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Tag: Bowman Townsend

The Black Lillies Rock City Winery With a New Lineup

The version of the Black Lillies that played City Winery last weekend was a lot different from the considerably larger version of the band who got a rave review here in the fall of 2013. Frontman/multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras has most recently pared the group down to a tight, lean four-piece. Drummer Bowman Townsend, who propelled the unit through this show with his usual blend of purist four-on-the-floor rhythm and vintage shuffle grooves, is the only holdover from that lineup.

But they still jam as psychedelically, if not as quite as much  as that incarnation. After a steady, upwardly driving hour and a half onstage, the takeaway was that this is as good a version of the Black Lillies as there’s ever been – Contreras has always drawn from a wide talent base, anyway.

The band’s not-so-secret new weapon is lead guitarist Dustin Schaefer. It was easy to see where his camaraderie with the bandleader comes from, considering the two’s encyclopedic appreciation of classic bluegrass, honkytonk, soul, stadium anthems and psychedelic rock. By the end of the night’s first number, Schaefer had cranked out two of the evening’s most sizzling solos on his big vintage hollowbody Gibson, smoldering with chromatics and uneasy bluesy bends.

These Black Lillies rock harder than they ever have. Interestingly, the set had very little from the band’s most recent album Hard to Please. Instead, they focused on new material as well as a lot of the strongest anthems from 2013’s Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s definitive statement to date.

Much as there were drinking songs, and band-on-the-road songs, and a handful of regretful ballads in the mix, the night’s central theme was the struggle to stay stay on solid ground in hard times. Maybe because of the current political climate, those songs of dashed dreams but also guarded hope resonated the most. In a revamped, amped-up take of Gold & Roses, Schaefer’s lead guitar substituted for the steel on the album version. Likewise, the band took Catherine – set in a surreal place with “nothing but blue skies and fire on the ground” – and made brisk bluegrass-inspired highway rock out of it.

The night’s longest number was a long, twisting psychedelic epic that went on for at least ten minutes, through a couple of false endings, part peak-era 1980s Grateful Dead and also Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, a blend you might think would be crazy – but it worked. Contreras put down his Telecaster and played acoustic for most of the show, for one anthem after another. Matter-of-factly, the group followed a steady path through the exasperated 99-percenter tale All This Living, the cynical, honkytonk-tinged Two Hearts Down, and a terse version of Ruby, the group’s take on the old country blues standard Ruby, about a party animal who can’t stay out of trouble.

Contreras waited until the encore, a scurrying take of the old 70s Eddie Rabbitt radio hit Driving My Life Away, to take a solo on the Tele, but he made it count. And the best solo of the night was his two-handed, barreling charge down the keys of his piano on one of the new numbers. New bassist Sam Quinn played with a cool, low-key pulse, once in awhile rising to the top of the fretboard as a verse would turn around into a mighty chorus, and took over lead vocals on an unexpectedly Beatlesque new song.

The Black Lillies’ next gig is on Feb  15 9 PM at the Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave in Charlotte, NC; cover is $14. For New York fans of similarly energetic if more lavish oldschool American sounds, crooner Brother Joscephus is bringing his New Orleans funk/soul orchestra there on Feb 6 at 8 PM. You can get in for $20.

The Black Lillies Bring Their Fiery, Eclectic Americana to the West Side This Weekend

The Black Lillies are one of the most esteemed, eclectic and hardest-working bands out on the Americana highway. But they transcend that label, blending Nashville gothic, psychedelic rock and oldschool soul into their hard-hitting mix. Their latest album Hard to Please is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing a relatively rare, intimate gig this Jan 28 at 8 PM at City Winery;  general admission is $15.

Bandleader Cruz Contreras – who plays several keyboards and guitars here – gets a lot of production work, so he draws on an extensive talent base. The core of the band on this album includes singer Trisha Gene Brady, pedal steel player Matt Smith, guitarist Daniel Donato, bassist Bill Reynolds and drummer Bowman Townsend.

The album opens with the title cut, guests Jamel Mitchell’s baritone sax and Kris Donegan’s baritone guitar growling on the low end, building a vintage 60s R&B sway in the same vein as the Pretty Things or early Kinks. That’s the Way It Goes Down follows a familiar Americana rock pattern: catchy, jangly verse, explosive chorus as the BoDeans would have done it in their heyday twenty years ago. Donato’s savage lead blasts through into the third chorus and just doesn’t stop: it’s the album’s high point.

Contreras’ echoey Wurlitzer and Ed Roth’s Hammond organ infuse Mercy with a Memphis soul-gospel simmer, Mitchell leading a similarly summery horn section. Brady’s passionate vocals rise over the horns’ steady late 60s soul pulse in The First Time, with a neat exchange of solos, Donegan’s guitar and Smith’s steel over Contreras’ bubbly electric piano.

Matt Menfee’s banjo echoes mournfully in the grim duet Bound to Roam, an update on the folk classic Wayfaring Stranger. Then the band picks up the pace with Dancin’, Contreras’ bluegrass guitar contrasting with Smith’s honkytonk steel and Donegan’s southern-fried riffage; Menefee’s banjo is the icing on the cake.

Backlit by steel and easygoing acoustic picking, Desire sounds like a more down-to-earth Deer Tick. Contreras’ jaunty barrelhouse piano fuels the raucously Chuck Berry-ish band-on-the-road narrative 40 Days. He switches to mandolin for the album’s most relevant number, the broodingly allusive World War II Pacific theatre ballad Broken Shore. The album closes with a surreal mashup of mid-80s Cure pop and 70s dadrock. The band have a new one in the works; the show this weekend may be a good chance to get a taste of what they have in store.