If great reviews and the respect of your peers were tangible income, Warren Buffett would be paying 30% tax on his income as Alejandro Escovedo’s secretary.
From the start of Escovedo’s solo career — after a brief stint with the Kinman brothers in Rank and File and a turn in his own shoulda-been-huge True Believers in the ’80s — the hypertalented singer/songwriter has been long on critical acclaim and short on commercial success for a variety of reasons (label and distribution trouble, no love at radio, health issues), but he has continued to grow and evolve as an artist to the delight and amazement of his cultishly proportioned and loyal fan base.
Escovedo’s debut for Fantasy, Big Station, is the third in a de facto trilogy that began with 2008’s Real Animal and continued on 2010’s Street Songs of Love. Following those adrenalized-yet-sensitive rock albums/sonic scrapbooks, his first collaborations with fellow cult singer/songwriter Chuck Prophet and iconic producer Tony Visconti, Escovedo reassembles the dream team on Big Station, a set that rumbles with themes of home, love and a sense of place.
The album’s first single, “Man of the World,” bristles like Eddie Cochran shot through with a few thousand volts of Tom Petty; if there was any justice in the world, it would be pouring out of every car radio this summer. Like the best of Escovedo’s catalog, Big Station offers electric muscle (“Party People”), acoustic power (the title track) and heartbursting balladry (“Bottom of the World”), all of which he paints with the perfect brush and touch.
Escovedo’s exquisite gift is his ability to blend his Mexicali heritage with his unabashed love of ’60s Rock, ’70s Glam and Punk and ’80s Twang Pop and twist it into a sound that is weirdly familiar and pointedly fresh. And like everything he’s done, Big Station is his absolute best for now.
The official MidPoint Music Festival guide, featuring preview blurbs on all 186 artists performing at this year's fest, is on the streets now to help make your MPMF.12 itinerary-planning a little easier. Yesterday, when the issue had just come out, I already had a handful of people asking me who my top picks were for the fest. Writing and/or reading and editing 186 paragraphs about 186 bands does things to your mind that I can't even explain, so I had to beg off. But I'm ready now.
Starting today, exactly two weeks before MPMF.12 kicks off in the venues of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, we're beginning the "Daily MPMFer," a daily dose of recommendations for who to see at the festival, should you have a hole in your personal schedule. We'll post three blurbs a day — one about a bigger, more known act, one about a slightly more under-the-radar "sleeper" and one about a local band. I'll also add a song sample or music video to each to give MPMF-goers an even better sense of the artists' talents. (The blurbs were written by myself, the legendary Brian Baker and scrappy up-and-comer Deirdre Kaye, both of whom were hugely helpful compiling our beast of a guide this year.)
There are so many great performers at this year's fest, we probably won't get to all the worthy contenders, but we'll get you started (you have to do some exploring on your own). And, when in doubt, always go with the artist with "(Cincinnati, OH)" next to their name; all of our hometown MPMFers are worthy of your attention. Be sure to grab a guide (there should be plenty floating around come fest time) and start mapping out your long weekend of music.
We'll also add any MPMF updates — crucial or otherwise — in these "Daily MPMFers," to keep you abreast of the latest developments. You can also click here for our MPMF hub on citybeat.com, with feature stories, MPMF-related tweets and more.
Today's big news — three-day wristbands are selling quick and may well sell out. Be sure to grab yours immediately for the best pricing deal (limited one-day tickets will be $50 or you can pay individual cover charges which will add up quickly). Click here for more ticket info.
Hospitality (Brooklyn, NY)
Driven by the singular Pop song stylings of Amber Papini, Hospitality first caught attention with a lo-fi, untitled EP, which garnered a rare glowing review from Pitchfork. The band signed with legendary Indie Rock label Merge and released its self-titled full-length debut for the label earlier this year. At its core, Hospitality’s music has some of the primal vibe of early ’90s K Records releases, but the sophisticated arrangements wrapped around Papini’s compellingly unique voice give the album a depth those artists were rarely capable of.
You'll Dig It If You Dig: Ivy, Tennis, Barbara Manning, Tiger Trap. (Mike Breen)
Hospitality performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, on the Grammer's/Dewey's Pizza stage. Check out the band's emotionally-heavy new video for the track "Eighth Avenue."
April 29 - Super 8 Motel, Wytheville, Va.
Wytheville — pronounced "whiteville," I believe — sits at the cross of I-77 and I-81. Looking down I-81, I used to see Bristol, Tenn., and think of that time in 1927 when The Cater Family and Jimmie Rodgers separately met a rep from the Victor Talking Machine Company and recorded a couple of songs. They got paid about $100. Lot's changed since then, though the pay's about the same. These days when I look down towards Bristol I see a redneck deputy hauling a longed haired songwriter off to jail for the crime of relieving himself behind a bush. In 1981, that cost $25. There use to be a great BBQ joint in Wytheville. It's gone. too. They had the best fried chicken and blackberry cobbler.
I guess everyone wore themselves out Saturday as no one stayed up past midnight to talk or jam or whatever. On Sunday morning, with a solid six hours of sleep, I was up and drenched in coffee by 8 a.m. I packed up camp and planned what was left of my MerleFest weekend. I like to get going, so it was an easy morning and I headed out to the Traditional Tent for some Shape Note Singing with Laura Boosinger.
I misidentified this a few days ago as Sacred Heart singing. The idea is the same — using shapes for notes instead of notes on a musical staff. Sacred Heart uses four notes. Shape Note uses seven. The workshop I attended was about those seven notes and how to sing them. It's pretty straight forward — anyone who's ever seen The Sound of Music and sang "Do Re Mi" will get the idea. "Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti" — each note has a particular shape attached to it and you sing that note when you see that shape. Laura talks about the history of Congregational singing, why they use shapes (people actually patented musical notation at one time) and how Sacred Heart differs from Shaped Note contextually, historically and regionally. Pretty cool stuff, even if the Traditional Tent smells like a barn and is now filled with flies. Laura is also really funny, cracking denominational jokes that the churchgoers find hilarious. I don't get them.
My interest in Sacred Heart/Shaped Note singing came when I wandered into a church one Sunday morning 30 or so years ago. I was wandering around northern Alabama on a motorcycle making my way to the Natchez Trace and then south to New Orleans when I stopped for a breather and cool air beneath a tree. I heard the singing as soon as my head stopped rattling. I slipped inside the outer part of a church and heard the most glorious harmonies — not sweet or beautiful, but primitive and inspiring.
In Shape Note, everyone is singing to the pitch the lead singer has identified. There is no piano, no organ, no hip dude playing guitar, only imperfect humans looking for the most comfortable place for their voice to sing. Your split into four groups depending on your vocal range — altos (includes sopranos), tenors, bass (includes baritones) and leads (anyone who can't but follow the melody regardless of range). I go to the bass group. Each group has a different part to sing — the altos, basses and tenors all singing a harmony part and the leads singing the melody. When it all comes together it unifies the same way most old time music does. It's wondrous and miraculous; if there is a place where God exists, it is inside the dissonance that has congealed into a thing so coherent and beautiful that any existence of God outside of it becomes marginal and meaningless.
I leave the Traditional Tent invigorated and inspired and head back to camp to pack the van. Everything packed and lunch consumed, I head back to the Traditional Tent for one last show before heading home — "Women Singing Traditional Music." On stage are women ages 20 -70, including hosts Carol Rifkin and Gaye Johnson, Brooke Buckner, Laura Boosinger, Joan Wernick, Tara Nevins (Donna the Buffalo), Kim McWhirter and Gailanne Amundsen (Jubal's Kin). All give outstanding performances, but Kim McWhirter brings the house down with a moving version of the Dolly Parton song "Crippled Bird" (which in turn is based on an English Broadside) sung in a sweet mountain lilt and strummed sparingly on guitar.
A wonderful to finish to a great MerleFest.
MerleFest is so much more then one guy can write about, no matter how much he tries. I like what I like — new bands and rediscovering old favorites. In addition to what I see and hear, there are workshops on everything from clawhammer banjo to dulcimer playing, a kids stage and activities, open mics, sitting and picking, indoor concerts, food, vendors galore. It is amazing how much music and activity the organizers pack into one day (and then clean it all up and do it again).
A lot of people stream in mid-afternoon for the nighttime concert. As mentioned, these always feature name acts. I am most fortunate to be able to tag along with my sister, help her in her booth and receive onsite camping privileges in exchange. By 8 p.m., I'm pretty exhausted and looking forward to reading under the remaining light and then laying back and hearing what's on the main stage.
This year they had some good acts. Thursday night the very humble and talented (and maybe the last real Country act standing in Nashville) Vince Gill had a fine set. Saturday I was fortunate to hear Derek Trucks take Sam Bush and his band to school on how to play melodious improvisation on the Clapton tune "Bell Bottom Blues." Derek Trucks is the living heir on slide guitar to the dead-to-early Duane Allman and he has unquestionably extended that legacy way past a wink and a nod and into something quite imaginative and bold. His wife Susan Tedeschi joined them on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and hit all the backing vocal parts with soul.
Later that night, Trucks and Tedeschi helped Los Lobos to new heights on a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Bertha." They sounded like they were having a blast, and my noisy camp neighbors confirmed as much the next morning as they were on stage watching the whole thing go down. Unfortunately, I slept through most of Los Lobos set and the Tedeschi/Trucks set Saturday night, though I caught the first few songs, and they sounded quite excellent. Good sleeping music — that's a compliment!
Friday Evening, Apr 27: MerleFest Festival Grounds
After lunch, I was ready for something a little more upbeat, so I headed back to the Americana stage to check out The Lost Bayou Ramblers. I caught these guys last year at the same stage, and they brought the place down. I suppose most Cajun and Zydeco is infectious — that constant backbeat and sing-songy lilt of the melodies, but done well, it can be a bit mind blowing.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers hail from Lafayette, La. and their Zydeco is the real deal. Not quite as hard hitting as The Bluerunners, they still bring an enormous drum sound to an already rhythm-heavy beat. Fiddle, accordion, electric guitar, double bass, acoustic guitar and drums — the fiddle, accordion and electric guitar feed a triple-stack tone attack to every melody. It's like Lynyrd Skynyrd ca. 1975 without the volume, hair or rednecks. It's really something to behold and listen to. The fiddler sings and works the crowd in both French and English, the bass player holds his big acoustic bass like he's ready to swing it over his head, while the electric guitar player stands at the front of the stage arena rock style and the acoustic player runs back and forth behind everyone. These guys are regulars at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette and I suspect a trip to catch them in such intimate surroundings would be life changing. Check YouTube for some of their videos.
I left the Americana stage a bit exhausted and headed over to see what was going on in the Traditional Tent and found Phil and Gaye Johnson in the middle of their set. Long time radio host of various roots music programs, Phil and Gaye do tight harmonies and Roots-based acoustic music. Easy to listen to, they move from original to traditional and without a little bit of knowledge of traditional music, it would be easy to confuse what's original and what's not. Phil's a fantastic acoustic and dobro guitar player moving easily between slide, flatpicking, various forms of fingerpicking and sometimes both. The music is not something I generally sit and listen to, but like everything you see at MerleFest, the playing is top notch and professionally presented.
I slipped out of the tent and as I walked past the picking area, I could here the strains of Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce moving though the air. Like a lot of kids brought up in the 1970s, Peter was my first real introduction to Bluegrass music though the Old and In The Way LP. My dad had a few Bill Monroe LPs, but my mom wouldn't let him play that "hillbilly" music while she was around, which was pretty much all the time.
I wasn't planning on heading back to the Watson Stage, but I was intrigued. As I got closer, Peter was doing an slow acoustic version of "Panama Red." Frankly, I thought he was mailing it in, but I was still pretty far from the stage, so I kept moving in. By the time I got close enough to the stage to take pictures, which is basically standing in the front in everyone's way, he easy doing a song called "The Raven" and it was mesmerizing. It's probably Bluegrass heresy, but off all the Bluegrass I've heard over the last 35 years, his is the tenor I associate with "that sound" and, man, he's still got it. It rises and floats and breaks in all the right places.
