Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: The Dixie Bee-Liners at le Poisson Rouge, NYC 12/14/08

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

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December 19, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, 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