New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: brotherhood of the jug band blues

The Brooklyn Folk Festival Is Ten Years Old and Better Than Ever

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has become a New York rite of passage. Like Golden Fest, Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency, the Brooklyn Cyclones and Shakespeare in the Park, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. It’s held over a weekend every spring, with both daytime and evening lineups; a lot of people go every year.

The best thing about the festival is that it isn’t exclusively devoted to artists who play music by the greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time – whose name varies from language to language, but invariably translates as Anonymous. This past Saturday night’s lineup featured some of that repertoire but also originals drawing on a global expanse of influences, from high-voltage Romany dance music, to moody Balkan ballads,  ecstatic Afro-Colombian trance-dance chants, honkytonk, southern gothic and jug band sounds. Which makes sense, considering that the folks at the magical Jalopy Theatre – New York’s Americana music central – put this thing together.

By the time the nighttime lineup got underway, St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street was already packed with a diverse crowd of veterans and kids hell-bent on getting the most bang for the buck out of their all-weekend or allday passes. Italian pianist/singer Luca Ferraris kicked off the evening on the stage next to the beer stand with a dynamic set of originals and a few traditional numbers that ran the gamut from bouncy dance tunes with Romany or even Russian tinges, to ballads that sometimes sauntered unexpectedly in a jazz direction. A bassist joined him about midway through and became a vocal sparring partner. Even for those in the crowd whose Italian might be limited to restaurant menu items, the songs were infectious. 

In the church’s main space, pan-Balkan singer and song reinventor Eva Salina and sorcerer accordionist Peter Stan benefited from the rich natural reverb, which added yet another layer of mystery to their distinctive versions of songs from the catalogs of iconic Romany singers Saban Bajramovic and Vida Pavlovic. Nimbly negotiating the slithery sibilances of the Romanes language, the California-born Salina channeled resilience and grace in the face of longing and abandonment, sang a cartoonishly bouncy number from the point of view of a guy overjoyed with his three-foot-tall, extremely fertile wife, and didn’t shy away from the issues of displacement and exile that permeate so much of this repertoire. Stan sized up the sonics in a split-second and maxed them out with flickering torrents of bracing minor keys and chromatics that took on new dimensions, echoing off the walls.

There was a little overlap while one of the Jalopy house bands, Skalopy, played live dub reggae and some classic Toots & the Maytals material with a lineup that included both banjo and piano. Meanwhile, in the main space, Bulla En El Barrio built a frenzy of call-and-response with their hypnotically percussive chants, which draw a straight line back from Colombia to Africa. A succession of men and women took turns leading the choir over the thunder of the percussion; they closed with an original that was as rustic and otherworldly as any of the traditional epics.

They would have been a tough act to follow, but not for Jerron Paxton, who may be the most talented musician in all of New York. Playing a longer set than any of the other acts on the bill, solo, he nonchalantly showed off his spectacular chops as oldtime acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist, fiddler, banjo and harmonica player. This time out he didn’t take a turn at the piano, but he could have. In his genial Louisiana drawl, he entertained the crowd with stories from the kind of colorful past only a musician could have…but also didn’t hesitate to remind them of the sobering reality of how many ex-slaves died of starvation after the Civil War. And you wonder why so many old blues songs mention hunger. Moving methodically between carefree proto-bluegrass fiddle, wickedly precise blues fingerpicking, ominously ancient, hypnotically percussive banjo and some fierce harmonica blues, he made it all seem easy He encored on harmonica as well, with a breathless medley of 18th century blues tunes, including Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.

Nick Panken, frontman of high-voltage Americana crew Spirit Family Reunion, didn’t waste time admitting that they had an impossible act to follow. And they’re a great band – but loud electric rock with drums doesn’t work in a space like St. Ann’s. In that context, the matter of who was playing before or after was irrelevant. The sound people really tried their best, and the band realized what was up, so their ballads worked out ok. But when they picked up the pace, the mix was just vocals, drums and Maggie Carson’s icepick five-string banjo lines. Their songs blend bluegrass, honkytonk and oldtime string band music and they can jam like crazy. And their fan base is crazy about them. But this was the wrong venue. The Jalopy is their New York home base when they’re not on tour; they’re best experienced there.

Speaking of Jalopy people, guitarist/singer Feral Foster – who’s been running the weekly Roots and Ruckus series there since forever – was next on the bill. Looking dapper in a sharp tan suit, he crooned, picked expertly in oldtimey open tunings and took a couple of unexpected and very successful turns into ragtime and slow blues. It’s hard to think of a more original songwriter in gothic Americana. Some of the songs were tongue-in-cheek but others were not: there’s an omnipresent dark undercurrent that always grounds them in grim reality. He’s at the Jalopy virtually every Wednesday sometime after 9 PM.

