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Alynda Lee; Hurray for the Riff Raff 

Hurray For the Riff Raff's Young Blood Blues.

Hurray For the Riff Raff CD release

10 p.m. Sat., Jan. 16

AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave., 218-5778;

Alynda Lee solo show

10 p.m. Fri., Jan. 15

Circle Bar, 1032 St. Charles Ave., 588-2616

click to enlarge Alynda Lee learned to play the banjo when she moved to New Orleans.
  • Alynda Lee learned to play the banjo when she moved to New Orleans.
Alynda Lee arrived in New Orleans five years ago with a blank resume. "I was basically just wandering around, riding trains and traveling everywhere," says Lee, 22. "I didn't play any music and didn't know what I was doing with my life."

  Today, as her band Hurray For the Riff Raff readies its second self-released album, Young Blood Blues, the Bronx, N.Y. native has the admiration of some influential tastemakers. Rolling Stone included the three-piece band in its January 2009 Hype Monitor. Sean Moeller of the Web site, who recorded a four-song session with the group in October, compared Lee's ageless voice to Judy Garland's: "She sings as if there's no rush, as if her stories have been there for a while."

  It's likely neither compliment meant as much to the singer/songwriter as Liliwonka44's, the anonymous French teenager who filmed herself feeling out a lovingly measured cover of the Riff Raff's "Bricks" in her bedroom and posted the video on YouTube in June. "That is so crazy!" exclaims Lee, who stumbled on it searching for concert clips. "It's nice to get an outside look, like, 'Oh, I make that weird face when I sing that song.' Then I found that. Bizarre. It's really awesome, though."

  It could've been a glimpse at her younger self. Lee says she picked up her primary instrument, banjo, on the fly, a result of falling in with various downtown busker troupes shortly after landing in town. They still gig together, serenading tourists on Royal Street or tucked into the alcove of Frenchmen Street's Cafe Rose Niçaud.

  "Everything just fell into place," she says. "I met some kids that are now playing with this jazz band, Tuba Skinny Jazz Band. They basically taught me how to play music. I started playing the banjo and playing with them on the street. Through that, I began to get more confidence to feel like I could write songs."

  She now has 25 recorded. This week's release of the 10-track Young Blood Blues concentrates 2008's gorgeous, if gangly, debut It Don't Mean I Don't Love You while expanding its sound in every direction. Lee's exquisite gypsy-folk gems still resemble hymns: a banjo's tinny strings typically shivering a few lone notes before her soft contralto offers a blanket. But Blues feels like a more studied work, its lead tracks often led by an organ ("Little Things"), accordion ("Too Much of a Good Thing"), drumbeat ("Is That You?") or violin (waltzing Gillian Welch altar "Slow Walk").

  Many were spontaneous decisions encouraged by recording engineers Chris George and Daniel Majorie, whose Algiers studio the Living Room provided a bridge for the Riff Raff's evolution from bedroom folk project to full-on country band. "It was really nice to have drums and to have some more rock 'n' roll-sounding songs," Lee says. "But I think more so what I want to do is get into this country vein. We're changing, but it's all going in the right direction."

  Validation is coming from everywhere. Lee was selected by Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.) to open a Circle Bar show, unfortunately canceled for health reasons. "That, too, totally surprised me," she says. "I kind of figured they picked me out of random. It sounds like he heard the band and liked it, which is a big honor."

  Noshing at the Cake Cafe months back, Lee recognized the bearded man at a nearby table: Will Oldham of Palace and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Swallowing her pride, she put a CD in his hands. The alt-country icon has since become a fan. "It felt like a totally New Orleans experience, how things here just work differently. I ran into this guy I really admire and decided to give him my CD. It felt really personal in this New Orleans way."


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