Americana is a term that’s gotten all the life sucked out of it, pulled every which way by hyphenated subgenres, and oddly enjoying a festival-headlining renaissance that Uncle Tupelo would’ve deemed unimaginable two decades ago. But with Hurray For The Riff Raff, we have a queer-positive feminist folk group with a transgender fiddler, based in New Orleans, led by a Puerto Rican ex-punk from the Bronx who actually hopped freight trains as a teenager. What could be more American than that? This band was made for you and me.
Hurray For The Riff Raff is fronted by songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra, who also produced the group’s fifth LP Small Town Heroes, released this past February on ATO. Segarra has an impeccable ear for arrangement, and the record is full of satisfying details (fiddler Yosi Perlstein’s clogging-as-percussion on opener “Blue Ridge Mountain,” for example). “Good Time Blues” carries a breezy Southern air that’s betrayed by its lyrics: “It’s all coming down/You could move to another town.” Standout “End of the Line” hops deftly back and forth to half-time on the verses. “Down by the river at the end of the line,” she sings, “I was looking for some friends of mine/I was thinking about you that night.” It is a song devoid of detail or setting, and yet somehow that’s what makes it universally relatable. “Everyone’s trying to make a little work, and everyone’s trying to make it first.” Fill in your own specifics, and it’ll fit you just right.
The emotional core of Small Town Heroes arrives halfway through the record in the form of “The Body Electric.” In the long history of rock and blues murder ballads--”Hey Joe,” “Down By The River,” “Delia’s Gone”--no one ever seems to take a look at the women on the other side of the barrel. “He’s gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river/Cover me up with the leaves of September/Like an old sad song, you’ve heard it all before.” But this song is a chance for Segarra’s words to fight back: “Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.”
Their appearance at Louisville’s Forecastle Festival in July proved them to be an engaging, dynamic live group. Many bands at that weekend were pushing new records, but Hurray For The Riff Raff’s set was just as heavily weighted towards early material and songs from 2012’s solid Look Out Mama, which first put the band on the national radar. “I’m a heavy-headed girl, so full of sorrow,” she sings on the title track, and that sadness streaks through all of the group’s work. But just like so much music from New Orleans, it’s well-tempered with joy and limitless compassion. They’re a welcome and unique addition to the strong Ohio River Throwdown lineup.