Laura Cantrell’s publicist is on the ball. “Why don’t you review all the shows?” he asked, seeing that this blog covered the first night of New York’s most revered Americana songwriter’s weekly stand at Union Hall last month.
The offer was awfully tempting. Cantrell is the rare artist you can see every week without getting the least bit bored. There are hundreds of country bands in New York, but none who play the music better than hers. And much as there’ve been thousands of acts who’ve played long-running residencies over the years, the ones who succeed at it are all iconic: Kitty Wells, Les Paul, Bob Wills, Sam Llanas…the list goes on and on. Ask anybody who went to see any of those shows, and chances are they’ll brag about it. In case you missed the Brooklyn gigs, Cantrell is playing on June 12 at around 10 at Bowery Electric. Another first-class songwriter, Ana Egge, whose most recent, darkly lyrical Americana album was produced by Steve Earle, opens the night at around 9. Advance tix are $10.
In Cantrell’s case, her publicist and this blog ended up meeting halfway. The first night of Cantrell’s May residency was a low-key, all-acoustic, retro C&W knockout. The final one was an electric show that was even more magical. As exuberant as she and her band were, it was a judicious, finely honed exuberance. Both Cantrell’s timeless originals and the cover gems she rescues from obscurity run the emotional gamut, but they tend to be melancholy: sad songs seldom get played with as much fire and verve as this band gave them. Jon Graboff – who switched seamlessly between keening, lustrous pedal steel and spiky mandolin — and Telecaster player Boo Reiners both have sizzling chops, a long association with Cantrell and know her material inside out. Which explains why it wasn’t until several songs into the set that either of them took a solo.
With this band, it’s all about the songs…and in this case, wiseass banter between friends, offstage and on, and Cantrell’s crystal-clear voice. And how she can say more in just a graceful lilt at the end of a phrase than most people can in a whole album. And yet, she can’t resist telling the audience all about those songs. The former proprietress of WFMU’s Radio Thrift Shop explained how this particular night’s most evocative number, the starkly claustrophobic No Way There From Here, was inspired by seeing a performance of a similarly sad piece of music: classical composer Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer 1915, with lyrics by James Agee. Cantrell also revealed that at that same performance, she sang a tune from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical: something she has had no plans to do ever since.
The rest of the set reminded how individualistic Cantrell’s songs are – they’re grounded in classic country music, but never so much that they’re reverential or cliched. Drummer Steve Goulding – of Graham Parker & the Rumour – pushed the fond, historically-infused Kitty Wells Dresses and a jauntily strutting version of Melba Montgomery’s Somewhere Some Night with his elegant rimshots, in tandem with bassist Jeremy Chatzky. Graboff’s mandolin spiced up the wistful Molly O’Day homage Mountain Fern. And Franklin Bruno’s terse piano lit up a similarly pensive if more rock-oriented ballad.
Meanwhile, Cantrell channeled the joyous expectation of Amy Allison’s Can’t Wait with the same intensity as the tender ambiguity in Glass Armour and the defiance in George Usher’s Not the Tremblin’ Kind, the title track to the classic 2000 album that springboarded her career. After a broodingly enigmatic, Neko Case-esque version of Maybe Sparrow and a lively take of All the Same to You, she and the band worked the dynamics for all they were worth, through the fetching, disquieted Two Seconds and then the stampeding shuffle Yonder Comes a Freight Train. It was finally at that point where Graboff got to move from wry trainwhistle accents to a long, searing solo, handing off to Reiners’ lickety-split flatpicking. You should expect some and possibly all of this at Bowery Electric.