The country singer Ashley Monroe offered a caveat near the beginning of her show Tuesday night at the Bowery Ballroom. “I usually write a lot of sad, depressing records,” she declared. But the performance, the first stop on a tour in support of a new album titled The Blade, was undeniably celebratory. As she said later in the evening, “that was so sad — but I love it.”
Monroe bounced around for several years before finding her footing as a solo artist. She had label troubles around the time of her first release, but her talent as a vocalist and writer always drew notable fans: she spent some time singing backup for Jack White and penned songs for others, including Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert. Eventually she connected with Lambert and Angaleena Presley to form the Pistol Annies. After that, things started to fall into place: Like a Rose, a well-received solo album, arrived in 2013 with help from Vince Gill, one of country’s preeminent classicists. The Blade followed this year.
The combination of buoyancy and misery in Monroe’s live show stems from the raucous music underpinning her stories. (Monroe is also being somewhat self-deprecating – she loves a joke, and has the only country song in recent memory with an S&M reference in it.) Her formula is based on one that country came close to perfecting a formula in the ‘70s, a hard-nosed party music embodied by records like Waylon Jennings’ “Honky Tonk Heroes.” Monroe is one of that decade’s most adept disciples, and you won’t encounter many bands better than hers this year. Working together, most of her ostensibly sad songs didn’t sound the slightest bit melancholy. (Her three records can be more tear-inducing.)
It all started with the rhythm section: a light beat from Pete Abbot on the drums and punchy, round, resonant notes from Mike Bub on standup bass. This combination has space — there’s a lot of distance between the low end and the high end, and Bub picked his moments judiciously — but also bullish force. The foundation possesses swing and drive in equal measure.
This structure is a gift for the other members of the band, granting them a measure of freedom as Monroe outlined the principal melody. The keyboardist (Lucas Leigh) played boogie woogie with carnivalesque verve; the lead guitarist (Johnny Duke) flared and torched; the fiddle player (Eamon McLoughlin) added free-wheeling curlicues. The harmonies stacked too, an embarrassment of riches: two voices, then three, sometimes even four, with Monroe as commander in chief leading the charge.
Through this prism, all her music started to scan as part of a larger, tightly-unified project. “Winning Streak” and “Mayflowers,” both from The Blade, fit easily with “Monroe Suede,” “Weed Instead Of Roses,” and the slick-licked “Two Weeks Late,” from Like A Rose. “Bad Example,” originally recorded with the Pistol Annies, added a touch of New Orleans shuffle and roll to Monroe’s signature sound. The Blade’s lead track, “On To Something Good” — incorporated into the set on the fly due to crowd demand — is a springy pop missile. At the Bowery Ballroom, the tune made sense as cheery, sauntering honky tonk.
One departure was “Bombshell,” a track from The Blade that sounds like a country standard — its anguish is unavoidable. Monroe tried to figure out when to end a relationship, balancing her own need for freedom with the cost of breaking another’s heart. Two thirds of the way through the song, the harmonies started to build again — two, three, four — slamming home the tragic hook: “I can’t love you anymore.” But the song was too pretty to be totally devastating, and as it crept to a halt, the stoic drummer looked up from his kit and allowed himself a rare smile.