How did 48 hours of exciting live music draw to a close so fast? I woke up Sunday morning with the slightly wistful feel that my whirlwind weekend would soon be over, but I quickly shook that and rushed to the “L” to get downtown for the final day of Lollapalooza 2011.
Due to my persistent caffeine addiction, I was late to Grant Park. I missed The Joy Formidable (though luckily we can all see them at the MidPoint Music Festival on Sept. 22), as well as Titus Andronicus and Fences, all bands I wanted to give a good go. I guess that’s what YouTube, Soundcloud, Facebook, MySpace, etc. are for.
Since her 1994 indie debut, The Honesty Room, Dar Williams has attracted a diverse and pathologically loyal fan base with her quirkily hybridized Folk/Pop ministrations. Like an elegant gene splice of Shawn Colvin and Loudon Wainwright III, Williams can easily triangulate the emotional distance between breezy humor, somber reflection and crystalline heartbreak, on subjects as intimate as family and love and as broad as culture and politics, by finding the commonalities between them and translating them through her muse. Equally relevant is the fact that Williams hasn’t shied away from experimenting with her base formula over the past two decades; her desire to extend her reach is a testament to her restless creative spirit and her success in doing just that is a testament to her steadfast audience.
In the Time of Gods is Williams’ ninth studio album and, like the majority of her catalog, it is a work that somehow manages to be both spectacular and subtle. In keeping with her need to experiment, Williams conceived In the Time of Gods as a concept album with each song representing a particular Greek mythological archetype, while also weaving contemporary emotional, social and cultural concerns into the narrative. It’s an unlikely formula, and one that requires an almost impossible songwriting balance, but Williams was clearly up to the task, because In the Time of Gods stands with the best of her albums to date.
Part of its brilliance is that Williams uses the Greek pantheon as a launch point to create her own dieties and address her unique issues, proving that mythology must be both consistent to be permanent and malleable to be relevent. The element that drives all of this home is Williams’ impeccable songwriting skill as she finds the connective tissue between gods and goddesses like Hera (“I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything”), Hermes (“You Will Ride with Me Tonight”), Dionysus (“I Will Free Myself”) and Poseidon (“The Light and the Sea”) and places their gifted and flawed archetypes in real life situations with real life outcomes.
As always, Williams’ musical accompaniment in this endeavor is engaging and beautiful and exactly right, providing the consistency that runs through her estimable canon. With a surgeon’s skill, Dar Williams has grafted the wisdom, wonder and humanity of Greece’s ancient pantheon onto In the Time of Gods’ modern cautionary tales, further evidence of the contention that Williams is among the finest Folk/Pop songwriters of the last half century.
I haven't done LSD in at least a decade, but Thursday's MidPoint Music Festival sure felt like a psychedelic flashback. My long-ish, strange-ish trip began at 9 a.m., as I drove into downtown and found Central Parkway colorfully dressed up as if an army of elderly women had sneaked in overnight and turned the strip into a Dr. Seussian wonderland. The colorful crocheting that hugged the trees, lampposts and practically everything else sticking out of the ground was actually the work of The BombShells' Yarn, who've dropped similar "yard bombs" on statues downtown (like the William Henry Harrison one in Garfield Park).
Regardless of whence it came, it set the trippy tone for my first day at MPMF.11. And things only got trippier. I'm a big fan of the surreal and bizarre, so it wasn't a bad trip, by any means. And the soundtrack was pretty kick-ass.
As we reached the halfway point of the festival, I took a step back and reflected a bit. I was dirty, sweaty and sleep-deprived; and yet I could not have been more excited for what was to come. Phish had whet my appetite for their festival-closing performance on Sunday, and who could forget that one of the greatest live acts in the history of music (maybe a little hyperbole), Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, would be rocking the stage this very night. There was a sense that truly magical musical moments were on the horizon and little did I know what those inclinations would bring.
The Bonnaroo Whirlwind kicks into high gear on Saturday afternoon. Today it was hardly half past twelve when Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears ripped the Other Tent in half with 60 minutes of high fructose Funk and Gospel that had the surrounding throng speaking in tongues.
500 Miles to Memphis’ two most recent album releases are local classics that reside in two vastly different musical landscapes. Their 2007 album, Sunshine in a Shot Glass, offers 12 tracks of undiluted Country Punk. The album starts off with the band’s hit “All My Friends are Crazy” and doesn’t let up. The band’s followup, 2011’s We’ve Built Up to Nothing, took the Country Punk roots and drastically expanded on the concept. Influenced by The Beatles, the Cincinnati-based quintet added layer upon layer of instrumentation to craft an epic that radically expanded the groundwork laid in 2007.
