Class reunion: The original Alice Cooper band

By Ken Paulson

It’s been more than four decades, but I still remember seeing the Alice Cooper “School’s Out” tour. Complete with guillotine, they rocked Chicago Stadium. And there they were tonight, the band’s original members reuniting to deftly play “Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” in Nashville at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

I’d be surprised if Dennis Dunaway, Neal Smith and Michael Bruce have played those songs in recent years, but the rust didn’t show. The mini-set offered up driving rock and nostalgia in equal measure.

The first part of the set featured Alice’s current band, and with the early classics saved for the original band, was little heavy on album tracks of the past 20 years. That said, “Under My Wheels” and “Halo of Flies” were absolute highlights.

One side note: Alice Cooper’s shows have always been about theatricality, but it was a little jarring to have him pull out a dagger at the end of his sympathetic “Only Women Bleed” and have the audience cheer in anticipation of the stabbing to come. Maybe it’s time to retire that.

 

Tonight was a reminder, though of the enduring appeal of  radio-friendly songs, imaginative staging and a persona that never seems to age. Alice Cooper was always about hard rock and humor. Some things never change.

 

 

 

 

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Conroe Americana Music Festival: Day One

By Paul T. Mueller

The inaugural Conroe Americana Music Festival got off to a promising start on Friday, May 5, in the charmingly restored downtown area of the small city north of Houston. Perfect spring weather and moderate crowds made for an excellent festival experience, and the eclectic mix of musicians matched the fine atmosphere with outstanding performances. The overall vibe was laid back, with flashes of intensity.

The promoters’ decision to hold the festival in four indoor venues – two pubs, an event space and a converted ice plant – and two open-air stages under festival tents worked out well for the event’s first evening. All of the venues are located within a few blocks of each other, making for easy show-hopping. The relatively large number of performers meant that six shows were going on simultaneously pretty much the whole time, causing some frustration for those who wanted to see everybody, but also dispersing the crowd and avoiding big crushes at any one venue.

Some highlights from the first night:

      Quiet folkie fare, accompanied by cello and mandolin, by Shellee Coley, a onetime Nashvillian now back in her native Texas. Coley filled one of the 6 p.m. opening slots, in the beautifully restored Martin’s Hall, with her own songs and also a well-received rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

          Texas music from Houston-area singer-songwriter Brad Boyer, accompanied by guitarist Chad Ware. Hampered somewhat by subpar acoustics and noisy bar patrons in the Sparkle Ice House, Boyer carried on with a mix of originals (“Five Stones and a Sling,” “Long Cold December”) and covers (Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” Guy Clark’s “Stuff that Works”). There was also a nice rendition of his tribute to Guy, “The Last Folksinger.”

          High-energy takes on introspective songs (“Never the Pretty Girl,” “Whisper My Name”) by Austin artist BettySoo, accompanied by a full band that included Will Sexton on guitar and Bonnie Whitmore on bass, in the Corner Pub.

          Rocking blues from Austin’s Peterson Brothers Band, with brothers Glenn Peterson Jr. on guitar and Alex Peterson on bass, along with two drummers, on an outdoor stage sponsored by Conroe’s Southern Star Brewing Co.

          A diverse mix of originals and interesting covers from Austin-based singer-songwriter-producer Gurf Morlix. The former included “The Best We Can,” which Morlix said is based on a “pretty chord” of the kind he rarely uses. The latter included “The

Peterson Brothers at Conroe Americana Music Festival

Massacre at Glencoe,” a ballad about an 18th century feud between Scottish clans, and Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Morlix closed with the lovely benediction “The Parting Glass.”

          Boogie with a side of spirituality from the seemingly ageless Billy Joe Shaver, who seemed right at home in the cavernous Sparkle venue. Backed by an enthusiastic young band, Shaver cranked through such familiar favorites as “Try and Try Again,” “When the Fallen Angels Fly” and “Live Forever,” plus newer fare such as “Hard to Be an Outlaw.” His brand of rocked-up country appealed to listeners and dancers alike.

The festival continues through the weekend of May 6-7.

Review – Rodney Crowell’s “Close Ties”

by Paul T. Mueller – There’s a little looking forward, a lot of looking back, and more than a hint of unfinished business in Rodney Crowell’s latest collection, Close Ties. The last comes courtesy of a couple of songs that reference Susanna Clark, wife of Guy Clark, Crowell’s early mentor and later peer (and competitor). In “Life Without Susanna,” Crowell describes her as “the most near perfect woman I’d ever seen” and “the most worthy opponent that I’ve ever known.” But he also talks about the darker days that followed. “Life without Susanna started when Townes Van Zandt died,” he sings “She made the bed inside her head a shelter… Nothing pierced the fortress inside her mind.” In “Nashville 1972,” Crowell describes his arrival in Music City and the beginnings of his complicated relationship with the Clarks: “I found my way around this town with a friend I made named Guy/Who loved Susanna and so did I.”

