New York Music Daily

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Tag: americana

Another Clinic in Searing Lead Guitar and a Williamsburg Show From the Great Eric Ambel

Eric Ambel is an artist who ought to be playing record stores – because he makes vinyl records. Spectacularly good ones. His most recent studio album, Lakeside, sent a ferocious, guitar-fueled shout out to his beloved East Village club, Lakeside Lounge, forced out of business in 2014 in a blitzkrieg of gentrification. His latest record, Roscoe Live, Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him in his element, onstage at a summer festival in upstate New York in 2016. The backing band is obviously psyched for this gig: alongside Ambel, there’s Spanking Charlene’s Mo Goldner on rhythm guitar, Ambel’s old Yayhoos bandmate Keith Christopher on bass and Phil Cimino on drums. Ambel’s playing an unlikely early weekday show tomorrow, Feb 6 at 8:30 PM at Rough Trade; cover is $10.

Ambel has a vast bag of hot licks, but most of them are his own. If you asked him to play like Neil Young, or Buck Owens, or Ron Asheton, or David Rawlings, he would, but he’d rather be himself. And although he’s a connoisseur of every possible sound you can get out of a guitar amp, he’s got a noisy side too. There’s pretty much all of that on the live record.

Just the way that he edges his way into the set’s opening number, jabbing around the harmonies of the first chord of the brisk shuffle Girl That I Ain’t Got is typical. As are the nasty, string-stretching first solo and a tantalizingly slashing second one. Here Come My Love, by his Del-Lords bandmate Scott Kempner, comes across as an amped up Jimmy Reed number. The blend of the two guitars is especially tasty; Ambel’s solo out is unexpectedly carefree and chill.

Hey Mr. DJ, a sarcastic dig at the kind of clown who’d pay a cover charge to hear some other clown plug his phone into the PA, is a co-write with the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus and one of several tracks from the Lakeside album. Over the slow, slinky beat and a buzzsaw backdrop, Ambel turns the sarcasm loose: “Crank the drums, crank the bass, crank that shit all over the place.”

The slow waves of the warped blues Don’t Make Me Break You Down keep the smokering intenstiy going, through lingering phrases that Ambel takes into the grimy depths, then up again.

“Just to show you I’m not anti-cisco, I have a disco song,” Ambel tells the crowd, then launches in to the strutting Have Mercy, which is actually more of a simmering take on vampy early 70s psychedelic soul.

The band follow Let’s Play With Fire, a shuffling mashup of honkytonk and Lynchian Nahville pop with a slowly crescendoing take of the David Rawlings/Gillian Welch hit Look at Miss Ohio, a staple of Ambel’s live show back in Lakeside’s glory days in the 90s and zeros.

Massive Confusion, the loudest track on the Lakeside recod, is a more swinging take on a familiar Ramones formula. Ambel then closes the show with two of his best songs. Buyback Blues, the centerpiece of the Lakeside record, is a slow, evil rollercoaster in a Cortez the Killer vein. The night’s last number is Total Destruction to Your Mind, the Stonesy Swamp Dogg cover that was Ambel’s signature song as a solo artist for years. For anybody who got to hear Ambel blast his way through this one back in the Lakeside days, Christopher making his way up the fretboard as the chorus kicks in, it’s a real shot of adrenaline. How long do we have to wait until the real estate bubble finally bursts so somebody can open up a place like Lakeside, with cheap beer and great bands every night? The closest thing we have to that in New York these days, Barbes, won’t last forever,

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The Black Lillies Rock City Winery With a New Lineup

The version of the Black Lillies that played City Winery last weekend was a lot different from the considerably larger version of the band who got a rave review here in the fall of 2013. Frontman/multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras has most recently pared the group down to a tight, lean four-piece. Drummer Bowman Townsend, who propelled the unit through this show with his usual blend of purist four-on-the-floor rhythm and vintage shuffle grooves, is the only holdover from that lineup.

But they still jam as psychedelically, if not as quite as much  as that incarnation. After a steady, upwardly driving hour and a half onstage, the takeaway was that this is as good a version of the Black Lillies as there’s ever been – Contreras has always drawn from a wide talent base, anyway.

The band’s not-so-secret new weapon is lead guitarist Dustin Schaefer. It was easy to see where his camaraderie with the bandleader comes from, considering the two’s encyclopedic appreciation of classic bluegrass, honkytonk, soul, stadium anthems and psychedelic rock. By the end of the night’s first number, Schaefer had cranked out two of his most sizzling solos of the night on his big vintage hollowbody Gibson, smoldering with chromatics and uneasy bluesy bends.

These Black Lillies rock harder than they ever have. Interestingly, the set had very little from the band’s most recent album Hard to Please. Instead, they focused on new material as well as a lot of the strongest anthems from 2013’s Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s definitive statement to date.

Much as there were drinking songs, and band-on-the-road songs, and a handful of regretful ballads in the mix, the night’s central theme was the struggle to stay stay on solid ground in hard times. Maybe because of the current political climate, those songs of dashed dreams but also guarded hope resonated the most. In a revamped, amped-up take of Gold & Roses, Schaefer’s lead guitar substituted for the steel on the album version. Likewise, the band took Catherine – set in a surreal place with “nothing but blue skies and fire on the ground” – and made brisk bluegrass-inspired highway rock out of it.

The night’s longest number was a long, twisting psychedelic epic that went on for at least ten minutes, through a couple of false endings, part peak-era 1980s Grateful Dead and also Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, a blend you might think would be crazy – but it worked. Contreras put down his Telecaster and played acoustic for most of the show, for one anthem after another. Matter-of-factly, the group followed a steady path through the exasperated 99-percenter tale All This Living, the cynical, honkytonk-tinged Two Hearts Down, and a terse version of Ruby, the group’s take on the old country blues standard Ruby, about a party animal who can’t stay out of trouble.

Contreras waited until the encore, a scurrying take of the old 70s Eddie Rabbitt radio hit Driving My Life Away, to take a solo on the Tele, but he made it count. And the best solo of the night was his two-handed, barreling charge down the keys of his piano on one of the new numbers. New bassist Sam Quinn played with a cool, low-key pulse, once in awhile rising to the top of the fretboard as a verse would turn around into a mighty chorus, and took over lead vocals on an unexpectedly Beatlesque new song.

The Black Lillies’ next gig is on Feb  15 9 PM at the Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave in Charlotte, NC; cover is $14. For New York fans of similarly energetic if more lavish oldschool American sounds, crooner Brother Joscephus is bringing his New Orleans funk/soul orchestra there on Feb 6 at 8 PM. You can get in for $20.

The Black Lillies Bring Their Fiery, Eclectic Americana to the West Side This Weekend

The Black Lillies are one of the most esteemed, eclectic and hardest-working bands out on the Americana highway. But they transcend that label, blending Nashville gothic, psychedelic rock and oldschool soul into their hard-hitting mix. Their latest album Hard to Please is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing a relatively rare, intimate gig this Jan 28 at 8 PM at City Winery;  general admission is $15.

Bandleader Cruz Contreras – who plays several keyboards and guitars here – gets a lot of production work, so he draws on an extensive talent base. The core of the band on this album includes singer Trisha Gene Brady, pedal steel player Matt Smith, guitarist Daniel Donato, bassist Bill Reynolds and drummer Bowman Townsend.

The album opens with the title cut, guests Jamel Mitchell’s baritone sax and Kris Donegan’s baritone guitar growling on the low end, building a vintage 60s R&B sway in the same vein as the Pretty Things or early Kinks. That’s the Way It Goes Down follows a familiar Americana rock pattern: catchy, jangly verse, explosive chorus as the BoDeans would have done it in their heyday twenty years ago. Donato’s savage lead blasts through into the third chorus and just doesn’t stop: it’s the album’s high point.

Contreras’ echoey Wurlitzer and Ed Roth’s Hammond organ infuse Mercy with a Memphis soul-gospel simmer, Mitchell leading a similarly summery horn section. Brady’s passionate vocals rise over the horns’ steady late 60s soul pulse in The First Time, with a neat exchange of solos, Donegan’s guitar and Smith’s steel over Contreras’ bubbly electric piano.

Matt Menfee’s banjo echoes mournfully in the grim duet Bound to Roam, an update on the folk classic Wayfaring Stranger. Then the band picks up the pace with Dancin’, Contreras’ bluegrass guitar contrasting with Smith’s honkytonk steel and Donegan’s southern-fried riffage; Menefee’s banjo is the icing on the cake.

