New York Music Daily

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Tag: kelli rae powell

Singles for 1/11

CMJ be damned, this is the year’s most intense week for concerts. Winter Jazzfest Friday and last night, Globalfest tonight, the French jazz marathon on Monday, Prototype Festival on Wednesday, opening night of the Ecstatic Music Festival on Thursday: as Ian Curtis said, where will it end? Time to pack some espresso and a couple sandwiches and head back out into the icebox. To keep things fresh here, a small handful of tasty treats from across the interwebs:

Frontier Ruckus’s Bathroom Stall Hypnosis is classic 60s noir meets the Jayhawks circa Sound of Lies, spun through the chilly 90s vortex of Pulp, with a tune and a vicious, cynical lyric worthy of the latter band. You can literally smell the cocaine in this one. They’re at the Mercury on Jan 31 at half past eleven (youtube).

Here’s an absolutely gorgeous, unexpectedly elegaic take of Kelli Rae Powell’s brooding band-on-the-run epic Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, recently recorded at the Jalopy with Jim McNamara on bass, M Shanghai String Band’s Austin Hughes on guitar and vocals and Glendon Jones on violin (youtube). She’s doing what could be her last NYC show at Hill Country Brooklyn on Feb 7 at 8.

Portland, Oregon art-rock/circus rock crew Musee Mecanique’s Like Home is a dreamy, creepy waltz with glockenspiel and mellotron (museemecanique.net). Yummy!

And for an enjoyably twisted three-minute snack, check out Bella Novela’s Four Walls – the Go Go’s backed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or maybe a young Belinda Carlisle fronting Judas Priest. As over-the-top as you would imagine, and actually not bad (soundcloud).

Lara Ewen Brings Her Smart, Original Americana Tunesmithing to the Path Cafe in November

Lara Ewen has a 10 PM Friday night residency this November at the Path Cafe on Christopher St. just west of 7th Ave. South. The cover graphic for her new album The Wishing Stone Songs depicts the outline of a woman with her head in her hands, but her songs are far more lively than that image implies. When she’s not evoking the Dixie Chicks at their late-career best (after Natalie Maines dissed George W. Bush), Ewen’s doing cool new things with classic country songwriting. One of the best songs here has the sly sophistication of Ewen’s pal Kelli Rae Powell; another sounds like the acoustic Grateful Dead. The production of the album is fresh and live-sounding, stripped to the bare necessities (sometimes just a couple of guitars and no bass, other times with just a cajon for percussion) without being skeletal.

Ewen has a twang in her voice, an ear for a catchy hook, great taste in arrangements and an aphoristic lyrical style that looks back to classic C&W even though the songs here range from citybilly to a more purist take on folk-pop. In other words, this isn’t top 40. The first track, Death Better Take Me Dancing introduces a dark humor that recurs throughout the album: over a catchy, lithe, fiddle-driven groove, Ewen makes it clear that she wants to go out standing up and still moving fast. One Day sounds like Sheryl Crow without the cliches and some absolutely gorgeous flatpicking, while the pensive waltz How to Be Your Girl balances delicately plucked fiddle against lush washes of strings, Ewen sardonically pondering how to handle a relationship that actually might not go straight to hell in a hurry.

She keeps the brooding sarcasm going with A Whole Lot Worse, an all-too-true story of a woman settling for a guy who doesn’t completely suck. set to spiky, fingerpicked acoustic guitar and washes of Gerald Menke pedal steel. The most imaginative arrangement here is Restless: Ewen takes a bluesy Appalachian-style ballad and makes piano-based chamber pop out of it. She goes back to waltz time for the duet Keeping It In, a bitter post-breakup barroom ballad:

Now I wanna make you feel worthless
No one could blame me for trying
 I’m worn out like a screw that’s been stripped
From being turned around so many times

By contrast, All the Way There is a deliciously catchy, upbeat highway anthem: with its rich web of acoustic and electric guitars, it’ll resonate with anybody who likes the idea of driving barefoot. The narrator of the swaying, bluesy-infused Reckless defiantly insists that she’s going to get back on top of her game:

I let my callouses soften
Let my heart go black
And I’m gonnna beat on my chest
Til I feel it beating back

Then Ewen goes back to brooding mode for the haunting, Waits-ish down-and-out scenario Breakdown Lane. A couple of tracks here veer closer to the softer side of New Nashville: the funky, metaphorically-charged Hospital Song, and the wryly seductive Outlaw Song. All together, it’s a musically purist, cleverly lyrical mix of some of the best things happening in Americana right now.

A Killer Live Album from Kelli Rae Powell

More artists should make live albums, and it’s a good thing that Kelli Rae Powell’s latest one is a concert recording. Immortalizing her show in the late winter of 2012 at the Jalopy – Powell’s and every other New Yorker’s favorite oldtime Americana hangout – it’s the devious, ukulele-wielding firecracker singer and retro songwriter at the top of her game. Interestingly, the tracks don’t follow the sequence of songs in the set, at least the second set, from which at least some of these numbers were taken (trying to guess which ones is part of the fun – the place was sold out, but if you weren’t there, you missed a hell of a show). It was fun seeing how much pure sonics could be generated by a simple lineup of Powell on either uke or acoustic guitar, plus her purist bassist husband Jim McNamara, M Shanghai String Band harmonica sorcerer Shaky Dave Pollack, and Matthew Brookshire guesting on vocals on a couple of tracks.

The album, understatedly but meticulously produced by Terry Radigan, opens with Grace, a steadfast tribute to a cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking Iowa lady: Powell keeps one of those traditions very much alive. The track titled Summertime here is not the jazz standard but a happily dizzy original, Powell’s narrator stunned and smitten and unselfconsciously touched to find that not everything in the world is grim and dreary. Powell keeps the opiated, dreamy mood going with Sweet Dorina, a “drinkaby” (cross between a drinking song and a lullaby) dedicated to her longtime Jalopy bartendress pal.

The hokum blues-inspired Give Me a Man works on many levels, mostly as a sideways tribute to an honest guy with rocks in his mouth who may not be the world’s biggest charmer, but at least he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em.  Selfish as Fire, a duet with Brookshire, works a ferocious booze-drenched atmosphere much in the same vein as the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. The band brings it down with the subdued but seductive December and then a tribute to Powell’s Iowa home, The Flood, a wryly aphoristic, pensive ballad.

Piece of You is the last of the sweet ones: from here on, the album grows fangs and won’t let go. The Cowboy Song, a big audience hit, sways along defiantly: the girl in the bar won’t settle for not being taken seriously, and the jokes have as much snarl and bite as chuckles. Bury Me in Iowa City, another pretty somber midwestern nocturne, is followed by Grateful, which seems like a semi-former hellraiser trying to come to terms with her checkered past and possibly less checkered future with mixed results.

The band takes it all the way up at the end. The studio version of Midnight Sleeper Train is the drinkaby to end all drinkabys, but this one is more aggressive and plays up the underlying unease of a woman hellbent on putting a lot of space between her and some bigtime disappointment. Likewise, the album version of Don’t Slow Down, Zachary is all harrowing undercurrent, a band-on-the-road narrative that the girl in the story never wants to see end because she can’t bear to go back to the unnameable place she ostensibly calls home. Here, Powell works the double entendres and puns, and the crowd loves it. She and the band end it with Some Bridges Are Good to Burn, which ends her previous studio album New Words for Old Lullabies on a smoldering note; here, she wrings out every ounce of vengefulness and sings the hell out of it. Powell’s next show is on Sept 21 at 9ish at the Jalopy, of course, opening for Lara Ewen.

Kelli Rae Powell: Surreal and Intense and Funny As Hell at the Jalopy

Kelli Rae Powell is a woman of many voices: there’s literally nothing that she can’t sing. Last night at the Jalopy she was a gospel mama, an unstoppable bon vivant, a slink, a vamp and from time to time, a wayfaring stranger traveling through this world completely alone. This was the album release show for her new one Live at Jalopy, recorded here almost a year ago in front of a packed house. That show was a lot of fun (you can read about it here) and this one was even more so. Sleep-deprived (she’s a new mom) and laughing at her own jokes, she settled quickly into surreal storyteller mode as she voiced a million different personalities, switched between ukulele and guitar and held the crowd in the palm of her hand, backed by her husband Jim McNamara on bass and M Shanghai String Band’s Shaky Dave Pollack on harmonica.

