Month: February 2015

Sing Well and Prosper

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy.


Picture from We Hate Pop Country. While Bones was always the TOS character I personally identified with most, Nimoy probably had the most talent as an actor. There was something special – and challenging – about the way he portrayed Spock. My favorite TNG episode was always “Unification.” And since this IS a music blog…

He also covered Kenny Rogers, but I like the Cash clip more.

Concert Review: Mikaela Davis, talented harp player at a bluegrass show

One of the coolest things about smaller venue concerts, especially in these smaller genres, is discovering new bands by way of the opening act. After featuring Gaby Moreno their first two of three nights in DC, the Punch Brothers had harp player, singer-songwriter, and new name Mikaela Davis from Rochester, New York for their late-scheduled third show. Her website says she’s known for her covers of Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith, and that she’s also played with Willie Watson, My Brightest Diamond, the Infamous Stringdusters, My Brightest Diamond, and others.

I only caught Davis’s last two songs, so I won’t say too much here. She’s a very talented harp player with a silky voice, which means she’s blazing a musical trail few have and the audience clearly paid attention and definitely appreciated her. This tweep wasn’t alone:

Sometimes she tours with a trio, but Sunday night she was solo. I kind of wish she’d had the trio with her. Don’t get me wrong, she was very talented – but on its own, no matter how intricate, complex, and lovely, in my experience a solo harp’s a solo harp. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not my thing outside of a classical setting. But watching her YouTube videos, I’m somewhat intrigued by the way her band blends the harp, guitar, sitar, and percussion together for an interesting indie sound. Not necessarily what I look for personally and the melodies are too rainy-day dreamy for me (though that’s a good fit for non-classical harp), but there’s certainly talent here and maybe it will match your own tastes.

I’m surprised Davis is opening for the likes of Watson, the Stringdusters, and the Punch Brothers. Not because she’s not talented enough – she certainly is – but because she seems a better fit for indie folk or more new-agey singer-songwriter audiences then bluegrass or traditional folk. The song she did with Filigar makes more sense to me. But then again, talented artists certainly know how to appreciate and promote one another across genres, and that’s not a bad thing.

Punch Brothers are really really great live, y’all!

I got to meet Chris Thile after a Nickel Creek concert last May. It was well after midnight but, unlike the band’s other two sleepy members, Thile couldn’t have been more amped up hanging out with fans by the tour bus. I asked him if the band’s reunion meant no more Punch Brothers, and he replied, “No way, man! I’ve got way too much musical energy to ever have just one project going at a time!”

Nathan Empsall and Chris Thile, the 9:30 Club, May 4 2014

The writer and Chris Thile, May 2014

A fitting self-description, because what a month Thile is having. First, on February 7 and again on the 14th, he guest-hosted for Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion – not the show’s first guest host, but the first time Keillor hasn’t even been present for the show. Then, in the middle of that on February 8, he won the “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” GRAMMY along with Edgar Meyer for “Bass and Mandolin,” and was nominated for three more with both Meyer and Nickel Creek. Now his band Punch Brothers is back on the road in support of their brand new album, “The Phosphorescent Blues” (vinyl|CD). I was lucky enough to see them their third night at DC’s 9:30 Club for what Thile told the crowd was the first time they had ever played three nights anywhere, adding on the date after the first two sold out.

And you guys, Punch Brothers can PLAY.

If you’re unfamiliar with Punch Brothers, they’re sort of a bluegrass-classical fusion band. You could also call them, although comparison descriptions are almost always unfair, the darker side of Nickel Creek. It would also be unfair to call it “The Chris Thile Show” because the other musicians are also great and are showcased well, but Thile is almost always the lead singer and his mandolin virtuosity does take center stage. This is even more true at a live show, where his raw energy can really take over (heck, even half the fun of May’s Nickel Creek concert was watching Thile rock out to “The Fox”).

