Nickel Creek – New Day in Boston

Although my recent interest in bluegrass has certainly been controlling lots of airtime on my  stereo, Nickel Creek bridge the gap of old and new. Somehow, they managed to sneak into the Americana/Indie Rock section of the record store in my college days and I’ve been a fan for the near decade of their existence. When I heard about their most recent record, I was weary of a “reunion” record. But this is one example of an album where a hiatus actually did the band a boatload of good.


I’ve seen shows at the House of Blues in Boston and it’s large open size makes it far less intimate than my preferred venues. But somehow, Chris Thile, Sarah and Sean Watkins managed to make the crowd feel like they were at a small bluegrass venue. Thile regaled the crowd with storytelling and Sarah Watkins’ angelic voice filled the cavernous arena.

But the highlight of the night was the truly varied set of songs. The fourth album has given the band a catalog that can easily fill a long setlist (20 songs) with both consistent songcraft and musicianship. From the recent “A Dotted Line,” Sean Watkins’ “21st of May” was an immediate standout. His tale of the billboards announcing the impending rapture on that fateful date inspired the song kept the crowd engaged between songs. The performance was tight and the beautiful performances by Thile and Sarah Watkins to accentuate the dynamics of the song.

Old favorites “This Side,” “Somebody More Like You” and “The Lighthouse’s Tale” highlighted the emotional songwriting of the band. The songs were both engaging, tightly arranged, and showed varied songwriting growth. The instrumentals serve as the musical foil to these tunes. In fact, Thile talked about all the the different instrumental tracks and gave them thumbs up, okay, or thumbs down based on the titles that the band wrote (amusing the crowd with ease). He mentioned these as an intro to “Elephant in the Corn” (which is definitely a thumbs up for me). The tune, along with “Scotch & Chocolate” and “Smoothie Song” established that the band is not afraid to push their shows more to the technical bluegrass side.

Old favorites like “The Fox,” “When in Rome,” and “Doubting Thomas” take on new life next to new compositions like “Destination” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” In fact, the former set were not my favorites, but I certainly appreciated them more as I heard them performed by the newly mature Nickel Creek.

The band has managed to bring itself back to life. They can play with the best bluegrassers, write indie rock tunes, and rock the house of blues. As disappointed as I was when they went on hiatus, I am equally excited to see how they’ve grown and rekindled an even more magical synergy. Don’t miss them.

Old Settler’s Music Fest – 2014 Edition

Every spring, a couple of weeks after the madhouse of SXSW, the music festival season kicks off with Old Settler’s Music Festival, about a half hour outside of Austin.  Started as a bluegrass festival, Old Settler’s now embraces a broad spectrum of Americana.  Organizer Jean Spivey has a magic touch for consistently mixing old with new, and traditional with what everyone will rave about next year.  Like all festivals of any size, there’s always more to see than you can get to, but with that in mind here are my highlights of the show.

Can I Get An Amen

OK, they don’t exactly have the old-time religion background that many bluegrass bands do, but European group Red Wine sounds like they come straight from the hills of Appalachia–until leader Silvio Ferretti speaks in his native Italian accent.  As Friday’s opening act on the bluegrass stage, they set a great tone for rest of the evening.  Rising star Parker Millsap lit up the campground stage Thursday night with his mix of blues, folk, and soul-wrenching vocal delivery.  Leaning on his Pentecostal upbringing, he delivered a fear-of-god performance.  For sheer spirituality, though, no one topped St. Paul & the Broken Bones.  They put on an electrifying performance Thursday evening, and then outdid themselves on Friday.  Singer Paul Janeway had the Austin crowd, who can be a little jaded about good music, pressing against the stage barriers like a bunch of teenage girls at a Beatles concert.  Speaking of which, the band delivered a cover of Hey Jude that was inspired, and followed it up with a cover of A Change Is Gonna Come that would have made Sam Cooke weep with joy.


Music Legends

As I mentioned earlier, Old Settler’s is usually a good place to catch some of the legends of Americana music playing for a crowd that’s appreciative of their life’s contribution.  Peter Rowan, a mere 71 years old, gave a heart-warming performance of many of his classics with the Twang an’ Groove instantiation of his backing band early Saturday afternoon, and then played a solo, unamplified set at the Discovery Stage later in the day.  Del McCoury, 75, with his multi-generational band, gave performances on both Friday and Saturday that were as energetic as the first time I saw him almost 30 years ago.  The coup de grace, though, was Ralph Stanley.  Also featuring family, his grandson, in his Clinch Mountain Boys band, Ralph pretty much just stayed in front of his microphone.  But when the band cleared the stage and Ralph, now 87, let loose with his a capella O Death, an unearthly silence enveloped a crowd of several thousand people.  Even the normal backstage chatter stopped cold to listen to the master.

The Road Goes On Forever

At the other end of the scale are new artists with tons of talent who have many decades of performing to look forward to.  Clearly local favorite Sarah Jarosz falls in that camp, having first performed at Old Settler’s in the youth talent competition, which she won at age 12.  That was literally half her lifetime ago, and she’s now perhaps the princess of OSMF having not missed performing at many of the festivals in between.  Elephant Revival first broke on the scene just a couple of years ago, but they’ve been gathering fans and momentum since, and their performance Saturday afternoon, including guests from peer bands like Wood & Wire and Della Mae, did nothing to slow that momentum down.  I think the highlight in this category, though, was the Saturday evening set from Lake Street Dive.  The entire band is so solid and singer Rachael Price grasps the subtlety of singing to the size and energy of the crowd, with a euphoric result.

And the Party Never Ends

Unlike many moderately sized festivals, the headliners at Old Settler’s are not the last act of the evening.  That honor is reserved for a party/jam band.  While the main bulk of the audience is finding their way to the parking lot, the last group of the night at Old Settlers is essentially in charge of priming the diehard music fans for the upcoming several hours of campfire jams.  Thursday night that charge was led by Donna the Buffalo.  With their style of Deadhead meets zydeco music, there was no doubt who was in control of the crowd when their supposed 75 minute set cracked the 2 hour mark.  Friday night’s final official festivities belonged to the Dickinson brothers and their incarnation as the North Mississippi All Stars.  With fiery lead guitar and a driving, sometime congo line, drum beat, the All Stars were just about the only people on the planet that could have transitioned the crowd from St. Paul’s Muscle Shoal’s soul to anything resembling normalcy.  And then there’s Kevin Russell.  With his previous band, The Gourds, Kevin owned Austin late night for several years.  Shinyribs is giving him a different outlet for his talent, but he knows when to let go of the rules and lash the crowd into a frenzy.  With Saturday night the last night of music for many OSMF attendees, Russell made sure things ended on an exclamation point.


Trevor Alguire – Miles Away

Staring out the window, it’s only the middle of the afternoon and yet darkness has started creeping in.  A cold wind howls out of the north and  the trees seem to be wrapping their branches around themselves in a futile attempt to stay warm.  Even the good things going through your mind seem to have a haunting character about them.  Using a combination of electric organ and strings in the background as a foil to a raw guitar sound, Trevor Alguire and his co-producer Jason Jaknunas have managed to capture that feeling on several tracks of Alguire’s soon to be released record, Miles Away.

Wounded Soul tells the tale of a one-sided relationship, “I’ll never stop talking about you, you’ll likely never mention me again”.  The Long Shot talks about hope, even when you know it’s not likely to work out.  Long Gone Away applies the sound I mentioned to a life in small town Canada that’s never going to be the same, while Rusty Old Strings is a love song for a favorite old guitar.

Not everything on the album is melancholy, though.  Miles Away, the opening track, is a rock anthem to a long drive home.  In the Palm Of My Hand brings an alt country edge with some nice dual guitar work.  So Sad Lately is a sort-of Carl Perkins 50′s rock and roll tune complete with a little doo-wop and drum sticking that Sam Phillips couldn’t have done a better job producing.

Trevor-Alguire-Miles-Away-400x400 Even though he’s Canadian, Trevor has found a lot more of a fan base in Europe than North America and being a smart guy he focuses much of his touring effort there.  With all the fragmentation of the music industry and lack of any tried-and-true path to broad exposure, there are some really good artists you’ll never hear if you don’t look around for them. Trevor Alguire and Miles Away is a great reward for putting in that effort.

Levi Lowrey – Levi Lowrey

My favorite album of last year was Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.  It was an exploration of a man’s demons, some of them intense enough to sometimes weigh in on my decision whether to hit play or go for something a little lighter on the mind.  Levi Lowrey, with his second, self-titled, album, has also chosen to explore some of his demons.  In contrast to Southeastern, with its palpitating hope the chamber is empty, Lowrey seems to get the healing that comes with just talking about the pain.

One of the recurring themes on the album is how things are different with Lowrey’s two sons.  Trying Not To Die talks about how children are fearless and as you grow older you start wondering, “are you living, or just trying not to die.”  Before the Hymnal Died laments the fact that the upbringing Levi had just isn’t available anymore.  Perhaps the most telling song in the group is Urge For Leaving, about Lowrey’s father leaving and step-father separating from his mother.  It’s a fervent hope that the behavior isn’t somehow handed down and that he’ll overcome whatever obstacles he has to for his kids to have the life he didn’t.

Several of the songs are built around more broadly discussed demons.  Addiction raises its head in I’ve Held the Devil’s Hand.  December Thirty-One goes through how things can change, for better or worse, and the value of occasionally taking a look back.  Don’t Blame Me seems an almost tongue-in-cheek commentary on relationships with its admonishment, “don’t ask me no questions and I won’t have to leave.”

Lowrey cover I can’t complete a review of this record without mentioning the last two songs on the disc.  Flywheel starts with a sweet fiddle intro (Lowrey’s first musical love) that then, BAM, goes into a hard rocking instrumental number.  And then seamlessly transitions into the Black Sabbath hit, War Pigs, with the fiddle taking on the screaming lead guitar parts.  The entire album is a fine, fine piece of work.  But if you only have 99 cents, you have to get this Americana take on Ozzy Osborne and his mates.

Photos that ROCK! Best of 2013!

Photos that ROCK! Best of 2013!

I am INSANELY lucky that I get to listen to amazing music AND take pictures- 2 of my favorite things. Here are some of my favorite shots from various venues around Boston in 2013. What a year!

Tom McBride @ Lizard Lounge, March 2013

Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band @ House of Blues Boston, May 2013

Hem @ The Sinclair, June 2013

Twangville Music Showcase @ Lizard Lounge (pictured here: Bill Janovitz & Stephen Kellogg), June 2013

Barnstar! @ Outside the Box Festival, Boston Common, July 2013

David Wax Museum @ Outside the Box Festival, Government Center, August 2013

Joe Fletcher, Amanda Shires, & Jason Isbell @ The Sinclair, August 2013

Sarah Borges & Eilen Jewel @ The Center for the Arts Natick (pictured: Sarah Borges), October 2013

Deer Tick @ The Met, Rhode Island Dudesmash Festival, October 2013

Travis @ House of Blues Boston, November 2013

Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds @ The Sinclair, December 2013

Session Americana @ Lizard Lounge (various dates)

David Wax Museum @ The Sinclair, December 2013

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