New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: americana

Midwestern Rock Legend Sam Llanas Haunted by the Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

If Sam Llanas never put out another album, he would still be a first-ballot hall-of-famer. As co-leader of heartland rockers the BoDeans, he built a body of work to match any other songwriter active since the 80s. But Llanas shows no signs of slowing down, and like his colleague James McMurtry, he just keeps putting out great records. His latest is Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels, which isn’t’ online yet. It’s arguably his best solo release, and has moments that will rip your face off.

As the title implies, this is a haunted record, filled with regrets and disillusion, although there are plenty of upbeat moments as well. Much as it’s mostly acoustic, the atmosphere is lush and sparkling with layers and layers of guitar, mandolin, accordion and what sounds like autoharp. Llanas,, Mike Hoffmann and Sean Williamson handle the stringed instruments; Michael Ramos plays keys and accordion, with Susan Nicholson on violin.

Much as Llanas is hardly known for playing covers, he opens the album with an absolutely gorgeous, lushly jangly, bittersweet reinvention of the old Civil War folk song Shenandoah. The first of the originals, Lonely Girl, begins starkly and grows more nocturnally starry: it could be a prequel to an older song in the Llanas catalog, Two Souls.

Days Go By is classic Llanas, a big two-chord anthem on a more intimate scale and an angst-fueled look back on lakeside bonfires and people gone forever. His voice is still in great shape, as everybody who watched his webcasts during the lockdown noticed, and he really airs out his upper register in Straight to Hell, a brisk, gloomy country shuffle with a spiky twin guitar solo midway through.

One Summer Night is an aptly shimmery but propulsive take on Orbisonesque Nashville gothic pop. Here Comes the Dawn is next, a hopeful, catchy, gently bouncing pre-daybreak theme. A Place in This World could be an Everly Brothers tune, a fond look back at childhood influences: Llanas’ dad was a bass player, and the Mexican community in Waukesha, Wisconsin was fertile ground for musical cross-pollination.

Llanas goes back to early 60s Lynchian pop sounds in Down Here in the Cold: it’s imploring, but it’s also hopeful. Rave On is an upbeat, Willie Nile-ish pop tune – is that a glockenspiel, or just a Casio?

Autumn Is Falling is an anthem for our era, a metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time. With its cheery, doo-woppy hooks, the most retro song here is Got Love. The big hit here is Bring Me to Light, a weary but defiant freedom fighter’s anthem flavored with chiming twelve-string and soaring slide work from Hoffmann. Llanas winds up the album with Wedding Ghost, a morbidly waltzing Louvin Brothers-style narrative: it’s a classic of its kind.

Haunting Vocals and Tunesmithing on Emily Frembgen’s Brilliant New Album

Up until the lockdown, Emily Frembgen was one of the hardest-working musicians on what’s left of the New York acoustic and Americana scenes. She held down residencies at the Knitting Factory and LIC Bar, but also didn’t limit herself to the usual spots. She was just as likely to play a donut shop or a house party. It was at a Bushwick donut shop in the fall of 2017 where she calmly and quietly picked up her acoustic guitar and played one of the most haunting songs written by anyone in this city in the last several years. That song is called Downtown: Frembgen’s narrator goes to meet her friends one last time before she either leaves, or kills herself, or both. The song is all the more chilling for not being specific.

It’s not on her new album It’s Me or the Dog – streaming at Bandcamp – but the record has plenty of other intriguing material, some of it brooding, some of it more quirky and playful. Frembgen is a skilled, purist tunesmith, a potently imagistic lyricist and has an unselfconscious, sometimes wounded. sometimes understatedly vengeful voice that will give you goosebumps.

“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” Frembgen relates gently in Butterfly, a chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. That one’s just Frembgen and her acoustic guitar. She’s joined by lead guitarist Hugh Pool, bassist Charles Dechants and drummer Keith Robinson for Changes, which brings to mind Rosanne Cash’s early new wave/Americana mashups.

Organist Brian Mitchell adds aptly Blonde on Blonde-flavored organ and Nashville piano to Sad Affair: the harmonica completes the mid 60s Dylan ambience behind Frembgen’s witheringly cynical imagery.

Flower/Weed is a seething, low-key kiss-off song, Frembgen’s gentle fingerpicking mingling with Charles Burst’s twinkly electric piano. She goes back to backbeat Americana with Silver Lining, a catchy, guardedly optimistic anthem about two troubled souls pulling themselves out of a dark place, lowlit by Pool’s baritone guitar.

The contrasting imagery and airy vocals in Turn Around bring to mind another first-class Americana-inspired tunesmith, Liz Tormes. Frembgen elevates Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well moroseness to new levels of angst in New Feelin’ over Pool’s Lynchian twang.

She picks up the pace with Hometown, an optimistic country shuffle concealing a desperate escape narrative, and closes the record with He Held Onto Me, Mitchell’s sober gospel piano underscoring Frembgen’s despondency. It’s the only place on the album where she drops her guard. Frembgen has been writing catchy songs since the late zeros, but she’s reached a harrowing new level here with one of the best records of 2021.

A Colorfully Lyrical, Fast-Fingered Songwriter on the High Plains

Billy Lurken is the rare Americana songwriter who’s also a hell of a lead guitarist. His axe is acoustic. He gets a much bigger sound out of his guitar than most guys who usually play solo, and does the same on the banjo. He’s just as strong at bluegrass-style flatpicking as he is with the big jazzy chords of western swing and his own high-voltage take on the blues. He’s also a vivid chronicler of the anomie and quiet desperation everyday people face in Flyover America. Born in Minnesota and raised in South Dakota, he’s a fixture on the high plains circuit. His next gig is a free outdoor show on Sept 19 at 2 PM at Wilde Prairie Winery, 48052 259th St. in Brandon, South Dakota.

Lurken’s songs pick up on the little details but also capture the big picture. “It’s a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying” is one of the key lines in the Studs Terkel-influenced number he opened with on a segment of the No Cover, No Minimum show on South Dakota Public tv which you can stream here.

Movin’ On is a showcase for Lurken’s fast fingers on the frets: it’s a brisk early 50s style western swing-infused boogie about how the years can take their toll on a couple.

One of his most memorable story-songs is Home, a fast-picked chronicle of something less than bliss on the blue-collar domestic front. For all the detail – the dust-streaked Cadillac, the stoned girl on the back porch with her “Audrey Hepburn shades” – it’s what Lurken doesn’t say that packs the biggest punch.

And he has upbeat, optimistic songs to balance out the gloomy ones. There’s Girl in the Flowered Dress, a showcase for his chops. Tumbleweed, a studio recording, has a luscious, bluegrass-infused mix of guitar and banjo. And Rider, a cowboy tune, is a stark, nimbly fingerpicked Jimmie Rodgers-style blues.

If it might seem odd that a blog which has advocated for live music throughout the five boroughs of New York might be paying so much attention to South Dakota, that’s because South Dakota is a free state. There’s no apartheid there, no spyware required to go indoors at venues, restaurants and bars. That’s the way it is throughout the rest of the free states: Florida, Texas and across the plains. America’s Frontline Doctors have filed a civil rights lawsuit to overturn Mayor Bill DiBozo’s evil, unconstitutional edict, and at the moment a lot of businesses aren’t enforcing it. Until we succeed in liberating ourselves, you may see more of what’s happening in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” here.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just Say No, one of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Ward Hayden and the Outliers Put Out a Smart, Subtly Lyrical, Searingly Relevant Americana Rock Record

Ward Hayden and the Outliers play catchy, high-voltage, lyrically edgy Americana rock. Their new album Free Country – available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp – was written and recorded during the lockdown, although the political content is more subtext than it is central in Hayden’s sharply detailed narratives. He keeps his songs short, sings in an unselfconsciously soulful baritone and likes escape anthems.

The band open with a brisk four-on-the-floor burner, Nothing to Do (For Real This Time), which strongly brings to mind Matt Keating, another great songwriter with a Massachusetts connection:

A stranger in my hometown,
A stranger in my own house
I can’t go home, I burned that bridge, spent my last dime
I’ve got nothing to do for real this time
This is what happens when you wake up
All the cool kids in the class
Just actors in a mask…

The band – Hayden on guitar and vocals, Cody Nilsen on lead guitar and pedal steel, Greg Hall on bass and Josh Kiggans on drums – slow down for Shelly Johnson, a grim salute to the Twin Peaks character. “Muscle and mind are two different things, that’s why smalltown queens rarely keep their kings,” Hayden observes. The outro is priceless.

“It seems the truth no longer matters,” Hayden relates in I’d Die For You, a brisk shuffle fueled by Nilsen’s steel:

Life isn’t like the movies, you think just what you believe,
No matter your perspective
As fate would have it
We’ve got to share reality

Political message cached in a love song, Soviet style – or lockdown-era Massachusetts style.