Falling into the “looking back” category, in addition to the above, is “East Houston Blues,” which recounts Rodney Crowell’s hardscrabble childhood and adolescence. A glimpse of the future comes in “I Don’t Care Anymore,” in which the singer contemplates life with less concern with the trappings of success and more comfort with the man he’s become.

Crowell’s introspective bent manifests itself in “Reckless,” in which he describes a dream fueled by the tension between temptation and guilt. In “Forgive Me, Annabelle,” he sings of belatedly coming to terms with the end of a relationship, and with his responsibility for that event.

One of the album’s more interesting tracks, in terms of both subject matter and songcraft, is “It Ain’t Over Yet,” which seems to take the form of a three-way dialogue between Crowell, Guy Clark and Susanna Clark. The song features John Paul White and Rosanne Cash as stand-ins for the Clarks, imparting such wisdom as “Here’s what I know about the gifts God gave/You can’t take ’em with you when you go to the grave” (Guy/White) and “I’ve known you forever and it’s true/If you came by it easy, you wouldn’t be you” (Susanna/Cash).

Close Ties works pretty well as a summing-up of an illustrious career. But there’s also the sense that, at 66, Rodney Crowell has much more to offer.

Other notable guests include guitarists Steuart Smith, Tommy Emmanuel and Jedd Hughes, bassist Lex Price and Michael Rhodes, drummers Ian Fitchuk and Jerry Roe, and singer Sheryl Crow.

Music legend B.J. Thomas at the Franklin Theater

B.J. Thomas described himself as “crabby” during his appearance Friday night at the Franklin theater just down the road from Nashville. It was an evening of awkward silences and some irritation with the lighting.

But it really didn’t matter. B.J. Thomas has always had a great pop voice and he ably performed songs from throughout his career, including his first hit – a 1966 cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – and his final number one record  “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” from 1975.

In that nine-year period, Thomas was rarely off the charts and on Friday he showcased all of the big hits, including “Hooking on a Feeling” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.”  This may have been an off night for B.J. Thomas, but you wouldn’t have known it from the music. – Ken Paulson

Review: Kevin and Dustin Welch in concert

 By Paul T. Mueller

Dustin and Kevin Welch

Singer-songwriters Kevin and Dustin Welch (father and son, respectively) bring somewhat different approaches to the Americana table. Kevin’s songs and performing style tend toward the traditional, while Dustin’s are often edgier. Performing together February 4 at Houston’s Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, they complemented each other’s styles and reinforced each other’s energy, making for a highly enjoyable experience for the several dozen in attendance.

The Welches’ show, part of the church’s UniTunes Coffeehouse series, featured 17 songs, interspersed with commentary on how some of them came to be. Kevin Welch’s songs explored themes such as love, faith and doubt, usually in a straightforward way and accompanied by skillfully played acoustic guitar. Dustin’s songs were often less explicit; his father noted after one of his son’s songs that he had “no idea” what it was about. Mystery aside, Dustin sang with conviction, accompanying himself on acoustic and resonator guitars and banjo.

Some highlights:

  • Kevin’s “Millionaire,” an anthem to appreciating non-material blessings
  • “Marysville,” Kevin’s tribute to a small Australian town devastated by a wildfire in 2009
  • Dustin’s “Far Horizon,” an exploration of doubt and faith that featured a powerful, bluegrassy duet between Dustin’s banjo and Kevin’s guitar
  • Kevin’s “Heaven Now,” played by request but only after the singer had looked up his lyrics online
  • Dustin’s “Don’t Tell Em Nothin’,” a kind of post-crime tale that the singer dedicated to the criminal-defense attorneys in the audience
  • Kevin’s as-yet-unrecorded “The Flower,” told from the point of view of a teenage girl dealing with difficult circumstances and featuring some powerful slide guitar by Dustin on the resonator

Both Welches declared their gratitude for the audience’s attention (one fan drew laughs by mentioning that he’d skipped Taylor Swift’s pre-Super Bowl show in order to be there). They closed with Kevin’s “A Prayer Like Any Other,” a gentle request for divine oversight, co-written with Kieran Kane.

Review: Aaron Lee Tasjan’s “Silver Tears”

 

silvertears_160By Paul T. Mueller – With his new album Silver Tears, Aaron Lee Tasjan nails an impressive achievement – channeling a roster of worthy influences while remaining true to his own voice and vision. Tasjan, an accomplished singer-songwriter and guitarist based in East Nashville, leads off with “Hard Life,” which does in fact deal with difficulties, but in a bouncy pop style that brings to mind Harry Nilsson. “Little Movies” casts life in cinematic terms – “Watch the day unfold in little movies / With silver tears that sparkle from my eyes” – recalling John Lennon in both its arrangement and its lyrics. The dramatic “Ready to Die” evokes Warren Zevon in its fatalistic lyrics (“I’m ready to die / For a worthy cause / It’s ’cause I’m tired of feeling bad”).

