East River Bandits at 11th Street Bar / Afterword
David Burke, Contributing Writer, Foreword / Afterword, July 25, 2015
Wednesday night, the East River Bandits brought their alt-country sound to The 11th Street Bar. In a wooden room that simultaneously conjures your back porch, with mix-and-match wooden chairs, and an old barn, with rough-hewn timber floors and olden yellow light thrown from weary lamp shades atop old-timey brass wall sconces, the band took up their instruments to an appropriate backwash of glass clinks and chatter.
The band made final tuning adjustments, while a tall cowboy with long dark hair and an acoustic guitar and a microphone taunted the crowd to attention. Playing to a small room in a bar, many of those in attendance had seen the Bandits before, and many of those who hadn’t maintained their positions of reluctant judgment from close to the bar. Not to worry, the band came to this gig with fresh meat, and opened their set with a new song called “Drinkin’ Slow,” a damn fine country rock number impelled by an irresistible rhythm that picks up the note that the band left off on with 2014’s EP Whiskey and the Women. The shuffle-and-sippers and the arms-crossed too-cool-for-schoolers came like pigs to the feed trough as the band slid right into “Fairytale,” the first track from their recent EP, which many in the room knew, evidenced by heads bobbing all around. Two songs in, and I was smiling. This is a good live band. Lead guitar and mandolin player Dan Sweeney loosened up for the first time and I saw his rock and roll roots really come to the fore in his first solo of the night, and as the song ended, lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Rob Lilly, smiled and wheeled around looking for his Budweiser, “why’d I put that so far away?” he joked, and took a hearty swig.
So we were off. Just as I settled in, Sweeney swapped out his telecaster for a mandolin and the East River Bandits tore through two more songs, both featuring mandolin as their lead instrument. In the next song break, Lilly joked again, “okay, I promise to only play simple rhythm from here on out,” as Sweeney picked up the telecaster again and the band was off into two more, the second of which, “Little Bit of Drinkin’,” was a crowd favorite, any many sang along to the chorus (“…with a little bit of drinkin’ / a six-pack before noon / and a little bit of singin’ / and howlin’ at the light of the moon.”)
And so on. Lilly smiled and strummed his way though the show, interacting with the crowd and throwing little jokes here and there. Sweeney gave his guitar and mandolin a healthy beating and drummer Alan Camlet and bassist Tim Besa held down the rhythm all night, the latter to a handful of fans that goaded him on “slappa da bass, Tim! Slappa dat bass!’
Highlights for me were new songs “Drinkin’ Slow,” an alt-country gem, and “Wild & Crazy,” the most rock and roll song of the set, both of which seem to mark the newest direction of the East River Bandits’ sound, which is more rhythmic, allowing bass and percussion to drive the songs, and dare I say it, more radio friendly, too. I also loved “Queen for the Night,” a stomp-and-clap number from the Bandits’ 2012 LP, Down the Road, for which Lilly howled out the chorus and Besa got down in the transition into “Wild & Crazy.” The new EP’s title song, “Whiskey and the Women,” came through for me even better live than on the record, and its slower rhythmic pace and feeling of inevitability took me, just for a moment, somewhere else entirely – a cold weather song in the middle of July. Sweeney played with eyes closed for a moment and Lilly’s voice touched a little bit of emotion that really came through. “Big Muddy,” a record favorite of mine, also shined on Wednesday night, as Sweeney positively beat the hell out of his mandolin solo to almost unanimous applause and a smattering of yelps. I also enjoyed both covers in the set, “Play a Train Song” by Todd Snider, and “White Lightning” by George Jones, which was an absolute barnburner to close the set.
For a fifteen-song set, there was never a dull moment, and the East River Bandits played with such enthusiasm that they even had time to “call an audible” as former football player Lilly put it, and played an additional song that wasn’t on the set list.
After the show I briefly talked to the band, who were all swept up in their obligatory rounds and handshakes. Lilly, whom I told on the spot that I enjoyed the show, gave me a sincere thank you. When I said that I felt good – that the show made me feel good, he summed it up just about perfect. “Our music’s probably not going to change anyone’s life – like Bob Dylan – but country music isn’t for that. Country music’s supposed to make you feel good.” And last night, that’s exactly what it did. In a small East Village bar in the middle in a big city, far away from Texas, country music made a city boy feel pretty damn good.
And because surely you’re bummed you missed such a time, here’s a tip; the East River Bandits will be playing every Wednesday in September at Arlene’s Grocery in the Lower East side before heading back to the studio to cut their next EP.