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Tag: pete cenedella

Shattering Acoustic Songs and Defiant Rock Anthems Side By Side on the Lower East

“The most depressing music ever!” That’s how one of the members of high-voltage rockers Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts introduced his bandmate, singer Erica Smith at the Treehouse at 2A a couple of weekends ago. But much as Smith’s shattering, nuanced voice and painterly lyrics deal almost exclusively with dark topics, her songs actually aren’t depressing at all. She’s all about transcendence. Which is what dark music is all about, right? If everything was hopeless, why bother? The real torment is the lure of something better, and Smith channels that hope against hope better than just about anyone alive.

Her career as one of the leading lights of a still-vital Lower East Side Americana scene in the late zeros took a couple of hits, first with the loss of her drummer, the late, great Dave Campbell, then the demands of job and motherhood. Since then, she hasn’t exactly been inactive, but her gigs have been more sporadic: we can’t take her for granted anymore. Playing solo acoustic, she was all the more unselfconsciously intense for the sparseness and directness of the songs.

As usual, her imagery was loaded. Glances exchanged, unspoken, almost buckled under the weight of a pivotal twist of fate. A surreal, dissociative stare up into bright lights could have been a prelude to a grisly interrogation…or just a particularly anxious moment as seen from a hospital bed. That reference came early during the night’s best song, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding waltz ending with a scenario that could have been either an Eric Garner parable, one with broader, antiwar implications, or both. Otherwise, she strummed and nimbly fingerpicked her way through styles from austere front-porch folk to vintage soul to minimalist rock.

But Smith is hardly all about gloom and doom: she has a fun side. The solo set made a stark contrast with her turn out in front of the band, through a smoldering take of group leader/guitarist Pete Cenedella’s mighty, steamy oldschool soul ballad, Hand to Lend, which quickly became a launching pad for belting and torchy melismatics to rival Aretha. Nobody sings a soul anthem like Smith: we may have lost Sharon Jones, but we still have this elusive performer.

Cenedella got his start fronting the highly regarded American Ambulance, whose ferocious populism and interweave of Stonesy rock with what was then called alt-country won them a national following. But musically speaking, this latest group’s musicianship rivals any outfit he’s been involved with.

Drummer David Anthony’s matter-of-factly swinging four-on-the-floor groove and bassist Ed Iglewski’s trebly, melodic lines underpinned lead guitarist Rich Feridun’s incisively terse fills and Charly CP Roth’s rivers of organ. Alongside Cenedella, the harmony vocal trio of Smith, Lisa Zwier and Rembert Block spun elements of Motown, Tina Turner soul and Balkan gothic into an uneasily silken sheen.

The songs in the group’s first set (this blog went AWOL for the second one) rock just as hard as Cenedella’s most electric earlier material, and if anything, are more anthemic than ever. The addition of the organ along with a frequent 60s soul influence often brought to mind peak-era Springsteen at his most ornate: Gaslight Anthem, eat your heart out.

The catchiest and most danceable number was a slinky go-go-strut, The Getaround. The most straightforwardly poignant, in a mix of songs with persistent themes of heartbreak and crawling from the wreckage afterward, was the imagistic Skies Can’t Decide. Setting the stage with the catchy, defiant Down Harder Roads and Turning of the Wheel worked out well, considering the fireworks, both loud and quiet, which followed.

Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts are currently in the midst of recording a lavish double album, so they ought to be playing out a lot more. And Smith is at Otto’s on Nov 1 at 7 PM with Beatlesque soul band Nikki & the Human Element

The Dirty Rollers Pick Up Where Americana Rock Cult Favorites American Ambulance Left Off

American Ambulance seem pretty much finished at this point. But what a ride they had. The New York Americana rockers burned hard for the better part of fifteen years before finally going on hiatus at the end of last year.With a fearlessly populist political sensibility in reaction to the terror of the Bush/Cheney years, they became a lot less country and a lot harder-rocking as the past decade went by.

These days lead guitarist Scott Aldrich is in Rhode Island, and bassist Tim Reedy is plenty busy with his own music. But frontman/guitarist Pete Cenedella and drummer Joe Dessereau are keeping things going as the core of their new band the Dirty Rollers. They’ll be playing a characteristically marathon set starting at 7:30 PM at Hifi Bar on May 18 with plenty of special guests including darkly transcendent singer Erica Smith. Cenedella also promises a number of deviously chosen cover tunes.

