New York Music Daily

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Mary Lee’s Corvette Revisit Their Iconic Recording of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks at Joe’s Pub

There’s considerable irony in that as brilliant as Mary Lee’s Corvette’s original songs are, the band are best known for a cover album that they didn’t even plan on releasing.

Seventeen years ago, they were a ubiquitous presence in what was then a thriving Lower East Side rock scene. One of the few remaining venues from that time, Arlene’s, had a series of “classic album” cover nights. Most of them were pretty cheesy and didn’t draw very high-quality talent, further reinforcing the assumption that the best musicians all want to play their own material.

One of those nights featured a local venue owner doing a version of an album by the Band. The other album on the bill that night was Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, which Mary Lee’s Corvette played all the way through, after only two rehearsals.

It was one of the most transcendent shows ever witnessed by anyone from this blog (or its more primitive predecessor – in the fall of 2001, blogs as we know them today didn’t exist). That e-zine rated Mary Lee’s Corvette’s venomous version of Idiot Wind as the best song of the year. A few months later, the band officially released the live recording, which by then had been circulating among collectors who were in awe of frontwoman Mary Lee Kortes’ vocals and the band’s similarly electrifying performance.

In the years since, Mary Lee’s Corvette have reprised that concert a few times. They’re revisiting it this Thursday night, Jan 24 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, another of the few neighborhood venues left that still have music. General admission is $18. If you’re going, you should get there early because it might sell out.

If you give the record a spin at youtube, you’ll notice how the drums suddenly get much louder when the band get to Meet Me in the Morning. That’s because somebody forgot to push a button and the original recording didn’t catch the song. The version on the album is from drummer Diego Voglino’s own recorder, positioned much closer to his kit; consequently, guitarist Andy York’s searing slide guitar solo is way back in the mix.

The rest of the record is what you would expect from a topnotch Americana rock unit – this incarnation of the band also featured Brad Albetta on bass and Andy Burton on organ – fronted by one of the most amazingly versatile singers on the planet. Kortes’ own material spans from folk-rock to jazz, but she also has a background in classical music. She founded the UN Voices choir, and has recorded with Placido Domingo.

And if you’re lucky, she’ll break out some of her own material at the show (she didn’t do that at the Arlene’s gig). Watching her play an extremely rare solo acoustic show at Pete’s late last summer was a revelation. Kortes’ tensile wail is every bit as formidable as it was almost twenty years ago; if anything, she’s even more nuanced a singer than she was then. She mixed up some new material – a couple of stark folk noir numbers, one of them an especially allusive one that could have been a murder ballad – along with more anthemic favorites from years past.

As usual, she got a lot of laughs with More Stupider, a radio pop parody she wrote in response to someone telling her that her songs were too smart for mass consumption. The lyrics to Sweeter Than True are as opaque as the swaying, bittersweet melody is catchy: Kortes confided that she’s still trying to figure out exactly what that one’s about. And she ran through a couple of jaunty swing-flavored tunes from her Beulah Rowley Songbook concept album, told from the point of view of a mysterious, obscure 1930s songwriting polymath. Even if she doesn’t get to the originals at the Joe’s Pub gig, it’s a rare chance to revisit a fleetingly magical time and place that most people in New York today never got to witness.

No Ricolas for John Mellencamp

One of the fringe benefits of going to Carnegie Hall is the baskets of Ricolas they have outside the exits to the various spaces there. If you’re, say, a budget-conscious college kid, you can make enough of a haul of those things to get through a couple days’ worth of a nasty cold. For John Mellencamp‘s show there tonight, there were no Ricolas in sight. Although the gravelly-voiced arena rocker could have used a handful.

Busy ushers were quick to tell ticketholders that “John doesn’t like cellphones,” and that flash photography during the show would be verboten. Looking up from the orchestra level, it seemed that barely half the seats in the hall were taken. But all those people, or most of them anyway, were down on the floor, on their feet. And though it happened to be 4/20, the smell on everybody’s breath, it seemed, was booze rather than weed.

If the accents in the crowd were any indication, the former Johnny Cougar is more popular on Long Island than he is in New Jersey. It was a blue-collar demographic whose lives had gone on long after the thrill of living was gone. And a smart piece of booking for the venue, considering that few if any of those in attendance had ever been there. “There isn’t a bad seat in the house,” was a familiar refrain in between selfies against a backdrop from a previous era of robber barons in Manhattan.

Mellencamp played that song solo acoustic, reinventing it as he did many of the other radio hits, an unexpected and rather impressive move considering that he and the band could have phoned them in and probably no one would have complained.  Is that song actually sarcastic, a clever dig at the white trash Mellencamp grew up with? Probably not, but the snide Reagan recession anthem Little Pink Houses definitely is…and just like Springsteen’s Born in the USA, went over everybody’s head, at least as far as this crowd was concerned.

