Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Flatlanders @ Carnegie Hall, New York City, April 13th, 2013

Saturday night, I made the trek up the NJ Turnpike to the big city to see The Flatlanders play at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. This was my first time setting foot in Carnegie Hall; not once in my 8 years living in New York City did I make my way there. The pretentiousness was not as stultifying as I feared it might be, although I imagine the Stern Auditorium is a different story. The nature of the act also offset any snootiness: Texans are not known for that, and there were plenty of Texans in the audience on Saturday night.

This was my first time seeing any of The Flatlanders' principals--Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock--play live, to say nothing of the trio. I can't remember how I first learned about their music. I remember hearing JDG sing "Jesus Christ" for one of the Woody Guthrie celebrations about a decade ago and being impressed, and I recall WFUV playing "Julia" from the Now Again album quite a bit when it came out in 2002. On a whim, I bought a used copy of Joe Ely's Live at Liberty Lunch (1990) at a record store in Montague, MA, back when I lived in Pioneer Valley, and I spent a lot of car rides listening to it. But not as many as I spent listening to JDG's album Spinning Around the Sun (1993), which was my music of choice last year, as I drove from Portland to Brunswick 3 or 4 days per week. I've grown to love that album without limits; it's perfect, song for song, arrangement for arrangement. I also heard the Flatlanders' album Wheels of Fortune (2004) while living in the Valley, and I fell in love with it immediately. I love Now Again (2002) almost as much.

On Saturday night, the Flatlanders performed a mixture of new and old material, but the phrase "new and old material" has little meaning when it comes to these guys. Their first official album release from 1990, More a Legend than a Band, comprised songs originally recorded in 1972, and their most recent album, The Odessa Tapes (2012), was also recorded in 1972. Many of the songs on both of those albums have been recorded by one or more of the principals since 1972, sometimes several times over. I recognized as many as half the songs, but not a single song was anything less than satisfying. The opener was "I Had My Hopes Up High," which, I later learned, Joe Ely recorded for his first solo album back in 1977. I had never heard it before, and I loved it so much, I was sorry for it to end. For the first half dozen songs, pretty much everything was uptempo, from the sly, silly Butch-led "Baby Do You Love Me Still?" to the JDG-led "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye" to Joe's "Not That Much Has Changed" and Butch-led "Julia" and Joe-led "Homeland Refugee." After that, the backing band left, allowing the principals to sit on stools and strum and pick on their acoustic guitars, before the band returned for another half dozen or more songs.

The acoustic segment of the program was extraordinary in its beauty, restraint, and conversational looseness. Transcendence was achieved immediately, by way of Butch Hancock's "Danglin' Diamond." This performance I can only describe as indescribably beautiful. The song was barely even there; only the feeling of time having passed and opportunities taken up and forgone. Joe sang lead on Jimmie's "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," one of the most beautiful songs ever written, complex in its simplicity (whereas Butch insists on simple complexity). Butch sang his own "If You Were a Bluebird," which I'm used to hearing Joe sing. Overall, they performed six songs in the acoustic set--two rounds of round-robin--interspersed with some chat about the old days. Joe was particularly poignant, talking about his rambling around Texas and the rest of the continent after the group's demise in 1973. He first made it to NYC in the winter, sometime in the mid-1970s, panhandling in front of Carnegie Hall, making that the first time he played at Carnegie Hall, although this was the first time he'd ever played "in Carnegie Hall." After the sextet of songs, the band returned to the stage, and the trio began a slow, acoustic version of "Dallas," before the band kicked the song into gear after the first verse.

One of the unexpected pleasures was the guitar playing. Not only did the band have a hot electric guitar player--Robbie Gjersoe, who tore off solo after solo with obvious joy--but Joe Ely had his time in the spotlight too. Of the three principals, he is the one who has spent the most time in a rock n' roll spotlight, and it showed. He had some tasty leads during the acoustic portion of the show in particular.

