Greetings from North Carolina!
Considering how many thousands of New York artists have been priced out of town by gentrification and the real estate bubble, sometimes you have to leave the state to see them. Case in point: ferocious Americana rock vets Ninth House, who played earlier this evening on the big stage at frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis’ home base, Beale Street Barber Shop in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s combination retro rock-themed haircut joint, music venue, art gallery and vintage store in what appears to be the happening hood in a college town with a well-preserved historic district.
In their ten years in New York, Ninth House started out as a hard-hitting but elegant art-rock band, then went through a series of guitarists who took their music in more of an epic gothic direction and towards jamband territory. As the years went by, Sinnis brought more of a dark Americana focus to the music, which Doktor John of the Aquarian called “cemetery and western.” The handle stuck, and applies even more to the honktyonk and vintage C&W sounds that Sinnis has pursued under his own name.
Ninth House hadn’t played together in over a year. Drummer Francis Xavier – Sinnis’ brother – lives in upstate New York, and guitarist Keith Otten now calls Florida home. They had one rehearsal for this show, but picked up without missing a beat. Otten is one of the great musical wits in all of rock, bringing an unexpected element to Sinnis’ brooding, death-obsessed songcraft. This time out some of that humor was pretty broad – the lonesome trainwhistles in the Nashville gothic shuffle Cold Night in December, for example – but the rest was more subtle and devious. Was he going to extend that outro until he’d finished channeling Social Distortion? Uh hun.
While the set veered into honkytonk as the evening wore on, the restless energy never wavered. The dusky warmth of Ninth House – the band’s signature song – and Down Beneath were balanced by an explosive take of the big escape anthem Long Stray Whim and an absolutely savage bolero-rock version of Fallible Friend, both older songs. Sinnis didn’t push the angst in his resonant baritone as far as he usually does in a bitterly graceful run through Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, another tune from the early zeros, but that gave him plenty of headroom for when he finally went up the scale. And Injury Home, a darkly blues-infused minor-key anthem, was just short of unhinged.
The hard honkytonk stuff – Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three, I’ll Have Another Glass of Whiskey (Because Death Is Not So Far Away), and a cover of Ernest Tubb’s Driving Nails in My Coffin – energized the crowd, as did the surprise cold ending of a scorching electric cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky. They closed with an Elvis medley, Elvis impersonator Alex J. Mitchell taking the stage to lead the band Vegas-style through a medley of Mystery Train, Little Sister and a couple of other 50s hits.
Sinnis’ next solo gig is on June 3 at 8 PM at his home base, Beale Street Barber Shop, 616B Castle St. in Wilmington. His next New York area gigs will be June 24 at 8 PM and then the next day, June 25 at 4 PM with his mighty ten-piece honkytonk band 825 at Sue’s Sunset House, 137 North Water St. in Peekskill, NY. The bar is just steps from the Peekskill Metro North station.
While we’re at it, a shout-out to Funck’s Restaurant in Annville, Pennsylvania for their handmade onion rings, a welcome break from the storm that lasted well into Virginia on the drive down. The spacious, comfortable woodframe joint’s kitchen gives you a decent portion, on the pricy side – eight bucks – fried to a crisp that’s just pliable enough not to be flaky. The balance of onion and breading turned out to be perfect; so was the balance of flavor between crunchy outside and the single tasty, sweet, generously cut ring inside. Even better, the rings came with a slightly astringent, grainy horseradish dip that added an unexpectedly welcome dimension of extra heat. This branch of the business – there are two others – has casual but very prompt service. Their menu also includes giant club sandwiches that could have been both lunch and dinner if a couple of peeps in the posse hadn’t been so hungry.