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Tag: bluegrass music

Intense, Eclectic Hot Club of Cowtown Fiddler Elana James Puts Out a Great New Album

Elana James is best known as the fiery fiddler in Austin western swing/Romany jazz trio the Hot Club of Cowtown, who’re coming to Subculture on March 7 at 8 PM: $20 advance tix are still available and highly recommended. In addition to James’ work with that band, she’s also put out a couple of albums as a solo bandleader, which she finds time to do when she’s not touring with her main band…or with Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson. Her latest release, Black Beauty, is just out and streaming at her webpage: it’s a smart, vivid combination of just about every one of the many  styles she’s spun off her bow in the last couple of decades. And since her Hot Club bandmates, guitarist Whit Smith and bassist Jake Erwin, both play on the new record, there’s a good chance they’ll be airing out some of those songs on the current tour.

The opening number, Only You, is a backbeat-driven As Tears Go By soundalike, more Americana than Stones chamber pop. Although James gets all kinds of props for her work on the fingerboard, she’s also a fantastic singer, and she pulls out all the stops on the menacingly breathy noir cabaret number Who Loves You More, from its starkly orchestrated intro, to a spiraling Whit Smith solo. Then she completely switches gears with a lively, step-dancing take of the Ola Belle Reed bluegrass classic High Upon the Mountain – is that Dave Biller playing that tersely soulful dobro? Or maybe that’s Cindy Cashdollar – the download that came down the pipeline here didn’t say.

James brings back the haunting, gloomy intensity with the stark Azeri folk tune Ayniliq, then switches gears again with a poignant, calmly shuffling take of Woody Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby. Reunion (Livin’ Your Dream) is a wryly allusive tale from the life of a touring musician, veering between wary Romany swing and blithe bluegrass.

Earl Poole Ball’s elegant slip-key piano flavors James’ misty version of the torch jazz standard All I Need Is You, slinking along with her bandmate Jake Erwin’s bass and Damien Llanes’ brushes on the drums. Then the band picks up the pace with Eva’s Dance, which is equal parts western swing and bluegrass, and the closest thing to the HCOC on the album.

James does the Grateful Dead classic Ripple as a straight-up oldschool C&W sway, lowlit by Biller’s steel guitar work. Her take of Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight  is probably the best anybody’s ever done with that one, including the guy who wrote it, part irresistible torch song, part ragtime, part vintage country. The funniest number here is Telephone Man, a mashup of oldtimey swing, hokum blues and Salt ‘N Pepa.

The album’s most intense, powerful song is Hey Beautiful, Last Letter From Iraq, where James recounts the final words written by the late Army Staff Sergeant Juan Campos to his wife, setting them to to a stark country shuffle groove: “It’s like every time we go out, any little bump or sound freaks me out…I can’t wait to get out of this place,” the doomed soldier relates. James chooses to end the album with the pensive, bucolic Waltz of the Animals, no doubt inspired by her considerable experience as a horse wrangler. What else is there to say: one of the best albums of the year from somebody so talented that a lot of us take her for granted.

Sizzling Bluegrass Road Warriors Town Mountain Headline at the Rockwood Tonight

A good night at the Rockwod tonight. In the little room, there’s down-to-earth, wryly lyrical acoustic Americana songwriter Joanna Sternberg kicking off the evening at 7. Across the way, cult hero Ward White – who is unsurpassed at menacing rock narratives – plays the big room at the same time. Later on in the big room, there’s excellent acoustic Americana guitarist Bennett Sullivan at 10 and then raucous Asheville, North Carolina bluegrass band Town Mountain.

If memory serves right, the last time Town Mountain played New York, it was at the now-defunct Zirzamin on the coldest night of the year…and the place was packed. They’ve got a healthy following here, for good reason, so if you’re going, you ought to get there early (and you’ll probably like what Sullivan does too).

