New releases: Greg Trooper, the Grahams

New Americana, folk and bluegrass releases:

greg trooper liveLive at the Rock RoomGreg Trooper – Due in June is Greg Trooper’s Live at the Rock Room, recorded in Austin with Chip Dolan on keyboards and accordion and Jack Saunders on bass. It’s Trooper’s third live recording and a testament to his exceptional songwriting and performance skills.

Trooper has been a recording and touring artist for many years, a longevity that only comes with a compelling stage presence and catalog. The new album draws from recent albums, with themes ranging from quiet resignation (“They Call Me Hank”) to enduring lust (“Mary of the Scots in Queens.”)

Trooper writes about real lives and challenges; his “We’ve Still Got Time” is one of the best songs you’ll ever hear about aging and romance.

Highly recommended.

Glory BoundThe Grahams – There’s an ambitious new album and film on the way from the Grahams. Glory Bound  has a companion film Rattle the Hocks that explores the intersection of railroads and roots music. Our favorite track on Glory Bound is the driving title song. It begins with youthful regrets and then soars in window-rattling style.

Holidays and Wedding RingsJamie Lin Wilson – Also out Tuesday is a solo album from Jamie Lin Wilson of the Trishas.  Jon Dee Graham and Wade Bowen are among contributors to the set.

OnwardChristian Lopez Band – Blaster Records – Christian Lopez is a 19-year-old songwriter with West Virginia Roots. Produced by Dave Cobb.

Restless YouthDeer Run Drifters –This is the second album from the Virginia-based roots band. Anthem in the making: “You Go to Hell, I’m Going Drinking.”

Sour BridgesSour Bridges – The band calls its music “browngrass,” explaining that it’s bluegrass, “but a little dirtier.”

 

2015 Americana Music Awards nominees announced

The Americana Music Association announced this afternoon the nominees for the 2015 ama_logo_button_redAmericana Honors and Awards. The winners will be announced at the association’s annual conference, set for Sept. 10-15 in Nashville.
2015 Americana Honors & Awards Nominees
Album of the Year (Award goes to Artist and Producer)
And The War CameShakey Graves; Produced by Alejandro Rose-Garcia and Chris Boosahda
Down Where The Spirit Meets The BoneLucinda Williams; Produced by Lucinda Williams, Tom Overby and Greg Leisz
Metamodern Sounds In Country Music Sturgill Simpson; Produced by Dave Cobb
The Way I’m Livin’Lee Ann Womack; Produced by Frank Liddell
Tomorrow Is My Turn – Rhiannon Giddens; Produced by T-Bone Burnett
Artist of the Year
Rhiannon Giddens
Jason Isbell
Sturgill Simpson
Lucinda Williams
Lee Ann Womack
Duo/Group of the Year
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
The Lone Bellow
The Mavericks
Punch Brothers
Shovels & Rope
Emerging Artist of the Year
First Aid Kit
Houndmouth
Nikki Lane
Doug Seegers
Shakey Graves
Instrumentalist of the Year
Hubby Jenkins
Laur Joamets
Greg Leisz
John Leventhal
Stuart Mathis
Song of the Year (Award goes to Artist and Songwriter)
“Dearly Departed” – Shakey Graves; Written by Alejandro Rose-Garcia and Esme’ Patterson
“East Side Of Town” – Lucinda Williams; Written by Lucinda Williams
“Terms Of My Surrender” – John Hiatt; Written by John Hiatt
“Turtles All The Way Down” – Sturgill Simpson; Written by Sturgill Simpson
“You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had” – Steve Earle & the Dukes; Written by Steve Earle

This just in: 2015 Americana Music Festival line-up

ama_logo_button_redThe  Americana Music Association has just announced its initial artist line-up for the 16th annual Americana Music Festival and Conference, set for September 15 – 20, 2015, in Nashville.

It’s always an extraordinary week of music and one of the best festivals in Nashville each year.

You’ll find conference and wristband information at www.americanamusic.org.

 

The roster so far:
Anderson East
Andrew Combs
Anthony D’Amato
Banditos
Barna Howard
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Billy Bragg & Joe Purdy
Birds of Chicago
Brian Wright
The Bros. Landreth
Caleb Caudle
Caleb Klauder Country Band
Carly Ritter
Carsie Blanton
ChessBoxer
Christopher Paul Stelling
The Contenders
Corb Lund
Crooks
Darlingside
Dead Winter Carpenters
Dom Flemons
The Dustbowl Revival
Emma Swift
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
The Freightshakers
The Grahams
Grant-Lee Phillips
Guthrie Brown & The Family Tree
Hackensaw Boys
Halfway
The Hello Strangers
Henry Wagons
honeyhoney
Horse Feathers
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
Hugh Bob and the Hustle
Jackie Greene
James McMurtry
Joe Pug
John Moreland
John Paul Keith
Kingsley Flood
Kristin Diable
Kristin Andreassen
Laney Jones and the Spirits
Lee Ann Womack
Legendary Shack Shakers
Lera Lynn
Leyla McCalla
Lilly Hiatt
Liz Longley
Los Lobos
Low Cut Connie
Lucette
Lydia Loveless
Martin Harley
Mary Gauthier
Nikki Lane
Nora Jane Struthers
Nudie
Oh Pep!
Packway Handle Band
Patty Griffin
Pokey LaFarge
Porter
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen
Ray Wylie Hubbard
River Whyless
Sarah Borges
Sean McConnell
Shemekia Copeland
The Show Ponies
Session Americana
Steelism
The Steel Wheels
Stephen Kellogg
The Stray Birds
Tall Heights
The Vespers
Water Liars
The Whistles and The Bells
Whitey Morgan and the 78s
The Wild Reeds
William Elliott Whitmore
Whitehorse

 

Review: James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game”

by Paul T. Mueller   

mcmurtry“Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun.” Is there a better opening line for a song or an album anywhere? Could there be? Hard to imagine. A dozen words into “Copper Canteen,” the first song on Complicated Game, James McMurtry’s ninth studio CD, and you know you want to know more about these people. That’s one of McMurtry’s great strengths – sharp, clean writing that sketches characters and their lives with only a few well-chosen words.

Another of McMurtry’s gifts is his almost uncanny ability to embody a wide range of personas in songs. Most of Complicated Game’s songs are written in the first person; the protagonists include a husband dealing with the frustrations and pleasures of a long-term relationship (“Copper Canteen”); a man reminiscing about his younger self and a long-ago love (“You Got to Me”), a rootless wanderer (“Ain’t Got a Place”), a man planning his own disappearance (“Forgotten Coast”), a returning veteran who finds that things back home are not what he’d hoped for (“South Dakota”), and – in what McMurtry described recently as “the deepest and darkest song I ever wrote” – a person of unspecified gender who deals with emotional pain through self-injury (“Cutter”). These are people you might pass on the street any day without knowing anything about them, but McMurtry’s skill as a lyricist brings them vividly to life.

The overall sound of Complicated Game is closer to that of older, quieter albums, such as It Had to Happen and Walk Between the Raindrops, than to the louder, angrier tone of McMurtry’s more recent work. There’s plenty of fine guitar playing, but this time out it’s mostly acoustic. Much of the backing is by longtime touring bandmates Cornbread (bass), Daren Hess (drums) and Tim Holt (guitar and vocals). The impressive list of contributors includes McMurtry’s son Curtis on banjo and vocals, Benmont Tench on keyboards, Dustin Welch and Danny Barnes on banjo, Derek Trucks on slide guitar, and many others.

McMurtry’s vocals have more animation here than on his past few albums; he’s been quoted as crediting co-producer CC Adcock with expanding his range. (Mike Napolitano is also credited with production. He and Adcock did a fine job; there’s a lot going on musically, but it all serves the songs without overshadowing them.)

James McMurtry has been an excellent musician and storyteller since he launched his career more than a quarter century ago, and he shows no sign of letting up now. Complicated Game is one of his best, and one of the best albums of 2015 so far.

New Releases: Alabama Shakes, Susie Glaze

alabama shakes 2New in our mailbox this week:

Sound & ColorAlabama Shakes – ATO Records – Alabama Shakes’ second album is a statement of extraordinary confidence from a young and ambitious band.

It would have been so easy to echo the sounds and success of debut release Boys & Girls. Instead Sound & Color is a bold amalgam of soul, psychedelia, rock and electronica.

For every heart-rending ballad like “Give Me All Your Love,” there’s a punk-propelled “The Greatest” or Stones-influenced ‘Shoegaze.”

Brittany Howard’s vocals are stunning throughout, giving these far-flung sounds a soulful core. Alabama Shakes are in it for the long run.

The LightUncle Lucius – Boo Clap/Thirty Tigers Due June 9, the fourth album from the Austin-based band will be their first independent release since exiting a label deal.

glazeNot That Kind of GirlSusie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band – Produced by Herb Pedersen – Suzie Glaze’s website touts her band as a “Newgrass Americana Folk Fusion Quartet,” but that’s probably working too hard. As Not That Kind of Girl firmly establishes, this band plays engaging bluegrass and Celtic music, eagerly drawing on a wide range of influences and inspirations. A highlight: A sweet cover of J.D. Souther’s “Prisoner in Disguise.”

Melancholy SeaThe Pinder Brothers The opening few seconds of Melancholy Sea bring  “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” to mind, an apt influence for the Pinder Brothers, whose father Mike Pinder was a founding member of the Moody Blues. Deft melodies and harmonies abound on this third album from the duo.

Rediscovered: Dusty Springfield’s “Faithful”

By Ken Paulson

DustyAfter a wait of 44 years, Dusty Springfield’s third album for Atlantic Records is finally available.

That’s actually pretty extraordinary. She was one of the premier song stylists of her era and was elected to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, the year she passed away. And now we have a new album set for release on April 28.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s not her finest work. There are a lot of reasons for shelving an album, and underwhelming content is often a factor.

She was teamed with pop producer and songwriter Jeff Barry, hot off his work with the Monkees and the Archies.

Dusty generally had impeccable taste in song selection, but Faithful features ten songs written by Barry and his staff of writers , including Bobby “Montego Bay” Bloom. I’m sure that’s how you built an Archies album, but Dusty deserved more distinctive material.

That said, there are some gems here.  “All the King’s Horses” is a hook-laden slice of soulful pop that should have been a single, while “Natchez Trace” is an ambitious rocker that brings Bonnie Bramlett to mind.

Two classy covers – Bread’s “Make It With You” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” – outstrip the album’s original material.

Faithful was never going to be Dusty in Memphis, but this release is  a gift to Dusty Springfield fans everywhere and a valuable addition to her recorded legacy.

New: Spirit Family Reunion, Honeycutters

New releases in our mail this week:

Hands TogetherSpirit Family Reunion – The Spirit Family Reunion is on tour throughout April in support of their second album, including a date in Nashville on April 20 with Blitzen Trapper at the City Winery. Here’s their memorable NPR Tiny Desk concert:

Me Oh My – The Honeycutters – Organic Records – Me Oh My is the third studio album from the Asheville-based Honeycutters, a self-described “Appalachian Honky Tonk” band, They’ll be in Nashville this Wednesday, April 22, to appear on Music City Roots.

Americana AshWhite Owl Red – J.J. McManus fronts this San Francisco-based band on their first album.

Loser AngelsJim Pelz  – The Kentucky-based guitarist for Hickory Robot has just issued his first solo album.

 

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Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “The Ruffian’s Misfortune”

by Paul T. Mueller

rwh_ruffians_cover_150Ray Wylie Hubbard doesn’t break a lot of fresh ground on The Ruffian’s Misfortune, his latest collection of dispatches from the dark side. But that’s OK, because Hubbard’s bluesy tales of misplaced priorities, bad decisions and tragic characters are always entertaining, even when they’re not exactly new.

“All Loose Things,” the opening track, starts off as you might expect, with loud guitar chords and the martial beat of a drum. “All loose things end up being washed away” is the song’s apocalyptic message, and that tone carries over to the next track, “Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long.” “I’ll tell you a tale about the songs the bluesman sings,” Hubbard begins in his weathered, raspy voice, later elaborating: “Some say it’s the devil jingling the coins in his pocket/I’d say it sounds more like a pistol when you cock it.”

Ray Wylie and Lucas Hubbard

Ray Wylie and Lucas Hubbard

The blues often deals with the opposite sex, and so it is on Misfortune. “Too Young Ripe, Too Young Rotten” is a kind of gentle elegy for a woman who’s lived her life by her own lights and is dealing with the consequences.

“Chick Singer, Badass Rockin’ “ could be the story of the same character in her earlier years – “short dress, torn stockings/That chick singer is badass rockin’.” Mississippi country blues singer Jessie Mae Hemphill gets an affectionate tribute in “Jessie Mae,” which features some nice fiddle by The Mastersons’ Eleanor Whitmore.

Hubbard is known to take on loftier themes at times, and here he does so on “Barefoot in Heaven.” “Well, it ain’t no secret, oh if you know me/that I’ve been no-’count most of my life,” he sings, backed by the McCrary Sisters, among others. “But I’ve been converted, oh, I got the spirit/Just a chance I’m gonna see this paradise.”

Hubbard closes with “Stone Blind Horses,” whose rueful tone seems to sum up the late-life regrets of “wild young cowboys, old drunks, paramours and thieves.” Hubbard’s weary voice is well matched with his words: “My only hope is somewhere in that heaven/Someone says a prayer for me.”

All this fun comes courtesy of some familiar names – Hubbard’s son Lucas on guitar, George Reiff on bass and Rick Richards on percussion. Other players include Conrad Chocrun on drums, Gabe Rhodes on guitars, mandolin and piano, and Brad Rice on guitar. The playing is good and the production – by Hubbard and Reiff – is sharp throughout.

 

 

New releases: Boxmasters, Sam Lewis

By Ken Paulson

boxmastersThe BoxmastersSomewhere Down the Road – 101 Ranch Records – It’s not every album that has its own built-in mood swing. The Boxmasters – “Bud” Billy Bob Thornton, Teddy Andreadis, Brad Davis and J.D. Andrews – will release a new two-CD set this week, each disc with a distinctly different tone.

The first disc features their brand of “Modbilly,” an amalgam of jangly pop and country that emulates everyone from the Searchers to the Mavericks. It’s breezy, melodic and often amusingly quirky, as exemplified by “Kathy Won’t Share,” a song about adding another woman to a couple’s lifestyle.

The second CD is considerably darker. Sample lyrics: “As much as I hate myself, I love you.”

“Who Can I Tell” is the saga of a man with a burning secret about a lover who is later found “on the rails, in pieces in the rain.” “Long Black Veil” it’s not.

Sam Lewis – Waiting for You – Brash Music  – Sam Lewis must have spent a lot of time listening to Moondance. The influence is unmistakable on his soulful second album, which includes performances by Will Kimbrough, Darrell Scott, the McCrary Sisters and Kenny Vaughan. He’s on tour now, with a Nashville date set for April 23 at the 5 Spot.

Monty Byrom100 Miles South of Eden – Due on April 14 is the new album from Monty Byrom, a member of Big House and the co-writer of the Eddie Money hit “I Wanna Go Back.” It includes a 1998 live performance of Buck Owens’ “Big in Vegas” by Owens and Big House.

Matt Lax and Nearly Beloved – Attaboy Records – The fourth album by Matt Lax and the Nearly Beloved, a Northern California band, is set for release in May.

