Jan Bell is not only one of the most distinctly individual voices in Americana music, she’s also an impresario. In addition to her regular Saturday night music series at 68 Jay Street Bar, she books the occasional show at larger venues. Last night at the Bell House featured both the past and future of roots music, from the most rustic, purist oldtime sounds to the avant garde.
When the opening act gets more time onstage than anyone else on the bill, that’s usually a bad omen, but in case of Jackson Lynch and Eli Smith from the Downhill Strugglers, the effect was the opposite: they could have kept going for twice as long and nobody would have wanted them to leave. This oldtime music collective, with their rotating cast of characters, are a time machine: their mission seems to be to go looking for the raw and the intense in rural music from the 1920s and sometimes before then, and bring it back to life. They two switched guitars and fiddles and a banjo in and out and sang on everything except for a stomping, high-energy reel. The word “hallelujah” figured prominently early in the set; as it went on, country blues took centerstage. Over and over again, without mentioning it once, the two drove home the point that most of this music was made for dancing. That, and that all the cross-pollination between black blues and white country was clearing the path for the rock music that would follow in decades to come.
Bell is the rare singer who’s better live than she is in the studio – notwithstanding her glistening, detailed, nuanced vocals on her best and most recent album, Dream of the Miner’s Child. This time out she was joined in exquisitely lush four-part harmonies by bassist Tina Lama, fiddler Rima Fand, banjo player Katy Stone and M Shanghai String Band’s multi-talented Philippa Thompson on mandolin, fiddle, spoons and musial saw. Yorkshire-raised, Brooklyn-based, Bell’s take on Americana has a distinctive British folk flavor: it isn’t hard to imagine how easily she would have blended into a crowd of immigrant miners and their kin dancing around the bonfire somewhere in the Appalachians, 150 years ago. She sees herself as a link in a chain, adding her own blend of vulnerability and indomitability to material that’s been handed down through the ages – as in Trixie Smith’s Mining Camp Blues, a 1920 song that Bell picked up via Alice Gerrard’s version (Gerrard is featured in a duet of that song on Bell’s album).
Maybe because she’s an emigre, departure is a recurrent theme in Bell’s music, often an uneasy and poignant one. Gracefully and plaintively, she led the group through Jean Ritchie’s grim The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore and Darrell Scott’s grimmer You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, then mined the sadness in Loretta Lynn’s Blue Kentucky Girl. A brisk minor-key shufffle made room for a bristling solo from Lama and an acrobatically perfect one on the spoons by Thompson, which wowed the crowd. They wound up the set with a wistful waltz by Bell and then a chilling take of sometime Bell bandmate Karen Dahlstrom’s The Miner’s Bride, a cruelly matter-of-fact account of a mail-order marriage in the old west.
The Wiyos have always had a carnivalesque side, but lately the carnival has gotten a lot darker, in the wake of the band’s recent turn into psychedelic rock with last year’s Wizard of Oz-inspired Twist album. Though they barely got any time onstage, they made the most of it, maxing out the menace with an ominous, atmospheric introduction and then a bitingly jaunty minor-key swing tune. The addition of electric piano to the band is genius, freeing up the guitar to handle more leads and add to the trippy, time-warping surrealism. Frontman Michael Farkas brought his sardonically goodnatured energy and deadpan humor over the irrepressible oldtimey pulse of the band, happily bolstered by both bass and drums this time out. In their Oz world, the Tin Man is a stoner – as a shout-out, the band gave a him an unexpectedly menacing, noirish tango that reminded of Jack Grace’s recent, darker material. A little later, they did much the same in addressing the student loan crisis. As one of New York’s first (and arguably most popular) oldtimey bands, they’ve always had great chops and live shows; it’s just a much fun to see them branching out into new territory. And it was a great bill overall: to see this many first-class Americana roots acts usually requires at least a couple of trips to 68 Jay or the Jalopy.