Review: Robert Earl Keen’s “Happy Prisoner”

keen_coverby Paul T. Mueller

Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen returns to his bluegrass roots with Happy Prisoner – The Bluegrass Sessions. There are a few rough spots among the CD’s 15 covers, and the playing might not be quite pure enough for bluegrass fanatics, but it’s well done and enjoyable.

Keen is no stranger to bluegrass, having developed a love for the genre despite growing up in Houston, not exactly a hotbed of Appalachian string music in the 1960s and ’70s. In “The Bluegrass Widow,” a song from his second album, 1988’s The Live Album, he describes learning about bluegrass during high school and playing in a bluegrass band during college. The song, which Keen describes as “quite possibly the worst bluegrass song ever written,” includes his account of being fired by his bandmates because he lacked “that high and lonesome sound that bluegrass music requires.”

Having seen his budding bluegrass career derailed, Keen regrouped and went on to forge a successful career as a songwriter and performer. Decades later, his voice is, if anything, even less high and lonesome, but that didn’t keep him from recording this belated tribute to his first musical love.

Standout tracks include “Long Black Veil,” the much-covered ballad about crime, love and the price of loyalty; “T for Texas,” with help from Lyle Lovett; “East Virginia Blues,” a lost-love song by A.P. Carter; “Walls of Time,” sung with Peter Rowan, who wrote the song with Bill Monroe, and the classic spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” featuring vocals by ex-Dixie Chick Natalie Maines.

Not as successful is a cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” one of those songs that are performed so definitively by their writers that there’s little point in trying to cover them. Keen’s version also suffers from the lack of an instrumental bridge, leaving an abrupt transition between the happy early verses and the sad later ones.

Along with his longtime band – guitarists Rich Brotherton and Marty Muse, bassist Bill Whitbeck and percussionist Tom van Schaik – Keen gets help from a talented group of players including fiddlers Sara Watkins, Dennis Ludiker and Chloe Keen (Robert’s daughter), mandolinist Kym Warner and banjoist Danny Barnes. Lloyd Maines handled production and other technical duties.

New releases: Lily Hiatt, Joseph Wooten

Americana Music News – New releases include albums from Lily Hiatt and Joseph Wooten, both artists with strong  Nashville ties:

LilyRoyal Blue Lily Hiatt – Normaltown Records   We first saw Lily Hiatt years some ago as a solo songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar on a side stage at the CMA festival in Nashville. It’s a more mature and musically adventurous Hiatt on the just-released Royal Blue, a dynamic recording produced by Adam Landry with pedal steel, synth and a rock foundation. The lyrics reflect broken relationships, but the sound is bold and confident.

Stumpjumper – Charlie Parr – Red House Records   Set for release on April 28, Charlie Parr’s Stumpjumper release is the first album he’s recorded with a full band. The Duluth-based artist is on tour now, with dates this week in Pittsburgh, Maumee, Ohio and Milwaukee .

Gill LandryGill Landry – ATO Records  Gill Landry , best known as a member of Old Crow Medicine Show, is joined on his third album by guests Laura Marling and Robert Ellis. Landry is touring in support of the album, with dates this week with Justin Townes Earle.

WootenSoul of FreedomJoseph Wooten Joseph Wooten’s latest solo album Soul of Freedom is both familiar and fresh, melding the influences of Steve Wonder and Sly Stone with very contemporary takes on the world around us. Wooten is the keyboardist with the Steve Miller Band and a member of the musically rich Wooten family (his brother Victor guests here.) He also clearly embraces music for its capacity to inform, engage and elevate. From “Life Love Truth” to “Unity” and “I Matter,” Wooten delivers affirmation and reflection in a consistently ambitious musical setting.

Head for the HillsMarkus James – Firenze Records – Head for the Hills continues Markus James’ collaborative blues recordings, teaming him a with a number of drummers from the North Mississippi Hill Country.

