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.