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Another Clinic in Searing Lead Guitar and a Williamsburg Show From the Great Eric Ambel

Eric Ambel is an artist who ought to be playing record stores – because he makes vinyl records. Spectacularly good ones. His most recent studio album, Lakeside, sent a ferocious, guitar-fueled shout out to his beloved East Village club, Lakeside Lounge, forced out of business in 2014 in a blitzkrieg of gentrification. His latest record, Roscoe Live, Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him in his element, onstage at a summer festival in upstate New York in 2016. The backing band is obviously psyched for this gig: alongside Ambel, there’s Spanking Charlene’s Mo Goldner on rhythm guitar, Ambel’s old Yayhoos bandmate Keith Christopher on bass and Phil Cimino on drums. Ambel’s playing an unlikely early weekday show tomorrow, Feb 6 at 8:30 PM at Rough Trade; cover is $10.

Ambel has a vast bag of hot licks, but most of them are his own. If you asked him to play like Neil Young, or Buck Owens, or Ron Asheton, or David Rawlings, he would, but he’d rather be himself. And although he’s a connoisseur of every possible sound you can get out of a guitar amp, he’s got a noisy side too. There’s pretty much all of that on the live record.

Just the way that he edges his way into the set’s opening number, jabbing around the harmonies of the first chord of the brisk shuffle Girl That I Ain’t Got is typical. As are the nasty, string-stretching first solo and a tantalizingly slashing second one. Here Come My Love, by his Del-Lords bandmate Scott Kempner, comes across as an amped up Jimmy Reed number. The blend of the two guitars is especially tasty; Ambel’s solo out is unexpectedly carefree and chill.

Hey Mr. DJ, a sarcastic dig at the kind of clown who’d pay a cover charge to hear some other clown plug his phone into the PA, is a co-write with the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus and one of several tracks from the Lakeside album. Over the slow, slinky beat and a buzzsaw backdrop, Ambel turns the sarcasm loose: “Crank the drums, crank the bass, crank that shit all over the place.”

The slow waves of the warped blues Don’t Make Me Break You Down keep the smokering intenstiy going, through lingering phrases that Ambel takes into the grimy depths, then up again.

“Just to show you I’m not anti-cisco, I have a disco song,” Ambel tells the crowd, then launches in to the strutting Have Mercy, which is actually more of a simmering take on vampy early 70s psychedelic soul.

The band follow Let’s Play With Fire, a shuffling mashup of honkytonk and Lynchian Nahville pop with a slowly crescendoing take of the David Rawlings/Gillian Welch hit Look at Miss Ohio, a staple of Ambel’s live show back in Lakeside’s glory days in the 90s and zeros.

Massive Confusion, the loudest track on the Lakeside recod, is a more swinging take on a familiar Ramones formula. Ambel then closes the show with two of his best songs. Buyback Blues, the centerpiece of the Lakeside record, is a slow, evil rollercoaster in a Cortez the Killer vein. The night’s last number is Total Destruction to Your Mind, the Stonesy Swamp Dogg cover that was Ambel’s signature song as a solo artist for years. For anybody who got to hear Ambel blast his way through this one back in the Lakeside days, Christopher making his way up the fretboard as the chorus kicks in, it’s a real shot of adrenaline. How long do we have to wait until the real estate bubble finally bursts so somebody can open up a place like Lakeside, with cheap beer and great bands every night? The closest thing we have to that in New York these days, Barbes, won’t last forever,

Eric Ambel Brings His Expert, Purist Tunesmithing and Sizzling Lead Guitar Back to Brooklyn

If a clinic in spine-tingling, dynamic. expert lead guitar is your thing, you could spend hundreds of dollars and make Ticketbastard rich and go see Richard Thompson at a place like City Winery. Or you could go see Eric Ambel and his band for free this Saturday night at 9 upstairs at Hill Country Brooklyn. The Brooklyn branch of the bbq franchise is 180 degrees the opposite of the Manhattan location. The staff are friendly and seem happy to be there, the crowd is local and multicultural, and while they don’t nceessarily come to listen, a lot of them do. That way, the band doesn’t have to try to drown out the touristy din like they do in Manhattan. And the Brooklyn branch’s sound system is better, too.

Ambel has been on tour this summer with his band – Brett Bass on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Spanking Charlene‘s Mo Goldner on second guitar – so they should be stoked to be back on their home turf. Ambel’s most recent New York show was here on this same stage at the end of June, and it was amazing, one of the year’s best. Switching between his custom Telecaster and Les Paul, “Roscoe” delivered searing, string-bending intensity, judicious jangle and clang, choogling four-on-the-floor grooves, a couple of stomping detours toward punk rock, even some plaintive wee-hour C&W. All that in two sets, about two hours of music where the band finally ran out of rehearsed material and blasted through a couple of old R&B covers to close the night.

