Hurray for the Riff Raff review – magnificent, rousing and tender

Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, London
Alynda Lee Segarra takes tradition and adds her own spin – of a runaway American teen who rode the freight trains

One of America's most extraordinary new talents wanders on to the stage with little fuss, as a little jazz plays over the PA. It takes a moment or two for everyone to realise she is there. Adjusting her guitar, Alynda Lee Segarra – aka Hurray for the Riff Raff – looks a bit like a young Polly Harvey as she might have done on her confirmation day, wearing a simple, prim white blouse and a white headband with a flower on it. When Segarra opens her mouth, though, lifetimes of experience pour out.

The first song is a velvety solo acoustic lament for lost love. The New SF Bay Blues takes an old tune – San Francisco Bay Blues by Jesse Fuller – as its inspiration, but slows it down and turns up the hurt. Mid-song, it turns out that Segarra is mourning a broken-down tour van. This does nothing to diminish the song's sense of desolation.

This is what Hurray for the Riff Raff do best: take tradition and put a spin on it, combining affection and respect with a sideways, inquiring, look at the past. During Hurray's deeply satisfying set, there are straight-up covers of country songs – like Townes Van Zandt's Delta Momma Blues – or an encore of Everybody's Talkin', the Fred Neil song covered by Harry Nilsson ("for all you urban cowboys out there," she smiles). For the grand finale, her bandmates Yosi Perlstein and Sam Doores slap their thighs and whack their feet for the hoedown that bookends her own song, Little Black Star. Lake of Fire is a deeply enjoyable hybrid, a country-surf song.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, then, are a good-time band at heart, mindful of singalongs and showmanship; they are now on their fourth album, one that has levered them out of cult status and on to a wider stage. If they were playing back home in New Orleans, there might be five of them up there, including an organ player and a double bassist. As it is, this short tour features just Segarra, fiddler Perlstein (who also plays drums) and guitarist and harmonica player Doores (who also plays drums), double-clapping and thigh-slapping away.

In keeping with tradition, Segarra's ambered voice convinces at every turn, from the yodels in Look Out Mama to the pitch-perfect statements of emotion that punctuate the entertainment. Segarra notes that she was thinking of Maybelle Carter (matriarch of the Carter Family) when she wrote Blue Ridge Mountain, a deeply traditional cut which the Riff Raff also did on Later… with Jools Holland earlier in the week.

They may be playing roots music but, as their name implies, Hurray for the Riff Raff are doing it from well outside the tent. Segarra dedicates a song to a New Orleans DJ (in the house tonight) because "he supported us when everyone thought we were just homeless kids". A teenage riot grrl, Segarra fetched up in New Orleans having run away from home in the Bronx, criss-crossing the country on freight trains, somewhere between the romantic notion of a hobo and someone in sore need of a drop-in centre. She fell in with a community of New Orleans street musicians, slowly graduating from washboard, to banjo, to writing her own gripping songs in which contemporary life imbues old forms.

There are needles hanging out of arms on at least two songs tonight, the older Slow Walk, and the new album's title track, Small Town Heroes. That's not an innovation in itself – Gillian Welch has been there, not to mention John Prine – but compassion pours out of the latter song especially, for all the flawed people out there, just looking for love in what turn out to be dangerous places. Autobiographical couplets can raise the hairs on your arms. "From the boogie-down, to the bowling green," sings Segarra, "I rode the night train to infinity/I tempted fate and I acted smart/I grew some callus on my heart."

The band's makeup can't help but have some bearing on the perspectives they bring to traditional song. Perlstein identifies as transgender. Segarra identifies as queer, and a feminist. Small Town Heroes' greatest calling card is a song called The Body Electric, Segarra's heartfelt response to the canon of murder ballads. On the album, it is dedicated to Damini, the Indian woman gang-raped in 2012, making the link between real violence against real women, and songs that mythologise so-called crimes of passion. (Damini means lightning – hence The Body Electric.) It is magnificent, rousing and tender, sounding even better with a packed room whooping along.

Kitty Empire reviews Sam Smith's In the Lonely Hour


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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