It’s likely that there’s a crowd of people who think the idea of playing classical music on bluegrass instruments is flat-out absurd. Then again, music is always evolving, and the musicians pushing that evolution are usually the bravest. The Jake Schepps Quintet have chops to match their utter lack of fear. Wednesday night at Subculture, the five-string banjoist and his group – Ryan Drickey on violin, Jordan Tice on acoustic guitar, Andrew Small on bass and Matt Flinner on mandolin – played an ambitious program that encompassed so-called indie classical as well as Nordic fiddling and a healthy dose of traditional Appalachian music. At worst, they came across as a less fussy take on the Punch Brothers; at best, they took a lot of chances, danced on cinders and came away for the most part unsinged.
The centerpiece of the program was Flinner’s four-part Migration, a vivid, uneasy suite that, as the mandolinist explained to a pretty full house, sought to explore how bluegrass made its way from rural areas to larger population centers like Knoxville and Baltimore. Growing from a stern, terse, ruggedly minor-key gospel theme, it slowly brightened, although it ended with a lingering lack of resolve. Along the way, there were plenty of choice moments for soloists throughout the band, at one point Small pushing a waltz interlude with a practically new wave bassline. And it worked as well as it did, because, as Schepps put it, Flinner comes out of “the tradition” and never lost sight of it, no matter how minimalist, or avant garde, or for that matter, cinematic, the piece became.
Small revealed himself as an inspired country fiddler on an animatedly pulsing, biting, original bluegrass number on which the band was joined by a guest bassist who just happened to be in town. Tice alternated between big, expansive, jazzy chords and nimble flatpicking, particularly on an elaborate, dynamically-charged, waltzing original. Drickey led the group through a bracing number from the Swedish-Norwegian border which gave the quintet a launching pad for plenty of high-octane solos.
The night got off to a slow start with a couple of works by contemporary composers from outside the group. The first was gingerly blues-tinged, with the unfocused yet cautious feel of a student work, one that came across as trying to avoid failure rather than reaching for victory. The second rehashed Steve Reich and Windham Hill with the kind of preciousness that plagues so much of the indie classical demimonde. So when Schepps led the group from there into a mashup of a Bartok Mikrokosmos etude (#87, maybe?) and a high lonesome traditional number, it took awhile for the band to shake off the stiffness. One up-and-coming composer that the group ought to seek out is mandolinist Vivian Li, whose irrepressible, distinctive style is a richly intertwining blend of traditional bluegrass and cutting-edge contemporary composition for traditional folk instruments.
The Jake Schepps Quintet is currently on tour; their next concert is Feb 7 at 8 PM at the Theatre at 291 Gay St. in Washington, VA, tix are $20/$10 18-and-under.
To New York audiences, lapsteel virtuoso Raphael McGregor might be best known as a key ingredient in Brain Cloud, Dennis Lichtman’s western swing band. Before that, McGregor served as the source of the vintage country flavor in Nation Beat‘s driving mashup of Brazilian maracatu and Americana sounds. But he’s also a first-rate, eclectic composer and bandleader in his own right. In addiiton to his more-or-less weekly Monday 7 PM Barbes residency with Brain Cloud, he has a monthly residency at Freddy’s, where he’ll be on Nov 20 at 8 PM.
His most recent show at Barbes leading a band was a quartet gig with with Larry Eagle on drums, Jim Whitney on bass and Rob Hecht on violin. They opened with a moody oldschool noir soul vamp and quickly built it into a brooding rainy-day theme over Eagle’s tense shuffle beat. Hecht took his time and then went spiraling and sailing upwards. Why is it that blues riffs inevitably sound so cool when played by strings? McGregor had a hard act to follow so he walked the line between Lynchian atmosphere and an express-track scurry, then handed off to Whitney who picked up his bow and took the song all the way into the shadows.
McGregor began the night’s second number with a mournful solo lapsteel intro that moved slowly toward C&W and then shifted uneasily into moody swing. It was like a more animated take on the Friends of Dean Martinez doing oldtime string band music. After that, they put a swinging southwestern gothic spin on a Django Reinhardt tune.
They also did a couple of straight-up western swing numbers, a brisk trainwhistle romp and a fetching version of Waltz Across Texas With You: much as they were a lot of fun, McGregor was pleasantly surprised to find that the crowd was more interested in hearing his originals. They opened their second set with a piece that began as an Indian-inflected one-chord jam that morphed into a bluesy duel between violin and bass, followed by a Frisellian pastoral interlude and then back to trip-hop Indian funk – all that in under ten minutes. All this is just a small sampling of what McGregor could pull off at Freddy’s.
From their name, you’d think that Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires’ ambitions would be modest, and in a sense you’d be right: they’re there to serenade you casually rather than indulge in anything decadent. Frontman/tenor saxophonist Hefko sings with a deadpan, laconic, sometimes hangdog drawl over a generally laid-back, soulful backdrop provided by trumpeter Satoru Ohashi, guitarist Luca Benedetti, bassist Scott Ritchie and drummer Moses Patrou. Stylistically, they walk the line between blues, vintage 60s soul, country and jazz, often all at once, Hefko working the same kind of wryly clever, subtext-fueled lyrical vibe as Dan Hicks, or the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a mellow moment. Their album If I Walked on Water makes a welcome break from the legions of hot jazz combos blasting their way through one upbeat number after another: it draws you in rather than hitting you over the head.
They open as jaunty as they get, but with a wary minor-key cha-cha groove lit up by a stinging Benedetti guitar solo and a similarly apprehensive clarinet solo from Hefko. The second track, It’s Cold In Here is a jump blues, but a midtempo one, slinking along on Patron’s warmly tuneful piano. “The idea of lonely is getting lost in the crowd,” Hefko intones on the oldschool soul/funk number You’ve Gotta Take Steps. An electrified country blues done early 50s style with a clanging, period-perfect Benedetti solo, Color Me Blue has Hefko punning his way through; “Purple heart for bravery, red badge of courage makes you green with envy.”
The standout track here is Greyhound Coach, a gorgeously bittersweet countrypolitan swing tune, Hefko adding an absolutely morose solo over guest Neil Thomas’ accordion. But it ends well: “Picking up the pieces when this winter ceases,” Hefko insists, going out with a flourish from the sax. Likewise, Trust My Gut – a long life-on-the-road narrative – blends vintage soul with a sophisticated Willie Nelson-ish country vibe. This Song Won’t Sound the Same shuffles along with a downcast matter-of-factness, picking up with a soulful muted solo from Ohashi and then Hefko taking it out with a crescendo. The last song here, Get on the Train and Ride is typical of the songs here in that Hefko chooses his spots and makes them count: there’s the LIRR, and the Harlem line, and the Path…and the dreaded 3 AM trash train crawling through the subway. “You wanna get on and ride,” Hefko adds: no snarl, no sneer, just the basic facts, and he lets them speak for themselves. The album winds up with a pensive instrumental, You Took Away the Best Part, featuring some clever allusions to a couple of standards and a memorably misty Hefko tenor solo. Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires play a lot of gigs around town: this Sunday the 19th they play the jazz brunch at half past noon at the Antique Garage at 41 Mercer St.; on the 29th they’re at LIC Bar at 10.
American String Conspiracy’s new album Help the Poor has pretty much something for everybody, if you like Americana roots music. Whether they’re playing bluegrass, or oldschool soul music, or blues, or rock, it’s a smartly produced, rich feast of good guitar from frontman Gary Keenan and brilliant, eclectic lead player Shu Nakamura. Longtime standouts on the always fertile New York roots music scene, their colleagues on this album include Ernie Vega on electric bass, Suzanne Davenport on violin and cello, and Charlie Shaw switching between drums and upright bass.
Keenan’s laid-back baritone kicks off the opening, title track (a witty original bluegrass tune, not the old blues song) with his former mates in the haunting, excellent Nashville gothic band Bobtown – Jen McDearman, Karen Dahlstrom and Katherine Etzel – on backing vocals. “Whether by the will of god or your maxed-out credit card, that could be you someday,” Keenan offers, a friendly rebuttal to those NYC subway posters discouraging passengers from handing over a buck or two to those in need.
The first of the rock songs is Never Too Late. Like the others, it’s got tasty layers of electric guitar and a spiky solo from Nakamura, and a nice instrumental out, everybody – violin, guitars and Shaky Dave Pollack’s harmonica – firing on all cylinders. Freddy’s King, a tribute to the great Texas blues guitarist, is a spot-on shuffle instrumental, Davenport’s stark, memorable solo followed by an exuberant Freddy K. seance by Nakamura, who really nails the style, going all the way up the fretboard with some joyously slashing tremolo-picking.
My Guitar is a successful detour into countrypolitan, while Wrong Road is straight-up country and pretty hilarious: it’s amazing the things people will do after too much Jim Beam and V8. Keenan’s mandolin lights up Cherry Pie, a salute to the kind of food that really hits the spot after smoking a little weed. Crawl, a slow, bitter rock ballad, has the women from Bobtown again, an ominous violin-driven outro and a starkly chiming, simple guitar lead over lush, jangly Telecaster. They go into country gospel with Little Hymn, then back to the secular stuff for Leave It Alone, another wryly funny song, this one for the smokers: “There’s far too many ways to get stoned – just stick with reefer, it’s a whole lot cheaper.” N.O. Blues, a biting, funky minor-key number, bitterly references the Katrina disaster. “Singing Nearer My God to Thee on the banks of Ponchartrain,” Keenan intones, with Trailer Radio’s Shannon Brown guesting on a verse. They mix country, Beatles and Tex-Mex into Maybe, a duet between Keenan and Brown, and echo that vibe more quietly on the slowly swaying ballad that closes the album. It’s yet another excellent, cross-pollinated hybrid to sprout up in the greenhouse of the New York country scene. American String Conspiracy are at 68 Jay St. Bar on Jan 4.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #483:
The Maddox Brothers & Rose – On the Air
Some of this is corny but a lot of it is hilarious, and you get the picture that even when the band is being serious that they’re secretly laughing at you. Fred, Cal, Cliff and Don along with sister Rose, the star of the show are represented here by their very first radio broadcast, from 1940, plus another one from 1945 which on one hand is something else entirely, but also shows how well they had their act together when they first began. Their best stuff, the “hillbilly boogies,” foreshadows rock music, with its shuffle rhythm and lyrical innuendo: Hold That Critter Down, Small Town Mama, If You Ain’t Got The Do-Re-Mi, The Gold Rush Is Over and Too Old to Cut the Mustard among the best of them. There’s also rustic stuff like I’ve Rambled Around, bluesy stuff like Meanest Man in Town and Fried Potatoes and some requisite country gospel – Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet - and cowboy songs among the 40 tracks here. If you like this you might also like the 1961 compilation The World’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band, Vol. 2. Here’s a random torrent via the always rocking Rockin Gipsy.
Sorry there’s been a lull here over the weekend – it happens at the end of every month, when it’s time to put together a new NYC live music calendar (at our sister blog New York Music Daily). In the meantime, pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album was #489:
Tammy Wynette – Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad
She’d have an entire hall of fame career in the wake of this 1967 debut, but she got off on the good foot – and the album also doesn’t have the odious Stand By Your Man. Instead, it’s a bunch of ripping honkytonk numbers like the title track and the classics Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind), I Wound Easy but I Heal Fast along with ballads like There Goes My Everything, Don’t Touch Me, Almost Persuaded and Walk Through This World With Me. The band of Nashville pros is on top of their game and so was Tammy – it would be awhile before the pills caught up with her. Here’s a random torrent via I Could Die Tomorrow.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #490:
Merle Haggard – 20 Greatest Hits
One of the great transformation stories in musical history, a guy who (either despite or because of his criminal past) started out as a supporter of the extreme right, looked around and then realized that there was a better way, one that made sense given his populist background. This covers pretty much everything. It doesn’t have the honkytonk classic Swinging Doors but the 20 tracks here include most of the others: Mama Tried; Workingman’s Blues; Okie from Muskogee; Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down; the reworked Irish ballad Branded Man; and the Ford/Carter recession-era If We Make It Through December, a tribute to striking Detroit assembly line workers that’s as resonant today as it was thirty years ago. Here’s a random torrent via Kerala MV; if you’re here, and you like this kind of stuff, you might also enjoy Bryan & the Haggards’ twisted jazz instrumental cover album of Merle tunes.
Nation Beat’s new album Growing Stone is a potent reminder why New York has, despite all attempts to whitewash it, remained such a great cauldron for new music. This band is absolutely impossible to categorize – there is no other group who sound remotely like Nation Beat. Willie Nelson is a fan (he booked them at Farm Aid). With the improvisational flair of a jam band, the danceable vibe of a Brazilian maracatu drumline and the soul of a country band, what they play is first and foremost dance music. If you took Poi Dog Pondering – a good jam band from another generation – subtracted the bluegrass and replaced it with Brazilian flavor, you’d have a fair if not completely accurate approximation of what Nation Beat sound like. They’re sunny and upbeat but also pretty intense.
With its hip-hop beat and Mark Marshall’s wah guitar harmonizing with the violin, the opening track sets the stage for the rest of this incredibly eclectic record. The second track, Bicu de Lambu sets sunbaked slide guitar over Rob Curto’s accordion for a zydeco/country feel with blippy bass and bandleader Scott Kettner’s rolling surf drums. Meu Girassol is the Duke Ellington classic Caravan redone as eerily off-kilter, guitar-driven Afrobeat bubbling over guest Cyro Baptista’s percussion, followed by a briskly cheery horn-driven forro-ska number.
