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Another Clinic in Searing Lead Guitar and a Williamsburg Show From the Great Eric Ambel

Eric Ambel is an artist who ought to be playing record stores – because he makes vinyl records. Spectacularly good ones. His most recent studio album, Lakeside, sent a ferocious, guitar-fueled shout out to his beloved East Village club, Lakeside Lounge, forced out of business in 2014 in a blitzkrieg of gentrification. His latest record, Roscoe Live, Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him in his element, onstage at a summer festival in upstate New York in 2016. The backing band is obviously psyched for this gig: alongside Ambel, there’s Spanking Charlene’s Mo Goldner on rhythm guitar, Ambel’s old Yayhoos bandmate Keith Christopher on bass and Phil Cimino on drums. Ambel’s playing an unlikely early weekday show tomorrow, Feb 6 at 8:30 PM at Rough Trade; cover is $10.

Ambel has a vast bag of hot licks, but most of them are his own. If you asked him to play like Neil Young, or Buck Owens, or Ron Asheton, or David Rawlings, he would, but he’d rather be himself. And although he’s a connoisseur of every possible sound you can get out of a guitar amp, he’s got a noisy side too. There’s pretty much all of that on the live record.

Just the way that he edges his way into the set’s opening number, jabbing around the harmonies of the first chord of the brisk shuffle Girl That I Ain’t Got is typical. As are the nasty, string-stretching first solo and a tantalizingly slashing second one. Here Come My Love, by his Del-Lords bandmate Scott Kempner, comes across as an amped up Jimmy Reed number. The blend of the two guitars is especially tasty; Ambel’s solo out is unexpectedly carefree and chill.

Hey Mr. DJ, a sarcastic dig at the kind of clown who’d pay a cover charge to hear some other clown plug his phone into the PA, is a co-write with the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus and one of several tracks from the Lakeside album. Over the slow, slinky beat and a buzzsaw backdrop, Ambel turns the sarcasm loose: “Crank the drums, crank the bass, crank that shit all over the place.”

The slow waves of the warped blues Don’t Make Me Break You Down keep the smokering intenstiy going, through lingering phrases that Ambel takes into the grimy depths, then up again.

“Just to show you I’m not anti-cisco, I have a disco song,” Ambel tells the crowd, then launches in to the strutting Have Mercy, which is actually more of a simmering take on vampy early 70s psychedelic soul.

The band follow Let’s Play With Fire, a shuffling mashup of honkytonk and Lynchian Nahville pop with a slowly crescendoing take of the David Rawlings/Gillian Welch hit Look at Miss Ohio, a staple of Ambel’s live show back in Lakeside’s glory days in the 90s and zeros.

Massive Confusion, the loudest track on the Lakeside recod, is a more swinging take on a familiar Ramones formula. Ambel then closes the show with two of his best songs. Buyback Blues, the centerpiece of the Lakeside record, is a slow, evil rollercoaster in a Cortez the Killer vein. The night’s last number is Total Destruction to Your Mind, the Stonesy Swamp Dogg cover that was Ambel’s signature song as a solo artist for years. For anybody who got to hear Ambel blast his way through this one back in the Lakeside days, Christopher making his way up the fretboard as the chorus kicks in, it’s a real shot of adrenaline. How long do we have to wait until the real estate bubble finally bursts so somebody can open up a place like Lakeside, with cheap beer and great bands every night? The closest thing we have to that in New York these days, Barbes, won’t last forever,

Eric Ambel Brings His Expert, Purist Tunesmithing and Sizzling Lead Guitar Back to Brooklyn

If a clinic in spine-tingling, dynamic. expert lead guitar is your thing, you could spend hundreds of dollars and make Ticketbastard rich and go see Richard Thompson at a place like City Winery. Or you could go see Eric Ambel and his band for free this Saturday night at 9 upstairs at Hill Country Brooklyn. The Brooklyn branch of the bbq franchise is 180 degrees the opposite of the Manhattan location. The staff are friendly and seem happy to be there, the crowd is local and multicultural, and while they don’t nceessarily come to listen, a lot of them do. That way, the band doesn’t have to try to drown out the touristy din like they do in Manhattan. And the Brooklyn branch’s sound system is better, too.

