Breanna Barbara Fights Off the Rain and Wins in Hudson River Park
In terms of the heat, Breanna Barbara‘s show at Pier 97 in Hudson River Park this past July 16 was like being at R.L. Burnside’s Mississippi roadhouse…except for the blazing sun overhead. The events series’ perceptive and generous publicist, Cynthia Inacio, played den mom and supplied icy water bottles to those who needed them (guess who!), an unexpected and much appreciated kindness. To put that in perspective, try asking for water at Central Park Summerstage. You’d be lucky to get gasoline.
Breanna Barbara’s take on the blues looks forward as much as it draws on the darkest side of delta and Mississippi hill country styles: she’s pushing the envelope, while staying true to a tradition that’s remained as vital as it has because it’s full of ancient riffs that might be embedded in the DNA of everybody alive. She played Telecaster and sang, growled, howled and shouted, channeling a hundred years of blues despair and ecstasy, backed by an inspired pickup band.
Primeval, otherworldly sounds echoed onto the Hudson as the sky darkened overhead. The band opened with a swaying, hypnotic one-chord jam, followed by Who Are You, an open-tuned number where bassist Stefan Mersch matched the upper-register slink of the version on Breanna Barbara’s killer new album Mirage Dreams. As the chorus unwound, the two Fenders – the bandleader’s Tele and Peter Arthur’s Strat – hit a savage flurry, Evan Heinze’s ‘s organ took the song out with a ferocious swirl.
They gave the shuffle after that – an electrified look back at artists like Jessie Mae Hemphill – an unexpectedly plaintive, dynamic edge, from a wounded wail to a defiant whoop, then the band took it down to eerily twinkling keys in tandem with Gabe Katz’s drums. By now the clouds looming in from the Jersey side were starting to look really ominous, but the band soldiered on without looking back…or in their case, forward.
A slowly marauding 6/8 ballad wound up with a creepy, carnivalesque organ solo over the lysergically pulsing twin guitars. They stayed in that same groove but built the conflagration even higher on the next tune, like the Gun Club but with a charismatic woman out front, resolute in her bright orange jumpsuit, swaying with eyes closed, unwilling to give in to despair.
They careened through a reverb-drenched boogie, drenched in reverb, then stampeded to the finish line. A cover of Melanie’s Some Say (I Got Devil) started out haunting and suspenseful and then hit a marauding punk-blues shuffle groove. The death-fixated Daddy Dear was the afternoon’s most crushingly intense song, an anguished look at the frontwoman’s sudden and heartbreaking loss of her father. She closed solo with a misterioso take of I’m All Right, the album’s most ghostly yet similarly intense number. Not bad for a white girl born in Minnesota and raised deep down in Florida. Then the rains came. She and the band are playing Idio Gallery, 976 Grand St., Studio D (between Morgan and Waterbury) in Williamsburg on August 9 at around 10, cover is TBA. Take the L to Grand St.
There’s another completely different but similarly tantalizing bill this Saturday, August 6 on the pier featuring a lot of performers across the spectrum of soul music; Philly soul legend William Bell headlines at around 7, preceded by legendary Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and Runnin’ Pardners and then UK blue-eyed soul act the James Hunter Six. The entrance is at 59th St. on the river.