With its soaring fiddles and Memphis soul guitar, the bouncy, swaying title track is a showcase for frontwoman Liliana Araujo’s laid-back but raw, down-to-earth vocals – and is that a Dixie quote? Forro for Salu has a rustic Brazilian string band vibe with the twin fiddles of Skye Steele and Dennis Lichtman over Kettner’s rumbling, hypnotic percussion. They follow that with a summery soca-flavored tune and then a reggae song that goes sprinting into ska. The rest of the album blends bouncy forro, ecstatic New Orleans second-line sounds, retro 20s blues, rocksteady, vintage 60s funk and swaying oldschool C&W and and makes it all seem effortless. It’s out now on similarly eclectic Brooklyn label Barbes Records.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #494:
Buck Owens – On the Bandstand
Despite the title, this isn’t a live album, although it has the energy of one. Buck Owens began his career in the early 1950s as a highly sought-after lead guitarist known for his eclectic style, equally inspired by blues, Mexican music and what was becoming rock. By 1963, when this came out, he’d become a star as a frontman with his band the Buckaroos, including Tom Brumley on pedal steel and Don Rich on fiddle and lead guitar. Together they invented the “Bakersfield sound,” which is still about the hardest that country music has ever been. Some choice cuts: the sweetly twangy Sally Was a Good Girl, Kickin’ Our Hearts Around, One Way Love and Sweethearts in Heaven; a countryfied version of Leadbelly’s Cotton Fields; King of Fools, which foreshadows the buffoon character he’d play on Hee Haw; a boisterous Orange Blossom Special; and Diggy Diggy Lo, covered by many garage bands since then. Here’s a random torrent.
Yesterday the most impressive and entertaining act at the bluegrass festival at Madison Square Park was Donna Hughes and her excellent band. She’s a quick study. It didn’t take her long to size up the crowd: “My manager wanted me to let you know that we’re also available for private parties and weddings,” she grinned – obviously, the kind of wealth she was playing to here isn’t so abundant in her native North Carolina. She bills herself as a singer-songwriter, which makes sense: throughout her show, there were all kinds of hints that she came to this music the long way around the mountain. But it also seems like she’s found a home in bluegrass – and is taking it to good new places. Her opening tune, Sad Old Train had a familiar ring to it, maybe because of the cover by the Seldom Scene. Hughes doesn’t go for high lonesome drama, instead maintaining a calm, gracefully nuanced vocal presence that was often chillingly plaintive (a gymnast who still coaches in the sport, she knows a little something about balance, and what the slightest move in one direction or another might mean). Like every other style of music, the best bluegrass is deep, whether that means deeply sad or deeply fun, and Hughes gets that. Playing acoustic guitar, she was backed by the effortlessly fluid flatpicking of guitarist Brian Stephens and his wife Maggie’s terse, casually strong bass pulse, plus the similarly skilled Thomas Wywrot on banjo.
There were plenty of good songs in her set, but one gentle knockout told the story of a dead lady’s possession’s being auctioned off (Hughes’ dad was an auctioneer: she was obviously paying close attention when he was working). It took took that woman a lifetime to get those things, and a day for them to be scattered into the fingers of whoever could afford them. Kitty Wells would have been lucky to have had that song in, say, 1955. Although Hughes told the crowd that she gravitates toward sad songs, they’re more complex than that, both moodwise and musically. One wryly chronicled what it’s like to date a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde kind of guy; Wywrot’s rolling banjo propelled a bitterly amusing minor-key tune listing pretty much everything that can slip through your hands.
Brian Stephens told the crowd that Hughes’ idea of writing a bluegrass song about a pirate was half-baked – until he heard the song. And then they played it, a stark, minor-key number possibly titled Bluebeard’s Ghost. Hughes put down her guitar, since she’d written it on piano, with an unexpected jazz tinge to the tune. As expected, the energy in the crowd picked up for the familiar tunes, Flatt & Scruggs’ Down the Road – sung by Brian Stephens, with a warm, down-home energy – and an instrumental version of Jesse James. Hughes also played a solo tribute to her late father, a vivid and unselfconsciously pretty song that would have been even better with the band lending a hand. But maybe they didn’t know it.
The bands afterward also took bluegrass to new places, but not particularly interesting ones. No matter how much you may try to gussy up a lame pop song with flashy bluegrass chops, at the end of the day it’s still a lame pop song.