Town Mountain’s latest album is Live at the Isis, recorded last year in front of a liquored-up hometown crowd and streaming at Spotify. They sound like they’re about to jump out of their shoes on the blazing, careening opener, You Weighed Heavy on My Heart, Bobby Britt’s nimble fiddle and Phil Baker’s precise mandolin contrasting with Jesse Langlais’ absolutely unhinged banjo. Britt’s instrumental Four Miles – reputedly the first song he ever wrote – manages to be gorgeous and dangerous at the same time. Then Barker and bassist Nick DiSebastian push the energy even higher with the lickety-split Tarheel Boys

Up the Ladder gives guitarist/frontman Robert Greer a chance to team with Barker and Langlais for a spot-on and revealing look at where Chuck Berry got his guitar harmonies. Likewise, Greer gets the crowd howling along with him on the snide band-on-the-run anthem Lawdog, Britt firing off a solo that spins and spirals like a pair of lights on the roof of a police cruiser.

Their choice of covers aren’t the usual standards all the other bands play, either. They give Hank 3’s 5 Shots of Whiskey a subdued, morosely half-in-the-bag treatment and then immediately pick up the pace again with George Jones’ The Race Is On, with a surreal, bluesy banjo solo after which Britt jumps in and serves as the voice of reason until he decides to say the hell with it and go straight down the rabbit hole too. Jed Zimmerman’s Texas New Mexico Line, another road song, is barely more restrained. They pull it back a bit more with Sugar Mama and then wind up the album with a noisy, rapidfire Orange Blossom Special, Britt’s machinegunning riffage front and center. Once you hear this thing it won’t come as any surprise that these guys are racking up IBMA’s (International Bluegrass Music Awards). Grammies – who watches them, anyway?

The Jake Schepps Quintet Take Bluegrass to Unlikely Places

It’s likely that there’s a crowd of people who think the idea of playing classical music on bluegrass instruments is flat-out absurd. Then again, music is always evolving, and the musicians pushing that evolution are usually the bravest. The Jake Schepps Quintet have chops to match their utter lack of fear. Wednesday night at Subculture, the five-string banjoist and his group – Ryan Drickey on violin, Jordan Tice on acoustic guitar, Andrew Small on bass and Matt Flinner on mandolin – played an ambitious program that encompassed so-called indie classical as well as Nordic fiddling and a healthy dose of traditional Appalachian music. At worst, they came across as a less fussy take on the Punch Brothers; at best, they took a lot of chances, danced on cinders and came away for the most part unsinged.

The centerpiece of the program was Flinner’s four-part Migration, a vivid, uneasy suite that, as the mandolinist explained to a pretty full house, sought to explore how bluegrass made its way from rural areas to larger population centers like Knoxville and Baltimore. Growing from a stern, terse, ruggedly minor-key gospel theme, it slowly brightened, although it ended with a lingering lack of resolve. Along the way, there were plenty of choice moments for soloists throughout the band, at one point Small pushing a waltz interlude with a practically new wave bassline. And it worked as well as it did, because, as Schepps put it, Flinner comes out of “the tradition” and never lost sight of it, no matter how minimalist, or avant garde, or for that matter, cinematic, the piece became.

Small revealed himself as an inspired country fiddler on an animatedly pulsing, biting, original bluegrass number on which the band was joined by a guest bassist who just happened to be in town. Tice alternated between big, expansive, jazzy chords and nimble flatpicking, particularly on an elaborate, dynamically-charged, waltzing original. Drickey led the group through a bracing number from the Swedish-Norwegian border which gave the quintet a launching pad for plenty of high-octane solos.

The night got off to a slow start with a couple of works by contemporary composers from outside the group. The first was gingerly blues-tinged, with the unfocused yet cautious feel of a student work, one that came across as trying to avoid failure rather than reaching for victory. The second rehashed Steve Reich and Windham Hill with the kind of preciousness that plagues so much of the indie classical demimonde. So when Schepps led the group from there into a mashup of a Bartok Mikrokosmos etude (#87, maybe?) and a high lonesome traditional number, it took awhile for the band to shake off the stiffness. One up-and-coming composer that the group ought to seek out is mandolinist Vivian Li, whose irrepressible, distinctive style is a richly intertwining blend of traditional bluegrass and cutting-edge contemporary composition for traditional folk instruments.

The Jake Schepps Quintet is currently on tour; their next concert is Feb 7 at 8 PM at the Theatre at 291 Gay St. in Washington, VA, tix are $20/$10 18-and-under.

