Rave Review from Examiner.com

July 19, 2012

NYCity Slickers at the Rodeo Bar Review
by Ken Fitch

Read the review below or see Examiner.com

NYCITY SLICKERS, one of New York’s most beloved Bluegrass Bands, returned to one its favorite haunts, The Rodeo Bar, for its monthly gig on a hot July evening, and once again claimed and transported its audience for 2 striking Sets.

Dressed with a touch of elegance in black, the celebrated country gal trio would be anything but subdued as they broke out into their repertoire of powerful vocal solos and trios with the stories from the world of Jailhouses, Sugar Daddies, Mama’s Wisdom, the Greyhound Bus, and Jesus always showing up when needed. Early on, in one of their signature tunes, they bring us to their “Mississippi Home” where “Crystal Springs will wash our sins away,” and for the rest of the evening we will be at home with them wherever their journey takes us, and indeed by the end of the evening, some of us will be dancing in the aisles. There was some concern not long ago when this NYC-based ensemble lost one of its lustrous trio singers who was relocating several time zones away, creating gaps in the exuberant harmonies that the group has always delivered in song after song.

Well, the breaking good news is that Kim Harris, the new member of the group, is a truly awesome addition to the trio. She is what used to be called a “pint sized powerhouse,” but there is no mistaking that this stirring talent is a masterful performer. She nails the narratives in her solos with power, attitude and clarity, and blessed with a phenomenal voice that few on Broadway today could match, she grounds each song with palpable authenticity, and then further, she blends kinetically into the trios with a focus and exuberance that pumps up the trio vocals to a new level from which now, it seems, they will never descend.

The clarity of her persona has the unexpected impact of serving to crystallize the identities of the others in the trio by contrast. Abigail Hardin, the youngest of the trio, now seems liberated to become the sassy, spitfire character of her songs that she now claims unequivocally with sharp tongued credibility, attitude, outrage and determination. Her song, “It’s All About Me,” may be bluegrass, but it’s all about now, also. For some time, she has been receiving acclaim as a rising young songwriter, but she has also noticeably stepped up her game as a performer. As she says, “I may be young, but this is my moment now,” and she does claim it, for sure, triumphantly.

Annie Chadwick, who has been known to disarm an audience with just one of her unerring turns of phrase, returns to home ground here, reaffirming yet again her status as reigning Mississippi royalty. With her special radiating warmth in every note, glance and stance, her every step onstage testifies glowingly to a life gloriously lived, but not at all over, and still going strong, vivid as moonbeams on a summer night.

Almost needless to say, when these three remarkable women get together, it all explodes dynamically.

But NYCity Slickers is not just a gal trio with a backup band, but rather, it is a true ensemble, and each member individually and collectively contributes to the richness of the evening, with Faser Hardin, the master arranger for the group, reigning forth on banjo and accordion, Doug Drewes spellbinding us with lyrical unexpected descents on bass, Andrew Baird on guitar demonstrating a plucky engagement both solid and varied, musically and personally, Yan Izquierdo with fiddle playing that is both passionate and evocative, and Greg Utzig performing absolute wizardry on mandolin.

Make no mistake about it: these people know what they are doing. Impeccable musicianship thrives throughout the evening. The singers have training and experience that ranges from Opera to Classic Broadway to Pop, and the classically trained instrumentalists have been at home in Small Clubs, Broadway Orchestra Pits and Symphony Halls.

The wonder of the evening is the truly celebratory disposition of all the elements with an uncommon generosity and respect for each of the performers. Of course, as many have come to expect in this regard, the tone is set by Annie Chadwick, whose charm and vivacity have made her a beloved figure in the NY theatrical community, and here she serves as the hostess for the group and she likewise shines with her warm personal glow.

Throughout the evening, within song after song, there are startling moments when the trio will suddenly open up to focus on instrumental and vocal riffs, interludes, solo turns and gestures that become integral parts of the songs. Thus, for example, when the fiddler suddenly introduces a few phrases from “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child,” it startles, but seems so right, and goes directly to the heart.

The unexpected shifts that occur through the musical numbers are most remarkable. Within a rousing toe-tapping number we might find ourselves unexpectedly in a quiet interlude but then flow back just as easily into a rousing up-tempo jam.

The organic delineation of the ensemble is a very special aspect of the performance that brings the focus of the audience to the constituent parts of the ensemble and the unique individual contribution of each member. Not only do we hear the riffs, we see them as well. What is often relegated elsewhere to the background, now becomes foreground, for in this group they are all on the same ground.

One should not be surprised, given the theatrical backgrounds of the people onstage, that the physical dynamics of the performance, the trade-offs, the shifts of focus from musician to musician, from singer to instrumentalist, from combo to solo and back, have a visual and dramatic flow also that proves endlessly fascinating, all of this intensified by the presence of the distinctive personalities we see on the stage, so that we appreciate the sound of the playing, but also the skillful act of the playing.

As a result, although this is a musical group, the performance is also intensely theatrical in both subtle and overt moments.

The 2 Sets are a mix of new songs and standards from Dixie Chicks and Tammie Wynette Covers to the edgy, original compositions by Abigail Hardin, as well as generous contributions from other Mississippi songwriters, and then a medley from “Oh Brother.”

On this evening, the First Set roared by like an Express Bus to Tupelo, but it was the Second Set where things really startled.

One of the joys and sometimes excitements of checking out performers in small clubs, especially an open, hospitable one like The Rodeo Bar, is the sense of discovery, hearing a new performer or being there when something is performed for the first time, “being there when....”

Well, on this night, there were a number of those.

Also, one of the experiences of following a group like this is a continuing discovery as they add new songs to the repertoire.

After the break, the band takes to the stage, not with a big blazing sound at first, but a quiet instrumental, and it is notable how quickly the audience responds. Soon, of course, the excitements register back in with new songs and intense renditions of their classics such as Annie’s “Texas Two Step,” a particularly rousing rendition of Abigail’s “Truckin,” and memorably, “Look it Up,” which introduces yet another down home instrumental with a striking aural and visual riff on a washboard, and then, when Kim Harris essays her first group performance of “Put Your Hand in the Hand” in a rendition that raises the roof and goose bumps, it is certainly one of those “I was there that night” performances.

The Second Set locks in inalterably with a marvelous performance of Annie’s paean to the vanishing world of juke joints, “Gin and Blues,” performed with special commitment and connection, inspired as it was by the life and work of a real performer and a music scene rapidly being lost, but one realizes that in a performance like this a heritage is now being reclaimed, and brought to us by some uncommonly committed musicality and performance.

At this point, the evening has broadened with a richer sound as the music has moved deeper South in its roots, and Faser Hardin’s stunning accordion playing replaces his earlier banjo with accordion chords that lock into the breath of life itself. The entire room is immersed and enveloped by the dense and enriching sound that embraces us, holds us, and then sends us off into the night.

P.S. The Rodeo Bar has 2 video monitors in its bar section, one displaying the performance underway and another tuned into a sports channel. On this particular evening, the Olympic Gymnastics trials were being broadcast. One should note that during the NYCity Slickers Sets, all eyes were on the musical gymnastics on stage, leaving the other gymnastics to history.