But it was the songs that ruled the day on Saturday night, along with the overall feel of command and authority that is so difficult to define or anticipate but which is immediately identifiable when you hear it. Joe preceded "Homeland Refugee" with the story of the song's inspiration: a child of Texas natives who'd fled to California, looking for work after the dustbowl years of the 1930s, returns to Texas, a state that the child had never known. As it happens, I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the children of Albanians living in Greece who, in the wake of the current financial crisis, have "returned" to Albania, a country they've never known. I was also delighted with "Pay the Alligator," one of the silliest songs in the Flatlanders' cannon and, to finish off the set, the standard "Sitting on Top of the World." That last one was performed uptempo with some hot electric guitar solos, which is the most common way of performing that song these days. Chris Smither has claimed that song as his own, having extracted the pain and suffering from the lyrics and laying them bare. But it sounded just fine as a rocker on Saturday night. During "Thank God for the Road," the gentleman seated to my right exchanged satisfied glances with me, as Butch sang of "shoulders to cry on." By the time the band encored with "Midnight Train," I already knew that this was the best night of live music I've enjoyed in over a year.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Kalamazoo Gals

Longtime stalwart of the NYC bluegrass scene Jack Hirschorn calls the following to our attention:
"Kalamazoo Gals” by John Thomas is the forgotten story of the women who built Gibson’s “Banner” guitars during WWII.

Please join us for an informal gathering and book signing in a unique setting: Retrofret Vintage Guitars. Located in the industrial Gowanus Canal section of Brooklyn, NY, Retrofret will honor Women’s History Month and the release of Mr. Thomas’ book on Sat. March 2, 2013 from 5PM to 8PM.

"Retrofret is uniquely connected to the subject of Mr. Thomas’ new book, ”Kalamazoo Gals”, for many reasons: First of all we have quite a thing for old Gibson guitars! Retrofret is one of the few major guitar shops dealing exclusively in vintage instruments. Secondly, our repair shop happens to be run by a woman and our staff includes three female technicians handling most of the repair and restoration work. Finally, I just love the true stories behind the guitars - especially the little known ones." - Steve Uhrik

Friday, February 15, 2013

Chris Smither @ World Cafe Live, Philadelphia PA, February 8th, 2013

As I type this, I am listening to the album Don't It Drag On, Chris Smither's 2nd album, originally released in 1972. Until now, I've never listened to it from beginning to end. One reason for that is the unavailability of the album; I found a copy from a used CD store via But another reason is that Smither rerecorded almost every song on the album, mostly for the 1990 live album Another Way to Find You. Two of the them show up on his most recent album, Hundred Dollar Valentine, as new studio recordings. But on Don't It Drag On, all of them sound like the work of a young old man, like Neil Young had decided that blues and bluegrass were the way to go after all. His voice hadn't quite filled out yet--or at least it doesn't sound like it on this recording--and the foot-tapping had not yet become an important part of his sound. So it doesn't sound like the man who recorded Another Way to Find You, or anything after. But the arrangements--eerily austere on "Another Way to Find You," gently propulsive on "Don't It Drag On," mournfully elegiac on "Every Mother's Son," tightly bluegrassy on "Friend of the Devil"--are winners, every one. And the songwriting and the guitar picking are the brilliant flashes that he's been coming up with ever since he began recording again with It Ain't Easy (1984). And in the end, although I love the way his voice has changed as he's aged, even the somewhat thin vocal sound on this album (and on its predecessor, 1970's I'm a Stranger Too!) feels right somehow.

At the World Cafe this past weekend, the 68 year old was in fine voice. The thick, slightly slurred baritone felt warm and comfortable, like it always does. The pleasures of his performances don't quit over the course of 90 minutes, and they'd probably still feel fresh after 120. "Open Up" has become the standard way for him to greet audiences for many years now, and "Lola" is a common follow-up, and everything seemed to unfold effortlessly from there. His sets still emphasize newer material, from Drive You Home Again (1999) up through Hundred Dollar Valentine (2012). For the fans, there are few surprises. Once, he dipped back to the Up on the Lowdown (1995) album for "Can't Shake These Blues." When he was ready to conclude with what has become his standard farewell, "Leave the Light On," requests for "No Love Today" echoed through the room, and he obliged, playing both of them to close the set. He returned to play J. J. Cale's "Magnolia," a simple love song that, he explained, signified that he was getting himself ready to write the material for his next album.

