Friday, June 21, 2013

Derek Webb @ Church of the Redeemer (Concert Review)

It takes a certain nuance to be able to take a reflective look back and still maintain your forward trajectory. On a steamy Nashville summer night, Derek Webb embodied that dance perfectly as he celebrated the last show in his current tour commemorating the 10th anniversary of his debut solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free. Foregoing sheer nostalgia for a meditative "A lot changes in 10 years and a lot stays the same" attitude, Derek played through the entirety of the album and used his wise and witty between song banter to continually encourage and provoke, as well as speak fondly of the songs and songwriters that helped to craft the album. Derek reserved the lion's share of the praise for his tour mate Kenny Meeks, who originally co-produced the album with Derek and was also expertly handling electric guitar duties for this tour.

Derek kicked things off by playing the A-side of the album first - taking a moment to explain to the younger members of the audience what an A-side actually is. Even 10 years on, songs like "Nobody Loves Me," "Lover," and "Wedding Dress" rattle and resonate with so much freshness, truth, and significance that they sound as if they were just written. Derek's ability to play them with such intensity kept any stale "retrospective run-through" fears at bay as well. His booming voice was in its full roar/rasp glory and the swagger and sway of his Dylanesque "Nothing (Without You)" was my personal highlight of the side one set.

After the opening six songs, Derek took a little break for Kenny Meeks to play a few of his own songs. Kenny's rootsy, Americana guitar playing style really helped shaped the tasty tone of She Must and Shall Go Free and his own songs carry that killer vibe as well. Kenny does more within the first five frets than most guitarists can do with the entire fretboard. His twangy, tremoloed guitar playing fluidly backdropped his songs “Lonely Road,” “Unfaded,” and “We’re Gonna Rise.” In Derek’s words, he essentially “just borrowed Kenny’s sound” for She Must and Shall Go Free. So if you enjoyed the record, you’ll enjoy Kenny’s solo work as well.

Before jumping into the back half of the album, Derek asked for any requests. After the unavoidable barrage of simultaneous outbursts, Derek managed to pluck a couple of the understandable ones. “Mockingbird” and a poignant “Love Is Not Against the Law” made the cut, with the latter filling the room with an incredible atmosphere of reassurance and optimism. Derek then spoke of his upcoming album, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You, and explained how it was essentially a follow-up to She Must and Shall Go Free in trying to answer again the questions of “What is our role in the Church?” and “What is the Church’s role in our culture?” As always, those looking for clich├ęd, easy answers will be sorely disappointed. Derek’s confessional words on cynicism vs. hope were wrapped up in his self-described “protest song against myself,” “Everything Will Change.” I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You will be released September 3 and you should definitely go ahead and mark your calendars now.

Diving into the B-side of She Must and Shall Go Free, Kenny returned to join Derek in “Awake My Soul,” a song written by Derek’s uber-talented wife Sandra McCracken. Kenny’s instrumental influence was felt most between this song and the next - “Saint and Sinner” - as he weaved one slinky guitar line after the next into all of the sonic spaces. Next up was “Beloved,” which is one of those songs that simultaneously destroys me and builds me back up every time I hear it. It’s probably my favorite moment on the album and it was probably my favorite moment of the night. Really, really fantastic stuff. Derek then launched into “Crooked Deep Down” - his song about “you, me, Mother Theresa and Charles Manson” – and I swear I saw a couple folks trying to contain themselves from getting up and dancing. That is the essence of a Derek Webb show for you – incredible songs, laughs, introspection, discomfort, hope and a possible dance party. As with the album, Derek closed the show out with a musical thesis statement. As important today as ever, “The Church” is a constant reminder that it’s impossible to be “apart from” and “a part of” anything at the same time. It was quite an experience to have a ten-years-ago album hit just as hard as it did the first time, especially without feeling like you’d have to “revisit” your ten-years-ago self to make it happen. Derek carefully marked the milestone by bringing the album forward, instead of just going back to get it. The more and more these types of “album in its entirety” concerts are being performed by other artists, the more they should take their cues from Derek’s approach.

I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You will be released September 3 and you can stream the amazing title track here.

- “Nobody Loves Me”
- “She Must and Shall Go Free”
- “Take to the World”
- “Nothing (Without You)”
- “Lover”
- “Wedding Dress”

- “Lonely Road” (Kenny Meeks)
- “Unfaded” (Kenny Meeks)
- “We’re Gonna Rise” (Kenny Meeks)
- “Mockingbird” (Derek Webb)
- “Love is Not Against the Law” (Derek Webb)
- “Everything Will Change” (Derek Webb)

- “Awake My Soul”
- “Saint and Sinner”
- “Beloved”
- “Crooked Deep Down”
- “The Church”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Jack Johnson @ Third Man Records (Concert Review)

Before Jack Johnson’s last minute “saves the day” addition to Bonnaroo’s Saturday night line-up to replace an ailing Mumford and Sons, he stopped by Nashville’s Third Man Records for a super special “live show recording meets breakfast” engagement like only Third Man can pull off. While a concert set for a Saturday morning may be a recipe for disaster for most bands, Jack’s laid back, sun-soaked tunes provided the perfect soundtrack for the all-ages, family friendly audience. That’s right, the room was full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kiddos - along with their not-quite-as-bright-eyed parents - dancing and singing along to every song.

However, it wasn’t just the pre-show donuts and coffee or the pint-sized audience members that made this show extra unique. Third Man was also recording Jack and his band directly to acetate disc, an analog recording process that delivers superior sound quality by cutting directly to a master disc. Audience members could watch this process unfolding in two ways – through the large window just off the right side of the stage that looks directly into the recording lab or via a television monitor capturing a live feed of the lab. As with almost all live shows in Third Man’s Blue Room, the concert was being recorded for a vinyl release, including the exclusive black-and-blue version that was included with ticket purchases. Like I said, super special experience on all fronts.

Now, on to the actual show…

Because of the unique process of recording directly to acetate – meaning no cuts, overdubs or “fixes” – Jack and his band opened up with an unrecorded “Inaudible Melodies” to get the proper levels and sounds. This fan favorite got the crowd immediately invested, as it turned out to be the first of many sing-a-longs featured in the set. After the “all good’ signal from the lab technicians – looking very Willy Wonka-esque in their TMR-branded lab coats – Jack opened the recorded portion of the show with “Banana Pancakes” to an extremely enthusiastic response. If anyone thought the kids in attendance would only know stuff from Jack’s contributions to the Curious George soundtrack, the reaction to this bouncy track from his In Between Dreams album proved them wrong.  In fact, Jack's decision to feature a few songs from that album went over really well as songs like “Do You Remember,” “Good People,” and “Better Together” seemed to get some of the loudest background vocals from the audience. He also delighted the crowd with a few songs from his upcoming album, From Here to Now to You (releasing September 17), including “Radiate,” “As I Was Saying” and “I Got You,” which featured him swapping out his trusty acoustic for a gorgeous sounding nylon-string guitar. Appropriately enough, he also played his cover of The White Stripes’ “We’re Going To Be Friends,” endearing himself even more to the audience and playfully paying homage to the man whose room he was playing in.

After running through six songs for Side A of the vinyl, switching out the acetate disc, and running through six more songs for Side B, Jack then coolly asked the crowd if they minded if the band practiced a few more songs for that night’s Bonnaroo performance. After an approving roar from the audience, Jack and his band played through a spirited “Flake” (my personal favorite of his), a laid-back “Breakdown” (thanks to a ukulele surprisingly furnished by an audience member), and a touching “Hope” to poignantly cap the show off. Between the fantastic music, the charming child-like enthusiasm from the child-filled crowd, and all of the special little extras provided by Jack Johnson and the fine folks at Third Man, it ended up feeling like more than just a cool show, it was a one-of-a-kind experience that won’t soon be forgotten, Especially since there’s some tasty sounding (and looking) vinyl waiting to be pressed and then enjoyed for years to come.   

Set List:
- “Inaudible Melodies” (not recorded)
- “Banana Pancakes”
- “Same Girl”
- “Radiate”
- “Do You Remember”
- “I Got You”
- “Good People”
- “As I Was Saying”
- “We’re Going To Be Friends”
- “Home”
- “Mudfootball”
- “Upside Down”
- “Better Together”
- “Flake” (not recorded)
- “Breakdown” (not recorded)
- “Hope” (not recorded)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Interview with Aoife O'Donovan

(Here's my most recent article for CMT Edge.)

The old adage that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression is never truer than in the context of an artist’s inaugural album. In the case of Aoife O’Donovan’s sophisticated solo debut album, Fossils, it’s clear no second chances will be needed.
While she has already tasted success with a wide variety of collaborations, guest spots and songwriting cuts, Fossils proves the talented singer-songwriter is more than just a strong link in the chain of other artists. With the help of producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacketthe Decemberists), she has crafted her own strong collection of stirring, soulful stories and relaxed, rootsy rockers.
CMT Edge spoke with Aoife (her common Irish name is pronounced “ee-fah”) about going solo, Martine’s influence and the night she performed Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska in its entirety.
CMT Edge: First off, congratulations on Fossils being named as one of the summer’s “must-hear albums” by Rolling Stone.
O’Donovan: Yeah, I’m pretty honored that Rolling Stone picked it. It’s pretty bizarre! However, they did misspell my name. (laughs) You can’t win them all!
Between being in the bands Crooked Still and Sometymes Why and your slew of guest appearances, you’re no stranger to the recording process. This time around, though, was it a different experience recording your own album?
Absolutely. Being part of a band or being a guest artist on an album is a very different thing than making your own album. It’s knowing at the end of the day that the final decision is pretty much up to just you and the producer. It was such an incredible experience getting to go into the studio and record 10 of my original songs. I was incredibly pleased with the results.
What exactly was it that drew you to choosing Tucker Martine as producer?
I first heard Tucker’s production on Sarah Siskind’s album Covered that came out about 10 years ago. I was totally blown away by the sounds that he got and the way that her voice fit into the mix in this way that I hadn’t really heard before, especially on singer-songwriter records.
Then, a friend of mine in Nashville gave me a Laura Veirs record, and that was a game-changer for me. It was Year of Meteors, and I love that album. Again, Tucker’s production.
When I first heard Abigail Washburn’s album City of Refuge, I listened to it on repeat for three days straight. Tucker has this ability to draw a singer and the song out of where you think it’s going to go and point it into a new place.
The opening track on Fossils is “Lay My Burden Down,” a song of yours that was recorded by Alison Krauss. Can you describe the good fortune of having your song interpreted by a legend and then also getting to record your own version?
When I found out that Alison was going to record that song, I just had to pinch myself daily for a while. (laughs) I feel like for many people — and even for me — her version will be the definitive version of the song. It’s so beautiful and so plaintive, and she sings it so well.
When I decided to record it on my own album, it was kind of at Tucker’s insistence. I was thinking, “Alison already did it, and how could I ever top that?” He said, “We’re not going to try and top it. We’re just going to fit it into this record.” It’s a song that means a lot to me, and so we found a little bit of a different angle for our version of the tune. I think we took it into a little bit more of a happier place. Plus, that baritone electric guitar solo is one of my favorite moments on the album.
You’ve been a guest on albums by Noam Pikelny and Sara Watkins, as well as The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Stuart DuncanEdgar MeyerYo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile. How does it feel to be on the other end and have folks like Dave Douglas and Sam Amidon guesting on your album?
It feels like it makes total sense. (laughs) I got to make a record with Dave Douglas last year, and it just seems so fitting that he would get to contribute his beautiful horn playing on “Thursday’s Child.”
Sam Amidon is a really old friend of mine. I’ve known him for over a decade, but we’ve never really worked together formally. He happened to randomly be in Portland at the time we were recording, and I thought, “We should get Sam in here to sing on ‘Briar Rose.’” It was really last minute, and I love those little things that really make an album special.
I first came in contact with your solo work a couple of years ago when you covered Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album during one of your Monday night residency shows at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. As it’s one of my all-time favorite albums, I’m curious what impactNebraska had on you and how you came about choosing to cover it in its entirety?
I never went through a Bruce Springsteen phase, but I did grow up listening to a lot of folk music. Somewhere down the line, I got a copy of Nebraska and sat down and listened to it all the way through and really took in the lyrics. I was like, “This is it.” The character-driven song is hard to do well, but Bruce Springsteen is the ultimate at it.
I decided to cover the whole record when I was doing the residency, and I was thinking of things to do that would be cool. I learned all the songs on guitar and did the album from start to finish in jeans and a white T-shirt while drinking a Budweiser. It was a really fun night!