Archive for the ‘Americana’ Category

Bluegrass “Character Actor” Bryan Sutton Takes a Starring Role

Friday, February 27th, 2015

The Asheville music scene has its share of local-boy-makes-good stories. And with his 1997 debut onto the national scene, guitarist and Asheville native Bryan Sutton quickly made a major impression in bluegrass and the wider music community. Named IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year eight out of the last fifteen years, Sutton has also won a 2007 Grammy. And his latest album, Into My Own, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Bluegrass Album category.

Though he’s now based in Nashville, Sutton’s local roots run deep, and inform his music. “My initial exposure to music was in Western North Carolina mountain towns,” he says, “with my grandfather playing fiddle and my Dad playing banjo.” Though he’s played – and still plays – rock and jazz guitar, his first love remains the mountain music of his heritage. “A lot of what I experienced as a kid growing up in Asheville – Shindig on the Green, for example – is still there.” He credits Asheville’s approach to music as part of his own musical development. “Anybody can fit into Asheville’s music scene; it’s really open and lovely. If I still lived there, I would be as active as I could be. When I come to Asheville, it really does feel like coming home.”

On Into My Own, Sutton adds something new: his vocals. But while his singing voice might be new to listeners, it’s not new to him. “I sang in a band we had when I was a kid; it was my Dad, my sister and a couple of our friends. I was never a lead singer, but I sang a lot of parts.”

“But in the last ten years, I’ve been leaning into wanting to do more lead vocal work. For me, it’s a good combination of a natural step and a necessary challenge. I never want to get too comfortable with what I’m doing.”

And even though he thrives on challenges, on exploring new dimensions in his music, Sutton is comfortable within the bluegrass idiom. “My goal is always to honor the traditions in bluegrass, but also to include what’s original to me, what might be considered more progressive.”

Sutton’s arrangements on Into My Own showcase the musical contributions of his fellow players; he immerses himself into the songs. He says that approach is a hallmark of two American musical forms that he loves: bluegrass and jazz. “The energy is about getting like-minded people together,” he observes. “I really enjoy that energy in the music of Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan and a host of other people in bluegrass. It’s a precedent that was set early on: one musician doing something, making a statement, and then another one coming along and answering that or adding to it.” It’s just part of what Sutton calls “the DNA of bluegrass.”

And Sutton brings that same sensibility to his work as an in-demand Nashville session player. “In the end, the session player is kind of like a character actor. The role of a session guy is to get your own self out of the way, to be the vehicle for somebody else’s ideas.” And while he showcases his own music on Into My Own, when it comes to session work, Bryan Sutton is as skilled a musical “character actor” as you’ll find in Nashville: “Any given day,” he says with justifiable pride, “I can be a rock’n'roll acoustic guitar strummer, or I can play a fanciful, classical-sounding solo. And hopefully I’m able to nail whatever I’m doing.”

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Album Review: JJ Cale — Rewind: Unreleased Recordings

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

To the music-buying public at large, J.J. Cale is little more than a footnote. Some recognize his name and acknowledge he’s the guy who wrote two of Eric Clapton‘s biggest hits, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” Some know a bit more, and note that he also composed “Call Me the Breeze” (a popular Lynyrd Skynyrd tune). Some confuse him with ex-Velvet Underground viola player John Cale.

Fewer still are familiar with his own word as a recording artist. Cale released fifteen albums between the early 1970s and the end of the new century’s first decade (he passed away in 2013). A good half-dozen compilations have sought to distill his work down to single-album proportions, and for the listener new to the man’s work, any of those is a fine place to start.

For those interested in diving further into Cale’s music, a 2007 album titled Rewind: Unreleased Recordings provides a surprisingly complete overview of Cale’s talents. Newly reissued on vinyl, Rewind doesn’t sound at all like a collection of leftovers, discards and half-baked efforts. It’s a fully realized album, and it’s all the more remarkable this it is so, seeing as the fourteen cuts are drawn from all phases of his career.

