Jack Grace was a good lead guitarist ten years ago. He’s a brilliant one now. Twenty years of constant touring will do that to you. Grace is best known for his surreal, LMFAO sense of humor and his funny songs that veer from exuberant vintage C&W, to Waits noir blues, to simmering southwestern gothic anthems. Leading a trio last night at Barbes, Grace put on a clinic in sizzling guitar and Americana songcraft. This was his latin set, propelled by drummer Russ Meissner’s expertly accented shuffle grooves. A flick of the cymbals, a rattle of the traps, a sudden gunshot rimshot, he made them all count. And maybe just coincidentally, it was a bittersweetly nostalgic show, at least as far as evoking the days ten years ago when Grace was booking the old Rodeo Bar, and could be found playing Lakeside Lounge on random Saturday nights when he wasn’t on the road.
They opened with Put on Your Shoes, Moonshine, a pensive, lyrically torrential desert rock anthem. Next was a boisterous trucker song peppered with filthy CB slang, the song’s chatty narrator wasting no time in explaining that the parking lot he’s spending the night is is so lame that the only hooker working it is a guy. “People that I can’t relate to don’t understand my ways.” Grace groused in Don’t Wanna Work Today, an uneasy, bluesy, minor-key Tex-Mex number.
“This next song is about snorting cocaine in the bathroom. There are plenty of places where you can do cocaine…but here in New York, the bathroom is where we do it,” Grace deadpanned in his cat-ate-the-canary, Johnny Cash-influenced baritone and then launched into Cry, a brooding minor-key cha-cha that swung from sly drug-fueled optimism to the despondency that sets in like a giant cat over the city the afternoon after a night of too many lines and too much tekillya. Speaking of which, he played his own version of Tequila – a dancing border-rock tune, not the surf rock instrumental – where the “lie, lie, lie” of the chorus spoke for itself.
The trio moved methodically from the muted country anomie of South Dakota to the sparse minor-key Waits blues strut Sugarbear. Throughout the set, Grace segued into deadpan country verses of familiar Led Zep songs, a trope he’s been working for years, more now since his side project Van Hayride – known for their even funnier covers of pre-Sammy Hagar Van Halen and other loud, cheesy stuff from the 80s – is temporariliy on the shelf. One of the night’s funniest moments was when Grace his his flange pedal, and without missing a beat, segued into a note-for-note cover of Pink Floyd’s Breathe, complete with a searing, doublespeed, savagely tremolo-picked guitar solo that would have made David Gilmour jealous.
The title track to Grace’s forthcoming album Everything I Say Is a Lie turned out to be a slowly swaying mashup of doo-wop, early 70s Willie Nelson and late 60s Jimmy Web balladry. Been So Long Since I Bothered to Think, an unselfconsciously haunting ba-bump bolero reminded just how dark and intense Grace can get when he’s in the mood. “In middle school I learned to criticize, the world’s broken down and compromised, “ he lamented – and then took a hit of beer and gargled a couple of choruses. Nobody can ever say this guy’s not entertaining.
The band went back to pensive, rustically bluesy ambience with Rotary Phone, a brooding, metaphorically loaded tale about getting old and out of touch, then some comic relief with a wry medley of Zep, Nirvana and Doors riffs. The set continued with a seriously bizarre C&W version of a Talking Heads song, then the absurdist mariachi funk of It Was a Really Bad Year – “A song that gets a lot of airplay this time of the year,” Grace mused – then a moody, pretty straight-up cover of Hank Williams’ I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. They closed with Big Bear, an electrified bluegrass tune from the film Super Troopers. Grace is at Coyote Ugly Saloon on First Ave. just south of 10th St. – who have bands now – on December 29 at around 9, then he’s playing a New Year’s Eve show in Saratoga Springs and returns to Coyote Ugly on January 5.