Last October at the Treehouse at 2A, American Ambulance played what might have been the band’s final Manhattan show. And it wasn’t sad – it was a pretty wild night. They didn’t waste any time opening with one of the evening’s best numbers, a pouncing blue-flame late-night outlaws-on-the-run scenario, with a long, uneasily minor-key organ solo from guest keyboardist Charly Roth. Cenedella opened the next tune with just vocals and guitar, all tension and expectancy, fueled by Dessereau’s spring-loaded beat,  Aldrich blasting through a couple of terse, vintage Keith Richards-style solos.

Reedy sang the next number, a mashup of classic four-on-the-floor barroom rock and restlessly opaque 90s Wilco: “So many things to forget about,” he intoned sardonically. They shifted gears after that, Roth on piano with the witheringly sarcastic Hey Richard Nixon, the political track that the Stones should have recorded on Exile on Main Street. Memory is a little sketchy on this one – listening back to an audience recording, that similarly smoldering backing vocal section sounds like Smith and her friend in belting soul intensity, Lizzie Edwards.

Down in the Basement, a fond look back at a 70s adolescence spent raising hell back when Brooklyn was a lot grittier, was slower than the band usually did it, Roth’s river of organ adding an extra tinge of pensiveness and soul. He did the same with the number after that after that, a towering, Stonesy soul ballad, Shimmering Rain, fueled by the explosive, gospel-infused crescendos of the backing choir as they took a turn out front. Cenedella went back on the mic as the band ripped through a blistering take of the Beatles’ She Said She Said; later Reedy led the group through a lickety-split, raging cover of Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.

Aldrich’s unhinged bent-note attack against the lush washes of Roth’s organ drove the big anthem after that, a deliriously fond reminiscence of escaping Long Island suburban anomie for Manhattan revelry, a Yes concert (who knew?) and good weed. With the organ at full throttle, Mary Ann Is Hanging On sounded like the Wallflowers on steroids. Then they went back to the honkytonk-inspired flavor of the band’s early years, Roth adding an oldschool Nashville edge on piano behind Aldrich’s slinky lines: :”Silence is the worst thing of all,” Cenedella railed. It’s a good bet they new band will pull out some of these on Wednesday night.

Young Marble Giants on Both Sides of the Pond

What’s the most unlikely band reunion ever? The Velvet Underground? Or when Pink Floyd got back together for that live tv cameo? How about this August 27 at 7:30 PM, when Young Marble Giants will play their cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth at London’s Royal Festival Hall? There’s karmic justice, and no little irony in the fact that thirty-five years after they first broke up, the band are playing one of their biggest gigs ever. What’s probably just as unlikely is that they’d be together to do it at all. £17.50 balcony seats are still available for budget-minded London postpunk fans.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, a stellar and similarly unlikely collection of downtown New York rock talent are getting together at the exact same hour at Hifi Bar to play the album in its entirety. Springboarded by Elk City’s Renee LoBue, the performers include folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith, janglerock mastermind Paula Carino, the Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley, Toot Sweet‘s acerbic Mary Spencer Knapp, Speed the Plow‘s John and Toni Baumgartner, along with many, many others. This is a gig where there may be as many band members as audience members in the house.

The album itself is quirky, very humbly and rather primitively recorded, and an acquired taste for some. A favorite of college radio dj’s when it came out, it’s considered one of the foundations of lo-fi music in general. As precious and prissy as so much so-called bedroom pop is, it wouldn’t be a stretch to file the record within that genre. Stuart Moxham’s minimalist, tentative guitar and simple yet saturnine keyboards made an apt backdrop for frontwoman Alison Statton’s distinctive, unassuming, low-key vocals, punctuated by Moxham’s brother Philip’s incisive if similarly simple bass work. You can check it out – or revisit fond college dorm memories – at Spotify.

Speaking of performers who’re doing the tribute show, Smith and Knapp most recently shared the stage at 2A at the end of May, on a fantastic quadruplebill with American Ambulance‘s Pete Cenedella and host Monica “L’il Mo” Passin. Passin distinguished herself with her ability to shift seamlessly between innumerable styles, from Brill Building pop, to latin soul, rockabilly, oldschool C&W and rootsy bar-band rock. Her guitar playing was just as eclectic: she’s the rare player who can do a song solo acoustic, stick a solo in the middle and have it seem perfectly natural even without bass and drums.

Knapp’s accordion work was just as diverse, running the gamut from torchy French chanson, to enigmatic bedroom pop (if anybody on this bill really GETS Young Marble Giants, it’s her), ornately theatrical art-rock and an unexpected and very successful detour toward the avant garde. Passin playfully needled Cenedella for his handful of references to ganja, in several numbers from American Ambulance’s cult classic Streets of NYC album, a bittersweet look at uneasy teenage romance in New York in the late 70s. Which was funny, since Cenedella’s blend of twangy Americana and biting Graham Parker-esque proto new wave songcraft is the furthest thing from stoner music.

