A Lusciously Guitar-Fueled Retrospective and a Manhattan Show From Rugged Individualist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel
Eric Ambel is iconic in Americana rock circles. He has a high-end guitar line named after him. Since his days fronting the pioneering (and recently resusciated) Del-Lords and later playing lead in Steve Earle’s band, he’s slowly but methodically built a formidable catalog of original material. He’s less influential than simply respected because nobody sounds like him. He’s easy to imitate but impossible to copy.
That’s because he can be so unpredictable. On one hand, he’s a virtuoso four-on-the-floor rock and classic C&W guy. On the other, he has a feral, noisy edge, a surreal sense of humor, and also a raw anger that gives his music a ferocity that good-time bar bands so rarely evoke. He’s playing Hill Country this Friday night on a killer twinbill with fellow Americana individualist and guitarist Kasey Anderson. The show starts at 10; it’s not clear who’s playing first, but they’re both worth seeing (and worth braving the crowd of yahoo tourists at the Flower District bbq spot).
Ambel’s latest album – streaming at Bandcamp – is titled The Roscoe Sampler. It’s less a career retrospective than a collection of deep tracks from throughout his solo career. On one hand, most of the obvious picks are here. The choogling The Girl That I Ain’t Got, and Lou Whitney’s grim Jim Crow-era scenario 30 Days in the Workhouse. There’s the classic, tight-as-a-drum, Stonesy cover of Swamp Dogg’s oddball Total Destruction to Your Mind and the acidic, bitter, Rubber Soul Beatlesque Song for the Walls. The Del-Lords’ catchy, cynical Judas Kiss, and the witheringly sarcastic You Must Have Me Confused.
On the more or less straight-up tip, there’s Lonely Town, which could be the Stones circa Tattoo You with a twangier singer out front and a tantalizingly savage guitar solo. Loose Talk, a duet with Syd Straw, is a rollicking, saloon piano-fueled Tex-Mex romp. If Walls Could Talk, a big crowd-pleaser from Ambel’s days running iconic East Village venue Lakeside Lounge, features the Bottle Rockets (a band Ambel produced back in the day)
But it’s the lesser known cuts that make this record a great introduction to Ambel’s purist sonics, production savvy and guitarslinging prowess. Built around a riff Angus Young would be happy with, Way Outside paints a shadowy, desperate tableau, echoed later in I’m Not Alone. Does It Look That Bad is a wry, summery, Memphis soul-infused ballad, awash in shimmery tremolo guitar and organ.
“The minute you stopped dreaming is the minute you got old,” Ambel sneers in Long Gone Dream, the closest thing here to early zeros, peak-era Earle. Red Apple Juice is a rare, spare, delta blues-flavored solo acoustic gem. I Waited For You comes across as amped-up Everlys, and sounds like the oldest number here.
The brisk, gloomy narrative A Charmer’s Tale could pass for late 90s Steve Wynn – it’s that good, complete with evil, sidewinding guitar solos. The collection’s final track – a collaboration with folk-rockers Martin’s Folly – is an aptly watery, wistful take of Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind. Although Ambel can go way, way out on a limb onstage, here he keeps the solos short, maybe eight bars at the most. The rhythm sections here include a diverse cast of familiar and unfamiliar names but are all first-rate: from his days rounding up the Lower East Side’s best street musicians for his iconic Roscoe’s Gang album, he’s never had to look far for talent.
Is is fair to count a semi-greatest hits collection as one of the year’s best? Is it fair to the newbies to put them up against a veteran as formidable as Ambel? Why not? We need the guy to keep schooling those kids.