Jackson Browne – One Man / Twenty Guitars

10562712_814011181963876_3805264878658154951_oWhen Jackson Browne walked onto Boston’s Opera House stage on a late summer night, it was as though he was stepping into his own living room. The 65-year-old singer/songwriter couldn’t have been more adored by the crowd as they showered him in ovation after ovation and listened intently to each note he sang. Some may call him “easy listening,” but just because his voice is clear and sounds like it did 40 years ago, doesn’t mean that his songs are by any means “soft.” They have a poetic sensibility that is laid bare when he’s out on the stage alone as he was for nearly the entire night.

IMG_9010

Over the course of two sets and 25+ songs, Browne’s easy-going manner and rapport with the crowd seemed almost surreal. He sprinkled in some new tunes in the first set but got the crowd going with standards “For Everyman,” “Sky Blue and Black,” and one of the most poetic songs I’ve ever heard: “These Days.” Jackson told the crowd that there was no setlist and that didn’t bother us one bit. After a barrage of songs shouted at him, he admitted that he was going to play what he wanted anyway. It was delivered in such an unassuming and unpretentious way that the crowd could only clap and appreciate him nonetheless.

In all his years in the business, Jackson’s confidence in his craft and the crowd’s appreciation. The second set delved further into the treasure trove of Jackson’s past. He mentioned the vast array of guitar and claimed that it seemed excessive as he paced back and forth thinking about which song to play next. He regaled the crowd talking about how each of the guitars had a song or two in them and that made each one infinitely more interesting. IMG_8949

Browne’s rendition of “For a Dancer,” “Running on Empty,” “Doctor My Eyes,” and “The Pretender” easily lived up to the original classic recording. His voice is still pristine and the tunes still ring true to this day. The lyrics are easily understood but no less complex and singable.

Browne’s final two songs “Take It Easy,” which he wrote with Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and “Before the Deluge” from his two classic albums really show the variety in his songwriting and style. “Take It Easy” is a fun, catchy rocker that is easily recognizable, more for the Eagles’ version. “Before the Deluge” is a downtempo piano ballad with lyrics that are singable and general as Jackson seems to really be able to sing about “For Everyman.” The lyrics “Now let the music keep our spirits high / And let the buildings keep our children dry” seemed to fit perfectly with the feel of the show. Jackson’s music somehow tackles tough issues but kept the fans feeling great in the end.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Sierra Hull in the Courtyard

Out in the courtyard at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on a summer evening, I caught one of the most accomplished mandolin players in bluegrass. Sierra Hull may only be 22, but she’s got a tight band, can pick her mandolin, and has quite the voice to go along with it. Right from the start, Sierra wasted no time ripping into a couple of instrumentals. Her picking was rhythmical and her the solos were creative.

IMG_8930

And that’s before Sierra opened her mouth to sing. From her 2011 album, “Easy Come, Easy Go” is an assured track that Sierra delivered confidently. “Don’t Pick Me Up” is another excellent track from “Daybreak.”

Sierra Hull’s band moved with her easily. Clay Hess (guitar), Cory Walker (banjo), and Christian Ward (fiddle) were the perfect backdrop. A bluegrass band whose crafty picking and solos merged easily with Sierra’s an knew just when to take a backseat.

IMG_8940

She can write heck of a tune also. “Two Winding Rails” and “All Because of You” feature Sierra’s pristine vocals. It’s something of a young Alison Krauss.

With her amazing background, Sierra Hull has so many talents. Some may say that Sierra has only known music for all her life, but she’s got so much life in front of her. The future is bright for her. Sierra’s writing is sounding more and more polished. I can’t decide if I like the earlier record of the later one.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

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

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.

IMG_8552

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.

IMG_8412

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.

IMG_8502

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

Down by the Green River

It’s the best little festival you’ve never heard of. At least I hadn’t until this year. Who knew that over the span of 28 years the little known festival in central Massachusetts would host the likes of Gillian Wellch, Mavis Staples, Alison Kraus & Union Station, Buddy Guy, and Lucinda Williams to name a few. This year is really no different. Green River Festival 2014 combined local favorites with national acts. Little did I know that it has been a coming out party for years and perhaps this year’s festival could easily be the same.

At the close of the day, headliner Josh Ritter took the stage as heavy storms passed through the area and periodically soaked the audience. But happy-go-lucky Ritter was not to be deterred. Twangville photographer Suzanne and I had seen his brilliant acoustic show this spring so I was expecting a lot. While I enjoyed the set as I was running for cover, I did find that Josh’s newer material from “Beast in Its Tracks” is particularly well suited to the acoustic setting from the spring. At Green River, Ritter wisely opted for lots of his old favorites. “Kathleen,” “Right Moves,” and “Good Man” all got the crowd rocking. Ritter’s buoyant personality kept the show just as fun despite the uncooperative weather.

IMG_8391

Trampled by Turtles played their usual frantic mix of rock music played with bluegrass instruments. I think calling this music bluegrass is a bit of a stretch but it certainly is compelling. “Are You Behind the Shining Star?” a track from their newest album “Wild Animals,” slows down just enough to let Dave Simonett’s brilliant lyrics and vocal delivery shine. The band certainly ups the emotion when the songs get a chance to breathe at a slower tempo. Many tunes take on an epic and ethereal quality that is quite unique in Americana today.

IMG_8246

Boston favorite Girls, Guns & Glory led off the festival with Hank Williams’ inspired classic country. One of Boston’s finest Americana songwriters, Ward Hayden has a voice all his own. GGG is musically tight, featuring the country licks of guitarist Chris Hersch. The band’s set mixed a variety of classic country sounding tunes with some that don’t fit in so neatly under that umbrella. Particularly, live favorite “All the Way Up to Heaven” sounded like a new twist on an old theme. The band has clear roots but manages to sound original at the same time. “I Saw the Light,” “Lonesome Train,” and “You, You, You” brought the crowds who didn’t know the band to their stage. The band is surely growing beyond Boston’s best kept secret with performances like these. They have managed to realize a vision with a reverence for the past that fits in the current Americana landscape.

IMG_8018

The boys of Barnstar had been working on their new record this past winter and the Green River Festival was a rare opportunity to see the boys play the songs live. They have their own take on Americana: songwriters’ bluegrass. What do I mean by that? They trade in the usual bluegrass instrumentals for a focus on vocally centered songs. I had the opportunity to see the band in the studio and saw a window into how the band balances their other careers (they have other bands, solo projects, work with other artists that keep them extremely busy). But the band’s vocals are tight and show an increasing focus on the high harmonies of bluegrass. Mark Erelli’s vocals, particularly on Josh Ritter cover “Darlin,'” give the band a lead vocal focus this time around. Father son tandem, Taylor (high harmony and mandolin)  and Jake Armerding (fiddle) anchor the band in the bluegrass tradition. But the band certainly does have their own take on bluegrass with such a variety of unique songwriting voices.  With Mark Erelli’s vocals leading the way, Rod Stewart’s “Stay With Me” gets a bit of a soul bluegrass treatment; it turns out to be quite irresistible and an appealing teaser of their forthcoming record.


IMG_8207

All-in-all, the festival had lots of great food, vendors, and music to match. Not to mention that the festival features an eclectic mix of Americana acts. While the weather deteriorated by the end, the laid back festival was certainly a wonderful way to spend a summer day.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon