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Amy Rigby at the Peak of Her Rapturous Literary Powers in Alphabet City Last Night

Last night at Berlin Amy Rigby was a riveting, intense, spring-loaded presence, swaying and stabbing at the air with the headstock of her guitar. She’d brought two for this solo show: a lusciously jangly Danelectro twelve-string, and a standard-issue acoustic for the punkier stuff.

About midway through, somebody interrupted her with a request. Rigby considered it but then admitted she’d forgotten what key it’s in, adding that she’d retired it after a critic had taken her to task for being too self-effacing.

In reality, Rigby definitely qualifies as humble, but her characters – single moms and struggling musicians in particular – don’t put themselves down as much as they just get worn down by having to surmount one obstacle after another. Like Ray Davies, a counterpart from an earlier era, Rigby is populist to the core, and even funnier than he is. Where Davies falls back on British vaudeville, Rigby draws on both Americana and classic powerpop, among other styles. And she’s more specifically literary.

Case in point: an offhandedly savage take of From philiproth@gmail to rzimmerman@aol.com, the wickeldy catchy, jangly shout-out to Dylan winning the Nobel Prize that opens Rigby’s latest album, The Old Guys. Just the premise of the song is hilarious. That Rigby offers a degree of sympathy for the wannabe sending his own halfhearted shout-out before her knockout of a punchline speaks to her prowess as a storyteller. She probably won’’t ever be enshrined in that corporate museum in Cleveland, but in the secret history of rock music, she’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer. Patti Smith times Elvis Costello divided by Skeeter Davis equals Amy Rigby – more or less.

Much as there were plenty of even more amusing moments, there’s always been a lot of gravitas in Rigby’s work and this set was loaded with it. She opened with Bobblehead Doll, a haggard, depleted narrative whose mantra is “What was it all for?” As she sometimes does, she coyly referenced a classic from her Nashville days in Are We Still There Yet, a fond look back at an era where cds and cassettes weren’t yet being left in boxes at random streetcorners.

A gorgeous, expansive take of Summer of My Wasted Youth was even more bittersweet. On a personal level, the screaming subtext is about having a hard time letting go of a pre-parenthood, pre-divorce rock & roll lifestyle. In historical context, it’s nothing short of shocking: there actually was a time in New York when an unemployment check could not only cover Manhattan rent but also the occasional tab at a cheap Greenpoint Polish bar.

Knapsack, a cleverly constructed tale about an unrequited crush on a bookstore security guy (at the old Borders on Church St., maybe?) was just as poignant. Rigby recounted how she’d written the wistful Tex-Mex flavored Back From Amarillo as a salute to the city, something that went little-noticed when she got to the venue because there wasn’t much of a crowd. She picked up the pace with The President Can’t Read, a savage swipe at the bozo in the Oval Office and kept the energy going with Hometown Blues, an uneasy bigup to her Pittsburgh hometown and all its quirks.

The funniest song of the night was Men in Sandals, a perplexed look at how anyone aspiring to any kind of macho heroism could wear them – it could be Mets broadcaster Howie Rose’s theme song. Rigby grew more somber toward the end of the set, reading a colorful excerpt about a college boyfriend from a forthcoming memoir and then playing a subdued, elegaic take of Bob, a song from the new album memorializing the late Lou Reed fanatic who obviously had a major impact on a future songwriting legend. She closed with Don’t Ever Change, which stops just short of exasperation in the latest chapter of a lifelong search for simple contentment. That’s just one reason why Rigby’s work resonates so universally.

Playing solo, just bass and vocals, Faith bandleader Felice Rosser built a magical, misty ambience with her catchy changes, looming chords, subtle slides and her otherworldly, Nina Simone-esque soul voice to open the evening. You might not think that just a Fender Precision and a mic would be enough to fill a room, but Rosser held the crowd rapt. With the Corinthian columns at the edge of the little stage, “It was like being in a temple,” as Rigby put it.

Rigby’s next gig is somewhere in Ojai, California on June 16. Her tour page doesn’t say where or when,

Amy Rigby Can Write Anything – Even Psychedelic Rock

On one hand, Amy Rigby might be the last person you’d expect to make a psychedelic rock record. On the other, she’s been fluent in an amazing number of styles – honkytonk, classic Brill Building pop, countrypolitan and garage rock, among others – for so long that her new album The Old Guys shouldn’t come as any surprise. While the presence of her husband Wreckless Eric – a guy who knows a thing or two about psychedelia – probably makes a difference, Rigby doesn’t need outside help. She’s playing the album release show, kicking off her latest American tour at El Cortez, 17 Ingraham St in Bushwick this Saturday night, Feb 24 at around 8. Patti Smith lead guitarist Lenny Kaye opens the night with a relatively rare set of his own acerbic powerpop. Cover is $15; take the L to Morgan Ave.

As the title implies, the album – streaming at Bandcamp – weighs a lot of heavy questions, including but not limited to aging, death and the viability of being what’s charitably known as a “legacy act” out on the road. The opening cut is From philiproth@gmail to rzimmerman@aol.com. It’s Rigby at her slashingly surreal best, a stomping, clanging backbeat anthem and a sardonic look at the ups and downs (some might say the curse) of celebrity.

She keeps the hypnotic ambience going with the more subdued, nostalgic Are We Still There Yet. The title references one of her cult classics, specifically a hellish family drive scenario. Musically, the gently swaying opening chords look back to her ever-more-relevant Summer of My Wasted Youth, a bittersweet snapshot of early 80s pre-gentrification New York. This one has a lush, spacerock feel not unlike the Church at their dreamiest.

“I’ve been running out of time to do the little things I want, too much shit to get through,” she muses in Back From Amarillo over a gentle late 60s Jimmy Webb-style country shuffle backdrop. Somberly and soberly, she contemplates the grim realities facing veteran songwriters: “I hope it’s ok that I still drink.”

Playing Pittsburgh, a shout-out to Rigby’s adolescent stomping ground, has a slinky Chicano Batman psych-soul groove and some wry, satirical tropes pilfered from six decades worth of psychedelic rock. She follows that with Leslie, an echoey, drifty salute to an indomitable scenester with “fringe in your eyes to hide the lines.”

“Had my eyes on the prize when it was time to revise,” Rigby laments in the title cut, sort of a mashup of Cheap Trick and Brian Jonestown Massacre. “Bars are all closed ‘cause nobody goes…I raise a glass to the old guys, had a blast did the old guys.” Who’s playing that deliciously sinewy bass solo?

On the Barricade is classic Merseybeat gone psychedelic, an allusively pissed-off protest anthem that’s over too soon. “I’ve been known to turn the other cheek, but that was in a different place, a simpler time,” Rigby rails in New Sheriff, over a savage, noisy Ticket to Ride swing – it’s a coming-of-age song for any embattled liberal who’s been pushed over the edge.

“Built a city of sandcastles in the time it takes to swim from Malibu,” Rigby intones in Robert Altman, raising a glass through the mist to the late, great American film auteur. Slow Burner, the album’s most enigmatic number, has a starry, hypnotic jangle. Its most elegaic is Bob, a catchy, wistful recollection of the guy who taught her about Lou Reed – in the key of E. The final cut is One Off, an early Who-style stomp and the album’s most directly philosophical track. Nice to see someone with such a formidable back catalog still at the top of her game. If you want to learn how to write a song, this is as a good a place to start as any.

Amy Rigby Brings Her Hilarious, Cynical, Purist Songs Back to the East Village

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Amy Rigby‘s cult classic Diary of a Mod Housewife album. Divorced and living with her daughter Hazel in pre-gentrified Williamsburg at the time, the songwriter and former member of the well-loved East Village Americana trio the Shams imbued her catchy songs with equal parts C&W, classic Brill Building pop, pink-collar defiance and outrageous humor. Two decades later, Rigby is the rare rock songwriter who’s earned her own Genius page, and she’s returning to her old East Village stomping grounds, with a couple of 8 PM shows at Hifi Bar tonight and tomorrow, Nov 16 and 17.

She played a weekly residency here in May of last year and predictably packed the former Brownies space. The premise was to play a completely different set each night, which was hardly an issue considering her formidable back catalog, but became problematic since she was getting so many requests from the floor. This blog was in the house for the final show when she finally relented and treated the crowd to a gently swaying, quietly heartwrenching take of the towering, Beatlesque ballad Summer of My Wasted Youth. In light of what happened a week ago Tuesday, it’s even more painful to look back and realize that there once was a time when an aspiring songwriter could survive on unemploymen without once using a credit card, study country harmony and afford to drink cheap Polish beer in a Williamsburg bar.

Rigby did most of the set solo, the uneasy tremolo in her velvet voice matched by the Lynchian effect on her guitar. Rode Hard, a cynically upbeat honkytonk-flavored rocker on album, took on a special plaintiveness in stripped-down form, but also raised the quiet, steely indomitability at the end of the song .The real creeper of the night was the bolero-flavored murder ballad Keep It to Yourself, which ponders taking out a nasty, narcissistic ex just plausibly enough that it might not be just a fantasy.

There were plenty of Rigby’s signature funny songs too. The best was the faux bubblegum-pop tune As Is, with its litany of damaged goods in the dollar store, Rigby’s broke narrator rationalizing how she and her daughter were going to make the best of a dire situation. She introduced it with a nonchalantly harrowing story of how deeply impoverished she and her daugher had actually been back in the 90s. There was some rare material in the set as well, including the uproarious riff-rocking Hometown Blues, dating back to the songwriter’s restless Pittsburgh childhood, and a quaintly rockabilly-flavored song about trying to get a band off the ground in the 80s (memo to aspiring youngsters – it was a lot easier than it is now, and it was hard back then).

Rigby’s now-grown bassist daughter then joined her to duet on a Tex-Mex flavored tune and an Everlys-inspired ballad. Then Rigby’s husband Wreckless Eric – one of the few musicians whose sense of humor and knack for spinning a yarn can match hers – supplied a fiery Chuck Berry Strat shuffle on a hard-charging take of another funny favorite, Get Back in the Car, a song any exasperated parent can relate to. There were also plenty of quieter numbers in the mix as well; it’ll be interesting to hear what else the prolific Rigby has come up with since then.