Newport Folk Festival – Saturday

With his days in the blues-rock duo White Stripes now comfortably behind him, Jack White has become a bit of a generational connector. He’s paid homage to country, blues and rock legends, yet he keeps winning new fans. When he stepped on to the stage at Newport Folk Fest, the standing area at the front of the fort swallowed much of the fans lounging on their blankets. Young and old fans alike stood up to listen to the sound.

White’s set included several blues covers that fit the venue so well. He gave them his blues rock treatment though he did have a fiddle and mandolin player (though they were a bit hard to make out in the mix). He included Son House tune “Death Letter,” Blind Willie Johnson cover “John the Revelator,” and “Goodnight, Irene” by Leadbelly. White certainly made these songs his own as his palpable energy as he got the crowd into a frenzy. White also included a country tinged “We’re Going to Be Friends” in the mix of his signature blues rock. White’s guitar work and songwriting are varied and move between blues, rock, and country without a second thought.

Chris Thile & Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek

Chris Thile & Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek

Just before the headliner, Nickel Creek brought their expert musicianship and unique songwriting style to the for stage. While the crowd seemed somewhat restless at the start, the trio rocked the house with their traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Sara Watkins’ “Destination” was a particular favorite. The band played with such aggression that the fans had no choice but to take notice. Sean Watkins’ more traditional songwriting and flatpicking on the “21st of May” continues to be a favorite from the band’s recent record “A Dotted Line” (after a seven year hiatus). Chris Thile’s mandolin work and singing managed to accentuate the emotions of the songs. I can see why he’s received the Macarthur Genius Grant. Thile contributed the simple beauty and melodic mandolin picking on the “Lighthouse Tale,” “Ode to A Butterfly,” and new tune “Somebody More Like You.” Thile also did an unannounced intimate mandolin workshop. Unfortunately, I didn’t check my phone quick enough to get in!

Sean Watkins

Sean Watkins

The day also included several duos. The Milk Carton Kids are two guys who sing and play acoustic guitar. Their show fit the more intimate quad stage. The two sound like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings guitar work with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel’s tight harmonies thrown in. I don’t make that comparison lightly and their songs are not as striking as the aforementioned artists so far. Vocalist Joey Ryan also included some of the funniest deadpan humor I’ve ever heard. His bit could have easily been used for standup. He went into a monologue about how father’s don’t get enough credit for the the difficulty of childbirth based on his recent experience. He also went on to list the difficulties including that he had to miss a gig for his son’s birth. Then he went on to describe how he could talk to his son for hours and hours and that he couldn’t do that with adults. This comedic intro certainly garnered at least as much applause as the songs and with good reason. He was hilarious. Musically, the band played clean arrangements and Kenneth Pattengale added in harmonized guitar work.

Carry Ann Hearst & Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope

Cary Ann Hearst & Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope

An earlier duo, Shovels & Rope, easily rocked the Fort Stage. Carry Ann Hearst and Michael Trent needed no help to bring the stage to life. They switched back and forth between guitar and drums. They harmonize and accent each other’s tunes in whatever way they can. As a husband and wife duo, they seem to get as much energy from one another as they do from the crowd. The pair have a striking variety of different tunes that all seem to rock out in one way or another. I can see why the two came together and committed to the duo.

Carry Ann Hearst

Cary Ann Hearst

After two days of music, I learned of the ways that artists are bending genres in such creative ways. Folk becomes punk or blues or country and back again. The artists brought it all together and used their voices to show how different it became.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Mayer’s Playlist for August 2014, Part 2

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

Uncle John Farquhar, by Goodnight, Texas

Goodnight, Texas
Goodnight, Texas are on a journey, if not across geography then certainly through time. The bi-coastal group – songwriters Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf live in San Francisco, CA and Chapel Hill, NC respectively – are committed to taking listeners on a musical tour of Southern American history. Whereas 2012’s A Long Life of Living focused on life in the Appalachian Mountains during the Industrial Revolution, their latest transports listeners back to the South circa the Civil War.

Using archival material as a starting point, Wolf and Vinocur shaped authentic character-driven stories that capture day-to-day life during the era. Uncle John Farquhar is, in fact, Wolf’s great great great grandfather. The song that bears his name chronicles Farquhar from his early years in a Pittsburgh steel mill to his elderly years at home. Wolf paints a vivid portrait as the elderly Farquhar reflects on his life:

At the same old screen door that the dog scratched through,
And the same old wood floor underneath my shoe,
And the same old woman making chicken every night,
Yea, I guess I did alright

Although these songs are firmly anchored to a historical era, Vinocur and Wolf skillfully find timeless sentiments in the stories that they tell. “The Horse Accident (In Which a Girl Was All But Killed)” is an up-tempo song about love in a time of tragedy:

Lord let me die first, I can’t be without her,
I hope I never live to see her casket lined with lace,
She deserves to thrive on this earth a little longer,
If you need another worker you can take me in her place.

The two songwriters match their storytelling prowess with an ability to write a catchy hook. They serve ‘em up with plenty of banjo, fiddle and a host of other stringed instruments. Imagine the Band if they were a little less rock and a little more roots and you’d likely end up with a sound like this.