Now, in 2014 the band is set to unleash Stand There and Bleed. With its latest release, 500 Miles to Memphis has pulled back and opted for a simpler, more straightforward group of songs. In doing so, the band has written its best album to date.
The band will host a listening party for the new album tonight (Thursday) at The Drinkery in Over-the-Rhine. The album will be played in its entirety at 9 p.m., then the group will play an acoustic set at 10 p.m. The event is free. (The official release date for Stand There and Bleed has yet to be announced.)
At its core, 500 Miles to Memphis has always been about vocalist/guitarist Ryan Malott telling the stories of his life. And with three years in between releases, Malott has plenty to talk about. Stand There and Bleed is Malott’s most personal output so far. We see a glimpse of tour life in “Medication,” the joys of marriage in “Takes Some Time” and the trials of addiction in “Easy Way Out.” Malott may have traded the bottle for coffee and a Playstation controller, but the struggle is ongoing. In fact, the best tracks on the album are the ones that document Malott’s missteps, but only because the album has so much hope, as well. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and Malott is steadily working his way towards it.
Joining Malott is bassist/vocalist Noah Sugarman, drummer Kevin Hogle, guitarist/vocalist Aaron Whalen and lap steel guitarist David Rhodes Brown. This all-star lineup compliments Malott’s lyrics expertly. Gone are We Built Up to Nothing’s more eccentric instrument choices; 500 stripped away the excess to more fully focus on what it had in house. The result is an album that’s more consistent and true to 500’s vision as a whole. Malott is influenced by Country and Punk Rock in equal measure and these influences come across stronger than ever on Bleed, with each member adding their own touch on the theme. Hogle’s drumming is still some of the best in town; his musical ear enables him to mold his style to each and heighten the mood of all. Brown’s steel playing on Stand There and Bleed keeps the more Punk-based tracks grounded in 500’s roots and elevates the Country tracks to another level with effortlessly delivered solos. Finally, Whalen and Sugarman’s guitar and bass inject energy throughout the record that reinforces Stand There and Bleed’s straightforward, powerful delivery.
Malott’s vocal delivery has been honed and refined on Stand There and Bleed, as well. Malott is an unabashed fan of Green Day and comparisons to Billie Joe Armstrong in songs like “Bethel, OH” and “Abilene” are undeniable. Malott has also continued to inject large amounts of emotion into his vocals. He’s always been an expressive singer but the earnestness and pain in “You’ll Get Around” and “Alone” show a departure from We’ve Built Up to Nothing’s more polished vocals. Part of the recording process was breaking Malott of those good habits and getting him used to putting the feeling back into each take. What results is an album that’s a little rougher around the edges and much more emotionally captivating for the listener.
500 Miles to Memphis has been pushing its music forward for years, constantly hitting the road to share its take on Country Punk. The band has been virtuous to the genre and also bent it to an almost unrecognizable state. With Stand There and Bleed, the quintet has met somewhere in the middle. The band has trimmed the fat, focused on what each (incredibly talented) member brings to the table and built a record that is its most focused and honest to date.
The band has traveled way more than 500 miles to reach where they are now, but with albums like Stand There and Bleed carrying them, they have plenty more ahead of them.
Our third and final day on-site at Bonnaroo was no less crazy than the previous two. I took occasional breaks during the day, sometimes in the air-conditioned press tent, and other times back at the campsite where I’d snack, get off my feet for a few minutes and pour water over my head.
The day began with an 11:30 a.m. press-tent panel discussion on changes in the concert industry since Bonnaroo’s inception 10 years ago. The panel included Bonnaroo founder Ashley Capps who reminisced about the festival’s early days. Capps and crew intentionally booked bands for the inaugural festival who already had direct contact with their fan base via the internet. By tapping into this pre-existing network, they were able to sell out the first Bonnaroo in just 18 days.
I've had nearly a dozen different people ask me the same question over the last week or so: “What have you been listening to?”
Luckily, it's been a fruitful season for (relatively) new music. Here's my answer:
PJ Harvey —Let England Shake: Harvey's latest gets better and digs deeper with every spin via its textured arrangements and curious, Folk-tinged genre U-turns. I'm still not sure I like her more overtly topical lyrical bent, but her voice is as affecting as ever.
Singer/songwriter Eric Falstrom has been performing locally for several years, including with the rockin’ Mystery Wagon in the early ’90s. Since then, Falstrom has been working the solo route, releasing records on his own off and on since the end of the Wagon.
But Falstrom’s latest disc, Love Will Come Through, feels much like a reintroduction, featuring some of the best writing and performing of his career so far. The album is rich and focused, bringing Falstrom’s strengths (poetic lyrics, a heartfelt singing voice and beautiful arrangements) to the forefront.