New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: bluegrass music

Purist Americana in Park Slope with Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell have a lot in common. While each has a devoted following in her own Americana niche – Minch is a blues maven and Cantrell is steeped in vintage country music – they’re fans of each other’s styles and each other’s work. What’s the likelihood of seeing the two charismatic, often mesmerizing performers on the same stage? It happened last night at Union Hall in Park Slope, where Cantrell played the first night of her weekly May residency there. She’ll be playing at around 9 on Tuesdays for the rest of the month, with a rotating selection of special guests opening at around 8. Cover is $10. Shows like this one are why we live in New York, folks.

The room was pretty full by the time Minch hit the stage, solo with her trusty late 30s resonator guitar. She quickly reminded what a connoisseur she is when it comes to songs, and tunings – she used a new one on practically every song – and licks. For a first-class country blues player, she’s very economical, true to her influences. Her version of Mattie Delaney’s Big Road Blues alternated deliciously between a dancing, walking beat and a resonant, spiky shuffle. A little later she reinvented Bessie Smith’s Sing Sing Blues – the unrepentant tale of an abused woman who killed her man – as a chillingly rustic, practically otherworlldly feminist anthem. She also reinvented a handful of her own songs, moving effortlessly from her resonant alto voice to unexpectedly  higher registers on Border Radio, an upbeat, swinging hillbilly ballad dedicaated to the Carter Family; Razorburn Blues, a rapidfire litany of the things women endure for guys who don’t appreciate them; and Fortifiied Wine Widow, a morose Roaring 20s-style lament for a guy who couldn’t stay away from the patent medicine. She’d return later to join Cantrell and her band for a soulful, nuanced duet on Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind, trading off on solos with a similarly nimble, purist guitarist, Boo Reiners. And it was fun to hear the two frontwomen ponder influences, and song origins, out loud between songs, a revealing look at two world-class musicologists in their element

Minch engaged the crowd with plenty of sardonic background for her songs, no surprise since she’s known for being a cutup onstage. But Cantrell can also be LMAO funny when she wants to be, and she was in an even more talkative mood than she usually is. Her funniest story involved the old Civil War song When the Roses Bloom Again – which she and her group played using the melody by Wilco – and a version sung by Barry Gibb. That’s right, a Bee Gee on the Grand Old Opry. The youtube clip is every bit as priceless as Cantrell said it was.

In her family, song collecting is a tradition going back to her great-aunt Ethel, who got credit for a possible edit/update on that song, as well as the murder ballad Poor Ellen Smith, which Cantrell and her sensational four-piece acoustic band with fiddle, Reiners on lead acoustic guitar and banjo and Jeremy Chatzky on bass –  did as a pretty straight-up bluegrass tune.

The set was a mix of fan favorites and expected numbers, like a couple of Amy Allison songs: a joyous take of Can’t Wait and an aptly somber, sober version of The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter as the encore. Cantrell also soared through a lively take of Jenifer Jackson‘s What You Said, then brought the lights down with a stark take of the brooding, ornate breakup ballad No Way There From Here, the title track to Cantrell’s most recent and characteristically brilliant album. She paid tribute to 1940s country hitmaker Molly O’Day with the pensive Mountain Fern and then to her most obvious influence with a robust version of Kitty Wells Dresses. From the jaunty swing of All the Same to You to the Neko Case-style simplicity of Maybe Sparrow, Cantrell worked every corner of her magical, crystalline voice from whispery lows to spectacular highs.

She was a transcendent singer fifteen years ago and she’s even better now, if such a thing can be possible. Arguably the best song of the night was Churches Off the Interstate, an early song from her debut album Not the Tremblin’ Kind, which won her a national following after she’d won over this city. On album, it’s a brisk, buttersweet shuffle. This all-acoustic version was more spare, and bucolic, and haunting: Cantrell seemed to want to clarify that it’s about hope rather than any kind of expectation of a happy ending. In the context of being a concert favorite by someone who used to play it all over what’s now a sometimes unrecognizable East Village, it was heartbreaking. Cantrell’s back here this coming May 12, preceded by a screening of films selected by archivist Russell Scholl. And the next cuople of weeks after, the band will be rejoined by another brilliant guitarist, Jon Graboff. Yeah, Graboff and Reiners on the same stage, that should be something.

A Great Oldtime Americana House Concert in Brooklyn Tonight

What’s the likelihood of one of the most exciting oldtime string bands around playing an early Sunday evening Eastover/Passter show? This is why we live here, folks. Tonight, April 5 at a little after 9 the Corn Potato String Band are playing a house concert at 169 Spencer St. (corner of Willoughby Ave.) in Bed-Stuy for a sawbuck at the door. Take the G to Myrtle-Willoughby, because it’s running this weekend. The allstar Jalopy trio of guitarist Ernie Vega, guitarist/banjo player Jackson Lynch (of the Down Hill Strugglers) and fiddler Chloe Swantner are opening the night at 8 PM.

As they describe themselves, the Corn Potatos specialize in double-banjo and double-fiddle songs. Everybody in the band plays a small army worth of instruments. All three members – Aaron Jonah Lewis, Lindsay McCaw and Ben Belcher – are accomplished fiddlers. Lewis also plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and probably other things as well. McCaw, a champion fiddler, also flexes her chops on banjo, guitar, accordion and piano. Belcher also doubles on banjo and guitar. Their album, simply titled Sounds, is streaming at their webpage.

And it’s a party in a box. The band open with a brisk instrumental reel followed by Raleigh & Spencer, better known to some as There Ain’t No More Liquor in This Town, a boisterously surreal banjo-and-fiddle blues, like something from O Brother Where Art Thou. McCaw takes over lead vocals on the shuffling country gospel tune When I Can Read My Title Clear. From there the band bounce their way through an Appalachian dance and then Silver Lake Polka, which isn’t an oompah tune – it’s a Nordic style fiddle number that sounds like a prototype for the western swing standard Dancing with Tears in My Eyes.

With its lively, precisely doubled fiddle and banjo lines, Russian Rag could be a Django Reinhardt song, but with a casual groove instead of a staccato shuffle beat. Little Black Train, a cautionary tale, is as droll and cheery as it is morbid. The band follows that with a high-energy hoedown number, Lonesome John and then the elegantly ragtime-flavored Lime Rock, packed with nimble, rapidfire fiddle riffage.

Bacon & Eggs is a funny number told from an exasperated/bemused waitress’s point of view. The band takes a detour toward the Great White North with La Respingon, then comes back across the border for a sizzling, fiddle-fueled version of Cumberland Gap and the joyously circling banjo-and-fiddle tune Woodchuck in the Deadnin. The album winds up with the cynical Going Across the Sea and the rousingly catchy Big Scioty. Oh yeah, you can dance to all this. Times may have been harsh and desperate when this music was the default party soundtrack for much of the United States, but, damn, people must have had an awful lot of fun back then too!

Banjo Maven Jayme Stone Brings Colorful, Obscure Folk Music Treasures to Lincoln Center

Banjo player Jayme Stone is on a mission to get his instrument into everything: classical music, film music, big band jazz – as a featured instrument rather than simply part of the rhythm section – and rock. He writes and plays fluently in all those styles, but lately he’s been revisiting a lot of playful, entertaining and sometimes pretty grim folk songs from across the centuries. If you enjoy the inimitable sound of Stone’s axe, and you’re a morning person, you can see him play songs from his exhaustive new nineteen-track album with an all-star crew he calls the Lomax Project at the Lincoln Center Atrium on April 4 at 11 (eleven) AM. That’s right, before lunch.

Stone raided the Alan Lomax archives for every track on the record, a characteristically eclectic mix of oldtime Americana, blues, murder ballads, gospel hollers and even songs from the Caribbean. The first eight tracks are streaming at Bandcamp.

The band is just plain sensational: along with Stone, the core of the group is Crooked Still’s Brittany Haas on fiddle, Tim O’Brien on guitar, Greg Garrison on bass and Margaret Glaspy on vocals, with cameos from several other usual suspects from the top tier of Americana. The sound of the album is refreshingly organic – everything sounds like it was cut live, which makes sense considering the music’s origins. What’s more, Stone and the band aren’t afraid to inject their own personalities into the material: while it wouldn’t be accurate to call their versions irreverent, everything here has a lively, off-the-cuff flavor. It’s like what you’d hear at Roots & Ruckus on a Wednesday night at the Jalopy.

The opening track is a Lomax rarity, and a wry joke: it’s a vamping, vaguely 19th century two-chord number that sounds like a “git down, hoss” farm song from, say, south Texas. The legendary Library of Congress musicologist and archivist apparently felt he’d given himself enough of an immersion to take up writing fake folk songs, predating the 50s folk revival by a couple of decades.

O’Brien sings and flatpicks a gospel-tinged Nashville gothic tune, and a little later duets with Glaspy on a slowly waltzing take of the old standard Goodbye Old Paint. Glaspy’s tenderly airy reinvention of Shenandoah is an eye-opener. Stone’s taste in gospel here runs to starkly haunting rather than celebratory, best evidenced by the What Is the Soul of Man, Glaspy sharing vocals with Bruce Molsky; Julian Lage and Joe Phillips add terse guitar and bass, respectively. One exception is a hymn from the island of Curriacou, Glaspy delivering it with a lighthearted, bluesy lilt. What a long way she’s come since her long-running residency at Pete’s Candy Store

She and Molsky leave no doubt that Now Your Man Done Gone – which Muddy Waters used as a basis for Baby Please Don’t Go – is a prisoner’s lament. Moira Smiley lends her clear, affecting voice to a clever, playfully swaying curio dating from fifteenth century England. The rest of the album bounces, waltzes and sometimes trudges along as barnyard animals misbehave, couples break up, a handful of people get killed, lots of jokes are told and in an unexpectedly successful attempt at calypso, an executioner becomes the target of a murder-for-hire plot. How’s that for karma? The cd comes with a fascinating 48-page booklet explaining the songs’ origins.

