Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Ebony Hillbillies: Historically Aware Fun at Lincoln Center

To say that the Ebony Hillbillies played a fun set at Lincoln Center out of Doors last night might be a little bit obvious: by definition, bluegrass is fun. The Ebony Hillbillies’ version is a little more raw, and rustic, and when you think about it, authentic than a lot of bands playing that style of music. That’s because New York’s only black bluegrass band draws on a tradition that started before Emancipation, when part of a slave’s job was also to entertain the slavemasters. The band doesn’t belabor that point, but they also know their history: “There was a lot of music to learn,” violinist Henrique Prince explained to the crowd, elaborating on how slave musicians suddenly found themselves immersed in German or Irish music. One thing he didn’t say is that it’s more than a little ironic that bluegrass, commonly known as music played by caucasians, is performed entirely on instruments which originated in Africa.

Prince is the lead player in this band, with a briskly exuberant, fluid style, backed by the steady, clanking chords of clawhammer style banjo player Norris Bennett. Bassist Bill Salter (co-author of Grover Washington Jr.’s biggest hit, Just the Two of Us) slipped and slid gracefully, adding a little funk to the last song, a singalong/clapalong dance number called the Broke Leg Chicken. A rattling dance beat was delivered by Newman Taylor Baker, who played washboard with metal strikers on his fingers rather than with a metal brush, along with singer Gloria Thomas Gassaway, who added to her “reputation of working the audience [as the band’s website states]”  while playing bones and then leading the crowd in a couple of singalongs. In that crowd was jazz piano legend Barry Harris, who interrupted Gassaway briefly during the funny blues tune Big Fat Daddy to remind that skinny guys (who happen to like big women) have also got it going on.

And the crowd ate it up. A woman with a video camera began trailing a little redheaded girl (who appeared to be her granddaughter) and then persisted in filming individual members of the band in close-up for almost the entire duration of the show. But they didn’t let it phase them. Everyone listened attentively as Prince sang a desperate but ultimately triumphant tune told from the point of view of a slave running off to Georgia to get away from a speculator who planned to auction him off; then they danced and swayed as Prince led the group through an Irish reel and more traditional, Appalachian-flavored stuff. At the end, after the Broke Leg Chicken, they wanted an encore, and the band would clearly have played it if the promoters had let them.

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August 14, 2011 Posted by | concert, country music, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

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 12/5/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #786:

Jimmy Martin – 20 Greatest Hits

As chronicled in the 2003 documentary film King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin was a tragic character – a mean drunk, a bad bandmate, a micromanager as a bandleader – and one of the greatest figures in the history of the music. He got his start as a harmony singer and guitarist in Bill Monroe’s band in the late 40s, then hit with his Sunny Mountain Boys in the 50s and continued to tour festivals until he died in 2005. His high lonesome vocals and biting, no-nonsense guitar picking continue to influence bluegrass bands from coast to coast. This reissue from the late 80s mixes standards (Blue Moon of Kentucky, Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Knoxville Girl, to name a few) with hits, many from the peak of his career. Martin was the first to do Truck Drivin’ Man and followed up the success of that one with another eighteen-wheeler standby, Widow Maker. Some of these songs play up his reputation as hard to deal with, notably his first big hit, Freeborn Man, Honey, You Don’t Know My Mind and the bitter Who’s Calling You Sweetheart Tonight. The only duds here are the ones about his hunting dogs, and if the sheer number of these that he wrote throughout his career are to be taken at face value, he went through as many hounds as bandmates. For spirited live versions of many of these songs, check out the 1973 double live album Bean Blossom: Home Again in Indiana featuring Martin along with Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe and his band. Here’s a random torrent.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Surprising Jerry Garcia Tribute from One of His Heroes