Rob NanceSignal FiresRob Nance follows up Lost Souls & Locked Doors with a more musically adventurous second album, set for release on April 21.

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New releases: Allison Moorer’s “Down to Believing”

MoorerAllison MoorerDown to Believing – eOne Music – We first heard the songs from Allison Moorer’s new album Down to Believing at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville six months ago. Her performance was riveting, supported by a stellar band that included album producer Kenny Greenberg on guitar. The new material was vibrant and soul-baring, and the recording fulfills the promise of that September night. Down to Believing reflects Moorer’s personal story, from her divorce from Steve Earle to her son’s autism diagnosis. With all respect to Moorer, those aren’t necessarily themes that would invite repeated listening. The power in Down to Believing comes from marrying intimate and confessional lyrics to compelling musicality, exemplified by soaring album opener “Like It Used to Be.”

Other new and recent releases:

Red Heart AlarmHammer Anvil Stirrup This Seattle—based band calls its music “Gruntry,” an amalgam of country and the region’s grunge history.

Little Texas – Young For A Long Time – Cleopatra Records These early ’90 country hitmakers are back with a new studio album and a national tour that begins at the Florida Blueberry Festival in Brooksville, Florida on April 12.

Vanish Valley – Queen of the Concert – Hard Bark Los Angeles band Vanish Valley is set to release its second album Queen of the Concert on May 12. The project, recorded in less than a week, is fueled by the songwriting of Andrew McAlister.

Stacy Jones – Whiskey Wine & Water Stacy Jones, named best female vocalist in 2014 by the Washington Blues Society, has a new studio album, released March 27.

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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.

 

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.

Cayamo Day 6: Shawn Colvin, Tim Easton, Black Lillies

By Paul T. Mueller

On Thursday, Jan. 22, the Norwegian Pearl, having left St. Croix the previous evening, was heading north and west through the blue Caribbean, on the homeward leg of the Cayamo music cruise 2015.

Days at sea mean days with more music, and one of the first shows scheduled was Amy Speace’s 11:00 a.m. set in the Spinnaker Lounge. And an excellent set it was, beginning with the title song from 2013’s How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat.

Amy Speace

Amy Speace

“I come from a long line of sailors and priests,” Speace said by way of explaining the prevalence of nautical imagery in her songs. More of her sharply observed and carefully written songs followed, backed by Tim Easton’s guitar and Megan Palmer’s fiddle – “Ghost,” which she said was written for her grandparents; “The Killer in Me,” a song of dysfunctional love; “The Sea and the Shore,” a sad and beautiful ballad that Speace said was “No. 1 for about two weeks on the radio in Serbia – take that, Lyle Lovett!”, and the uplifting funeral song “Hymn for the Crossing,” which Speace said she wrote with Irish singer Ben Glover the day after Pete Seeger died. She closed with a heartfelt rendition of “The Fortunate Ones,” featuring Easton’s fine acoustic guitar.

 

Lucinda Williams played another fine set in the Stardust Theater beginning at 1:30. After opening with a solo acoustic rendition of “Passionate Kisses,” Williams brought out her band for a string of old and new tunes. These included “Metal Firecracker,” “Right in Time” and “Drunken Angel,” all from her breakout Car Wheels on a Gravel Road collection; “Cold Day in Hell,” a bluesy kiss-off song from the new album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone; “I Lost It,” featuring an excellent solo by guitarist Stuart Mathis; and “Are You Down,” featuring a jazzy intro and an instrumental break that drew applause from Willliams herself. Other highlights were a duet with Jim Lauderdale on “Jailhouse Tears,” a stark, almost harsh reading of “Unsuffer Me,” and rocking treatments of “Essence,” “Joy” and “Get Right with God.” “This goes out to all of you,” Williams told the crowd before launching into a vigorous romp through Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Shawn Colvin’s 3:00 p.m. show in the Spinnaker consisted of well-chosen and beautifully executed covers. With stellar assistance from guitarist and part-time Eagle Steuart Smith, Colvin more than did justice to songs including Steve Earle’s “Someday,” Graham Nash’s “I Used to Be a King,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher than the Rest” and the Eagles’ “The Best of My Love.” Reportedly also performed, but not witnessed by this reviewer, were renditions of The Band’s “Acadian Driftwood,” Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl,” Tom Waits’ “Hold On” and several others.

