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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen – Cold Spell

By the late 60’s and early 70’s bluegrass had evolved from Bill Monroe’s radical take on old-timey music to a relatively known and expected performance and sound.  The Stanley Brothers, the Foggy Mountain Boys, The Osborne Brothers, and many of their peers followed a set framework and style with matching dress and choreographed solos.  It’s hard to fault anyone for the conformance because it had actually become possible to make a living as a musician on the moonshine circuit and harbor dreams of national exposure on The Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw.  And as any student of innovation can tell you, that made it ripe for disruption.  Along came New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and John Hartford, among others, bringing elements of jazz, blues, rock, and even classical music to vault bluegrass into a golden age of improvisation.  The newest album from Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Cold Spell, seems to be a paean to that era.

For those of you who’ve been spending time under a bluegrass rock lately, Solivan and his bandmates are one of the hottest acts around.  In a live performance, they tear it up, no other way to describe it.  Cold Spell manages to capture a lot of that intensity.  I think some of that is an all star cast of guests including John Cowan, Rob Ickes, Sam Bush, and Megan McCormick pushing an already incredibly accomplished set of musicians to new limits.  Ickes in particular, his dobro adding a tenor element that really rounds out of the sound of several tunes on the disc, leaves more space for Solivan and Dirty Kitchen to show off their chops.

Betrayal is a murder ballad of the finest heritage–upbeat music, but dark, dark lyrics.  No Life In This Town bemoans the leaving of a lover and the realization the town you used to know is gone.  Yeah Man is an instrumental number where everyone gets a chance to stretch out.  My favorite on the album is Country Song, a tune with a nice lyrical hook, but more importantly a 5 minute–or-so instrumental vamp in the middle that takes me to my happy place.

ColdSpell_6Panel_Final_SmallFileSize In this day and age a lot of bluegrass music is exploring the bookends of the genre.  It’s either a throwback to the early days or an exploration of the indie sound with Americana instrumentation.  Cold Spell crashes squarely through the middle of the style, with excellent instrumental skills and lyrical hooks that keep you swaying to the music when you aren’t dancing to the jams.

Haas Kowert Tice – You Got This

A few years ago I saw Casey Driessen at a music festival down in Austin.  Of the perhaps 100 people backstage at the moment, I’d guess half of them were fiddle players.  Every fiddle player who was performing that day was there.  It was impressive to see all that talent make their way to see someone who was an inspiration for them to improve their art and skill.  Bela Fleck has that effect on banjo players.  Chris Wood for bass players.  There are just a handful of musicians that have that unique combination of physical skill and creative ability that set the bar for the rest of the world.  Listening to the just-released first album from Haas Kowert Tice, You Got This, I wonder if I’m hearing the early career of someone else that will make that exclusive club.

The group is composed of Brittany Haas on fiddle (Darol Anger, Crooked Still), Paul Kowert on bass (Punch Brothers), and Jordon Tice on guitar and seemingly the chief songwriter of the group.  These three have been playing together since college, but careers took them to other groups, only to discover how much they enjoy making their own music.  The album is a completely instrumental work.  Haas and Kowert seem to shine a little more when it comes to specific licks and catchy phrases.  But it’s Tice’s work on the guitar that holds everything together and makes this a band, not a trio of individuals who happen to be playing on the same record.

Without a background in music theory, I’m somewhat challenged to even describe to you the music on this disc.  Grandpa’s Cheesebarn has a combination of staccato solos and flowing melodies in interesting keys that remind me of the first time I heard Igor Stravinsky.  Classical, bluegrass, I don’t know how they’re even remotely related, but it somehow seems that way.  Better Off is like chamber music for bluegrass instruments.  The Switchback Games have a dissonant sound in the intro and segues that really holds your attention.  El Camino has a walking bass and flowing fiddle that just says wanderlust to me.

haas_kowert_tice Although I’m hard pressed to explain exactly why I like You Got This, it’s something I threw in my CD player a couple of weeks ago and have found it really hard to not keep going back to it.  So if you’re interested in some Americana that’s off the beaten path, but still sucks you in, I recommend Haas Kowert Tice.

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.