In 1964, Jerry Garcia and some friends took a road trip east to hear bluegrass music. Among those bands was the legendary Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, whom they got to see more than once on that trip. Almost fifty years later, that band’s mandolinist Jesse McReynolds has recorded an album of Grateful Dead songs – some circles just won’t be broken. Still vital at 81, McReynolds doesn’t sound anywhere near his age, vocally or picking-wise, alternating between long, soulfully expansive solos and the incisive, edgy playing that’s influenced literally generations of musicians. Here he’s joined by a crew including the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s David Nelson on guitar, Randy Brown on bass, Stu Allen on acoustic guitar, Shawn Apple on drums and assorted other players. For those who find the concept of this album absolutely mystifying, the real shocker is that it actually works. Which it should. McReynolds got into the Country Music Hall of Fame on the first ballot: his presence here brings out the best in the supporting cast, who don’t waste any notes throughout a surprisingly varied mix of bluegrass, oldtimey Appalachian folk and straight-up, mellow Americana rock. On his solos, Nelson does an impressive job evoking Jerry’s signature, meandering, scale-based style without going completely over the top.

McReynolds characteristically nails the emotion of every vocal here: the plaintive lament vibe of Black Muddy River – which perfectly captures the folk song feel that Jerry was going for – along with the lonesomeness of Bird Song – an eight-minute version with terse interplay between mandolin and acoustic guitar – and especially the bitter cynicism of Loser, done here far more tensely and faster than the original. Likewise, The Wheel gets a counterintuitively vigorous treatment, layers of hypnotic electric guitar against McReynolds’ long, spiky, gently wintry staccato solo. Some of these songs evoke the Dead on the Reckoning album, especially a swinging version of Ripple. Others rock out a lot more than you’d expect from this crew, notably a darkly pedal steel-tinged Stella Blue and a violin-fueled Fire on the Mountain with yet another devastating vocal from McReynolds – he really gets these songs. By the time they get to Deep Elem Blues, they’re completely in their element: McReynolds makes it clear that it’s a cautionary tale!

Not everything here works: a brand-new co-write between McReynolds and Robert Hunter sounds like a mid-70s outtake, and the big anthemic concert singalongs Franklin’s Tower and Deal swing and miss when they try to the energy up a notch. But their version of Alabama Getaway is a knockout, done as a straight-ahead country shuffle rather than trying to imitate the second-generation Chuck Berryisms of the original. Who is the audience for this? Deadheads, obviously, as many as are left after all these years. And for that matter any fan of the new crop of Americana bands, from Mumford & Sons to Deer Tick. The Dead may be history now, but the music never stopped. This one’s out on the independent Woodstock Records label.

November 10, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/2/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #880:

The Louvin Bros. – Tragic Songs of Life

Best known for their 1960 album Satan Is Real (and its campy fire-and-brimstone cover image), Charlie and Ira Louvin were a popular country gospel group until Ira’s death in a 1965 car accident (ostensibly running from the law – he was wanted on a drunk driving warrant). They’re also the group responsible for one of the earliest nuclear apocalypse anthems, The Great Atomic Power. This album gets the nod over the rest of their catalog because it’s more accessible, minus all the proselytizing that a lot of people find off-putting. A lot of these songs were already country/bluegrass standards when the album was issued in 1956 – and they’re not all as gloomy as the title might indicate. The Louvins play to the crowd with the home-state anthems Alabama and Kentucky (the latter a delicious mandolin-and-guitar picking party), get maudlin with a seven-year-old who misses his sweetheart on A Tiny Broken Heart, and go back in time with the traditional Mary of the Wild Moor, Let Her Go, God Bless Her and the gold-digger cautionary tale What Is Home Without Love. But their versions of In the Pines, My Brother’s Will, Take the News to Mother and the murder ballad Knoxville Girl (a big hit for the Blue Sky Boys in 1937) are as grim and evocative as any rural music ever recorded. The album was reissued in 2007 as a twofer along with Satan Is Real, easily downloaded. Here’s a random torrent.

September 2, 2010 Posted by | country music, folk music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tim Eriksen – Soul of the January Hills

This is definitely not folk music for the faint of heart, but it’s heaven for fans of gothic Americana. Tim Eriksen is one of the world’s more fearless performers: long admired as a singer, steeped in Americana and particularly the eerie northern New England tradition, the multi-instrumentalist is no stranger to singing a-cappella. What’s most impressive is how this album was made: Eriksen sang all fourteen songs solo with neither band nor instrumentation, in a single take, in a tower along the wall of the Benedictine Abbey in Jaroslaw, Poland. His slightly twangy baritone is a potent instrument, but he doesn’t overdo it: this is an album of interpretations, a voice alone setting and maintaining a mood with the lyrics. Yet it also doesn’t offer the impression that he’s holding anything in reserve, waiting til the end when he knows he can empty the tank and blow out his voice if he wants. And what technique! Eriksen is pitch-perfect, working those blue notes with a sorcerer’s subtlety. Tenacity in the face of hardship, mourning and even gruesomeness is the feeling that links most of the often centuries-old songs here: many of them, even a hymn like Son of God, are absolutely macabre. Most of them are in minor keys; and to Eriksen’s credit, he doesn’t sing them all in the same key. The tension lets up a little at the end of the English folk song Gallows Tree, where the prisoner at the end of the rope is finally rescued as the hangman is paid his bribe (for another, absolutely lights-out solo vocal performance of this song, check out the version on Robin O’Brien’s album The Apple in Man).

By contrast, Eriksen gives the narrator of Drowsy Sleeper – dying of food poisoning – a chance to make a forceful last stand. He works segues between several of the songs so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins. A couple of them are traditionally sung by women, but Eriksen pulls them off, notably the ominously gleeful A Soldier Traveling from the North, where the girl begs the traveling soldier not to leave (the implication is that she’s pregnant). Eriksen recasts Amazing Grace as rustic Appalachian folk, and finally lets the clouds dissipate with a rousing, revival camp-style version of Better Days Coming to end the album. This ought to appeal to a wide audience, from fans of groups like the Handsome Family to otherworldly Balkan-Applachian singers Æ.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | folk music, gospel music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Æ at the Delancey, NYC 3/8/10

Aurelia Shrenker had just graduated NYU earlier in the day; her musical cohort Eva Salina Primack looks about the same age. But their voices are the voices of old souls, wary, a little battlescarred, passionate with the knowledge that lack of passion equals death. Opening this week’s Small Beast gathering at the Delancey, the two women of Æ (pronounced “ash,” after the Saxon rune meaning “exactly two”) turned in a riveting, otherworldly performance of both Americana and exotic, bucolic songs from considerably further east of Appalachia. The two are like sisters – their camaraderie and shared intuition for tempos, harmonies and dynamics are as uncanny as the music they sing, strikingly evident from the first few slow swoops up the scale on the old Appalachian folk song Fly Away. Their voices are much the same as well – although the sound system tonight exaggerated the treble in Shrenker’s timbre while bringing out more of the lows in Primack’s register. Primack played accordion on a plaintive minor-key Balkan number from the band’s new album (recently reviewed here, enthusiastically); Shrenker strummed through the tricky changes on a handful of Georgian tunes – a genre she specializes in – on her panduri. She explained how she’d learned Across the Blue Mountains in the White River Junction, Vermont Greyhound bus station (for those who haven’t been there, it’s a place that quietly screams out for escape, just like the song). Primack did an intense a-capella version of a Yiddish ballad and swung it dramatically, even as she added all kinds of subtly luminous microtonal shades. They also steered their way through their trademark labyrinthine interpolations of Appalachian and Eastern European or Georgian folk tunes, an especially neat discovery since the two styles mingle far better harmonically than you might think.

Primack offered the insight that American singers who do as much foreign-language material as she does always look forward to the vocalese, because it’s there where a performer can express herself or himself most individually. Shrenker mused about living to see the day when one of their stark, rustic, obscure songs is one that everyone in New York knows. That’s a hope whose genuine audacity deserves to come true. Æ will be on Pacific Northwest tour for the rest of the month beginning on 3/15 at 8 PM at Cafe Solstice, 4116 University Way Northeast in Seattle, returning to NYC in April,watch this space for show dates.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gorgeous Balkan and Appalachian Vocal Harmonies from Æ

Plaintive, austere, otherworldly and often hauntingly beautiful, this isn’t your typical a cappella album. Imaginative Brooklyn vocal duo Æ’s claim to fame is that they’re equally at home with earthy Balkan folk music as they are with Americana. The most innovative cuts here interpolate Applachian and Balkan themes, revealing the strange yet familiar commonalities in two styles that seemingly could not be more dissimilar. As the two voices interweave, one obvious comparison is Mariana Sadovska’s rearrangements of rustic Carpathian songs; other times, they evoke popular Brooklyn buzz band Black Sea Hotel. The two women were seemingly born to blend voices together – they could be sisters. Eva Salina Primack is highly sought after as a lead singer throughout the Balkan music world; Aurelia Shrenker, her onetime bandmate in the American folk group the Sirene Trio, is equally renowned as a performer and interpreter of Georgian ballads. Primack’s voice is a little more glimmering and gregarious, Shrenker’s somewhat more wary and haunting. But when the two switch roles, it’s effortless and at that point it’s impossible to keep track of who’s singing what. Their voices are augmented tersely and rustically with Primack’s accordion and Shrenker’s panduri, along with some striking violin by Jesse Kotansky on two tracks.

The first of the interpolations has Shrenker doing a potently effective slide up from her lower register. The second is hypnotic and eerie, drone versus melody, accordion looming ominously in the background; the last one contrasts Primack’s vivid Appalachian twang against Shrenker’s stately, low Georgian tones. Shrenker evokes Linda Thompson, apprehensive yet completely in command on a couple of stark Georgian folk songs, while Primack’s longing intensity on a Ukrainian number is goosebump-inducing. The Americana numbers here aren’t exactly yuppie-friendly singalongs: Wind and Rain (which many of you know) is a gleeful murder ballad with a decomposing corpse as its centerpiece, while Across the Blue Mountains documents an averted seduction, in fact maybe an averted kidnapping. There’s also a rapt, hypnotic, hymnlike Corsican song, several vividly bucolic mountain ballads from Albania and Greece and a klezmer tune done so affectingly by Primack, right down to the vocalese on the chorus, that there’s no need for a band behind her. Which could be said for everything else on the album. Æ play Banjo Jim’s on Feb 13 and Feb 14 at the Jalopy.

January 20, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Breadfoot Featuring Anna Phoebe – Tea with Leo

The heir apparent to the legacy of John Fahey teams up with an inspired violinist on this gorgeously rustic, fluid album of pastoral acoustic instrumentals. Like Fahey, Breadfoot blends 19th century folk, old-time country and delta blues influences but resists any impulse to be bound by the traditional constraints of any of those idioms. What results is equal parts great Sunday afternoon album and passout record: it’ll get you going as well as it gets you down for the night.

The opening track, A Hard Day in Manhattan wanders along with an understatement that would do Fahey proud, an exercise in subtlety and dynamics. It’s all melody, no garish flourishes or ostentation. The album’s second track, the wistful, 6/8 lament Hilary Rose is over too soon, barely into its sad, thoughtful testimonial. By contrast, the following cut, Polly Loved Me (I Know) is a rousing Appalachian dance, sparks flying from the frets of Breadfoot’s six-string banjo (!!) and the strings of the fiddle.

Of the other tracks on the album, the next one, International Esther is probably the most overtly Fahey-esque number and wouldn’t be out of place on Blind Joe Death. That’s high praise. Very nice hesitation time at the end of the tune. Kecha is guitar only, a brightly bouncing open-tuned Piedmont blues melody a la Pink Anderson. The album’s best single cut may be the thoughtful, gently pensive Smoking on the Stoop. The cd concludes with the 6/8 ballad On the Day that I Go, which would make a great soundtrack to that Twilight Zone episode – I think it was called Willoughby. You know the one, the guy takes Metro North from Manhattan, think’s he’s on the way home but he winds up back in the 1800s, watching thekids take hayrides through the dusty, unpaved streets of his town. There’s also a rousing bonus track that kicks in after what seems eternity.

Clocking in at under half an hour, this cd’s greatest flaw is its brevity: it leaves you wanting twice as much. And not that the violin isn’t a welcome accompaniment here, but for anyone who’s heard him live, Breadfoot’s idiosyncratic vision and brilliant melodicism come through clearest when he plays solo. See him when you can. When’s the last time you danced to a solo acoustic guitar instrumental, anyway? Cd’s are available online, at shows and better record stores nationwide.

April 22, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment