Front Country – Sake Of the Sound

Six one, half dozen another.  That old saying is supposed to be all about things being the same, but I think there’s a perspective difference that gets lost.  As an example, many bands have a wide range of genres on an album in part because they’re still looking to find their sound.  A few, relatively few in my experience, do it because they’re so adept at such a wide range of styles they’re just looking to keep things fresh and open it up a bit.  Clearly the latter situation applies on the debut album from San Francisco Bay-area band Front Country,  Sake Of the Sound.

The band started as an impromptu gathering of acquaintances to play a few sets at a local club.  They didn’t officially form until last year, when they took the Colorado high country by storm, winning best band competitions at both Telluride and Rockygrass.  That high country sound really comes out on the aptly named Colorado, and Glacier Song, featuring banjoist Jordan Klein on vocals.  One Kind Word and Like A River, a Kate Wolf tune, also have a classic bluegrass sound.  There are a couple of really nice instrumental numbers, including Daysleeper, that starts out a bit like bluegrass chamber music.  And guitartist Jacob Groopman takes vocal lead on a speedgrass verison of an obscure Dylan song, Long Ago, Far Away.

When the album really kicks into high gear, though, is when you add lead vocalist Melody Walker’s voice to the pickin’ and shuckin’.   The title song just soars over the instruments and sets Front Country apart from mere mortal bluegrass bands.  Rock Salt & Nails lays out an emotional charge and a steely determination that original author Utah Phillips couldn’t possibly have imagined, as talented a songwriter as he was.

W169~PrntOption And then there’s the opening cut, Gospel Train.  My description is going to be mundane–it starts out with an a Capella gospel chorus, and then kicks into a traditional bluegrass arrangement.  But it is so well executed, when you listen to it again after hearing the full album, it’s like the band is just showing off.  Because they can.  You should go listen to Front Country.

Lost & Nameless and Other EP Gems

Several good EP’s have crossed my listening desk over the summer, and while individually there wasn’t quite enough material in each of them for a full review, they’re all worth a listen.

First up is the latest from Lost & Nameless, When You Walked Into the Room.  I first ran across this group early in the year when their Empty Spaces EP came out.  I noted at the time they had a fun and diverse sound, and their new release continues down that path.  The title cut opens the EP with an up-temp0 commentary on love-at-first-sight that will give you a chuckle, “you turned your head in my direction and my future was planned out.”  Say Goodbye features the youngster in the band, Kimberly Zielnicki, on vocals along with guest Todd Phillips.  Have We Lost has a definite new grass sound, while May I brings in a touch of gospel.  The EP ends with an acoustic, fiddle-drive piece, Matthew’s Reel/Reel a Levis Beaulieu.  I’d comment on who plays what, but with just about everyone in the group playing half a dozen instruments, you’d need a scorecard.  So instead just sit back and enjoy a really fine band with roots from Ireland to Austin.

Next, I’ll call  your attention to Strikes And Gutters, the latest release from Brian Pounds.  Pounds is perhaps best known as one of the contestants on last season’s The Voice.  A couple of tunes on this EP, Hold My Head High and Sunday Dress, certainly reinforce the idea of a pop country crooner.  Somewhere, Maybe Carolina is a little more old school country.  Keep My Hands To Myself, my favorite on the disc, has a clear soul sound to it.  The EP finishes with Jesus, Don’t Let Me Die (On My Feet) that’s part prayer and part assessment of a situation familiar to all too many folks.

The last EP is not exactly Twangville material.  The only twang you’re going to hear out of The Nightowls is if someone breaks a string in a live show.  An Austin band by way of 60’s Detroit, with some Bootsy Collins thrown in for good measure, The Nightowls have dropped an EP of “B-sides” from their album last year, Good As Gold.  If you’re old enough to know what a B-side is, you’ll remember that it was no reflection on the material, more just a commentary on what the label liked, and this set reflects that.  The Feel Good gives you a taste of Funkadelic-style soul.  Nobody Ever Wants To Leave was chosen as the official song of the Austin Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.  After All has some old school Stevie Wonder sounds to go with the Motown vibe.  Either Way finishes the EP on a high note with the horns asserting themselves in all the right places.

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)

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.

Missy Werner – Turn This Heart Around

You just can’t have a good summer mix tape without some bluegrass.  Whether you’re getting liquored up at a festival down at the fairgrounds or spending some quality time with the family at the annual church picnic, bluegrass just sounds like a carefree, sunny day.  Yes, there are plenty of songs about heartbreak and angst, and I’m not sure any genre has more classic murder ballads.  But you usually have to pay close attention to the lyrics to realize it.  Meanwhile, the sound of claw-hammer banjo or flat-picked guitar is almost guaranteed to get people up and dancing.

Lucky me that the latest release from Missy Werner, Turn This Heart Around, slid across my inbox last week.  It’s bluegrass in all its finest forms.  Missy takes the vocal lead on all the tracks, with occasional harmonies from the likes of Sierra Hull and Sarah Siskind, and plenty of harmony from the band itself.  Her voice has that clear-as-a-bell quality you get from an Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent.  So whether it’s the slow ballad of Dead Man Walking or the tumbling rapids of Rocks In the River, nearly every song is anchored with Werner’s voice.  There is a lone instrumental track on the disc, Snake In the Grass, where the band gets to stretch their solo chops.

While I really liked a couple of the uptempo tunes on the album, like Rough Edges and Cloudless Blue, everything came together best on Come Back To Me, with its soaring vocals and rock solid instrumentals.  Having said that, the most interesting song on the album is Travelin’ Light.  Its gospel harmonies and call-and-response chorus have a purity of style that suck you in to hitting repeat more than once.

Turn-This-Heart-Around Turn This Heart Around covers a lot of bluegrass territory, so there’s bound to be something that catches your fancy.  Perfect for a summer mix tape.