Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

James McMurtry Rocks the Bell House

Saturday night at the Bell House, James McMurtry kept switching guitars and then retuning them. More often than not, he didn’t bother to hit his pedal to find the right pitch: he didn’t have to. Although he played a lot of songs on acoustic guitar, this was the rock set. It was just as much about the tunes as the endless torrents of lyrics chronicling the disenfranchised Americans hanging over the line between blue-collar poverty and complete destitution. Forget for a minute how vivid his narratives are, or how memorably he’s captured the silent majority’s endless struggle to claw their way out of the poverty trap: he’s also a mighty interesting guitarist. After several rapidfire verses of Choctaw Bingo, a characteristic, offhandedly savage chronicle of the Oklahoma crystal meth economy, McMurtry and his band left behind the bluesy, Come Together-ish shuffle and let the tune explode in a blast of raw guitar fury straight out of R.L. Burnside. Childish Things swung with a snarling, sour mash-fueled groove, part Stones, part Steve Earle. Too Long in the Wasteland took on a careening desperation. And his best-known song, We Can’t Make It Here, stomped with a hypnotic desert-rock vibe complete with a flange guitar solo before the last chorus. “We were gonna drop this from the set list, but it’s still relevant – which sucks for everybody but us,” McMurtry dryly told the crowd. He was being sarcastic of course: in better times a songwriter of his caliber could fill Madison Square Garden. He’s played the song a million times, yet he doesn’t seem to be sick of it, maybe because the most potent chronicle of the economic devastation left behind by the Bush regime resonates as powerfully today as did five years ago. McMurtry drew a line in the sand and dared any Bush-apologist CEO to cross it:

Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof
It won’t pay for a drink and you gotta have proof…
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can’t make it here anymore

The stories, obviously, are what the crowd came out for, and McMurtry gave them plenty. His characters will squeeze a discarded soft pack in the case that the person who tossed it away might not have noticed that there was still a smoke or two inside. They regret the choices they’ve made, the kids they shouldn’t have had, they drink too much and do too many drugs, they think about giving up completely but they never do. Ultimately, McMurtry and his endless parade of the debt-ridden and the angst-ridden are optimists, if only because the idea of doing anything other than carrying on is impossible to imagine. Surprisingly, one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night was one of the most subtle, the disarmingly allusive Restless. Other songs went for the jugular: Levelland, with its cruel, almost caricaturish tableau of Midwestern anomie, satellite tv dishes and cover bands playing Smoke on the Water. Ruby and Carlos, done solo acoustic, kept the suspense going all the way through to the end, where the shellshocked veteran from the first gulf war lets the land line ring and misses the call from his long-lost, now-injured ex. And The Lights of Cheyenne glimmered distantly, capturing the casual, occasionally dramatic cruelty of life in small western highwayside towns, and the temptations to throw it all away in a futile shot at escape.

And it was good to kick off the night early with a show by another literate rocker whose narratives are just as vivid and intense. LJ Murphy’s songs chronicle the same parade of characters, albeit in a more urban milieu. At Banjo Jim’s, he and his band ran through a similarly bluesy set full of “cops on horseback, sleeping drunks and men who work three jobs” in a pre-condo era McCarren Park, pink-collar happy hour crowds too clueless to realize how exploited they are, CEOs getting a hard time from the dominatrixes they love so much, and imperfect strangers who never fail to drive away anyone who gets too close.

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June 20, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday Night at 68 Jay St. Bar: Almost a Secret

One of the great remaining things about music in this town is that if you have your ear to the ground, you can catch major artists doing low-key shows working up new material in unexpected surroundings. Case in point: Midnight Hours’ gorgeously rustic, harmony-driven show at 68 Jay Street Bar Saturday night. The Roulette Sisters’ resonator guitar dynamo and de facto frontwoman Mamie Minch put this trio together with oldtime Americana siren Jolie Holland and Biggish Bandleader JC Hopkins, and it brings out the best in all of them. Tickets for Holland’s concert at City Winery earlier this year were $20, and she’s worth it: she’s got dozens of good songs, and she’s a hilarious performer. This show was free.