A Cool Change of Pace and a Couple of NYC Shows by Americana Purists Foghorn Stringband

Portland, Oregon gets a bad rap, just like Brooklyn. A lot has to do with that stupid tv show – come to think of it, the same could be said for Brooklyn. Both towns have been blighted by gentrification, yet despite that, both have Americana scenes which arguably produce the most vital music coming out of either place. One of Portland’s finest exports, Foghorn Stringband, hits New York on their current US tour, with a show at the Jalopy this Friday at 9 PM on a killer twinbill with the brilliantly guitar-fueled, increasingly oldschool soul-oriented Miss Tess & the Talkbacks headlining at 10. Cover is ten bucks. Then Foghorn Stringband return to town on the 24th at 11 PM for a pass-the-hat show at the small room at the Rockwood, another good segue since acoustic Americana maven Michael Daves is playing his weekly Tuesday night slot beforehand at 10.

Foghorn Stringband also have a new album, Devil in the Seat, streaming at Spotify. This one’s quite a change from their usual barn-burning romps: it’s a little heavier on reinvented versions of old classics than originals, and it’s a lot more low-key, although the musicianship is as invigorating as ever. As usual, they don’t skimp on quantity, with a total of sixteen songs. They also keep it stylistically diverse, from the brisk, roughhewn stroll of the old folk tune Stillhouse, through the rustic, autumnal closing number, Chadwell’s Station, gently spiced by mandolinist Caleb Klauder and fiddler Sammy Lind.

In between, the band looks back to Alice Gerrard for their Appalachian gothic take of Mining Camp Blues, guitarist Reeb Willms and bassist Nadine Landry joining forces on vocal harmonies with a keening intensity. They do the same later on with the old British folk song What Will We Do. Likewise, the stark version of Columbus Stockade Blues sounds like something that influenced Bill Monroe, not the other way around: all that’s missing is the scratches and pops of an old 78. And the matter-of-fact takes of the old outlaw ballad John Hardy and the soaring waltz Henry Lee benefit especially from the band’s old-fashioned recording style, standing round a central mic instead of miking instruments and vocals individually.

Lind gets to dip and sway elegantly while his bandmates give him plenty of space on the old Clyde Davenport fiddle tune, Lost Gal. The most striking song on the album is arguably its slowest, the absolutely gorgeous, bittersweet Leland’s Waltz. There’s also a handful of lively reels; a stark detour into oldtime country gospel; a pensive take of the old Appalachian tune Pretty Polly; a mashup of Celtic folk and newgrass; and a wryly lickety-split cover of Hank Snow’s 90 Miles an Hour.

Celtic Americana Trio the Henry Girls Play a Rare, Intimate Barbes Show

Where does one of the most interesting and unique bands in Ireland play when they come to New York? Barbes! The harmony-rich Henry Girls – multi-instrumentalist singing sisters Karen, Lorna, and Joleen McLaughlin – have an intimate 8 PM gig there on March 18, quite a change from the big concert halls they’ve been playing on their current US tour. Their latest album Louder Than Words is streaming at Soundcloud.

There’s no other band who sound like them. While much of their music is rooted in oldtimey Americana, they’re just as likely to bust out a brooding traditional Irish ballad. They mash up American, Irish and Scottish influences and have an unorthodox core of instrumentation anchored by Joleen’s concert harp, Lorna’s accordion and mandolin and Karen’s fiddle, ukulele, piano and banjo. On album, they’re backed by an acoustic rock rhythm section; it’s not clear from the group’s tour page if they’ll be by themselves or they’ll have the whole band with them.

The album’s opening track, James Monroe, is a swaying, angst-fueled minor-key ballad, spiced with a punchy chart by the Bog Neck Brass Band. Presumably it predates the guy with the Doctrine. Then the sisters take a leap forward a couple hundred years into the present with The Weather, a cheery, bouncy number that’s part oldtime hillbilly dance, part Brilll Building pop. Likewise, Maybe has a lushly yet rustically arranged current-day folk-pop feel – it wouldn’t be out of place on a Sweet Bitters album.

Driven by Ted Ponsonby’s rich web of acoustic guitars, the catchy, anthemic, backbeat-driven No Matter What You Say could be a Dixie Chicks tune, but with organic production values. The sisters’ spiky instrumentation and soaring harmonies add an extra surreal edge to a shuffling cover of Springsteen’s creepy roadside anthem Reason to Believe.

The Light in the Window, the most Celtic-flavored tune here, manages to be as ominous as it is wistfully elegaic, Karen’s fiddle rising over Liam Bradley’s clip-clop percussion. Home paints a broodingly detailed, sweepingly orchestrated tableau set amongst the down-and-out. The sisters’ gorgeous take of the old proto-swing tune So Long But Not Goodbye compares with the version by longtime Barbes band the Moonlighters.

It’s Not Easy sets a flamenco melody to a gentle country sway: it’s sort of this band’s Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Producer Calum Malcolm plays churchy Hammond organ behind the sisters’ harmonies, and a gospel choir, on the album’s closing cut, Here Beside Me. If Americana or Irish sounds are your thing, get to Barbes early on the 18th.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 183 other followers