When people are confronted with my ridiculously voluminous music collection, they are most often struck with its distinct lack of commonality. Growing up within 70 miles of Detroit in the ’60s will do that; anything you can imagine between and beyond Motown and The Stooges will generally light my sparkler.
In reference to music specifically and to life in general, I have often remarked, “Specialization is for insects,” but if Mark Utley would like to borrow the phrase when he’s talking about his band, Cincinnati's Magnolia Mountain, he’s more than welcome.
From the band’s beginnings six years ago, Utley has endeavored to reconcile his Rock past with his fresh love of all things Americana by investing his Magnolia Mountain output with a reverence for the Bluegrass, Folk, Country and Rock forms while investing them with fresh angles, lines and perspectives. Like a sculptor who has immense respect for the permanence of the stone but also implicitly trusts his chisel and creative vision, Utley shapes the raw material of Americana’s various stylistic permutations into songs that are comfortably familiar yet blazingly original. That ethic was a hallmark of Magnolia Mountain’s last double album, 2010’s Redbird Green, and it comes into even sharper focus on the band’s third and latest release, the aptly titled Town and Country.
Part of Magnolia Mountain’s variance from album to album is at least partially due to the shifts in personnel that have affected the band from the start. At the same time, Magnolia Mountain has always been something of a rotating collective with guests becoming permanent members and members becoming guests. Town and Country follows that template, as Jordan Neff and Amber Nash (who left to devote full attention to their side project, Shiny and the Spoon) and David Rhodes Brown (who has defected from his numerous band affiliations to concentrate on solo/side work) appear sporadically on the album’s 18 tracks. And once again, guests abound on Town and Country, including piano master Ricky Nye, Tillers banjo ninja Mike Oberst and Americana chanteuse Lydia Loveless, among others.
Utley’s grounding in and love of vinyl forces him to think of his dozen and a half songs in the context of four separate sides (which he also did on Redbird Green; both albums are available in double vinyl format), and the first side is indicative of the broad range of Town and Country. “Black Mollie” kicks things off like a traditional Folk ode, “One Waking Moment” is a classic Appalachian Bluegrass break-up jaunt and “Baby Let’s Pretend” is a bopping Country thumper that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Rodney Crowell or T Bone Burnett set.
But just when you think you’ve got Magnolia Mountain pinned down, Utley and company (Jeff Vanover, Melissa English, Renee Frye, Bob Lese, Kathy Woods, Bob Donisi and Todd Drake) blister the paint with the wicked Blues menace of “Set on Fire,” with sweet “sugar, sugar” backing vocals, searing slide guitar and thundering rhythm section. That quartet is a mere hint at the broad spectrum of styles and approaches that Magnolia Mountain achieves on Town and Country, from the funky twang soul Blues of “Rainmaker” to the supercharged Roots Rock swing of “Shotgun Divorce” (Utley’s duet with Loveless) to the atmospheric swamp boogie of “The Devil We Know,” as well as superb covers of Will Johnson’s “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” and Wussy’s “Don’t Leave Just Now.”
As usual, the brilliance of Utley’s songwriting is that he and Magnolia Mountain craft each track as a separate jewel that fits perfectly into the gorgeous crown that is Town and Country.
Cincinnati is loaded with Blues talent. Always has been. Yet it is still a rare and noteworthy occasion when a Cincinnati Blues artist releases an album with primarily original music. Brad Hatfield has long been considered one of the area’s premier harmonica slingers. With his new release, Uphill From Anywhere, he also establishes himself as one of Cincy's most distinctive Blues voices — both as a singer and as a songwriter.
Richly produced by Jon Justice, who also shares many of the writing/arranging credits, and featuring Hatfield’s father, keyboardist Bernie Hatfield, Uphill From Anywhere is an album that will please lovers of standard Blues fare, as well as those who like their Blues flavored with a little gospel and groove.
The album begins with “Witness to My Misery,” a straightforward gut-thumping march, and then moves into “Fit to be the Fool,” a shuffle that will certainly please the Blues purists. All signs point to pretty standard Blues fare at this point, albeit it with heartfelt lyrics and sultry amplified harp tone.
