Last night at Bowery Ballroom, the Long Ryders opened with their big 1983 college radio hit Tell It to the Judge on Sunday – an ominously scampering mashup of electrified bluegrass and the 13th Floor Elevators – and encored with a singalong of the rapidfire, Dylanesque imagery of Looking for Lewis and Clark. Despite a layoff of more than two decades, and the fact that they hadn’t played Manhattan in almost three, the guys who pretty much invented Americana rock all by themselves proved little worse for the time away. Beyond their three excellent albums from that era, and the new four-disc retrospective Final Wild Songs that came out earlier this year, the quartet distinguished themselves with vocals as well as a deep, and, when you think about it, surprisingly eclectic back catalog. Can you name another rock band from that era, or any other, with three lead singers as strong as guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy and bassist Tom Stevens? Isn’t it weird to hear songs like And She Rides – whose infamously funny video Griffin mentioned toward the end of the set – and realize just how good a new wave band these guys were when they weren’t using Griffin’s Kentucky roots as a stepping-off point for a brand-new style that combined punk energy with rootsy rusticity?
Stevens ended up taking the lion’s share of lead vocals and a handful of tantalizingly brief bass breaks, more than you’d expect from a country-rock band. McCarthy switched between his signature twangy Telecaster leads and searing steel guitar. Counterintuitively, the high point of the show was midway through the set, when Griffin, playing twelve-string Rickenbacker, led the band through an insistently raging cover of Dylan’s Masters of War, McCarthy adding menace with his blazing, upward and then descending steel slides. They kept that intensity going with a broodingly lingering take of Two Kinds of Love. Methodically and energetically, the band aired out most of the hits – and there were a lot of them: the wry shuffle Run Dusty Run, the pensively jangly Ivory Tower, You Can’t Ride the Boxcars Anymore and Mel Tillis’ Sweet Sweet Mental Revenge..
Opening act Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons had come to conquer, and the charismatic Canadian-American frontwoman was taking no prisoners.“If you ask me, I’m for immediate impeachment on the grounds of extreme ugliness,” the wiry, black-clad singer asserted. Hitting their stride right off the bat with a classic 1979 CBGB-style powerpop shuffle, Language of the Night, they roared and stomped through material as diverse as the enigmatic, Neil Young/Crazy Horse sway of Beware and the New Orleans shout-out Rebel Devil Devil Rebel – title track to Leckie’s 2014 album.
Drummer Keith Robinson kept an energetic swing going in tandem with bassist Charlie DeChants as guitarist Hugh Pool and violinist Pavel Cingl – just in from Prague – teamed up for a slinky, elegantly fugal duel during the volcanic coda, Ontario. But the best song of the night might have been when Leckie went centerstage with just her vocals and acoustic guitar for a brand new co-write with the Jigsaw Seen‘s Dennis Davison, possibly titled The Owl. It wasn’t clear whether the song’s narrator gets lured away and then overdoses, or gets murdered, but either way, the audience responded with rapt silence: you could have heard a pin drop. And Bowery Ballroom was packed. The Long Ryders are at Cafe Nine in New Haven tonight, Nov 11 for lucky Fairfield County peeps; Leckie is at Sidewalk on Nov 18 at 11.