There were so many high-voltage moments, it’s impossible to separate one from the rest. The band opened the second set with a searing take of Song for the Walls, the first track on Ambel’s second solo album, Loud & Lonesome, part psychedelic Beatles, part acidic Kevin Salem rock. Lou Whitney’s defiant Thirty Days in the Workhouse (“If I’d been a black man, they’d have given me thirty years”) resonated especially with this audience. There was roadhouse rock like Scott Kempner’s Here Come My Love. country-flavored material like Jimbo Mathus’ Let’s Play with Fire, and a couple of snarling, Ramones-influenced numbers, the best of them being the snide Hey Mr. DJ. Introducing that one, Ambel told a hilarious story about the first time he saw the Ramones, as an eighteen-year-old party animal in Illinois. That story’s too good to give away here.

Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson came up to duet on a swampy take of Have Mercy, which she co-wrote with Ambel. Mary Lee Kortes – Ambel’s wife and an equally skilled tunesmith, whose long-awaited forthcoming full-length album The Songs of Beulah Rowley is awe-inspiring – lent her crystalline voice to a couple of numbers too. The night’s longest and most darkly simmering epic, Buyback Blues – a bittersweet look back at Ambel’s well-loved and dearly missed East Village venue, Lakeside Lounge – was as good as anything Neil Young & Crazy Horse could come up with. If memory serves right, the band ran through just about everything from Ambel’s latest solo album, also titled Lakeside.

Later in the second set Ambel entertained the crowd with his funniest song, I Love You Baby – if you don’t know it, the lyrics are also too funny to give away here. The show this Saturday night should be something like this, who knows, maybe even better. If we get lucky they’ll play Garbagehead, the ultimate Lakeside Lounge Saturday night party anthem.

Eric Ambel’s New Lakeside Record Captures the Guitarmeister at the Top of His Game

Eric Ambel is well known in Americana rock circles and something of a legend in New York. He’s played with everybody. He did a lengthy stint as Steve Earle’s lead guitarist back in the zeros. Before that he fronted the influential Del-Lords. For more than a decade, he ran the East Village’s coolest bar and music venue, Lakeside Lounge. And he continues to produce artists at his Williamsburg studio, Cowboy Technical Services.

He’s also got a new album, also called Lakeside, a fond over-the-shoulder look at the kind of edgy, purist retro sounds that could be found onstage during his old venue’s heyday. Interestingly, rather than producing this himself like his other solo albums, Ambel brought in Jimbo Mathus. formerly with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who also contributes guitar and bass – and drums on one track. The result is a gatefold vinyl album (that comes with a couple of download cards), available in a limited edition of 500 copies, signed and numbered. This is one of those records you’ll probably want to tape and then play the caasette til it self-destructs. Seriously – if you own a turntable, you probably own a tape deck too.

Ambel’s longtime rhythm section, bassist Keith Christopher and drummer Phil Cimino show up on most of these tracks. As dirty and messy as Ambel can get, there’s a level of craft in what he does that’s rarely seen these days. That isn’t to say that there aren’t guys dedicatedly spending hours hunched over their laptops trying to get the right sound or the right mix, just that Ambel does it with quality gear. And while he’s known first and foremost as a guitarist, he really hit the vocals out of the park here. Other guys get old and reedy and raspy; Ambel sounds about 25, full of piss and vinegar.

The opening track is Ambel’s old Del-Lords bandmate Scott Kempner’s Here Come My Love. It’s a ba-bump roadhouse rock number with that band’s signature sardonic, surreal sense of humor and a tasty acoustic/electric backdrop. Mathus’ first number, Hey Mr. DJ is a sludgy, coldly amusing look at groupthink among the entitled sons and daughters of the idle classes on the demand side of the current plague of gentrification.

Have Mercy, a co-write with Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson, revisits that theme, an update on Creedence swamp rock with plenty of Ambel’s signature, offhandedly savage riffage. Let’s Play with Fire, another Mathus number, mashes up shuffling C&W and Orbison noir, with an absolutely Lynchian lapsteel solo by the bandleader. Side 1 concludes with Don’t Make Me Break You Down, an Ambel/Mathus co-write with a glowering Neil Young/Crazy Horse vibe.

Side 2 opens with the Ramones-tinged Massive Confusion, a Mathus tune. Gillian Welch’s Look At Miss Ohio, which always seemed to pop up somewhere during Ambel’s shows on his old East Village turf, gets a lingering, nocturnal Sticky Fingers treatment that builds to a mighty psychedelic peak. Ambel does the old soul hit Money as a haphazardly prowling Neil/Crazy Horse burner. The album’s best track is the slow, brooding minor-key Buyback Blues, drenched in an ocean of reverb and guitar multitracks.”It takes a special kind of understanding for a man to live in the nighttime,” Ambel sings dryly and knowingly. The record winds up with Ambel’s twangy, bittersweet, distantly Lynchian instrumental Crying in My Sleep.

Is this Ambel’s best solo record? It’s definitely as good as any of the other three. From the perspective of having caught the cult classic Roscoe’s Gang album back in the day when every bar in what used to be a happening neighborhood was playing it, it’s hard to tackle that question with any real objectivity. Ambel’s next show is at Berlin (in the basement space under 2A; enter through the door on the right, midway down the bar on the first floor) on April 29.