Sunday, February 28, 2010

Go See Hear: For March 1-7 in L.A.

The top recommended show of the week takes place at the Mint on March 2. The headliner is Backyard Tire Fire, hot off the release of their disc, the Steve Berlin-produced Good To Be - and quite good it turns out to be. Which isn’t a surprise. BTF has been one of my favorite rootsy rock groups for the last few years. They fall in with fellow hoist-a-beer-to bands like the Hold Steady, Marah and Lucero – guys who create gritty music with a dose of twang and a big serving of rock ‘n’ roll. Frontman Ed Anderson evokes Tom Petty vocally, but he’s reared less on the Beatles and Byrds than the Replacements and early Wilco. Backyard Tire Fire is one of those bands percolating just under the mainstream but poised to become better known.
Preceding BTF is the fine local outfit, Old Californio, another band that looking to blossom to bigger things. Haling from the San Gabriel area, this group mines the golden SoCal country-rock sound, but make their music feel new and fresh. Last year, they produced their debut, the thoroughly wonderful Westering Again, a disc you should get to know if you haven’t already.

Other shows worth checking out include:
Andrew Belle, part of the Ten From Tenn singer/songwriter collective, plays the Hotel Café March 3
The quirky Brit pop/rock group the Clientele comes to Spaceland on March 5.
The Experience Hendrix Tour brings a galaxy of guitar wizards (Joe Satriani, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, David Hidalgo, Ernie Isley and more) to the Gibson March 5.
March 6 finds the critically acclaimed performer/producer Joe Henry appearing at Largo.
While across town at UCLA’s Royce Hall that night, two iconic acts from the American South – The Blind Boys of Alabama and Allen Toussaint - will perform. Coincidentally, Joe Henry produced Toussaint’s last disc..hmm.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Matthew Ryan at Molly Malone’s, Los Angeles, CA, 2/21/10

Over the past three years, Matthew Ryan has produced a fascinating trilogy of discs, From A Late Night High Rise, Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State and Dear Lover, which matched with confessional singer-songwriter tunes with haunting folk-tronica sonic background. For his solo appearance at L.A.’s Molly Malone’s, however, it was just him on stage, accompanied only with his guitar and an occasional harmonica.
In his raspy, hushed voice, Ryan shared a searing set of life-scarred songs, like “They Were Wrong,” “American Dirt,” “Dear Lover” and “The Wilderness.” His emotionally intimate tunes feature such evocative lyrics as “I want the dream that we never had,” “I don’t feel much lately but that’s how I hide,” and “we were in the front row at the sad last goodbye.” There’s a little bit of Springsteen in Ryan’s working class/dead-end life setting but a little of the Irish poet (maybe it was the Irish bar that got me thinking that way) in him too. Ryan’s stripped-down set-up at this show also fit with his emotionally stripped down lyrics.
I felt too a certain punk rock influence - both in the physicality of his songs and structurally in the way he repeats phrases to add emphasis. It’s not surprising then that one of few covers songs that he has recorded is the Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered.” He didn’t perform that one, but he did do another favorite cover, the Go-Betweens’ “Providence,” which does fit wonderfully in with his own tunes. It was also one of the several tunes that he closed the set with playing in the audience – a shadowy area that was an appropriate area for Ryan’s neither black nor white musical world.
In the small club’s crowd was Lucinda Williams, a big-time admirer. She expressed her admiration for him during this set and he dedicated his slowed down version of Burt Bacharach’s “I Will Never Fall In Love Again” to her and her husband Tom, and Williams sang along. While his songs were darkly intense, Ryan was far from the brooding musician on stage. He humorously announced that he made it through “Chrome” successfully for the first time in three shows and later stopped a song to help an older woman look for her purse.
Opening the show was the country rocker Gina Villalobos who turned out a lively set to her hometown crowd. Her feisty, rootsy tunes and crackly, gritty vocals brought Lucinda Williams to mind, and not just because she was in the audience. Songs like “Somebody Save Me” “Pictures of Pictures” and “Sun In My Eyes;” however, stood out on their own. I was aware of Villalobos but hadn’t kept up with her music; however, this show reminded me of her talent.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Go See Hear: For Feb. 8-14 in L.A.

This week makes an unusually strong week of singer-songwriters in L.A. Starting this week off is the inimitable Loudon Wainwright, who has a show at one of his favorite L.A. spots, the Largo at the Coronet on Tuesday the 9th. He got a Grammy win this year for his Charlie Poole tribute.
Findlay Brown might not qualify in the singer-songwriter category but I have been enamored with his new album Love Will Find You, on which the young crooner makes a cross between Chris Isaak and Roy Orbison on suave set of retro sounding romantic songs. He is opening for Nouvelle Vague at the Henry Fonda Theater and also has a show at the Echo on 2/10/
On the 10th, the legendary Sixties folkie and political activist Buffy Sainte Marie has a rare show at the Bootleg Theatre.
Thursday the 11th offer a high number of recommendable shows. Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug – two talented Nashville-based singer-songwriters have a show at the Echo. Yes, Earle is the son of Steve but he has really staked out his own turf with his two albums on Bloodshot Records.
Richard Thompson, who not that long ago shared a bill at UCLA with Loudon Wainwright has his own show at Largo on the 11th (will his pal Loudon hang around for this gig?). While Thompson’s guitar playing and songwriting skills are well known, it’s a treat to see him in a small, casual venue where he has chance to air out his British sense of humor.
Over at the Mint, James McMurtry will be performing his fiery tunes. Another son of a famous father (his dad’s is the author Larry McMurtry), James has garnered a lot of attention in recent years with his politically charged songs. He also has a show at McCabe’s on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Hotel Café hosts the Guggenheim Grotto on Thursday night; this Irish folky-poppy outfit has been a KCRW fave and their tune “Her Beautiful Ideas” is just a beautiful pop tune.
Valentine’s Day Sunday holds an interesting show at McCabe’s. Clare and the Reason come to town and share a show with Van Dyke Parks. This twosome should make for a night of artful pop. Clare and the Reason’s last offering is stocked with Euro-flavored sounds while Parks has long been known for his sophisticated pop music.
The 14th also signals the first of several local shows for the Acoustic Brotherhood Tour, which features Los Lonely Boys, Alejandro Escovedo and Carrie Rodriguez. More than just a showcase of Latino musicians, this tour boasts three acts who can play an impressive range of music, acoustic or otherwise. On the 14th, they have a show at the Grove of Anaheim, followed by the Wiltern on the 16th and Agoura Hills’ Canyon Club on the 18th.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Both Sides Then - Mitchell, Taylor and Ochs at the 1970 Amchitka Benefit Concert

I have been listening recently to the Amchitka concert CD ( that got its long overdue release late last year. This live double disc documents the historic October 16 1970 show that launched Greenpeace. Money raised from this Vancouver, British Columbia benefit concert was used to buy a boat (later named the Greenpeace) that served to successfully protest U.S. nuclear bomb tests by the Amchitka Islands off the coast of Alaska.

The concert, consequently, has obvious importance on the historical and political fronts, but it is also quite fascinating for its musical content. The three performers featured on these 2 discs are all significant singer-songwriters: Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs. This late 1970 show captures the threesome at a critical crossroads in each of their respective careers.

Mitchell (who has a disc devoted to herself) and Taylor were both artists on the rise. Mitchell had won a Grammy in March of ‘70 for Clouds and released her classic Ladies of the Canyon later that Spring. 1970 was a big year too for Taylor, who put out his breakout album, Sweet Baby James in February although he not yet graced the cover of Time Magazine.

Ochs, on the other hand, was entering the twilight of his career. Around the same time as Taylor released Sweet Baby James, Ochs offered up the (perhaps) ironically entitled Greatest Hits, his last studio album, and within 6 years of this concert appearance he had killed himself by suicide.

This CD release can be seen as representing the change from ‘60s folkies to ‘70s singer-songwriters, with the politically charged Ochs giving way – on several levels – to the more introspective lyricists of Taylor, Mitchell and the “Seventies sensitive singer-songwriters” – the shift from the Civil Right Generation to the Me Generation.

Philosophizing aside, this CD, happily, also holds a trio of notable performances. Ochs had been playing more electric set around this time (his infamous electric Carnegie Hall shows from March of 1970 were later released as the live album, Gunfight At Carnegie Hall) but here he is in classic guitar-strumming troubadour mode. His set favors political tunes (“Joe Hill,” “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Rhythms of Revolutions” and “I’m Going To Say It Now”) but also contains several dark, autobiographically-based tunes (“Chords of Fame” and “No More Songs”). It’s interesting to contrast the “Chord of Fame” with Mitchell’s “For Free.” Both songs are about the trappings of being a successful singer although Och’s tone is much more sour than Mitchell’s.

While Ochs’ performance is quite strong, he also seems, in contrast to Mitchell and Taylor, a bit stiffer on stage despite his years of experience. His banter is mostly half-swallowed asides and even when he announces that “it’s not every day you get to play in a police state” it is not said in a galvanizing way but more of a tossed off remark. Perhaps it is just the perspective of hindsight, but there seems to be a bittersweet quality to his performance.

James Taylor also comes off rather shy and nervous, but this is more understandable considering he was still at the beginning of his now-lengthy career. Just accompanying himself on the guitar, he performs several memorable songs - like “Fire And Rain” “Carolina On My Mind” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” - from his Warner Brothers’ debut and his earlier Apple album. In introducing “Sweet Baby James,” he explains that the song is really about his young nephew James. It’s a real joy to listen to play here as he’s on the cusp of stardom; you can hear easy warmth that has been a hallmark of his laidback, folksy musical style.

The same type of joy can heard in Mitchell’s set. Even though she was a rather established artist by the time of this show – she was the benefit’s headliner – she reveals a relaxed, unguarded quality in her performance as if she was still singing in coffeehouses. Playing solo on a guitar, dulcimer or piano, she does several of her well-known tunes – such as “Woodstock,” “A Case Of You” and “Big Yellow Taxi” - in a simple, stripped down way that is always enchanting. Her voice is at her classic best - all lilting, gossamer glory.

It’s a treat to hear Mitchell display her sense of humor throughout this less-than-perfect set. She asks her the audience’s indulgence while she “putters around” trying to find her way back into “For Free” (the disc contains the occasional, yet charming flub and overall less than pristine sound, with the too-early-fade out on Mitchell and Taylor doing “Circle Game” to close out the disc). She apologizes too for a press quote about her calling Vancouver a hick town. It’s also fun to hear her weave in an old schoolgirl favorite “Bony Maronie” into “Big Yellow Taxi” or when she pulls Taylor out to join her in a seemingly unrehearsed rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that she slides into the end of “Carey.”

It’s a lightheartedness that you don’t always associate with Mitchell, which helps to make this recording something special. More than just an exercise in nostalgia or an archival curio, Amchitka stands as a marvelous snapshot of three talented singer-songwriters performing strong sets at a significant (for varying reasons) moment in their careers.