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photo of Smokey Hormel at Sunny’s from The Brink
Smokey Hormel’s hat is at least five gallons, and it looms larger as the guitarist leans into the old-fashioned microphone he’s set up in the middle of the barroom floor at Sunny’s and leads his western swing band into “Keep A-Knockin’ (But You Can’t Come In)”. “You’re in my fucking seat, dog,” a patron says to Lucy, lap steel guitarist Bob Hoffnar’s small mutt, who has curled up in a booth adjacent to the musicians. But Lucy, whose booth it actually is, keeps sleeping and eventually the patron wanders off.
Dogs roam freely at Sunny’s, the century-old bar in edge-of-the-world Red Hook, three blocks beyond the B77’s terminus, near the water’s edge. Open three nights a week, the attraction on occasional Wednesdays at 10ish is Smokey’s Roundup, the quintet the sessionman has been leading around town lately. Resplendent in flowered shirts and Stetson hats (“the more you tip, the better we look,” Hormel notes), the band finds an easy vibe among the bar’s eclectic decor. In front of abstract paintings by septuagenarian owner (and OG hipster) Sunny Balzano—who was born next door and lives upstairs—Hormel peers out at a bar decorated with all manners of kitsch: model ships and maritime memorabilia, mismatched Christmas lights, a ceramic pizza gnome looming over a white shingle dollhouse, promotional lamps from beer companies.
The Roundup’s songbook draws from a seemingly infinite well of country music. During their 40-minute first set, Hormel calls for a starlit cowboy gallop (Ella Fitzgerald’s “Cow Cow Boogie”), a patient jam (“Wabash Blues”), Tin Pan Alley exotica (“Sheik of Araby”), and a straight novelty number (“You’re Bound To Look Like A Monkey (When You Get Old)” from a songlist tucked under his amp. Later, they cover Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche.” Though Hormel’s taste is clearly that of an aesthete, the Roundup only subtly displays the scope of his talents, which—in the past decade—have served Beck, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Miho Hatori, and Justin Timberlake. The mellow regulars are happy to have him at the helm of one of the best casually transcendent bands the city has to offer.
Working within an astoundingly formal genre, Hormel—an heir to the Hormel meat fortune—remains infinitely relaxed. Playing a hollow body, he dives through drummer Andrew Borger and bassist Tim Luntzel’s bottomless pocket, barely blinking while uncoiling rich flutters and dog-fighting with Hoffnar. During the second set, his arrangement skills come to the fore, building the familiar “I Ride An Old Paint” over seven minutes from a plaintive strum, through a modern, atmospheric jam, down to near nothingness, and into a dreamy last verse. Charlie Burnham’s violin meets Luntzel’s bass as Hormel sings of his bones being tied to his horse and sent into the sunset. The band crash back into the chorus. “That goes out to Heath Ledger,” Hormel adds.
“We sang about death, marriage, poverty… what else have we got?” the guitarist asks.
“Money!” Hoffnar calls out.
“Money, that’s a good one,” Hormel agrees. On a dime, he plays a Sun Studios riff, nods, and the band drops in behind him. As they do, the bandleader shouts to Borger, “play that beat for a while, I wanna think about something,” only then considering what song to actually play. After the band grooves for a few measures, Hormel remembers. “In A!” he hollers and launches into Cindy Walker’s “The Gold Rush is Over.”
Outside, the stars glitter over a narrow strip of Staten Island. It is quiet there, at the edge of the world. One can’t even hear the coyotes.