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Kelley Swindall Takes Her Fierce, Fearless Americana to the Next Level

Kelley Swindall is a badass outlaw country songwriter with a 21st century edge. She learned how to work a crowd singing over drunks at one of New York’s most notorious dive bars, the late, lamented Holiday Lounge and then up and down the Americana highway, from New York to New Orleans and pretty much all points in between. She’s got a new album, You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want, streaming at Soundcloud.

Pretty much every song on the record has been thoroughly road-tested, and a lot of them are a lot different than you may have heard her play onstage. For example, the opening number, I Ain’t For You You Ain’t For Me, used to be more of a hick-hop number. Here, it’s an unrepentant cheater’s anthem. The girl in this song strayed because she was trapped by a boyfriend who turned out to be an abusive POS, and she finally got wise. Swindall sings it with more than a little snarl over a searing minor-key drive spiced with Michael Hesslein’s piano and a tantalizingly evil Teddy Kumpel guitar solo midway through.

“Don’t put me on a pedestal ’cause I’ll jump off it,” she warns in the album’s track, a swaying, vintage 70s-style country-soul ballad with swirly organ. “I just smiled, and said, ‘That’s what drugs will do,’” Swindall tells the guy who wants to hang out, “talking shattered hopes and trashcan dreams, and all the lies in between” in Dear Savannah, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder look at a whirlwind romance.

California is a big crowd-pleaser, a wryly choogling talking blues about a transcontinental weed deal with a surprise ending. Meet Me Halfway is sort of a mashup of lazy Lowell George C&W and hick-hop: if anybody still thinks long-distance relationships have a prayer, Swindall will shatter that illusion.

Swindall follows the careening blues Come On Back My Way with the starry early 60s Nashville nocturne Refuse to Be Blue. My Minglewood Blues picks up where the iconic folk song left off: where the Grateful Dead took it into psychedelia, Swindall finds a lickety-split, feminist party anthem.

She lets her guard down in You Never Really Loved Me Anyway – but the punchline packs a wallop, over a Dylanesque Blood on the Tracks backdrop. She takes a welcome detour toward folk noir in Heartsick, then shifts toward classic honkytonk with He Ain’t You over Hesslein’s ragtimey piano and Don Dilego’s soaring, sinuous bassline.

She closes the record with Spring Street Dive: “You know sometimes the fear of being tied down sometimes holds you back from taking flight, it’s true!” she announces. The vinyl version also has a secret bonus cover track. Dilego’s production also deserves a shout: this has the feel of a big-room analog record, not the kind of sterile digital ambience that plagues so many rock and Americana records these days.

Kelley Swindall and David Allan Coe in Midtown: Rising Star and Old Lion of Country and Americana

Last night at B.B. King’s, Kelley Swindall had the daunting task of taming a sold-out crowd of drunken fans of the shit-kickingest country music imaginable. And she had to do it with just her voice, and her guitar, and her personal assets. That by the end of her first number, a talking blues about drug-running, she’d pulled the audience to the edge of the stage and got them whooping along, testifies to how effortlessly she worked these people. Which makes sense when you remember that she cut her teeth with a residency at the old Holiday Lounge, one of New York’s most notorious dive bars.

That she closed her set with a muted, enigmatic version of her ballad You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want, inspired by the big hit that headliner David Allan Coe ended up closing his show with, also speaks to Swindall’s stage savvy. She engaged the Deadheads in the audience – several, as it turned out – with her original My Minglewood Blues, which is as vindictive as it is funny. Otherwise, she reasserted herself as an individualistic champion of all things Americana, from blues, to the wildly applauded, grisly Murder Song, to neo-Patsy Cline, Big and Rich-style hick-hop, stark mountain music and regret-drenched Nashville pop. And some urban sounds too, including a vivid, late-night Tom Waits-style Soho blues tableau. Although based in New York, Swindall is best known as an attraction on the national touring circuit. Her next gig in her adopted hometown (she’s Georgia-born and raised)  is July 15 at 10:30 PM at Arlene’s.

Coe is 76 now, and also still knows how to work a crowd, even if he doesn’t have much of a voice left. Most of his set was a medley of hits he’s written for others, all played in the same key, backed by a band who’d come in if they knew the song and lingered in the background awkwardly when they didn’t. He’d saved the best of those numbers, Cocaine Carolina, for Johnny Cash. The worst were a couple of lame hip-hop co-writes with a Michigan corporate pop guy from the zeros. There were plenty of unexpected moments, including the catchy Please Come to Boston, a folk-pop hit appropriated by Kenny Loggins’ label exec brother in order to get a plaque in the Zager and Evans Hall of Fame.

The big audience singalong, at least until the final number, was Take This Job and Shove It (Coe didn’t mention what might be the best recorded version, by the Dead Kennedys). But as far as the funny songs that are his stock in trade were concerned, that was pretty much it, and that’s too bad, because even in his mid-70s, Coe can still be hilarious and this show wasn’t. Including the audience fight that sent Coe’s considerably younger wife/backup singert scrambling back to the dressing room for good, and also might have cut his set short – and resulted in at least one person leaving the club in an ambulance. Redneck music is fun, but they can be something else.

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.

Kelley Swindall Takes Her Menacing Americana Back to Her Old Stomping Grounds Down South

Kelley Swindall‘s set at CMJ in New York this past fall was an acoustic duo show at Rockwood Music Hall. Her last New York show – at least for awhile, rumor has it – was her first-ever gig on electric guitar, and it suited her just fine. She didn’t change her strumming or her elegant fingerpicking, but she got a resonance out of it that infused the nocturnal atmosphere of her Tom Waits-ish southern gothic narratives with an especially eerie gleam. Right now Swindall is in the early stages of her Snowdrifter’s Tour; her next weekend gig is Jan 17 at 9:30 PM at the Peerless Saloon, 13 W 10th St. in Anniston, Alabama with purist newgrass/front-porch folk guitarist/singer Brooks Coffin & the Academics. If you’re in the neighorhood and you like your classic country blues with a menacing edge, you won’t do any better than the show this Saturday night.

Maybe it was plugging into an amp, or maybe it was just the intensity of the moment – leaving NYC is always hard – but that last gig she played here was electric in more ways than one. She opened solo with the menacing, dimlit downtown narrative Sidewalk Closed, then brought her drummer and slide guitarist up for California, a wryly suspenseful drug trafficker’s talking blues. The first of the night’s two covers was a snarling version of Ryan Morgan‘s Maricopa, Arizona, which blows the cover off the Massachusetts-born sheriff who blew into town like he owned the place and made a name for himself picking on the most vulnerable people in the place, the undocumented immigrants who basically keep it moving. But not everybody’s willing to rat out their friends: “There ain’t enough whiskey to get my lips a-talking,” Swindall insisted.

She followed that with a moody, minor-key, bluesy kiss-off song, then took the ambience further down with the wistful breakup ballad Oh Savannnah and then brought the energy to redline with My Minglewood Blues, a defiantly vindictive hellraising anthem that does justice to the folk song that inspired it. It’s a good bet that if anybody’s alive a hundred years from now, pickers are going to be picking the Kelley Swindall song as much as they are the others. She wound up the set with another brooding, minor-key blues with some droll hip-hop flavor, an explosively applauded take of the even more vindictive Murder Song, which is fast becoming her signature tune, and then a vigorous cover of the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York in which she sang both the Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl roles. That’s where her acting training kicked in – all of a sudden the drawl and the torchiness were gone, replaced by a straightforward and understatedly dramatic East Coast accent. Anniston, Alabama, y’all are in for a treat.

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.