Last night a crowd braved the cold for the comfortable confines of City Vineyard off the West Side Highway downtown to listen raptly to three first-class, veteran tunesmiths. Mary Lee Kortes, frontwoman of Mary Lee’s Corvette, set the bar impossibly high for the rest of evening, opening the night with a rare trio version of the band alongside Rod Hohl on lead guitar and Jeremy Chatzky on upright bass.
Their set drew from throughout an astonishingly eclectic twenty-year career. They started with Out From Under It, a grittily swaying Laurel Canyon psych-pop tune. “What an amazing sight to sail the longest night and make it home somehow,” Kortes sang in a delivery that was part silk and part spun steel, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, Chatzky nailing the slithery downward riff as the song peaked out on the final chorus.
Hohl played phantasmagorical swing beneath Kortes’ jaunty phrasing in The Music Got Me Here, from the band’s Songs of Beulah Rowley record, a concept album about a fictitious polymath songwriter from the early part of the past century. Then the trio shifted elegantly from straight-up jazz to moody blues in the slowly swaying ballad Will Anyone Know That I Was Here.
“Actually, songwriters do write songs not about themselves – it is shocking to some people,” Kortes mused, then led the group through a chilling, impassioned take of Why Don’t You Leave Him, a grim minor-key abused woman’s narrative that’s every bit as relevant in the age of Metoo as it was when the band released it in 1999 on the True Lovers of Adventure album.
Midway through the set, Kortes took a pause to read a couple of surreal excerpts from her new book Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob, a frequently hilarious collection crowdsourced from around the world. She reprised that theme at the end of the set with a deviously funny new song, Dreaming of Him, referencing some of those dreams without ever naming who they’re about. She challenged the crowd to sing along with the impossibly high, arioso hook on the chorus: unsurprisingly, she was the only one who could hit those notes.
The rest of the set was just as entertaining. The towering anthem Someplace We Can’t See seemed to be more triumphant than the uneasy, practically elegaic album version. Kortes brought up guitarist Steven Butler to play Byrdsy jangle and jagged Beatlisms on a couple of tunes they’d written together: the gorgeous End of the Road and a long, psychedelic take of One More Sun, which turned out to be closer to Yo La Tengo than the Indian music the album version alludes to.
Butler validated his unimpeachable taste in co-writers, following with a set of mostly new material from his latest project with crooner and vintage Britrock crooner Ed Rogers, with Don Piper playing acoustic rhythm guitar. A fixture in the East Village for years, Rogers’ songs have often savagely chronicled the destruction of New York neighborhoods in an endless blitzkrieg of gentrification. Many of the numbers last night were his most withering and spot-on yet.
The best was Old Storefronts, a bitter, chilling account of what happens when people stop supporting independent businesses and get all their stuff online. Possibilities (as in, “No possibilities”) had a Stonesy cynicism. Joined by drummer and #1 Kinks fan Frank Lima on percussion and backing vocals, their closing number, Seven Hour Man, caustically asssessed how the gig economy has made the forty hour work week a pipe dream from the past.
The rest of the material was as eclectic as expected. The trio jangled through Diana Dors, a wistful shout-out to a legendary British actress who died young after a failed attempt to make it in Hollywood. Love Lock Bridge, a catchy, rainswept ballad set in Dublin, had a similar bittersweetness.
There’s another potentially amazing lineup at City Vineyard on Nov 19 at 7:30 PM with two great champions of oldtime acoustic blues, Jontavious Willis and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. Cover is $20.