But with the Justice-penned “One More Night,” we’re immediately snapped back to attention with percussive stabs, Hammond organ overtones and honeyed slide guitar reminiscent of the best Warren Haynes-era work from the Allman Brothers. Soulful and inventive chord progressions and equally soulful singing elevate this song a notch or two above the first two tracks.
Indeed, the brightest spots on Uphill From Anywhere are the departures from the 1-4-5 12-bar formula that are the bread and butter for so many Blues bands. “Livin’ Out the Lie” has a great Robert-Cray minor-key R&B vibe and “End of Time” has an uplifting Gospel feel, reminding us to not fret too much since “they’ve been talkin’ bout the end since the beginning of time.” The song makes you want to take the nearest woman by the hand, pull her close and dance like there’s gonna be a whole bunch of tomorrows.
Brad Hatfield has paid more dues than many of us have and for a decade he’s been widely respected as one of Cincinnati’s greatest Blues harmonica players. But the revelation of this album is how Uphill From Anywhere firmly establishes Hatfield as one of our city’s most poignant Blues vocalists. In fact, the second to last track, “Too Good to Give Away,” features guest harp work from New Jersey’s Dennis Gruenling. Harmonica players are a notoriously competitive and territorial lot, but Hatfield yields the instrumental spotlight and lets his voice tell the story with his husky, agile and often moving growl.
Appropriately, the album’s final cut is an a capella version of “John the Revelator.” Brad Hatfield’s voice takes you to church, or the field, or to the mountaintop, and you believe every word he’s saying.
Sample the release below:
You can catch the Brad Hatfield Band in June at Saturday, June 9 at the Colerain Park Amphitheatre from 5-8 p.m., and Friday, June 22 at Geez'l Petes in Covington starting at 8:30 p.m. Visit www.bhatfieldbluesband.com for more on the album and future shows.
Since the 2005 release of their impressive Pikul EP, L.A.’s Brian Aubert and Silversun Pickups have gone from strength to strength with barely a hitch in their stride. The band’s 2006 full-length debut Carnavas was a bona fide smash, artfully blending Shoegaze crackle and fuzz with frenetic Indie Rock verve to create the Pickups’ singular sonic fingerprint.
As it turned out, Pikul and Carnavas were just appetizers for the meaty and moody main course of 2009’s Swoon, which established the Pickups as one of the major musical forces of the year and earned them spots on an overwhelming number of year-end lists. In the face of Swoon’s ecstatic reception, the question of what the Pickups will do for an encore has been casting rather a long shadow over the past three years.
Neck of the Woods asks and answers the query with howling authority. The band blazes through an 11-song set that buzzes like a swarm of electric bees while still managing to fold in plenty of subtlety and nuance for counterpoint. The album’s lead-off track, “Skin Graph,” is a six minute case in point; deftly flitting from delicate electric Folk hymn to epic Grunge anthem and back again, surfing the tension that roils in the stylistic gap between extremes.
In less creative hands, “Make Believe” and “Busy Bees” would likely amble along like standard Emo mopefests, but stuttering drum beats and off kilter rhythm methodology give the songs a compelling presence, while “Here We Are (Chancer)” drops all the way back into a quiet Synth Pop groove that builds toward the explosive movie cop theme of “Mean Spirits” and the aptly titled slowburn of “Simmer.”
In many ways, Neck of the Woods is not nearly as immediate as its predecessors, but Aubert and Silversun Pickups are smart enough to realize that the best music grows like a garden, with patience, care and attention, and that’s where the album succeeds in pushing the Pickups’ already expansive boundaries.
When The Afghan Whigs announced late last year they would be reuniting for a pair of appearances at All Tomorrow’s Parties in London and New Jersey (since grown to a full blown European tour of summer festivals and clubs), music critics and fans rejoiced.
For years, interviewers probed lead singer Greg Dulli about the possibility while he promoted his successful projects The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins. The answer, when it would come, was usually a firm "No" — everything that needed to be said with the Whigs had been said. Disappointed fans had reason to mourn — in the ’80s/’90s, Whigs' live shows were legendary for their one-two punch of cathartic anthems and ass-shaking grooves, with the alpha male voodoo cast by Dulli.
Unlike scores of other bands who get back together for all the wrong reasons — an embarrassing reality television moment or ill-conceived package tour (“Grunge on Ice!”) — The Whigs embraced this reunion on their own terms. It's been well covered in the press that all parties involved in the Whigs' camp said that the time was just right for this rendezvous. No hatchets to bury, no compromises to make and no million dollar title sponsorship necessary — the schedules just worked out and, by all accounts, everyone was in the right place, personally, emotionally, professionally.
That wasn’t the case in 2001 though, when the group cited physical distance as a prime reason behind their curtain call as a band. Two newish tracks momentarily reunited the band in 2006 for a career spanning retrospective, but no decision to re-group was made until bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum quietly got together with Dulli in New Orleans late last fall to test the waters. Obviously, they were pleased with what they heard.
Flash forward to this past week, halfway into their first live show in over a decade at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. Any concern that Dulli considered the band's reunion shows as some sort of middle-aged victory lap was put to rest as he traded quips with a heckler who apparently hadn’t got the memo about Dulli's legendary run-ins, on and off the stage with audience members who couldn’t resist being a part of the show.
Without dropping a beat, Dulli offered the fellow a cautionary warning before returning to the music at hand: “You know, I will fuck you up.”
Your attention please, indeed.
The Whigs still take their music seriously. In the month leading up to the somewhat surprise of a show at the Ballroom in New York this past week, the Whigs holed up in Cincinnati at Curley’s Ultrasuede Studio to give their entire catalog a work out. But hometown anonymity gave way when the band arrived in NYC to a New York Times proclamation that their sold out show in the Lower East Side was the “most sought after ticket in the Northeast.” Fitting perhaps as well that the Whigs first show back would take place in the city where they played their final show in 1999 (unbeknownst to anyone).
That Tuesday, the Whigs' fired their own opening salvo with their first television appearance in over a decade on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It takes balls to play your first live gig in 13 years on TV in front of millions of viewers — not to mention performing a relatively obscure R&B tune (“See and Don’t See” by Marie “Queenie” Lyons) instead of one of your hits. Business as usual for the uncompromising Whigs.
Since Uptown Avondale's track by track Soul homage, the Whigs have been notorious for unearthing and reinventing old school R&B tracks. This time around, the Whig’s recorded a fragile interpretation of Lyons’ song, which was released online the week before. The tune got the Whigs' Chamber Rock treatment on Fallon with a string section and The Roots' ?uestlove joining in on drums while a nattily attired Dulli coolly plead his case. Later, after Fallon signed off air, the band recorded a bonus track for the show’s website, ripping through a caustic, muscular version of “I’m Her Slave.” Hopefully viewers at home didn’t miss the moment immediately after the song where Dulli and the usually reserved Curley quickly traded wide, shit-eating grins, obviously pleased with what the band just dropped on millions of viewers, many of whom had probably never had the opportunity to see the Whigs on their first go around.
If the Fallon appearance was the peek behind the curtain, the sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom the next night was the full on Angelina-leg-bearing reveal. The band wasted no time, dipping heavily into Gentleman and Black Love, including a reprisal of “I’m Her Slave” and a dizzying “Conjure Me” from Congregation. The Whigs also visited a few tracks from their final full-length, 1965, before adding a couple of covers — the Lyons' track from Fallon and a spooky, piano-driven take on Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes.”
Presumably left for later in the tour was anything from the band's Sub Pop debut, Up In It. The band did, however, go six tracks deep from their noir epic, Black Love, including show opener "Crime Scene Part I" and the set-ending epic trio of “Bulletproof,” “Summer’s Kiss” and perennial show closer “Faded,” with the little coda from Purple Rain tagged on for good measure. But it was the reintroduction of the title track from Gentleman that brought the house down.The song had seemingly been shelved for live sets post-Black Love, it's rumored because of the heavy-hearted toll delivering the scathing lover’s reproach night after night took on its author. Whatever the reason, Dulli was back on better terms with his signature song, playfully pointing fingers and shaking his ass while the rest of the Whigs powered through the song’s metallic groove.
