New York Music Daily

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Tag: bluegrass music

Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum: Manhattan’s Most Vital Americana Roots Music Scene

“When you think about it, how many real listening rooms are left in New York?” Lara Ewen, folk noir singer and impresario of the pretty-much-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, mused the other night. She’s on to something. Outside of the jazz and classical worlds, it’s hard to find a space in Manhattan that caters to an audience for less loudly amplified or acoustic sounds like the Americana roots music, and its descendents, that her series promotes.

Sure, people come to listen at Barbes, and the Jalopy, and the Owl, and sometimes Pete’s Candy Store when there isn’t a din at the bar. But all those places are in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, there’s hardly anything left. Rockwood Music Hall is a Jersey tourist trap, the Bleecker Street dives have been a joke since the 60s ended, and Sidewalk, while noticeably improved lately, still draws heavily on the autistic types who play the open mic there. And autistic people aren’t known for their social graces.

Which leaves Free Music Fridays. The series went on hiatus for a few weeks to accommodate an exhibition, then returned with a vengeance in early July with a simmeringly low-key performance by darkly lyrical former Madder Rose frontwoman Mary Lorson, who played an intimate, acoustic duo set with percussionist John Sharples. Since then, the series has been on a roll, requiring extra rows of seats since the audience continues to grow.

The highlight of last week’s installment was the opening set by aphoristic newschool country blues songwriter Nathan Xander, in a stark duo performance with a similarly purposeful fiddler. Since the series returned, other than Lorson, the most dynamic, exciting show was an impressively eclectic, smartly lyrical, historically-informed couple of sets by a roughly five-piece subset of mighty acoustic Americana powerhouse M Shanghai String Band. Ewen called them one of New York’s best bands, and once again she was on the money.

Frontman Austin Hughes distinguished himself with his clever wordplay, poignant and relevant historical references and plaintive harmonies, sung by everyone in this edition of the band (which can number more than ten people onstage). This version also featured Philippa Thompson on – take a deep breath – fiddle, bass, lead vocals, singing saw, washboard and spoons – plus Glendon Jones on mandolin, Patty Hughes on bass and a couple of family members taking an animated cameo or two on harmony vocals.

One of the band’s biggest audience hits, the broodingly lilting Sea Monster, turned out to be a contemplation of how instant internet access to information can stifle the imagination. At a distance at least, it’s more fun to ponder the existence of apocryphal creatures than to dismiss them. The similarly uneasy, harmony-driven Two Thousand Pennies resonated even more as an anthem for the New Depression. Aptly, toward the end of their second set, the band played Vivian Girls, an even moodier look at the inner life of disturbed outsider artist Henry Darger, whose work was first featured in a career retrospective at this museum.

M Shanghai String Band’s next show is back at their home base, the Jalopy on September 3 at 9 PM; cover is $10.. And the highlight of this Friday’s free music, this August 19 at around 6:30 PM at the museum, is Moji Abiola, whose eclectic sound blends oldschool soul into their paisley underground psychedelia.

Revisiting a Rare Gem by Jen Starsinic

Talk about working up a sweat: Jen Starsinic recorded her debut album, The Flood & the Fire (streaming at her music page) in hundred-degree Boston heat, with neither air conditioning nor fan, in the summer of 2013. The Nashville-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is hardly unknown – she toured extensively with David Mayfield, and is a staple on the folk festival circuit – but she deserves a wider audience. Vocally, she brings to mind the unselfconscious, plaintive depth and nuance of a young Erica Smith. Likewise, her songs run the gamut of Americana both old and new, from newgrass, to oldschool honkytonk, to more psychedelic pastoral sounds.

The album’s opening track, Time to Lose, an upbeat blend of newgrass and ethereal Americana pop, has a disarmingly down-to-earth bitttersweetness: ”Bones regrow but our heart doesn’t heal,” Starsinic explains, with just a millisecond of hesitation that packs a wallop. Ultimately, her message is  that there’s no shame in doing a second take if the first one doesn’t come out the way you want it. Likewise, the fiddle-fueled indian summer ballad Stay, a gentle nudge at a restless spirit who might just be happier in a relationship than in her “long years chasing boys around the block.”

The Only One Who Can Break a Heart is a morose vintage C&W ballad worthy of Laura Cantrell: “I’m damned if I stay, I’m damned if I try to leave you where you belong,” Starsinic laments. Oh My Darling‘s Allison de Groot lends her banjo to the low-key, John Prine-esque surrealism of Six Foot Three, while Molly Tuttle, of the Tuttles with AJ Lee, flatpicks on the intricately bristling, trickily syncopated Ragdolls.

With its stark blend of Starsinic’s fiddle and Eric Law’s cello, the understated escape anthem It’s a Foreign Thing puts a lushly textural spin on an antique Appalachian style. Mining its canary imagery for all it’s worth, Birdie in a Cage is just as allusive, and absolutely chilling despite the tune’s bluegrass warmth. The reverb on Starsinic’s voice in the lingering, woundedly pensive waltz Move in Time with Me matches the tremolo on her guitar.

Dive a Little Deeper sets Starsinic’s charmingly aphoristic yet characteristically brooding oceanic metaphors to an oldschool bluegrass stroll: “You can wait like a fool all sticky with sand for the water to wash your limbs, or you can wait like a fool all night and all day instead of wading deeper in.’

Charlie Rose’s atmospheric pedal steel hangs in the back throughout the even more disquieting Wildfire and its calm tale of a forest fire gone out of control. The gently but purposefully swaying Since You’ve Come Around winds up the album on a quietly shattering note, Starsinic pondering where the good times went “When it was dangerous you and cynical me.” Such a strong debut effort portends even better things for Starsinic: she’s somebody to keep an eye on.

Dori Freeman Offers an Imaginative, Darkly Purist Take on Classic Country and Americana Sounds

Dori Freeman comes from Americana ground zero: Galax, Virginia. She’s still relatively young (early 20s), and she’s bringing her own tasteful, sometimes haunting update on a bunch of venerable American sounds to the big room at the Rockwood at 7 PM on May 19. Cover is $10.

It takes some nerve to open your debut album – streaming at Spotify -with a solo acoustic number, just voice and guitar. But that’s what Freeman does. The track is catchy: it’s easy to imagine fiddle and banjo and a bass pulsing behind her strums as she vacillates between longing and defiance: “I’ll be damned if I need any man to come to my rescue…the wall that you’ve been building, well it’s standing in the sand.”

Where I Stand is a sripped-down take on disconsolately waltzing Orbison Nashville gothic pop: “Once like a vision I haunted your mind, but the haunting I feel is a different kind,” she intones in wounded low register. Her voice is her big drawing card, gently parsing the blue notes with an ambered nuance that often makes her sound older than she is. Likewise, her lyrics can be imagistic and evocative: for example, when a treasured picture of a couple together falls off the wall, it brings relief instead of sadness.

Aloft on the wings of Jon Graboff’s melancholy pedal steel washes, Go On Loving is a vintage honkytonk ballad with spare Erik Deutsch piano and muted electric guitar, over the purist rhythm section of bassist Jeff Hill and drummer Rob Walbourne. Fine Fine Fine is an imaginative blend of jangly Americana, honkytonk and vintage 60s Phil Spector girl-group pop. Freeman offers a nod back to Merle Travis with Ain’t Nobody, a sarcastically fingersnapping, bluesy a-cappella blue-collar lament.

With its elegant Lynchian jazz tinges, the understatedly menacing Lullaby is the strongest song on the album, bringing to mind Eilen Jewell in a pensive moment. A wounded, muted country gospel ambience pervades Song for Paul, another real gem: “Catch me, catch me, catch 22,” Freeman sings to open it. Likewise, the honkytonk waltz Still a Child traces a simmeringly vindictive narrative. There’s also Tell Me, a jaunty electric pop song with blithely melismatic vocals and pizzicato fiddle from Alex Hargreaves, and the gently syncopated Any Wonder, which is the closest thing to corporate singer-songwriter fodder here.

Those of you who already know who Dori Freeman is might be wondering why a blog like this one – typically focused on the shadowy side of the street where all the most interesting things are happening – would cover somebody who’s already been praised to the rafters by the likes of Rolling Stone. The answer is that as vital and important as Rolling Stone’s political coverage has been and continues to be, it’s been thirty years since their music section had any relevance. Compared to what usually gets covered there, Freeman is in a completely different ballpark.

Murder Ballad Mondays Makes a Mean Return to Fort Greene on the 21st

A monthly residency is a sneaky way to keep your fanbase coming out without stating the obvious, that they could always blow off your show this month and catch you next time around. After all, who can keep track of when the third Thursday of the month is going to fall, other than the band playing that night?

A lot of touring artists use small New York venues as an anchor when they’re here – or as a rehearsal room, basically. Barbes is home base to many of the elite among them, most notably Big Lazy (first Friday of the month at 10) and Rachelle Garniez (first Thursday at 8). There are also a trio of good acts using Sidewalk to keep themselves sharp: guitarist Lenny Molotov’s bitingly lyrical original oldtime swing band the Fascinators (first Saturday at 8), Mac McCarty‘s careening folk noir Kidd Twist Band (first Saturday at 9) and the darkly eclectic, avant garde-inclined Lorraine Leckie (third Friday at 11, including tonight the 18th).

This blog’s favorite monthly residency is Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon. Like Paul Wallfisch‘s late, lamented Small Beast at the Delancey, it’s blogbait. Any lazy blogger can save himself or herself four or five separate nights out and catch several of the best acts in town all on the same bill on an off night that doesn’t conflict with anything. And it’s become a hit with the local Fort Greene contingent.

Last month’s was a prime example: with cold rain pelting the slush outside, torchy noir singer Ellia Bisker and her guitarslinging Charming Disaster conspirator Jeff Morris packed the place and treated folks to a deliciously lowlit, lurid evening. They used to treat the crowd to at least a short set, but lately they’ve been teasing everybody with just a song or two. This time out their contributions were a slinky version of a shadowy, swing-infused new number with some hilarious rhyme schemes as well as Murderer, Charming Disaster’s signature song of sorts, a coldly wary, subtle cautionary tale reminding that the perfect crime has no witnesses.

Jessi Robertson set the bar high right off the bat. Hauntingly resonant, deeply soul-infused vocals fused with lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ similarly lingering, bluesy lead lines and elegantly jangly phrasing. Part of Robertson’s appeal is that her big crescendos sometimes seem triumphant and celebratory when they’re actually venomous, and their first song was a prime example. They also made their way through the bristling underbrush of a folk noir number and closed with a fiery PJ Harvey cover.

Liz Tormes, this city’s leading exponent of murder ballads, brought the ambience down to a blue-flame intensity, mining the catalogs of Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe, her own calmly and murderously alluring repertoire and closed with a stark Elizabethan suicide song. Former Snow frontwoman Hilary Downes sang a calmly brooding version of the Townes Van Zant classic Pancho & Lefty. And Mudville – singer/keyboardist Marilyn Carino and brilliant bassist Ben Rubin – kept the simmeringly ominous ambience going with noir cabaret takes on the Misfits and Tom Waits as well as an even more allusively venomous original.

That’s what makes Murder Ballad Mondays so interesting – it’s taking the concept of songs about killing people far beyond the time-honored Britfolk/Appalachian tradition. The more you know about music, the more you realize just how much we have in common: no matter the culture, people around the world just love to kill each other. And then write about it. This coming Murder Ballad Monday on March 21 starts at 8 sharp and features Charming Disaster, Elisa Flynn – whose rapturously haunting voice is matched by her historically-informed, erudite tunesmithing – and others TBA who will probably be just as good.

