Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"and the tin pan bended and the story ended" ... but only for THIS blog!

Dear readers,

I have been invited to join the crew at The Sound of Blackbirds, and I've accepted the invitation. That means that 99% of all further blogging will take place there. Please direct your browsers accordingly.

The Sound of Blackbirds is the brainchild of Matt Winter and Ellen Stanley, two fine music lovers who've taught me a lot and are great people to boot. Please read us here.

All the best to my readers, few of you though there may be!


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Crooked Still @ Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls, MA, May 15th, 2010

Sleep deprivation did not stop me from taking the 45 minute drive up to beautiful Shelburne Falls to see Crooked Still. They played at Memorial Hall, which is a few buildings down from Mocha Maya's, the place where I saw Jenny Godspeed and Patty DeRosa with Naomi Fox, two summers ago. In fact, this was only the second time since then that I've been to Shelburne Falls, and I really ought to come this way more often. It's a gorgeous town, all the more so in the spring.

At any rate, good vibes were in the area when I arrived. When I walked into Memorial Hall, a lovely old building, I was greeted by a number of older ladies selling cookies and some pre-teens working a merchandise table. Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds was there too, wandering around the Hall's downstairs (the show was in the theater, upstairs), chatting with people, and he would later be on stage to introduce the evening's performers. Corey DiMario, Crooked Still's bass player, was also hanging around. After I took my seat, I went back to the lobby to kill some time, only to look across the tiny lobby to see the one and only Chris Smither, with his little daughter. I actually looked over at him just as he was looking in my direction. Something about his worn, almost gaunt face, with those deep dark eyes, looking for a brief moment into mine, made me a little uneasy, even though I was excited to see him. Would there be a Crooked Still-Chris Smither jam? No. Although I did see him talking with Corey DiMario, Smither was just there to enjoy the show.

Anyhow, the performance itself was a celebration of the Still's newest album, Some Strange Country. I've been listening to it plenty since it was first made available, a few weeks ago, and I like it a lot. So I was happy to hear the band open with three songs from it--"Henry Lee," "Cold Mountains," and, one of my favorites, "Calvary." In fact, in their first set, they did 9 songs, all but one ("Ain't No Grave") being from the new album. The second set included "Railroad Bill," "Little Sadie" (intense as usual), and "Did You Sleep Well" along with more Some Strange Country songs.

The band was in fine form, with Dr. Greg Lizst a bit less hammy than he usually is, with he and cellist Tristan Clarridge soloing to great effect. I was sitting in the fourth row of the theater, right in the center, and I found myself paying more attention to the lead singer, Aoife O'Donovan, than I usually do. It struck me in a way that it hasn't before exactly how beautiful she is. She was wearing a superb red and white striped dress, knee-length, and hardly a moment passed where she didn't seem completely thrilled to be on stage. If she wasn't singing or, occasionally, picking at a guitar, she was standing back a bit, eyes closed, listening to her bandmates lay into the songs. At some points, a big smile would break out on her face, and she'd look over at Brittany or Tristan or Corey or Greg with an expression of pride and satisfaction. The high point of the concert for me was during the opening instrumental portion of "Locust in the Willow," when Aoife was slowly shaking her head, immersed in the sound of the band, looking serene. The band smoked on that song, and it was definitely the highlight of the first set, if not the entire evening. On the basis of the magnitude of applause, I wasn't the only one who thought so.

Aoife was, as usual, the band's spokesperson. Aoife mentioned that the band had gone through some changes since the last time they played in Shelburne Falls, in 2006. She was talking about the personnel changes--new cellist, new fiddler--and she asked Tristan and Brittany if they were having fun yet. She also spoke about the band's upcoming tour stops, including some shows in Alaska, which prompted two women sitting near me to cheer excitedly. They were both from Alaska, and they claimed not to have known that until they sat next to each other that evening. Aoife laughed with amazement.

Most everyone else had something to contribute. Dr. Greg Liszt talked about the last time the band played in Shelburne Falls, describing a strange iron hanging around backstage. He'd been excited to see it, because he'd wanted to iron his favorite shirt before the show. The iron didn't work, but both he and other band members discovered that other appliances worked just fine when plugged into the particular socket they were trying to use. They only discovered later that, when that iron was plugged in and turned on, due to (apparently) the combination of the wiring in the building and some problem with that iron, power went out in the building next door...which happened to be the police station.

After Aoefie introduced their version of the Rolling Stones' "You Got the Silver" with a dedication to a recent Yale med school graduate who'd made the drive up, Corey DiMario talked about a show in Minneapolis when Greg Liszt's title actually caused some problems. During the show, he'd been introduced as Dr. Greg Liszt, since the man has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Less than a minute later, an older gentlemen in one of the first few rows collapsed. The ambulance was called, and he wound up being ok. But in the first few moments after everyone realized that the man was seriously ill, all eyes turned to the doctor on stage, man who is not and probably never will be a physician. Personally, I was amused by the disagreement among bandmembers as to how long this took. Corey said it took the ambulance about 30 minutes to get there and get the man out of the theater. He glanced over at Aofie at this point who looked at him as if he was crazy and said, "five minutes." Corey looked a little confused and said there was no way everything happened that quickly. Looking a bit exasperated, Aoefie raised her hands reassuringly and said, "it's your story."

Crooked Still's sound has deepened and diversified a bit since the days of Hop High. Having a fiddler opens some doors for them to access different sonic spaces, and the aggressiveness of their sound is less pronounced. There is more texture, more subtlety on their recent recordings than on Hop High and Shaken by a Low Sound. Personally, I like their recent stuff best, although I also think the material that shows off what makes them great is the more aggressive, ominous stuff: the murder ballads on all their albums, along with the numinous, spooky songs from Still Crooked: "The Absentee" and "Did You Sleep Well?" It's hard to resist the hooks on Hop High, which is their catchiest and most accessible album, but the renditions on their live album trump the studio versions. My verdict? Crooked Still are at their peak in the here and now.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

odds and ends

Not much music lately. I seem to be taking a break. Although I felt the need to commit the following thought to this blog: I am passing up the Neil Young show in a few weeks. The great man is doing a solo acoustic tour, and I just can't quite justify the $100+ ticket. If I had never seen him before, then maybe. But I'm a veteran of 3 Neil Young concerts--1996, 2000, and 2003--and, much as I'd love to see him again, that's a steep price.

On the other hand, I'd pay $22 to see Crooked Still again. And I just did: they're up in Shelburne Falls in a couple of weeks.

I see that Loudon will be at the Iron Horse again this summer. The Nields, Richard Shindell, and Cheryl Wheeler this fall. Chris Smither will be in Norfolk, CT in a few weeks, and I might have to go out of my way for that one. After all, he's the greatest.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Xiu Xiu, Tune Yards and Twin Sister @ The Middle East, Cambrdge MA, April 10th, 2010

Saturday night, Norah and I went to the Middle East for some rather strange music. At least, it's not the kind of thing I normally gravitate toward. I don't remember exactly where I first heard of Xiu Xiu, but when Norah mentioned them in an e-mail, they rang a bell. I associated them with the indie hipster set, but I knew nothing about their music. I listened to a couple of iTunes clips to get a feel for them, but it was a rather poor introduction. Even after having heard a one hour performance, I'm not sure exactly how I'd describe them.

It was my first time at Middle East since Anthony, his girlfriend, a couple of her students, and I met there for breakfast one Sunday, a long time ago. It was long enough ago such that I didn't realize until rather late in the game, as Norah was driving us around Boston, that we were way over on the wrong end of Massachusetts Ave. My fault. Anyway, after getting settled in, Nora and I spend a solid hour or so talking about the finer points of 1970s rock music--beginning and ending with Neil Young--before going downstairs to catch Tune Yards and Xiu Xiu (we skipped Twin Sister).

Tune Yards didn't do much for me. They are a guy-gal duo, the guy on bass, the gal on vocals and guitar, and both on percussion-heavy synths. At least, that's what it seemed from where I was standing; I didn't have a clear line of vision. The gal looped some strange vocal noises that she made and mixed them in with the synthed percussion and bass. Parts of it--the parts that were beat-heavy--kept my attention. Other parts of it--almost everything pertaining to the vocals--turned me off. So, while I didn't hate it, I didn't particularly like it either.

The featured act was also a duo. The bandleader, Jamie, played electric guitar, and he and his bandmate had a wide variety of percussion devices arrayed in front of them, along with a series of other devices, musical and non, placed on a table. The bandmate (Angela, I think her name is) seemed to focus more on synths and keyboard, although she really knew how to whack her percussion equipment. She had drumsticks, and she knew how to use them. I guess. Since I didn't know any of their songs, and it was difficult to make out what the singer was singing about, I paid more attention to the instrumental stuff and the overall tone and mood. I'm still not exactly sure what to make of it, or if there is anything to be made of it. Norah says this guy's a genius. I'll reserve judgment until I take the time to listen to some of their songs. There was certainly a lot of emotion, and I sense that this guy was exposing himself up on stage. And some of the sounds, even the cacophonous stuff, was interesting, like something I might want to listen to again one day. For the moment, though, Jamie is a bit of a mystery to me. When I saw him, for some reason, all I could think about was Vincent Gallo, the dude who made The Brown Bunny.

I see that these two groups are playing at Hampshire College Monday night. I also see that Robert Christgau has written reviews of both of their albums. See here and here. Interesting. Again, perhaps there's more to both Jamie and Merrill than I could tell from a single live performance. Geniuses or full of shit, they were quite a change of pace for me, and I'm glad I saw them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Brooks Williams w/Lisa Bigwood @ The Iron Horse, March 7th, 2010

My oldest favorite, Brooks Williams, played the Iron Horse last night. Unlike his previous Iron Horse appearance, it was a solo gig. Just Brooks alone on stage, switching off between two guitars. It was a CD release party for his new album, Baby-O. I'd just heard the album for the first time the day before the show, and it's a real good one, bluesy and finely picked, and including songs from Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, not to mention Cole Porter's "I Got It Bad, and That Ain't Good."

I knew I was in for a treat the moment I walked into the 'Horse. I glanced over to the stage as I walked in to see a woman who I assumed was the opening act, tweaking her guitar, and accompanied by none other than Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry. These folks seem to turn up unannounced at a lot at Pioneer Valley gigs. I took my seat up close to the stage, fantasizing about the Jim Henry-Brooks Williams jam that wound up not happening.

Now, about that opening act....I had never heard of Lisa Bigwood before, but after her performance Sunday evening, I'm pretty sure I'd seek her out again. She began with a haunting, hypnotic song about a down-and-outer called "The Ballad of Charlie Asher" that had the half-full Iron Horse in the palm of her hand. She played for a little over 30 minutes, half of which included Tracy and Jim, sitting in on fiddle and guitar respectively, along with some harmonies. They were quiet in between songs, letting Lisa Bigwood shine, as was only appropriate. She talked a lot in between songs, mostly about one of two topics: how incredibly lucky she's been in life, and how she talks too much in between songs. A bit less of that would have been nice. Her songs and picking are too good; I wanted to hear more of them.

Brooks took the stage at around 7:45, maybe 10 or 15 fifteen minutes after the opening act left. His set was focused on material from the new album, and he opened with a Son House tune from it, "Grinning in Your Face." He also did several songs from The Time I Spend With You (2008) and Blues and Ballads (2006), but nothing from any of the earlier recordings.

It was a typical performance from the great man, full of amazing guitar playing, and a voice that keeps getting better as the man's gotten older. He used to sound a bit like James Taylor, and there's still some of that mellow sound there, but there's a bit of throatiness there now too. Some grit that you didn't really hear on the albums he did for Green Linnet during the 1990s. And his guitar playing is a marvel. Watching him playing impossible-looking stuff, a big grin all over his face, I thought of Richard Thompson, only to realize, the moment I thought of him, that I preferred Brooks. Thompson is an edgier songwriter, to be sure, but Brooks' guitar-playing is every bit as accomplished and, I believe, more tasteful.

