Jackie Venson Brings Her Searing Guitar Chops and Smart Tunesmithing to Harlem
Jackie Venson is one of the most world’s most awe-inspiring Texas blues guitarists. She also happens to be a strong, eclectic songwriter and an excellent singer with a soaring top end to her vast range, similar to how she plays guitar. Her latest album, Live at Strange Brew – streaming at Bandcamp – captures her blazing fretwork, soulful vocals and a tight rhythm section at the top of their game in the intimate confines of an Austin coffeeshop. Now, you might wonder where this amazing musician might be playing when she swings through New York this weekend. Hmmm…Bowery Ballroom? The Beacon? Or, considering that she’s a blues player, you might expect her to be at Terra Blues, or Lucille’s, or maybe Paris Blues Bar uptown.
Nope. She’s playing Silvana – the younger, yuppier, yappier Columbia-area sister to the wonderfully scruffy Shrine further north- on Dec 4 at 10 PM. If great guitar is your thing, the trip on the D train will be worth it. And if you can’t make it, you can livestream the show here.
The album’s opening track, Show My Light, comes across as a mashup of 70s Stevie Wonder and another Stevie, a guy from Venson’s home state, who used to play a Strat and left us way too early. The funky Real Love pulses along with an uneasy, spare vibe until Venson hits her volume pedal and delivers a long volley of counterintuitive triplets that really get the crowd going. Then she opens the moody Lost in Time with a trippy, echoey, dub reggae edge and has all kinds of fun with her pedals before spiraling off into deep-space blues.
Venson veers between a slow, gritty boogie and shuffling Hendrix funk throughout See What You Want. One Step Forward, a brisk, straight-up blues, is a cautionary tale to Venson’s fellow guitarslingers:
We lose our freedom when we’re too scared to fight…
When we make music and fall for the dollar sign
One step forward, two steps farther behind
The allusive, death-obsessed Back to Earth is the most overtly Hendrix-inspired (i.e. Third Stone from the Sun) track here. What I Need careens between 70s stoner riff-rock and reggae, rising to some pretty unhinged tremolo-picking. Then Venson pulses through the set’s poppiest number, Instinct, echoing both All Along the Watchtower and Foxy Lady.
The slow blues Rollin’ On gives Venson a launching pad for her most dynamic, thoughtful guitar work here, finally rising to a screaming, icy, reverbtoned peak: it’s the album’s best song. “Are you awake now?” she taunts the audience as she slinks into the final number, Always Free, with its understatedly poetic, broodingly relevant urban imagery and a sizzling solo midway through.
More artists should do live albums. Do it right and you can catch magic in a bottle like Venson did here (but you have to know your material and you can’t slack off and let the producer play your instruments for you like all the indie rock boys do). And live albums are truth in advertising: your audience, and your potential audience, know exactly what they’re getting in advance. It’s hard to think of better advertising for Venson than this.