New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: bluegrass music

Doc Watson’s First New York Headline Gigs Immortalized For Posterity

Casual fans of Americana may not realize that before Doc Watson’s career on the folk music circuit took off, he was an electric guitarist. People back home in North Carolina didn’t want to hear the oldtime stuff: they wanted rockabilly, and Watson was giving then what they wanted. It was at this transitional moment in 1962 that eighteen-year-old fan Peter Siegel made a couple of good quality mono recordings of Watson’s first two Manhattan headline gigs, the first at NYU and the second a last-minute booking which turned out to be one of the final performances at the West Village folk club Blind Lemon’s.

Almost sixty years later, Siegel digitized the files; the result is a new Smithsonian Folkways vinyl album, streaming at Spotify comprising selections from both shows. It has additional historical value for being a rare recording of multi-instrumentalist Gaither Carlton, Watson’s father in law, who joins him here on fiddle and occasional banjo. Since these were sit-down concerts, not down-home dances, the two keep the songs short: practically everything here is under the three-minute mark, often less than two. Compared to the kind of whirlwind picking Watson would electrify audiences with later in his career, this is a revealing look at his original, much more low-key approach to acoustic material.

Watson and Carlton open with the fiddler’s bittersweetly vampy instrumental Double File, on banjo and fiddle, respectively. With his stark tone, Carlton typically doubles the melody line or shadows Watson, as he does throughout the brisk heartbreak ballad Handsome Molly. That tune, and the grim, perennially relevant Civil War narrative He’s Coming to Us Dead are credited to legendary fiddler G.B. Grayson, Carlton’s mentor.

Watson switches back from guitar to banjo for a relativley low-key take of Corrina, Corrina then returns to guitar for the instrumental Brown’s Dream and its tasty moving bassline. He’s back on banjo for the wistful farewell song My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains. From his banter with the crowd, it’s clear that he takes some pride in the duo’s rather hypnotic original guitar-and-fiddle arrangement of Bonaparte’s Retreat.

The album’s b-side starts off on a similar note with the banjo tune Willie Moore and continues with The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues: once again, hearing Watson move that bassline around is a clinic in Appalachian harmony. They pick up the pace, Watson on banjo for Goin’ Back to Jericho, then flatpicking his guitar on the instrumental Billy in the Low Ground.

The most rustic of all the songs here is a hobo tune, Reuben’s Train. The Dream of the Miner’s Child – credited to Andrew Jenkins – is one of the most ominous, the little girl in the story afraid she’ll lose her dad to his dangerous dajyob. There are also two version of an early 20s novelty song, Groundhog., The first, from the club, has Carlton on banjo; Watson plays it on the more boisterous take from the NYU gig.

An Allstar Bluegrass Album From Americana Sage Jim Lauderdale

Jim Lauderdale had already built a distinguished career as an Americana tunesmith before Elvis Costello enlisted him as one of the Sugarcanes. Since then, Lauderdale hasn’t abandoned his solo career. His latest album, When Carolina Comes Home Again – streaming at Bandcamp – is a bluegrass record. His drawl is a little more down-home here, and he’s got an allstar band. Steve Earle once semi-sarcastically admitted that he did a bluegrass record because he wanted more of his songs to get played at jams. After hearing this, it’s a fair bet that Lauderdale’s will also be getting a workout when pickers get together.

Lauderdale has a murderer’s row of bluegrass talent to work with here. Cane Mill Road, Town Mountain, Jon Stickley and Lyndsay Pruett, Balsam Range, the Songs From the Road Band and the Steep Canyon Rangers are all represented here along with hotshot young guitar picker Presley Barker, fiddler Kattie Hopkins Kinlaw, mandolinist Aaron Ramsey, guitarist Nick Dauphinais and banjo player Marc Pruett.

