The noisy crowd at Dixon Place’s bar instantly falls silent as Leah Wells and her band take the stage. Though Wells is usually kind and unassuming, under the spotlight, in a glittering red headpiece, she morphs into a soulful songstress. Wells has been a Lower East Side dweller since 1980, when she dropped out of Bennington, a clothing optional liberal arts college in Vermont, to hitch-hike her way back to downtown New York. Now a mother, Wells balances raising her two adolescent sons with honing her musical craft.
For this performance, Wells is joined by David McKeon on Guitar and Mandolin, Ethan Joseph on Fiddle, Mary Noecker on Bass and Sara Banleigh, who shimmers in black lace and gold bracelets. Wells met Banleigh singing Irish folk songs at the New York Public Library and the two have been a musical match ever since. Banleigh performs songs Wells wrote when she was a young twenty-something, capturing their lonely, gritty, crooning energy and making them new again.
Between original tunes and blue-grassy, backwoods songs of love and loss, the set takes on a nostalgic, yearning quality that makes me ache after each new melody.
But there is also humor here. In her song “Everybody Plays Guitar” Wells pokes good fun at musician wannabes and nods to her old school St. Marks days, noting that the ubiquity of guitar players inspired her to pick up the banjo instead. There is a raucous, vaudevillian energy in this jam. Wells also honors the Lower East Side, performing a lively Klezmer song about a drunkard. “Isn’t it time we brought this back to the Lower East Side?” she asks, at the end, grinning.
The crowd screams for encores and even the bartender beats his drink shakers in time to the contagious beats. In the post-show melee, I pull Banleigh away from her fans to ask her how it feels to sing Leah’s lyrics. “When I heard Leah’s songs, I felt them here,” Banleigh says, holding a hand over her heart, “I believe in her as a songwriter. I have no reservations.”
Later, I sit down with Wells herself over cucumber infused vodka shots to talk about her music:
ROYAL YOUNG: Where do the early songs you wrote come from?
LEAH WELLS: That was a period of raging hormones and demon lovers, so each new tragedy brought its own tunes. I was stockpiling them. Then in my late 20’s I had a band called Black Coffee, with my boyfriend, (it was) fast acoustic music and we toured around some of the festivals in the South. I met him because I was playing in the subway with a fiddler.
YOUNG: Did you play in the subway often?
WELLS: Yes, I played my banjo in the subway. That was a way to make money.
YOUNG: You performed an amazing Klezmer song tonight. What is your version of the Lower East Side?
WELLS: What we know about our history here is that this was a real mecca for immigrant Jews and they had this rich cultural life here. They had their theaters, sweatshops and tenements here. It’s easy to forget our tenement roots as developers gentrify it into a completely different animal. But it’s also had so many incarnations already. You and I have seen the coming and going of decrepitude and drugs, then rising again as a family friendly, high priced neighborhood. But it’s nice to remember that this is one of the oldest cities and it’s also where our ancestors started in America.
YOUNG: You’re also very interested in traditional music and the sounds of tradition.
WELLS: It’s about unsealing the past. I love those songs because it’s a way to get as close as we can to a bygone time and sensibility. These lyrics are stories and records of different lives. One of the things I love about bluegrass is it tells of this vanished rural existence or sin and virtue. I love that it’s gospel and preachy, but it’s also down low and drunken and cheating and train robbing.
YOUNG: How does your music and songwriting fit into your new life on the Lower East Side?
WELLS: Even though I’m at a different point in my life — I’m writing about getting mammograms — Loudon Wainwright said when he got older he would write about his prostate. We continue writing songs and that’s okay. I want to broaden what a song can be about. It doesn’t have to be adolescent love songs all the time.
Wells is set to return to Dixon Place this summer. In the meantime, you can catch her playing with the Linemen, a Bluegrass band, each month at the Greenwich Village Bistro. Their next gig is March 13.