Outside-the-Box Americana Tunesmithing and Sizzling Chops with Demolition String Band in Williamsburg Tomorrow Night
What’s the likelihood that a band whose popularity peaked two decades ago would be the best in their field in New York in 2023?
Say what you want about attrition in the wake of the 2020-21 lockdowns, and the implosion of the Americana scene here, but Demolition String Band have put down deep roots and have survived to the point where they’re the creme de la creme of New York country bands. And they’re a lot more than country: they play both electric and acoustic shows and are as likely to romp through a bluegrass tune as they are to channel X during their mid-80s country phase, or blast through a punkgrass version of a Madonna hit (which the Material Girl vociferously endorsed). They’re bringing their mix of sizzling fretwork and fetching vocal harmonies to Skinny Dennis tomorrow night, Jan 21 at 9 PM. If you reallly want to make a day out of it, another eclectic and individualistic guitarist, Felix Slim plays his mix of ragtime and Romany-influenced sounds there starting at 4 PM.
In the years since their early-zeros heyday, co-leaders Boo Reiners and Elena Skye have sharpened their chops even further. If memory serves right, he played guitar on a Klezmatics record, and also with unpredictable jazz group Swingadelic. Skye’s main axe is the mandolin, but she also plays acoustic and baritone guitar.
A look back at what they were doing back in the day before Dick Cheney’s notorious PREP act changed the world reflects how much fun they still have mashing up country and country-adjacent styles. On March 25, 2001, they opened for punkgrass band Split Lip Rayfield at the Mercury. That night, the highlight of the set was an ominously loping spaghetti western instrumental that gave Skye a launching pad to flex on the baritone.
Then a few blocks north at the C-Note, almost a month to the day later, they opened a killer triplebill with gothic grasscore band Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and then an excellent Bakersfield-style guitarist and crooner, Buddy Woodward & Nitro Express, headlining. One of the most memorable songs of that sold-out evening was a poignant version of his signature ballad, Lost in Austin, but another that was just as good was Demolition String Band’s raw, venomous cover of the Mary Lee Kortes hit Give It to the Needy. The original is deceptively blithe and sarcastic; Skye’s vocals that night brought out every drop of vengeful undercurrent.
Yet the most memorable show they played that year might have been an acoustic gig by Skye and Reiners two days after 9/11 at Sidewalk, a dumpy little brunch spot where a lot of New York bands would play their first gig and then move on. That night, smoke was still billowing from Ground Zero – it was impossible to get past the corner of Fulton and Broadway, where the ash was knee deep. On the walk up deserted streets to Avenue A, there were flyers taped to lampposts by relatives desperate to find loved ones who’d worked in the Twin Towers.
In the makeshift back room at the restaurant, a small, subdued crowd were treated to quiet and harrowing sets by Kortes, Jenifer Jackson, and then the Demolition String Band brain trust. It was surreal to hear them playing stark, rustic acoustic versions of big Rodeo Bar crowd-pleasers like the swaying Garden of Love and that goofy Madonna cover, with Bob Packwood adding erudite Nashville atmosphere on piano. Then again, it was a surreal time to be in New York. At the end of the show, they invited Kortes up to provide some electric harmonies on a George Jones tune.
And at this even more surreal historical moment, Demolition String Band are still here to remind us that we can transcend even times like these.