Mayer’s Playlist for August 2014, Part 1

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

Too Blessed to be Stressed, by Paul Thorn

Paul ThornIt has been a bit of a wait for some new music from Tupelo Mississippi’s second favorite musical son. Thorn bridged the gap between 2010’s Pimps and Preachers and now with What the Hell Is Goin On, a fun covers album. While I certainly enjoyed his re-working of lesser-known songs by Allen Toussaint and Lindsay Buckingham, it made me that much more eager for a collection of Thorn originals. Thankfully, the wait is over.

There has always been an endearing quality to Thorn’s songwriting and it is in fine form on Too Blessed to be Stressed. Mix one part optimism with one part humor, peppered with a dash of realism, and this is the sound that emerges.

“Mediocrity’s King” is a great example. The song finds Thorn lamenting the state of everything from culture to government. “They manufacture stars on a tv stage, Johnny Cash couldn’t get arrested today,” he declares before really letting loose:

When you don’t expect much then you’re never let down
You get the kind of government we’ve got now
Republicans and Democrats are breaking my heart
I can’t tell them sons of bitches apart

Thorn rachets up the humor on “Backslide on Friday.” An ambling beat shuffles him through the days of the week. I sin on Saturday, I repent on Sunday” he sings, “then I tell myself I won’t procrastinate on Monday, Tuesday I do like I should.” It leads to the inevitable conclusion captured in the song’s title.

The fun continues with the Mississippi boogie of “Real Goodbye,” a stout kiss-off to a new ex. “My future’s bright now that I’ve put you in the past,” he proclaims, “hasta la vista, syonara, kiss my ass.”

Thorn’s infectious optimism shines brightest on “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy.” The song slowly builds from a subdued opening to a soaring finale as Thorn shares “the words that my Grandpa always said.” Words to live by, indeed.

Audio Download: Paul Thorn, “Real Goodbye”

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THE PLAYLIST


Tears Don’t Matter Much, Lucero (from the INgrooves release Live in Atlanta)

I expect that I’m not alone when I saw that Lucero are one of those bands from whom I’ve long awaited a live release (I’m looking at you, too, Patrick Sweany). Well, the boys from Memphis have finally delivered. Recorded over three nights in Atlanta late last year, the band culled thirty-two tracks spanning the band’s nearly fifteen year career. Some fans may quibble a bit but it plays like a greatest hits album. From the horns on “That Much Further West” to the roar of the crowd on “Tears Don’t Matter Much,” Live in Atlanta finds the band is exceptional form.


Neon Hearts, Jim Lauderdale (from the release I’m a Song)

I suppose that we shouldn’t be surprised that Jim Lauderdale has amassed an impressive array of friends over his more than thirty year career in the music business. He has worked with artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Robert Hunter and Patty Loveless to, of course, frequent collaborator Buddy Miller. Many of these friends appear, both as co-songwriters and performers, on his tuneful new twenty-song collection.

With one foot firmly grounded in classic country era, Lauderdale still manages to have a satisfying freshness. Let’s call it vintage without feeling dated. We can also call it damn good.


Prettiest Girl, Ben Miller Band (from the New West Records release Any Way, Shape or Form)

This Missouri-based three-piece makes a mighty fine racket. Singer-songwriter Miller and his cronies — Scott Leeper on the washtub bass and Doug Dicharry on percussion, trombone and various other instruments — play country and bluegrass with a healthy dose of attitude. The group often infuses its songs with Miller’s slide guitar to give them extra edge. Here’s one of the more traditional numbers from their fine new record.


Cruel Alibis, Mustered Courage (from the release Powerlines)

This trio from Australia seem determined to crack the US bluegrass scene. If their US debut is any indication, they’ve clearly got the chops to do it. There’s both energy and buoyancy to their music, with songs chock full of catchy pop melodies.

Audio Download: Mustered Courage, “Cruel Alibis”

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Feet Back on the Ground, Dead Fingers (from the Pipe & Gun/Communicating Vessels release Big Black Dog)

Alabama husband and wife duo Kate and Taylor Hollingsworth have a great ramshackle sound. They start with enticing pop melodies and build raw yet immaculately crafted arrangements around them. From the haunting “Pomp & Circumstance” to the scampering “Feet Back on the Ground,” they deliver the goods.

Audio Stream: Dead Fingers, “Feet Back on the Ground”

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Messin’ Around, Quiet Life (from the Mama Bird Recording Co. release Housebroken Man)

Although the quartet call Portland, Oregon home, their more likely to be found somewhere on the road. Their forthcoming ep reflects their wanderlust ways with an eclectic sound that runs from the honky-tonk of “Messin’ Around” to their intensely dark rock and roll cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die.”

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

Monday Morning Video: Andrew Combs

Nashville-based artist Andrew Combs passed through Boston a few weeks back and played this gem.

I said E-M-I-L-Y, why, why tell me Emily
You got me wrapped around your finger like a chain around a D-O-G,
I said E-M-I-L-Y, why, why tell me Emily
Oh woman like you are trouble with a capital T.

Combs also shared some tasty new songs. Alas, the album is slated for 2015 so I guess we’ll just have to wait patiently. Hopefully this one will make the cut.

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.