Punch Brothers, 02-22-15Punch Brothers’ albums are good, but I absolutely loved Sunday night’s concert. The music, whether recorded or live, is like Nickel Creek bluegrass but with more minor keys and classical influence – co-founder Gabe Witcher plays his instrument as a violin as often as he does fiddle (he’s also the drummer). There are also times when it sounds like Thile’s turn playing on Bela Fleck’s classical banjo album “Perpetual Motion” was a major influence. The difference between the sound recorded and the sound live is threefold. First is the warmth – I can’t explain it, it’s just warmer live, even with all the minor keys. It’s more personal and soulful, not just because the performers are there but the music itself. Second, and this is often the case with bluegrass, the vocal harmonies are just tighter – I absolutely loved the way Thile and Chris Eldridge sounded together live. Third, as I mentioned above and this was true about May’s Nickel Creek show too, is Thile’s energy. It’s not that he jumps around like Garth Brooks; there’s just an irrepressive spirit surrounding every move he makes and infusing every pluck of the mandolin. You can tell this is a man who loves music – you almost expect him to shout at any moment, “Oh boy, I GET TO PLAY ANOTHER SONG NOW! YAY!!!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, ANOTHER SONG!!!” He was good on “Magnet” and “My Oh My” but at his finest for the new song “I Blew It Off,” perhaps my favorite moment of the evening prior to the encore. And oh man, that encore. The band really f***ing brought it for “Heart in a Cage,” their 2006 cover of The Strokes, and another track from the new album, “Little Lights.”

For what it’s worth, if you heard Thile hosting PHC, his stage persona was very much the same with Punch Brothers. The other band members each introduced a song and spoke a little, but it was mostly Thile. Two fun moments showcasing the rest of the band was when banjo player Noam Pikelny introduced the band’s instrumental arrangement of “Passepied” by Claude Debussy (which was what reminded me most of Perpetual Motion). He said that Debussy died tragically – “Tragically in that he did not live long enough to hear our arrangement.” Later, Eldridge announced a tribute to the Seldom Scene – his dad Ben’s legendary bluegrass band, and Punch Brothers did a great straight-bluegrass rendition of “Through the Bottom of The Glass” with Eldridge taking lead vocals and bass player Paul Kowert ripping off a really fun solo.

Punch Brothers, 02-22-15The last thing I’ll note is how amazing the DC music scene can be – I have to imagine that artists are pleasantly surprised by the crowds they find here. Just like Sturgill Simpson’s show at the same standing-only venue a week before, the crowd was a mix of hipsters and country folks in the city with an even broader age spread. And just like with Simpson, they knew how to sing along, which seemed to thrill Thile to no end. The crowd started strong shouting “Oh Boy!” on the night’s third song, Rye Whiskey, and just didn’t let up – nor did the band. I don’t think anyone wanted the show to end. I certainly know I left feeling happy on the inside, even a little transcendent. I’ll review Phosphorescent Blues soon, but what I really look forward to is the next time I get to see Punch Brothers live. I’m really glad Thile is just 34 – this is definitely someone I want to spend the next 50 years listening to.

A new song from George Strait and Asleep at the Wheel! (Some from the Avetts, too)

GeorgeStraitandRayBensonGettyImagesOn March 3, Asleep at the Wheel will put out their fourth tribute to the legendary Bob Wills. That’s pretty good news in its own right, but it gets even better: The album features the first new music from George Strait since he retired from touring last year!

The album will also feature the Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, and more. With a hat tip to Texas Monthly, here’s the Strait/Benson collaboration on “South of the Border”:

And here they are doing “The Girl I Left Behind Me” with the Avett Brothers:

Goodbye, Todd Snider, We Hardly Knew Ye

It’s a rough quote for Todd Snider fans to digest, from a Kansas City Star interview:

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think I may not do any more Todd Snider. I might start over. I won’t pretend my name didn’t used to be Todd Snider, but I do want to put an end to that body of work. I feel it stands by itself. I want to put a period at the end of all those songs…

The songs I make up now don’t make very much sense. I work them really hard but, it’s hard to describe. They’re from a different place. I just don’t think I feel like I can make up any more songs like the songs I used to make up.”

