Words by Dennis Cook
Falling through the clouds on a red eye from California, New York winks at me. The archetypal city, it dares one to take it on. Without a knack for tuning out the constant clatter and push, a person gets tossed around like a leaf in a hard wind. Tall, vast, and complex, New York City sizzles with thousands upon thousands of volts - charged, breathing, alive, a power that feeds the arts like no other spot on Earth. On any given night there's a dozen amazing, possibly once-in-a-lifetime experiences waiting for music lovers. As a visitor from the other coast, in town for New Year's Eve weekend, I did my best to avail myself of this embarrassment of riches.
Assembly of Dust, The Hackensaw Boys, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals :: 12.29.05 :: Irving Plaza :: New York, NY
Wearing a shirt stolen from Linda Ronstadt's closet circa '74, Grace Potter stomped her foot hard enough to leave bruises. On her tongue, words trembled and ached as she transformed an East Village nightclub into a revival meeting. She asked the rapt crowd, "How much better is a song with a tambourine?" The unrestrained howls that greeted her hip-bangin' solo version of "Nothing But The Water" was all the answer she needed.
The first band on a particularly sympathetic line-up of acts hungry to make the leap to the proverbial next level, Potter and her Nocturnals know how to have a good time. And they'll be damned if you won't join them. Their brand of funkified '70s-leaning rock harks back to Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and John Mayall's Jazz-Blues Explosion. What they've got that the other kids don't is a powerhouse vocalist the likes of which we only hear once in a blue moon. Potter stops you in your tracks. All over the room, I caught folks stalled mid-sip, staring at this soulful banshee. In an era where women singers don't get much play without shaking their ass for the camera, Potter is old school – straight hair and blue jeans, girl-next-door cute but infinitely more focused on her music than her make-up.
This band smolders. They understand foreplay and orgasmic release and flirt with the audience shamelessly. Steady gigging has made them roadhouse ripe with a nicely coiled group dynamic. Sure, their drummer could tighten up a bit, but when the harmonica is wailing or the guitar and Hammond organ strut together, you won't want for much. As they continue to grow into a national touring outfit, hitting festival stages everywhere, Grace Potter and her boys will continue to make folks like my NYC buddy say, "Where have they been hiding?"
The Hackensaw Boys are always a good time. Sometimes they'll reach in and squeeze a bucket of tears from you too. At Irving Plaza, they did both. Having released one of the finest albums in 2005, Love What You Do, they've got a lot to work with lately. Holding down the middle slot, they blew in hard, grit in the wind, fiddle bows raised ecclesiastically. Much of their oeuvre is like a punk-powered Carter Family – all woo-hoos and flailing limbs as they revamp the Appalachian 78 rpm spirit of earlier days. Acoustic instruments gathered around broad-headed mics, one feels present at a radio broadcast out of time, say the Hackensaw High Times Follies, generating grins from coast to coast with minimal amplification.
The Hackensaw Boys :: 12.29 :: NYC by Robert Chapman
As usual, when they slowed things down for their Band-quality weepies the bar scene clinked and murmured intrusively. But something deep still emerges through the barley haze when they perform "Sun's Work Undone" or "High Faller." In this way, they remind us of the Pogues – fully capable of wild energy but possessed of a loudly beating poet's heart. If folks could stop partying long enough to calm down and listen intently, they'd find themselves stirred in places that aren't often touched by a stranger.
Without pause or apology, the Boys upended things from tune to tune, making for an unpredictable ride. They insert funny stories from the road and offer us opportunities to yell things like "Cannonball!" at the top of our lungs. That they also excel at tender observation makes them one of the most well-rounded groups currently bucking the boards. Their brief set in New York was a fine reminder of that fact.
Assembly of Dust has some of the most passionate fans around. By the headliner's third number, the front ranks were hopping - hell, they were frolicking with unrestrained joy. AOD slinked into a slowly uncurling groove that took about a half-hour to really ignite, but once it did it was easy to understand why a growing constituency has chosen them as their favorite band. Former Strangefolk frontman Reid Genauer and his sterling coconspirators make feel-good music with no elements that make you feel bad. It's all here – strong songs, powerful vocals, impeccable arrangements, inspired playing, and a shared vision that's positively uplifting.
Reid Genauer - Assembly of Dust
12.29 :: NYC by Robert Chapman
Tunes like "Roads" and "Fountain" have a majesty similar to the Dead's "Eyes of the World" – bardic hymns able to lift us above the muck, drudgery peeled away by melodic beauty and gentle philosophizing. The versions of both at Irving Plaza were as good as they get. Genauer's "singing and searching for himself" expands to include the listener in his quest for wisdom and peace. To look at Reid, you don't expect such power to burst forth every time he opens his mouth. But it's in him, and the collective power of this quintet really sends the message home. Perhaps it's the combination of their musical sure-footedness and Genauer's openly expressed doubts that pushes these songs under our skin. Even as he admits there's "nothing ever certain in this life," one senses they won't give into the hopelessness such realizations often produce. It's just a bump on the way to something better, and they excel at convincing us of it too.
It's not all heavy though. AOD knows how to have a ball as evidenced by a bursting-at-the-seams version of "Harrower" that summed up many of their virtues – irresistibly tuneful, tells a good story, stinging guitars, a pushing backbeat, imaginative keys, and a together quality that tied everything up in a beautiful knot. The bridge on this one always makes me sigh, "I caught hope one handed. It was two days old in the dirt. My arms grew weak in their sockets like tender stalks of longing and hurt." I couldn't help thinking that one day AOD is going to make an album like The Band's second sepia-covered masterpiece or maybe like Dylan's Desire. They've got all the potential they need to do it, and one senses it's just a matter of time before they find the right circumstances.
Assembly of Dust :: 12.29 :: NYC by Robert Chapman