The harmonies were amazing. Minch’s badass contralto held down the lows in places, but Holland got to show off her low range as well, and when the two women went up, Hopkins was there to anchor the songs. He played acoustic, then electric guitar and delivered some potent blues harp on one number. Holland’s stark box fiddle playing gave many of the songs an especially bucolic edge. Early on, they did a version of the Flying Burrito Bros.’ Sin City, taking it back in time fifty years. The best song of the night, Minch and Holland matching each other nuance for nuance, might have been titled What You Got to Say, Hopkins’ terse Chris Brokaw-style leads shadowing his bandmates hauntingly. Hopkins dedicated a wistful number to an ex-girlfriend and a swing-flavored one to his grandfather while Holland panned for jewelled microtones and ominously ambiguous blue notes from beginning to end. Minch got the crowd roaring with an original with a nonstop torrent of lyrics, and wound up their final set of the night with a forceful traveling song, its narrator leaving no doubt that she wanted to get the hell out.

Potently eclectic Luminiscent Orchestrii violinist Sarah Alden headlined, playing an astonishingly diverse set of Americana and Balkan music, backed by upright bass and a guitarist who toward the end of the show played some luscious lapsteel on several western swing tunes. They swung into the set with some bluegrass, followed by a chilling instrumental that Alden wrote about getting lost in a graveyard as a young child. “This is clapping music,” the Oklahoma-bred member of our crew explained as the band launched into an energetic version of Trouble in Mind. From the Appalachians to the Balkans to a biting “Transylvanian mix,” Alden and the band wailed and soared. By one in the morning, the band was still at it, Cangelosi Cards’ frontwoman Tamar Korn joining them for more western swing. And the best singer of the night wasn’t even onstage: Jan Bell, who books the series of Wednesday and Saturday shows here, was behind the bar instead. Watch this space for upcoming Midnight Hours appearances; Holland is at Bowery Ballroom doing the cd release show for her new one on 6/28.

May 30, 2011 Posted by | blues music, concert, country music, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary Flower Brings Her Fast Fingers to Town

On April 1 at 7:30 (no joke), Portland, Oregon acoustic guitar goddess Mary Flower plays the Good Coffeehouse series at the Ethical Culture Society at 53 Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. If guitar is your thing, she’s inspiring. Her latest album Bridges is a mix of characteristically fluid yet precise Piedmont style blues playing as well as some delicious ragtime and lap slide work. First and foremost, this is a guitar album – Flower keeps her vocals unaffected and nonchalant and lets her fingers do most of the talking. They’ve got a lot to say and say it memorably.

The best songs here are her original instrumentals – while everything here draws on different Americana roots styles, Flower isn’t afraid to add her own more complex, modern melody lines. Temptation Rag is absolutely gorgeous, Flower’s twin ascending lines against Robin Kessinger’s flatpicking and Spud Siegel’s mandolin shifting to a gypsy jazz vibe. Slow Lane to Glory imaginatively takes a gospel tune and makes midtempo swing blues out of it, played richly and tunefully on lap slide guitar. The bittersweet Piedmont blues number Daughter of Contortion eventually works in a playful circus motif, and the concluding track Blue Waltz artfully intertwines her guitar lines with Tim O’Brien’s mandolin and accordion from Courtney Von Drehle of 3 Leg Torso.

A couple of the vocal numbers have a jaunty Roulette Sisters feel, most memorably the darkly simmering Big Bill Blues, lit up by some edgy, incisive piano from Janice Scroggins (whose contributions throughout this album are consistently excellent). The opening track, featuring Tony Furtado’s bottleneck in tandem with Flower’s densely intricate fingerpicking, evokes Jorma Kaukonen’s early 70s work. There’s also a version of Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues that builds from hypnotic to steady and swinging; another first-rate ragtime song, Columbia River Rag, and explorations of country gospel, New Orleans blues and a cover of There Ain’t No Man Worth the Salt of My Tears with more biting blues piano from Scroggins. In addition to her April 1 gig, Flower is teaching a workshop on Piedmont style guitar at noon at the Jalopy on April 2.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Molly’s Third Album Takes Americana Roots Music to New Places

