I started out the second day of the Forecastle festival in Louisville by getting caught in the rain and being picked up like a hitchhiker by the Everest band van on the way to setup for their set on the main Mast Stage of the festival. The band agreed to let me hang for “A Day in the Life” photo series as they prepped to play the 10th Anniversary of Forecastle. They were laid back as the rain moved in and gear was unplugged and wrapped in saran wrap.
Everest has been on the road promoting their third album Ownerless. On Ownerless, you can hear a refined sound in which the band speaks about powerful issues as they took their time to record and find their true voice, writing from the heart and soul. The band consists of members Russell Pollard (vocals/guitar/drums), Joel Graves (guitar/keys/vocals), Jason Soda (guitar/keys/vocals), Eli Thomson (bass/vocals) and new addition Kyle Crane (drums).
Everest are rising stars in the alternative music scene and have toured with My Morning Jacket and they will be heading back on the road with Neil Young this fall.
It turned out to not be such a typical “day in the life” as the show was held back because of lightning in the area but the band unloaded and prepared to play even as heavy rain descended on the festival. The festival opened an hour late due to rain delays but they did make time for all the planned acts to perform (albeit with shorter set lists).
Everest played loud and rocked the crowd as it gathered to hear this band singing my favorite track on the new album as the opening song “Rapture.” Founding member Pollard’s raspy vocals were captivating and I instantly became a fan of this band as they sang older tunes and new record songs like “Into the Grey.” The Watson Twins joined the band for a few songs on backing vocals to round out their set.
Overall it was a great day to play music in Louisville as fans gathered to celebrate 10 years of the fest, which self-defines itself as being all about "music, art and activism." The Preservation Hall Jazz Band took the main stage by storm and had fans dancing in the grass; special guests onstage including Jim James and Andrew Bird playing classic tunes with the legendary jazz musicians from New Orleans. James' band (and hometown heroes) My Morning Jacket played over two hours to close out the night while Girl Talk played on the second stage and had a festival rave in full action on the banks of the Ohio river.
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.
MPMF news and musings: Kick-ass longtime MPMF sponsor Dewey's Pizza is giving away a trio of special "Next Level Experience" passes for you and two of your closest friends (or, I suppose, you could give them to people you hate, though that would just be kinda weird).
If you win, you'll receive a three-day wristband and one night at the Dewey's Pizza/Grammer's stage in the best seat in the house (which appears to be a couch positioned very close to the stage). For more on Dewey's Next Level Experience contest, click here.
And now, with the countdown down to just 13 days, here are our daily MidPoint Music Festival 2012 picks, today featuring all Ohio artists …
Cloud Nothings (Cleveland, OH)
From his parents’ basement, Dylan Baldi created and released several acclaimed lo-fi recordings as Cloud Nothings before his 2009 EP, Turning On, pinged the critics’ radar and scored positive reviews on all the right blogs. Almost immediately, Baldi had to assemble a band to play the gigs that were offered to him, resulting in lots of touring and his slightly shinier 2011 self-titled full-length. This year has seen the release of the even more expansive Attack on Memory and a string of upcoming opening dates for Silversun Pickups. Not a bad three years for a Hardcore obsessed kid from Cleveland.
You'll Dig It If You Dig: The idea of Tommy Keene and Kevin Seconds stirring up some Pop and some Punk for a Husker Du tribute. (Brian Baker)
Cloud Nothings perform at Midnight on Friday, Sept. 28, at the Cincinnati Club. Here's the official music video for Cloud Nothings' "No Future/No Past."
CityBeat spoke with bassist Elijah Thomson about the group's unique vision and feel and also where he feels the band is going in their evolution. Everest will be playing the Bunbury Music Festival at Cincinnati's Sawyer Point/Yeatman's Cove on Friday alongside fun., Walk the Moon, Devotchka, Tegan and Sara and many others. Everest plays the Bud Light Stage at 5 p.m. Friday.
CityBeat: What have you guys been up to since I saw you last summer at Forecastle in Louisville?
Elijah Thomson: We took a little break. We were touring with Neil Young at the end of the year, which was really fun. We were a little beat down from a year of touring. We took probably about six months off. We did a little tour in April with Minus the Bear, so we sort of violated our own hiatus to go out with those guys, but that was better. We just did a couple weeks' run from L.A. to Chicago, so we went out there to do a couple dates.
CB: I know Neil Young personally picked you guys to go on tour with him and open his shows. What was the highlight of playing with him?
ET: It has been pretty sweet over the years getting to tour with Neil and obviously a total honor to be able to play with an artist of that caliber and a living legend, as far as I am concerned.
On a certain level, it is still a gig — you know, driving and loading in and out and all that kind of stuff. I think for me personally, watching a guy like Neil night in and night out, it sort of proves that sort of mystical thing in music, what is compelling about somebody that can sustain them for so long.
People are coming out in droves to see Neil and for me it is a personal study on art and what it is that enamors people with art. With Neil, I think it is primarily an honesty with his art. He will put it out there. The first song on his new record is like 27 minutes long. That’s the kind of bravery that comes from having nothing to prove and I think for them, like us, we have to understand why that is important and to find a formula that works, but also (be) true to ourselves and true to our own desires musically. That is a process. It has not been instantaneous, but I think we are sort of on the verge of realizing that ourselves.
CB: Did Neil give you any advice?
ET: I think if there ever was, it was just (to) absolutely do whatever you want and don’t make any apologies and don’t play it safe. It was the kind of real world wisdom that is important. It is not about playing some game. We should not be concerned where we will be classified in a musical genre. It is more about making what you feel and letting other people classify it.
CB: You guys toured pretty consistently the past few years. Do you have any crazy tour stories on the road?
ET: One of the main things we talked about from last year, we seemed to be pretty slippery when it came to crossing paths with law enforcement. We were slippery, we had no issues. I don’t know how we did it. We had a couple close calls, but were able to talk our way out of it every time.
CB: Are you working on any new music right now?
ET: Yeah, the biggest change in Everest is a slight personnel change. Jason Soda, a founding member of the band, decided to resign. I don’t know if I should say why, but ultimately he needed more normalcies in his life.
His replacement — I hate to put it that way — his name is Aaron Tasjan, an amazing guitar player who we met while we were on the road with Alberta Cross. He was kind of filling in for guitar and when it came up that J was going to resign, Joel and I were talking about it.
I think it was a sensitive thing — who were we going to collaborate with and how were we going to take this opportunity to improve the internal chemistry? We had a really great rapport with Aaron and when we were on the road he watched our set every night. He would open the shows doing solo stuff and we would jump on stage with him and jam with him. His spirit has been really amazing since he has been playing with us, bringing a freshness and newness that we have really desired and I think interpersonally it has been good and natural.
Also, the drummer chair has been in rotation the last year and a half or so since Davey, our original drummer, stopped playing with us. Our drummer now is a guy named Dan Bailey, a guy I have known for years. I really respected his drumming. He is an absolutely astounding drummer. It was very easy to ask him to join. Bass players and drummers generally want to choose who they are going to play with. He has known this band for a while, since I have been in it, and he has been chomping at the bit to jam with us, so we are on this new plane that we have never really experienced. It is really sort of a beautiful and fun creative discovery.
I am excited to bring this to Cincinnati. There is a great spirit going on. The plan right now is to finish out this summer touring, a couple weeks in July and a couple weeks in August on the West Coast. Then we are going to go back in the studio. The sound checks for our shows have gone into much more depth with the music; I don’t like the word "jamming," so we will say "spontaneous musical landscapes." It is something we have been wanting to do for a long time and it is really amazing to go on stage and just not have it all pre-programmed, even calling out set lists on the stage, stretching songs out, kind of taking our time with things, letting things be different night after night and really encourage our creative flow together. We are really excited about getting in the studio and experimenting with this.
CB: What is your favorite bass to play?
ET: I play a Gibson Les Paul Recording bass (from) 1973. I have been playing it exclusively for about 12 years. I do own several basses. The first bass I ever had was a Gibson Les Paul Recording bass. My Dad was a bass player and he gave it to me. It was kind of his junker bass and I didn’t even like it but it was something.
It sounds really stupid and mystical, because it was the bass I learned on and I kind of wore it out and it was an awkward bass, but I was always coming back to it because it was familiar.
I was playing with a guy named Richard Swift (producer, singer/songwriter and current member of The Shins), still do, a really dear friend. Right around when we first started playing together, he said, “That is the raddest bass I have ever heard. You should only use that bass when you are playing with me.” I was like, “OK no problem.” I basically decided that was my thing and I was going to stick with it.
I haven’t played any other bass for years and years except in a studio, and even then it is only one song, maybe.
CB: Did you always want to be a musician?
ET: Like I said, my dad was a musician and so I grew up on the road and around music. My uncle owned a studio, still does, and we still work out of there a lot. I have been recording bands since I was 17 years old and have been playing music since I was 12 years old, always had guitars around. When I was a little kid I thought I was the talentless one in the family because I didn’t pick it up before the age of 10. I eventually found my way. This was always what I was meant to do, in a way.
CB: Somebody the other day said that the best way to become a successful musician is to not have a backup plan.
ET: I’d say so, and I’d say most true artists would rather downgrade and live in a shack and still be doing what they are passionate about. It really plays into the artist mentality. I am no spring chicken, so I certainly decided I was in for life. I don’t have a retirement plan. I don’t ever want to stop. This is what I do. I get into other things outside of music so it is not a total obsession. I found a way to make it this far. I don’t know why that would change in the future. If it does, it does, and I will figure it out. This is what works for me; there is no backup plan.
CB: Where did the band name come from?
ET: The story … I wasn’t in the band when they named it and maybe I wouldn’t have picked that name, but that is for another conversation.
From what I gather, Russ and Jason had named their studio Everest Recordings because of a pack of cigarettes that Geoff Emerick had. He was an engineer on a lot of the Beatles stuff and supposedly Abbey Road was originally going to be named Everest and they were going to do a photo shoot in Nepal. It became a logistical nightmare and, as the legend goes, Paul or somebody said, "Let’s shoot a picture out front and be done with it." So the name Everest has significance to them, however it is sort of a common thing for something to be named.
It is hard to Google something like that. That is something you have to think about nowadays and maybe it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit.
CB: What can the fans look forward to at Bunbury seeing you guys for the first time?
ET: As a band we are really relaxed and comfortable. Every new show is an adventure. Every show we have had with this lineup has been over the top amazing.
I guess what fans can expect is the unexpected. They can expect to see some sort of fine but not some self-congratulatory musicianship, people making themselves vulnerable in front of people and making up stuff on the spot and really trying to live in that spirit of Jimi Hendrix and Zeppelin and the kind of feelings those shows had when it was a beautiful thing of stream of consciousness. I think that is something rarer these days in music. I am happy and proud to be in a band that values that part of live performance.
Everest performed at Lousiville's Forecastle fest last
summer. Check out the "A Day in the Life" Forecastle photo series with
the group here.
MPMF news and musings: ArtWorks/Springboard Cincinnati is once again handling one of the cooler aspects of the "MidPoint Midway" (the fairgrounds-like area connecting Main to Vine streets, with food vendors, a music stage, poster expo and lots more). Last year's MidPoint Music Festival saw the introduction of the "Box Truck Carnival," where numerous local artists and organizations turned nondescript moving trucks into their own little worlds (last year, there was a theater, a skate park and a Putt Putt course).
This year, Springboard is profiling the trucks on its website leading up to the big event next week. So far, they've introduced the Art for All People truck, "Art and Music Box," where you'll be able to add your own creative paint job, and the truck by OTRimprov, which will feature improv games and "on-the-spot workshops" for aspiring UCB comedians (or just the curious). Click here to check out these and other "fun in a box" experiments.