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New releases: Brandi Carlile, Ray Wylie Hubbard

Americana Music News – New releases in our mailbox this week:

Basic CMYKThe Firewatcher’s Daughter Brandi Carlile – ATO Records –  Fresh off the Cayamo cruise, Brandi Carlile is touring the country in support of this new album, including a March 4 date at the Troubadour, March 7 in Atlantic City and March 11 in Brooklyn. Carlile continues her impressive work with Tim and Phil Hanseroth on this album (out March 3) that reportedly consists primarily of first takes. The first single is “Wherever is Your Heart.”

Twice Told Tales10,000 Maniacs – Cleopatra Records The current generation of 10,000 Maniacs has a new album set for release on April 28. It’s a return to the band’s core musical influences with renditions of traditional folk songs from the British Isles, including “She Moved Through the Fair” and “Wild Mountain Thyme.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard RuffianThe Ruffian’s MisfortuneRay Wylie Hubbard – Bordello Records – Ray Wylie Hubbard is following up The Grifter’s Hymnal (reviewed here) with The Ruffian’s Misfortune, described in press materials as “the tightest and most focused” of his career. The album is set for release on April 7, and is to be followed by an autobiography.

Another Rising Sun Jon Chi  The former member of Rainmaker recorded his second solo album in Milwaukee with Ken Krei. The album ,described as “a blend of folk, gospel and jam” is set for release on May 5.

Old Ways vs. New DaysJ. Tex and the Volunteers –– Heptown Records This Copenhagen-based Americana band is fronted by Detroit native J. Tex.

 

New releases: Vespers, Whitehorse, more

Americana Music News – New releases and albums of note:

vespersSisters and Brothers Vespers – Just released is the Vespers’ third album; the title is a nod to the band consisting of the Cryar sisters and Jones brothers. The opening lyrics are a mission statement: “Everybody sounds like someone else. We all just want to sound like ourselves.” We first saw the Vespers perform at the Americana Music Association conference about three years ago and the new album shows musical growth, confidence and an undeniably rawer and more distinctive sound.

Cowboy BoudoirKimmie Rhodes – Sunbird Music- We enjoyed Kimmie Rhodes’ performances on the Sandy Beaches cruise and are glad to see this new release.  The album, produced by Gabriel Rhodes and dedicated to the late great Jack Clement is described as “a retro-cowgirl-hippie-chick musical experiment.”

The Limestone KidParker McCollum – Indie Extreme – On his debut album, the 22-year-old McCollum offers up an engaging collection of songs, including the full-throttle “Lucy” and the amiable single “Meet You in the Middle.” Lloyd Maines sits in on pedal steel.

whitehorseLeave No Bridge Unburned Whitehorse – Six Shooter Records - We raved about the debut Whitehorse release in 2012 and this new album may be even better. Luke Doucet and Lelissa McCelland are musically ambitious, building on intense and intimate songs with cinematic flourishes. Favorite song title: “Fake Your Death (and I’ll Fake Mine.)”

Here We Are John and Judy Rodman – Rivermoon Records – 29 years ago, Judy Rodman topped the country charts with “Until I Met You” for MTM Records. She would have later hits, but her recording career wound down by the ‘90s. This new album returns her to the recording studio in a duo with her husband John. This 7-song collection is set for release on March 24.

 

Interview: Hemming on Sail Across the Sun

By Ken Paulson

Hemming may well have been the youngest artist on the Sail Across the Sun cruise (other than the School of Rock students), but won over audiences in her shows in the ship’s atrium.

Hemming

Hemming

Hemming is the alter ego of Candice Martello, a singer-songwriter based in Philadelphia. Her appearance on  Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project gave her solo career a jump start, and a debut album is in the works. She cites Cat Power and M. Ward among her influences.

We spoke with her just before the cruise ship left Miami.

Her thoughts on her music and emerging career:

Review: Sail Across the Sun cruise 2015

By Ken Paulson

Train’s Sail Across the Sun cruise runs on two parallel tracks.

On one, it’s a floating music festival featuring Train, the Wailers and emerging acts like Striking Matches.

Pat Monahan of Train

Pat Monahan of Train

On the other, it’s a fanfest for those who love Train, which means three crowd-pleasing concerts by the band, Q&A and photo sessions, podcasts, wine tastings with the band’s Jimmy Stafford, and even “Trainaoke.”

Surprisingly, it all works.

Not as music intensive as some other Sixthman music crusie offerings,  the five-day cruise supplements the music with cooking demonstrations and comedy. They could use a few more musicians; by the fourth day you’ve seen some acts three times.

Calling Train the headliner of the cruise is an understatement, Lead singer Pat Monahan is the ringmaster, visible throughout, and even hosting the karaoke contest.

This kept the Train fans very happy, and they returned the goodwill when Monahan’s voice gave out before the band’s final show.

“My voice is broken,” Monahan said, explaining that other artists on the boat and even a Trainaoke finalist or two would fill in for him. Monahan gamely stayed on stage, exhorting the crowd and keeping the show moving. It was Train’s greatest hits (and Journey and Led Zeppelin covers) sung by both some talented and some overmatched vocalists, but the audience wasn’t fazed,  standing and cheering until the end.

Other highlights from the cruise:

A Great Big World

A Great Big World

– We saw Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino of A Great Big World pick up their Grammy in Los Angeles just four days before the cruise and it appeared the euphoria hadn’t worn off. Their shows were joyous, reflective and often funny, with three sets spread throughout the ship, including an acoustic set the final night.

– Andy Grammer and Ingrid Michaelsen both drew big and enthusiastic crowds for their consistently smart and engaging pop performances.

– Striking Matches’s new album Nothing but the Silence is due in March  and their energetic performances on board showcased their always-strong material. Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis are best known for writing songs featured on the Nashville TV show; it’s good to see them record on their own.

– John Driskell Hopkins, a founding member of the Zac Brown Band and co-writer of the band’s hit “Toes,” writes and sings highly melodic and accessible country and folk. His sets drew heavily from his fine 2012 release Daylight, including “She Don’t Love Me Today,” a funny and inspired song about the realities of marriage.

The Wailers

The Wailers

– We first saw Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers on a Cayamo cruise about five years ago,  and his solo performances this year were engaging  and intimate, even when he played  on the pool deck.

– The Wailers shouldn’t bother playing on land. Their set – laden with Bob Marley classics – is ideally suited for a cruise. There’s a younger generation of singers fronting the band, but the legacy remains intact.

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Concert Review: Alejandro Escovedo in Houston

by Paul T. Mueller

Singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo added some jazz to his usual mix of folk and rock at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston on Feb. 7. Escovedo played in a trio format, with tenor saxophonist Elias Haslanger and bassist Bobby Daniel. The result was a brilliant success, with Haslanger’s dazzling riffs and lyrical solos sharing the melodic spotlight with Escovedo’s acoustic and electric guitars. The Austin-based jazzman got plenty of space to demonstrate his formidable chops, occasionally veering close to the rock idiom. Daniel, a member of Escovedo’s Sensitive Boys band, anchored the mix with steady, percussive rhythm on the stand-up bass and contributed some supporting vocals as well.

In the second of the evening’s two shows, the trio performed 16 songs over the course of an hour and 45 minutes. The set list was drawn from a wide swath of Escovedo’s career, ranging from “I Was Drunk” and “Everybody Loves Me,” from 1999’s Bourbonitis Blues, to “Sally Was a Cop,” “Can’t Make Me Run” and “Sabor A Mi,” from the most recent collection, 2012’s Big Station. Every song was marked by excellent musicianship and passionate execution. Some were loud (“Sally Was a Cop,” “Everybody Loves Me,” “Chelsea Hotel ‘78”), while others were quietly poignant (“Rosalie,” “I Wish I Was Your Mother”). “Can’t Make Me Run” was both, starting out at high volume and ending in dramatic whispers.

An emotional high point came about halfway through, as Escovedo dedicated a song to the late Ian McLagan, a onetime member of Small Faces and the Faces and a longtime Austin resident and esteemed member of that city’s music scene. What followed was a slow, achingly beautiful rendition of “Sister Lost Soul,” from 2008’s Real Animal. It was a tear-your-heart-out elegy to a good friend gone too soon. Following similar lines was the main set’s closer, a heartfelt take on Ian Hunter’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” which Escovedo offered as a tribute to the former Mott the Hoople frontman, one of his musical heroes.

The trio’s encore consisted of a nice rendition of “Sabor A Mi,” a 1959 love song by Mexican composer Alvaro Carrillo, and a rousing version of Escovedo’s popular “Castanets.”

Haslanger said after the show that family considerations usually keep him from playing outside his home base of Austin, but that he’s willing to travel to play with Escovedo. The Mucky Duck audience seemed happy that he feels that way.

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The 10 best lines on the Cayamo music cruise 2015

By Paul T. Mueller

The 10 best lines from artists on the 2015 Cayamo cruise:

Amy Speace

Amy Speace

  • It was sad knowing everyone I knew or loved was going to hell. – Elizabeth Cook on her fundamentalist upbringing (Saturday)
  • This has been a very palpable evening. – Jim Lauderdale, during John Fullbright’s “Unlikely Sit-In” show (Saturday)
  • I starred in “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” – Amy Speace on her days as a Shakespearean actress in New York (Monday)
  • Thanks, Mom. – John Prine, in response to a female audience member’s shout of “You’re sexy, John Prine!” (Monday)
  • The difference between a freeloader and a free spirit is about three chords. – Todd Snider (Wednesday)
  • This was No. 1 for about two weeks on the radio in Serbia. Take that, Lyle Lovett! – Amy Speace on the title track of her new CD, “That Kind of Girl” (Thursday)
  • Morning, everyone! – Lucinda Williams, at a 1:30 p.m. show (Thursday)
  • He doesn’t consider himself an Eagle, but I do. No, I consider you an egret. – Shawn Colvin to guitarist Steuart Smith, who tours with The Eagles (Thursday)
  • What we do on Cayamo stays on Cayamo. – Shawn Colvin (Thursday)
  • Since you probably played on the original record, play a little guitar right here, good brother. – Rodney Crowell to David Bromberg, during “Like a Rolling Stone” (Friday)

 

 

Review: Cayamo 2015 may have been best yet

By Paul T. Mueller

You’re never going to get more than 2,000 music lovers to agree on everything, but there seems to be something of a consensus that this year’s Cayamo cruise was one of the strongest, if not the strongest, editions in the eight-voyage history of the festival-at-sea.

Cayamo, a production of Atlanta-based Sixthman, sailed from Miami on Jan. 17 aboard the Norwegian Pearl, its home since 2010. The event featured calls at the Caribbean islands of St. Barts and St. Croix, but the real draw, as always, was the music, which began before the ship left Miami and continued nearly nonstop, almost to the minute the Pearl returned to its home port a week later.

This year’s headliners, all veterans of previous Cayamos, were Lyle Lovett (with his Acoustic Group), John Prine, Brandi Carlile, and Richard Thompson (as part of his Electric Trio). The next level consisted of a large group of talented musicians and bands, including Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Shawn Mullins (the only artist to have participated in every Cayamo), Jim Lauderdale, Kacey Musgraves, David Bromberg, Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin, John Fullbright, The Lone Bellow, Elizabeth Cook and many more.

New this year were five “Soundcheck Artists,” chosen by passenger vote before sailing from a group of 25 nominees. This group comprised Birds of Chicago, the Black Lillies, the Dusty 45s, the Michelle Malone Band and Amy Speace, who was backed by two of her East Nashville neighbors, Tim Easton and Megan Palmer.

