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