Even without an album, The Amigos’ high-energy Americana music blend of country, Cajun/zydeco and jazz has earned them a sold-out series of performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and appearances with the likes of the late Pete Seeger, Jim Lauderdale, the Time Jumpers with Vince Gill, Nellie McKay, and Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky.
But tonight they’re celebrating their first full-length release, Diner In The Sky, with a CD release party at Joe’s Pub.
The product of a successful crowd-sourcing campaign, the disc was produced by Devin Greenwood and consists of original and traditional American songs recorded at The Honey Jar in Brooklyn, home base for The Amigos.
At the core of the group are accordionist Sam Reider and guitarist Justin Poindexter, who also do the singing and compose the original material that draws from influences ranging from The Band and the Rolling Stones to Woody Guthrie and George Gershwin. They usually appear with a drummer and bassist, but also perform as a duo or trio, or with special guests.
Diner In The Sky, in fact, features collaborations with a very special guest–legendary musician, composer, and conductor David Amram.
“He’s an inspirational muse,” says Reider. “Some of the songs are inspired by him, and he collaborated on some of the music. But it has the spirit of Amram and his generation, and the things that he and the Beats did sort of guided the project.”
Reider met Amram, who worked with everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Bob Dylan and also authored the memoir Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac, at an all-night jam session at the North East Regional Folk Alliance conference in Upstate New York.
“It was hosted by legendary Philadelphia Folk Festival founder and radio DJ Gene Shay,” recalls Reider. “David was hanging out and playing with us all night, and invited us to sit in at his regular gig at Cornelia Street Café. We started recording with him and doing videos and shows, and have been working with him almost a year-and-a-half. He has more energy than ever at 83, and will be playing with us at Joe’s Pub.”
The Amigos’ collaboration with Amram surfaces on Diner In The Sky in Amram’s spoken-word recollection “David Amram On Meeting Woody Guthrie,” and the lyrics to songs like “Young At Heart,” notes Reider. “I’m a big Kerouac fan, and I was inspired by David’s stories.”
On the music side, along with Amram’s influence, Reider cites Greenwood’s input.
“He’s an amazing producer and an incredible musician who plays basically everything,” he says of Greenwood, who is best known for his early work with Norah Jones, Sufjan Stevens, Amos Lee, and the Sweetback Sisters.
“We heard of him from the Sweetback Sisters—a vintage country group out of Brooklyn,” says Reider. “He produced their  album Looking For A Fight, which we thought was a great production. He gave us a juxtapostion of groove and simple harmony.”
He points to album tracks “Hey Joe,” “California Blues” and “The Wayfaring Stranger.”
“You have simple, haunting folk melodies, and a collective improv with Amram floating over it. Devin was masterful in collaging together the different sounds from the studio sessions, and in my opinion, he gets to a psychedelic place that I really like.”
One other inspiration–“our guiding light,” says Reider—was the Rolling Stones.
“We focused on Exile On Main Street for a couple months, and the material also came out of that,” he says. “We see our band coming out of that tradition insofar as we like to rock and push the boundaries of things, and probably see ourselves as inspired by the Stones as bluegrass guys or jazz groups.”
Amigos have been together three-and-a-half years.
“I’m from San Francisco. Justin’s from North Carolina,” says Reider. “Our bass fiddle player Noah [Garabedian] is from the Bay Area and Will [Clark, who plays percussion and washboard] is from Eugene, Ore.” The group also often includes Eddie Ray Barbash on saxophone, washboard and vocals.
“Justin and I both grew up in musical families, singing all the time,” Reider continues. “So we knew how to do harmony, and started working on Hank Williams songs and incorporating our jazz background into them–and realized we both loved classic rock ‘n’ roll. Then drums and bass entered into the picture–also The Band, the Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival. We see this first album as a way of getting our name out to a national audience.”
But The Amigos have been getting their name out, at least to a varied audience, for quite a while. Their Lincoln Center collaborations have connected them “with the music traditions and our heroes—people who have really made their mark on American music and continued on. It’s a great way of getting mentorship while getting to play with people we grew up listening to.”
And while they used their connections to get into Jazz at Lincoln Center, “we’re jazz musicians in our training,” notes Reider, “even though our music isn’t described as jazz.”
“It’s turned into a great venue for us, because through our collaborations we’ve been able to come up with theme shows that fill a niche in the market for Jazz at Lincoln Center,” he says, mentioning the Western swing night starring Ranger Doug. “It’s not what they usually present.”
The Amigos have another New York show March 1 at Rockwood Music Hall with jazz vocalist Brianna Thomas.
“She’s a force of nature,” says Reider. “We put together country and Appalachian styles of gospel singing and a lot of old country tunes, and merge them with jazz and her background in the black church: Sometimes the material has the same source, and we do really cool covers with three-part harmonies.”
Following the Rockwood gig, Reider and Poindexter will lead the four-piece version of The Amigos—and Thomas—on a State Department-sponsored tour of Asia in March, to include China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
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