The band work off a familiar Link Wray riff as Sometimes You Gotta Leave gets underway, twelve-string jangle contrasting with distorted roar and soaring bass, with a big careening guitar outro. Middle Man is part loping, twangy southwestern gothic and part honkytonk: Hayden’s message is carpe diem.

Over a punchy twin-guitar crunch, he contemplates the end of the world – and the heroism that could stop it – in All Gone Mad, a capsule of the ugly early days of the lockdown:

Seriously, I’m asking, as I’ve been thinking
That if you ain’t Babe Ruth then you ain’t Abe Lincoln
You don’t die trying, until you just get old
Then you ride down the road with your blinkers still blinking

Hayden goes back to the carpe diem theme in the escape anthem Bad Time to Quit Drinkin’ – the reference to a famous song by the Who is a typically sardonic touch. Irregardless, a Buddy Holly-ish shuffle, touches on the interminable torture so much of the world has suffered under lockdowns, and the mess future generations will have to clean up:

All we’ve got is the damn tv
Leading us from the path to glory
I don’t want this reality

As Hayden sees it, Indiana is a place where “The devil rocks the cradle, it’s in the soil, in the air and one and all.” He and the band close the record with When the Hammer Falls, a smoldering, swaying number that sounds a lot like the Dream Syndicate. It’s a good bet that producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel is responsible for one or more of the noisy guitar multitracks. It’s been a real slow year for rock records, and it may get even slower. Be that what it may, this is one of the best of the bunch.

Trans-Global Entertainment With Accordion and Guitar in Downtown Brooklyn

Erica Mancini is an eclectically talented accordionist with a background equally informed by jazz, tango, cumbia and Americana, to name a few styles. She sings in a high, crystalline jazz voice and is a master of passing tones on the keys. Smokey Hormel was Johnny Cash’s last lead guitarist, but also has a thing for Brazilian music and jazz. The two make a good team. Playing a duo set at the little pedestrian mall where Willoughby meets Pearl Street in downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday afternoon, they treated a sunstruck lunchtime crowd to a major portion of the innumerable (some would say unlimited) styles suited to their two instruments.

Mancini sang the opening number, a torchy Brazilian tune, in Portuguese. Later on, she spun counterintuitive cascades through a couple of rustic Colombian coastal cumbia instrumentals.

Hormel was especially at home, both voicewise and fingerpicking his vintage National Steel model, on a couple of Hank Williams songs and a jaunty, bittersweet duet with Mancini on the old Lefty Frizzell country hit Cigarettes and Coffee Blues. But he also had fun with an English translation of what he called a Brazilian cowboy tune.

Mancini invited up a friend to sing fetching Carter Family-style harmonies on I’ll Fly Away and then an extended, playful version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. Mancini’s version of another klezmer favorite, Comes Love, was just as wryly cheery. The two didn’t do any Romany swing, or tango, or Mexican banda music, but this was just the first set. It’s anybody’s guess how many other cultures they dipped their voices into in the next hour.

The next lunchtime show on the little plaza is Aug 17 at noon with acoustic fingerstyle delta blues guitarist Noe Socha. Mancini’s next gig is tomorrow night, Aug 13 at 8 PM at Sunny’s in Red Hook, her usual home base these days. Hormel is also at Sunny’s on Aug 18 at 8 with his western swing band.

Ariana Hellerman, the onetime publisher of Ariana’s List, a fantastic guide to live music and summer festivals, runs the series here. In addition to advocating for live music, she also has a passion for dance and is especially proud of the dance series she’s booking further down the Fulton Mall at Albee Square, a series of performances featuring styles from around the world that continues into the fall.

Fiver Puts Out a Smartly Lyrical New Psychedelic Americana Record

Songwriter/guitarist Simone Schmidt a.k.a. Fiver writes catchy, thoughtful, expansive, distantly Americana-tinged rock songs that draw on peak-era, early zeros-era Neko Case and Cat Power along with the Grateful Dead. Schmidt likes a biting turn of phrase and sings her allusive, historically informed narratives in a breathy, modulated mezzo-soprano. Her latest album with Scottish trio the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition is streaming at Bandcamp

Yeah But Uhh Hey, a steady, vamping, syncopated backbeat number sets the stage, a cynical gig-economy era workingperson’s lament. What goes round seems to come around here; it all falls apart gracefully at the end.

Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision) is a clanging country tune, Jeremy Costello’s bass snapping and Nick Dourado’s lapsteel wafting behind the twang while drummer Bianca Palmer provides a low-key swing.. “Hope you don’t take it as sign,” Schmidt muses, referring to the song title. She winds it up with a Jerry Garcia-tinged wah guitar solo.

Her layers of guitar textures mingle with Dourado’s rippling piano for even more of a Deadly vibe in June Like a Bug, winding out with a long, nocturnal jam. Jr. Wreck, a spare, gospel-infused breakup ballad, has a tantalizingly brief, late-Beatlesque guitar solo from Schmidt at the center.

The album’s funniest song is Sick Gladiola, a torrentially lyrical Tex-Mex-flavored waltz about starstruck fortune-seekers following the downward spiral of traffic and alienation in a gentrification-era El Lay hell. “Don’t bang your head on that bar, it’s too low,” Schmidt warns.

Death Is Only a Dream comes across as a blend of 70s Kath Bloom hippie chamber folk and more recent Carla Bley minimalism, drifting into an enigmatically catchy, early 80s Dead style outro.

Schmidt details a soul-depleting marriage from the trophy wife’s point of view over a steady disco groove in Paid in Pride. She closes the record with For Your Sake This, her echoey vocalese over Dourado’s starry piano slowly coalescing around her acoustic guitar. This has been a slow year for rock music, both in the studio and onstage, and this is one of the best of the class of 2021 so far.

A Well-Traveled Americana Guitarslinger Returns to a Familiar Williamsburg Haunt

Back in the day, like most music blogs, New York Music Daily got involved in the club booking business. The choice of venue, with its utterly Lynchian, red velvet-themed back room and intimate sonics, seemed perfect.

Looking back, it was cursed. Hurricane Katrina knocked out power all over town, flooded the space, and delayed opening night by a week. We ended up doing it all acoustic, with no electricity.

Subway service was plagued by an endless series of problems for months afterward, making it next to impossible for musicians from Brooklyn and Queens to get into Manhattan. Trying to lure an audience out under those conditions proved even more of a challenge. There were other issues, and a lawsuit against the landlord which the venue owners lost. Zirzamin closed abruptly in July of 2013. David Lynch movies are great fun to watch, but not to live through.

Still, the music was phenomenal. It was like being a kid in a candy store. Go back through the archives for a time capsule of some of New York’s best talent at the time, most of whom were far too popular to be expected to play a space this small.

One of those artists was Jon LaDeau.

What was most obvious about him was his guitar chops. He knew his blues, and oldtime Americana, and jamband rock, and he didn’t waste notes. A lot of the time he played with a slide. He had a comfortable, confident way with a tune and a low-key presence as a singer.

Over the years, he kept at it. It was validating to see him refining those chops at gigs all over town, most recently at the now badly missed Friday night series at the American Folk Art Museum, in 2018 and 2019. His latest release, Time Capsules – streaming at Bandcamp – is a short album from earlier this year. As you would expect from a record put out during the lockdown, it’s haunted by uncertainty and a theme of time lost forever.

The first track, Younger Days is an undulating number driven by guest Chris Parker’s slide guitar and layers of multitracks from LaDeau. The obvious comparison is the Grateful Dead (or Widespread Panic, for that matter). It’s over in less than three minutes.

Mayteana Morales takes a turn on soulful lead vocals on the title track, a slowly swaying ballad in 6/8 time, Justin LaDeau adding quaint, retro Nashville saloon piano. The group stay in a 6/8 vintage soul groove, picking up the pace a little in the next track, Alone, the bandleader’s spare, incisive guitar rising amid Steve Okonski’s organ.

The surreal final cut, Cemetery Road has the most guitar snarl and bite here. It could be a lockdown parable: “We wanna be free, we wanna go home to the things that we love,” as LaDeau puts it. He’s making a return to the stage at one of his old haunts, Pete’s Candy Store, with an unrestricted show on July 6 at 8:30 PM.

Revisiting Classic, Purist Americana and Bluegrass From Martha Spencer

Martha Spencer sings in a high soprano voice with lonesome country vibrato, backed by an inspired, thoughtful blend of flatpicked guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass. That description could fit thousands and thousands of Americana songbirds, but Spencer sings and writes from the point of view of someone who grew up immersed in classic country and bluegrass music with her  family’s Virginia group, the Whitetop Mountain Band. Her 2018 debut album as a solo artist is still up at Bandcamp. The sound is totally 1950s, whether she’s doing oldschool C&W, bluegrass, a blues or a ballad. She winds a good yarn and has a sharp sense of humor.

She and the band – a shifting cast that include but are not limited to guitarists Frank Rische and Ersel Fletcher,, bassist Debbie Bramer, fiddler Billy Hurt, Jr and banjo player Alex Leach –  open the album with Blue Ridge Mountain Lullaby, a fond childhood reminiscence of falling asleep while the ‘rents are playing all the old songs. My Heart Says Yes is a simple, catchy mashup of bluegrass and indie rock: totally Hoboken, 1996. Spencer’s voice takes on extra bite, way up the scale in the rockabilly tune Hard Headed Woman, amped up with growling electric guitar and spiraling electric honkytonk piano.

Spencer blends Patsy Cline nuance and Dolly Parton plaintiveness in the aching, sad ballad The Last Leaves. After that the band pick up the pace in Let the Wild Stay Free, a smartly aphoristic bluegrass tune.

When Spencer bends her way up to those blue notes in Chickens Coming Home to Roost Tonight, it’s clear she means business, echoed by the understatedly slashing bluesy guitar solo.  She keeps that strong-willed point of view front and center in Rambling Woman: over spiky banjo and fiddle, she makes it clear she’s not ready to settle down.

Wishful Thinking comes across as an Appalachian flavored acoustic take on a peak era 40s/50s Kitty Wells-style ballad. After that, Spencer flips the script with Ruby, a spare, rustic Virginia reel. Then she and the band slow things down again with Cold Winter Lingers On, a classic C&W breakup duet spiced with pedal steel and countrypolitan guitar.

They bring up the energy again with the oldtime country gospel tune Jonah and follow that with the wry hillbilly boogie No Help Wanted.

Tree of Heaven is deceptively pretty: it turns out to be Spencer’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. She winds up the album with the brisk banjo tune Rambling Hobo. Fans of real, purist country and bluegrass – the genuine article, not the legions of indie rock boys trying to wrap their dainty fingers around acoustic instruments – will love this stuff.

Abigail Dowd Stares Down the Flood and Wins

From Johnny Cash, to Led Zeppelin, to Karla Rose, musicians have never stopped finding new uses for flood metaphors. Americana songwriter Abigail Dowd is the latest in that venerable line. For Dowd, it’s personal: her Colorado home was flooded six times in 2018, springboarding the songs on her hauntingly intense latest album Beautiful Day, streaming at Soundcloud. As a tale of resilience and triumph over adversity, it has special resonance in the year of the needle of death.

Dowd has a ruggedly individualistic persona and a thing for southern gothic; her previous album Not What I Seem got a rave review here last year. Not everything is as it seems in the allusive, wary title track, Dowd’s spiky fingerpicking leading to a doublespeed charge fueled by Alex McKinney’s dobro and Scott Sawyer’s spare electric guitar lines over the low-key shuffle rhythm of bassist Jason Duff and drummer Austin McCall. Here and there, Joe MacPhail’s Rhodes electric piano pops up, a subtle suspenseful enhancement.

Diamond is a strutting Lou Reed tune in Americana disguise, spiced with MacPhail’s smoky organ: “Sometimes I feel like a miner left behind in the dark” is the key line. Dowd’s delivery in general is more flinty on this album, especially in One Moment at a Time, a moody carpe-diem theme built around a briskly flurrying acoustic guitar riff.

The instrumental St. Vrain – the name of the creek that rose up and almost took Dowd’s home with it – has a gorgeously haunting, baroque-tinged web of guitars and is over way, way too soon: Dowd could have kept this going three times as long and it wouldn’t be boring.

Sawyer’s ominous washes of chords raise the intensity in River, a resolute Appalachian gothic anthem. Dowd stays with the brooding minor-key atmosphere in Apple Trees, a chillingly metaphorical tale of plans suddenly derailed.

The Underground Railroad escape anthem Judgment Day captures the exhaustion of life on the run and the perils at every turn. “I just want to be alone,” the haunted freedom fighter in Don’t Want to Talk About It asserts: sometimes you have to become a monster to defeat them.

Dowd’s defiant narrator throws off the shackles of original sin in the briskly stomping After the Fall, right up to a surprise ending. The she brings down the lights in the haunting, organ-fueled, enigmatic Rise Above: at what point do we have to walk through hell to get any further?

The flood metaphors reach fever pitch in Run, a global warming-era Appalachian gothic tale run amok. Dowd winds up the album with Grandmother Moon, a shamanic, oldtime blues-infused tableau. Dowd is on a creative tear right now: there must be something in that Rocky Mountain water.