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)”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


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”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


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”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


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”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


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.

Newport Folk Festival – Friday

Ryan Adams really summed up the 2014 Newport Folk Fest experience well when he said, “”Like ten years ago I was depressed and now I’m playing music with *&$%ing sailboats in the background.” The setting at the legendary festival is literally one of the most beautiful spots as it juts far out into Narragansett Bay. The boats were beautiful, if you happened to look at them for more than a passing glance. I noticed the setting briefly but was totally captivated by the music. The festival has certainly become the must-see spot for summer Americana fans. As other festivals have vastly changed direction, Newport has remained a consistent venue for some of the best folk/rock/americana/blues/R&B music.

IMG_8552

Ryan Adams

Starting with Friday’s headliner, everything really did seem to be looking up. After seeing him many times through the years, this show had him as upbeat as I’ve ever seen the erratic performer. He certainly acknowledged it as well. He couldn’t get enough of picking fun at bassist Charlie Savage and the crowd was eating it up. While there certainly was much of Ryan’s offbeat and rather eccentric commentary, it was so positive that it seemed like Ryan is a new man.

Now for the music. Ryan played some old favorites which included humorous commentary such as “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (which he called “bold-faced lies”), “Come Pick Me Up” (“a moment of stupidity”) and “Let It Ride.” He also played his new single “Gimme Something Good” and a variety of tunes from in between. Ryan walked on to stage looking like 10 years ago with his disheveled hair and denim jacket. But honestly, Ryan’s fun persona was the story.

I’ll be honest and say that I had lost track of fine songwriter of Rilo Kiley fame, Jenny Lewis. But a few minutes into her set at Newport and I knew I’d have to have a second look at her solo career. Lewis reminded me of a more Americana and more varied version of She & Him. She came out dressed like it was the summer of love with a painted Martin Acoustic Guitar to match. She went back and forth between the poppy, acoustic singer/songwriter, and the piano ballads. Her set was hard to walk away from.

IMG_8412

Jenny Lewis

I did have to check out Sun Kil Moon (Mark Kozelek). His gentle nylon stringed guitar picking and focus on untraditional songs certainly is a bit of an aquired taste. The songs often seem to meander along without a clear destination. In a live setting, seeing Mark play the tunes certainly helped him to connect a bit more with the audience. But Mark was the opposite of Ryan. He just seemed a bit down and didn’t seem to enjoy the show too much. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch my favorites from Sun Kil Moon’s – Ghost of the Great Highway.

I did catch a few of Robert Hunter’s songs. While he’s certainly no Jerry Garcia, Hunter’s connection with American Beauty classics “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple” were great fun to watch. They fit so well with the festival atmosphere and Hunter did not hesitate to regale the crowd with anecdotes from way back when.

Other highlights of the first day at Newport 2014 included Mavis Staples sharing the stage with breakout band Lake Street Dive, powerful minimalist punk/old-time Devil Makes Three, and the ethereal sounds of Band of Horses.

IMG_8502

Lake Street Dive

In addition to the music, the setting could not have been better. While they were crowded, the space worked well for the different personalities within the crowd. Families had room to spread out on the lawn, those who wanted to drink could easily find their spot in the beer garden, and smaller groups could move between the four stages easily. The food had a variety of options including super fresh seafood (I enjoyed fantastic oysters and a lobster roll), grassfed beef burgers, and a variety of other options. As a quick break from the sun, I tried my hand at the rather small Deering Banjo tent.

Two minor complaints, the heat and the parking. Water was available everywhere and it is the middle of teh summer. Fort Adams State Park juts out into the bay  and that means there is one way out of the park. Lots of parking, one way out. So it took a while staying until the end and then trekking out to the car.

The quality of the music and the overall experience certainly made up for any minor complaints. The Newport Folk Fest has been able to iron out any kinks after over 50 years and it showed.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Mayer’s Playlist for July 2014, Part 1

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

Resolution Road, by Easton Stagger Phillips

Easton Stagger PhillipsI don’t like to draw direct comparisons between artists but it’s hard not to do so with the latest release from Tim Easton, Leeroy Stagger and Evan Phillips. This talented trio of singer-songwriters conjure up the finer moments of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Resolution Road flows with the laid-back feeling and gentile harmonies that were – and are – a CSN hallmark.

Phillips kicks off the album with “Always Came Back To You,” a graceful love song made all the richer by the trio’s warm harmonies on the chorus. His reflective “Lucillia” has similar qualities and a day-dreamy vibe.

Stagger brings a tempered rock attitude to his contributions. A persistent drum beat ushers along “Traveler” as vocal harmonies give way to a George Harrison-flavored slide guitar solo.

Easton’s closing “Baby Come Home” is simultaneously melancholy and sentimental. “Sitting here late at night wondering where you might be,” he laments before the others join him to declare “baby come home right now, I need you for the rest of my life.” Guest Derry deBorja adds some subtle yet expressive organ flourishes.

Each singer-songwriter bring their own personality and songs to the group. Yet they blend together beautifully, as if they were meant to perform together. Like CSN, Easton Stagger Phillips prove that sometimes 1+1+1 equals more than three.


Dereconstructed, by Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires

Lee Bains III and the Glory FiresThere’s an old adage — write what you know. Birmingham, Alabama native Lee Bains takes this to heart with a searing album about life in the modern South. His lyrics reflect on the weight of history, religion and everyday economic struggles of small town Southern life; his songs are fueled by incendiary guitars and furious rock beats.

Bains doesn’t shy away from social commentary on tracks like “The Kudzu and the Concrete”:

You can talk, talk, talk about it: Repentance, and forgiveness, and loving your neighbor as yourself.
But what the hell does that mean when all your neighbors look the same and think the same or else live a couple miles down the rural route?

He wrestles with the love-hate relationship of growing up in Birmingham in “The Weeds Downtown.” “I know that Birmingham gets you down, but look what it raised you up to be,” he sings.

“The Company Man” takes a stand against greed and blind obedience. “All it takes is one wicked heart, a pile of money and a chain of folks just doing their jobs,” he cautions.

Bains lets his guitar do plenty of talking, too. Dereconstructed is a no holds barred rock album. Bains and fellow guitarist Eric Wallace trade licks like Keith Richards and Mick Taylor back in the day. The entire band sounds ferocious, rough and ragged. Bains describes it best on “Dirt Track” when he says, “Squeezing glory out of three rusty chords.” The results are glorious, indeed.

Audio Download: Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, “The Weeds Downtown”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


THE PLAYLIST


Bernadine, Adam Carroll (from the self-released Let It Choose You)
I’d lost touch with the music of Austin folk-country singer Adam Carroll a few years back. I recall him tending towards humor in his songwriting yet always equally adept at finding the tenderness of a moment. His latest release shows that he hasn’t lost his touch.

While there are still occasional glimpses of humor, his latest batch of songs tend towards the sincere end of the spectrum. His voice and music have a gentle aura about them, his songs filled with thoughtful character-driven stories.

Audio Download: Adam Carroll, “Bernadine”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Carry On, Denver (from the Mama Bird Recording Company release Rowdy Love)
Three singer-songwriters out of Portland serve up songs that are alternatively ramshackle and relaxed. The eleven tracks on Rowdy Love are rooted in country but sometimes veer towards mountain folk-rock territory that is reflective of the region from which they take their name. Then there is this track, a personal favorite, which has a decidedly Gordon Lightfoot feel.


Down, Kingsley Flood (from the self-released Live at the Armory)
I wouldn’t often call a live album one of an artist’s best releases but it’s appropriate in this instance. To tide us over until their next studio release, the Boston and Washington D.C-based six piece sextet took over an intimate venue to perform a career-spanning set. They impressively find a way to breathe fresh life into older songs and ratchet up the intensity of their already forceful more recent work. It also showcases the talents of songwriter Naseem Khuri, who crafts songs that are exceptionally intelligent and damn catchy, too.

You can download a free six-song sampler from this release here.


Monday, Caleb Caudle (from the This Is American Music release Paint Another Layer on My Heart)
New Orleans by way of Winston-Salem North Carolina singer-songwriter Caudle says that much of this album was inspired by a year of touring and the corresponding yearning for home. “I’m really leaving it’s really Monday, I don’t know how it got here so soon,” he laments on this stand-out, “lately I’m finding so little to trust in, that’s why it’s harder leaving you.”


Too Long I’ve Been Gone, Dom Flemons (from the Music Maker Relief Foundation release Prospect Hill)
The Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder continues his exploration of the early American music canon on his latest release. Flemons roots himself in folk but masterfully blends countless other genres into the mix. “Georgia Drumbeat” beautifully blends jazz, country and folk while “Have I Stayed Away Too Long?” has a touch of Dixieland and “I Can’t Do It Anymore” brings in some tasty blues playing. I’m partial to this song, a more traditional – and winsome – ballad.

John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

John Hiatt has long been one of the mainstays of Americana music.  Throughout his long career, Hiatt has been known for great songwriting and musicianship, but of all his earthy Americana releases, Terms of My Surrender is certainly his grittiest and arguably his most enjoyable work to date.

John Hiatt_

Despite some early success as a songwriter, Hiatt was a late bloomer as a performer.  Among his early songwriting credentials was “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” which Three Dog Night took to number 16 in 1974, while Hiatt was still banging around Nashville trying to get his start.  But his reputation as a solo artist and stage performer was built one day at a time over many years.   His first two solo albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats, were commercial failures.  After moving to California, Hiatt did a stint in Ry Cooder’s backing band, establishing a musical relationship with Cooder that would would last through several future projects.

Throughout the 1980s, however, Hiatt continued to struggle with personal demons, which included alcoholism, the suicide of his wife and his languishing career.  It was on Bring the Family that Hiatt put it all together, both musically and personally.  For that reason, Bring the Family will likely always be considered the most important Hiatt album.  With participation by Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner, the core group behind of Bring the Family would later reunite to become the short-lived 1990s supergroup Little Village.  Since then, Hiatt has continued to produce outstanding work and interesting collaborations with the likes of the Jayhawks, Bonnie Raitt and Luther and Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars.

But with Terms of My Surrender, Hiatt has taken his usual straight-forward Americana recipe and reduced it to its barest elements, producing a great album that will likely be on the short list for my favorite Americana album of the year.  He has certainly taken a page from Cooder’s recent playbook (e.g., Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, 2011), producing a really simple collection of fantastic songs.  From the first notes of “Long Time Comin’,” Hiatt’s crusty vocals highlight a rootsy, bluesy collection of tasty takes that sound unadorned and informal, as though they could have been recorded in Hiatt’s living room.  “Face of God” sounds as though it could have come from the lips and fingers of the oldest Mississippi bluesman.  “Marlene” sounds like a throwback 1950s rock-n-roll anthem.  “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” is an instant classic.  Other great songs include “Nobody Knew His Name,” the title tune and the satirical “Old People.”  Joining Hiatt on the album were members of his touring band, the Combo, featuring lead guitarist (and the album’s producer) Doug Lancio, Nathan Gehri on bass and Kenneth Blevins on drums.

Woody Guthrie in New York City

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie has a storied place in music history. He is one of those touchstones that continues to inspire both musicians and activists around the world. Heck even the poor souls folks who aren’t familiar with Guthrie have undoubtedly sung a few verses of his seminal “This Land Is Your Land.”

Although he is most often associated with his birthplace of Okemah, Oklahoma and his time spent in California during the 1930’s “Dust Bowl” era, Guthrie spent 27 years living in New York City.

The forthcoming My Name is New York is a three-disc set that chronicles Guthrie’s New York City years through stories and song.

Two of the discs features interviews with folks like Pete Seeger (in one of the last interviews before his passing), Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott among others. Consider it a verbal walking tour of 19 locations around New York City that were stops along Guthrie’s journey.

The third disc is a treasure-trove of Guthrie gems. These include the first recording of the seminal “This Land Is Your Land” and two home demos. There are also several tracks featuring other artists – including Billy Bragg & Wilco and the Del McCoury Band – performing Guthrie’s music. Proof that the legacy lives on.

Here is Guthrie’s home demo for “My Name Is New York”:

Pete Seeger telling the story behind the song “Tom Joad”:

Photo Credit: Photograph by Alfred Puhn. Courtesy of Tamiment Library at NYU