Newport Folk Festival Preview

After 55 years, the Newport Folk Festival is still relevant. Not only is it relevant, it is still bringing together disparate influences and challenging the notions of “folk” music in the same way that Bob Dylan did back in 1965 (though now the public expects it). Case in point, Son House admirer, producer, blues, folk writer, Jack White is one of the headline performers this year. Jack White’s history proves that he certainly won’t stay put in any one genre. Jack White has dabbled in old-time (“Wayfaring Stranger” from Cold Mountain), folk (“We Are Going to be Friends”) and the usual blues-rock. But wait, maybe those are all different views of the same thing. I’m not sure, but I’m excited to see Jack and his band.

Another genre bender has certainly been Ryan Adams. He’s single-handedly responsible for opening me and my wife up to country music. Ryan started that way with his seminal alt-country band Whiskeytown. Then he spun through a dizzying array of genres: singer/songwriter, rock & roll, punk, lo-fi, jam band, and country to name a few. While some may criticize his prolificacy and his derivativeness, those are the very things that make him so likable. In fact, those things are what drew me to his foray in straight ahead rock “Gold” and opened my eyes to the other genres that Ryan spun through, particularly country iterations. He even dabbled his toes in bluegrass in “Pearls on a String.” This certainly makes Ryan Adams a performer who has gone through many different iterations and can be unpredictable. That’s certainly part of his appeal.

Another band, seemingly the most traditional in the list, has managed to come back together after seven years off, better than ever. Nickel Creek, while generally keeping to their genre amalgamation (bluegrass, folk, country mixture), have released an absolutely classically crafted set of tunes. They’ve always bent the rules a bit by playing bluegrass-y stuff without a banjo, without the traditional tunes, but with all of the immaculate chops and often more of the beautiful compositions. They’ve attracted the attention not just from the folk music crowd, but managed to appeal to the young indie rockers. They have opened up bluegrass/acoustic country to a whole new generation and they bring their rock roots back to that group. They’re the hardest rocking bluegrass band I’ve ever heard. Oh and the new record has some serious bluegrass harmony.

That’s just the beginning; Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy, and Robert Hunter round out the legends.  Dawes, Lake Street Dive, the Milk Carton Kids, and Shovels & Rope are bands that I keep hearing about but haven’t had the chance to see yet. Which brings me to one of my personal favorites: Sun Kil Moon. I’ve been a fan of Mark Kozelek since he was in Red House Painters. He’s an atmospheric master whose lyrics are profoundly affecting. Red House Painters tune “Have You Forgotten How to Love Yourself” roped me in a decade ago.


The Newport Folk Festival is not only relevant these days, but for an alt-country kid like myself, it’s the most exciting summer concert festival. It’s a bit of a coming out party for Americana music. Can’t wait!

 

Mayer’s Playlist for July 2014, Part 1

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

Resolution Road, by Easton Stagger Phillips

Easton Stagger PhillipsI don’t like to draw direct comparisons between artists but it’s hard not to do so with the latest release from Tim Easton, Leeroy Stagger and Evan Phillips. This talented trio of singer-songwriters conjure up the finer moments of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Resolution Road flows with the laid-back feeling and gentile harmonies that were – and are – a CSN hallmark.

Phillips kicks off the album with “Always Came Back To You,” a graceful love song made all the richer by the trio’s warm harmonies on the chorus. His reflective “Lucillia” has similar qualities and a day-dreamy vibe.

Stagger brings a tempered rock attitude to his contributions. A persistent drum beat ushers along “Traveler” as vocal harmonies give way to a George Harrison-flavored slide guitar solo.

Easton’s closing “Baby Come Home” is simultaneously melancholy and sentimental. “Sitting here late at night wondering where you might be,” he laments before the others join him to declare “baby come home right now, I need you for the rest of my life.” Guest Derry deBorja adds some subtle yet expressive organ flourishes.

Each singer-songwriter bring their own personality and songs to the group. Yet they blend together beautifully, as if they were meant to perform together. Like CSN, Easton Stagger Phillips prove that sometimes 1+1+1 equals more than three.


Dereconstructed, by Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires

Lee Bains III and the Glory FiresThere’s an old adage — write what you know. Birmingham, Alabama native Lee Bains takes this to heart with a searing album about life in the modern South. His lyrics reflect on the weight of history, religion and everyday economic struggles of small town Southern life; his songs are fueled by incendiary guitars and furious rock beats.

Bains doesn’t shy away from social commentary on tracks like “The Kudzu and the Concrete”:

You can talk, talk, talk about it: Repentance, and forgiveness, and loving your neighbor as yourself.
But what the hell does that mean when all your neighbors look the same and think the same or else live a couple miles down the rural route?

He wrestles with the love-hate relationship of growing up in Birmingham in “The Weeds Downtown.” “I know that Birmingham gets you down, but look what it raised you up to be,” he sings.

“The Company Man” takes a stand against greed and blind obedience. “All it takes is one wicked heart, a pile of money and a chain of folks just doing their jobs,” he cautions.

Bains lets his guitar do plenty of talking, too. Dereconstructed is a no holds barred rock album. Bains and fellow guitarist Eric Wallace trade licks like Keith Richards and Mick Taylor back in the day. The entire band sounds ferocious, rough and ragged. Bains describes it best on “Dirt Track” when he says, “Squeezing glory out of three rusty chords.” The results are glorious, indeed.

Audio Download: Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, “The Weeds Downtown”

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THE PLAYLIST


Bernadine, Adam Carroll (from the self-released Let It Choose You)
I’d lost touch with the music of Austin folk-country singer Adam Carroll a few years back. I recall him tending towards humor in his songwriting yet always equally adept at finding the tenderness of a moment. His latest release shows that he hasn’t lost his touch.

While there are still occasional glimpses of humor, his latest batch of songs tend towards the sincere end of the spectrum. His voice and music have a gentle aura about them, his songs filled with thoughtful character-driven stories.

Audio Download: Adam Carroll, “Bernadine”

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Carry On, Denver (from the Mama Bird Recording Company release Rowdy Love)
Three singer-songwriters out of Portland serve up songs that are alternatively ramshackle and relaxed. The eleven tracks on Rowdy Love are rooted in country but sometimes veer towards mountain folk-rock territory that is reflective of the region from which they take their name. Then there is this track, a personal favorite, which has a decidedly Gordon Lightfoot feel.


Down, Kingsley Flood (from the self-released Live at the Armory)
I wouldn’t often call a live album one of an artist’s best releases but it’s appropriate in this instance. To tide us over until their next studio release, the Boston and Washington D.C-based six piece sextet took over an intimate venue to perform a career-spanning set. They impressively find a way to breathe fresh life into older songs and ratchet up the intensity of their already forceful more recent work. It also showcases the talents of songwriter Naseem Khuri, who crafts songs that are exceptionally intelligent and damn catchy, too.

You can download a free six-song sampler from this release here.


Monday, Caleb Caudle (from the This Is American Music release Paint Another Layer on My Heart)
New Orleans by way of Winston-Salem North Carolina singer-songwriter Caudle says that much of this album was inspired by a year of touring and the corresponding yearning for home. “I’m really leaving it’s really Monday, I don’t know how it got here so soon,” he laments on this stand-out, “lately I’m finding so little to trust in, that’s why it’s harder leaving you.”


Too Long I’ve Been Gone, Dom Flemons (from the Music Maker Relief Foundation release Prospect Hill)
The Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder continues his exploration of the early American music canon on his latest release. Flemons roots himself in folk but masterfully blends countless other genres into the mix. “Georgia Drumbeat” beautifully blends jazz, country and folk while “Have I Stayed Away Too Long?” has a touch of Dixieland and “I Can’t Do It Anymore” brings in some tasty blues playing. I’m partial to this song, a more traditional – and winsome – ballad.

Corb Lund – Counterfeit Blues

Corb Lund built a time machine.  He took his long-time band, The Hurtin’ Albertans, down to Memphis and recorded a number of his live show staples and made them sound more original and rootsy than when they first laid down the tracks 8 – 10 years ago.  Retransmitting the ambience of the famed Sun Studios, Counterfeit Blues has all the lo-fi goodness and live energy that makes the best roots music so compelling.

The album starts with Counterfeiter’s Blues, alternating disgust at being fed fake goods at every turn and depressed acceptance that it’s the nature of the world we live in.  I think I can safely say Corb and his boys don’t use Auto-Tune.  Another set of wry observations on the world gone awry is Truth Comes Out, a lament on the damage of encroaching civilization that comes off like a good Fred Eaglesmith song.  Speaking of wry observations, (Gonna) Shine Up My Boots is the story of looking forward to girls and fun on a Saturday night, but realizing that maybe all you’re going to do is get drunk.  Any young man living on a farm or ranch in flyover country who can’t relate to this tune is kidding himself.

Some of Lund’s best material is full on, sing along, snap your fingers, rockabilly material.  Truck Got Stuck will stick in your brain, and this version takes a nice jab at Agriculture Canada.  Big Butch Bass Bull Fiddle is a tongue twister that’s as much jazz as it it country.  My favorite is the under-appreciated Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer that needs a Wood Brothers cover to prove me right.

CorbLund-CounterfeitBlues Finally, I have to mention Hurtin’ Albertan, a classic Lund number, and a heart-on-my-sleeve anthem to his home province.  In many ways this tune summarizes Corb Lund and his band.  It’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s (North) Americana, it’s fun and upbeat and immediately likable.  There’s nothing counterfeit about it.

The Stray Birds – Pass Me the Guitar  

I’ll be darned if you can get any closer to the band as you feel at a Stray Birds show. And I wish you would pass the guitar right over to the Stray Birds. That intimacy certainly has been something that is cultivated with the band members and discussed in our conversation. Suzanne, twangville’s photographer, and I were lucky enough to pick their brains about their amazing presence on stage.IMG_9711 The band has been getting lots of press lately. From NPR to WAMU’s bluegrass country, they are not a secret anymore. As the band pulls together tracks for a new record, my wife(trusty twangville photographer Suzanne McMahon) and I got a chance to sit down with the band a while back and in a similar way to their intimate shows. The band waxed philosophical about the importance of connections with the audience, which is certainly palpable.  Singer/fiddler/guitar/banjo player Maya DeVitry explained it very well.

“There’s this Irish fiddle player who came and did this workshop when I was there [at Berkeley College of Music), Martin Hayes, and he talked about inhabiting the melody of these ancient tunes. He would play, not like he was acting, but he was literally inhabiting the melody. I feel like that’s what we do with these songs and these arrangements. We inhabit the song. We try to get inside ’25 to life’ or ‘Birds of the Borderland’ for those 3 minutes. And we also use a lot of eye contact and that’s really intense for people,” said Maya. “I look at people more during a show than I ever do.”

When you attend a Stray Birds show, you can’t help but feel connected to the band. As they come in close for the harmonies and look out over the audience, it’s as though you’re all there together in a trusted community. There’s something built in the shared experience of coming together and “inhabiting” a song. It seems like something that Maya and the band actually invites the audience to do at their shows and be in the song together. Then everyone has that joyful catharsis together. Singer/fiddler/guitar player Oliver Craven also put the personal connections of his life into perspective.

“I think the more I experience difficult things in my personal life, like circumstantial hardships, it puts things in perspective. When I see people in my life having trouble, it reminds me that what we’re doing isn’t the most important thing in the world. As important as it is to us and the people with us in that moment in the show, it’s ultimately not do or die. I think that makes me really relaxed on stage,” said Oliver Craven.

The sense of the relaxation translates into the joy of the audience in that shared experience. That seems to really allow the band and audience to get in closer to inhabit the song. It’s the escape that is just a passing breath of fresh air. And the show back in April at Club Passim in Cambridge demonstrated all of those qualities. The band had a true ability to invite the audience in to “I Wish It Would Rain” and bring those emotions out. Perhaps the same emotions that others may not have been able to express are now on the table. The shared experience in meeting the song and audience is something that the band has truly brought to their shows in a very intimate way.IMG_9609 “Those songs from echo sessions. I think of them like if I’m at a party and people are passing the guitar around, I don’t want to sing one of my own songs. I can hardly ever remember the words to songs other than the ones that we’re performing every night. I have probably five other songs that I remember the words to. ‘Wish it Would Rain’ has been my go to song for years,” said Maya DeVitry. “Echo Sessions is about remembering how fun it is to sing something that you didn’t write. You meet the song. It’s a totally different joy.”

I also asked the band members about their top five records. I got artists, lists of records, and even longer lists.

Top 5ish Artists/Records:

Maya DeVitry

Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

Tom Waits – Mule Variations

Bonnie Raitt – Taking My Time

Nina Simone – (a live one)

Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer

 

Oliver Craven

David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Beatles – Abbey Road

The Traveling Willburys – Volume 1

Tim O’Brien & Darryl Scott – Real Time

Tedeschi Trucks – Revelator

Bob Dylan – Highway 61

Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

 

Charlie Muench

Old & In the Way

Norman Blake

Wood Brothers

Lake Street Dive

Jonathan Byrd

John Fulbright

 

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

John Hiatt has long been one of the mainstays of Americana music.  Throughout his long career, Hiatt has been known for great songwriting and musicianship, but of all his earthy Americana releases, Terms of My Surrender is certainly his grittiest and arguably his most enjoyable work to date.

John Hiatt_

Despite some early success as a songwriter, Hiatt was a late bloomer as a performer.  Among his early songwriting credentials was “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” which Three Dog Night took to number 16 in 1974, while Hiatt was still banging around Nashville trying to get his start.  But his reputation as a solo artist and stage performer was built one day at a time over many years.   His first two solo albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats, were commercial failures.  After moving to California, Hiatt did a stint in Ry Cooder’s backing band, establishing a musical relationship with Cooder that would would last through several future projects.

Throughout the 1980s, however, Hiatt continued to struggle with personal demons, which included alcoholism, the suicide of his wife and his languishing career.  It was on Bring the Family that Hiatt put it all together, both musically and personally.  For that reason, Bring the Family will likely always be considered the most important Hiatt album.  With participation by Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner, the core group behind of Bring the Family would later reunite to become the short-lived 1990s supergroup Little Village.  Since then, Hiatt has continued to produce outstanding work and interesting collaborations with the likes of the Jayhawks, Bonnie Raitt and Luther and Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars.

But with Terms of My Surrender, Hiatt has taken his usual straight-forward Americana recipe and reduced it to its barest elements, producing a great album that will likely be on the short list for my favorite Americana album of the year.  He has certainly taken a page from Cooder’s recent playbook (e.g., Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, 2011), producing a really simple collection of fantastic songs.  From the first notes of “Long Time Comin’,” Hiatt’s crusty vocals highlight a rootsy, bluesy collection of tasty takes that sound unadorned and informal, as though they could have been recorded in Hiatt’s living room.  “Face of God” sounds as though it could have come from the lips and fingers of the oldest Mississippi bluesman.  “Marlene” sounds like a throwback 1950s rock-n-roll anthem.  “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” is an instant classic.  Other great songs include “Nobody Knew His Name,” the title tune and the satirical “Old People.”  Joining Hiatt on the album were members of his touring band, the Combo, featuring lead guitarist (and the album’s producer) Doug Lancio, Nathan Gehri on bass and Kenneth Blevins on drums.