Category Archives: Dancing To Architecture

Dancing To Architecture: The Mystical, Mythical World of Hurray For The Riff Raff

My annual pilgrimage to New Orleans for Jazz Fest is often accentuated by post-festival nighttime concerts. You know, the concerts in every available venue in town…the ones that stretchHurray for the Riff Raff until the morning light, the “early” shows that start at 10 or 11, the late shows that start at 2 a.m., the riverboat shows, the sidewalk shows, the impromptu jam sessions and sit-ins. I remember a few years that one club was even promoting “breakfast shows” that started about 7 – in the morning.

All of it is, of course, calculated to extend the revelry of the all-day festivities and provide an exuberant transition of the musical gluttony from one venue to another to yet another. It’s fun and exhausting, and I’m an eager participant in this ridiculous ritual.

Looking over the calendar year after year, it’s often a case of the usual suspects offering hip-shaking funk, raucous rock and roll and various permutations of jambandery. These shows are typically a boisterous affair, with crowds of beer-soaked sweaty festivarians extending their benders with bad dancing and occasional whoops and hollers, yours truly often counted in that number as well.

But this year, I found a something else entirely in a small theater tucked into the back of the Always Lounge.

In the Marigny neighborhood, a few long blocks from the bustling Frenchman street clubs and alongside other tourist-resistant clubs like the Hi Ho, a hushed crowd sat (sat!) attentively as a young ingénue and her compatriots unearthed haunting and seductive songs rendered with steel and strings and voice. We were captivated.

The group was called Hurray For The Riff Raff, and their mesmerizing set was remarkable, not just for the fact that they managed to keep a roomful of music lovers utterly stunned in silence. After all, this crowd was not made up of 40-something jazzfesters wearing ridiculous floral print shirts and cargo pants (okay, maybe one of those); these were hipsters, and the silence and the attendant shushing of talkers is part of the hipster code. No, the remarkable thing was not just the reverence or the gravitas of the deliver. It was that just the week before they had graced the Acura stage at Jazz Fest – the largest one reserved for the Jimmy Buffets, Bruce Springsteens and Neville Brothers of the world – and won the crowd over with a stunning set that earned them rave front-page reviews in the Times Picayune.

Here was a group capable of captivating 200 people, or 20,000 people. At Jazz Fest, they did it with a sense of aw-shucks humility in the stage banter, a full band and some well-chosen ballsy cover tunes. At the Allways, they did it mostly with the ethereal voice of Alynda Lee Segarra and a cavalcade of instrumentalists who meandered on and off the stage during the course of the one-hour set.

In fact, Hurray for the Riff Raff is essentially Segarra herself—her vision, her voice. She’s a true vagabond, a twenty-something Puerto Rican from the Bronx who traveled the American highways before landing in New Orleans. There, she released two solo folk records under the name of Hurray For The Riff Raff. She eventually met up with a group called the Tumbleweeds, whom she then assimilated into the Hurray for the Riff Raff alter-ego/band/collective.

After touring the country with the group, and earning adoration from the UK press (where a compilation of those first two records earned her media worship and a nod as one of the “top albums of 2011” from The Times of London), she’s now completed a proper full-band debut release called Look Out Mama. The record includes the full band, and was produced by Alabama Shakes producer Andrija Tokic.

Look Out Mama is a gorgeous, timeless work of wonder. Segarra and company deftly mingle Americana sounds from all over the map, while hearkening to times gone by.  The songs are seamless, like a singular voice, yet the parts are drawn from otherwise incongruous sources. The opening track “Little Black Star” incorporates fiddle, handclaps and a swaying freak-folk beat while “Lake of Fire” bounces on surf-guitar jubilancy. “Look Out Mama,” with Segarra’s emotive high yodel, could be a dustbowl field recording even as the waltzy “What’s Wrong With Me” comes from another time and place.

Perhaps its the juxtaposition of folkie balladry and indie modernity that gives these songs and performances their punch. But whatever it is, it’s old and it’s new and Hurray For The Riff Raff occupies its own world—a mythical bohemian world where any time and any place is just around the corner and welcomed with open arms.

Hurray indeed.



Van-Tastic: YouTubing The Past With Nicki Bluhm

Van-Tastic: YouTubing The Past With Nicki Bluhm  


Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in the next big thing, or the obscure old thing, or the what does it mean thing. The music business is messy and doesn’t always reward talent and artistry. It can be frustrating to everyone involved. If you’re not careful, you can forget to listen. You can lose the joy. I worry about the artists who can never seem to catch a break or make a living, just as I lament the crap spewed forth by the karaoke TV shows.

But sometimes, beneath all the sheen, strategy and cynicism that coagulate to construct the music “business,” you discover something that reminds you just how elemental music is to being human. It’s why all this mess has built up around it to begin with.

We all do it because we have to. We do it even if there’s a broken apparatus that sometimes stifles the people who try to do it for a living. We do it for free. We do it for money. We do it when no one is watching. We do it, without constraint or self-consciousness, as children. This is proven time and time again when a four-year old sings “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” at the top of their lungs for six hours nonstop, even while eating.

Music is what we do, what we have to do, when we want to express ourselves. It’s what we do when there is sadness or happiness inside of us that needs to be shared or just let out.

Sometimes we have to be reminded that singing songs can be innocent and gleeful for it’s own sake. It’s not all about business. It’s not all about art.  It doesn’t have to be calculated or serious or even have any other purpose other than to amuse us and to have fun. It’s a great way to pass the time, too.

I found just such a reaffirmation while perusing the Internet last week, as I am apt to do. I found a series of YouTube videos from Nicki Bluhm and her band the Gramblers.  They’re a California outfit that plays an easygoing style of country rock and soul that takes you right back to 1975. Nicki writes and sings and her husband, Tim, sings with her when he’s not fronting his own band, The Mother Hips. The two bands tour together often, piled into a passenger van and towing their equipment in a trailer.

In each YouTube clip, Nicki and the band are seated in the van as it careens down the highway, presumably traveling between gigs. The camera is positioned on the dashboard, and the five of them joyfully sing songs into the camera. They’re just having fun. Goofing off. But the joy is palpable. It’s the millennial equivalent of singing songs in front of the bathroom mirror with a hairbrush for a microphone. It’s just that on the other side of this mirror, there’s the rest of the world.

The band uses a lot of carefully constructed harmonies and some sparse instrumentation.  A melodica (that tiny keyboard powered by blowing into a tube) or a travel guitar. The occasional ukulele. A kazoo. Things that you can fit in your lap while seated in a van. With just voice and these simple, small instruments they imbue familiar songs with gleeful zest. Most of the clips end with laughter or bright smiles that seem to say, “hey we pulled that one off pretty well!”

One can imagine it’s just a fun way to pass the time between gigs. But the playful performances come across as so heartfelt in their deep appreciation for Song itself that it speaks to a greater truth. These clips are connections to the musicians that came before them, the songwriters who knew the transformational shorthand that gets us all to that place where we are singing in the mirror. For as long as there have been traveling musicians, there has been music being made, for free, for fun, between stops. That we get to peek in on that world is what makes it transformative for us.

The songs have clearly been rehearsed. The lush harmonies on the Beatle’s “Here Comes The Sun” don’t materialize without some practice—these are not first takes.  But there is still an off the cuff vibe. Though they’ve practiced these songs before hitting “record” one can imagine that it comes after only a few hundred miles of woodshedding. Half the fun is probably figuring out which songs to tackle next.

The Beatles – Here Comes The Sun

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers – Van Session

The songs run the gamut too. They are almost all well-known, easily recognizable cover tunes. It’s nearly impossible to prevent yourself from singing along with “Material Girl” and when Nicki does her little falsetto squeak it might be neurologically impossible for a living human being to not crack a smile.

They tackle the Grateful Dead’s “Deal” with style, Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That” with vigor and their take on Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” possibly outshines the original. Their giddy take on Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” became an apt homage that spread quickly after Houston’s death, though it had been posted months earlier. Buddy Holly, James Taylor  and Patsy Cline also get the joyous Van Sessions treatment.

Those songs are cultural touchstones for people of a certain age, and for many of those people, those 80s pop songs may well have been the very same ones they, too, were singing into a hairbrush years before discovering the Beatles, Funkadelic and the Grateful Dead.

A cynic would say these clips were carefully crafted publicity pieces featuring well-honed performances designed to show off the band’s chops and generate a viral marketing sensation. But to anybody who will listen, the van is actually a time machine that can make every one of us four years old again.


The Allman Brothers – Ramblin Man –

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers -Van Session


Funkadelic -Can You Get To That –

Cover by Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers – Van Session


Grateful Dead – Deal –

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers – Van Session


Whitney Houston – How Will I Know 

Cover by Nicki Bluhm – Van Session


Madonna – Material Girl –

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers – Van Session



Hall and Oates – I Can’t Go For That –

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers – Van Sessions

An Epiphany: Festival of Nights

Rarely do we possess the prescience to recognize the import of events unfolding. Life comes in bursts of epiphanies.  You can mentally prepare for lifestyle-shaking events, but you never really know how you react until you do. For all of the sage advice and cockamamie counsel you may receive, there is nothing to prepare you for the death of a parent, the birth of a child or the deterioration of your favorite band.

This all came to me, as an epiphany, when I was sitting inside the Cannon Center in Memphis listening to and looking at the Raconteurs. Yes, sitting.

The epiphany was this: I’m the old guy sitting in the balcony. Yes, sitting.

Continue reading An Epiphany: Festival of Nights