The last stop on a whirlwind Northeast tour for Virginia’s Dixie Bee-Liners appeared to be a last-minute booking, late on a Sunday night in relatively remote Red Hook. But it didn’t matter: they packed the Jalopy and delivered a set that ranged from downright creepy to deliriously fun. Which perfectly capsulizes the appeal of bluegrass music, and how the band’s songwriters Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward draw on its roots while taking it places it’s never been before. From the git-go, this band has pushed the envelope, and this new edition is the best yet. Bassist Sav Sankaran gave Woodward a run for his money both with his wiseass sense of humor, and his unselfconsciously soaring, high lonesome vocals when he wasn’t taking solos that drew the loudest applause of the night. Violinist Sara Needham led the band through a slinky version of Trouble in Mind that was absolutely psychedelic, her sister Leah adding edge and bite with her lean dobro lines alongside Zachary Mongan’s banjo, Woodward’s mandolin and Hart’s guitar.
Hart switched to electric dulcimer for a roaring wash of sound on Heavy, a characteristically brooding track from the band’s most recent album Susanville, a noir-tinged concept album that explores the more surreal side of highway travel. The best song of the night was Restless, another one of Hart’s, menacingly hypnotic Steve Wynn-style LA noir riff-rock done with bluegrass instrumentation. It would make a perfect segue with one of Wynn’s macabre freeway numbers like Sunset to the Sea or Southern California Line. Woodward called another hypnotic tune, Yellow Haired Girl, “a cross between Erskine Caldwell and H.P. Lovecraft,” yet the audience couldn’t resist clapping along. The rest of the show had a nonstop element of surprise, band members swapping licks, sharing solos and switching off parts with the effortless grace of a jazz combo and the understated fire of a good rock band. Woodward’s eerily amusing Truck Stop Baby contrasted with Hart’s bitter, defeated version of I Never Will Marry; likewise, she moved from the infectious Virginia bluegrass trailmap Down on the Crooked Road, to the sad, dreamily haunting Lost in the Silence, and then back again with the irresistible, quirkily scurrying charm of The Bugs in the Basement. When they finally closed the show at almost midnight with a careening singalong of I’ve Been Working on the Building, they gave hope to the scores of other New York roots music groups who’re all working on their own buildings, hoping to someday approximate this kind of brilliance and earn a following who’ll pack a club late on a work night in the middle of winter (the DBLs got their start in New York). Bluegrass fans here can look forward to seeing the Dixie Bee-Liners at Grey Fox again this summer.
The Brooklyn Country folks like living dangerously: they didn’t even put a canopy over the stage before the all-day parade of bands started. But they didn’t let a few drops of rain, a massive bank of cumulo nimbus overhead moving closer and closer or the miserable tropical humidity stop them from putting on one of the best shows this city’s seen this year. Their frequent Brooklyn County Fair shindigs go all day and into the night: this time around, the daytime venue was the pleasant Urban Meadow community garden space where President Street deadends into the water in Red Hook. The only ironic thing about the country music being made in Brooklyn these days is that it’s better than 95% of what’s coming out of Nashville: Saturday’s lineup was a goldmine of both retro and cutting-edge country and Americana talent.
Plagued with technical difficulties, Maynard & the Musties’ opening set was a wash (and looked like it would be a wash in more ways than one, with the clouds as dark as they were, but the sky never broke). They’re playing Lakeside on Friday the 23rd if you missed them here – and by the looks of the crowd, you probably did.
String band Me Before You blended bluegrass, folk and oldtime hillbilly sounds with some gorgeous vocal harmonies from brother and sister Anthony and Amy Novak, who switched on and off between guitar and mandolin, anchored by Carlos Barriento’s often haunting, bowed bass and Joyce Chen’s soaring fiddle. Their version of Blue Moon of Kentucky started slow and soulful, then turned on a dime and went doublespeed. But their originals were the best, Amy’s wary, somewhat wounded delivery akin to Patsy Cline. Toward the end of the set, Anthony finally cut loose with a sizzling guitar solo on one of their upbeat numbers, somehow managing to keep his fingers on the fretboard despite the heat and humidity.
The Dixons didn’t let the heat phase them either. Decked out in their retro hats and suits, they looked and sounded straight out of Bakersfield, 1964 – there hasn’t been a New York band who’ve done this kind of honkytonk so effortlessly and expertly well since Buddy Woodward put the Nitro Express in mothballs and headed for the hills of Virginia. Dixons frontman and rhythm guitarist Jeff Mowrer sang with a sly baritone a lot like Junior Brown while drummer Brother Paul hung back with a stick in his right hand and a brush in his left, delivering the slinkiest shuffle beat you could possibly imagine, Smilin’ Joe Covington pushing it along with his upright bass and Telecaster player Chris Hartway bringing back the ghost of Duane Eddy to guide his fast fingers. Guest pedal steel player Skip Krevens would kick off the solos and then Hartway would finish them, taking it up a notch with one lusciously reverb-drenched, twangy, tuneful fill after another – a little bluegrass, a little blues, a little surf, he did it all. Between songs, the crowd was silent: they didn’t know what hit them. They turned Ernest Tubb’s Thanks a Lot into a Hudson Hornet era boogie and happily repatriated Waylon Jennings’ Sweet Sweet Mental Revenge to a time before Pam Tillis was born. Their briskly shuffling opening tune, Still Your Fool (title track to their excellent album) set the tone for the day; The Lonesome Side of Me was period perfect not just with the music but also the lyrics, a vibe that would happen again and again during their set.
Led by Texas expat and bartitone crooner (and Brooklyn Country honch0) JD Duarte alongside chanteuse Carin Gorrell, the Newton Gang were just as good – but in a completely different way. The Dixons sound as fresh as they do because hardly anyone around these parts has that kind of sound, and the same goes for these guys. But where the Dixons have every part completely nailed down cold, the Newton Gang are just loose enough to be dangerous, part outlaw country, part evil-tinged paisley underground rockers. With a careening two-guitar attack of Duarte and agile, smartly terse Telecaster player Alan Lee Backer, they shifted unexpectedly and edgily between major and minor keys, through a brutal ballad about a kid who kills his entire family, several escape anthems (a recurrent theme in this band) and a pretty unhinged version of A Woman Scorned, a fiery, chugging tune from the band’s upcoming album. Pedal steel player Gordon Hartin built a river of dark textures, giving a fluid underpinning to the crash-and-burn overhead while drummer David Ciolino-Volano and bassist Chet Hartin teamed up for a backbeat pulse that swung like crazy – not what you’d expect from a twangy monster like this group. Unlike the parade of Carrie Underwood soundalikes out there, Gorrell goes for an often darkly aware, no-nonsense Tammy Wynette approach. Her lead vocals packed a mean punch on the rousing Mistreat Me, just as much a challenge as a come-on, a test to see if the guy’s man enough for her.
By the time they were done, the temperature had tumbled pleasantly by at least twenty degrees, but the clouds looked like they’d finally reached their limit. Alana Amram & the Rough Gems, another excellent band who mix country and rock in a cool rather than cheesy way, were next, followed by zydeco/honkytonk band the Doc Marshalls and then Americana singer Michaela Anne. But the way the sky was looking, it was time for a raincheck. We made it just past Abilene on Court St. before the monsoon hit.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Thursday’s song is #154:
The Dixie Bee-Liners – Roses Are Grey
Just so you know, we deleted The Elephants’ Graveyard by the Boomtown Rats to make room for this one. The Dixie Bee-Liners, purveyors of a uniquely rustic yet cutting-edge style of Bible Belt noir, have been burning up the bluegrass charts for the last couple of years. This is a particularly haunting, nocturnal one, frontwoman/guitarist Brandi Hart absolutely nailing the lyric’s deadpan despondency…so when redemption comes, it hits you like a tsunami. From their debut cd, 2006.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #425:
Buddy Woodward & Nitro Express – Lost in Austin
Before starting the Dixie Bee-Liners, the great Americana songwriter fronted this deliciously twangy New York “country combo” outfit that also featured the superb Danny Weiss (now with Reckon So) on lead guitar. This was their big crowd-pleaser, a characteristically clever but wrenching ballad. Recorded and unreleased but occasionally podcasted. By the way, you can win free VIP tix to Dixie Bee-Liners shows this summer – plus tix to their cd release show in Nashville this fall.
The night opened on an auspicious note with a duo show by bluegrass siren Jen Larson and multi-instrumentalist Terry McGill, the brain trust behind excellent NYC-area act Straight Drive. With her signature, rustic wail, Larson induced more than a few goosebumps throughout a charming, low-key, intimate set – it was like being in her living room.
“We don’t usually play happy songs,” McGill cautioned the crowd.
“Uneasy listening,” added Larson.
Their version of Knoxville Girls hewed much closer to its even starker, Irish predecessor, Wexford Girl; the WWII-era dead-soldier lament That Star Belongs to Me was even darker. And Larson’s a-capella version of the old Scottish hymn The Lone Pilgrim gave her the chance to cut loose and summon a few ghosts. By contrast, their version of Worried Man Blues was bright and buoyant, and Larson delivered Blue Christmas with a warmly torchy subtlety.
Giving an opening slot to such a fine singer would make a show anticlimactic for a whole lot of vocalists, but not for Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward’s Dixie Bee-Liners. The Roots Music Association’s 2008 pick for bluegrass band of the year tore through their long set with a careening, propulsive fire, constantly threatening to go off the rails but always managing to rein themselves in when it counted. You’ll see this on the best-of list here in a few days. While the DBLs push the boundaries of where bluegrass can be taken, their oldtime spirit is pure: what they do that you can’t dance to will haunt you all the way home. Mixing originals, most of them from their second cd Ripe, along with a few choice covers, they started slowly and methodically with an instrumental, abruptly picking up the pace with a darkly bouncy version of their spiritual Lord, Lay Down My Ball and Chain. Striking a Pete Townshend-like stance, Woodward’s mandolin work was characteristically fiery (although he played his best solo of the night on guitar, a sarcastically intense, modal buildup on the Bible Belt noir haunter Lost in the Silence). Acoustic guitarist Jonathan Maness also fanned the flames into a conflagration at the end of the similarly haunting Why Do I Make You Cry.
But ultimately the night belonged to Hart. To find another song stylist whose intensity matches her subtlety note for note, you have to go back to an earlier era for someone like Linda Thompson or even Patsy Cline. She still has the full-throttle Kentucky wail that characterized her earlier work, but at this show she stayed mostly in her lower register, toying with the phrasing with a playfulness that stopped just short of cruel. In the quietly sultry bend of a single note, or a phrase, Hart can say more than most can say in a whole album, and what’s more, it’s clear that she gets a kick out of never singing a song the same way twice. Arguably, the high point of the night was her casually but brutally nuanced, plaintive version of Roses Are Grey, the big, 6/8 alienation anthem that serves as the centerpiece of the latest cd. After mining the lyric for every bit of quietly stoic exasperation she could find, she finally cut loose at the end when redemption finally comes. Since the group’s fiddler Rachel Renee Johnson was unavailable for this gig, they’d scooped up Leah Calvert from the excellent Atlanta group the Dappled Grays, who nailed the songs’ often counterintuitive melodies and also provided warmly soaring, soul-stoked vocals (including a lead on the old Louvin Bros. classic My Baby’s Gone).
They wrapped up the show with a sizzling take of their amusingly lyrical character study Old Charlie Cross (he’s a big bullshitter, among other things) and closed with a rousing, bluesy version of the spiritual Working on the Building. The crowd wanted more, but the band, seemingly always on the road, had to get back to Philly. Awfully nice to see a band who cut their teeth in the NYC scene take it to the next level and get the recognition they deserve, that they never really got during their time here. The Dixie Bee-Liners’ next show is at on January 16 at 9 at Jack of the Wood, 95 Patton Avenue, Asheville, North Carolina for a mere pittance of $7.00
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.
Pinecastle Records’ latest signees played to a full house and dazzled with a passionate, frequently blistering performance. In this era of free music all over the internet, it would be a little extreme to declare them the next million-selling Americana act. But dollars to donuts they’ll be the most downloaded, after word about them gets out: Dixie Chicks, look out, you have competition (that’s a compliment). This was a homecoming of sorts for the Dixie Bee-Liners’ two songwriters and lead singers, mandolinist Buddy Woodward and guitarist Brandi Hart.
They’ve added bandmates from their new home state of Virginia, the most impressive one being a terrific dobro player, in addition to a banjoist with a striking likeness to character actor Ray Wise (it was hard to resist hollering from the audience, “Did you really kill Laura Palmer?”) and a violin player who ably supplied high harmonies to Hart’s soaring, full-throated vocals. After opening with a fast, furious instrumental, they followed with Hart’s sly, innuendo-laden trucker anthem Davy, which began life as a throwaway but has since become a big crowd-pleaser. The followed that with a gorgeously sad new one about a soldier killed in battle. It was hard to tell whether the song is a Civil War parable for Iraq, or simply nonspecific, but either way it was heartwrenching to hear Hart sing about how “then the boy was dragged away.”
After another sizzling instrumental, this one driven by the banjo player, they launched into the first single from their forthcoming album, a rousing driving tune called Down On The Crooked Road, set along the 253-mile heritage trail in Virginia that runs through the soil that gave birth to the Stanley Brothers, among a lengthy catalog of bluegrass legends. Then Woodward took over lead vocals and delivered a superbly rousing take of his Civil War anthem Grumble Jones, about a great Confederate general who got his name from his “potty mouth,” as Woodward put it. They followed that with Hart’s classic, haunting Lost in the Silence, a very darkly rustic chronicle of love gone forever, picked up the pace once again with a real fast one (a cover?) and then the show was over. The audience didn’t know what hit them, and before anyone knew it the entire club staff was lugging all the chairs out of the main space and kicking the audience (and band) out into the lobby in order to prepare for some “private party.”
This band is going places. Blessed with not one but two first-class songwriters, each with a uniquely individual voice (tonight Hart played femme fatale to Woodward’s encyclopedically gifted class clown) as well as uniquely individual vocal styles. Since leaving New York, the Dixie Bee-Liners have broadened their stylistical palette beyond the Bible Belt noir that made them so popular while they were here in town, without losing any of their striking intelligence, wit and purist musicality. One hopes they’ll be back on a night when there isn’t a private party scheduled afterward that wipes out what was probably half their set list.