New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: August, 2014

Drina Seay Sings Haunting and Happy Americana at 2A

Drina Seay is one of the best-kept secrets in the New York Americana scene. Revered by her peers, she earned a reputation as a go-to harmony singer and then all of a sudden was fronting a killer band with a more-or-less regular residency at Lakeside Lounge. With Lakeside gone and Rodeo Bar out of the music business, she’s been without a home base, but she’s kept at it. She and the band – Homeboy Steve Antonakos on lead guitar, Monica “L’il Mo” Passin on bass and Eric Seftel on drums – were at the top of their game upstairs at 2A this past weekend, playing a characteristically rich mix of noir 60s rock, luridly torchy ballads, some janglerock and a little oldschool C&W.

The high point of the show was the slowest song, Chase My Blues Away. It’s a real showstopper, and Seay pulled out all the stops, beginning with just her own solo vocal-and-guitar intro before the drums came in, slow and dirgey. This time the song was more about the blues than chasing them away, at least until Antonakos did that midway through with a thrashing,  jaggedly menacing solo.

Seay kept the darkly twangy songcraft going, through a relatively new, enigmatic breakup song, part southwestern gothic, party noir Vegas shuffle, lit up by Antonakos’ eerie tarantella leads. His steely minimalist fills paired off against Seay’s crystalline, wounded vocals on Waking Up Crying. Then he played blazing slide guitar on the menacingly bouncy kiss-off anthem All For You over Passin’s torchy Pink Panther-style walking bassline.

Seay told the crowd that she’d written the unselfconsciously gorgeous, lushly nocturnal, oldtimey-flavored I Couldn’t Have Dreamed You on her ukulele, so she capoed her guitar way up in order to play the sweetly coy central hook. The rest of the set was more upbeat: the Sugar Magnolia-tinged Watcha Gonna Do; a slinky, nocturnal, Creedence-ish swamp rock tune; and a couple of animated, garage rock-flavored Antonakos tunes. They closed by taking Delaney & Bonnie’s early 70s top 40 hit Never Ending Song of Love full circle, back to the country that those Brits only wish they knew well enough to really get it right the first time around. Seay’s next show is Sept 19 at 9 PM at the Way Station in Ft. Greene; Antonakos is at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights tonight with his 1920s style Greek gangsta blues band Dervisi.

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Diverse, Soulful, Sometimes Shattering Americana from the Sometime Boys

With their catchy tunes, purist country blues-flavored guitar and violin and jaunty acoustic grooves, you’d never guess that the Sometime Boys started out as a spinoff of noisy, ferociously intense art-rock band System Noise. Which goes to show just how versatile that band’s brain trust, singer/guitarist Sarah Mucho and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Kurt Leege can be. The Sometime Boys have a characteristically diverse, tuneful, smart new album Riverbed, streaming online, and a show coming up on August 28 at 9 PM at Bar Nine, 807 9th Ave. (53/54).

Summery, pastoral themes rub edges with funky rhythms, some folk noir, an instrumental and the album’s centerpiece, The Great Escape, a genuinely shattering song which might be a surprise to those unfamiliar with the Sometime Boys’ predecessor band. And it’s the best song any band has released so far this year. Mucho gets props and wins MAC cabaret awards for her gale-force, wounded contralto delivery and stratospheric, four-octave range, but she starts this one with practically a whisper as drummer Jay Cowit’s cymbals swoosh over Leege’s terse, warmly nocturnal acoustic work:

Wide awake
The night’s alive
I almost taste the black
This cold, it breeds
Bitter views
There’s no turning back
On the ground
Surrounded by
Expired fallen leaves
All now that’s left
Are crooked lines
Can’t flee the forest for the trees

Mucho hints at gospel and then picks up with a wail as the chorus kicks in, “Fade away, into me.” You don’t usually fade away with a wail but that’s what Mucho does here, then brings it down into the second and last verse, a bitter reflection on the lure of victory and the harsh reality of defeat. Leege’s elegantly virtuosic electric guitar and Pete O’Connell’s increasingly intense bass pick it up from there; it seems to end optimistically. It’s a long song, about five and a half minutes long: stream it, but don’t multitask when you do it because you really need to just let it wash over you and hit you upside the head. If you’ve ever faded away into yourself, scowling out at the lights in the distance and wishing you were there and not slaving away at some stupid dayjob – or whatever makes you scowl – this could be your theme song.

The folk noir shuffle The Bird House is another absolutely brilliant track. Rebecca Weiner Tompkins’ plaintive violin, which usually serves as the band’s main lead instrument, wanders forlornly as Mucho relates the eerie tale of a woman alone and abandoned and losing it. Leege takes it out with a spiky solo that mingles with Mucho’s graceful, haunting, hypnotic, wordless vocals.

Several of the tracks are updates on tunes by an even earlier Mucho/Leege incarnation, the delightfully funky, opaquely intriguing Noxes Pond. Much as Mucho’s writing tends toward the somber and serious, she has a devilish sense of humor, which comes front and center on Fake Dead Girlfriend. With a poker-faced calm over clustery, fingerpicked guitar and stately violin, Mucho explains that her family might think she’s nuts, but the world actually could use more people like her imaginary dead pal.

The rest of the album works a push-pull between a carefree, bucolic ambience and clenched-teeth angst. The album’s funkiest track, Modern Age, is an unlikely blend of soul-pop and Americana, Mucho insisting that “You can have my turn, I wanna watch it all burn.” The pensively sailing, bluegrass-tinged title track seems to be told from the point of view of a suicide. A Life Worth Living is more upbeat, hinting at a classic Grateful Dead theme, with a long, lusciously crescendoing multitracked electric guitar solo fom Leege. Irish Drinking Song isn’t the slightest bit Irish, but it’s a great drinking song, in a late-period Bukowski vein.

Pharaoh, another Noxes Pond song reinvented as newgrass, juxtaposes lithe, vintage Jerry Garcia-esque guitar with Mucho’s snarling, metaphorically bristling fire-and-brimstone imagery. There’s also the gracefully shapeshifting instrumental Wine Dark Sea; the comedic urban country number Why Can’t We Just Be Enemies; the balmy, sultry, gospel-tinged lullaby A Quiet Land; Buskin’, a tribute to performers in public spaces everywhere, and a brief instrumenal reprise at the end. The production is artful and pristine: all the layers of acoustic and electric textures build an ambience that on one hand sounds antique, yet absolutely unique and in the here and now. This band should be vastly better known than they are.

Getting Pickled with Vivian Li

It feels kind of weird to sit behind the drum kit, watching a concert – and not playing. But that was the only place left in a cozy recording studio packed with people who’d come to party, and it turned out to be the best seat in the house. It was hard to resist the urge to get at least a simple kick-and-hi-hat shuffle going to keep pace with the elegantly strolling bluegrass groove that Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers had launched into at GSI Studios, around the corner from FIT, Saturday night. But trying to play along would have been a mistake for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that Li loves odd meters, syncopation and unexpected, cinematic twists and turns. So much that it would have been impossible to keep up without one of the charts that the six band members were reading. That’s right, a bluegrass band reading charts.

Li has a flair for writing riffs and tunes so fresh and vibrant that they sound completely improvised. Adding to the spontaneous atmosphere the mandolinist and her inspired group – Zach Brock on violin, Ross Martin on guitar, Darren Ziller on flute, Nathan Koci on horn and accordion and Tom DiCarlo on bass – maintained throughout their roughly 45-minute set was that Li virtually never repeats herself. An endlessly lively torrent of catchy licks flew by in rapid succession: by the third song, the performance felt more like a suite, or a long, serpentine jam, than a series of individual songs. Outside of the root chords, no verse or chorus was ever remotely the same. And Li writes solos like she plays them, starting with an emphatic idea and ending with a sizzle. And she pairs off instruments: the mandolin and flute, or violin and horn, would banter and spar and intertwine, building toward a fullscale duel.

And as deeply as Li understands the idiom, her music isn’t idiomatic at all. Much as the idea of a bluegrass band with a flute and a horn might seem like a Dr. Seuss creation, she built a context where those unlikely voices sounded completely natural, with plenty of jazz and classical influence as well. Most of the material in the set was taken from the group’s debut album Growing in the Cracks (streaming at Bandcamp): Moth in a Dustpan, with its plaintive, imagistic intro and nebulous deep-space bridge; Trickster, with its stately baroque allusions; a kinetic, dancing number simply titled The Next Tune and the playfully wry closer, Lasagna Sky. They encored with a fiery blues, and the band was so amped from playing all of Li’s tunes that the one flat-out jam of the night was just as focused and purposeful as everything else on the bill. Much as Brock – who’s also a first-rate composer – is the obvious star of this band and got all the most electrifying solos, Li is generous with them: everyone in the band got plenty of time in the spotlight and made the most of it. Somewhere there’s a Hollywood film – a road movie, or a buddy movie, maybe – that’s screaming out for a score by Vivian Li.

And the opening solo set, acoustic bass guitarist Will Bollinger‘s first-ever New York show, was also fantastic. Although the music was completely different, frequently harsh and aggressive, he shares Li’s gift for writing themes that sound extemporaneous. His technique was spectacular, with pull-offs, harmonics, lots of rumbling chords and a little tapping, slapping his downtuned low string for a drone effect while fingerpicking the other three. Often he’d work a raga-like melody against a pedaled low note, or a simple low-register riff given extra resonance by having tuned both the low and high strings to the same note an octave apart. And as fast as he played, he didn’t waste notes, and he worked the dynamics all over the place, from the very bottom to the very top of the fretboard. There were times he’d come to a stop and leave a wash of overtones to linger, then return to the gritty attack, playing through a surprisingly small, trebly, overdriven amp. Anybody who plays bass needs to see this guy: you’ll walk away with all kinds of inspiration. Just for starters, try this tuning, D#-G#-C#-D#, with a tinge of distortion and the treble turned all the way up.

Changing Modes Bring Their Kinetic, Intense, Wickedly Tuneful Art-Rock to Spectrum

Art-rock band Changing Modes play some of the catchiest songs of any current New York band, plus they’re a lot of fun to watch. Part of that is because their musicianship is on such a high level, on par with a jazz or classical group. In the past, they’ve had as many as three keyboardists. The latest edition of the band has bandleader Wendy Griffiths sharing lead vocals with co-keyboardist Grace Pulliam while Yuzuru Sadashige switches between guitar and bass over drummer Timur Yusef’s undulating, shapeshifting groove. The album release for their new one, Traveling Light, at Bowery Electric last month was one of the best shows of the year. They’ve got another gig coming up at Spectrum, the sonically delicious, comfortable Ludlow Street space on August 23 at 9 PM for $15.

At the Bowery Electric gig, just when it seemed that Griffiths was going to be playing all the elegant, plaintive, classically-tinged piano lines and Pulliam was in charge of supplying an endlessly kaleidoscopic series of synth and organ textures (and synth bass when Sadashige played guitar) , the two would switch roles. On several songs, Griffiths emerged from behind her keys to play bass, bopping animatedly along with Yusef’s irrepressible drive. He and Pulliam were all smiles; Sadashige seemed to be the calm center of the storm while Griffiths played the role of mystery girl, deadpan and serious in contrast to her animated vocals and harmonies with Pulliam.

Guest Vincent Corrigan took a handful of cameos on vocals, on a duet of the briskly pulsing, sardonic breakup narrative Red and then Ship, a swaying disaster tale, which he brought to a climax with a long bellow worthy of Bruce Dickinson, or David Lee Roth for that matter. That contrasted with his stately, expressive crooning on the chamber pop piano ballad Sycamore Landing.

What was most striking about the show was that some of the strongest songs in the set weren’t from the new album. Too Far Gone, with its clave beat and Police-like hooks, turned into a springboard for savage tremolo-picking, eerily dancing postpunk riffs and bluesmetal spirals from Sadashige. And Shangri-La juxtaposed chromatically-charged X guitar riffage and a menacingly cinematic guitar/keys interlude with a telling Leonard Cohen reference. The songs from the album were just as memorable: the apocalyptic, Rasputina-esque piano-pop opening track, Dinosaur; the slyly feline narrative Jeanine; an understatedly creepy take of the darkly enigmatic, rhythmically shifting In June and Fly, a bitter, even creepier escape anthem.

Big Plastic Finger’s Swirling, Trippy Assault Hits Williamsburg

Big Plastic Finger call themselves “a super psychedelic space noise core rock improv quartet starting over the edge and going further.” Their latest album, streaming at Bandcamp, is titled Launching the Tone Arm, which makes sense since it’s available on delicious vinyl as well as digitally. They’re playing Legion Bar (790 Metropolitan Ave. in Williamsburg, L to Graham Ave), tonight at 9 on a doublebill with saxophonist David Tamura’s similarly sardonic, improvisational Jazzfakers. A cynic might say, yeah, Sunday night is where bars always hide the free jazz because if they put it on the bill on a Saturday, it would clear the club. But for those who remember yesterday’s piece here, Sunday is starting to look like the new Saturday: an awful lot of good bands have been turning up on Sunday bills lately, all over town. You figure it out.

The album’s opening track, Winnebago Man sets the stage, guitarist Scott Prato and saxophonist Bonnie Kane spreading sheets of effects-infested wildfire over Mark McClemens’ steadily tumbling drums, bassist Brian McCorkle holding a single hypnotic note. Kane squalls relentlessly as Prato spaces out his chords while an outer-space fog moves in; from there they take it down to a quiet, steady hardcore beat and add increasingly abrasive layers over it. Pretty interesting for a one-chord jam.

Things We Don’t Want to Admit Are True mingles desolate sax within trippy, shifting layers of distortion, wah guitar and echoey Black Angels vocals, building to a tight, uneasy push-pull between the guitar and sax. As with the first track, it’s a basically a series of washes, long crescendos and dips in lieu of actual melody. They follow that with an even more echoey miniature that pairs Prato’s eerily rippling tremolo-picking against Kane’s shifting atmospheric sheets.

Finding a Good Use for the Growing Pile has a steady, growling rhythm in the same vein as Jamie Saft’s recent adventures in longscale noisy improv, Kane shifting between acidic rifage and dare we say catchy hooks as Prato blips and pings and judiciously moves his textures toward sandpapery and shrill, then goes in a spacier direction. The album’s longest song, Assembly of Presence works layers of feedback, distortion, echo, relentlessly apprehensive and then squalling sax over a tense, brisk pulse, through innumerable dynamic shifts and a surprisingly catchy guitar crescendo: it’s a trippy roller-coaster ride and the most menacing cut here.

Low Together (Worm Forward) starts with the group hinting wryly at lowrider wah funk, Kane and Prato again engaging in a tug-of-war with echoes of late 80s noiserock in a Live Skull vein, through an echoey MRI tube interlude and then back. Moving Through Walls messes with Metal Machine Music feedback; the final cut is the most frenetic and free jazz-oriented. Throughout the album, the group – all veterans of various paint-peeling noise projects – play with a clenched-teeth camaraderie and commitment to the jagged, intense edges of the spectrum. Not exactly easy listening, but you can get absolutely lost in this. Stephen Bilensky replaces McCorkle on bass for this gig; the Legion Bar backroom could turn into a sonic cyclotron.

The Howlin’ Brothers Hit the Rockwood With 100 Years of Americana

What does it say about the state of New York nightlife that this Sunday happens to be one of the most happening nights this week? Is that just luck of the draw, a lot of good bands passing through town? Or, as more and more of this city turns into a tourist trap (or a permanent-tourist trap) on the weekend, is this a a sign that venues and maybe artists as well have learned that there’s money to be made from an audience who will come out on an off-night just to get away from the fratboys and their fraturniture? You be the judge. One of the most enticing shows this weekend is at the big room at the Rockwood on Sunday night at 8 where the Howlin’ Brothers are playing for a $10 cover.

That eclectic, virtuosically fun Americana trio’s most recent New York show was out back of City Winery just before the 4th of July, on what turned out to be a rare, blisteringly hot evening (that night aside, has this summer been just about the best on record or what?) Unperturbed by the heat despite being suited up in hats and sturdy plowman’s attire, the band looked like they were the happiest guys on the planet. Then again, wouldn’t you be if you could make a living traveling all over the world playing country blues and bluegrass and getting paid for it?

And it wasn’t all good-time drinking or partying music, either. Fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Ian Craft, guitarist Jared Green and bassist Ben Plasse worked the dynamics back and forth, throughout a tuneful, dynamically and historically rich set that went on for over an hour. Plasse, as it turns out, is also an excellent guitarist: he took the night’s longest and most energetic solo on electric guitar, one of only a few songs on which the band wasn’t all-acoustic. Craft started out on fiddle and then switched to banjo – interestingly, it was when he played that antique instrument that the music sounded the least oldtimey. Then he switched to bass, singing no matter what he was playing, which isn’t exactly easy. Green strummed and flatpicked expertly and blended voices with rest of the crew, through a couple of sad waltzes from their new album Trouble and the more upbeat stuff, including a raucous take of Carl Perkins’ Dixie Fried, from the band’s ep The Sun Studio Session. That one left no doubt that it’s about getting drunk and stoned and high on whatever else – probably a lot of stuff – that the guys who were making records there were doing back in 1956. No wonder the early rockabilly artists got into so much trouble with redneck politicians on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Isle of Klezbos Play a City Winery Show Worth Waking Up For

The Sunday morning/early afternoon klezmer brunch concert concept didn’t originate at City Winery. That venue stole the idea from Tonic, the late, well-loved Lower East Side venue with the leaky roof that closed in 2006 and was razed within months to make room for a mostly vacant “luxury” condo tower. Tonic was doing klezmer brunch shows as far back as the fall of 2001, when Isle of Klezbos played one of them. If memory serves right, that edition of the irrepressibly tuneful, mostly-female, klezmer/latin/jazz jamband – a more improvisational spinoff of cinematic NYC institution Metropolitan Klezmer – featured Rachelle Garniez on accordion along with founder Eve Sicular on drums, Melissa Fogarty on vocals, Debra Kreisberg on clarinet and sax and Pam Fleming on trumpet. Who the bass player was is a mystery. Yeah, you’d think that with a band that works such a slinky groove, that person’s contribution would leave a mark, but that position in the group has been something of a revolving door and after thirteen years, memories of a hungover late Sunday morning spent leaning on the bar and wishing for a seat get fuzzy- it may have been early, but the show was crowded. Anyone who might wish they could have seen that show – it was a good one – can check out the band when they do it again this Sunday, August 17 starting at around 11 in the morning at City Winery. Cover is $10, there’s no minimum purchase and kids 12 and under get in free.

If more recent memory serves right, Isle of Klezbos’ previous New York show  was a deliriously fun, free outdoor performance in a 12th Street community garden right before the Fourth of July weekend. This edition of the band was pretty much the same, Shoko Nagai adding sepulchral swirls, pointillistic punches and jaunty chords on accordion. How has Isle of Klezbos changed over the years? They’re doing psychedelic cumbias now, really fun ones, like an acoustic, horn-driven Chicha Libre. Fleming introduced one of those tunes as a brooding reggae song, more or less, then the band took it in more Colombian direction before taking a spin back toward Jamaica. The other was a gorgeously ominous number that built suspensefully to a long, joyous Kreisberg clarinet solo.

Fleming’s Middle Eastern-flavored Revery in Hijaz was especially tasty, the trumpeter finally pulling the band out of a haunting groove to an apprehensively triumphant crescendo. The band also aired out long, expansive versions of Sicular’s towering, rollercoastering narrative East Habsburg Waltz, a couple of somber-then-frantic wedding dances, took their time through a brief, murky bass-and-clarinet duo take of what sounded like Summertime and then a brisk, bouncy tango that gave Fogarty a launching pad to climb to the top of her stratospheric range. And that was just the first set. It would have been fun to stick around for the second, but by then the mosquitoes had come out in full force and the beer had run out – at least this blog’s supply, anyway. Neither of those factors should be an issue at City Winery.

Yet Another Richly Tuneful Album From the King of Retro Britrock, Edward Rogers

Born in Birmingham, England, crooner/songwriter Edward Rogers has been a staple of cutting-edge lyrical New York rock since the 80s. A connoisseur of retro British tunesmithing, he’s got a characteristically brilliant new album, Kaye – a homage to the Soft Machine’s Kevin Ayers – streaming at his web page and an album release show at 7 PM on August 17 at Joe’s Pub. Advance tix are $16 and highly recommended because Rogers’ shows there tend to sell out.

For this gig, he’ll have pretty much the same all-star band he enlisted to record the album, live in the studio: James Mastro and Don Piper on guitars; Sal Maida on bass; Dennis Diken on drums; Joe McGinty on keyboards; and Tish & Snooky on backing vocals What’s obvious right off the bat is that although Ayers’ writing is an obvious influence, Rogers’ songs here have the same lushly arranged mid-to-late 70s-style anthemic Britrock sound of the tracks on his previous album, Porcelain, from 2011. The lone cover here, Ayers’ After the Show, gets a jaunty neo-glam treatment, right down to the droll twin guitar leads.

The opening track, My Street kicks off with a snarling, low-register Mastro guitar hook, a decidedly ambiguous look back at a gritty upbringing. There’s a briefly evocative, psychedelic bridge that rises to a searing web of guitar leads that’s viscerally breathtaking. With its lingering spaghetti western tinges, the angst-ridden No Color for Loneliness is sort of a mashup of Bowie’s 1984 with late 60s Vegas noir.

Street Fashion keeps the glamrock vibe going while raising the guitar amperage (that’s Don Fleming and the Ladybug Transistor’s Gary Olson joining the melee with Mastro), Rogers contemptuously contemplating the shallowness that continues to invade and pervade his adopted city. Worry for the World blends funk tinges into a sunny chimepop tune that contrasts with Rogers’ gloomy lyric. The waltzing, summery yet elegaic title track is a wistful shout-out to Ayers, and the most Soft Machine-influenced song here:

You don’t shine if you don’t burn
Hide the mystery so well learned
I’ll bet you walked and turned
And touched the brain that never learned

Fueled by Byrdsy twelve-string guitar, What Happened to the News Today takes a snide swipe at how the media-industrial complex distracts us from what’s really going on. Copper Coin could be a 60s Zombies hit taken about five years into the future with a mostly acoustic, flamenco-tinged arrangement – is that Pete Kennedy playing guitar?

Rogers keeps the delicate acoustic ambience going with Borrowed & Blue. Then he hits a peak with the haunting, organ-fueled Fear of the Unknown, which could pass for a standout track on an early 70s Strawbs album. The album winds up with an apprehensively sprawling psychedelic jam, Peter Pan Dream and then a tantalizingly brief choral reprise of the ninth track.

A Transcendent Americana Show at Lincoln Center Out of Doors Saturday Night

Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale opened the show Saturday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, backed by an inspired band including a mysterious longhaired guy in dark shades doubling on pedal steel and fiddle along with the rhythm section who played on Robert Plant’s most recent album. This blog recently characterized Miller as an American version of Richard Thompson, although it would make as much sense to call Thompson the British Buddy Miller (in a bit of serendipity, Miller produced Thompson’s latest album). Lauderdale played rhythm guitar and sang in his masterfully modulated baritone while Miller channeled a century’s worth of country and blues guitar. Delivering his signature, virtuosic ferocity and nuance, Miller started in Nashville, then took the band on a few side trips to Memphis, New Orleans and the Florida swamps.

On Looking for a Heartache, he alternated between droll and ominous with spare lines on his Danelectro baritone guitar. He switched to acoustic for a plaintive take of It Hurts Me before a jaunty electric version of South in New Orleans. He got to cut loose with a long, wailing, searing electric solo on the darkly rustic country gospel tune Wide River to Cross; a bit later, Lauderdale brought the lights down with a rapturous solo acoustic performance of a new song: the crowd (among them a who’s who of New York guitar talent) were spellbound. From there the band picked it up, through a Tony Joe White cover, some honkytonk and finally Hole in My Head, a rousing late 80s-style alt-country romp that would have been a standout track on a Del-Lords record.

“George Gershwin played Rhapsody in Blue on this stage,” headliner Rosanne Cash told the crowd. Being a longtime New Yorker, it was only natural that she’d be proud to have also played on it. Considering that Cash wrote her brilliant latest album The River & the Thread while traveling throughout the south, it’s no surprise how bluesy it is. Cash’s husband and lead guitarist John Leventhal gave a clinic in uneasily resonating, lingering noir phrasing, beginning with the sepulchrally whispery intro of A Feather’s Not a Bird, anchored by Glenn Patscha’s ominous organ and drummer Dan Rieser’s anxious pulse. “Everybody around here moves too fast/It feels so good but it’s never gonna last,” Cash intoned with an understated dread.

The Long Way Home put a folk noir spin on a late 60-s style soul-rock tune centered around a riff suspiciously like the Classics IV’s Spooky: “”Dark highways and the country roads don’t scare you like they did,” Cash offered, but that turned out to be a false start in one of the album’s many contemplations of loss and getting lost. Land of Strange Design, true to how she’d explained it beforehand, broodingly contemplated a southern upbringing, harsh reality jarring with superstition, pedal steel player Kevin Berry offering a temporary reprieve with a brief, soaring solo. Night School was even more nocturnally apprehensive than the album version, its ambience punctuated by creepy glockenspiel accents by the percussionist.

50,000 Watts, Cash explained, was dedicated to the Memphis blues and R&B radio station where B.B. King got his start, which proved to be so influential on the Sun Studios artists, Cash’s famous dad among them. They kept a wary stroll going with When the Master Calls the Roll, a vivid Civil War reminiscence nicked from the Rodney Crowell catalog that Cash grabbed when it got dropped from an Emmylou Harris record.

Leventhal evoked his brilliant Mojo Mancini noir soundtrack project with his spare, sinister phrasing on Money Road, an evocation of Mississippi Delta desolation. Then they reinvented Ode to Billy Joe as folk noir – a pity Bobbie Gentry couldn’t find a guy of Leventhal’s caliber for the original.

They brought the energy to redline with a briskly motoring take of Radio Operator, from Cash’s classic 2006  Black Cadillac album, with a long, burning pedal steel solo, following that with a swinging, halfspeed, blues-infused take of Hank Snow’s I’m Moving On. So it was weird after all that gravitas and intensity that she’d close with a nonchalant version of the innocuous new-wave-disguised-as-country hit Seven Year Ache. But she brought back the roots flavor with a rousing version of Ray Price’s Heartaches by the Numbers,  joined by Lauderdale and Miller (who got to take one of the night’s best solos on it). It’s hard to think of a better concert to wind up this blog’s coverage of this summer’s typically amazing outdoors festival here.

The Minetta Lane Theatre Stages a Sinister, Politically Spot-On New Rock Musical

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.