New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: americana

A Harrowing, Hauntingly Relevant, Apocalyptic Album and a North Carolina Stand by Curtis Eller’s New Psychedelic Band

Curtis Eller has been one of the great songwriters in any style of music since the early zeros. His music has a deep gothic Americana streak and an occasional resemblance to Tom Waits, with a similarly diverse Americana palette that spans from blues to bluegrass to the theatre music that’s become Eller’s latest focus. He’s also a magnetic live performer, and a killer storyteller (pun intended). His latest project features his new dark psychedelic band the Bipeds, who are playing this coming weekend at their dance company’s performance at the Fruit, 305 South Dillard St in Durham, North Carolina. Shows are June 21-23 at 8 PM, with an additional 6 PM performance on June 24. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The Bipeds’ haunting, Orwellian, carnivalesque debut album, 54 Strange Words, is streaming at Bandcamp. Bristling with fire-and-brimstone metaphors, it’s an assessment of how a populace can be both lulled and beaten into submission by a police state. Musically, it’s something of a departure for Eller in that the songs are both a lot longer and louder than most of his back catalog, partially due to the presence of electric guitarist Jack Fleishman (who also takes a turn on the drums). Joseph Dejarnette plays bass and baritone guitar, with Gabriel Anderson usually behind the drumkit. Stacy Wolfson, Dana Marks, Jessi Knight and William Commander all pitch in on vocals.

Eller’s spare banjo opens the first track, awash in reverb. setting the stage for this grim whodunit as it morphs into a hypnotic, loopy groove akin to early Country Joe & the Fish in 7/8 time. “Human error and blood on my hands – you want murder, man, this is one,” Eller intones.

A Ragged Sayonara, a sad, slow country waltz, features an arresting break for Marks’ mighty, theremin-like, operatic vocalese. It seems to be directed at a ghost. “Sayonara, my poison, a shadow grows into my dreams…and mercury blossoms rise through me,” Eller matter-of-factly explains.

An ominously echoey minature, The Ransom Note segues into Great Skeleton House, a creepy, slow stomp with the women in the band on vocals, dead bones assembled as some twisted kind of metaphorical home. As with the opening number, Eller kicks off the fire-and-brimstone delta blues Dressful of Dreams with spare, brooding solo banjo, then the rhythm section hits a shuffle beat and they’re off, rising to an uneasily enveloping crescendo. A funeral pyre may be involved.

A Surgical Solution is a diptych, first an Appalachian poltergeist aria, just Marks backed by Eller’s skeletal banjo. As the band shifts into an ominous, metaphorically bristling blues, the Orwellian linguistics and implications thereof, which Eller alludes to earlier in the album, finally break the surface.

Strange Words is the key to this song cycle, a sternly apocalyptic 6/8 minor-key blues that builds to another hypnotic psych-folk vamp . “There’s a human heart beating in the silence, the only thing a human heart can do,” Eller muses in typical aphoristic fashion. As his narrative grows more macabre, it’s a reminder of how similar biblical and wartime imagery are. The final cut is Amnesiac’s Grace, imagining with withering Roger Waters-style cynicism what the world would be like once everything displeasing to the dictators has been erased. Needless to say, in times like these, we need more albums like this. And if the theatrical performance even remotely echoes Eller’s bleak, uncompromising vision, it must be pretty intense.

Advertisements

Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters Bring Their Catchy Hardscrabble Americana Songs to the Flower District This Friday Night

“Just got word today that the money is gonna be ok,” Amanda Anne Platt sings in her North Carolina twang. “Start looking for life in a bathroom mirror,” she adds as Birthday Song, the opening track on her latest album with her band the Honeycutters (streaming at Spotify), gets underway. They’re making a rare New York stop on June 1 at 9:30 PM at Hill Country.

In a world of suburbanites who put on cowboy hats and pretend they come from the sticks, Platt is the real deal, a strong, populist storyteller with a knack for a catchy hook. The narratives on this latest release are more guardedly optimistic than the band’s previous output. Between the woman in the supermarket checkout line, the sign in the record store and the beater Japanese car whose odometer’s been around twice, these people are struggling, but they also aren’t giving in. This is also more of a rock record, compared to the honkytonk flavor of much of the band’s earlier material.

“We were dying but you couldn’t tell,” Platt muses over a loping groove from bassist Rick Cooper and drummer Josh Milligan in Long Ride – but as it picks up steam, the song grows more optimistic, Matt Smith’s pedal steel floating overhead.

“Oh how I needed men to love me, it made me ugly, made me unkind,” Platt’s older and wiser narrator muses in the gently shuffling What We’ve Got, livened with Evan Martin’s rippling piano and a joyous steel solo: “All the time I thought I was wasting, I was just learning how to look you in the eye.”

With its rivers of organ and simmering, distorted guitar, Diamond in the Rough is one of the harder-rocking tracks here – The Who meets Lucinda Williams, maybe. Eden is a steady, shuffling celebration of “24 acres of Indiana farmland, Airstream trailer, living in the heartland,” told from the point of view of an ex-Bostonian who’s come home after losing her job. At the same time, she doesn’t miss people with “delusions of grandeur,” even while harsher realities set in.

The Guitar Case is a vividly weary early-morning chronicle of the endless tour musicians these days have to stay on just to pay the bills. Platt saves some of her most venomous commentary for one of the wannabes on the roadhouse circuit:

You look good on paper
On tv too
But the real thing ain’t a joke, you fool

By contrast, Learning How to Love Him is a sobering, spare look at the pros and cons of making it through a marriage to the empty nest years. Then the band kick back in with a summery soul feel in Brand New Start, a bittersweetly resigned breakup tale: Platt suggests a five-year relationship might be best memorialized by leaving a Christmas wreath up on the door for the sake of leaving a lasting impression of togetherness.

With its layers of piano, organ and steel, Late Summer’s Child is an old Creedence song with whitewall tires and a sunroof, more or less. The album’s best song is the noir soul ballad The Good Guys (Dick Tracy), slinking along with uneasy, echoey electric piano:

A skeleton in every closet
Everybody in another man’s pocket
Did you ever stop to think you got it wrong
You remember why you’re here tonight
Soft sell if the price is right
You’ve been losing at this same fight for so long
Dick Tracy there ain’t no more good guys
You could be on a plane tonight
Leave this wasted city far behind

The backbeat-driven, distantly doo-wop inflected Rare Things is a lot more upbeat, spiced with some neat gospel piano. Baritone guitar, saloon piano and steel blend together for an oldschool hard honkytonk vibe in The Things We Call Home. The album’s last song is the wistful front porch folk-flavored The Road. Platt and her band move through a lot of different styles here, something they’re likely to do onstage at the barbecue joint this weekend.

Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards Bring Their Fearlessly Imaginative, Psychedelic Americana to the Rockwood

Violinist Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards stand out in a crowded Americana field for their fearlessness and originality. They aren’t the first to play retro acoustic roots music for string ensemble – a lot of classical types have a secret or not-so-secret fondness for folk music. Sadly, much as some of that crew are completely sincere, they don’t swing and they can’t really improvise. That’s where Cortese really shines. She and the band are playing the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood tomorrow night, April 14 at 11:30 PM; cover is $15.

Their latest album California Calling – streaming at Spotfy – isn’t particularly oldtimey, either. In fact, there’s only one tradtional tune on it. What Hem were to the zeros, Cortese and band are in the here and now. Case in point: the hypnotic opening track, The Low Hum, awash in hazy washes of strings, second violinist Jenna Moynihan anchoring the song on banjo, multi-instrumentalist Sam Kassirer adding woozy Dr. Dre synth. That it works as seamlessly as it does validates Cortese’s outside-the-box arrangement.

Cortese;s vocals infuse the album’s title track with warmth and intimacy amid a swirl of backing vocals, swelling strings and bouncy pizzicato: it’s not clear whether that spiky lead line is Cortese, Moynihan or cellist Valerie Thompson.

The women in the band – which also includes bassist Natalie Bohrn – join voices and then instruments in the lush, Celtic-tinged Three Little Words. If Irish chamber folk psychedelia didn’t exist before now, this band just invented it. There’s a fetching, Kasey Chanbers-ish break in Cortese’s voice in the bittersweetly swaying ballad Skipping Stone, with more spiky/atmospheric contrast.

The psychedelic Hold On, with its gospel allusions and trip-hop beat, brings to mind cult favorite New York Americana songstress Barbara Brousal – who’s since absconded to Boston. The band reinvent Swing & Turn (Jubilee), the album’s lone traditional tune, in much the same fashion, Cortese’s vocals soaring to the top of her register before the band finally cut loose with a jaunty reel.

The women’s four-part harmonies offer comfort in icy times in Rhododendron, which segues into Someday, sort of a more bluegrass-oriented take on Andrew Bird at his most bucolic. Stockholm, an allusive cautionary tale – “You’ve got to find a place to call home” – is another unlikely successful mashup of bluegrass and echoey psychedelia.

Bohrn’s starkly dancing bassline propels Pace Myself, a bluesy trip-hop number, edging from echoey Soft Cell new wave pop toward neo-soul. The album closes with If You Can Hear Me, a Taylor Ashton cover that doesn’t measure up to the strength of Cortese’s songwriting despite an interesting arrangement. It’s impossible to imagine anyone releasing more original album than this lately.

Populist Songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews Reinvents Classic Americana at the Mercury Tonight

Don’t let the hazy faux-70s Polaroid filter on the album cover of Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest album May Your Kindness Remain – streaming at Bandcamp – fool you. It isn’t dadrock. It’s a vivid, sobering collection of narratives set in a bleak, impoverished Trump-era milieu. The instrumentation behind the Americana songstress’ wounded wail is an unlikely blend of churchy organ and resonant, sometimes roaring washes of electric guitar. You might think that this mashup of oldschool soul, vintage C&W and psychedelia would be jarring to the extreme, but it works. Andrews is at the Mercury tonight, March 27 at 8 PM; cover is $12.

Andrews opens the record with the title track, a broodingly vivid 99-percenter ballad, hope against hope in a dingy blue-collar setting where kindness is “not something that can be bought or arranged.”

Lift the Lonely From My Heart is an oldschool country ballad reinvented as lingering psychedelic tone poem:  “Do you still see the good inside me or am I a shell of who I once was?” Andrews asks, dreading the obvious answer. The band – Dillon Warnek on lead guitar, Daniel Walker and Charles Wicklander on keys, Alex Sabel on bass and William Mapp on drums – pick up the pace with Two Cold Nights in Buffalo. “El Nino brought a blizzard…only the cheap motels were open, wrong side of the tracks,” Andrews recounts, ”That American dream dying, I hear the whispers of the ghosts.” As a paint-peeling indictment of real estate bubble era greed and despondency, it ranks with Jack Grace’s Get Out of Brooklyn for relevance and bite.

Andrews goes back to mashing up gospel and psychedelia in Rough Around the Edges: you could drown an entire congregation with the amount of reverb on that slightly out-of-tune piano. Fueled by echoey Fender Rhodes and sunbaked guitar, the southwestern gothic ballad Border salutes the resilience of Mexican immigrants: “You cannot measure a man until you’ve been down the devil’s road.:”

Andrews’ narrator manages to find solace amidst crushing poverty in Took You Up, another slow, enveloping psych-soul number. She keeps that ambience going with This House – hey, it’s a dump, but it’s home – and then lets the embers blaze through the wickedly catchy, embittered Kindness of Strangers. “How do you dive deeper in a shallow riverbed, when the current pulls your further?” Andrews wants to know.

The sarcasm in I’ve Hurt Worse is crushing: “Being with you is like being alone,” the woman in this relationship tells her abusive boyfriend. Andrews winds up the album with the swaying, summery, considerably more optimistic slide guitar ballad Long Road Back to You. Andrews’ previous album Honest Life was solid, but this is a quantum leap: fans of acts from Lucinda Williams, to Tift Merritt and Margo Price ought to check out Andrews.

A Clinic in Tunesmithing and Improvisation From This Era’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist

Albums that combine state-of-the-art tunesmithing with similarly rapturous improvisation are rare. That’s what Bill Frisell does on his latest release, Music IS, a solo recording streaming at Spotify. His previous album, Small Town, was a similarly spare, low-key set, recorded live at the Village Vanguard with bassist Thomas Morgan. This one’s even more intimate, a master class from this era’s greatest jazz guitarist. Or maybe, considering that Frisell has never limited himself to jazz, it’s time to consider him as this era’s greatest guitarist, period. Americana has been an important part of his catalog for decades, but on this album it really comes to the foreground. He’s in the midst of a long stand at the Vanguard this month, with sets at 8:30 and 11. Today and tomorrow, he leads a trio with Morgan and the great Rudy Royston on drums. Then on the 20th, the three add add violist Eyvind Kang.

At a time where every six-string player with fast fingers and absolutely nothing to say seems to be going into jazz, Frisell stands out even more. He can play lickety-split when he wants, but throughout his career, his songs tend to be on the slow side. This album is a clinic in how he does it, just guitars and Frisell’s trustly loop pedal.

The songs are a mix of new ones and stripped-down versions of older material. The standout among the album’s sixteen tracks is Change in the Air, a somber, plaintive, Britfolk-tinged pavane, Frisell methodically building lingering rainy-day ambience around a simple one-five bass figure. Like most of the other tracks, it’s over in less than three minutes.

Go Happy Lucky comes across as a minimalist collage based on the old blues standard Since I Met You Baby. In Line, which could be an electrified John Fahey tune, begins with a lusciously chiming vintage soul progression, then Frisell deconstructs it using every wryly oscillating, floating or echoing patch in his pedal: is that a twelve-string effect, or the real thing? Likewise, is that an acoustic that Frisell’s playing on the subdued, spare oldtime folk-style ballads The Pioneers, or just his Tele through a pedal?

Sometimes Frisell’s loops are very brief; other times he’ll run a whole verse or chorus. Kentucky Derby has one of the longer ones, a very funny juxtaposition of distorted roar and flitting upper-register accents. He expands very subtly on a stately oldtime folk theme in Made to Shine, then artfully makes a forlorn, abandoned, Lynchian ballad out of a purist Jim Hall-like tune in Miss You.

Another ballad, Monica Jane is more spare and lingering, Frisell turning up the tremolo and spicing it with the occasional tritone or chromatic riff for distant menace in a Steve Ulrich vein. There’s also a punchline, a long one.

In Pretty Stars, Frisell stashes a simple, twinkling two-note riff in the pedal, then makes soulful country gospel out of it – lots of history and a little mystery at the end. Rambler follows the same formula, in this case a surreal wah-wah figure that completely changes the mood from pensive to bemused, compared to the alternate take included as a bonus track at the end of the album.

Frisell salutes iconic bassist Ron Carter with a stark, saturnine theme, part 19th century spiritual, part Wayfaring Stranger, with a little Wes Montgomery at the end. The album’s most anthemic track is Thankful: methodically crescendoing with burning, distorted, bluesy leads. it’s the closest to rocking the hell out that Frisell does here. Although the simmering miniature Think About It is pretty loud too.

The album’s most wintry number is What Do You Want, again bringing to mind Steve Ulrich and Big Lazy in pensive mode. A blues with uneasy ornamentation, Winslow Homer has a similarly surreal cinematic feel. All this is another notch on the belt for a guy who might have made more good albums than anybody else over the past thirty-five years.

Lyrical, Mesmerizing Psychedelia From Rose Thomas Bannister in Williamsburg Saturday Night

Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.

She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.

With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.

Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.

The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.

Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.

The Year’s Best Americana Triplebill at Hank’s This Thursday Night

The best Americana triplebill of the year so far is happening this March 8 at Hank’s.  Kasey Anderson, whose gritty populist narratives bring to mind a young Steve Earle, opens the night at 8. Eric Ambel, proprietor of the dearly missed Lakeside Lounge and an even more spectacular, surreal guitarist and songwriter – who played lead in Earle’s band back in the day – follows at 9. Cliff Westfall  – whose aphoristic songs and soulful C&W baritone will take you back to 1956 at warp speed – headlines at around 10. Cover is $10.

Westfall, whose album Baby You Win is streaming at his music page. is as strong and memorable a retro songwriter as Pokey LaFarge – no joke. It takes you back to an era of neon-lit jukeboxes, tailfins, beer cans that you could crush in one hand only if you were really strong…and ten-cent drafts. And Westfall matches the honkytonk ambience with innumerable clever musical and lyrical details that fill out the picture. The opening track, It Hurt Her to Hurt Me is sort of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with even more clever wordplay, done by Hank Williams with a sizzling electric band behind him. The shuffling title track gives the group a chance to show off everything they’ve got: Scott Metzger’s tasty reverbtoned vintage tube amp sonics, a wry surf riff when least expected, a little Merle Haggard to kick off the song and colorful period vernacular. This guy’s “giving back the Crackerjack box I got from a so-called friend.”

Westfall croons bittersweetly over Charlie Giordano’s rippling honkytonk piano in the sad barroom ballad Til the Right One Comes Along. Then the group channel Orbison over a luscious web of twanging, jangling, echoing guitars in the Lynchian anthem More and More (as in “I think I love you more and more less and less”). With Metzger’s morosely tremoloing guitar solo, it’s a standout among many here.

With its chugging layers of twelve-string guitars – that’s Metzger and Graham Norwood – Off the Wagon is the missing link between Johnny Burnette and the Byrds –  the 1967 psychedelic Byrds, and the 1969 country Byrds as well. “We go together like booze and pills!” Westfall announces; those stampeding, twangy Bakersfield guitar multitracks on the way out are a straight shot of adrenaline.

The worn-out, defeated ballad Hanging On paints a vividly grim picture of a guy who’s just about had it with being strung along. By contrast, the boisterous I’ll Play the Fool comes across as a mashup of Subterranean Homesick Blues Dylan and Buck Owens.

The gorgeously clanging The Man I Used to Be paints a picture of a guy with “a little less size and a lot less wear…dusty 8X10s out in the hall, but I don’t recognize that guy at all.”

“I live in your world since I left my own,” Westfall admits in the sad waltz A Lie If You Must, over Dan Iead’s pedal steel.  “A lie calculated to appease and disarm, tell me what’s self-deception compared to your charms?” Elvis Costello would be proud to have written this one.

The End of the Line, the album’s hardest-rocking track, wouldn’t be out of place on a Wayne Hancock album, right down to that searing Metzger guitar solo midway through. The retro 50s shuffle ballad Sweet Tooth gives Westfall a chance to have fun with food and drug metaphors. The album winds up with similarly sly swamp-rock of The Odds Were Good. You’re going to see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

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,

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.