The star of the show was Smith, who held the audience rapt with a mix of new material and old favorites. As she told the crowd, her songs typically fit into three distinct categories: death songs, seduction songs and despair songs. An unexpectedly seductive number was the chilling, nocturnal Nashville, Tennessee, a stark waltz from Smith’s Snowblind album. Along with similarly spare, plaintive versions of the folk standards Pretty Saro and Wayfaring Stranger, she spun quietly through the wrenchingly poignant River King, a gently swaying, Fairport Convention-ish art-folk number with a knockout punch, a metaphorically loaded tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. She also brought out a handful of new numbers: the night’s most impactful song was a brand-new one, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding, suspensefully enveloping waltz with what could be a chilling allusion to the Eric Garner murder. Although Smith’s imagery is opaque and allusive – that’s the seduction thing going on – so you never know.

And after the four onstage had wrapped up their evening, the irrepressibly charming, ebullient, wickedly tight swing jazz harmony trio the Tickled Pinks lept onstage with their bassist and guitarist and kept the audience on the sunny side of the street with a brief set of standards. “They’re all the same song,” bandleader Karla Rose (of brilliant, psychedelic noir quartet Karla Rose & the Thorns) joked, but all that counterpoint, and all those harmonic leaps all over the place, aren’t exactly easy. But the trio sang as if they’d been doing this all their lives. Which they sort of have.

Passin’s next show upstairs at 2A is this August 30 at 9, where she switches to bass to play with countrypolitan chanteuse Drina Seay‘s fantastic noir-inclined band.

Downtown Luminaries and Secret Special Guests Play Richard Thompson and Graham Parker at the Mercury this Sunday

The classic album night was invented at the Bottom Line, the West 4th Street venue shuttered in 2004 after their landlord, New York University, raised their rent in order to kick them out for good since they owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent. At that point, the gay couple who owned the club were getting old but were stubbornly still booking has-beens from the venue’s glory days in the 70s, when Bruce Springsteen sold out a weeklong stand and Lou Reed recorded his Take No Prisoners album there. Attrition is a cruel thing, and it did the Bottom Line in.

Still, the club made the occasional halfhearted attempt to draw a crowd. The most successful, at least moneywise, were the classic album nights. It’s not clear who did the first album cover night there: it might have been New Jersey bar band leader Gary Myrick, or it might have been the crew who eventually morphed into the Loser’s Lounge contingent, whose preference for cheese and camp typically overwhelmed any lackadaisical attempt to do justice to the songs, such as they were, Either way, it was a cheap way to pack the club. Thirty people in the band, running on and offstage, everybody bringing a girlfriend or boyfriend, maybe even another friend or two? Multiply that by what was then a stiff twenty dollar cover…and no drink tickets for the band, since there were so many musicians. Pure gravy for the venue – especially since everyone except for the organizers were playing for free.

In the decade or so since the Bottom Line closed, there have been innumerable other classic album nights staged across this city. Some of the less crassly commercial ones have been transcendent: Mary Lee’s Corvette outdid Dylan with their live version of Blood on the Tracks the first time around, released it on album, then played it again live, twelve years later. System Noise, who morphed into Americana jamband the Sometime Boys, sold out venues all over town with their Ziggy Stardust cover nights. There’s a classic album twinbill coming up at 6 (six) PM on Sunday, March 22 at the Mercury that threatens to rival both of those, where an A-list of downtown NYC talent will be covering both Richard & Linda Thompson’s iconic Shoot Out the Lights album as well as Graham Parker’s new wave cult classic Squeezing Out Sparks.

What might be coolest about this is that this is the second time this crew will be doing Shoot Out the Lights. They played it last November at Tom Clark’s weekly Sunday night Treehouse Americana extravaganza at 2A, so if there were any bugs to work out, those should be history (the whole night was recorded and is up at youtube). Bass player Tom Shad gets credit with coming up with the idea; guitarist Rich Feridun is unbelievable as he channels Thompson’s tortured clusters and spirals. The rest of the band that night included Ward White and Erica Smith on vocals (just watch her wailing her way through Wall of Death, relishing every line); Dave Foster on guitar and vocals; Lizzie Edwards on harmonies; Charlie Roth on keys and Chris Schulz on drums. It’s not clear exactly who’s doing what this time around, but the cast has been expanded to include powerpop maven John Sharples, American Ambulance’s Pete Cenedella, star bassist Lisa Dowling, Matt Keating. and Tim Simmonds of Admiral Porkbrain, among others. Cover is ten bucks. And there will be special guests…but this blog is sworn to secrecy. Hint: some of them, um, might have played on the originals.