Sunday, November 27, 2011

Article on Tom Russell and His New Disc

There's a nice piece in the Houston Chronicle talking about Tom Russell's new CD Mesabi and generally covering Russell's life and career.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bearfoot w/ Hoots and Hellmouth @ One Longfellow Square, Portland, ME, November 20th, 2011

This past Sunday night, I walked up the hill for a lovely evening of music at One Longfellow Square. This was my second time at this venue, and I've grown very fond of it very quickly. In fact, I was first alerted to Sunday night's show at One Longfellow when I was there a couple of weeks ago to see Jorma Kaukonen. I had never even heard of Bearfoot until then.

I wasn't aware that there would be an opening act until after I arrived. Hoots and Hellmouth are a Philadelphia-based band--guitar, stand-up bass, drums, and mandolin--that played a mixture of mellow folk-rock and jazz, with a touch of spacey, psychedelic instrumentation. A couple of songs into the set, I found myself thinking about a group called The Secret Life of Sophia, which I saw open for the Black Spoons over 5 years ago, in New York City. TSLoS was a much harder, edgier group, but something about H&H's vibe reminded me of them. At any rate, the drummer was the man to watch, at least at first, as he switched off between sticks and brushes to dictate the feel of each piece. There were some great rocking moments on a song called "I Don't Mind Your Cussing" and there were some sweet harmonies, especially on something called "City Lights on a Country Ceiling." By the end of the set, though, I was paying more attention to the singer-guitarist, whose picking was nimble and confident. "Apple Like a Wrecking Ball" featured a particularly nice guitar part and, listening back to it now, courtesy of the band's website, it's making me want to buy their album. And I just might do it.

The featured act, Bearfoot, was every bit as good as I was hoping they'd be. They are a five-piece band--Angela Oudean on fiddle and Jason Norris on mandolin, Alaskans who founded the band 10 years ago, along with Nora Jane Struthers on guitar, PJ George on bass, and Todd Grebe (another Alaskan) on guitar--who play mostly original material (although I really enjoyed their cover of AP Carter's "Single Girl" and, for an encore, the Stanley Brothers' "Sweet Thing"). They performed all the songs from their recent album, American Story (2011), and they ranged from good to great. I was especially partial to the ones that Todd Grebe took the lead on--"Mr. Moonshine" and "Midnight in Montana" and "Must Be Hard Being You"--he apparently is in charge of the band's M songs. Nora Jane Struthers sang "When You're Away," the video for which One Longfellow had used to advertise the band when I saw Jorma Kaukonen there a couple of weeks ago. That's the one, in other words, that made me want to come see the band. She also sang a great song called "Country Girl Yodel #3," which isn't on the recent album, and one called "Come and Get Your Lonesome," which is.

Their music was mostly upbeat, and each band member had a moment to shine. PJ George had a solo or two, but he mostly was unobtrusive, alternating between stand-up bass and bass guitar. He was there to serve the songs, and I actually found myself paying a lot of attention to him, precisely because of how understated he was. I understand he's a newer member of the band--I hope for their sake he stays. Jason Norris sang some great harmonies and played some loud, flashy mandolin solos, although there was some problem with the placement of his mandoline mic for the first couple of songs. Angela Oudean had some tasty solos and harmonized wonderfully in song after song. And Nora Jane Struthers and Todd Grebe, newer members of the band (I've since learned) who did the lion's share of the songwriting for the recent album, were excellent hosts, introducing songs, chatting up the audience, and singing and playing with a lot of enthusiasm. At one point, the men left the stage, leaving Angela and Nora Jane alone to sing a duet. It took an uncomfortably long time for Angela to get her guitar in tune, leaving her bandmate to make small talk with the audience. During this sequence, Todd Grebe poked his head out from backstage and gestured intently to his watch. The song that the two women sang, "Romance," wound up being the only one for the duo, as the guys came back to help out with "Country Girl Yodel #3."

On my way out, I shook hands with a couple of members of each band. A bit tired, as the adrenaline rush of the show was already ebbing, I didn't stop to chat and pay them the big compliments they deserved. According to their website, Bearfoot won't be playing another show around here for awhile. But they're worth seeking out.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Jorma Kaukonen @ One Longfellow Square, Portland, ME, November 5th, 2011

Saturday night, I walked up the street to attend my first One Longfellow Square concert. This is a great venue, small and intimate, yet still managing to fit a couple hundred people or so. While I can't imagine what it would be like to hear a full band play there, it was ideal for the show that I just saw: Jorma Kaukonen, accompanied by his Hot Tuna bandmate Barry Mitterhoff. It was a sold-out show, the venue's first sold-out show for some time, we were told.

I've seen Jorma play a number of times now: 7 or 8 Hot Tuna shows since 1999, plus Jorma's set at the Half the Sky benefit show last year. But I've never been as close to him as I was Saturday night. I sat in the second row, a stone's toss from where he and Barry were stationed onstage. My view of Barry was almost completely unobstructed. Jorma had his music stand with him and it, and the sheet music that was on it, blocked my view of his right hand. But I sat right in front of where his left hand was positioned all night. Watching his left hand on the fretboard over the course of two 75 minute sets, including an encore, was a truly humbling experience. Over the past year or so, I've been trying to learn to play several of his songs, and watching the master himself at work, at such close range, was awe-inspiring. When the encore turned out to be "Water Song," I leaned forward, trying to make sure his fretting looked familiar to what I was trying to do when playing it.

Jorma and Barry were clearly in a good mood. Jorma was chattier than he's been on the previous occasions I've seen him, and his banter with his bandmate was fun. One of the themes of the night was presidents. Almost every time they played a song that was written before 1975 or so, Barry would mention the name of the president in office into the microphone. Before "Bread Line Blues," Herbert Hoover. Before "Vicksburg Stomp," FDR. And so forth. It was much more amusing, however, whenever it was a Jorma original. In fact, the matter first came up about five songs into the set, when Barry informed us that the next song was first recorded when Richard Nixon was president. That turned out to be "Sea Child," a high point of the first set. Nixon came up again, just prior to "Genesis." And a third time just after "I See the Light," prompting Jorma to say "Gimme a break." I was close enough to the stage to hear Barry say, "C'mon, your songs stand the test of time!" Jorma: "Better than he did."

After the second song, "Let Us Get Together Right Down Here," someone in the audience called out, "the Reverend!" "They're very sharp," Jorma said to Barry, gesturing to the crowd. "What did he say?" Barry asked. "I believe I heard someone say, 'the Reverend.'" "I thought he said, 'the rapper.'" "Different show, Barry." Later on, Jorma talked about a deranged fan who, sometime in the 1970s, wanted to have a gold tooth just like Jorma's, so he actually had one of his own teeth knocked out. "He knocked out the wrong one," Jorma said, grinning, so we could all see the gold. The same guy wanted to have a tattoo just like Jorma's, so he went to the tattoo parlor with a crumpled up poster of Jorma that depicted the tattoo. And the tattoo artists proceeded to reproduce not just the tattoo, but the wrinkles that the crumpling had created in the poster. Oops.

The show began with "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?" which Jorma recorded for his Blue Country Heart (2002) album. It's one of his gentler numbers, and it preceded "Let Us Get Together Right Down Here," the first of several Reverend Gary Davis songs he'd perform. In my mind, I always hear the recording from Burgers (1972), with Papa John Creach on fiddle, but it sounded just fine last night with Barry's frills and flourishes.

There were plenty of high points. I am partial to "Sea Child," a Burgers song whose guitar part is one of Jorma's greatest creations. I never tire of hearing that song. The same goes for "I See The Light," which makes me realize how much I love the man's songwriting. Of his more recent songs, I'm particularly fond of "Things That Might Have Been." He also did "Second Chances," which I remember hearing at the Half the Sky concert last year. The second set included "Good Shepherd" which featured the longest jam of the night. Barry outdid himself on that one, which Jorma pointed out afterward, asking him to "please remember that," because "you might have to do that again sometime," or something like that. The end of the second was "Parchman Farm," which segued into "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning," another great moment. Beyond all those, every song that Jorma originally recorded for the first Hot Tuna album in 1970 elicited big applause when he played them Saturday night: "Know You Rider," "How Long Blues," "Hesitation Blues," and "Uncle Sam Blues."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Madeleine Peyroux w/ Nellie McKay @ The State Theater, Portland, ME, October 6th, 2011

Thursday night, I returned to the lovely State Theater for the first time since January of 2008. Back then, I was living in Brunswick, ME, and I had to rent a car for the evening to make it down for the Ani Difranco show. I seem to recall listening to a Celts-Mavs game on the radio for the ride back, but my memory might be playing tricks on me. Anyway, I now live within walking distance of the State, and it takes 15 minutes to mosey over and 15 minutes to mosey back home. And rather than rock out with a theater full of screaming Difrancophiles, this time I sat quietly through a mellow 75 minute set of Madeleine Peyroux's jazzy crooning.