The reconvened Whigs are more light and nimble on their feet than the expansive 1965 final tour that saw the group supported by a cadre of excellent back-up singers and support musicians each night. This time around the trio is augmented by long time Dulli sideman, guitarist David Rosser, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson and drummer Cully Symington. Even without all the extra hands on deck, the resulting sound still allows for moments of fragile beauty amongst the riffs thanks to Nelson’s cello and piano playing.
It’s worth noting that Dulli apparently gave up smokes over a year ago and his voice might be exhibit A for you kids contemplating taking a puff for the first time. He’s refined his aching falsetto and added some harmonic high notes to his trademark whisper-to-a-scream howl that showed no signs of letting down during the near two-hour show. Dulli acknowledged his new smoke-free existence, referencing the now legendary mid-show light ups where he would hold forth on baseball, shitty cover bands or how your girlfriend was flirting with him the entire show while the band would play bemusedly (or not) on. During his heckler beat-down at the Bowery, he even worked in a belated apology to mates Curley and McCollum for their patience during his soliloquies all those years — then accepted a goodwill drag off an audience member’s joint.
Unlike a lot of bands who play Reunion Roulette and lose, if national reviews of the show are any indication, this year’s model of the Whigs arguably sounds better than they did during the ’90s when they first broke on the international scene with their addictive mash up of Midwestern Punk, Rock and Soul.
Dulli said it best after a punkish wind-sprint through 1965’s "Uptown Again," when he offered a heartfelt thanks to the crowd for coming, adding, “It feels like we never left."
Full setlist from the Whigs' Facebook page:
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.
It’s never easy for a band to follow up a hugely successful album, but The Cribs had a doubly tough task after the overwhelming response to 2009’s Ignore the Ignorant, which was the group’s first Top 10 U.K. hit, outselling 11 of the 13 Beatles reissues that were released the same week. At least part of Ignorant’s success was attributable to the presence of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who joined the Cribs after a chance 2008 meeting with bassist Gary Jarman. Marr’s departure in 2011 returned the Cribs to its original band-of-Jarman-brothers lineup for its fifth album, In the Belly of the Brazen Bull.
In many ways, Brazen Bull hearkens back to the Cribs’ early energy while tapping into the creative evolution that’s been percolating within the trio/quartet over the past decade. The Cribs’ raw conviction is all over the Nirvana-channels-the-Pixies-like ring-and-roar of the album’s first single, “Come On, Be a No-One,” two-and-a-half minutes of barely constrained Punk howl, an ethic that resurfaces on “Anna” and “Chi-Town.” At the same time, the newly reinstated trio displays plenty of Pop maturity on gems like “Jaded Youth” and “Confident Men,” where the Jarmans’ love of all things Cobain is leavened with a healthy respect for The Beatles’ melodic gifts.
The Cribs effectively demonstrate that the ultimate commercial success of In the Belly of the Brazen Bull isn’t nearly as important as the brothers’ ability to translate all of their influences without the taint of compromise.
Loudon Wainwright III could very easily have slid into the where-are-they-now realm of celebrity obscurity if he had allowed himself to be swallowed up by the one-hit wonderment of “Dead Skunk” in 1972. Although most people at the time only knew him for that ubiquitous single, Wainwright was confident that he had plenty of other weapons in his songwriting arsenal and set about to define the 40-year Folk/Pop career that has brought him certain measures of acclaim, wealth and notoriety as a songwriter, performer, actor and dysfunctional family man, each role woven inextricably into the fabric of the others (remember when he was Captain Spalding, the singing surgeon on M*A*S*H?). Clearly, the two paths that have intersected most often in Wainwright’s life are music and family; his itinerant singer/songwriter’s existence has been both a positive and a negative in his numerous attempts at familial stability and his parents, wives and children have been an endless source of grist for his songwriting mill.
Chief among Wainwright’s influences has been his often larger-than-life father, whose death at 63 left a gaping hole in his 17-year-old son’s life and psyche. A great deal of Wainwright’s unresolved love and anger issues concerning his father have been worked out in his songs over the past few decades, but his latest uniformly excellent album finds him looking back at his long timeline after reaching the milestone birthday of 65, a momentous and bittersweet benchmark that inspired the album’s title; Older Than My Old Man Now.
Like much of his recent work, Wainwright explores the familiar subjects of family, aging, death and lust on Old Man, which he does with typical candor, humor and reflection. Wainwright opens with the jazzy “The Here & the Now,” an annotated but honest account of his 65 years (“I took a wife, we had some kids/I screwed that up and went on the skids”), a history that he continues tracing on the contemplative and mournful “In C.” In the eloquent spoken word intro to the title track, Wainwright calls his father his “principal ghost” and then launches into a Delta-flavored vamp that addresses the psychic conundrum of having more calendars under his belt than his dad (“Sixty four is awful old, you know what can happen next/Hey, I’m older than my old man ever was, and I’m trying to keep it in context”).
Wainwright’s broad range is best typified by the ridiculously funny “I Remember Sex,” a parlor piano duet with Barry Humphries’ female alter ego Dame Edna Everidge, and the sublimely heartbreaking realizations of “The Days That We Die,” where Wainwright expounds, in prose and rhyme, on the reality of getting closer to life’s finish line without having fully reconciled with his children for his real and imagined sins. Listening to Wainwright and son Rufus trade soul-searching verses about life and change and forgiveness will bring a tear to the most cynical eye.
Over the course of the past few albums, Wainwright has honed his songwriting style to a fine point and narrowed his focus to very personal issues which he has translated into impossibly universal songs. Older Than My Old Man Now finds him in peak form in that regard, and reinforces the idea that he’s probably got plenty more to say on every subject as his finite journey heads inexorably toward the infinite horizon.
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.
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!
Saturday, Apr 28: Jubal's Kin Festival Grounds
Saturday at MerleFest broke hard and cold. Our camping neighbors had an impromptu jam session at 3 a.m., which is to be expected when camping at a music festival geared towards people who not only love to watch and listen, but also play. It would have been one thing to hear the soft strains of a string jam or the gentle harmony of "Wildwood Flower," but some dude shouting the lyrics to "Whipping Post" over badly tuned guitars played really hard … not the thing mountain dreams are made from.
So I sat, at sun up, reading and drinking coffee, plotting revenge and the instead of taking my revenge, made the accused coffee, read some more and generally moved real slow. Crustymarhsmellowman. I did get to play a couple tunes with Pete McWhirter as he moved past to grab some coffee on his way to open his booth.
Then I moved real slow some more.
Really real slow.
After lunch, I decided to make an attempt to see some music.
I had already missed Jim Lauderdale at the Creekside Stage. To bad, I like some Jim Lauderdale and it would have been a nice wake up, but there you are. I saw on the schedule Jubal's Kin at the Dance Tent, looked at the clock and … damn missed that, too. But what ho! There they are on the schedule at the Americana Tent immediately following their Dance Tent set. It's a MerleFest miracle! I grabbed my camera and another cup of coffee and headed out.
Jubal's Kin, all nerves and bad house sound on Day 1, was all smooth and in good voice on Day 3. They filed the promise I thought I saw at the Cabin Stage on what always seems like an eternity ago and delivered a set full of vigor, with pristine sound delivered by the sound person. Their originals are fresh with sparse instrumentation and the kind of tight harmonies that only siblings can deliver. Never lyrically embarrassing with overplayed earnestness or too casual observation, they meld in with beautifully arranged and originally considered traditional tunes. There's "The Cuckoo," that ancient English broadside, rendered as if Billie Holiday had spent some time in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. "Buffalo Gal" was reconsidered as a pop tune with a well delivered encouragement to jump in on the chorus and sing along. Gaelanne's fiddle playing is absolutely gorgeous in a John Hartford/Matt Comb's kind of way, though leaning a bit heavier on the front of the beat as opposed to sitting in the pocket. And her banjo playing is just delicious. They added one more member for this set — "Uncle Joe" on pedal steel and fiddle. With "Baby Brother" on bass, Jubal's Kin appears to be a family band.
