An Intimate Tour of NYC with Sam Llanas
Sam Llanas has been in town the past week, supplying the music for playwright Doug Vincent’s harrowing, suicide-themed performance piece, A Day For Grace. In between those gigs, Llanas has been playing a series of intimate club dates. He’s at Iridium on Monday the 17th at 8 PM, singing classics with Les Paul’s trio plus veteran jazz guitar stars Bucky Pizzarelli and Gene Bertoncini. For those who always thought Llanas had the chops to go further than the Americana rock he made a name for himself in, this should be a revealing and rewarding evening.
It’s interesting how the co-founder of Waukesha, Wisconsin’s legendary roots rockers the BoDeans has done some of his most memorable work outside that band. His 1998 Absinthe project, with original BoDeans drummer Guy Hoffman and the Shivvers’ Jim Eanelli, among others, ranks as one of the most powerful dark rock records ever made. Many of those songs appear in abbreviated versions in A Day for Grace, so it’s no surprise that he left that material out of shows this past Tuesday at Zirzamin and Wednesday at Rockwood Music Hall. Playing acoustic guitar and backed by the terse beats of Ryan Schiedermayer on cajon (and the Dog Show’s Jerome O’Brien guesting on bass at Zirzamin), Llanas took his time with a diverse mix of new and rare solo material as well as a handful of BoDeans crowd-pleasers. And even those he reinvented. Zirzamin was the fun set, with the singalong Still the Night done as a swaying, hypnotic nocturne in the style of the tracks on Llanas’ deliciously atmospheric solo album, 4 AM. At the end of the set, Llanas launched into All Along the Watchtower, and then a medley of songs using that same three-chord progression that began with Don’t Fear the Reaper and then went further and further into cheese, with the Violent Femmes and then Tom Petty and at that point everyone including the band was cracking up. In between there was a lot of new or unreleased material: a wickedly catchy reggae tune straight out of late-period Bob Marley; a suspensefully bouncy singalong about a vet returned from Afghanistan; the haunting, elegaic To Where You Go; and the title track from the solo album, about the kind of headspace that’s “surely beautiful, but ice is cold.”
The Rockwood show was more intense, Llanas’ baritone imploring and brooding and occasionally evoking the sly, rakish persona that fueled much of the BoDeans’ more upbeat catalog. He moved through the shadows with the morose All the Blues (from his next-to-last release with the BoDeans, Mr. Sad Clown), then the practically breathless desperation of Down at the Wishing Well and then the rich noir ambience of Shyne, one of the standout tracks on the solo album. After a wryly casual take of the big BoDeans concert hit Something’s Telling Me, he went back to the dark stuff for Dangerous Love, a swaying, bolero-tinged anthem, picked up the pace with the big radio hit Closer to Free and then took it down again for an audience request, 617 (from the 2004 album Resolution), a chilling portrait of alienation and isolation. “They say that time will heal everything – I don’t know if that’s true, down on Third Avenue,” Llanas crooned ominously. He and Schiedermayer wrapped up the set with a particularly intense, vengeful take of the solo album’s catchiest track, Cherry-O, kept the aching intensity going with 4 AM and Two Souls, ending with fiery singalongs of Feed the Fire and Still the Night. With just an acoustic guitar and a simple beat, Llanas brought the energy up to stadium level and made it look easy.