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Live From New York

Live From The Bell House: Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, Big Sandy And His Fly-Rite Boys, Dennis Coffey & Syl Johnson

By Published: July 15, 2011
Already, we'd witnessed a pair of substantial sets, and Big Sandy was perhaps unwittingly heading for the early morning. It appeared to be a naturally ongoing curve of manic enthusiasm, as his set progressed deep into the night. The crowd steadily dispersed, but so recklessly driving were Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys that this didn't seem to matter. Those who remained were caught up in the undimming excitement. Here, the humor was more overt, punctuated by frequent requests for tequila shots to be sent across from the bar.

Big Sandy is now a veteran, as this band began its upending of rockabilly and country music way back in 1988. The leader still boasts the mind of a youngster, though, and the Boys are still playing with the powerhouse precision and gusto that their name promises. Whether slugging at high speed, or crooning into the reverb chamber, all of Sandy's songs were powered by a rock 'n' roll desperation. His right-hand man is lead guitarist Ashley Kingman, who just kept on plowing through solo after twanging solo. Sandy guested on Jewell's new album, so it was no surprise that she returned to the stage for what amounted to a calming-down measure, lest the Big man become too accelerated. All the clowning around didn't interfere with a committed history lesson in American roots music. Or should that be the other way around? Clowning is probably the wrong word to describe Sandy's slightly sleazy, demented subversion of glitzy 1950s entertainment rituals. A punkily tattooed desecration of bobby-socked purity was requested—nay, demanded—from the audience.

The Dirtbombs/Dennis Coffey
The Bell House
June 4, 2011

Speaking of punk, the very next night, Brooklyn's home of inspired variety saw a curiously sympathetic matching between a guitar veteran and a team of twitchy garage rockers, both acts hailing from Detroit. Dennis Coffey is too individual to be termed a session man, but he has nevertheless appeared on countless records from the Motown house, and way beyond. When that label entered the psychedelic '70s, he was there, soloing on cuts by The Temptations, Edwin Starr and The Isley Brothers. He also played with Parliament, and has been heavily sampled by numerous hip-hoppers. The Dirtbombs projects a punk rock image, but its sound goes surprisingly further, into the realms of 1970s disco and no wave (an odd mixture), and thence into 1980s electro, all the while using the MC5 as a foundation. They've now been together for nearly two decades.

The combo backing Dennis Coffey appeared to be treading its way, as if this was a new relationship, but if so, the rapport has been built up swiftly. The keyboardist efficiently cued each switch in the music, which was mostly instrumental; primarily acting as a vehicle for Coffey's always-rapturous soloing. As it should be, this outfit revolved around the man and his axe, but this is not say that there weren't other bonuses, such as the guesting singer, a rawk and soul chick rolled into a single being. Coffey was throwing out a stream of always-frazzling statements, combining ice-pick soul-picking with surging psychedelic waves. His solos were like miniature stories, flowing through their logical narrative evolution, and inevitably reaching catharsis-level to climax.

The Dirtbombs revolved around singer/guitarist Mick Collins, formerly of The Gories. He spurred the band with uninhibited energy, sticking to a fairly brutal straight line, with drumming beats that emphasized a rigid, twitchy symmetry, albeit played with dogged fury. The songs moved subtly along their unsubtle style-path, throwing in a surprising amount of diversionary tactics, stepping sideways from the hallowed garage ground. Thus, the group created its own unique fusion. At first, most of the numbers were too brutally metronomic, but as the set progressed the Bombs became increasingly unhinged, heading further into the Stooges zone of extended rock chundering. The show ended with a lengthy drum freak-out, which wound up as an exercise in minimalist meditation, before the band returned for the blow-out proper. The evening's two acts combined into a veritable embodiment of all that's expected from Detroit's pungently urgent music scene.

Syl Johnson
The Bell House
June 24, 2011

The Bell House is also a second home to the Dig Deeper DJs and promoters, when they're presenting artists that are too likely to fill Southpaw in Park Slope. Just before the Undead Jazzfest's late night improvisation session in the same room, they held an early-evening party for singer, guitarist and occasional harmonica-blower Syl Johnson. This meant that the show had a tight curfew, but it seems that Johnson is accustomed to playing sets that are not much over an hour's duration, so not much of a compromise was required.

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