Underhill Rose Bring Their Charming Newgrass and Americana to the Flower District

With their charming three-part harmonies and dynamically-charged songwriting, all-female Asheville trio Underhill Rose are one of the best-loved touring acts on the endless Americana trail. Their latest album, The Great Tomorrow is streaming at Spotify. They’ve got an enticing New York show coming up on November 11 at 9 PM at Hill Country, a rare chance to see guitarist Molly Rose, banjo player Eleanor Underhill and bassist Salley Williamson join voices for free.

The album is a lot more sweeping and lush than you would expect from an acoustic trio – imagine the Dixie Chicks left to their own devices, without any meddling from the suits in the Nashville boardroom, and you get a good idea of what this sounds like. Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies returns as producer, bringing in half of the Steep Canyon Rangers (fiddler Nicky Sanders and drummer Mike Ashworth) as well as the Honeycutters’ Matt Smith on dobro and steel guitar; Mike Seal of the Jeff Sipe Trio also contributes on guitar.

The album’s first track, Our Time Is Done has a bittersweetly Calvinistic, tightlipped oldtimey feel: it’s hard to tell how much the girl at the center of the story really wants to go through with the breakup. By contrast, When I Die, a banjo tune, bookends an optimistic carpe-diem message with a somber opening and closing. Whispering Pines Motel, a cheating song, is surprisingly plaintive: it’s more about being abandoned than it is about being afraid of getting caught.

By contrast, the ambling, swaying Montana paints a more optimistic picture, the banjo and fiddle joining for a vivid big-sky ambience. Then the band gets pensive again with My Friend, building artfully from an enigmatically syncopated verse to a woundedly soaring chorus. Over a subtly intertwining web of banjo and guitars, Love Looks Good on You offers a resolute tale of a couple drawn to each other because one doesn’t like country music and the other wasn’t raised in the church, rather than despite all that. Then the trio go back toward a more straight-up, shuffling bluegrass groove with the warmly reassuring Rest Easy.

Shine, by Williamson, takes a strongly successful detour into noir Appalachian terrain, a tale of defiance and survival in moonshine country (one minor quibble: the 1940 Cadillac Coupe de Ville she references doesn’t exist. That model first appeared in 1949). The band keeps the moody, minor-key intensity going through a shockingly decent, bluesy version of Straight Up, which people who go as far back as the 90s might remember as a radio hit for ex-LA Lakers cheerleader Paula Abdul. The album’s final two numbers, by Underhill, are the resolute, steel-driven solo drinking song, Not Gonna Worry, and the title track, a darkly optimistic look at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The Steep Canyon Rangers Bring Their Cutting-Edge Americana and Newgrass to Bowery Ballroom

A few years ago, the Steep Canyon Rangers were best known as Steve Martin’s bluegrass backing band. On one hand, that gig catapulted them beyond the bluegrass highway into what remains of a mainstream in this country. On the other, they’re a fantastic band in their own right. Their previous album Tell the Ones I Love was a rich survey of Americana, from oldtimey front-porch folk to the Grateful Dead, channeled through the prism of bluegrass, ending with a fantastically creepy hi-de-ho swing tune. Their new one, Radio – streaming at Spotify – picks up where that one left off, but with an even more aphoristic lyrical vividness that draws deeply on classic 50s C&W. The group – bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and drummer Michael Ashworth – are on yet another US tour, with a stop at Bowery Ballroom at 9 PM on October 12; general admission is $20.

The opening title track, a minor-key newgrass pop hit, is a bittersweet look back at life before Spotify: “Kasey Kasem told me I’d find her one day, and I believed…a skeleton key made just for you, and the open door we stumbled through and we crawled and we ran and we just flew.” After that, the swaying, bluesy midtempo Diamonds in the Dust looks back to Woody Guthrie and before: “These dreams are bust, chasin’ the silver in the starlight, the diamonds in the dust.”

Simple Is Me has an easygoing 70s Americana pop feel spiced by Sharp’s terse banjo lines, a sound echoed later on in Long Summer. By contrast, Blow Me Away has a blustering high-plains drive: anybody who’s ever raced to get home (or get down into the basement) after the twister warning comes over the radio or the fire station siren will relate to this. Again, Sharp takes centerstage before Sanders and Guggino follow with lickety-split solos. Blue Velvet Rain (what a great title, huh?) keeps the stormy imagery going, this time over a morose, morbid country waltz with biting solos from those two again: “Soaked to the bone and burning alone, a fire without any flame.” Then they pick up the pace with the brisk instrumental Looking Glass.