Satisfied my instincts were intact, I left the Americana Stage to catch some other music. I wondered into the Traditional Tent to catch some of mountain legend Red June. He was explaining to the audience what a jam session was. Have I mentioned the Traditional Tent smells like a barn? I don't think it's intentional, but the wet grass combined with an enclosed space has rendered an unfavorable impression. After the lesson on what a "jam" is, Red invited a local banjo player up to do a fiddle tune with the fiddle player who didn't bring a fiddle, but did bring a mandolin. Not to fear! You can play fiddle tunes on mandolin (or piano for that matter), so he requested the newest banjo player and the fiddle player with the mandolin decide on a tune they both knew and then play it. Five minutes of discussion and tuning followed. As I headed out of the tent I thought "Just like a jam session," and went down to the Creekside Cabin to catch the rest of the Snyder Family Band and the following act, Sierra Hull and Highway 111.
The Snyder Family Band is a family Bluegrass band (no irony at MerleFest!). Like all Bluegrass bands they have a banjo, sing harmonies and play Bluegrass. Of course they play it really well. People love them. Standing ovation.
I waited around for Sierra Hull and Highway 111 to take the stage. Sierra Hull, 5-foot-nothing and former wiz kid master of the mandolin is now a promising songwriter and ingenue. I'm familiar with this script and am bored not two minutes into the first song. Sigh. I stop in the field in front of the Watson Stage to hear some of "Assembly of Dust." Young Nashville Country script. Know it. Boring. Moving on.
It's coming up on 3 p.m. and time to give my sister a break in her booth in the Heritage Tent. Nancy Roberson is a weaver based out of Knoxville, Tenn. She's been showing, selling and demonstrating at MerleFest for about as long as there has been a MerleFest. She heads out for her afternoon nap (apparently a hardwired Roberson DNA trait) and I pleasantly meet the mass of retail customers streaming by and wondering into her booth.
Nancy makes shawls. Well kind of. Not only does she design each warp for the loom, but on these particular pieces of clothing, she has design the shawl itself. It's twisted, sewn up the back, and pulled over your head like a loose fitting sweater. The front gathers in soft bunches and hangs across the chest. The ladies love them. Woven of soft cotton and rayon with the occasional silk woven in for effect, the main color of each shawl is broken up with a rhythm of competing and sometimes complimentary colors. People can't help but be drawn in by the colors and when the reach out and touch them, you always get an "Oooooo, these feel so nice and are so beautiful." If you don't, it's a replicant — ready your phasers.
When Nancy returned, I checked the schedule and cheese whiz on a cracker if Jubal's Kin wasn't playing in the barn-like Traditional Tent. Finally a chance to catch this band in more intimate surroundings, smell be damned. I headed over, got there early and claimed a seat near the front. In short order the band was on stage, laughing and calling out songs. They moved though a load of traditional tunes, all rendered in a sweet, imaginative way, like "Dinah Blow Your Horn," with added lyrics and a new verse melody. The Carter Family's "No Depression" was delivered in soul rendering pain. About midway through the set, a guitar string broke enabling some spontaneous double fiddle and dancing. While the guitar player stepped off stage, "Uncle Joe" and Gaelanne tuned their fiddles and discussed which tune to play. In a matter of thirty seconds (this is no a jam session) launched into a Skillet Lickers number my dad probably danced to when he was their age. A friend jumped up on stage and launched into some spirited clogging. Not to be undone, "Baby Brother" put his bass down, peeled off his shoes and joined the Appalachian chorus line at the end of the stage with some well executed Buck Dancing.
Yes sir, these kids from Florida are the real shit. I've spent decades in front of poseurs, wannabees, shitty players and hopefuls. Using a foundation of traditional music obviously passed along from a family that loves this stuff at an early age, Jubal's Kin are making something very real, unique and personal that compels you to be a part.
This is why I come to MerleFest. Thanks, guys, for inviting me in.
Exhausted from a night of no sleep and a day of wandering and finding Jubal's Kin, I headed back to my book and coffee and called it a day.