What era are you headed to next, fellas? I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to the next installment.

Audio Download: Goodnight, Texas, “Uncle John Farquhar (I Guess I Did Alright)”

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Still on the Levee, by Chris Smither

Chris Smither

Fifty years. That’s a hell of a long time to be making music. Sure, we often hear about Dylan, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, all of whom are in proximity of that same milestone. Let’s not overlook folks like Smither who, though they may lack the commercial success of their contemporaries, boast their own outstanding musical legacies.

To mark the occasion, Smither invited an extraordinary group of friends and fellow artists to revisit songs from throughout his career. The results are remarkable.

Allen Toussaint’s rhythm and blues piano takes “Train Home” to new heights while Loudon Wainwright III joins in to create a late 1960’s folk feel on “What They Say.” He recruits saxophonist Dana Colley of the late, great Morphine, along with Colley collaborator guitarist Jeremy Lyons, to give a dark and stormy vibe on “Shillin’ for the Blues” and “Small Revelations.”

Among my favorites are Smither’s collaborations with Western Mass trio Rusty Belle. Their wonderful ramshackle and harmony-enriched sound fits well with the earthiness of Smither’s songs.

The centerpiece, though, is Smither’s songwriting. At times folk, at times bluesy, it never fails to hit the mark. Whether he is telling stories or reflecting on the human condition, his lyrics are simultaneously simple and compelling.

I’ve never seen my life in such as hurry,
but if I stop to worry,
I get left behind.
It’s a party, but you don’t get invitations
There’s just one destination,
You better be on time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful over-sized cardboard case and exquisite booklet that accompany the cd version. If ever there was an argument that one needs to get the physical copy of a release, this is it.

Audio Download: Chris Smither (featuring Rusty Belle), “Leave the Light On”

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THE PLAYLIST


Ghosts of Our Fathers, Otis Gibbs (from the Wanamaker Recording Company release Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth)
Don’t be deceived by the gentle ease to Gibbs music. He is a masterful storyteller who tells vivid stories about the downtrodden, downhearted and broken. This song is pure magic — and a great example of the power in his writing. With a deft eye Gibbs describes a childhood neighbor, a former boxer who lost a son in Vietnam. “How to carry on when the hardest punch is thrown, take away the burden from our shoulders,” he sings as a pedal steel and fiddle provide a mournful accompaniment.


The No-Hit Wonder, Cory Branan (from the Bloodshot Records release The No-Hit Wonder)
Branan’s latest release includes contributions from a host of the singer-songwriter’s notable friends, including Jason Isbell and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. Not that he needed them, Branan’s songs shine brightly on their own. Whether he is tackling topics playful or serious, he waxes poetic with a sharp lyrical tongue. The title track is an animated ode to musicians long on aspiration, if not commercial success.

Years of living hand to mouth, years just getting gig to gig
East to west, north to south, well he could’ve been making a killing, peddling a dream
But if you found him at all, you found him just scraping a living, blood to string.


33K Feet, Peter Himmelman (from the Himmasongs release The Boat That Carries Us)
Himmelman is a songwriter’s songwriter, a guy who sets thoughtful and intelligent lyrics to warm and inviting pop melodies. This track is a great example. Musically, it has an urgency that conveys a sense of hurtling through the air on a plane. Lyrically, Himmelman describes the paradox of being helpless as life rushes us forward yet somehow finding some contentment along the way.

Audio Download: Peter Himmelman, “33K Feet”

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What We Can Bring, Walter Salas-Humara (from the Orchard release Curve and Shake)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Salas-Humara is an accomplished visual artist, especially when one hears the sense of imagery in his music. On his third solo album, the long-time Silos singer-songwriter brought together a talented group of friends to craft what amount to musical landscapes. The collection has a warm and melancholy feel, as this song illustrates.

Audio Download: Walter Salas-Humara, “What We Can Bring”

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Violent Shiver, Benjamin Booker (from the ATO Records release Benjamin Booker)
New Orleans musician Booker rocks with abandon on his debut release. His scruffy indie rock is centered around his guitar which delivers short bursts of electricity and attitude.


When You’re Gone, Tinnarose (from the Nine Mile Records release Tinnarose)
This Austin-based sextet serve up a bit of indie rock crunch with a decidedly 1970’s classic rock feel. Who says that summer is winding down? A few listens to Tinnarose and you’ll think it is just getting started.

Readers’ Pick: Live From Atlanta by Lucero

You picked Live From Atlanta by Lucero as your favorite for the week of August 12, 2014.

Readers’ Top Picks (last 4 weeks)

  1. Acoustic Classics by Richard Thompson (15) [7/22]
  2. Long in the Tooth by Billy Joe Shaver (13) [8/5]
  3. They Want My Soul by Spoon (12) [8/5]
  4. Still on the Levee by Chris Smither (12) [7/22]
  5. Hypnotic Eye by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (10) [7/29]
  6. Live From Atlanta by Lucero (7) [8/12]
  7. The Voyager by Jenny Lewis (6) [7/29]
  8. Don’t Wait Up for George by Shooter Jennings (5) [8/5]
  9. Rockabilly Riot! All Original by Brian Setzer (3) [8/12]
  10. A Life Worth Living by Marc Broussard (3) [7/29]

Don’t forget to vote in our weekly poll to help us make this list.

Monday Morning Video: Scruffy the Cat

Once upon a time there was a band called Scruffy the Cat. I have no idea where the name came from but it somehow fit the boisterous group from Boston. They rocked, rattled and rolled their way across the US for many a year, making a hearty racket wherever they went.

They played the label game and released a couple of albums but never quite found the notoriety that their music deserved. ‘tis a real shame as primary singer-songwriter Charlie Chesterman had a knack for writing infectious roots-based hooks that the band then raved up with reckless abandon.

The band’s legacy is being honored with not one, but two exciting releases in the coming weeks. Time Never Forgets: The Anthology (’86-’88) a 38-track collection of the band’s mid-1980’s recorded output is being released tomorrow.

Then, on Sept 16th, we’ll get The Good Goodbye: Unreleased Recordings 1984-1990. This collection includes 23 tracks culled from throughout the band’s time together.

In keeping with this double release, here is a video with a double dose of the band doing their thing back in the day. If this doesn’t get your foot a tappin’, if not a stompin’, then I don’t know what will.

Newport Folk Festival – Friday

Ryan Adams really summed up the 2014 Newport Folk Fest experience well when he said, “”Like ten years ago I was depressed and now I’m playing music with *&$%ing sailboats in the background.” The setting at the legendary festival is literally one of the most beautiful spots as it juts far out into Narragansett Bay. The boats were beautiful, if you happened to look at them for more than a passing glance. I noticed the setting briefly but was totally captivated by the music. The festival has certainly become the must-see spot for summer Americana fans. As other festivals have vastly changed direction, Newport has remained a consistent venue for some of the best folk/rock/americana/blues/R&B music.

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Ryan Adams

Starting with Friday’s headliner, everything really did seem to be looking up. After seeing him many times through the years, this show had him as upbeat as I’ve ever seen the erratic performer. He certainly acknowledged it as well. He couldn’t get enough of picking fun at bassist Charlie Savage and the crowd was eating it up. While there certainly was much of Ryan’s offbeat and rather eccentric commentary, it was so positive that it seemed like Ryan is a new man.

Now for the music. Ryan played some old favorites which included humorous commentary such as “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (which he called “bold-faced lies”), “Come Pick Me Up” (“a moment of stupidity”) and “Let It Ride.” He also played his new single “Gimme Something Good” and a variety of tunes from in between. Ryan walked on to stage looking like 10 years ago with his disheveled hair and denim jacket. But honestly, Ryan’s fun persona was the story.

I’ll be honest and say that I had lost track of fine songwriter of Rilo Kiley fame, Jenny Lewis. But a few minutes into her set at Newport and I knew I’d have to have a second look at her solo career. Lewis reminded me of a more Americana and more varied version of She & Him. She came out dressed like it was the summer of love with a painted Martin Acoustic Guitar to match. She went back and forth between the poppy, acoustic singer/songwriter, and the piano ballads. Her set was hard to walk away from.

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Jenny Lewis

I did have to check out Sun Kil Moon (Mark Kozelek). His gentle nylon stringed guitar picking and focus on untraditional songs certainly is a bit of an aquired taste. The songs often seem to meander along without a clear destination. In a live setting, seeing Mark play the tunes certainly helped him to connect a bit more with the audience. But Mark was the opposite of Ryan. He just seemed a bit down and didn’t seem to enjoy the show too much. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch my favorites from Sun Kil Moon’s – Ghost of the Great Highway.

I did catch a few of Robert Hunter’s songs. While he’s certainly no Jerry Garcia, Hunter’s connection with American Beauty classics “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple” were great fun to watch. They fit so well with the festival atmosphere and Hunter did not hesitate to regale the crowd with anecdotes from way back when.

Other highlights of the first day at Newport 2014 included Mavis Staples sharing the stage with breakout band Lake Street Dive, powerful minimalist punk/old-time Devil Makes Three, and the ethereal sounds of Band of Horses.

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Lake Street Dive

In addition to the music, the setting could not have been better. While they were crowded, the space worked well for the different personalities within the crowd. Families had room to spread out on the lawn, those who wanted to drink could easily find their spot in the beer garden, and smaller groups could move between the four stages easily. The food had a variety of options including super fresh seafood (I enjoyed fantastic oysters and a lobster roll), grassfed beef burgers, and a variety of other options. As a quick break from the sun, I tried my hand at the rather small Deering Banjo tent.

Two minor complaints, the heat and the parking. Water was available everywhere and it is the middle of teh summer. Fort Adams State Park juts out into the bay  and that means there is one way out of the park. Lots of parking, one way out. So it took a while staying until the end and then trekking out to the car.

The quality of the music and the overall experience certainly made up for any minor complaints. The Newport Folk Fest has been able to iron out any kinks after over 50 years and it showed.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon