Jessica Billey and Bud Melvin must be the most creative couple to hit the local music scene in some time. Hailing from Chicago, each counts more than a half-dozen musical projects between them. There’s the audacious and experimental Lionhead Bunny, in which they play empty whiskey bottles, the mysterious vocaltron (which seems to be of the band’s creation) and 19 effects pedals. In the Blue Rose Ramblers, the pair champions vintage fiddle songs of the sort on which Bob Wills based his Western swing. As part of the massive Cobra//group ensemble, they push the limits of what you or I think of as music. Solo, Melvin pioneered chiptune banjo rustling (reprogramming Game Boy blips and bleeps into five-string music) and Billey has played violin for The Mekons and Smog.
Then there’s quietly astounding The Grave of Nobody’s Darling. I hesitate to use the words “Americana” or “country” in any proximity to the band, although the lazy are tempted to do just that because Melvin’s pedal steel and banjo are prominent. Listen carefully. These instruments are not used in ways Don Helms or Uncle Dave Macon would recognize. Instead Melvin provides contrast to Billey’s gorgeous melodies and divine vocals. The effect is barre-chord drone, surf/waltz and celestial twang. This ain’t no hoedown, but it’s staggering how much energy is unleashed in the band’s downtempo mélange. Recently drummerless, The Grave retains bass guitarist Clifford Grindstaff (Shoulder Voices), who manages to be a one-man rhythm section, air drumming and all. The 2008 release Firebird (available on CD, 12-inch vinyl, iTunes and MP3 download) is among the top recordings to come out of New Mexico.
On Friday, we’re treated to a lineup of vaguely similar musical styles to which each band provides an individual take. The mescal-soaked Gothic country rock of E. Christina Herr & Wild Frontier returns to Low Spirits. From Madrid, N.M., is Family Coal, a trad Americana band with seven members trading guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and upright bass licks with high, lonesome harmonies. Unlike so many other roots outfits, there’s no self-conscious corn-pone humor, no Dead Kennedy covers and no updating. (Well, except for the melodica. You know, that odd thing with a keyboard that you blow into?) These are mountain songs played straight, and they rest comfortably between bluegrass, folk and old-time music. If you’re not familiar with the difference between those genres—they are distinct—then let’s just say Family Coal plays front porch music, as comfortable as an old rocking chair.