New York Music Daily

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Blackout, Slow Season and Mondo Drag Join Forces for NYC’s Best Triplebill So Far This Year

This has been a great year for doublebills, but the hottest triplebill this blog has witnessed this year happened on the hottest day of the year so far, this past Saturday the 18th at St. Vitus. Blackout opened. They do one thing and one thing very well: slow, doomy, pounding anthems. The Melvins seem to be an obvious influence, but where that band goes for sneering humor, Blackout go into the abyss. Bassist Justin Sherrell ripped crushing, stygian chords from his downtuned J-bass while frontman/guitarist Christian Gordy launched steady, precise, chromatic mortarbomb hits from his Gibson, with an appreciative nod to Tony Iommi, but not in a blatantly derivative way. For such a heavy band, drummer Taryn Waldman is a refreshing change, staying low to the ground, coloring the slow, stalking dirges with smoky cymbal washes instead of the expected brontosaurus thud. And just when it seemed that this band is all about relentless gloom, they’d pick up the pace, doublespeed or triplespeed toward hardcore territory, both Gordy and Sherrell bellowing over the maelstrom. As with the next two bands on the bill, it would have been fun to hear them play twice as long as the barely thirty-five minutes they got onstage.

Slow Season‘s rhythm also went in an unexpected direction, 180 degrees from Blackout. Their unhinged stoner attack looks back to 70s proto-metal, which usually doesn’t have the crushing olympic impact that drummer Cody Tarbell brought to their blistering set. As searing as the guitars of frontman Daniel Rice and David Kent were, it was Tarbell who stole the show with his nimble yet bunkerbuster-scale assault, closing the set with a flurry that matched brute force to completely unexpected elegance. Meanwhile, Hayden Doyel’s blue-smoke, nimbly bluesy basslines and eye-popping octaves enhanced the purist NoCal skunkweed vibe. They opened with a boogie groove that went unexpectedly halfspeed, driven by twin guitar riffage hellbent on setting cities on flame with rock & roll.

Boogies were a major part of the rest of their tantalizingly brief set, like a northern Molly Hatchet taken back in time ten years, and with a snakier rhythm section. Kent’s acidic wah riffs, hazily menacing fuzztone bluesmetal lines and the occasional haphazard Hendrix reference reinforced the 1969-73 ambience: the only difference was that this crowd was vaping rather than smoking up – for the most part, anyway. Kent hit one false ending with a nails-down-the-blackboard slide that was one of the night’s highest points, kicking off the next number by himself, taking his time as he built to an aching, screaming peak before a smirky ba-bump groove kicked in. They wound up with an epic that galloped and swayed through his best and most relentlessly searing solo.

Mondo Drag made a towering, epic, majestic headliner. It was like seeing Atomheart Mother-era Floyd and Nektar on the same bill – although it was Slow Season who blasted through the night’s lone wry quote from the David Gilmour riffbook. Mondo Drag’s signature sound loops a hypnotic, vamping groove, with endlessly shifting, richly dynamic segments from frontman John Gamino’s organ and keys along with the guitars of Nolan Girard and Jake Sheley. The band’s new rhythm section is killer and maybe even an improvement over the old one, who were pretty damn good: bassist Andrew O’Neil played meticulously circular, catchy hooks pretty much nonstop while drummer Ventura Garcia channeled a period-perfect, muted 1975 stoner gallop across a surreal, sometimes menacing landscape.

One dynamic that the group worked for a towering, dynamic intensity was Gamino’s smoky, gothic chords grounding the music a la Richard Wright while the guitars played aching, searing, angst-fueled sheets overhead, taking on the Gilmour role. Other songs were fueled by punchy, galloping Nektar-style triplets. That band’s influence – the hard-charging crescendos of Remember the Future, the distantly crushing elegaic quality of It’s All Over and the swaying steamroller attack of Journey to the Center of the Eye – made itself apparent everywhere. Creepily twinkling night-sky Fender Rhodes interludes, tersely biting Arabic-tinged guitar-and-organ passages and endless vamps punctuated by mournfully airy guitar atmospherics and some neat call-and-response between guitars and keys were just part of the picture. As the show went on, an atmosphere of slightly restrained panic and subdued horror underpinned everything. as tempos and metrics shifted, the bass circling like a vulture. At the end of the set, Gamino’s vocals finally took on a somber, resigned, apocalyptic quality. All this justified risking death by dehydration: just try powerwalking through the Greenpoint ghetto all the way back from Clay Street to the L at Bedford, weighted down with a heavy toolbag and workboots in 110 degree heat, and see how you hold up.

