Ember Schrag Brings Her Ever More Psychedelic Tunesmithing to Union Pool
Isn’t it strange that there aren’t more women in psychedelic rock? Sure, there was Grace Slick; lately, Marissa Nadler has gone deep into Pink Floyd style art-rock, and Marianne Dissard – who has a characteristically brilliant ep out this year – also has a psychedelic side. Here in New York we have Ember Schrag, who got her start as a self-styled Great Plains Gothic tunesmith. These days she’s been fleshing out her stark, spare earlier material with lush orchestration and plenty of room for purposeful improvisation. Her band, with Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Debby Schwartz on bass and Gary Foster on drums, is one of this city’s most visually interesting outfits. Fresh off her tour of European festivals in Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores – with whom she plays organ – Schrag is doing a rare duo show with Bannister on October 18 at 4 PM outdoors at Union Pool for free.
Her show with her band at Hifi Bar this past July was typical. Foster, who draws on a jazz background, played the role of sonic architect. One minute he’d be playing with bundles, the next minute brushes, then mallets, finally switching to sticks as the show picked up with a straight-ahead garage rock stomp for a few minutes. Sometimes he’d be rocking a bundle and a mallet, pinging the bells of the cymbals or building up to a big whoooooosh. Schwartz is the Secretary of Entertainment in this project, slipsliding up and down the frets of her Musicmaster bass with a joyously slinky attack: she plays with a pick and is a real hard hitter, essesntially the second lead guitarist in this band. She also handles the high vocal harmonies, with an unselfconsciously fiery, penetrating delivery.
Bannister is the magician in the group: watching his fingers, thinking on his feet, is a clinic in subtlety and craft. Much as Schrag’s new arrangements for her older songs – and her new material – have specific parts, neither Bannister nor the band as a whole ever play any one song exactly the same. There are references to specific styles, or time periods, sprinkled throughout them, but when Bannister takes them to Memphis, say, he doesn’t steal wholesale from Steve Cropper. And when he goes in a an Americana jamband direction, you can tell that he’s internalized David Gilmour and Jerry Garcia, but he doesn’t rip those guy off either. And he uses a whole lot less notes.
Much as Schrag can be a devilishly funny presence onstage, she was in enigmatic mode at this show. She didn’t talk to the audience much, running through the songs matter-of-factly, eyes closed, completely immersed in her hypnotically circling, fingerpicked riffs. Yet she’s never sung with so much intensity and power as she did here: maybe having an electric band behind her makes her air out the wounded twang or the deep Bible Belt noir. For one reason or another, the high point of the show might have been an older song, Iowa, dating from the Iraq War era. On Schrag’s absolutely brilliant latest album, a Folkadelphis Sessions ep, it’s Nashville gothic as Pink Floyd might have done it, lowlit with resonant pedal steel from Susan Alcorn. At this show, it was a lot louder, more driving, and Schrag sang the hell out of it. The lyrics are a very artful series of three roadside images woven together to build a grim, apocalyptic ambience: heavy rains a-coming over Iowa, yikes!
Another number that Schrag had an uproariously good time with had a Ray Davies-esque, vaudevillian strut, imagining Jesus and Nicodemus as gay lovers while Bannister added wry colors with his slide. There were innumerable other did-you-catch-that moments throughout the rest of the set: Bannister’s slow, sunsplashed Gilmouresque slide leads on the opening song; his mysterious, muted wah lines in the austerely Beatlesque The Real Penelope; Foster’s single, menacing grand-guignol flurry on a witchy, shapeshifting mini-epic; and the intricately jangly interplay between the two guitars on the Macbeth-inspired Lady M. Find out what else is in store at Union Pool on Sunday afternoon.