country music

Nikki Lane and Town Mountain cover Conway Twitty – A Concert Review

Nikki Lane, Town Mountain, and Grand Ole’ Ditch teamed up for a great triple-threat show at Gypsy Sally’s on Friday night. (Town Mountain and Grand Ole’ Ditch are both bluegrass bands; Nikki Lane is country.) The night’s highlight was when a tipsy Lane came back out to join Town Mountain for a cover of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”

This was the second time I’ve seen Town Mountain at Gypsy Sally’s (and I narrowly missed them at Delfest). Pandora brought them to my attention through their cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” and several friends have told me the same. They didn’t play it the last time I saw them, so I was delighted they did Friday. And their fiddler, Bobby Britt, was particularly great on Orange Blossom Special. But don’t think this band is just covers – you gotta love their original song Lawdog. Robert Greer’s award-winning lead vocals are usually more modern – no high lonesome falsetto sound here – but Phil Barker sure hits the high notes on Lawdog. Town Mountain is the bluegrass you’ll ever find at this price point ($18 for three great bands).

Lane was good, too. I like Town Mountain a lot, but I mainly went to see her for the first time, and to round an awesome weekend of great women country artists (along with Brandy Clark and Nora Jane Struthers – reviews coming soon). I was surprised at how free-spirited and bubbly Nikki seemed on stage, given the heartache and struggle present in a lot of her songs. She was pretty rip-roaring on Right Time and Seein’ Double, though – loved those two, and her Waylon Jennings cover. It was fun to hear her tell the story behind “Man Up” (writing it was her passive-aggressive way of telling a now-ex to move out) or talk about setting up “Sleep With A Stranger” and then seeing a nine-year-old with an unhappy mother in the front row (hey lady, you came without listening to the album). She didn’t play my favorite of her tunes, “Love’s on Fire,” but that’s a duet with producer and Black Keys vocalist Dan Auerbach and she didn’t have a male vocalist with her so I guess that makes sense. And as I wondered in my review of her album last year, she is indeed better when her vocals are crisp, not recorded with an intentional muffled vintage sound. I’d love to see her in a festival setting, or at least with a rowdy crowd.

Also, loved this sentiment from her: “Now I’m going to play a brand new song. Or maybe you’ve heard it if you’ve seen me in the last six months – but it’s still brand new! ‘Brand new’ is just various stages of bad, until it’s perfect.

You should also check out Grand Ole’ Ditch, bluegrass out of Maryland. They used percussion and a dobro to create a very forward-leaning sound, their bass player seems like a fun guy, and I like mandolin player Lucas Mathews’ vocals. Here’s a link to a previous show of theirs at the same venue, Gypsy Sally’s in DC.

My list of DC-area Americana concerts through August (Next week: Nora Jane Struthers, Brandy Clark, and more!)

For the past two years, I’ve maintained a large spreadsheet of DC-area Americana/bluegrass/alt-country/etc. shows I’m interested in seeing. I thought I should share it here. I’m leaving DC in late August, but it’ll keep readers in these parts somewhat updated until then.

There are three shows within the next two weeks I’d especially like to highlight:

  • Thursday, June 25 – Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line (opening for Honey Honey) – the Hamilton, Downtown DC – I heard Struthers twice at Delfest last month, and just fell in love with her music. Why is she only opening??? Go to this show. Go. Go. GO. FREAKING GO ALREADY. Let’s get her the exposure and fanbase she and the band deserve! Their latest, “Wake,” will be my first album review in many months some time in the month or two. I’m playing it as I write this post, actually. I am really pumped for this show, and am bringing multiple friends, damn the school night. You should come too. I implore you.

(I might go for four in a row with Robin and Linda Williams at AMP by Strathmore on Saturday, June 27…)

My goal in starting this spreadsheet this was not to make a public document, but just to tell my friends what shows I’m interested in attending, if they’d like to come. Therefore, it’s hardly a complete list of ALL the region’s shows – there are some I miss, some I don’t include because I’ll be out of town, etc. – but it’s a pretty good starting place.

Check out the whole list here, updated through my move in late August but a little skimpy in mid-July due to my travel. (Don’t worry about what’s bold or highlighted, that’s personal coding.) Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I should add through Saturday, August 22!

You don’t exist and neither does this music

Just over a week ago, somebody from Nashville who may or may not play a guitar but who we’re supposed to think is important said, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.”

I say “somebody” because he doesn’t have a name. As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t exist.

I’d say enjoy these great clips, except apparently when you hit play, you won’t hear a thing, because they don’t exist. If you hear something wonderful, you must be on drugs instead.

Sing Well and Prosper

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy.

CountrySpock

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.

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:

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:

My New Toy

I got a new toy – a portable turntable! My best friend, a real audiophile in Seattle, recommended three, and I picked the one with the best ratio of five-start to one-star reviews on Amazon.com: a three-speed model from Jensen.

