New Country Rehab Make Themselves Heard at Hill Country

by delarue

Hill Country on 26th Street is sort of the Manhattan version of Radegast Hall, if you switch out the beer and brats for barbecue. The roar of the tourists there is usually pretty much the same, which is a pity since the owners of both establishments have great taste in music: hot jazz and the occasional Balkan band in Williamsburg, country and Americana roots in the Flatiron District. But tonight at Hill Country was a pleasant surprise, especially considering that New Country Rehab were playing songs from their excellent new album Ghost of Your Charms there. And that’s where the two venues differ: for the Williamsburg/Bushwick tourist and permanent-tourist classes, every day is Saturday. In Manhattan, apparently, the tourists stay put on Sundays. So the Toronto band didn’t have to compete with screaming rugrats and their parents.

Frontman/violinist John Showman intimated between songs that they’re pretty adventurous when it comes to booking themselves into venues across the continent. A recent gig at an Idaho biker bar, he explained, began when he went to the bar and the bartender pulled a seven-inch knife on him. The bar had only two taps. “Which beer do you like more?” the knife-wielding bartender asked him. Showman, being Canadian and diplomatic, replied, “I like ’em both.” The bartender then put down the knife and poured Showman a beer from each tap – for free. The conversation then continued – presumably sans knife – as the bartender first regaled Showman with tales of his love of violence, ending by taking off several articles of clothing, finishing by suggesting that Showman feel his “six inches of scar tissue.” After the gig, Showman went to the club manager to collect his pay. Wondering what was up with the knife and the scar tissue, etc., he asked the manager about the guy. “Aw, you shouldn’t listen to my father,” the manager laughed. So Showman got a couple of free beers, something for playing, and also a song out of the night.

That song was Lizzy Dying of a Broken Heart, a surreal tale about a – you guessed it – frustrated former army instructor slowly losing it as a venue owner. It’s a story so surreal that it hardly seems possible it could be based in fact – except that it is. In concert, this time out the band played up their rock side more than their country roots, bassist Ben Whiteley and drummer Roman Tome hitting a laid-back Grateful Dead groove early on before doing a Hank Williams number in 5/4 time – and it worked. It was interesting watching guitarist Anthony DaCosta play rock, considering that he’s best known for his flashy bluegrass and country chops. But he turned out to be good at it, and a lot noisier than anticipated, going back to his amp with his hollowbody for the occasional acidic wash of feedback. Showman’s purist, terse licks – including a couple of brief duels with the guitar – fit the music, although he surprised the crowd (or at least somebody in the crowd) when he’d take the fiddle off his shoulder and play it standing up, like a Middle Eastern kamancheh or similar instrument. The best song of the night was Rollin’, a slightly subdued, understatedly venomous southwestern gothic stroll; the most upbeat was a lively love song whose message was “please don’t die.” The persistent darknesss in Showman’s songs is just one of the things that differentiates this band from the legions of hillbillies drinking from the well of four hundred years of Americana.