But before I get to her, there is the matter of Nellie McKay. I will never forget listening to WFUV one evening in May of 2003, alone in my girlfriend's apartment on the Upper West Side, when Rita Houston interviewed this then-19 year old for Words and Music from Studio A. She was simultaneous giddy, shy, nervous, and self-effacing. Lots of stuttering, but in a really charming way. It peaked with her referring to herself as a "ketchup whore," before wondering if it was ok to say that on the radio. As I type this, I'm listening to a recording of this interview, available via WFUV's archives here, and it's as fun as I remember it.

This was my second time hearing her perform live. The first time was in May of 2007, when she recorded a 20 minute set at Town Hall for a recording of Mountain Stage (which also featured The Roches, David Bromberg, and Joan Osborne). This time, she played for about half an hour, cramming 9 songs in, with very little chatter in between tunes. The set focused on older material, particularly from Get Away from Me (2004), and she opened with "Toto Dies" and "The Dog Song" and "I Wanna Get Married." Great song after great song, her voice rang and glistened, and her piano playing florid and strident and, for the third song, quiet and subtle. It was interesting listening to the audience respond to her. The majority were clearly there to hear the featured act, and it took until "I Wanna Get Married," with the line about reading Danielle Steele, to get some laughter. "Won't U Please Be Nice" is one of my favorites, and that got some some laughs too, but the set peaked when she got out from behind her piano, took up her banjo, walked up to the microphone center stage, and sang "Mother of Pearl" with its priceless opening line: "Feminists don't have a sense of humor." By then, everyone knew it was ok to laugh, and her "dance break" in the middle of the song was hilarious, with her high-heeled soft-shoe toe-tap and twirl performed with a big, charming smile. A couple of songs I didn't know came after that one, before she concluded with a song she said was about illegal immigration. Turns out that was "Don't Fence Me In," which I think was originally recorded by Bing Crosby sometime in the '40s.

While Nellie McKay dealt mostly in sarcasm and double entendres and quirky musicality, Madeleine Peyroux is a romantic, pure and simple. She performed with a four-piece band (guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums), and her set of a dozen songs was smooth and loose and relaxing. The songs I know best are the ones from Careless Love (2005), and she opened with three of them, "Don't Wait Too Long," "Don't Cry, Baby," and Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." That last one was the first of several to get to me. She cradles the words and melody in her voice with a lot of care, seeming to speak and sing the words simultaneously. Not that that quality didn't sound great in the first two songs, but "you're gonna make me give myself a good talking to" and "you can make me cry if you don't know" gave me goose bumps.

Madeleine Peyroux's most recent album, unheard by me, contains mostly songs that she wrote herself. She played several of them at the show I saw. "The Kind You Can't Afford," about money, was lovely, although she spoke the words a bit too softly. "Don't Pick a Fight with a Poet" was jaunty and fun and I wasn't really paying much attention to the poetry on that one. She also played a Robert Johnson song from the latest album, "Love in Vain." That happens to be my favorite Robert Johnson song, and I was thrilled with her arrangement. It was slow and plodding and featured a slightly distorted single note on the guitar that cut through the verses and seemed to mirror the psychic agony permeating the words: "the blue light was my blues / the red light was my mind."

Although, like the rest of the attendees, I was happy to hear Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love," I was more moved by her slower numbers. And her encore consisted of two of them. First, there was "J'ai Deux Amours," performed more slowly than the recording from Careless Love. "Walkin' After Midnight" came last, and it left me wanting more.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chris Smither @ Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield ME, August 12th, 2011

I took Hillary to the Stone Mountain Arts Center (SMAC) on Friday night to share an even of Chris Smither music with her. I can't remember how many times I've seen him perform--a dozen? maybe more?--but his concerts are the very surest of sure things. And this was my first time at the SMAC since Anthony and I drove out there to hear Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas over three years ago. Hillary and I arrived early and partook of their delicious chicken soup (with cornbread and watermelon on the side) and spent over an hour chatting with each other and with the couple sitting next to us. In fact, I even found myself defending Hot Tuna to the gentleman sitting next to Hillary, after my passing mention of them yielded expressions of contempt from him and his woman friend. Jefferson Airplane? That got more eye rolls. It turns out that this couple has being seeing Chris Smither play shows all around New England since the late 1960s. "Are you on a hot date?" the woman asked us.

Chris Smither looked and sounded great. "Does he wax his hair?" Hillary wondered, which made me laugh. What didn't make me laugh, but did make me smile, was the way the great man foot-tapped his way into "Open Up," which he's been opening his concerts with for years now. Ditto the way he picks the introductory guitar licks to "Link of Chain" before his feet and guitar launch the blues shuffle that backbones the song. The laughter began next, as he talked about losing his GPS machines, which he eventually began calling "Lola," his next song. "She's got hooks to make a fish think twice."

I've seen Chris Smither enough times, and listened to his music enough, to know what was coming. His stories, even when I've heard them before, are a delight. He talked about his daughter's question about royalties before playing "I Don't Know," the fruit and vegetable man from his New Orleans childhood before "No Love Today," his father's longevity before "Father's Day," the difficulties of writing topical songs before "Surprise, Surprise," and the first time he met Dave Carter before Carter's own "Crocodile Man." His sets don't vary too much from show to show, but the quality of his voice, the intricate guitar playing, the toneless foot-tapping continue to call me back.

Having been "called back" at different times over the past 9 years or so, certain songs make more of an impression on me. Friday night, I was particularly moved by two of his newer songs: "I Don't Know," which I'm convinced is one of Chris Smither's very best songs, and "Time Stands Still," which is not the only love song he's written, but it's as close as he comes to a romantic song. Beyond those two, his version of "Sitting on Top of the World" is stark and ethereal in his voice and hands, and I never tire of hearing him singing it. He sang his own "Drive You Home Again" with plain-spoken gravity, and the audience's chuckle at the final lines, "if I drive you to distraction / I will drive you home again" was a great moment. "Seems So Real" sounds just fine on his Train Home (2003) album, but it really gathers steam in concert.

For the encore, he played Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" and got the last of the evening's big laughs with the song's greatest nonsense line, "geez, I can't find my knees." I'd forgotten how beautiful his version of this song is, performed in waltz time, with his rich easy voice delivering some of the greatest opening lines Bob Dylan has ever written: "Ain't it just like the night / to play tricks when you're trying to be quiet? / We sit here stranded / though we're all doing our best to deny it."

On our way out, Hillary and I watched the great man greet his fans and sign autographs, and I remembered the first time I ever got his autograph, at Joe's Pub back in the fall of 2006. That, and having heard him wish me a happy birthday from the stage in upstate New York in the summer of 2007 are enough for me. But I sure could use a dozen or so new songs from the great man, and it's those I await.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Weezer and The Flaming Lips

Kudos to Ben Ratliff for the following awesome paragraph from his review of the integrated Weezer / Flaming Lips shows in the New York area last week:
Rivers Cuomo, the geeky major-domo of Weezer, has grown famous on twitchy, distorted power-pop with strong melodic lines. If his songs were people, they’d be around 16, smart, self-absorbed and a little nasty; they would not like the taste of beer. Wayne Coyne, the relaxed, glad-handing singer and songwriter of the Flaming Lips, writes spaced-out, psychedelic singalongs. His songs might be around 21, kind of looking for an internship and very interested in who they were at 5. They have just dropped acid and want to talk to you.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Capella "Africa"

Wow. It seems to have been over two years since we posted anything about Toto's "Africa" -- what is happening to this blog?

Luckily, the fabulous Marjorie Tucker has called our attention to an a capella version of the song that begins with the choir creating a full-on tropical rainstorm out of finger snaps, palms-on-thighs and cringe-inducing jumping on the risers.

