The first thing you notice when you see the Jack Grace Band up close is what a well-oiled machine they are – in both senses of the word. OK, maybe not everyone onstage last night was half in the bag, but they’d been on close to a 36-hour tear, nonstop, with appearances on the WPIX morning show and then a live performance on satellite radio, so with a long Cinco de Mayo evening ahead of them at Rodeo Bar, the tequila was flowing and a lot of it had made it to the stage by the time they started playing. The Jack Grace Band’s new album Drinking Songs for Lovers is just out, so ultimately it all made sense. “Everything seems so simple after three martinis” is Grace’s mantra, and the band played that song, a careening version of The Lonesome Entertainer, on album a noir-ish blues shuffle a la Tom Waits but this time out it was more Grateful Dead, except with a brief interlude into a perfectly executed, funky excerpt from Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks. Tequila, an older song from Jack Grace’s old jam band Steak, swung mightily along on a sunbaked minor-key hook, part bossa nova, part hallucinatory Tex-Mex anthem.
Jack [scrunching his face into a tortured scowl]: Would you rather be dead?
Bass player Daria Grace: [completely deadpan]: No.
It’s kind of sweet how he gives his wife the best of the punch lines every time. They’d started, appropriately, with Morning Margaritas, the twangy, retro 60s country song that opens the album, everybody from the horn section to the pedal steel player stepping out, boisterous and tequila-fueled, so the sound guy could get the levels right. Daria swooped and dove on her gorgeous hollowbody bass on a more 70s, outlaw country style tune from the album, True Tonight. They jammed on Jambalaya, took a stab at the Mexican Hat Dance (Jack wanted to keep going but the band wouldn’t let him), then piano player Bill Malchow sang one. At the end, Jack put his guitar down and the piano and rhythm section playing a pretty generic power ballad melody. Which morphed into the early 70s Neil Diamond hit I Am, I Said. Jack got up on a chair, pondered the highly vandalized stuffed bison head coming out of the wall at the edge of the stage and then decided against doing something to it (that’s a prop for another song of his). Then when he got to the line in the song where no one heard him, not even the chair, he got off the chair and raised it high. And then went into the audience, caught a table full of diners completely off guard, sat down with them and then serenaded them. With the chair. Meanwhile, the band didn’t blink an eyelash. Pretty punk rock for a country band. And that was just the first set.
The Jack Grace Band continues to celebrate the release of the new album with shows at Hill Country tonight at 9, Barbes at 10 tomorrow (Friday the 7th), and a doublebill with the equally devious Luther Wright and the Wrongs at the Rodeo on the 11th.
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.
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.
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.