The first cut is the title track. Lauderdale starts with a slow, brooding intro, then the banjo kicks in, driving a lickety-split groove that’s just as moody. The instrumentation is classic, with momentary solos from mando, flatpicked guitar and fiddle. The second song, As a Sign is a littel slower and a little brighter, Lauderdale at his aphoristic best:

I’d like to place a nickel bet that every single time
What you see is what you get, shortchanged for a dime
How the number crunches when you’re that kind of fool
Who bets his heart on hunches as an elementary rule

Misery’s Embrace is a bluegrass take on midtempo, morose George Jones honkytonk. Lauderdale gets even more poignant with the careful, distantly chilling The Last to Know, which could be a classic Don Gibson ballad. Then the band pick up the pace with the briskly strolling It Takes Just One to Wander (as in “it takes two to tango, it takes just one to wander”).

Cackalacky is one of those fun, silly, mostly one-chord nmbers that pop up at jams after everybody’s had a few. Lauderdale really goes for a No-Show Jones vocal delivery in the album’s first waltz, You’ll Have to Earn It. Then he and the band romp through You’ve Got This, another track with tantalizingly brief banjo and fiddle solos.

In Mountaineer, Lauderdale sends a shout out to the folks who like living high above most civilized people: it’s easy to imagine Johnny Cash singing this. The slow, steady waltz I’m Here to Remind You is a hopeful appraisal of silver linings amidst the clouds. You might not expect Moonrider, the cosmic cowboy tune after that, but that’s what Lauderdale gives you. He winds up the album with Spin a Yarn, a lively Virginia reel and then Better Than You Found It, a blend of Memphis soul and country gospel with a timely message about not messing up the planet any further. All this is clinic in expert tunesmithing from a guy who’s been doing that a long time.

Understatedly Troubling Music For Troubling Times From the Nine Seas

Folk noir superduo the Nine Seas take their name from the long-defunct, legendary Alphabet City bar 9C, located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C. Years before Pete’s Candy Store was anything more than a numbers joint, and more than a decade before the Jalopy opened, 9C was New York’s ground zero for Americana music. That’s where Liz Tormes and Fiona McBain cut their teeth at the wildly crowded, weekly bluegrass jam.

In the years since then, both would become important voices in Americana, as solo artists and with other bands (McBain best known for her longtime membership in the gospel and soul-tinged Ollabelle). This project, which began as a murder ballad cover act, also goes back several years, attesting to the chemistry between the two musicians. Their long-awaited debut album Dream of Me is streaming at their music page. It’s a mix of originals and imaginative covers, the two singer-guitarists occasionally abettted by keys and horns.

Tormes’ first number, Am I Still Your Demon is the album’s quietly potent opener. It has a classic Tormes vocal trick that she’s used before (see the devastating Read My Mnd, the opening number on her 2010 Limelight album). J. Walter Hawkes’ looming trombone arrangement perfectly matches the song’s understated angst.

The duo reinvent the old suicide ballad I Never Will Marry with a hazy dreampop tinge, as Mazzy Star might have done it. They do E.C. Ball’s fire-and-brimstone country gospel classic Trials, Troubles, Tribulations much the same way. Here and throughout the record, Jim White’s spare banjo, organ and other instruments really flesh out these otherwise stark songs.

Likewise, his glockenspiel twinkles eerily in Go to Sleep, an elegaic Tormes tune. McBain’s I Really Want You is just as calmly phantasmagorical: it’s more about longing than lust. Then Oliver de la Celle ‘s Lynchian guitar and White’s banjo raise the menace in a radical reinvention of Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues

The hypnotic version of the murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, a concert favorite, is all the more creepy for the duo’s bright harmonies and steady stoicism, White adding airy pump organ. McBain switches to piano for the even more atmospheric, Julee Cruise-ish Where He Rests.

They wind up the album with a pair of covers. They transform Midnight, a bluesy, Jimmy Reed-style 1952 hit for Red Foley, into minimalist girl-down-the-well pop. And they remake Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as jungly exotica: nobody plays with more implied menace than the Nine Seas.