Tasjan, who’s done stints with the New York Dolls and drivin n cryin in addition to his solo work, is a master of many musical styles, as shown here on the introspective ballad “Refugee Blues,” the soulful twang of “Memphis Rain,” the quiet folksiness of “On Your Side,” the bluesy New Orleans vibe of “12 Bar Blues,” and the exuberant R&B of “Success.” All of it is driven by richly textured instrumental support, not least of which are Tasjan’s excellent guitars. It’s also peppered with lyrical wisdom. “One day, they said the future / Was flying cars and a ride on a rocket,” Tasjan sings in “Till the Town Goes Dark.” “Time passed and all I got / Was America today and a TV in my pocket.” Credit to producer Eli Thomson and a fine group of supporting musicians.

In “Success,” Tasjan observes, “Success ain’t about being better than everyone else / It’s about being better than yourself.” Given that Silver Tears is his strongest and most consistent effort to date, that makes Aaron Lee Tasjan, by his own lights, a success. Listeners are likely to agree.

New releases: Mavericks, Dale Watson, Becky Warren

New and recent releases:

mavericks-liveThe MavericksAll Night Live, Vol. 1 – Mondo Mundo Records – The Mavericks have had an extraordinary resurgence in recent years, emerging as top Americana music artists. All Night Live, Vol. 1 is packed with vibrant live versions of songs, largely from recent albums, plus a charming cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon. The collection is the first release on the band’s new Mondo Mundo label, and lead singer  Raul Malo told the Tennessean there are “so many freakin’ volumes” to come in the “All Night Live” series. A new studio album is expected in April 2017.

Blind PilotAnd Then Like Lions – ATO Records – Third album from the Portland-based band, now on tour in California.

Jesse DaytonThe Revealer – Blue Elan Records – The ninth album from Jesse Dayton includes standout track “Holy Ghost Rock ‘n’ Roller,” now getting good play on WMOT. He’s on tour through early December

dale-watsonDale WatsonUnder the Influence – BFD – Dale Watson revisits honky tonk and country classics on this new collection, including covers of Doug Sham, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Lefty Frizell and Mel Tillis.

Becky WarrenWar Surplus – Here’s a novel album concept. Nashville-based Becky Warren tells the story of a solider in Iraq and his girlfriend, with songs alternating their points of view. Warren goes on tour with the Indigo Girls beginning October 27.

Cris JacobsDust to Gold – American Showplace Music – Second album from Cris Jacobs, on tour through October and November.

nipperDavid Nipper EP – Fresh collection from talented Nashville singer-songwriter David Nipper. He’ll appear in the round  at the Commodore Grill in Nashville on November 10 with Phil Dillon and Dave Gibson.

Jack Tempchin One More Song – Blue Elan Records – New album from Eagles collaborator and songwriter Jack Tempchin is an intimate collection, opening with his Johnny Rivers classic “Slow Dancin’.”

 

 

Review: “In the Dark” by Matt Harlan and Rachel Jones

By Paul T. Mueller

harlan_darkIn the Dark marks a couple of changes of direction for Houston-based singer-songwriter Matt Harlan. He’s now part of a duo; his musical partner and wife, Rachel Jones, has contributed to previous projects, but this time she gets equal billing on the CD cover and a much-expanded vocal role, of which she’s more than worthy. And his songs are more about poetic abstraction – images and feelings – than the narrative of such earlier efforts as “Elizabethtown” and “Old Allen Road.”

Case in point: In the title track, nothing much happens except some sitting – in a bar, at home – and watching the night give way to the day. The stylistic shift might be frustrating to fans of Harlan’s storytelling skills, but there’s a place for quieter, less linear songs as well. Harlan and Jones are good at this kind of thing, using their understated but expressive vocals as a vehicle for Harlan’s literate lyrics. All of it is supported by his excellent guitar playing and contributions from some talented guests.

The album’s only song not written or co-written by Harlan, “My Mother’s Song (at Seventeen),” does feature a narrative of sorts. Written by Steve Dodson and Danny Jones, it’s a dialogue of conflict and reconciliation between a parent and a child. “You look at me and disagree,” Jones sings, “and shake your head and sigh.” Guest vocalist Allison Fisher replies, “The thing that you don’t understand is – we sing a different song.” Later they harmonize on a conclusion: “The thing that you don’t understand is – we see a different light.”

Time is a recurring theme on In the Dark. “Move Slow” envisions “every day [as] a gift from somewhere else” and admonishes us to seize the day: “Just imagine all the time we’ll never get to dance out in the thunderstorms.” “Strangers on the Hill” laments the passage of time (“Simple story: Time drifts by”) while casting a critical eye on how we choose to pass that time: “Obligations, tensions high: trying to live like the strangers on the hill.”

Time and change also figure in “Mozart,” which closes the eight-song set. “Mozart will always be Mozart, just like disco will always be dead,” Harlan sings, but in contrast, “as long as I’m living I’m changing, with each drop of sweat that rolls off of my brow.”

Matt Harlan and Rachel Jones share production credit; contributors include Tony Barilla on accordion and keyboards, Steve Candelari on drums and Willy T Golden on lap steel.

Review: Suzy Bogguss’ “Aces Redux”

suzy-bogguss-aces-reduxBy Ken Paulson

Suzy Bogguss  was kind enough to join us a few weeks ago at the Country Music Hall of Fame for the re-launch of WMOT, Nashville’s new Americana radio station. We had the chance to talk briefly about Aces Redux, a revisiting of Aces, her breakthrough album of 25 years ago.

She said her goal was to record the same songs, but with a more organic feel. She’s succeeded.

You live and learn a lot in a quarter century and this new recording reflects both the strength of that original album and Bogguss’ growth as an artist.

Three songs on the album – “Outbound Plane,” “Aces” and “Letting Go” – soared into the country music Top 10 in 1991 and 1992, with “Someday Soon” nestled in at number 12. Still, the new release showcases the other charms on the collection, particularly “Save Yourself” and “Part of Me.”

Timothy B. Schmit opens tour in Nashville

 

Timothy B. Schmit in concert at the City Winery in Nashville

Timothy B. Schmit in concert at the City Winery in Nashville

By Ken Paulson

Timothy B. Schmit, veteran of both the Eagles and Poco, opened his new tour at the City Winery in Nashville tonight, following a number of guest appearances during the 2016 Americana Music Festival.

The tour is to promote his new album Leap of Faith, and most of his set was drawn from that album, including the engaging “My Hat” and the radio friendly “Red Dirt Road.”

If the set was short on familiarity, it was long on musicality and harmonies.

Schmit was in fine voice, and he’s put together a good band, with multiple vocalists.

Schmit did dip into the catalog for his big Eagles hit  “I Can’t Tell You Why,” plus “Love Will Keep Us Alive,” “I Don’t Want to Hear Anymore” and the Poco classic “Keep On Tryin’.”

 

 

 

 

 

Surf’s Up: Brian Wilson at the Ryman

By Ken Paulson

Brian Wilson wrapped up his two-night stand at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last night with a generous set that included the full Pet Sounds album. Playing with a remarkable band that included Beach Boys veterans Al Jardine and Blondie Champlin, Wilson offered up most of the big hits, along with lesser known treats like “Wild Honey,” “Salt Lake City” and the international hit “Cottonfields.”

Oddly, Wilson described the latter – composed by Leadbelly – as a song that he and Jardine wrote. He said the same thing about Sloop John B, traditional folk song that he arranged. Wilson is a better songwriter than historian.

It’s no secret that Brian Wilson has not been comfortable on a stage for a half-century, and obviously he doesn’t have the voice he once had. Still the songs remain rich and powerful and it’s a privilege to hear the composer sing his own “God Only Knows,” bathed in extraordinary harmonies from his first-rate band.

Review: Craig Kinsey’s’ “The Nylon Sessions”

By Paul T. Mueller

kinsey_nylon“This should tide you over until the next full studio album,” read the words of Craig Kinsey on the back cover of his latest CD, The Nylon Sessions. No such disclaimer is needed. This 13-song collection from Kinsey, a singer-songwriter based in Houston, holds up just fine on its own. For the most part, the songs are unplugged renditions of previously recorded Kinsey originals – “songs in their bedroom, without formal attire or affectations,” in his words.

Kinsey, who spent several years in an Arkansas monastery before earning a college degree and launching a career as a musician, is known in Houston for his theatrical stage shows, for which he often wears a top hat and employs burlesque dancers. The Nylon Sessions takes a much simpler approach. All but one of the songs feature Kinsey, an expressive singer who accompanies himself on a nylon-strung guitar (hence the title) and harmonica, plus one other player. The result is a worthy showcase for the thoughtful lyrics of the 11 originals and two covers – as well as for the skills of the supporting musicians.

The Nylon Sessions demonstrates Kinsey’s comfort with several musical genres. Old-time country is represented by a beautifully understated reading of the Lefty Frizzell hit “Always Late (with Your Kisses),” with Kelly Doyle, of Robert Ellis’ band, The Perfect Strangers, on synthesizer. Doyle’s guitar is also featured on the jazzy “Bits and Pieces” and “Romulus and Remus.” Other Ellis bandmates also contribute – pedal steel player Will Van Horn, on the straight-up country of “Cold Shoulder”; banjo player Geoffrey Muller, on the nice gospel workout on “Look at His Hands,” and Muller on electric bass on an excellent cover of Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”

Houston-based trumpeter Aaron Koerner lends his jazzy chops to “Siddhartha’s Dancers” and “Montrose Blvd. Blues,” a fond, New Orleans-inflected tribute to the eclectic Houston neighborhood that has long nurtured the city’s musicians and other artists. Sergio Trevino, front man of Houston indie/Americana band Buxton, provides nice harmony vocals on the folksy, irreverent “Atheist’s Love Song.”

The album’s only solo effort is Kinsey’s lovely solo rendition of “Green Grow the Rashes,” Scottish poet Robert Burns’ ode to the ladies. The closing track, another highlight, is the bluesy lost-love tale “After All,” featuring Mike Whitebread on guitar.

“Simply songs. Words,” Craig Kinsey calls this album. That’s plenty.

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Review: Tim Easton’s “American Fork”

By Paul T. Mueller

tim eastonTim Easton has some advice for you: Stop wasting time. Put down your smartphones. Talk to each other.

Any folksinger worthy of the title throws some messages in with the music, and Easton, a singer-songwriter based in East Nashville, is no exception. But on his new album, American Fork, he does it in an entertaining way instead of preaching. His earnestness is wrapped in excellent musicianship, which happily results in his best album in a while, and one of his best ever.

Fittingly, he wastes no time in getting to one of his big themes, leading off with a polite diatribe on wasted time. “Every minute that you stare at that stupid screen,” he sings in “Right Before Your Own Eyes,” “and read all the chatter that you think you should read/is another minute sooner that your young old mind is dying.” That’s a serious point, passionately made, but the delivery is good-natured and it’s backed by some terrific instrumentation that includes saxophone and steel guitar.

“Killing Time” explores a similar theme in a slightly different way, incorporating a concept – “What do you live for?” – that Tim Easton has used in a series of social-media mini-interviews with people he’s met during his travels in the past few years. “Don’t hang there like a broken door,” he sings. “Find out what you’re living for/There has to be something more than just killing time.” Again, strong advice, but the tone is gentle and encouraging, not hectoring.

Easton takes a tougher tone on “Gatekeeper,” an angry blast at the powers that be – maybe in the music industry, maybe on a bigger scale. “Then you knocked me off my feet as you pinned me to the ground,” Easton sings, accompanied by sinister-sounding slide guitar and ghostly background vocals. “But I called you as you walked away/but you never turned around/Gatekeeper, go count your money.”

Easton shows his lighter side on “Elmore James,” a lively tribute to the pioneering slide guitarist, and the rollicking “Alaskan Bars, Part 1,” which recounts a series of nightlife anecdotes that one suspects might be based on actual experiences.

Another reality of the troubadour life – one Easton is no doubt familiar with – is its transient nature. In the album’s closer, “On My Way,” he sums it up: “Like the trucks out on the highway/like the seasons and the days/like the river that passes through your town/I really must be on my way.” The quiet tone and understated playing hark back to Easton’s sound on earlier works such as The Truth About Us and Break Your Mother’s Heart.

The full-band production on this album is a big jump from the minimalist approach of Easton’s previous outing, 2013’s Not Cool. Here he and co-producer Patrick Damphier use a broad spectrum of instrumentation. Jon Radford’s drums and Michael Rinne’s bass provide the foundation, while Easton handles the guitars with his usual formidable skill. Further color and texture come from talented Robbie Crowell on keyboards and horns, Russ Pahl on pedal steel and Larissa Maestro on cello. Backing vocals are nicely done by Maestro and fellow singer-songwriters Megan Palmer, Ariel Bui and Emma Berkey.

Tim Easton has spent a lot of years on the road and he’s learned a lot about life and music along the way. We get the benefit of some of that hard-won knowledge on American Fork, in a way that’s both thought-provoking and pleasing to the ear.

Re-issues: Survivor – The Definitive Collection

By Ken Paulson

survivorOn one level, Survivor: The Definitive Collection is a rich anthology chronicling the best moments of a hard-working rock band from the ‘80s. On the other, it’s a testament to the talents of Jim Peterik, an under-recognized rock songwriter whose hits span decades.

As lead singer and writer for the Chicago-based Ides of March, Peterik’s “You Wouldn’t Listen” just missed the Top 40 in 1966, followed four years later by the monster hit “Vehicle.” In 1978, Peterik founded Survivor, which recorded 18 charting singles in a 9-year span, including 5 in the Top 10.

