The Cactus Blossoms’ Moody Americana Hits the Spot Gently at Lincoln Center

by delarue

Last night at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center, the Cactus Blossoms built a lowlit, Lynchian ambience, rising out of it occasionally with hints of rockabilly, Tex-Mex and a detour into rambunctious Vegas noir. It was indicative of how much edgier the American Songbook series here is now. Tonight’s show features blue-flame oldschool soul songstress Ruby Amanfu; showtime is 8 PM, and be aware that latecomers aren’t allowed in.

It wouldn’t be overhype to mention brothers Jack Torrey, who played artfully terse leads on a shortscale Guild guitar, and rhythm guitarist sibling Page Burkum in the same sentence as the Everlys or the Louvins. Their blend of voices is every bit as celestial, and often heartbreaking as either of those two iconic Americana acts, and they work it for all it’s worth. Burkum didn’t talk to the audience at all; Torrey didn’t do that much either, and then only with a laconic, aw-shucks Midwestern modesty.

The night’s most stunningly relevant number was the disconsolate border ballad Adios Maria. Awash in longing and doomed acceptance, it spoke for anyone dreading deportation, or, possibly even worse, an early-morning raid to snare a loved one. Introducing a shuffling, vintage C&W flavored take of Chuck Berry’s Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Torrey spoke of being on tour in Europe during the Presidential inauguration back in January and missing Obama’s presence in the Oval Office. “I hope they hear this over at the Trump Tower,” he deadpanned.

Otherwise, this band lets the music speak for itself.If there ever was a retro group for this era, the Cactus Blossoms are it. Even the upbeat Happy Man, with its 50s R&B allusions, positioned its central character in a gloomy context. The most surrealistically dark of all the songs, Burkum’s Powder Blue, used the Twin Peaks theme as a stepping-off point to build a backdrop that was equal parts lovestruck rapture and understated dread. Torrey’s more country-flavored Queen of Them All worked that territory with similar, wounded grace; then the band picked up the pace with a swaying cover of the Kinks’ Who’ll Be the Next In Line, followed by Torrey’s honkytonk-spiced kissoff anthem A Sad Day to Be You.

They went into sardonic, rockabilly-tinged territory for Clown Collector and drew the night’s loudest applause with the surprisingly jaunty Stoplight Kisses. Burkum and Torrey wove their harmonies with the kind of intuitive chemistry that you would expect from family members, while the latter parsed the songs with muted early-rock leads, slinky Nashville licks and hints of electrified bluegrass. And the rhythm section was tremendous. Bassist Andy Carroll swung as judiciously as Torrey did, playing his Guild hollowbody model just a hair behind the beat with a little treble bite in his tone. Drummer Chris Hepola switched judiciously from sticks to brushes, pushing the quieter numbers with a rapt rimshot beat, then breaking out his mallets for the voodoo groove of the obscure Vegas C&W novelty Uncle John’s Bongos. For their first encore, the brothers voiced the high/low contrasts of the Beatles’ This Boy rather than the moodier internal harmonies, something of a departure from what they’d been doing all night. The Cactus Blossoms’ tour continues; their next stop is in their hometown Minneapolis on around 10 PM on April 14 at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Theatre.

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