Check it out.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Unforgettable Rain: U2 in Minneapolis

As you no doubt read in Matt's post about U2's Chicago show, we witnessed one of the best stadium shows I've ever seen...that is, until I saw their Minneapolis show at TCF Stadium (pictured left). While I had spent much of last week feeling sad I wasn't joining Matt and fellow Sound of Blackbirds bloggers Nick and Allan out at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, I ended up having an amazing weekend of music. I even got to enjoy some great folk music myself at the 13th Annual Northeast Folk Festival, a fun festival of local talent at none other than Grumpy's Bar NE. With music indoors and out, there was a great cross-section of the local roots and Americana scene with performances by Charlie Parr, The Brass Kings, Jeff Ray and more. Sporting my "Nordeast" t-shirt, I played with my Mother Banjo Band on the outside stage with Pocahontas County's Jake Hyer sitting in on fiddle, which was a real treat. We played U2's "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," which has now become a band staple. This pleased the crowd, esepecially because I discovered many of them were going to the U2 show that night. In fact, Martin Devaney, who played a sweet set right after me, was also going after he stopped by yet another festival to play. (On a side note, I just found out that he's playing with Robbie Fulks at the Turf Club on August 12th--can't wait for that one!)

After wolfing down a tasty pulled pork sandwich, I bused it down to Whitey's Bar, where I met up with some pals for pre-show whiskeys (important since the University-owned stadium has no alcohol). Although there was no U2 playing on the jukebox (as there was when Matt and I were in Chicago at that Irish hotel bar), it was still clear many of these folks were going to U2. In fact, really it seemed like everyone and their mom (literally) was going to the show. What with light rail construction on University Avenue and the crazy amounts of traffic headed to the University of Minnesota's new TCF Stadium, it was madness. Luckily, one of the gals going with us was able to get her husband to drop us off so we arrived with no problem. The very first concert to be held in this stadium (usually used for Gophers sporting events) and the biggest outdoor concert in the Twin Cities in decades, this was the event to be at. In fact, I keep finding out more folks were there (including our Democratic Senator Al Franken and our former Governor Tim Pawlenty, now making a Republican bid for US President). And with only 60,000 seats (compared to the 70,000 at Chicago's Soldier Field), everyone felt pretty close to the gargantuan stage set, including the folks watching from outside the gate.

U2 has the stadium show down to a perfect art form--a spectacle that somehow seems personal. Ross Raihala captured this most eloquently in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Although I couldn't take down the whole setlist due to the torrential downpours, I was able to find this setlist from U2's website. Normally I would just craft a little story to remember the song titles, but as you'll see, there were so many snippets of songs that Bono threw in (many rain-related) that I totally lost track of my Hitchcock-inspired story of the zoo that is the city where you go crazy with vertigo...

This show was supposed to be the final date of their tour, and although this rescheduled date was actually the third-to-last, U2 played it like it was their finale. And the crowd was with them the whole way, even amidst the threatening thunder and lightning, making this a truly unforgettable show. All week they had been predicting storms for Saturday, but the evening started out beautiful. The weather had cooled off a little and there was a light breeze while Interpol played their opening set. Fans bounced balloons and beach balls around from their seats, and in between sets, while the 360 screen scrolled world statistics, someone in our section actually released hundreds of balloons all at once. Like little kids, we all started cheering--a truly magical moment I was actually able to capture on camera.

As the seats filled up with people, it was clear that this crowd was a crowd that was committed to seeing U2. When the first drops fell, and everyone started cheering. Even when the torrential rains came down, no one's spirits were dampened, especially not the band who powered through like it was nobody's business. Not staying under cover, Bono was on the runway most of the night, getting just drenched and adding in fun rain-inspired covers, most notably "Purple Rain" (Prince always gets a big reaction in his hometown) and "Singin' in the Rain." Adam Clayton's white shirt got so drenched, he ended up ditching the thing completely, showing off his good-looking abs (someone's been working out!). It made me really respect how dedicated this band is to performing a good live show. When I think of all the musicians I've seen, who complain because it's too hot or too cold or too wet, I will always think of these guys, and how they could have stayed undercover playing a solid but sedate set under a canopy. Instead, they brought the show to the crowd, getting soaked like the rest of us.

Local critics Jon Bream and Chris Riemenschneider put together some of their highlights along with cool pics in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, including the surprise guest appearance by Somali hip-hop artist and former Minneapolis resident K'Naan and the acoustic rendition of "Stuck in a Moment" that Bono and The Edge sang for Amy Winehouse. Another great moment was when the crowd continued to sing "Pride" long after the song was over. He kind of stood there awe-struck and then clapped for us. But my favorite moment came at the end. After the band took its final bows and started leaving the stage, Bono ran back to the mic and started singing "Singin' in the Rain" for the second time, leading us all in a grand sing-along. He then waved goodnight, and we all kept singing, drenched and happy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 2011

A superb weekend of music at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival came to its conclusion Sunday afternoon, albeit not without a touch of sadness. Ever since Dave Carter passed away nine days before he and Tracy Grammer were scheduled to perform at the 2002 festival, the Falcon Ridge mainstage has been marked by souls departed. Curiously, Tracy’s stage presence on Sunday was upbeat and cheerful, with a little off-color humor and insular banter with her bandmates. I say “curiously” because the news had slowly been filtered to the festival goers by various sources that both Amy Winehouse and Bill Morrissey had passed away over the weekend. While Winehouse was not a part of the folkie scene, Morrissey certainly had his fans at Falcon Ridge, and there were plenty of solemn faces in the Sunday afternoon audience. Combine these strands with the loss of Jack Hardy, whose songs were honored in a workshop performance early Saturday evening, and a web of wistfulness was woven into the musical architecture of the weekend.

In years past, the New Artists Showcase has been a pleasure to behold, as the novices try to make good, but I barely caught any of it this year. My late arrival combined with the blistering heat meant that my slow, staggered efforts to set up camp happened out of sight of the mainstage. Not out of earshot, however. Among other things, I heard Occidental Gypsy’s catchy updated gypsy jazz, a song from I’m-not-sure-who that mentions trains and was co-written with Brooks Williams, a percussion-heavy trance/trip-hop performance by Bulat Gafarov from Moscow (who I now see has a pretty impressive resumé), Paul Sachs from Jack Hardy’s crew who sang with a strong and clear voice and was accompanied by Mark Dann on bass, and a band called ilyAIMY that sounded catchy. After nine or ten performers, I walked down the hill to peruse the vendors, drink lots of water, and wait for fellow Sound of Blackbirds bloggers Matt Winters and Allan Roth to arrive.

While waiting, I stumbled on a tent devoted to Jack Hardy. In attendance was Angie Page, Jack’s partner for many years, and the mother of some of his children, including Morgan, a former student of mine. There were dozens of photographs of the great man, along with LPs and CDs of his music and of the Fast Folk recordings, and plenty of other goodies. Some of it was on display only for educational purposes, but some of it was on sale to help pay for some of Jack’s outstanding medical bills. There were two photographs of particular importance: one of Jack with Tom Waits and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, which was just plain cool, and another of him with Matt Winters and Matt’s dad. As I later heard Morgan say to Matt’s dad, “you’ve been hanging on my dad’s wall for years!”

A little after 2:00, Matt and Allan arrived with Matt’s friend, Mandy, and we made our way up to the campsite to play some guitar together—for me, a Falcon Ridge first—and, eventually, head down to the mainstage to enjoy the rest of the new artists and explore.

Another Falcon Ridge tradition is the Friday night song swap. This year, we were treated to Red Horse, the trio comprising John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, and Eliza Gilkyson. After opening with Neil Young’s “I Am a Child,” the remainder of the set consisted of each musician singing a song written by one of his or her bandmates or, toward the end, by him- or herself. So, John sang Lucy’s “Don’t Mind Me,” Lucy sang John’s “Blue Chalk,” and so forth. Each member of Red Horse also played 45 minute sets the following day on the mainstage, one after the other, with each singer inviting bandmates to join him/her for various songs, including ones recorded for the Red Horse album. In the context of the festival, blurring the individual and group concepts worked just fine, as the communal spirit of the festival and the folk music tradition seemed to be reflected in the combination of the properly rehearsed and the casually offhand.