Orkesta Mendoza Bring Their Desert Noir to Lincoln Center

Orkesta Mendoza are connoiseurs of noir. A lot of what’s lurking in the shade of that big black umbrella takes its origins from the Balkans, Romany and Jewish music, notably hi-de-ho jazz and its descendants in ghoulabilly and elsewhere. But a lot of noir comes from south of the border. For bandleader/guitarist/keyboardist Sergio Mendoza, none of those styles are off limits: slithery mambos, funereal boleros and towering, angst-fueled, cinematic rancheras, to name a few. He and his sizzling band – which can vary in size from a six-piece to a full orchestra – take those styles and mash them up into stampeding, lushly and exhilaratingly arranged psychedelic rock. They’re playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors, out back in Damrosch Park on July 29 at 7 PM. You should get there early if you want a seat.

The group’s most recent New York appearance was last year at South Sttreet Seaport, with a roughly ten-piece lineup including a horn section. Mendoza’s songs, whether originals or covers, tend to be expansive and go on for sometimes ten minutes or more – they redeem the concept of a jamband. This time out, in roughly forty-five minutes onstage, there wasn’t time for a lot wild improvisation, altough the group made those moments count. Mendoza played mostly acoustic guitar, shifting to the organ for just a single number. The star of this particular show was lapsteel player Joe Novelli, who played with a searing, chromatically-fueled fury. This wasn’t western swing – it was el diablo del desierto teleported from the netherland where Ambrose Bierce disappeared.

Baritone saxophonist Marco Rosano also distinguished himself and played keys on a couple of songs as well – lots of guys in this band double on several instruments. The most haunting song of the afternoon was Dulce Amor, a menacing bolero sung with drama and passion by Mexican cult favorite crooner Salvador Duran. Another similarly ominous, more upbeat minor key number was Mambo Mexicano, a springboard for several sizzling solos from throughout the band.

There was also a pricelessly hilarious moment. After the bass player led the group into a slinky psychedelic cumbia groove, Mendoza began it in English. It didn’t have much in the way of lyrics, and it turned out to be just a one-chord jam – but the band made it interesting. And when they got to the chorus, when Mendoza deadpanned “Don’t tell me that you love me,” it turned out that this was a Fleetwood Mac cover, Tusk, the 1979 hit that might be the most soporific song ever to reach the top 40. Fewer people in the crowd than you might expect got the joke – then again, 1979 was a long time ago, and it’s not likely that number gets a lot of corporate radio airplay anymore. For their last song, the group brought up whirlwind accordionist Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica – who’d opened the afternoon with his band – raising the energy several notches. The only drawback about this show was that it was relatively short, but at Lincoln Center, artists typically get about a full hour onstage.

Intense, Evocative, Ruggedly Individualistic Acoustic Americana from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Kansas City duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear sound like no other band on the planet. They’re both a trip back to a land to a time forgot, and completely in the here and now. And their music is amazing. Forget for a sec that they may be darlings of NPR and the corporate media because they’re a mom and her kid making music together. Ohhhh, how sweeeet, right? No. Ruth Ward is a badass guitarist, so is her son Madisen. And their allusively erudite songs can be catchy beyond belief, distilled in two hundred years of front-porch folk, and country blues, and oldschool C&W and soul music. But while their influences may be retro, what they’re doing with them is something brand new and genuinely exciting. They haven’t played New York since an absolutely riveting invite-only show in the meatpacking district back in May; by the time they hit Joe’s Pub on July 27 at 7:30 PM, they’ll be a couple of days removed from the Newport Folk Festival, and then they’re off to a marathon European tour. Cover for the Joe’s Pub gig is $15 and advance tix are still available as of today, believe it or not.

