Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers

It’s surprising that nobody’s done this yet, and it’s a good thing that the Jack Grace Band did it instead of, say, Jimmy Buffett. The country crooner’s new album Drinking Songs for Lovers is party music for smart people, and it’s definitely the funnest album of the year so far. For Grace, whose previous album The Martini Cowboy was surprisingly dark and serious, most of this is a defiantly unapologetic return to the party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with more swing. Credit his better half, bass player Daria Grace, for joining in on a groove with their jazzy drummer Russ Meissner. Jack handles most of the guitar work, with Mike Neer on lapsteel, Bill Malchow on keys and longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball guesting on a couple of tracks.

The songs portray a wide variety of of drunks – 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. These guys treat drinking as a serious business, a necessary alternative to some unthinkable alternate universe. Hangovers are a big part of it, an occupational hazard: it’s a tough job and somebody’s got to do it. Starting first thing with Morning Margaritas, a bracingly Tex-Mex way to kick off the album, featuring the Broken Mariachi Horns (J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and Rob Henke on trumpet). If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk is one of those songs that needed to be writtten – beyond offering some useful tips, it manages to stick in a litany of favorite drinks and favorite places to drink them. I Drank Too Much Again vividly captures the grim aftermath – the headache pounding behind the late afternoon sunglasses is visceral. Drinkin’ and Gamblin’ is a surprisingly hard-rocking minor key banjo tune; a rapidfire honkytonk lesson in trucker lingo, The Worst Truck Driver in the World is a teens update on the 1976 C.W. McCall rig-rock classic Convoy minus all the CB radio references.

Jack Grace’s baritone is one of the most soulful voices in New York music, but the best vocals here actually belong to Daria, perhaps singing the apprehensive minor-key blues Drank Yourself into a Corner while Jack was on a beer run. Drink a Little Hooch is the album’s second tribute to drunken gamblers: “Is there something I’ve been missing out on?” the perplexed narrator wants to know. The album winds up with the surreal, heavily hungover-sounding, Tom Waits-ish Haven’t Had a Birthday Now for Years, the blazing lapsteel rocker So Ugly, a merengue number (the guy at the bodega, remember?) called It Was a Really Bad Year and a depressive, authentically retro 60s style country ballad that recalls Jack’s previous albums.

This cd isn’t for everyone. Country music fans will love it, as will drinkers of most every stripe. Serious-minded folks might object to how cavalierly and completely nonjudgmentally chronic alcoholism is portrayed here, but fuck them. They’re no fun. The Jack Grace Band will be at SXSW for a bunch of gigs including a show on March 19 at 4:30 PM at the Saxon Pub with Earl Poole Ball from Johnny Cash’s band on piano. Their next NYC show is April 2 at 10 PM at Barbes.

Advertisements

March 13, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monica Passin/Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 4/24/08

It’s no secret that New York has one of the most vital, thriving country music scenes anywhere. Forget any snide commentary you may have overheard about urban musicians playing country: if anything, the music coming out of the New York country scene is far more traditionally-oriented than most anything Nashville is producing these days. Tonight’s bill paired two of the more popular country acts in town. Monica Passin, frontwoman of long-running Rodeo Bar honkytonkers L’il Mo and the Monicats played mostly solo acoustic, with occasional help from a couple of women who sang harmonies, and the New Jack Ramblers’ amazing lead guitarist. She’s pretty much everything you could want in a country singer: pretty voice, good songs, good taste in covers and backing musicians. Her best song was a minor-key rockabilly number – the first one in that style she’d ever written, she said – possibly titled This Cat. The lead player used Passin’s ominous chord changes as a springboard for a riveting, intense, jazz-inflected solo that drew roars of appreciation from the crowd. On the last song, Passin invited Lisa, the bar owner up to sing harmonies, and as it turned out she’s actually good! Not since the days when Juliana Nash ran the show at Pete’s Candy Store has there been a bar owner who’s been able to show off such a soaring, fearless voice. Bands in need of a frontwoman ought to stop by the bar: she won’t embarrass you, and if all else fails you’ll always have a place to play.

Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers aren’t exactly under the radar, maintaining a hectic gig schedule in addition to the regular Sunday night residency they’ve been playing at Hank’s for what seems forever. They’re a rotating crew of some of the best players in town: the weekly Sunday show originated out of necessity, as this was the only night everybody in the band didn’t have a gig. Tonight, backed by just lead guitar and upright bass (their awe-inspiring pedal steel player Bob Hoffnar wasn’t available, and you really don’t need drums in a small room like Banjo Jim’s), Kershaw ran through a mix of what sounded like covers but probably weren’t. The guy’s a hell of a songwriter, a prolific, versatile writer as comfortable with western swing as honkytonk, rockabilly or stark, Johnny Cash-inspired narratives. Tonight’s show was the western swing show, driven by lead guitarist Skip Krevens, whose ability to burn through a whole slew of styles was nothing short of spectacular, everything from jazz to rockabilly to blues. He made it seem effortless. They gamely ran through the old standard Smoke That Cigarette in addition to a bunch of originals, some recorded, some not, closing the first of their two sets with what has become Kershaw’s signature song, Moonlight Eyes. Originally recorded with his first band, the fiery, rockabilly unit the Blind Pharaohs, it’s a genuine classic, something that sounds like a Carl Perkins hit from 1956. Kershaw has played it a million times, but still manages to make it sound fresh, the ominous undercurrent beneath its blithe romantic sway more apparent than ever tonight, stripped down to just the basics.

And what was even more apparent was that both of the acts on this bill would probably be big stars in a smaller metropolis: here, they’re only part of a widespread, talented scene.

April 25, 2008 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jack Grace Band Live at Rodeo Bar, NYC 4/6/06

The Jack Grace Band is at Rodeo Bar every Sunday this month at about 9:15, and this is a residency you should see. As the Dog Show said, Saturday nights are for amateurs, so it follows that Sundays are for the pros. Seeing the baritone country crooner/guitarist and his cohorts onstage with such a small crowd in the house was bizarre: in fact, being able to see everybody in the band without standing on tiptoe behind a bunch of people was weird. But good. This residency is born of tragedy: Grace is trying to put together a new sound without the services of his longtime lead player, lapsteel genius Drew Glackin, whose sudden, unexpected death at a young age last January caught everyone he played with (and that’s a LOT of New York musicians) completely off guard. But Grace is an excellent lead guitarist, with a terse, incisive, bluesy style, and armed with his new Telecaster, he let loose a lot of searing, even raging solos, getting the new axe to scream like his trusty old hollowbody Gibson can’t. It’s clear that this is somebody who’s still furious about losing his good friend and bandmate (Glackin had a rare thyroid condition that, if he’d had health insurance, would almost surely have been diagnosed long before it killed him). Although the anger doesn’t make it into Grace’s voice: his smooth, soulful delivery was as sly as ever, as he and the band kicked off the set with a new song, the swinging drunk-driving anthem The Worst Truck Driver in the World, a dead ringer for Junior Brown at his most entertaining.

Grace didn’t have his usual bassist, his wife Daria with him onstage tonight, but the sub guy held up his end admirably (drummer Russ Meissner, a jazzcat playing country music, made it easy). Piano player Bill Malchow added a New Orleans blues feel, especially on the darker, minor-key, somewhat Tom Waits-inflected numbers, and sang in a Dr. John-style N’awlins drawl when Grace gave him a lead vocal.

The band mixed upbeat party anthems including This Hangover Ain’t Mine and 7:30 in the Afternoon (a wise, knowing guide to how to kick a really bad hangover: sleep!) with several eerie, bluesy tunes including Kick off Your Shoes Moonshine, an older song that Grace has yet to record. Grace’s lyrics are craftsmanlike and imbued with great wit. He knows that the best country music is anything but unsophisticated: in the pre-rock era, if you wanted really good lyrics, you either had to listen to blues or “hillbilly music.” This sophistication came to the forefront on the dark, haunting, minor-key Cry, from Grace’s most recent album The Martini Cowboy, which begins as the blissed-out, wired narrator offers a girl coke, knowing fully well that the blow will only keep the angst away for so long.

Late in their first set, they segued out of a song into a long, meandering, somewhat swampy interlude that could have been vintage Little Feat. And then they played (Let Your) Mind Do the Talking. It’s Grace’s best song, a haunting, backbeat-driven blues tune about a drunk slowly losing it, and his version tonight was nothing short of transcendent. “I got a dream for a dog but it always needs walking/When you’ve got nothing to lose you let your mind do the talking,” Grace intoned ominously, building to a crescendo at the end with a screaming, noisy guitar solo while the piano and drums pounded out the beat. Grace and his band have a pretty Herculean live schedule, so you always have several chances a month to see them, but if this residency is anything like tonight’s show, it could be something special.

By the way, in case there are any deep-fried pickle enthusiasts out there, Rodeo Bar is one of the few places in town (other than, say, some stand at the San Gennaro festival) that sells them. They come with a sour cream and onion dipping sauce – and if you ask, the waiter will bring you some freshly chopped jalapenos as well – and are enthusiastically recommended.

April 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Real Live Bluegrass in New York City? Yee Ha!

All you out-of-towners might be shocked to know that there’s a vibrant bluegrass scene in New York. The Dixie Bee-Liners, whose new album just hit #1 on the Roots Music Report got their start here. Since they left town, the best band around these parts is Straight Drive, whose gorgeously soulful performance of old-time, old school style bluegrass at Banjo Jim’s Saturday night would have made Bill Monroe proud. A lot of new bluegrass bands give off a coldly sterile, fussily technical vibe, but not this crew. Fiddle player Ronnie Feinberg made his marvelously precise runs look effortless. Banjo player Terry McGill was even more impressive when not soloing than when he was. He has great technique and a terrific way of building to a crescendo, but when he plays rhythm, he doesn’t just comp chords: he uses the whole fretboard, toying expertly with the melody. He threw everybody for a surprise by ending one song with a couple of high chromatics, and then bent the neck of his banjo ever so slightly to raise the pitch. Their new mandolinist is a vast improvement over the guy he replaced, the bass player pushed the beat along and frontwoman Jen Larson was brilliant as usual. Incongruous as it may seem, the most striking and haunting voice in maybe all of bluegrass belongs not to someone south of the Mason-Dixon line, but to this casually captivating architecture historian originally from Boxford, Massachusetts.

But she didn’t do the haunting thing tonight. This was Straight Drive’s fun set. This crew knows that a lot of bluegrass is dance music, and while they didn’t get the crowd on their feet, everybody except the trio of trendoids in the corner yakking away, oblivious to the music, were swaying back and forth and clapping along. Their version of Bill Monroe’s (Why Put Off Til Tomorrow) What You Can Do Today had fire and bounce; their cover of Hank Williams’ Blue Love was nothing short of sultry. The best of the vocal numbers, which they interspersed among the instrumentals, was a warmly swaying 6/8 number written by Larson that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dolly Parton record from the mid-sixties. Larson can give you chills but tonight’s show proved she can also make you smile and keep your head bobbing in time with the melody. Like most of the best New York bands, they don’t do a lot of shows here because the money is on the road, where audiences are used to lousy cover bands, and a show by a group like Straight Drive is a special treat that you can’t just see any old day.

February 11, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments