Tuesday, September 24, 2013

AmericanaFest 2013 Day #3 & #4: Amanda Shires, Joy Kills Sorrow, and More

(This article was originally published on CMT Edge.)

This year’s Americana Music Festival certainly ended on a high (and lonesome) note in Nashville with two diverse, yet equally illustrative, showcases on Friday and Saturday (Sept. 20-21).
While the Station Inn served up a healthy helping of traditional bluegrass and folk tunes, the Basement highlighted artists dabbling in some of the more nontraditional branches of the musical melting pot called Americana.
On the closing night of the festival, Amanda Shires captivated the wall-to-wall Basement crowd with her unassumingly angelic voice and her gently strummed tenor guitar. Backed by a stand-up bass and drums, Shires’ wistful and contemplative songs tenderly floated through the room without clang or clamor. The deceptive effortlessness with which she played and sang belies the layered intricacies of her melodies and the emotional depth in her lyrics. In other words, she made it look easy.
For her too-short set, Shires mostly stuck with songs from her recently releasedDown Fell the Doves album. The soaring chorus of “The Drop and Lift,” the cha-cha slink of “Wasted and Rollin’” and the groovy sashay of “Bulletproof” proved to be crowd favorites.
A highlight from the Down Fell the Doves portion of her set was the imaginative “A Song for Leonard Cohen,” while my overall favorite moment of the night came when she pulled out “When You Need a Train It Never Comes” from 2011’s Carrying Lightning. She also invited Rod Picott to join her on guitar for the whistle-led “Swimmer” and “Shake the Walls,” adding her fiery fiddle skills to the latter.
The Basement’s Saturday night showcase also featured an eclectic group of artists surrounding Shires. With a banshee wail in his gut and a box of harmonicas at his feet, Parker Millsap wowed with his Springsteen-inspired “Disappear” and a heartbreaking ballad titled “Villain.” Millsap toured with Old Crow Medicine Show this summer, and his new album is tentatively scheduled for an early 2014 release.
Psychedelic garage-folk duo Hymn for Her ignited the crowd with their unique cigar-box electric guitar, kick drum, hi-hat and acoustic guitar combination. After opening with a frenzied new song (“The Road Song”) and a couple of songs from this year’s Lucy and Wayne’s Smokin’ Flames, they proclaimed, “All right. Enough death metal” and played a laid-back ukulele number called “November.” They finished their set with an ominous cover of Bob Dylan’s 1964 murder ballad “Ballad of Hollis Brown” that escalated into a howling, distorted bullet-mic masterpiece.
Tim Easton took his Sun Studio-flavored, ‘50s rock sound, added a fiddle and whipped up a top-notch band for his performance. Songs like “Troubled Times,” “Tired and Hungry” and “Little Doggie (1962)” chugged along with an incredible vintage rock romp, and his closing acoustic guitar/fiddle number “On My Way” showed an impressive versatility to his catalog.
Garage-rock blues quartet the Del-Lords ended Saturday night with a bang, causing the post-midnight crowd to erupt into dancing and singing. Starting in the early 1980s and releasing their most recent album Elvis Club earlier this year, the Del-Lords have quite a catalog to pull from. Songs like “I’m Gonna Be Around” and “Cheyenne” seemed to be immediate party starters for the late night crowd.
By contrast, Friday night’s festivities at Nashville’s famed Station Inn played a bit more to the traditional side of Americana. With no drums and barely an electric guitar in sight, one of the bluegrass community’s most renowned listening rooms proved to be the perfect stage to host the evening’s mandolin, banjo and fiddle-fueled acts.
Indie-folk quintet Joy Kills Sorrow represented the ever-growing youth movement in bluegrass with their frenetic musicality and whimsical songs like “Get Along.” Having seen them twice throughout the festival, I can safely say that this band has that extra something special that warrants the buzz that surrounds them.
The Claire Lynch Band delivered heartfelt tunes like “White Train” and their Civil War ballad “Dear Sister.” However, it was their closing medley of instrumentals that may have contained some of the most olden elements of Americana with its promised “Appalachian clogging, hambone and claw hammer banjo.”
Pennsylvania trio the Stray Birds continued the multi-instrumentalist, multi-vocal tour de force and paid homage to those who came before them with covers ofJimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 7” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” as well their own touching tribute to the Stanley Brothers, “My Brother’s Hill.”
Sister quartet SHEL brought a vibrant energy to the room with their ethereal vocals and Celtic-infused instrumentation. “Lost at Sea” and “Freckles” drew loud appreciation from the crowd, but it was their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” that elicited the greatest response.
With such an array of divergent styles presented in these two showcases, as well as throughout the rest of the festival, it’s really beautiful and inspiring to see how many seats are available at the Americana table.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

AmericanaFest 2013 Day #2: Billy Bragg, Rosanne Cash, Richard Thompson and More

(This article was originally published onCMT Edge.)
There’s a bit of a terminology struggle when it comes to pinpointing exactly what makes Americana music what it is. Anyone seeking eclectic examples of this discussion had to look no further than the beautiful musical mosaic of Thursday night’s (Sept. 19) Americana Festival showcase at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville.
There was a palpable anticipatory energy for the evening’s first artist, the illustriousRosanne Cash. Her next album, The River & the Thread, will be released early next year, and she surprised the enthusiastic crowd by performing the album in its entirety. While many of the songs were being played live for the very first time, Cash and her band (led by husband/collaborator/guitarist John Leventhal) sounded as if they had been touring behind these songs for years.
She described the album as being full of songs about the South, and each one sounded like it had been pulled straight from the fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta. The twangy Telecaster guitar of “A Feather’s Not a Bird” and “Money Road” and the commanding drums of “Modern Blue” and “World of Strange Design” combined to create a rootsy tapestry over her set, while the cinematic lullaby of “Night School” revealed there will be some unique moments sprinkled into the album, as well.
As a special guest, Cash invited Cory Chisel up to sing “50,000 Watts” and “When the Master Calls the Roll,” a beautifully fingerpicked Civil War ballad. After performing songs from the new album, she closed with a spirited run through “Seven Year Ache,” her No. 1 country hit from 1981.
Next up was legendary British folk-punk activist and human quote machine Billy Bragg. He introduced his opening number by remarking, “Let’s see if we can put some Woody Guthrie into the place” and launched into “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” from his first Mermaid Avenue collaboration album with Wilco. He also played through a variety of songs from this year’s Tooth & Nail, such as “Handyman Blues,” “Chasing Rainbows,” “Swallow My Pride,” “Goodbye, Goodbye” and “No One Knows Nothing No More,” dedicating it to “major label record companies.”
As Bragg dismissed his band for one song, he invited Cash back to the stage, and they sang a gorgeous cover of her father Johnny Cash’s 1958 hit, “I Still Miss Someone.” This moment combined so many things that I truly love about music, and it’s amazing how the Americana Festival showcases can create such one-of-a-kind moments like this.
Ever the salty English gentleman, Bragg sipped from a cup of tea throughout the night, and his non-musical moments were as memorable as his songs. He tongue-in-cheekily stated that “the Brits invented Americana” via Lonnie Donegan and skiffle and defined Americana as “country music for people who like the Smiths.” His hilarious between-song banter name-checked MorrisseyJohnny MarrKenny Rogers, Fidel Castro and Karl Marx. He even playfully retorted to an audience member’s request that they would also need to shout out “the key, the chords and the lyrics, as well.”
Richard Thompson followed with a blistering display of guitar mastery and lyrical finesse. With just his guitar and his voice, Thompson led the crowd through an emotional set of melancholy tunes and dynamic musicianship. Many of the songs came from his most recent Electric album, with a few gems from his back catalog thrown in for good measure. As he did on Electric, Thompson invited Siobhan Kennedy to add her angelic background vocals on a few of his “sad, miserable ones.”
Thompson’s jaw-dropping guitar skills were most bewitchingly brandished on songs like “Valerie” and “Persuasion,” but it was a fan favorite — “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” — that really whipped the crowd into an appreciative frenzy. Thompson has a combination of talents like few others.
To close the night, the Wood Brothers and Steep Canyon Rangers turned in impressive sets. The Wood Brothers played songs from their album The Muse, coming out Oct. 1, and their funky, jazzy, multi-genre mixture is certainly worth checking out.
Meanwhile, Steep Canyon Rangers’ new album Tell The Ones I Love debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass albums chart this week. These Dapper Dans had everyone dancing along to their dramatic bluegrass prowess, and their closing number can be described as nothing short of a fiddle apocalypse.

