Blood Oranges – Continental Club (New York, NY)
Could you, small clumps of scattered people wanted to know in the late ’80s, fuse the stripped-down, charged-up drama of alternative rock with the spare-but-straight, ragged-or-practiced-but-right expression of country music and its offshoots, and get — something else again?
You’d have to be able to sing, maybe even exploit country’s harmonizing effects, and you’d have to be able to play with the best of them, ’cause what would be the point of turning to more traditional music based around picking if you couldn’t pick? And, oh yeah, you’d have to rock.
That was the idea, and by the mid-’90s we’d have the answer. You could, but it would be hard, because it wasn’t always easy to find players with the tools. Yet there was, from the New England area, this band called Blood Oranges, who could answer all of these questions, as well as anybody ever did — and would break up with no love lost between them at the very moment a mass of people was ready to care.
There have been periodic near-reunions in the six years since, with ex-cohorts Jimmy Ryan and Mark Spencer playing together or backing Cheri Knight. But there’s been that sense among fans — and, it turns out, amongst the band as well — that something special was just…left hanging.
So the Blood Oranges signed on to appear at New York’s Continental Club, the dark little home of considerable original East Village punk, from the Ramones and Patti Smith to the Dictators, for the second of the new monthly alt.country “NYC Twangbang” shows organized by Elena Skye of the Demolition String Band. Wedged between the classy New England bluegrass of Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops and the to-the-jugular satire of Tammy Faye Starlight, the Blood Oranges instantly dispensed with any fears that this reunion, like many in rock, would not recapture a memory.
This band is as tight and polished as modern alt.country has ever seen, and at once delivers as many real-time revelations playing off of each other live as any band anyone could name. All three of them contribute imaginative instrumental fills, vocal harmonies and cacophonies. Ryan still takes most of the vocal leads, but you kind of see the audience wanting more from Knight now, after the success of her two solo albums. She still offers up those distinctive, closed-eyes, bass-hugging vocals that demand attention, when they come.
Knight noted onstage, “It’s like riding a bike; pretty soon you’re on your ass on the fucking sidewalk!” In truth, they simply took off right where they’d left off, only that much more practiced, and as if they’d never parted company. They were joined for this date by guest drummer Alan Ezozio. A packed house cheered a combination of explosive songs familiar from the now-classic discs Lone Green Valley and The Crying Tree, including “Halfway Round the World” and “Hell’s Half Acre”, and the pulsing title track to the latter album.
The highlights are still the smashing vocal and instrumental interplay. Their patented soaring turns on their own compositions and their electric takes on old-time and bluegrass crossed, as before, with an Anglo-folk-rock Fairport Convention/Big Country improvisation flavor. On this night, there was a quite bluesy “Little Maggie”, with Jimmy Ryan on electric mandolin, as a sort of “Matty Groves Goes Kentucky”, as well as a blistering “High On A Mountaintop”.
By the time Mark Spencer added the sudden delicacy of his ballad “Building Bridges In The Dark”, and new numbers in the classic mode were introduced (such as “Pounding The Pipes”, about an apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts), the remarkable range of this band was once again right there in front of us. And their feistiness, their rage, their fluidity, the way they fight to get smooth.
“This is fun…so far,” Knight confessed to the crowd. “We hadn’t spoken for a while”.
So now what? Well, there will be a new record; there will be more shows.