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by Jeff Roberson 04.26.2012
Posted In: Festivals, Live Music, Reviews at 11:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Merle Fest 2012: Getting Psyched

(Editor's Note: CityBeat's annual coverage of music festivals around the country started off its 2012 campaign with Emily Maxwell's write-ups from South By Southwest in Austin in March. But our coverage picks up in earnest — ahead of the barrage of late spring/summer fests — with this week's dispatches from North Carolina's MerleFest. Local musician Jeff Roberson will be filing reports and uploading photo galleries from the event all weekend. The fest kicks off tonight and below is Jeff's first report from the field. Get a look at the MerleFest lineup and more here.)

Weds April 25: Super 8 Motel, Hillsville, Va.

Welcome to the 25th MerleFest. Well, not yet, as I'm holed up in a motel in Hillsville, Va. thrilin' and chillin' to Vin Diesel and The Rock tearing up Brazil. I will arrive at Merle Fest tomorrow morning. As a preface, I thought I'd drop some MerleFest facts on you all. In the biz, this is known as regurgitating the press release. Well, not really, it's letting the PR folks do your work for you, and what the hell is wrong with that? Nothing, that's what.

MerleFest is a music and mountain heritage festival dedicated to the memory of Eddy Merle Watson, the late son and musical partner of legendary guitarist Doc Watson. Located in the foothills of the Blueridge Mountains in Wilkesboro, NC, on the campus of Wilkes Community College just down US 421 where, in 1866, ol' Tom Dula (in western NC parlance, that's pronounce "doolee") killed his fiancé Laura Foster (yep, as you can see, already ankle deep in old timey mountain mojo).

The festival features more then 90 acts of mountain, Bluegrass, Cajun, various forms of acoustic Blues, the occasional Alternative Country, all kinds of synthesis of the aforementioned musical styes, and, for some reason, last year, a washed-up Arena Rock act more suited to A Taste of Blue Ash — aka The Doobie Brothers. Go figure. There are also local non-profits selling food, dozens of vendors selling everything from Red Dirt T-Shirts to hippy garb and the Heritage Tent where accomplished crafts people demonstrate and sell pottery, carved bowls, musical instruments, hand tooled leather goods and split oak baskets.

Over the next four days, I'll be telling you about the music, people and crafts — the people playing, attending and exhibiting at MerleFest. I won't be paying much attention to the big nighttime acts. They don't particularly interest me. I'll be writing about the lesser known, regional acts like Blind Boy Chocolate, old timers like Roy Bookbinder and other bands I stumble across as well as my favorite 2011 Merle Fest experience — participating in a workshop on the Sacred Harp-style of congregation singing.

Did I mention it's alcohol and tobacco free? That's a bug and a feature.
 
 
by Brian Baker 04.25.2012
Posted In: Reviews, Music Video at 12:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Alabama Shakes' 'Boys and Girls'

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.


 
 
by Brian Baker 04.24.2012
Posted In: Reviews at 03:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Brendan Benson's 'What Kind of World'

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.


 
 
by Brian Baker 04.18.2012
Posted In: Music Video, Reviews at 02:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: M. Ward's 'A Wasteland Companion'

It’s been an eventful three years since Matthew "M." Ward last gave free rein to his solo muse on 2009’s much heralded Hold Time. Ward, doing a brisk Indie Rock business under his first initial and last name, has been almost psychopathically busy in the interim, from recording and touring with Connor Oberst, Jim James and Mike Mogis under their Monsters of Folk banner and performing similar duties with Zooey Deschanel in their cliquey-cool guy/girl duo, aptly christened She & Him.

Given those high profile distractions, it’s amazing Ward found time to follow up the best album in his estimable catalog.


On his eighth full length album, A Wasteland Companion, Ward was definitely influenced by the tremendous amount of traveling that devoured his recent schedule, forcing him to consider the literal and figurative things he would either keep or jettison in the process. As a result, Ward simplified his approach in writing and recording without sacrificing the qualities that have made him cultishly appealing for the past dozen or so years.


“Sweetheart” shimmers like a lost George Harrison/Brian Wilson Surf samba and “Me and My Shadow” is a Folk ode-meets-lo fi Garage Rock rave-up (both featuring Deschanel on accompanying vocals), while “I Get Ideas” has the energetic swing of a collaboration between Brian Setzer and Jimbo Mathus. The title track has the expressive nod of front porch Delta Blues and “Watch the Show” takes a sonic cue from Tom Waits and Robbie Robertson as Ward spits out an indictment on television from one of its faceless proles.


Ward’s noirish spin on Rockabilly, Pop, Blues and Folk on A Wasteland Companion is haunting, compelling and perfectly in keeping with his quirkily brilliant body of work.


Stream the full album
here.


 
 
by Brian Baker 04.06.2012
Posted In: New Releases, Reviews at 02:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Joan Osborne - 'Bring It On Home'

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.


 
 
by Mike Breen 04.04.2012
Posted In: Reviews at 09:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Justin Townes Earle

'Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now'

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.


 
 
by Deirdre Kaye 04.02.2012
Posted In: Live Music, Reviews at 09:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)
 
 
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Review: Alison Krauss at Taft Theatre

Some musicians get jaded and cynical when they become mostly known for only a handful of songs that aren’t even necessarily the best examples of their work. When this happens, bands sometimes fall entirely on their most popular songs and use them as a crutch. Or they shy away from playing them at all. 

Alison Krauss and Union Station may have earned their biggest media coverage and added the most fans when they were featured on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, but they’ve released far more music than just that handful of songs.

After being in the music business for over 20 years, the gang know how best to handle appealing to their most faithful fans as well as their soundtrack buddies. At the Taft Theatre March 31, the ensemble played the best songs from its newest album, Paper Airplane, and quite a few older favorites. Because so many members of Union Station have careers outside the band, the night also featured a few solo performances. Alison sang “Let Me Touch You for Awhile” and Dan Tyminski played the “singing voice of George Clooney” when he revived “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  Dobro legend Jerry Douglas even played a little bit of Paul Simon – a sneak peek at his forthcoming album, perhaps?

The group also had to appease concert goers who may only know Alison and the boys from the O Brother songs or her duet with Brad Paisley. They did this with an encore full of those well-known hits. Included in that mix were two verses of “Down to the River to Pray” and the last verse of “Whiskey Lullaby” (with just Krauss backed up by her bassist). All of those songs, by the way, were played with instruments unplugged as the members leaned in around one vintage microphone.

The night was enjoyable for fans on any part of the dedication spectrum. The band members teased each other and had fun together on the stage and their smiles were, as cliché as it sounds, contagious. The music Saturday night couldn’t have sounded any better if you were listening to the group's albums through a sweet-assed Bose system. They performed flawlessly.

 
 
by Brian Baker 03.30.2012
Posted In: Reviews, New Releases at 12:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Margot and the Nuclear So & So's - 'Rot Gut, Domestic'

Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s frontman Richard Edwards may be the most tenacious man in rock. In 2009, the band’s Indianapolis home base was heavily damaged by fire, they were dropped by Epic after the controversy over Animal/Not Animal and the majority of the band quit.

That would have been the end of Margot for most guys, but Edwards resurrected his outfit with bassist Tyler Watkins and multi-instrumentalist Erik Kang and, with an impressive guest list, assembled and self-released 2010’s spectacular Buzzard, a clattering bit of Indie Rock brilliance that diverged from Margot’s early Chamber Pop explorations.

Last year, Edwards and a completely reconstituted MATNSAS generated their recording budget through the Pledge Music website and began tracking their fourth album, the noisily majestic Rot Gut, Domestic.

Much like Buzzard, Rot Gut seems more shambolic and scattered than it really is; like a pointilist painting, it pays to stand back in order to appreciate the work. On Rot Gut, Edwards and MATNSAS have crafted an amazing amalgam of Wilco’s artful squall (“Disease and Tobacco Free,” “Fisher of Men”) and Ryan Adams’ buzzy indie evocation of ’70s Rock (“Books About Trains,” “Arvydas Sabonis,” “Ludlow Junk Hustle”) while simultaneously managing to reference the atmospheric Pop that marked their first two albums. After 10 tracks of that, MATNSAS finish up with an amazing one-two punch; the dissonant and fuzzed out “The Devil” is followed, logically enough, by the exquisite balladry of “Christ,” a Randy Newman-meets-Paul Westerberg piano-and-ethereal-frippery hymn (“Jesus breaks your heart every night when He doesn’t come”).

The scariest thing about Rot Gut, Domestic is that Richard Edwards and Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s might have an even better album than this minor masterpiece in them.


 
 
by Brian Baker 03.29.2012
Posted In: New Releases, Reviews at 03:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Paul Weller - 'Sonik Kicks'

Paul Weller has traveled a fascinating trend-bucking career arc since his debut with The Jam during Punk’s heyday in the late ’70s. When every other band was pursuing a gobsmacked, adrenaline-soaked and barely coherent version of Rock, Weller and The Jam were turning out their highly stylized spin on The Who’s Mod period.

When The Jam’s influence turned out pale imitators, Weller moved on to Style Council, a loungey R&B/Pop outfit that inspired a whole genre of similarly subdued purveyors. Weller’s subsequent solo career has been a pastiche of Brit Folk flavored Baroque Rock flecked with bits of the sonic personae that he’s championed over the past three decades, from the brilliant Traffic/Small Faces direction of his solo debut, 1992’s Wild Wood, to the Soul reflection of 2002’s Illumination to the edgy Punk Pop buzz of 2005’s As Is Now.

It seems hard to imagine but Weller is on a hot streak at the back end of a 35-year career; 2008’s 22 Dreams was on a fair number of critics’ year-end lists and 2010’s Wake Up the Nation was nominated for Britian’s Mercury Music Prize. To his credit, Weller’s approach to a new album resembles the first rule of Italian driving — what’s behind you doesn’t matter anymore.

So it is with his latest set, the diverse and energetic Sonik Kicks. The album lurches to life with the insistent and atmospheric “Green,” a squalling, blipping gene splice of The Buzzcocks and Muse, which leads into the tropical Pop bounce of “The Attic” and Weller’s Pop/Punk homage to Kurt Weill, the noisily melodic “Kling I Klang.” Weller returns to his acoustic direction on the gentle (and gently orchestrated) “By the Waters,” which he follows with “That Dangerous Age,” a track that Peter Gabriel would be amazed to find had nothing to do with him, and the six-and-a-half minute smoky Pop/Soul workout of “Study in Blue,” which deftly blends a lot of what has come before it.

Given the amazing breadth of Weller’s creative palette, perhaps his consistent versatility shouldn’t be such a surprise, but the incredible range and vitality of Sonik Kicks has the snap and spirit of an artist in the middle of his career, not nearing its 40th anniversary.

 
 
by Brian Baker 03.28.2012
Posted In: Music Video, Reviews at 01:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: The Mars Volta - 'Noctourniquet'

From the moment Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala left At the Drive-In to form The Mars Volta over a decade ago, the duo and their co-conspirators have made a conscious effort to challenge even their staunchest fans and completely confound their easily befuddled critics.

Finding their general direction somewhere in the floating nexus of Neo Prog, Metal, Math Rock, Fusion, Psychedelia, Electronica, Space Rock and Latin American music, The Mars Volta has applied their dizzyingly complex genre formula to straightforward album structures, song cycles and full blown concept albums with a constant eye towards disrupting music’s status quo, whatever that happens to be at any given moment.

The Mars Volta’s sixth full length, Noctourniquet, comes after a somewhat fractious period in the band’s history. Rodriguez-Lopez reportedly finished the music three years ago and argued with Bixler-Zavala about the time he was taking on lyrics and vocals; Rodriguez-Lopez eventually concentrated on his solo work as an alternative.

Noctourniquet finds The Mars Volta pursuing a sound they’ve characterized as Future Punk, a simplified (for them, anyway) version of their standard musical calculus. “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” is nearly a gorgeous Pop ballad with Pearl Jam’s heart and Metallica’s verve, while the album’s first single, “The Malkin Jewel” (listen below), has the reeling barroom swagger of Nick Cave covering Kurt Weill. Like 2009’s Octahedron, Noctourniquet offers moments of relative reflection (“Lapochka,” “Trinkets Pale of Moon”), serious intent (“In Absentia”), head spinning polyrhythms (“Molochwalker”) and blistering intensity (“Zed and Two Naughts”).

If Nocturniquet represents any kind of compromise for the Mars Volta, it has clearly been accomplished on their own singular terms.



 
 

 

 

 
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