Tonight was a triumph for Tandy. It always feels good to see a band take it to the next level. These guys have come a long ways since their days as densely wordy mid-period Wilco soundalikes in the late 90s. Despite having suddenly lost their (and everybody else’s) lead guitarist Drew Glackin at a young age last month, they’ve regrouped and played an absolutely killer set, one gorgeous song after another. Tandy’s most recent material is their best: slow-to-midtempo, contemplative, lyrically-driven, jangly and richly melodic Americana rock with tinges of southwestern gothic at times. Frontman Mike Ferrio began the set on mandolin and harmonica before switching to acoustic guitar. The new guy they had sitting in on Telecaster provided vividly melodic, tastefully terse fills, Skip Ward played a rare gig on electric bass, and drummer Bruce Martin added some very pretty accordion textures while keeping time on the kick on one song.
Ferrio is an excellent lyricist, writing memorable, understated, image-filled narratives of blue-collar life, his vocals casual and laid-back. One of the early songs, seemingly an antiwar number, morphed into a long, crescendoing vamp on the chorus of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer pop hit Lucky Man. Later they did a couple of long, slow, hypnotically summery numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Giant Sand album. The set was somewhat front-loaded – it seemed that they saved the older material for last for the sake of their fans. The Tandy website notes triumphantly that their latest cd is sold out: unsurprising for a band this good. They’re huge in Europe. If Americana or just plain thoughtful, smart, guitar-based rock is your thing, you owe it to yourself to discover Tandy.
It’s hard to believe that such a good band would have been playing such a small room in New York City. Although a lot of bands use small-room shows for rehearsals, and since Reckon So have a gig coming up at Rodeo Bar a little after the first of the year, that might have explained it. Saying that they might be the best country band in New York might be like saying someone else might be the best country band in Cairo or Buenos Aires, but tonight they played as if they were onstage at the Ryman. Guitarist Danny Weiss, late of Buddy Woodward’s excellent Nitro Express, is instantly recognizable for his warm, soulful use of the lower frets on the guitar, but tonight he didn’t do that. Instead, he showed off his jazz and western swing chops, and the whole band followed suit, drummer Bruce Martin punching in hard occasionally on the offbeat to make sure everybody’s on the same page, brilliant steel player Jon Graboff playing five on four, bedeviling his bandmates, and frontwoman Mary Olive Smith singing her North Carolina soul out. They did a couple of George Jones/Tammy Wynette covers, the best of which was a slow, sultry blues. They also played a very fetching version of the big Jones/Wynette hit Something to Brag About, which takes on some pretty heavy significance when you consider that Smith and Weiss married shortly after he narrowly survived what could have been a lethal assault.
Led down the trail by Smith’s heartfelt, heartwarming vocals, they did justice to Jean Shepherd’s Cigarettes and Coffee Blues, as well as a Gillian Welch song. But as good as their covers were, the best song they played all night was Weiss’ original, possibly called I’m the Lucky One (which would be pretty apt, actually), a swinging number that takes an unexpected turn into the minor key at the end of the verse. Wilco would have collectively died to have written that song. There’s nothing better than a country band playing at full tilt on a rainy night where you can get a seat at the bar and a couple of whiskies and enjoy the sound, which was actually excellent, by comparison to the disaster it was last Sunday here for the Inbreeds’ show. Reckon So play Rodeo Bar on January 3, they’re doing two sets starting around 10:30 PM and you should go see them.