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.

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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.

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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

Sugar Ray & the Bluetones – Living Tear to Tear

Sugar Ray & the Bluetones have added an entertaining gem to their long list of album releases with Living Tear to Tear.   From the first notes blown through Sugar Ray Norcia’s harmonica on “Rat Trap,” the album is a pleasure to hear.

Sugar RayIt’s not surprising that harpist Sugar Ray Norcia, a former member of Roomful of Blues, is a master at his craft. Roomful of Blues, a fine outfit in its own right, has become a stamp of quality for its alumni. The lexicon of blues masters who, along with Norcia, have been affiliated with Roomful of Blues include guitarists Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl, trumpeter/cornetist Al Basile, and pianists Al Copley and Ron Levy – all musical standouts.

Norcia, who founded the first version of the Bluetones in the late 1970s, formally became a member of Roomful of Blues in the early 1990s.  But he had been playing with those guys for years.  Ronnie Earl, who took over from Duke Robillard as lead guitar, had been one of the original Bluetones.  Norcia’s decades of experience playing with great musicians ala Roomful of Blues shows on Living Tear to Tear.  The album includes a collection of original tunes written not only by Norcia but also by Bluetones Monster Mike Welch, Michael “Mudcat” Ward, and Anthony Geraci, with a couple of standards added in.  “Here We Go,” which you can stream below, was written by Welch.

On Living Tear to Tear, the Bluetones’ tight lineup includes  Welch on guitar, Ward on bass,  Geraci on piano, and Neil Garouvin on drums.

Audio Stream: Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, “Here We Go”

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Photos that ROCK! Newport Folk Festival 2014

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams

When the e-mail arrived confirming my press credentials for the Newport Folk Festival, I did a little dance around my living room. Not only is this the holy grail of music festivals (you may remember an incident with Bob Dylan and an electric guitar in 1965…), but I have been not-so- patiently waiting 12 years to photograph one of my favorite musicians: Mr. Ryan Adams. I’m sure that many other photographers during this set got a kick out of the huge smile that was plastered to my face like a small child. Going through these photos was especially exciting because even though I was crammed into the pit, the lighting was great, and I was able to shoot from many different angles. Here are some of my favorites!

Jenny Lewis

Jenny Lewis

Lake Street Dive

Lake Street Dive

Shovels & Rope

Shovels & Rope

Deer Tick

Deer Tick

Sara Watkins- Nickel Creek

Sara Watkins- Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams

All photos by Suzanne Davis Photography (www.facebook.com/suzannedavisphotography)

Mud Morganfield & Kim Wilson – For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters

Larry “Mud” Morganfield and Kim Wilson have put together a collaboration that features 1950s Chicago Blues akin to Morganfield’s famous father, McKinley Morganfield – Muddy Waters. And the surprisingly good tribute album by Waters’ eldest son and the frontman from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters, captures that Muddy Waters feel without knocking off any obvious hits like “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” or “Mannish Boy.”

MudMud Morganfield is one of two of Waters’ sons – the other is Big Bill Morganfield – who are making a name for themselves in their father’s business.   He didn’t consider a music career until after his father’s death in 1983, becoming a professional truck driver for a time instead.  But since 2000, Mud has been building a solid reputation.  releasing his first album, Fall Waters Fall, in 2008.  His second album, Son of  the Seventh Son, released in 2012, included a number of original songs and received some positive critical notice.   Wilson, of course, has held the Fabulous Thunderbirds together since Jimmie Vaughan left the band in in the late eighties.  The band managed to hang together through some ups and downs and, with the release of On the Verge in 2012,  received critical notice as glowing as during their heyday of the seventies and eighties.

On For Pops, Mud’s round baritone vocals and Wilson’s harmonica establish a a great core for the project, but the veteran crew including guitarists Billy Flynn, who played with Chicago blues standout Jimmy Dawkins and the Legendary Blues Band (with Waters’ sidemen Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Pinetop Perkins) and Rusty Zinn, Barrelhouse Chuck on piano, former Ronnie Earl sideman Steve Gomes on bass and drummer Robb Stupka, who frequently backed the legendary Luther Allison.

For Pops is a tour de force that covers a range of offerings written by Muddy Waters, such as “Gone to Main Street,”Still a Fool,” and “Blow Wind Blow.”  It also includes songs written by others for Muddy, such as Willie Dixon’s  “I Don’t Know Why” and “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love” and Bernard Roth’s “Just to Be With You.”  None of the songs were huge hits for Muddy, but they all have that signature Muddy Waters sound, especially when played by this group of veteran musicians. 

Audio Stream: Mud Morganfield and Kim Wilson, “Still a Fool”

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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