Backlit by steel and easygoing acoustic picking, Desire sounds like a more down-to-earth Deer Tick. Contreras’ jaunty barrelhouse piano fuels the raucously Chuck Berry-ish band-on-the-road narrative 40 Days. He switches to mandolin for the album’s most relevant number, the broodingly allusive World War II Pacific theatre ballad Broken Shore. The album closes with a surreal mashup of mid-80s Cure pop and 70s dadrock. The band have a new one in the works; the show this weekend may be a good chance to get a taste of what they have in store.

Crooked Horse Bring Their Dark Americana to an Unexpected Friday Night Spot

Crooked Horse play disarmingly direct, catchy Nashville gothic and dark Americana. Their debut album is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. They’re playing this Friday night, Jan 12 at 10:30 PM at Pine Box Rock Shop.

The album’s briskly marching opening track, Maybe, is a kiss-off anthem: it could be an acoustic version of a Walkabouts tune. “Maybe it’s everybody that leaves me with only maybe,” frontwoman Liz Rymes muses in her husky, impassioned voice. Guitarist Neal Johnson fires off a nimble flatpicking solo, then backs away for Bridget Nault’s river of minor-key accordion.

You Have to Know is a little less pissed off – “You’ll be better on your own” is the chorus – set to a catchy acoustic guitar loop over percussionist Aaron Kakos’ loping groove. The band pick up the pace with Omen and its tasty acoustic guitar multitracks: when the “wind blows in like an omen,” it’s obviously not carrying anything good.

Johnson sets a spiky, moody country-blues ambience in The Poet: “You crackle as you speak, the poet of defeat,” Rymes accuses, then the accordion and drums finally kick in. They break out the electric guitars in the snarling shuffle All For You, a brooding escape anthem – the question is who’s getting away, and to what.

The matter-of-factly defiant shuffle We Live Small makes a refreshingly optimistic anthem for the Trump-era depression: “We live small, but we live well,” Rymes asserts. The ominous vocal harmonies in the eerily strolling A Place Like This underscore the gloom, a chronicle of everything that’s out of reach in a dead-end town.

“Take a deep breath in the dark and just trust,” Rymes encourages in the moodily bouncing number after that. With its soaring, ghostly backing vocals, the scampering, bluegrass-tinged Lace Curtains is the catchiest and arguably best track on the album: “I don’t believe,” is the mantra. The album ends with Rotten, a sparse, hypnotic, anguished dirge. Catch this band on the way up before word gets out and you won’t be able to get in to see them.

Blackberry Smoke Burns Through Hell’s Kitchen

The song that drew the most powerful response at Blackberry Smoke’s show last night was Waiting for the Thunder, the snidely apocalyptic anthem that opens their latest album Like an Arrow. “Why do we stand by and do nothing while they piss it all away?” drawled frontman/lead guitarist Charlie Starr.

He was referring to those “with the power and the glory” who “get more than they deserve.” A little later, he and guitarist Paul Jackson took a sarcastic twin solo that referenced a cheesy Aerosmith hit from the 70s as bass player Richard Turner made a slinky upward climb, and lead drummer (that’s what the band calls him) Brit Turner swung a tight metalfunk groove.

It was a typical moment in a night full of many different flavors. From the looks of a near sold-out crowd – an unpretentious, multi-generational bunch – Blackberry Smoke’s rise in popularity here doesn’t seem to mirror the waves of rich white southern suburbanites who’ve flooded the outer boroughs in recent years. People just dig this band’s sense of humor, Starr’s knack for a sardonically aphoristic turn of phrase, and the fact that they can jam like crazy when they want to. Which is what keeps the music fresh, night after night. They started out here at Irving Plaza. Last time around, they played the Beacon; yesterday evening they were at Terminal 5.

Much as the group’s roots are in southern rock, more often than not they came across as a louder southern version of the Grateful Dead. Most of the jamming took place in long, slowly rising intros or smolderingly suspenseful interludes midway through a song. The most epic one of them began Third Stone From the Sun and ended up a couple of stories into Franklin’s Tower.

Throughout the night, Starr played a museum’s worth of vintage guitars, starting with a longscale Les Paul Jr. model, later switching to a Guild hollowbody and eventually an acoustic, showing off some flashy bluegrass flatpicking in an offhandedly savage take of the workingman’s escape anthem One Horse Town – these guys are populist to the core. He saved his most searing slide work for a Telecaster and his most deep-fried southern licks for a gorgeous gold Les Paul. Jackson also played one of those for most of the night, eventually moving to acoustic and then a vintage white SG.

They opened with the aphoristic, heavy riff-rocking Testify, then got the night’s requisite big party song, Good One and its endless list of intoxicating substances out of the way early, fueled by Brandon Still’s glittering honkytonk piano. It took awhile before his organ or echoey, starry Wurly were audible in the mix. From there the band built momentum through some gritty outlaw C&W, the blazing, Stonesy Let It Burn, and a couple of midtempo numbers that rehashed old bluegrass riffs the Dead made famous.

The most rustic song of the night was the swaying I Ain’t Got the Blues; the loudest might have been a snarling, defiant take of What’s Left of Me. The new album’s title track was surprisingly muted, less Molly Hatchet than 80s heartland stadium rock.

There were also a couple of covers, something a band this good doesn’t need. A haphazard stab at dirtbag Aerosmith stench in the Beatles’ Come Together, and an attempt to make something substantial out of Tom Petty, only lowered the bar – then again, this group come from a part of the world where cover bands are the rule rather than the exception. Blackberry Smoke’s nonstop tour continues with a sold-out show tonight at the Wicomico Civic Center in Salisbury, Maryland.

Two Red Mollies Play Their Own Individualistic Americana at Pete’s

There’s going to be a rare Red Molly reunion of sorts this Nov 14 at 8:30 PM at Pete’s Candy Store when brilliantly incisive dobro player Abbie Gardner – who has a Tuesday night residency there this month – opens a twinbill with her old Red Molly bandmate, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Carolann Solebello.

Obviously, Red Molly have been back in action for awhile, with Molly Venter in Solebello’s place. The Pete’s show is a chance to hear two longtime friends and distinctive Americana artists in an intimate setting, doing their own material and very possibly working up new stuff.

The last time this blog caught up with Solebello, she was playing a fantastic twinbill at the American Folk Art Museum on a Friday night last spring with brooding New England gothic songsmith Nathaniel Bellows. With the first soaring notes of the bittersweet, opening country ballad, Brooklyn in the Rain, her strong, clear, insistent vocals were a potent reminder why she’d gotten the Red Molly gig to begin with. That, and her purist, similarly eclectic guitar chops. The fluidity of Solebello’s fretwork, whether with her chords or fingerpicking, should be the rule rather than the exception, but in what’s left of the singer-songwriter demimonde, it seldom is.

She told a funny story about her experiences as a struggling Brooklyn-born-and-raised songwriter dating an Upper West Side yuppie with season tickets to the opera, and then followed with a bouncy, pouncing, defiant, bluegrass-tinged post-breakup narrative. Like many of her songs, it was equal parts urban and bucolic, traditional and in the here and now: clearly, the dude was a fish out of water in her Lower East Side Americana scene.

That defiant quality is a consistent trait: she doesn’t feel at home in the role of victim. She added a gentle touch of vintage Judy Collins-style vibrato to a swaying, pensively catchy number after that, then brought the lights down for a fond reminiscence of her grandmother. The rest of her tantalizingly brief set was much the same, acerbic major/minor chord changes and often surprising dynamic shifts in support of vivid narratives that transcend the usual lovelorn coffeehouse girl stereotype. There will no doubt be plenty of those at the Pete’s show, times two, and maybe a duet or two.

And the ongoing Friday night series at the Folk Art Museum continues on Nov 17 at 5:30 PM with low-key, plainspoken, populist folk-pop songwriter Jeremy Aaron.

The Legendary Shack Shakers Validate Their Legend in Brooklyn

Saturday night in downtown Brooklyn, the Legendary Shack Shakers lived up to their legend with a marauding, macabre performance. How does frontman JD Wilkes stay in such great shape? By playing shows like this one. Midway through the set, he left his feet for the umpteenth time, spun in midair and did a full 360 with a perfect Olympic landing. And this was after he’d really worked up a sweat. Athletic stage moves go back long before Chuck Berry, but the Colonel still pushes himself as hard as he did twenty years ago.

When he wasn’t spinning across the stage or frisbeeing a heavy-duty red wooden tambourine into the crowd, he was blowing feral but wickedly precise, Little Walter-ish blues on a chromatic harp, or burning through similarly menacing chromatics on his banjo. He ran his vocals through two separate mics, one straight into the PA along with an old ribbon mic turned up to the point of distortion for a bullhorn effect. Somewhere Lux Interior is stewing with jealousy.

But while the Cramps seem to be one obvious influence on this band, the Shack Shakers are a lot wilder, a hell of a lot faster – they sped up several of their numbers past breaking point – and a lot of the time they sound a lot more Middle Eastern than American. Then again, Wilkes – a respected musicologist and historian of Kentucky mountain music – would probably cite a lesser-known strain of Irish music that made its way to the Bible Belt without losing any of its creepy edge.

And the rest of the band are phenomenal. Drummer Preston Corn kept the express-train-to-hell shuffle going at full throttle, bassist Fuller Condon provided a cool serpentine slink and guitarist Rod Hamdallah burned through the ominous changes with a calm, precise savagery, letitng the blasts from his vintage hollow-body model linger and resonate before firing off another volley of twisted rockabilly or blues.

The Shack Shakers have a new album, After You’ve Gone, out recently, and Wilkes and his conspirators drew heavily on it. Their witheringly cynical, allusively political new take of Worried Man Blues came across like CW Stoneking on crank, while the rapidfire War Whoop gave Wilkes a platform for some extra snazzy stage moves. And like so much of the rest of the set, the dirty blues of Curse of the Cajun Queen were packed with the surreal fire-and-brimstone imagery that’s been Wilkes’ signature since the 90s. You’ll see this show listed on the best New York concerts of 2017 page here at the end of the year.

The Legendary Shack Shakers’ tour continues; the next stop is Dec 1 at around 10:30 PM at the Outland, 322 South Ave. in Springfield, Missouri; cover is $12. 

The Rural Alberta Advantage Bring Their Catchy Stomp to NYC This Weekend

The Rural Alberta Advantage’s latest album The Wild – streaming at Bandcamp and available on vinyl – is full of stomping, catchy Canadian gothic anthems and some more lighthearted material at the tail end. While frontman/guitarist Nils Edenloff’s tunesmithing here is pretty vigorous and upbeat, a persistent gloom often hangs overhead. This band could be the Sadies’ little brothers, or a deeper Deer Tick. They’re playing tonight, Nov 3 at around 10 at Rough Trade; if you’re going, hopefully you already have your $20 advance tix because it’s five bucks extra at the door. The same applies to the Bowery Ballroom show tomorrow night, Nov 4. Another good if completely different band, the sleek, new wave-flavored Yukon Blonde, open both of these Canuck twinbills at 9 PM.

The album opens with the murder ballad Beacon Hill, a dirty, noisy take on Sadies dark Americana that drummer Paul Banwatt pushes with a parade-ground stomp, as he does in a lot of places here. The uneasy Bad Luck Again sways along over Edenloff’s jangly layers of fingerpicked guitar and builds to a big stadium-rock peak. Then the band takes the intensity to redline with the thundering, frantic Dead/Alive, a sort of mashup of the Walkabouts and American Ambulance with a little Celtic tinge from Robin Hatch’s accordion. Wild Grin, a later track, is the song’s reverse image

Brother has a brooding newgrass atmosphere over a marching beat: imagine if Trampled By Turtles really trampled. Toughen Up has an interesting hand-drum beat and swooshy Twin Peaks organ but also an awful emo-ish lead vocal: it’s places like his where you wish that Edenloff would give up on trying to hit those high notes and just chill.

White Lights comes across as a more earnest take on mid-90s Wilco, while Alright sounds like acoustic Oasis. The steady, determinedly jangly Selfish Dreams could be a Sadies outtake; the album ends with Letting Go, shifting back and forth between a subdued Deer Tick shuffle and hard-hitting stadium exuberance, an unlikely triumphant breakup anthem.

Phil Ochs – A Halloween Appreciation

What’s more Halloween than a guy who killed himself? Phil Ochs arguably left the planet as his era’s greatest English-language songwriter. But where his old pal and arch-rival Bob Dylan was still cranking out albums – at that moment, the uneven if imaginatively Romany-flavored Desire – Ochs’ career had stalled years before. He never got past a massive creative block and the damage to his vocal cords from a 1973 mugging in Tanzania, dead three years later at 36 after a long downward spiral.

But he left a body of work arguably greater than what Dylan had accumulated to that point. Where Dylan had invented psychedelic folk, Ochs’ mid-60s albums Tape From California and Pleasures of the Harbor took an extremely successful turn into 20th century classical music and art-song. His populist relevance, catchy tunesmithing, clever wordplay and innumerable levels of meaning were every bit as formidable as Dylan’s. And Ochs’ 1968 album Rehearsals For Retirement remains the most harrowingly detailed, metaphorically foreshadowed musical suicide note ever written.

So there’s no lack of irony that the opening track on the recently released Live in Montreal 10/22/66, streaming at Spotify, is Cross My Heart – as in, “Cross my heart, and I hope to live.”

As is the case with pretty much every artist these days, there are innumerable Ochs concert recordings bouncing around, most of them pretty dodgy. This lavish solo acoustic set from a part of the world where Ochs played some of his best shows is a soundboard recording, but a very good one. And the setlist is sublime – it’s as close to a definitive solo acoustic Ochs album as there is.

“You always come back, if only to yourself,” he muses between songs early in the show. Right off the bat, alienation and disillusion are front and center. “The answer is limbo and the harvest will be hard,” he sings in the otherwise much more optimistic, Britfolk-tinged Song of My Returning.

Serendipitously, it seems that most of Ochs’ between-song commentary was recorded as well, and he’s at the top of his surrealistic, sardonic game. He introduces a nimbly fingerpicked take of The Bells – his setting of the Edgar Allen Poe poem – with a joke about how Poe’s work has been banned from classrooms. “The word was tintinnabulation – they couldn’t find it in the dictionary, so they assumed it was LSD.” And his sly introduction to the metaphors of Cops of the World is pretty priceless.

All of Ochs’ richly worded lit-rock novelty hits are here: Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, Miranda, and The Party. As with a lot of the songs here, they actually rock a lot harder than in the albums’ far more ornate parlor-pop arrangements. As you would expect from a show from this point in time, the set is light on Ochs’ early, more prosaic, folkie material. We get the plainspoken ballad Joe Hill – a salute to the Utah labor leader executed for a crime he didn’t commit – as well as a defiant I Ain’t Marching Anymore, a low-key, knowing take of There But For Fortune, I’m Gonna Say It Now – the one number here that hasn’t aged well – and the encore, the cynically spot-on if rather obvious broadside Chaplain of the War.

Beyond the fact that the lyrics really jump out at you, what’s most striking is how strong a guitarist Ochs is. He toys with his strum, opening Flower Lady with a Like a Rolling Stone quote; as vivid ad verdant as Lincoln Mayorga’s piano is on the album version, this is might be even better. And his flatpicking in the more traditionally-oriented numbers is fast and fluid.

Yet as funny and insightful as Ochs is here, torment runs deep. “Portrait of the pain never answers back,” he sings nonchalantly in Flower Lady. A little later on, in an especially epic take of Crucifixion – his JFK assassination parable – it’s “Do you have a portrait of the pain?”

“The hour will be short for leisure on the land,” he reminds in Pleasures of the Harbor, the allusively grisly if elegant account of a sleazy seaside hookup and its aftermath. “The lonely in disguise are clinging to the crowd.” Shades are drawn at pivotal moments in three separate songs. On record, the sarcasm and angst in I’ve Had Her are muted: here, they practically scream.

The real revelation is an early version of Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore, which would become the understatedly shattering centerpiece of Rehearsals For Retirement. Ochs introduces it as “A study in levels of depression.” It’s a work in progress, in straight-up 4/4 rather than the slinky 6/8 album version, its doomed narrative a little different this time out:

Fiddler takes a sniff and picks up the fiddle
As you race from wall to wall, stumble down in the middle
And you’re torn apart
No lower point to start
And you feel you’d like to steal a happy heart

And while this album is a period piece, student protestors around the world still get shot. People still go to jail for weed. And in the Silicon Valley slavers’ gig economy, mentions of plaques in union halls may be quaint – but also a painful reminder that eternal vigilance is no less the price of liberty than it was in 1966.

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.