Friday, September 20, 2013

AmericanaFest 2013 Day #1: The Lone Bellow, Ed Helms,

(This article was originally published on CMT Edge.)
As the Americana Music Festival rolled into Nashville for another year, its opening night of showcases did not disappoint. A stellar roster of artists played in venues all around town Wednesday night (Sept. 18) as music lovers flocked to see the talented acts and surprises that Mercy Lounge, Cannery Ballroom and the High Watt had to offer.
Leading the evening, “Brooklyn country music” darlings the Lone Bellow kicked things off in style to an eager, packed-out Mercy Lounge. The trio is known for powerhouse vocals, and they were certainly in fine form throughout their performance. It was awesome to hear so many conversations halt and see so many heads turn as soon as the band started singing.
Backed by a standup bass and drums, the Lone Bellow effortlessly swapped off instruments and impressively belted out their signature, emotionally rich songs for a solid set. The pulsing thump of “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” and the one-mic intimacy of “Two Sides of Lonely” seemed to garner the biggest audience response.
While frontman Zach Williams handles the majority of the lead vocal duties, he had no problem stepping aside to let bandmates Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist take the spotlight on “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” and “Watch Over Us,” respectively. Being able to deliver the vocal intensity of punk singers while maintaining Eagles-esque harmonies makes the Lone Bellow a must-see in concert.
Nashville’s own Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors brought their folk-rock flavor to the High Watt, and the hometown audience received them with open arms. Of course, playing their geographical love letter “Tennessee” as their first song probably didn’t hurt those chances. Musically, they blend folksy acoustic strumming with swampy electric lines to form a Southern Springsteen sound that is propelled by the power of the rhythm section and just the right amount of tasty harmonica.
Their strengths showed the strongest on the bar-band slink of “Nothing but Trouble” and the slow-burn build of the explosive “A Place to Lay My Head.” While the crowd seemed sporadically familiar with the songs off of their most recent release Good Light, it was “Fire and Dynamite” from 2011’s Chasing Someday that immediately turned into an all-out sing-along.
Closing the night with a non-stop musical party like none other was the Midnight Windup put on by the Bluegrass Situation. This fun-filled, all-night jam session was hosted by actor-musician Ed Helms and featured a revolving cast of phenomenal guests including Larry CampbellJerry Douglasthe Infamous StringdustersJim LauderdaleAoife O’Donovan and more. Also sprinkled throughout the star-studded performances were solo sets from the Milk Carton KidsJoy Kills SorrowSteep Canyon RangersDella Mae and Black Prairie.
The fast-paced, loose-knit atmosphere was driven by the incredible amount of talent on the stage and by the unspoken language of musicians that is conveyed through mere head nods, eye contact and the act of stepping forward to solo and stepping back to let someone else take a turn. It was really something special to witness.
Some of the more memorable performances were Brian Wright and Aoife O’Donovan dueting on a tender cover of John Prine’s “Clay Pigeons,” Della Mae’s “Polk County” (featuring six consecutive fiddle solos by three spirited players) and Ed Helms joining Black Prairie for “How Mountain Girls Can Love” during an unforgettable night of music that went on well into the wee hours of the morning.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Interview with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket


In the heyday of 90’s alternative music, Toad the Wet Sprocket was always a bit of an enchanting outlier for me. Foregoing the detuned guitars, sludgy riffs, and head-scratching lyrics of the majority of their musical counterparts, Toad the Wet Sprocket relied heavily on poetic imagery, chiming guitars and Glen Phillips’ crystal clear croon. The first time I saw their video for “All I Want” on MTV, I immediately asked my dad to take me to Blockbuster Music to pick up their CD, Fear. I still remember popping the CD in when I got home, hearing the opening track (“Walk on the Ocean”) and wondering why that song wasn’t on the radio yet. I got Fear just a month or two before I graduated from sixth grade and I used those last few weeks to feverishly memorize the lyrics and attempt to make everyone think I was wise beyond my years and ready for high school.

Fast forward a few years, a few grades and a few more albums and right before the summer between my junior and senior year, Toad released Coil. The album seemed a little heavier – both musically and emotionally - than their previous work and I was along for the ride. It seemed that each time around, they matched my ever-changing world with changes of their own. However, almost exactly a year after the release of Coil (I remember the specifics of both timeframes because of them being around the beginning of summer), I heard on the radio that Toad had officially broken up. To me, it was a humorously ironic (and slightly poignant) thought to realize that one of the bands that had faithfully ushered me through my middle school and high school years went splitsville just a month after I had graduated.