Finally, at around midnight, Birmingham, Alabama’s Steel City Jug Slammers took the stage, bolstered by Ernesto Gomez and one of his bandmates from Brooklyn’s Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. It was amazing to watch Washtub Jay pick out swooping basslines on that clothesline string – without any tape on his fingers, either! – and play kazoo lines through a trumpet horn at the same time, and not miss a beat. Frontman Ramblin’ Ricky Tate played guitar and led the band through a sly series of shuffles and stomps as Maxwell Honeycup kept the low end going at the other side of the stage with his jug. By now, the crowd had thinned out, but these guys were not about to let anybody down.

That was it for this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, but a lot of these acts can be found at the Jalopy. Bulla en El Barrio are at Barbes on April 30 at around 10. Eva Salina and Peter Stan are at the American Folk Art Museum on May 4 at 5:30 PM, sharing the bill with irrepressibly fun, charming oldtimey chanteuse Tamar Korn, who can vocalize any wind instrument ever invented.. The Steel City Jug Slammers are at KGB Bar at around 9:30 PM on April 11. And Spirit Family Reunion are at the Knickerbocker, 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly, Rhode Island on April 14 at 9 for $13 in advance.

Purist, Soulful Guitar Polymath Jeremiah Lockwood Continues His Residency at Barbes

Because Jeremiah Lockwood is such a protean guitarist, you never know where he’s going to go. He can spiral through a long psychedelic break, take his time with a mysterious, haunting, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern melody, or jam out on a Malian desert rock vamp. He’s also a fantastic country blues player. The leader of the long-running, brilliantly psychedelic Sway Machinery is in the midst of a weekly residency this month at Barbes on Sundays at 5 PM – that’s right, five o’clock in the evening, pretty much on the nose. Which is perfect, because it’s a work night. He’s got a couple more shows to go – on the 19th, he’s with the absolutely brilliant and similarly protean Shoko Nagai on accordion, which ought to be a great opportunity to air out his repertoire of otherworldly, ancient cantorial themes. Then on the 26th he’ll be leading the “The Fraternal Order of the Society Blues,” where he’ll be joined by fellow axemen Ernesto Gomez from Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues and Ricky Gordon of the Wynton Marsalis Ensemble, playing a tribute to their mentor, the great Piedmont blues guitarist Carolina Slim.

Lockwood’s Barbes show last week was an intimate duo performance with singer Fay Victor. It was an all-blues set, the two sharing a warm camaraderie as they made their way through a set of both standards and obscurities. They’d trade off solos, Victor sometimes just singing vocalese, subtly building to some unexpectedly powerful peaks, Lockwood hanging out in a mysterious midrange on his old resonator guitar. And as much as the vibe was rustic and antique, they reinvented the material. They did Memphis Slim’s morbid Back to Mother Earth as the kind of delta blues that he probably heard as a kid and decided to make bitingly elegant piano music out of. They did the much same when they went into the Muddy Waters catalog. A little later, they did a Jimmy Reed number, and instead of Jimmy Reed-ing it, all slinky and sly and lowlit, they picked it up with an emphatic bounce. Lockwood is a maven of so many styles; if blues is your thing, the show on the 26th should be off the hook, and this Sunday’s show is also definitely worth checking out if you’re in the neighborhood in the early evening. And the Sway Machinery will be at Union Pool with edgy latin rockers El Imperio on August 9 at around 9.

Good Times with the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues

The Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues played the American Folk Art Museum last night, which actually turned out to be a good place for them since the room’s boomy sonics gave extra resonance to Arturo “Jugman” Stiles’ jug. The pulse of that instrument versus the quieter sound of an upright bass is one of the reasons why jug bands are fun; the other is the sly, surreal blues songs in the repertoire. This band does a lot of old standards, mostly from the Memphis Jug Band catalog, but also originals and covers from different oldtime genres. Guitarist Ernie Vega sang Muddy Waters’ Honeybee – the original version was just Muddy, his electric guitar and Big Crawford’s skeletal bass – so the way the jug’s murky presence beefed it up was especially cool to hear (yeah, electric blues bands do it all the time, but it’s not the same). Frontman Ernesto Gomez sang with a sardonic, deadpan cool, playing guitar and harmonica, mostly in the key of G which in these guys’ case stands for “good.” It was obvious that he was enjoying the weirdness and constant innuendo of the lyrics. They didn’t have guitarist/violinist Jack Lynch with them, but just the three of them were still able to draw curious listeners from around the museum (it’s fairly small) and keep them there: a group of tourists sat down gleefully during the band’s last song and looked very sad to see the show end so quickly.

The songs ran the gamut from the R-rated She’s Got Big Thighs, the band giving it an exuberant, tongue-in-cheek call-and-response on the chorus, to an original that seems to be their signature song, to a hypnotically shuffling hobo tune, to Sleepy John Estes’ Lawyer Clark, a tribute to a Memphis attorney who was apparently very good at keeping his clients out of the slammer and the electric chair. Vega switched back and forth between mandolin, banjo and guitar, playing effortlessly mean solos on each: swooping slide work on the guitar, biting flurries of notes on the mandolin and plenty of hard-hitting licks on the banjo. Stiles got a workout blowing into the jug (and building a low buzz on Honeybee), but he held up throught over an hour onstage – as Vega said, this was just a warmup. Like a lot of the best Americana bands in town, this crew makes the Jalopy their home, where Vega’s work behind the sound board is one of the reasons why the place sounds so good. They had another gig right afterward at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club; they’re also at the Brooklyn Folk Festival on the 20th at around 9: it’s good to see this band get out of Brooklyn for the sake of people who haven’t discovered the Jalopy yet. By the way, the weekly free Friday early evening shows at the museum are a great way of discovering talent like this if you can get there early enough since bands or songwriters start a little after 5:30.

M Shanghai String Band Serenades Robin Hoffman’s Illustrations at the Jalopy

Great musical scenes usually get chronicled by their era’s most happening visual artists. Consider: Toulouse-Lautrec in the Paris cabarets in the 1800s; Bob Gruen in and around CBGB in the late 70s; and Robin Hoffman at the Jalopy in the late zeros and teens. If you’re a musician in the New York Americana roots scene, and lucky enough to have been in her illustrations- if you’ve played the Jalopy in the last three years, you probably have – you’ve seen yourself in action, intent on your craft, in motion. Hoffman is one of those artists who is able to perfectly capture the essence of a musician in just a few deft brushstrokes. The best of her pencil-and-watercolor sketches currently on display at the Jalopy – which just turned five years old – catches the Roulette Sisters in classic poses: resonator guitarist Mamie dipping just a bit, raising her eyebrows; guitarist Meg just thisclose to deadpan but having a great time; violist Karen unselfconsciously lost in the music, and washboardist Megan holding down the rhythm with a grin. Then there’s Craig Chesler smiling, chilling, playing ukulele; the Newton Gang in characteristically intense mode, even in a rare acoustic setting; Kelli Rae Powell off to the side while her band wails, wryly smiling as she hits what’s probably another devious double entendre; the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues careening through yet another boisterous solo; and the M Shanghai String Band’s offhandedly excellent clawhammer banjo player/singer in a couple of characteristically intense moments. These are just a few of the many new drawings Hoffman has on display at the Jalopy (she’s offering any print from this series, signed, for $30).

This past weekend, the M Shanghai String Band played the opening party for Hoffman’s show. They’re well known, well-loved and well documented via Hoffman’s art, and supposedly the other day on the cover of the New York Post. Hoffman started drawing at the Jalopy simply because she’s in the neighborhood and it was a cool way for her to perfect her craft while her baby slept; likewise, M Shanghai have a community feel, having taken their name from the now-defunct Chinese restaurant whose basement was their original home. They seem to be a mix of everybody in Williamsburg who really loved oldtime country songs and string band music and decided to get together to create it, without regard to age, or whoever’s trust fund was most extravagant, or who happened to have the lowest body-fat percentage or could go the most consecutive years without taking a shower. If you listen closely, you hear references to the Q train or other New York institutions in their songs: they’re literally taking oldtime acoustic country music to new places. Frontwoman Philippa Thompson played a neat solo on the spoons; resonator guitarist Austin Hughes turned in one casual, cool urban country tune after another, often punctuated by Jalopy regular Shakey Dave Pollack’s soulful, tersely bluesy harmonica. Because the show was right after work, they didn’t seem to have the full contingent onstage, but no matter: it was a trip to a different world.

So if you’re new to the Jalopy, prepare to enter that world. Let your guard down. It’s a good place. Forget the horrible experience you just had at Arlene’s, or at Pianos last week: the Jalopy is warm and welcoming. The moment you walk in the door, you could be making new friends. For the moment, Hoffman’s exhibit is still up the club, an extra good reason to make the trip.