Kelley Swindall Takes Her Menacing Americana Back to Her Old Stomping Grounds Down South

Kelley Swindall‘s set at CMJ in New York this past fall was an acoustic duo show at Rockwood Music Hall. Her last New York show – at least for awhile, rumor has it – was her first-ever gig on electric guitar, and it suited her just fine. She didn’t change her strumming or her elegant fingerpicking, but she got a resonance out of it that infused the nocturnal atmosphere of her Tom Waits-ish southern gothic narratives with an especially eerie gleam. Right now Swindall is in the early stages of her Snowdrifter’s Tour; her next weekend gig is Jan 17 at 9:30 PM at the Peerless Saloon, 13 W 10th St. in Anniston, Alabama with purist newgrass/front-porch folk guitarist/singer Brooks Coffin & the Academics. If you’re in the neighorhood and you like your classic country blues with a menacing edge, you won’t do any better than the show this Saturday night.

Maybe it was plugging into an amp, or maybe it was just the intensity of the moment – leaving NYC is always hard – but that last gig she played here was electric in more ways than one. She opened solo with the menacing, dimlit downtown narrative Sidewalk Closed, then brought her drummer and slide guitarist up for California, a wryly suspenseful drug trafficker’s talking blues. The first of the night’s two covers was a snarling version of Ryan Morgan‘s Maricopa, Arizona, which blows the cover off the Massachusetts-born sheriff who blew into town like he owned the place and made a name for himself picking on the most vulnerable people in the place, the undocumented immigrants who basically keep it moving. But not everybody’s willing to rat out their friends: “There ain’t enough whiskey to get my lips a-talking,” Swindall insisted.

She followed that with a moody, minor-key, bluesy kiss-off song, then took the ambience further down with the wistful breakup ballad Oh Savannnah and then brought the energy to redline with My Minglewood Blues, a defiantly vindictive hellraising anthem that does justice to the folk song that inspired it. It’s a good bet that if anybody’s alive a hundred years from now, pickers are going to be picking the Kelley Swindall song as much as they are the others. She wound up the set with another brooding, minor-key blues with some droll hip-hop flavor, an explosively applauded take of the even more vindictive Murder Song, which is fast becoming her signature tune, and then a vigorous cover of the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York in which she sang both the Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl roles. That’s where her acting training kicked in – all of a sudden the drawl and the torchiness were gone, replaced by a straightforward and understatedly dramatic East Coast accent. Anniston, Alabama, y’all are in for a treat.

Bobtown Bring Their Gorgeous Gothic Americana to Hill Country

Harmony-driven gothic Americana band Bobtown‘s new album, A History of Ghosts, recently reached #1 at the Roots Music Report. They’re playing the album release show on the big stage downstairs at Hill Country on 26th St. just off 6th Ave. at 9:30 PM on Jan 14. A lot of things distinguish this band from the others in their field: their otherworldly, gorgeous four-part vocal harmonies, for one. The fact that the band has not one but four first-rate songwriters, who all seem to save their best material for the group, doesn’t hurt. And while there’s a whole demimonde of carnivalesque Americana bands who write gloomy minor-key songs about backstreet murders and drunken depravity, Bobtown’s songs are all the more creepy for how lighthearted they can be – on the surface, anyway.

How about a slow, summery pastoral reminiscence – about a public execution? A blithe, bouncy waltz with chipper, round-the-horn vocals, about drinking yourself to death in a dead-end town? Those are just two examples of what percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom and bassist Fred Stesney come up with on the album, streaming at their site. The womens’ crystalline vocals blend with the fretwork of lead guitarist/banjoist Alan Lee Backer, who long ago established himself as one of the most diverse and incisive players in the New York Americana scene, a guy who’s just as fluent with electric honkytonk as he is bluegrass.

The song about the execution is Morning Sun, written and sung by Stesney, the women’s vocals adding an eerie shimmer behind the tale of the guy on the gallows who’s finally run out of time. The grimly funny dead-end town waltz is Rumble Seat, by Etzel, a good way to get acquainted with the singers’ individual voices. That’s Dahlstrom, McDearman and then Etzel as they make their way through the first verse.

Dahlstrom’s Across the River opens the album on a delicate, purist country gospel note: if the Dixie Chicks’ record label’s marketing department had left them alone, they might have sounded something like this. She also contributes the cynically brooding, bolero-tinged Our Lady of Guadalupe Street.

McDearman takes over lead vocals on her trio of songs here (co-written with producer Joe Ongie): the subtly enigmatic, banjo-fueled bluegrass tune Girl in Blue, Darlin’, a plaintive, wistful waltz, and Oh, Undertaker, which sets a ghoulishly amusing lyric to a morose tune fueled by Etzel’s accordion. Etzel’s two other songs here are the elegantly orchestrated, ethereally intriguing Fosse Grim, and the rousingly gospel-flavored Stitch in Time.

Stesney also contributes the phantasmagorically shuffling circus rock anthem Kentucky Graveyard – which ends with a hilarious surf music quote – as well as the title track, a grimly catchy litany of ways to reach your final resting place. It’s may be early, but this is a strong contender for best album of the year.

If you’re wondering where the band got their name, it’s a neighborhood near Etzel’s old Iowa hometown.

The Gibson Brothers Bring Their Purist Bluegrass Chops to Town This Weekend

The Gibson Brothers win IBMA’s (International Bluegrass Music Association awards) like the Giants win the World Series: every year, it seems. Guitarist Leigh Gibson and his banjo-playing brother Eric, bassist Mike Barber, fiddler Clayton Campbell and mandolinist Jesse Brock are playing a tantalizing, guitar-heavy bluegrass quadruplebill on Jan 11 starting at 7 PM at City Winery with the brilliant Tim O’Brien kicking things off, then the Gibsons, Bryan Sutton, Sierra Hull, and the Travelin’ McCourys headlining at around 10. General admission for standing room is $28, kind of steep, but not such a bad deal considering the quality of the musicianship. “My hit parade has about three chords, but I guarantee you won’t get bored,” Leigh Gibson sings, and he’s right.

The brothers’ most recent album is They Called It Music, streaming at Spotify. What’s most obvious from a listen all the way through is how purist, and low-key most of the songs are: the solos tend to be tantalizingly short, and the lyrics are aphoristic, sometimes funny and sometimes with a bite that’s all too often missing in newschool oldschool Americana. The wry opening track, Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher has a guy who always had “one foot in, one foot out,” telling his long-suffering girl that now he’s dead set on tying the knot…”but it may not be today.” The title track, with some sweet flatpicking from Leigh Gibson, has a subtext that screams pretty loud: nobody expects any New Nashville pop songs to be sung in church choirs, or in prison cells, or behind battle lines.

The Darker the Night, the Better I See offers a fond nod to Hank Williams, a low-key, slyly aphoristic honkytonking anthem. Brock and Campbell’s elegant lines carry the wistful waltz Dying for Someone to Live For, while Eric Gibson’s banjo fuels the amiably shuffling I’ll Work It Out. His brother’s flatpicking drives the midtempo, brooding workingman’s anthem Something Comin’ to Me, Brock and Campbell joining the interweave of spiky textures.

The most reto 1930s-style number here is the bluesy, swaying Daddy’s Gone to Knoxville. The most affectingly angst-fueled one is Dusty Old World. From there the band shift into more hopeful territory with the country gospel Home on the River and then go back toward the shadows with the bittersweet, understatedly vengeful I Will Always Cross Your Mind. They pick up the pace with the banjo-and-fiddle-driven Sundown and Sorrow and wind up the album with Songbird’s Song, the longest number here, a platform for some especially incisive mando work from Brock. All this manages to be trad without being deferential and captures the kind of bristling electricity the band delivers onstage – worth going out for on a Sunday evening if this kind of music is your thing.

