More artists should make live albums, and it’s a good thing that Kelli Rae Powell’s latest one is a concert recording. Immortalizing her show in the late winter of 2012 at the Jalopy – Powell’s and every other New Yorker’s favorite oldtime Americana hangout – it’s the devious, ukulele-wielding firecracker singer and retro songwriter at the top of her game. Interestingly, the tracks don’t follow the sequence of songs in the set, at least the second set, from which at least some of these numbers were taken (trying to guess which ones is part of the fun – the place was sold out, but if you weren’t there, you missed a hell of a show). It was fun seeing how much pure sonics could be generated by a simple lineup of Powell on either uke or acoustic guitar, plus her purist bassist husband Jim McNamara, M Shanghai String Band harmonica sorcerer Shaky Dave Pollack, and Matthew Brookshire guesting on vocals on a couple of tracks.
The album, understatedly but meticulously produced by Terry Radigan, opens with Grace, a steadfast tribute to a cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking Iowa lady: Powell keeps one of those traditions very much alive. The track titled Summertime here is not the jazz standard but a happily dizzy original, Powell’s narrator stunned and smitten and unselfconsciously touched to find that not everything in the world is grim and dreary. Powell keeps the opiated, dreamy mood going with Sweet Dorina, a “drinkaby” (cross between a drinking song and a lullaby) dedicated to her longtime Jalopy bartendress pal.
The hokum blues-inspired Give Me a Man works on many levels, mostly as a sideways tribute to an honest guy with rocks in his mouth who may not be the world’s biggest charmer, but at least he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em. Selfish as Fire, a duet with Brookshire, works a ferocious booze-drenched atmosphere much in the same vein as the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. The band brings it down with the subdued but seductive December and then a tribute to Powell’s Iowa home, The Flood, a wryly aphoristic, pensive ballad.
Piece of You is the last of the sweet ones: from here on, the album grows fangs and won’t let go. The Cowboy Song, a big audience hit, sways along defiantly: the girl in the bar won’t settle for not being taken seriously, and the jokes have as much snarl and bite as chuckles. Bury Me in Iowa City, another pretty somber midwestern nocturne, is followed by Grateful, which seems like a semi-former hellraiser trying to come to terms with her checkered past and possibly less checkered future with mixed results.
The band takes it all the way up at the end. The studio version of Midnight Sleeper Train is the drinkaby to end all drinkabys, but this one is more aggressive and plays up the underlying unease of a woman hellbent on putting a lot of space between her and some bigtime disappointment. Likewise, the album version of Don’t Slow Down, Zachary is all harrowing undercurrent, a band-on-the-road narrative that the girl in the story never wants to see end because she can’t bear to go back to the unnameable place she ostensibly calls home. Here, Powell works the double entendres and puns, and the crowd loves it. She and the band end it with Some Bridges Are Good to Burn, which ends her previous studio album New Words for Old Lullabies on a smoldering note; here, she wrings out every ounce of vengefulness and sings the hell out of it. Powell’s next show is on Sept 21 at 9ish at the Jalopy, of course, opening for Lara Ewen.