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.

Mayer’s Playlist for Sept 2014, Part 1

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

You’ve Got the Wrong Man, by Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher

Singer-songwriter Joe Fletcher drew inspiration for You’ve Got the Wrong Man from the field recordings of the early 20th century. The process, most notably used by John Lomax during his musical exploration of the Southern US, places particular emphasis on the raw emotion and storytelling nature of folk and blues music of that period.

The constantly-touring Fletcher dusted off his four-track recorder and, guitar in hand, began recording songs as he traveled. Now it’s one thing to replicate the recording technique, it’s quite another to capture the essence of the approach. Fletcher hits the mark on both fronts.

The album opens with the ambling “Florence, Alabama.” Fletcher picks at his acoustic guitar as he matter-of-factly describes the failed romance of a soldier and a bartender. “You’re the prettiest bartender in the last bar in the South and I thought you were an angel until you opened your mouth,” he wryly croons.

The album continues with an imagined tale of spending time with Hank Williams, a song that was sparked by a trip that Fletcher made to the Hank Williams museum. “I ordered up two beers, said ‘Hank, what are you drinkin’?” sings Fletcher against the lonely backdrop of his electric guitar. Williams responds in kind, “Joe, I think I like the way you’re thinkin’, when I stand still sometimes I swear I’m sinking, I think tonight I’ll drink whatever it is you’re drinkin.”

Fletcher turns to his acoustic guitar for the long-time live show staple “I Never.” It is a colorful sea-faring tale with a great sing-along chorus, “I’d a never gotten on this ship if I had known that it was gonna take me home, I was never meant for life on land and I can’t make it on my own.”

The album concludes with a moving tribute to Dave Lamb of Brown Bird, who succumbed to leukemia earlier this. Fletcher invited a veritable who’s who of like-minded artists – from Deer Tick’s John MacCauley to Patrick Sweany to JP Harris and others — to perform Lamb’s “Mabel Gray.”

Audio Download: Joe Fletcher, “Florence, Alabama”

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THE PLAYLIST


Good and Ready, Anthony D’Amato (from the New West Records release The Shipwreck from the Shore)
There’s long been something magical about Anthony D’Amato’s songwriting. He writes with a poetic style, choosing his words carefully to tell stories that are rich with imagery. Let’s call them sophisticated folk songs.

For his New West Records debut, D’Amato headed to Maine farmhouse to record his work with producer Sam Kassirer, who has done wonderful work with other Twangville faves such as Josh Ritter and Lake Street Dive.

Working with Kassirer, D’Amato conjured up a more majestic sound with lush arrangements. Depending on the song, you’ll hear varieties of strings and horns along with some wonderful choral harmonies. From the percussive glory of “Back Back Back” to the subtle beauty of “Ludlow,” the results are exquisite.


Downbound Train, Joe Pug (from the Lightning Rod Records release Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A.)
Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1984 album gets the tribute treatment from some of Americana’s finest artists. Blitzen Trapper serve up a bluesy take on “Working on the Highway” while Trampled by Turtles shine on a bluegrass performance of “I’m Goin’ Down.”

Leave it to Joe Pug and Jason Isbell to highlight the darker side of an album that is so often noted for its upbeat rock anthems. Isbell’s somber “Born in the U.S.A,” punctuated by Amanda Shire’s haunting fiddle, speaks to the pains of a soldier returning home from war. Pug’s stark and evocative “Downbound Train” vividly captures the anguish of a character who is brokenhearted and broken.


Burning Pictures, Justin Townes Earle (from the Vagrant Records release Single Mothers)
Justin Townes Earle continues to evolve his sound. His songs are still rooted in, well, roots but they now have a mighty tasty injection of Southern soul.

Lyrically, he still mines heartaches and break-ups with skillful precision. “I asked my baby if she loved me, she said, ‘Ask me later,’” he sings on “Wanna Be a Stranger.” He looks to his mother for comfort after a failed relationship on “Picture in a Drawer.” “Mama she’s gone, just a picture in a drawer,” he intones.

Lest anyone think that this is a mellow affair, Earle and crew crank up the guitars and tempo on songs like “My Baby Drives” and “Burning Pictures.” The latter is a personal favorite with Earle cautioning a friend on his dating habits, “Summer comes you’ll have a new love, but mark my words come winter, you’ll be starting fires and burning pictures.”


Young Women and Old Guitars, J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices (from the Cow Island Records release Home Is Where the Hurt Is)

One need look no further than Harris’s web site to figure out what type of music he prefers – www.ilovehonkytonk.com. Whether he’s singing songs about drivin’ trucks or drinking away a failed romance, his songs ring out with a whiskey-soaked authenticity. His voice recalls Merle Haggard with all the requisite grit and attitude. As if that weren’t enough, Harris recorded this album in Ronnie Milsap’s old studio. Home Is Where the Hurt Is does the country legends proud.


Goshen ’97, Strand of Oaks (from the Dead Oceans Records release Heal)
There are some albums that are rooted in personal discovery and dripping with emotion. Put this one on that list. Timothy Showalter – aka Strand of Oaks – started his career with a more rootsy tone. Over the past several years, however, he has reflected on his life and used it as inspiration for a new sound. Acoustic guitars were traded for electric guitars giving an extra edge to his songwriting.

This song finds Showalter reflecting on his formative teenage years. “I was lonely but I was having fun,” he sings before declaring, “I don’t want to start all over again.”

Later on the album he pays tribute to the late musician Jason Molina. “I got your sweet tunes to play,” he sings against a wash of guitars.

Just Another Band Out of Boston: A Special Boston Playlist


Here is the latest installment in our periodic series highlighting Boston and New England artists. (View the complete series here.)


Mark Erelli (from the Hillbilly Pilgrim Records release Milltowns)
Erelli pays loving tribute to his hero and mentor, the late folk musician Bill Morrissey. With the help of some talented friends — including Peter Mulvey, Kris Delmhorst and many others — Erelli re-visits twelve songs from the Morrissey canon. The selections range from the amusing “Letter From Heaven” (“I bought Robert Johnson a beer / Yeah, I know, everybody’s always surprised to find him here.”) to the sadly moving “These Cold Fingers” (“Everything slips through these cold fingers / Like trying to hold water, trying to hold sand.”)

In addition to the Morrissey songs, Erelli contributes one original composition to the collection. The title track is a touching reflection on his relationship with Morrissey:

I was getting ready to go on / you said “Grasshopper, you sing ‘Birches’ / I’ve been singing it for too long” / So I sang it like I’d written it / though I wished you hadn’t asked / ‘Cause I couldn’t shake the feeling / like something was being passed.

One can hear the admiration in every note. Here, for your listening enjoyment, is “Milltowns.”


Four AM, Josh Buckley (from the self-released Blind Side of the Heart)
Ok, so Buckley moved to Austin a few years ago. I’ll always associate him with Boston, however, where he lived for several years. Heck, this album was even recorded here with local quartet the Blue Ribbons and several other talented Boston musicians providing musical accompaniment.

If Buckley’s last release was a rock record with a Neil Young and Crazy Horse vibe, this collection veers more towards Gram Parsons and Doug Sahm. The songs move along with an ambling feel, accompanied by lyrics that reflect on heartbreak and loss. The combination gives them a distinctive blend of resignation and contentment.

Of course, Buckley still likes to have some fun as he does on this sauntering gem. “Only Warren Zevon calls at 4am that’s why I didn’t pick up.”

Audio Download: Josh Buckley, “Four AM”

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Tattooed Man and the Saint, Dan Blakeslee (from the self-released Owed to the Tangled Wind)
Despite the fact that Dan Blakeslee is widely recognized as one of the friendliest, happy-go-lucky musicians in town, his songs often has dark and mystical overtones. All the better I say, as he is a master at using vivid and poetic language to tell ornate musical stories.

Blakeslee travelled to the Columbus Theater in Providence Rhode Island to record Owed to the Tangled Wind. The theater has become something of an artist community, anchored by Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky of the Low Anthem. That duo appear (and lend their engineering talent) along with Joe Fletcher and Jonah Tolchin among others. The musicians create a rich musical tapestry that is the perfect setting for Blakeslee’s songs. The results are strikingly beautiful.


World Go Round, Will Dailey (from the Wheelkick Records release National Throat)
Having finally extricated himself from a failed label deal, Dailey set to do things on his own terms. If National Throat is any indication, the newfound freedom suits him well. Dailey creates a sound that is best described as eclectic pop, mixing in bits of everything from reggae to jazz. Hooks abound, with the occasional angular twist to make things interesting.


Wellspring, The Boston Singer’s Project
Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andy Santospago has set out to release a song a month in 2014. Although each track features a different singer and a host of other musicians sharing their talents, one can hear the consistent thread of Santospago’s musical pen. So far the songs have ranged from classic Harry Nilsson-esque pop to groove-heavy blues to Americana pop.

Nine months down and three to go. I, for one, am eager to hear what’s coming next.

(Visit the Boston Singers Project site for lyrics and the stories behind each song)


Fort Point Boogie, Tony Savarino (from the self-released Guitarino)
Any guess as to Tony Savarino’s instrument of choice? Savarino puts his guitars to work on this eclectic collection of instrumentals. You’ll hear a bit of blues, some pop and even a standard (a wonderful solo acoustic “As Tears Goes By”), all played with the perfect combination of skill and personality. Here’s the tasty opening work-out.


They’re Gonna Shoot, Abbie Barrett & the Last Date (from the self-released The Triples)
Barrett’s latest, the compilation of a recent ep series, is filled with regal indie pop that is sometimes dark and sometimes dreamy. Well, perhaps more dark than dreamy but brimming with melodic hooks that occasionally veer in unexpected directions.


Flash of White Light, Watts (from the Rum Bar Records single Flash of White Light/The Mess is the Makeup)
Are you ready for some smokin’ stadium rock? This Boston quartet pick right up where they left off with 2011’s On the Dial. Do you like big ol’ hooks and loads of in-your face guitars? If so, this is your jam.


Life Goes On (Until It Don’t), Township (from the self-released ep Life Goes On (Until It Don’t)

1970’s rock in all it’s glory. If you ain’t playing it loud, you ain’t playing it right.

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)

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.