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.