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.
When Maps & Atlases dropped Perch Patchwork, their 2010 debut full-length and first album for Barsuk Records, the Chicago-based quartet was just beginning to explore the intersection of their adoration of Post-Punk Math heroes like Don Caballero and their father-tilted love of ’70s Prog avatars like Jethro Tull and Mahavishnu Orchestra. M&A’s introductory EPs — 2006’s Tree, Swallows, Houses and 2008’s You and Me and the Mountain — found the band pursuing a more Folk-tinged flavor, but Perch Patchwork was an expansive yet subtle attempt to utilize the totality of the band’s creative building blocks. That exploration paid huge dividends as critics and fans alike were drawn to M&A’s lo-fi sonic constructions and hi-fi orchestral ambitions.
Maps & Atlases’ sophomore full length, Beware and Be Grateful, expands and refines the musical trail blazed on Perch Patchwork. In the album’s formative stages, the band employed a collection of secondhand battery-powered keyboards to blueprint their textural arrangements and, although the keyboard sounds were largely excised for the final recording, they were vitally important in forcing M&A to rethink their creative process.
As a result, Beware and Be Grateful doesn’t stray impossibly far from Perch Patchwork but it definitely advances the band’s flag a little further up the hill, exhibiting a forceful Math Pop sound that shimmers and shakes with an exuberant authority. The album’s opening track, “Old & Gray,” begins like Talking Heads tributing Paul Simon’s Graceland and finishes like Brian Eno producing Spoon. Similarly unexpected juxtapositions crash and meld into one another throughout the duration of Beware and Be Grateful.
Tribal choral melodies float above while the band skips and skates around a soundtrack that is equal measures of quirky Indie Rock (“Vampires”) and blippy Electro Pop (“Silver Self”). There are still plenty of remnants of the band’s organic approach to song construction but there are also many more examples of Maps & Atlases pushing themselves to think well beyond the natural box they fashioned on their earlier releases, blending their influences and experiences and evolving in fascinating new directions.
(Maps & Atlases perform July 15 at the inaugural Bunbury Music Festival along Cincinnati's riverfront.)
For the past 40 years, Bonnie Raitt has made a success out of nearly everything she’s attempted. The red-haired daughter of a Broadway icon, Raitt was an unlikely champion of honest-to-Robert-Johnson Blues, but her incendiary guitar skills and unquenchable passion for the form won the respect of some of the genre’s legends; B.B. King famously cited Raitt as the greatest slide player ever.
When commercial recognition was slow to come, Raitt plugged away in spite of it, releasing a string of really good albums in the ’70s and ’80s (and to be honest, a few head-scratchers as well) and forging ahead when others might have thrown in the towel. She had opened herself to the possibilities offered by infusing her Blues translation with a hint of Pop with 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness, but the formula truly came to fruition on 1989’s Grammy-winning, platinum-selling Nick of Time, setting a course for the top of the charts over the next decade.
Although Raitt’s hot streak cooled slightly on both sides of the new millennium, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and released a pair of excellent albums, 2002’s Silver Lining and 2005’s Souls Alike, one of the most raw, real and reflective albums in her catalog. It came at a tumultuous time for Raitt; she lost her mother in 2004 and her father the following year, leading her to largely retreat from music in order to process her grief. After further losing her brother and her best friend, Raitt returned to music with a vengeance; she did a massive tour with Taj Mahal in 2009 and she did sessions with artist/producer Joe Henry and on her own, resulting in Slipstream, one of the strongest albums in her canon and an amazing return to form.
Raitt signals that return with the one-two punch of opener “Used to Rule the World,” a slinky Jazz/Funk workout that simmers like a Dr. John gumbo, and her stellar Reggae spin on the late Gerry Rafferty’s “All Down the Line,” yet another prime example of Raitt’s incomparable ability to inhabit other songwriters’ material and make it her own (she claims just one co-writing credit on Slipstream, the funky choogle of “Down to You,” written with Randall Bramblett and George Marinelli). That ability is on full display here; Raitt’s down-and-dirty Blues take on Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles” is a marvel of interpretation, as is her atmospheric reading of “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” composed by Henry and Loudon Wainwright III. Raitt’s mastery of heartbreak songs continues with “Not Cause I Wanted To,” the flip side of her soul-wrenching take on “I Can’t Make You Love Me (penned by former Bengal Mike Reid).
Slipstream plays like a greatest hits albums of brand new songs, as Raitt reels off sterling examples of everything she does best, from slinky guitar leads and searing slide runs to heartfelt balladry and intuitive arrangements. Rolling Stone placed Raitt on their lists of 100 Greatest Guitarists and 100 Greatest Singers; Slipstream is the only supporting evidence required for that decision.
Remember the first time you saw Erika Wennerstrom sing in front of the Heartless Bastards and watched amazed as she pummeled her guitar and sang with a ferocity that made her neck veins dance like a cobra in a snake charmer’s basket? Brittany Howard approaches her role fronting Alabama Shakes with a similarly wrought intensity and to a familiar result.
Like the Bastards and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Howard and Alabama Shakes channel ’60s Blues Rock with a contemporary edge on their excellent full-length debut, Boys and Girls.
It’s not hard to play spot-the-influences with the Shakes, as the broad experience of the individual members found them looking for the commonalities between James Brown and Otis Redding and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC while working up an early set list. The mega versatile Howard finds them easily with a fluid guitar style that can be Doo Wop sock-hop one minute (“Heartbreaker,” the title track), elephant-gun recoil the next (the Joan Armatrading-steered-by-Jimi Hendrix howl of “Be Mine,” the loping groin kick of “Hold On”). Vocally, she wails with the hellhound authority of her Soul and Blues influences while pushing the needle into Rock God territory; comparisons to Janis Joplin are not the least bit out of line.
Boys and Girls would be an impressive accomplishment from a band in its middle period, but it’s made all the more amazing considering the Shakes have only been together for three years and this represents only their second release. Howard and her cohorts in Alabama Shakes have an impeccable sense of Blues Rock classicism and an exciting sense of how to give it a good rowdy slap into right now.
If Jack White is Indie Rock’s most prominent attention deficit multitasker, his Raconteurs bandmate Brendan Benson is his lesser known Indie Pop counterpart. The Detroit native’s band work with the Well Fed Boys and the Mood Elevator received good notices, but his solo output (1996’s One Mississippi, 2002’s Lapalco, 2005’s The Alternative to Love, 2009’s My Old, Familiar Friend) has garnered Benson a press kit filled with glowing reviews, a fair amount of TV/film placement, some impressive production work (The Greenhornes, Waxwings) and a devoted cult following. Benson’s success with The Raconteurs allows him the freedom to exhibit his unrestrained solo Pop id.
On What Kind of World, his fifth solo and first self-released album, Benson continues to cultivate a sonic identity that hovers in the vicinity of Jellyfish’s visceral Pop, Supergrass’ stratospherically melodic Rock, The Romantics’ irresistible dance floor Garage Pop and the Motor City’s soulful heart. The shift for Benson on What Kind of World is a refreshing lyrical honesty, inspired by his new wife and child, his new home in Nashville (and its inherent collaborators) and the awareness of advancing middle age.
Despite his marital and parental contentment, there’s still a bruised undercurrent to Benson’s observations (“Maybe she is bad for me, and I don’t care to see/Because what I want and what I need are the same for me/In the end”), but even his most caustic lyrical reflections are surrounded by a soundtrack that courses with Pop adrenaline (“Light of Day,” “Here in the Deadlights”) or aches with a sweet melancholy (“Pretty Baby,” the classic Elton John-tinged “On the Fence,” both duets with Pistol Annies’ Ashley Monroe).
Guests like Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow (Posies/Big Star) and Sam Farrar (Phantom Planet) lend considerable weight to What Kind of World, but Benson doesn’t require star power to illuminate his work; he’s got quite enough Pop wattage of his own for that purpose.
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.
Just like his famously troubled father, Justin Townes Earle has often generated as much press for his substance-fueled escapades as his musical prowess. Thankfully, that genetic predeliction has been tempered with a similarly potent gift for songcraft and creative evolution, two elements that have distinguished Earle’s catalog to date, particularly his last album, the sacred-meets-secular traditional modernism of 2010’s Harlem River Blues.
With his fifth and latest album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Earle once again expands his musical parameters and explores the wide range of music that has defined Memphis, from lushly arranged horn-and-sweat Soul (the rousing Dr. Johnesque boogie Blues of “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea”) to spartan singer/songwriter folk (the dry Country balladeering of “Won’t Be the Last Time”) to varying combinations of it all (the sorry-baby sway of the title track). On the album’s mournful opener, “Am I That Lonely Tonight,” Earle seems to address his acorn-oak issues with touches of Van Morrison and Jeff Tweedy (“Hear my father on the radio, singing, ‘Take me home again’/300 miles from the Carolina coast, I’m skin and bones again/Sometimes I wish that I could get away, sometimes I wish that he’d just call/Am I that lonely tonight, I don’t know”).
There is an air of immediacy on Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, a direct result of the whirlwind four-day, all-live/no-overdub sessions that produced the album, but that recording frenzy is perfectly counterbalanced by Earle’s laconic delivery, even on the album’s most energetic songs.
Nothing’s Gonna Change is yet another dusty jewel in Justin Towne Earle’s beautiful and slightly askew crown.