Mayer’s Playlist for April 2014, Part 2


Parker Millsap, by Parker MillsapParker Millsap

What is it about Oklahoma? As if the state’s musical credibility weren’t long ago established, there’s been a surge of great young artists emerging from the state. Count Parker Millsap among ‘em.

Millsap blends gospel, bluegrass and folk to perfection all the while filling his songs with colorful characters. “Quite Contrary,” for example, reimagines the lives of nursery rhyme characters as if they lived on the other side of the tracks. These include the fabled Mary, Mary, who is transformed into a street walker. This may not be kid-friendly Mother Goose, but it is darn good fun.

“Truck Stop Gospel” tells the story of an evangelist who preaches the gospel from the back of a flat-bed truck. “Just want to modify your behavior, I just want you to love my savior,” Millsap sings with such zeal that you’re not sure if he is being cynical or reverential.

Millsap gets personal on a few songs, portraying the foibles of love. “The Villian” is a somber break-up song that finds the singer reflecting on a poisoned relationship and taking the steps to end it. “I don’t want to be the villain in your dreams anymore,” Millsap intimates in a voice heavy with resignation. Although the song is primarily centered around Millsap’s acoustic guitar, occasional string and horn flourishes give the song a dramatic effect.

“Disappear” is a happier tale. The ambling fiddle-laden country song finds Millsap trying to convince a lover to leave town to find a new life together. “I’ll hold the map honey if you’ll steer, make like we were never here,” he implores, “you and me mama gonna disappear.”

The instrumentation is sparse, generally a single guitar with bass and fiddle accompaniment. All the better to focus attention on the charm and appeal of Millsap’s songwriting.

Audio Stream: Parker Millsap, “Truck Stop Gospel”

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You Ain’t Worth the Fight, Hannah Aldridge (from the Trodden Black Entertainment release Razor Wire)

I’ll admit that it was Aldridge’s cover of Jason Isbell’s “Try” that first caught my attention. She recorded it with no less that Isbell’s own 400 Unit and it rivals the original in raw intensity. Dig into Aldridge’s own songs, however, and you’ll find a talent to watch. Her country-based songwriting has a rough edge to it, feisty and filled with attitude.

Audio Download: Hannah Aldridge, “You Ain’t Worth the Fight”

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How Can You Turn Around, Northcote (from the Black Numbers release Northcote)

Canadian singer-songwriter Matt Goud (aka Northcote) spent his early years in a hardcore punk band. When he embarked on a solo career a few years ago, however, he veered into pop territory. All the better, I say. He maintains some of the intensity from the hardcore days – a good thing to these ears – while letting his polished pop melodies shine. He writes and sings with an earnestness that is infectious, his weathered voice giving his songs warmth and texture.

The Bad Days, David Ramirez (from the Sweetworld release The Rooster – EP)

One of my SXSW discoveries this year was Austin singer-songwriter Ramirez. Armed with just his guitar he captivated a late afternoon crowd with his poignant songwriting and impassioned performance. Here is a sample to get you started. If you like what you hear, Ramirez is offering free sampler and live show recording via his web site.

No One Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore, John Moreland (from the Last Chance Records release In the Throes)

I’m a bit late to the John Moreland party. But at least I got here right?

I sought Moreland out on the recommendation of several singer-songwriters that I admire. Damn if they weren’t right. The Oklahoma acoustic troubadour sings with a raspy voice that gives his songs, already strong in their own right, even more potency. His songs are wonderfully world-weary and conjure up images of traveling down dusty roads. “I heard truth is what songs are for,” he sings on this stand-out from his 2013 release, “Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore…”

I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You, The Hold Steady (from the Positive Jams/Washington Square release Teeth Dreams)

It’s been a long four years since the last release from the Hold Steady. A really long four years. Thankfully the wait is over. Teeth Dreams finds the boys ready to rock, with new guitarist Steve Selvidge joining co-founder Tad Kubler for some glorious rock fury. Singer-songwriter Craig Finn is in fine form as well, spitting out tales of wayward characters trying to find their way.

Light of Day, Nick Dittmeier (from the self-released Light of Day)

With so much mediocre country rock to be found on the radio and elsewhere these days, it’s refreshing to hear something that rings of authenticity. Meet southern Indiana singer-songwriter Nick Dittmeier. His songs have an honest and hearfelt feel to them, not to mention a nice heartland rock sensibility.

Audio Download: Nick Dittmeier, “Light of Day”

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Honeylark – Heavy

This time of year the shadows stretch long across the frozen landscape, adding a lightly brushed undercurrent of foreboding to everything.  It’s always there, lurking, feeding the darker human emotions, even when the event of the moment is a totally enjoyable holiday celebration.  When you put that feeling to music, you get what Honeylark calls folk noir, which is the exactly right description for their debut album, Heavy.

Honeylark + Fiawna Forte – “Afternoon” (Official Music Video) from Nathan Poppe on Vimeo.

The first cut on side 1 of the album (that’s right, it’s vinyl or download only, no CD) is Widow, a musing about the black widow spider on the window sill, with a gothic chorus that makes the song kind of creepy beautiful.  Riverbed is a brassy, bouncy, light-hearted song about…death.  Hospital carries more of an indie sound in the early going, but builds a Wagnerian crescendo that’s practically oppressive.  Yours & Mine features the Ryan Houck half of Honeylark’s husband and wife songwriting team on banjitar, and similarly builds to a crescendo at the end, though not perhaps so Teutonic as Hospital.

11298_fullsize A number of tunes on the album take the much lighter approach I mentioned earlier, with the noir a much subtler bit of the background.  Afternoon is a bitchy fun song about being either a morning person or a night person, I’m not sure which.  Love Is Red is mostly bluegrass, but singer Natalie Houck puts a bit of steaminess to it.  The final cut of the album is Big Red Alarm Bell, with a Celtic lilt that laments, “I wish I was stupid enough to be happy.”  I’d like to hear The Pogues or Flogging Molly do a cover of it.

Heavy is my first album to review this year and it’s a great place to start.  It’s full of texture and melody and emotion–the perfect answer for what to do if you’re stuck inside because the weather outside is frightful.

Music with a Purpose: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids

This post continues our series of posts about music that serves a higher purpose. This music reaches beyond pure listening enjoyment, raising awareness about important issues that affects countless people in their day-to-day lives.

Alastair MoockAlastair Moock had built a successful career as a folk musician when cancer struck. It didn’t strike him, but rather his 6-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with leukemia. Moock responded with his guitar, bringing it to the hospital to help pass the time and alleviate the tension. That effort quickly evolved into Singing Our Way Through: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids. This wonderful new release is both a comfort to those facing similar battles and an inspiration to those who aren’t.

It would be easy to write off these songs as a children’s affair. They’re not. There is a musical sophistical and creativity that is universally appealing. “When I Get Bald,” for example, saunters with a 1960’s pop groove as Moock sings, “let ‘em look and let ‘em stare at one brave kid who’s got no hair.”

Moock mines his folk roots with “Take Care of Your Grown-Ups,” counseling kids to look out for their elders. “Children take care of your grown-ups, even when you know that they’re wrong,” he sings, “they stress and they guess and they’re not that well dressed, but they’re trying so hard to be strong.” In the context of the topic, it is a gentle reminder that no one is immune to cancer — it affects us all.

Several of Moock’s friends and fellow musicians lend their voices to the cause. Aoife O’Donovan’s angelic voice shines on the comforting ballad “Home When I Hold You” while Chris Smither joins Moock for Randy Newman’s classic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (from the film Toy Story). Twangville favorite Mark Erelli sings on the gospel “Joy Comes Back.”

Not having kids of my own, I’m not overly familiar with Elizabeth Mitchell and the Okee Dokee Brothers, 2013 Grammy nominee and Grammy winner in the children’s music category. Nonetheless, their contributions to the folk ballad “Take a Little Walk with Me” and the Woody Guthrie country blues “Hard Travelin’,” respectively, are among my favorite tracks on the release.

As good as this music is, its impact is even stronger. Since the album’s release in July 2013, it has been distributed to over 1,500 cancer patient families across the United States.

Get more information on the Singing Our Way project here and more Music With a Purpose here.

Old Settler’s Music Festival 2013

In the middle of April, a few weeks after the madness of SXSW, one of the more under appreciated events on the Austin music scene happens about 30 miles southwest of town; The Old Settler’s Music Festival.  Here are some of the highlights from this year’s festivities.

Who Was That Band? Festivals like this always have impromptu appearances by various musicians in sets by their friends.  OSMF is certainly no exception.  The best one I saw was half of Milk Drive sitting in for much of the Wood & Wire set on Thursday night.  Very appropriate that this was at the campground stage as late night jamming at OSMF is how Wood & Wire got together.  A somewhat surprising set on Saturday late afternoon as The Reivers took the stage to promote their first album in 22 years.  But the clear winner in this category was Casey Driessen and his Singularity project.  Featuring, well, no one but himself, he managed to extract virtually every instrument out of his fiddle except horns.  And that was probably just because he didn’t want to show off.  Half the people back stage were fiddle players.


Jerry Douglas

 Rock and Roll!!! Although ostensibly, at least originally, a bluegrass festival, OSMF director Jean Spivey does a magnificent job of mixing up the music and keeping things fresh.  There’s always a little rock and roll and this year was no exception.  Son Volt played a set that reminded you of who put the Alt in Country.  After seeing The Dunwells here and last fall in a Friday-evening-in-the-park appearance in Nashville, I have to say these guys are just one brief hit from the arena circuit.  But I don’t think anyone topped Jerry Douglas and his band for rocking out the crowd.  Playing a number of songs from his recent Traveler album that featured nobodies like Eric Clapton and Dr. John, Douglas was bringing it home.


Elephant Revival

 Old Is New  Traditional Americana music is a key ingredient of OSMF and there are always highlights here.  Della Mae put on awesome shows both Thursday night and Friday afternoon.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops had the crowd besides themselves dancing to everything from Haitian a capello to a version of the Johnny Cash/June Carter hit, Jackson.  My favorite, though, was Elephant Revival with its blend of Billie Holiday-era jazz and modern folk that comes across as a sort of updated Fairport Convention.


Peter Rowan

 New Is Old  Not far from traditional Americana is the idea of putting a new spin on an old classic.  The Giving Tree Band had their feet planted firmly in the 70’s with their covers of The Band, The Faces, and The Grateful Dead in one ecstatic 3-song romp on Thursday night that had the campground sparking it up.  The Gourds did an awesome version of Werewolves of London in their closing set Saturday night.  But the highlight here was definitely Peter Rowan covering Peter Rowan with a salsa version of Panama Red that was so in-the-moment for a sun-soaked Saturday afternoon.

Top Showman If you spend much time at festivals you start to gain an appreciation for how some musicians can just charm a crowd with their presence and charisma.  You have to give kudos to Slim Richey, a fixture on the Austin music scene, for pulling together a last minute fill-in band to cover a cancellation that featured Dennis Ludiker of Milk Drive.  They were having so much fun it was contagious.  It’s hard to top Kevin Russell and The Gourds for a party band that flat-out owns any venue they play.  On this beautiful weekend in April, though, the honors went to Fred Eaglesmith and his Traveling Steam Show.  Part 60’s blues review (with the band dressed to generate the heat for steam), part vaudeville with Fred’s corny jokes, and part political tent revival, their closing shows Thursday night and Friday night were a spectacle.

Sons Of Fathers – Burning Days

My first listen to the latest release from Sons Of Fathers, Burning Days, and I was tempted to just label it sophomore slump and be done with it.  I so liked their first release, though, that I had to go back and listen again and I realized it was my pre-conceived notions at fault and not the quality of the new music.  Their self-titled debut was almost singularly focused on showcasing the harmonies of singer/songwriters David Beck and Paul Cauthen.  And it was spectacular in how well it did so, no doubt also a credit to producer-god Lloyd Maines.

Burning Days is more wide-ranging and shows the breadth of talent of not just Beck and Cauthen, but also their band.  One of the things that shows up more is a kind of indie rock bent.  Only God Can Take A Woman isn’t just indie, but has some hints of psychedelia to it.  A Keep Austin Weird influence I suppose.  The title track has some pop syncopation to it.  Feel the Fall, my favorite tune of the album, starts with the familiar moment of hum when a guitar is plugged into an amp and then proceeds down a fine lo-fi path.  It also has my favorite line of the disc, “does a heart make a sound if it breaks when no one is around?”

Fans of the first album shouldn’t despair too much, though.  The group didn’t entirely abandon their Americana harmonies.  To Whom is full of them, with a touch of the Everly Brothers thrown in.  Almost There starts in that vein, too, but then goes for a little more guitar show-of-force.  Selfish Mind combines the acoustic guitar and banjo with some pedal steel like what so rounded out their debut sound.  Not too far afield, the opening number, Hurt Someone, and the closer, The Mansion, both have a bit of Mumford-ish in them that frankly suits this band pretty well, too.

Sons of Fathers cover If you’re new to Sons Of Fathers you’ll enjoy the harmonies and catchy lyrics of Burning Days.  If you were a big fan of the debut, give this one a second listen because the expansion of their sound points to bigger and better things as the band’s recognition grows.