New York Music Daily

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Category: country music

Creepy Country From North of the Border

Today’s Halloween installment is a single. Monckton, New Brunswick honkytonk singer Chris Melanson’s Last to Say Goodbye could be a love song to a dead wife, or girlfriend: as morbid, maudlin country goes, it’s a classic of its kind. And particularly appropriate considering the events unfolding around the world at this moment in history.

Midwestern Rock Legend Sam Llanas Haunted by the Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

If Sam Llanas never put out another album, he would still be a first-ballot hall-of-famer. As co-leader of heartland rockers the BoDeans, he built a body of work to match any other songwriter active since the 80s. But Llanas shows no signs of slowing down, and like his colleague James McMurtry, he just keeps putting out great records. His latest is Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels, which isn’t’ online yet. It’s arguably his best solo release, and has moments that will rip your face off.

As the title implies, this is a haunted record, filled with regrets and disillusion, although there are plenty of upbeat moments as well. Much as it’s mostly acoustic, the atmosphere is lush and sparkling with layers and layers of guitar, mandolin, accordion and what sounds like autoharp. Llanas,, Mike Hoffmann and Sean Williamson handle the stringed instruments; Michael Ramos plays keys and accordion, with Susan Nicholson on violin.

Much as Llanas is hardly known for playing covers, he opens the album with an absolutely gorgeous, lushly jangly, bittersweet reinvention of the old Civil War folk song Shenandoah. The first of the originals, Lonely Girl, begins starkly and grows more nocturnally starry: it could be a prequel to an older song in the Llanas catalog, Two Souls.

Days Go By is classic Llanas, a big two-chord anthem on a more intimate scale and an angst-fueled look back on lakeside bonfires and people gone forever. His voice is still in great shape, as everybody who watched his webcasts during the lockdown noticed, and he really airs out his upper register in Straight to Hell, a brisk, gloomy country shuffle with a spiky twin guitar solo midway through.

One Summer Night is an aptly shimmery but propulsive take on Orbisonesque Nashville gothic pop. Here Comes the Dawn is next, a hopeful, catchy, gently bouncing pre-daybreak theme. A Place in This World could be an Everly Brothers tune, a fond look back at childhood influences: Llanas’ dad was a bass player, and the Mexican community in Waukesha, Wisconsin was fertile ground for musical cross-pollination.

Llanas goes back to early 60s Lynchian pop sounds in Down Here in the Cold: it’s imploring, but it’s also hopeful. Rave On is an upbeat, Willie Nile-ish pop tune – is that a glockenspiel, or just a Casio?

Autumn Is Falling is an anthem for our era, a metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time. With its cheery, doo-woppy hooks, the most retro song here is Got Love. The big hit here is Bring Me to Light, a weary but defiant freedom fighter’s anthem flavored with chiming twelve-string and soaring slide work from Hoffmann. Llanas winds up the album with Wedding Ghost, a morbidly waltzing Louvin Brothers-style narrative: it’s a classic of its kind.

Haunting Vocals and Tunesmithing on Emily Frembgen’s Brilliant New Album

Up until the lockdown, Emily Frembgen was one of the hardest-working musicians on what’s left of the New York acoustic and Americana scenes. She held down residencies at the Knitting Factory and LIC Bar, but also didn’t limit herself to the usual spots. She was just as likely to play a donut shop or a house party. It was at a Bushwick donut shop in the fall of 2017 where she calmly and quietly picked up her acoustic guitar and played one of the most haunting songs written by anyone in this city in the last several years. That song is called Downtown: Frembgen’s narrator goes to meet her friends one last time before she either leaves, or kills herself, or both. The song is all the more chilling for not being specific.

It’s not on her new album It’s Me or the Dog – streaming at Bandcamp – but the record has plenty of other intriguing material, some of it brooding, some of it more quirky and playful. Frembgen is a skilled, purist tunesmith, a potently imagistic lyricist and has an unselfconscious, sometimes wounded. sometimes understatedly vengeful voice that will give you goosebumps.

“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” Frembgen relates gently in Butterfly, a chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. That one’s just Frembgen and her acoustic guitar. She’s joined by lead guitarist Hugh Pool, bassist Charles Dechants and drummer Keith Robinson for Changes, which brings to mind Rosanne Cash’s early new wave/Americana mashups.

Organist Brian Mitchell adds aptly Blonde on Blonde-flavored organ and Nashville piano to Sad Affair: the harmonica completes the mid 60s Dylan ambience behind Frembgen’s witheringly cynical imagery.

Flower/Weed is a seething, low-key kiss-off song, Frembgen’s gentle fingerpicking mingling with Charles Burst’s twinkly electric piano. She goes back to backbeat Americana with Silver Lining, a catchy, guardedly optimistic anthem about two troubled souls pulling themselves out of a dark place, lowlit by Pool’s baritone guitar.

The contrasting imagery and airy vocals in Turn Around bring to mind another first-class Americana-inspired tunesmith, Liz Tormes. Frembgen elevates Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well moroseness to new levels of angst in New Feelin’ over Pool’s Lynchian twang.

She picks up the pace with Hometown, an optimistic country shuffle concealing a desperate escape narrative, and closes the record with He Held Onto Me, Mitchell’s sober gospel piano underscoring Frembgen’s despondency. It’s the only place on the album where she drops her guard. Frembgen has been writing catchy songs since the late zeros, but she’s reached a harrowing new level here with one of the best records of 2021.

One of the Great Voices of the Black Hills

Singer Elisabeth Hunstad makes her living on the road throughout the northern plains states. She’s best known for her searing, powerful high soprano – just listen to her blast through Respect, where she manages not only to hold her own with the Aretha original, but also to put her own grit and defiance into it. Every woman who’s ever picked up a mic has tried that song; most give up.

Hunstad’s voice is chameleonic yet completely original. She can bring to mind Aretha one minute, Dolly Parton the next. She comes out of a jazz background, but has drifted further toward soul music in the last couple of years. Her piano work is similarly eclectic, ranging from gospel and soul to jazz and blues, with an emphatic attack that reflects her percussionist alter ego.

There isn’t a ton of her music online, but it validates her reputation as someone who can literally sing anything, with soul. Her music page has Memphis-inspired sounds, a Lou Reed-flavored tune, a big cascading piano ballad, some slinky funk and that blazing Aretha cover. And some sleuthing turned up an electrifying version of Stormy Monday where she starts out misty and rises to a peak that will give you goosebumps (fast forward to about the 40 minute mark after the interview for the song).

Hunstad picked the right part of the world for a home base: her gig schedule has not slowed down since the horrible events of March 2020 and subsequently. She’s at R Wine Bar, 322 E 8th St. in Sioux Falls at 6 PM on Sept 25, then she has another hometown show at Severance Brewing Co., 701 N Phillips Ave. on Sept 28 at 7.

Longtime readers of this blog may wonder why, after years of advocating for performances by New York artists, there would be coverage of such a faraway place as South Dakota here.

Being one of the free states, South Dakota does not have a dictator weaponizing venues to enforce evil apartheid policies against customers who don’t use city-approved spyware. Until New York gets back to normal – and that means no apartheid – you may be seeing a lot more interesting artists from unexpected places here.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just Say No, one of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Ward Hayden and the Outliers Put Out a Smart, Subtly Lyrical, Searingly Relevant Americana Rock Record

Ward Hayden and the Outliers play catchy, high-voltage, lyrically edgy Americana rock. Their new album Free Country – available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp – was written and recorded during the lockdown, although the political content is more subtext than it is central in Hayden’s sharply detailed narratives. He keeps his songs short, sings in an unselfconsciously soulful baritone and likes escape anthems.

The band open with a brisk four-on-the-floor burner, Nothing to Do (For Real This Time), which strongly brings to mind Matt Keating, another great songwriter with a Massachusetts connection:

A stranger in my hometown,
A stranger in my own house
I can’t go home, I burned that bridge, spent my last dime
I’ve got nothing to do for real this time
This is what happens when you wake up
All the cool kids in the class
Just actors in a mask…

The band – Hayden on guitar and vocals, Cody Nilsen on lead guitar and pedal steel, Greg Hall on bass and Josh Kiggans on drums – slow down for Shelly Johnson, a grim salute to the Twin Peaks character. “Muscle and mind are two different things, that’s why smalltown queens rarely keep their kings,” Hayden observes. The outro is priceless.

“It seems the truth no longer matters,” Hayden relates in I’d Die For You, a brisk shuffle fueled by Nilsen’s steel:

Life isn’t like the movies, you think just what you believe,
No matter your perspective
As fate would have it
We’ve got to share reality

Political message cached in a love song, Soviet style – or lockdown-era Massachusetts style.

