New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival


Cutting-Edge Bluegrass Banjo From Bennett Sullivan

Banjo player Bennett Sullivan‘s latest album, Lady Nora, is a cutting-edge, fun, upbeat mix of newgrass instrumentals. Sullivan has a unique and interesting style that uses both guitar and mandolin voicings in addition to more traditional picking, and his supporting cast of Ross Martin on guitar, Rob Hecht on fiddle, and Pat Falco on bass play with a similar inspiration and high-spirited intensity.

The album opens with a full-band song, the aptly titled Honey Butter and its flatpicked guitar lead over a rippling banjo tune. What strikes you fastest is how fast, yet how subtle Sullivan is, taking over the lead almost imperceptibly before handing off to more easygoing fiddle and guitar solos. The song goes in the direction of a reel for awhile before another spiky banjo solo. Sullivan follows it with the lively banjo/fiddle dance Howard’s Knob, which he picks guitarstyle. After that, the delicate, pensive, cautious title track comes as a real surprise: this Nora is a complicated girl, even if she’s very straightforward about it

On the Davidson, a briskly pulsing bluegrass tune, sets edgy banjo and fiddle solos – the latter with a deliciously bracing climb up the scale – over catchy but unexpected changes. After that, the band blasts through the lickety-split Si Si No No and winds up the album with The Hound, a bouncy but restlessly minor-key tune with a darkly bluesy undercurrent. They hit a pensive interlude with the fiddle as the rhythm drops out, then Sullivan rustles through a verse, then they break it down to a practically funky syncopation. Oldschool instruments + new ideas = good times all the way through. If you play, grab this album and get your hands on a lot of ideas worth stealing. Sullivan is at the small room at the Rockwood with this band this coming January 4 at 9 PM.

A Fun, Eclectic Early-Evening Americana Triplebill

New York venues should have more early shows. That’s not to say that staying out til the wee hours isn’t fun…but the train home afterward, or lack thereof? Ouch. For those of us in New York who live in neighborhoods poorly served by mass transit (which is just about everybody, right?) the American Folk Art Museum just south of the triangle where Amsterdam Avenue crosses Broadway on the Upper West Side offers free, 5:30 PM shows on Friday nights. And the performers can be fantastic. Turkish folk band Dolunay played an amazing couple of sets there last week; this week’s lineup was an acoustic Americana bill of songwriter Karen Hudson, fiddler Melody Allegra Berger and comedic honkytonk band Trailer Radio doing a stripped-down acoustic duo show, and all three acts were excellent.

Hudson almost always plays with a band behind her and for that reason might not be the first person you would think would be a good solo acoustic performer. But she was tremendous. She’s an elegant tunesmith and evocative lyricist who often uses an aphoristic, vintage C&W vernacular without sounding hokey or derivative, and she’s grown into an excellent, subtly nuanced singer. Some of her songs were funny, like Nicotine, her irresistibly amusing ode to the death-defying lure of tobacco. Others, like I Thought I Died, with its litany of near-misses, had the matter-of-fact resoluteness that runs through much of her songwriting. Others were haunting, in a memorably Mary Lee Kortes vein. The best of these was Mama Was a Trainwreck (Daddy Was a Train) – the best track on Hudson’s new Eric Ambel-produced album Sonic Bloom. It rocks pretty hard on record; stripped to its acoustic roots, it had a harrowing oldtime Britfolk feel, a bitterly surreal account of growing up with a father who, as Hudson put it, “was never able to change his ways.” She revisited that theme on a quieter, more reflective number before picking up the pace and ending with Late Bloomer and its gently insistent, optimistic nature imagery.

Fiddler Melody Allegra Berger picked up the energy further, plucking and soaring and singing here way through a mix of bluegrass and Americana classics alongside banjo player Bennett Sullivan. She’s true to her name, tuneful and fast. He’s got an intriguing album of his own out, and the two played the title track, Lady Nora. You might not think that an atmospheric ballad could be played on the banjo, but with his intriguing use of harmonics, that’s where Sullivan went with it. Berger led the duo through mix of instrumentals along with several vocal numbers, showing off a brittle vibrato reminiscent of but not deferential to Hazel Dickens. They opened with a romp through Soldier’s Joy, then a little later did a couple of songs about being hanged, as Berger gleefully explained, first the instrumental Hangman’s Reel and then Hang Me, which turned out to be one of the seemingly unlimited number of versions of the old folk song I’ve Been All Around This World. They wound up the set with a couple more hard-charging bluegrass tunes, setting the stage for Trailer Radio frontwoman Shannon Brown and her brilliant guitarist bandmate David Weiss, whose lightning flatpicking, big western swing chords and edgy blues kept the energy at full throttle.

As Brown told the crowd, she got run out of her hometown of Man, West Virginia “for being too impatient.” She really has a handle on cornball C&W humor, and her songs can be hilarious. The two mixed wryly amusing numbers like Football Widow (about a woman who uses her tv-addict husband and his dumb friends as an excuse to have more fun than them on a Sunday afternoon), He’s a Six (about a guy who’s just thisclose to being a decent choice of boyfriend), Two Tavern Town (inspired by the dead-end beer joints where Brown grew up) and the wry Too Old and Way Too Ugly, with a handful of slowly unwinding, unexpectedly somber blues tunes.

Purist, Rustic Americana from Vincent Cross

Songwriter Vincent Cross was a mainstay of the late, lamented Banjo Jim’s Americana music scene, but he’s hardly been idle since that club shut its doors. His previous album Home Away from Home was a pretty straight-up, purist bluegrass collection; his new one A Town Called Normal is a lot more eclectic, a mix of rustic acoustic Americana with a bit of folk-rock and traditional sounds from across the pond. Most of the album is streaming at various places, including Cross’ site and his myspace page. Cross sings with an unaffected, easygoing twang, plays guitars, mandolin and harmonica and has an excellent band behind him, incorporating the talents of various combinations of Bennett Sullivan and Doug Nicolaisen on banjos; Max Johnson, Allen Cohen and Larry Cook on bass; Mark Farrell on mandolin and Shane Kerwin on drums on a few tracks.

Several of the songs sound like they could be Appalachian standards…except that they’re originals. One of the richest sounding of these is Cursed, with its lusciously intermingled layers of banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Cross has a way with aphoristic oldtime vernacular: “How can we distinguish the evil from the good? The chorus always should,” he observes on the title cut. Likewise, the metaphorically-charged cautionary tale Turn Your Eyes: “Warning bells from the mizzzen mast, don’t go down with the crew and cast.” And Childish Things – a catchy, swinging bluegrass-tinged original, not the James McMurtry hit – muses that “nobody knows why the caged bird sings til you put away your childish things.”

My Love starts out quietly and then builds to a neat series of tradeoffs between Cross’ harmonica and nimble guitar flatpicking. Old Christmas Wrapping, a bittersweet waltz, goes into down-and-out Tom Waits territory, but less pessimistically. Walking on the Outside sounds suspiciously like an acoustic version of Son Volt’s Tearstained Eye, with a soulful dobro solo. Sometimes builds up to a brooding, hypnotic two-chord jam, while Trouble Being There evokes Matt Keating with its wry surrealism and gentle folk-rock melody.

There’s also Footnotes, a brooding polyrhythmic miniature; Wrack and Ruin, which takes a stab at honkytonk; and a nicely syncopated take of the traditional folk song Cuckoo, “who never hollers ‘cuckoo’ til the 4th day of July.” How’s that for symbolism?  Cross is at the American Folk Art Museum on 4/26 at 5:30 PM.