You wouldn’t expect one of this era’s great soul singers to play Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground on a dobro. But that’s what Alice Lee did at Pete’s Candy Store late last month. She’d picked up the old 1930s model in Alaska last year and decided to put it to use, if not the way anybody would expect her to. Not to say that Stevie Wonder did a bad job with the original, but she gave it extra bite, and extra 21st century flavor: we’ve really got to keep on reaching now, even more than we did in the 70s.
Other than the occasional Nina Simone tune, Lee isn’t even known for playing covers, but she did another to close the set. “If I ever start a cover band, we’re going to do Sade,” she grinned, then sang an energetically plaintive version of King of Sorrow that brought to mind the Nigerian-British chanteuse’s live energy a lot more than the misty boudoir soul she made in the studio. Lee played that one on her big hollow-body electric rather than the dobro. And she did a stark take of Love Is a Thief straight out of Twin Peaks.
But her own songs hit the hardest. The best was Last Night on Earth. The version on her Lovers and Losers album is a hypnotic, starry, lushly arranged nocturne: this one was much more stark and hauntingly apocalyptic. Likewise, Letter to No One was a lot more strikingly direct and alienated than the bittersweetly, seductively bouncing album version.
Your Blues, a slinky, catchy, defiant shuffle from her latest album The Wheel, was another really good one: “An unrevised history in an unsteady world…can’t look me in the eye as you take your shot, the blood on your hands will come out in the wash,” she railed. Not bad for someone nursing a sore ribcage, having played for hours the previous night. “Never bring an accordion to a bluegrasss jam,” she cautioned the crowd.
She also did a bunch of new material, no surprise since she’s back here, at least for a time, after spending the last few years in Guatemala. In the few years since she first left New York, the singer-songwriter scene has evaporated along with the venues that supported it. Lee can play the oldtimey stuff if she wants, but her own music is too much in the here and now for the Jalopy scene. And it’s way too edgy for the corporate bland-fest that the Rockwood has slowly morphed into. But you can catch her this Sunday night, April 28 at 9 PM at Freddy’s, where she’ll be leading a band with the great Tony Maimone from Pere Ubu, a frequent collaborator, on bass. Just be aware that because there is no R train to Prospect Ave, the closest station, you’ll have to take the F to 7th Ave and walk.