This could have been a savagely cynical alternative to the glut of lame Valentine’s shows – but that would have been easy, and predictable. Along with all the wit and the double entendres, there’s a bitterness in Matt Keating’s songwriting that often boils over into rage, sometimes repentant but sometimes not. Yet his Sunday evening show at the Rockwood wasn’t about that. Counterintuitively, backed by his wife Emily Spray on harmony vocals and the equally estimable Jon Graboff on pedal steel, Keating offered hope against hope. It made a good counterpart to the Chelsea Symphony’s alternative Valentine’s Day concert earlier in the day several blocks west.
The trio opened with the gorgeously sardonic anthem Candy Valentine, a big audience request that he doesn’t often play – it’s sort of his Saint Stephen (Grateful Dead fans will get the reference). Switching to piano, Keating evocatively painted an unromantic Jersey tableau in tribute to the late Danny Federici, the vastly underrated original organist in Springsteen’s E Street Band. Back on guitar, Keating threw out another pensive tableau, then picked up the pace with the decidedly unrepentant,upbeat country song Wrong Way Home. The high point of the night, and one of the few moments that actually wasn’t a surprise, was Lonely Blue. It built slowly, ambient Graboff versus incisive Keating guitar, Spray channeling Lucinda Williams but with twice the range and none of the alcohol – she was that good. The song’s unhinged alienation rose as the instruments built tensely to a sledgehammer crescendo that transcended the presence of just the two instruments and voices onstage – Keating is known for fiery, intense performances and this was characteristic. They brought it down after that, closing with the warily optimistic Louisiana, a standout track from Keating’s 2008 Quixotic album, as well as 2007’s Summer Tonight, pedal steel enhancing the song’s bucolic sway. Keating’s characters seldom get what they want – this time they got a little and the audience, silent and intent between songs, got a lot.
Amy Allison is all business tonight. She usually has a running conversation going with the audience by the second song of the show, but this time it’s all about those songs. That there’s as much talent in the crowd (a cellist, pianist and chanteuse all arriving within the span of about a minute) as there is onstage says a lot about the quality of the music: Allison’s biggest fans are her peers. Behind her are Lee Feldman on piano and Jon Graboff on acoustic guitar. Both are making up most of what they’re playing as they go along – jazz musicians do this all the time, but to see Allison’s wry, gemlike country and Americana-pop songs serve as a launching pad for this kind of interplay is pretty special. The two guys watch each other: Feldman hints at honkytonk but doesn’t really go there, landing instead on a richly chorded, somewhat noir early 60s pop style (what Roy Orbison would have done with that guy in the band, one can only wonder). Graboff has done stretches in Allison’s band and has some parts worked out – when he doesn’t, he’s adding a bassline as a countermelody when she goes up the scale, or weaves in between piano chords. With Allison playing rhythm guitar, it’s a textural feast.
The sound is great: she can relax and use every nuance, pull back a little and say a lot. And she does. The best song of the night is Dream World, beautiful, bittersweet and awfully dark. In the crowd, the cellist leans over and whispers to the adjacent bass player: “Half of her songs are about sleep!” Those songs are actually about escaping – and that’s what Allison is offering tonight, lots of solace, some knowing vocals and songs that the crowd can sing to themselves on the way home.
Craig Chesler has assembled seemingly half the talent on the Lower East Side to play his new album all the way through afterward. But we’ve already reviewed it – it’s good – and as claustrophobia sets in with every new arrival, it’s time to head west toward Lakeside.
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.