The gorgoeusly allusive Down That Road Again could be about crime, or addiction, or plain old heartbreak…or maybe all of those things. Break – a duet between Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth – gets supersonic playing from Sharp and Guggino and a jagged, fabric-tearing solo from Sanders. The band brings it down again with a brutally picturesque George Jones homage: “The stronger stuff doesn’t help anymore, it’s barely enough to hold up the floor when the ceiling’s too low and it’s promising rain.”

When the Well Runs Dry grimly weighs the need to make a living against the potentially devastating consequences of fracking. The album winds up with Monumental Fool, an offhandedly apt look at how history forgets money-grubbers. Yet another brilliant mix of Americana songcraft and playing: no wonder these guys routinely take home IBMAs every year.

Cricket Tell the Weather Bring Their Imaginative, Original Bluegrass-Inspired Sounds to the Tri-State Area

If you’re up for a fancy, sit-down night of newgrass and bluegrass, Cricket Tell the Weather are playing the third stage at the Rockwood at 8:30 PM on August 14. Cover is $10 and there’s that $10 drink minimum too. Much as it might seem incongruous not to be up on your feet dancing to this high-energy, original band, if you’re into hot picking, watching their fast fingers fly in this intimate space gives you a chance to figure out how they do it.

Their album – with production help from Lake Street Dive‘s fantastic bass player, Bridget Kearney – is streaming at Bandcamp. The opening track, Remington, looks back to hard times in firearms manufacturing in late 19th century Connecticut, singer Andrea Asprelli’s astringent fiddle sailing over the intricate web of Doug Goldstein’s banjo, Jason Borisoff’s guitar, Hans Bilger’s bass and Dan Tressler’s mandolin. Embers kicks off with an insistent guitar intro over an ominous bass drone: it’s a stark elegy for Borisoff’s mom, “Embers from afar, where the stars used to be,” as he broodingly asserts.

With its fire-and-brimstone imagery, four-part harmonies and banjo drive, Who’s that Knockin’ at My Door? is a swinging, retro Bill Monroe-style number. Likewise, the band-on-the-road tale Call You Home, sung by Asprelli, has jaunty solos around the horn. They bring the lights down for a glimmering, slow fingerpicked ballad, Let It Pass, looking back to 70s British hippie folk but without the cliches.

Rocky Mountain Skies is a triumphantly soaring salute to Asprelli’s native Colorado – her down-to-earth, unaffected vocal delivery is refreshing, and both Jeff Picker’s bass solo and Goldstein’s banjo solo will give you chills. So Fast So Long is a brisk, pouncing, catchy Britrock-tinged shuffle disguised as newgrass.”This town’s got eyes as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge,” Asprelli intones on the similarly edgy No Big City, with its blend of newgrass and darkly rustic Appalachian flavor. The album’s last song, Salt and Bones, has an unexpectedly funky rhythm and a pensive ambience that brings to mind Jenny Scheinman‘s adventures in Americana songcraft.

Since recording this, there’ve been some changes in the band, Jeff Picker taking over on guitar and Sam Weber replacing Bilger on bass. For Long Island and New Jersey bluegrass fans – or for anybody who might be up for a summer daytrip – the band are at the Long Island Bluegrass Festival at Tanner Park in Copiague the following day, August 15 and then at Parker Press Park, 401 Rahway Ave. in Woodbridge, New Jersey at 6 PM on the 16th.

A Brand-New Live Album and a Rare Small Club Date by the Irrepressible Dustbowl Revival

The Dustbowl Revival‘s New York show on the 21st is a classic case of a national touring act who are huge on the road being squeezed into a smaller room than they’re accustomed to. Where is the mighty, exhilarating, sardonically original oldtime Americana band playing? The Beacon Theatre? Radio City? Bowery Ballroom? Nope. Union Hall, up the block from Key Food in Park Slope. They hit the stage at 8:30; cover is a measly $8.

