund nebbishes trying to pick up on sorostitutes when their boyfriends are puking in the bathroom – or out of it.

Lakeside opened in 1996 [thanks for the correction, everybody] in the space just north of the former Life Cafe on Ave. B north of 10th Street in the single-story building between tenements that had previously housed a Jamaican fried chicken takeout restaurant. It was an instant hit. Owners Jim Marshall (a.k.a. The Hound, an astute and encyclopedic blues and soul-ologist with a great blog) and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (of the Del-Lords, and eventually lead guitarist in Steve Earle’s band) had a game plan: create a space that nurtures artists rather than exploiting them as so many venues do. And they stuck to that plan. Before long, Lakeside had become a mecca for good music. For several years, there was literally a good band here just about every night with the exception of the few holidays when the bar was closed. Artists far too popular for the back room would play here just for the fun of it: Earle, Rudy Ray Moore, Graham Parker, John Sinclair, the Sadies, Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby all had gigs here, some of them more than once. Dee Dee Ramone hung out here and eventually did a book signing on the little stage in the back, with people lined up around the block. Steve Wynn had a weekly residency here for a bit (which was amazing). The place helped launch the careers of countless Americana-ish acts including Laura Cantrell, Amy Allison, Mary Lee’s Corvette, Megan Reilly, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys, Tammy Faye Starlite and Spanking Charlene and sustained countless others through good times and bad. And as much as most of the bands played some kind of twangy rock, booking here was actually very eclectic: chanteuses Erica Smith and Jenifer Jackson, indie pop mastermind Ward White, punk rockers Ff and several surf bands from Laika & the Cosmonauts to the Sea Devils all played here.

As the toxic waves of gentrification pushed deeper into the East Village, Lakeside never changed. You could still get a $3 Pabst, or a very stiff well drink for twice that. Their half-price happy hour lasted til 8 PM. The jukebox was expensive (two plays for a buck) but was loaded with obscure R&B, blues and country treasures from the 40s through the 60s. Countless bands used their black-and-white photo booth for album cover shots. Their bar staff had personalities: rather than constantly texting or checking their Facebook pages, they’d talk to you. And they’d become your friends if you hung out and got to know them. Some were sweet, some had a mean streak, but it seemed that there was a rule that to work at Lakeside, you had to be smart, and you had to be cool.

But times changed. To a generation of pampered, status-grubbing white invaders from the suburbs, Lakeside made no sense. The place wasn’t kitschy because its owners were genuinely committed to it, and to the musicians who played there. It had no status appeal because it was cheap, dingy and roughhewn, and Ambel refused to book trendy bands. Had they renovated, put in sconces and ash-blonde paneling, laid some tile on the concrete floor, kicked out the bands and brought in “celebrity DJ’s” and started serving $19 artisanal cocktails, they might have survived. But that would have been suicide. It wouldn’t have been Lakeside anymore.

There won’t be any closing party, but the bands on the club calendar will be playing their scheduled shows. Ambel plays the final show at 9 on the 30th. Before then, stop in and say goodbye to a quintessential New York treasure.

Spanking Charlene Kicks Ass

Spanking Charlene are sort of a New York counterpart to X: for punk rock, they’re very diverse musically. Substitute a distinctively New York snarl for the LA band’s DIY gutter-poetry vibe, bring the vocals up a lot higher and put producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel in the Ray Manzarek role and you get an idea of what they sound like. Like X (at least in the old days), they’re fronted by a couple, Charlene McPherson on vocals and Mo Goldner on guitar. Like Exene, McPherson takes an unapologetic feminist-hedonist stance, deploring the kind of shit women let guys get away with (and on the gentlest song here, My Girl, offering a warm shoulder for any woman with the nerve to stick up for herself). But where Exene is a distinctive singer, McPherson is a phenomenal one: an outraged, wounded wail like hers only comes around every few years. And the band can be very funny, and pretty amazing live. Besides producing their latest album Where Are the Freaks, Ambel plays a Fifth Beatle role, adding his trademark surreal wit with both lead guitar and piano.

The best songs here are the angry ones. You Suck is just plain great: as the band runs the riff from Pil’s This Is Not a Love Song, McPherson cuts loose on a guy who’s an emotional leech – and is she singing “fill me up” or “feel me up?” Stupid Me is even more intense – and as good as the vocals are here, McPherson always turns this into a showstopper onstage. And as much as she’s berating herself for falling for some loser, it’s the loser she fell for who’s even stupider. Tie Me Up sarcastically juxtaposes everything a girl wants – the flowers, a guy who takes care of her every need and more – with a crushing chorus:

Tie me up
Make me beg,
Pin my hands against the bed
Bite my lip
Taste my sweat
Tell me it’s not ready yet

Then there’s the title track, an exasperated shout out to anybody with a sense of fun who might have survived the blitzkrieg of gentrification that’s destroyed so much of New York (and major cities around the world). Stuck at a lame yuppie party and feeling sullen, McPherson longs for the kind of people who used to make neighborhoods like the East Village so much fun before they were driven out by the heirloom artisanal lardons-and-nori martini crowd.

The rest of the album covers a lot of ground. The opening cut, Secrets, lumbers along with some AC/DC style riffage, while Rev It Up goes into punkabilly, Cry Baby works a slow, Stoogey wah guitar feel and Booze and Pills – which really nails that particular vibe – is the closest thing to X here. There’s also the sarcastic The Other Girl and I Like You As a Friend, a woman’s perspective on the one line that every guy dreads most. The final two tracks here were originally released as singles on Little Steven Van Zandt’s label: a beefed-up version of Dismissed with a Kiss (the title track from their 2007 debut) and the edgy Canarsie, a catchy, Stonesy look at the band’s love-hate relationship with the distant Brooklyn neighborhood that McPherson and Goldner call home. What else is there to say – great band, great album, a lock for one of 2012’s best. We need more smart, assaultively fun, funny records like this, with raw but rich production values all the way through and solid playing from the rhythm section which includes Alison Jones on bass and either Eric Seftel or Phil Cimino on drums. Spanking Charlene’s home base is Lakeside Lounge, where they’ll be on Feb 18 at 11.

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