To those less familiar with his material, Cale’s style as showcased on Rewind will sound remarkably similar to Clapton’s laid-back, post-Derek and the Dominos musical persona. The mot charitable view is that when British guitarist Clapton got back to his roots, he just happened to end up sounding like Oklahoma City-born guitarist. No matter: Cale’s sound is heavily influenced with a Southern gospel/roots sensibility, a sly, quiet shuffle style that imbues all of his work with a smoky, smoldering aura.

As showcased on Rewind, Cale is a most understated character. Even when he rips out a wah-wah laden solo (as on “Since You Said Goodbye”), his musical fire quietly glows more than it licks at the sky. His countrified musical sensibility never asserts itself; his approach seems to be more along the lines of, “Her’s what I’m doing. Stay and listen if you like.” That approach may help for account for the man’s relatively low profile. He seemed more content to stay and play in the shadows, away from the limelight.

While many of the first several cuts on the disc are Cale’s reinterpretations of the work of others (Randy Newman, Clapton, and Leon Russell: like-minded artists all), the second half (and in this case, second side) of Rewind is all Cale originals.

The closest that Cale comes to high energy on Rewind is “Bluebird,” but its uptempo vibe is more bluegrass-leaning than anything else. Pedal steel guitar is the highlight of My Baby and Me,” the closest Cale gets to old-style country on this collection. “Lawdy Mama” feels a bit like a rewrite that combines “After Midnight” and “Call Me the Breeze.” Though it’s a fine tune, its tail-chasing nature makes it less fulfilling listen (and perhaps explains why it went unrevealed for years).

Unfortunately, the 2015 vinyl reissue of Rewind doesn’t include any discographical information, so we don’t know the recording dates or years for these cuts, and the studio personnel can only be guessed at. But none of that detracts from enjoying the listening experience that is Rewind: Unreleased Recordings. Those new to Cale will get a fine introduction to his work, and further investigation will yield richer rewards. And Cale fans will want it for completeness’ sake. Either way, it’s a fine record, made all the more special as a warm and wonderful sounding180-gram vinyl edition.

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Album Review: Lead Belly — Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

In 1948, on a Sunday evening in August, a new radio series premiered. Featuring beloved and renowned folk singer Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), The Story of Folklore presented the then-fiftyish Lead Belly doing what he did best: singing songs accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, and introducing the songs with brief spoken interludes. As was the standard practice, the shows would be recorded, pressed onto 16” “aircheck” discs and then broadcast shortly thereafter. The source for this vinyl release is a set of 78rpm 12” discs cut from a playback of those aircheck discs. The resulting quality is quite clear for a recording of this vintage, and the modern-day producers (noted jazz author Cary Ginell and Michael Kieffer) are to be commended for their largely hands-off approach that seeks only to present the performance its best form.

Modern listeners who know “House of the Rising Sun” from its popular interpretation by The Animals may be surprised to hear Lead Belly’s upbeat, almost happy reading of the tune. On “Leavin’ Blues,” the guitarist shows his skill with the twelve-string; he often sounds as if he’s playing more than one instrument (he’s not; nothing like overdubbing existed in the 40s).

Side One presents the August 1 program, and August 15 episode is documented on Side Two. The song list is similar for both episodes: both include brief run-throughs of “Irene” as the opener and closer, plus distinctly different versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and the astounding guitar workout “Hollywood and Vine” (almost prototypical rock’n'roll, Lead Belly characterizes it as “a little boogie”). The man billed as “American’s greatest living folksinger” performs “Backwater Blues” and “Leavin’ Blues” on the first session, with a focus on love songs of a sort (“If It Wasn’t for Dicky” and “Careless Love”) on the second-documented show. The bits of banter between Ledbetter and the (unidentified) announcer are a bit stiff, but they may have served to guide listeners into the somewhat unfamiliar musical world of Lead Belly.

The disc captures the first and third episodes of The Story of Folklore, and the announcer makes mention of the program format for the fourth episode (spirituals), but only these two episodes have surfaced. Presumably the series didn’t continue for much more than four installments total.

The vinyl release of Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948 is pressed on beautiful translucent blue vinyl, housed in a sturdy full-color ten-inch sleeve, and includes a well-put-together liner note booklet that provides background on the recording, the songs, the performer, and the modern transfer of the recording. Happily, the entire project was done with the blessing and cooperation of the Lead Belly Estate.

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Album Review: Sid Griffin — The Trick is to Breathe

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

In the immediate wake of the excesses brought forth by psychedelia, popular (rock) music took a decided turn toward the simpler, more pastoral. Mere months after Cream were hitting the charts with “Sunshine of Your Love” and Jimi Hendrix was endeavoring to stand next to our fire, groups like The Band were finding success with a much more toned-down, sepia-tinted sort of music. That style owed more to acoustic instruments, even when they were employed in rock fashion.

While the charts splintered into genres as the 70s wore on, this simpler (dare I say softer) approach was taken to another level – a higher or lower one, depending on one’s need for rock in their musical diet – with the rise of the sensitive singer/songwriter. For all his merits, James Taylor exemplifies this turn away from the visceral in popular music, at least for a significant portion of the listening public.

But before the singer/songwriters took hold, and in connection with the pastoral approach, some very interesting (and creatively fertile) things were happening in popular music. The Byrds, Poco, Moby Grape and a few others had been investigating the sweet spot where rock and more acoustic-based forms met, and the results were sometimes exemplary. But the hybrid style didn’t gain a strong foothold in the pop marketplace.

Not right away, anyhow. But more than a decade later, concurrent with the rise of what is sometimes called the paisley underground movement, a number of musical artists took another look at combining rock and folk (and/or country) styles. There wasn’t really a succinct name for the hybrid then – today we might call it proto-Americana – but the music from artists such as The Blasters and Lone Justice had as its foundation that commingling of musical genres.

And without a doubt the giant among these was The Long Ryders. Led by guitarist (and player of other stringed instruments) Sid Griffin, The Long Ryders could be pointed to by decided fans of hard-rocking music of the 80s as the one “twangy” band that they really, really dug. The group folded near the end of the decade (happily they reunite on occasion), and the members went their various ways. Griffin continued to cultivate his career as a writer, a curator of music, and a musician with solo albums. He also started a group called The Coal Porters; almost wholly rooted in Americana-type instrumentation, they also rocked.

Griffin’s latest album, The Trick is to Breathe, combines the best elements of the hybrid rock-Americana style, and it’s also a lyrics-focused album that fans of the singer/songwriter genre will find very rewarding. It’s most certainly not a rock record – there’s not a note of electric instrumentation to be found – but it has an undeniable (if hard to pin down) rock sensibility about it. Griffin’s vocals are mixed right out front, allowing listeners to follow along in his story-songs without straining their ears. On the gentle “Ode to Bobbie Gentry,” Griffin makes the observation that “no one ever comes to no good in the show-biz world,” but the fact that he’s making albums like this strongly suggests otherwise. “Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35” is a bluegrass romp, but one that’s fun and free of artifice; even an avowed non-grasser such as this writer can’t be helped but drawn in by the lighthearted lyric set against a familiar melodic structure. Maybe it’s purely coincidental (and maybe not), but “Circle Bar” is vaguely reminiscent of Tom Rush‘s reading of Joni Mitchell‘s similarly-titled “The Circle Game.”

Griffin’s gentle mandolin plucking is at the center of “Between the General and the Grave,” and some melancholy fiddle work helps create a fragile ambience for this tale of war. Perhaps the most interesting track on The Trick is to Breathe, “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show” is also the track that sounds the most like The Long Ryders. This fanciful rethink of an imagined conversation between the King and Gladys Presley is warm and sentimental, painting a portrait of Elvis when he was young and relatively innocent (“I’ll still be your son when all is done”). Griffin’s Elvis conveys some hard-earned wisdom to his mother: “Mama, never party after the show.” Musically, it’s a cousin to “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home,” from The Long Ryders’ 1987 LP Two Fisted Tales. Whatever its provenance, it’s a delight.

“Everywhere” is the album’s longest track, and it waits until more than halfway through to change up the arrangement. But it’s worth the wait, with some wonderful close harmony vocal work. A reinvention of the sixties folk-rock classic “Get Together” is nearly unrecognizable, but in Griffin’s capable bluegrass-centric hands, the old adage “a good song is a good song” is proved yet again. With its fade-in and fade-out, the brief, clanging instrumental “Front Porch Fandango” sounds for all the world like a spontaneous jam that happened to get caught on tape; more of it would be even better.

