New Orleans always welcomes back Hurray for the Riff Raff with a crowd, both because of its musical allure and, perhaps, because of fear that the band will outgrow its home amidst its international touring and increased popularity. But the affection and musical affinity Alynda lee Segarra and her bandmates displayed for New Orleans last Wednesday night at One-Eyed Jack’s allayed such neuroticism.
No matter how popular the band will become, they maintain a humble stage presence, and their roots music and lyrical sentiment remain threaded here both in character and sound. The band mixed songs from previous albums with a live sample preview of their upcoming release, Small Town Heroes, under their new label, ATO Records. The album was named for a folk song Segarra wrote after seeing John Prine at Mahalia Jackson two years ago.
The new songs continued the band’s gothic Americana sound, displaying its ability to jam out with blues and bluegrass flourishes, but also to slow it down to a Gillian Welch-like catharsis for songs more grounded in old singer/songwriter folk style. All songs, new and old, reinforced Segarra’s ability to emotionally involve a crowd with her live performance of studio work. “I Know It’s Wrong” may have been their best new addition due to its spirited tempo and a chorus hook that the audience sang to even if they were now hearing it for the first time.
HFTRR changed tempo and mood often, from higher energy songs to sobering narratives. “This is my response to murder ballads,” Segarra said, introducing a song that felt like an emotional response to more than just music’s romanticism of violence: “Tell me what’s a man/ with a rifle in his hand/ going to do for the world.” It was during songs like these that the keyboard, fiddle, drums, and overall sound of the band felt stripped and simple. Even Segarra’s own guitar crouched low to let the vocals pervade the packed house. The audience was subdued with slower tunes for much of the show, but received a welcome boost from Sam Doores’ appearance halfway through the set. The additional guitar helped fill the sound onstage and move the crowd.
While Segarra remains the only official member of the band, she always sounds better with her friends. With its upcoming release on a major label, fans might expect the band to play bigger venues, but we can also always expect HFTRR to creep back South, physically and musically, towards home like they do in “Lake of Fire.” “We tried to write a surf song,” Segarra said, “but it just got swampier and swampier.” They ended the set with a sing-along to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” before a dance-along encore of “Little Black Star.” Their new album is expected to be released this winter.
Deslondes, formerly known as Sam Doores and the Tumbleweeds, and Spirit Family Reunion opened the show. They will continue to tour together through November. – Samuel Nelson