The lineup also included one notable “stowaway” – the eccentric but brilliant Todd Snider, who caused a furor by backing out of last year’s Cayamo at the last minute. Finally aboard, he made his first appearance at a midnight show halfway through the week.

In addition, many passengers, not content with merely watching and listening to professionals make music, brought their own instruments aboard. Individuals and groups could be found picking and jamming at all hours in various corners of the vessel, but particularly in an area known as Bar City.

Buddy Miller, Dave Jacques and Fats Kaplin

Buddy Miller, Dave Jacques and Fats Kaplin

All of this added up to far too much music for any one person to take in, even given the abbreviated sleep schedule that’s an integral part of the Cayamo experience for many. Schedule conflicts also got in the way, despite Sixthman’s commendable efforts to program shows and stages so as to distribute the crowds as evenly as possible around the ship’s several performance venues. As great a show as one might be witnessing at any given moment, something equally excellent was more than likely happening somewhere else at the same time.

As the Pearl left the dock a couple of hours behind schedule, Birmingham, Ala.-based St. Paul & the Broken Bones kicked the party on the pool deck into high gear with their high-energy blend of rock and soul. “I know it’s early,” said lead singer Paul Janeway, “but we gotta let it loose!” Nearly a week and dozens of shows later, Cayamo drew to a close with a “No Sleep ‘til Land Jam” that lasted into the small hours just before docking. It was hosted by the Austin-based Band of Heathens and featured guest performances by a great many of the artists aboard.

This kind of collaboration is a longtime hallmark of the Cayamo experience, and it was much in evidence all week. Almost anyone was liable to show up at almost any gig, to lend a hand on an instrument, sing a verse or provide backing vocals.

There were a few glitches – the presence of some much larger vessels at Norwegian’s main terminal left the Pearl with a smaller and less efficient temporary terminal (actually a large tent), which led to long and frustrating lines at both ends of the cruise. Still, it was hard to find anyone with anything really negative to say about Cayamo. A week at sea in the sunny Caribbean, dozens of world-class musicians performing almost nonstop, thousands of kindred spirits in the audience (including, for many repeat cruisers, old friends from previous Cayamos), and all the comfort and convenience of a major-label cruise ship – all of that adds up to what many call the Best Vacation Ever – until next year’s edition.

Still to come: More detail on the week’s shows, big, small and in between.

Cayamo finale: Elizabeth Cook, David Bromberg

By Paul T. Mueller

Friday, Jan. 23 found the Norwegian Pearl in the home stretch of its return to Miami. The end of the Cayamo music cruise 2015 was just around the corner, but the day’s full schedule of music was an effective antidote to any possibility of negative thoughts. Who has time to mope when there are shows to get to?

Elizabeth Cook’s 12:30 set on the pool deck was a lively mix of the spiritual and the secular. The former was represented by several songs from her 2012 EP Gospel Plow, including the title track, “Hear Jerusalem Calling” and “Jesus.” The latter included “It Takes Balls to Be a Woman,” “El Camino,” “Goin’ Down” (with a vocal assist from Todd Snider) and “Methadone Blues.” Cook cut a fashionable figure in her hipster/hippie garb, while Snider went casual as always in cut-off jeans and a white undershirt, topped off with a jaunty nautical cap.

Amy Speace’s final show in the Spinnaker Lounge featured several songs from her new CD That Kind of Girl – the spiritually themed “Three Days,” the lonely love song “In Chicago,” the sad breakup song “Raincoat” (“You were my raincoat/Now you’re the rain”), a post-breakup song (“Epilogue (I Don’t Know How To Stop Loving You),” and the title track, a rueful reflection on the stories we tell ourselves. Backed by Tim Easton on guitar and Megan Palmer on fiddle, Speace also played a few older favorites, including “The Killer in Me” (with a guest appearance by guitarist Stuart Mathis), “Hunter Moon,” “In Salida,” “The Sea and the Shore” and “Vertigo.” There was also a nice rendition of “The Fortunate Ones,” which Speace dedicated to the audience.

David Bromberg

David Bromberg

David Bromberg’s final set, in the Stardust Theater at 3:00, was a varied show that included some solo work, some full-band efforts, and a couple of tunes by band members. From the opener – blues standard “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” – Bromberg moved on to a long rendition of his comic breakup songs “I’ll Take You Back.” Things got a little more serious with “The Fields Have Turned Brown” and a twangy rendition of “Last Date,” but slid back into comedy with “The Holdup,” a crime-caper tale co-written with George Harrison. Bromberg accompanied “Kaatskill Serenade,” on the surface a retelling of the Rip Van Winkle story, with an explanation of how the song is also about alienation, both personal and in a wider sense. Guitarist Mark Cosgrove took the spotlight with a skillfully flat-picked “Alabama Jubilee,” followed by some fiddle tunes featuring himself and Bromberg on guitar, accompanying fiddler Nate Grower. Bromberg closed the set with “Bring It On Home,” including a long discourse on the nature of true love and how he lost it and found it again, and returned for a full-band acoustic encore of “Roll On, John,” featuring Cosgrove’s fine mandolin playing.

Other Friday performers included Lisa Mills, winner of the open mic competition for songwriters, playing in the Pearl’s open-air Great Outdoors venue (backed by Richard Thompson’s rhythm section, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome); Kristy Lee and Dirt Road Revival, bringing the rock and soul to the pool deck with help from Shawn Mullins, and The Lone Bellow, getting assists from John Fullbright and Brandi Carlile in the Stardust.

Shawn Colvin’s 8:00 Stardust show consisted largely of songs by her large cast of guests, to whom she lent her fine voice and acoustic guitar, as well as Steuart Smith’s electric guitar. The set included Rodney Crowell performing his “The Rock of My Soul”; Jim Lauderdale’s rendition of Gram Parsons’ “Sin City”; Brandi Carlile helping out on “Calling All Angels” and the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care”; Buddy Miller doing “Let It Be Me” (made popular by the Everly Brothers) and “Poison Love”; Lucinda Williams singing Parsons’ “Hickory Wind”; Richard Thompson with his “A Heart Needs a Home” and a cover of the Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place”; the Louvin Brothers’ “My Baby’s Gone,” featuring Luke Bulla, and Colvin with her “Diamond in the Rough,” getting assistance from Keith Sewell.

Michelle Malone kept the energy level high on the pool deck with a mostly electric set at 10:30. Highlights included “Weed & Wine,” a lament for lost youth; “Chicken Lickin’ Boogie,” featuring Jimmy Galloway on guitar; a vigorous rendition of “Preacher’s Daughter” that included an extended acoustic guitar workout by Malone, and “Feather in a Hurricane,” with help from Kristy Lee and the Black Lillies’ Cruz Contreras.

Rodney Crowell’s 11:30 Spinnaker set was a loose and joyous affair featuring a crowd on the stage and a bigger one in front of it. It was standing room only as Crowell and a plethora of guests – Joanne Gardner, Luke Bulla, Shawn Colvin, Steuart Smith, Keith Sewell, Dave Jacques and David Bromberg, among others – ripped through a rich and varied set list. Highlights included Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel”; a lively rendition of the Staple Singers’ soul hit “Respect Yourself”; a happy sing-along version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” featuring nice solos from several guests and enthusiastic audience participation, and Crowell’s own “Ain’t Living Long Like This.” After a crack about “long solos and sloppy endings,” Crowell summed up the show as “11 fast songs and one ballad” – the latter being his closer, a moving rendition of his “ ’Til I Gain Control Again.”

At that point, with disembarkation only hours away, many Cayamoans had had about all the musical fun they could stand. But others who weren’t done partying headed for the Atrium and the “No Sleep ’Til Land Jam,” led by the Band of Heathens, which continued well into the small hours of Saturday morning.

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