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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.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Plays a Killer Barbes Show, Then Heads to City Winery

Saturday night at Barbes, resonator guitarist and Americana music maven Mamie Minch played just about every kind of blues except for the cheesy Eric Clapton kind. The co-proprietress of one of the world’s few woman-owned-and-operated instrument repair shops, Brooklyn Lutherie, embodies the fearlessness and charisma of her influences, notably Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. Minch played a couple of their songs, including an absolutely chilling new arrangement of Smith’s Sing Sing Blues, a bitter courtroom drama that resonates just as much today as it must have eighty years ago. Running a line into the PA from her 1937 National steel guitar for otherworldly resonance and extra overtones, she was joined on drums by Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow. The two bantered back and forth, an endless exchange of one-liners that was just about as entertaining as the music: they make a good team. And that extended to the music as well, as the two intertwined harmonies on several numbers.

And while most of the Jalopy-centric acoustic roots scene play covers and traditional material, Minch also writes her own songs, matching oldtime vernacular and lyrical wit to melodies that push beyond the blues scale into edgy acoustic rock territory. She romped restlessly through Razorburn Blues (the title track to her most recent album), a rapidfire litany of ridiculous things women have to endure. A little later she joined voices with Sharenow for a pillowy version of Border Radio, her Carter Family tribute which she had the good fortune to record on wax cylinder a couple of years ago. And she encored with Al Duvall‘s gut-bustingly funny, pun-fueled Kentucky Mermaid, a tale of a woman who has to be especially careful: since she’s a fishwife, she might get battered.

The covers were just as diverse, and gave Minch a chance to get frisky with her fingers through styles from the Mississippi hills, to the delta, to Memphis and points further north. She took her time through the creepy chromatics of Memphis Slim’s ghoulish Back to Mother Earth, then threw off plenty of sparks with a take of R.L. Burnside’s Old Black Mattie. And she took the Stones’ Prodigal Son back to its roots as an anxious number originally penned by Rev. Robert Watkins many years before the Glimmer Twins appropriated it. Between songs, she hummed as she retuned: who needs a digital tuner when all you have to do is sing the pitch?

Minch plays Jan 4 at City Winery at 8 PM on a guitar-rich twinbill with ex-Dylan lead player and fellow Americana purist Larry Campbell, who’s doing a duo show with singer/guitarist Teresa Williams afterward at around 9. General admission is $20 for standing room, more if you want a table

Demolition String Band: Brilliant Country and Bluegrass

Demolition String Band’s new album Gracious Days is a kind of record that doesn’t get made very often anymore. It answers the question of what would happen if two of the most esteemed players on the New York country scene were turned loose in the studio with unlimited instruments and unlimited time, something Varese Vintage apparently decided to do, with delicious results. The production is absolutely gorgeous, many of the songs starting out totally acoustic before the electric instruments come in on a second verse or chorus: it’s a fully realized blend of the band’s electrifying live show along with their passion for old Appalachian songs. The band’s 2002 album Pulling Up Atlantis may represent an iconic moment in underground Americana, but musically speaking, this is the best thing they’ve ever done. The core band members, guitarist/banjoist Boo Reiners and mandolinist/guitarist Elena Skye have never sounded more inspired: Reiners’ effortless flatpicking, soulfully resonant dobro and fiery electric guitar create the album’s obvious highlights, Skye’s mandolin as edgy and contemporary as it is rustic. She’s also taken her vocals to the next level, whether soft and pillowy on the quieter songs, or evoking a raw, emotionally charged intensity on the more oldtimey numbers, her harmonies with Reiners as soulful as ever. This version of the band includes David Mansfield on steel, Mike Santoro on acoustic and electric bass guitar, Catherine Popper on upright and electric bass, Jimi Zhivago on keys, Kenny Soule on drums and Lisa Gutkin on fiddle: the arrangements are devised so that pretty much the whole band gets a chance to contribute to every track.

The album is bookended by a swaying countrypolitan theme by Skye disguised as an oldtimey string band tune. Misfortune, the most antique-sounding of all the tracks here is actually a Skye original, moving stoically from Carter Family plaintiveness to more lush textures with fiddle and a web of electric guitars. Reiners’ Under the Weather is a swaying, Creedence-flavored swamp rock tune and a launching pad for what seems dozens of smartly chosen guitar licks played on dobro and electric.

In the past, this band has covered Madonna: this time around, they tackle the Ramones’ Questioningly, turning it into rueful Social Distortion-esque Americana rock, lit up by a lithe, serpentine Reiners electric guitar solo. Mickey Newbury’s Why You Been Gone So Long gives the band a chance to show off their Bakersfield honkytonk side, with some clever effects on the vocals. Has anyone ever killed a fifth of Thunderbird, as the guy in this song does, and lived to tell the tale?

Dress of Roses, a longtime concert favorite for this band, gets reinvented with an even slower groove than usual, with some wickedly spiky banjo/mandolin interplay followed by a gorgeous Mansfield solo. Reiners gets to show off his wry banjo virtuosity on the lickety-split Boojo Breakdown, while Skye takes a turn of her own on the slower, more romantic Williamsville Ramble: these folks have their country dance tunes down cold.

Their swinging fiddle-and-mandolin version of Hard Ain’t It Hard is a showcase for Skye at her most vivid, while Blaze Foley’s sadly swaying you-done-me-wrong song Alibis is awash in cool guitar licks and an understatedly biting chordal acoustic solo. The band also takes a brisk run through Ola Belle Reed’s Where the Wild Wild Flowers Grow (the centerpiece of the band’s brilliant Reed cover album by the same title, from 2006) and takes a stab at the traditional number Old Blue, which they rescue from cheesiness with a joyous acoustic-electric arrangement. If country music is your thing, this is for you. Demolition String Band play the album release show at around 10 PM on March 30 at Rodeo Bar.

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