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A Lusciously Guitar-Fueled Retrospective and a Manhattan Show From Rugged Individualist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel

Eric Ambel is iconic in Americana rock circles. He has a high-end guitar line named after him. Since his days fronting the pioneering (and recently resusciated) Del-Lords and later playing lead in Steve Earle’s band, he’s slowly but methodically built a formidable catalog of original material. He’s less influential than simply respected because nobody sounds like him. He’s easy to imitate but impossible to copy.

That’s because he can be so unpredictable. On one hand, he’s a virtuoso four-on-the-floor rock and classic C&W guy. On the other, he has a feral, noisy edge, a surreal sense of humor, and also a raw anger that gives his music a ferocity that good-time bar bands so rarely evoke. He’s playing Hill Country this Friday night on a killer twinbill with fellow Americana individualist and guitarist Kasey Anderson. The show starts at 10; it’s not clear who’s playing first, but they’re both worth seeing (and worth braving the crowd of yahoo tourists at the Flower District bbq spot).

Ambel’s latest album – streaming at Bandcamp – is titled The Roscoe Sampler. It’s less a career retrospective than a collection of deep tracks from throughout his solo career. On one hand, most of the obvious picks are here. The choogling The Girl That I Ain’t Got, and Lou Whitney’s grim Jim Crow-era scenario 30 Days in the Workhouse. There’s the classic, tight-as-a-drum, Stonesy cover of Swamp Dogg’s oddball Total Destruction to Your Mind and the acidic, bitter, Rubber Soul Beatlesque Song for the Walls. The Del-Lords’ catchy, cynical Judas Kiss, and the witheringly sarcastic You Must Have Me Confused.

On the more or less straight-up tip, there’s Lonely Town, which could be the Stones circa Tattoo You with a twangier singer out front and a tantalizingly savage guitar solo. Loose Talk, a duet with Syd Straw, is a rollicking, saloon piano-fueled Tex-Mex romp. If Walls Could Talk, a big crowd-pleaser from Ambel’s days running iconic East Village venue Lakeside Lounge, features the Bottle Rockets (a band Ambel produced back in the day)

But it’s the lesser known cuts that make this record a great introduction to Ambel’s purist sonics, production savvy and guitarslinging prowess. Built around a riff Angus Young would be happy with, Way Outside paints a shadowy, desperate tableau, echoed later in I’m Not Alone. Does It Look That Bad is a wry, summery, Memphis soul-infused ballad, awash in shimmery tremolo guitar and organ.

“The minute you stopped dreaming is the minute you got old,” Ambel sneers in Long Gone Dream, the closest thing here to early zeros, peak-era Earle. Red Apple Juice is a rare, spare, delta blues-flavored solo acoustic gem.  I Waited For You comes across as amped-up Everlys, and sounds like the oldest number here.

The brisk, gloomy narrative A Charmer’s Tale could pass for late 90s Steve Wynn – it’s that good, complete with evil, sidewinding guitar solos. The collection’s final track – a collaboration with folk-rockers Martin’s Folly – is an aptly watery, wistful take of Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind. Although Ambel can go way, way out on a limb onstage, here he keeps the solos short, maybe eight bars at the most. The rhythm sections here include a diverse cast of familiar and unfamiliar names but are all first-rate: from his days rounding up the Lower East Side’s best street musicians for his iconic Roscoe’s Gang album, he’s never had to look far for talent.

Is is fair to count a semi-greatest hits collection as one of the year’s best? Is it fair to the newbies to put them up against a veteran as formidable as Ambel? Why not? We need the guy to keep schooling those kids.

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,

Hard-Hitting Americana Rock and Classic Country from Mike Stinson

Mike Stinson’s Hell & Half of Georgia is a hell of an Americana rock record. It’s got some Stonesy barroom stomps, some honkytonk, a couple of slow oldschool C&W ballads, and a little ferocious garage rock. The band is fantastic, soaring pedal steel trading off with edgy, biting lead guitar over a tight rhythm section. Stinson’s songwriting draws as much on vintage country as it does Dylanesque, lyrically driven rock; the most upbeat, hardest-rocking stuff reminds of the Bottle Rockets. One thing you should know about this album: Stinson likes lists, and lyrical riffs that he can do over and over again, switching in a new word every time around and stretching it out as far as it’ll go for laughs. The shtick works; he can be a very funny guy.

Stinsons’s surreal, dark sense of humor pervades a lot of these songs. Late for My Funeral, a snarling, sort of dark garage rock song, could be Dire Straits with more balls. The poor guy in the song just can’t get anywhere on time: too late for demerol, he ends up being too late for Geritol too, unable to get away from the scene of the crime by the time the cops come, and it just gets worse for the poor guy. The sardonic rockabilly shuffle May Have to Do It does double duty as sly, aphoristic workingman’s anthem and political commentary. Box I Take to Work, a catalog of things both real and abstact, will resonate with anybody who’s ever spent any time on the road playing music.

This Year works a Stonesy two-chord vamp: “I will be your lover but I don’t want to be a sucker this year…if we can recover this year,” Stinson muses. Likewise, Broken Record works a backbeat bar-rock tune with some of the album’s funniest lyrics and musical jokes too:

My mama was a cylinder born in 1933
My daddy dropped the needle down and then created me
My golden age of vinyl, that’s as good as it gets
My nephew is an eight-track, my kids are both cassettes

Stinson gives away his generational roots here: maybe his grandkids will be WAVs?

An oldschool Texas shuffle, Died and Gone to Houston sends a shout-out to Stinson’s hometown: “If you see me stumbling about, around the way, just drop me off in Houston, I’ll be ok,” he explains. Another slow ballad, Walking Home in the Rain is a lot more serious and understatedly sad. Stinson picks it up with droll chickenscratch guitar on Got a Thing For You, which reminds of the Yayhoos. The best song on the album might be Lost Side of Town, a nonchalantly Dylanesque midtempo tune which manages to be funny but really bleak at the same time:

It took a lot of climbing to get out here on this limb
Took some bad timing and some chances that were slim
And it took a lot of acting like I really had it down
I was only heading for the lost side of town

The album ends with the sarcastic The Kind of Trouble I Need, a searing, Kasey Anderson-ish riff-rock song where Stinson starts out comedic and then finally lets loose with a murderous menace: “That’s the kind of trouble I need,” yeah, right. Stinson plays Hill Country on October 3 at 8:30.