The high points were plentiful. The newer "Place in Line" elicited murmurs and sighs of appreciation. His waltz-time version of "Visions of Johanna" had the feel of complete command. "Leave the Light On" is always a climactic moment, and it was on Friday night. "Seems So Real" once again felt tougher and more strident in concert than on record. And the concluding "Magnolia" radiated love. Hearing Chris Smither perform in concert is an essential experience for anyone with an interest in this kind of music, and as he ages, each performance feels increasingly special. "Since space and time are bending / there's no finish line," but eventually there will only be a body of recorded work left behind, and the memories of these performances. I've seen around 20 of them, but they aren't enough. I am not looking forward to a time when they'll have to be.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Erin McKeown @ Johnny Brenda's, Philadelphia PA, January 20th, 2013

An impromptu decision to ignore my raging head cold and wander out into the chilly Philly streets to see Erin McKeown wound up paying off. This was my first trip to Johnny Brenda’s, a venue I’d been hearing good things about since I hit town back in June, and it’s right on my street, albeit over a mile away. The performance space is upstairs from the bar and small. The stage is big relative to the rest of the area, and there’s a balcony that I could not see much of from my station on the floor, where I leaned against a pillar for the entire evening and stifled my coughing and sneezing. Johnny Brenda’s gets good acts. I had to miss David Wax Museum when they came through town, but this was where they played.

Erin’s opening act was a Canadian singer and guitarist named Jenn Grant. She performed with a drummer, a bassist, and a guy who alternated between steel, keyboards, and guitar (a beautiful cherry-red Epiphone that I wanted to get my hands on). Her band was good. They were clearly supporting her songs, staying out of the way and letting her put the words across. Her voice was a bit too quiet in the mix, though; I couldn’t often make out the lyrics. At the end of her set, the rhythm section departed, leaving her and her keys-man alone on stage for the finale; “a rock song,” as she put. This wound up being “Eye of the Tiger,” which I recognized immediately. At first, I couldn’t tell if she was trying to play it straight. She gave herself away, though, when she hit the refrain and pawed the air at us as she sang the word “tiger.” We all laughed.

Erin McKeown is someone who knows how to simultaneously play it straight and put you on. She’s been making music professionally for around 15 years now, and her album, Manifestra (2013), which I have yet to hear, is full of political songs. I was excited to learn this. Her best albums display not just emotional complexity and a real facility for arranging music, but an ironic wit that, in theory, should serve politically themed songs really well (at least, it seems to work for Randy Newman). Her albums are basically divided into two groups: the ones about herself (Hundreds of Lions, We Will Become Like Birds, Distillation), and the ones about something else (anti-Christmas, American popular song, Judy Garland). The new one appears to be one of the latter ones, and that leaves this particular admirer with a quandary. In principle, I like hearing singer-songwriters get outside themselves a bit. But in practice, the more into herself her gets, the better Erin’s music becomes; Hundreds, Birds, and Distillation are her best. Her Sunday night show leaned heavily on the new album, and the only other songs she performed came from the three great ones. In any event, what makes her best music so great is her ability to straddle the line between sincere emotion and ironic distance. Most performers choose one or the other, and the few who try to split the difference don’t usually succeed the way Erin McKeown does.

Sunday night, she was accompanied by a horn player and a drummer. The drummer in particular was really good. I thought back to Allison Miller, who was playing with her when I saw her at Southpaw, many years ago, and the drummers who played with her during her Distillation 10th anniversary show at the Iron Horse a couple of years ago. Erin likes a good drummer. And this one made his presence felt from the very first song, "Aspera."

After “Aspera,” Erin took us through a bunch of the new songs and told stories about them as she went. A particularly jaunty one, “The Jailer,” was a highlight. She also revealed an unanticipated enthusiasm for the NFL. When an audience member informed her that the Ravens won, she announced it to the crowd, to a smattering of cheers and boos. She remarked that she would never again talk to a Philly crowd about sports. But later on, she did. “I hate the Patriots,” she confided to us, a pretty safe thing to say in Philadelphia. And, at one point, her band left the stage, leaving her to take a couple of crowd requests. “That is the best feeling in the world,” she said, after the calls for different songs filled the air. “Beautiful (I Guess)” was beautiful, performed solo. And she dedicated “The Little Cowboy” to her opening act, after a few false starts that required some guitar retuning.

What else? A handful of songs from Hundreds of Lions—which I rank #2 in the Erin McKeown discography, after the extraordinary Distillation and in front of the superb We Will Become Like Birds—which all sounded great. A little bit of singing along with “We Are More,” from Birds. Some commentary about the US-Mexico border and, in response to an audience question, some insight into what inspires her. Two performances of the new song “Proof,” first done straight and second done backwards. A great instrumental jam, during which Erin sat down next to the drummer and grinned at him as her guitar wove in and out of the percussion.