The band work off a familiar Link Wray riff as Sometimes You Gotta Leave gets underway, twelve-string jangle contrasting with distorted roar and soaring bass, with a big careening guitar outro. Middle Man is part loping, twangy southwestern gothic and part honkytonk: Hayden’s message is carpe diem.

Over a punchy twin-guitar crunch, he contemplates the end of the world – and the heroism that could stop it – in All Gone Mad, a capsule of the ugly early days of the lockdown:

Seriously, I’m asking, as I’ve been thinking
That if you ain’t Babe Ruth then you ain’t Abe Lincoln
You don’t die trying, until you just get old
Then you ride down the road with your blinkers still blinking

Hayden goes back to the carpe diem theme in the escape anthem Bad Time to Quit Drinkin’ – the reference to a famous song by the Who is a typically sardonic touch. Irregardless, a Buddy Holly-ish shuffle, touches on the interminable torture so much of the world has suffered under lockdowns, and the mess future generations will have to clean up:

All we’ve got is the damn tv
Leading us from the path to glory
I don’t want this reality

As Hayden sees it, Indiana is a place where “The devil rocks the cradle, it’s in the soil, in the air and one and all.” He and the band close the record with When the Hammer Falls, a smoldering, swaying number that sounds a lot like the Dream Syndicate. It’s a good bet that producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel is responsible for one or more of the noisy guitar multitracks. It’s been a real slow year for rock records, and it may get even slower. Be that what it may, this is one of the best of the bunch.

Trans-Global Entertainment With Accordion and Guitar in Downtown Brooklyn

Erica Mancini is an eclectically talented accordionist with a background equally informed by jazz, tango, cumbia and Americana, to name a few styles. She sings in a high, crystalline jazz voice and is a master of passing tones on the keys. Smokey Hormel was Johnny Cash’s last lead guitarist, but also has a thing for Brazilian music and jazz. The two make a good team. Playing a duo set at the little pedestrian mall where Willoughby meets Pearl Street in downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday afternoon, they treated a sunstruck lunchtime crowd to a major portion of the innumerable (some would say unlimited) styles suited to their two instruments.

Mancini sang the opening number, a torchy Brazilian tune, in Portuguese. Later on, she spun counterintuitive cascades through a couple of rustic Colombian coastal cumbia instrumentals.

Hormel was especially at home, both voicewise and fingerpicking his vintage National Steel model, on a couple of Hank Williams songs and a jaunty, bittersweet duet with Mancini on the old Lefty Frizzell country hit Cigarettes and Coffee Blues. But he also had fun with an English translation of what he called a Brazilian cowboy tune.

Mancini invited up a friend to sing fetching Carter Family-style harmonies on I’ll Fly Away and then an extended, playful version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. Mancini’s version of another klezmer favorite, Comes Love, was just as wryly cheery. The two didn’t do any Romany swing, or tango, or Mexican banda music, but this was just the first set. It’s anybody’s guess how many other cultures they dipped their voices into in the next hour.

The next lunchtime show on the little plaza is Aug 17 at noon with acoustic fingerstyle delta blues guitarist Noe Socha. Mancini’s next gig is tomorrow night, Aug 13 at 8 PM at Sunny’s in Red Hook, her usual home base these days. Hormel is also at Sunny’s on Aug 18 at 8 with his western swing band.

Ariana Hellerman, the onetime publisher of Ariana’s List, a fantastic guide to live music and summer festivals, runs the series here. In addition to advocating for live music, she also has a passion for dance and is especially proud of the dance series she’s booking further down the Fulton Mall at Albee Square, a series of performances featuring styles from around the world that continues into the fall.

Smartly Lyrical, Guitar-Fueled Americana Sophistication on Jack Grace’s New Album

Jack Grace was one of the inventors of what came to be known as urban country back in the early zeros. He’s a New York legend. Everybody said that he should have been the guy who starred across from Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line instead of Joaquin Phoenix: he definitely has the Johnny Cash voice.

Grace shared bills with Jerry Lee Lewis and Dale Watson and every remaining Grand Old Opry star who ever played here over the last twenty years. He booked the old Rodeo Bar on Third Avenue, keeping the flame of oldschool C&W alive until gentrification killed it in 2014: the space sat vacant for years afterward.

Grace also has a fantastic, characteristically diverse new album, What a Way to Spend a Night: rescued from a UK studio archive and streaming at Spotify. The band is the core of Grace’s prime supporting cast from the late zeros/early teens, with J. Walter Hawkes on trombone, Bill Malchow on his usual piano and organ plus viola and accordion, with Chris Lucca on trumpet and a British rhythm section of Fabian Bonner on bass and Ian Griffith on drums.

Much as a boisterous sense of humor pervades Grace’s work, his songs are deceptively sophisticated. Grace plays all the guitars here, building layers of jangle and twang in the opening ballad, Broken Melody, a surreal and poignant 60s-style countrypolitan tune with Malchow on organ and the horns wafting morosely in the background.

The Monster Song has a bluesy, carnivalesque, Waits-ish minor-key sway. It’s about keeping the demons at bay, sort of the reverse image of another popular Grace tune, Losing’s a More Comfortable Home.

Don’t Wanna Work Today, a big, defiant crowd-pleaser gets a tight, lean rock treatment here, with the droll Tex-Mex touches muted in favor of a tantalizingly careening guitar solo. You’d Be Disappointed (If I Didn’t Disappoint You) is Grace at his sardonically amusing best: much as it’s a parody of loungey crooner jazz, he nails the style, right down to the guitar parts.

Grace’s fondness for latin grooves comes to the forefront in Here Comes the Breeze, a brooding bossa-tinged escape anthem. Mr. Sanderson and Sons Amazing Secret Traveling Show, a subtly funny steampunk spoof, features Malchow’s rarely recorded viola and accordion work.

I’m a Burglar, which could be a metaphorically loaded cheating song or just a smalltime crook’s tale, has a hushed nocturnal pulse anchored by Malchow’s torrential organ. The most retro song here is the choogling, Chuck Berry-inspired stomp Nobody Brought Me Nothing,

The hardest-rocking numbers are Bearded Man, a slinky, strange psychedelic vamp that might date back to Grace’s early days fronting his cult favorite jamband Steak, and Smokehouse Discrepancy, a searing mashup of surf rock and Booker T. instrumental soul that’s arguably the album’s best song.

The final cut is Chinatown – an original, not the Move classic – a picturesque shout-out to the New York neighborhood where “ghosts and spices permeate the air,” and which until 2020 was the place that you might be sitting next to Woody Allen at a basement-level dumpling place on Mott Street in the wee hours. What a beautiful time and place that was, one we need to get back sooner than later.

Grace’s next New York gig is Aug 16 at 9 PM at Skinny Dennis – as of a couple of days ago the bar had no restrictions.

A Talented Country Band Deliver a Tight Saturday Night Set in Williamsburg

After the hottest Saturday of the summer, it’s raining hard in Manhattan. But the full force of the storm hasn’t reached Williamsburg yet. Inside Skinny Dennis, it’s so packed that it’s impossible to get to the bar.

On one hand, just getting to be part of any crowd at all after the sadistic divide-and-conquer of the past sixteen months should be reason to celebrate. Instead, it feels weird. Going from being the youngest person in the audience at Lincoln Center in the early spring of 2020. to being just about the oldest person at Skinny Dennis on a Saturday night a little more than a year later, is sobering. Especially if you’re the only sober person in the joint.

OK, maybe not the only sober person. The bartenders don’t seem liquored up, and Pierre Jelenc – who publishes the Gigometer, a resource this blog has relied on for years to find Americana artists and singer-songwriters playing out-of-the-way spaces – is in the house. His presence speaks well for the band. But maybe he’s here because the small room at the Rockwood, his old home base, doesn’t have music anymore.

Low Roller are onstage, and they’re talented. And tight: they obviously spent the lockdown refining their chops. Singers Veronica Davila and Ron Muga each play Telecasters for double the clang and twang of your usual honkytonk band. Their pedal steel player, hidden out of view past the drums, is excellent, choosing spots for washes of sound or high lonesome harmonies. Drummer Daryl Cozzi swings hard and bassist Derek Weaving plays a Hofner with a pick, at one point moving down the scale through an agilely flatpicked bluegrass solo in an unexpectedly low register.

They’re playing covers, taking turns on lead vocals; the whole band seems to be singing harmonies. Considering how much energy and inspired riffage they’re giving the material, it would be cool to hear them play their own songs. But Skinny Dennis is known as a cover bar, and nobody seems to mind. This could be a college crowd in the white part of Atlanta – or maybe in fact it is that exact same college crowd, except that they all live here now.

The band indulge them in not one but two John Prine tunes, the second one an impressively low-key, seething take of Paradise, his environmentalist broadside about the Kentucky coal industry. The sound is surprisingly good, although it would be great to hear more of Davila’s soulful voice in the mix. Muga slings off a handful of slinky solos down to his low E string, almost as if he’s playing a baritone guitar. The rhythm section bubbles, the steel simmers overhead and the crowd are hell-bent on getting their drink on.

Such is the hottest ticket among all possible performances that a music blog can cover in New York on this particular Saturday night in July of 2021. Low Roller are at Mama Tried, 147 27th St. in Bay Ridge on Aug 5 at 7 PM; take the R to 25th St.

Familiar, Heartwarming Faces in Friendly New Places

Music in New York is in a really weird place right now. We’re in the midst of the biggest market correction this city has ever seen. Part of that, the abrupt destruction of so many independent venues and the complete annihilation of what was left of the rock scene, is tragic.

But part of this market correction is long overdue.

As this blog predicted as far back as the mid-teens, we’re seeing a quiet explosion of community-based, artist-run spaces, most of them quasi-legal or even less so. That’s where audiences went during the lockdown. The corporate model they replaced is dead in the water. Seriously: does anyone think that the Mercury Lounge, with its apartheid door policy where proof of taking one of the deadly needles is required to get in, is going to survive the year?

In the meantime, the surviving off-the-beaten-path places are thriving. If you work or live in the Financial District, you might know Cowgirl Seahorse. It’s a friendly taco-and-beer joint at the far edge of the South Street Seaport at the corner of where Front Street meets the extension of Peck Slip. Since reopening, they’ve expanded their original Monday night Americana series to sometimes twice a week, and who knows how far they could take that.

It was heartwarming to the extreme to catch honkytonk band the Bourbon Express there over the Fourth of July weekend. With their signature guy/girl vocals and Bakersfield-style twang, they were prime movers in the scene at the original Hank’s before that place finally bit the dust at the end of 2018. This latest version of the band is just a trio, husband-and-wife team Brendan and Katie Curley on guitars along with their bassist holding down the groove.

Brendan is a twangmeister, and so is Katie, but on vocals rather than guitar since she plays acoustic (when she’s not playing the concert harp on their albums). The resulting blend of voices is one of the most distinctive sounds in country: imagine Waylon Jennings duetting with Amy Allison. This set was mostly covers, which was unusual for them, but it showed their roots.

The best number of the night was Jukebox in My Heart, Katie’s fond tribute to the joys of vintage vinyl. A brief, no-nonsense version of Vern Gosdin’s Set ‘Em Up Joe was a perfect example of how deep these two dig for their inspiration.

Brendan ran his Telecaster through a flange for period-perfect 70s ambience in a countrified take of Danny O’Keefe’s 1969 pillhead lament Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues. Katie sometimes sings with a vibrato you could drive a semi-truck through, so it was almost funny that she held back on that during her take of Freddy Fender’s Until the Next Teardrop Falls. They made their way soulfully from the 50s through the 70s with songs by Buck Owens and Emmylou Harris, along with a robust version of Soulful Shade of Blue by Buffy Sainte-Marie and a totally Nashville gothic Jolene. With the easygoing crew behind the bar, shockingly good sound and a steady stream of delivery orders moving out the front door, it was almost as if this was 2014 and this was the old Lakeside Lounge.

Then the next weekend Serena Jost played a solo show at the Five Myles gallery in Bed-Stuy. In almost twenty years, it’s been a hotspot for adventurous jazz, hip-hop and dance as well as art that reflects the neighborhood’s gritty past a lot more than its recent whitewashing. Jost fits in perfectly. Most cello rockers don’t play solo shows, but cello rock is unconventional by definition and so is Jost. Throughout a tantalizingly brief show singing to the crowd gathered out front on the street, she aired out her lustrous, soaring voice, an instrument that’s just as much at home singing Bach cantatas as it is with her own enigmatic, enticingly detailed, riff-driven songs.

In recent years, the onetime founding member of Rasputina has found a much more minimalist focus, perfect for playing solo (she switched to acoustic guitar for a couple of numbers). Still, it was the most epic, ornate material that was the most breathtaking, most notably a subtly undulating, singalong take of the big, triumphant anthem Great Conclusions and an aptly majestic, absolutely gothic, sometimes stygian new song inspired by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Jost spent the lockdown by writing up a storm of new material, something we’ll hopefully get to see more of, most likely at spaces like this one.