• The other big news of the day is that one of the bigger headlining acts, Sleigh Bells, has been forced to cancel its appearance at Washington Park during the festival. The band was slated to headline the park stage at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29. The full lineup for Saturday is up in the air, but will be retooled with additional acts. Expect an announcement soon.
If Sleigh Bells was the only act you wanted to see at the festival and you'd like a refund, here's the official details: "Customers who have purchased the Washington Park Saturday Ticket may choose to either keep their tickets, or may receive a refund by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org by the end of the day Sept. 21st. If you elect the refund, only the cost of the ticket is refunded, not the shipping or service fees. No refunds will be issued for All Music Access Passes."
Sleigh Bells guitarist Derek Edward Miller tweeted that he fractured his arm while skateboarding in Florida recently, causing the cancellation of MPMF and a few other dates.
And now, with the countdown down to just 9 days (single digits!), here are our daily MidPoint Music Festival 2012 picks …
The Walkmen (New York, NY)
A dozen years since members of Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys coalsced into the formidable Walkmen? It hardly seems possible. But then, neither does the band's almost supernatural string of confusingly brilliant albums, all crafted by the same line-up that began at the dawn of the new millennium; the sparse, atmospheric jangle of Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, the intense and visceral Bows + Arrows (featuring their signature "The Rat"), the quiet beauty of A Hundred Miles Off, their weirdly wonderful cover of Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats, the powerful You & Me, the fabulous Lisbon, and their latest, Heaven, widely acknowledged as their best album to date, a phenomenal accomplishment for a band in their 13th year. Long may they walk.
You'll Dig It If You Dig: The Strokes if they'd been guided by Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan if he'd been backed by The Strokes. (Brian Baker)
The Walkmen perform Saturday, Sept. 29, on the Grammer's/Dewey's Pizza Stage at 9:15 p.m. Here is the band's music video for "The Love You Love."
Holy Ghost Tent Revival (Greensboro, NC)
When a band lists the Rolling Stones and Glenn Miller as primary influences, there’s a good chance their musical pegs don’t fit the standard genre holes. So it is with Holy Ghost Tent Revival, a North Carolina sextet that redefines eclectic, veering from Ragtime and Hot Jazz to an electric brand of Swing and the kind of funky, rootsy Country Rock that would have made Levon Helm grin and stomp. You don’t often see the Charleston breaking out in the middle of the mosh pit, but anything is possible at a Holy Ghost Tent Revival gig. Be prepared.
Dig: Squirrel Nut Zippers explore their secret love of the Band, Blood Sweat & Tears and Burt Bacharach. (BB)
Holy Ghost Tent Revival performs Saturday, Sept. 29, at Japp's at 11:30 p.m. Here's a preview of the band's just-released album Sweat Like the Old Days.
LOCAL LOCK PICK
You, You're Awesome (Cincinnati, OH)
The duo You, You’re Awesome has been the Cincinnati Indie music scene’s go-to Dance music favorites for the past few years, blending live drums with quirky, playful soundscapes that call back to earlier electronic music pioneers. As EDM and other forms of Electronica have grown in popularity, a lot of artists seem to have a hard time figuring out how to distinguish themselves. But You, You’re Awesome doesn’t have that problem, emerging with a versatile sound that isn’t based on any one trend. The group released several EPs before last year’s debut full-length, but YYA is most fun to experience in a live setting. You can dance if you want to — everyone else will be.
Dig: Daft Punk reborn as Saturday morning cartoon characters. (Mike Breen)
You, You're Awesome are slated to play at 5 p.m. on the Washington Park stage on Friday, Sept. 28.
Here's the track and visuals for YYA's "Yippee Ki Yay Mister Falcon." Click below for a playlist featuring numerous YYA clips.
Click here for full MPMF details via the official MidPoint site.
The MidPoint Music Festival countdown is down to just 3 days, kicking off this Thursday. Here are our daily MidPoint Music Festival 2012 picks …
Freelance Whales (Queens, NY)
Baroque Indie Electro Pop
Frontman Judah Dadone founded Freelance Whales in 2008 and recorded much of the band's lauded, self-released debut album from late 2009, Weathervanes (reissued by Frenchkiss and Mom + Pop in 2010). The band not only scored a lot of fans based on the album, but also a ton of licensing (for a variety of films and TV shows). The band's consistent international touring, external exposure and word-of-mouth PR has built anticipation for its new album, Diluvia, to a fever pitch. The LP is set for an Oct. 9 release (MPMF serves as the opening date on the band's tour behind the record). Freelance Whales' mix of electronic sounds and Chamber Folk ideals has led them to be compared to everyone from The Postal Service to Sufjan Stevens.
You'll Dig It If You Dig: Sufjan Stevens making a Postal Service album; Postal Service making a Sufjan album. (Mike Breen)
Freelance Whales (their name, if you're wondering, was inspired by the huge amount of "freelancers" working in NYC) performs Saturday in Washington Park at 7 p.m. (taking the slot vacated by Sleigh Bells). Here's a new track from Diluvia, "Spitting Image."
Leogun (London, UK)
Rock & Roll
With “big breaks” today mostly coming in the form of internet exposure, London trio Leogun’s big-time entry into the music biz was decidedly old-fashioned. Singer/guitarist Tommy Smith snuck into an Eagles of Heavy Metal show in London and met an industry heavyweight who introduced him to Elton John’s Rocket Music Management. From there, the band became the first band signed to instrument-maker Yamaha’s new record label. Leogun went to Nashville to lay down some of their timeless, passionate Rock & Roll, the first results of which are set for an EP due Oct. 16 (a full-length is planned for 2013). Leogun’s transcendent take on vintage Blues-inspired Rock & Roll is strong enough to earn them one the “bands most likely to return soon for an arena show” awards from this year’s MPMF.
Dig: Wolfmother, Pearl Jam, Queens of the Stone Age. (MB)
Leogun performs at The Drinkery Saturday at 12:30 a.m. Here's the band's new single and video, "Let's Be Friends," which just premiered on MTV.com.
Next weekend, the Lollapalooza music festival returns to Chicago for its 20th anniversary extravaganza. CityBeat will have some reporters in the field covering the event, but most of us don't have the money for such a costly road trip this year. Thankfully, you can have a sort of "virtual reality" audio experience of Lollapalooza without leaving your bed or sweating more than a boxer in the final round. And you can do it all in under an hour.
Is it really that time again? It seems like just yesterday that we were jumping from one packed MPMF venue to another, checking out everyone from local favorites to national and international gems to local favorites turned (inter)national gems.
Yes, bands and artists the world over can now register to take part in the 2010 MidPoint Music Festival, a three-day (Sept. 23-25) downtown Cincinnati party that is rapidly becoming a highlight of the region’s musical landscape.
The inaugural Bunbury Music Festival — three days of top-shelf Alternative music at Cincinnati's riverfront Sawyer Point Park — is just two days away. All this week, CityBeat's music blog will be featuring samples from some of our "sleeper picks" for the fest, artists who some may not be as familiar with as they are Weezer or Death Cab for Cutie or Jane's Addiction.
Our next "sleeper" is The Silent Comedy, performing Saturday at 8:45 p.m. on the AliveOne Stage.
Imagine you’re in an old bar filled with the clinking and clunking sounds of ragtime piano music. Next, add in the sound of an electric guitar and rugged vocals. Now imagine that sound coming from four mustachioed bartenders and replace the tables with people packed to the rafters. If that doesn’t work, think "Baritone Ben Folds." The music and people you’re imagining are guaranteed to look and sound a lot like The Silent Comedy. The band consists of four dudes from California who dress like they belong in an old western movie, write modern lyrics and have an authentic, dusty Roots/Folk sound. Whether they’re singing about hookers, bad choices or hypocrisy in the church, The Silent Comedy’s music is always relatable and always good.
Here's a cool clip of the band performing for "The Living Room Sessions."
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!