These Town Heroes
All bangs and ponytail, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra is an enigma. That’s because, for all her classic beauty and mainstream accomplishment, she’s a bad ass who is formerly homeless and who is a tireless crusader for the queer and the voiceless. The passion distilled from those intense ingredients is what sets her apart from every other bandleader treading the Americana pathways. That passion was on bright display last night for a nearly sold-out High Noon Saloon in Madison.
Segarra is an Appalachian torch singer, a Crescent City shouter, and a country swooner. She let all of those parts loose for a dozen-plus songs in front of one of the most attentive High Noon crowds I’ve ever seen. Charisma comes honestly to Segarra. Playing all day on the streets of New Orleans can do that. She’s never lost that busker energy which serves her well fronting a band that has virtually no audible seams.
Riff Raff drew liberally from the 2014 “Small Town Heroes,” a record that lifted Segarra into the sight of national audiences almost immediately after release. “Blue Ridge Mountain,” sans clawhammer from the recording, was no less old timey. Segarra sang it with reverence, one hand resting on Maybelle’s shoulder.
There’s a word for a folk-punk band that does an instrumental on the second song: ballsy. Yet for all the risk taking, Riff Raff’s music is surprisingly, strictly arranged and this number showed it. Yosi Perlstein’s fiddle and Casey McAllister’s keys sounded almost charted. But somehow the band also keeps a hair-pin tension in the music. Lots of polished, professional control with a jam band, care-free spirit built in.
“Body Electric” surely showed that balance as well as typical, deep musical invention. Midway through, as the arrangement gathered steam, you could almost hear the 1970’s Nashville horns come in. The song swooped into the audience with force. Heavily arranged without being heavy-handed.
By mid-set the door count tallied over 350 in a 400 capacity. That’s when Segarra careened into “Crash on the Highway.” The story is about getting stuck in a European traffic jam. Musically it’s a drinking song that wakes up bleary eyed and happy in New Orleans. The recorded version rolls along at about 50 mph. Live, they throttle up to about 80, slowing down just long enough to sweep the audience into the van for a rowdy sing-along ending.
Bassist Caitlin Gray’s sparkling harmony vocal on “Highway” was good news and bad news. Good news because her voice pumps even more steam into Segarra’s sultry singing. Bad news because Gray has a great ear and a wonderful voice of her own and there’s not enough of it in concert.
Riff Raff got its Cajun going with “End of the Line.” A broken two-step, the song’s dark imagery is offset by Segarra’s mood and expression which placed a bright light at the end of the line. Speaking of dark, “Slow Walk” from the powerful, self released, “Young Blood Blues,” is pure Katrina fatalism. A needle hangs out of an arm here. The pain and woe was wrapped in Casey McAllister’s church organ.
Segarra is in such possession of her material that the crowd seemed let down when she selected a cover toward the end of her set. Even though it’s a lovely song (Lucinda William’s “People Talking”) the mood shrunk temporarily. This isn’t a slam on her rendition, it’s an observation. It seemed she stepped outside of herself to do it.
Though it’s not even been a year since “Small Town Heroes” was released, Segarra’s voice has matured and deepened. No way of knowing if it’s from Marlboros or road work–or both—or neither. Whatever the case it’s a good thing. It booms now when, comparatively speaking, it used to just bang.
The best song of the night? I can’t even remember the name. It was a ballad. I didn’t jot down the name because I was high in a place good music is supposed to take you. My specific spot in those moments was filled with hope. I remember that. The band lifted up Segarra and Segarra lifted us. I closed my eyes and heard many voices coming from the gifted lead singer. It was haunting on this night but no less authentic that one of those voices was Joni Mitchell.