New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: acoustic blues

Tuneful, Purposeful, Original Acoustic Blues from Rust Dust

Jason Stutts, a.k.a. Rust Dust is a first-class acoustic blues guitarist and a connoisseur of oldtime Americana. He typically plays in open tunings with a slide on a vintage resonator model in the Mississippi delta style, but doesn’t limit himself to that. He sings in a laid-back Midwestern twang rather than trying to fake a southern drawl. His debut album Diviners and Shivs, recorded with an imaginative array of spatially placed mics on the grounds of an upstate New York farm, is streaming at Spotify. He’s become a staple of the similarly first-class Friday night shows at the American Folk Art Museum, where he’s playing the album release show for his new one this Friday, Oct 27 at 5:30 PM.

Stutts bookends the album with a pensive, spaciously bluesy take of Amazing Grace. The second track is the brisk, purposeful Side of the Road Blues, which is over in less than two minutes, like a lot of the songs here: Stutts really doesn’t waste notes!

The plainspoken, melancholy Nothing Hurts Worse is an original folk tune: “I’m a forty-year-old bundle of nerves…my swagger is becoming a swerve,” his narrator laments. Stutts plays the tantalizing, bracing miniature Blackberry Nightmare, a mashup of British folk and country blues, through an amp with the distortion turned all the way up. Then he slowly fingerpicks the surreal, slow Strange Cake, a stoner folk tune: “Hey Strange Cake, why you chasing rabbits you’re never gonna catch?”

By contrast, Heaven to Hell is stark and uneasy, an antiwar/antiviolence number: “Now we got AK’s at home, just for fun,” Stutts dryly observes. The stark Just Can’t Keep From Crying, with the vocals doubling the guitar line, brings to mind delta great Fred McDowell. Coming and Going is a similarly spare banjo instrumental that’s over in barely a minute;

The album’s title track, another really short one, is a bizarrely successful mashup of late-period John Fahey and hip-hop. Stutts also offers a brief take of the hymn Down in the Valley and a surprisingly bristling, gothic version of Wayfaring Stranger with full-on reverb and just the hint of a tremolo effect. Stutts likes to jam, so you can count on him taking these songs to a lot of different places onstage.

Purist, Soulful Guitar Polymath Jeremiah Lockwood Continues His Residency at Barbes

Because Jeremiah Lockwood is such a protean guitarist, you never know where he’s going to go. He can spiral through a long psychedelic break, take his time with a mysterious, haunting, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern melody, or jam out on a Malian desert rock vamp. He’s also a fantastic country blues player. The leader of the long-running, brilliantly psychedelic Sway Machinery is in the midst of a weekly residency this month at Barbes on Sundays at 5 PM – that’s right, five o’clock in the evening, pretty much on the nose. Which is perfect, because it’s a work night. He’s got a couple more shows to go – on the 19th, he’s with the absolutely brilliant and similarly protean Shoko Nagai on accordion, which ought to be a great opportunity to air out his repertoire of otherworldly, ancient cantorial themes. Then on the 26th he’ll be leading the “The Fraternal Order of the Society Blues,” where he’ll be joined by fellow axemen Ernesto Gomez from Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues and Ricky Gordon of the Wynton Marsalis Ensemble, playing a tribute to their mentor, the great Piedmont blues guitarist Carolina Slim.

Lockwood’s Barbes show last week was an intimate duo performance with singer Fay Victor. It was an all-blues set, the two sharing a warm camaraderie as they made their way through a set of both standards and obscurities. They’d trade off solos, Victor sometimes just singing vocalese, subtly building to some unexpectedly powerful peaks, Lockwood hanging out in a mysterious midrange on his old resonator guitar. And as much as the vibe was rustic and antique, they reinvented the material. They did Memphis Slim’s morbid Back to Mother Earth as the kind of delta blues that he probably heard as a kid and decided to make bitingly elegant piano music out of. They did the much same when they went into the Muddy Waters catalog. A little later, they did a Jimmy Reed number, and instead of Jimmy Reed-ing it, all slinky and sly and lowlit, they picked it up with an emphatic bounce. Lockwood is a maven of so many styles; if blues is your thing, the show on the 26th should be off the hook, and this Sunday’s show is also definitely worth checking out if you’re in the neighborhood in the early evening. And the Sway Machinery will be at Union Pool with edgy latin rockers El Imperio on August 9 at around 9.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Plays a Killer Barbes Show, Then Heads to City Winery

Saturday night at Barbes, resonator guitarist and Americana music maven Mamie Minch played just about every kind of blues except for the cheesy Eric Clapton kind. The co-proprietress of one of the world’s few woman-owned-and-operated instrument repair shops, Brooklyn Lutherie, embodies the fearlessness and charisma of her influences, notably Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. Minch played a couple of their songs, including an absolutely chilling new arrangement of Smith’s Sing Sing Blues, a bitter courtroom drama that resonates just as much today as it must have eighty years ago. Running a line into the PA from her 1937 National steel guitar for otherworldly resonance and extra overtones, she was joined on drums by Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow. The two bantered back and forth, an endless exchange of one-liners that was just about as entertaining as the music: they make a good team. And that extended to the music as well, as the two intertwined harmonies on several numbers.

And while most of the Jalopy-centric acoustic roots scene play covers and traditional material, Minch also writes her own songs, matching oldtime vernacular and lyrical wit to melodies that push beyond the blues scale into edgy acoustic rock territory. She romped restlessly through Razorburn Blues (the title track to her most recent album), a rapidfire litany of ridiculous things women have to endure. A little later she joined voices with Sharenow for a pillowy version of Border Radio, her Carter Family tribute which she had the good fortune to record on wax cylinder a couple of years ago. And she encored with Al Duvall‘s gut-bustingly funny, pun-fueled Kentucky Mermaid, a tale of a woman who has to be especially careful: since she’s a fishwife, she might get battered.

The covers were just as diverse, and gave Minch a chance to get frisky with her fingers through styles from the Mississippi hills, to the delta, to Memphis and points further north. She took her time through the creepy chromatics of Memphis Slim’s ghoulish Back to Mother Earth, then threw off plenty of sparks with a take of R.L. Burnside’s Old Black Mattie. And she took the Stones’ Prodigal Son back to its roots as an anxious number originally penned by Rev. Robert Watkins many years before the Glimmer Twins appropriated it. Between songs, she hummed as she retuned: who needs a digital tuner when all you have to do is sing the pitch?

Minch plays Jan 4 at City Winery at 8 PM on a guitar-rich twinbill with ex-Dylan lead player and fellow Americana purist Larry Campbell, who’s doing a duo show with singer/guitarist Teresa Williams afterward at around 9. General admission is $20 for standing room, more if you want a table

Willie Watson Brings His Colorful Oldtime Songs to the Mercury

It’s easy to see why David Rawlings would want to produce Willie Watson‘s debut album, Folk Singer Vol. 1. Watson has a terse, economical, low-key fluidity on both the guitar and banjo and is a connoisseur of dark folk music from across the decades and for that matter, the centuries. The album is a solo acoustic project with a colorful choice of songs. In the same vein as his approach to the fretboard, Watson lets the stories tell themselves, singing in an understated twang with a little shivery vibrato that tails off at the end in a 1920s blue style. He’s at the Mercury on May 21 at 8 PM; advance tix are $10 and recommended (the box office is open Monday-Friday, 5-7 PM).

Watson’s version of Midnight Special sets the stage: it’s got the feel of an old blues record from the 20s without the pops and scratches. At the end, Watson leaves no doubt that this is no party anthem: it’s a cautionary tale. He follows that with a briskly swaying, one-chord banjo version of the bankrobber ballad Long John Dean and then the similar, slightly slower banjo tune Stewball, a nonchalantly grim horseracing narrative. As the race kicks off, “Old Stewball was trembling like a criminal to be hung.”

The delta blues tune Mother Earth is sort of a slightly more upbeat take on Death Don’t Have No Mercy. The fastest number here, Mexican Cowboy, has a bitter end you can see coming a mile away, but it’s still a fun ride. Watson follows a slow, steady pace on James Alley Blues up to a vicious payoff at the end, then gets even more murderous on Rock Salt & Nails, an old song that’s as alienated and angry as anything Hank Williams ever wrote. It’s the high point of the album.

After that, Watson picks up the pace with the upbeat blues Bring It with You When You Come, an oldtimey weed-smoking anthem and then switches back to banjo for a muted take of Kitty Puss, a dance number. He ends the album with Keep It Clean, which sounds like a prototype for John Prine at his weirdest. This one gets Watson’s best guitar work here, spare and uncluttered but sprinkled with all sorts of crisp, nimble accents.

The Sometime Boys Strike Again

The Sometime Boys started out as an infrequent acoustic side project from guitarist Kurt Leege and singer Sarah Mucho of art-rockers System Noise. When their main band went on hiatus, the Sometime Boys became their main focus: a year or so later, they’re suddenly one of New York’s best bands. Their debut album, Any Day Now was one of 2011’s best, and their gentle but intense and unselfconsciously beautiful new one Ice and Blood is a strong contender for best of 2012. It’s a mix of brisk bluegrass vamps, soulful acoustic funk, spiky blues, gospel, straight-up rock and a couple of classic covers that they completely reinvent. This time out the core of Leege and Mucho is abetted by Pete O’Connell on bass, Rebecca Weiner Tompkins on violin, Jay Cowitt on drums and Erik James on piano, accordion and keyboards. While the instrumentation tends to be rustic and the melodies steeped in traditional Americana, their sound is unique and eclectic to the extreme, with elements of 70s jamrock and funk intermingled with swing jazz, ragtime and oldtime country music.

The album begins with Winter Solstice and ends with its summery counterpart. The first holds out hope on the year’s darkest day, Mucho musing about “what fun we missed when leaves were left unturned” against jaunty ragtime piano and insistent violin. The second is a crescendoing, optimistic showcase for Mucho at her most soaring and spine-tingling, packed with neat polyrhythms, a slinky bass groove and a warmly Jerry Garcia-esque guitar solo that slowly and hypnotically winds out. They take Eden, an older song by Noxes Pond, the predecessor band to System Noise and jazz it up with dreamy Rhodes piano, Mucho at her most nuanced. “”I have no need for miracles, just ice and blood and all that’s real, I’ll heal myself,” she asserts with a quiet intensity. She sings of an icy clarity, but her voice is the furthest thing from icy: a star in the cabaret world, where she’s won multiple MAC awards (the cabaret equivalent of a Grammy), she’s one of New York’s most gripping vocalists in any style of music. She blends a raw torchiness with a commanding jazz sophistication on a syncopated piano swing version of Brother Can You Spare a Dime, bringing the anthem alive for a new generation of the down-and-out. By contrast, she transforms the Beatles’ Mother Nature’s Son into a wary gospel number over Cowitt’s perfect Ringo evocation.

Unsurprisingly, the best songs here are originals. The absolutely gorgeous organ-driven anthem Drop by Drop might be the single best song of the year so far: it’s a sad, elegaic country waltz that builds to an angst-fueled grandeur. Slowly, its forlorn narrator comes to grips with the fact that the person “who’s supposed to love me most” is turning into a ghost before her eyes, underscored by Leege’s tersely biting, bittersweet acoustic guitar.  The Good People of Brooklyn, with its ragtime piano and stark violin, pensively yet ecstatically pays tribute to Mucho’s adopted “city of trees,” an unselfconsciously heartwarming message of hope for the 99% struggling through “another day, another turning of the screw.” Igloo, a broodingly atmospheric mix of fingerpicked guitar and accordion, builds a haunting ambience that could be the apocalypse, or just a portrait of clinical depression, where someone can “Curl under this blanket/It’s peaceful in our early graves.” There are also a couple of duets, one a folk-pop tune, the other an acoustic goth rock song, and also a bouncily shuffling pop song that sounds like Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. The whole album is streaming at Soundcloud; the Sometime Boys play the album release show for this one on May 31 at 9 PM at the Parkside.

Wallace on Fire at LIC Bar

Last night Wallace on Fire played LIC Bar. Any musician whose peers rave about him – or who’s ambitious enough to seek out Lorraine Leckie as a collaborator – is always worth discovering. This particular version of the band was just frontman J Wallace on guitar and vocals and Joe Wallace (no relation) on bass. Even stripped down to just the basics, they were definitely worth the trip to Queens. J Wallace plays his acoustic through a Fender tube amp, often running through a distortion pedal for just enough grit to add an extra level of menace. The bar’s booker described their music as country blues, which is a starting point – J Wallace’s songs take the style to new places. He gets a lot of props for his vocals – and he’s an excellent singer, no question, as strong when he goes up the scale as when he hangs around the low notes – but he’s also a strong guitarist. Rather than getting involved in extended solos, he works in thoughtful riffs from across the acoustic blues spectrum (and one from Jimi Hendrix), and he’s just as solid with country and folk styles.

Some of the slower songs went into straight-up rock: a couple with echoes of heavy southern rock like Black Oak Arkansas, another that staked out territory in an artsy, post-grunge vein much like Fen or bands of that ilk. And then they segued straight out of that one into The Rain, a catchy, pensively swaying Leckie tune with a dark Patti Smith vibe. The set’s opening tune built around a menacing Steve Wynn-style hammer-on riff; a bit later, they covered Neil Young – another obvious but not overwhelming influence – and then went from bouncy folk-pop, to a carefree, whistling country song and then back to the pensively burning bluesy stuff.

Joe Wallace is an excellent bassist, propelling the songs with a smart, in-the-pocket style while managing to slide all over the place, using all kinds of imaginative voicings along with the occasional booming chord: watching him play was inspiring. LIC Bar seems to be a home base for Wallace on Fire: watch this space for upcoming shows.