Concert review: Wheatfield four decades on

By Paul T. Mueller

Most bands that started more than 40 years ago are no longer playing together, much less still creating good new material. One happy exception is Wheatfield, which began as a trio in Houston in 1973 and is now a quartet that plays a mostly acoustic brand of folk-rock, flavored with country, bluegrass and jazz. On Aug. 1, the group returned to its city of origin for a sold-out show at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck – part of a six-date tour in support of its long-awaited new CD, Big Texas Sky.

Wheatfield’s current lineup consists of original members Connie Mims (vocals, guitar and percussion), Craig Calvert (vocals, guitar, mandolin and flute) and Ezra Idlet (vocals, guitar and banjo), plus Keith Grimwood (vocals and bass), who joined in 1976. The four take turns on lead vocals and contribute to the harmonies that have always been a hallmark of the band’s sound.

wheatfield 350x233 Concert review: Wheatfield four decades on

Wheatfield: Ezra Idlet, Connie Mims, Keith Grimwood and Craig Calvert

A bit of history: The first phase of Wheatfield’s career ended in 1979. The band (then known as Saint Elmo’s Fire, following a dispute with another band that claimed rights to the Wheatfield name), was unable to break through to a national audience, despite a sizable fan base and musical achievements that included an Austin City Limits appearance in 1976. The members went their separate ways – Grimwood and Idlet teamed up as Trout Fishing in America, best known for its imaginative children’s music, while Mims and Calvert moved on to other musical pursuits. But the four stayed in touch, and about a decade ago, having reclaimed the Wheatfield name, started reuniting periodically for short tours.

The Mucky Duck show – 21 songs, 90 minutes – included most of Big Texas Sky’s 12 tracks, plus some classics from the band’s early days and a few selections from in between. The show opened with Sky’s title track, a seemingly autobiographical Mims composition about leaving home (she, Calvert and Idlet began performing together in high school, and legend has it that the already graduated Calvert and Idlet were in the cheap seats at Mims’ graduation in 1973, ready to launch Wheatfield’s professional career without further delay). Other highlights included “The Very Best Thing,” a sweet love song written by Idlet; “Where’s Your Mama,” a Grimwood-Idlet tune about a different kind of pickup line; “Grace of the Rio Grande,” Mims’ tribute to her grandfather, and “How Many Times a Fool,” a breakup song by Grimwood and Idlet with a bitter theme, but high-energy playing.

Longtime fans were rewarded with several familiar songs. “Cruzan Time,” a funny recollection of one of Wheatfield’s early gigs – a six-week residency at a hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Croix – benefited from Calvert’s fine mandolin. Calvert also got to demonstrate his flute skills on “This Year” and the jazzy instrumental “Roll Over Dave Brubeck.” The latter featured what has become something of a Wheatfield show tradition: Mims’ minimal contribution – striking a triangle at several points – earned her an enthusiastic ovation each time.

Wheatfield/Saint Elmo’s Fire always had an ear for well-chosen covers as well, and the Mucky Duck show included two excellent examples – Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman,” both fueled by brilliant harmonies.

After closing with Mims’ “Anywhere My Heart Goes,” featuring some nice guitar work by Calvert, the band returned for an encore consisting of Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation,” a showcase for Mims’ singing and Idlet’s banjo, and Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” with harmonies every bit as beautiful and chill-inducing as those in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s version.

 

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Stone Mountain Station’s “Electric Silence”

 

by Paul T. Mueller

In its publicity material, Brooklyn-based band Stone Mountain Station lists influences ranging from the Beatles to AC/DC to Wilco. That’s a pretty wide range, maybe a bit too wide. The band’s first full-length release, Electric Silence, shows a lot of potential but comes off as somewhat unfocused.

The basic sound is high-energy pop, with a little blues and rock thrown in. All of it is built around the voice of lead vocalist Gina Tolentino, which is a bit reminiscent of Natalie Merchant’s. Unfortunately, in the album’s pre-release form, Tolentino’s voice sometimes seems a bit lost in the mix. It’s hoped the final product will show her efforts to better advantage.

Capable instrumental support comes from keyboardist Mark Ciani, who also wrote most of the songs and co-produced the album; electric guitarist/co-producer Alvaro Kapaz; acoustic guitarist Dan Sussman, who wrote two songs; bassist Ryan Gleason, and drummer/percussionist Matt Musty.

Best bets: “He Only Loves Me Too,” with its nice mix of jangly guitar and keyboards; “Sum of It,” a country-ish kiss-off song; and “Never Within Reach,” with exuberant organ riffs and chunky guitar riffs that recall Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

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Free speech honor for Jackson Browne

links ama1 Free speech honor for Jackson Browne Americana Music News – Jackson Browne has been named the 2014 recipient of the “Spirit of Americana” award for free speech in music, presented by  the  Americana Music Association and the Newseum Institute’s  First Amendment Center.

The annual award, which recognizes artists who have used their music to raise awareness and make a difference, has been presented to a wide range of performers, including Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels,  Stephen Stills, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, Judy Collins and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

“Jackson Browne has long embraced the power of music to engage and inform,” said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center. “From his founding of Musicians United for Safe Energy to his work on behalf of Amnesty International, Farm Aid and environmental causes, Browne has never hesitated to say – or sing – what he believes.”

The award will be presented at the  Americana Music 13th Annual Honors and Awards ceremony on Wednesday, September 17 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The show will be recorded for distribution to PBS stations and a special Austin City Limits presentation.

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Reissues: The 5th Dimension’s “Earthbound”

earthbound 150x150 Reissues: The 5th Dimensions EarthboundBy Ken Paulson

Real Gone Music continues to do justice to the recorded legacy of the 5th Dimension, a groundbreaking, yet underrated group of vocalists. First came re-issues of albums by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, followed by a McCoo solo album.

Just released is Earthbound, the only 5th Dimension album never to make its way to CD. It was the final album for the original quintet and marked their reunion with Jimmy Webb as songwriter and producer. It was his “Up, Up and Away” that ignited their careers in 1967 and led to the stunning The Magic Garden album, recorded the same year.

Webb’s songs anchor the album – most notably “When Did I Lose Your Love” –  but the covers are unexpected and well done: George Harrison’s “Be Here Now,” the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” and a lush take on the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.”

The oddity is Webb’s cheery “Walk Your Feet in the Sunshine,” a primer on podiatric care and the perfect companion piece to the Beach Boys’ 1971 song “Take a Load Off Your Feet.”

Earthbound wasn’t a hit in 1973, but was both ambitious and adventurous. It’s good to have it back.

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Review: The Mastersons’ “Good Luck Charm”

Mastersons 150x150 Review: The Mastersons Good Luck CharmBy Ken Paulson

We first saw the Mastersons two years ago on a Cayamo cruise and were knocked out by their tight harmonies and penchant for great hooks.

Those traits show up in abundance on their second album Good Luck Charm on New West Records. Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, also members of Steve Earle’s Dukes and Duchesses, make for an impressive duo and their new album is even more fully realized than their first, Birds Fly South.

While not overtly political, the title track and “Uniform” make their points in highly melodic settings. “Closer to You” is a reminder to break down the barriers that keep us apart, a serious message delivered in an upbeat vessel.

There are songs of love and lost love, all with the engaging hooks and harmonies that drew us to the Mastersons in the first place.

Masterson and Whitmore have clearly committed themselves to releasing great sounding songs that say something. Mission accomplished.

 

mastersons 350x234 Review: The Mastersons Good Luck Charm

Photo by Paul T. Mueller

 

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Review: Chris Smither’s “Still on the Levee”

Still on the Levee 150x150 Review: Chris Smithers Still on the LeveeBy Ken Paulson
It’s going to be a good year for fans of Chris Smither, the veteran folk-blues artist from New Orleans.
On July 22, his complete lyrics will be published in book form and in September, a tribute CD called Link of Chain is scheduled for release.
Most intriguing though is Still on the Levee: A 50 Year Retrospective, which finds Smither revisiting songs he’s written and recorded throughout his career, beginning with “Devil Got Your Man.” The handsome 2-CD package, with full lyrics in a beautifully illustrated booklet , is a compelling collection.
Smither is a skilled fingerpicker, who draws on both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt for inspiration. He enjoyed early success when Bonnie Raitt covered his “Love You Like a Man  in 1972, but missteps left him largely under the radar. Still on the Levee shows us what we all missed.

The lyrics are painstakingly crafted and have the feel of truth. They chronicle both troubles and hope. Sobering songs like “Don’t It Drag On” are offset by lighter fare, most notably Smither’s duet with Loudon Wainwright III on “What They Say:” “They say the good die young, but it ain’t for certain/I been good all day, and I ain’t hurtin’.”
Allen Toussaint guests on “No Love Today” and the closing songs with Rusty Belle are among the collection’s best. Their performance with Smither on “Winsome Smile” is as close to rock as he gets and brings John Kay to mind.
Both discs close with different versions of “Leave the Light On” a telling take on mortality and a most appropriate way to close this decades-spanning collection.

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Sun 209: 60 years on

NBC Nightly News had a nice feature tonight reminding us that Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right Mama” 60 years ago today in a session that led to Presley’s first single. The B-side was “Blue Moon of Kentucky. (Its catalog number inspired the name of this site.)
It’s extraordinary that the studio that ignited rock ‘n’ roll and countless other genres is still open as both a tourist attraction and recording studio. Sam Phillips would be proud.

Review: Matt Harlan’s “Raven Hotel”

 harlan raven 160 150x144 Review: Matt Harlans Raven Hotelby Paul T. Mueller

Houston-based singer-songwriter Matt Harlan isn’t one of those musicians who puts out an album every year – his last was released in early 2012 – but you can bet that when one does finally show up, it’s worth the wait. Raven Hotel is an excellent showcase for Harlan’s writing, playing, singing and production skills.

The album’s second track is titled “Half Developed Song,” but that may be a little inside humor (it’s actually about getting past everyday obstacles and getting on with life). There’s nothing half developed about any of Raven Hotel’s 12 songs. All are carefully written, skillfully played and sung. Clean production, for which Harlan and Rich Brotherton share credit, makes the most of them.

The title track deals with the struggle to maintain human connections in a busy world. “I’m living in my own world now, you can stop by if you like,” Harlan sings, “ ’Cause I’ll forget to call and I’ll forget to write.” Even more personal is the love-is-tough theme of “We Never Met (Time Machine).” “Well, it’s hard to be your lover, and it’s hard to be your friend,” goes the second verse. “When you don’t offer no forgiveness, it’s a game nobody wins.”

In “Second Gear,” a father’s instructions to his child during a driving lesson (“Drop it down another gear/The roads are slick this time of year”) turn into larger life lessons (“You’ll find a higher place that you can climb to/Just leave a trail to show them where you’ve been”). “Burgundy and Blue,” a sweet love song, marks a departure from Harlan’s usual folky style – it’s done as a jazz ballad, backed by the smoky tenor sax of John Mills.

Harlan’s wife, Rachel Jones, gets the vocal spotlight on “Riding with the Wind,” an ode to freedom that Harlan has said was written with her voice in mind. She also contributes nice harmony vocals on several other songs.

Other members of the all-star cast Harlan and Brotherton assembled for this project include Bukka Allen on organ, piano and accordion (the latter used to good effect on “Old Allen Road,” a dark tale of implied violence); Maddy Brotherton on violin; Floyd Domino on keyboards; Glenn Fukunaga on bass; Jon Greene on drums, and Mickey Raphael, best known for his long association with Willie Nelson, on harmonica, best heard on the wistful “Slow Moving Train.” Brotherton, who’s the longtime lead guitarist in Robert Earl Keen’s band, contributed on guitars and several other stringed instruments, as well as synth and vocals.

 

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Review: Allen Toussaint in concert

By Paul T. Mueller

Allen Toussaint’s performance at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston on June 19 was a textbook example of how to please existing fans and win new ones.

Following performances by three other acts (including a brilliant set by Austin’s Ruthie Foster), the legendary New Orleans musician took the stage after a short intro by his ace band. He spent the next hour or so filling Miller Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater in one of Houston’s oldest parks, with the distinctive rhythms and melodies of his native New Orleans.

 At 76, Toussaint is a revered and beloved figure in American music, but this was no phone-it-in nostalgia gig. In addition to his skills as a songwriter and producer, he’s a tremendously gifted piano player and he put that skill to full use on a set list drawn from his extensive repertoire, including “Southern Nights,” “A Certain Girl,” “Mardi Gras Man,” “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” and “Yes We Can Can,” among others. Toussaint has a fine voice as well, and most of his songs included his soulful singing. One notable exception was a haunting and beautiful instrumental rendition of the folk classic “St. James Infirmary,” sad and joyful at the same time.

As if the music weren’t enough (actually, it was), Toussaint also left his grand piano during one song to throw souvenirs into the crowd from the edge of the stage, in the spirit of Mardi Gras float occupants distributing beads and doubloons to the masses along the parade route.

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Review: Willis Alan Ramsey in Houston

ramsey photo 150x150 Review: Willis Alan Ramsey in Houston

Willis Alan Ramsey

By Paul T. Mueller

Cult-favorite singer-songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey had a rocky outing on June 17 at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston.

Ramsey’s set got off to an unexpected start, with an unannounced opening set by Ramsey’s wife, Alison Rogers. After only one song, a morose musing on love and loss, Ramsey hollered “Time out!” from his barstool at the back of the room, and then spent the next 15 minutes conferring, or arguing, with the guy running the sound board. Rogers finally resumed her set and got in one more song before another long break. And so it went.

When Ramsey finally took the stage, he started out with yet more fiddling with equipment and arguing with the soundman. He managed to get through a few songs before interrupting himself again – mostly bluesy folk performed in a laconic style, accompanied by guitar and harmonica.

Five or six songs of what eventually turned out to be a 14-song set were from his semi-legendary debut (and so far, only) album, 1974’s Willis Alan Ramsey. These included “Wishbone,” “The Ballad of Spider John,” “Angel Eyes” and “Northeast Texas Women,” among others. Unfortunately, they were interspersed with long, rambling stories, lots of tuning and “breaks” taken for no apparent reason.

Ramsey started losing his audience about halfway through, as a considerable part of the crowd headed for the door during a particularly testy exchange with the soundman. Some unpleasant comments about local favorite Lyle Lovett, with whom he wrote “North Dakota,” did little to endear him to those who remained.

Three and a half hours in, the audience was down to 20 or so diehards, plus a few noisy patrons at the bar. Ramsey asked them to quiet down, but that had little effect other than prompting one particularly vocal heckler to urge him to just play and finish the show. By this point he had given up on his equipment and was singing and playing without amplification. Ironically the two or three songs he did this way were among the better performances of the evening.

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