Much as Mellencamp has been tagged as a poor person’s Bruce, he’s actually been through several phases. It would have been cool to see him revisit his Ain’t Even Done with the Night days as a powerpop guy, but he didn’t go there. But he left no doubt that he’s a formidable bluesman, with an impassioned take of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passway, lead guitarist Andy York playing with his usual counterintuitive verve with a slide on a hybrid electric National steel model. Mellencamp also roared and wailed his way through some newer, similarly bluesy, gospel-tinged fire-and-brimstone Midwestern gothic anthems.

And much as this was a nostalgia trip for the crowd, Mellencamp’s still putting out new material, mostly competent if formulaic highway rock that rises to a vamping two-chord chorus with a singalong tagline. You gotta admire the guy for what he does: he’s a consummate pro. And there were moments that reminded that when he puts his mind to it, he can write a damn good song. The roar of the band’s three guitars subsumed the annoying violin-and-accordion hook on the late 80s hit Paper in Fire, an unanticipated breath of fresh air. The minor-key Human Wheels, with the night’s one interesting bassline slithering out of the chorus, was another. Too bad their version of Rain on the Scarecrow, on record one of the most excoriating Reagan-era populist broadsides, was so rote: York waited til the very end to fire off that searing, aching hook that made the single so powerful.

By the end of the show, Mellencamp had also run through some faux Waits, some secondhand Stones, a halfhearted detour into Land of a Thousand Dances and a boisterously bluesy cover that the Del-Lords did better back in the 80s. That being said, he probably could have retired a decade ago, and here he is, still out there doing what he’s always done, and finding ways to keep it from getting stale. May we all be that inspired when we hit sixty.

Mary Lee Kortes Launches What Could Be an Amazing Album at the Rockwood

It’s never safe to say that any one artist is the best at any particular style: every time somebody seems to reach the top, somebody else knocks them off, most likely without any intention of doing that. You know the drill: the more good stuff you know, the more you discover. That being said, there’s definitely no better or more diverse songwriter than Mary Lee Kortes working right now, anywhere in the world. Earlier this evening at the Rockwood she aired out her latest project, The Songs of Beulah Rowley, an intense, meticulously crafted, lyrically shattering collection of tunes that seemed to draw equally on Belgian barroom music, Great Plains saloon jazz, lively swing and epic Americana, all with her signature intense lyricism.

Pretty impressive for someone known primarily as a spine-tingling, crystalline singer (Kortes has led the UN Voices, sung on albums by Placido Domingo and fronted richly tuneful Americana rock band Mary Lee’s Corvette from the late 90s through the end of the zeros). As Kortes tells it, Rowley was orphaned at ten, dead by thirty, a precocious and rather profound songwriter from the 1920s who, like Kortes, never met a style of music she couldn’t master and then leave her own indelible mark on. “Pain will do that,” Kortes offered as explanation. Kortes’ all-star band – Andy York on banjitar (banjo body, guitar neck and strings), Rod Hohl on acoustic guitar, Joe Chiofalo on accordion, Jeremy Chatzky on bass and Phil Cimino on drums – reveled in the songs’ rich harmonies, wryly tricky metrics and full-throttle lyrical power. If all goes according to plan, these songs will take shape on a crowdsourced album with legendary producer Hal Willner (the guy behind the cult favorite Amarcord Nino Rota album of Fellini film themes) at the helm. It’s a project worth getting involved with, if only for the sake of owning a piece of the action when it comes out. There are also all kinds of cool prizes and perks available – house concerts, rare memorabilia, the works.

Kortes worked a sarcastic, recurrent “hallelujah” on the first song of the set, the banjitar’s bluesy ominousness underscoring a harrowing cycle of violence repeating itself. We Did Well By the Water, the second number, was a mantra-like, spot-on evocation of Midwestern denial. As Kortes told it, these tightlipped folks ended up drinking their tears.

Minor keys notwithstanding, not all of Rowley’s narratives ended badly: the irrepressibly jaunty hi-de-ho swing tune Big Things and a similarly wired early 1900s-style klezmer-vaudeville romp echoed an indomitable desire to make a name for herself under the bright lights. And Fingernail Moon, a bouncily apprehensive noir shuffle, brought to mind another first-class, Midwestern-born, New York-based songwriter, Bliss Blood.

But an unresolved ache lingered. Kortes went deep into jazz nuance for the angst-fueled Will Anybody Know That I Was Here – one one level, a shout-out to posterity, on another a chilling admission of very possible defeat. Kortes nicked the vamping chords of One For My Baby for an anthemic tribute to the virtues of an interior life – Rowley’s bio, more fleshed out, might well have legs as a fullscale theatrical production. Kortes then went back to careful, jazz-tinged modulation – and some searing upper register vocals – for a swinging early Nashville pop-inflected number. She wound up the show with Someplace We Can’t See, uneasily balancing towering, anthemic hope with a pervasive bitterness There are as many levels of meaning in Kortes’ songcraft as there are in her vocals: here’s to hearing these unselfconsciously deep songs immortalized in the studio as they deserve to be.

Closing Night at Lakeside

How do you play your own funeral? Obviously, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and the Roscoe Trio have plenty of life left in them, as they made clear last night when they played the closing night at Ambel’s beloved Lakeside Lounge. An East Village fixture for sixteen years, Lakeside was home to literally hundreds of excellent New York bands: its absence leaves a gaping hole in the New York rock scene. Still, it’s no wonder that Ambel – someone whose muse is not booze – had already gone through three pints of red wine (ok, somebody kicked one of them over) by the time their practically three-hour performance was over. The energy onstage bristled with raw anxiety, echoed by the crowd packed into the back room and lingering on the sidewalk outside: people were not happy to see their favorite rock club being priced out of the neighborhood for yet another effete, shi-shi gentrifier bar. Neither Ambel nor the band – Alison Jones on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Ambel’s pal Chip Robinson on guitar and also vocals – alluded to rage or resentment: they just let the songs do the talking and gave the club the sendoff it deserved. Taken out of context as an especially raucous Lakeside show, or as a harbinger of possibly worse things to come, this was something people will be at least thinking about for a long time.

They opened with Girl That I Ain’t Got, a twangy country-rock number from Ambel’s cult classic solo debut, Roscoe’s Gang, and closed with Cinderella, an obscure riff-rocking R&B song from Lakeside’s famous jukebox. Was it deliberate when Ambel’s wife Mary Lee Kortes, singing a rampaging version of Tangled Up in Blue (which also appears on her iconic 2002 live recording of Blood on the Tracks), gave special ferocity to “all the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now?” Who knows. Ambel did make a point of giving shout-outs to Lakeside regulars now gone, notably Ff bandleader Tom Price and multi-instrumentalist genius Drew Glackin, who, “If he would have lived, would have played more gigs here than anybody.”

Guitarist Mark Spencer, originally with the Blood Oranges, added some seriously searing rock leads on a couple of tracks. Lenny Kaye memorialized the place as “a place for musicians, and people who like to hang around them,” then led the band (with Ambel moved behind the drumkit, replaced on guitar by Demolition String Band’s Boo Reiners) through “the national anthem of rock n roll,” Gloria, with an interlude where he imagined the girl lifting her shirt in Lakeside’s photo booth for the benefit of Ambel and co-owner/jukebox archivist Jim Marshall, a.k.a. The Hound. John Mellencamp lead guitarist Andy York also beat a path through the crowd from the bar to the stage several times, notably for an absolutely luscious cover of Raw Power where he switched to bass and played wave after wave of Ron Asheton melody.

The New Heathens’ Nate Schweber sang Thousand Dollar Car, by the Bottle Rockets (who’d played the opening night party here on April 10, 1996 if memory serves right). Robinson delivered a subdued, pensive one from his Mylow album [memo to self – must dig that one out again] that picked up with one of an endless series of growling, sideswiping Ambel solos. Spanking Charlene’s Charlene McPherson took centerstage for a volcanic take on I Wanna Be Your Dog. And was that Schweber singing the night’s most brooding, downcast song, Dylan’s I and I? That’s the problem of not having any video to go with the audio, 24 hours later.

With Ambel out front, they blasted through familiar favorites like Garbagehead – written in five minutes for a particularly high-energy New Year’s Eve show – as well as blistering versions of the angry, overdriven, Beatlesque Song for the Walls along with Ambel’s inimitable version of Swamp Dogg’s Total Destruction to Your Mind. But this wasn’t just the hits. Ambel’s shows here with his trio have always been a party, part live rehearsal, part focus group for new material, and as usual he brought some of that, including a particularly hard-hitting, riff-rocking new collaboration with Kasey Anderson. The band had never played the Kinks’ Where I Belong – the anthem that Ambel had picked out specially for the night – but they made it through that one without embarrassing themselves thanks to Ambel somehow managing to play lead guitar and simultaneously signal chord changes via sign language (musicians understand those things).

Jimbo Mathus, who’s currently recording with Ambel, joined the band on mandolin for a killer honkytonk song about homeless people on the streets of Hollywood who should be diamonds rather than lumps of coal. As the set went on, Ambel called up Alex Feldesman, the club’s tireless soundman and gave him a guitar in appreciation for his years of service. “Now I have to learn to play the thing,” deadpanned Alex (he was being sarcastic, as usual – maybe this is what he needed to get a new band going).

Whoever ends up taking over the Lakeside space, you can be damn sure they won’t be handing out guitars to loyal members of the staff. Nor is it likely that they’ll be there sixteen years like Lakeside was. Back in 1995, a friend may have responded to Ambel’s news that he was the proud owner of a New York State liquor license by telling him, “That’s like giving a monkey a gun.” That comment would later become a song title; going on twenty years later, the guy would have to eat his words. By the time the show was over, the line to the bar was five deep and growing and at this point, at least from a blogger’s perspective, there was no reason to stay: anything that anyone might have said or drunk at that point is strictly personal business. Thanks for the memories, Lakeside Lounge.

By the way, if anybody has video, please don’t keep it to yourself and hide it on Facebook where nobody can see it: put it up on youtube, or on your blog, and send a link over here!