Archive for the ‘Americana’ Category

Matthew E. White’s Calibrated Subtlety

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Matthew E. White has been musically active for many years, including collaborations with Megafaun and the Mountain Goats and three albums with avant-jazz group Fight the Big Bull. But as an artist recording and touring under his own name, he’s a relative newcomer.

The story making the rounds is that White’s debut – 2012′s Big Inner – wasn’t really intended as an album at all. White recorded the collection of songs to demonstrate the capabilities of the Spacebomb House Band and his record label of the same name. That record caught on with critics and listeners alike, and effectively launched White’s career as a name artist. “I think that story has gotten lost in translation a little bit,” says White. “By no means is Big Inner a ‘demo’ in the sense that we didn’t work as hard on it as we might a normal album.” White makes it clear that the album is intended as “a purposeful and intentional personal artistic statement.”

The success of Big Inner did attract some high-caliber artists to the Spacebomb label, most notably singer/songwriter Natalie Prass. “I try to be successful both personally and with the Spacebomb team,” White says. “And I work pretty hard on both of those things.”

Born and raised in Virginia Beach, White grew up listening to pop music. “I listened to Chuck Berry and Beach Boys as a little kid, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in middle school, and all kinds of stuff in high school: good and bad,” he recalls. He discovered jazz while in college, and subsequently “really went back, started at the beginning, and connected it all.” The result of his talent filtered through those influences is music that’s tough to describe. “If I have to say one thing, I say ‘soul’ or maybe ‘r&b.’ But I know that’s not quite right. Sometimes,” he laughs, “I say ‘gentleman’s psychedelia from the New World.’” I suggest that to my ears, he’s sort of a cross between Isaac Hayes and Berlin-era Lou Reed. He smiles and says, “I’m just going to start saying that. Perfect.”

 

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

On the just-released Fresh Blood, White builds upon the sonic foundation established by his debut. He concedes that he didn’t want to repeat himself musically. “But at the same time, I don’t believe in just changing variables and setting a completely different course. There’s a vocabulary that I’m working on, and I want it to develop.” On Fresh Blood, White sought to create an album that “contain[s] bits and pieces of old vocabulary as well as pushing the language farther into something new.”

On both records, there’s a lush, dense and richly layered texture, in part the result of the sonic effect of the large Spacebomb House Band. But White’s touring band is four musicians, including himself. “Obviously we have to adapt [arrangements] a little bit,” he concedes. “But to me, the songs are the centerpiece of the record. And in the live show it’s the same.” He prefers not to think of studio work and live performance as connected. “They are such different mediums that interact with people, budgets, administrative details and cultural context so differently. To make decisions on one based on the other limits both,” White believes.

Matthew E. White’s records feature strong hooks and melody, yet one word that comes to mind when hearing them is subtlety. “Well,” White chuckles, “the live show with the band isn’t so subtle, that’s for sure. It’s much more direct than the album is.” He goes on to say that the records’ subtlety is “less purposeful than it seems, actually. There are a lot of times when I think I’m being pretty direct and it’s taken as being much more subtle than I think it is. I think I’m just calibrated a little differently in that way.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in Mountain Xpress Magazine.

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Album Review: The Mavericks — Mono

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

There’s much talk these days about the sorry state of country music. The genre – commercially, more popular than ever – is overrun with what its detractors call “bro country.” Hopelessly (some might say defiantly) clichéd songs about yellow beer, Friday nights, pickup trucks, mean ol’/clueless big city types and whatnot are the coin of the realm, and they all sound like one another. “Even non-fans are starting to take notice,” wrote one recent commentator.

It all largely passes me by, as I’ve never been a fan of modern c&w. Though I did briefly find it inescapable late last summer: I live quite near our city’s baseball stadium, home one sweaty afternoon to a concert pairing Florida Georgia Line and rapper Nelly. To call it awful and lowbrow gives it too much credit. And it was louder than most rock concerts (and I’d know) making it even worse.

Those who appreciate things like musicianship and authenticity (of a sort) in their twang seem to prefer music that falls under the Americana label. And while nobody knows exactly what is and is not Americana, there’s general agreement that it’s the better stuff. And on that I’d agree.

One of the best things about Americana today is The Mavericks. They’re widely celebrated among Americana fans, though I’m not convinced that they are country. Their approach is too wide-encompassing for that – or perhaps any other – label. Founded in Miami at the beginning of the 1990s, the group has released eight albums, including two since their 2013 reunion. Mono, their latest, features two founding members – vocalist Raul Malo and drummer Paul Deakin – plus two more recently-added members, keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden (with them since the mid 90s) and guitarist Eddie Perez (he joined in 2003). And the music on Mono might best be described – if we need a label – as norteAmericana.

