Yesterday marked the passing of not only Prince, but another music legend — Lonnie Mack. Mack, who was born in Harrison, Ind., and cut his teeth in Greater Cincinnati’s nightclubs, died Thursday at his home in Tennessee from natural causes. The influential guitarist was 74.
Recording locally and releasing early material on Cincinnati’s Fraternity label, Mack’s guitar playing is said to have been a major influence on many Rock superstar players, including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn. The pioneering guitarist was the second artist to receive the Michael W. Bany Lifetime Achievement Award from the Enquirer’s former awards program, the Cammys, accepting the award in 1998. Bootsy Collins, who won the award the year before, has said Mack was a giant influence on the development of his style.
Mack is considered one of Rock & Roll’s first “guitar heroes.” He’s in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the International Guitar Hall of Fame, and should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Here’s the press release sent out by Alligator Records (Mack’s final label) late last night:
Pop Empire first came together in 2009 as a duo. The group featured Henry Wilson, an audio engineer who worked on video sessions — like the cool one-shot live music video series, The Emery Sessions — with his father, renowned photographer Michael Wilson, and he has also done production and mastering work with Cincinnati acts like Aaron Collins, ADM and Shadowraptr. With Cameron Cochran (currently with The Midwestern Swing), the twosome released an EP and a full-length, 2011’s The Devil’s Party, before parting ways.
But that was far from the end of Pop Empire. Singer/songwriter/bassist Wilson joined forces with guitarist Ryan Back and the pair release the Future Blues LP in 2014, showcasing the strengthening of the Blues-tinged Psych Rock sound for which Pop Empire has become known.
The growth and evolution of Pop Empire continues as the band approaches the May release of a new EP, The Violent Bear It Away (the exact date is TBA). Now a trio with the addition of drummer Jake Langknecht, the group is in peak form, and the new tracks reflect the musical chemistry and potent live energy of the current configuration.
“These songs were written through a collaborative process since we began playing in our current three-piece Garage Punk setup,” Wilson says about the forthcoming EP, which features four tracks and was recorded by Wilson and the band at their Northside practice space.
Here is the premiere of the EP track, “Psyche,” a trippy, glammy strutter that brings to mind a blend of T Rex and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
After The Violent Bear It Away’s release, Pop Empire is planning to support the EP with Midwestern and East Coast touring in June. Hometown fans won’t have to wait that long to see the band. The trio plays Northside Yacht Club on March 12 with locals Orchards, New Jersey’s The Off White and New York’s Psychiatric Metaphors. And on March 22 at Northside’s The Comet, Pop Empire and Us, Today will be the special guests of Dawg Yawp, which is playing the club’s every-Tuesday residency this month.
Keep tabs on Pop Empire’s latest happenings here.
On Jan. 31, 2016, the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards winners will be announced at the 19th-annual ceremony/show/party at Covington’s Madison Theater. Today we are happy to announce the nominees for the CEAs, which are presented by CityBeat and honor Greater Cincinnati’s rich and eclectic music scene.
Again this year, the public was invited to submit nominee suggestions via an online ballot; a list of the top vote-getters in each category was given to members of the CEA nominating committee for consideration. The committee, which features local music writers, club owners, radio DJs and others, helped decide the final slate of nominees in the genre categories, as well as categories for Best Live Act, Singer/Songwriter and Best Music Vide (which are open to all genres). Public vote decides the winner of a majority of the categories; the nominating committee determines the winner of the Critical Achievement categories (Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year and Artist of the Year).
This year’s nominees include several artists who have previously been nominated (or won) CEAs, as well as numerous first-time nominees. Walk the Moon have scored two Artist of the Year CEAs in past years and return to the category after exploding internationally with its ubiquitous, Platinum-selling hit “Shut Up and Dance” and Talking is Hard album (both released towards the end of 2014). Singer/songwriter Jess Lamb, who kicked off 2015 by appearing as a contestant on American Idol (and is a previous CEA performer and nominee), earned five nominations, including her first Artist of the Year nod. Artist of the Year nominee Wonky Tonk (the Indie/Country guise of Jasmine Poole) also earned nominations in the Singer/Songwriter, Best Music Video and Country categories, following a 2015 that saw her Stuff We Leave Behind album earn widespread national acclaim. Perennial Hip Hop nominee Buggs tha Rocka, who has been working with indie Hip Hop legend Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media label and played the 2015 A3C Hip Hop fest in Atlanta and Cincinnati’s own Ubahn fest, earned his first Artist of the Year nomination.
First-time CEA nominees this year include Country artist Taylor Shannon, Jazz player/composer Brad Myers, Metal newcomers Casino Warrior and jazzy Soul/Pop ensemble Krystal Peterson & the Queen City Band.
The New Artist of the Year category (as well as other promising new performers) will again be spotlighted at CityBeat’s Best New Bands showcase at Bogart’s on Jan. 16. This year’s New Artist of the Year nominees are Dawg Yawp, Coconut Milk, The Skulx, Go Go Buffalo, JSPH and Mutlimagic. New Artist nominees from the 18th-annual awards program returning to the CEA ballot this year in a big way include Leggy, Honeyspiders and Noah Smith.
Public voting opens at noon on Monday, Dec. 21 here.
Ma Crow and the Lady Slippers
The Missy Werner Band
Rumpke Mountain Boys
Comet Bluegrass All-Stars
My Brother’s Keeper
Arlo Mckinley & The Lonesome Sound
Willow Tree Carolers
Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle
Honey & Houston
Elementree Livity Project
Queen City Silver Stars
Alone at 3AM
Zebras in Public
Lift The Medium
Wonky Tonk (Jasmine Poole)
Royal Holland (Matt Mooney)
Daniel Van Vechten
Daniel in Stereo
The Slippery Lips
Noah Wotherspoon Band
Silver Pockets Trio
Johnny Fink and The Intrusion
The Whiskey Shambles
The Almighty Get Down
Krystal Peterson and the Queen City Band
The Perfect Children
The Cincy Brass
Freekbass & the Bump Assembly
Dan Karlsberg and the ’Nati Six
The Faux Frenchmen
Cincinnati Contemporary Jazz Orchestra
Blue Wisp Big Band
The Hot Magnolias
Buggs Tha Rocka
Best Live Act
The Whiskey Shambles
The Slippery Lips
Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle
Best Music Video
Molly Sullivan - "Before”
Jess Lamb - "Memories"
Automagik – “Pop Kiss”
Playfully Yours – “Colorvision”
Puck – “Ruined”
Electric Citizen – “Light Years Beyond”
Wonky Tonk – “Denmark”
Zebras in Public – “John Doe”
Critical Achievement Awards
Album Of The Year
Honeyspiders – Honeyspiders
Us, Today - T E N E N E M I E S
Dawg Yawp - Two Hearted
Honey & Houston – Barcelona
Jess Lamb - Circles
Noah Wotherspoon Band – Mystic Mud
Dan Karlsberg - The ’Nati 6
The Sundresses – This Machine Kills
New Artist Of the Year
Go Go Buffalo
Artist Of The Year
Walk the Moon
Buggs tha Rocka
After a tumultuous period that included personnel change, a career lull, an identity shift and finally an unexpected and unfortunate dissolution, the members of Pomegranates clearly thought their time had come and gone. But now, in a story twist that is equally unexpected and exultantly hailed by even the most casual fan, the Cincinnati band is taking two final bows on stage at Newport’s Southgate House Revival this Saturday, and one final stab at studio redemption with the release of its fifth album, Healing Power.
Two years ago, Pomegranates played what they intended to be their last show. The quartet had toured relentlessly behind its fourth album, 2012's Heaven, and when the band finally dropped anchor, the members began work on what should have been their fifth album.
"We thought we were going to make a noisier Rock record and instead, overall, it seems pretty low key and way more chilled out," drummer Jacob Merritt says. "And it's pretty long, also, with more songs — I don't know if ‘sprawling’ is the right word."
When Pomegranates started shopping their new tunes around, they were more than a little dismayed at the lukewarm reception they received. The departure of multi-instrumentalist Curt Kiser and the arrival of the similarly-talented Pierce Geary infused the band with a fresh perspective, but the indifference to Healing Power flooded them with self-doubt. And with members Isaac Karns and Joey Cook thinking about solo projects, the quartet began to reconsider everything.
"We were a nominally successful, mid-level band and we had been for a few years," Merritt says. "We gave (Healing Power) to a bunch of labels and managers and no one seemed to care. There was this weird stigma, where people were like, 'You guys have been around so long (the band formed way back in the mid-’00s), and you get on all these great tours. Why aren't you more successful?' And no one wanted to take the jump to help us become more successful. Nothing seemed to happen, and the guys were getting tired of the slow, steady growth and the grind of being away for weeks at a time, so we were very disappointed. The lineup had changed with Pierce, and it didn't make sense to release the album as it was, and we were second-guessing ourselves because no new people in the industry seemed to be interested and we were like, ‘Maybe this isn't good.’ ”
Thinking that perhaps they needed to shake things up, with a personnel change representing a good time to implement just such a jostle, Pomegranates dropped their name and adopted the title of the new album as their new moniker.
"We wanted to call the album Healing Power but at that point, we were like, 'Let's turn a new leaf and just be Healing Power,’ ” Merritt says. "It seemed to confuse a lot of people, because we weren't doing anything differently. We were still Pomegranates, playing the same set, but there were people who were like, 'I don't know about Healing Power, I like Pomegranates.’ That was perhaps a mistake, if you want to call it that.”
Healing Power lasted for close to a year before the quartet decided to pack it in. The band's official last show came almost exactly a year ago at the request of one of its biggest fans in Virginia, who messaged the group through Facebook and asked if it would consider getting back together to play a wedding. They thought it was a nice way to go out.
"Our last show was a wedding in a bike shop," Merritt says. "We were like, 'Why not?' We just felt like it."
The reclamation of the Healing Power album began with Merritt's friend Ben Wittkugel, who had become interested in the music industry while a student at Indiana University. Knowing Pomegranates were sitting on an unreleased album, Wittkugel proposed an interesting idea.
"He wanted to start a cassette tape label to go hand-in-hand with a concert promotion company he was trying to get started," Merritt says. “He wanted to put this thing out and we were like, 'Sure. Whatever.’ ”
Wittkugel will release somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 first-edition cassette copies of Healing Power through his Winspear label, and the band has pressed up about 100 CDs — there's also a four-song vinyl EP of re-recorded tracks and one song that was dropped from the album ("I don't know why we were so adamant about not having it on the album because it may be one of the better songs …") — which will all be available at the Southgate House shows. The album and EP will then be available digitally when the limited pressings are sold out.
"Unless something that happens to people in the movies happens to us," Merritt clarifies with a laugh.
Merritt's description of Healing Power as sprawling is appropriate; the album has several propulsive moments, including the staggering, stuttering majesty of the seven minute "Hand of Death" and the tribal electric blast of "House of My Mortal Father." There is also a fairly diverse dynamic across Healing Power's 13 cuts, which careen from those spurts of high energy to atmospheric and moody Pop confections, like the gentle and aptly titled "Taking It Easy" and the melancholic reverie of "Morning Light," with the strolling bounce of the title track finding the middle ground between those stylistic ends of the spectrum. Logically, Healing Power stands as a natural progression from Heaven, which the band also thought would be louder and less constrained, and it also reveals Pomegranates' impending solo directions, as the majority of the album consists of songs that Karns and Cook brought to the band in more or less completed form.
"In the past, it was 80% Pomegranates, 20% their songs, and this time it's probably 40% Pomegranates and 60% their songs," Merritt says. “It's hard to know, because you perceive it differently than other people perceive it, because you're so close to it. In my mind, (Healing Power) seems less reverb-y and more introspective. Not that there's not a few moments that are a little more up-tempo."
Although Pomegranates splintered at the end, there's no hard feelings among the band members; they continue to work and hang together ("We've been in each other's weddings …"). Cook and Geary are working on Cook's solo project, Merritt runs the Sabbath Recording — where Karns also works, including on a recent project with Aaron Collins — and he keeps a busy schedule recording local bands like Dark Colour and The Yugos, as well as bands outside of the area.
Pomegranates' live return has generated a huge buzz, with the Southgate show selling out so quickly that the band added a second, earlier show to the slate (both of which will be opened by Keeps). That response begs the question of any possible consideration for maintaining Pomegranates as a side project going forward.
"I would say, ‘We'll see,’ ” Merritt says, diplomatically. "Obviously, we aren't opposed to things happening if and when the time arises to play a show here or there. Beyond that, I'm not really sure."
The band's two shows will be structured the same, with older catalog material comprising the first half of the set and songs from Healing Power populating the second half, which will also be distinguished by an appearance from Kiser, who will join the lineup to play the new songs.
Given the fact that these two shows could represent the last time Pomegranates play together for the foreseeable future, though they also seem to be keeping their options open, there is both very little and potentially quite a lot at stake with the release of Healing Power. Still, the band members are happy to just live in the moment and cherish the memory of the impact they've had to this point.
"I know how difficult it is for a band to find their audience and to play music for people," Merritt says, philosophically. "To know that our music has meant enough to people that, if even 30 people showed up for one show, it's like, 'Cool, you guys still care.' But when you hear stories about people who were suicidal and they heard your music and it changed their lives and they credit you as a piece of why they're still alive — those sorts of things are really awesome. There's people coming from Chicago and Virginia and Michigan and North Carolina (for the Southgate shows). It's cool. We found people that our music really resonated with."
I tried to watch last night's Video Music Awards on MTV, but it was such an awkward and confusing clusterfuck, I couldn’t take much of it, flipping through for a few moments before moving on out of embarrassment for the people on the screen. I usually like when awards shows are a little chaotic (and the VMAs are known for their often-desperate attempts to be “not your mama’s awards show”). And I actually have always enjoyed the pop-culture pageantry of awards shows in general. But on last night’s VMAs, the annoyance factor was so high, I couldn’t even watch it on a “so bad you can’t look away” level. It made me anxious and uncomfortable, like watching someone fumbling over their words and breaking down while giving a speech in public (kind of like Kanye on last night's show).
It wasn’t really even the performances that made it so unwatchable (most were pretty solid for what they were). It was all of the in-between absurdity that made it so cringe-worthy.
Speaking of performances, some Cincinnati artists did well on the big stage. Walk the Moon has become so experienced with these kinds of high-profile appearances that it wasn’t surprising the band’s umpteenth performance of “Shut Up and Dance” was flawless. Airing during the opening of the pre-show “rainbow carpet” portion, I found myself thinking (as I do whenever I hear the hit on the radio), “You know, they have other songs, including a new single?” “Shut Up” was considered a “song of the summer” contender, though it’s been on the radio for like 15 years (OK, it was released as a single in September of 2014, but still). Then the band played the new single, “Different Colors”! And MTV promptly cut them off. (Even “Shut Up” was interrupted mid-song so the pre-show hosts could introduce the program, the clumsiness of which ended up being indicative of the overall mess the VMAs turned out to be.)
The weirder Cincinnati-related appearance came during Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ performance of their new single, “Downtown.” I was not aware of the guest artists on the song (OK, I was not aware they had a new song), so I turned it on just as Hip Hop legends Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz were rapping while walking down the street, thinking it was some cool old-school tribute the awards show was presenting. Then Macklemore came on and I reached for the remote, still unable to figure out what was going on. Then Eric Nally from late Cincinnati greats Foxy Shazam joined in, singing the chorus and doing some of his trademark stage moves and I officially thought I was just having a dream.
Nally did a great job and he caused a lot of buzz online, mostly of the “Who was that guy?” variety (when the single was released last week, a bunch of idiots rehashed the “Eric Nally is racist” stories from back in 2013 when Foxy Shazam released the single, “I Like It.”)
It’s weird mash-up of a song, parts of which I like, while other parts I find tremendously aggravating. Which is kind of what the VMAs were. Is this the present state of popular youth culture? Throw a bunch of unrelated stuff together, put it in a blender and then just stare at the blender, not caring or knowing what the end result is?
MTV/Viacom had something called the O Music Awards for a few years recently, honoring things like “Favorite Fuck Yeah Tumblr,” “Favorite Animated Gif,” “Best Tweet” and “Best Artist With A Cameraphone.” The O Awards ceremony seemed unscripted and filmed without any director whatsoever. It doesn’t appear the O awards are still a thing; perhaps last night’s VMAs were a sign that the network is turning its long-running awards program into the Os?
The VMAs were largely just a big WTF moment that people would talk about/complain about/make fun of online. Which is probably exactly what MTV was going for and, scarily, perhaps the shape of youth-oriented entertainment to come.
The new music video from veteran Cincinnati funkateer (and relentless road dog) Freekbass recently appeared online. The clip for “Everybody’s Feelin’ Real” — the slinky, head-boppin’ Pop/Funk title track from Freekbass’ most recent full-length release — shows a variety of scenes and special guests to the viewer through a smartphone screen (fitting, as more and more people seem to be viewing life in that manner anyway).
Though endearingly short on special effects, the clip is still wildly engaging, particularly as you play “spot the cameo.” The video features some big-name special guests from the world of music, including Mike Gordon of Phish, Ryan Stasik of Umphrey's McGee, George Porter Jr. of The Meters, Stefan Lessard of Dave Matthews Band, Bernie Worrell from P-Funk and Talking Heads, Steve Molitz from Particle, Zion Godchaux of BoomBox, Cincinnati native Alan Light (music journalist and former editor of Vibe and Spin magazines) and Bigg Robb from Zapp. Cincinnatians and baseball fans will also notice a very familiar face — the Hit King himself, Pete Rose, pops up to sing/lip sync part of a chorus.
Click here to stream/purchase Everybody's Feelin' Real. It should be Freekbass’ last self-released effort for a while; earlier this year he announced that the respected indie label Ropeadope will release his next album.
Every April, the Cincinnati Zoo presents an every-Thursday concert series called “Tunes & Blooms,” which showcases some of the finest local bands in Greater Cincinnati (as well as the Zoo’s Botanical Garden in full bloom). But for this year’s series, Mother Nature had different plans, as April showers brought cancelled concerts on April 2, 9 and 16.
The free concerts have been rescheduled and begin this evening (Wednesday) with local Folk/Americana favorites Hickory Robot and The Tillers. The next rescheduled date is tomorrow (Thursday) and features another pair of Folk dynamos — Jake Speed and the Freddies and Shiny and the Spoon. The final rescheduled show takes place May 13 with the fantastic Buffalo Wabs & the Price Hill Hustle and Honey & Houston.
The music begins at 6 p.m. all three evenings and runs until 8:30 p.m. There is no admission charge to get into the zoo after 5 p.m. (there is a $9 fee is you’d like to park in the zoo’s parking lot). Click here for more info.
Tribute albums are typically divided into three categories. They’re either a) bankable artists covering high profile subjects (or, infrequently, famously known cult figures); b) cool/respected artists covering cool/respected artists; or c) some weird hybrid of the first two.
Two recently released tributes fall squarely in the second category, with Avett Brothers frontman Seth Avett and rising Americana/Rock vocalist Jessica Lea Mayfield taking a quietly beautiful stroll through a sampling of Elliott Smith's exquisite catalog on Sing Elliott Smith, and Frames frontman and solo artist in his own right Glen Hansard honoring his great hero and friend Jason Molina on It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina, which was available last month.
There are odd connections between the two projects. In the general point of interest sense, both are posthumous tributes. Smith died in 2003, apparently by his own hand, and Molina succumbed in 2013 after a long battle with alcoholism. And on a more personal level, by the sheerest of coincidences, I've interviewed both of the subjects of these two tributes.
Back in 2000, I spoke with Smith while he was still touring on Figure 8, which had come out earlier that year. And in 2003, I was assigned a feature on Songs: Ohia, fronted and braintrusted by Molina, who had just finished an album he titled The Magnolia Electric Co., which marked the end of Songs: Ohia and the shift to the band named after his new album. Both were fascinating and heartfelt conversations with artists who were amazingly self aware but not at all self absorbed, quietly brilliant songwriters who had an almost pathological need to extract their musical impulses from the dark well of their ultimately troubled souls.
Hansard — who came to prominence as the voice, guitarist and primary songwriter for Irish Rock band The Frames before establishing a side project (Swell Season) and solo career and hitting semi-big with the movie Once and his soundtrack, featuring the Academy Award-winning hit "Falling Slowly" — was so inspired by Molina's deeply emotional and confessional songcraft that the first fan letter he ever sent to a fellow artist was to Molina. Back in 2005, two years after I'd interviewed Molina, I had the rare opportunity to witness the pair's personal and professional bond firsthand.
At my second South by Southwest experience, I followed former The Onion music editor Stephen Thompson to see a Frames appearance at one of Austin's innumerable daytime parties. Stephen was a huge Frames fan and the band knew him well; he had done enough to help expose the band to American audiences that they thanked him in the liner notes to Burn the Maps.
When we arrived at the venue, the band members were wandering through the crowd just prior to their set and Stephen made a beeline for them. He introduced me to The Frames, but there was a dark, diminutive and somewhat familiar presence in the circle who was clearly with the band but not as a member. Glen Hansard spoke up, in his pudding thick Irish brogue, and said, "This is Jason Molina."
I shook his hand and reminded him of our phone conversation and the Rockpile feature two years previous. He greeted me warmly and we talked about what we'd seen at the festival to that point and what we hoped to see going forward. We spent a good 10 minutes in this convivial manner, right up until The Frames took the stage and were announced. After that, his unwavering focus was on the band; he watched and listened as though he was occupying the front pew in church during a sermon he knew for an absolute fact would change his life for the better. He stood in rapt attention, soaking in every word, every note and every nuance and with good reason — The Frames were a mesmerizing live force back then.
At the set's conclusion, Molina immediately swiveled toward me and we exchanged jaw-dropped exclamations of disbelief. Within a few minutes, Hansard made his way to Molina's side and the two began critiquing the performance, Hansard pointing out the flaws and Molina categorically dismissing them. I laughingly thought to myself as I headed to the door and the next party, I'll bet their roles will be diametrically reversed when Magnolia Electric Co., the band that Songs: Ohia had morphed into, plays later this week and Hansard is the fan in the front row. It reminded me of something Molina had said regarding the fact that he was already thinking past the album he had just finished.
"I can do better," he said without hesitation. "My next one, I'm already sweating it. Since the day I walked out of the studio, I've been working on the next one. I don't feel like this one failed, but I'm still looking for the better one."
I thought about Hansard's face as it must have looked while he watched Molina's appearance in Austin, Texas, a decade ago, and imagined the sadder but equally beatific visage he must have exhibited in the studio as he was translating the five tracks that comprise It Was Triumph We Once Proposed. This brief and beautifully executed EP serves a similar purpose as Hansard's distant but never forgotten fan letter, as he pays loving tribute to his long personal friendship with Molina and to the work that first illuminated his immense talents to the world.
Hansard assembled a group of longtime Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. collaborators/friends to record a heartbreaking quintet of Molina compositions, all Songs: Ohia tracks and all lending themselves perfectly to Hansard's passionate and sensitively wrought translation. Molina often worked at the creative intersection of Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, and Hansard taps into that shivery vibe with a true fan's boundless devotion and a true friend's immeasurable grief. On the one-two punch of the powerfully poignant "Being in Love" and the achingly beautiful "Hold On, Magnolia," Hansard illuminates the raw, wrenching wisdom of lines like, ”We are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn," and the prescient "You might be holding the last light I see before the dark finally gets ahold of me." And just like Molina's life and amazing musical output, Hansard's It Was Triumph We Once Proposed is both immensely satisfying and far too short.
The other contender for Most Amazing and Deserved Tribute of the Year is Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield's Sing Elliott Smith, a (relatively) spare and loving bow to one of this generation's most insightful and contemplative songwriters. After his shredding turn with Portland’s Heatmiser, Smith turned down the volume for his home-recorded solo debut, Roman Candle, which was followed by his equally nuanced eponymous sophomore album and then the jewel in his crown, 1998's Either/Or, which director Gus Van Zant cherry-picked for his soundtrack to his masterpiece Good Will Hunting. Smith scored an Academy Award nomination for his song "Miss Misery," and the success of the soundtrack and his almost uncomfortably vulnerable performance at the Oscars vaulted him into a spotlight that he never actively pursued.
By the time of our 2000 interview, Smith had managed to come to uneasy terms with the maelstrom of fame that resulted from Good Will Hunting and Either/Or's tangential success. It had required him to think about his work in pedestrian ways, to explain it in a fashion that would be understandable to people with little understanding.
But through it all, Smith remained true to his own process, trusting that, regardless of outside opinions, expectations or interests, he continued to create the kind of music he wanted to hear in the manner that he wanted to create it. And he knew that, no matter how much anyone involved in his career wanted him to pull Either/Or 2 out of his magician's hat, the only thing that would truly satisfy his artistic nature would be to create what came out of him organically, without being conjured or forced.
"I don't think it was on my mind," Smith said about making the Beatlesque Figure 8 in the wake of major-label debut XO, Either/Or and Good Will Hunting. "I was just making up songs the way I always do. I mean, it was never going to sell millions of copies, so there wasn't that kind of pressure."
That may well be why Sing Elliott Smith is so incredibly successful as a tribute. Smith's songbook is among the most revered in contemporary music and the acclaim that has been lavished on Avett and Mayfield since their debuts is both effusive and deserved. Given all that, there's little risk involved at any level of this project.
The blending of the two principals' voices was the only unknown and that particular question mark is definitely straightened into a boldface exclamation point with Avett and Mayfield's brilliant opening duet on Either/Or's "Between the Bars." Avett's stylistic path from Punk provocateur to rootsy Americana troubadour to genre melding alchemist is a pretty fair match to Smith's own journey, and Mayfield's weary optimism lines up well with Smith's gloomy hopefulness. Together, Avett and Mayfield are the perfect translators for Smith's hushed (and not so hushed) odes to the anguish and bittersweet joy of love and modern life and they coalesce almost effortlessly on brilliant lines like, "Nothing's gonna drag me down/To a death that's not worth cheating."
It's moments like that one from "Baby Britain" that make Sing Elliott Smith resonate so clearly from start to finish. It's particularly poignant when Mayfield takes the lead on "A Fond Farewell" — from the album Smith was working on at the time of his death, released posthumously as From a Basement on the Hill — and she sings words that seem so startlingly prescient coming so close to Smith's sad end; "A little less than a happy heart/A little less than a suicide/The only thing that you really tried/This is not my life, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/It's not what I'm like, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/Who couldn't get things right."
Avett and Mayfield offer a broad core sample of Smith's amazing catalog (only 1995's self-titled sophomore album isn't represented), and the pair's affinity for and love of their subject's work is evident in every trembling note and emotional lyric. At almost 37 minutes, Sing Elliott Smith is a full album but it feels impossibly short and is over well before the listener is ready for it to be done. If ever there was a release that warranted the often-dreaded subtitle of Volume 2, it would be Sing Elliott Smith.
It seems only proper that the final words in this piece should be reserved for the subjects of these two tributes. First, an interesting comment from Jason Molina about his songwriting process led to a philosophical statement about his musical belief system.
"I almost write the music at the same time I'm trying to think of who could best put this onto tape, and that goes right down to the engineer," he noted. "Maybe it's a cowardly way to work because I don't take all of the burden onto myself, but ego should never be part of the music."
And finally, Elliott Smith addressed the media's tendency to label him as "melancholy," which morphed into an explanation of the simple reality that labels have tried to manipulate and contradict throughout their long and checkered histories.
"As soon as someone calls you a songwriter, you automatically get the melancholy tag," Smith admitted. “Also, 'Why aren't you playing dance music?' and 'Why are your songs so sad?' They're just clichés. If it wasn't those, it would be different ones. You can't always expect people to relate. There are all kinds of people, and some people understand each other and some people don't. NSYNC sells nine million records, so there's nine million people that can relate, and I'm not one of them. So even if you sell millions and millions of albums, there's always going to be somebody who doesn't get it. If you want to be creative and do what you do, it's going to be kind of idiosyncratic."
Long live the idiosyncratic artist, and the memories of those who left us way before their creative dreams were fulfilled.
For some musicians, their 9-to-5 is little more than a means to an end. Pizza and guitar strings don’t pay for themselves, after all. Others take pride in their work, both on stage and in the “real world,” but view them as two parts of a whole.
But for Jess Lamb, her twin identities as a musician and teacher are deeply intertwined. She works hard in both professional avenues and has put a large amount of effort into maintaining them, even during her post-American Idol influx of activities. It’s a balancing act with some unexpected complications that she is still learning to walk gracefully. But for Lamb, there is no other choice.
“I think that the public has seen me as a teacher and I don’t want my name to be tainted by this other persona, this other career, this other life. So I don’t want to be slosh drunk. I don’t want to be like Jim Morrison in my experimenting with life. But at the same time there’s a whole other vibe with playing in venues, playing in bars and it is very different from the teacher thing,” Lamb explains.
Before Idol, Lamb’s work as a musician and an ESL teacher were more easily separated. Nowadays, with the added exposure that Idol has brought to her and her late-night performances around town, she has had to go to greater lengths to protect the sanctity of both. A shot of Jameson may not be thrown back with the same careless abandon as a few months prior and photo ops are utterly devoid of the counter-cultural staples of, say, a middle finger or devil horns. This isn’t to say that Lamb was or is a reckless partier at night and a quiet bookworm during the day.
Rather, what happens at night can bleed into the daylight hours and her work in one aspect of life can’t compromise the other. She has to take into account who her new audience members may be and how they learned of Lamb. Being a teacher requires maintaining professionalism at all times. When a teacher is shown on national television, keeping that even-headed mentality all day and all night becomes even more important.
Considering all the time that Lamb has spent on her music after her Idol run, some may wonder why she doesn’t put the teaching on hold for the time being. Between the Idol recaps she does regularly for Fox 19 since leaving the show, the myriad interviews, the residencies at Japps in Over-the-Rhine and Jags in West Chester (as well as other shows), the studio work and all the other opportunities that have arisen, finding time for teaching is pretty much impossible at this point. In fact, Lamb has cut down her teaching work to roughly four hours a week, doing basic lesson planning and similar activities. But she still carves out time for her teaching for a very important purpose.
“I don’t do it for the money, it’s not sustaining me. I do it for my spirit. It’s for something that feels important, I don’t know that what I’m doing all the time feels important,” Lamb says.
She views being a teacher and an entertainer as two professions with two different contributions to society. Music and teaching both give something back to the community at large, but she feels that teaching impacts the public on a much larger scale. While singing in a smoky bar reaches a small amount of people, teaching has a much larger reach.
Ultimately, Lamb is a musician and teacher in equal measure. At this point, the music is taking more of her time, but she is determined to not let it take all of it.
“I don’t want to cancel out one or the other with a teacher persona that’s too square or a Rock star persona that’s too crazy and unstable,” Lamb says.
For Lamb, finding a mix of her two professions and passions is an ever-present struggle. When Idol rocketed her music to the forefront, she has had to constantly work to balance it out with activities that are equally as fulfilling. It hasn’t been an easy process by any means but one that she sees as absolutely necessary.
Just don’t be offended if she turns down a shot of whiskey next time you run into her in the Main St. district.
Nick Grever is checking in periodically with Cincinnati-based American Idol contest Jess Lamb about her post-Idol life. Check out previous "Beyond Idol Chatter" posts here. Visit jesslamb.com for music, show dates and more.
Former Cincinnati-based (now Austin, Texas headquartered) band Heartless Bastards have announced the release of its fifth album, Restless Ones, on the Partisan Records imprint on June 16. It’s the band’s first new full-length since 2012’s acclaimed Arrow, the group’s debut for Partisan. (The band took local group Wussy on tour after Arrow's release.)
The Bastards, who recently opened some arena concert dates for Rock music legend Bob Seger, also announced a string of tour dates beginning in June that will bring them back to Cincinnati for a two-night stand at Woodward Theater. The band plays the newly remodeled/reopened Over-the-Rhine venue June 25-26 with opener Craig Finn (frontman for The Hold Steady).
A limited number of tickets for the Woodward shows are available starting today at noon through a special songkick.com presale. Click here for details.