Hurray for the Riff Raff grow up at the Independent

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Hurray for the Riff Raff at the Independent, Tue/22.
Photo by TJ Mimbs

By Avi Vinocur. Photos by Avi Vinocur and TJ Mimbs.

So as we speak I'm crammed between an NPR listener, a Louisiana native longing to be home for Jazz Fest, and a cool dude with lensless glasses awaiting the gospel of a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx, who found her home in New Orleans singing mountain music. I love America.

Her name is Alynda Lee Segarra -- short, cute, Aubrey Plazaesque (but smiley) with an incredibly evocative voice not quite like anything I've heard. fHer songs are simple and short in a way you might find at the Grand Ole Opry in 1950. Currently she is standing on the side of the stage swooning over the opening band Clear Plastic Masks.

I get her attraction. These songs are good. I can tell that Andrew Katz -- the Mick Jagger-lipped lead singer -- is a closet stand-up comedian. Not to mention they have the most exciting bearded drummer since Meg White. The guy, Charles Garmendia, can't even stay seated. It's tough to do so when the guitar tone is this good. I also immediately realize that their song "When the Night Time Comes" contains one of the, if not the, best uses of the phrase "too cool for school" in show business. All in all I'm liking this band. Their energy level is high. How will a girl with a stripped band and an acoustic guitar feel after this?

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Clear Plastic Masks photo by Avi Vinocur.

Alynda Lee Segarra, the soul of Hurray For the Riff Raff (who are playing on Conan tonight, Tue/29) takes the stage alone, in her sequin country nudie suit and begins with her own "The New SF Bay Blues" -- a slow picked ballad with an epic seventh note that gets me every time. For a crowd rocking out moments ago, they are silent, respectful and focused. The line "If you love her, she'll give you all she's got, and buddy, that can be an awful lot," sails over the sold-out room, and over most of our heads. But I think I get it. This set has a stark simplicity that feels both effortless and like she's giving San Francisco "all she's got."
Fiddle player Yosi Perlstein, upright bassist Callie Millington, drummer David Jamison, and slide/keys player Casey McAllister join Segarra on the stage and dive into "Blue Ridge Mountain" the old-timey fiddle laden opening track from their phenomenal new record "Small Town Heroes". I find myself relating to her immensely. Born of the big city, but feeling at home in the humidity with simple, calm, accepting people -- playing music, living cheap and easy.
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Hurray for the Riff Raff photo by TJ Mimbs.

"The Body Electric." Finally. I was waiting for this song. It strikes me in such an honest earnest way. Maybe it's the profound simplicity of the song itself -- being only two and half chords. Or maybe it's the fact that this murder ballad, with a titular nod to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, (Whitman too left New York for New Orleans) is one of the few semi-political songs our over-saturated generation can still stomach. I think truly its success is in her delivery of this beautiful poem. Like she is listening to herself say every word and intending every annunciation to be understood by the crowd. Like suddenly she is singing into the eyes of the audience instead of into darkness. This is the song that proves single-handedly that this band has much more depth to uncover as they continue to develop.

The set comes to a close with the fun and vibrant "Little Black Star," the breezy yet lonesome "St Roch Blues" and a cover of Lucinda Williams' "People Talkin'." The excitement with seeing this band isn't necessarily the show itself, but knowing you are witnessing this group turning into a timeless American band. And buddy, that can be an awful lot.

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Photo by TJ Mimbs.