“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.