This band defines itself with its sense of humor: even the band name is funny. Who would ever want to revive an invasion of starving Okies with mattresses on top of their cars? The group has a live album – which more bands should be making – titled With a Lampshade On, due out monentarily. The title track, fueled by Daniel Mark’s mandolin and Connor Vance’s fiddle, is a characteristically lickety-split punkgrass romp, a litany of things you basically shouldn’t be doing, with or without drunken headgear. The other track from the album that’s up online is Never Had to Go, a bouncy acoustic take on oldschool 50s C&W sung by uke and washboard player Liz Beebe.

Another of this band’s distinguishing characteristics is that they’re the rare string band with a horn section, which adds extra brightness and energy. That’s Matt Rubin on trumpet and Ulf Bjorlin on trombone. The remainder of the album hasn’t hit the group’s Bandcamp page along with the rest of their exuberant catalog; bookmark the link and check back soon. Interestingly, it’s a departure from the band’s earlier material – the vernacular is less antique (mid 20th century rather than 1920s and before) and the sound is beefier, maybe as a result. For example, Hey Baby is a lot more electric and expansive than the band usually gets, a swaying New Orleans-flavored funk number. The version of Old Joe Clark here amps up the shuffling, oldtime proto-bluegrass vibe with the punchiness of the brass. Speaking of brass, that’s what Beebe brings to the 60s-style soul number Feels Good, which also has long trumpet and trombone solos. And frontman Zach Lupetin plays electric guitar on another sweetly swaying oldschool soul ballad, Standing Next To Me

Ballad of the Bellhop is one of the band’s usual funny stories set to jaunty oldtimey swing, the droll muted brass lines matching the mood. Bright Lights is a brand new genre, a narcobolero, pulsing along with a slinky groove from drummer Joshlyn Heffernan and bassist James Klopfleisch. After that, the band picks up the pace with Cherokee Shuffle, a mashup of bluegrass and western swing, then takes it back down again with the slow-simmering, dixieland-spiced kiss-off ballad Doubling Down On You.

Ain’t My Fault is a New Orleans second-line shuffle with what sounds like a tapdancing solo from Lupetin that the crowd goes wild for – this is one of those rare moments when you wish the album was a DVD. They go into hi-do-ho noir for the brisk Drop in the Bucket, then slow things down with the sly soul slink Wrapped up in My Heart. They wind things up with Whiskey in the Well, a high-spirited dixieland romp. Where their studio albums are more about stories, and jokes, and sometimes satire, this one’s more about the music – which makes sense for a concert recording.

The Hillbenders Bring Their Imaginative Americana Take on The Who to the Rockwood

If you’re into bluegrass, you’ve probably heard Luther Wright & the Wrongs‘ 2001 cult classic Rebuild the Wall, an acoustic version of the Pink Floyd movie soundtrack album. In a similar vein, with considerably less of a mean-spirited satirical edge, the Hillbenders’ Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, an impressively faithful newgrass take on the Who, is currently burning up the charts and streaming at Spotify. They’re bringing it to the big room at the Rockwood on June 18 at 7 PM on an excellent twinbill with honkytonkers the Honeycutters, Cover is $12; the venue isn’t clear on who’s playing first, but both bands are worth seeing if Americana is your thing. And if you feel like nursing your $15 beer and making a night of it, sardonic oldtimey swing guitarist/crooner Seth Kessel & the Two Cent Band play their jaunty, fun, original  tunes afterward at around 10:30.

It’s tempting to say that audiences in 2015 will probably prefer the Hillbenders’ version over the Who’s original. Forget for a minute that these days, bluegrass is a whole lot more popular than bombastic stadium rock. For starters. this bluegrass band has virtuoso chops and impeccable taste, recording the album to two-inch tape. While the Who obviously also recorded in analog, they were still a garage band at heart when they made the original. What’s most surprising about the new album is how well the incidental music between the radio hits translates to bluegrass – and, quite frankly, how much the band improves it. A prime example is Sparks, where the dobro and banjo really soar. What’s less surprising is how well the Hillbenders do the hits. For one, just the absence of Roger Daltrey’s florid vocals is a big plus. And while it’s probably unfair to weigh how much more texture, and dynamics, and flair guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves and banjo player Mark Cassidy add, by comparison to all of Pete Townshend’s overdubs, the ultimate result is that the Hillbenders’ version is arguably even more epic. And what more could you possibly want from a rock opera? That probably explains why Townshend has given his blessing to the album.

The one thing that it doesn’t offer is a blockbuster rhythm section, which makes sense: Gary Rea is a perfectly good bluegrass bassist, eschewing John Entwhistle’s sinewy attack for a purist oldschool approach. And the band sidesteps the issue of trying to match any of Keith Moon’s contributions, probably a wise choice. They also don’t attempt to clarify or expand on the original’s bare-bones plot: best to look at this as a catchy collection of newgrass pop songs imbued with tongue-in-cheek humor and played with first-class chops, rather than any kind of profound statement. And the hits are a revelation. You can understand the lyrics to Pinball Wizard – how’s “Bally table king” for 60s cultural resonance? Go to the Mirror matches the junior existentialist angst of the original, and We’re Not Gonna Take It has even more defiance. After all this, ironically, the original seems pretty lightweight.

Americana Individualist Kelley Swindall Hits the Road from the Heartland to the South

Kelley Swindall is one of the most distinctive artists in Americana. She opened her most recent show here with a talking blues. Fifty years ago, every folksinger from one end of the Bleecker Street strip to the other was doing talking blues…but then again that was back when Bleecker Street was the cool part of town. Swindall’s first talking blues of the night – yup, there was more than one – happened to be her big crowd-pleaser The Murder Song, a bloody tale of lust and mayhem that’s become a cult favorite on independent radio throughout the south. If country blues, newgrass and good acoustic jambands like Old Crow Medicine Show are your thing and you’re in the part of the world where Swindall’s touring right now, you ought to see her. She’s starting her latest tour with a two-night stand at the Golconda Mansion in Golconda, Illinois on June 12 and 13 at 6 PM, then hits Charlie Bob’s in Nashville on the 14th, then at 6 PM on the 15th she’s on Hippie Hill in Cristiana, Tennessee. But the big show is her headline slot at Wingstock at City Market in Savannah, Georgia on the 21st. That may be the sunniest day of the year, but Swindall will bring on the night.

The other talking blues she did last time out was her own original, inspired by both the classic Minglewood Blues and the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic cover – Swindall’s version is closer to OCMS than the Dead, maybe since she’d switched from electric guitar to acoustic for that number. But she’s just as likely to bust out a macabre wee-hours creeper like Sidewalk’s Closed, the opening track on her amusingly titled, unspellable debut album (pronounced “Kelley Swindall”). Although she’s been on the road a lot, she’s managed to hit her old Manhattan stomping grounds more than once since the first of the year. It was good to hear her with a full band including bass and drums – and piano, too – the last time out. The time before that marked the first time she’d ever plugged in and played electric guitar onstage, something that gives her darker songs – and she has lots of them – a mighty boost.

Her new material is as good or better than anything she’s done so far. Highlights of the most recent gig included a couple of new ones, the torchy, sultry Come On Back My Way as well as a period-perfect oldschool C&W tearjerker, aptly titled Heartsick. But Swindall’s songs aren’t just about love and longing: the bastards in them get what they deserve, the careless chicks in the drugrunning anthem California run up against karma, cheaters get busted and that poor guy down Savannah way gets let down by the restless girl he’s smitten by: “That’s what drugs’ll do.” is the punchline midway through.

For those who might think it strange that a southern woman would get her start in country and blues-flavored music in New York, that’s what we listen to up here. Y’all think y’all lost the war, but the truth is you won. It just took 150 years.