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Americana Individualist Kelley Swindall Hits the Road from the Heartland to the South

Kelley Swindall is one of the most distinctive artists in Americana. She opened her most recent show here with a talking blues. Fifty years ago, every folksinger from one end of the Bleecker Street strip to the other was doing talking blues…but then again that was back when Bleecker Street was the cool part of town. Swindall’s first talking blues of the night – yup, there was more than one – happened to be her big crowd-pleaser The Murder Song, a bloody tale of lust and mayhem that’s become a cult favorite on independent radio throughout the south. If country blues, newgrass and good acoustic jambands like Old Crow Medicine Show are your thing and you’re in the part of the world where Swindall’s touring right now, you ought to see her. She’s starting her latest tour with a two-night stand at the Golconda Mansion in Golconda, Illinois on June 12 and 13 at 6 PM, then hits Charlie Bob’s in Nashville on the 14th, then at 6 PM on the 15th she’s on Hippie Hill in Cristiana, Tennessee. But the big show is her headline slot at Wingstock at City Market in Savannah, Georgia on the 21st. That may be the sunniest day of the year, but Swindall will bring on the night.

The other talking blues she did last time out was her own original, inspired by both the classic Minglewood Blues and the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic cover – Swindall’s version is closer to OCMS than the Dead, maybe since she’d switched from electric guitar to acoustic for that number. But she’s just as likely to bust out a macabre wee-hours creeper like Sidewalk’s Closed, the opening track on her amusingly titled, unspellable debut album (pronounced “Kelley Swindall”). Although she’s been on the road a lot, she’s managed to hit her old Manhattan stomping grounds more than once since the first of the year. It was good to hear her with a full band including bass and drums – and piano, too – the last time out. The time before that marked the first time she’d ever plugged in and played electric guitar onstage, something that gives her darker songs – and she has lots of them – a mighty boost.

Her new material is as good or better than anything she’s done so far. Highlights of the most recent gig included a couple of new ones, the torchy, sultry Come On Back My Way as well as a period-perfect oldschool C&W tearjerker, aptly titled Heartsick. But Swindall’s songs aren’t just about love and longing: the bastards in them get what they deserve, the careless chicks in the drugrunning anthem California run up against karma, cheaters get busted and that poor guy down Savannah way gets let down by the restless girl he’s smitten by: “That’s what drugs’ll do.” is the punchline midway through.

For those who might think it strange that a southern woman would get her start in country and blues-flavored music in New York, that’s what we listen to up here. Y’all think y’all lost the war, but the truth is you won. It just took 150 years.

Southern Gothic Tourmates Play Two Killer Shows on December 19

Folk noir songwriters Lorraine Leckie and Kelley Swindall wound up their third annual Southern Gothic Tour, making their way back from New Orleans to their home turf with a sold-out gig at the Mercury on the thirteenth of the month, an appropriate date for the two haunting, haunted, relentlessly intense bandleaders. The crowd squeezed around the video tripod set up in the middle of the floor: if the crew who were meticulously working it got their levels right, both performers got a great live album out of it. Swindall is playing what’s rumored to be her farewell NYC gig on Dec 19 at 9 at the Bitter End, of all places, for $10; Leckie plays two hours later that same night at 11 at Sidewalk for free, so if you’re adventurous, you can catch what crowds south of the Mason-Dixon line got to enjoy on a doublebill this past fall.

It’s impossible to imagine a better straight-up rock band than Leckie’s group the Demons (Huffington Post has a funny, insightful piece on them here). Lead guitar monster Hugh Pool channeled Hendrix in sideswiping, lighter-fluid-on-the-frets mode over the deep, in-the-pocket groove of bassist Charles DeChants and drummer Paul Triff. Pool unleashed a sunbaked, blistering Stoogoid attack on the album’s title track Rebel Devil Devil Rebel, a surrealistically joyous shout-out to New Orleans. At the end of the show, the band cut loose with a viciously ecstatic version of Ontario, a wickedly catchy Crazy Horse style stomp, Leckie’s explosive yet bittersweet shout-out to her Canadian roots. In between, the band snarled their way through the Warren-Zevon-on-acid glam of Rainbow, the distant menace of Watch Your Step and a lingering version of The Everywhere Man, a serial killer narrative fueled by Pool’s vertigo-inducing, echoing slide work. Out in front of the band, playing Telecaster (and keys on one plaintively brief number), Leckie’s steely vocals were undiminished over the maelstrom.

Swindall cut her teeth playing music with a long-running residency at Stefan Lutak’s legendary East Village dive bar the Holiday Lounge. If you could play there, you could play anywhere, so Swindall took the stage at the Mercury like she owned the place. She’s sort of a musical counterpart to Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers, a southern gothic intellectual giving voice to the restless and the outcasts among us, with an indelible wistfulness. This time out, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica and backed by a three-piece band, she opened with a brooding, Waits-ish blues set in a vivid Lower East side milieu. She revisited that hauntingly later in the set with a creepy, noir tableau where “every high becomes its low” and then a cheating song set to an oldtimey shuffle groove.

Bassist Stephanie Allen (also of the Third Wheel Band) propelled a brisk mashup of an oldtime talking blues and a country patter song, followed by a triumphant version of the weed-smuggling anthem California and a little later, Swindall’s own original, full-throttle version of Minglewood Blues. She wound up her set with the kiss-off anthem to end all kiss-off anthems, I Never Loved You Anyway, and then the Murder Song, a vindictive ending for a clueless chick who spends her nights getting trashed at honkytonk karaoke. If New York ends up losing Swindall, it’ll be our loss and someone else’s gain.