Jensen record player Jamey Johnson

The inaugural record, playing as I write this quick post: Jamey Johnson’s “Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran” from 2012, featuring duets with Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, George Strait, willie Nelson, and more.

I’ve got a much bigger record player at home in Idaho that looks like a giant chest, with huge built-in speakers, an AM/FM radio, and a busted 8-track player – there’s no hauling that out to D.C., but mentioning it does give me a chance to give a shoutout out to the annual KPBX Recording and Video Sale! If you’re in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area this winter, be sure to check it out – tons of cheap used records and gear every January/February. Last I knew, all discs were $2, but that may have increased to $3 or $4 in the years since I’ve been for all I know.

You’d Never Cry Again – An Album and Concert Review: John Fullbright

It’s been 97 days since John Fullbright’s last Washington, D.C., concert, and I’m finally sitting down to write this review. In fact, he’s back in D.C. tonight at the 9:30 Club opening for Shovels & Rope – and if you’re looking for something to do, I can’t recommend him enough. His album “Songs” is one of the best of the year and the concert was amazing, so late or not, no blog would be complete without this coverage.

John Fullbright at DC's Hill Country, 06/16/14

John Fullbright at DC’s Hill Country, 06-16-14

Bottom line: The June 16 concert, held in the Hill Country bbq market basement, was phenomenal. It was just Fullbright on piano and sometimes guitar, no band. Actually, I think the real word was “captivating.” He had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.

Fullbright’s two albums have very different feels from one another, so one thing that struck me was that the D.C. concert had the vibe of the older album rather than the one it was actually promoting. 2012’s “From the Ground Up” is Oklahoma country, whereas this year’s “Songs” feels more like a singer-songwriter project – and the Hill Country show was very much a country performance. I asked him about that after the show, and he gestured around the room and said, “I mean, look at the venue!” He had a point: There was a giant Texas flag made of denim behind the stage, dozens of framed Texas Monthly covers adorning the walls, and barsigns for Shiner and Lone Star. That means that Fullbright can tailor the same setlist to whatever the environment and audience calls for – a mark of a highly adept, perceptive, and intelligent performer.

Mike Seely wrote a review last week of a Sturgill Simpson concert, held in a small Washington State city park. Given Simpson’s meteoric rise this year, Seely called the show “Sturgill Simpson’s Last Small Stage.” You might be able to say something similar about Fullbright and Hill Country. He’s on tour with Shovels & Rope – hardly the same as the Zac Brown Band but still legit – and he’s racking up the awards and high-profile appearances, even appearing on Letterman last month. Saving Country Music said “Songs” is worthy of being mentioned alongside Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, proclaiming that “John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.” And Lynne Margolis of American Songwriter said wrote, “Neil Young was 24 when he released After the Gold Rush. Joni Mitchell recorded Blue at 27… John Fullbright’s Songs could take its place in that same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces.” (When I mentioned the AS review to him after the show, I believe his words were “Fuck that noise.” Gotta love a man able to shrug off the pressure and keep focused on the music and writing that matter most!)

My favorite song was the poignant “When You’re Here.” It’s a true masterpiece, but the song that’s probably gotten the most coverage so far is the first track, “Happy” (the one he sang on Letterman), which flips a lot of country songwriting on its head. Instead of dwelling on a breakup’s sadness and using it to fuel his craft in the stereotypical ways we Americana fans selfishly demand, he says he wants to end the fight with a lover instead of winning it, simply asking, “What’s so bad about happy?” Another one that makes me pause is “She Knows” – its list of things only his lover knows about him makes a fun juxtaposition with Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” especially since some of Fullbright’s other melodies remind me just a little of that Charles song.

There aren’t really any anthems here, and other than the whistling on “Happy,” nothing really sticks in your head for hours on end for musical rather than lyrical reasons. But that’s not the point. The lyrics are deep and poignant and make you freeze in place, even for friends who were hearing them for the first time in a live venue. This man really knows how to capture those emotions we all feel at rare but powerful moments in our lives, and pairs the lyrics with exactly the right melodies for them – which is precisely what music should do: Take my hand so we don’t get lost // I spent the coin I used to toss// And never knew what luck would cost// Until I bet it in the end // Never claimed to soar so high// That I forgot that I could fly // If you never knew what never was // You’d never cry again

I met him after the show, and we talked a bit about the state of Nashville today and our shared love for the songwriting of Bruce Robison. Fullbright’s tone was genuine and admiring when he spoke about the Texas country singer/songwriter: “Wow. If there was any justice in this world, that guy would be famous in his own right and a millionaire several times over!” Very true, and Robison is a great influence to have. If Fullbright keeps it up, he’ll find at least the same songwriting success Robison has found with three #1 hits, and hopefully also the on-stage success that we agreed Robison – and now Fullbright – deserves.

4.5 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2014’s “Songs.” All I can really say is, buy this album, and if Fullbright comes to your town, you should go see him.