One of the best-loved and smartest Americana roots bands, Red Molly pretty much live on the road. The seamless, soaring intensity of the harmonies and the chemistry between the musicians reflect it: these women are pros. The obvious comparison is the Dixie Chicks, another road-seasoned group, although Red Molly are lot more rootsy and less pop: they’re one of the few groups out there who can slide into an oldtime vernacular without sounding the least bit cliched or contrived. With their high lonesome harmonies, catchy bluegrass-inspired songwriting and incisive acoustic arrangements, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be any less popular than, say, Lady Antebellum (although in certain parts of the world, Red Molly are already more popular than Lady Antebellum). In case they’re new to you, the “Mollies” are Laurie MacAllister on bass, guitar and banjo, Abbie Gardner on dobro and guitar along with the newest addition to the band, Molly Venter (that’s her real name). Their latest album, James, holds to the high standard they set on their first two, while adding a slightly more propulsive edge which makes sense in that this is the first album they’ve done with drums.

The songs are a mix of light and dark. Gardner gets to show off her jazz chops on the western swing classic The End of the Line – Patsy Cline as done by the Moonlighters, maybe? – with some jaunty ragtime piano from her dad, Herb Gardner. The bitter Appalachian gothic lament Black Flowers could be a classic folk song, its narrator taking pains to explain how the only guy in town who’s doing well is the undertaker. The creepy You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive shatters any romantic notion you might have about Tennessee coal mining country, and Tear My Stillhouse Down wouldn’t be out of place on one of Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums.

Falling In, a suspensefully lush, sultry ballad features some absolutely brilliant, understated drum and percussion work from Ben Wittman, who adds similarly clever contributions throughout the album. Gardner’s Jezebel imaginatively blends blues and gospel influences: beware, this girl’s a barracuda! Fred Gillen Jr. guests on Gulf Coast Highway, a warmhearted portrait of an old bluecollar Florida couple trying to hang on in the new depression. There’s also the slowly crescendoing Looking for Trouble, a cautionary tale for a big boozer; the hypnotic, bluesy Troubled Mind, featuring some memorable violin work from Jake Amerding; the swinging honkytonk blues I Can’t Let Go, a showcase for Gardner’s characteristically biting, edgy dobro; and a gorgeous a-cappella version of the old folk song Foreign Lander. Red Molly play the big room at the Rockwood on 2/24 at 7:30 PM; they’re also at the First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn with Pat Wictor on guitar on 3/19.

February 16, 2011 Posted by | country music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Frankenpine’s Crooked Mountain Beckons Ominously

Grim, lurid and gorgeously tuneful, Frankenpine’s new album The Crooked Mountain is definitely the darkest album of the year so far – and it might be the best. We’ll sort that stuff out at the end of the year. In the meantime, the dozen Appalachian gothic songs here will give you goosebumps. A hundred years ago, when the music that inspired this album was the soundtrack to daily life, that life was short and hard and these songs reflect that, even though all but one of them (John the Revelator, reinvented as lush acoustic psychedelia) are originals. To her credit, frontwoman/guitarist Kim Chase doesn’t drawl or otherwise try to countrify the songs: her casual, plaintive unease is plenty bracing. Banjo player Matthew Chase teams up with bassist Colin DeHond, creating a fluid underpinning for Ned P. Rauch’s resonator guitar and mandolin, Liz Bisbee’s violin and Andy Mullen’s accordion.

Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, the opening track, Texas Outlaw spins off the riff from the Stones’ Paint It Black, with some rich harmonies and tense, bluesy violin. One of the few lighthearted moments here, La Fee Verte is a tribute not to absinthe but to the kind of gypsy jazz hole-in-the-wall that might serve it. Prototypical undercover reporter Nellie Bly’s trip to a grisly 19th century New York insane asylum gets immortalized on the richly lyrical, absolutely macabre Blackwell Island, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Moonlighters’ catalog. And Faceless Weaver turns a catchy garage rock verse into bluegrass, with a starkly inscrutable lyric and some neat handoffs from one instrument to another.