All of the hits are here, including the Rocky movie themes “Eye of the Tiger” and “Burning Heart,” “Is This Love,” “High on You” and “The Search Is Over.”

Survivor played straight-ahead rock and the occasional power ballad. The music holds up well, largely because of the craftsmanship of Peterik  and co-writer and guitarist Frankie Sullivan.

The new collection includes Survivor’s recording of “Rockin’ Into the Night,” an initially rejected song that made its way to .38 Special, who turned into it their first hit in 1980.

The liner notes for this Real Gone Music release include an interview with Peterik and an album-by-album recap of the band’s history.

Here’s the video from Survivor’s biggest hit, with 197 million views on YouTube:

Review: “Dreamer” celebrates Kent Finlay

By Paul T. Mueller

finlay_cover_400“I love my songwriters,” Kent Finlay is reported to have said, moments before he took his last breath. Clearly the feeling was mutual.

James Kent Finlay was the owner of Cheatham Street Warehouse, a small music venue in San Marcos, Texas, that helped launch the careers of many Texas musicians – including, among others, George Strait, Todd Snider, Slaid Cleaves and James McMurtry. Finlay died last year at 77 (on March 2, Texas Independence Day), but his spirit lives on in this 14-track tribute, consisting of songs written or co-written by Finlay and performed by some of the artists who spent time at Cheatham Street. For those not familiar with his work, it’s impressive proof that in addition to his nurturing of other artists, he was a fine songwriter in his own right.

Most of the musicians on the album are probably better known around Texas than nationally, but they all deliver polished performances that do credit to Finlay’s songs. Terri Hendrix opens with “I’ll Sing You a Story,” which Finlay used to perform himself at the beginning of songwriters’ night each Wednesday at Cheatham Street. Walt Wilkins covers “Bright Lights of Brady,” a nostalgic look back at youthful yearnings. James McMurtry’s weathered voice is a fine match for the grim outlaw ballad “Comfort’s Just a Rifle Shot Away,” and Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay give an excellent reading of “Yesterday’s Oatmeal,” a sad story of faded love and domestic disappointment.

From Finlay’s younger daughter, HalleyAnna, we get “I’ve Written Some Life,” which could be the autobiography of a lot of songwriters. Adam Carroll provides a nice rendition of “Be Nice to ’Em Son,” a cautionary tale about the fleeting nature of fame and fortune, while Jon Dee Graham’s gruff persona is well suited to the hard-living ballad “Taken Better Care of Myself.”

Houston-based singer-songwriter Matt Harlan, who used to drive to San Marcos most Wednesday nights to play at Cheatham Street, does a fine job on “The Songwriter,” which neatly sums up Finlay’s philosophy: “Yesterday is all we have that’s sure to last forever/Today will end in darkness, there’s no doubt/But you can never make him stop believing in tomorrow/Tomorrow’s all today is all about.”

The album’s last credited track is “Hill Country,” Finlay’s lament for the Central Texas region he loved, sung by Jamie Wilson of The Trishas. Its two final choruses feature the Hill Country Choir, a large cast of “fans and friends, songwriters and song lovers” recruited through social media to a Wednesday night recording session. Leigh and McKay return to close Dreamer with an uncredited rendition of “Saturday Night,” a nice story of a cross-border, cross-cultural love affair.

The CD – much of it recorded in San Marcos just after Finlay’s death – was ably produced by Jenni Finlay, Kent Finlay’s firstborn daughter, and Brian T. Atkinson. The two are the authors of the recently published Kent Finlay, Dreamer, which details the history of Cheatham Street Warehouse and includes first-person recollections from dozens of artists.

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New releases: Tommy Womack, Michael Fracasso

By Ken Paulson

namasteTommy Womack NamasteTommy Womack is back and we’re grateful. One of the smartest, and simultaneously sweet and subversive songwriters in Nashville, Womack has recovered from a life-threatening 2015 car crash and released Namaste, an album with a front cover that conveys his gratitude for recovery.

Womack has been a member of Government Cheese, the Bis-Quits and Daddy (the latter two with Will Kimbrough), but his solo albums are always the most personal and reflective.

“Angel” opens the album with a melodic and gentle expression of hope, and then Womack throws open the doors to tackle everything from his balding (“Comb-Over Blues”) to the essence of Christian faith “God Part III.” That’s quite a range.

Nashvillians will recognize their changing city in the blistering and funny spoken-word “Nashville.”

“Darling Let Your Freebird Fly” revisits the headlines of pop music and throws an elbow in the direction of Geraldo Rivera and Chevy Chase. On “I Almost Died,” Womack’s account of his first near-death experience in 2007 will give you chills,

Namaste, produced by Brad Jones, is powerful, irreverent and distinctly different.

FrancassoMichael FracassoHere Come the Savages – Blue Door Records – This new album from Austin-based artist Michael Fracasso combines solid originals with intepretations of classic pop songs, including Brian Wilson’s “Caroline No” and the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure,” both delivered with the sad, slow delivery that the lyrics call for.  Fracasso’s buoyant take on the Kinks’ “Better Things” is a highlight.

Steve Dawson – Solid States and Loose Ends – Black Hen Music – Steve Dawson’s bluesy new album draws on some of Nashville’s most talented musicians, including Jim Hoke, Fats Kaplin and Regina and Ann McCrary.

Urban PioneersFeast or Famine – This hillbilly music/string band is set to tour Texas, beginning with a June 17 date at Badlands in Austin.

Thomas HineSome Notion or Novelty – Folk singer-songwriter from Colorado issues his follow-up to 2013’s “Forgive My Future.”

 

Celebrating Sun Records: Margo Price, JD McPherson

margo priceBy Ken Paulson

We lost Sam Phillips in 2003, but his spirit filled the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame on Saturday. Margo Price, J.D. McPherson, Webb Wilder and the Planet Rockers showcased the Sun Records sound with songs from the label and some original tunes that were clearly inspired by Phillips’ work.

Webb Wilder opened the show with two tracks from his pivotal “It Came From Nashville” LP and a raucous cover of “Ubangi Stomp.”

JD McPherson offered up some Junior Parker and Charlie Rich, closing with his Sun-fueled ‘North Side Gal.”

Jerry Phillips

Jerry Phillips

Margo Price, who recorded her current album at Sun Studios, sang Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and bent the “rules” a bit by doing a Billy Swan-inspired cover of “Don’t Be Cruel,” Elvis’ first RCA single after leaving Sun.

The afternoon’s biggest surprise was a guest appearance by Sam Phillips’ son Jerry, all decked out in a red sportcoat and a rockabilly attitude. His “Never Too Short to Rock” was great fun.

Backing up most of the artists and offering up a spirited set of their own were the Planet Rockers. The energetic afternoon closed with all of the artists returning to the stage for a finale of Carl Perkins’ “Boppin’ the Blues.”

It was an extraordinary 90 minutes and a testament to the power and passion of Sam Phillips. The Hall of Fame’s exhibit “Flying Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips” closes on June 12. Highly recommended.

Review: Hayes Carll’s “Lovers and Leavers”

By Paul T. Mueller

carll_ll_160Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll made a splash with his last album, 2011’s KMAG YOYO, which featured such raucous fare as “Stomp and Holler,” “Another Like You” and the title track. On Lovers and Leavers, he turns inward, focusing on such themes as love, loss and struggle. The subject matter reflects Carll’s challenges during the intervening years – divorce, vocal problems and new love, among others – but Lovers and Leavers is more than a collection of sob stories. The songs are full of insightful (and sometimes painful) observations that illuminate wider truths, and they’re marked by fine playing, singing and production. With the help of a distinguished group of collaborators, Hayes Carll has succeeded at turning personal travail into good art.

Each of the 10 tracks is a co-write, with such illustrious names as Darrell Scott, Will Hoge, Scott Nolan, Jim Lauderdale and J.D. Souther, among others. From Carll and Scott we get “Sake of the Song,” a concise overview of the musician’s life and those who live it; “Love Don’t Let Me Down,” about hope and fear at the outset of a new romance, and “The Magic Kid,” a touching tribute to Carll’s young son (an aspiring magician who’s been known to open shows for his dad) that touches on the larger themes of courage and truth. Hoge contributed to “Good While It Lasted,” a clear-eyed look at the emotions, good and bad, that come with the fading of good times. “Nothing lasts forever and time knows that it’s true,” Carll sings. “Sometimes a little while’s the best we can do.”

Carll teamed with Jack Ingram and Allison Moorer on the sad but beautiful “The Love That We Need,” a cautionary tale about settling for less than we should and finally facing up to that truth. “We lie down together/but our hearts never touch,” Carll sings, later adding in the chorus, “We got the life that we wanted/but not the love that we need.” A better side of love features in “Love Is So Easy,” written with Ruston Kelly: “I’ve always had a hurt that I can’t name/but it all feels better when you call my name.”

The album closes with the lovely “Jealous Moon,” written with J.D. Souther. Maybe no one else would have thought to lament the plight of Earth’s lonely satellite, doomed to watch over the pageant of life without ever getting to participate. Carll and Souther did, and Carll – his voice apparently recovered from the problems of the past few years – does a fine job telling the story.

Carll is credited with all the guitar (all acoustic) on the album. Other musicians include Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion, Tyler Chester on keyboards, Eric Heywood on pedal steel and David Piltch on bass, all ably produced by Joe Henry.

New releases: Darrell Scott, Cyndi Lauper, Honeycutters

New and recent releases from Darrell Scott, Cyndi Lauper, Jeremy Nail, David Newbould, the Honeycutters, Mike Eldred Trio and Robert Rex Weller, Jr.:

CouchvilleDarrell Scott The Couchville Sessions – It’s a measure of Darrell Scott’s depth as an artist and songwriter that he could record an album’s worth of material 15 years ago and then put it on the shelf. The Couchville Sessions was worth the wait, highlighted by the haunting “Waiting for the Clothes to Get Clean” and covers of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and James Taylor’s “Another Grey Morning.”

 Cyndi LauperDetour – Sire Records – We suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by Cyndi Lauper’s collection of country covers recorded in Nashville. After all, her Memphis Blues was recorded just down the interstate not long ago. We assume a celebration of Knoxville is next. It’s a fun release with guests galore, including Emmylou Harris on “Detour,” Vince Gill on “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” and Allison Krauss on “Hard Candy Christmas.”

 Mike Eldred TrioBaptist Town – Great Western Recording Co. – The new Mike Eldred Trio album was recorded in Sun Studio in Memphis and features guest turns from Robert Cray, John Mayer and David Hidalgo.

 Jeremy NailMy Mountain – Open Nine Music – Jeremy Nail’s new album was produced by Alejandro Escovedo with a band that included Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore, Bobby Daniel and Chris Searles. Our favorite track: ”Dreams.”

honeycutters The HoneycuttersOn the Ropes – Organic Records – Rich new album from the Honeycutters is their fourth. The title track sets the tone with equal measures of defiance and resignation:
“ I paid a lot to feel this bad.”

 David NewbouldThe Devil is his Name – Coming May 20, the new David Newbould EP follows up his strong Tennessee release. Helping out are stalwarts Michael Webb and Jefferson Crow.

Robert Rex Weller, Jr. – Western Seeds Record Company – Robert Rex Weller tackles a wide array of covers, ranging from Willie Nelson to the Hollies and the Doors.

In concert: Kelley Mickwee

By Paul T. Mueller

Kelley Mickwee

Kelley Mickwee

Austin-based singer-songwriter Kelley Mickwee brought a kind of career retrospective to the Fulshear House Concerts series on April 30. The show, in the Houston suburb of Fulshear, featured Mickwee performing songs from her early days as half of the Americana duo Jed and Kelley; from her days as a member of vocal quartet The Trishas, and from her more recent solo career.

Mickwee was born in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in Memphis, Tenn., which helps explain the bluesy, soulful tone that colors her singing. She has a powerful, expressive voice, which she uses effectively to convey the emotions in her lyrics, exploring such topics as love, loneliness and temptations of various kinds. “I’m a singer first and foremost,” she told the audience of about 30. “It’s what I really love to do.” She accompanied herself capably on acoustic guitar and harmonica, plus a little foot-stomping percussion when needed.

The 15-song show was more or less chronological, starting with one of Mickwee’s earlier songs, “Strangers,” a look at what happens when lovers grow apart. She noted that she started writing the song before her marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Jed Zimmerman, who was also her musical partner in Jed and Kelley. “I didn’t know what I was talking about,” she noted with a laugh.

Mickwee performed several other songs that were recorded by The Trishas during the roughly four years the group was actively touring and performing (other members included fellow singer-songwriters Jamie Lin Wilson, Savannah Welch and Liz Foster, plus guitarist Brandy Zdan). These included the funny-but true romantic lament “Liars & Fools” and “Rainin’ Inside,” co-written with singer-songwriter Kevin Welch (Savannah’s father). She also sang a couple of songs that effectively showcased her strong, clear voice – “Drive,” a ballad about getting away, and “Take Me Home,” about loneliness and homesickness.

Between songs, Mickwee related details of her personal history and how it shaped her songwriting and singing. She accompanied a nice rendition of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Dark Side of Town,” a ballad about a talented musician whose hedonistic habits become his downfall, with the story of how she first met her father when she was 21 and had only a few years with him before similar lifestyle choices led to his demise. She took a similar approach with an excellent version of Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham,” noting that her relatively late start as a songwriter paralleled that of the Americana icon.

Mickwee ended the show with “Closer,” a plea for intimacy that she has yet to record. The song is in a key that’s outside her usual vocal range, she said, but added that pushing one’s limits is the path to artistic growth, and that the song has become her new favorite to sing.

Mickwee’s most recent solo CD, You Used to Live Here, came out in 2014. “It’s time for another one,” she said in an interview before the show, noting that she has several songs ready to record, but plans to wait until she has more before going into the studio, possibly by the end of the year. “I’m not in a rush,” she said. “I want to make sure I have 10 really great songs.”

 

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