There’s a strong Latin undercurrent to the songs on Mono, most notably the thrilling “All Night Long,” a musical cousin to Santana‘s “Smooth.” It’s a wholly successful hybrid of Latin rhythms, Cuban arrangement, and modern rock/pop. It has hit-single written all over it, though as of this writing it hasn’t in fact charted.

But “All Night Long” doesn’t sound all that much like the remaining eleven tracks on Mono. What it has in common, however, is quality: this is a strong album that’s enjoyable from start to finish. Rock fans – and those with little musical grounding in country (in other words, listeners like me) – will find many musical touchstones throughout the album. “Summertime (When I’m With You)” sounds a bit like Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns crossed with Louis Prima. “Pardon Me” is Mono‘s only real country tune; it sounds like classic c&w of the late 1960s and early 70s, with Malo’s yearning vocal a highlight. “What Am I Supposed to Do” is a romantic midtempo number with a great singalong chorus. “Stories We Could Tell” feels like early dance-oriented rock’n'roll a la Bill Haley and the Comets, with a Texas swing feel. “What You Do to Me” could almost be termed ska-country; the accordion works quite well, and some Mariachi-flavored horn charts and electric guitar add to the tune’s excitement.

The stylistic variation continues, though in The Mavericks’ hands, it’s all somehow musically unified. “Let it Rain” is a lovely, lump-in-the-throat ballad. “The Only Question Is” is fifties-styled blues; one could easily imagine Stevie Ray Vaughan joining in on the tune. But here we get a honking sax solo with just a bit of electric guitar answering it. “Out the Door” feels a lot like The Sir Douglas Quintet. “(Waiting for) The World to End” is a swinging party number that no doubt goes over great live (I’ve seen The Mavericks live, and they’re fantastic). The song’s outro repeats the title lyric over and over, though eventually Malo sings, “We’re all waiting for this song to end.”

A romantic weeper, “Fascinate Me” sounds like a late-night barroom closer, with Malo’s voice and rickety tack piano out front. Listed as a bonus track, “Nitty Gritty” is a wry midtempo tune with loads of wonderfully cheesy combo organ (sounds like a Farfisa) that will remind sixties garage fans of Augie Meyers, Doug Sahm, Sam “The Sham” Samudio and other greats. The dialogue between accordion and electric guitar is a delight.

The good-timing Mono is a strong contender for my Best of 2015 album list. If any band is poised to “save” modern country and western music, my money’s on The Mavericks.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Next, it was drone time. The minimalist work of the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen (joined by three additional musicians) was delivered in the bright, daylit room at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The hypnotic vibe of the group’s work lent itself to simply sitting back and closing one’s eyes. But AWVFTS was having none of that: mid-set, they stopped (“Usually, we never stop playing during a set,” they told us) and asked everyone to stand up instead. Fair enough, but I for one found it more enjoyable when relaxing.

Apparently the Kronos Quartet (described elsewhere as “the hardest working act” at the festival, and rightly so) didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse much with avant garde legend Laurie Anderson before their set. You wouldn’t have known it, though. A near-capacity Tennessee Theatre audience witnessed the somber “Landfall,” a work by Anderson that recounted her personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina. There’s always a winking, slyly humorous undercurrent to Anderson’s work that belies her reputation as an avant garde performer, and the Quartet conveyed a similarly informal approach, even while following a written score.

Max Richter is a modern classical composer, and his “The Blue Notebooks” is a piece performed on piano with string accompaniment, and a seated woman in formal evening dress reading brief written passages in lovely “RP” English. Modern classical has an undeserved reputation for being solely atonal, angular and jarring; Richter’s work is nothing of the kind: it’s elegiac, stately, beautiful and evocative. “Infra” did not feature the spoken-word component but was equally enjoyable. The intimate setting of The Bijou (an old theatre that has been home to many great performances I’ve enjoyed in the past) was the perfect setting for Richter’s work.

Unfortunately, by this point in the weekend, the cold that I had been denying was starting to overwhelm me. I stuck around long enough to take in part of tUnE-yArDs‘ set, and I am sure that had I been able to stay for all of it, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. Brightly-colored costumes and a stage setup that put percussion out front (literally) were the hallmarks of their lively, uptempo set. They reminded me of a less-mannered Talking Heads with far more appealing vocalists, and their playful manner seemed focused squarely on having a good time and sharing that with the gathered audience.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it was all I could do to stay vertical, the head cold having overtaken me completely. I ventured down by the railroad tracks to the funky Standard for a performance (“installation” might be a more apt term) by Tyondai Braxton, presenting a work he calls “HIVE.” Braxton’s avant garde bona fides are without question: his father is jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. The younger Braxton’s work is based equally on percussion and modern technology. “HIVE” was originally commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, but its arty beginnings belie its modern, techno-leaning qualities. Five musicians, each seated atop a table-sort-of-thing, are armed with all manner of sound-producing devices. Lights and fog are part of the scene, too, placing “HIVE” somewhere between highbrow art installation and all-night rave soundtrack. And it was very loud.

Unfortunately, after that, it was home and bed for me. As a result, I missed sets by Bill Frisell and others, but my overall impression of Big Ears Festival 2015 was one of awe. Big Ears is easily the best-run major music festival in the region. Bringing together the best characteristics of a festival (wide variety of artists in a compact area and timeframe) while minimizing or even eliminating its less-appealing aspects (crushing crowds, intimidating security, AC Entertainment and everyone else involved with Big Ears continues to do an amazing job, and in doing so they attract not only discerning music fans, but top-notch talent the likes of which are rarely seen nor heard in such a setting.

Bringing together this caliber and variety of notable and groundbreaking musical artists is in and of itself a staggering feat. Doing so outside, say, New York or San Francisco is even more impressive. Taking the expertise gained from successful staging of massive festivals (Bonnaroo, for example, takes in more than 80,000 concertgoers) and applying those skills to a relatively small-scale, city-based festival, AC Entertainment has created and sustained one of the most remarkable festivals ever in Big Ears. For anyone interested in where “serious” music is headed in the 21st century, a springtime trip to Knoxville Tennessee can provide some clear direction. I hope I attend again in 2016.

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Book Review: Mavericks of Sound

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015


There’s something endlessly fascinating about the creative process. And of course it’s not merely one process; it’s wholly unique for each individual. And because that’s true, conversations with those engage in creative output are often illuminating. David Ensminger clearly agrees: he’s compiled a book’s worth of his own conversations into a volume called Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with the Artists Who Shaped Indie and Roots Music.

A few of these names will be familiar to casual music enthusiasts (Merle Haggard and perhaps Billy Joe Shaver), but mention of the bulk of the artists interviewed will elicit furrowed brows or blank stares from most people. That doesn’t make them any less important; it’s worth recalling how influential artists such as The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and Big Star were in their days, and it’s helpful to recall that none sold very many records or broke into the mass culture consciousness in a meaningful way. So the fact that the names interviewed in Mavericks of Sound are not well known is no detriment.

And so it is that may of Ensminger’s interview subjects are “cult” or “underground” acts. But to a man (and, much less often, a woman), the acts spotlighted in Mavericks of Sound are about expressing their own product of the creative muse. And nearly all are what one might call critics’ darlings.

They’re also pretty much all excellent interview subjects. It helps immeasurably that in Ensminger they have an intelligent interviewer; in fact he’s often more of a peer (on some or another level) with those he interviews. Occasionally that can result in a somewhat insular conversation, one in which the reader may feel that he or she has wandered into a deep conversation already long in progress. When both of the parties in a conversation are discussing theoretical concepts, dialectics, philosophy and such, Mavericks of Sound threatens to get a bit too egg-headed for the casual reader (present company included). But my advice is to force your way through those heady chats, as even when the subject matter gets a big dense and/or academic, there’s value to be found.

Interviews with Michael Gira and Jarboe (Swans) and Deke Dickerson are among the most revelatory of the twenty-two major interviews, and even the shorter pieces (Richard Thompson, Rob Younger, Wayne Kramer) are well worth reading.

I do have two criticisms of the book. First off, and relevant to the points already made, the lack of contextualization hampers wider enjoyment of the interviews. I understand that nearly all of the material as presented in Mavericks of Sound has been published elsewhere (in ‘zines or other periodicals), and that by definition, readers of the pieces in their original publications would have understood who these artists are and what they’re about. But in a book such as this, containing interviews that have taken place over the last decade and a half or so, it would be helpful if Ensminger had penned a brief introduction for each, with at least a thumbnail biographical sketch.

Secondly, since the pieces are (again, for the most part) being re-published, it’s reasonable to hold the author to a high standard of fact-checking. With that in mind, I ask, who exactly is Brian Seltzer* (sic)? And who is this guitarist Link Ray** (sic)? There are other less egregious errors, but those two – the first of which is made multiple times – are the most wince-inducing.

Ensmigner clearly knows his subject, and much much more (a fact that he makes sure to put on full display), and he’s a keen interviewer who (it seems) allows his interviews to follow interesting paths, rather than hewing to a predetermined set of questions. And if one can look beyond the dismissive tone occasionally taken with regard to a handful of other artists who are not interviewed in its pages*, Mavericks of Sound is indeed a bright and wide-open window into the creative process, and is thus recommended.

* Brian Setzer
** Link Wray

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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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