New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jeremy chatzky

Three Edgy Songwriters Provide Respite From the Cold at City Vineyard

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.

The Year’s Best Americana Triplebill at Hank’s This Thursday Night

The best Americana triplebill of the year so far is happening this March 8 at Hank’s.  Kasey Anderson, whose gritty populist narratives bring to mind a young Steve Earle, opens the night at 8. Eric Ambel, proprietor of the dearly missed Lakeside Lounge and an even more spectacular, surreal guitarist and songwriter – who played lead in Earle’s band back in the day – follows at 9. Cliff Westfall  – whose aphoristic songs and soulful C&W baritone will take you back to 1956 at warp speed – headlines at around 10. Cover is $10.

Westfall, whose album Baby You Win is streaming at his music page. is as strong and memorable a retro songwriter as Pokey LaFarge – no joke. It takes you back to an era of neon-lit jukeboxes, tailfins, beer cans that you could crush in one hand only if you were really strong…and ten-cent drafts. And Westfall matches the honkytonk ambience with innumerable clever musical and lyrical details that fill out the picture. The opening track, It Hurt Her to Hurt Me is sort of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with even more clever wordplay, done by Hank Williams with a sizzling electric band behind him. The shuffling title track gives the group a chance to show off everything they’ve got: Scott Metzger’s tasty reverbtoned vintage tube amp sonics, a wry surf riff when least expected, a little Merle Haggard to kick off the song and colorful period vernacular. This guy’s “giving back the Crackerjack box I got from a so-called friend.”

Westfall croons bittersweetly over Charlie Giordano’s rippling honkytonk piano in the sad barroom ballad Til the Right One Comes Along. Then the group channel Orbison over a luscious web of twanging, jangling, echoing guitars in the Lynchian anthem More and More (as in “I think I love you more and more less and less”). With Metzger’s morosely tremoloing guitar solo, it’s a standout among many here.

With its chugging layers of twelve-string guitars – that’s Metzger and Graham Norwood – Off the Wagon is the missing link between Johnny Burnette and the Byrds –  the 1967 psychedelic Byrds, and the 1969 country Byrds as well. “We go together like booze and pills!” Westfall announces; those stampeding, twangy Bakersfield guitar multitracks on the way out are a straight shot of adrenaline.

The worn-out, defeated ballad Hanging On paints a vividly grim picture of a guy who’s just about had it with being strung along. By contrast, the boisterous I’ll Play the Fool comes across as a mashup of Subterranean Homesick Blues Dylan and Buck Owens.

The gorgeously clanging The Man I Used to Be paints a picture of a guy with “a little less size and a lot less wear…dusty 8X10s out in the hall, but I don’t recognize that guy at all.”

“I live in your world since I left my own,” Westfall admits in the sad waltz A Lie If You Must, over Dan Iead’s pedal steel.  “A lie calculated to appease and disarm, tell me what’s self-deception compared to your charms?” Elvis Costello would be proud to have written this one.

The End of the Line, the album’s hardest-rocking track, wouldn’t be out of place on a Wayne Hancock album, right down to that searing Metzger guitar solo midway through. The retro 50s shuffle ballad Sweet Tooth gives Westfall a chance to have fun with food and drug metaphors. The album winds up with similarly sly swamp-rock of The Odds Were Good. You’re going to see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

Americana Icon Laura Cantrell Brings Her Distinctive Sound to Bowery Electric

Laura Cantrell’s publicist is on the ball. “Why don’t you review all the shows?” he asked, seeing that this blog covered the first night of New York’s most revered Americana songwriter’s weekly stand at Union Hall last month.

The offer was awfully tempting. Cantrell is the rare artist you can see every week without getting the least bit bored. There are hundreds of country bands in New York, but none who play the music better than hers. And much as there’ve been thousands of acts who’ve played long-running residencies over the years, the ones who succeed at it are all iconic: Kitty Wells, Les Paul, Bob Wills, Sam Llanas…the list goes on and on. Ask anybody who went to see any of those shows, and chances are they’ll brag about it. In case you missed the Brooklyn gigs, Cantrell is playing on June 12 at around 10 at Bowery Electric. Another first-class songwriter, Ana Egge, whose most recent, darkly lyrical Americana album was produced by Steve Earle, opens the night at around 9. Advance tix are $10.

In Cantrell’s case, her publicist and this blog ended up meeting halfway. The first night of Cantrell’s May residency was a low-key, all-acoustic, retro C&W knockout. The final one was an electric show that was even more magical. As exuberant as she and her band were, it was a judicious, finely honed exuberance. Both Cantrell’s timeless originals and the cover gems she rescues from obscurity run the emotional gamut, but they tend to be melancholy: sad songs seldom get played with as much fire and verve as this band gave them. Jon Graboff – who switched seamlessly between keening, lustrous pedal steel and spiky mandolin — and Telecaster player Boo Reiners both have sizzling chops, a long association with Cantrell and know her material inside out. Which explains why it wasn’t until several songs into the set that either of them took a solo.

With this band, it’s all about the songs…and in this case, wiseass banter between friends, offstage and on, and Cantrell’s crystal-clear voice. And how she can say more in just a graceful lilt at the end of a phrase than most people can in a whole album. And yet, she can’t resist telling the audience all about those songs. The former proprietress of WFMU’s Radio Thrift Shop  explained how this particular night’s most evocative number, the starkly claustrophobic No Way There From Here, was inspired by seeing a performance of a similarly sad piece of music: classical composer Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer 1915, with lyrics by James Agee. Cantrell also revealed that at that same performance, she sang a tune from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical: something she has had no plans to do ever since.

The rest of the set reminded how individualistic Cantrell’s songs are – they’re grounded in classic country music, but never so much that they’re reverential or cliched. Drummer Steve Goulding – of Graham Parker & the Rumour – pushed the fond, historically-infused Kitty Wells Dresses and a jauntily strutting version of Melba Montgomery’s Somewhere Some Night with his elegant rimshots, in tandem with bassist Jeremy Chatzky. Graboff’s mandolin spiced up the wistful Molly O’Day homage Mountain Fern. And Franklin Bruno’s terse piano lit up a similarly pensive if more rock-oriented ballad.

Meanwhile, Cantrell channeled the joyous expectation of Amy Allison’s Can’t Wait with the same intensity as the tender ambiguity in Glass Armour and the defiance in George Usher’s Not the Tremblin’ Kind, the title track to the classic 2000 album that springboarded her career. After a broodingly enigmatic, Neko Case-esque version of Maybe Sparrow and a lively take of All the Same to You, she and the band worked the dynamics for all they were worth, through the fetching, disquieted Two Seconds and then the stampeding shuffle Yonder Comes a Freight Train. It was finally at that point where Graboff got to move from wry trainwhistle accents to a long, searing solo, handing off to Reiners’ lickety-split flatpicking. You should expect some and possibly all of this at Bowery Electric.

Purist Americana in Park Slope with Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell

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.