If you were a kid in New York back in the 80s, you had pretty much unlimited opportunities to see live music, theoretically at least. Sure, you could get into any club you wanted to: no venue owner was going to turn away a paying customer. The idea of bouncers hassling club patrons for identification was almost but not quite as faraway as the Orwellian nightmare of face recognition technology.
But getting into clubs could be expensive. Those who weren’t there may not realize just how much free live music, much of it outdoors, there was. For the sake of argument, let’s say you carried your beer into Union Square one evening. Everybody drank on the street back then since the implementation of “broken windows policing” as a means of making a revenue stream out of those least able to pay – kids and ethnic minorities, mostly – hadn’t gone beyond the drawing board.
Maybe you were drawn in by the twangy “rig-rock” sounds of the Blue Chieftains, who were doing a afterwork show on the plaza at the south end of the park. Maybe you wondered who was firing off that downward cascade of high-octane honkytonk guitar in that one big, stomping anthem.
That was Homeboy Steve Antonakos. The Blue Chieftains live on as a memory of a better time in New York history, a prestige piece of his resume. Since then, he’s played with a bunch of Americana outfits as well as the richly tuneful Greek psychedelic bands Magges and Dervisi, the latter with his fellow Greek-American guitar luminary George Sempepos. But Antonakos isn’t just one of New York’s great guitarists: he’s a strong songwriter too. His latest album, Bodega Rock is streaming at Bandcamp. His next gig is on March 30 at 9 PM at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights. where he does double duty playing his own material and then takes a turn on lead guitar with Drina Seay, New York’s answer to Neko Case. The closest train is the 7 to 74th St., but you can also take any train to the nearby Roosevelt Ave. stop.
The album opens with the Stonesy title track, guest guitarist Tim Heap fueling a shout-out to the 24-hour suppliers of Slim Jims, Bambus, beer and neighborly good cheer that help make this city so great. Antonakos sings the wry, aphoristic, ragtime-flavored The Improbability of Love backed by Bruce Martin’s piano, Seay a one-woman gospel choir.
Jeff Schiller’s smoky tenor sax wafts through the wistful shuffle Make It Swing, Antonakos raising a glass to an early influence in both jazz and pregaming. Seay sings the acoustic Americana ballad There’s Always Yesterday with tender restraint against Neil Thomas’ lilting accordion. Martin’s flurrying drums and Skip Ward’s bass propel One of Us, a pretty hilarious catalog of New York characters who might or might not exist. Awash in stormy layers of acoustic and electric guitars, He’s Still Not Over Her follows a much more ominous tangent.
Antonakos’ shivery lapsteel permeates the cynically shuffling It’s a Beautiful Day and its Sixteen Tons allusions; it might be the best song on the album. Seay ought to sing lead on this one: she’d hit it out of the ballpark.
With steel guitar and banjo lingering ominously in the background, the stark Nashville gothic ballad Poisoned Well is another standout. The album winds up with the gorgeously anthemic It Takes Time, another duet with Seay.
While we’re at it, could you imagine an album called 7-11 Rock? Actually, yes: it would be by Journey.