 

Tim Easton and Megan Palmer played a third “guerrilla set” in Bar City at 5:00 p.m. This time, Palmer divided her time between fiddle and piano, another instrument on which she is quite proficient. Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and Easton’s “Don’t Lie” found Palmer at the keyboard and Bruce Lebovitz, a passenger and an accomplished player, taking over the fiddle duties. Palmer and Lebovitz brought a twin-fiddle approach to a couple of songs, including “Factory Girl.” Easton took over the piano for a rendition of his “Festival Song,” featuring a snippet of “Come Together” and some lyrics customized for Cayamo, and singer-songwriter Nellie Clay joined the group for her “Wichita Was a Bust.” The set closed with a rousing take on Big Bill Broonzy’s “How You Want Your Rollin’ Done,” again featuring Palmer on the piano.

Todd Snider drew a big crowd to his 6:30 show on the pool deck, backed by Elizabeth Cook’s band plus guitarist Jason Wilber from John Prine’s band. Seemingly as much at ease in the daylight as at midnight, Snider put on a loose and funny show, with more music and fewer stories than at his show the night before.                   The set included originals such as “The Last Laugh,” “Is This Thing Working?,” “Easy Money” and “Good News Blues.” There were also some fine covers, including the blues classic “I’m Ready,” “Enjoy Yourself,” Texas singer-songwriter Rusty Wier’s “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” and Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia” and “Sea Cruise.” Snider dedicated his last song, “Come from the Heart,” to Texas songwriter Guy Clark and Clark’s late wife, Susanna, who wrote the song with Richard Leigh.

The Black Lillies came to their 8:30 set in the Atrium ready to rock and ready to bring the crowd with them. They brought plenty of energy and excellent musicianship to their own songs, including “Smokestack Lady” and “40 Days and 40 Nights” (an account of the band’s first national tour), and to covers including the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” and the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” (with Michelle Malone plus two band members, Trish Land on tambourine and Ben Holst on guitar).

Seattle-based band The Dusty 45s kept the Atrium rocking during their 10:30 set, with charismatic front man Billy Joe Huels pushing the pace with almost unbelievable energy. With Huels alternating between guitar and trumpet, the band ripped through some older material – “Devil Takes His Turn,” “Why Darlin’ Why” – and newer songs such as “Chase Your Dream,” “Two Beers in Texas,” “32 Quarters” and “Walking in the Rain.” There were also some nicely done covers, including Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey,” John Prine’s “Glory of True Love,” the 1930 tune “Bye Bye Blues” (dedicated to guitarist Jerry Battista’s father) and “Misirlou,” made famous by surf-rock king Dick Dale.

The Throwdown

The Throwdown

As Thursday turned into Friday, the “Throwback Throwdown” got cranked up on the Pearl’s pool deck. A large cast of musicians, loosely led by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, spent the next 90 minutes or so doing honor to songs from the past. Highlights included Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It,” getting the soul treatment from St. Paul and the Broken Bones; Fats Domino’s “I Lived My Life,” featuring Miller and Lucinda Williams; Jim Stafford’s “Swamp Witch,” performed with appropriate drama by Shawn Mullins; a convincing rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country” by Kacey Musgraves; Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away,” sweetly done by The Lone Bellow; Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” featuring the powerful vocals of Humming House’s Leslie Rodriguez and nice guitar by Davis Causey, and the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” by the Black Lillies. John Fullbright showed his range with a powerful take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” and a quieter rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “If You See Me Getting Smaller,” which left the often raucous pool deck in dead silence. The big finale was an all-hands-on-deck jam of the traditional blues “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

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