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Fred Eaglesmith, Live at the Little Fox

February 6th, 2009

One of the reasons I like live shows so much is you get a true sense of the artist.  You hear the real musician, not what an engineer or producer decides you should hear.  You also get to see their real talent.  Take Emmylou Harris, for example.  Unbelievably, that crystal clear, mesmerizing, audible perfection of a voice is hers.  It’s not the result of electronics, it’s the real deal, and you respect her even more when you hear it live.  But that’s not to say it’s the best persona for every song.  For instance, I just can’t imagine her singing “you’re spooking the horses, and you’re scaring me.”  That brings me around to Fred Eaglesmith .

He and his band played the Little Fox Theatre just south of San Francisco.  Fred’s voice, which has that whiskey drinker roughage on his recordings is, umm, a little coarser live.  Like gravel rolling around in a cement mixer.  But that voice, well, when he sings about a woman “Spookin’ the Horses”, it carries that edge of fear that communicates what it’s like to be out of control in a situation.  Same thing for “I Like Trains” or “49 Tons”.  There’s an authenticity to the story that comes from a voice that sounds like it really lived the tales he’s telling.  Bona fide, a buddy of mine would call it.

Another highlight of the show was when he brought out his 1931 National Steel Guitar.  Along with Mattie Simpson on 4-string banjo that certainly looked like it was built about the same time, Fred and the band created the sense of an era.  Singing about Hank Williams on “Alcohol and Pills”, it was like an audio version of one of those old news reels they used to show many, many, many years ago before the movie in a theater.

Add all of that to Fred’s finely honed story-telling skills and serrated-knife political commentary and I left the show knowing I’d had a real experience, and one I hope to be able to see again.

Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion.

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Top 8 Shows of 2008

January 6th, 2009

I’ve seen many good posts with favorite albums of 2008, so I thought I’d change things up a bit and cover the best live sets I saw last year.  First, a word to the wary.  I don’t care much for shows where the artist does a greatest hits compilation or plays the new album more-or-less in its entirety.  For $10 I can get that online or hard copy, and play it over and over.  I want to see a one-time-only event.  With that in mind…

#9: Flounders Without Eyes

Okay, yes, I said “top 8″, but I wanted to give an honorable mention to Flounders.  The very nature of a jam band is that you’re going to see a unique performance, so this category is kind of a home field advantage.  But this band from the Austin area consistently puts on a great show and the 2008 set at Old Settlers Music Fest was no exception.  Factor in the inclement weather and you had a special show.

#8: The Waybacks

I caught these guys 3 different times in the last year, but the best of the sets was at the campground stage at Old Settlers.  Warren Hood was still a recent addition to the band, but they tore it up in front of a crowd of no more than a couple of hundred people in the middle of a rainstorm.  They can tackle just about any genre and between Warren on fiddle and James Nash on guitar they define virtuoso without creating a barrier to the audience.

#7: Jon Langford and Skull Orchard

The former drummer for the Mekons has branched out considerably from his punk roots.  At the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October he showed up with the Burlington (Canada) Welsh Male Chorus.  They covered everything from heavy metal to sea chanteys.  They don’t perform together often, so it’s hard to know what the “next” show will be like, but you have to go see it just for the spectacle.

#6: Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women

Another set from the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass event.  Dave Alvin surrounded himself with some of the finest musicians in the country, all women (Cindy Cashdollar, Laurie Lewis, Sarah Brown, etc.), and proceeded to weave his way through everything from Blasters tunes to country classics.  Solos abounded and harmonies were contagious.  It was a lineup that could only happen at a festival where all the musicians were there anyway, but kudos to Dave for pulling it together.

#5 Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives

Another act from Old Settlers, Marty and his band played a couple of sets there.  They were the almost-headliners one night on the main stage, but also did an intimate set earlier in the day at the off-off-main stage.  With his stories of life in the music business, the theatricals on the big stage, and his passion for the history of country music, Marty is why the country music industry has it so right when they give Entertainer of the Year awards in addition to all the recording honors.

#4 Billy Bragg

Live at the Fillmore.  With an iconic act in an iconic hall, I wasn’t taking much of a risk going to this show.  Billy certainly didn’t disappoint.  His politics aren’t for everyone, but in San Francisco he certainly wasn’t going to get a Dixie Chicks reception to his viewpoints.  He was heavy on the Woody Guthrie tunes and influences from Mermaid Avenue, but did a fine job of blending them with his newer material.  Plus, I’d forgotten just how viscerally appealing a well-played Stratocaster at high volumes can be even without a backup band.

#3: Alison Brown with Joe Craven

There are a few musicians who simply cannot be put into a musical category even though you know what you’re going to hear.  Like Bela Fleck, Alison Brown takes a bluegrass/Americana instrument and imbues a jazz music performance with all the sophistication of classical composition.  In this set at HSBF, she performed with her regular band, and frequent collaborator Joe Craven.  They finished an otherwise awesome set with Joe playing percussion on the soundboard of Alison’s banjo while she rained down the notes in a fingerpicking tornado of musicianship.  I stood there slack-jawed.

#2: The Wailin’ Jennys

The Jenny’s played a marvelous show in the Carriage House at Montalvo, a small theater that seats a few hundred people and has incredible acoustics.  You really can hear a pin drop.  The Jenny’s put together the most well-rounded performance of the year.  It had great instrumental solos.  It had charismatic band members who treated the audience like long lost friends.  It had harmonies that were second to no one else I’ve ever seen.  It was just damn near a flawless performance in so many ways.  I have to go see them again to know if I was that lucky or they’re that good.

#1: Ray LaMontagne

The only way to beat a near-flawless performance is to just put it all out there knowing it’s all on the line and you can crash dramatically.  I’ve never seen an artist do that so convincingly as Ray LaMontagne did at the Schnitzer Theater in Portland in November.  The first few songs of the show I was physically uncomfortable at just how uncomfortable he was up in front of the audience.  But he kept it all together, built a stronger performance song after song and owned every single person in the hall by the end of the show.  And I will never forget the soft, nearly spiritual sing-along of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as he closed the show.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Ray LaMontagne at the Schnitzer

November 11th, 2008

In the end, this is going to be a show I’ll remember for a long time.  But OI! what a ride to get there, with some of the highest highs and lowest lows of a show I’ve seen in quite some time.  First, let me set the stage.  Ray LaMontagne at the Arlene Schnitzer theatre in Portland.  A very blue crowd in a blue city in a blue state the day after the election.  And when I say blue, I mean the opposite of red, not depressed.

It’s well known that Ray doesn’t interact much with his audience.  But his uncomfortableness was palpable even in the 20th row.  I don’t know if it’s stage fright, or just the side effect of being introverted, but his discomfort was so bad it made me squirm.  In a rare comment he noted that he has to pull the feeling for the songs from deep within himself and he was so happy with Obama’s victory that he couldn’t adequately perform some of the less upbeat songs.

On a side note, I can’t fathom that he can continue to perform with that kind of anxiety.  If you’re a big fan, make sure you see him soon.  I worry he’s either going to self-destruct or the Xanax will take the edge out of the show.

Anyway, the bottom line is that he overcame the problem and just kept getting better throughout the show.  His voice warmed up and with a stellar backup band by the end of the show he was soaring through a wide range of emotion, lyrically and musically.  The encores of “Trouble” and “Jolene” brought the house down.  Then came that moment in time.  A second encore of John Lennon’s “Imagine”.  The entire theatre singing along softly, but audibly.  Whew.  It was spiritual.

I can’t finish this without a nod to the opener, Leona Naess.  I had heard “Leave Our Boyfriends” a couple of times on XM, but nothing else.  As introverted as Ray is, Leona is just the opposite.  Her voice is clear and powerful, a little like Natalie Merchant, in my mind.  She clearly enjoys being up there playing music and it’s infectious.  Her set was a serious bonus to an already great show.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2008 Review

October 8th, 2008

First a note that with 70+ acts over 5 stages in basically 2 days (plus a short warm-up schedule Friday afternoon), any Hardly Strictly Bluegrass review is going to be partial.  I’ve discovered that with careful scheduling and a knowledge of some shortcuts between stages in Golden Gate Park, I can absorb about a dozen acts a day with reasonable comprehension.  Then I just hope I don’t miss anything too cool (don’t even bring up Emmylou’s appearance as the Coward sister during a T-Bone and Elvis gig as the Coward Brothers in a previous year).  With that in mind, here’s my list of best performances.

Best HSB Performance

I don’t know how you top Elvis Costello with Bill Kirchen, Austin DeLone, Fats Kaplan and others as the backup band.  Well, except when Emmylou and Jim Lauderdale came out and joined them for “Love Hurts” and “Peace, Love, and Understanding”.  And then he did an encore with the Burlington Welsh Men’s Choir.  Sadly, a large part of the audience was there to see the next act, Gogol Bordello, and were somehow bored with anything not gypsy-punk.  Sigh.  The problem with free is they’ll let anyone in….  I also have to mention Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women.  In a lineup that can only happen at a shindig like this, his band included Laurie Lewis, Sarah Brown, Christy McWilson, Nina Gerber, Cindy Cashdollar and a couple of others I didn’t catch.

Bringing a Tuba to a Banjo Fight

The Bad Livers played one of their infrequent shows, resplendent with  Mark Rubin playing tuba in place of stand-up bass for several numbers and Danny Barnes doing his usual top notch job of banjo picking.  They even did some buskering later in the day out on the concourse.  Honorable mention has to go to Jon Langford who opened up Sunday morning on the Rooster stage with heavy metal guitar and the previously mentioned Burlington Welsh Men’s Choir.  Kind of like Ozzy Osborne with the Happy View Assisted Living Chorus doing sea chantys.  You had to be there.

Sunday Hallelujahs and Amens

I already noted the choir over on Rooster, but even better for first thing on a Sunday morning was Poor Man’s Whiskey on Arrow Stage.  A California band that plays all kinds of Americana, they were duded up in mariachi costumes.  It took a couple of numbers for some of the audience to wake up, but I swear by the 3rd or 4th tune they had 10,000 people dancing their hangovers away.  There’s no way to leave this topic without mention of Ralph Stanley.  With the success of “O’ Brother”, I’m sure almost everyone there knew who Ralph was.  But the fact he got 50,000 people to shut up and listen slackjawed while he sang a capello is a testament to talent (Robert Plant was spotted back stage taking a picture of Ralph.  If he asked for an autograph, we know who’s the man).  You’ve heard the phrase “a hush fell over the crowd”, well that’s it in a nutshell.

When In Rome

When playing in a park in San Francisco, it’s hard to go wrong with 60’s psychedelia.  My nod for nailing this one to the wall goes to The Waybacks with an unbelieveable performance of the Dead’s “St. Stephen” and a way cool take on a Jefferson Airplane number I can’t quite put my finger on.  Moonalice did a take on Procol Harem and Ten Years After, and Elvis Costello did a fine, fine version of “Friend of the Devil”.  Oh, and if you weren’t already in the mood, the brownie lady wandering through the crowd would feed your head for a nominal fee.

Instrumental Virtuoso

Alison Brown takes this one running away.  Is it bluegrass, is it jazz, I don’t know but it transcends all of that.  And to highlight the highlight, they finish up with Alison picking a mean streak while fiddler Joe Craven plays bongo’s on the sound board of Alison’s banjo.  Whew, what an adrenaline rush as a closer.   Second place in this category goes to Warren Hood and James Nash of the Waybacks.  They can jam like nobody’s business, and if Alison hadn’t been on the bill they would easily take the category.

Let’s see, what did I miss.  Jimmy Dale Gilmore put on a fine performance.  It was even better coming on the heels of Tift Merritt.  Tift is a fine performer, but a show that wows a hall or club that seats 1000 doesn’t always play to an open air audience of 10,000.  Jimmy Dale’s band and song selection reflected the venue and the whole performance came off beautifully.

Finally, no review of HSB can be complete without a tip of the hat to Warren Hellman, the philanthropist who puts on the whole show as a free event.  Bows and choruses of “we’re not worthy” to you, Warren.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll

June 24th, 2008

A couple of weeks ago Rolling Stone had a list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of all time.  Number one on the list was Chuck Berry’s Johnny Be Good.  You know what, they got it right.  Normally, I’m about as likely to agree with the People magazine of the music business on the “best” of something as I am to agree with Rush Limbaugh’s opinion.  But they nailed this one, at least the top slot.

Johnny Be Good isn’t just a guitar song, it’s about a guitar player, so it gets extra points for being sort of like onomatopoeia.  More than anything, though, it’s that riff that counts.  Imagine Keith Richards or the Edge without the influence of those Chuck Berry rhythmic statements; you just can’t get there.

It’s not just rock and roll, either.  Think about the genre of music that lays between rock and country.  Call it Americana, alt country, roots music whatever.  But where would Steve Early, Billy Bragg, or Ryan Adams be without that searing, cut-to-the-bone lead guitar part?  Or go the other direction.  While they may not mention him as an influence, the Ramones and the Clash most certainly owe a big portion of their sound the over-amplified, raw, 3 chord masterpiece that first hit vinyl in 1958 at the Chess Records studio in Chicago.  He was playin’ guitar just like ringin’ a bell.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

9 Mile Skid On a 10 Mile Ride

May 18th, 2008

That particular line is part of a verse in a Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia song.  It’s also one of those phrases that is so descriptive I can’t believe it hasn’t become more a part of the vernacular of the American language.  I got to thinking about it as I read last week that Amy Winehouse was arrested.  Again.  My friend Mara likes to equate Amy and her husband Blake to another famous road-to-ruin couple, Sid and Nancy.

By most accounts, Sid Vicious was the epitome of the hate, cruelty, and general nastiness the Sex Pistols sang about.   It kind of makes sense that even if you don’t start out that way, all that wallowing about in loathing will eventually have an affect on you.  But what’s Wino’s excuse?

Anyway, if you figure her chart-topping album and record of the year award are the first mile of the ride, she’s about a mile or mile-and-a-half down the skid.  That should leave us with at least another couple of years of juicy tidbits about someone whom the only person she hates more than everyone else in the world is herself.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

The Wailin’ Jennys: The Un-Bar Band

May 18th, 2008

A few weeks back I went to see The Wailin’ Jennys.  I went to it as kind of a throw-away show; I really like the venue and thought my wife would enjoy the Jennys.  I came away really impressed and just can’t get the show out of my mind until I tell someone about it.  It was a performance that, while not having any particular mind-blowing highlight, was just so solid and well-rounded I can’t remember a single flaw.  Even the inevitable delays for instrument tunings turned into the slightly sarcastic banter (insert comment about whether a banjo is ever in tune) of best friends letting acquaintances in on a long-running joke.

For those not familiar, the Jennys core is Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta.  They’re generally the lead singers and between them play about a dozen instruments.  Including, I’m pretty sure, an old pink Samsonite as part of the drum kit.  In addition to Ruth and Nicky, Heather Masse is the newest Jenny on bass and tenor vocals, and Jeremy Penner is the token male Jenny on fiddle.

Although not slouches in the instrument department, the reason to go see the Jennys is the vocal harmonies.  Most of the songs feature Ruth or Nicky on lead vocals, but all three women sing on most of the songs.  Most of the show was, naturally, their own songs from “Firecracker” and “40 Days”.  They did a bang-up cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man”.  Great to hear a Neil Young song by someone who can really sing.  Finishing the show’s encore, the ladies in the band stepped out in front of the microphones and did an A Capella version of an old Irish sea shanty.

That sea shanty is what sealed it for me.  A beautiful show with beautiful voices demands a venue where the audience can appreciate the subtlties of harmony.  So, while I’m sure they will be booked into the typical loud cavern with a great bartender, I highly recommend you go out of your way to see them in a setting more acoustically oriented.  The Wailin’ Jennys and rowdy drunks just aren’t going to mix.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Good Old Hunter

January 25th, 2008

As long as I’m ranting about the music business, I should relay the famous quote from Hunter Thompson.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.