Their new album Skeleton Crew is streaming at Spotify. The steady, bouncy but enigmatic opening track, Live by the Water, sets the tone for the rest of the album. On the surface, it’s told from the point of view of an older guy who can’t get enough simple pleasures…but is also all too aware of what he doesn’t have. The devil’s in the details everywhere here.

The monster hit waiting to happen is the ragtime-tinged Silent Movies, mother and son’s strums building a lush bed of guitars in perfect unison. Mom echoes son’s vocals; throughout the album, it’s impossible to tell who’s playing the spare lead lines, the two are so committed to staying on track, not overdoing it, simply reflecting a mood, or the storyline. This is deep stuff.

Modern Day Mystery has a careful, moody minor-key sway. “I could never leave this place gracefully,” Madisen explains casually, and then draws the listener in from there. “When I leave this house, I couldn’t disappear if I tried.”

The two weave a spiderweb of guitars on the delicately waltzing Dead Daffodils, a creepy, Faulknerian southern gothic tableau. Then they go back toward ragtime with Whole Lotta Problems and its droll, aphoristic call-and-response. Fight On rises from intricate and enigmatic to lush and sweeping, with a 70s soul-jazz tinge. By contrast, Big Yellow Taxi – an original, not the Joni Mitchell hit – is an irrepressibly bouncy, bittersweet portrait of a homeless guy.

Daisy Jane is the most musically lighthearted number here, followed by the most chillingly allusive one, Undertaker and Juniper. By the Wards’ reckoning, even executioners fall in love…and suffer the consequences. Down in Mississippi features stark cello along with terse guitar multitracks, a troubled Jim Crow-era tableau echoed in the understatedly majestic, gospel-tinged Sorrows and Woes. Be the first on your block to be able to brag that you discovered this inimitable duo.

A Rare NYC Show and Some New Tunes From the Brilliantly Surreal Balkan/Japanese Dolomites

True to his Romany-Japanese heritage, accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Stevhen Koji Iancu’s band the Dolomites play a surreal, distinctive mashup of Balkan and Japanese folk sounds. And psychedelic cumbias, and surf music, and creepy instrumentals that sound like video game themes from the 80s. There is no other band in the world remotely like them, due in part to Iancu’s genre-warping vision, and also to the rotating cast of characters in the group – it’s safe to say he’s got a deep address book. That may be due as much to his previous work with Gogol Bordello and Balkan Beat Box as his inimitable, individualistic style. The Dolomites make a rare New York appearance toinght, July 24, headlining a carnivalesque quadruplebill at around 11 PM at Bizarre Bar, 12 Jefferson St. in Bushwick: take the J/M to Myrtle Ave. Vaudevillian New Orleans oldtimey swing band the Slick Skillet Serenaders open the night at 8, followed by rustic folk noir group Outlaw Ritual and then bluegrass fiddle act Kaatskillachia. Cover is $10.

The band’s latest release is an ep, The Japan Years, Vol. 1, comprising material from 2006 through 2009. It’s the first in a series of three short albums due out over the summer, chronicling the band’s output through 2014. This one’s all-acoustic, just accordion, bass, percussion and vocals – and tuba on one of the tracks as well. The first, meaning “don’t give up” in Japanese, sets the stage, a phantastmagoricl, eerily Satie-esque accordion march, Iancu throwing in some throat-singing for extra global bizarreness. The second, titled simply Why, makes a slinky cumbia out of a carnivalesque Romany tune and almost imperceptily accelerates to warp speed. The next number is ostensibly a rumba, a dark, dramatic Cuban theme muted and spun over a wryly pulsing, cumbia-tinged groove. The slyly shufling final track, meaning “splash,’ is closer to cumbia. Fun, catchy, beguiling stuff, and you don’t have to speak Japanese or Romanes to dance to it. Watch this space for the second and third installments in the series, which will no doubt be up at Bandcamp at some point along with the rest of the Dolomites’ eclectic catalog, this one included.