A few songs in, he asked for requests. Someone asked for "Drowsy Bee," an instrumental which I don't think I've ever heard him play. He laughed incredulously at that request, explaining that he'd forgotten how to play it and that it was a song so complicated that he couldn't believe he'd written it. He agreed to other requests, including "Mercy Illinois" and "Weary of the Moon," but he actually never got to them. I wasn't disappointed. The man has too many great songs to get to. Here's a complete list of what he played:

1. Grinning in Your Face
2. Moon on Down
3. Statesboro Blues
4. Belfast Blues
5. Shady Grove
6. 61 Highway
7. Amazing Grace
8. Walk You Off My Mind
9. Baby-O
10. Last Chance Love
11. The Time I Spend with You
12. Louis Collins
13. Trouble in Mind
14. Rich Tonight
15. I Got it Bad and that Ain't Good
16. Frank Delandry
17. Sugar Sweet
E: instrumental whose title I don't know

On my way out of the Iron Horse, I stopped to chat with him. He remembered me and, after he told me that "we go way back, don't we?" I reminded him that I'd first seen him at a young writers' conference in Vermont back in the spring of 1994. He laughed and shook his head in amazement and thanked me for following him and the music for all these years. It was my pleasure, I told him.

I put Brooks on the short list of artists who I'll always go out of my way to see, and I can hardly wait for the next time.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Crooked Still @ The Iron Horse, January 10th, 2010

This past Sunday evening, Crooked Still played a very satisfying show to a sold out audience at the good ole' Iron Horse. I didn't keep track of the time, but they played two sets of roughly 50 minutes each, with a 15-20 minute intermission. The performance was a nice balance of laid-back and sharp, with some material from a new album due out in May, a few songs from each of their 3 studio recordings, and, for their first encore, a rendition of the Rolling Stones' "You Got the Silver."

I took Danielle with me, and I was delighted that, toward the end of the opening song ("The Golden Vanity"), she leaned over to tell me that the banjo player was cracking her up. He was cracking me up too. As usual, Dr. Greg Liszt acted like he was Neil Young up there, bobbing his head up and down, stomping, and holding and playing his banjo like everything he played was a cross between a blues guitar solo and feedback-laced grunge. During the second set, a few seconds into his solo on "Come On In My Kitchen," not only did I burst out laughing, but so did Aoife O'Donovan, the band's singer.

Anyway, after "The Golden Vanity" came "Ain't No Grave" and "Orphan Girl." That latter one is the opening song to their recent live album which is my favorite of all their stuff. It's sort of a "best-of" for someone who doesn't want to shell out the bucks for their other albums, and the performances of the songs are first rate. It sounded great the other night, and so did the next song, "Undone in Sorrow," which opens their 2007 album, Still Crooked. They also played a couple of their new songs in the opening set, including one called "Calvary" and a very quiet hymn about a pilgrim that kept the audience quiet. And the first set ended with Aoife announcing a "knee-slapper," a comment that cracked her up. In fact, she botched the opening of "Lulu Gal," she was laughing so hard.

The atmosphere was upbeat, despite the noticeably downbeat material: murder ballads ("Little Sadie" and, to end the second set, "Darling Corey"), blues ("Come On in My Kitchen"), death-oriented spiritual numbers ("Ain't No Grave" and "Ecstasy"), and the like. Unlike so many folkie/blurgrass/oldtimey acts, Crooked Still's instrumental sound echoes the grimness of the lyrics. Take away the mandolin and most of the guitar, add the cello, and make sure that a) the purity of the singer's voice is offset by a touch of huskiness and b) the banjo player's solos sound nothing like standard bluegrass playing...and there you have the Crooked Still sound, which is menacing in a way that bluegrass music never is. As Danielle mentioned to me, the cello is an important part of the sound. It makes them sound less fun and more aggressive...and that's a compliment.

Hard to pick out a favorite moment but, being rather fond of Still Crooked, I was happy to hear "Undone in Sorrow" during the first set and "Did You Sleep Well?" during the second. "Lulu Gal" is one of the their best uptempo songs, and I was thrilled to hear it too. "Darling Corey" and "Little Sadie" sound even more intense in concert than they do on record. And after "You Got the Silver," they played and had us sing along with "Shady Grove" to send us home. I was also amused by some of the band's banter, whether it was Aoife O'Donovan congratulating fiddler Brittany Haas on her recent graduation from Princeton (and asking her how it felt), to bassist Corey DiMario talking about being in Cooperstown and using the concert stage as a soapbox for requesting Pete Rose's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, to Dr. Greg Liszt's standard off-the-wall comments...the band sounded cheerful when they spoke, grim when they played.

Looking forward to their new recording. In the meantime, I highly recommend their live album, Crooked Still Live (2009). I think I'll go listen to it right now.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christgau's best albums and songs of the decade