A Killer Americana Doublebill to End the Season at Madison Square Park

by delarue

This year’s outdoor concert series at Madison Square Park closed with a bang on Saturday afternoon with Carrie Elkin & Her Greats followed by the Black Lillies, who are a huge draw on the festival and jamband circuits and deserve to be much better known here than they are. The Ohio-bred, Texas-based Elkin opened, her Greats this time consisting of a solid upright bassist (who wasn’t amped very high in the mix) and the increasingly ubiquitous Anthony DaCosta on lead guitar. Damn, that guy can play. He’d just bought a new pedal, Elkin told the crowd, and he used it a lot, firing off acidic sheets of reverb-drenched noise like sleet on an icy highway. It was an unlikely choice of sound for a guy backing a woman whose songs tend to be quiet and pensive, but it brought the energy through the roof when he used it.

Elkin likes waltzes and used that tempo a lot. Her lyrics often reference or allude to doomed gospel imagery, or the fear of some kind of divine or karmic payback, and not the good kind. Her vocals are unaffected, sometimes raw, and down to earth. The set list was a mix of styles: a steady, motoring Chuck Berry-ish shuffle that Elkin turned into a mashup with Mockingbird, the old folk lullaby; a bouncy honkytonk-flavored number; and as a closer, a fiery, anguished, vengeful cover of Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Others have sung this as an endless catalog, not Elkin: she took every line separately, from hushed and suspenseful to wounded and raging, depending on what they meant, and this was a knockout, a hard act to follow.

But the Black Lillies were up to the challenge. Part oldschool C&W act, part retro 70s hippie band, part incredibly tight jamband, there’s no one who sounds quite like them. Lead player Tom Pryor stole the show, whether supplying keening, blue-sky washes and swirls on pedal steel, lickety-split classic country leads or sabretoothed minor-key blues guitar. They opened with a handful of oldtime hillbilly boogies, like a less punk take on what bands like Knoxville Girls were doing back in the late 90s/early zeros. They marched and then galloped their way through a couple of electric bluegrass ballads, then hit a shuffling, soaring minor-key Grateful Dead-style groove: their best songs evoked that band’s tightest, most energetic early 80s peak (some Dead fans will dispute that asssessment).

Singer/guitarist/percussionist Trisha Gene Brady bravely sang a Hazel Dickens song a-cappella and did justice to its author, an oldtime country music icon, someone Brady has drawn a lot of inspiration from. Frontman Cruz Contreras switched effortlessly between guitar and echoey electric piano, making it seem perfectly natural when they segued from a vintage country sway to a slinky, hypnotic latin soul groove. Contreras’ easygoing twang contrasted with Brady’s soaring, vivid, heartfelt harmonies; bassist Rob Richards played endlessly shifting, smart variations on simple bass riffs, teaming up with drummer Jamie Cook’s swinging four-on-the-floor beat. They followed a briskly steel-driven murder ballad with a funk-infused take on old Appalachian folk, then Brady led the band through a moody, psychedelic version of the old blues Nobody’s Fault But Mine. They turned the old blues Ruby Loves That Sweet Cocaine into an epic that went halfspeed and then doublespeed at the end, following with a minor-key duet between Contreras and Brady that put a teens update on a Creedence-style swamp-rock groove. They wound up the show with a snippet of the O’Jays’ Love Train, maybe nicking an idea out of the Yayhoos playbook. This park has hosted a lot of first-class acts over the years: Sharon Jones, Bettye LaVette, Laura Cantrell and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears among others. Watch this space next year for more if we get that far.