Ambel has been on tour this summer with his band – Brett Bass on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Spanking Charlene‘s Mo Goldner on second guitar – so they should be stoked to be back on their home turf. Ambel’s most recent New York show was here on this same stage at the end of June, and it was amazing, one of the year’s best. Switching between his custom Telecaster and Les Paul, “Roscoe” delivered searing, string-bending intensity, judicious jangle and clang, choogling four-on-the-floor grooves, a couple of stomping detours toward punk rock, even some plaintive wee-hour C&W. All that in two sets, about two hours of music where the band finally ran out of rehearsed material and blasted through a couple of old R&B covers to close the night.

There were so many high-voltage moments, it’s impossible to separate one from the rest. The band opened the second set with a searing take of Song for the Walls, the first track on Ambel’s second solo album, Loud & Lonesome, part psychedelic Beatles, part acidic Kevin Salem rock. Lou Whitney’s defiant Thirty Days in the Workhouse (“If I’d been a black man, they’d have given me thirty years”) resonated especially with this audience. There was roadhouse rock like Scott Kempner’s Here Come My Love. country-flavored material like Jimbo Mathus’ Let’s Play with Fire, and a couple of snarling, Ramones-influenced numbers, the best of them being the snide Hey Mr. DJ. Introducing that one, Ambel told a hilarious story about the first time he saw the Ramones, as an eighteen-year-old party animal in Illinois. That story’s too good to give away here.

Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson came up to duet on a swampy take of Have Mercy, which she co-wrote with Ambel. Mary Lee Kortes – Ambel’s wife and an equally skilled tunesmith, whose long-awaited forthcoming full-length album The Songs of Beulah Rowley is awe-inspiring – lent her crystalline voice to a couple of numbers too. The night’s longest and most darkly simmering epic, Buyback Blues – a bittersweet look back at Ambel’s well-loved and dearly missed East Village venue, Lakeside Lounge – was as good as anything Neil Young & Crazy Horse could come up with. If memory serves right, the band ran through just about everything from Ambel’s latest solo album, also titled Lakeside.

Later in the second set Ambel entertained the crowd with his funniest song, I Love You Baby – if you don’t know it, the lyrics are also too funny to give away here. The show this Saturday night should be something like this, who knows, maybe even better. If we get lucky they’ll play Garbagehead, the ultimate Lakeside Lounge Saturday night party anthem.

Lizzie & the Makers Bring Their Incandescent Psychedelic Blues and Soul Back to the West Village

Lizzie & the Makers are one of one of New York’s most distinctive, exhilarating bands. They jam, but they keep their solos short and spot-on, usually two or maybe three bars at the most. Their inspirations are classic Chicago blues and southern soul, but they also have a psychedelic side: they’re closer to Robert Cray – with a charismatic woman out in front of the band – or Led Zep than, say, Amy Winehouse. Intense frontwoman Lizzie Edwards might not only be the best blue-eyed soul singer in New York: she might be the best blue-eyed soul singer anywhere. She and her dynamic band make a return trip to the West Village on June 23 at 10:30 PM at the Bitter End. Cover is $10.

Their last gig there was a firestorm of smart, incisive playing and fearless, impassioned songs. They wasted no time in taking the energy to redline with the hard blues of Fight Song: Edwards’ smoldering chorus mantra was “I’m ready,” bolstered by the harmonies of Erica Smith and Sarah Wise, guitarist Greg McMullen adding a searing, shivery solo over John Deley’s similarly simmering organ.

Edwards led the band into the explosively slinky 3.5 with her signature, meticulously turbocharged alto vocals, part satin, part siren; it’s hard to think of any other singer with such a ferociously potent low register who can sound so pillowy and warmly enveloping as she goes up the scale. McMullen traded a couple of tantalizing bars with Stratocaster player James Winwood over the nonchalantly swaying groove of bassist Brett Bass and drummer Phil Cimino.

The three women built a whole darkly ecstatic gospel church worth of harmony in Free,. a defiantly swaying, altered boogie, Winwood’s wry sense of humor front and center as he put the bite on his bluesmetal licks. Deley’s organ and McMullen’s classic Muscle Shoals riffs fueled It’s Not Me, It’s You as Edwards channeled blue-flame cynicism: the way Deley voiced what would otherwise have been a blues harp solo was cool, and surreal to the extreme.

The band hit a jackhammer shuffle groove with Hopeless, Edwards and her choir reaching peaks that bands like Heart only dream of, the vengeance in Edwards’ “can you turn me away?” arguably the high point of the set. She brought a high-voltage psychedelic edge to Bonnie Raitt’s Real Man and then brought the lights down for the swaying, explosively crescendoing Lonely Soul and its searing blend of roadhouse rock and restless early 70s Zep.

The group channelled a surreally echoing angst, Abbey Road Beatles slipping unexpectedly into soul with Sleep It Off, then hit a defiant peak with Blue Moon as McMullen hit his wah pedal and screamed behind Edwards’ wounded wail. They wound up the set with the furious, fearless shuffle The Bear, a launching pad for Winwood’s most concise, purist playing.

Edwards, being one of New York’s most in-demand singers, gets around a lot. Besides this band, she leads a similarly adrenalizing gospel group, Lizzie & the Sinners, where she also sings alongside Smith and Wise. She was one of the highlights of the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde fest at Hifi Bar earlier this month, where she raised the roof with a scorching take of Pledging My Time. And she was front and center on several numbers at this past week’s Squeeze cover night there, where C.P. Roth, Tom Shad and Dave Foster’s all-star band played the British new wave band’s classic Argybargy and East Side Story albums pretty much note-for-note, all the way through, no small achievement.

A Clinic in Purist Guitar Rock from Eric Ambel and Esquela

“Who needs pedals?” Eric “Roscoe” Ambel asked the party people in the house at a private event at Bowery Electric last week. His pedalboard was acting up, so he pulled the plug on it. Running straight through his amp, switching between a vintage black Les Paul and his signature Roscoe Deluxe Tele model by Stonetree Custom Guitars, Ambel put on a clinic in lead guitar, playing a mix of old favorites and material from his new gatefold vinyl album, Lakeside. Behind the guitar icon and head honcho of the late, great Lakeside Lounge were Brett Bass on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Spanking Charlene‘s Mo Goldner taking on a Keith Richards role on second guitar. They kicked off hard with Song from the Walls, the angry, acidic riff-rock opening track on Ambel’s 1995 Loud and Lonesome album.

It’s amazing how few notes Ambel uses, considering what kind of chops the guy has. Everything counts for something: the lingering bends on the simmering, amped-up Jimmy Reed groove of Here Come My Love; the gritty, enveloping roar of the anti-trendoid broadside Hey Mr. DJ; the sunspotted, precise blues bite of Don’t Make Me Break You Down. Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson lent her powerful pipes to the vocal harmonies on Have Mercy, a soul-infused number that she wrote with Ambel. They sent a shout-out to the Ramones with Massive Confusion, then chilled out with Gillian Welch’s Miss Ohio. Ambel’s playing the album release show on April 29 at around 8:30 PM at Berlin (in the basement under 2A). He’s doing double duty that night: after his set, he’a adding “power assist guitar” with the ferociously funny Spanking Charlene.

The opening act, Esquela – whose album Canis Majoris Ambel recently produced – were excellent too. They work a country-oriented side of paisley underground twang and clang. The push-pull of the two guitarists, Brian Shafer’s snaky, sinuous leads against Matt Woodin’s punchy, uneasily propulsive drive had an intensity similar to great 80s bands like True West and Steve Wynn‘s Dream Syndicate. They also hit hard with their opener, Too Big to Fail (as in, “too rich for jail”), frontwoman Becca Frame’s big, wounded wail soaring over the twin-guitar attack and the four-on-the-floor drive from the band’s main songwriter, bassist John “Chico” Finn and drummer Todd Russell.

From there they hit a wry Del Shanon doo-wop rock groove with It Didn’t Take, went into stomping mid-70s Lou Reed territory and then rousing Celtic rock with Need Not Apply, a snarling look back at anti-Irish racisim across the ages. Their best song was a bittersweetly swaying dead ringer for mid-80s True West, but with better vocals and a careening, shoulder-dusting Shafer solo. Or it might have been an echoey psychedelic number that they suddenly took warpspeed at the end. They brought up harmony singer Allyson Wilson, whose soulful intensity was every bit the match for Frame’s – which made sense, considering that she usually can be found singing opera and classical repertoire at places like Carnegie Hall. Her most spine-tinging moment was when she tackled the Merry Clayton role on a slinky cover of Gimme Shelter.

The band closed with Freebird, a sardonically funny, Stonesy original that Finn wrote to satisfy all the yahoos who scream for it. Perennially popular indie powerpop road warriors the Figgs – who haven’t lost a step in twenty years – were next on the bill. Which was where the whiskey really started to kick in – this was a party, after all. Sorry, guys – for a look at what they sound like onstage, here’s a snarky piece from Colossal Musical Joke week, 2012.

Eric Ambel’s New Lakeside Record Captures the Guitarmeister at the Top of His Game

Eric Ambel is well known in Americana rock circles and something of a legend in New York. He’s played with everybody. He did a lengthy stint as Steve Earle’s lead guitarist back in the zeros. Before that he fronted the influential Del-Lords. For more than a decade, he ran the East Village’s coolest bar and music venue, Lakeside Lounge. And he continues to produce artists at his Williamsburg studio, Cowboy Technical Services.

He’s also got a new album, also called Lakeside, a fond over-the-shoulder look at the kind of edgy, purist retro sounds that could be found onstage during his old venue’s heyday. Interestingly, rather than producing this himself like his other solo albums, Ambel brought in Jimbo Mathus. formerly with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who also contributes guitar and bass – and drums on one track. The result is a gatefold vinyl album (that comes with a couple of download cards), available in a limited edition of 500 copies, signed and numbered. This is one of those records you’ll probably want to tape and then play the caasette til it self-destructs. Seriously – if you own a turntable, you probably own a tape deck too.

Ambel’s longtime rhythm section, bassist Keith Christopher and drummer Phil Cimino show up on most of these tracks. As dirty and messy as Ambel can get, there’s a level of craft in what he does that’s rarely seen these days. That isn’t to say that there aren’t guys dedicatedly spending hours hunched over their laptops trying to get the right sound or the right mix, just that Ambel does it with quality gear. And while he’s known first and foremost as a guitarist, he really hit the vocals out of the park here. Other guys get old and reedy and raspy; Ambel sounds about 25, full of piss and vinegar.

The opening track is Ambel’s old Del-Lords bandmate Scott Kempner’s Here Come My Love. It’s a ba-bump roadhouse rock number with that band’s signature sardonic, surreal sense of humor and a tasty acoustic/electric backdrop. Mathus’ first number, Hey Mr. DJ is a sludgy, coldly amusing look at groupthink among the entitled sons and daughters of the idle classes on the demand side of the current plague of gentrification.

Have Mercy, a co-write with Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson, revisits that theme, an update on Creedence swamp rock with plenty of Ambel’s signature, offhandedly savage riffage. Let’s Play with Fire, another Mathus number, mashes up shuffling C&W and Orbison noir, with an absolutely Lynchian lapsteel solo by the bandleader. Side 1 concludes with Don’t Make Me Break You Down, an Ambel/Mathus co-write with a glowering Neil Young/Crazy Horse vibe.

Side 2 opens with the Ramones-tinged Massive Confusion, a Mathus tune. Gillian Welch’s Look At Miss Ohio, which always seemed to pop up somewhere during Ambel’s shows on his old East Village turf, gets a lingering, nocturnal Sticky Fingers treatment that builds to a mighty psychedelic peak. Ambel does the old soul hit Money as a haphazardly prowling Neil/Crazy Horse burner. The album’s best track is the slow, brooding minor-key Buyback Blues, drenched in an ocean of reverb and guitar multitracks.”It takes a special kind of understanding for a man to live in the nighttime,” Ambel sings dryly and knowingly. The record winds up with Ambel’s twangy, bittersweet, distantly Lynchian instrumental Crying in My Sleep.

Is this Ambel’s best solo record? It’s definitely as good as any of the other three. From the perspective of having caught the cult classic Roscoe’s Gang album back in the day when every bar in what used to be a happening neighborhood was playing it, it’s hard to tackle that question with any real objectivity. Ambel’s next show is at Berlin (in the basement space under 2A; enter through the door on the right, midway down the bar on the first floor) on April 29.

