Americana 2014: The Sounds, Part 2

Every fall, The Americana Music Association gathers members, artists and music fans together in Nashville for its annual conference. Starting with the annual Americana Music Awards and continuing through four days of showcases and panel discussions, it is a tremendous celebration of Americana music.


Matthew Ryan

MATTHEW RYAN

This was, hands-down, the highlight of the week for me. Ryan’s live performances in recent years have been solo acoustic, so I was thrilled that he put together a band for his Friday evening showcase.

To say that he didn’t disappoint would be an understatement. This was a rock show of the finest order, scruffy and authentic. The set featured a few songs from Boxers, his forthcoming electric guitar-fueled album, plus a number of classics from throughout his career.

Rumor has it that he will be doing additional band shows to support the new album. Do yourself a favor, don’t miss him when he comes to your town.


Kevin Gordon

KEVIN GORDON

One of the nice things about visiting Nashville is the chance to see some local artists in their natural habitat. Local-boy Gordon took time out from recording his next album to play an outdoor afternoon show. He has a knack for telling vivid and entertaining tales of Southern life that are set to music that mixes healthy doses of boogie and blues. It’s a recipe for music goodness. I, for one, am eagerly and impatiently awaiting his next release!


THE GREYHOUNDS

I missed the Greyhounds at SXSW earlier this year and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. The trio played the famed Blue Room at Third Man Records where they served up their distinctive style of classic R&B. I’m still not sure why there was someone in an astronaut outfit dancing on the side of the stage, but I’ll save that question for another day. They closed their set with a killer cover of Nilsson’s “Jump In the Fire.” (See ‘em play the song in this video from SXSW.)


Mike Farris

MIKE FARRIS

Farris doesn’t tour much so I made sure to catch him for a Saturday afternoon set. He and his band, including a horn section and an animated keyboard player, got the joint jumpin’ with their distinctive blend of gospel and soul.


The Silks

THE SILKS

Sure, I’ve seen these guys any number of times around Boston. It was great to see the local boys making their Americana Conference debut. They clearly brought their “A” game – they always do – as they blasted through a raucous set of bluesy rock. They even threw in a ferocious country jam mid-set for good measure.


DAVID RAMIREZ

Armed with just an acoustic guitar and a beautiful collection of songs, the Austin-based singer-songwriter engrossed a Saturday evening crowd. His music is often filled with melancholy and is always emotionally charged.


Click here for more Americana Music Conference coverage.

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.

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”

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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”

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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.

Mayer’s Playlist for May 2014

ALBUM OF THE MONTHS

All Or Nothin’, by Nikki LaneNikki Lane

Nikki Lane’s sophomore effort caught me by surprise. I’d be lying if I said that I had more than a cursory exposure to her 2011 debut, but the just released All Or Nothin’ has grabbed my attention.

Lane’s songs are rooted in country, albeit with a healthy nod towards the pop end of the spectrum. “You Can’t Talk to Me Like That” is a soothing retro ballad with a chorus of harmonies setting the stage for Lane’s entrancing vocals. “Seeing Double” moves along with a rumbling rockabilly beat while a lap steel guitar propels the gentle “Good Man.”

Lane doesn’t pull any punches lyrically. All the better I say. She takes a defiant tone on “Man Up,” demanding “you better get off your ass, you better man up or I’m gonna have to be the one who gets tough.” She steps out on the brash and boozy “Sleep with a Stranger,” proclaiming “I ain’t looking for love, just a little danger.”

As if to drive the point home, the title track finds her declaring “It’s always the right time to do the wrong thing.” Words to live by, right?


THE PLAYLIST


Beauty of All Things, Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck (from the self-released Eden – Live at the Chandler)

Thayer’s 2013 release Eden was a real gem, an organic slice of Americana with a slightly jam band feel. Well, Thayer and the boys are back with a complete live performance of said album, recorded live at the Eden cd release show in Thayer’s native Vermont. The talented group of musicians prove that they are the real deal, a band that can beautifully and consistently capture their studio magic on a live stage.


Hold On to Rockets, Gina Villalobos (from the self-released Sola)

Few artists capture melancholy as skillfully as Villalobos. Her music walks the subtle line between tranquility and yearning, a sound made all the richer by the mix of angst and charm in her voice. It is a potent combination that makes Sola, her first release in five years, such as treat.

Audio Download: Gina Villalobos, “Hold On to Rockets”

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You Don’t Know, Glen David Andrews (from the Louisiana Red Hot Records release Redemption)

Combine two parts New Orleans rhythm & blues with one part rock & roll and you’ll end up with a sound like Glen David Andrews. Like many an artist, he has faced down some personal demons and emerged with a powerful and personal musical statement.

Redemption is filled with plenty of guitars and horns but it is Andrews’ booming voice that stands front and center. It has a sinister quality that is intoxicating, coming across like a potent mix of a preacher and an old bluesman.

As an added bonus, Andrews invited some friends to sit in on various tracks. Ivan Neville, Galactic’s Ben Ellman and guitarist Anders Osborne all join in the redemption.

Audio Download: Glen David Andrews, “You Don’t Know”

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Man in Question, Cheap Girls (from the Xtra Miles Recording release Famous Graves)

When you just need some good ol’ rock and roll, look no further than Cheap Girls. The Lansing, Michigan-based trio take great pop hooks and serve ‘em up with burnished flair. Bassist Ian Graham sings with a bit of a drawl that makes for a nice contrast with the raucous noise that he and his bandmates make.

Lots of bands like to say that their music is best played loud. With Cheap Girls it is true.


The High Road, Archie Powell and the Exports (from the self-released Back in Black)

Did someone piss off Archie Powell? His latest release has an angry edge (and lots of shouted vocals), much more so than 2012’s impressive Great Ideas in Action. Don’t get me wrong, Powell still knows his way around a pop hook and there are plenty to be found here. Even when he slows things down, albeit to a tempo just a notch below “furious”, the songs still have some venom and punch. The Exports are in fine form as well, making quite a racket of their own.


Gimme Truth, High on Stress (from the self-released Leaving MPLS)
This is one of those unfortunate posthumous reviews as the Minneapolis-based quartet recently called it quits and played their farewell show. ‘tis a shame, as the band really know their way around a rock song. Leaving MPLS is chock full of hearty guitar-driven rock and roll, the kind of fist-pumping songs that beg to be heard live. Pardon the pun but they are leaving on a high note.

Audio Download: High on Stress, “Gimme Truth”

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You Are Gold, The Soft White Sixties (from the self-released Get Right)

This San Francisco-based quartet walk the line between the 1960’s R&B-influenced pop that their name suggests and contemporary indie rock. If you like this shimmering track, you’ll find plenty more like it on their latest release.

Audio Download: The Soft White Sixties, “You Are Gold”

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