Hurray For The Riff Raff’s New Orleans Blues Help Navigate Damaged American Faith

As she took the stage last night to perform at Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s surprisingly cozy Masonic Lodge, I began to consider just how quintessentially American Alynda Lee Segarra’s story is. She was raised in the Bronx listening to their old R&B, doo wop and Motown with her Puerto Rican family, and though she lived with her aunt and uncle in New York, Segarra tried her hand at the punk scene downtown on the LES. While she didn’t feel she fit in there, anyone who has heard her music can trace the faint outlines of these early punk influences on her country blues. Restless in New York, she ran away from home at 17 and traveling as a hitch-hiker, sneaking rides on trains like an IRL Boxcar Kid, exploring the backwoods and uncovered towns of America. Isn’t it funny how New Yorkers wonder about small towns, and suburbs kids are drawn to New York?

After a period of roaming, Segarra ended up down in New Orleans, playing music with a group of people that eventually became her critically-acclaimed band Hurray For The Riff Raff. But before they did, the band released a handful of albums that didn’t get much movement in the mainstream. Segarra didn’t seem to mind, and continued churning out raw, blues-infused folk that leaned into orchestral fullness and diasporic reflections. Last night in the packed room, fans took a moment when Segarra switched from guitar to piano to shout out old favorites into the brief stillness. Though she laughed along with the fray, and found some of the ancient song suggestions surprising, it’s clear that the band’s frontwoman is fixed firmly in the present. Since their breakout in 2014 with Small Town Heroes, their first album for ATO records, national attention has finally descended on the small country band in the way it only sometimes does for bands who are on album six or seven.

While Hurray For The Riff Raff’s back catalogue is well worth diving into, The Navigator, which came out last Friday, is easily their finest work, and it’s the record on which Segarra most explicitly addresses her heritage, her background, and the specters of discrimination and hatred that have risen to prominence in the country she’s spent most of her life exploring and celebrating in her art. She called her 2014 album’s standout track, “The Body Electric,” a “protest song” last night when it came toward the end of the set, and noted that we’re living in “scary times.” Back when it came out, NPR critic Ann Powers called it the political folk song of the year, and over slow, sweet choruses, the song’s confrontation of gendered violence and rape against women, particularly marginalized ones, certainly felt like an act of resistance. Segarra seems to have picked up that thread and spun a whole album out of it on The Navigator, which is loosely autobiographical concept album following a street kid’s search for identity. Sounds familiar, right?

On “Rican Beach” she sings: “First they stole our language / Then they stole our names / Then they stole the things that brought us fame / And they stole our neighborhood / And they stole our streets / And they left us to die / On rican beach.” A later reference to threats to build a wall and the death of poets feels almost prescient, until I remember that the rhetoric and actions our president is embodying right now have been happening, cyclically, for hundreds of years. When it was released in advance of their album, the band dedicated this song to the protestors at Standing Rock.

Before playing “Settle” she shared the context that the song was written from “having this little inkling that you and your people deserve more.” In writing The Navigator, Segarra has taken more for herself, making space for the pain and disappointment that have wormed their way into her experience, but forging a new path in the process. Hurray For The Riff Raff’s older work often settled in the folksy rhythm of the deeply personal romantic or relational reflection, and the best songs on their latest record draw those elements through the eye of a political needle, asserting, once again, how inseparable the political and the personal can be for those Americans who aren’t white, rich, and straight. On one of the more personal songs here, and one of the album’s standouts, “Hungry Ghost,” Segarra rides a lonely groove out into an independent assertion: I’m ready for the world. Instead of wide-eyed wonder, the song rides on quiet determination, and the knowledge that this world won’t always be a friendly one for her.

“I just want to prove my worth / On the planet earth / And be something,” she sang on the album’s de facto closer “Pa’lante” — Puerto Rican slang loosely translated to “forward” — and the stucco of the wall behind her, the prism of rainbow lights, exposed beams, and old Hollywood chandeliers made the moment feel very out of time. Or, perhaps, it made the moment feel decidedly 2017, signifiers of the past repurposed to help us feel something above and beyond our sterilized present. In a move of similar significance, the band returned to the stage for a single, brief encore — their rendition of CCR’s “Fortunate Son.” As she thundered and howled through that deeply satisfying “It ain’t me,” it spoke volumes about everything Segarra is: A navigator, an artist, an American. But you probably won’t see her waving that flag anytime soon.

Full setlist for 3/13 Hollywood Forever Cemetery show:

“Life To Save”
“Nothing’s Gonna Change”
“Hungry Ghost”
“Rican Beach”
“Lake Of Fire”
“The Body Electric”
“Good Time Blues”
“Living In The City”
“14 Floors”
“Fortunate Son”