New York Music Daily

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Tag: acoustic music

Cleopatra Degher Plays One of This Summer’s Most Enjoyably Catchy Shows at the Rockwood

Acoustic songstress Cleopatra Degher played one of the year’s funniest and most quietly devastating songs at her show at the Rockwood last month. It was a catchy, cheery little tune titled Rebecca Wood. See, Rebecca sometimes wonders what it would be like to be alone. But as Degher told it, she never is. “She gets to know all her friends on Facebook through all the pictures that they took.” The crowd didn’t start to chuckle until after the second chorus, but by then Degher had made her point.

The San Diego-based songwriter spent much of her childhood in Sweden. She’s still relatively young (early 20s), a nimble and very eclectic guitarist, has a way with a catchy, anthemic tune and sings in a strong, determined mezzo-soprano, informed by all sorts of oldtimey folk and Appalachian music as well as more current sounds. Auspiciously, her set was mostly new material along with a few numbers from her most recent album Pacific (streaming at Bandcamp). She opened with I Saw the Sky, her fast fingers picking a flurry on the strings up to one of her signature anthemic choruses. She followed with Nothing to Worry About Now, a driving, sparkling mountain music-inspired number.

Her agile hammer-ons and dynamic shifts, up to doublespeed and back, propelled Burden of Tomorrow. Keep on Moving, inspired by the long winters she endured in Sweden, blended hints of a Grateful Dead classic into its optimistic crescendos, a springboard for Degher’s steely upper register. Nothing But a River was as stunningly and bittersweetly hopeful as it was anthemic, Degher reaching back for all the force she could muster on the chorus. It was almost as she was going to use sheer force of will to make sure this relationship would go somewhere instead of falling through right at the start.

By contrast, Shame had more of a shuffling oldtimey feel, but once again hit a towering peak on the chorus: Degher can deliver a lot more raw energy than most musicians who employ just guitar and vocals. She also did a stately waltz written by her dad, Darius Degher, as well as a high-voltage cover of Ring of Fire. She spends a lot of time on the road: let’s hope she makes it back to town sooner than later.

Cricket Tell the Weather Bring Their Imaginative, Original Bluegrass-Inspired Sounds to the Tri-State Area

If you’re up for a fancy, sit-down night of newgrass and bluegrass, Cricket Tell the Weather are playing the third stage at the Rockwood at 8:30 PM on August 14. Cover is $10 and there’s that $10 drink minimum too. Much as it might seem incongruous not to be up on your feet dancing to this high-energy, original band, if you’re into hot picking, watching their fast fingers fly in this intimate space gives you a chance to figure out how they do it.

Their album – with production help from Lake Street Dive‘s fantastic bass player, Bridget Kearney – is streaming at Bandcamp. The opening track, Remington, looks back to hard times in firearms manufacturing in late 19th century Connecticut, singer Andrea Asprelli’s astringent fiddle sailing over the intricate web of Doug Goldstein’s banjo, Jason Borisoff’s guitar, Hans Bilger’s bass and Dan Tressler’s mandolin. Embers kicks off with an insistent guitar intro over an ominous bass drone: it’s a stark elegy for Borisoff’s mom, “Embers from afar, where the stars used to be,” as he broodingly asserts.

With its fire-and-brimstone imagery, four-part harmonies and banjo drive, Who’s that Knockin’ at My Door? is a swinging, retro Bill Monroe-style number. Likewise, the band-on-the-road tale Call You Home, sung by Asprelli, has jaunty solos around the horn. They bring the lights down for a glimmering, slow fingerpicked ballad, Let It Pass, looking back to 70s British hippie folk but without the cliches.

Rocky Mountain Skies is a triumphantly soaring salute to Asprelli’s native Colorado – her down-to-earth, unaffected vocal delivery is refreshing, and both Jeff Picker’s bass solo and Goldstein’s banjo solo will give you chills. So Fast So Long is a brisk, pouncing, catchy Britrock-tinged shuffle disguised as newgrass.”This town’s got eyes as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge,” Asprelli intones on the similarly edgy No Big City, with its blend of newgrass and darkly rustic Appalachian flavor. The album’s last song, Salt and Bones, has an unexpectedly funky rhythm and a pensive ambience that brings to mind Jenny Scheinman‘s adventures in Americana songcraft.

Since recording this, there’ve been some changes in the band, Jeff Picker taking over on guitar and Sam Weber replacing Bilger on bass. For Long Island and New Jersey bluegrass fans – or for anybody who might be up for a summer daytrip – the band are at the Long Island Bluegrass Festival at Tanner Park in Copiague the following day, August 15 and then at Parker Press Park, 401 Rahway Ave. in Woodbridge, New Jersey at 6 PM on the 16th.

Robin Aigner Brings Her Bittersweet, Richly Lyrical, Picturesque Americana to Barbes

Robin Aigner is one of the most darkly entertaning performers in New York. Long sought after as both a frontwoman and harmony singer – her time in chamber pop luminaries Pinataland ought to be at leat semi-legendary – she’s just as strong a songwriter. Her music draws equal on 19th century folk, Prohibition-era swing and oldtime hillbilly songs, with the occasional detour into Balkan sounds. And she can be hilarious: her lyrics are all about subtext, and double entendres, and history. She’s written about molasses floods in WWI-era Boston, inept Williamsburg buskers and imagined romances between such improbable figures as Irving Berlin and the first woman to come in through Ellis Island (she was Irish). And Aigner is an unreconstructed romantic – her characters get all bumped and bruised no matter what century they’re in, but they don’t quit. She and her charming chamber pop band Parlour Game are playing Barbes on August 8 at 8 PM, followed at 10 by Banda de los Muertos, a supergroup of NYC jazz types playing rousingly anthemic Sinaloa-style Mexican ranchera music for brass band.

Aigner is also an impresario: her previous gig was a mind-bogglingly eclectic, surprising, sometimes downright haunting night of Tom Waits covers at Freddy’s, featuring a diverse cast of characters including but hardly limited to Mamie Minch, Serena Jost, Pierre de Gaillande, Brooke Watkins, Dave Benjoya, Andrew Sovine and numerous others. She also put together the show before that, a magical night at the Jalopy with folk noir songwriter Erica Smith, rockabilly and retro guitar maven Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo and devious accordion-and-violin duo the Wisterians. “Every month is World Wine Month,” Aigner announced to the audience at the Jalopy gig, and while she didn’t indulge in more than a couple of glasses during her set, that comment set the tone. Playing solo on guitar, she opened with Delores from Florence, an allusive yet minutely detailed tale of transcontinental love gone wrong set to a soaringly cantering, flamenco-tinged waltz.

After that, she did See You Around, a broodingly pulsing, wryly wistful number told from the point of view of a woman struggling to get past being smitten by a guy who clearly has no use for her in daylight. Pearl Polly Adler – an innuendo-packed shout-out to the legendary FDR-era bordello owner – looked back to early 20th century pop, when 90% of the stuff coming out of New York had a tasty, bracing klezmer tinge. For that matter, so did Kiss Him When He’s Down, a jaunty endorsement for giving a roofie to your significant other – or insignificant other – in order to get what you want.

Switching to uke, Aigner drew plenty of laughs with Crazy, a hilariously detailed litany of the kind of weirdos a woman can date if she sees fit. She went for darker ambience with the plaintive, alienated war survivor’s tale El Paraiso, then picked things up again with the jaunty Irving and Annie – Annie thinks Irving can play sonatas (he can’t) and later on in the song, she references Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), which used to serve as a quasi-quarantine and was the site of one of New York’s first hospitals. After another moody, low-key number, Aigner teamed with Watkins on accordion to wind up her set with Greener, a soaringly anxious, bitter post-party alienation anthem that works on innumerable levels. If we’re lucky, she’ll play some and maybe all of these songs at Barbes.

Rachel Mason Unveils Her Gorgeously Lurid, Erudite Historical Song Suite at Joe’s Pub

Rachel Mason is best known as an uncategorizable performer who refuses to be pigeonholed. Throughout her extensive body of work, the theatrical and narrative aspects are typically as important as the music. Focusing strictly on songcraft, what was stunning at her performance at Joe’s Pub on Sunday night was how impactful her tunes are even without those theatrics – and what a spellbinding singer she is. In a rare concert performance, backed by a tight and inspired band – Tanner Beam on lead guitar, Stu Watson on bass, Robbie Lee on flute, Michael Durek on piano and theremin and Chris Moses Kinlow on drums – Mason aired out songs from her brand-new film and accompanying soundtrack album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish. Auspiciously, Mason’s latest magnum opus is currently in development as a theatre work written by Pia Wilson, to be produced by Cindy Sibilsky. As lurid and downright haunting as Mason’s music and the accompanying art-film are, a stage version could have mass appeal far beyond the confines of cutting-edge downtown New York performance.