He adds that he’s really loved playing with his new band, “Hard Working Americans”, which has taught him a lot about songwriting and also about not holding the spotlight.
I can’t blame Snider for wanting to hang it up. On the one hand, the one time I saw him live (Alexandria’s Birchmere, September 2012, and he was the best storyteller I’ve seen this side of Arlo Guthrie), he gave a more full-throated defense of not getting tired of the stuff you wrote than I’d ever heard. On the other hand, if his music reflects his life, then the philosophy he borrowed from Aaron Allen of always living life such that you can pack up everything you own and move in less than 15 minutes just isn’t sustainable. There’s more to the life God gave us than that – sometimes, you’ve got to put down roots to bloom, or you just keep watering yourself with the bottle. And while that produces great music, we really shouldn’t wish that empty pain on anyone, least of all the people who entertain us.
So if Snider’s ready to move on, whether it’s for more work with “Hard Working Americans” or a completely new solo chapter, I say, I can’t wait to see what’s next.
 And the equally delightful Part Two of that story, advice comin’ back round years later:

Remember that Luke Bryan is a 38-Year-Old Father of Two Children

Once you’re on the float, you’re on the float. And then I’m like, ‘Alright, don’t get drunk. Don’t get drunk. Don’t get drunk.’ And I don’t know if there’s any way around that, and then I’ve got to do the show at like 11:30PM, so man, we may have a no cell phone clause on that show, a no Youtube (video). See, first of all, I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, and I’m the worst about getting excited about something and then overdoing it. So, yeah, I’ll be toast.

Luke Bryan in Taste of Country, as quoted by Country California. His two children are ages 4 and 6. Good to know he’s got no discipline or self-control, that’s clearly the kind of guy who makes the best husband and father.

I like to end most posts with a YouTube video, but I refuse to post one of Luke Bryan. But this is probably just as appropriate.


Brandy Clark is Finally Getting Her Due (and also, my friend Shelly can SING)

Just a quick overdue post to say how excited I am about the mainstream media finally discovering Brandy Clark. (And what’s this? Back-to-back posts for the first time in months? Maybe I really am getting back in the saddle! )

Clark, along with Kacey Musgraves, was a big new name in 2013. Her album, “12 Stories,” was one of the year’s finest – honestly, while Musgraves might have the better voice, I liked Clark’s album better, and she even gets credit for co-writing Musgraves’ hit “Follow Your Arrow.” When people say it’s the women who are keeping country alive right now, they’re absolutely right, and these are the first two names that come to mind whenever I hear that refrain.

To date, Musgraves has been the one getting solid label support, and now Clark can claim that mantle too. Not only was she nominated for two major GRAMMY awards – Best New Artist and Best Country Album – she even performed during the televised portion of the award show, getting her some major exposure (it led to exactly the kind of massive boost in Spotify and Pandora plays you’d hope for). Dwight Yoakam provided harmony and guitar for her song “Hold My Hand” – and while I was initially irked that Yoakam was relegated to a backup role, he was actually perfect for it, giving the song just the right extra touch it needed. Like George Strait’s movie Pure Country, they stripped away all the GRAMMY hoopla and just sang – no lights, no pyrotechnics, no dancers or slideshows, just music. And y’all, it was one of the biggest standing ovations of the night.

On the heels of that performance, Clark is Yahoo’s Artist of the Month – and when Reba’s new album drops in May, it will feature THREE songs written by Clark. Check out her GRAMMY performance here, then go buy 12 Stories.

Trigger recently wrote that Clark’s “12 Stories” has the feel of formulaic songwriting by committee. I disagree (with the exception of the one she wrote for Toby Keith… fair enough, Trigger). Even if it is a committee, Clark is the chair of that committee, and they’re producing good stuff. As for formulaic – well, maybe, but if so, it’s a good formula, tried and true. Clark’s songs are stories about life’s harder moments, which is one area where country music really excels. They may not be overly personal or deep, but they do resonate with real life. And they truly are stories, even without being ballads, and with good melodies, which is all more than you can say for more than most of what’s out there today – but I think she also would have done well in past decades. So, here’s the rare bravo to the mainstream for grabbing a solid country act and lifting it up.

On a related note, my friend Shelly Page recorded a cover of Clark, and y’all, SHELLY CAN SING. Her cover is a little more poppy than country – electric instead of acoustic with a little less less twang, sort of reminiscent of the great women of the ’90s – but it’s still damn good. And when a song is good in multiple formats by multiple artists, you know the quality isn’t just the artists but also in the song itself. Anyway, check Shelly’s video out, then click around to check out a few of her other videos too while you’re at it.

Why Sturgill Simpson is Suddenly Famous, or, A Concert Review from the 9:30 Club last Friday

What a week for Sturgill Simpson – the GRAMMYs, returning to David Letterman, and “Metamodern” reaching 100,000 in sales. And lucky me, I got to see him right in the middle of it all.

(As of this writing, Simpson’s song “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean” is available for free MP3 download at Amazon.)

Sturgill Simpson at DC's 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

Sturgill Simpson at DC’s 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

It was a pleasure to see Sturgill play at DC’s 9:30 Club Friday night. This was Simpson’s third DC-area show in the past 18 months and his second since hitting it big – and the 1200-capacity venue was beyond sold out. Tickets were $20 face value but climbed as high as $150 on StubHub. Very few shows are worth that much, but Simpson certainly delivered a helluva evening.

The 9:30 Club’s audience skews younger, especially since it’s almost entirely standing-room only. The crowd was a mixture of country natives living in the city, like the friends I was with, and DC hipsters. But no matter who’s in the audience, it is – just 17 months after watching Sturgill and the band play a free show in a BBQ basement to 100 DC residents – a real delight to see 1200 folks all sing along not just to songs from the new hit album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” like “Long White Line” but also older “High Top Mountain” tunes like “You Can Have the Crown” and “Old King Coal.”

The band seems a bit shell-shocked by their rapid rise, which Sturgill acknowledged when they came out for an encore – I’m paraphrasing here, but, “It was just three, four months ago we were still playing bars where backstage was the table next to the stage, so we’re still getting used to this encore thing.” A genuine tone, but said with a smile. I chatted with one of the band members afterwards and he laughed about the ascent, acknowledging that it was strange and a whirlwind – but they do seem to be taking it in stride, having a ball, and producing solid music. The instrumental jams and solos were longer than on the albums, as you’d expect, and they were great. Laur Joamets, Sturgill’s Estonian guitarist, absolutely blew the crowd away. And the loudest applause of the night came during “Life of Sin” each time Sturgill sang “The boys and me still working on the sound.” Sturgill said they were all bouncing back from a cold, but after warming up on the first tune, you could never tell. Solid show. (There were only one or two new songs, and their sound wasn’t particularly different, so no preview of the next album yet.)

Sturgill Simpson at DC's 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

Sturgill Simpson at DC’s 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

I’ll mention two tiny negative things. I don’t mean them as criticism but I’d like this blog to feel like something more than constant free advertising for Sturgill – seems like half my posts are little more than me gushing about his music. First, it was an energetic show for sure, though some slower songs like “The Promise” were definitely included – but I would have loved to also here “Hero” and “Panbowl,” two of my favorites. But you gotta play to the crowd. Second, I think the sound levels might have been a little off. If I hadn’t already known the words it would have been tough to understand some of them. Then again, that’s bizarrely just how some people like their shows.

The opener, Anderson East, played a short set and I was held up at the venue’s bar, so unfortunately I missed him, but his first LP comes out later this year – let’s give him his due here: