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A Brilliant, Erudite New Blues Album and a Webcast From Mamie Minch

Mamie Minch hit New York in the early zeros while still in her teens and quickly got a reputation as a force of nature in the oldtime Americana scene. Almost two decades later, she’s earned herself a place among the greats who influenced her. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, look out, you’ve got company. Minch may be best known as an erudite, imaginative guitarist, but she also has a hauntingly nuanced alto voice and writes in an oldtime vernacular that can be raucously funny, or profoundly sad. 

Minch has a characteristically brilliant, sharply lyrical new album, Slow Burn streaming at Bandcamp and while she doesn’t have any shows scheduled at the moment, she is playing a webcast on Aug 20 at 6 PM on the Barbes youtube channel to celebrate.

It’s been an awful lot of fun watching her work up the material on the album onstage over the past few years: in the tradition of her predecessors over the past hundred-plus years, these songs have gone through many different incarnations. The first one, Deep Footsteps could be a hokum blues classic from the late 20s: Minch’s defiant, endless series of innuendos are irresistible. Drummer Dean Sharenow gives the song an emphatic swing; Minch close-mics her National Steel guitar to catch every available microtone resonating from her spiky fingerpicking

Fortified Wine, a slow Indian-summer front-porch lament, is another number that’s taken on a different shapes in the past few years. Here she’s joined by both members of Kill Henry Sugar, Sharenow and guitarist Erik Della Penna, who nails the mood with the the subtlest of slide guitar washes. The point of the song seems to be that being stuck with an addict is a bitch, whether in on some forlorn plantation in 1920, or in the here and now.

No More Is Love, a gentle, understatedly haunting Carter Family-style waltz, is an urban oldtime country song with more atmospherically drifting slide work from Della Penna. Big Bad Maddie is a remake of RL Burnside’s Poor Black Mattie with new lyrics which transform this character from downtrodden victim to total badass: she’s got “big dick swagger to keep those boys in line.” Logan Coale holds down a terse, minimalist bass pulse; it’s a revelation to hear Minch put her own spin on Mississippi hill country blues guitar.

The album’s other sort-of cover is Wee Midnight Hours, based on the version by Blind Wille McTell and Curly Weaver; Sharenow gives it an easygoing swing that recalls an even earlier time. The gorgeously bittersweet, even more bucolic True Blue was inspired by a New Yorker article about the unique properties of the color blue. CJ Camerieri adds spare, resonant french horn over Minch’s fingerpicking.

She winds up the record with the venomously bristling You Don’t Lift Me Up, a kiss-off to negative people, both specifically and in general, with echoes of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. Della Penna’s sparse incisions are a perfect complement to Minch’s propulsively strolling groove. The band could have gone on for five more minutes and that wouldn’t have been too much. This record’s on the shortlist for best albums of 2020 in any stye of music.

The Best, Most Darkly Cinematic New York Show of 2016: Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich at Barbes

The best show of 2016 in New York – at least the best one where this blog was in the house – was in mid-October at Barbes, where guitarists Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich played a live score to silent films supplied by filmmaker Russell Scholl. And it was unquestionably the the year’s most cinematic, which makes sense considering both the context and the artists involved. Ulrich gets lots of work for film and for PBS, when he’s not fronting his slinky, Lynchian reverb guitar band, Big Lazy. Minch plays her own darkly individualistic, wit-infused take on classic country blues and Americana when she’s not running New York’s only woman-owned instrument repair store, Brooklyn Lutherie,. Both players have shows coming up. On Dec 6 at 6:30 PM, Minch is part of an excellent triplebill with fellow oldtime country blues purveyor Eli Smith and rustic 19th century style string band the Four O’Clock Flowers at the American Folk Art Museum, playing songs on the time-honored theme of death and mourning to coincide with the museum’s latest, wonderfully creeyp exhibition. Then she’s at Barbes at 8 on Dec 16. Ulrich is at Spectrum on Dec 10 at 7:30 PM with his Big Lazy bandmate, drummer Yuval Lion, where they’ll join Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi, Barbez‘s Peter Hess and Zion80‘s Jon Madof for a night of similarly creepy improvisation; cover is $15.

The night’s first movie at Barbes was a surrealistically nostalgic Coney Island tableau by Scholl, Minch singing a sad waltz that she’d originally written as a member of the badly missed oldtime harmony quartet the Roulette Sisters. Low and somber, she built a similarly moody Brooklyn oceanside scenario, the amusement park as a metaphor for passion that could go drastically wrong. It’s her Wall of Death.

Then Ulrich joined her for a brief set of his own shadowy film noir compositions while another Scholl pastiche – a defiantly individualistic, snidely anti-authoritarian work, like a Donald O’Finn mashup without the endless parodies of oversexed tv – flickered on the screen behind them. The two musicians have collaborated a lot over the past couple of years. Hearing Minch play Ulrich’s signature, menacing chromatics on her resonator guitar was a real treat, Ulrich supplying his usual macabre, resonant twang through a skeletally dancing number with hints of Romany jazz, then a morose graveyard stroll, Ulrich’s angst-fueled insistence against Minch’s steady, mournful chords. They wound it up with tricky syncopation and more rain-drenched chromatics that gave way to reflecting-pool psychedelia as the film hit a comedic coda.

Minch scored the night’s final film, Windsor McCay’s pioneering 1921 early animation flick The Flying House, chronicling the adventures of a man who motorizes his home and then takes it up into the clouds in order to escape the evil bankster who wants to foreclose on it. You want relevance? Minch switched slowly and masterfully from one oldtime blues tuning to another. interpolating those graceful blue notes into the score as she retuned, moving seamlessly through gemtly waltzing, pastoral passages, bouncily romping interludes, elements of psychedelic folk and 70s British art-rock, hardly styles that you would associate with someone regarded as one of this era’s great blueswomen. After the movie. the two treated the crowd to a cover of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview – a Hollywood nuthouse if there ever was one – as well as a take of the Beatles hit Girl that really brought out all the menace in a femme fatale. They closed out the night with a solo Ulrich jazz tune and then Minch’s funereal rendition of the Bessie Smith murder ballad Sing Sing Blues. Only in New York, folks.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Joins a First-Class Oldtime Americana Bill on the 24th

There’s a really fun show coming up on March 24 in the quaint old 19th century upstairs auditorium at Greenwich House Music School at 46 Barrow St. in the West Village, when a bunch of familiar faces from the Jalopy’s oldtimey Americana scene take over the space. Check out the lineup that Eli Smith of the Down Hill Strugglers put together: his Struggler bandmate John Cohen; badass resonator guitarist and bluesmama Mamie Minch; charmingly retro, low-key front-porch songwriter Joanna Sternberg; dark Americana songwriter and Jalopy mainstay Feral Foster; bluesman Wyndham Baird, and others. Cover is $15 and includes open bar. And you don’t have to go all the way to Red Hook to see all this. Not that the Jalopy isn’t always a treat just to be at, let alone see a show at, but as messed up as the trains have been this past week, this makes things infinitely easier.

Minch is the star of this show. She played a set at Barbes a week ago Friday that was funny, and poignant, and full of razorwire repartee between her and Kill Henry Sugar drummer Dean Sharenow. Minch writes her own songs, springboarding from fingerpicked blues and folk styles that go back to the 20s and before, but she’s also a fierce advocate for the unsung women of the blues, mostly African-Americans from that era. Midway through the set, she and Sharenow pondered the question of changing lyrics if someone of the “original gender,” as she put it, sings a song written for a man’s voice (she’d just done a bristling, swinging, defiantly existentialist cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man). That led into a brief discussion of how misogyny insinuates itself into language itself. “You notice how the word ‘woman’ has ‘man’ in it?” she needled him.

Sharenow wasn’t phased, but also didn’t offer anything to improve on that. “Maybe we can change the spelling, you know, like w-o-m-y-n or something,” Minch offered.

Sharenow cringed. “No!” he insisted. “How about…O.G.?”

“I like that,” Minch grinned back.

There’s nothing more original or gangsta than the blues, and there was plenty of that in this set. As she did on her debut album, she sang Pallet on Your Floor not as a come-on, like so many other would-be blues singers do, but as a haunting, plaintive plea, from the perspective of a low-rent hooker. Sharenow gave the song a jaunty shuffle groove with his brushes, throwing in the occasional unpredictable snare hit or swipe at the cymbals, especially when Minch would throw a mean upstroke from her guitar his way.

Minch asked Sharenow if he’d sing harmonies on Blues, Stay Away from Me, an old Delmore Brothers tune. “You want me to take the low one?” he asked her.

Minch laughed and turned to the crowd. “You don’t always do that when you sing with an alto!” But she’s been airing out more of her upper register lately, really stretching her voice to places she’s never gone before.

The duo took a turn in a funkier direction with a biting, sultry new one, looking back to the funny food metaphors of oldschool hokum blues but also the defiance of that era’s blueswomen. Minch’s churning guitar, blending with Sharenow’s rolling and tumbling attack, took her big audience hit Razorburn Blues – title track to her cult favorite 2008 debut album – into Mississippi hill country Then they did a slow, sad number about a guy who likes stuff like Mad Dog wine more than he ought to, then a whiplash new hill country song, like R.L. Burnside gone acoustic. And that was just the first set. Whatever much time she gets at the Greenwich House gig will be worth the cover. That, and the booze.

Purist Americana in Park Slope with Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell have a lot in common. While each has a devoted following in her own Americana niche – Minch is a blues maven and Cantrell is steeped in vintage country music – they’re fans of each other’s styles and each other’s work. What’s the likelihood of seeing the two charismatic, often mesmerizing performers on the same stage? It happened last night at Union Hall in Park Slope, where Cantrell played the first night of her weekly May residency there. She’ll be playing at around 9 on Tuesdays for the rest of the month, with a rotating selection of special guests opening at around 8. Cover is $10. Shows like this one are why we live in New York, folks.

The room was pretty full by the time Minch hit the stage, solo with her trusty late 30s resonator guitar. She quickly reminded what a connoisseur she is when it comes to songs, and tunings – she used a new one on practically every song – and licks. For a first-class country blues player, she’s very economical, true to her influences. Her version of Mattie Delaney’s Big Road Blues alternated deliciously between a dancing, walking beat and a resonant, spiky shuffle. A little later she reinvented Bessie Smith’s Sing Sing Blues – the unrepentant tale of an abused woman who killed her man – as a chillingly rustic, practically otherworlldly feminist anthem. She also reinvented a handful of her own songs, moving effortlessly from her resonant alto voice to unexpectedly  higher registers on Border Radio, an upbeat, swinging hillbilly ballad dedicaated to the Carter Family; Razorburn Blues, a rapidfire litany of the things women endure for guys who don’t appreciate them; and Fortifiied Wine Widow, a morose Roaring 20s-style lament for a guy who couldn’t stay away from the patent medicine. She’d return later to join Cantrell and her band for a soulful, nuanced duet on Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind, trading off on solos with a similarly nimble, purist guitarist, Boo Reiners. And it was fun to hear the two frontwomen ponder influences, and song origins, out loud between songs, a revealing look at two world-class musicologists in their element

Minch engaged the crowd with plenty of sardonic background for her songs, no surprise since she’s known for being a cutup onstage. But Cantrell can also be LMAO funny when she wants to be, and she was in an even more talkative mood than she usually is. Her funniest story involved the old Civil War song When the Roses Bloom Again – which she and her group played using the melody by Wilco – and a version sung by Barry Gibb. That’s right, a Bee Gee on the Grand Old Opry. The youtube clip is every bit as priceless as Cantrell said it was.

In her family, song collecting is a tradition going back to her great-aunt Ethel, who got credit for a possible edit/update on that song, as well as the murder ballad Poor Ellen Smith, which Cantrell and her sensational four-piece acoustic band with fiddle, Reiners on lead acoustic guitar and banjo and Jeremy Chatzky on bass –  did as a pretty straight-up bluegrass tune.

The set was a mix of fan favorites and expected numbers, like a couple of Amy Allison songs: a joyous take of Can’t Wait and an aptly somber, sober version of The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter as the encore. Cantrell also soared through a lively take of Jenifer Jackson‘s What You Said, then brought the lights down with a stark take of the brooding, ornate breakup ballad No Way There From Here, the title track to Cantrell’s most recent and characteristically brilliant album. She paid tribute to 1940s country hitmaker Molly O’Day with the pensive Mountain Fern and then to her most obvious influence with a robust version of Kitty Wells Dresses. From the jaunty swing of All the Same to You to the Neko Case-style simplicity of Maybe Sparrow, Cantrell worked every corner of her magical, crystalline voice from whispery lows to spectacular highs.

She was a transcendent singer fifteen years ago and she’s even better now, if such a thing can be possible. Arguably the best song of the night was Churches Off the Interstate, an early song from her debut album Not the Tremblin’ Kind, which won her a national following after she’d won over this city. On album, it’s a brisk, buttersweet shuffle. This all-acoustic version was more spare, and bucolic, and haunting: Cantrell seemed to want to clarify that it’s about hope rather than any kind of expectation of a happy ending. In the context of being a concert favorite by someone who used to play it all over what’s now a sometimes unrecognizable East Village, it was heartbreaking. Cantrell’s back here this coming May 12, preceded by a screening of films selected by archivist Russell Scholl. And the next cuople of weeks after, the band will be rejoined by another brilliant guitarist, Jon Graboff. Yeah, Graboff and Reiners on the same stage, that should be something.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Plays a Killer Barbes Show, Then Heads to City Winery

Saturday night at Barbes, resonator guitarist and Americana music maven Mamie Minch played just about every kind of blues except for the cheesy Eric Clapton kind. The co-proprietress of one of the world’s few woman-owned-and-operated instrument repair shops, Brooklyn Lutherie, embodies the fearlessness and charisma of her influences, notably Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. Minch played a couple of their songs, including an absolutely chilling new arrangement of Smith’s Sing Sing Blues, a bitter courtroom drama that resonates just as much today as it must have eighty years ago. Running a line into the PA from her 1937 National steel guitar for otherworldly resonance and extra overtones, she was joined on drums by Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow. The two bantered back and forth, an endless exchange of one-liners that was just about as entertaining as the music: they make a good team. And that extended to the music as well, as the two intertwined harmonies on several numbers.

And while most of the Jalopy-centric acoustic roots scene play covers and traditional material, Minch also writes her own songs, matching oldtime vernacular and lyrical wit to melodies that push beyond the blues scale into edgy acoustic rock territory. She romped restlessly through Razorburn Blues (the title track to her most recent album), a rapidfire litany of ridiculous things women have to endure. A little later she joined voices with Sharenow for a pillowy version of Border Radio, her Carter Family tribute which she had the good fortune to record on wax cylinder a couple of years ago. And she encored with Al Duvall‘s gut-bustingly funny, pun-fueled Kentucky Mermaid, a tale of a woman who has to be especially careful: since she’s a fishwife, she might get battered.

The covers were just as diverse, and gave Minch a chance to get frisky with her fingers through styles from the Mississippi hills, to the delta, to Memphis and points further north. She took her time through the creepy chromatics of Memphis Slim’s ghoulish Back to Mother Earth, then threw off plenty of sparks with a take of R.L. Burnside’s Old Black Mattie. And she took the Stones’ Prodigal Son back to its roots as an anxious number originally penned by Rev. Robert Watkins many years before the Glimmer Twins appropriated it. Between songs, she hummed as she retuned: who needs a digital tuner when all you have to do is sing the pitch?

Minch plays Jan 4 at City Winery at 8 PM on a guitar-rich twinbill with ex-Dylan lead player and fellow Americana purist Larry Campbell, who’s doing a duo show with singer/guitarist Teresa Williams afterward at around 9. General admission is $20 for standing room, more if you want a table