Although Mason serves as a Greek chorus of sorts both in the film and on the soundtrack, her point of view takes a backseat to the twin narratives of two men, both named Hamilton Fish, who died on the same day in 1936. Mason has really done her homework, historically speaking – while the serial killer and pedophile Hamilton Albert Fish provides plenty of grisly grist for the mill, what might be most impressive is how she brings to life the other Hamilton Fish. He was the second in a line that would number a total of five men with that improbable name, a seemingly dour and tormented upstate New York political lifer upstaged by his famous father, a United States Secretary of State central to the doctrine and practice of manifest destiny. Exactly the kind of complex characters Mason loves to illuminate.

She opened the show with a tensely pulsing janglerock number, 60s Laurel Canyon pop through the swirly prism of 80s psychedelia in a Plan 9 vein, then going deeper into paisley underground territory as she traced the two lives that ended in side-by-side obituaries “tied together by the Evening Star.” She gave voice to the more benign Fish’s familial angst in Distinguished Line, a matter-of-factly strolling folk noir number, then took a stark, horrified, operatic tour through the deadly Fish’s horrific younger days in Wild Fish Pt. 1, an electrified take on late 19th century front-porch folk.

The narrative continued its harrowing, mysterious course with the uneasily Dylanesque, aptly titled Nightmare, the politician haunted by the ghost of his wife as the theremin whistled ominously in the background. Mason waited until The Werewolf of Wisteria – as the serial killer was known after a Staten Island murder – to spiral around at the top of her vocal range; throughout most of the show, her moody alto made a powerful vehicle for her grimly detailed story. The stark Broken Soul of a Hunan Being – based on a letter the killer wrote to the mother of one of his victims – made for a chilling example.

And in a cameo, pianist/singer M. Lamar delivered chills with his otherworldly falsetto and murky attack on the keys, channeling the horror and pain of a tortured child – throughout both the album and the film, Mason leaves no doubt that the killer Fish wasn’t born that way, he was made. It’ll be fascinating to see how this translates to the stage.

Intense, Evocative, Ruggedly Individualistic Acoustic Americana from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Kansas City duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear sound like no other band on the planet. They’re both a trip back to a land to a time forgot, and completely in the here and now. And their music is amazing. Forget for a sec that they may be darlings of NPR and the corporate media because they’re a mom and her kid making music together. Ohhhh, how sweeeet, right? No. Ruth Ward is a badass guitarist, so is her son Madisen. And their allusively erudite songs can be catchy beyond belief, distilled in two hundred years of front-porch folk, and country blues, and oldschool C&W and soul music. But while their influences may be retro, what they’re doing with them is something brand new and genuinely exciting. They haven’t played New York since an absolutely riveting invite-only show in the meatpacking district back in May; by the time they hit Joe’s Pub on July 27 at 7:30 PM, they’ll be a couple of days removed from the Newport Folk Festival, and then they’re off to a marathon European tour. Cover for the Joe’s Pub gig is $15 and advance tix are still available as of today, believe it or not.

Their new album Skeleton Crew is streaming at Spotify. The steady, bouncy but enigmatic opening track, Live by the Water, sets the tone for the rest of the album. On the surface, it’s told from the point of view of an older guy who can’t get enough simple pleasures…but is also all too aware of what he doesn’t have. The devil’s in the details everywhere here.

The monster hit waiting to happen is the ragtime-tinged Silent Movies, mother and son’s strums building a lush bed of guitars in perfect unison. Mom echoes son’s vocals; throughout the album, it’s impossible to tell who’s playing the spare lead lines, the two are so committed to staying on track, not overdoing it, simply reflecting a mood, or the storyline. This is deep stuff.

Modern Day Mystery has a careful, moody minor-key sway. “I could never leave this place gracefully,” Madisen explains casually, and then draws the listener in from there. “When I leave this house, I couldn’t disappear if I tried.”

The two weave a spiderweb of guitars on the delicately waltzing Dead Daffodils, a creepy, Faulknerian southern gothic tableau. Then they go back toward ragtime with Whole Lotta Problems and its droll, aphoristic call-and-response. Fight On rises from intricate and enigmatic to lush and sweeping, with a 70s soul-jazz tinge. By contrast, Big Yellow Taxi – an original, not the Joni Mitchell hit – is an irrepressibly bouncy, bittersweet portrait of a homeless guy.

Daisy Jane is the most musically lighthearted number here, followed by the most chillingly allusive one, Undertaker and Juniper. By the Wards’ reckoning, even executioners fall in love…and suffer the consequences. Down in Mississippi features stark cello along with terse guitar multitracks, a troubled Jim Crow-era tableau echoed in the understatedly majestic, gospel-tinged Sorrows and Woes. Be the first on your block to be able to brag that you discovered this inimitable duo.

A Brand-New Live Album and a Rare Small Club Date by the Irrepressible Dustbowl Revival

The Dustbowl Revival‘s New York show on the 21st is a classic case of a national touring act who are huge on the road being squeezed into a smaller room than they’re accustomed to. Where is the mighty, exhilarating, sardonically original oldtime Americana band playing? The Beacon Theatre? Radio City? Bowery Ballroom? Nope. Union Hall, up the block from Key Food in Park Slope. They hit the stage at 8:30; cover is a measly $8.

This band defines itself with its sense of humor: even the band name is funny. Who would ever want to revive an invasion of starving Okies with mattresses on top of their cars? The group has a live album – which more bands should be making – titled With a Lampshade On, due out monentarily. The title track, fueled by Daniel Mark’s mandolin and Connor Vance’s fiddle, is a characteristically lickety-split punkgrass romp, a litany of things you basically shouldn’t be doing, with or without drunken headgear. The other track from the album that’s up online is Never Had to Go, a bouncy acoustic take on oldschool 50s C&W sung by uke and washboard player Liz Beebe.

Another of this band’s distinguishing characteristics is that they’re the rare string band with a horn section, which adds extra brightness and energy. That’s Matt Rubin on trumpet and Ulf Bjorlin on trombone. The remainder of the album hasn’t hit the group’s Bandcamp page along with the rest of their exuberant catalog; bookmark the link and check back soon. Interestingly, it’s a departure from the band’s earlier material – the vernacular is less antique (mid 20th century rather than 1920s and before) and the sound is beefier, maybe as a result. For example, Hey Baby is a lot more electric and expansive than the band usually gets, a swaying New Orleans-flavored funk number. The version of Old Joe Clark here amps up the shuffling, oldtime proto-bluegrass vibe with the punchiness of the brass. Speaking of brass, that’s what Beebe brings to the 60s-style soul number Feels Good, which also has long trumpet and trombone solos. And frontman Zach Lupetin plays electric guitar on another sweetly swaying oldschool soul ballad, Standing Next To Me

Ballad of the Bellhop is one of the band’s usual funny stories set to jaunty oldtimey swing, the droll muted brass lines matching the mood. Bright Lights is a brand new genre, a narcobolero, pulsing along with a slinky groove from drummer Joshlyn Heffernan and bassist James Klopfleisch. After that, the band picks up the pace with Cherokee Shuffle, a mashup of bluegrass and western swing, then takes it back down again with the slow-simmering, dixieland-spiced kiss-off ballad Doubling Down On You.

Ain’t My Fault is a New Orleans second-line shuffle with what sounds like a tapdancing solo from Lupetin that the crowd goes wild for – this is one of those rare moments when you wish the album was a DVD. They go into hi-do-ho noir for the brisk Drop in the Bucket, then slow things down with the sly soul slink Wrapped up in My Heart. They wind things up with Whiskey in the Well, a high-spirited dixieland romp. Where their studio albums are more about stories, and jokes, and sometimes satire, this one’s more about the music – which makes sense for a concert recording.

Rachel Mason’s Epic New Folk Noir Album Traces Two Twisted Historical Narratives

In addition to her work in film, video and performance art, Rachel Mason is one of the most entertaining artists in art-rock. An edgy surrealism, a laser sense for catchy tunes and a spot-on political sensibility define her work. She’s performed pieces which recreate a Rand Paul thirteen-hour filibuster in its entirety, sent shout-outs to freedom fighters in Chechnya and to inspirations as disparate as Beyonce and Marina Abramovic. Mason’s latest project is an ambitious film where she plays the role of a newspaper editor whose imagination is sparked by the January 15, 1936 deaths of two historical figures, both named Hamilton Fish. One is a New York State congressman and the most minor figure in a prominent political family, the other a sadistic serial killer and self-described cannibal executed in the Sing Sing electric chair. The accompanying double album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish is streaming at Bandcamp.  Mason has a couple of intriguing shows coming up: on July 21 at 7:30 PM sharp at Anthology Film Archives, she’ll be singing to accompany the film. Then on July 26 at 7 PM, Mason will playing the album with her band and countertenor M. Lamar at Joe’s Pub. General admission is $15, but advance tix are a good idea because it’s likely to sell out.

This is one creepy album. There are a grand total of twenty-one tracks on Mason’s folk noir magnum opus, mostly just reverbtoned acoustic guitar and vocals. Mason has really done her homework, filling out the narrative in rich detail. For example, in the opening cut, Two Strangers, Mason alludes to the many sewing pins that the killer Fish inserted into his abdomen…and also references the most likely apocryphal stash of cash that his shady Republican county boss namesake buried in the woods somewhere in New England. Mason’s voice is richly nuanced, depending on the song; sometimes muted and somber, sometimes horrified and reaching for the rafters with a spine-tingling, dramatic edge, as on The Werewolf of Wisteria, one of the monickers given to the sadomasochistic Fish in the contemporary press.

Likewise, the music is typically somber and minor-key as a lurid crime chronicle takes centerstage. On one hand, Mason doesn’t downplay the grisly, hallucinatory storyline, but she also doesn’t deny dignity to the victims, many of them children. And there’s plenty of sympathy here for the tortured orphan who would later turn his demons loose on the world – he claimed to have killed, dismembered and eaten more than a hundred victims, a claim that’s been subject to plenty of dispute. Mason also poignantly reminds that an innocent man was tried – and acquitted – for one of Fish’s crimes.

The sarcasm rises to fever pitch in A Distinguished Line, contemplating the irony in how history remembers a mass murderer better than the undistinguished scion of a Republican political fortune. Mason’s sarcasm is crushing: “I sang soprano in the little boys’ choir, and the things they did to me made my voice grow higher,” she sings in Wild Fish, a broodingly subdued chronicle of the killer’s horrific childhood. Mason really works the mystery – despite the two central characters’ divergent life stories, sometimes it’s hard to tell which Fish Mason is talking about. Throughout the album, two other similarly brilliant, historically-inspired songwriters, Robin Aigner and Elisa Flynn often come to mind. The arrangements occasionally get more fleshed out, encompassing creepy Alec Redfearn-esque organ-fueled psychedelia and shuffling Americana or 80s goth-tinged rock.

And what of the largely forgotten upstate New York politico? There’s a happy ending here, at least on his side. While not addressed on the album, Hamilton Fish V – the last of the line, Hamilton-wise – redeemed the name, turning the family’s Republican legacy on its axis, becoming a prime mover behind the resurgence of the influential progressive weekly The Nation. After springboarding a respected think tank and independent media center, the Nation Institute, Fish V now runs a consultancy that aids environmentally sustainable businesses. At least that’s what he does when he’s not growing organic produce.

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.

Tamara Hey Represents for Real New Yorkers at the Slipper Room

The dichotomy that runs through Tamara Hey‘s music is edgy, funny, picturesque New York-centric lyrics set to catchy, upbeat tunes with a purist pop sensibliity. Likewise, she balances the crystalline, unselfconscious charm of her vocals with what can be devastatingly amusing, deadpan between-song commentary. Her music has special resonance for those who consider themselves oldschool New Yorkers: Hey is sort of a songwriting Woody Allen of the Lower East Side…minus the celebrity and the ugly backstory. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on July 1 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10.

And because there’s always an element of surprise when she plays live, she’s worth seeing more than once: this blog managed to catch a grand total of three of her shows over the past year at the Rockwood. One was a solo gig; two were with melodic bassist Richard Hammond, who managed to do double duty as rhythmic center and lead player, no easy feat. And the songs ran the gamut. One of the most charming numbers was Oscar & Bud, a vivid, minutely detailed portrait of a retired ex-showbiz couple who happen to be the narrator’s key people (i.e. they’ve got her spare keys – it’s a New York thing). That song looked back to vintatge Tin Pan Alley.

But Hey likes to mix it up. Drive, with its soaring chorus, 9/11 reference and get-me-the-hell-out-of-here theme, looked back to new wave, as did Miserably Happy (title track to her cult classic powerpop album), which evoked Blondie’s Dreaming. The rambunctiously pulsing, doo-wop tinged Alphabet City, a shout-out to familiar LES haunts which have lately been disappearing one after the other, took on a bittersweet quality. Likewise, We Lean on Cars, a snapshot of middle-school North Bronx anomie circa the early 90s. Hey and Hammond also ran through some more wrly entertaning snapshots of city life: David #3, weighing whether or not to succumb to the allure of a Mr. Wrong, who happens to be a Red Sox fan; Mexico Money, a droll tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; and You Wear Me Out, a clever number about how macho guys sometimes turn out to be the most insecure ones. The C-Note may be long gone, Lakeside Lounge too, and Cafe Pick-Me-Up is moving to East 7th Street, but Tamara Hey still represents for the neighborhood.

And when she’s not playing gigs, she’s busy running Alphabet City Music, who offer economical and informative courses in guitar and applied music theory for players of all levels. This blog covered her introductory music theory course last year and found it both immensely challenging and also immensely useful. By the way, just in case anyone might assume ulterior motives, i.e. sucking up to the prof, to explain why this blog has been at so many of her recent shows, let’s set that record straight. The course was offered during the summer; two of those shows were in the fall and one was this past January.

The Hillbenders Bring Their Imaginative Americana Take on The Who to the Rockwood

If you’re into bluegrass, you’ve probably heard Luther Wright & the Wrongs‘ 2001 cult classic Rebuild the Wall, an acoustic version of the Pink Floyd movie soundtrack album. In a similar vein, with considerably less of a mean-spirited satirical edge, the Hillbenders’ Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, an impressively faithful newgrass take on the Who, is currently burning up the charts and streaming at Spotify. They’re bringing it to the big room at the Rockwood on June 18 at 7 PM on an excellent twinbill with honkytonkers the Honeycutters, Cover is $12; the venue isn’t clear on who’s playing first, but both bands are worth seeing if Americana is your thing. And if you feel like nursing your $15 beer and making a night of it, sardonic oldtimey swing guitarist/crooner Seth Kessel & the Two Cent Band play their jaunty, fun, original  tunes afterward at around 10:30.

It’s tempting to say that audiences in 2015 will probably prefer the Hillbenders’ version over the Who’s original. Forget for a minute that these days, bluegrass is a whole lot more popular than bombastic stadium rock. For starters. this bluegrass band has virtuoso chops and impeccable taste, recording the album to two-inch tape. While the Who obviously also recorded in analog, they were still a garage band at heart when they made the original. What’s most surprising about the new album is how well the incidental music between the radio hits translates to bluegrass – and, quite frankly, how much the band improves it. A prime example is Sparks, where the dobro and banjo really soar. What’s less surprising is how well the Hillbenders do the hits. For one, just the absence of Roger Daltrey’s florid vocals is a big plus. And while it’s probably unfair to weigh how much more texture, and dynamics, and flair guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves and banjo player Mark Cassidy add, by comparison to all of Pete Townshend’s overdubs, the ultimate result is that the Hillbenders’ version is arguably even more epic. And what more could you possibly want from a rock opera? That probably explains why Townshend has given his blessing to the album.

The one thing that it doesn’t offer is a blockbuster rhythm section, which makes sense: Gary Rea is a perfectly good bluegrass bassist, eschewing John Entwhistle’s sinewy attack for a purist oldschool approach. And the band sidesteps the issue of trying to match any of Keith Moon’s contributions, probably a wise choice. They also don’t attempt to clarify or expand on the original’s bare-bones plot: best to look at this as a catchy collection of newgrass pop songs imbued with tongue-in-cheek humor and played with first-class chops, rather than any kind of profound statement. And the hits are a revelation. You can understand the lyrics to Pinball Wizard – how’s “Bally table king” for 60s cultural resonance? Go to the Mirror matches the junior existentialist angst of the original, and We’re Not Gonna Take It has even more defiance. After all this, ironically, the original seems pretty lightweight.

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