It was coincidence that I caught the Bill Monroe biopic High Lonesome the night before Freakwater came to Bowery Ballroom, and I have to ask, What is it about a country band in hats? Those Kentucky boys in sombreros. If the green hills of Appalachia were sunbaked like the Texas plains, they wouldn’t be so green! Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin knows how much better country music sounds in a hat, and had the sense to borrow one off Jim Krewson, guitarist for the opening Pine Barons. A fetching brown model with white stitching. They’re aware of the absurdity of four Yankees gigging bluegrass around New York in hats (“Here’s a song about growing up in a small town”— “How small was that town, Jennie?”), and duck skepticism by shedding fast and hard.
Sally Timms, sometime Mekon and second act, neglected her hat. She cradled a stuffed monkey and harped on the crowd’s insufficient adulation, maybe the result of her putting on ” ‘the show,’ in inverted commas,” rather than a show. My Chicago Manual calls those things single quotation marks. Either way they sit funny around covers of “I’m a Dreaming Cowboy” and Dolly Parton’s “From Dover,” Timms’s voice as pure and sure as k.d. lang doing Patsy, without the reverb.
Janet Beveridge Bean, who sings the girly parts, wore a white hat that matched her pantsuit. Bean’s outfit suits Freakwater’s move from old-time revival toward a modern (i.e., ’70s) country sound. On the material from End Time (Thrill Jockey), the double guitars are louder, with a sharp pedal steel and a string section hinting at psychedelia. No single quotes: these two can put on a show just drinking bourbon and bullshitting, Irwin declaring, “Nothing
funny about this one” and launching into some heartbreaking shitkicker about divorce and sin and aging and salvation and labor, with high lonesome harmonies that make you wonder if your stereo isn’t shot to hell, or to heaven.
By their friends and homages ye shall know the Long Beach Dub Allstars, who brought their rich subcultural train wreck of an act to the Bowery Ballroom last Thursday. Formed by Sublime drummer Bud Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson following the death of guitarist Brad Nowell, the Allstars pick up where Sublime left off while eschewing the Firehose-like music-
minus-one approach to survivor rock. Gaugh and Wilson have doubled their trio, adding a vocalist, a turntablist, a keyboardist, and a horn player beside a new guitarist. Sublime’s innovation lay in synthesizing what the Bad Brains were content to juxtapose: hard dub with hardcore. And with their expanded palette as well as the conversationally streetwise Sublime songbook (which often resembles Green Day with teeth) to draw from, the Allstars manage to throw an even punk-funkier reggae party than Sublime.
Onstage for about two and a half hours, the Allstars made it through most of their new album, Right Back, reanimated a heap of Sublime material, and played numerous reggae and hardcore covers. Where most white reggae bands burrow into cozy herbal complacency, the Allstars add a suds-guzzling testosterone rush that slams ragamuffin dancehall moves up against the “40oz. to Freedom” imperative of beer-fueled trailer trash. So you not only had guest appearances by dancehall smoothies Half Pint and Barrington Levy, who sang their own hits in addition to the album tracks they appear on, but also the unexpected pleasure of Cro-Mags vocalist John “Bloodclot” Joseph making it seem like a 1986 umpteen-act hardcore fest all over again. Or to put it another way: the Long Beach Dub Allstars is the only band you’ll ever hear play a dub version of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonia” (with midsong toast about dealing on tour) and cover Fear’s “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones.” —Richard Gehr
Is America ready for a revival of folk advocacy? Lower East Sider Stephan Smith isn’t waiting to find out. His debut solo album, Now’s the Time, is an ardent appeal for social change at a time when most latter-day folkies remain focused on the personal. And the buzz is catching. Smith, a former migrant worker and car mechanic from Richmond, Virginia, has recently gigged with Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, even Dylan, and he’s been posting new, unreleased songs on the Web site liquidaudio.com. “It’s using the immediacy of the Internet to update the broadside tradition of folks like Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie,” Smith explains.
His recent appearance with Richie Havens at the Knitting Factory was in keeping with his effort to style himself as a folk troubadour for the digital age. Smith took the stage looking rumpled and a bit haggard, having slept under the stars after performing at a Pittsburgh rally for Mumia Abu Jamal. Singing with a nasal twang, he moved from gospel a cappella to fast-picking guitar and driving bluegrass fiddle. He strummed an ode to Amadou Diallo called “22/41,” which he penned in Diallo’s Bronx vestibule just 20 hours after the police shooting. And he decried the recent spate of school violence with the ballad “Darling Son.” Smith’s best at rallies or on the street. In club settings, his tunes can come off as anthems in search of a mass movement, lacking the resonance of classics like Havens’s “Blood on the Wire.” Yet what hooks you is Smith’s sincerity— he may not save the world, but he is rescuing folk from the dusty realm of nostalgic complacency. —Sarah Ferguson