New York Music Daily

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Tag: honkytonk music

The Sweetback Sisters Beat the Heat

“You people are the tough New Yorkers, coming out in this hundred degree heat,” the Sweetback Sisters’ Emily Miller told the crowd at Madison Square Park yesterday. She was right – sort of. For a lot of New Yorkers, being in Manhattan on the Fourth of July is weird, but a whole lot of people were out and working. This year’s Fourth falling in midweek meant that a whole lot of retail was open and hoping to lure the small percentage of tourists who’d ventured out of their airconditioned rooms. The only places that weren’t open seemed to be the dollar pizza places, which are obviously rolling in dough and can well afford to lose a sleepy holiday’s worth of traffic. And while the crowd watching the Sweetback Sisters was pretty heatstruck, the half-Brooklyn, half-West Virginia band shook it off and turned in a typically gorgeous, soaring show.

The band’s frontwomen, Miller – who switched between fiddle and guitar – and Zara Bode, who played both guitar and tenor banjo – model themselves on popular 50s act the Davis Sisters (the group that springboarded the career of the legendary Skeeter Davis), putting an energetic, purist update on oldschool honkytonk and pre-rockabilly sounds. The two women have very similar voices, harmonizing and trading lines throughout the show to the point where it was hard to tell who was singing what if you weren’t paying close attention. Miller has a crystalline Laura Cantrell clarity; Bode’s voice is a little lower-pitched, sometimes growly and seductive. Jesse Milnes, the band’s main songwriter, took most of the solos on fiddle, switching to guitar on a couple of tunes, alongside Peter Bitenc on bass, Stefan Amidon on drums and the latest edition to the band, the amazing Ryan Hommel on electric guitar. They opened with Texas Bluebonnets, the irrestistible western swing-flavored opening track on their latest album Looking for a Fight and followed with Thank You, a swaying kiss-off song with a nice, trad guitar solo from Hommel and then a straight-up version of Patsy Cline’s Honey Do. Those songs were great: purist, soulful, fun to hear, but they gave no indication of the fireworks in store. Those started with the briskly shuffling Walking in My Sleep, where Hommel took his first opportunity to fire off an unreal, wild, psychedelic solo, half Radio Birdman, half bluegrass. Later on he would take more of those, most exhilaratingly on a couple of new tunes, the energetic, bluegrass-infused Trouble’s Gonna Get You – where Bode went into totally sultry mode, a cruel thing to do on such a hot day – and the lickety-split, aphoristic, Buck Owens-flavored I’ll Cry Cry Cry, where Amidon traded off with the women in his sly, tongue-in-cheek baritone.

Not everything was that fast and ferocious. Two of the afternoon’s best songs were a casually stinging, beautifully harmonized version of Jimmy Martin’s Don’t Cry to Me, and a new one, The King of Killing Time, Hommel taking it up out of sad, slow, honkytonk into psychedelic rock and handing it off to Milnes, who took it back to Nashville circa 1955. There were other bands on the bill, including the popular, oldtimey Spuyten Duyvil, and the prospect of sticking around for them would have been a lot more tempting if the shadows had stayed where they were as the scorching sun crossed the sky.

Gorgeous Jangle and Clang from Chris Erikson

Chris Erikson is oldschool. He’s a newspaperman, covering many beats at the New York Post. He’s also a brilliant guitarist (which is kind of oldschool these days as well) who’s been in demand in the New York scene for a long time, backing such A-list talents as Matt Keating and Florence Dore. Yet he’s not your typically guitarslinger: there are maybe six parts on his new album Lost Track of the Time that you could conceivably call solos. Two of them open and close the album on a boisterous Bakersfield country note, the first a jaunty Buck Owens-like run using the low registers almost like a baritone guitar, the second a high-strung boogie passage in a very cleverly composed mystery story titled The Worst Thing That Ever Happened. Otherwise, Erikson plays chords, elegant riffs and pieces of both, sometimes picking them with his fingers like Keith Richards, sometimes evoking twangmeisters from Duane Eddy to Steve Earle (who’s obviously a big influence here), or even 80s paisley underground legends True West. He’s that interesting, and that tasteful: he always leaves you wanting more.

But there are plenty of good players out there. What elevates this album above your typical Twangville tuneage is the songwriting. Erikson writes allusively, his sharp, frequently bitter, pensive lyrics leaving just enough detail for the listener to fill in the blanks. His changes are catchy and anthemic, driven by a purist melodic sensibility and a love of subtle shifts in tone, touch and attack. Along with the dynamics – something you don’t often see in music like this – there’s also a lot of implied melody. Erikson also happens to be an excellent singer. On the angriest or craziest stuff here, his voice takes on a Paul Westerberg-style rasp; otherwise, his drawl shifts between pensive and sardonic, depending on the lyrics. Again, Steve Earle comes to mind. As you would expect, Erikson’s band the Wayward Puritans is first-rate, with Jason Mercer on bass, Will Rigby on drums plus frequent contributions from Keating on keyboards along with Jay Sherman-Godfrey on guitars, with Bob Hoffnar and Jonathan Gregg on pedal steel, Kill Henry Sugar’s Erik Della Pena on lapsteel, Hem’s Mark Brotter and Gary Maurer (who produced) on drums and acoustic guitar, respectively.

The best song on the album, and the one instant classic here is Ear to the Ground. It starts with a richly clanging, intricate series of chords that are going to have everyone reaching for their six-string: it’s that gorgeous.Those changes come around again a couple of times but Erikson makes you wait for them. It’s a bitter kiss-off song, but a very subtle one: until the end, the story is what doesn’t happen. Erikson does the same on another first-rate backbeat rock track a little later on, The Subject Came Up, an elephant-in-the-room scenario where “by the next morning a chalk outline was all that remained” of what ultimately turned out to be a dealbreaker. The most sarcastic song here, a big 6/8 country anthem titled Guilty, has its obviously wrongfully accused narrator asking for the court to “just read me my rights and I’ll sign on the line” over a rich backdrop of mandolin and dobro.

The funniest songs on the album are both country tunes: the first a honkytonk number about a freeloading girlfriend, lit up by some juicy piano from Keating. The other is When I Write My Memoir, another kiss-off song, but with an unexpected punchline, not the first thing you’d think of from a writer dreaming of seeing his autobio top the charts at amazon. Was That Me sets a tongue-in-cheek, disingenuous lyric to blistering highway rock. There’s also the long, aphoristically unwinding rock anthem On My Way and a couple of pensive, brooding acoustic numbers, In the Station and When It Comes Down, the latter with soaring steel from Hoffnar and a welcome return to the recording studio by Dore, who supplies equally soaring harmony vocals. Count this among the best albums to make it over the transom here this year.

Chris Erikson and the Wayward Puritans, like a lot of New York’s best bands, made Lakeside Lounge their home. Now that Lakeside’s days are numbered (April 30 is the last big blowout there), let’s hope they find another sometime soon.

The Sweetback Sisters’ Kick-Ass Oldschool C&W

How do you describe a country record? If it’s good, it’s usually got a backbeat, and twangy vocals, and tasty instrumentation. Check out that sweet pedal steel! Oooh, here’s a funny song about getting drunk…and a sad one about getting dumped. Then there’s the dark side of country. As Stephen King will tell you, rural areas are scary, and some country music is terrifying. The Sweetback Sisters’ album Looking for a Fight isn’t one of those albums: it’s a fun one, with the exception of a couple of real haunters. What makes it different from the rest?

For one, this band knows their roots. The songs start out sounding about 1953 and go about as far as ten years later, beginning around the time country bands started using electric guitars and taking it up to the Bakersfield era, which employed electric bass and drums along with the Telecasters. They romp through vintage honkytonk, western swing and Tex-Mex with equal expertise. They get their signature sound from the badass vocals of Emily Miller and Zara Bode, who blend voices like the long lost twin granddaughters of Rose Maddox. The obvious comparison, New York-wise, is Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. with their period-perfect instrumentation and arrangements, but the Sweetback Sisters aren’t satirical, even if they sometimes get in your face. And yet they’re not totally retro either: the bad-girl personas aren’t just a cliche out of the rockabilly fakebook. The songs here are some of the most enjoyable ones to come out of this town in a long time.

As much fun as this band is, the two best songs here are slow, dark 6/8 ballads. Home, with its hushed vocals and Ross Bellenoit’s echoey, opiated tremolo guitar, paints a shadowy picture of clinical depression: “The voids start to fill…a wilted spread on the bed, and the thoughts fill your head, a little corpse on a hook.” Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Here There quietly but ferociously takes down a guy who’s cruel enough to rip a girl’s confidence to shreds and then turns on her for being insecure. The only other sad song here is The Heart of My Mind, a poignant, heartbroken waltz.

The rest of the album is irrepressibly upbeat. The opening track, Love Me Honey, Do is a bouncy Tex-Mex tune that goes up, and up, and up some more. A Bill Monroe style western swing song, Texas Bluebonnets takes a wistful theme and builds it to a chorus that just won’t quit. The first of the honkytonk numbers, It Won’t Hurt When I Fall Down from This Barstool is one of those songs that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing that this band did it instead of somebody else. The band blends a little vintage 60s soul into the mix on the title track, then goes for the jugular on Run Home and Cry, about a whiny guy who has the nerve to cheat (memo to the Sisters: whiny guys always cheat, because they’re self-centered).

The only straight-up love song here, The Mystery of You sets dreamy pedal steel over a skipping, staccato groove; then they go back to the honkytonk with a mid-50s style kissoff song, Thank You, lit up by Jesse Milnes’ fiddle, and twinkling piano way back in the mix. Rattled reaches for a coy but sultry Rosie Flores-style guitar-fueled rockabilly vibe, while Too Many Experts, a lickety-split bluegrass tune, is just plain hilarious, making fun of belligerent macho yahoos with its torrents of lyrics. “If a policeman should appear, ‘I only served them beer, yeah, one or two apiece I’m pretty sure,'” grins the bartender as he watches the melee unfold. The album winds up with a brief, early 50s style cowboy harmony number featuring drummer Stefan Amidon’s deadpan bass vocals. The band is currently on tour with Eilen Jewell, with several appearances at South by Southwest and then a Brooklyn show at the Jalopy on April 8.

Sweet Oldschool Country from Caleb Klauder

Here’s one from last year that slipped under the radar, at least in the Northeast, but it’s worth spreading the word about. Caleb Klauder’s Worn Out Shoes sounds like the Dixie Bee-Liners doing classic honkytonk, a midtempo shuffle with a sweet mandolin solo and good guitar – and it sounds totally live. Download it here.

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