Closing Night at Lakeside

How do you play your own funeral? Obviously, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and the Roscoe Trio have plenty of life left in them, as they made clear last night when they played the closing night at Ambel’s beloved Lakeside Lounge. An East Village fixture for sixteen years, Lakeside was home to literally hundreds of excellent New York bands: its absence leaves a gaping hole in the New York rock scene. Still, it’s no wonder that Ambel – someone whose muse is not booze – had already gone through three pints of red wine (ok, somebody kicked one of them over) by the time their practically three-hour performance was over. The energy onstage bristled with raw anxiety, echoed by the crowd packed into the back room and lingering on the sidewalk outside: people were not happy to see their favorite rock club being priced out of the neighborhood for yet another effete, shi-shi gentrifier bar. Neither Ambel nor the band – Alison Jones on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Ambel’s pal Chip Robinson on guitar and also vocals – alluded to rage or resentment: they just let the songs do the talking and gave the club the sendoff it deserved. Taken out of context as an especially raucous Lakeside show, or as a harbinger of possibly worse things to come, this was something people will be at least thinking about for a long time.

They opened with Girl That I Ain’t Got, a twangy country-rock number from Ambel’s cult classic solo debut, Roscoe’s Gang, and closed with Cinderella, an obscure riff-rocking R&B song from Lakeside’s famous jukebox. Was it deliberate when Ambel’s wife Mary Lee Kortes, singing a rampaging version of Tangled Up in Blue (which also appears on her iconic 2002 live recording of Blood on the Tracks), gave special ferocity to “all the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now?” Who knows. Ambel did make a point of giving shout-outs to Lakeside regulars now gone, notably Ff bandleader Tom Price and multi-instrumentalist genius Drew Glackin, who, “If he would have lived, would have played more gigs here than anybody.”

Guitarist Mark Spencer, originally with the Blood Oranges, added some seriously searing rock leads on a couple of tracks. Lenny Kaye memorialized the place as “a place for musicians, and people who like to hang around them,” then led the band (with Ambel moved behind the drumkit, replaced on guitar by Demolition String Band’s Boo Reiners) through “the national anthem of rock n roll,” Gloria, with an interlude where he imagined the girl lifting her shirt in Lakeside’s photo booth for the benefit of Ambel and co-owner/jukebox archivist Jim Marshall, a.k.a. The Hound. John Mellencamp lead guitarist Andy York also beat a path through the crowd from the bar to the stage several times, notably for an absolutely luscious cover of Raw Power where he switched to bass and played wave after wave of Ron Asheton melody.

The New Heathens’ Nate Schweber sang Thousand Dollar Car, by the Bottle Rockets (who’d played the opening night party here on April 10, 1996 if memory serves right). Robinson delivered a subdued, pensive one from his Mylow album [memo to self – must dig that one out again] that picked up with one of an endless series of growling, sideswiping Ambel solos. Spanking Charlene’s Charlene McPherson took centerstage for a volcanic take on I Wanna Be Your Dog. And was that Schweber singing the night’s most brooding, downcast song, Dylan’s I and I? That’s the problem of not having any video to go with the audio, 24 hours later.

With Ambel out front, they blasted through familiar favorites like Garbagehead – written in five minutes for a particularly high-energy New Year’s Eve show – as well as blistering versions of the angry, overdriven, Beatlesque Song for the Walls along with Ambel’s inimitable version of Swamp Dogg’s Total Destruction to Your Mind. But this wasn’t just the hits. Ambel’s shows here with his trio have always been a party, part live rehearsal, part focus group for new material, and as usual he brought some of that, including a particularly hard-hitting, riff-rocking new collaboration with Kasey Anderson. The band had never played the Kinks’ Where I Belong – the anthem that Ambel had picked out specially for the night – but they made it through that one without embarrassing themselves thanks to Ambel somehow managing to play lead guitar and simultaneously signal chord changes via sign language (musicians understand those things).

Jimbo Mathus, who’s currently recording with Ambel, joined the band on mandolin for a killer honkytonk song about homeless people on the streets of Hollywood who should be diamonds rather than lumps of coal. As the set went on, Ambel called up Alex Feldesman, the club’s tireless soundman and gave him a guitar in appreciation for his years of service. “Now I have to learn to play the thing,” deadpanned Alex (he was being sarcastic, as usual – maybe this is what he needed to get a new band going).

Whoever ends up taking over the Lakeside space, you can be damn sure they won’t be handing out guitars to loyal members of the staff. Nor is it likely that they’ll be there sixteen years like Lakeside was. Back in 1995, a friend may have responded to Ambel’s news that he was the proud owner of a New York State liquor license by telling him, “That’s like giving a monkey a gun.” That comment would later become a song title; going on twenty years later, the guy would have to eat his words. By the time the show was over, the line to the bar was five deep and growing and at this point, at least from a blogger’s perspective, there was no reason to stay: anything that anyone might have said or drunk at that point is strictly personal business. Thanks for the memories, Lakeside Lounge.

By the way, if anybody has video, please don’t keep it to yourself and hide it on Facebook where nobody can see it: put it up on youtube, or on your blog, and send a link over here!

Spanking Charlene Kicks Ass

Spanking Charlene are sort of a New York counterpart to X: for punk rock, they’re very diverse musically. Substitute a distinctively New York snarl for the LA band’s DIY gutter-poetry vibe, bring the vocals up a lot higher and put producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel in the Ray Manzarek role and you get an idea of what they sound like. Like X (at least in the old days), they’re fronted by a couple, Charlene McPherson on vocals and Mo Goldner on guitar. Like Exene, McPherson takes an unapologetic feminist-hedonist stance, deploring the kind of shit women let guys get away with (and on the gentlest song here, My Girl, offering a warm shoulder for any woman with the nerve to stick up for herself). But where Exene is a distinctive singer, McPherson is a phenomenal one: an outraged, wounded wail like hers only comes around every few years. And the band can be very funny, and pretty amazing live. Besides producing their latest album Where Are the Freaks, Ambel plays a Fifth Beatle role, adding his trademark surreal wit with both lead guitar and piano.

The best songs here are the angry ones. You Suck is just plain great: as the band runs the riff from Pil’s This Is Not a Love Song, McPherson cuts loose on a guy who’s an emotional leech – and is she singing “fill me up” or “feel me up?” Stupid Me is even more intense – and as good as the vocals are here, McPherson always turns this into a showstopper onstage. And as much as she’s berating herself for falling for some loser, it’s the loser she fell for who’s even stupider. Tie Me Up sarcastically juxtaposes everything a girl wants – the flowers, a guy who takes care of her every need and more – with a crushing chorus:

Tie me up
Make me beg,
Pin my hands against the bed
Bite my lip
Taste my sweat
Tell me it’s not ready yet

Then there’s the title track, an exasperated shout out to anybody with a sense of fun who might have survived the blitzkrieg of gentrification that’s destroyed so much of New York (and major cities around the world). Stuck at a lame yuppie party and feeling sullen, McPherson longs for the kind of people who used to make neighborhoods like the East Village so much fun before they were driven out by the heirloom artisanal lardons-and-nori martini crowd.

The rest of the album covers a lot of ground. The opening cut, Secrets, lumbers along with some AC/DC style riffage, while Rev It Up goes into punkabilly, Cry Baby works a slow, Stoogey wah guitar feel and Booze and Pills – which really nails that particular vibe – is the closest thing to X here. There’s also the sarcastic The Other Girl and I Like You As a Friend, a woman’s perspective on the one line that every guy dreads most. The final two tracks here were originally released as singles on Little Steven Van Zandt’s label: a beefed-up version of Dismissed with a Kiss (the title track from their 2007 debut) and the edgy Canarsie, a catchy, Stonesy look at the band’s love-hate relationship with the distant Brooklyn neighborhood that McPherson and Goldner call home. What else is there to say – great band, great album, a lock for one of 2012’s best. We need more smart, assaultively fun, funny records like this, with raw but rich production values all the way through and solid playing from the rhythm section which includes Alison Jones on bass and either Eric Seftel or Phil Cimino on drums. Spanking Charlene’s home base is Lakeside Lounge, where they’ll be on Feb 18 at 11.