Rauch sings the blistering, cynically resolute murder ballad Never Lie: “I’m gonna lie my way into heaven when I shoot my way to hell.” Over Your Bones paints a sad, ghostly wartime tableau that could be set in the south in 1864, or in Afghanistan right now. They follow the fiery minor-key instrumental Wolf at the Door with the rousing, Pogues-ish down-and-out chronicle Baltimore, and then Cold Water, which leaps abruptly from hypnotic ambience to rolling, rustic beauty. Convict Grade, a title track of sorts, has the kind of stoic optimism – or at least resolute conviction – that’s found throughout so many rustic tales of hard time. And the most gripping of all the tracks might be the eight-minute epic Eye of the Whale, a surreal, grisly seafaring narrative with a stunner of an ending. There are scores of Americana roots acts with great musical chops and harmonies, and plenty with good original songs and lyrics, but few who combine them with this kind of originality and singleminded intensity. O’Death fans will love this stuff. Frankenpine plays a “steam powered battle of the bands” at Theatre 80 St. Marks on Feb 19.

February 16, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 12/30/10

Here we are back in Babylon, where the mayor only wants the streets free of snow in the white neighborhoods: and guess where we are. Anybody feel like shoveling? In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues as it does every day, all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #761:

Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops – One More in the Cabin

By the time this Brooklyn/Pennsylvania bluegrass band (formerly the Pine Barons) put out this album, their third, in 2002, they’d honed their period-perfect oldtime sound to a high lonesome wail, in the process helping to jumpstart an already nascent New York country music scene. Unlike so many other bluegrass traditionalists, Jim Krewson and Jennie Benford write their own songs, and they hit hard: these folks are throwbacks to a harsh, bucolic era, which they hardly romanticize. Poverty and unwanted pregnancy (the title track’s theme) are just as likely to make an appearance in their songs as lost love and homesickness. This isn’t polished music – although it is extremely well-played – and its spirit has a lot more in common with punk rock than it does with jam bands. Maybe for that reason, Neko Case got them to back her on a live album, and they quickly outgrew the small club scene that they’d played so ecstatically and memorably for years. The fourteen mostly upbeat tracks here are packed with inspired picking and fiddling; google it for a torrent if you’re short on cash (the band would understand). If you’re not, we highly recommend the independent band’s smartly-produced cd for party music, for waking up and getting out of the house and for long road trips.

December 30, 2010 Posted by | country music, folk music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sometime Boys’ Debut: Excellent All the Way Through

With its layers of great guitar and smart Americana roots songwriting, the Sometime Boys’ album Any Day Now makes a good segue with the Hendrix box set reviewed here yesterday. It’s a lot more rustic and low-key but just as intense as frontwoman Sarah Mucho and guitarist Kurt Leege’s main project, the wildly powerful, cerebral art/funk/noiserock band System Noise. Mucho is a legitimate star in the New York cabaret world (she won a MAC award), best known for her unearthly, powerful wail. Here, she offers frequently chilling proof that she’s every bit as potent a stylist when she brings down the lights. Likewise, Leege’s electric playing is equal parts passion and virtuosity: here, his nimble, funky, soulful acoustic work is just as gripping if somewhat quieter than his usual unhinged, wailing tremolo-bar howl. The band here is rounded out by Pete O’Connell on bass, David Tuss on violin and eclectic drummer/percussionist Andy Blanco.

The album opens with Pretty Town, a slinky, smoldering acoustic version of a funk song by System Noise’s predecessor band Noxes Pond, Blanco’s lush cymbal washes mingling atmospherically with its understated angst and tersely edgy guitar solo. The bitter, backbeat-driven bluegrass number Master Misery is a gem, Mucho delivering its torrents of lyrics with a wounded grace: “There are no answers, just suggestions, and most folks don’t bother with the truth,” she posits. There’s a deft, ELO-style handoff as the solo moves from guitar to violin; in the end, Mucho’s tortured soul chooses solitude. The catchy Non Believers is a clinic in vocal subtlety and lyrical depth, Mucho gently railing at those who cluelessly accept the world around them at face value; Painted Bones, with its hypnotic verse building matter-of-factly to its big chorus hook, has more of a gothic, Siouxsie-esque undercurrent. With its rich layers of acoustic guitar, the title track manages to be both brisk and lush. The album winds up with a gorgeously allusive, understatedly suspenseful 6/8 Tom Waits country number about a house that may or may not be haunted, in every possible sense of the word; the band also reinvents Aimee Mann’s Wise Up as edgy funk. What a treat this is, all the way through: you’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2010 page when we finally put it up in the next week or so.

