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."