There’s considerable irony in that as brilliant as Mary Lee’s Corvette’s original songs are, the band are best known for a cover album that they didn’t even plan on releasing.
Seventeen years ago, they were a ubiquitous presence in what was then a thriving Lower East Side rock scene. One of the few remaining venues from that time, Arlene’s, had a series of “classic album” cover nights. Most of them were pretty cheesy and didn’t draw very high-quality talent, further reinforcing the assumption that the best musicians all want to play their own material.
One of those nights featured a local venue owner doing a version of an album by the Band. The other album on the bill that night was Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, which Mary Lee’s Corvette played all the way through, after only two rehearsals.
It was one of the most transcendent shows ever witnessed by anyone from this blog (or its more primitive predecessor – in the fall of 2001, blogs as we know them today didn’t exist). That e-zine rated Mary Lee’s Corvette’s venomous version of Idiot Wind as the best song of the year. A few months later, the band officially released the live recording, which by then had been circulating among collectors who were in awe of frontwoman Mary Lee Kortes’ vocals and the band’s similarly electrifying performance.
In the years since, Mary Lee’s Corvette have reprised that concert a few times. They’re revisiting it this Thursday night, Jan 24 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, another of the few neighborhood venues left that still have music. General admission is $18. If you’re going, you should get there early because it might sell out.
If you give the record a spin at youtube, you’ll notice how the drums suddenly get much louder when the band get to Meet Me in the Morning. That’s because somebody forgot to push a button and the original recording didn’t catch the song. The version on the album is from drummer Diego Voglino’s own recorder, positioned much closer to his kit; consequently, guitarist Andy York’s searing slide guitar solo is way back in the mix.
The rest of the record is what you would expect from a topnotch Americana rock unit – this incarnation of the band also featured Brad Albetta on bass and Andy Burton on organ – fronted by one of the most amazingly versatile singers on the planet. Kortes’ own material spans from folk-rock to jazz, but she also has a background in classical music. She founded the UN Voices choir, and has recorded with Placido Domingo.
And if you’re lucky, she’ll break out some of her own material at the show (she didn’t do that at the Arlene’s gig). Watching her play an extremely rare solo acoustic show at Pete’s late last summer was a revelation. Kortes’ tensile wail is every bit as formidable as it was almost twenty years ago; if anything, she’s even more nuanced a singer than she was then. She mixed up some new material – a couple of stark folk noir numbers, one of them an especially allusive one that could have been a murder ballad – along with more anthemic favorites from years past.
As usual, she got a lot of laughs with More Stupider, a radio pop parody she wrote in response to someone telling her that her songs were too smart for mass consumption. The lyrics to Sweeter Than True are as opaque as the swaying, bittersweet melody is catchy: Kortes confided that she’s still trying to figure out exactly what that one’s about. And she ran through a couple of jaunty swing-flavored tunes from her Beulah Rowley Songbook concept album, told from the point of view of a mysterious, obscure 1930s songwriting polymath. Even if she doesn’t get to the originals at the Joe’s Pub gig, it’s a rare chance to revisit a fleetingly magical time and place that most people in New York today never got to witness.