I took some pictures and grabbed a seat near the back of the reserved section where the sound would be optimal. His band was outstanding. Peter on acoustic joined by a electric guitar player playing shimmering notes, a lap steel player doing pedal licks and swells, acoustic bass and drums. The lap steel player was especially amazing. Every swell and fill felt like a feather in my heart. They launched into a 20 minute version of the Rowan classic "Land of the Navajo" and by the time he started doing the falsetto calls, I was awash in transcendent tears. Peter Rowan has still got it all and I'm a big baby.
Next up I headed up to the Heritage Tent to converse with another of my favorite MerleFest craft exhibitors, bowl maker Larry Kearson of Marion, NC. And not just bowls, but dough bowls. As a boy growing up in NJ, we always had a wooden bowl mounted up on the wall. Occasionally my dad would take it down to kneed some bread dough in. I never thought much about it till I started making bread in earnest in my 20's. Then I wanted it. Desperately. It was a large bowl, about 18"-by-12" and had been hand carved from a piece of black walnut from the family farm in Tennessee. I finally claimed it 10 years ago or so and now it's a regular kitchen tool in our kitchen. Larry hand carves dough bowls from single pieces of wood. Some small and decorative other huge and highly desirable. The Zeke Bowl is one such bough bowl. About two feet long and 18-inches across, it was carved from a single piece of maple from Larry's neighbor's tree. His neighbor's dog, Zeke, laid by the downed tree for days and then growled and whined the day the tree was cut up — Zeke's Bowl. It's a beauty. Dough bowls shouldn't be stained or varnished, and Larry's aren't. You need a dough bowl carved the old way, hit Larry up.
From the Heritage Tent I headed over to the Dance Tent to check out Asheville's contribution to Hot Club-style Jazz — Viper's Dream. I guess I'm spoiled by Cincinnati's Faux Frenchman, Viper's Dream didn't quite cut it. Yes, you got to be one hell of a musician to pull off Django tunes, but the sound was shrill and I wasn't digging the fiddle player. Paul Patterson of the Faux Frenchmen is without doubt a Cincinnati treasure.
I quickly jumped to the Traditional stage to see Wayne Henderson. With him was a fiddle, frailing banjo and acoustic bass players. Wayne has done three tours with the "Masters of the Six String Guitar" as well as received a National Heritage Award for his instrument building prowess. Wayne is one hell of a fingerpicker, easily one of the best living and funny as hell to boot. Very humble and unassuming. The quartet ran through some Carter Family songs, traditional mountain ballads and fiddle tunes, each played with great dexterity and devotion. What a thrill.
Following dinner, I headed up to the Hillside Stage for a set from Donna The Buffalo. A MerleFest favorite, this band has seemingly been on the road for twenty years. I'm a bit baffled how I've never seen them before. Another one of those alternativecountryrootsrockamericana band with some serious jam band leanings, Donna the Buffalo has been a perennial favorite on the tour and festival circuit. They have a loyal following among MerleFest attendees and the tie dye and swirling dancers were out in force tonight. They played a crowd pleasing set, leaving their fans wanting more. Not much more then you can ask for then that.
Since the dawn of Electronic music in the ’60s, one of the consistent difficulties with the genre has been that the idea of a composition or an entire record is often more interesting than the execution of the idea.
It would seem that Sigur Ros is at least tangentially aware of that circumstance because the Icelandic quartet seems to have found the proper balance of conceptual cool, ephemeral frippery and solid musicianship over the past decade and a half. This is the band, after all, that invented its own language on its debut album, 1997’s Von, and initially left all of the songs on 2002’s ( ) untitled.
That is conceptualism on a grand scale, but Sigur Ros has typically been more than equal to the task of making a soundtrack every bit as fascinating as the airy framework that underpins it.
After a brief flirtation with a slightly more tangible Pop song structure on 2008’s Meo suo i erum vio spilum endalaust, Sigur Ros returns with Valtari, which sees the band bringing strings and electronics back to their rightful place in its sonic forefront. While Valtari revisits the chilly ambient atmospherics of Sigur Ros’ early work, the band folds in dashes of Meo suo’s Pop ethic and ethereal operatics courtesy of a beautifully utilized girl’s choir.
The album’s first single, “Ekki Mukk,” takes Brian Eno’s aggressively Ambient stance while “Rembihnutur” soars with an expansive crystalline magnificence that could pass for Radiohead or U2 in an experimental moment while “Dauoalogn” swells like a contemporary hymn rising to the arched ceiling of a grand Electronic church.
If Meo suo i erum vio spilum endalaust was Sigur Ros’ Saturday night dance party, Valtari is their Sunday morning confessional.
(The following Sigur Ros video is NSFW due to nudity, including shots of Shia's LaBeouf.)
Anton Newcombe is one of the rare people about whom an old maxim is absolutely true — if he didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.
Newcombe is a musical shaman, an acid casualty, a shrewd media manipulator and a conductor of immeasurable skill, a sonic conjurer who fearlessly channels eras, styles and influences with the scientific magic of an alchemist. Under the rotating auspices of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Newcombe has dabbled in Psychedelia, acid washed Blues, Garage Rock, fuzzy Shoegaze and various permutations thereof, all with an increasing fascination in widening his focus to cinemascopic proportions.
The last BJM album, 2010’s Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?, added elements of Trance and Techno to the repertoire, but Newcombe’s latest set, Aufheben (an excellent title to highlight Newcombe's creative schizophrenia; in its German translation, the word can mean, depending on context, to either abolish or preserve), largely abandons that contemporary device for a return to his most potent reference points, namely the mid- to late ’60s, when The Rolling Stones experimented on ephemera like “2000 Light Years from Home,” The Doors reimagined Rock with “The End,” Folk ingested mushrooms and harpsichords and sitars roamed the earth.
Newcombe and this year’s BJM model are particularly focused on the middle Eastern bong hits of “Panic in Babylon,” the swirling Psych lollipop of “I Want to Hold Your Other Hand” and the love-and-Haight echo jam of “The Clouds Are Lies.” Newcombe and BJM offer a slight return to the present with the album’s atmospheric closer, the seven minute Psych-meets-Chamber-Dance-Pop smoke ring of “Blue Order/New Monday,” but for the majority of Aufheben, the trip, aurally and physically, is most definitely the thing.
Remember the first time you saw Erika Wennerstrom sing in front of the Heartless Bastards and watched amazed as she pummeled her guitar and sang with a ferocity that made her neck veins dance like a cobra in a snake charmer’s basket? Brittany Howard approaches her role fronting Alabama Shakes with a similarly wrought intensity and to a familiar result.
Like the Bastards and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Howard and Alabama Shakes channel ’60s Blues Rock with a contemporary edge on their excellent full-length debut, Boys and Girls.
It’s not hard to play spot-the-influences with the Shakes, as the broad experience of the individual members found them looking for the commonalities between James Brown and Otis Redding and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC while working up an early set list. The mega versatile Howard finds them easily with a fluid guitar style that can be Doo Wop sock-hop one minute (“Heartbreaker,” the title track), elephant-gun recoil the next (the Joan Armatrading-steered-by-Jimi Hendrix howl of “Be Mine,” the loping groin kick of “Hold On”). Vocally, she wails with the hellhound authority of her Soul and Blues influences while pushing the needle into Rock God territory; comparisons to Janis Joplin are not the least bit out of line.
Boys and Girls would be an impressive accomplishment from a band in its middle period, but it’s made all the more amazing considering the Shakes have only been together for three years and this represents only their second release. Howard and her cohorts in Alabama Shakes have an impeccable sense of Blues Rock classicism and an exciting sense of how to give it a good rowdy slap into right now.
Eclectic acoustic Blues duo 46 Long is set to release its latest full-length, the dynamic Tennessee, tonight at downtown’s Arnold’s Bar & Grill. Showtime is 9 p.m. and the shindig is a freebie. The show will be a brand-new experience for fans of the duo. The group will be debuting a lot of new material and the first set will feature drumming assistance from percussionist Joe Pro. For 46 Long's second set tonight, the twosome will go "full band" with the addition of bassist Bobby Loggs and some other special guests.
Though “dynamic” and “eclectic” might not be the first words to come to mind when you think “acoustic Blues duo” — all three words suggest inherent limitations — 46 Long is both of those and more. Eschewing Blues clichés while still staying fairly faithful to the music’s rich tradition is a difficult balancing act to pull off, but Tennessee finds the twosome subtly integrating sounds from a broad spectrum of influence without losing their core, distinct sound. In the end, it’s one of the more creative Blues releases you’ll likely hear all year, yet the detours and tangents shouldn’t deter (most) purists.
On Tennessee, Blake Taylor (who primarily sings and blows a mean harmonica, though also contributes keys, percussion guitar and, uh, “crowbar” on the album) and Jonathan Reynolds (who sings and plays guitar while also providing bass and percussion) start things off with the stanky groove of “More,” then take the listeners through deft interpretations of gritty, Delta-esque Blues (like the title track), gruff Tom Waitsian eccentricity (“Lock It Up or Lose It”), full-bodied, swaggering AltCountry (a cover of the Starkweathers’ “One for Her, One For Him”), boogying Lyle Lovett-like Swing (“Don’t Drink”) and stompin’ Garage Rock (“Something Strange”).
Other standouts on Tennessee include a sparsely percussioned take on Morphine’s “Thursday,” and “The Best Revenge,” a dark, ominously atmospheric track that’ll send creepy shivers up your spine.
The recording is refreshingly natural (with only some distortion here and there to add shadowing), the perfect setting to wrap your ears around the duo’s ace musical skills. Taylor once again proves he’s one of the best Blues harmonica players in the region, playing the mouth harp like a saxophone, a vocal part, a rhythm guitar or pretty much any other instrument you can think of.
If you’ve given up on the Blues because you think you’ve heard it all before, pick up Tennessee and let 46 Long show you otherwise.
Here's a live clip of the duo performing the new LP's title track.
Paul Weller has traveled a fascinating trend-bucking career arc since his debut with The Jam during Punk’s heyday in the late ’70s. When every other band was pursuing a gobsmacked, adrenaline-soaked and barely coherent version of Rock, Weller and The Jam were turning out their highly stylized spin on The Who’s Mod period.
When The Jam’s influence turned out pale imitators, Weller moved on to Style Council, a loungey R&B/Pop outfit that inspired a whole genre of similarly subdued purveyors. Weller’s subsequent solo career has been a pastiche of Brit Folk flavored Baroque Rock flecked with bits of the sonic personae that he’s championed over the past three decades, from the brilliant Traffic/Small Faces direction of his solo debut, 1992’s Wild Wood, to the Soul reflection of 2002’s Illumination to the edgy Punk Pop buzz of 2005’s As Is Now.
It seems hard to imagine but Weller is on a hot streak at the back end of a 35-year career; 2008’s 22 Dreams was on a fair number of critics’ year-end lists and 2010’s Wake Up the Nation was nominated for Britian’s Mercury Music Prize. To his credit, Weller’s approach to a new album resembles the first rule of Italian driving — what’s behind you doesn’t matter anymore.
So it is with his latest set, the diverse and energetic Sonik Kicks. The album lurches to life with the insistent and atmospheric “Green,” a squalling, blipping gene splice of The Buzzcocks and Muse, which leads into the tropical Pop bounce of “The Attic” and Weller’s Pop/Punk homage to Kurt Weill, the noisily melodic “Kling I Klang.” Weller returns to his acoustic direction on the gentle (and gently orchestrated) “By the Waters,” which he follows with “That Dangerous Age,” a track that Peter Gabriel would be amazed to find had nothing to do with him, and the six-and-a-half minute smoky Pop/Soul workout of “Study in Blue,” which deftly blends a lot of what has come before it.
Given the amazing breadth of Weller’s creative palette, perhaps his consistent versatility shouldn’t be such a surprise, but the incredible range and vitality of Sonik Kicks has the snap and spirit of an artist in the middle of his career, not nearing its 40th anniversary.