It’s amazing how few notes Ambel uses, considering what kind of chops the guy has. Everything counts for something: the lingering bends on the simmering, amped-up Jimmy Reed groove of Here Come My Love; the gritty, enveloping roar of the anti-trendoid broadside Hey Mr. DJ; the sunspotted, precise blues bite of Don’t Make Me Break You Down. Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson lent her powerful pipes to the vocal harmonies on Have Mercy, a soul-infused number that she wrote with Ambel. They sent a shout-out to the Ramones with Massive Confusion, then chilled out with Gillian Welch’s Miss Ohio. Ambel’s playing the album release show on April 29 at around 8:30 PM at Berlin (in the basement under 2A). He’s doing double duty that night: after his set, he’a adding “power assist guitar” with the ferociously funny Spanking Charlene.
The opening act, Esquela – whose album Canis Majoris Ambel recently produced – were excellent too. They work a country-oriented side of paisley underground twang and clang. The push-pull of the two guitarists, Brian Shafer’s snaky, sinuous leads against Matt Woodin’s punchy, uneasily propulsive drive had an intensity similar to great 80s bands like True West and Steve Wynn‘s Dream Syndicate. They also hit hard with their opener, Too Big to Fail (as in, “too rich for jail”), frontwoman Becca Frame’s big, wounded wail soaring over the twin-guitar attack and the four-on-the-floor drive from the band’s main songwriter, bassist John “Chico” Finn and drummer Todd Russell.
From there they hit a wry Del Shanon doo-wop rock groove with It Didn’t Take, went into stomping mid-70s Lou Reed territory and then rousing Celtic rock with Need Not Apply, a snarling look back at anti-Irish racisim across the ages. Their best song was a bittersweetly swaying dead ringer for mid-80s True West, but with better vocals and a careening, shoulder-dusting Shafer solo. Or it might have been an echoey psychedelic number that they suddenly took warpspeed at the end. They brought up harmony singer Allyson Wilson, whose soulful intensity was every bit the match for Frame’s – which made sense, considering that she usually can be found singing opera and classical repertoire at places like Carnegie Hall. Her most spine-tinging moment was when she tackled the Merry Clayton role on a slinky cover of Gimme Shelter.
The band closed with Freebird, a sardonically funny, Stonesy original that Finn wrote to satisfy all the yahoos who scream for it. Perennially popular indie powerpop road warriors the Figgs – who haven’t lost a step in twenty years – were next on the bill. Which was where the whiskey really started to kick in – this was a party, after all. Sorry, guys – for a look at what they sound like onstage, here’s a snarky piece from Colossal Musical Joke week, 2012.