I’ve had a great stroke of luck recently in that I’ve been able to see four shows in the last two weeks, and let me say, it’s been pretty damn awesome. And recently I had the privilege of being able to see one of my personal favorites, Hurray for the Riff Raff, a New Orleans based outfit led by the wonderful gyspy-esque singer Alynda Lee Segarra.
Earlier in the day, I was actually able to sit down and talk to Alynda Lee during a session at WERS FM, the radio station that I work at in downtown Boston (making me feel even more lucky). I also was able to listen in while she recorded a 3 song set with her band in the studio, which she kicked off with “The New SF Bay Blues.” The fifth track off of her latest album and also the first song she played at The Sinclair.
Interviewing Alynda Lee and trying to look cool and not too in love with her.
Entering under a single, yellow spotlight, Alynda Lee stepped out timidly on to the stage and introduced her self quietly, quickly plunging into the song. I was struck by the immediate silence that held the room. The only sound you could hear was Alynda and her acoustic guitar, working together:
“I got the blues from my baby left me by the San Francisco Bay/ Said I got the blues from my baby left me by the San Francisco Bay/ And there was nothing I could do or say/ Or just hang my head and slowly walk away.”
By opening both her session at WERS and her concert like this, I noticed that Segarra has a strategy here. By placing emphasis on this song, which happens to be a love ballad, but also with lines about female empowerment and self discovery, Segarra is introducing herself. She sets up her voice, her attitude, and personality in about four minutes.
Segarra opening with “The New SF Bay Blues.”
Next up was “Blue Ridge Mountain,” a traveling song as well as a foot stomper. This is my personal favorite, as it uses all of the talents available to Segarra’s band: in addition to her guitar and banjo picking skills, Segarra supplements her sound with a fiddle player and upright bass.
Hurray for the Riff Raffs Yosi Pearlstein on fiddle during a killer solo.
After playing “Look Out Momma,” the title track from the band’s third album released in 2012, Segarra engaged in a little audience interaction. In many ways, I was surprised by her humble nature and reluctant smiles that gave way to shining grins. And in many ways I wasn’t. The singer grew up in the Bronx with her aunt, and at the age of 17 decided that she wasn’t where she was meant to be. She took a Greyhound to Philly, then headed out to San Francisco for a bit, before traveling around and landing in New Orlean’s 9th Ward. She’s seen a lot, and done a lot. And maybe, this is why she is humble. Some would react the opposite way. But for a girl who admitted to me that “poetry saved her life” during her middle and high school years, I can see travel making her in fact, more tender and more loving, and even more expressive. Plainly said, this was such a joy to watch.
Before plunging into “Slow Walk” from the album Young Blood Blues, Segarra said “This is for all you dreamers out there. We’ve chosen not to give up on this dream and it’s worked out pretty well.” What I appreciated was that this simple statement was not affected at all. It just melted my heart.
After warming up with a few serious tunes, Segarra lightened the mood with “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright).” I couldn’t help but giggle when strumming out the first few chords Segarra posed as an afterthought: “This is a love song… but it might get you into some trouble.”
It’s tempting to write about every single song that the band played, as each took on a different tone and I could tell that each number had a different significance not only to Segarra, but to her band members as well. But “The Body Electric” is one that cannot go without being mentioned. When I first paid attention to the lyrics, I was blown away by the story. And when Segarra explained it to me, I was enlightened and amazed by her ability to incorporate over 150 years of tradition into less than three minutes.
The first thing that popped into my mind was Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” a beautiful poem that celebrates the human form, both male and female (Whitman was pretty on top of gender equality and injustice of slavery, and I love him dearly for that). “I thought that naming it “The Body Electric” was really fitting, because “I Sing the Body Electric” is such a great poem about how all human bodies are important,” Segarra explained. But it’s also influenced by her genre, one notorious for it’s dark and mysterious murder ballads, which Segarra points out almost universally feature women as the victims of the murder.
“Our song, “The Body Electric” is about putting humanity into these characters in our music tradition. These women who are getting murdered, I feel like we really detach from them. And we kind of take away from their humanity, so that’s me putting that humanity back into them,” Segarra said.
The song was a gentle one, full of tenderness and remorse for both the women of the stories, and those every day who suffer violence at the hands of their lovers, or even strangers. Segarra addresses a woman in the song, but in doing so, is addressing every woman who has ever suffered, and it’s beautiful:
“I said my girl what happened to you now?/ I said my girl we gotta stop this some how.”
Below is a wonderful recording from WNYC’s “Soundcheck” program featuring Segarra and Pearlstein.
Hurray for the Riff Raff closed down with a sing along, stomp along version of “Little Black Star,” the first track from the Look Out Mama album. On the album, the energy is subdued a bit, but during the performance, Segarra et. al gave it all they had.
I left the night feeling soothed and like a piece of me had been put back into place. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s music is a lullaby to the broken, the bruised, and the out of place; music that can sing you to sleep where both sorrow and joy can exist side by side in peace.