She nonchalantly brought the intensity to redline immediately with a new song dedicated to her daughter Donna Lillian, channeling a rapt gospel intensity over McNamara’s darkly rich bowed basslines. Powell is the inventor of the drinkaby – a lullaby and drinking song – and she did a couple of her best ones. Sweet Dorina – the drinkaby to end all drinkabies – gave off a blissed-out early evening buzz, dedicated to a longtime Jalopy bartendress. Pollack hung close to the lyrics, sometimes adding an extra layer of blues-infused poignancy but just as often having fun with them. As usual, he and Powell had a lot of unspoken banter going on, to the point where she asked him for a couple of extra trainwhistle intros for Midnight Sleeper Train, a dissociative passenger’s reverie with a dark undercurrent – we never know where she’s going, or why, only that she’s finished with the person she’s dreaming about. McNamara did three jobs simultaneously: anchoring the lows, holding the rhythm and coloring the songs with snaking lead lines and made it look easy.

Some of the songs were sweet – Summertime, a deliriously happy account of an unexpected romantic reprieve, and Grace, a pensive reflection on a family member now gone off to where she can drink rum and Coke and smoke all the Camels she wants. Powell put down her uke and raised the roof on Cowboy, wry and irrepressible over a sultry bass-and-harmonica groove. She duetted jauntily with Matthew Brookshire on a twistedly funny, Pogues-ish Irish ballad about a total communication mixup with potentially disastrous results. The trio closed with a defiantly resolute cover by Terry Radigan (who produced the new album) and encored with one of Powell’s best songs, the band-on-the-road narrative Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, playing up the laughs and the lust in the lyrics rather than its hauntedly understated desire to escape and never return. All of these songs and more are on the live record which was great fun to experience as it was being made and which you will hear more about here later.

M Shanghai String Band Packs the Jalopy, Again

M Shanghai Strng Band’s sold-out cd release show at the Jalopy Friday night started at nine and ended a little before one in the morning. Brooklyn’s best-loved oldtime string band do it oldschool, Grand Old Opry style, virtually all ten band members stepping to the mic for a couple of bars at a time, an endless parade of hot licks and cool ideas. The parade of talent began before they did, with a series of cameos by their friends (when you have ten people in a band, that translates to a LOT of friends). Karla Schickele and Kristin Mueller each sang pensively catchy folk-pop songs; Pierre de Gaillande of the Snow contributed a couple of cleverly artsy, amusing acoustic rock and soul tunes; Jan Bell sang plaintive, bittersweet country waltzes, followed by a couple of eerie minor-key blues tunes, Ain’t Gonna Rain and Broken Arrow, sung ruggedly and rustically by Will Scott. And as much as taking the stage after Kelli Rae Powell could be a recipe for disaster – she’s a hard act to follow – M Shanghai took that chance. Nine months pregnant and looking ready to pop, she nonetheless made her way way through her best song, Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, playing up the comedy rather than the grimness of its rockers-on-the-road narrative. And with the indelibly catchy Bury Me in Iowa City – a track from her sensationally good, forthcoming live album, recorded at the Jalopy – she both set the stage and raised the bar for the headliners.

And they delivered. What a fun night this was! Their first set comprised the entirety of their eclectic new album, Two Thousand Pennies; the second was almost as long and took the energy even higher. In the style of an oldtime community band, everybody gets to contribute, some more than others. If there were any individual stars of this show, they were violinists Glendon Jones and Philippa Thompson, blending and contrasting styles – he’s got more of a gypsy bite, she typically goes for a more fluid country fiddle approach. One after another, band members traded off solos, harmonica player Dave Pollack handing off energetically to mandolinist Richard Morris, or to banjo player Hilary Hawke, or one of the violinists. But ultimately none of this would have mattered if the songs weren’t so good.

The new album is the best thing they’ve ever done. They began with the anxious steampunk sway of Sea Monster and its catchy major/minor changes, followed by Made in the Dark, an apprehensive, gypsy-flavored tango – this band goes far afield of traditional country music a lot of the time. Many of their songs – the dustbowl ballad Leaving Oklahoma, the stern seafarer’s narrative Sailor’s Snug Harbor, the rousing outlaw shuffle Dillinger and the British folk-style ballad O Lucy – could have been classics from Bakersfield, or Staten Island, or Yorkshire, decades or centuries ago. Shanghai Mountain lept from a stark banjo tune to a fiery bluegrass dance, while the catchy Two Thousand Pennies – the album’s title track – alluded to this era’s Great Depression.

Guitarist Matthew Schickele – who seems to be in charge of writing all this band’s funniest songs – led the bunch through a surprisingly sad, irony-tinged waltz, Marlene, as well as the Staten Island sea chantey and also the night’s most amusing song, Zombie Zombo. Morris sang Entropy, which began as an upbeat swing tune but quickly took on a disconcerting edge. Wrecking Ball Savior, with its fetching guy/girl harmonies and country gospel tinges, might be an anti-gentrification number, while Boxcars, sung with a carefree charm by Thompson, voiced a hobo’s defiantly optimitic point of view. Pollack, who’d been punctuating pretty much eveything with a boiterous bite, finally got the chance to take a long solo on the offhandedly ominous railroad ballad Sleeping Engineer and made the most of it.

The second set kicked off with stark twin fiddles and a raucously gypsy-fueled dance, Thompson out in front of the band. Guitarist Austin Hughes, who writes many of the bnad’s most memorable songs, sang a catchy gospel-tinged banjo tune. Schickele delivered Stay Calm, a deadpan Neil Young-flavored number. Thompson played spoons on a lickety-split bluegrass tune, and then singing saw on a haunting noir swing number a little later on. Drummer Brian Geltner, who’d held back with a terse groove all night, finally got to cut loose with a stomp on a lively, crescendoing country song lit up with more of those gorgeous harmonies and a searing Jones violin solo. And the most intense instrumental moment of the night was a casually menacing, all-too-brief cameo by clarinetist Ken Thompson – that’s how this band does it, they always leave you wanting more, even after two hours onstage. Like most of the best of the NYC country and oldtime Americana scene, they make the Jalopy their home: they’ll be there at 9 PM on Nov 3.

Kelli Rae Powell Records a Killer Live Album at the Jalopy

“Welcome to the Jalopy, the best venue in the world,” Kelli Rae Powell announced to the crowd gathered in the old church pews under the low lights to watch her make a live album there Friday night. Let’s hope that makes it onto the record, because the venue deserves it. Powell writes and sings in a million deviously lyrical oldtime idioms as well as ones she’s invented, notably the drinkaby, a hybrid lullaby/drinking song. While, as usual, she got into character and locked into the songs, cutting loose with a wail or a whisper that blended a coy whiskey glow with sharp bluesy edges, in between she let her guard down, and at that point the characters and the persona fell away and she was just Kelli Powell, Brooklyn music therapist, hell-bent on getting a good record out of the night and visibly tense about it. That’s a side she doesn’t show very often – and she made it work.

When the songs started, she was on her game – this will be a good record. The band – Jim McNamara on upright bass, Joe Brent alternating between mandolin and fiddle and M Shanghai String Band’s Shaky Dave Pollack on harmonica – got into a groove and stayed there, and producer Terry Radigan had brought a crew of engineers who managed to keep everything in place without being obtrusive. The songs were an unexpected mix of biting and sweet. The first drinkaby of the night was the irresistibly hazy Sweet Dorina, Powell’s “love song to the Jalopy.” “It takes me twelve hours by bus and by train, still I come again and again and again,” its blissed-out barfly narrator explains, just wanting to be near her favorite bartendress and hear all her stories.

The ballad Suddenly It’s Summertime had a similar and unexpectedly blissed-out vibe, from both the point of view of the audience and and the woman in the song who finds herself swept off her feet: it’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Cole Porter songbook. A love song whose eureka moment came true at the corner of Orchard and Rivington echoed that feeling, along with a warmly and soberly elegaic number about a woman who loved her Camels just as much as Jesus. But it was the “snarky” stuff, as Powell put it, that the crowd went wild for. She switched from her trusty ukulele to guitar for a venomously dramatic, Irish-flavored duet with singer Matthew Brookshire that reached toward the same lurching booze-fueled desperation as the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. She pulled out all the stops on a lurid, torchy version of The Cowboy Song, a wise, knowing anthem for hedonistic women everywhere, pulsing along on McNamara’s snakily uncoiling basslines.

As the night wore on, Powell would clench her fist in a triumphant stick-shifting “YESSSS” after pretty much every song, and the band was with her: they knew they were nailing them, one by one. They saved the best songs for last, reveling in the Southern Comfort glimmer of Midnight Sleeper Train (the drinkaby to end all drinkabys), then an inspired, extemporaneous, haggardly triumphant version of Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, a bitter chronicle of an endless summer tour that was more of an excuse to be away from a spirit-crushing home life than any kind of forward-looking career move. They encored with a triumphant audience singalong, the vengeful Some Bridges Are Good To Burn, the final track on Powell’s wickedly good New Words for Old Lullabies album from a couple of years ago, the most deliciously biting moment out of many. It’s a kiss-off song, and Powell took it to its logical extreme by changing narrators, giving the punchline to Brookshire to sing instead. “Maybe at my death,” he crooned, meaning the point where the song’s estranged couple might be able to be friends. By this point, both Pollack and Brent, who’d both been playing with a hushed, suspenseful nuance, finally got to cut loose and made the most of it. Outside the bar, the rain was coming down hard, and although midnight was approaching nobody seemed to be in a hurry to leave.

M Shanghai String Band Serenades Robin Hoffman’s Illustrations at the Jalopy

Great musical scenes usually get chronicled by their era’s most happening visual artists. Consider: Toulouse-Lautrec in the Paris cabarets in the 1800s; Bob Gruen in and around CBGB in the late 70s; and Robin Hoffman at the Jalopy in the late zeros and teens. If you’re a musician in the New York Americana roots scene, and lucky enough to have been in her illustrations- if you’ve played the Jalopy in the last three years, you probably have – you’ve seen yourself in action, intent on your craft, in motion. Hoffman is one of those artists who is able to perfectly capture the essence of a musician in just a few deft brushstrokes. The best of her pencil-and-watercolor sketches currently on display at the Jalopy – which just turned five years old – catches the Roulette Sisters in classic poses: resonator guitarist Mamie dipping just a bit, raising her eyebrows; guitarist Meg just thisclose to deadpan but having a great time; violist Karen unselfconsciously lost in the music, and washboardist Megan holding down the rhythm with a grin. Then there’s Craig Chesler smiling, chilling, playing ukulele; the Newton Gang in characteristically intense mode, even in a rare acoustic setting; Kelli Rae Powell off to the side while her band wails, wryly smiling as she hits what’s probably another devious double entendre; the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues careening through yet another boisterous solo; and the M Shanghai String Band’s offhandedly excellent clawhammer banjo player/singer in a couple of characteristically intense moments. These are just a few of the many new drawings Hoffman has on display at the Jalopy (she’s offering any print from this series, signed, for $30).

This past weekend, the M Shanghai String Band played the opening party for Hoffman’s show. They’re well known, well-loved and well documented via Hoffman’s art, and supposedly the other day on the cover of the New York Post. Hoffman started drawing at the Jalopy simply because she’s in the neighborhood and it was a cool way for her to perfect her craft while her baby slept; likewise, M Shanghai have a community feel, having taken their name from the now-defunct Chinese restaurant whose basement was their original home. They seem to be a mix of everybody in Williamsburg who really loved oldtime country songs and string band music and decided to get together to create it, without regard to age, or whoever’s trust fund was most extravagant, or who happened to have the lowest body-fat percentage or could go the most consecutive years without taking a shower. If you listen closely, you hear references to the Q train or other New York institutions in their songs: they’re literally taking oldtime acoustic country music to new places. Frontwoman Philippa Thompson played a neat solo on the spoons; resonator guitarist Austin Hughes turned in one casual, cool urban country tune after another, often punctuated by Jalopy regular Shakey Dave Pollack’s soulful, tersely bluesy harmonica. Because the show was right after work, they didn’t seem to have the full contingent onstage, but no matter: it was a trip to a different world.

So if you’re new to the Jalopy, prepare to enter that world. Let your guard down. It’s a good place. Forget the horrible experience you just had at Arlene’s, or at Pianos last week: the Jalopy is warm and welcoming. The moment you walk in the door, you could be making new friends. For the moment, Hoffman’s exhibit is still up the club, an extra good reason to make the trip.