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The Bourbon Express Bring a Honkytonk Party to Lower Manhattan This Weekend

This may be the weirdest and scariest year in the history of live music, but not everything that’s happening is weird and scary. And some of those weird happenings are actually reason for a lot of optimism. For example, what’s the likelihood that a fantastic hard honkytonk band – with a singer whose original axe is the concert harp – would be playing a cozy taco-and-beer joint at the northern edge of the South Street Seaport over the 4th of July weekend?

No joke – the Bourbon Express are making a return to the stage at the friendly, laid-back Cowgirl Seahorse at 259 Front St. this July 5 at 7 PM. There’s no cover, although tips for the band are always welcome.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of their shows, it was in the spring of 2018 at the old Hank’s, where they were playing the album release show for their most recent one Cry About It Later. What a fun evening that was – what’s better than a hot night with a cold pint in one hand and a pretty girl snuggled up next to you while a good country band is cooking onstage? It’s the kind of memory we used to take for granted – and maybe we need to remind ourselves that moments like that need to be more than just memories.

That the Bourbon Express kept the crowd on their feet after a sizzling, twang-rich set by the jangly, psychedelic Girls on Grass speaks volumes. Lead guitarist Brendan Curley is a master of twang himself, and fired off one incisive, tantalizingly short solo after another on his Telecaster. Meanwhile, frontwoman Katie Curley showed off her own chops on acoustic guitar in front of the band, singing with more power and edge than ever. And her songs were really funny.

The best one of the night was Five to Nine, an exasperated and spot-on gig economy-era narrative told from the point of view of a girl whose entitled boss seems to think he can pester her about work at nine at night after she’s been on the clock all day. This was two years before the lockdown, but Curley totally nailed the kind of dynamic you get when authority figures who don’t have the balls to confront you in person are at the other end of the Zoom connection.

Other songs were funny for different reasons. Curley celebrated the joys of daydrinking and cooking with a glass of wine in hand in Dilly Dally, and the oldschool, retro 50s flavored Blame It on the Hangover. The rhythm section swung hard and the crowd kept drinking: Hank’s was in Brooklyn, and the bandleader is from Seattle originally, so the band don’t exactly channel a deep south vibe. Instead, Curley’s aphoristic lyrics and soaring voice were closer to something coming out of Bakersfield around 1965. Considering how many bands have been scattered across the country, and the world, by the lockdown, it’s awfully cool to see this group still together and playing.

The New Bourbon Express Album: State-of-the-Art Hard Honkytonk

The Bourbon Express are as good as it gets in hard honkytonk. To get the sound perfect for their new album Cry About It Later – which hasn’t yet hit their Soundcloud page – they brought in the king of Americana and twangy rock guitar, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, to produce. The result is a purist blend of classic 60s C&W and harder-edged urban country. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, April 21 at 10 PM at Hank’s; cover is $8.

The album’s first track is Pick Me Up, swinging along over the groove from Andrew Dykeman’s bass and Phil Cimino’s drums. This isn’t your ordinary drinking song: frontwoman/rhythm guitarist Katie Curley insists that she needs enough to get her through the whole month!

Co-leader Brendan Curley spaces out his incisive Telecaster licks in Devil’s Angel, which has the feel of a Tammy Wynette hit from the late 60s, but with the guitar sting of the best Brooklyn country bands from the past fifteen years or so. Turn the Page – an original, not the Metallica hit – traces a bittersweet story through a family album, Jonny Lam’s pedal steel lingering in the background. Katie’s last line of the song is shattering, an ending too good to give away.

Take Me Out has a gorgeous blend of resonant guitar and steel, along with Melody Berger’s fiddle, not to mention one of the album’s most plaintively affecting vocals. Dream Girl, an aptly starry waltz, is probably the only honkytonk song ever to feature a concert harp. Katie also plays that instrument throughout her two intriguing, previous albums of Americana-laced parlor pop songs, originally released under her maiden name, Katie Brennan.

With its spiky twelve-string guitar textures blending with the steel, Ten Gallon Hat could be a female-fronted Byrds circa Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Brendan switches to saloon piano on Dilly Dally, Katie enthusing about the joys of being a homebody with a glass of red wine in her hand.

The album’s most aphoristic, retro 50s song is Blame It on the Hangover, a cheater’s cautionary tale. The title track keeps that theme going – “Laugh about it now, cry about it later.” The real classic here is is Five to Nine, a Take This Job and Shove It for everyone stuck in the electronic sweatshop. “I’ll probably have to drink alone tonight ‘cause I had to turn off my phone,” Katie laments, “You’re trying to keep me on the virtual clock while I’m trying to get offline.”

The album winds up with Cold Quiet Drink, a subdued Amy Allison-ish ballad with Brendan moving to mandolin, Ambel on acoustic guitar and Jason Mercer on bass.