Although I think of Eliza Gilkyson as being my favorite of the three Red Horsers, both as group participants and as individual performers, I now find myself thinking more about Lucy Kaplansky’s set. She began it with “Manhattan Moon,” from one of her recent albums that I’ve yet to listen to from beginning to end and made me want to revisit all her albums. Later on, she invited her 8 year old daughter onto the stage to show off her drumming lessons on a few songs, including “End of the Day” and “Don’t Mind Me.” “Written on the Back of His Hand” is one of her best melodies, and she even found time for Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song.” As for Eliza, I missed the first half of her Saturday solo performance, unfortunately, but I returned in time for “Dark Side of Town,” which Matt had requested at the top of his lungs from the seat next to me. Finally, John Gorka, who began the mainstage performances at noon on Saturday, played eight or nine songs of his own and others’ and kept my attention. The most memorable moment of his set was his performance of Tim Hardin’s “The Lady Came from Baltimore,” which fit the contours of Gorka’s warm voice just right. And, pretty much for the first time at a folk festival, I found myself hooked by some of John Gorka’s own material. Not so much the newer “Where No Monument Stands,” but older stuff like “I’m from New Jersey,” “Writing in the Margins,” and “Semper Fi.” A pleasant surprise.

Exhaustion led me back to my tent after the song swap, so I missed the night cap—Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and The Magic Rockers—which sounded great from my tent, and I’m sorry I missed them. Friday night’s music was dominated by two up-tempo acts: Professor Louie and the Crowmatix and The Honeycutters, neither of whom I’d heard of before this weekend. Professor Louie was a colleague of the Band’s and worked closely with them on their post-Robbie Robertson records, like Jericho, a song from which the band played during their set: Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” Their overall sound was very similar to the Band’s, with Professor Louie himself playing keyboards and accordion, singing Levon Helm-ishly, and talking about the late Rick Danko in between songs. The Honeycutters played country music, medium-to-fast, without any aggressiveness of rhythm or attitude, but plenty of assurance and poise. The feel of the band was more Tennessee Three than Garth Brooks. There were some mandolin solos, but they punctuated the songs rather than distracting from them. And some of the songs were very good, like “Lillies,” sung from the perspective of a colonist fighting the redcoats who dies after taking a bullet to the chest, or “Firebreathing” which includes the line “you’ve got no business on the wild side,” thereby summing up a folk festival audience, including the drug-addled participants in Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams’ Saturday night dance party. One of the best acts of the weekend.

I also missed all but the final two songs from the Most Wanted Song Swap, another Falcon Ridge tradition, wherein the most popular of the previous year’s new artists return for a round robin-style performance. I’m sorry I missed it too, because what I heard from The Folkadelics and Spuyten Duyvil sounded great.

The Saturday event I was most looking forward to was the Jack Hardy tribute on the workshop stage. I’ve been working on an essay about the great man for this blog, and the events of this past weekend have stoked my interest in finishing it. Since he died, I’ve been listening to his music more often, and I sense, perhaps without good reason, that more and more people have become aware of his songs and his contributions to the music scene in New York City and beyond. The initial plan had been to leave the mainstage at around 4:30, about halfway through Mary Gauthier’s set, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. But as so often happens at these festivals, plans got derailed; I wound up missing the first 10 minutes or so. And for a damn good reason. Matt and Allan weren’t around for Mary Gauthier’s set, but Matt’s friend Mandy was, and she and I sat spellbound by an artist who was so supremely in command of her gifts as a performer, that I couldn’t imagine leaving her for anything. I’ve heard part of her newest album, The Foundling, and it sounds wonderful, but she only played one song from it on Saturday afternoon. Instead, her set emphasized the material that first put her on the map. Three of the first four songs were from her excellent 1999 album Drag Queens in Limousines, and she also treated us to the three best songs from Mercy Now (2003): “Mercy Now,” “Prayer without Words,” and “Wheel Inside the Wheel,” the last of which sounds like Chris Smither’s “Train Home” with celebrities doing the “graveyard dancing.” In between songs, she talked earnestly about the folk music tradition, emphasizing the need to tell stories, and she told great ones in her songs, about the death row convert to Christianity, Karla Faye Tucker (“Karla Faye”), the man once elected king of the hobos, Steam Train Maury (“Last of the Hobo Kings”), the dirty sugar business in Thibodaux (“Sugar Cane”), and herself (“Drag Queens in Limousines”). With Tania Elizabeth backing her up tastefully on violin and harmony vocals, the performance was also musically astute, each melody perfectly formed and each violin lick and harmony vocal perfectly deployed. Sometimes her music even became rhythmically propulsive, like on "Prayer without Words" and “Wheel Inside the Wheel.” The singer threw out the emotional fishing rod with her opening drawl, “I hated high school / I prayed it would end,” and had us caught on the line by time she hit the climax: “sometimes you’ve gotta do / what you’ve gotta do / and pray that the people you love / will catch up with you.” Best act of the festival, by far.

There were other fine moments. The Jack Hardy tribute, of which I only missed the first song (John Gorka’s version of “Potter’s Field”), had some good stuff in it. My favorite was probably David Massengill’s version of “Tree of Rhyme” from the Landmark (1982) album, and I also liked the way that Dan Navarro put his full, deep voice into “I Oughta Know.” Mary Gauthier had made her way over to the stage after her set was over and quietly climbed onto the stage with her fiddler. When it was her turn, she damn near stole the show, first by talking about what great stories everyone was telling about the man (or was she talking about the stories in the songs?), before recapping her belief in the power of songs to tell stories, which she had just been talking about on the mainstage, and then wowing us with Jack’s unrecorded “Ain’t I a Woman,” sung from the perspective of Sojourner Truth. Then, after the dinner break and a fine set of bluegrass music from Dirty Kitchen, Greg Brown played a leisurely, laid-back set of songs, peppered with some self-amused chatter and augmented with Bo Ramsey’s electric guitar. “The Poet Game” is a great song, and I was happy to hear it, and I was also happy to hear “Let the Mystery Be,” written by his wife, Iris Dement. “She’s funny,” he said off-handedly, practically to himself, as he mumbled about his wife, accounting for one of the funniest moments of the weekend. “Freak Flag” and “Tenderhearted Child” from the new album, Freak Flag (2011), both sounded great, and “Fat Boy Blues” made me laugh out loud. The Sunday morning gospel wakeup call, another Falcon Ridge tradition, featured some great stuff from Susan Werner, particularly the decidedly un-gospel “Probably Not,” and Red Molly’s take on “Come on In My Kitchen.” And there was a Band tribute on the workshop stage, led by Professor Louie and Terry Kitchen, which was a lot of fun, particularly when Professor Louie himself led the way through the songs. I smiled to see Katryna Nields with her two lovely children on hand to enjoy the Band tribute. And during their own set and during the gospel set, a trio called Bro Sun offered some soulful singing.

I only caught a few minutes of Susan Werner's set, and I sense I missed out on something great. And by leaving during Sunday afternoon, I also missed the featured act, Mary Chapin Carpenter, who I haven’t seen live since a beautiful, understated performance at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore sometime in the late ‘90s.

Finally, there was Tracy Grammer, one of the acts I was most excited to see, and someone who will forever be linked, for better and for worse, to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. I remember quite clearly how moved I was by her performance with Dave Carter in 2000 and 2001, when they upstaged acts like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, among others. And Dave’s workshop stage appearances, and his warm stage presence, and the 2002 tribute to him, with Erin McKeown’s “Gentle Arms of Eden,” Chris Smither’s “Crocodile Man,” Mark Erelli’s “Cowboy Singer”…I could go on. Now, 9 years after Dave Carter’s death, Tracy Grammer has long since come into her own as a performer. This time around, she appeared with a five-piece band that included Massachusetts folk scene stalwarts Dave Chalfant and Ben Demerath. Her set included a Decemberists’ song that I didn’t know, the instrumental fiddle feature “28th of January,” and a series of Dave Carter songs, including “Gentle Arms of Eden,” his greatest, and “Shadows of Evangeline,” which benefited more than the other songs by the presence of the band. I also took note of her concluding song, “The Verdant Mile,” which gave this blog its name, and also hinted at the deaths that hung over the festival—“it’s everything and nothing / when the spirit cracks the sky”—even as it embraced life which, with her chipper stage presence and happening band, Tracy seemed to be doing. She mentioned Amy Winehouse and Jack Hardy in some between-song moments and joked about her band’s name, “The Hot Nuts,” in others. And as if to verify the power of positive, life-enhancing music, the very next act, the last act I stayed for, was a Zydeco band, whose danceable rhythms and soulful vocals pretty much epitomize life. In other words, it got people up and dancing. I was about halfway up the hill, on my way back to the car, when I had to stop and listen almost to the end of their set, as a searing electric guitar solo cut through the air, splitting through the polyrhythms.

Looking forward to next year already.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Kasey Chambers @ The Iron Horse, July 7th, 2011

I’ve now been living in Portland, Maine for two weeks. For the purposes of my Sound of Blackbirds contributions, that means exchanging the Iron Horse for One Longfellow Square and the Calvin Theater for the State Theater. In fact, there are more possibilities for live music in the greater Portland area than there are in greater Northampton, as near as I can tell, but there’s nothing quite like the Iron Horse. And that’s one reason why, for my first concert in a couple of months, I drove three hours back to the Valley for another concert at that magnificent room.

The other reason is Kasey Chambers. I first heard of Kasey about 10 years ago. I recall sitting in my friend Joanna’s living room in Brooklyn, listening to her friends and roommates talk with great enthusiasm about the act that upstaged Lucinda Williams at her recent Roseland concert in the city. There was an album out called The Captain (2000), and a couple of them raved about it. I wasn’t sure what to make of these reports at the time; had I missed out on something big? Lucinda Williams is great, no doubt, but I had seen her be upstaged before, most notably in Baltimore, when her Shriver Hall performance felt remarkably flat after Patty Griffin torched the stage with her Flaming Red (1998) songs. And I’ve also seen her open for rocks icons—the Allman Brothers in 1999, Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 2003—in a way that didn’t do justice to her own greatness. Lucinda Williams (1988) and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) will always be great albums, but…I digress.

I got the answer to my question when, in early 2002, I attended an acoustic WFUV-sponsored Kasey Chambers performance at the Museum of Television and Radio in midtown Manhattan. She was touring to promote Barricades and Brickwalls (2002), but I don’t think I had heard an album of hers yet. I went to the show on the recommendation of Joanna and in the company of her friend Marisa. As I type this, I’ve accessed an audio recording of that performance, available from the WFUV archives, and it sounds fabulous. What I remember best is hearing a song that I figured had to be an old Hank Williams song that she’d updated slightly and being pleasantly surprised to learn that “A Little Bit Lonesome” was a Kasey Chambers original. I also remember being completely floored by her natural instrument; her voice, I mean. Listening back today, hearing her perform “On a Bad Day” makes me wonder why I haven’t been a huge fan ever since. But the whole performance was wonderful, and so was meeting her and getting her autograph after the show.

Even after that, however, the real breakthrough for me was seeing her with Annie in the fall of 2004 at Irving Plaza with her full band. There, she rocked. I had only listened to Wayward Angel (2004) once or twice before the show but, afterwards, I began listening to it constantly. The Irving Plaza show featured not only great songs from each of her three albums, but fantastic covers of Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks,” harsh and rocking, and Neil Young’s “Comes a Time,” slow and acoustic with lush harmonies from her bandmates.

And it was Annie who I took with me to see Kasey on Thursday night. This was the first time she's accompanied me to an Iron Horse show since we saw Dar Williams there in the fall of 2009, as detailed here. She drove 90 minutes or so from Vermont, I drove 3 hours from Maine—the longest drive I’ve ever taken for a concert. Since Kasey doesn’t come to the states all that often any more, I figured this could be the last chance we’d have to see her for a long time. It turns out that Kasey is 6 months pregnant with her 3rd child.

Before she took the stage, her bandmate and father Bill Chambers entertained us with about 20 minutes of solo guitar and songs. The originals—“Theresa,” “South-end Rain,” and, best of all, “Drifting South”—worked just fine, but I was particularly impressed by the two covers. First came Mary Gauthier’s “I Drink,” which I haven’t listened to in a long time and elicited some laughter, just like I remember it doing over 10 years ago when I first heard Mary play it (opening for Richard Shindell at the Bottom Line). It’s actually a deeply serious song, about alcoholism and selfhood, and the laughs were in the same vein as the laughter that Loudon Wainwright elicits with his best material. And then there was a Fred Eaglesmith song called “Just Dreaming,” which I had never heard before. The mood of the song was interrupted a bit by an Iron Horse waitress who starting topping off my water glass without noticing that I had hard cider, not water, in the glass. But whatever. By the time the music had begun, the show had sold out, and even watered down cider couldn’t dilute my excitement.

Kasey Chambers hit the stage at about 7:35 with her band and launched a couple of songs from her new album, Little Bird, out into the room. I didn’t know these songs, but they were delicious, especially one that, I’ve since learned, is called “Beautiful Mess.” After that, the band leaned into “Last Hard Bible” from her first album, The Captain (2000), drawing big applause and, from there, she and her band took us through songs from each of her albums, with a focus on the new one, and included some ace covers along the way (including a Nancy Griffith song that I didn’t know). From the opening song, her huge voice filled the room and

Her band is sharp. Along with her immensely talented father, a second guitar player was onstage, Michael Muchow, and so was a beautiful 18 year old fiddler, Ashleigh Dallas, who was, in her own shy, rather endearing way, having the time of her life on-stage. This was, it turned out, her first time in the United States. Kasey assured us that she’d done her best to acclimate Ashleigh to American culture…by having her watch the complete My Name is Earl DVD set. Michael Muchow didn’t talk much, but he smiled and laughed at Kasey’s gags. After a particularly long story from Kasey, Michael discovered that his gear wasn’t yet ready for the next song. He fiddled with it a bit and said, into the microphone, “It’s not like I haven’t had enough time to get it ready.” That crack drew some of the hardest laughter not only from us, but from Kasey, not to mention Ashley, whose eyes widened in delighted shock at that comment. The band's accompaniment was functional, direct, and to the point. Not many solos. One song, whose title I did not catch, was a Bill Chambers-Ashleigh Dallas co-write, and it was really good. Michael had only recently learned the banjo, Kasey told us, specifically to play with her on tour. He did fine, and so did Ashleigh.

Kasey was a charming, gracious hostess. She and her band were really happy to be there. Really happy. And by "there," she meant the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts. She reported that this is one of her very favorite venues in the world, a place that she talks about and yearns for playing even while they’re on the other side of the world. She joked about her pregnancy, noting that “getting knocked up” was one of her only skills outside of playing music. She told stories about her band, her travels, her children. She was cheerful and upbeat and impossible not to warm to.

Her newest album, Little Bird, is already out in Australia, and it will appear in the US next week. Based on what she played Thursday night, I sense it’s a great one. Along with “Beautiful Mess,” there was a song called “Nullarbor (The Biggest Backyard)” about her childhood, growing up in the Australian desert, a theme she first addressed in “The Nullarbor Song,” from Barricades and Brickwalls. All told, she sang half a dozen songs from Little Bird, and they all sounded great to me.

What else? She played “The Captain” alone on stage. There were a bunch of Barricades and Brickwalls songs—“On a Bad Day,” “Not Pretty Enough,” “Still Feeling Blue” (one of the highlights of the whole show), and, for the final encore, “Barricades and Brickwalls”—but only one song from Wayward Angel –“Pony.” As her band was getting in tune for “Pony,” someone from the audience asked if she would name her next child after Ralph Stanley, a reference to a line in the song. She laughed at that and talked about the problems with naming her second child, Arlo. She and the father had wanted to name him after a great songwriter. For the father, that meant Neil Young. But Neil didn’t seem quite right to them, particular given all the Neils in the world. So they decided they’d go with Neil Young’s middle name…until they learned that his middle name was Percival. “So that’s how we settled on Arlo,” she concluded, and we all laughed. Then, “Neil Young is the coolest guy in the world...but his middle name is Percival,” and we laughed even harder.

Toward the end of her set, she mentioned that Australians are not particularly into bluegrass music, so they had to be eased into it. That was her introduction to the band’s bluegrass medley: get-down arrangements of “Not Pretty Enough” and “The Captain,” leading into the Bee Gees' “Stayin’ Alive” and Michael Jackson's “Beat It.” This was corny, but it was also a lot of fun, particularly on account of how big and powerful the band sounds when Kasey leads them in harmony.

The set ended with “We’re All Gonna Die Someday” from The Captain, and upon returning to the stage for the encore, she assured us that there was no way she wasn’t going to return for another song or two. We could have already left, she told us, and they’d have been back to sing to the empty room. And then came a highlight of the evening, as the band played a slow, elegiac, mournful version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” before finishing off the evening’s music with “Barricades and Brickwalls.”

Kasey is in the US through July 16th. See here for tour details. Seek her out, is my advice.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

U2 at Soldier Field

I know that there are some haters out there, so with my apologies to you, let me say that U2 is the best damn band on the planet.

Ellen and I were 110 percent satisfied with their appearance at Soldier Field in Chicago on Tuesday night, which was the reason behind and the last event in a wonderful Fourth of July trip to Chicago.

We pre-gamed the show with a healthy pour of Jameson at Kitty O'Sheas, a bar in the Hilton, up Michigan Avenue from Soldier Field. The place was full of U2 fans, and there was U2 coming off the jukebox. So it was great fun to hear folks reminiscing about The Unforgettable Fire tour and talking about having seen 18 previous U2 shows or to see them jumping up and down a little bit when "Bad" came on. Ellen and I were having a lot of fun reciting our favorite lines from Rattle and Hum, such as B.B. King protesting that he would not be able to play the chords on "When Loves Comes to Town."

We arrived at Soldier Field shortly after Interpol had started their opening set. I had not known who the opening band would be until shortly before the show, and I was super-excited to hear them. But the stadium swallowed them right up. The place was about half-full, and the crowd that was there wasn't terribly excited, and the band seemed to mostly be going through the motions. Certainly, this is the way that most opening acts at a U2 concert go down, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

(By the way, here is my bold -- if ultimately disrespectful -- suggestion for some future U2 opening band. In order to gain maximum notoriety and possibly start a riot, why not take the stage and play a complete set of U2 songs without first getting U2's approval? How unbelievably insolent would that be? Would they bring the sound down? Would the fans storm the stage? It would be a happening at the very minimum.)

In between the acts, we discussed the provocative statistics streaming across the LED screen at some length. Those faded away, and David Bowie's "Space Oddity" ("Ground Control to Major Tom") announced the band's entrance. That recording segued seemlessly into "Even Better Than the Real Thing," and we were off for a little Achtung Baby action to start off the show. "The Fly" was up next. And then "Mysterious Ways" with just a touch of "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" tagged on. Oh my! Could the Achtung Baby festival continue? It could! "Until the End of the World" was next.

Then they jumped back to Boy for "Out of Control." And then all the way forward to No Line on the Horizon for "Get On Your Boots (Sexy Boots)."

Bono took a moment to elicit some boos from the crowd by talking about Larry Mullen Jr. going to see the White Sox play. And then he also announced that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel had declared Independence Week as an extended celebration of American independence.

With "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," Bono stepped away from the microphone for almost a full verse to let the crowd sing it -- some 70,000 strong. And then he talked about the band recording the songs for Achtung Baby and Zooropa before playing "Stay (Faraway, So Close)."

Bono announced that they would be sending the next song out to Gabby Giffords. It was "Beautiful Day," and Giffords' husband Mark Kelly appeared from the International Space Station during the song. Bono took us out of "Beautiful Day" and back into "Space Oddity" before the band moved on to "Elevation."

Introducing "Pride," Bono waxed a little poetic about the notion of America as an idea and not just a country, and then at the end of the song, the crowd kept the vocal part going for another few rounds.

The reference back to The Passegers' CD with "Miss Sarajevo" seemed to leave a substantial portion of the crowd scratching their heads, but the band came out of that with the more familiar "Zooropa" and then the more recent "City of Blinding Light" and "Vertigo."

Coming back to No Line on the Horizon for the second time of the night, they played a really altered version of "I'll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight" that concluded with a segue into a little bit of "Discotheque" (the only reference to Pop in the show). "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was given a set of graphics referencing the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East, and then "Scarlet" (from October) was dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. As it faded into "Walk On," people holding Amnesty International candles came out and filled up the whole circle around the stage and the pit.

There was then a recorded presentation by Aung San Suu Kyi about freedom and repression in Burma that led the band into "One." Bono used Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" to lead into the iconic opening arpeggios of "Where the Streets Have No Name." Ellen and I both thought that was totally brilliant.

The obscure "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me" was followed by "With or Without You."

Bono then hinted at the band wanting to play "One Tree Hill" in honor of the 25th death anniversary of Greg Carroll for whom the song was written. He said that he needed to consult with "the professor," and I was really excited for a brief moment until I realized that he was talking about The Edge.

In order to get everything in place, the band played "Moment of Surrender" (the third entry from the most recent CD). And then Edge had to find the right key and make sure that his fingers could still do it, but the band closed with "One Tree Hill." And what a special moment -- to see those guys have to figure out a song that they hadn't necessarily expected to play after all of the pomp and circumstance of the show, and then to put it all out there and end the night of music.

And so Ellen and I walked out of Soldier Field feeling sated and satisfied.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Elton John Still Wants Some Punch

Back in February, we reported Elton John's enthusiasm for bluegrass experimentalists Punch Brothers as described to Rolling Stone.

In the 28 April issue (sorry, I was out of the country for a bit), he was back at it:
The Punch Brothers are the best jam band I've ever seen. It's like Miles Davis meets bluegrass. I've already talked to them about working together -- I want to make a record with them that combines the Band and Fairport Convention
Wait, wait... "That combines the Band and Fairport Convention"?

Ok, so I'm obviously psyched that Elton John wants to make something that sounds like Fairport Convention. I'm totally in favor of this.

But it doesn't seem like combining The Band and Fairport Convention would be all that much of a stretch, does it? I mean, Fairport Convention's 1969 album Unhalfbricking includes "Million Dollar Bash" from The Basement Tapes, which features The Band, as well as Dylan's "Percy's Song" and "Si Tu Dois Partir" (the French translation of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now"). And in general, it seems like Fairport and The Band are working a lot of the same musical territory.

So "Miles Davis meets bluegrass," I'll give that one to Sir Elton, but he needs to work a bit harder on who he wants to mash-up with Fairport Convention.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Coen Brothers to Make Dave Van Ronk Film?

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the Coen Brothers might make a movie about Dave Van Ronk based on the book The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

Mike Regenstreif spread the news over at Folk Roots / Folk Branches and included some nice memories of his encounters with Van Ronk.

Van Ronk's Going Back to Brooklyn was a signature album for me during my early teenage years. (What 13-year-old wouldn't memorize "The Whores of San Pedro" and then go around singing it at summer camp after all?) I also was a huge fan from an early age of his recording of "Cocaine Blues" to be found on the Blues with a Feeling disc that collected recordings from the Newport Folk Festival. By my late teenage years, I was listening to the classic Vanguard sides that Van Ronk recorded and just learning a whole lot about the blues.

I saw Dave Van Ronk twice -- once at the Old Songs Festival, where he told some risque story that mildly offended my eight-year-old ears and then later on (when I was a bit more equipped to appreciate such things) at the University of New Haven, where Van Ronk sadly struggled to keep his breath on stage.

I can't say that I listen to Van Ronk all that much these days, although interestingly enough, some sort of best-of album became part of the soundtrack for my recent bus ride from Galway to Dublin. I sat there, listening to "Cocaine Blues," and thinking to myself, "Man, if I could just learn to play this song..." Well, maybe that should be a new goal for the summer.

Regenstreif appropriately cites Tom Russell's "Van Ronk" from his album Hotwalker in which Russell gives the rundown on what it was like to hang out at Van Ronk's place. It's a great piece and one that Tom nicely ornaments live, too, although here is the album version for you:

"Shut up and listen!"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pub Sessions in Galway

Well, here I am at the Dublin Airport, drinking one last good-tasting Guinness before I fly back to the States. (Or at least, I hope I'm flying back -- it's already been a five-hour delay.)

Following the historic first meeting of the European Political Science Association in Dublin at the Guinness Storehouse, I took the morning train from Dublin to Galway because I had been told that Galway was where to find music in Ireland. Well, no joke.

On my first evening in Galway, I found my way into Taaffes Pub. The session was already going, featuring accordion, fiddle, bouzouki and bodhran. The tunes were good, and it was fun to watch the fiddler listen to the box player and figure out the melody with her fingers before joining in.

I stuck around there for a good bit before heading down to The Quays, which was a little bit less crowded and yet also featured a tighter session with just accordion, bouzouki and bodhran.

The accordion player was John O'Halloran who had a wonderful touch, making the melodies smooth and flowing but adding in nice ornamentation. He had fun with the instrument, too, providing some sound effects as necessary for people walking by or asking questions.

From there, I moved on to Tig Coili. And this was the mother church. I watched a trio of tenor banjo, fiddle and bodhran for a while, and then I asked the gentlemen next to me (who was in fact the bodhran player from the session at Taaffes) if he knew who the musicians were. Well, the bodhran player was Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, one of the founding members of De Dannan. The banjo player was Brian McGrath who has played with De Dannan and then on a good number of albums by other Irish musicians. And the fiddler was Mick Conneely.

These three were terrific -- one and all. Mick Conneely's fiddle was completely lyrical with his double-stops adding rich tone and texture to the tunes. Watching Ringo McDonagh was a clinic on how the bodhan can be played -- his skillful use of the left hand to mute the drum and shift the tone as needed. And then Brian McGrath had all of these wonderful trills and other ornamentation on the four-string banjo; he pushed the melody along with a rolling force.

And that was just the first evening!

The next day, I headed off to the Aran Islands for a tour but then found myself back at Tig Coili. And once again found myself in the presence of a great musician or two. And not just in their presence but sitting a mere five feet away! On the Monday-night melodeon, it was Bobby Gardiner. I didn't know it at the time (or else I would have talked Southern Connecticut with him), but Bobby Gardiner had emigrated to New Haven to work on the New Haven Railroad in the early 1960s. During his ten years on the East Coast of the United States, he played with noted Irish musicians like Joe Cooley and Joe Deranne (and also served in the U.S. Army, according to Wikipedia). He was yet another great box player there in Galway and was joined by Brian McGrath on banjo, Anna Faulkner on fiddle and (I think) Richie Cunningham on the bodhran.

You would never know who it was playing unless you asked. These were just the boys down at the pub playing the tunes. And so there I was, armed with a pint of Guinness, and taking in the sounds.

I ended up that second night at the An Pucan Pub, listening to a duo perform a mix of instrumentals, dance tunes (with dancers) and songs. The song selection ranged from Dougie Maclean's "Caledonia" to Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel." Because of amplification, the scene was a little less intimate than at the other pubs, but it was also nice to hear some songs being sung.

On my final day in Galway -- after a tour of Connemara -- I went back again to Tig Coili and found John O'Halloran leading another session. This time he was joined by Liz Hanrahan on the fiddle and by a bones and bodhran player whose name I never caught. And at some point, a local named Willie was egged on to sing a song or two -- he needed a bit of help on some of the lyrics, but the crowd remained enthusiastic and relatively quiet for the unamplified singing. And then I rounded out the evening with some more music at An Pucan, where a band with harp and pipes was playing -- some new instruments to end my journey to Galway!

Punk is Dead; Long Live Punk

Neil Genzlinger has a nice piece in the New York Times about punk rock history tours being conducted in New York by Jake Szufnarowski (from the band Tragedy -- see here) and John Joseph.

The article only hints at the best stories that are told on these tours:
Mr. Szufnarowski will show you the spot outside Irving Plaza where he was beaten to a pulp after a Warren Zevon concert (an episode he parlayed into free passes to countless other shows there). Mr. Joseph will bring you to the sidewalk where, he says, he was stabbed in a sort of drug-dealer-versus-punk-rocker turf war.
And then I was particularly fond of the following:
[Joseph] won’t use the name “East Village”; he still likes “Alphabet City.” (The avenues, back when he arrived, were ranked thus, he said: “A, you’re adventurous; B, you’re bold; C, you’re crazy; D, you’re dead.”)

Also, referring to the Continental as a "B-level club" strikes me as wrong -- it was a "C-level club," part of the "C circuit" along with Coney Island High and CBGBs (both of which are now-defunct, so maybe The Continental did get an upgrade).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Now You Know: Justin Roth

Justin Roth is a rare talent--an amazing guitarist, a charming performer and a writer of catchy acoustic songs. Although I periodically get to see him play showcases at Folk Alliance or hear him play a few songs when he is in town for songwriting group, I have not seen him play a full show in a couple years. So it was a rare treat to see his Saturday St. Paul show at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse, celebrating the release of his new CD Now You Know. The new songs are more introspective and moody than his previous work, perhaps due to the fact he wrote and recorded the album while living alone in the Colorado Rockies. Expanding his straight acoustic sound to include more layers of vocals and ambient textures, Justin recorded all the parts himself, including all the additional instrumental parts. I was interested to see how he would approach doing these songs live without any extra musicians or loops or anything. I am happy to say these new songs were just as sweet without the added parts. Here's what he played...

SET 1:
- Trembling Like a Train (been singing this for awhile but it's now finally on an album--one of my faves!)
- Spaghetti Junction (instrumental named after the tangle of highways in downtown St. Paul)
- Out of the Blue
- This Winter (As Justin put it: "This song has lots mini me's singing with me on the record." He joked about cloning himself and then trying to bring all the mini me's on the road with him and trying to figure out how to fit them in his car and not feed or pay them. I think he can forego that because it sounded pretty dang good with just one Justin.)
- Surrender
- She Dances
- Shower With a Friends (hilarious song about conserving water by showering with a friend)
- Fatima's Waltz (a beautiful guitar instrumental he wrote--a fan favorite)

SET 2:
- There and Back Again (his second Hobbit-inspired guitar tune)
- The Siskiyou Line
- Now You Know
- The Last Time
- Forgiveness
- Ones to Hold Onto (Gave a shout-out to his musician friends in the audience, including Brianna Lane, Barb Ryman and me, Mother Banjo. Then he dedicated this song to catching up with old friends. I've always liked this older song of Justin's but the energy and guitar work on this was particularly nice.)
- Dead Horse Trampoline
- Shine

Encore: Love's Not Through With You Yet (a Darrell Scott tune he covers on the the new album)

All in all, a great show. It is no wonder that John Gorka has said: "Now you know-Justin Roth has come into his own."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Real Autotuned Singing: Sarah McQuaid and Martin Sexton

I saw two solid concerts last week here in Urbana-Champaign. What stood out to me about both of them was the incredible vocal quality of both performers. In this age of autotuned recordings, it is an impressive thing to sit back and soak in the sounds of people who have excellent pitch, great control and well-maintained instruments.

Those characteristics apply to both Sarah McQuaid, who I saw last Tuesday night as part of the Piper's Hut concert series, and Martin Sexton, who played at the Canopy Club in a distressingly early show last Wednesday evening.

Sarah McQuaid at the Independent Media Center

Sarah McQuaid, I had never seen before. Born in Spain, raised in Chicago, 13 years in Ireland and now living in Cornwall, she brings all of those possible influences and more into her music. She opened up with an a capella version of "The Wagoner's Lad," and she had me sold. From that Appalachian classic, she moved onto "The Next Market Day" (a traditional song about going for a roll in the hay) and then "Ya Se Murio El Burro" (a traditional Spanish children's song about a dead donkey).

Her singing was terrific, and her voyages into the (traditional) American song catalogue were highly enjoyable: "In the Pines," "East Virginia" (which she learned from a Joan Baez record that she spun on her Mickey Mouse record player as a child), an instrumental version of "Shady Grove" (on her DADGAD-tuned guitar -- she wrote the book), "West Virginia Boys" (with pink tambourine accompaniment), Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" and then Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" as an encore.

From the other side of the Atlantic, she gave us "Johnny Lad" (a Robert Burns song that she learned at an Irish festival being held at a German club in Philadelphia), "The Banks of the Lee" (which she called "When Two Lovers Meet") and Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

Her original compositions were good -- "Only an Emotion" was about disliking the British habit of telling you that you're not allowed to walk around scowling, while "Aqui Me Pinte Yo" was inspired by a Frida Kahlo painting.

Martin Sexton at the Canopy Club

When I was in high school, I used to wear a Martin Sexton pin on my backpack (right next to the huge Nields sticker) -- it was the cover to Black Sheep, his second album. Despite wearing that pin, I actually was not a terribly big fan of his music.

Well maybe I should have been inspired by the pin and listened to that disc a little bit more often...

Because Martin Sexton is awesome. I thought this when I saw him play a magical set at Falcon Ridge back in 2008. And I thought it last Wednesday night.

You want control? He has amazing vocal control. You want pitch? He has it in the low range and the high range. You want a human beatbox? He can do it. You want some bluesy guitar? He's got that covered. You want well-crafted songs? Call Marty. You want a segue into Led Zeppelin's "Since I Been Lovin' You"? He's on it. "Helter Skelter" with some guitar percussion? That's next.

He has his shtick down, but he seems to be enjoying it. He took the stage and started banging away on the guitar and giving us the beatbox, and the crowd started singing along, and we were off on a great ride.

He was having fun. "Living a Lie" was dedicated to "muthaf*ckas working a corporate job who wish they had started an electronica band." Another was for "anybody on their last date -- and I mean it." And then there was a song about meeting his wife in New York: "Aw, isn't that sweet? ... The original version is all dirty sex positions at the end."

"Angeline" and "Gypsy Woman" were highlights, and despite doing a rap about being thankful that he's not one of those performers who has to play the same songs every night, he played both "Glory Bound" and "Black Sheep." (So, um, really, Marty?) But whatever, because it's not like I've been able to take "Glory Bound" off the stereo for the last five days...

For his encore, he brought a new microphone out into the crowd, told the people in back to stop talking and treated us to an intimate number from the floor.

This was his Urbana debut apparently, and I hope that I get the chance to see him here again soon. (It would be great, though, if the show starts after the sun has set, I think... Maybe there would be a few more people in the crowd then, and it wouldn't, for Marty, be "like Cambridge, Mass, back in 1993." But again, whatever... He brought it.)

Here's the performance of "Glory Bound" from Falcon Ridge three years ago -- not the greatest sound quality, but you can find about 50 other YouTube versions if you don't like this one:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Low Anthem at Jazz Fest

I returned late last night from a trip to New Orleans that was ostensibly about Jazz Fest but was really more about old stomping grounds, great friends, and amazing food than music. I did, however, manage to make it to Jazz Fest for a few hours before catching my plane back home. We unknowingly walked through the gate on Gentilly to the sounds of the Low Anthem and like moths to a flame, were drawn closer and closer to the stage.

Although the sound at the show didn't do justice to the harmonies, the performance was solid--earnest and intentional and of a well-executed roots rock aesthetic. These were serious musicians clearly putting their accumulated understanding of their songs into a mid-afternoon set. The crowd was enjoying the music, but was also talking. I wondered, as the band helped me ease into the afternoon, whether there was room among the food and beer and multiple stages, for those hushed moments that serious musicians are capable of creating. I wondered this, and then the Low Anthem played an intense, beautiful version of "Bird on a Wire" to close their set. It settled over the crowd slowly, a quieting and calming sound.

The video above is from about a month ago but is similar to the version I heard in New Orleans.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Overtones of Appalachia in Champaign: The Honey Dewdrops at the Champaign Public Library

Watching Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish step up to the single microphone in the Champaign Public Library's Robeson Pavilion Room, I was prepared to hear some old-time-style tunes; what I wasn't prepared for was the amazing warmth and depth of the sound. I mean, this was just two voices and two guitars, right? But that magical microphone in between them captured all of that sound and made the spacious room shrink down a little smaller; I think that it even struck up the fire in the (non-existent) fireplace. Being so used to full-on, full-sounding bands, I was really pleased that my ears could perk up this way to a duo.

Throughout their set, The Honey Dewdrops sounded close and rich. Laura's singing features that lovely Virginia slur, where the notes blend together, forcing you to follow the song along. Kagey adds in the right harmonies throughout. And the mixing of their stringed instruments below supports the mixing of their vocal instruments above.

"Nobody in This World" is a perfect example of what this band is. It was an original tune that could as easily have been a Carter Family standard. Kagey played mandolin, and we might as well have been on their back porch in Charlottesville.

They mostly played originals over the course of a one-hour set. My favorite was "Amaranth," the lead track on their most recent disc, These Old Roots. Inspired by a Love Lies Bleeding Amaranth in their garden, they wrote the song from the plant's point of view -- a non-fading flower left for a love that has never come.

They also showed their love of the tradition, stringing together a banjo and guitar version of "Going Across the Sea," a take on "Angeline the Baker" that featured just the right amount of rollick in the banjo, and then an a capella version of "Bright Morning Star." Their version of a contemporary song was a mandolin-and-guitar version of The Beatles' "Across the Universe."

And then they did end the set with a song by that Virginian First Family of Country Music, the Carter Family, "Sow 'Em on the Mountain."

They took no encore -- and more power to them for that -- and were a pleasure to chat with after the show.

I'm really glad that I got a chance to see these guys, and I hope that they'll hit your town soon, too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Robert Browning's Retirement from the World Music Institute

Catching up on some reading, I've just discovered that Robert Browning is retiring as the head of New York's World Music Institute.

The WMI-sponsored concerts that I attended over the years actually tended to feature artists from the United States -- I remember a great old-time stringband show with the Whitetop Mountain Band and a show with Cajun supergroup Beausoleil -- but I nonetheless always appreciated the diverse series that WMI sponsored.

I also was interested to learn about Browning's role in founding the Alternative Museum:
[Browning] came to New York in 1974, and the next year helped found the Alternative Center for International Arts (later the Alternative Museum), where he began putting on concerts by artists from far-flung places. The World Music Institute — which Mr. Browning operates with his wife, Helene, the organization’s indomitable publicist — has presented more than 1,500 concerts on stages throughout the city and has been behind landmark events like the first American tour by the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chris Smither and Patty Larkin @ The Latchis Theater, Brattleboro, VT, April 9th, 2011

Last night, after a long day that included an early morning run, a hike up and down a mountain, and an hour’s worth of walking around Brattleboro, I planted my butt in one of the old, battered seats of the Latchis Theater to listen to Chris Smither and Patty Larkin play their guitars and sing. This was my first time in the Latchis, and it’s a beautiful place. The décor is faux-classical, with columns and murals depicting scenes from antiquity. Sitting in the third row of the theater, front and center, I spent at least a minute simply staring up at the ceiling, which is deep blue with mythical beasts outlined in white.

I saw Chris and Patty play together this past December at the Half the Sky benefit concert in Arlington and, while I’m always happy to see Chris, I was particularly eager to see Patty this time around. Her agile, intricate guitar playing and deep, surprising melodies were a treasure of the Arlington show, and I wanted to see if there was more to it than a single concert. I wasn’t disappointed, although when Chris opened the show, I stopped thinking about her. He was in unusually strong form. From the opening moment, as the foot-tapping and guitar lick announced “Don’t Call Me Stranger” to open the show, he proceeded to own the stage. Song after song bit and held, just like they always do, and his singing was passionate and nuanced. Songs from his latest album preceded “Love You Like a Man,” which I haven’t heard him play in a while now, and “No Love Today,” for which he invited Patty to come onstage and sing harmonies. By that time, I was yearning for a full Chris Smither set.

After Chris left the stage, leaving Patty to a play set of half a dozen songs. She began with “Tango,” which she played at the Arlington show. It’s full of beautiful, intricate picking and strumming and banging, and there wasn’t a dull moment in the song. “The Cranes” was less impressive, but the rest of her set was gold, from “The Book I’m Not Reading” to “Pablo Neruda” to “Dear Heart.” That last one featured the electric guitar and the violin bow and, just as it did the last time I heard her do it, it moved me. It’s a great one. At some point soon, I need to sit down with a CD of hers and give it a good listen, because I’m starting to think I’ve been missing out.

Patty’s set preceded a 20 minute intermission, after which the two musicians returned to the stage to play a set together. Patty, I was pleased to hear, stood toe-to-toe with Chris (figuratively, I mean). Not that it was a competition, but I’m a big Chris Smither fan, and it’s asking a bit much to expect a stagemate of his to play songs the equal of “Can’t Shake These Blues” or “Train Home,” both of which he wowed me with Saturday night. I didn’t know the songs Patty played in her second set, but her guitar playing and singing were enticing and I certainly didn’t tune out.

Their banter during the duo set was cute. “Play me something,” Chris invited Patty, after he finished his first song. A couple of songs later, Patty broke a string and left the stage to take care of her instrument. Chris told her not to worry. “I’ll play a long one,” he assured her, which wound up being “Drive You Home Again,” one of his greatest. “Now I have a crush on you,” he said later on, after Patty played a particularly tender love song. He responded with “Father’s Day.” “And now I have a crush on you,” she said after it was over. There was some talk about their roots. Knowing he was from New Orleans, she asked him when he moved to Cambridge. When the answer came—1966—it elicited a collective murmur from the audience. He talked about how writing songs was something he forced himself to do after he realized that, as a musician, it was the way to make money. He shrugged. “I was going to be an anthropologist.” “Makes sense,” she replied. “How’d you get out of Wisconsin?” he asked her a bit later. “On a bus,” was the answer. Throughout the set, each would occasionally play a little guitar to accompany each other. She contributed some electric guitar to the finale, “Statesboro Blues,” which features some particularly raucous singing. When they came back out for the encore, Patty had a mandolin with her, and her strumming and harmony singing enriched “Leave the Light On,” which Patty said ought to be in everyone’s songbook. And who could disagree?