Nell Robinson Brings Her Historically Rich Antiwar Americana Songs to Joe’s Pub

Alabama Americana songwriter Hilary Perkins, a.k.a. Nell Robinson has an epic and historically relevant antiwar-themed new album out, The Rose of No-Man’s Land – streaming at Spotify – with an all-star cast of players and special guests. It’s a mix of classic and cult-favorite war-themed songs from the Americana songbook from across the ages, along with Robinson’s originals which draw on letters sent home from the wartime front from throughout her family history. As you would expect from such serious material, most of the music is on the slow side. What’s most interesting about it is that none of these songs are didactic or preachy: they let the war stories and veterans’ laments speak for themselves, reminding that pretty much everybody who goes to war and survives it comes home a pacifist. In concert, Perkins involves the audience a lot more actively than just in a singalong way, and she’s bringing that show to Joe’s Pub on Saturday night, Nov 22 at 7 PM with her band and special guest Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Tix are $25.

The album opens on an aptly somber note with a brief, slow instrumental take of Bill Monroe’s My Last Days on Earth, Jim Nunally’s steady acoustic guitar paired with Greg Leisz’s resonant dobro. Robinson’s direct, uncluttered, vibrato-infused vocals give the traditional song Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier an imploring edge. Kathy Baker reads the first of the letters – from the real Nell Robinson, Perkins’ grandmother, to her soldier on the front in World War I, offering some unexpected comic relief.

The rest of the band – David Piltch on bass and Zach Harmon on drums – come in on Luther Presley’s Waiting for the Boys to Come Home, Levon Henry adding a celebratory clarinet solo. But the optimism is short-lived, the band returning to gently sobering mode with the Civil War narrative Blue-Eyed Boston Boy and keeps that going with the old folk song One Morning in May

A bluegrass romp through Rodney Crowell’s Scots Irish takes the theme forward in time to the Vietnam era and then today with some sweet flatpicking from Nunally and mandolin from Leisz. They follow that with a blue-flame take of Johnny Cash’s Vietnam talking blues Drive On with similar energy and cynicism, Elliott taking over lead vocals. X’s John Doe duets with Perkins on her starkly wistful bluegrass original Happy to Go – a revealing look at the psychology of defending one’s country – as well as on an aching take of Mel Tillis’ Stateside, pushed along by Craig Eastman’s fiddle.

Guy Clark’s Heroes, a chilling narrative about a shellshocked Gulf War vet, gets a gorgeously hushed treatment. The Forgotten Soldier Boy, another slow number from the Bill Monroe repertoire, revisits the theme from a WWI point of view. A Nunally original, Poppies stays in that era, Piltch’s all-too-brief bass solo adding an aptly bittersweet edge. Perkins sings an a-cappella verse of the country gospel title track, then follows that with another purist bluegrass original, Wahatchee, a brutal battlefield ballad set during the American Revolution. The album seems to hedge its bets at the end, closing on a patriotic note with Gene Scheer’s American Anthem.

The rest of the letters are as affecting as the songs. Kris Kristofferson reads a bitter, pessimistic 1866 assessment of Civil War Reconstruction; Doe voices a funny 1944 vignette; Maxine Hong Kingston delivers a brooding 1932 recollection of the veterans’ march on Washington, DC; and Elliott reads Marcus Cumbie’s 2012 poem Grove Hill. Click here for the text and song lyrics. What does all this prove? For one, that veterans always get the shaft after their service is done, no matter how much ink gets spilled over their heroism. In 2014, the majority of Americana combat veterans, some of them poisoned by the radioactive waste in U.S. munitions, return home too disabled to work.

Aiofe O’Donovan Brings Her Cutting-Edge, Purist Americana Tunesmithing to the Upper West

Aiofe O’Donovan is cool. The Crooked Still singer/guitarist played one of the outdoor concerts at Madison Square Park a couple of months ago and wasn’t impressed by that burger joint there with the interminably long lines – and if you’d been standing downwind in the greasy smoke wafting from the kitchen, you wouldn’t have been either. “Is the food really that good?” she asked, skeptical. A lone guy sheepishly put his his hand. “OK, if you say so,” she grinned back.

O’Donovan makes her living on the road, whether playing bluegrass classics, singing in progressive jazz icon Dave Douglas’ group, with symphony orchestras, or doing her own stuff. September’s show was mostly original material, much of it taken from her debut solo album, Fossils, and it was consistently excellent. If you missed the show – and a lot of people did – she’s making a quick swing through town, in between Crooked Still reunion shows, for a free concert at 7:30 PM on Nov 13 at the Lincoln Center Atrium. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but she’s on the bill with a solid quartet of performers: explosive New Orleans trombonist/gospel shouter Glen David Andrews; Elle King, who is sort of an Americana counterpart to Cat Power; and charming guy/girl harmony duo the Spring Standards. These shows are a neighborhood institution and fill up fast, so the earlier you get there, the better: you can probably expect about a half an hour from each act.

O’Donovan, being a runner, likes to jump around a lot onstage, and reveled in the chance to do that at the park because, as she explained, she’d been playing on a boat where that hadn’t been an option. Backed by terse upright bass, drums and lead guitar, she mixed up ballads and more upbeat numbers. As you might expect from someone in a band whose name refers to moonshine, whiskey figures into a lot of her songs, from the swaying, John Prine-influenced opening number, Oh Mama, to a jaunty country blues punctuated by a bouncy bass solo a little later on.

They followed the broodingly shuffling Thursday’s Child, fueled by Austin Nevins’ lingering, red-sunset guitar leads with a slower but similarly simmering, late-summery tune. O’Donovan sang Briar Rose with a moodily insistence as ambulance sirens passed north of the park. It was cool to watch the group mash up trad styles with electric rock energy, without turning it into cliched 70s-style dadrock, then going deep into the Appalachian catalog. And through it all O’Donovan soared, and sailed, and brought edge and bite to the songs when they asked for them, as songs do. It’s not clear if O’Donovan will have a band with her at the Lincoln Center show or not, but either way she’s a lot of fun live.

Kelley Swindall Puts an Edgy, Individualistic Spin on Classic Americana

One of the cool things about Kelley Swindall‘s new album – streaming at Spotify - is that she sings every song differently. The funny ones have a jaunty southern twang, something you might expect from someone who originally hails from Stone Mountain, Georgia. On the darker ones – and there’s plenty of darkness here – Swindall’s voice takes on a mix of Eartha Kitt growl and Nina Simone bite. She’s opening the Lorraine Leckie album release show with a set at 7 PM sharp at the Mercury on Nov 13; advance tix are $10 and going fast.

Another cool thing is how Swindall uses oldtime Americana as a springboard for her songwriting: the songs don’t feel constrained by a particular era or style. And they’re completely in the here and now. For example, the first of the talking blues numbers – a style that Swindall really likes – is a cross-country weed-smuggling tale. Like A Boy Named Sue, it’s got a surprise ending, but one that you don’t see coming a mile away.

The big crowd-pleaser, also a talking blues, is a murder ballad – with an ending that’s easier to see coming, but when Swindall delivers it, it’s still irresistible. The country ballad You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want T0 sounds like a love song on the surface, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. The restlessness is relentless in Swindall’s songwriting and this is a prime example.

Swindall’s elegant oldtime delta blues picking fuels the hauntingly brooding opening track, Sidewalk Closed, a noir tableau fleshed out with Matthew Albeck’s eerily reverberating dobro. On Your Own, a spare, stark, bluesy minor-key kiss-off ballad, begins with a more muted delivery, but then Swindall’s vocals rise to a defiant angst – it’s the first place on the album where she actually belts, and she makes it count.

Dear Savannah, a wistful reminiscence of a romance that in retrospect was doomed from the start, blends Swindall’s delicate fingerpicking and tersely bluesy harmonica, Stephanie Allen’s upright bass and more of that spooky bent-note work from Albeck. He Ain’t You sets vintage jazz-tinged guitar lead over a classic country waltz tune, with a lyric that when you think about it, is pretty vicious. And Swindall’s own My Minglewood Blues, inspired by the famous folk song, mashes up blues and bluegrass via guest Phil Harris’ banjo. The lone cover here is Ryan Morgan‘s Maricopa, AZ , which fits well with Swindall’s darker material, a noir soul song done oldtimey shuffle style with fingerpicked guitar and more biting Albeck slide playing – it wouldn’t be out of place in the Dina Rudeen songbook.

Swindall’s sense of humor goes beyond the songwriting. The album title, Pronounced kel-le swin-dl (more or less – the machine on which this is being typed doesn’t have the phonetic alphabet) is a Lynyrd Skynyrd pun. And the cd cover shot references Francoise Hardy, not something you’d typically see on an album of rustic Americana. Like another moody Americana songwriter recently covered here, Jessie Kilguss, Swindall draws on a theatrical background (which might have something to do with why she always sings in character): she’s a member of the edgy downtown production company The Amoralists.

A Wild, Psychedelic Manhattan Show and an Upcoming Brooklyn Gig from the Sometime Boys

The Sometime Boys make elegant, meticulously crafted albums that blend elements of bluegrass, delta blues, funk, soul and artsy chamber pop. Their most recent one, Riverbed, is one of 2014’s most compelling and eclectic releases. But onstage, they transform into a ferocious jamband: as improvisational rock crews go, there is no other New York band who are better at it, and that includes Steve Wynn‘s volcanic Miracle 3. The Sometime Boys are playing two long sets at the Way Station on the border of Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene on Sept 26 at 10 PM, and it’s free.

Their long show at the end of this past month at Bar 9 in Hell’s Kitchen – much of which has been immortalized on youtube - had everything the band is known for: expansive, explosive solos, mighty peaks, whispery lows, stop-on-a-dime changes, a sense of humor and a handful of covers that spanned the genres just as their originals do. The band’s brain trust, singer/guitarist Sarah Mucho and lead guitarist Kurt Leege were known for putting on the occasional and spectacularly good cover night in their previous band, the mighty System Noise: their series of sold-out David Bowie nights are legendary. So it was no surprise to see Mucho reinvent Aretha’s Chain of Fools with a surprisingly nuanced bitterness (and a long, dancingly delicious Leege guitar solo); to deliver a rousingly New Orleans-flavored take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happening Every Day with a menacingly gleeful grin; or to hear her actually enunciate the lyrics of the dadrock standard Burn Down the Mission, unlike the guy who set it to music and sang it. And midway through the show, they invited their similarly charismatic pal Mark Bailey (no relation to the Houston Astros backstop) up to deliver vigorous versions of tunes by Neil Young, Jack White and the Proclaimers.

But it was the originals that everybody had come out for, which took centerstage. The opening number, the bluegrass-tinged Buskin’, peaked out with a jaunty Rebecca Weiner Tompkins violin solo. Mucho got a droll, sarcastic audience singalong going on the bouncy, zydeco-inflected Pharaoh, the band taking it down to just vocals before Leege pulled the beast back on the rails. Bird House began with a menacing art-rock guitar intro before they took it into noir folk territory, to a long, relentless, Jerry Garcia-esque solo that Leege capped off with an ominous Pink Floyd quote.

Likewise, the funky A Life Worth Living – a song that brought to mind an even earlier Mucho/Leege project, Noxes Pond – echoed the Grateful Dead at their peak. They went into more straight-ahead funk for the defiantly lyrical Modern Age, a little later bringing down the lights for a broodingly waltzing version of the country-tinged lament Master Misery, from the band’s debut album Any Day Now.

The best of the covers was an extended, tranced-out jam on Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced: the way Leege, drummer Jay Cowit and keyboardist/mandolinist Gypsy George matched the album version’s kaleidoscopic, psychedelic fragments and rhythmic blips was as funny as it was impressively faithful to both the spirit and the essence of the original.

Cowit and Mucho matter-of-factly exchanged hostilities on a duet of the tongue-in-cheek newgrass romp Why Can’t We Just Be Enemies, Leege wrapping it up with yet another methodically intense solo. Much as Mucho worked all the magic in her vocal arsenal, from smoky, sultry lows to stratospheric highs, it was Leege who really got the crowd screaming. Counterintuitively, they wound up the set with The Great Escape, a quietly glimmering suicide ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on the Dead’s American Beauty (and is currently this blog’s pick for best song of 2014). That took the bar crowd by surprise, but by the second verse they were quiet and listening again. It was a gentle reminder that this band has the muscle to overpower the yakking crowds at the Way Station.

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