“Punk Rock Club” is a bizarre – yet enthusiastically welcomed – left turn on The Trick is to Breathe. On this spoken-word track, Griffin recites a collection of comments, perhaps from selected audience members. In their most deadpan voices, Griffin and his friends give us lines such as, “Why is the singer so angry?” and “Why does the drummer hit so hard?” This piss-take of rock’s poseur tendencies is very knowing, and very, very funny. The crosstalk near the track’s end is reminiscent of some of the experiments Robert Fripp did with The Roches on his The League of Gentlemen album.

The gentle guitar picking on “Who’s Got a Broken Heart” finds Griffin with both feet in singer/songwriter territory. He reaches deep and pulls out a more nuanced vocal than is typical, and subtle cello sawing adds the perfect accompaniment. The three-quarter time story-song “We’ve Run Out of Road” feels like the kind of song Willie Nelson comes up with at his best. Griffin’s careful arrangement touches help the song strike the perfect balance between slick and down-home.

Griffin wraps up the stellar album with “I’ll Forget You Very Well,” a high-speed bluegrass tune that riffs on tried-and-true phrases and lyrical snippets that overtly reference Bob Dylan and The Beatles (“No Direction Home,” “I Saw Her Standing There,”) all put to clever, smile-eliciting use.

The Trick is to Breathe is a start-to-finish triumph.

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Best of 2014: New Music, Part 1

Monday, December 29th, 2014

In my blog posts of last week, I surveyed some of my 2014 favorites: music-related books; DVDs; concerts; and interviews. For these last few days of the year, I’ll wrap up with a look at my favorite music of 2014, specifically new and reissued titles. Today, it’s four of my eight favorite albums of new music released in 2014.

Night Beats – Sonic Bloom
I make no apologies for the retro-mindedness that pervades my favorite new music. I’m one of those who believes that the mid-sixties gave popular music (rock in particular) its best material. And I daresay the members of Night Beats agree; everything about Sonic Bloom screams 1966. But that doesn’t mean one needs to be a garage-punk aficionado to dig them. When reaching for a modern corollary, I tend to think of Night Beats’ music as a more tuneful rethink of the sort of thing Black Angels (another favorite) create.

Jimbo Mathus – Dark Night of the Soul
I was never any sort of fan of Squirrel Nut Zippers, so I didn’t approach the solo music of Jimbo Mathus with anticipation of finding much I’d dig. But what I discovered – first on his blue vinyl EP, then onstage in and person at the 2013 Americana Fest, then on Dark Night of the Soul – was the work of a man who appreciated, understood and (most importantly) synthesized various American musical forms, creating something very much his own. Mathus’ wide-screen style suggests a more rock-minded version of The Band, with hints of Alex Chilton‘s wild devil-may-care abandon. You can hardly beat that.

The Last – Danger
Middle-aged guys playing thrashy punk? Yeah, that happens. This high-speed rock owes a debt to The Minutemen and the stop-on-a-dime pyrotechnics of Fugazi and Hüsker Dü. But piano in the mix? Didn’t see that coming. And combo organ, and vocal harmonies? Hey, that’s unexpected. Taken as a whole, their early Kinks-like presentation suggests a group that has assimilated all the best of what’s edgy and exciting about rock’n'roll. Like all the albums on this list, highly recommended.

The Paul & John – Inner Sunset
There’s always room in my collection for what I call “pop.” My definition differs from the widely understood one in that I focus more on guitar-based music with a classic songwriterly approach. And I can think of few better exemplars of the style than this duo featuring Paul Myers (also a fine author and clever Twitter user) and John Moremen (also a hotshot guitarist who’s worked with the Mystery Lawn stable of artists, Half Japanese and many others). If you like acts such as XTC and Marshall Crenshaw, you’ll swoon when you hear cuts like “Everything Comes Together.” Me, I get shivers. An outstanding LP start to finish.

Stay tuned for more of Musoscribe’s best new music of 2014.

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Interview: Aaron “Woody” Wood

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Though it’s in many ways an informal affair, Warren Haynes Presents Christmas Jam has been growing in a deliberate fashion. Thanks both to concertgoer demand and the long line of musicians wishing to be involved in this fundraiser event, the festival – now in its 26th year – expanded to two nights a few years back, and has added extra events downtown.

