An Urban Country Legend Makes an Unlikely Stop on the Lower East Side

by delarue

Alex Battles may have earned a place in New York music history as a bandleader and scenemaker in what was once a thriving Americana music scene, but he wouldn’t have reached that point without some good songs. With his wry, aphoristic lyrics and unpretentious baritone, the frontman of the Whisky Rebellion was a fixture for years at places like the old Hank’s and Sunny’s, just to name two of the more popular joints he could be be found at. It may seem a little odd that he’s playing the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow night, May 14 at 9, but these are weird times. As a bonus, all-female, soaring front-porch Americana harmony band the Calamity Janes play beforehand at 8. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation, and there are no restrictions on entry.

Battles’ catalog is well capsulized by his single A Perfect Game For Lenny Barker, an older song which is up at Bandcamp. It has a lot less to do with the big, burly Cleveland Indians pitcher’s wicked curveball on the historic night of May 15, 1981 against the Toronto Blue Jays than simply the civic pride he brought to a decaying rust belt city whose population was leaving in droves. These days, the same could be said for this city, although there hasn’t been any rust belt here to speak of since the 1960s.

Battles’ 2011 album Goodbye Almira has also been fairly recently digitized and is up at Bandcamp. You can hear his voice suddenly toughen up as he takes control on the mic on the one full-band song on the record, Tom Sawyer’s Island, over the fiddle and the honkytonk piano. Otherwise, it’s something of a change of pace for Battles, a mix of solo acoustic songs and a handful of fetching duets with Aiofe O’Donovan, long before she got off the bluegrass circuit and started playing shows with symphony orchestras.

Battles gets a lot of credit for helping to jumpstart the urban country sound here, and there’s a lot of the pull of the devil city on innocent, goodnatured out-of-towners here. Marilyn Monroe hits the road to get away from two of the main sophisticates who chased her. A nameless Nebraska girl finds out the hard way that being queen of the prairie doesn’t mean anything to the wolves of Wall Street. The two singers shoot for a low-key Gram-and-Emmylou vibe when Battles isn’t painting wistful and sometimes sharply evocative scenes of late-night battles of the sexes, a sad post-carnival tableau and a couple of tales where the big takeaway is what’s left unsaid.

This blog hasn’t been in the house at a Battles show in ages: the last one wasn’t actually his show, it was a birthday party at 68 Jay Street Bar in Dumbo where all his friends from the Roots and Ruckus scene gathered together to sing his songs. Memory is foggy on that one, but it was definitely a party. As for the Calamity Janes, it’s also been awhile; back in 2016, they battled an inept sound mix at a Williamsburg gig and emerged with a decisive victory. That won’t be a problem at the Rockwood.