New York Music Daily

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Tag: bluegrass music

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.

Caroline Cotter Brings Her Evocative, Eclectic Northern New England Americana to Brooklyn

Caroline Cotter likes waltzes. She’s very good at them. Although she has a jazz background – one of her projects is the jaunty CC & the Swing Set – the Maine-based songwriter is also adept at channeling a whole bunch of other vintage Americana styles, from bluegrass to country blues to spirituals. And she sings in both English and French. Her latest album, Dreaming As I Do – streaming at her webpage – made a big splash in the folk music world earlier this year. She’s coming to town this May 8 at 8 PM at Pete’s Candy Store.

The album opens with Bella Blue, an elegant waltz, just acoustic guitar, mandolin and Cotter’s airy, expressive voice, its pastoral imagery imbued with an understatedly elegaic quality. Like several of the other tracks here, it could be a front-porch folk number from the mid-1800s. The title track, a wistful, sad only-in-dreams narrative, mashes up that vibe with a more upbeat levee camp blues spiritedness

The second number, A Midnight Escape paints a harrowing portrait of an old woman losing her memory and her grip on everything else along with it – it’s one of the most chilling songs of the year, bar none. By contrast, Cotter includes a couple of resolute oldtime gospel-flavored numbers here, Journey in C and I Am Satisfied, just vocals and fingersnaps. Amd on Champagne, she goes for a less over-the-top Peggy Lee Fever approach, with an artful arrangement of shuffling drumkit, wee-hours muted trumpet and Jed Bresette’s sparse bass. As she tells it, she wants some bubbles on her brain…because “these are the things that keep me sane!”

There are two tracks in French here. La Marinonette, a morosely swinging musette number, has some droll food references, but the mantra on the way out is”I’m dying of hunger,” Cotter’s voice rising to an anguished peak. The other is the surreal, playful but disquieted El Est Jaune.

The rest of the album includes Pollyanna, an aphoristic, swaying minor-key tune about the kind of girl who slips away in the night; My Evergreen, a vintage hillbilly folk love ballad; and This Place, with its evocative Down East imagery. In a world full of retro-obsessed acoustic types who come across as authentic as a Chinatown Rolex, Cotter is a breath of fresh air straight off the rugged Atlantic coast.

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.

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