The Christmas Jam By Day presents musical artists – many of whom are local and/or regional sensations – in smaller, more intimate settings. The acoustic jam, hosted by Drivin’N'Cryin‘s Kevn Kinney – has been part of the festival since the beginning. Its newer, more plugged-in counterpart takes place just down the street at Asheville Music Hall and its downstairs annex, The One Stop.

Guitarist-vocalist Aaron “Woody” Wood has been a fixture of the Jam By Day for the last several years; usually the organizers contact Wood and ask him to participate. “This year, I kinda reached out to Kevn Kinney through Facebook,” Wood says. “I asked if I could play again this year. I never heard back from him. Next thing I know, it’s in the paper!” Wood is as well-known nationally as he is in his longtime hometown of Asheville; as a member of The Blue Rags, Custard Pie, Sufi Brothers, Hollywood Red and a solo artist, Wood’s brand of music incorporates Piedmont blues, bluegrass, soul, and good old fashioned rock’n'roll.

For this year’s Jam By Day event, Wood will appear at both Asheville Music Hall and Jack of the Wood. For the latter, he says, “I’ll be playing some newer stuff that I’ve written. The crowd there…you can hear a pin drop.”

Wood’s Asheville Music Hall set is with his pick-up band of musical brothers, Trouble. The group is an ongoing collective of well-known and in-demand local/regional players who convene for the occasional gig. Trouble also features Jay Sanders on bass, keyboardist Ryan Burns, Shane Pruitt on guitar, and drummer Frank Bloom. “We go together like red beans and rice,” Wood says. Trouble builds spontaneous jams out of well-known songs. “The best way to hear songs that I really, really love,” Wood says, “is to play ‘em.” He likens each song to “a ‘face.’ Then we start playing, and that’s how we put ‘eyebrows’ on it.”

Trouble has been together in one form or another for as long as Wood has been playing the Jam By Day. “I think what we do is really in line with what happens on Saturday night, at the main Jam,” Wood says. “Musicians who love to play get together with people they really love to play with.” That informal approach encourages players to just hang out and do what comes naturally, with the added features of a huge crowd of fans in attendance, and fund raising for a good cause. For the last several editions of the festival, proceeds have benefited Habitat for Humanity. The whole event “has a real family type of feel,” says Wood.

Advance tickets for the Jam By Day at Asheville Music Hall are available online for $10. The AMH lineup includes Blue Bop (Bela Fleck Tribute), The Broadcast, Jahman Brahman, Love Canon, Lyric, Marcus King Band, Ed Williams’ RumpelSteelSkin (ft. Andrew Campanelli, George Gekas & Michael Girardot of The Revivalists) and Trouble.

The Jack of the Wood acoustic jam lineup features Ray Sisk, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Aaron “Woody” Wood, Laura Reed, Bobby Miller & The Virginia Daredevils, Red Honey, Josh Daniel – Mark Shimick Project, Leigh Glass, David Earl, Jamie Dose & Dorsey Parker, The Pond Brothers, Ian Harrod and Michelle Malone. Tickets are also $10, but advance purchase is not available.

VIP pass holders get admittance to both Jam By Day events at no additional charge.

Wood explains his perspective on the jam aesthetic: “You can get a bunch of musicians together – people who have never played together before, and who might not play together again – and play songs they all know: ‘What key would you like to do this in? A major? Okay.’” And in that sense, Wood contends that all of it – no matter what style of music each player comes from – is really folk music. “Because all the folks know that shit, y’know what I mean?”

This feature originally appeared in print in Mountain Xpress.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part Two)

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Continued from Part One

By 1993, as the first signing of the reactivated Sun Records, Jason D. Williams released Wild. Sessions for that disc took place in the storied studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. “A lot of big name entertainers who’ve recorded there use the word channel. They feel like they’re channeling the greats who have recorded there before them. Not me,” he insists. “That took care of itself. But my reason for being there was that, believe it or not, it was on my bucket list.” Jason had only played there previously, he says, “as a youngster, playing one song on a Johnny Rivers album.” In the 90s, while doing session in Memphis for Dale Watson, Williams thought, “Sun is right around the corner. Why have I never done a session of my own there? I know everybody who’s ever recorded here!” So he did.

