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No New Abnormal

Tag: kasey anderson

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.

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.