New York Music Daily

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Category: country music

A Rare Reunion from New York’s Best Underground Swing Jazz Supergroup

The Tickled Pinks almost played Club Cumming. Ostensibly, lack of a liquor license derailed one of the few events that could have transcended any issue concerning tourist hordes in the East Village on a Saturday night. But the irrepressible underground swing jazz supergroup did get to play two iconic Brooklyn venues, Hank’s and Pete’s last month, in one of the funnest reunions of any New York band in recent years.

Among other harmony vocal acts, only John Zorn’s Mycale chorale have the kind of individualistic power and interplay that the Pinks showed off during what was a pretty good run. They made it as far as Joe’s Pub – and got the key to the city of Olympia, Washington on their most recent tour. Whether the key works or not is unknown.

It would be overly reductionistic to say that with her spectacular range, Karla Rose Moheno handles the highs, the more misty Stephanie Layton handles the mids and Kate Sland handles the lows – all three women can span the octaves enough to take their original inspiration, the Andrews Sisters, to the next level. Although that basic formula seemed to be the strategy for night one of a reunion weekend stand that began with an Elvis cover night at Hank’s.

The idea of three women harmonizing Elvis tunes is a typical Pinks move, although one they never did before. And they weren’t the only ones who sang. Guitarist Dylan Charles took a break in between elegant expanses of jazz chords, snazzy rockabilly and some machete tremolo-picking to narrate a tongue-in-cheek version of Are You Lonesome Tonight. There were also a handful of cameos from friends of the band invited up to do their versions of the hits.

Moheno switched out her trusty Telecaster for an acoustic guitar; Sland played snappy bass and Layton held down the groove behind the drumkit. John Rogers’ ornate electric piano and organ lit up several of the songs; trumpeter Mike Maher gave a mariachi flair to several numbers as well.

The set wasn’t just familiar favorites, either. As much fun as it was hearing what this crew could do with Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock and Suspicious Minds, the best song of the night was an obscure, ominous noir number, Black Star. On one hand, it’s hard to imagine that Elvis knew what kind of an end he’d come to when he sang this in the mid-60s…but this group’s stalking, low-key version left that question hanging. From this point of view, it would have been even more fun to be able to catch the whole set, but it was impossible to walk out of Moroccan saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ absolutely haunting Lincoln Center set earlier that night.

The Pinks wound up their weekend with a serpentine set of swing at Pete’s. Since they started in the late zeros, they’ve expanded their songbook far beyond 30s girl-group material to jump blues and beyond. Case in point: an absolutely accusatory version of Straighten Out and Fly Right. They went deep inside to find the bittersweetness in the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, then pulled out all the smoke and sultriness in Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby. And the old 20s hot swing standard Why Don’t You Do Right outdid both the Moonlighters and Rasputina’s versions in terms of both energy and righteous rage.

The Pinks are back on hiatus now while everybody in the group is busy with their own projects. Layton and Charles continue with their torch jazz band Eden Lane, with a gig on June 3 at 7 PM at Caffe Vivaldi, one of the Pinks’ old haunts. Sland continues to do unselfconsciously heroic work in hospice medicine in California. And Moheno continues with recording her next noir rock album, under the name Karla Rose – if the track listing remains as originally planned, that record would top the list of best albums of 2018 if she released it now.

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Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters Bring Their Catchy Hardscrabble Americana Songs to the Flower District This Friday Night

“Just got word today that the money is gonna be ok,” Amanda Anne Platt sings in her North Carolina twang. “Start looking for life in a bathroom mirror,” she adds as Birthday Song, the opening track on her latest album with her band the Honeycutters (streaming at Spotify), gets underway. They’re making a rare New York stop on June 1 at 9:30 PM at Hill Country.

In a world of suburbanites who put on cowboy hats and pretend they come from the sticks, Platt is the real deal, a strong, populist storyteller with a knack for a catchy hook. The narratives on this latest release are more guardedly optimistic than the band’s previous output. Between the woman in the supermarket checkout line, the sign in the record store and the beater Japanese car whose odometer’s been around twice, these people are struggling, but they also aren’t giving in. This is also more of a rock record, compared to the honkytonk flavor of much of the band’s earlier material.

“We were dying but you couldn’t tell,” Platt muses over a loping groove from bassist Rick Cooper and drummer Josh Milligan in Long Ride – but as it picks up steam, the song grows more optimistic, Matt Smith’s pedal steel floating overhead.

“Oh how I needed men to love me, it made me ugly, made me unkind,” Platt’s older and wiser narrator muses in the gently shuffling What We’ve Got, livened with Evan Martin’s rippling piano and a joyous steel solo: “All the time I thought I was wasting, I was just learning how to look you in the eye.”

With its rivers of organ and simmering, distorted guitar, Diamond in the Rough is one of the harder-rocking tracks here – The Who meets Lucinda Williams, maybe. Eden is a steady, shuffling celebration of “24 acres of Indiana farmland, Airstream trailer, living in the heartland,” told from the point of view of an ex-Bostonian who’s come home after losing her job. At the same time, she doesn’t miss people with “delusions of grandeur,” even while harsher realities set in.

The Guitar Case is a vividly weary early-morning chronicle of the endless tour musicians these days have to stay on just to pay the bills. Platt saves some of her most venomous commentary for one of the wannabes on the roadhouse circuit:

You look good on paper
On tv too
But the real thing ain’t a joke, you fool

By contrast, Learning How to Love Him is a sobering, spare look at the pros and cons of making it through a marriage to the empty nest years. Then the band kick back in with a summery soul feel in Brand New Start, a bittersweetly resigned breakup tale: Platt suggests a five-year relationship might be best memorialized by leaving a Christmas wreath up on the door for the sake of leaving a lasting impression of togetherness.

With its layers of piano, organ and steel, Late Summer’s Child is an old Creedence song with whitewall tires and a sunroof, more or less. The album’s best song is the noir soul ballad The Good Guys (Dick Tracy), slinking along with uneasy, echoey electric piano:

A skeleton in every closet
Everybody in another man’s pocket
Did you ever stop to think you got it wrong
You remember why you’re here tonight
Soft sell if the price is right
You’ve been losing at this same fight for so long
Dick Tracy there ain’t no more good guys
You could be on a plane tonight
Leave this wasted city far behind

The backbeat-driven, distantly doo-wop inflected Rare Things is a lot more upbeat, spiced with some neat gospel piano. Baritone guitar, saloon piano and steel blend together for an oldschool hard honkytonk vibe in The Things We Call Home. The album’s last song is the wistful front porch folk-flavored The Road. Platt and her band move through a lot of different styles here, something they’re likely to do onstage at the barbecue joint this weekend.

Squeegee Men and Twin Peaks Themes in Long Island City Tonight

There’s a great twinbill tonight, April 30 starting at 9 at Long Island City Bar. A fantastic band who call themselves Fuck You Tammy play Twin Peaks themes and music from David Lynch movies starting at around 9. Then at 10 the Squeegee Men play their twisted, reverb-laced original surf rock and cowpunk songs.

The Squeegee Men have an ep, Coney Island Shark Bite, up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. The title track is a real blast, a serpentine instrumental that shifts from snappy, bass-driven dark garage rock to a sunnier, jazz-tinged, beachy theme and then back, guitar overdriven into the red.

After a careening, jangly take of My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It – as in “My bucket’s got a hole in it, I can’t buy no beer” – the band launch into Slow Burn and its swaying Wooden Indian Burial Ground-like contrasts between icepick leads and fuzztone menace. The album winds up with White Freightliner, a shout-out to diesel big rigs that brings to mind 80s cowpunk bands like the Raunch Hands.

A word about the band name for millennials – back in the 90s, homeless guys armed with squeegees and water buckets would stake out busy New York intersections, and the exits from the Holland and Battery tunnels, hoping to extort a few bucks from sympathetic motorists. The bridge-and-tunnel crowd hated this, and mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani exploited the situation for all the racist mileage he could get out of it in his successful 1993 campaign.

Back to the music – Fuck You Tammy put on a hell of a show here back in February, a less jam-oriented approach than guitarist Tom Csatari has taken with Lynch themes. With guitar, keys, rhythm section behind her, their dynamic frontwoman belted and purred her way through vocal numbers including a hazy, aptly nocturnal take of Julee Cruise’s Falling and The Nightingale.They stalked their way through The Bookhouse Boys, then did a restrained version of the sultry, vamping Audrey’s Theme as well as a more expansive, psychedelic take of the iconic Twin Peaks title theme. It makes sense that they might be even tighter, with possibly more material, this time out.

The New Bourbon Express Album: State-of-the-Art Hard Honkytonk

The Bourbon Express are as good as it gets in hard honkytonk. To get the sound perfect for their new album Cry About It Later – which hasn’t yet hit their Soundcloud page – they brought in the king of Americana and twangy rock guitar, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, to produce. The result is a purist blend of classic 60s C&W and harder-edged urban country. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, April 21 at 10 PM at Hank’s; cover is $8.

The album’s first track is Pick Me Up, swinging along over the groove from Andrew Dykeman’s bass and Phil Cimino’s drums. This isn’t your ordinary drinking song: frontwoman/rhythm guitarist Katie Curley insists that she needs enough to get her through the whole month!

Co-leader Brendan Curley spaces out his incisive Telecaster licks in Devil’s Angel, which has the feel of a Tammy Wynette hit from the late 60s, but with the guitar sting of the best Brooklyn country bands from the past fifteen years or so. Turn the Page – an original, not the Metallica hit – traces a bittersweet story through a family album, Jonny Lam’s pedal steel lingering in the background. Katie’s last line of the song is shattering, an ending too good to give away.

Take Me Out has a gorgeous blend of resonant guitar and steel, along with Melody Berger’s fiddle, not to mention one of the album’s most plaintively affecting vocals. Dream Girl, an aptly starry waltz, is probably the only honkytonk song ever to feature a concert harp. Katie also plays that instrument throughout her two intriguing, previous albums of Americana-laced parlor pop songs, originally released under her maiden name, Katie Brennan.

With its spiky twelve-string guitar textures blending with the steel, Ten Gallon Hat could be a female-fronted Byrds circa Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Brendan switches to saloon piano on Dilly Dally, Katie enthusing about the joys of being a homebody with a glass of red wine in her hand.

The album’s most aphoristic, retro 50s song is Blame It on the Hangover, a cheater’s cautionary tale. The title track keeps that theme going – “Laugh about it now, cry about it later.” The real classic here is is Five to Nine, a Take This Job and Shove It for everyone stuck in the electronic sweatshop. “I’ll probably have to drink alone tonight ‘cause I had to turn off my phone,” Katie laments, “You’re trying to keep me on the virtual clock while I’m trying to get offline.”

The album winds up with Cold Quiet Drink, a subdued Amy Allison-ish ballad with Brendan moving to mandolin, Ambel on acoustic guitar and Jason Mercer on bass.

Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards Bring Their Fearlessly Imaginative, Psychedelic Americana to the Rockwood

Violinist Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards stand out in a crowded Americana field for their fearlessness and originality. They aren’t the first to play retro acoustic roots music for string ensemble – a lot of classical types have a secret or not-so-secret fondness for folk music. Sadly, much as some of that crew are completely sincere, they don’t swing and they can’t really improvise. That’s where Cortese really shines. She and the band are playing the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood tomorrow night, April 14 at 11:30 PM; cover is $15.

Their latest album California Calling – streaming at Spotfy – isn’t particularly oldtimey, either. In fact, there’s only one tradtional tune on it. What Hem were to the zeros, Cortese and band are in the here and now. Case in point: the hypnotic opening track, The Low Hum, awash in hazy washes of strings, second violinist Jenna Moynihan anchoring the song on banjo, multi-instrumentalist Sam Kassirer adding woozy Dr. Dre synth. That it works as seamlessly as it does validates Cortese’s outside-the-box arrangement.

Cortese;s vocals infuse the album’s title track with warmth and intimacy amid a swirl of backing vocals, swelling strings and bouncy pizzicato: it’s not clear whether that spiky lead line is Cortese, Moynihan or cellist Valerie Thompson.

The women in the band – which also includes bassist Natalie Bohrn – join voices and then instruments in the lush, Celtic-tinged Three Little Words. If Irish chamber folk psychedelia didn’t exist before now, this band just invented it. There’s a fetching, Kasey Chanbers-ish break in Cortese’s voice in the bittersweetly swaying ballad Skipping Stone, with more spiky/atmospheric contrast.

The psychedelic Hold On, with its gospel allusions and trip-hop beat, brings to mind cult favorite New York Americana songstress Barbara Brousal – who’s since absconded to Boston. The band reinvent Swing & Turn (Jubilee), the album’s lone traditional tune, in much the same fashion, Cortese’s vocals soaring to the top of her register before the band finally cut loose with a jaunty reel.

The women’s four-part harmonies offer comfort in icy times in Rhododendron, which segues into Someday, sort of a more bluegrass-oriented take on Andrew Bird at his most bucolic. Stockholm, an allusive cautionary tale – “You’ve got to find a place to call home” – is another unlikely successful mashup of bluegrass and echoey psychedelia.

Bohrn’s starkly dancing bassline propels Pace Myself, a bluesy trip-hop number, edging from echoey Soft Cell new wave pop toward neo-soul. The album closes with If You Can Hear Me, a Taylor Ashton cover that doesn’t measure up to the strength of Cortese’s songwriting despite an interesting arrangement. It’s impossible to imagine anyone releasing more original album than this lately.

The Brooklyn Folk Festival Is Ten Years Old and Better Than Ever

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has become a New York rite of passage. Like Golden Fest, Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency, the Brooklyn Cyclones and Shakespeare in the Park, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. It’s held over a weekend every spring, with both daytime and evening lineups; a lot of people go every year.

The best thing about the festival is that it isn’t exclusively devoted to artists who play music by the greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time – whose name varies from language to language, but invariably translates as Anonymous. This past Saturday night’s lineup featured some of that repertoire but also originals drawing on a global expanse of influences, from high-voltage Romany dance music, to moody Balkan ballads,  ecstatic Afro-Colombian trance-dance chants, honkytonk, southern gothic and jug band sounds. Which makes sense, considering that the folks at the magical Jalopy Theatre – New York’s Americana music central – put this thing together.

By the time the nighttime lineup got underway, St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street was already packed with a diverse crowd of veterans and kids hell-bent on getting the most bang for the buck out of their all-weekend or allday passes. Italian pianist/singer Luca Ferraris kicked off the evening on the stage next to the beer stand with a dynamic set of originals and a few traditional numbers that ran the gamut from bouncy dance tunes with Romany or even Russian tinges, to ballads that sometimes sauntered unexpectedly in a jazz direction. A bassist joined him about midway through and became a vocal sparring partner. Even for those in the crowd whose Italian might be limited to restaurant menu items, the songs were infectious. 

In the church’s main space, pan-Balkan singer and song reinventor Eva Salina and sorcerer accordionist Peter Stan benefited from the rich natural reverb, which added yet another layer of mystery to their distinctive versions of songs from the catalogs of iconic Romany singers Saban Bajramovic and Vida Pavlovic. Nimbly negotiating the slithery sibilances of the Romanes language, the California-born Salina channeled resilience and grace in the face of longing and abandonment, sang a cartoonishly bouncy number from the point of view of a guy overjoyed with his three-foot-tall, extremely fertile wife, and didn’t shy away from the issues of displacement and exile that permeate so much of this repertoire. Stan sized up the sonics in a split-second and maxed them out with flickering torrents of bracing minor keys and chromatics that took on new dimensions, echoing off the walls.

There was a little overlap while one of the Jalopy house bands, Skalopy, played live dub reggae and some classic Toots & the Maytals material with a lineup that included both banjo and piano. Meanwhile, in the main space, Bulla En El Barrio built a frenzy of call-and-response with their hypnotically percussive chants, which draw a straight line back from Colombia to Africa. A succession of men and women took turns leading the choir over the thunder of the percussion; they closed with an original that was as rustic and otherworldly as any of the traditional epics.

They would have been a tough act to follow, but not for Jerron Paxton, who may be the most talented musician in all of New York. Playing a longer set than any of the other acts on the bill, solo, he nonchalantly showed off his spectacular chops as oldtime acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist, fiddler, banjo and harmonica player. This time out he didn’t take a turn at the piano, but he could have. In his genial Louisiana drawl, he entertained the crowd with stories from the kind of colorful past only a musician could have…but also didn’t hesitate to remind them of the sobering reality of how many ex-slaves died of starvation after the Civil War. And you wonder why so many old blues songs mention hunger. Moving methodically between carefree proto-bluegrass fiddle, wickedly precise blues fingerpicking, ominously ancient, hypnotically percussive banjo and some fierce harmonica blues, he made it all seem easy He encored on harmonica as well, with a breathless medley of 18th century blues tunes, including Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.

Nick Panken, frontman of high-voltage Americana crew Spirit Family Reunion, didn’t waste time admitting that they had an impossible act to follow. And they’re a great band – but loud electric rock with drums doesn’t work in a space like St. Ann’s. In that context, the matter of who was playing before or after was irrelevant. The sound people really tried their best, and the band realized what was up, so their ballads worked out ok. But when they picked up the pace, the mix was just vocals, drums and Maggie Carson’s icepick five-string banjo lines. Their songs blend bluegrass, honkytonk and oldtime string band music and they can jam like crazy. And their fan base is crazy about them. But this was the wrong venue. The Jalopy is their New York home base when they’re not on tour; they’re best experienced there.

Speaking of Jalopy people, guitarist/singer Feral Foster – who’s been running the weekly Roots and Ruckus series there since forever – was next on the bill. Looking dapper in a sharp tan suit, he crooned, picked expertly in oldtimey open tunings and took a couple of unexpected and very successful turns into ragtime and slow blues. It’s hard to think of a more original songwriter in gothic Americana. Some of the songs were tongue-in-cheek but others were not: there’s an omnipresent dark undercurrent that always grounds them in grim reality. He’s at the Jalopy virtually every Wednesday sometime after 9 PM.

Finally, at around midnight, Birmingham, Alabama’s Steel City Jug Slammers took the stage, bolstered by Ernesto Gomez and one of his bandmates from Brooklyn’s Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. It was amazing to watch Washtub Jay pick out swooping basslines on that clothesline string – without any tape on his fingers, either! – and play kazoo lines through a trumpet horn at the same time, and not miss a beat. Frontman Ramblin’ Ricky Tate played guitar and led the band through a sly series of shuffles and stomps as Maxwell Honeycup kept the low end going at the other side of the stage with his jug. By now, the crowd had thinned out, but these guys were not about to let anybody down.

That was it for this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, but a lot of these acts can be found at the Jalopy. Bulla en El Barrio are at Barbes on April 30 at around 10. Eva Salina and Peter Stan are at the American Folk Art Museum on May 4 at 5:30 PM, sharing the bill with irrepressibly fun, charming oldtimey chanteuse Tamar Korn, who can vocalize any wind instrument ever invented.. The Steel City Jug Slammers are at KGB Bar at around 9:30 PM on April 11. And Spirit Family Reunion are at the Knickerbocker, 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly, Rhode Island on April 14 at 9 for $13 in advance.

Populist Songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews Reinvents Classic Americana at the Mercury Tonight

Don’t let the hazy faux-70s Polaroid filter on the album cover of Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest album May Your Kindness Remain – streaming at Bandcamp – fool you. It isn’t dadrock. It’s a vivid, sobering collection of narratives set in a bleak, impoverished Trump-era milieu. The instrumentation behind the Americana songstress’ wounded wail is an unlikely blend of churchy organ and resonant, sometimes roaring washes of electric guitar. You might think that this mashup of oldschool soul, vintage C&W and psychedelia would be jarring to the extreme, but it works. Andrews is at the Mercury tonight, March 27 at 8 PM; cover is $12.

Andrews opens the record with the title track, a broodingly vivid 99-percenter ballad, hope against hope in a dingy blue-collar setting where kindness is “not something that can be bought or arranged.”

Lift the Lonely From My Heart is an oldschool country ballad reinvented as lingering psychedelic tone poem:  “Do you still see the good inside me or am I a shell of who I once was?” Andrews asks, dreading the obvious answer. The band – Dillon Warnek on lead guitar, Daniel Walker and Charles Wicklander on keys, Alex Sabel on bass and William Mapp on drums – pick up the pace with Two Cold Nights in Buffalo. “El Nino brought a blizzard…only the cheap motels were open, wrong side of the tracks,” Andrews recounts, ”That American dream dying, I hear the whispers of the ghosts.” As a paint-peeling indictment of real estate bubble era greed and despondency, it ranks with Jack Grace’s Get Out of Brooklyn for relevance and bite.

Andrews goes back to mashing up gospel and psychedelia in Rough Around the Edges: you could drown an entire congregation with the amount of reverb on that slightly out-of-tune piano. Fueled by echoey Fender Rhodes and sunbaked guitar, the southwestern gothic ballad Border salutes the resilience of Mexican immigrants: “You cannot measure a man until you’ve been down the devil’s road.:”

Andrews’ narrator manages to find solace amidst crushing poverty in Took You Up, another slow, enveloping psych-soul number. She keeps that ambience going with This House – hey, it’s a dump, but it’s home – and then lets the embers blaze through the wickedly catchy, embittered Kindness of Strangers. “How do you dive deeper in a shallow riverbed, when the current pulls your further?” Andrews wants to know.

The sarcasm in I’ve Hurt Worse is crushing: “Being with you is like being alone,” the woman in this relationship tells her abusive boyfriend. Andrews winds up the album with the swaying, summery, considerably more optimistic slide guitar ballad Long Road Back to You. Andrews’ previous album Honest Life was solid, but this is a quantum leap: fans of acts from Lucinda Williams, to Tift Merritt and Margo Price ought to check out Andrews.

The Year’s Best Americana Triplebill at Hank’s This Thursday Night

The best Americana triplebill of the year so far is happening this March 8 at Hank’s.  Kasey Anderson, whose gritty populist narratives bring to mind a young Steve Earle, opens the night at 8. Eric Ambel, proprietor of the dearly missed Lakeside Lounge and an even more spectacular, surreal guitarist and songwriter – who played lead in Earle’s band back in the day – follows at 9. Cliff Westfall  – whose aphoristic songs and soulful C&W baritone will take you back to 1956 at warp speed – headlines at around 10. Cover is $10.

Westfall, whose album Baby You Win is streaming at his music page. is as strong and memorable a retro songwriter as Pokey LaFarge – no joke. It takes you back to an era of neon-lit jukeboxes, tailfins, beer cans that you could crush in one hand only if you were really strong…and ten-cent drafts. And Westfall matches the honkytonk ambience with innumerable clever musical and lyrical details that fill out the picture. The opening track, It Hurt Her to Hurt Me is sort of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with even more clever wordplay, done by Hank Williams with a sizzling electric band behind him. The shuffling title track gives the group a chance to show off everything they’ve got: Scott Metzger’s tasty reverbtoned vintage tube amp sonics, a wry surf riff when least expected, a little Merle Haggard to kick off the song and colorful period vernacular. This guy’s “giving back the Crackerjack box I got from a so-called friend.”

Westfall croons bittersweetly over Charlie Giordano’s rippling honkytonk piano in the sad barroom ballad Til the Right One Comes Along. Then the group channel Orbison over a luscious web of twanging, jangling, echoing guitars in the Lynchian anthem More and More (as in “I think I love you more and more less and less”). With Metzger’s morosely tremoloing guitar solo, it’s a standout among many here.

With its chugging layers of twelve-string guitars – that’s Metzger and Graham Norwood – Off the Wagon is the missing link between Johnny Burnette and the Byrds –  the 1967 psychedelic Byrds, and the 1969 country Byrds as well. “We go together like booze and pills!” Westfall announces; those stampeding, twangy Bakersfield guitar multitracks on the way out are a straight shot of adrenaline.

The worn-out, defeated ballad Hanging On paints a vividly grim picture of a guy who’s just about had it with being strung along. By contrast, the boisterous I’ll Play the Fool comes across as a mashup of Subterranean Homesick Blues Dylan and Buck Owens.

The gorgeously clanging The Man I Used to Be paints a picture of a guy with “a little less size and a lot less wear…dusty 8X10s out in the hall, but I don’t recognize that guy at all.”

“I live in your world since I left my own,” Westfall admits in the sad waltz A Lie If You Must, over Dan Iead’s pedal steel.  “A lie calculated to appease and disarm, tell me what’s self-deception compared to your charms?” Elvis Costello would be proud to have written this one.

The End of the Line, the album’s hardest-rocking track, wouldn’t be out of place on a Wayne Hancock album, right down to that searing Metzger guitar solo midway through. The retro 50s shuffle ballad Sweet Tooth gives Westfall a chance to have fun with food and drug metaphors. The album winds up with similarly sly swamp-rock of The Odds Were Good. You’re going to see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

The Black Lillies Rock City Winery With a New Lineup

The version of the Black Lillies that played City Winery last weekend was a lot different from the considerably larger version of the band who got a rave review here in the fall of 2013. Frontman/multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras has most recently pared the group down to a tight, lean four-piece. Drummer Bowman Townsend, who propelled the unit through this show with his usual blend of purist four-on-the-floor rhythm and vintage shuffle grooves, is the only holdover from that lineup.

But they still jam as psychedelically, if not as quite as much  as that incarnation. After a steady, upwardly driving hour and a half onstage, the takeaway was that this is as good a version of the Black Lillies as there’s ever been – Contreras has always drawn from a wide talent base, anyway.

The band’s not-so-secret new weapon is lead guitarist Dustin Schaefer. It was easy to see where his camaraderie with the bandleader comes from, considering the two’s encyclopedic appreciation of classic bluegrass, honkytonk, soul, stadium anthems and psychedelic rock. By the end of the night’s first number, Schaefer had cranked out two of his most sizzling solos of the night on his big vintage hollowbody Gibson, smoldering with chromatics and uneasy bluesy bends.

These Black Lillies rock harder than they ever have. Interestingly, the set had very little from the band’s most recent album Hard to Please. Instead, they focused on new material as well as a lot of the strongest anthems from 2013’s Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s definitive statement to date.

Much as there were drinking songs, and band-on-the-road songs, and a handful of regretful ballads in the mix, the night’s central theme was the struggle to stay stay on solid ground in hard times. Maybe because of the current political climate, those songs of dashed dreams but also guarded hope resonated the most. In a revamped, amped-up take of Gold & Roses, Schaefer’s lead guitar substituted for the steel on the album version. Likewise, the band took Catherine – set in a surreal place with “nothing but blue skies and fire on the ground” – and made brisk bluegrass-inspired highway rock out of it.

The night’s longest number was a long, twisting psychedelic epic that went on for at least ten minutes, through a couple of false endings, part peak-era 1980s Grateful Dead and also Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, a blend you might think would be crazy – but it worked. Contreras put down his Telecaster and played acoustic for most of the show, for one anthem after another. Matter-of-factly, the group followed a steady path through the exasperated 99-percenter tale All This Living, the cynical, honkytonk-tinged Two Hearts Down, and a terse version of Ruby, the group’s take on the old country blues standard Ruby, about a party animal who can’t stay out of trouble.

Contreras waited until the encore, a scurrying take of the old 70s Eddie Rabbitt radio hit Driving My Life Away, to take a solo on the Tele, but he made it count. And the best solo of the night was his two-handed, barreling charge down the keys of his piano on one of the new numbers. New bassist Sam Quinn played with a cool, low-key pulse, once in awhile rising to the top of the fretboard as a verse would turn around into a mighty chorus, and took over lead vocals on an unexpectedly Beatlesque new song.

The Black Lillies’ next gig is on Feb  15 9 PM at the Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave in Charlotte, NC; cover is $14. For New York fans of similarly energetic if more lavish oldschool American sounds, crooner Brother Joscephus is bringing his New Orleans funk/soul orchestra there on Feb 6 at 8 PM. You can get in for $20.

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two.