The album also includes stripped-down alternate takes of Trials, Troubles, Tribulations and Midnight Blues. Beyond this album, since they’re unable to play shows at the moment, the Nine Seas have a weekly webcast, the Quarantine Chronicles, where they run through many other songs from the immense dark folk repetoire they’ve amassed over the years.

Folk Noir Supergroup Bobtown Bring Up the Lights Just a Little

For about ten years, Bobtown have been the most bewitching three-part harmony folk noir supergroup in the world. Their three-woman frontline – percussionist/tenor guitarist Katherine Etzel, guitarist/banjo player Karen Dahlstrom and singer/percussionist Jen McDearman – are as eclectically skilled as songwriters as they are on the mic. Their new album Chasing the Sun is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the album release show on  Oct 13 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

As the band admit, this album is somewhat less relentlessly dark than their haunting back catalog. They open the new record with Daughters of the Dust, a moody, midtempo, metaphorically charged newgrass tune: “In our land of bone and rust, unsteady and shifting, will we ever find a place for us?” the three women ask.

“I hear the whispesrs, will she sink or swim?” Etzel muses as Kryptonite gets underway; then lead guitarist Alan Lee Backer’s twangy riffage kicks in, a defiantly swaying, anthenic toast to “Feed the hungry ghosts of all our glory days.”

The starkly fingerpicked intro to Come On Home is there to fake you out: it’s a Tex-Mex flavored romp. Special guest Serena Jost‘s cello adds haunting textures to the album’s lone cover, a dirgey, elegaic take of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew that this song was about suicide?

“The darkest heart and evil hand blind our children’s eyes, as every witness takes the stand to show the devil in disguise,” the group harmonize in Hazel, a melancholy, banjo-driven portrait echoing the theme of the Petty song. The subtly vindictive breakup ballad Let You Go is a throwback to the group’s early years, when they were reinventing old 19th century field hollers.

Etzel takes the lead for In My Bones, a blithely creepy, cynical country-pop tune about cheating the reaper, with an irresistibly funny round of vocals midway through. “I’m right to question everyrthing, I’m right about to scream,” McDearman intones in This Is My Heart, a wounded waltz. Then the band pick up the pace with the determined, optimistic Devil Down: it’s Bobtown’s take on what Tom Waits did with Keep the Devil Down in the Hole.

The best song on the album is Dahlstrom’s gospel-flavored No Man’s Land. It’s an anthem for the Metoo era, a soaring, defiant, venomous broadside, and it could be the best song of the year:

...No man has me at his command
No man can claim me for his own
I am no man’s land
No man’s book can tell my story
No man’s judge can understand
No man’s eyes can see my glory
I am no man’s land

As consistently excellent as the band’s recorded output is, nothing beats the way these three distinctive voices blend onstage

Janglerock Heaven at Union Pool This Week

Last night at Union Pool was a feast of jangle, and clang, and twang, with enough reverb to lower the air a few degrees, it seemed. Girls on Grass frontwoman Barbara Endes was especially psyched to be opening for her favorite band, which speaks volumes about how she writes and plays. Few acts have someone out front who can not only sing and put a tune together but also play as ferociously eclectic lead guitar as she did throughout a set that could have gone on twice as long and everybody still would have wanted more.

Although Endes is a generation younger, her band often sounds like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front. Her band doesn’t duel like Steve Wynn’s group, but the songs have a similarly edgy blend of Americana and riff-driven rock, and a psychedelic side. This particular version of the group switches out Sean Eden on second guitar for David Weiss, whose honkytonk and blues licks made an incisive, burning counterpart to Endes’ slithery, precise cascades and chordlets on her lefty model Fender Jazzmaster. Bassist Dave Mandl got all of two bars in one of the later songs for a solo but made the most of his rise out of the murk. Drummer Nancy Polstein swung hard and traded coy beats on her crash cymbal with the bandleader on the intro to one of the early numbers.

Much of the set was drawn from the band’s forthcoming album Dirty Power, due out momentarily. From its soul-clap intro, through a surreal blend of honkytonk and Dream Syndicate stomp, Down at the Bottom spoke for a generation of displaced artists trying to not to lose hope (and their homes) amid a blitzkrieg of gentrification. And did Endes change the last chorus from “Come hang with me” to “Don’t hang with me?” Just how much of a cautionary tale is this?

The rest of the set was just as catchy and compelling. The slowly crescendoing, anthemic Friday Night perfectly captured the electricity of being “in like with a chick who likes good music” at a good show. The opening number, Father Says Why had a deliciously watery, careening clang, while Drowning in Ego evoked a jaunty late 80s vibe with Endes’ meticulous, lickety-split quasi-bluegrass riffs. Although Endes’ vocals had their usual crystalline bite, one of the best tunes of the night was the spaghetti-surf instrumental Two Places at Once, with a remarkable similarity, stylistically if not melodically, to the headliners’ adventures in surf rock. Endes has obviously listened deeply.

The Sadies have gotten a lot of ink here. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to go see a band with two brilliant lead guitarists – brothers Travis and Dallas Good – and who came out for what could have been a single encore but ended up playing a total of eight songs that went on for as long as Girls on Grass’ set. Drummer Mike Belitsky’s funereal accents on his cymbal bells lowlit one of the handful of the band’s brooding, Americana-flavored waltzes, Cut Corners. Bassist Sean Dean plays an upright so, this time, he unfortunately wasn’t very present in the mix beyond a low resonance.

Counterintuitively, the best song of the night was the quietest one, the band hauntingly shuffling through The Good Years, a crushingly ironic tale of a mismatched couple’s tragic miscommunications: “She never asked him, he wouldn’t say,” Travis Good intoned.

The rest of almost two hours onstage featured everything from bouncy, reverbtoned surf rock, to punkgrass – a lickety-split remake of the old folk song Pretty Polly included – to waves of Brian Jonestown Massacre-tinged psychedelia and a handful of garage rock covers including a slamming remake of the Jay Walkers’ I Got My Own Thing Going. The Sadies are back at Union Pool tonight, April 3 at around 9:30, then they’re playing two sets tomorrow night, April 4, starting about an hour earlier. Cover is $20 and worth every bit.

An Expertly Playful, Psychedelic New Album and Yet Another Barbes Show by Bluegrass Master Andy Statman

The other night at Barbes, there was a bluegrass band playing in the back. It was one of those immutably grim, raw, late winter evenings this city has had to deal with lately. Nobody, not even birds or cats, hates rain more than people in the venue business since nobody comes out. This particular moment was the kind where you plug in your phone charger, have a swift one, reconnect with the outside world, then head off to deal with what everyone’s throwing at you.

It would have been more fun to stick around tor the bluegrass band, because they were good. Gene Yellin, leader of the Night Kitchen, was playing guitar, and way over in the corner on the mandolin, expertly picking out a spiky lattice of notes, was Andy Statman. He’d just played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall – and here he was, chilling with his friends at Barbes, not seeming to care if anyone other than his bandmates had decided to brave the storm.

Statman has been a pillar of the Barbes scene since the very beginning: if memory serves right, his monthly Wednesday night 8 PM residency there is in its sixteenth year now. And he’s the rare musician who’s iconic in two completely different styles: he’s also a virtuoso klezmer clarinetist.

Statman’s next Barbes gig is April 3 at 8 PM. He also has a new album, Monroe Bus – streaming at Spotify – on which he plays mostly mandolin. Although the record is a shout out to his and every other bluegrass musician’s big influence, Bill Monroe, it’s a mix of traditionally-inspired material and acoustic psychedelia. Alongside the rhythm section in his regular trio – bassist Jim Whitney and drummer Larry Eagle – Statman is bolstered by Michael Cleveland on fiddle and Glenn Patscha on piano and organ.

A picture in the cd booklet speaks for itself. It shows Monroe making his way to the stage at a performance in Fincastle, Virginia in 1966. In the background is a sixteen-year-old Andy Statman. Each looks very focused on his individual business; neither seems aware of the other. At this point in time, Statman has been playing even longer than Monroe, the “father of bluegrass,” had then. And it shows: his mandolin style has a rare elegance. His chords and his phrasing often have a deep blues influence, and he gets a full range out of the instrument rather than just picking it lickety-split like so many other bluegrass hotshots do.

Cleveland takes the first, dancing lead as the title track sways along over Statman’s unpredictable changes, the bandleader taking a characteristically edgy, bluesy solo. Reminiscence has some of Statman’s most gorgeous voicings here, although the organ threatens to subsume them. Ice Cream on the  Moon is a surreal mashup of Charlie Parker, Romany jazz and bluegrass, with a big breakdown at the end, while Ain’t no Place for a Girl Like You is all over the map, a Leftover Salmon-class blend of gospel, oldschool soul and jamgrass.

There’s a languid southern soul influence in Reflections, driven by Whitney’s bass; then Eagle introduces a clave! Old East River Road has an enigmatic, uneasy haze, then the band take the trippiness several notches higher with the bitingly klezmer-flavored, offhandedly creepy Brooklyn Hop.

The sad, nostalgic Lakewood Waltz has a late 19th century feel, Mark Berney’s cornet looming in the background. Statman’s rapidfire phrasing is on dazzling display in the Statman Romp – again, with distant klezmer tinges – and also in Mockingbird, a brisk shuffle tune.

Stark harmonies from Cleveland and Whitney anchor Brorby’s Blues as Statman rustles and trills overhead. Raw Ride is the album’s most deviously funny track: there’s a little Rawhide and a whole lot of Bob Wills in its briskly shuffling swing. The last track, Burger and Fries is a summery, gospel-fueled midtempo cookout of a tune. It’s hard to think of anyone taking bluegrass further outside the box, and having as much fun with it, as Statman does here.

Grain Thief Bring Their Smart, Catchy, Picturesque Acoustic Americana to the Lower East Side This Weekend

Boston band Grain Thief distinguish themselves from the legions of fresh-faced East Coast kids packing mandolins and banjos, in that they use vintage Americana rather than emo or corporate American Idol pop as a springboard for their songs. And they tell some great stories, and have serious bluegrass chops. The five-piece group also have a new album, Stardust Lodge streaming at Spotify and a New York gig on Sept 15 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10

The swaying opening track, Colorado Freeze strongly evokes the Grateful Dead doing their acoustic act in the early 80s around the time of the Reckoning album. The merry band in the song lyrics are riding in an old car: it’s got both a cd player and a radio in case the the other doesn’t work!

The lively, swinging Lonesome Highway finds the narrator in front of a girl behind the bar who stares right through him – the conversation that ensues will resonate with anybody who’s spent time in front of a glass that’s half empty.

I Got a Flower is closer to Wilco than bluegrass, although the interweave between the guitars of Patrick Mulroy and Tom Farrell, with Zach Meyer’s mandolin and Alex Barstow’s fiddle rising over Michael Harmon’s snappy bass, is especially tasty. As is the “hell, I’d rather drink alone” message.

The Jigsaw Outlaw is a killer instrumental that brings to mind the old folk tune Jack-a-Roe, the whole band getting into the act with some deep blues and steely picking. Irish Rose is mutedly gorgeous, a bittersweetly picturesque anthem akin to the missing link between Matthew Grimm and early Richard Buckner. “Dragged me from the world inside my phone…I drank in a supernatural bliss,” the group harmonize.

Plough Man is a rousing singalong shout-out to the guys who pull in extra bucks with their trucks in the wee hours when the snow’s coming down hard: “The truck is freezing when the heater ain’t working, just pack a jacket…when I dream I see the white and green, I suck it up with my diesel machine!”

The syncopated, animated compulsive gambler’s lament Stateline Hills is a western gothic, steel guitar-fueled take on the grim milieu of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Then the band pick up the pace with the Dylanesque hillbilly boogie Cookin’ and follow that with the album’s funniest track, The Bottom Shelf. In a 99 percenter’s world, desperate times call for desperate measures!

Barstow’s fiddle propels the album’s hardest-rocking track, Jealous Girl, along with the steel guitar. The band wind it up with the most epic number here, Let It Roll, nimble fingerpicking contrasting with big rock swells.

In addition to the Rockwood gig, Grain Thief play Wednesday nights at around 9 at the Burren in Davis Square at 247 Elm St. in Somerville, MA.

Two Great Psychedelic Bands, One Free Brooklyn Concert Series

Two Saturdays ago, Sadies guitarist Travis Good thrashed and flailed and spun the headstock of his vintage hollowbody Gretsch, building a howling vortex of sound while his brother Dallas stood more or less motionless as he kept a river of jangle and clang running from his Telecaster. In the middle of the stage, bassist Sean Dean held down a steady pulse while drummer Mike Belitsky kept a nimble shuffle beat.

This past Saturday, Songhoy Blues guitarist Aliou Touré did pretty much the same thing, building a screaming Chicago blues-infused solo, his fellow axeman Garba Touré running a loping Malian duskcore pattern off to the side, bassist Oumar Touré playing a serpentine, circular riff over drummer Nathanael Dembélé’s counterintuiitive flourishes.

On one hand, the Canadian and Malian bands couldn’t have less in common. On the other, both are as psychedelic as you could possibly want. And that seems to be the theme at this year’s free outdoor concert series at Union Pool. They’ve been doing free shows in the back courtyard there for the past couple of years, but this year’s series is better than ever.

There are a lot of acts more popular than you’d expect to see in at this comfortable, comparatively small space. This year, that started with the Sadies. The last time they played New York, it was at Webster Hall (if there ever was a New York venue that deserved to be turned into a luxury condo or a Whole Foods, it was that despicable stain on the East Village). The last time this blog was in the house at a Sadies show, it was May of 2014 at Bowery Ballroom and they were playing with the late Gord Downie.

This show didn’t feature any of their brilliantly ominous songs with the late Tragically Hip crooner, but they touched on every style they’ve ever played. Travis Good broke out his violin for a lickety-split punkgrass romp about midway through the set, and also for the encores. He also delivered some seamlessly expert acoustic flatpicking on a couple of country numbers.

Dallas Good seemed to be in charge of the more epic, tectonic solos, particularly during a mini-suite of surf songs, propelled expertly by Belitsky. They went back into the waves a little later with another instrumental that came across as a more bittersweet, southwestern gothic take on the Ventures’ Apache. But it was the brooding, uneasily clanging midtempo anthems that were the high point of the show. Afterward, Travis Good took care to thank the crowd for coming out – for a free show, no less.

Songhoy Blues are probably the loudest and most eclectic of the Malian duskcore bands to make it to the US so far. They only played a couple of the loping Saharan grooves popularized by first-wave bands like Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa. They opened with a briskly stomping, only slightly Malian-flavored garage rock tune with a searing guitar solo from Garba Touré. Throughout the set, he and the frontman took turns with their solos – a lightning-fast, Blue Oyster Cult-ish run in one of the long, hypnotic numbers midway through was the high point.

After that, they slowed down for a moody minor-key blues ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Otis Rush songbook save for the lyrics. “I know that 99% of you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” Aliou Touré told the crowd: the subtext was that the band’s lyrics are potently political. Then he settled for reminding everybody that music is a universal language. After a couple of numbers that shifted between looming desert rock and frenetically bopping, metrically challenging soukous-flavored rhythms, they closed with a mighty, rising and falling anthem and encored with their lone song in English, Together, a prayer for peace from a part of the world that really needs it.

And a shout-out to the sound guy: this may be an outdoor series, but the sonics in the backyard – a completely uninsulated space with highs potentially bouncing all over the place – were pristine. Few venues sounds as good indoors as at Union Pool outdoors the past couple of Saturdays. That’s a real achievement. The Union Pool free concert series continues this Saturday, July 14 at around 3 with jangly British “power trio” Girl Ray.

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.

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 the evening’s most sizzling solos 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.