December 23, 2010 Posted by | country music, funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Let’s Hear It for the Dixie Chicks

Among the cool bands we’ve never given a shout out to here before: the Dixie Chicks. Yeah, you heard that right, the Dixie Chicks. Texas may have a reputation as a troglodyte state but it’s given birth to plenty of smart, nonconformist women, among them Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. When they first came out back in the 90s, the Dixie Chicks were viewed as sort of the Go-Go’s of country music, which is more than a little off the mark – the Chicks may have started out as a bluegrass band, but by the time they achieved nationwide fame, they’d had most of the country squeezed out of them. And quality musicianship by women in Americana roots music is a hundred-year-old tradition. But they left a mark. Getting caught standing up to Bush regime repression won them a mainstream audience at the price of the lunatic fringe of their “country” crowd: if not for Maines’ offhand comment about being embarrassed that George W. Bush considered himself a fellow Texan, they probably wouldn’t have reached much more than cult status north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Berklee-trained Maines remains one of the most influential singers of her time, and by the end of the road they were writing most of their own songs, something unthinkable in millennial corporate Nashville. The new anthology, The Essential Dixie Chicks (up at itunes and all the usual spots) does justice to the women who somewhat unexpectedly became one of the very last genuinely good top 40 bands.

The double-cd compilation has most of their best stuff from their post-1998 era (they independently released a handful of highly regarded albums before then); for those who missed them the first time around, it’s as good as any way to get to know them. Interestingly, the sequence of tracks looks at their career in reverse, starting out with the bristling Not Ready to Make Nice, Maines’ response to the tea party crowd in the wake of her anti-Bush comments (which she’s vaccillated about since then). Their feminism is all the more genuine, considering how mundanely they expressed it: women refusing to assume traditional roles, keep sweet or subsume their dreams in order to get a guy. At their best, their sarcastic response to the conformity around them is pure punk rock, perfectly capsulized in the snarling Texas shuffle Lubbock or Leave It, where there are “more churches than trees.” Even before the Iraq war, they took an antiwar stance, more than alluded to here, notably on Traveling Soldier, which was a sizeable hit. The bitterness of the post-Top of the World stuff is visceral; barn-burners like Long Time Gone still resonate good vibes even if they’re basically pop songs with rustic instrumentation, and the blistering bluegrass breakdown White Trash Wedding shows they could still play that stuff if they wanted to. And Earl’s here too: ironically, it was that exuberantly silly murder ballad that established their cred with fans who’d missed their earlier, more traditionalist incarnation. The band’s future isn’t clear, although sisters Robison and Maguire continue as the Court Yard Hounds. If this is it, this retrospective sends them out with the respect they deserve.

November 3, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/30/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #852:

The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers

This brand-new 2010 album has the Martini Cowboy reverting to the classic 1960s C&W party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with a better band, better songs and an unbeatable concept: this is party music for smart people. With a swing jazz rhythm section of Grace’s wife Daria on bass, Russ Meissner on drums and either longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball or New Orleans bluesman Bill Malchow on keys, Grace himself takes over the lead guitar here, with literally delirious results. It’s a tribute to all states of drunkenness and those who indulge in it: the crazy neighborhood guy you run into at the bodega on a beer run right before four AM, the guys at OTB, the serious dude who watches his roommate drink himself into a dangerous state, and the drunken parent (on the album’s absolutely brilliant centerpiece, If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk). The titles pretty much say it all: Morning Margaritas; Drink a Little Hooch; Drinkin’ and Gamblin’; I Drank Too Much Again; and a surprising, vividly cautionary cameo from Daria, Drank Yourself Into a Corner. Jack’s George Jones-inflected baritone offers just the hint of a tequila-infused wink as the band sway and careen behind him. For nondrinkers who find the appeal of this album utterly impossible to fathom, consider that reality – woops, we mean sobriety – might just be a little less fun.

September 30, 2010 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment