Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Uncle Leon and the Alibis Raise the Roof at Rodeo Bar

“I love you, Leon!” a girl hollered from the back of the bar. Uncle Leon, frontman of Uncle Leon and the Alibis is not your typical babe magnet – he could be Joba Chamberlain’s wiser, older brother (they have a similar midwestern blue-collar look). But he pulls demographics that your average bunch of Strokes wannabes would kill for. Back in the early-to-mid zeros these guys put on some of the funnest, funniest shows in town…and then they broke up. It didn’t really matter that they weren’t particularly tight, because Leon’s David Allan Coe-style songs were so funny. The first thing that hits you is what a good band this new version of the group is – they don’t need to be funny all the time to be interesting. Lead guitarist Charlie Aceto plays the stuff Leon can’t, and has a good handle on Bakersfield guitar – and he can do Social Distortion roots-punk and blues too. Maria on the drums is missed – she was always at least half of why the original band was so irresistible – but the guy who replaced her is solid and and can really swing, teaming up with bassist Neil Magnuson.

The thing that separates these guys from the rest of the funny country bands out there is that their jokes are usually pretty smart and edgy: they don’t just rely on cornball cornpone humor. Leon’s specialty is the battle of the sexes: the good guys always lose, badly. That’s how he comes across – that, and his resonant baritone probably explain the presence of all the women at his shows. Sure, he’s having fun up there, but the guy can flat-out sing. That this particular set was successful without either of his big hits, I Hate My Job or Drugstore Roses (or his cover of Baby Got Back), speaks for how good the rest of the material was. They opened with a blackly funny faux murder ballad based on a real-life encounter between Leon and a bounty hunter in a Dairy Queen parking lot somewhere in Kansas. My Love Is Like a Monster Truck was what you’d think it was: monster trucks use up a lot of rubber (that might not have actually been one of the lyrics, but it could have been). A slowly swaying, mournful ballad turned into a kiss-off anthem: “When you said ‘I love you,’ I thought that meant just me,” Leon explained. They blasted through a truck-driving number, Blue Sky and Asphalt and then a boisterous version of Hot Rod Mamas, where he skewered “catalog girls” with their perfect everything and their selfcenteredness – he likes a girl with a little junk in the trunk but with brains too.

They did three covers: an understatedly vicious version of Hank Williams’ My Love For You Has Turned to Hate, the Merle Haggard classic Swingin’ Doors and a practically halfspeed, swinging, straight-up country take of the Stones’ Dead Flowers – that song’s retirement date may have come and gone a long time ago, but damned if these guys didn’t make it sound fresh. They wrapped up their first set with a cowpunk number – Good Time Woman? Two Time Woman? Two Ton Woman? It could have been any of them, maybe more than one.

Uncle Leon is not only a singer, he’s a co-founder of Brooklyn Country, who maintain an excellent site dedicated to country and roots music in New York, with a concert calendar, interviews and the occasional album review. Kind of like us, but more specialized. Uncle Leon and the Alibis’ next gig is at midnight on 9/11 at Southpaw as part of the excellent three-day Brooklyn Country Music Festival.

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July 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Bryan and the Haggards – Pretend It’s the End of the World

Bryan and the Haggards play twisted, jazz-tinged instrumental covers of Merle Haggard songs. Which if you know something about either style of music shouldn’t exactly come as a shock (Willie Nelson, anybody?). But this being New York, the indie stench wafts across the river from Williamsburg when there isn’t much of a breeze. Is this album yet another case of a bunch of spoiled brats thumbing their snotty noses at music they associate with the working classes? Happily, no. Bryan and the Haggards are actually a jazz group, Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord, a take-no-prisoners combo equally adept at melody and squall. This album might have been jumpstarted when Big Five Chord recorded a satirical cover of the Louvin Bros.’ The Christian Life for their previous album Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord Accomplish Jazz (very favorably reviewed here last year). Considering the name of this project, it would seem that tenor sax player Bryan Murray is the ringleader this time around, his accomplices being guitarist Lundbom, high-profile alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Matthew “Moppa” Elliott and drummer Danny Fischer. What does it sound like? At its most coherent, like Uncle Tupelo on mushrooms. Occasionally, it takes on an exuberant New Orleans second line vibe. Beyond that, coherence ceases to be an issue. This may be jazz, but the underlying esthetic is pure punk rock. Which is nothing new for these players – this crew will basically rip anything to shreds, especially their own compositions, so the question of whether or not they have any affinity, or distaste, for Haggard, or for country music in general, is really beside the point. For their shenanigans, any source is sufficient. It’s how they do it that makes it so much fun.

Silver Wings sways stiff and heavyhanded, Fischer pulling away from anything approximating a groove. Eventually, the saxes fall apart and for literally a second so does the rhythm section, and everything is chaos but then they’re back together again like nothing ever happened. A spitball? Me? What spitball? So when they follow that with an actually quite pretty instrumental of Swinging Doors, it’s strictly a diversion: a minute into Workingman’s Blues and Murray is quoting liberally from his fakebook while Elliott runs scales and eventually settles into one of his typical confrontational low-register rumbles, Lundbom eventually lumberjacking his way through some spot-on Sister Ray-style chord-chopping.

The original version of Miss the Mississippi and You has a countrypolitan vibe, so it makes sense that this crew would be able to turn it into as lovely a ballad as they do until the saxes start making little faces at each other, followed by a very, very good joke about intra-band communication. Lonesome Fugitive is a launching pad for some loud, lazy and eventually very funny commentary from Lundbom; All of Me Belongs to You is just plain sick, in a Ween kind of way. The last cut, Trouble in Mind is ironically the most traditional of all the cuts here, a New Orleans style raveup anchored by distorted guitar, sax overtones whistling overhead with the glee of a mosquito who’s figured out how to evade the swatter.

Who is the audience for this album? Stoners, most definitely; also fans of the Ween country album, Uncle Leon & the Alibis, David Allan Coe and the like. Jazz fans ought to like this although most of them won’t. Country fans probably won’t like this much either on account of it being iconoclastic. So, could this maybe be a bunch of working-class musicians making fun of alt-country, a style they associate with the ruling classes? Hmmm…peep the cheesy-beyond-belief, perfectly retro 70s cd cover design and decide for yourself.

June 19, 2010 Posted by | country music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Maynard and the Musties – So Many Funerals

Nouveau outlaw country songwriter and Nashville expat Joe Maynard does double duty as a rare book dealer, hence the tongue-in-cheek band name. On this cd – his first with this particular crew – he comes across as sort of a hybrid of Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits and David Allan Coe. Maynard built a reputation for gut-bustingly funny songs with his previous bands, the upbeat Illbillies and then the more traditionally oriented Millerite Redeemers. On this cd, he’s as surreal as always but considerably more somber, and the jokes are darker as well. Musically, it rocks pretty hard in places: Ryan Adams’ production is terse and imaginative on both the upbeat stuff and the quieter numbers. The album’s best song, Elvis Museum is a prime example, Adams’ piano quiet and determined over a swaying backbeat, and it’s a genuine classic. It’s quintessential Maynard: the museum in question turns out to be a pretty pathetic excuse for one, the King’s portrait between “a sinkful of dishes and a toilet stall,” but this offhandedly savage satire of celebrity worship still manages to be sympathetic. Likewise, the opening track, Pine Box, a body in a coffin taking a sarcastic view of the preacher and the pageantry outside. After a gentle, rustic beginning lit up with some vivid violin from Naa Koshie Mills (also of the Disclaimers, and the musical star of the album), lead guitarist Mo Botton rips out a nasty garage rock solo.

Maynard hails from Brooklyn these days and uses that milieu for several of the songs, including the surreal Cowboys of St. Bartholomew – about a gay street couple – and the deadpan, reverb-drenched Rocky and Bessie, an ominously bizarre tale of a couple of stray dogs in Fort Greene. He also sets the poem Shallow Water Warning – a drowning recalled by the victim – by legendary outsider poet Helen Adam to a swaying Tex-Mex-inflected tune. Otherwise, the titular redneck girl of the big bluesy raveup isn’t exactly what she seems, the drugs bid a fond farewell to the body they ravaged in the lullaby Dear Addict, and the rest of the world hides and surfs the web while the world burns – literally – on the Velvets-esque apocalypse anthem It’s Been a Great Life, Botton adding some aptly furious Sterling Morrison chord-chopping on the outro. The cd closes with a heartfelt tribute to Maynard’s lapsteel player and flatmate, the late, great Drew Glackin (also of Tandy, the Jack Grace Band, Silos and numerous other A-list Americana bands). The whole thing is a richly lyrical, fearlessly good time, darkness notwithstanding. The band is also impressively good live. Maynard and the Musties play Sidewalk on Dec 4 at 8 PM.

November 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Big Nowhere – Pull Down the Moon

This project started when Billy Crowe, late of UK goth/shoegaze act Summersalt and Simon Sinclair of edgy Glasgow funk band Brown Eye Superfly decided to join forces and combine the songs that for one reason or another didn’t fit in with either of their other projects. The first question that comes to mind here is that this might be a parody. Well, maybe a little. The Big Nowhere fall somewhere between the Nashville gothic of the Dead Cowboys, the over-the-top C&W silliness of David Allan Coe  and the deadpan, straight-up country satire of Uncle Leon & the Alibis. Musically, they manage to be simultaneously true to their influences (the usual suspects: Hank, Johnny, Lefty) while adding a completely unexpected playfulness. For example, the lead instrument on Why Won’t You Make My Telephone Ring is a reverby Vox organ, hardly something you’d hear on a Nashville session from 1955.

The cd opens very cleverly with Some Kind of Sickness, a dead-on evocation of an old 78 right down to the scratches across the grooves and the unmistakable quaver of a warp in the record. I Promise You Honey I Was Out with the Guys sets the tone for much of the rest of the album, mostly acoustic and completely deadpan, produced with care and good taste yet spiked with a pingy little electric guitar part that would sound vastly more at home on, say, an early 10,000 Maniacs album. I Got Love nicks the melody of the oldies radio chestnut Help by Bobby Bare, strips away the cliches and actually makes it palatable. Last Night with Lucy-Anne reverts to a musically straight-up but lyrically tongue-in-cheek feel.

A horn section, of all things, kicks off the 6/8 ballad Johnny Walker Red, which starts out sad but doesn’t stay that way long. On Untitled Satan Song, the narrator addresses the man with the forked tongue and the tail with the utmost respect even though he stole the poor guy’s girl (maybe he doesn’t want to end up where she’s going). By contrast, the murder ballad My Name Is Bob Willis, complete with police radio sample, is stark and haunting. Song for Suzannah takes the point of view of someone on the receiving end of the gun, with a neat trick ending. The album tails off toward the end, but overall it’s a lot of fun, more so the more closely you listen.

May 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Balthrop, Alabama – Subway Songs and Cowboy Songs

Two brand-new eps from the multistylistic Brooklyn music mob. True to the band’s signature shtick (Balthrop, Alabama style themselves as a little Southern town relocated to the BK), a lot of people were involved with making these albums and in general they acquit themselves well. Perhaps because of the sheer number of contributors, the band’s ability to fluently channel a ridiculous number of styles from decades ago to the present day is uncanny, and spectacularly so. The first of the two, Subway Songs is delightfully gruesome, lushly and imaginatively produced with layers of vocals, horns, keys and a variety of rustic stringed instruments. It also doesn’t seem to have the slightest thing to do with subways. It opens with Subway Horns, theatrical gypsyish ska punk like World Inferno. Bride of Frankenstein, which follows, is southwestern gothic with some biting slide guitar in the style of Friends of Dean Martinez. Prom Story is an amusingly and musically spot-on spoof of early 60s girl group ghoul-pop; Ocean’s Arms adds a faux Irish tinge to an immigrant’s tale gone drastically awry.

 

Red Hook Pool is a fast, upbeat folk-rock number spiced with banjo, a dead ringer for a Phil Ochs pop hit from, say, Tape from California, 1967. It, too comes to a grisly conclusion after the rain starts, morphing strangely into a vintage style soul song after a long instrumental vamp. With its beautiful, soaring vocals, the 6/8 ballad My Way the Highway sounds like what Caithlin de Marrais might have done if she’d been alive in 1965. At least nobody seems to die in this one.

 

Cowboy Songs explores a satirical concept. Trouble is, between Ween’s Twelve Golden Country Greats album, the Inbreeds, and David Allan Coe, there isn’t much country music territory left  to parody, and this doesn’t exactly add anything to the canon. The musicianship here is all first-rate, and in fact some of these songs are so period-perfect that they could be from Nashville in the mid-60s – but as b-sides. Old Cowboy Queer sounds like a ripoff of I Thought I Was Country Til I Found I Was Queer by fellow Brooklynites the Illbillies (now Maynard and the Musties), which achieved some notoriety about ten years ago. There are also thoughtful attempts at crafting a slowly swinging romantic ballad and an oldschool Ray Price-style shuffle. And then they end it on a tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic note. Balthrop, Alabama plays the cd release for these two at the 92YTribeca on 3/13 on an excellent bill with the Ukuladies and the Moonlighters starting at about 9:30 PM.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Maynard and the Musties at Lakeside Lounge, NYC 12/14/07

This week has turned out to be Fun Band Week. Frontman Joe Maynard is a hell of a songwriter when he wants to be, which is basically all the time. He may have the outlaw country singer look down cold, but he’s actually a funny Southern literary type (he’s from Nashville originally). The band is called the Musties because Maynard is a rare book dealer. If Kinky Friedman is your cup of tea, or you’re secretly a fan of David Allan Coe (and wouldn’t be so secretive about it if the guy hadn’t been such an egregious racist), Maynard and his band will push your buttons. Tonight they mixed in some new material along with a lot of older songs from his former unit, the retro country act the Millerite Redeemers. Maynard’s approach may be humorous, but he doesn’t mock the twisted characters who populate his songs: there’s an unexpected compassion and humanity there. Starting most of the songs solo on guitar and letting the band jump in about a bar later, he delivered the amusing St. Mary’s in the Toaster (inspired by a story in the World Weekly News about someone who saw the face of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast), the darkly comedic, Tom Waits-ish Rocky and Bessie (about a romance between a couple of stray dogs in Fort Greene), and his big crowd-pleaser, I Thought I Was Country Til I Found I Was Queer. He also did a heavily reworked version of the very dark Millerite Redeemers song A Lot of Things Happen to Beautiful Girls (use your imagination).

One of the best of the new songs was a murder ballad that Maynard appropriated from some obscure 1920s British literary figure and set to his own melody. It’s told from the point of view of the victim. They closed the set with a sarcastic, apocalyptic new number possibly titled It’s Been a Good Life (as in good life for a couch potato who doesn’t interact with anyone or participate politically in anything, websurfing while Rome burns). The band gave it a long, crescendoing, extended outro, violinist Naa Koshie Mills and steel player Drew Glackin building a beautiful mix of ambient textures rather than doing any extended soloing. The audience loved it and demanded an encore, and Maynard obliged with the Amy Allison classic Drinking Thru Xmas. Tonight was a pleasant reminder that despite the ongoing Losangelesification of New York, there’s still a substantial audience here for the kind of music that makes you laugh, and makes you think at the same time.

December 16, 2007 Posted by | concert, country music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments