Rockwood Music Hall
A good ol’ boy, a jazz drummer, an Ivy Leaguer and an ethnomusicologist all walk into a bar. They get on stage, and before you know it, they’re playing a frantic square dance and calling the moves, seemingly exhorting you to allemande left and swing your partner. And then they stop abruptly and head into a full-length song.
The magnificent Americana quartet the Amigos were in residence at the Rockwood Music Hall in June, and I was lucky enough to catch the opening night on June 8. The band members bend their prodigious musical acumen to the task of interweaving folk, country, Mexican ranchero music, Cajun/zydeco and 1920s hot jazz, and the results are delightful. With zest, panache and no little ethnomusicological wit, the Amigos make the disparate strands of accordion music into a coherent whole, and I say “accordion music” here without snark or ironic distance: This group manifests a love for, and a fun-loving seriousness about, a large number of American and neighboring traditions that feature accordion prominently. Almost any given song is syncretic, and I’m sure we can find purists in each of the traditions represented — or maybe even in sub-traditions of those traditions — to wring their hands about the bowdlerization of The Tradition. No matter. Frankly, when you have this level of technique and are this engaging, you’ve pretty much earned the right not to care what those people think.
“This level” is no joke, either. One member or another has collaborated at some point with Pete Seeger, Joe Lovano, David Grisman and Ravi Coltrane, and the quartet has traveled together as cultural ambassadors for the State Department. It’s notable that such seasoned musicians, who clearly have the chops to shred copiously in long jams, opt mostly for steady, sturdy ensemble playing to showcase the beautiful variegations of all the traditions they draw upon. Guitarist Justin Poindexter, who didn’t take many extended solos, nevertheless played that night with such a compelling, deeply internalized habituation to the country idiom(s) he honed in Nashville and his native North Carolina, that even his few notes of
noodling between songs dripped with countryness. A music teacher probably couldn’t explain in theory terms why it was “country”; it just was. This night was the accordion’s night to shine, and Poindexter complemented it beautifully, always supporting and never bumping into it.
As for accordionist Sam Reider, he maintained a great command of the instrument that his occasionally fulsome mugging and swooning might not let on. In one exhibition piece, he dealt out some dizzying runs in the fast-picking bluegrass vein. It was clean, articulate, matter-of-fact, utterly self-assured and over all too quickly. I’m pretty sure Reider is the cutup in this band, and that it was his idea to do the square-dancing bit and the surprise cover of Green Day’s paean to teenage angst, “Basket Case.” None of this feels forced or embarrassing; it’s all of a piece with the cheeky whimsy of ecumenical song selection and repurposing.
I knew percussionist Will Clark for a jazzer the minute I saw his vintage A. Zildjian cymbals. Unfortunately for my jazz geekery, but fortunately for the wider mission of the band, he kept it subtle with almost-subliminal variations — alternately playing a steady funk beat with the classic ride-cymbal bell accents on the off-beat eighth notes, pairing stick and brush for a nice thick loping texture on a ballad and taking both hands to the snare for a quick country shuffle. Bass player Noah Garabedian, meanwhile, was right at home thrumming the upright. Though the spotlight was rarely on him, he showed stamina and poise, and passing the true test of a Bassist Who Both Swings and Rocks, maneuvered his massive strings nimbly enough to sound like an electric on the rocking tunes.
Over the course of the set, the band covered a lot of ground, hitting trad-anon classics like “Wayfaring Stranger” and “California Blues,” and then meandering into a nearly-pure country rocker in the Townes Van Zandt vein, wistful and defiant. Here Poindexter and Reiter showcased their wonderful vocal blend, with the harmonies fitted closely to that idiom. The last song was beautiful and earnest, in the right way — and then they were back to the square-dancing routine for the last notes they played on stage. The routine worked well to bookend the set: it was zany and uncompromising, and reaffirmed what was already clear — that the band has an expansive, simultaneously reverent and irreverent vision, and by all standards, stays true to it.
The Amigos will be playing at the Classon Social Club in Brooklyn on July 10 and at Joe’s Pub on August 12. For more, see theamigosband.com.