“I had my little boy there with me,” Jason beams. “To see him asleep on the floor there at two in the morning was a real joy. My wife would be in the booth, and I’d be in the studio. We’d cut something, and I’d have to step over my son to get back to the engineer’s room. It was fun.”

Eventually starting his own label, Williams followed up Wild with a string of albums, and the titles set the tone: 2004′s Don’t Get None Onya; Rockin’; Killer Instincts; Recycled; and his latest, Hillbillies and Holy Rollers. While the sessions for 2010′s Killer Instincts were initially planned as a mostly-covers project, the strength of Williams’ original numbers – including the standouts “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink” and “White Trash Wife” – tilted the song selection toward new material.

Prior to Killer Instincts, Williams seemed uncomfortable trading on his genetic connection to Jerry Lee Lewis; even today he answers questions on that subject with uncharacteristically brief replies. Clearly he prefers to be measured on the strength of his own work. Still, there’s no denying that Williams’ visual style is highly reminiscent of a young Jerry Lee: stomping the upper registers of the piano with his right foot; his long forelocks dangling in front of his sweaty face; his overall playing approach that is equal parts mania and assured control.

On 2014′s Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, Williams serves up an assortment that is weighted evenly between originals and other people’s songs, but his renditions of the latter are Jason D. Williams through and through. Joe Ely‘s “Fingernails” ends up serving as a theme song of sorts: Williams pounds the daylights out of the ivories while explaining that “I leave my fingernails long so it clicks when I play the piano.” He’s as comfortable playing flowery licks on weepers like Hank Williams‘ (no relation) “You Win Again,” and though Elvis cut the most well-known version of “Mean Woman Blues,” Williams makes the tune his own. And Jason demonstrates his command of uptempo tent-revival gospel with the album’s two final cuts, “Old Time Religion” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Jason returned to Sun Studio for Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, and the studio’s aesthetic formed an important part of the sound captured there. Williams says that all the album’s songs were recorded in “one take. On everything except ‘You Win Again,’ where I went in and added strings afterward. If we messed up, we’d just start over. And we just had a mic in the middle of the room.”

“You know,” Williams continues, “Roy Orbison said that he became a stronger singer every time he recorded at Sun. He had to sing over the instruments, the way they used to record. And I could certainly see what he was talking about when I recorded there, too.”

Though his trademark sound is to most ears an agressively-attacked acoustic piano, most days Williams plays an amplified Kawai piano. He favors a model that he says the company “stopped making in 1980,” and he has made an effort to find as many as possible of that increasingly-rare model for himself ever since. For live gigs – Williams tours to more than 160 dates annually – he’s joined by guitar, bass and drums. He chuckles and adds that the band is occasionally augmented by “another piece on the end: violin, saxophone, trombone…anything, as long as they can add to the show!”

These days, there are still a few items remaining on Jason D. Williams’ bucket list. Jerry Lee Lewis “lives just down the street; we visit from time to time.” And though it hasn’t happened recently (they have played together informally a select few times), Williams hopes that he will once again get to share a performance stage with his biological father. Until – and doubtless after – that happens, concertgoers will get the chance to see a high energy show that builds on the music foundation of old.

Jason D. Williams will appear onstage at the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands NC on Friday, November 28 (that’s the day after Thanksgiving). Visit his website at www.rockinjasondwilliams.com.

Note: An edited version of this feature originally appeared in print in the September 2014 issue of Stomp and Stammer Magazine.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part One)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

Though his in-the-grand-tradition bio sheet asserts that Jason D. Williams first played a piano at age three, when I ask him about it, he concedes that his serious interest in the keyboard commenced around his ninth year. “I started taking piano lessons from a local piano teacher. I had a lot of great influences, from [African American blues pianist] Booker T. Lowery to Memphis Slim to classical artists. A lot of jazz greats like Phineas Newborn, too, plus a lot of good, left-hand boogie woogie players. And all points in between.”

