Kelli Rae Powell Records a Killer Live Album at the Jalopy
“Welcome to the Jalopy, the best venue in the world,” Kelli Rae Powell announced to the crowd gathered in the old church pews under the low lights to watch her make a live album there Friday night. Let’s hope that makes it onto the record, because the venue deserves it. Powell writes and sings in a million deviously lyrical oldtime idioms as well as ones she’s invented, notably the drinkaby, a hybrid lullaby/drinking song. While, as usual, she got into character and locked into the songs, cutting loose with a wail or a whisper that blended a coy whiskey glow with sharp bluesy edges, in between she let her guard down, and at that point the characters and the persona fell away and she was just Kelli Powell, Brooklyn music therapist, hell-bent on getting a good record out of the night and visibly tense about it. That’s a side she doesn’t show very often – and she made it work.
When the songs started, she was on her game – this will be a good record. The band – Jim McNamara on upright bass, Joe Brent alternating between mandolin and fiddle and M Shanghai String Band’s Shaky Dave Pollack on harmonica – got into a groove and stayed there, and producer Terry Radigan had brought a crew of engineers who managed to keep everything in place without being obtrusive. The songs were an unexpected mix of biting and sweet. The first drinkaby of the night was the irresistibly hazy Sweet Dorina, Powell’s “love song to the Jalopy.” “It takes me twelve hours by bus and by train, still I come again and again and again,” its blissed-out barfly narrator explains, just wanting to be near her favorite bartendress and hear all her stories.
The ballad Suddenly It’s Summertime had a similar and unexpectedly blissed-out vibe, from both the point of view of the audience and and the woman in the song who finds herself swept off her feet: it’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Cole Porter songbook. A love song whose eureka moment came true at the corner of Orchard and Rivington echoed that feeling, along with a warmly and soberly elegaic number about a woman who loved her Camels just as much as Jesus. But it was the “snarky” stuff, as Powell put it, that the crowd went wild for. She switched from her trusty ukulele to guitar for a venomously dramatic, Irish-flavored duet with singer Matthew Brookshire that reached toward the same lurching booze-fueled desperation as the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. She pulled out all the stops on a lurid, torchy version of The Cowboy Song, a wise, knowing anthem for hedonistic women everywhere, pulsing along on McNamara’s snakily uncoiling basslines.
As the night wore on, Powell would clench her fist in a triumphant stick-shifting “YESSSS” after pretty much every song, and the band was with her: they knew they were nailing them, one by one. They saved the best songs for last, reveling in the Southern Comfort glimmer of Midnight Sleeper Train (the drinkaby to end all drinkabys), then an inspired, extemporaneous, haggardly triumphant version of Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, a bitter chronicle of an endless summer tour that was more of an excuse to be away from a spirit-crushing home life than any kind of forward-looking career move. They encored with a triumphant audience singalong, the vengeful Some Bridges Are Good To Burn, the final track on Powell’s wickedly good New Words for Old Lullabies album from a couple of years ago, the most deliciously biting moment out of many. It’s a kiss-off song, and Powell took it to its logical extreme by changing narrators, giving the punchline to Brookshire to sing instead. “Maybe at my death,” he crooned, meaning the point where the song’s estranged couple might be able to be friends. By this point, both Pollack and Brent, who’d both been playing with a hushed, suspenseful nuance, finally got to cut loose and made the most of it. Outside the bar, the rain was coming down hard, and although midnight was approaching nobody seemed to be in a hurry to leave.