When veteran Cincinnati musician Zach Mechlem launched his latest project, Mack West, a few years ago, he didn’t just form a new band — he created a new genre. Calling the band’s sound “AltWestern” to describe the dusty, often cinematic quality of its modern American Roots music, Mack West released its self-titled debut two years ago to much acclaim and, given the evocative, visceral nature of the songs, attention from the world of music licensing. Tracks from the album were used on various promo spots and TV shows, including History Channel’s American Pickers.
Going into recording the follow-up, Mechlem and original members Will Campbell (bass) and Greg Slone (drums) bolstered their membership, adding guitarist (and album co-producer) Steve Wethington on guitar and violinist Annette Christianson. While the mood and spirit of the debut is still intact on the resulting album, The Goodnight Trail, Mack West’s sophomore effort doesn’t exactly expand on the trademark elements
When Joan Osborne vaulted into the public consciousness with Relish, her 1995 major label debut, she had already established a loyal fan base that was well aware of her estimable Jazz and Soul skills. With Soul Show in 1991 and the Blue Million Miles EP in 1993, Osborne displayed her smoldering vocal chops and her unerring ability to write to her own strengths as well as inhabit another writer’s song (her take on Captain Beefheart’s “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” was a marvel). Largely a collaboration with producer Rick Chertoff, Hooters frontmen Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman and Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, Relish rightly pushed Osborne into Rock/Pop territory and the well-deserved spotlight, but it was only marginally indicative of her loves and influences.
For the past decade and a half, Osborne has made no secret of her musical passions as she’s fleshed out her catalog with a string of soulful original albums, covers albums (2002’s How Sweet It Is) and blends of the two (2007’s excellent Breakfast in Bed).
With her latest, Bring It On Home, Osborne heads directly into the Blues/R&B camp with predictably great results, from the opening swing of Ray Charles’ version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and a blistering spin through “Roll Like a Big Wheel” from obscure Blues shaker Olive Brown to a down and dirty take on James Moore’s iconic “Shake Your Hips” (nailed by the Stones on Exile on Main Street) and a shivering R&B tailfeather shake of Clarence Carter’s “I’m Qualified.”
As usual, Osborne’s gift in covering other songwriters’ works lies in her innate talent in melding the spirit and intent of the original song with her own singular approach to come up with a version that is both tribute and appropriate reinvention, and Bring It On Home finds Osborne at the peak of her abilities.
Saturday at Mayday in Northside, the great Cincinnati Indie Rock band Koala Fires will be performing for the last time. But the band is also saying goodbye with a gem of an album, Doom of the Norns, the band's second full-length, which will be officially released tomorrow in conjunction with the show. The Fires will be joined by Chicago's Brighton, MA and Cincy's Jody Stapleton and the Generals. Performers from Cin City Burlesque will also entertain between sets. Doors open at 8 p.m. and admission is $7. (Koala Fires will donate half of their merchandise sales Saturday night to help relocate the women of the Anna-Louise Inn.)
Doom of the Norns is a compelling piece of art, an Indie Pop/Rock record with a hefty emotional weight. Singer/songwriter Matt Mooney's vocals have never sounded better, his honey-dipped instrument crooning the album's up-and-down tales of finding love and losing it. It's not a unique concept, but in Mooney's hands, it feels real, raw, somber and often explosive. (Mooney wrote the record to help him get through the demise of his 10-year marriage.)
Mooney and guitarist Ben Evans play beautifully off of each other, their intertwining fretwork creating a wash of dynamic sound. Drummer Matt Retherford and bassist Matt Zink fuel the songs with precision and a distinctive flair; Retherford's fiery yet intuitive playing, in particular, is a crucial part of the albums success.
But the heart of the album is the passionate songwriting. These are Pop/Rock songs, but Mooney's melodies wind in unexpected directions and the songs themselves are dynamically structured. "Grim is the Doom of the Norns" sets the tone, building with twinkling guitars and Mooney's voice showcasing that early-love "head in the clouds" state of mind, before ripping into a big, exuberant chorus. "Nuckalavee" bops along on a jaunty rhythm, undercut by cutting lyrics like, "Do you want control of me? That might be nice/But after years and years he'll escape one night/He will terrorize, drink tears from your eyes and then scare your pain away."
Mooney may just be one of the best Rock lyricists in town. The powerful "Valley of the Kings" begins with the lines, "There used to be a thousand ways to tear this down and start again/But, now it seems there's just one way and it involves a match and some kerosene." The album gets progressively dark, but the words aren't defeatist — they sound like the kind of lyrics someone would write to come to terms with the ending a long relationship. It's artistic therapy. By the last couple of tracks, there is hope and resolve.
There is emotion to spare on Doom of the Norns, but this ain't no wallowing Emo spew. Mooney delves into his despair and writes about it smartly and poetically, making it the kind of album that would fit in your record collection perfectly alongside LPs by The Afghan Whigs, later Superchunk and Cari Clara.
When you fall in love with Koala Fires after hearing this album (if you aren't already in love with them), don't be too sad. Mooney has a new-direction project in the works, Retherford and Evans play together in the Cincy band House of Feeble Minds and Zink is a member of up-and-comers The Future Strikes. The Fires will burn on. (Click here to purchase the album digitally.)
In the late ’70s, Punk Rock and New Wave were blossoming in New York City. But those genre tags were just a convenient labeling device, a catch-all that didn’t take into consideration all of the varied influences artists were bringing with them under that umbrella of Punk or New Wave. Bands would drag things like Rockabilly or Disco into their audio realm and craft their own new sound out of it, with barely any fans blinking an eye, let alone screaming, “That’s not Punk!”
Cincinnati trio Animal Circles bring that sort of kitchen-sink approach into their compositions, craftily blending together Surf Rock, Punk, Roots/Folk/Country sounds, Rockabilly and other styles into their own distinctive sonic smoothie. With the access people have to every type of music these days, it’s a wonder why every band doesn’t have Animal Circles’ sense of eclectic wonderment.
The band celebrates the release of its debut album, Eva Lee, Saturday at Northside Tavern. The free show also features Bloomington, Ind., rockers Thee Open Sex and local Black Sabbath tribute, Druid Piss.
Animal Circles’ variety and sense of dynamics make Eva Lee a thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. From the full-throttle burner “Brooks and Then Done,” with its speeding-out-of-control-train shuffle and rumbling Surf guitar licks (a consistent on the record) to the anxious, Jack-White-goes-to-the-beach vibe of “Squid Attack” to the vintage Country-flavored rocker “Southern Bell,” the band keeps your interest, not just with its unique ingredients, but also its strong sense of songwriting and melody.
The “Surfin’ Space Cowboy” approach has the potential to get old fast, so it’s to AC’s great credit that Eva Lee is such a consistently compelling listen. This is no novelty act.
Here is the Eva Lee track "Life on the Bonzai Pipeline."
Oh, Cincinnatians! Wednesday night, when you filed into the Ballroom at the Taft (Theatre), loudly and drunkenly declaring your love for Dawes, I knew I’d never been more proud of you in all my life. (Except you, Guy Who Tried to Vomit Back into His Beer Can like a sorority girl MacGyver. Know your limits, dude.) You filled the basement with your singing and your cheers and, whether you saw it or not, left four California boys looking pretty giddy in your presence. While I still think some of you have some fairly bad taste in music, I now officially consider everyone in the room on Wednesday to be the new loves of my life.
That includes Dawes and Sara (and Sean) Watkins, too. They deserved every ounce of love that you gave them. This was not a massive and disconnected arena show; this was just some gig in Will Taft’s basement. But Dawes rocked out in a very big way. For every beer-induced bellow you made, a little more of the musicians' hearts seemed to shine through. There was no phoning it in, no signs of fatigue after a long year of touring (for Dawes) and no amateur hour when Sara Watkins started off the night.
The only downfall was knowing that it would end and that, as good as Dawes’ albums are, they would forever pale in comparison to their live show. It was that good. It was the kind of concert where you walk out knowing you will never miss another one of their concerts. The kind of night that leads to going home and staring at their tour schedule and your bank account, trying to decide if you can make it to another show on this round of touring. They’re the kind of band that flings out so much energy in their set that, come 4 a.m., you’re still lying in bed, wide awake and humming “Fire Away.”
In other words: Holy Shit. Dawes is amazing.
Which is surprising, honestly, since at first glimpse, no one in Dawes looks like a Rock star. Lead singer and guitar player, Taylor Goldsmith, with messy brown hair and just slightly too short pants, looks more like a philosophy professor straight out of the ‘70s. You know — the one who gets all the girls and invites the best students back to his apartment to get high. His brother, Griffin, has a massive mane of blonde curls and a face like every other one of your little brother’s friends. But he attacks the drums, has an awesome voice and great facial expressions.
Behind the crazy organ/piano set up is Tay Strathairn, working like a mad scientist and bouncing from one machine to the other. Meanwhile, Dawes' bassist, Wylie Gelber, comes complete with that trademark bass player “chill”-ness. He’s cool.
Basically, they’re just your average guys. They’d fit in just as easily in Cincinnati as they do in Los Angeles.
On stage, though, they are far from average. They are amazing. They can turn a basement into a ballroom and a gig into a "show."
Vintage Rock hasn’t sounded so good since it was just Rock.
In total, the guys played over a dozen songs. Included on the set-list were their more popular hits, like “When My Times Comes” and “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” They also played a few new (and oh-so-awesome) songs that may or may not make it onto their new album.
I could gush for another 600 words, but instead I’ll end with this: Go see Dawes. Get in your car right now and drive to whatever city they’re playing next. Squeeze in close and wait to be awed. Wait for that moment, a couple songs in, when your cheeks hurt because you can’t stop smiling. Wait until Taylor Goldsmith dedicates “When My Time Comes” to the “first-timers” and then scream along.
Go see Dawes and fall in love with good music.
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.
“I’m getting too old for this shit.”
The phrase was a mantra as I entered the Pitchfork Music Festival 2011, the three-day-long music festival sponsored by the taste-making music website which blasted into Chicago’s Union Park from July 15-17. The thought of crowds thousands deep filled with folks almost 20 years my junior, sweltering heat forecast for the weekend and three stages filled with many bands that I had never heard before transformed this generally laid-back, open-minded reporter into a crotchety curmudgeon.
The Comet was packed Tuesday night in anticipation of seeing Nashville band The Black Belles and the Belles didn’t disappoint.
These women sure have created an identity for themselves. At any point, you could spot them somewhere in The Comet; they were hard to miss with their long black hair, black clothes, black hats, pale skin and dark makeup. And the shtick of it all doesn’t seem forced for The Black Belles. Members of Jack White’s label, Third Man Records, the Black Belles opened their set with “Leave You With A Letter,” the opener from their debut self-titled album.
Although the band is normally a four-piece, they are touring as a three-piece, leaving the organist back home in Nashville. Between bassist Ruby Rogers' deadpan dead-on bass riffs and Shelby Lynne’s solid drumming, there’s room for lead singer/lead guitarist Olivia Jean to do as she pleases. Her voice comes off as somewhat of a growl, so perfect for their dark and witchy lyrics. And there was something about the drummer similar to Meg White, with her black hair flowing as she beat the crap out of her set.
The Black Belles seem to be somewhat of a cross between The Cramps and Wanda Jackson, with the occasional Jack White riff thrown in the mix. Olivia Jean announced that they would play “their only Country song” as they launched into “Honky Tonk Horror,” which was not really anything close to a Country song and probably the heaviest Rock song they played. Other numbers included “In a Cage,” “Howl At The Moon,” “What Can I Do?,” “Lies,” “Wishing Well,” and “The Wrong Door.”
The only problem with their set was that The Comet didn’t move the tables out of the way so it was an extremely awkward crowd to stand in and actually be able to see the band. This resulted in people standing on chairs to get a better glimpse of the dark beauties.
When I asked the band what they’d be doing after the show, they smiled and said they would be using a Ouija Board at the Masonic Temple at which they were staying. If you missed out on seeing the Black Belles, they’ll be back in Cincinnati as one of the headliners for Midpoint Music Festival this September!
It’s been eight and a half years, four albums and an almost entirely new set of members since Heartless Bastards began performing as a new band in Cincinnati's small clubs. This time around, the Bastards came back to their breeding ground as an Austin, Tex., band and played to a packed house at Madison Theater in Covington.
For all intents and purposes, Saturday’s Heartless gig was very much a “homecoming” gig. As such, there are certain things one expects (and usually gets when the Bastards come home) — lots of heart, extra banter with the audience and, most importantly, one hell of a show. Going in with those expectations was probably a terrible idea. The concert was, at its worst, disappointing and, at its best, just OK.
Anyone who noticed the night’s schedule started off disappointed when they realized Heartless Bastards wouldn’t be on until two hours after the listed showtime. Openers Hacienda were actually amazing, just as they were when they opened for City and Colour at Bogart's a few months back. But after Hacienda rocked out, the road crew took 20 minutes to set up the stage, followed by more than 10 minutes of absolutely nothing.
Once the crowd was finally graced with the presence of the band, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom spent another five minutes testing her vocal mic. Shouldn’t that have been done in sound check? Or, at the very least, during the 10 minutes of nothingness? Even drummer Dave Colvin sat leaning forward on his drum kit, staring at Wennerstrom with what appeared to be very little amusement.
When they finally kicked into gear, the show wasn’t bad. The Bastards sounded close enough to their albums to show they are a decent band. A good portion of the crowd was made up of dancing fans who seemed unfazed by the initial delay.
The night was heavy on songs off of Arrow, the Bastards' lean, stirring new album just released Valentine's Day. Wennerstrom recently told Billboard, “I feel like this is the strongest record I’ve ever done.” And she’s right.
The live experience, however, was lacking on Friday night. Seemingly devoid of love and respect for the audience, the show was hopefully just a rare off-night from a band that usually kills it in front of their old hometown's still-very-much-dedicated fans.
Is it merely coincidence that I revisited Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music in the same week that the latest missive from Another Cultural Landslide wound up in that same CD drawer? Probably. Is it happenstance that ACL's new soundtrack for the imminent end of the world, Last Days Last Days, is coming out at a moment in human history where everything on the planet seems to be going to shit on a shovel? I wouldn't rush to that particular judgment, but there's a certain logic to the conclusion.
To be clear, there's no direct correlation between Reed's masterful mindfuck and ACL's post-Pop apocalyptic song quilt beyond a sense of unsettled exhilaration that accompanies both albums. That and the fact that both artists pre-supposed their respective works would be considered "difficult" listening experiences. The difference is in their messages? Reed was screaming "Fuck you," while ACL is calmly noting "We don't have to fuck you, you're fucked already."
Is Last Days Last Days a millennial Rock opera by Christians with a bruised faith or agnostics who have found God in the foxhole? Maybe both, maybe neither. The important thing to remember is that ACL wants you to do something productive with your free floating anxiety over the state of the world. At the same time, Last Days Last Days doesn't offer any definitive answers in that regard, it simply insists that you ask better questions. Kirk and Wendy, the brain trust behind ACL, adhere to a simple rule in the making of their music; no two songs alike. While that could result in a checkered and incoherent album in the wrong hands, ACL's laser focus on theme assures a consistent and satisfying whole.
The album begins with "Looking for Answers," its ostensible title cut, a pacesetting track that bristles with Talking Heads/Television verve and Pop/Funk bounce, not to mention a sprinkling of Tusk-like bombast and Zappaesque tomfoolery. It's very nearly a straight-ahead Rock anthem, except for the subversively swaying tempo that purposefully wobbles your gyroscope in order to maintain your attention and guide you to the song's ultimate message, contained in this lyric toward the end: "So if you want to get through tomorrow, you'd better stand up and get through today, we're just saying we're looking for answers, we don't want to give our future away."
From there, ACL tosses convention into their home recording Mixmaster and creates a chunky musical salsa that includes the operatic Disco of "Old" ("Giving up at age 32, I know 90-year-olds that are younger than you"), the stuttering Sesame Street-on-acid lesson plan of "Everybody's Got a Brain," the Laurie Anderson-on-Quaaludes cautionary tale of "Standing Nail," the tribal lounge Pop of "Next," which mixes romantic end-of-the-world lyrical cliches (sun don't rise, moon don't shine, rivers don't run) with real consequences ("Won't be dancing in the streets no more, close your blinds and you lock your door, just lay down and die, kiss your ass goodbye") and the Calypso-fired undead-limbo Rock of "A Meditation on the Impending Zombie Apocalypse," with its irresistible lyrical hook ("Drop the bomb and then we can dance"), and the evolutionary heartland Power Pop of "Monkey."
Is Last Days Last Days a perfect musical statement? Far from it. Kirk and Wendy are home recordists not music professionals. The Cincinnati expatriates crank out their amazingly fulsome productions in a spare bedroom in their Florida apartment, their composing and performing pursuits crowbarred into their busy schedules that include the day jobs, family lives and health issues that dog us all. Like all the best music, ACL's intention with Last Days Last Days overcomes the blemishes of its creation and appreciation of it as a whole will grow with every successive listen. On top of that, the duo have always given and will continue to give their music away; if you want to hear the fruits of their many labors, click here.
There is plenty of heart and head in the pure music and sonic ephemera on Last Days Last Days, but like Harry Nilsson's Oblio, the instant you perceive ACL has a point, as in the heart-rending hymnal of "Not Enough Bullets," it seemingly dissipates in a crash of guitar chords, a chorus of quacking ducks or an army of brain-starved zombies. Last Days Last Days is the sound of outsider music being made from the inside, of Art Pop being crafted with a keen sense of both art and Pop. Kirk and Wendy have collaborated on nearly a dozen albums and EPs under the banner of Another Cultural Landslide, but we can only hope that Last Days Last Days doesn't fulfill the prophecy of its title.
Listen to the album below and click on the player for a free download of it.