New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: rockaiblly

Revisiting Classic, Purist Americana and Bluegrass From Martha Spencer

Martha Spencer sings in a high soprano voice with lonesome country vibrato, backed by an inspired, thoughtful blend of flatpicked guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass. That description could fit thousands and thousands of Americana songbirds, but Spencer sings and writes from the point of view of someone who grew up immersed in classic country and bluegrass music with her  family’s Virginia group, the Whitetop Mountain Band. Her 2018 debut album as a solo artist is still up at Bandcamp. The sound is totally 1950s, whether she’s doing oldschool C&W, bluegrass, a blues or a ballad. She winds a good yarn and has a sharp sense of humor.

She and the band – a shifting cast that include but are not limited to guitarists Frank Rische and Ersel Fletcher,, bassist Debbie Bramer, fiddler Billy Hurt, Jr and banjo player Alex Leach –  open the album with Blue Ridge Mountain Lullaby, a fond childhood reminiscence of falling asleep while the ‘rents are playing all the old songs. My Heart Says Yes is a simple, catchy mashup of bluegrass and indie rock: totally Hoboken, 1996. Spencer’s voice takes on extra bite, way up the scale in the rockabilly tune Hard Headed Woman, amped up with growling electric guitar and spiraling electric honkytonk piano.

Spencer blends Patsy Cline nuance and Dolly Parton plaintiveness in the aching, sad ballad The Last Leaves. After that the band pick up the pace in Let the Wild Stay Free, a smartly aphoristic bluegrass tune.

When Spencer bends her way up to those blue notes in Chickens Coming Home to Roost Tonight, it’s clear she means business, echoed by the understatedly slashing bluesy guitar solo.  She keeps that strong-willed point of view front and center in Rambling Woman: over spiky banjo and fiddle, she makes it clear she’s not ready to settle down.

Wishful Thinking comes across as an Appalachian flavored acoustic take on a peak era 40s/50s Kitty Wells-style ballad. After that, Spencer flips the script with Ruby, a spare, rustic Virginia reel. Then she and the band slow things down again with Cold Winter Lingers On, a classic C&W breakup duet spiced with pedal steel and countrypolitan guitar.

They bring up the energy again with the oldtime country gospel tune Jonah and follow that with the wry hillbilly boogie No Help Wanted.

Tree of Heaven is deceptively pretty: it turns out to be Spencer’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. She winds up the album with the brisk banjo tune Rambling Hobo. Fans of real, purist country and bluegrass – the genuine article, not the legions of indie rock boys trying to wrap their dainty fingers around acoustic instruments – will love this stuff.

The Sweetback Sisters Make a Long-Awaited Return to Their Favorite Brooklyn Honkytonk

The Sweetback Sisters don’t play as many New York shows as they used to, which means that the badass twin-female-fronted oldschool honkytonk and Americana band should draw an especially good crowd to their June 17, 9 PM show at the Jalopy. Cover is $15; get there early. It’s the Jalopy, after all, so the pre-show hangout comes without all the hassles and high prices you get at so many other venues.

The last time this blog caught the band, it was almost a couple of years ago – damn, how time flies – out back of City Winery. Co-bandleader/singer/multi-instrumentalist Zara Bode had relocated to San Francisco, away from her counterpart, fiddler/guitarist Emily Miller, so this was a heartwarming reunion of sorts. Bode took the smoky low harmony against Miller’s soaring high one on a spirited, syncopated western swing number to open the show. Then they took that style, and the energy, to redline with the scampering, catchy Texas Bluebonnets, packed with all sorts of neat tradeoffs between fiddle and electric guitar. Looking back, it’s impossible to remember exactly who the personnel onstage were, other than the frontwomen; previous lineups have featured bassist Peter Bitenc, drummer Stefan Amidon, fiddler Jesse Milnes and ferocious lead guitarist Ryan Hommel.

Bode again took centerstage on a defiantly jazz-tinged strut through It’s All Your Fault, with a simmering rockabilly solo from the lead player. Miller took over lead vocals on You’re Gonna Miss Me, an energetic, poignant, swinging 1950s-style C&W number: the Jingle Bell Rock quote from the lead player was pricelessly funny. Then they swung their way through a snarling take of Looking for a Fight, the title track to their 2012 cult favorite album.

Next on the bill was a slow, vengeful, blue-flame waltz, followed by a brisk Texas shuffle. It Won’t Hurt (When I Fall Down from This Barstool) was as irresistibly fun, and just as pissed-off, a salute to both the curative and destructive powers of whiskey. They swung a high-energy take of Hank Williams’ Lovesick Blues by the tail, then scampered through a lickety-split kiss-off anthem. Then they brought things down with the morosely echoey, clangingThe King of Killing Time, bringing to mind early Willie Nelson. The Sweetback Sisters’ take on honkytonk isn’t cry-in-your-beer music: it’s a middle finger smack in the face of bad times, bitter lemons distilled into spiked lemonade. It’ll be awfully cool to see what else the band has come up with since then.

The Legendary Shack Shakers Bring Their Expertly Menacing Party to the Bell House

The Legendary Shack Shakers are at the peak of their long career in creepy, sometimes macabre, cynical Americana party music. Frontman JD Wilkes has never sounded more in command of the dark side of every roots rock style ever invented: ghoulabilly, southwestern gothic, garage rock, punk and blues. They’re one of the few bands alive who can match the offhandedly savage minor-key intensity of Australian legends Radio Birdman. a band they often resemble. They’ve been hitting New York regularly over the last couple of years; their next gig is a headline slot at the Bell House on April 7. Raucous southern roots/jamgrass/honkytonk band the Pine Hill Haints open the night at 9; $15 advance tix, available at the venue box office, are your best bet.

The Shack Shakers’ latest album is The Southern Surreal, out from Jello Biafra’s label, Altenative Tentacles and streaming at Spotify. The first track, Mud, is a scampering, banjo-driven ghoulgrass shuffle. Its funniest number is Misamerica. 60s noir garage as Stiv Bators would have done it circa 1979, or Radio Birdman at three-quarter speed. “Bloody lipstick all over her teeth…the queen of idiocracy…from the party line to the tv screen,” Wilkes intones.

Cold, a loping gothic cowboy ballad, wouldn’t be out of place in the Mark Sinnis catalog; then guitarist Rod Hamdallah fires off a Birdman riff as the chorus kicks in. Gloomy lyrics soar over snarling Stonesy guitars on The One That Got Away, which looks back to a classic Grateful Dead anthem. Let the Dead Bury the Dead blends tongue-in-cheek noir cabaret and punked out Tex-Mex, while Young Heart, Old Soul represents the lighter side of the band, a carefree, stomping ska number, like the Slackers with distorted guitars

Fool’s Tooth, a brief blues vamp with honking harmonica sets things up for Down to the Bone, a southern psych-soul vamp. They really mix things up here: Christ Almighty, a lickety-split update on the Yardbirds or early Pretty Things, gets followed by Demon Rum, a snidely nonchalant honkytonk piano number.

Buzzard & the Bell, by drummer Chris Whitacre, makes a creepy shuffle out of a 1920s style Greek gangster tune, like Greek Judas in English. The album closes with a similarly menacing, slinky take of the Albert King blues classic Born Under a Bad Sign. The tracks are punctuated by fragmentary, sardonic samples including a really grisly roadkill story.

Their 2003 album Cockadoodledont also got a welcome reissue recently and is up at Spotify as well. Its first track, Pinetree Boogie is dirtier than the Yardbirds but tighter than, say, Knoxville Girls. The swamp-rock CB Song offers a darker take on a silly novelty genre. Help Me From My Brain spices frantic World Inferno circus-rock with eerie Romany and Balkan riffs

Shakerag Holler welds a slyly shuffling oldtimey blues to a split-second detour into hardcore punk. Hunkerdown bounces along on a familiar Doors riff, while Clodhopper goes in a sardonic jug band direction. Bullfrog Blues mashes up Radio Birdman and an Otis Rush classic, with more of that honking blues harp.

Blood on the Bluegrass foreshadows punkgrass bands like the Devil Makes Three. Devil’s Night Auction is your basic rockabilly dressed up in a flickering Halloween costume. Wild Wild Lover offers a nod to the haphazard shuffles of the early Gun Club, while the cover of Slim Harpo’s ShakeYour Hips improves on the Stones version, although it’s not as feral as Randi Russo’s. The album winds up with the punkabilly Hoptown Jailbreak It’s good to see this back in print: you will probably get some of both albums and a lot more in Gowanus on the 7th.