Jason grew up in a small south Arkansas town called El Dorado. And there, his schooling in music would expand into some unlikely directions. He recalls, “There was a group of kids – they were a little older than I was – and they were into some of the west coast record labels like Takoma. We’d listen to people like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, George Winston, and Doc Watson. At the time, those were as big an influence on me as anything.” He also consumed a steady diet of big bands and jazz greats; he mentions Della Reese as a favorite.

As a direct result of distilling those influences, one of the most fascinating dimensions of Williams’ own music is its variety. Jason is sometimes pigeonholed as a rockabilly pianist, but his style is too expansive to fit neatly into any such box. In his original and carefully-chosen covers, one hears blues, jazz, r&b, country, gospel. And that all-encompassing approach might remind listeners that the music of the early pioneers of rock’n'roll – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, even Ike Turner – didn’t fit neatly into any one of those boxes, either.

“I was a mixing bowl combined with a sponge,” Williams says, mixing a couple of metaphors in that bowl. “I could watch anybody entertain, from Al Jolson to Jerry Lee to Cab Calloway. And I would take a little bit from each of them.” He muses on the all-around-entertainer nature of vaudeville performers who inspired him: “You had to be able to tap dance, balance stuff on your head. And play upside down. And I got all that from people like Sammy Davis, Jr., and watching old episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show.”

And in fact, though Williams was raised by a pair of loving adoptive parents, he eventually learned that his biological father was none other than the man known as The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. Jason was conceived mere months after Jerry Lee’s “High School Confidential” (from his debut LP on Sun Records) scaled Top 40 pop, country and r&b charts. So while he had studied and absorbed the work of many performers and composers, Jason is convinced that heredity played a part: “The style was probably genetically already there.”

Showing that he has at least a touch of his biological father’s bravura, Williams asserts, “I’m a combination of Joe Namath, Vladimir Horowitz, and Jackson Pollock.” I laugh and then pause, giving him space to elaborate. He doesn’t, leaving me to ruminate on this name-checking non sequitur.

The Jason D. Williams story – or at least the performing and recording part of it – began when he left El Dorado at sixteen. He joined the touring band of rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef; he still occasionally performs with the guitarist. At the tail-end of the 1980s, he – or at least his hands – starred on the big screen in the feature film Great Balls of Fire, performing the songs made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. That same year Williams signed with RCA and cut his first album, Tore Up. On that record, his original songs fit in seamlessly with rocked-up readings of chestnuts like “St. James Infirmary” and Larry Williams‘ 1958 classic “Slow Down.”

A regular solo gig at Memphis’ famed Peabody Hotel (the one with the ducks) increased Williams’ profile. A vertigo-inducing 1990 music video of Williams and band atop Knoxville, Tennessee’s iconic Sunsphere (performing “Tore Up” and “Everybody Rockin’ on a Saturday Night”) does a good job of capturing the excitement of the pianist in a live setting, and showcases his dazzlingly precise speed-riffing on the ivories.

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Album Review: NRBQ — Brass Tacks

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

NRBQ are one of America’s great musical treasures. Though they’ve never enjoyed the sort of commercial success of, say, a Creedence Clearwater Revival or The Band, the catalog of this band formed in 1967 is filled with riches that draw from all manner of musical forms. Listeners are as likely to hear shades of cajun swamp pop as they are hints of pianist Terry Adams‘ hero Sun Ra. And though the lineup of NRBQ has changed significantly from the old days (only leader Adams remains from the original lineup), the group’s signature approach to music remains intact.

Wry lyrics are the highlight of many NRBQ tunes, and “Greetings From Delaware” on Brass Tacks, the group’s latest, continues that tradition. Like all the tunes on the disc, “Greetings” sounds as if it was recorded live in the studio. There’s a loose-limbed feel that never feels about to fall apart; it’s the kind of aesthetic that results from a band touring and playing together for a long time, road-testing the tunes and honing them to sharpness before ever setting foot in a studio.

Adams’ assured and stylistically varied piano playing is often the centerpiece of the musical arrangements, but the rest of the band (guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough, and Conrad Choucron on drums) all shine. Adams’ “Sit in My Lap” feels like a distant cousin to John Lennon‘s “(Just Like”) Starting Over,” minus the retro trappings. McDonald’s “Fightin’ Back” has a pop-country vibe (the good kind), and this lineup of NRBQ gains strength from its drawing upon the songwriting talents of three members.

NRBQ’s approach has always been modest and unassuming; the band’s music doesn’t reach out and grab listeners; instead the tunes are warm, welcoming and inviting: it’s up to to the listener whether to come in or not. The song titles alone give a tidy overview of the concerns dealt with on Brass Tacks: “It’ll Be Alight,” “Love This Love We Got,” and a knowing reading of the Great American Songbook classic “Getting to Know You.” Adams’ harmonica on “I’d Like to Know” sounds and feels like an accordion, and his piano on “Places Far Away” – the disc’s most outré number – sounds as if it’s informed equally by Randy Newman and Sun Ra. “Can’t Wait to Kiss” You” is a delightful singalong in a classic pop vein, and features a brief, ear-candy guitar solo.

Brass Tacks isn’t likely to catapult the band into mega-stardom, but for fans of the band’s friendly and intimate aesthetic, it’s a joy to hear that the band is busy and as vital as ever.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Four

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five are the last in this particular run of new releases; tomorrow’s five will be recent reissues and compilations of note.

Chris Braide – Fifty Dollar Planets and Twenty Cent Stars
This British rocker is based -n Los Angeles, and on his new lengthy-titled long player, he’s aided by Pete Glenister, best known as the late Kirsty MacColl‘s guitarist. That said, listeners won’t find much jangle on this disc; Braide prefers a swaggering rock style that owes more to David Bowie and INXS. This is mostly wide-screen arena-ready rock with a melancholy feel. On tracks like “Fascinating,” Braide dials it down for a smoky, intimate vibe, but most tracks on Fifty Dollar Planets straddle the line between heavy rock and yearning power balladeering (but is far better than that label suggests).

Howlin’ Rain – Live Rain
This band began their life as a near-homage to The Allman Brothers, but quickly outgrew that on subsequent offerings such as The Russian Wilds. This set – compiled from “various locations around the world in the year 2012” – captures the emotional intensity of their live show. The band rocks hard on the eleven-minute-plus “Self Made Man,” and they resurrect the ghost of Led Zeppelin on the stomping “”Can’t Satisfy Me.” For those who dig the 70s sound but want to see it live, Howlin’ Rain is the band; until they’re in town, Live Rain is the next best thing.

The Fleshtones – Wheel of Talent
This Greenpoint (Brooklyn) quartet is a sentimental favorite of mine. On Wheel of Talent, they’ve changed their approach, but just a little. In addition to the quartet (guitar, bass, keys and drums), tunes like “Available” make prominent use of cello and violin(!) There’s one other major departure: more tracks than usual feature the lead vocals of guitarist Keith Streng rather than nominal lead singer (and keyboardist) Peter Zaremba. But the wit and swagger of the quartet that bills itself as “America’s garage band” is delightfully intact on tunes like the (previously available only as a single) tribute “Remember the Ramones.”

Archie Powell & the Exports – Back in Black
This album has nothing – insofar as I can tell – to do with AC/DC. But if you can wrap your mind around the idea of a singer/songwriter – that is, someone concentrating on lyrics first – backed by a hard rocking, ramshackle band, you’ll have an idea of what this sounds like. In fact, Archie Powell and his band sounds a lot like a less-drunk prime-era Replacements on the opener, “Everything’s Fucked.” Elsewhere they take singalong melodies and rock ‘em up; up-front acoustic guitar is too seldom used in uptempo rock; this band understands how to do it right.

Jim Mize – Jim Mize
It’s fair to label Jim Mize a “late bloomer.” This 57-year-old Arkansan has been knocking around for years, but he didn’t get into a recording studio until well into his thirties. His latest – this self-titled effort on the tastemaker Big Legal Mess imprint/sub-label of Fat Possum Records – is soulful rock that should appeal to fans of Tom Petty, John Hiatt and Nick Lowe‘s more rock-oriented material. Aided on this LP by John Paul Keith and Jimbo Mathus, Mize delivers finely-honed songcraft wrapped in memorable melodies. Mize says he plans to tour when he retires; for now, there’s this.

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