Needless to say, I was one of the many fans who was just a tad excited when it was first announced a couple of years ago that the guys were recording new music. It’s been 16 years since the release of Coil and their new album New Constellation has turned out to be a beautiful addition to their catalog. To help mark this new chapter in their career, Toad has released Something Old, Something New here on NoiseTrade. This exclusive EP features two songs from the new album, “New Constellation” and “California Wasted,” as well as three re-recorded classics: “All I Want,” “Fall Down,” and “Crazy Life.”

To coincide with the release of New Constellation and the Something Old, Something New EP, I talked with Glen Phillips about where the band is now, what inspired them to get back in the studio, and what it meant to them to hit their Kickstarter marketing goal the same day they put it up.


NoiseTrade: While there have been sporadic Toad the Wet Sprocket appearances here and there since the official breakup in 1998, your fans have been fervently waiting for the full-on “we’re putting the band back together” moment. What were some of the main sparks that finally ignited this year’s return to the studio for New Constellation?
Glen Phillips: There were a few milestones. A big one was when I wrecked my left arm falling through a glass table. The ulnar nerve was severed, so I was unable to play a lot of my old parts. It was humbling for me, and the rest of the band had to come together to cover for me. I think it was a great opportunity for all of us to be a little more grateful and show up for each other. We also did a greatest hits re-record album, and that broke the ice in the studio. At some point it just got to where nobody was interested in having the same old fights, and everyone was interested in making things work. Also, as much as we like the old songs, it was frustrating to be locked into a catalog that was fifteen years old. We were dying to play new material. So, it's been good. Nobody's taking it for granted this time around.

NT: As a songwriter, you’ve continually put out new music as a solo artist and with Mutual Admiration Society/Works Progress Administration and Plover. What was it that made this new batch of songs feel specifically like Toad songs?
Glen: Some of my songs were written specifically for the band - two electric guitars, three part harmony and countermelodies, drum grooves. I'm usually writing songs that I'll be able to play solo acoustic easily, so it was great to throw that out the window and write for Toad. The Todd and Dean songs are the other big part of the band. Todd has such a particular tone and melodic sensibility, and just having him play guitar makes things sound like Toad.

NT: The last Toad studio album Coil was released back in the summer of 1997. Were there any changes in the studio atmosphere between then and now or did it feel like things picked right back up where they left off?
Glen: We were able to take a lot more time in the studio for this record. Everything was still on tape when we did Coil, so there wasn't quite as much freedom to experiment. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. As far as the personalities, we have our ups and downs like anybody, but when we get in the studio we're all pretty serious about getting down to work.

NT: Playing out as really nice exception to the rule, Toad still maintains the same four members that recorded the band’s 1986 debut Bread & Circus. Apart from genuine friendship and mutual respect, to what do you attribute this cohesion and longevity?
Glen: I don't know, really. We definitely needed to get some experience outside of the band to appreciate how lucky we were. We're about as different as four people can be, but I think over time we've learned how to appreciate the differences instead of fighting over them.

NT: Your initial Kickstarter goal of $50,000 was hit within the same day it posted (ending up at over $260,000 pledged overall). What does that kind of fan response mean to the band? 
Glen: It means the world to us. We were floored that so many people were willing to have faith that we could make a record that would be worthy of their support. It was great to see that, for them, after all this time, our music still meant something.

NT: Between Toad and your solo work, you’ve had years of major label experience. What has been the most refreshing and the most hectic parts of doing things independently on Toad’s own Abe’s Records? 
Glen: The most hectic thing has been getting everything manufactured. None of us has done anything like this before. We have a great new team, but this is our first time both working together and doing a Kickstarter campaign, so we're having to learn quite a lot and at great speed. Once all the packages get out the door we'll all need to go off in the woods and play paintball. Or go to a spa. Or both.

NT: Finally, you recorded the closing lyrics of your 1991 hit “Walk on the Ocean” - “Don’t even have pictures, just memories to hold, grows sweeter each season as we slowly grow old” - at just 20 years old. When you sing the line now, has it transformed into having any different significance or do the initial seeds of that song still resonate the same for you? 
Glen: I still just want to know what the chorus of that song means. If you find out, please tell me. It's an odd line - it's pretty nostalgic. I want my best days and best work to be in front of me, regardless if the greater world takes notice. My job is to try to be a good friend, try to make good art, and not waste too much time looking backwards.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Webbtrospective #7: Ctrl - Derek Webb

(To celebrate the release of Derek Webb's new album, I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You on September 3, I'm doing an album-by-album recollection I'm calling the Webbtrospective. Back In February, I sat down with Derek to discuss each one of his albums through his own reflections. Instead of interview questions, I simply gave him some prompts and just let him go. Every word of this article is his own. I'll be posting a new album each day until the release of his new album, so stay tuned.)

Ctrl (2012)

Word Association: ...unlike all the rest.

Thoughts: Ctrl is like a soundtrack to a fictional narrative. I thought it sounded like a completely fascinating way to make an album. I gave myself the parameters of a story that I had to tell through that narrative. I wanted to pull you through that story with songs based on a character that was not me. It’s about a complicated subject matter and it’s told in a complex way. So it’s not a very accessible album. It’s an abstract, dense, cumbersome piece of work (laughs). 

Inspirations/Influences: I wrote a story about culture’s tenuous relationship with technology; a metaphor for that idea. The way that everybody is staring into little screens and no one looks at each other or their children or anything anymore. This has become our worldview. Make no mistake, this is the thing by which we are looking at the world. We demonstrate all the symptoms of addiction with our technology. We can’t put it down and we’re not really counting the costs of the way we’re using technology right now.

This is kind of a moment where I think there’s still time for us to put guardrails around the technology and have places in our lives where technology isn’t allowed. That just seemed really important to me as a confessed technology addict.

Josh and I had been touring Stockholm Syndrome and we had both gotten fascinated with this idea of the singularity. We were staying up all night watching videos and reading Ray Kurzweil. These ideas and technological prophecies of what could happen on the other side of this moment that arguable really will happen when computer processors get to a certain level of speed and power that they will be capable of things that we’ve really never imagined. People will say that’s mumbo jumbo, but the iPhone would’ve sounded like something out of Star Trek before it came out. Everything sounds crazy until it doesn’t sound crazy because it’s become part of your everyday life. And it happens overnight.

Production Notes: Ctrl is easily my most ambitious album. It took me two years to conceptualize it and record it. It involved an ancillary album that tells part of the story as a second thing. It was a huge undertaking and completely indulgent. It was exactly what I wanted to make and it came out exactly the way I had hoped it would. Although, it’s easily my least commercial release (laughs).

It’s almost a testament to the subject matter itself that it requires such a commitment to engage with it. There’s just a little, tiny door on the front of that thing and very few people are going to squeeze through it. It’s not a record that will allow you to enjoy it or understand it unless you go all the way with it and give yourself completely to it. There’s so little attention currency available and there’s such a high premium on it.   

I learned more making Ctrl than with anything else I’ve ever done. I pushed through boundaries that had existed for me for 20 years as a creative person. The amount of songs I had to write, the limited time in which I had to write and record them all, the way they all had to interact with each other; it was such a hard thing to make. Which is part of why I wanted to make it. It was the most challenging and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done creatively.

Every record I will make going forward will benefit from my having made Ctrl.

I worked with Josh again and early on I started writing the short story, constructing it as a narrative. I knew it was going to be three acts and wanted to keep simplifying the story where I could tell it without every individual song having the burden of communicating complex plot points. I needed the songs to be about moments of emotion. It was a real jigsaw puzzle. And then there’s Sola-Mi (laughs). It took everything I knew and everything I had learned up until that point to do all that. 

So Josh and I got to talking and decided we wanted to make a piece of art about it. We wanted to make an electronic rock opera about the singularity. Then we decided we wanted to make two records. One is about the first machine waking up and the other is about people and how they’re interacting with it and using it to get what they’ve always wanted, which ultimately destroys them. We dreamt it all up and went and made it. 

Mixtape: “I Feel Everything” is a good thesis. It says so much about why that record is important. It’s the character’s last clear moment before death after he’s gotten everything he thought he wanted.

As an additional bonus, here's a NoiseTrade exclusive - the complete, all acoustic version of Ctrl:

A variety of cool pre-order packages for I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You (including immediate digital download) are available HERE.