40Twenty Explore Moody Depths and Raucously Funny Postbop Jazz at Seeds in Brooklyn

It was about midway through jazz quartet 40Twenty’s performance last night at Seeds that bassist Dave Ambrosio took a purposeful, moodily strolling solo. As pianist Jacob Sacks played judiciously plaintive chords and the occasional flyswatter accent, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza got his floor tom crackling almost like a bass cab with a loose cone. Building a series of surrealistically altered press rolls, he was damned if he wasn’t going to max out the mystery, the perfect level of rattle and hum. You, too, would have been transfixed if you’d been there. Moments like that make it all worthwhile, justifying the shlep all the way out to what’s essentially an unairconditioned brownstone building foyer in what used to be deep Brooklyn and has become more and more Notbrooklyn.

40Twenty take their name from the golden-age jazz club tradition of playing a (frequently exhausting) series of sets, forty minutes onstage, twenty minutes off and so forth. But that’s as retro as the quartet gets. All the band members write, including trombonist Jacob Garchik, whose job in this crew is low-key, lyrical frontman. True to their name, their two sets, timed almost down to the second, explored the band’s two contrasting sides. The first was hauntingly resonant, neoromantically-colored themes. The night’s best number was one of those, a wounded, modal, slowly anthemic piece that built to a flurry of a false ending…and then the band took it doublespeed, swung the hell out of it and basically turned it inside out when Garchik and then Ambrosio aired out their variations on it. The other was another slow one, less overtly wounded but just as purposeful, where Garchik took charge of maintaining the overcast mood.

Much as this group looks back to Mad Men-era postbop, they don’t imitate it: the blues for them are more an allusion than any kind of statement one way or the other. The other side of their music involves deconstructing swing, especially in terms of metrics, and it’s here where they can be devastatingly funny. In fact, their jokes are too good to give away. One frequent jape involves beats that seem random but probably aren’t. Another is good old-fashioned jousting. There was one point where one band member (to tell you who it was would be a spoiler: you really should go and see for yourself) egged his bandmate on, the defensive player took his eye off the ball and the aggressor then went in for a slam-dunk that got everybody in the band laughing: especially the guy who’d allowed it. Maybe the funniest moment of all of them involved repetition and how much a band – or an audience – can stand.

This is an overgeneralization, but the upper-register side of the band – Sacks and Sperrazza – tend to be the cutups, and the guys on the low end – Garchik and Ambrosio – the serious ones. Although they all varied their roles, Garchik lightening up at the very end in a blithe swing romp as Sacks showed off some wicked chops with a breathtaking, lickety-split, precise series of cascades. He could play Liszt well, if he wanted to. But he probably finds this kind of music more interesting. And the cameraderie between the guys is familiar, and insightful: even during a more-or-less free interlude during the first number, everybody was listening, and waiting til there was a clear path to the basket to lay their shots in. 40Twenty are two nights into their five-night stand at Seeds, 617 Vanderbilt Ave. between Bergen and St. Mark’s; take the 2 or 3 to Bergen or the B/Q to Seventh Ave. Their shows tonight, July 24 and the next two nights start around 8:30; cover is just ten bucks.

Ruby the Hatchet Headline a Killer Triplebill at the Acheron

One thing that jumps out at you when you take a look at what’s happening out of town is that New York hardly has a monopoly on good multiple-band bills. For example, back on the 17th, intense Philadelphia psychedelic metal band Ruby the Hatchet played on a hometown quadruplebill with a couple of the bands – Slow Season and Mondo Drag – who SLAYED at St. Vitus this past Saturday. More about that inspiring night here momentarily. In the meantime, Ruby the Hatchet have moved on to a kick-ass triplebill, headlining at around 10 at the Acheron on July 24. Excellent retro 70s stoner band the Golden Grass – who add boogie and some unexpected blues to their riff-driven attack – play beforehand at around 9. The eclectic, interesting Iyez – who blend dreampop and noisy postrock into their reverbtoned lo-fi assault – open the night at 8. Cover is $10

Ruby the Hatchet’s new album, Valley of the Snake, is streaming at Bandcamp. It opens with Heavy Blanket, Sean Hur’s organ rising out of the mist, introducing Michael Parise’s galloping bass, then the rest of the group – guitarist John Scarps, drummer Owen Stewart and frontwoman Jillian Taylor – kick in. The vibe brings to mind early Maiden, back when they were more straightforward, less artsy. That, or Deep Purple without the hippie-dippy bullshit.

The second track, Vast Acid goes in the same direction, a catchy, swaying anthem fueled by Scarps’ terse multitracks. Taylor’s vocals are strong, with a bent, bluesy edge, but not going over the edge into Janis Joplin cliches. “I will cut you down, down, down,” is the mantra.

Tomorrow Never Comes, the album’s best track, is a haunting, apocalyptic, practically nine-minute epic, teasing the listener with a flamenco-tinged guitar intro before Scarps’ crushing riffage takes over and then eventually hits a cruelly stampeding pulse. Hur’s atmospheric keys are a neat touch. Mos Generator’s classic The Late, Great Planet Earth is a good comparison.

The Unholy Behemoth looks straight back to Sabbath, slow and doomy before it picks up with Iommi-style, bludgeoning blues riffage: it’s a trip to hear a woman singing this stuff. Ozzy, eat your heart out! Likewise, Taylor’s ominous harmonies max out the ethereal menace in the briskly pulsing, Blue Oyster Cult-ish Demons. It would make a good, heavier segue with, say, Burning For You. The album’s final cut is the title track, wryly making jangly psych-folk out of a very familiar Beatles theme before it rises toward Led Zep grandeur. One of the coolest things about this is that you can get it on cassette for the bargain price of $6.66. No joke.

Epic Psychedelic Grooves and a Williamsburg Show by Fly Golden Eagle

Nashville psychedelic band Fly Golden Eagle have two versions of their album Quartz. The first is an epic 26-track double album streaming at Bandcamp. The second, whittled down to a dozen tracks, maybe for lazy bloggers, is called Quartz Bijou. But the hell with laziness: this band’s put so much creative energy into making these songs, it’s only fair to give them a listen, right? The band is in the midst of a summer US tour (dates here), with a gig at Brooklyn Bowl on July 23 at 8 PM opening one of the year’s most bizarre triplebills. Cover is $15; it’s highly unlikely that you’ll want to stick around afterward for a generically pigsnorting death-metal act followed by the G-rated, squeaky-clean fauxgrass band after them. What was the booking agent here smoking when he put this bill together?

Other than the purist, oldschool production, the full album’s not-so-secret weapon is Mitch Jones’ organ: it gives the songs a surrreal, distantly sinister edge that a lot of retro psych bands go for but miss out on. Many of the songs have a shapeshifting, cinematic quality, which makes sense considering that the album ostensibly follows the trajectory of an obscure 70s film, The Holy Mountain, which was produced by Beatles manager Allen Klein and financed by John Lennon and George Harrison. The opening track, Can’t Leave You Alone is a scampering mid-60s garage rock vamp, like the Seeds with better production values. You Look Good to Me has an Afrobeat horn intro, rises from slinky hard funk to a summery early 70s stoner rock interlude and peaks out as ecstagic gospel-funk. They go back to a catchy reverbtoned psych-rock sway for Horse’s Mouth, with an organ-and-bass-fueled early 70s midwestern boogie passage at the end. Stepping Stone – an original, not the Monkees hit or a punked-out cover – makes Brian Jonestown Massacre-style psych out of a gospel-rock riff.

White Lighter hints at creepy desert rock before it hits a funk-tinged sway spiced by frontman Ben Trimble’s spiky, offcenter guitar riffage, then goes in more of a stoner soul direction. Nimble bassist Rick Alessio and drummer Richard Harper elevate the warm oldschool soul groove Monolith above the level of generic, then the band abruptly segues into the hard-edged, riff-rocking vignette Lotus Island.

Magic Steven goes back to the catchy 60s psych vibe, Alessio’s dancing, melodic lines intertwining with the organ, up to a noisy, atmospheric outro. Song for Aphrodite follows a slow, vampy Highway 61 blues tangent. Ronnie is arguably the catchiest and edgiest track so far, with its major-minor changes and big anthemic hooks. They follow that with West Minister College, a briskly pulsing, practically motorik groove straight out of an acid movie like The Trip.

Tangible Intangible is a swayingly hypnotic backbeat psych-soul groove, echoey keys trade glimmering shades with the guitar. The only hint that this wasn’t recorded in 1974 is the woozy low-register portamento synth solo. Heady Ways keeps the stoner groove going, but with a creepy blues feel over a fuzztone loop from Alessio. Machine Burger, a short, swirly, ambient instrumental follows that, then Medicine Hat, a mashup of C&W and vintage soul, a trippier take on what the Band was doing around that time – at least until they hit a smoky fuzztone break.

Boychild Ghost is a psychedelic take on lush late 60s soul-jazz, with another snarlingly terse fuzztone solo from Trimble. By now, the songs have grown longer and trippier, with a darker undercurrent probably to match the film: the soaring, pulsingly climactic gospel-soul theme Tehuacana is a prime example. The even more expansive Superior Circle builds troubled, echoey ambience around a pounding, early Who-influenced riff. After more swirly atmospherics, the band reacjes one of the album’s catchiest points with Couched in Twos: with less soulful, oldschool production values, it could be a Snoop Dogg backing track..

Alessio’s Motown bassline pushes The Death Myth against some unexpected polyrhythms and atmospherics, up to a jaggedly incisive Trimble solo. Double Vision has a stomping, minor-key Paint It Black drive. Sugar on My Tongue brings back the dark stoner soul, but also offers a seriously LOL moment midway through.

Walking On the Line is a Texas boogie as the 13th Floor Elevators might have done it. The Slider has an amped-up early 60s R&B feel that reminds of the early Pretty Things. Es Muss Sein has more of a bittersweet stoner soul groove, until it goes doublespeed and menacing. The untitled concluding track, the longest and fittingly strongest one here, follows a slow, slinky Country Joe & the Fish acid rock trajectory, plaintive guitar and keys echoing over funereal organ. To steal a phrase from the Cake Shop calendar, you made it to the end, yaay! What a fun album this was to listen to in the wee hours! One caveat: this is for smokers, not drinkers. Maintaining a reasonable pace, you’ll go through a magnum before Fly Golden Eagle’s magnum opus is over.

A Characteristically Rapturous Album and a Rare Outdoor Show by Magical Singer Kiran Ahluwalia

Singer Kiran Ahluwalia is one of the world’s great musical individualists. Her cool, clear, lustrous vocals are distinctive, blending the soaring peaks and hairpin-turn melismas of Indian music with the introspection of Pakistani ghazals. She’s carved out a niche for herself as a cross-pollinator, a woman of Indian extraction singing Pakistani and Malian melodies. Her latest album, Sanata: Stillness is streaming at Spotify, and she has a rare outdoor show on July 22 at 7 PM at Madison Square Park.

Ahluwalia’s not-so-secret weapon on the new album is her husband, guitarist Rez Abbasi, who does a one-man Tinariwen impersonation with his bristling pull-offs and spark-shedding, minutely nuanced, reverbtoned rhythm. That should come as no surprise, since Abbasi’s playing can be as protean as his wife’s vocals – and also because Ahluwalia featured Tinariwen on her previous album. The opening track sets the stage perfectly, an undulating, mystical Saharan groove, Ahluwalia’s Punjabi vocals sailing over her bandmates’ practically sinister low harmonies. Throughout the album, Nikku Nayar and Rich Brown take turns on bass, each contributing tersely tasteful low end. Nitin Mitta plays tabla, Mark Duggan alternates between vibraphone and percussion and Kiran Thakrar adds color with his harmonium.

Jaane Na – meaning “Nobody Knows” – is a scrambling, scurrying, funk-tinged number, a metaphorically-charged contemplation of personal demons and how to conquer them; it’s a lot closer to Abbasi’s brand of spiky guitar jazz than anything Ahluwalia has done up to this point. The guitarist’s meticulous multitracks give the the anthemic, subtly crescendoing title track – a wistful breakup ballad – a slow simmer. He grounds Tamana – an anthem for living with impunity – in nebulously jazz-tinged chords, matching Ahluwalia’s wary midrange and gentle melismatics.

Ahluwalia sings vocalese on Hum Dono, a minimalist progressive jazz sketch. The first of the two covers here is Jhoom, a qawwali drinking anthem reinvented as duskcore; the other is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Lament, done as a psychedelic epic, part 90s trip-hop, part Pink Floyd.

Taskeen opens with a swirly harmonium improvisation and builds slowly and carefully, with judiciously biting Middle Eastern tings; it’s an original setting of a poem sbout not being jealous of your significant other’s past lovers. The last of the originals is the enigmatically fluttering, folk-rock tinged Qaza:

The truth of the heart has many doors
Some open some don’t
Don’t get lost in them

Who is the audience for this? Anyone who likes to get lost in the mystical sound of ghazals or hypnotic Saharan guitar bands, and for that matter anyone looking for a moment of elegant sonic serenity.

A Brand-New Live Album and a Rare Small Club Date by the Irrepressible Dustbowl Revival

The Dustbowl Revival‘s New York show on the 21st is a classic case of a national touring act who are huge on the road being squeezed into a smaller room than they’re accustomed to. Where is the mighty, exhilarating, sardonically original oldtime Americana band playing? The Beacon Theatre? Radio City? Bowery Ballroom? Nope. Union Hall, up the block from Key Food in Park Slope. They hit the stage at 8:30; cover is a measly $8.

This band defines itself with its sense of humor: even the band name is funny. Who would ever want to revive an invasion of starving Okies with mattresses on top of their cars? The group has a live album – which more bands should be making – titled With a Lampshade On, due out monentarily. The title track, fueled by Daniel Mark’s mandolin and Connor Vance’s fiddle, is a characteristically lickety-split punkgrass romp, a litany of things you basically shouldn’t be doing, with or without drunken headgear. The other track from the album that’s up online is Never Had to Go, a bouncy acoustic take on oldschool 50s C&W sung by uke and washboard player Liz Beebe.

Another of this band’s distinguishing characteristics is that they’re the rare string band with a horn section, which adds extra brightness and energy. That’s Matt Rubin on trumpet and Ulf Bjorlin on trombone. The remainder of the album hasn’t hit the group’s Bandcamp page along with the rest of their exuberant catalog; bookmark the link and check back soon. Interestingly, it’s a departure from the band’s earlier material – the vernacular is less antique (mid 20th century rather than 1920s and before) and the sound is beefier, maybe as a result. For example, Hey Baby is a lot more electric and expansive than the band usually gets, a swaying New Orleans-flavored funk number. The version of Old Joe Clark here amps up the shuffling, oldtime proto-bluegrass vibe with the punchiness of the brass. Speaking of brass, that’s what Beebe brings to the 60s-style soul number Feels Good, which also has long trumpet and trombone solos. And frontman Zach Lupetin plays electric guitar on another sweetly swaying oldschool soul ballad, Standing Next To Me

Ballad of the Bellhop is one of the band’s usual funny stories set to jaunty oldtimey swing, the droll muted brass lines matching the mood. Bright Lights is a brand new genre, a narcobolero, pulsing along with a slinky groove from drummer Joshlyn Heffernan and bassist James Klopfleisch. After that, the band picks up the pace with Cherokee Shuffle, a mashup of bluegrass and western swing, then takes it back down again with the slow-simmering, dixieland-spiced kiss-off ballad Doubling Down On You.

Ain’t My Fault is a New Orleans second-line shuffle with what sounds like a tapdancing solo from Lupetin that the crowd goes wild for – this is one of those rare moments when you wish the album was a DVD. They go into hi-do-ho noir for the brisk Drop in the Bucket, then slow things down with the sly soul slink Wrapped up in My Heart. They wind things up with Whiskey in the Well, a high-spirited dixieland romp. Where their studio albums are more about stories, and jokes, and sometimes satire, this one’s more about the music – which makes sense for a concert recording.

Rachel Mason’s Epic New Folk Noir Album Traces Two Twisted Historical Narratives

In addition to her work in film, video and performance art, Rachel Mason is one of the most entertaining artists in art-rock. An edgy surrealism, a laser sense for catchy tunes and a spot-on political sensibility define her work. She’s performed pieces which recreate a Rand Paul thirteen-hour filibuster in its entirety, sent shout-outs to freedom fighters in Chechnya and to inspirations as disparate as Beyonce and Marina Abramovic. Mason’s latest project is an ambitious film where she plays the role of a newspaper editor whose imagination is sparked by the January 15, 1936 deaths of two historical figures, both named Hamilton Fish. One is a New York State congressman and the most minor figure in a prominent political family, the other a sadistic serial killer and self-described cannibal executed in the Sing Sing electric chair. The accompanying double album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish is streaming at Bandcamp.  Mason has a couple of intriguing shows coming up: on July 21 at 7:30 PM sharp at Anthology Film Archives, she’ll be singing to accompany the film. Then on July 26 at 7 PM, Mason will playing the album with her band and countertenor M. Lamar at Joe’s Pub. General admission is $15, but advance tix are a good idea because it’s likely to sell out.

This is one creepy album. There are a grand total of twenty-one tracks on Mason’s folk noir magnum opus, mostly just reverbtoned acoustic guitar and vocals. Mason has really done her homework, filling out the narrative in rich detail. For example, in the opening cut, Two Strangers, Mason alludes to the many sewing pins that the killer Fish inserted into his abdomen…and also references the most likely apocryphal stash of cash that his shady Republican county boss namesake buried in the woods somewhere in New England. Mason’s voice is richly nuanced, depending on the song; sometimes muted and somber, sometimes horrified and reaching for the rafters with a spine-tingling, dramatic edge, as on The Werewolf of Wisteria, one of the monickers given to the sadomasochistic Fish in the contemporary press.

Likewise, the music is typically somber and minor-key as a lurid crime chronicle takes centerstage. On one hand, Mason doesn’t downplay the grisly, hallucinatory storyline, but she also doesn’t deny dignity to the victims, many of them children. And there’s plenty of sympathy here for the tortured orphan who would later turn his demons loose on the world – he claimed to have killed, dismembered and eaten more than a hundred victims, a claim that’s been subject to plenty of dispute. Mason also poignantly reminds that an innocent man was tried – and acquitted – for one of Fish’s crimes.

The sarcasm rises to fever pitch in A Distinguished Line, contemplating the irony in how history remembers a mass murderer better than the undistinguished scion of a Republican political fortune. Mason’s sarcasm is crushing: “I sang soprano in the little boys’ choir, and the things they did to me made my voice grow higher,” she sings in Wild Fish, a broodingly subdued chronicle of the killer’s horrific childhood. Mason really works the mystery – despite the two central characters’ divergent life stories, sometimes it’s hard to tell which Fish Mason is talking about. Throughout the album, two other similarly brilliant, historically-inspired songwriters, Robin Aigner and Elisa Flynn often come to mind. The arrangements occasionally get more fleshed out, encompassing creepy Alec Redfearn-esque organ-fueled psychedelia and shuffling Americana or 80s goth-tinged rock.

And what of the largely forgotten upstate New York politico? There’s a happy ending here, at least on his side. While not addressed on the album, Hamilton Fish V – the last of the line, Hamilton-wise – redeemed the name, turning the family’s Republican legacy on its axis, becoming a prime mover behind the resurgence of the influential progressive weekly The Nation. After springboarding a respected think tank and independent media center, the Nation Institute, Fish V now runs a consultancy that aids environmentally sustainable businesses. At least that’s what he does when he’s not growing organic produce.

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