Monday, November 30, 2009

This Week’s “Shows To See” Nov. 30-Dec. 6

Just a quick one this week. I actually have two show previews in the LA Weekly this week: the Ten Out Of Tenn show on Dec. 1 and the J. Tillman
Dec. 2 gig – both at the Troubadour. So those are both shows worth checking out. You can read more starting here:
I also wanted to mention the Vic Chesnutt’s Dec. 1 show at the Echoplex. The eclectic Georgia-based performer has been having a particularly productive time period of late and his newest offering At The Cut is an especially strong disc. The track, “Band Camp,” is simply put - one fantastic song, recounting a long, twisted acquaintance with a girl. Find some way to hear it.
Notable too is Peter Case’s show at McCabe’s on Friday night, although I think it’s sold out. McCabe’s a great place to this Grammy-nominated roots rock troubadour and it’s great that Case is playing again after having heart surgery earlier this year.

Monday, November 23, 2009

“Shows To See” for Nov. 23-29

It’s Thanksgiving Week which seemingly means fewer official work days but just as much work too do. It also is a rather light week for shows but still there are several shows that caught my eye.
I do want to put out the good word on Vicki Emerson, who has a show Monday night the 23rd at Room 23. The New York City-based singer has crafted an impressive disc Long Ride, on which she sounds more like a country girl than a city girl. Nicely walking the line between mainstream and alternative country, Emerson projects a strong, confident musical persona that makes me curious about what she comes up with next.
Another NYC-based act, Elizabeth and the Catapult lands at the House of Blues on Nov. 28. Elizabeth Ziman is a lively vocalist who has an engaging jazzy, poppy sound. The band’s Verve debut (produced by Omaha wunderkind Mike Mogis) boasts a number of memorable tracks including “Momma’s Boy” and the title track “Taller Children.”
In keeping with this week’s female theme, I very much wanted to spotlight the two appearances this weekend from Candye Kane, who performs Saturday night at Cozy’s and Sunday night at Redwood Bar. This is something of a homecoming for Kane, who was born in East L.A. and cut her teeth in L.A.’s roots music scene. Now living in San Diego, Kane has lived a remarkable life, which includes a recent battle with cancer. Onstage she is quite remarkable too. A fun, feisty performer, Kane also knows how to belt out the blues. Her latest disc, the super Super Hero, reveals a fighter’s sense of survival in a vibrant set of rootsy, rockin’ blues, and is just the latest laudable album from Kane.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This Week’s “Shows To See” - Nov. 15-22 Edition

The recommended shows for this week all fall towards at the week’s end.

On Thursday, the Ruby Friedman Orchestra checks into the Hotel Café. I actually haven’t had the RFO experience yet but they have created quite the buzz in local circles with Ruby touted as quite the singer and frontperson. Come early to see Corb Lund who opens the night at 7. I saw him open a while back for Chuck Mead and the Canadian alt. country star delivered a sparkling set of modern honky tonk music. His latest, Losin’ Lately Gambler came out earlier this fall on New West Records

On Friday night, the “King of Rock & Soul, “ Solomon Burke presides at Club Nokia. Now approaching 70, Burke is not the live performer or singer that he once was, Burke is more than just a living legend – which would be reason enough to see him. During the last decade, his career has experienced an artistic renaissance as he put out a string of acclaimed albums, produced by the likes of Joe Henry and Buddy Miller, that found him putting his indelible vocal stamp on a wide range of material (from Bruce Springsteen to Dolly Parton) - and he’ll hopefully have his throne out on the Nokia stage too.

The weekend McCabe’s hosts a doubleheader of terrific double bills. Friday night the 20th the guitar shop/club welcomes a pair of feisty female singer/songwriters, Erin McKeown. McKeown’s beguiling new album, Hundreds of Lions, finds her expanding her musical territory. While her last effort, Sing You Sinner, found her mining the 20s and 30s, this one explores various pop music style of the 50s and 60s, all conveyed through McKeown’s always expressive vocals. Jill Sobule is best known for the 1995 hit “I Kissed The Girl” – she was there first Katy Perry! However over the years, she has continued putting out sweet and bittersweet music that skirt the lines around folk and pop. She raised funds for her current disc, the Golden State-themed California Years, through appealing to her loyal fans and that earned her press too (although the album is quite worthy of attention too)

On Sunday night the 22nd, it’s a night for those who like their bluegrass with a twist as Crooked Still and King Wilkie take the stage there. Based in the Northeast, Crooked Still comes to L.A. for the first time with this gig but the band has been creating engaging acoustic music for the past several years. Their most recent studio outing, Still Crooked, mixes originals and covers to create a beautiful take on Americana music. King Wilkie started off as a mostly traditionally minded bluegrass group but they have expanded their sound to move into modern musical styles. While keeping some strains of old school bluegrass, they also weave in some laidback country-rock elements, which make them something of a front-porch Jayhawks.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

This Week’s “Shows To See” - Nov. 9-14 Edition

L.A. has seen some very impressive double bills of late. I have written about last week’s Over The Rhine/Katie Herzig pairing. Before that, there was the Blind Pilot/Low Anthem show and Hoot and Hellmouth/William Elliott Whitmore gig.

This week again offers some recommended musical pairings. On Monday night, Chuck Prophet and Jason Isbell share the bill at the Echoplex. Prophet first made a name for himself in the Paisley Underground with Green on Red. While he has become an in-demand guitar slinger/songwriter/producer, Prophet also has put out a series of captivating solo discs this past decade that offer his own unique take on soulful roots rock. Isbell, meanwhile, earned his stripes in the Drive-By Truckers before venturing off on his own a few years back. With his own band, The 400 Unit, Isbell serves up his own inspired Americana rock that is dipped in Dixie without being smothered in the South.

On Wednesday the 11th, Via Tania (Chicago-based Australian expat Tania Bowers) brings her ethereal electro-pop to the Bootleg Theater (she's also plays the Bordello on Tuesday). There’s a bewitching quality to this often spare, typically haunting tunes from her album Moon Sweet Moon, with tracks like “the Beginning,” “How Come” and “Light Years.” Also on the bill is the local alt. a cappella ensemble, Sonos. This inventive vocal outfit modernizes the old fashion a cappella style by covering songs by acts like the Fleet Foxes, Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright. They will provide a lightness to balance out Via Tania’s darker musical hues.

Rufus’ dad Loudon appears at UCLA on Friday matched up with Richard Thompson. Billed as “Loud & Rich,” these two esteemed old folkies not only boast lengthy, and impressive musical resumes, but both men share a deep interest in the history of music. A few years back, Thompson released the disc 1000 Years of Popular Music, which covered tunes spanning 1068 AD to 2000 (the latter being Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again.”). Wainwright, meanwhile, has just released a tribute to country music pioneer, Charlie Poole, whose name isn’t as well known today as it should be. Whether they will be performing their own tunes or others’, it all should make for a night of expert songcraft, witty repartee and nimble guitar picking (particularly by Thompson).

The Treasure of Rupa

I will admit it. I don’t know a lot about World Music. But I do know what I like, and I do like Rupa And The April Fishes.
I have greatly enjoyed their two CDs, Extraordindary Rendition and the recently released, Este Mundo (both on Cumbancha) so I jumped at the chance to finally see them play live, even though it was a late (for me) set.
This won’t be a standard live review. I didn’t take notes or jot down the song titles, and wasn’t I able to stay for the whole set. I went for the fun of it but I was so impressed with what I heard that I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the band.
Rupa and the April Fishes play what I would describe as gypsy music. The type of music that you might hear on the streets of Europe, but it’s also “gypsy” in the sense that it borrows from a whole host of global styles. There is some Parisian jazz, some American funk and a host of other world music styles that I don’t know well enough to name-check.
While this unique global sound is colorful and lively on disc, it is even more so in concert. Rupa is a charming frontwoman – smart, passionate and exuding vivacity. Her band (drums, stand-up bass, cello, accordion and trumpet) shares this joie de vivre. They know their chops but play with just enough sloppiness to keep things fresh and fun live.
Rupa Marya has a fascinating story. Her parents moved to Northern California from India before she was born. However, she also spent her childhood in Southern France, another land where she experienced a sense of “outsider-ness.” She returned to the San Francisco area to study medicine but she never gave up her love of music. Now she is both a doctor and a musician.
True to her multi-national upbringing, Rupa sings in a number of languages – French, Spanish, Hindi, English, just to name four. Not understanding most of the lyrics (unless you know all the languages that she knows) gives the songs a mysterious quality. The joyful music, however, can often hide the lyrics’ more serious content. However, Rupa and her band put across the songs with such expressiveness and enthusiasm that the music shines with an irresistible quality.
At their Mint show, they packed the house and had the typically jaded L.A. crowd whooping it up - clapping, singing and dancing along.
If the NPR set and the jam-band crowd haven’t discovered Rupa And The April Fishes yet than it’s only a matter of time. The band’s boisterous fusion of world rhythms is attractive to both audiences. However, if you don’t align yourself with either camp, you might want to check them out anyway. They are a fine gateway band to world music. Rupa and her talented crew make marvelous “music without borders” that transports you on a one-of-a-kind journey with their exuberant songs.

Monday, November 2, 2009

This Week’s Shows that I Wish I Could Check Out

There are a number of intriguing shows going on between Nov. 3-8 that I will I could get out to see, but maybe you will.
On November 3, Lucero brings their Ramblin’ Roadshow and Memphis Review, which features Jack Oblivian and John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives, to the Echo. Lucero have a wonderful new disc out, 1372 Overton Park, which comes packed with Springsteen-via-the-Replacements ramshackle rockers. If you are a fan of bands like Hold Steady or Marah and aren’t a fan yet of Lucero you should check them out because you’ll be a convert.
Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, who comes to Spaceland on Nov. 4, is something of a mystery figure to me. He has generated some buzz back East and I have listened to his disc Summer of Fear. It kinda of reminds of the New York City branch of the late 80s College Rock updated with some current Indie Pop flourishes (for example, the trumpet-powered “The 100th of March,” which nearly tops the 6 minute mark). Summer of Fear is on Saddle Creek – if that steers your opinion one way or the other. I hope to listen to the disc some more and see if I can decipher more of songs, and if it holds up to repeated listens.
The following night, Nov. 5, Will Hoge returns to town with a show at the Hotel Café. The Nashville based rocker would have fit in nicely on the Lucero bill as Hoge delves into gritty yet literate roots rock. Hoge survived a nearly fatal traffic accident a few years and his new album is the all-too-aptly named The Wreckage. While he might not move around as much on stage as he used too, he still produces potent music.
Friday’s fine show is Rupa and the April Fishes. By day, Rupa is a doctor in San Francisco but she hasn’t forsaken music for her career in medicine. The multi-lingual singer guides her band through a colorfully woven style of gypsy-like world music. It’s a festive sound that belies some of the more serious lyrical content and is so invigorating that you forget that she isn’t singing in English – not that that’s important. The group is now out celebrating their new release Este Mundo (on Cumbancha).
The week wraps up with a recommended double bill. Over the weekend, Largo at the Coronet hosts Over The Rhine with Kaite Herzig sharing the bill. OTR is a long-standing band from Cincinnati centered around the couple Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. They have become known for the haunting, dark-hued songs, although they did lighten up a little on their late full length, 2007’s The Trumpet Child. Nashville-based singer/songwriter Katie Herzig is starting to make a name for herself, and deservedly so. Songs off of her tasty disc Apple Tree have shown up on TV shows and NPR shows (but don’t let that prejudice you). Herzig has a delightful way with a tune (as exemplified on tracks like “Hologram” and “Forevermore”) and it’s her quirky charms which differentiates her from the folk-pop pack.

Monday, October 19, 2009

This Week’s So Fine So. Cal. Concerts: Doubly Fine Double Bills

This week, I have a pair of shows to recommend that both boast particularly excellent double bills.
On Friday, Oct. 24, the Troubadour welcomes Blind Pilot and The Low Anthem. Blind Pilot has been known to tour via bicycle. I don’t know if the Portland, Oregon band will be pedaling down to L.A., but they will be pedaling their tunes off of their terrific 2007 release 3 Rounds And A Sound. They have been known to tour via bicycle. Led by singer/guitarist Israel Nebeker, the band has a knack for folksy rock that is anchored in melodic hooks. 3 Rounds comes packed with a number of memorably tracks, like “Oviedo,” “Paint Or Pollen” and “Two Towns From Me”; it’s one of those discs that’s always a pleasure to pull off the shelf.
The Rhode Island-based Low Anthem put out a disc this year, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, that is shaping up to fall into the very same category. It starts off with a trio of beguiling, gentle tunes (“Charlie Darwin,” “To Ohio” and “Ticket Taker”) that set up the band up along the quiet bucolic pop of the Jayhawks, but then they shift gears with a pair of raucous foot-stompers (“The Horizon Is A Beltway” and the Kerouac/Waits collaboration “Home I’ll Never Be”). It’s impressive that singer Ben Knox Miller can convincingly pull off these dulcet and ragged vocal styles. On Charlie Darwin, the Low Anthem has evolved into mighty fine craftsmen of lovely pastoral pop and more rugged, rootsy rock.
The week’s second recommendable show occurs the next night when the Hotel Café hosts both William Elliott Whitmore and Hoots and the Hellmouth. Over the past few years, Whitmore has been churning out stark folk blues that sounds likes it comes from a much older man than young Iowan is. This year he released his “major label” debut Animals In The Dark on Anti-. Whitmore expanded his arrangements a bit on this effort (like on the fiery full-band opener “Mutiny”) but overall he still sounds like an old-time bluesman on dark, intense tunes like “Johnny Law” and “Hell Or High Water.”
Also residing at the Hotel Café that night is the Hoot And Hellmouth. Although they hail from Philadelphia, they are more of a rural band than a city one. On their rollicking new release, The Holy Open Secret, they sound like they have been busking for year. Songs like “Root of the Industry” and “Watch Your Month” crank out a funky acoustic vibe, while “Three Penny Charm” and “Family Band” showcase their quieter side. With their blend of the rollicking and gentle, they fall somewhere between the Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Brothers on the jammy Americana band spectrum.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Song of the Week: The Blakes – “Charmed”

I don’t know much about the Blakes. They are a Seattle based garage pop band fronted by brothers Garnet & Snow Keim, who have a new full length Souvenir that I listened to the disc last night. While I enjoyed the band’s sweaty, retro-inspired sound, I was totally charmed by their song “Charmed.” It sounds like a wonderful Nuggets flashback. The gritty little number is powered by a thumping drum beat, although a vintage sounding guitar solo peaks out about halfway through. It also nicely balances the scrappy lead vocals with some shadowy background vocals floating in the mix. There’s an Anglophile flair to the Blakes’ sound without being too obvious of an homage. Its straightforward, low-tech production values fit in perfectly with what the band is going after. Although the lyrics aren’t especially profound (“hey there juicy fruit” is the opening line), they definitely get the sound vibe right. If you are looking for a new, but throwback sounding, garage pop gem, you need to look no further than the Blakes’ “Charmed.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Show To See (although I wasn’t there): Elliott Brood

I meant to get out some advance word for the Elliott Brood show but the Columbus Day holiday made me lose track of the week from the start.
So while it’s too late to plug their 10/13 show in L.A., it’s not too late to plug the band itself. And yes, Elliott Brood is a band, not a man. The Canadian trio blend acoustic and electric instrumentation into something deeply intense and richly textured.
They have just issued a powerful and memorable new disc, Mountain Meadows (Six Shooter Records). Apparently it deals with a slaughter that occurred in 1857. Given the bloody backstory, it’s not surprising that the music comes off as moody and (yes) brooding, but there’s also a vibrancy in its darkness. While it’s hard to highlight one song out of this cohesive set, the closing tune “Miss You Now” is a particular standout and it nicely exemplifies the band’s loud/soft construct and emotionalism in both the singing and the playing.
I saw an acoustic set that they did during the Americana Music Conference and I was struck by the ferocity of their performance. The dynamics that they created made me think of them something like an acoustic Feelies, although they don’t really sound like that iconic band. Still, Elliott Brood is worthy checking out both live and on disc.
Next time, I’ll try to give more advance warning…

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Merci Bien, Jessie Torrisi

When I received this disc, it touted Jessie Torrisi as some who played in some NYC bands (Unisex Salon, Laptop, Les Fleurs Tragiques) that I wasn’t familiar with, so I didn’t have any expectations as to what this album would be like. Well, actually, I wasn’t expecting much for this “mystery disc”, but I am happy to report that Torrisi has fashioned a terrific little solo debut (“little” in the sense that it’s a concise 8 song disc that runs just over 30 minutes) with "brujer, brujer."
Torrisi is something of an alt. folk-rock chanteuse, for lack of a better term. Take the marvelous leadoff track, “Hungry Like Me.” Torrisi’s captivating search for someone compatible with her deftly mixes twangy elements (pedal steel) with plucky keyboards (my copy of disc didn’t come with credit list so I’m fishing a little for specific instrumentation).
Love is a common theme throughout the disc. “X In Texas” finds her essaying a busted relationship – one where she wants to “just unbuckle me from you.” It’s another song that boasts a strong, although subtle arrangement, as it well utilizes some subdued horns along with a slide-y guitar line.
Torrisi goes back on the love offensive with “Cannonball.” It’s a jaunty, near-jazzy number that showcases the beguiling way Torrisi sashays around a song. Near the song’s end, she chooses to sing the work “explode” softly, making it all the more effective. “Runaway Train” is another standout track, both with its powerful, percussive arrangement and Torrisi’s emotive singing, which resembles an arty roadhouse version of Chrissie Hynde.
She exudes a playful bittersweet quality in the troubled relationship tune “Stormy Clouds,” which also displays her knack for phrase-turning. She’s particularly adept at using strong natural imagery – in this song, there’s a radiant line: “everything you love bursts into flames”- that reflect her dealings with relationships and love. Moreover, song titles like “Runaway Train” and “Cannonball” reveal a certain physicality to her songwriting, which also works well with her song’s looks at love.
After the sultry soulful “So Many Miles,” the disc wraps up with her most emotionally direct tune, the spare, piano-based “The Brighter Side.” This survivor’s tale is a stirring, and ultimately uplifting, number suggests a more laidback Michelle Shocked (in her gospel mood).
In “Runaway Train,” Torrisi sings: “what’s it going to take to get your attention?” With this thoroughly impressive debut, she certainly has created an attention-grabber. One of the joys of receiving mystery discs is when they turn out to be surprising delights, and "bruler, bruler" is one of the surprisingly delightful discs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If I Were Going Out – I’d Be Going Out To See Todd Snider on October 8

I don’t get out as much as I used to, or want to, so I often wind up “attending” show vicariously. One show that you attend for me is Todd Snider’s appearance at the Grammy Museum as part of their The Drop series. The Drop is a very cool on-going program the Museum has where it hosts an act that is releasing (“dropping”) a new album. I saw a Drop session with Marshall Crenshaw and was a very worthwhile experience.
Todd Snider might make for an even more engaging guest than Crenshaw. The Nashville-based singer/songwriter is one of the best around at telling a story that’s laced with wit and arsenic. For several years, Snider was on John Prine's label and if the master songsmith Prine wants a singer-songwriter for his label that's a high compliment. While Snider's last disc, Peace Queer, was a decidedly politically charged effort, his new album, The Excitement Plan (on Yep Roc), promises to be his trademark collection of darkly humored tunes.
Snider’s best-known numbers probably are “Alright Guy” and the satiric “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” from his 1994 debut. However, over the past 15 years he has crafted a slew of memorable tunes, like “Thin Wild Mercury” (that deals with Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan), “D.B. Cooper” and “Play A Train Song,” to name a few.
But Snider is really in his element on a stage, where he can tell colorful tales about his just-as-colorful tunes. It’s this quality that makes The Drop’s Q&A-plus-performance set-up such an appealing scenario to catch Snider.
However, if you can make it down to the Grammy Museum on Oct. 8, Snider is scheduled to return to L.A. on December 12 for a show at the El Rey.

Todd Snider appears at the Grammy Museum (800 W. Olympic Blvd., LA, at 8 p.m. on Oct. 8. Tickets are $10.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Stone River Boys - Live At The Mint 9/25/09

When the talented and much loved Chris Gaffney passed away last year, it was a loss for the Americana music world, and particularly for the Hacienda Brothers – the band he started with David Gonzalez. Gonzalez decided not to fill Gaffney’s void and continue the Hacienda. Instead he started the rather like-minded Stone River Boys, and picked Mike Barfield to be his new musical sidekick. On paper, Barfield seemed to be an inspired choice. In the late ‘90s, he led the neo-honky-tonk outfit, the Hollisters, and has also displayed an affinity for the twangy soul sound that the Hacienda Brothers did so well.
I caught up with the Stone River Boys when they road into L.A. on Sept. 24 for a show at the Mint. Their set started out tackling their two main musical pursuits: the Hacienda’s western soul number “Midnight Dream” followed by old Hollisters’ honky tonkin’ favorite “East Texas Pines.” Gonzalez dedicated “Walkin’ On My Dreams” to Gaffney’s widow, who was in the house.
At first Barfield seemed to be hanging back a little, looking a bit uncertain of his role. But he soon loosened up, showing off (for lack of a better word) his swivel-hip, maraca-shaking dance moves on tunes like the “She’s A Yum Yum” and “The Struggle.” He proved that Gonzalez’s selection of him to be a good one. His “life of the party” persona balanced nicely with Gonzalez’s gritty guitar work as well as Hacienda Brother holdover David Berzansky’s terrific steel guitar playing.
While the Stone River Boys are a relatively young band in terms of time together, they are old souls who know how to play their brand of rockin’ soulful country music with skill and vitality. Their set let me looking forward to seeing a CD come out from them.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Americana Music Festival And Me

With the Americana Music Conference still nestled in that precarious spot between the blur of the experiences and the blurriness of the memories, I wanted to share a few impressions that I took away from my trip to Nashville.
There were a number of memorable moments, some from acts catching my attention for the first time and others living up to expectations.
One act that definitely made a big first (and second and third) impression was the trio, The Baskery. These three sisters from Sweden seemed to have everyone talking at the Conference with their punk-fueled rootsy tunes. One of the cool things was watching the eldest sister strum a mean banjo while also playing a kick drum and singing (in English) to boot.
Peter Cooper was a name I was familiar with – but mostly as a journalist. He’s also a talented singer/songwriter with a terrific gift for the story-song. He performed a song about baseball great Henry Aaron that has stayed with me for days.
I was not at all familiar with the name Patrick Sweany, an Ohio transplant to Nashville. He did an animated set of sweaty, bluesy rock that really energized the audience at the Basement
I happened upon Sweany because I had gone to the Basement to see the Nashville band DADDY. I had enjoyed their recent album, For A Second Time, but this funky rootsy rock outfit was just a wonderfully fun band to experience live. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since the group is fronted by Tommy Womack and Will Kimbrough.
Kimbrough also sat in on Saturday night’s set by Angela Easterling, which reminded me about her fine album, Blacktop Road. Kimbrough, who produced the disc, combined with Easterling’s guitarist Brandon Turner to make her tune “American ID” a delicious slice of jangly roots pop.
DADDY’s Friday night set was followed by a late night/early morning performance from the Canadian trio Elliott Brood. Their new disc Mountain Meadows had caught my ear but I wasn’t prepared for the ferocious intensity that Mark Sasso and Casey Laforet serve up on acoustic guitars, banjo and the like. They made me think of an acoustic version of the Feelies for some reason.
The Band of Heathens was another group that I had targeted to see, having enjoyed their last two albums – and this Austin-based band didn’t disappoint. They play a potent blend of Neil Young, Little Feat and Southern Rock, and their song “LA County Blues” was another of those “stick in my mind” numbers.
I also enjoyed the short set from feisty Nashville country singer, Elizabeth Cook. Cook soon will be starting an album to be produced by Don Was, which might be her ticket to more prominence. She did a dandy song “El Camino” that was both funny and heartfelt.
It’s hard to call John Fogerty’s “secret” set a surprise (most folks seemed to have found out about it) but it was unexpected for him to play for 90 minutes at the intimate Mercy Lounge. The Mercy was also where I later caught Radney Foster’s surprisingly rockin’ set and some sweet swing music from the together-again Hot Club of Cowtown.
Downstairs at the Cannery was the site of strong sets from Holly Williams, W.P.A. (featuring that night Watkins Sean and Sara along with Glen Phillips) and a sublime performance from Buddy Miller (the big winner at the AMA Awards) who brought out Patty Griffin to sing with him (including a version of “Dark End Of The Street”). Miller’s was of the one of the top sets that I saw during the conference.
One of the challenging aspects of this conference (like SxSW and any other multi-stage festivals) is getting to all the acts that you want to see. It’s a little bit like the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” although in this case it’s four clubs, not two roads. However, I am quite happy with the road I took in Nashville, and all the music (and people) I encountered along the way.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

AMA Conference countdown

The Americana Music Conference is now less than a week away so the countdown has really begun in earnest (as in Tubb) for me. My panel (A is for Americana) starts off the morning on Thursday and I’ve been looking over the daily schedule. A number of other panels and workshops have caught my eye, and like the musical showcases, it will tricky to get to all of them. For example, following my panel on Thursday morning, Rosanne Cash will be doing her Keynote Interview but overlapping with that is an Artist Development panel focusing on Sarah Borges, a singer I’ve been a big fan of. Another Thursday highlight looks to be the songwriting workshop with Mary Gauthier and Darrell Scott. One of the cool things of the conference for me is to get an up-close listen to musicians talking about their craft. Chip Taylor will be holding one of these sessions on Friday and Will Kimbrough has one of Saturday. Looking over the listings, it just reminds me what a wealth of interesting events the conference has.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Master Blaster - Dave Alvin gets personal on his two new albums

Master Blaster
Dave Alvin gets personal on his two new albums
by Michael Berick
From his early days as co-founder of the retro roots-rock band the Blasters to his solo career that yielded albums like Ashgrove (named for the legendary Los Angeles folk club that he haunted as a teen) and the aptly titled covers disc Public Domain, Dave Alvin's music has long been fueled by the past. But the past has never been as personal as with his two current projects, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women and Man of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney.
Both discs arose from the 2008 death of Chris Gaffney. A longtime fixture on the Southern California music scene, guitarist/accordionist Gaffney spent nearly a decade in Alvin's band the Guilty Men and was like a brother to him. They had grown up in neighboring, and decidedly untrendy, L.A. suburbs (Alvin in Downey and Gaffney in Hawaiian Gardens), but only met one night in the late '80s when Alvin happened upon Gaffney's band playing at the Hollywood rock dive bar, Raji's.
"It was one of those things where there are people that you feel have known your entire life except that you haven't met them yet," says Alvin. "It was one of those moments. We got each others' jokes — that's maybe the best type of friendship there is."
When Alvin learned Gaffney had cancer, he started to organize a benefit album. However, the fatal cancer moved swiftly, and the disc evolved into a tribute effort. Alvin assembled an all-star Americana team (including Los Lobos, James McMurtry, John Doe and Alejandro Escovedo), which perfectly reflects Gaffney's musical mosaic: from Joe Ely's Tex-Mex-flavored take on "Lift Your Leg" to Jim Lauderdale's honky-tonky "Glass House"; from Peter Case's rollicking rendition of "Six Nights a Week" to Dan Penn's heartaching "I'm So Proud."
One contributor that causes a double-take is Boz Scaggs. However, as Alvin explains, Scaggs (owner of two Bay Area clubs) is a fan of both Alvin's work and Gaffney's last band, the Hacienda Brothers. He says Scaggs' silky, soulful rendering of "Midnight Dreams" is "one of the best things I think he has ever done."
The disc also contains the late Freddy Fender's version of the Gaffney song "The Gardens." Alvin reveals that several acts "wanted to get their mitts" on the song, but he chose this mid-'90s recording Fender made with the Texas Tornados because "when Freddy Fender sings one of your songs, that is pretty damn good."
In his own music, Alvin very much felt Gaffney's absence. "I had done a few gigs with my normal band [the Guilty Men]. They were great and cathartic, but I was still looking around for Chris," says Alvin. "I just thought, let's do something different, and European techno was out."
For a show at last year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, he put together an all-female band with some of his favorite Americana ladies: guitarists Cindy Cashdollar and Nina Gerber, fiddlers Laurie Lewis and Amy Farris, bassist Sarah Brown, drummer Lisa Pankrantz and singer-songwriter Christy McWilson.
Despite a lack of practice time ("We rehearsed going on stage," jokes Alvin), their set was a success. "I was stunned," says Alvin. "I knew it would be good. I didn't think it would sound like a band that had been on the road for about a year. Walking off the stage, it was like, 'We're making a record.'"
The group, dubbed the Guilty Women, reconvened about two months later at an Austin recording studio. Alvin conducted a swift recording session to get the live, organic sound. While recording the old Tim Hardin gem "Don't Make Promises," for example, Alvin, Cashdollar and Gerber broke off into a spontaneous four-minute jam. That song also fits in with the album's reflective mood.
"A lot of the songs are based around death and passings," says Alvin.
Although there isn't a specific tune about Gaffney, "Downey Girl" deals with the life and death of Downey native Karen Carpenter, while the plaintive McWilson song "Potter's Field" squarely addresses morality. "Boss of the Blues" and "Nana And Jimi" both look back at youthful episodes (riding around with Big Joe Turner and going to see a Jimi Hendrix concert) that influenced Alvin's musical career.
The album is far from a downer, though. It opens with the Blasters' hit "Marie, Marie" done Cajun-style and closes with a roadhouse take on the standard "Que Sera Sera," which Alvin remarked "is my philosophy of life."
With these two discs, Alvin pays homage to the past and his late, great friend, while also moving forward with a "what will be, will be" attitude.
from Cleveland Scene

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Elvis Costello At The Greek Theater, Aug. 18, 2009

As I was waiting to see Elvis Costello the other night at the Greek Theater, I was trying to recall the other times that I have seen. The memory that overwhelmed the others was the first time, which I realized (for better or for worse) was 30 years ago. It was a show at the Cleveland Agora, just after his infamous blowup with Bonnie Bramlett in Columbus, Ohio in which he drunkenly badmouthed Ray Charles. That show was a blast of the angry, young Elvis that ended with the blare of ear-splitting white noise to clear the club. It was quite different Costello who took the Greek stage. He was more relaxed and friendlier - and also backed by an all-star bluegrass outfit instead of the Attractions or another rock-based backing group.
While I don’t yet have his new disc Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, I have been a fan of his initial country outing, the influential-in-its-own-way, Almost Blue, and was curious about how the latest musical guise of the chameleon-like Costello would be.
I enjoyed the show immensely, although I could see how fans wanting to hear that favorite old Elvis faithfully performed might be disappointed. There was no “pumping it up” at this concert. No Steve Nieve keyboard work. No Pete Thomas drums – no drums at all. In fact, little in the way of electric instruments. The Sugarcane band, however, provided him with a rich swatch of acoustic textures, with fiddler Stuart Duncan and dobro ace Jerry Douglas particularly standing out.
It was the set list that made this show is truly special evening. While there were expected selections from his newer, Americana based discs as well as a classic Almost Blue gem “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” he also reinvented several his older, well-known tunes plus delved into a number of eclectic covers. Longtime fans could feel at home with his twangier interpretations of his old standards like “Blame It On Cain,” “Everyday I Write The Book” and a somewhat Mariachi-flavored take on “Red Shoes.” And I’m sure the faithful left happy that he closed the set with “Allison.” The dapperly dressed Costello also scattered some choice covers throughout the set, from the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” to the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” He did two tunes with opening act Lucinda Williams – one was the humorous Williams song “Jailhouse Tears” and the other an exuberant version of the Stones’ ‘Happy.”
Costello’s Sugarcane crop proved to be one of his more successful musical harvest, at least to this longtime Costello and Americana fan.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Americana Music Festival - Countdown to Kickoff

The Americana Music Festival is now less than a month away, and I will be returning after a several year hiatus.
While the festival is turning the big 1-0, its award ceremony has only been around for 8 years. This year, the AMA will be celebrating the lifetime achievements of bluegrass progressive Sam Bush, western swing revivalists Asleep At The Wheel and ace producer Jim Rooney, who has helmed works by John Prine, Iris DeMent, Nanci Griffith and more.
The evening showcases offer an array of interesting Americana acts – and of course it’s own share of logical dilemmas. For example, who to see midnight on Wednesday night – Raul Malo, the Deadstring Brothers or Charlie Robison, all artists I’ve written about but never seen. Or what about Saturday night, when Webb Wilder, Buddy Miller and the trio of Nanci Griffith, Mary Gauthier & Elizabeth Cook are all performing at different stages.
So there will be quandaries like those to resolve as well as just seeing how my legs and general stamina holds up.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hey, Hoge

It was a real treat to see Will Hoge perform earlier this week as he passed through Los Angeles for an early set at the Mint. A treat because it reminded me what a terrific, if over-exposed roots rocker he is. It was also good to see that the Nashville-based musician was still just alive and kicking after being hit last year by a van while he was riding on his scooter. The main consequence of this accident – at least in this show - just seemed to be that he sat down more than he used to.
But the music was still as strong as ever. On his electric numbers, he conjured up the spirit of a younger Bruce Springsteen, much like his fellow rootsy neo-classic rockers like Marah and Hold Steady. Hoge’s songs this evening, however, favored more relationship-based songs rather than the character-flavored tunes that those aforementioned bands favor. On his acoustic songs, I got to thinking that any of these could be easily picked up by some better known Nashville acts – although they undoubtedly wouldn’t match Hoge’s ragged charms.
Hoge, who looks a little like Law & Order’s Jeremy Sisto, flashed his Southern civility when he complimented the club’s soundman for fixing his microphone during a song, while also serving up a dig at the Troubadour. Mostly it was a night for Hoge to showcase tracks from his upcoming disc, The Wreckage, while also touching on some older songs. He closed his all-too-short set with a Wreckage track “Hard To Love” but Hoge was very easy to love if you are a fan of well-crafted blue-collar rock ‘n’ roll. Hopefully, his new album will give him a well-deserved career boost.

Monday, July 13, 2009

His Guitar Gently Weeps

When I was a kid, I had George Harrison’s magnum opus All Things Must Pass on 8-track. In fact, it was an 8-track “box set” – with two 8-tracks packaged together. The childhood memories of it stayed strong enough that I never got around to purchasing the deluxe reissue that came out a few years ago.
However, All Things Must Pass returned to my mind the other day after listening to the new EP Tribute To, a sublime six-pack of Harrison songs credited to Yim Yames (aka Jim James from My Morning Jacket). Four of the EP’s six tunes originated on ATMP – “Behind That Locked Door,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” and “All Things Must Pass”, with “Long Long Long’ and “Love You To” filling out this short set.
Although James recorded these tunes shortly after Harrison’s passing in 2001, it is only being released now. It’s a spare, simple affair that serves as a loving tribute to Harrison. Somber without being funereal. Typically on these songs, it’s just James and his guitar, with the sound is more aligned to the earlier Neil Young-ish My Morning Jacket than the more recent MMJ style. The arrangements aren’t embellished performances much, but James does add, for instance, a nice touch of banjo to “Love You To.”
But the disc’s gauzy sound well suits the material, as it feels like a stripped down version of Phil Spector’s denser work on the original. You can hear a fan working through his sorrow on the moving renditions of “My Sweet Lord” and the title track, with the inclusion of “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp,” a very personal song of Harrison’s, is an inspired choice.
The six songs create an emotional mood of reflection and remembrance – from recalling George Harrison and the Beatles on one hand to the reflecting sheer emotional power of music on another. It achieves the nice trick of making you want to go back to hear the original while also appreciating the new renditions.
The EP also makes you wish that the disc were longer, and see how James might have tackled other ATMP tunes, from the well-known ones like “Isn’t It Pity” and “What Is Life” to more personal faves like “Apples Scruffs” and “Wah-Wah.” But it’s always good to leave fans wanting more as opposed to wearing out your welcome, and Tribute To is a welcome arrival for Beatles fans and My Morning Jacket fans, and music fans inbetween
The EP is available now digitally at, while ATO Records officially releases it on Aug. 4. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary ( .

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Good Word on Alexa Woodward

I have been intrigued with Alexa Woodward’s new album Speck, so I went to see her perform at her recent Los Angeles appearance at the intimate Genghis Cohen – and it was a very rewarding experience. The banjo-picking Woodward’s songs are like mountain music with an MFA. References to Tolstoy and Harper Lee slip into her dark-hued, old-timey tunes; however, she’s doesn’t sound liked an affected musical anthropologist appropriating native backwoods sounds. Although based out of New York City, Woodward grew up in Virginia and South Carolina so there is an easy naturalness to her rural porch music. An easy reference would be the stripped down Americana styling of Gillian Welch. Hearing her live, I came to appreciate the way Woodward’s honeyed singing voice dips and soars. Her phrasing and harmonizing (she was frequently accompanied on vocals by her washboard-playing sidekick Linky Dickson) also brought to mind to Roches, as did her endearing stage presence. She shared some funny tales of touring misadventures, like trying to sleep in a WalMart parking lot that was blaring Whitney Houston. But what really grabbed me is how her singing and lyrics blend together to make for spare, haunting music. There’s an earthy ethereal quality to tunes like “Window” “Spoon” and “Speck.” After several songs that held murder ballad imagery like “her blood was melancholy” and “a speck of blood for the birds and the bees,” she lightened the tone with the “Plants” (she apparently likes one word titles). This rather upbeat tune, which celebrates her time living in a community house with some 20 other folks, offers that urban gardener rallying cry “plants growing in the city!” With its quiet folksy sound, Speck might be easy to overlook, but Alexa Woodward impresses both in concert and on disc, making her someone for Americana connoisseurs to keep an eye on.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rosy Times For Rosewood Thieves

There’s a certain sepia quality to the name Rosewood Thieves, conjuring up images of some long-ago gang of western outlaws. While this New York City-based band has some twang to them, their musical roots have mostly been dug up from rock’s golden Sixties. The cover art to their 2006 debut EP, From The Decker House, aped ‘60s era Columbia releases, and the title itself was a nod to the Band’s Music From Big Pink. Listen to their music, and you know that they have spent hours pouring over classic Dylan, Beatles and Band albums, with frontman Erick Jordan’s voice frequently sounding like a Lennon/ Dylan hybrid. Their new EP still finds them foraging rock’s past, but also expanding their musical territory some. Heartaches By The Pound is a terrific little six track EP devoted to the songs of Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer Solomon Burke, and covering the “King of Rock & Soul” proves to be an inspired concept. While you can still hear the Beatles and Dylan influences bubbling up, the band dirties up their sound with a heavier garage pop vibe that’s also supported by soulful grooves. The Rosewood Thieves are one of those bands that can easily appeal to classic rock hippies and young Americana hipsters.

Ripped Review


How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music

By Greg Kot

(Scribner; 262 pages; $25)

"A technological freak-out" is how Pink Floyd's first manager, Peter Jenner, described the current state of the music business at the 2006 Future of Music Policy Summit, and this "freak-out" is the subject of "Ripped," the thought-provoking new book from esteemed Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot.

Kot starts by laying out the basics of how the industry's old guard (major labels, record store chains, radio station conglomerates and concert promoters) ineptly fought against the many changes that computer technology (from digital downloading to sampling) brought to music business economics.

He nicely provides an overview of the effects that Napster and iTunes have wrought, revealing various misguided industry tactics such as its self-sabotaging strategy of using independent promoters for getting songs played on the radio to the Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuit against a 12-year-old girl for illegal downloading.

Instead of relying solely on the opinions of music industry insiders, Kot makes liberal use of quotes from consumers to show what the music-buying (or perhaps more precisely "music-downloading") public thinks. It's particularly enlightening to read the "Wired Generation's" attitude about owning music.

One 21-year-old college student asserts that "getting MP3 files over instant messenger is no different than me going to somebody's house and letting them listen to a CD," while a mid-20s zine editor proclaims that "it's to the band's benefit for people to hear their music because we're in a day when nobody buys music unless they hear it first. Because we don't trust anyone, really."

Kot is a music writer, not a business writer or sociologist, so it's not surprising that he's more interested in the musicmakers than the dealmakers. His book's strengths are in his profiles of the likes of Prince and Radiohead and such lesser-known artists as "future shock" composers Gregg "Girl Talk" Gillis and Dan Deacon - all of whom are finding inventive ways to make a mark in today's tumultuous marketplace.

His examination of Montreal's Arcade Fire delineates how the group's DIY rise from obscurity was greatly boosted by coverage from Internet music tastemakers Pitchfork Media.

While the relationship proved mutually beneficial, Kot reveals that the band didn't remain blindly loyal to its early, and powerful, supporter. During the Arcade Fire's breakout year of 2005, the group chose to perform in the larger, more prestigious Lollapalooza over a Pitchfork-sponsored concert for its Chicago-area summer festival date.

Kot also illustrates how the influential band Radiohead masterfully used the Internet to "leak" music and create buzz for its albums long before its landmark "pay what you like" online release of "In Rainbows" in 2007.

Besides admiring the band's innovative strategy (the publicity, for example, also helped concert ticket sales) and the music, Kot points out several shortcomings to the band's online offer (the digital release had a low bit rate, and the name-your-price deal was short lived).

These case studies are all short and succinct, with the book's 250 pages divvied up into 20 chapters. As a result, "Ripped" plays a bit like a collection of singles rather than a full-length concept album. However, Kot seems wise to avoid making grand pronouncements about the music industry's future during these unsettled economic times.

His discussion of Live Nation and Ticketmaster already needs to be updated with their controversial merger plans, and nearly every week there's a story about another performer coming up with a new creative way to launch an album that could serve as chapters in this book's sequel.

However, Kot's years of chronicling the rock world have given him a well-tuned eye for its machinations, which inform this substantive examination of the chaotic music world. By spotlighting a set of entrepreneurial artists who have successfully found ways to connect with their wired audience, Kot offers rays of hope amid the general doomsaying that typically predominates discussions of today's music business.

Michael Berick is a Los Angeles music writer who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and LA Weekly. E-mail him at This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dropping In At The Drop

I dropped in to the The Drop last night. The Drop is a new, and quite interesting, program at the Grammy Museum. It’s sorta like a musician’s version of Inside the Actors’ Studio or Spectacle minus Costello. Each session has a museum official talking to a musician who has a new album coming out. In the previous week, Nanci Griffith, Rhett Miller and Mandy Moore all dropped in for an evening of talk and music.
Tonight it was Marshall Crenshaw, with the host being the museum’s executive director Robert Santelli, who also happened to have gotten to know Crenshaw “back in the day” when he was a journalist and Crenshaw was the talk of the New York rock scene. Tonight’s conversation, however, focused on his new disc, Jaggedland (429 Records).
A sly conversationalist, Crenshaw did drop fascinating tidbits about his creative process. Like how hearing Rosemary Clooney’s rendition of “Mood Indigo” served as an inspiration for the song “Sunday Blues.” Or how, when collaborating with songwriter Kelly Ryan on “Passing Through,” he eliminated her references to urban life and told her to write about what she saw outside her window in Ireland. He had some cool anecdotes about growing up outside of Detroit, watching Buddy Holly on Ed Sullivan and praising the mostly forgotten ‘50s rock n roller Jack Scott.
Besides the tunes mentioned above, Crenshaw also played other songs from his new disc, which served to whet my appetite for hearing the real thing. After an audience Q&A session, Santelli requested Crenshaw close with the evening with an oldie – “Someday, Someway.” Crenshaw earlier had alluded to early career snafus and how there are some songs that he doesn’t play anymore because hold bitter memories. Happily, the sublime “Someday, Someway” isn’t one of them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Spring Show Preview revue: Sweet, Rundgren, Southern Culture on the Skids, Black Joe Lewis, Tragicially Hip

Here are some show previews that I penned in the last few months. Yes, it's too late to see these shows, but maybe you can catch the bands the next time around.

Sweet at House of Blues
While scoring hits in the ’70s with classic rock staples “Ballroom Blitz,” “Little Willy” and “Fox on the Run,” Sweet never garnered the hip cachet of its British rock brethren. T.Rex and Mott the Hoople were cooler; Queen and ELO were more extravagant, and Bowie was Bowie. Sweet’s glam-pop sound came off, well, a little too sweet — and the name undoubtedly fed bubblegum comparisons. However, listening to Sweet’s new Shout! Factory anthology, Action, isn’t an empty-calorie experience. Besides their well-known singles, the fun-packed double-disc set revives big riff rockers like “Action,” “Teenage Rampage” and “The Lies in Your Eyes,” along with curios like “Alexander Graham Bell” and the Caribbean-flavored “Poppa Joe.” With bassist Steve Priest (immortalized in the “Are you ready, Steve?” line from “Ballroom Blitz”) the only remaining original member, there’s always the question of how, exactly, this incarnation will recreate the Sweet sound (and whether they’ll wear those silly knickers), but, still, it should make for a jolly night of “Wig-Wam Bam” rock & roll. (Michael Berick)


If you get lit up by the sounds of James Brown and his Famous Flames, Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays or Wilson Pickett backed by Stax or Muscle Shoals men, then lend an ear to Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. This Austin-based outfit vividly revives the sweet soul music and ribald R&B of their forefathers. Their recently released Lost Highway debut, Tell ’Em What Your Name Is! (produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno), explodes with heated blasts of guitars, organ and horns on the dynamo opener “Gunpowder.” They rip through more garage-soul hip-shakers like “Sugarfoot,” “Boogie” and “Bobby Booshay” while mixing in “oh, baby” pleaders like “Please, Pt. Two” and the country blues excursion “Master Sold My Baby.” While some critics quibble that the band hews too closely to its influences, there’s no denying that the guitar-wielding Lewis and his Honeybears deliver some seriously rockin’ funk. With Redding, Pickett and Brown all long gone, young Lewis has arrived to carry their torch with his hot and sweaty house-party ruckus. Sharing the bill is the twangy, ’Mats-ish Memphis-based bar rockers Lucero. Also at Alex’s Bar, Fri. (Michael Berick)

Todd Rundgren
Philly boy Todd Rundgren has long been one of Cleveland's favorite adopted sons. He headlined a World Series of Rock at the old stadium back in the day, and his 1978 Back to the Bars live album was partly recorded at the Cleveland Agora. Plus, he's a classic-rock staple here. While enjoying mighty success with sublime tunes like "I Saw the Light" and "Hello It's Me," Rundgren has taken a "something/anything" approach to his career. Like David Bowie (another Cleveland fave from way back), he's a rock 'n' roll chameleon. He effortlessly dishes up classic rock, Philly soul, heavy metal, prog-rock, show tunes and ribald ditties — sometimes on the same album, sometimes playing all the instruments too. His eccentric experimentations have resulted in rewarding whims (like his fun 1980 Beatles parody, Deface the Music) as well as some muddy self-indulgence (how many remember his '90s TR-i phrase?). Throughout his career, he's been a sought-after producer, with a résumé that includes Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad and Meat Loaf. Rundgren recently fronted the New Cars, which helped revitalize his love for guitar rock and led to his latest effort, Arena. While not hitting his heyday's highs, it's a strong rock outing solidified by muscular tracks like "Gun," "The Last Recluse" and the shimmering "Courage." He may not dress up in Egyptian regalia anymore or have flowing, multi-colored hair, but he's still Todd — a dream that goes on forever. Doors opens at 7:30 at the Palace Theatre (1501 Euclid Ave., 216.241.6000, Tickets range from $10-$40. — Michael Berick

5-22: Southern Culture on the Skids/Los Straitjackets

It’s an Americana kitsch party when Southern Culture on the Skids (pictured) and Los Straitjackets pull their doublewide into town tonight. The two veteran groups draw upon a wide range of roots music: rockabilly, country, surf, garage-rock and Tex-Mex — and do so with a heavy slathering of humor. Los Straitjackets perform while wearing colorful Mexican wrestling masks, and SCOTS, who look like country cousins of the B-52s, get duded up in trailer-park chic. But what’s often overlooked among all their corny schtick is just how talented both bands are. On The Further Adventures Of …, Los Straitjackets rumble through their patented surfabilly-noir instrumentals, proving again they’re one of the top instrumental units working these days. SCOTS’ hick antics hide the fact that frontman Rick Miller is a mighty fine guitar picker. On their most recent album, the 2007 covers collection Countrypolitian Favorites, they dish out straightforward and wonderful renditions of Nashville nuggets like Joe South’s “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden” and George Jones’ “Let’s Invite Them Over,” alongside inventively twangy interpretations of the Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbilly,” the Who’s “Happy Jack” and T. Rex’s “Life’s a Gas.” Between SCOTS and Los Straits, this show definitely should be a gas. It’s at 9 p.m. at the Beachland Ballroom (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). Tickets: $20. — Michael Berick

5-31: Tragically Hip at HOB

There’s probably no bigger “big in Canada” band than the Tragically Hip. Over the past 25 years, they’ve racked up more than a dozen Juno Awards (Canada’s equivalent to the Grammys). They were also inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The remarkably unchanged quintet remains guided by charismatic frontman Gordon Downie, whose passionate vocals and poetic lyrics make him something like a Maple Leaf Michael Stipe, while dueling guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois fortify the band’s powerful, arena-filling sound. But the Hip’s latest album, We Are the Same, isn’t more of the same. There are a few signature rock thunderbolts (“Frozen in My Track” and “Love Is a First” — curiously, both are tucked in at the disc’s end), but the album’s tone is overall quieter and more subtle. The album’s bookends, “Morning Moon” and “Country Day,” boast wistful, bucolic R.E.M.-like qualities. The group pulls together its soft/hard elements on “Now the Struggle Has a Name,” a six-plus-minute emotional epic that sets the stage for the record’s centerpiece, the nine-and-a-half-minute “The Depression Suite.” This ambitious, three-part orchestral-rock opus should figure prominently onstage since it plays to the Hip’s chief strengths: Downie’s intense rock-poet persona, balanced by the band’s classic-rock dramatics. Showtime is 8 p.m. at House of Blues (308 Euclid Ave., 216.523.2583, It’s sold out. — Michael Berick

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Morning With Marty

I had the pleasure of attending the press day for Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Musical Odyssey at the Autry National Center of the American West. It’s a wonderful exhibition filled with historic items from Marty Stuart’s personal collection. While, naturally, it’s filled with memorabilia from Stuart’ long, illustrious career, there are also a great many items that he has collected from the American roots music scene at large - like a colorful array of Nudie suits, guitars (particularly some classic Johnny Cash guitars) and other fascinating items (such as a set of ties from the Lester Flatt band).
What made this walk-through extra special was that Marty Stuart himself played host. He provided behind-the-exhibit stories, like how Johnny Cash’s grandma sewed some J.C. Penney edging onto a suit after she saw him perform on a show with a more flamboyantly dressed Elvis Presley. He also talks about becoming friendly with Hank Williams’ sister Irene and described how he proclaimed, after meeting singer Connie Smith when he was 12, that he was going to marry her, which is what he ended up doing.
Visitors also can enjoy a good many of Stuart’s anecdotes in this well-annotated exhibit - like the concert where the Lester Flatt band (which a young Stuart was in at the time) shared a bill with the Eagles and Gram Parsons.
As this exhibit amply demonstrates, Stuart should be applauded for having the foresight for collecting, preserving and sharing so much of Country Music’s past. This show is a must-see for anyone interested not only in American music but 20th Century American culture as a whole.

Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Musical Odyssey runs at the Autry National Center of the American West (4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles) from April 16 through August 23. Admission is $9 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, and $3 for kids 3-12. For more information, visit

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Marissa Nadler

I was at Los Angeles’ Hotel Café the other night and caught an opening set from Marissa Nadler. I wasn’t much familiar with her beyond having seen her name around but I was glad to have seen her set. Nadler has been labeled with the freak folk tag, which she is and she isn’t. There is a definitely a mystical quality about both her and her music. With long dark hair, dark eyes and an introspective stage presence, she comes off as being a couple years matured from a post-goth period. Her songs are semi-twisted tales (one line went: “Silvia, I met you in a belly of a whale”) that she sings in a semi-quivery voice. The combination suggests a slightly odd blending of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan gone on a traditional English folk song kick. In fact, more than being a freak folkie, Nadler makes music in the dark art folk vein. It’s telling when her “lightest” song is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” She was backed by a band for this show (a drummer, bassist and guitarist) that added to her music’s dreamy hallucinatory effect. They sounded a bit like a muted Cowboy Junkies. Nadler revealed at the end of the set that this was the first show with this backing band and that might have explained why the arrangements didn’t quite come together. Close but not fully transcendent. While the guitarist provided some vivid textures, it didn’t feel like there was enough dramatic tension in the music. However, maybe that was part of the point – to create a dark and dreamy sound that floated along with Nadler’s dark and dreamy songs. My lack of familiarity with the songs also uncut my full understanding and appreciation of the lyrics, although they projected an eerie, timeless quality. But it does say something that these beguiling performance is still staying with me a few days after the fact.
Nadler has a new album Little Hells (a seemingly appropriate title) that just came out on the Kemado Records label.

Friday, April 3, 2009

My Lowe-down on the new Nick Lowe Best Of disc

Quiet Please...The New Best Of Nick Lowe {Yep Roc}
• by michael berick
Quiet Please is, as it subtitle indicates, not Nick Lowe's first Best Of (that's 16 All Time Lowes), his biggest Best Of (The Doings), his most hits-packed Best Of (Basher), or his most rarities-filled Best Of (The Wilderness Years). But this two-disc collection is his most comprehensive Best Of, and, perhaps, his best Best Of. Its 49 tracks follow Lowe's entire solo career, along with stops at various group efforts (from Brinsley Schwarz through Rockpile to Little Village) along the way.

The compilation commences with the rousing Brinsley gem "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" (later co-opted by Elvis Costello and Curtis Stigers). Disc one cherry-picks Lowe's favorite tunes from Pure Pop For Now People through Pinker And Prouder Than Previous. The second disc contains his more recent, "quieter" work. The collection's chronological nature winds up showing a man evolving from clever youth to introspective middle age.

As with any collection, there are quibbles over song choices. Only one Brinsley tune (and, less disappointingly, one from Little Village) and two Rockpile tracks appear. Completists might grumble over the lack of previously unreleased cuts, and the rarities are few and not particularly revelatory. The Bowi EP obscurity "Endless Sleep" might be a precursor to his current sound, but it's wedged amidst more brightly colored Pure Pop pleasures.

Minor qualms aside, this retrospective wonderfully reveals Lowe's many musical moods (from silly to serious, from rock to country to soul and many combinations within those), and serves as a terrific reminder of what a master songcraftsman he is.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Old Souls

Soul music aficionados will welcome the arrival of a trio of new discs that all uphold classic soul traditions. In fact, these three discs - The Revelations’ Deep Soul (, Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears’ Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is ( and Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens’ What Have You Done, My Brother? ( - provide a full weekend’s worth of soul-filled listening.

Friday night belongs to the Revelations. This Brooklyn-based sextet serves up seductively smooth soul that’s seasoned with some street grittiness. Although the savvy band lays down “deep soul” grooves, the key to the band are its singers: lead vocalist Tre’ Williams’ silky urgency couples wonderfully with his supporting singer, Rell (a one-time Roc-A-Fella artist who also penned Usher’s hit “Here I Stand”). The band’s budding magic percolates throughout this disc, from the dynamic leadoff track “Stay Off” to the timeless vibe of “Everybody Knows” and wrapping up with the potent one-two punch of “Heavy Metal Blues” and the Curtis Mayfield-flavored “He’s A Hustler.” There are only seven songs on Deep Soul, although the band goes on to slow jam into the night with a full set of instrumental renditions to fill out this disc.

If the Revelations establish a mood for a romantic Friday night, then Black Joe Lewis cranks out party music for a raucous Saturday night. Lewis’ inspiration is James Brown, and he doesn’t really try to disguise it. (he thanks Brown is the liner notes). His supercharged debut disc explodes with his band’s blast of JB-like horns and his own Brown-esque grunts and shouts on the fiery opening tracks “Gunpowder” and “Sugarfoot.” But Lewis and his Austin-based crew are too wild a bunch to be mere Brown knockoffs. He spins a funny tale of a ladies’ man’s comeuppance in the funky “Get Yo Shit’ while he’s just as convincing showing less bravado on the gritty “I’m Broke.” But the rowdy workouts like “Big Booty Woman,” “Bobby Booshay” and “Boogie” rule the day here, and give Lewis the chance to showcase his electric guitar chops too. Although he doesn’t fully escape Brown’s shadow here (you can visualize him dropping to his knees ala Brown during the closer “Please Pt. Two”), Lewis definitely puts on a captivating, attention-grabbing performance here.

After all of Lewis’ ribald ways, it’s only natural to turn to some Sunday salvation. And that’s when it’s Naomi Shelton’s time. This Brooklyn singer provides a splendid bridge between soul and gospel. While her inspiring music speaks to God, it isn’t strictly gospel music. The sixty-something Shelton sings with a commanding, suffer-no-fools voice – something like if Tina Turner had stayed in the church and not ended up playing arenas (although the opening song “What Is This” makes one think that it’s something Dylan might have done). The playing here is the most restrained of these three discs, but it’s expertly done (performed by various Dap-tones and ex-Wilson Pickett sideman Cliff Driver). And her backing singers, the Gospel Queens, sound like they could have walked right out of a Brill Building session. This is just a glorious disc, populated with memorable tracks like the revival tent rouser “Trouble In My Way”, the politically charged Am I asking Too Much” and the moving cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Going To Come.” Daptone Records, who has already introduced the sensational Sharon Jones to the world, has found another soul-stirring singer in Naomi Shelton.
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Hot Panda Experience

Looking for the next “hot” band? There’s already Hot Hot Heat and Hot Chip. Now welcome Hot Panda. They come from chilly Edmonton, Alberta, although the band’s co-founders Chris Connelly and Maghan Campbell apparently drew musical inspiration from their time living in Oslo, Norway.
So, what’s the sound? It’s a giddy, rapid-fire pop-rock. A bit New-Wave-y, but they aren’t afraid to bash away at their guitars either. Nor are they afraid pick up an accordion, glockenspiel or kazoo. It’s the type of dial-a-style, ADD rock that their western neighbors in the Vancouver scene (think the New Pornographers) dish up. But also add in a dose of the cheeky, chant-y UK punk-pop of groups like Los Campesinos and Johnny Foreigner, and you get a sense of where Hot Panda is coming from.
Their thoroughly delightful debut disc Volcano…Bloody Volcano came out in February on Mint (home to other off-kilter Canadian banks like The Buttless Chaps, Immaculate Machine and Young & Sexy). It’s a disc that I’ve returned to frequently over the last couple months. Volcano’s a zippy joyride through Connelly’s odd tales navigated through the twisty, bouncy melodies. Kooky, catchy tracks like “Cold Hands/Chapped Lips,” “It’s Worth Eight Dollars,” “Afraid of the Weather” and “Whale Headed Girl” all stick in the synapses.
I went to see them at their L.A. debut at the Mint on March 25, and they were just as winning live - full of goofy humor, joyous playing and herky-jerky rhythms. Singer Connelly might be a bit of an acquired taste with his slightly theatrical, sometimes-yippy-sometimes-adenoidal croon, but he never tries to be too serious which makes him more endearing than annoying.
Their spirited, crazy-quilted pop-rock sound makes them a band to keep an eye on.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cowboy Vs. Cowboy

I recently received new discs from Ian Tyson and Michael Martin Murphey, and listening to them amounted to something of a cowboy music duel.
Tyson made a name for himself during the Sixties folk boom as one half of Ian & Sylvia, who were best known for the popular tune “Four Strong Winds” (and have been called the source for the characters Mitch and Mickey in Christopher Guest affectionate folk parody A Mighty Wind).
However, in recent years, he saddled up with cowboy music. In fact, earlier this year, he received a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Cowboy Poetry Gathering. His new disc Yellowhead To Yellowstone And Other Love Stories ( continues along this same western path. There are songs about cowboys, horses and wild wolves. Even the tunes about contemporary California (“Blaino’s Song”) and hockey commentator Don Cherry (“My Cherry Colored Rose”) sound like tales of the Old West.
The major change here is the change in Tyson’s voice, which sounds rather ravished due to an apparently permanent singing injury. While he affects a nice croon on “Lioness”, his hoarse vocals are something of a distraction and limit his disc’s appeal to hardcore Western music buffs.
Michael Martin Murphey is another long-time man of the West. A Western Music Association Hall of Famer, he has been called the top selling cowboy music singer. On his latest effort, Buckeroo Blue Grass (, he gives his catalog a bluegrass makeover (as the title implies). It’s actually not a big stretch but he does it effortlessly. Helping him sow his bluegrass oats here are such top players as Ronnie McCoury, Rhonda Vincent, Sam Bush and Rob Ickes.
Although the disc doesn’t include this biggest hit, 1975’s chart topper “Wildfire,” it does include a fine rendition of “What I Am Doing Hanging Around”, a song you might recognize from the Monkees. Other numbers that stand out are “Carolina In The Pines” and set opener “Lone Cowboy.”
If you put these two discs in a musical duel, I think Murphey would win the showdown. His singing has a warmer, friendlier quality than Tyson’s admittedly restricted vocals. Moreover, the enthusiastic bluegrass picking is quite contagious and his disc offers a nice balance of “up songs and sad songs” (to quote Murphey himself).
Song to seek out: “What Am I Doing Hanging Around” from Michael Martin Murphey.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lovin' Louvin

this is what I had to say in Cleveland Scene magazine about Charlie Louvin's upcoming show there:
Charlie Louvin

What do you call a musician who has back-to-back Grammy nominations, released two records last year and goes from Beachland opening act to headliner in a matter of months? A hot up-and-coming star? Well, it's actually octogenarian Charlie Louvin. But this living legend has been living it up the last of couple years. For his Grammy-nominated 2007 self-titled disc, he enlisted the likes of George Jones, Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy. Last year, he turned out the stark Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, as well as the stirring gospel-filled Steps To Heaven (which earned another Grammy nom). Louvin's career dates back to the 1940s when he started performing with his brother Ira. The Louvin Brothers were among country music's top brother acts during the late '50s and early '60s. Following Ira's death in 1965, Charlie soldiered on and is now experiencing a career resurgence. On recent albums, Louvin sings about damnation and redemption in a worldly wise voice that might not be a strong as it once was, but it's still stirring and inspiring. Not many performers make vital music in their 80s, but Louvin has always been a rare breed. JP & the Chatfield Boys open at 8 p.m. at the Beachland Tavern (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). Tickets: $15. - Michael Berick

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cars - yes, really about the band.

I was listening to the car radio last night and tuned into an LA station that goes by the name, The Sound. I don't listen enough to summarize the Sound's sound but it seems to a mix of modern oldies and contemporaries tunes that delve a bit beyond the obvious. I heard Nick Lowe's "Cruel to be Kind" followed by Tom Petty's "Listen To Her Heart". Then they played the Cars' "Best Friends Girl," which I hadn't heard in ages. Granted. I had the Cars debut right when it came out. Had it on 8 Track, in fact. It was just before New Wave became a fashionable term and these guys (including Nick Lowe) were treated as strange punk rockers by the great Midwest. Anyway, I haven't listened much to the Cars over the intervening years and sort of chuckled/scoffed with the song came on. But I did come away appreciating their craftsmanship more afterward. My younger ears never picked up on the "96 Tears"-style keyboard line that weaves through the song nor the twangy guitar picking that make me think of Chet Atkins, and I never associated the Cars and Chet Atkins together before. The next song was "Wonderwall" by Oasis, which made me think of the Beatles. That had been done before.