Monthly Archives: June 2013

WELCOME TO THE GENERAL DOME: Buke & Gase

BukeAndGase_shirts-creditAilyNash

What happens when a band is difficult—no, make that impossible—to pigeonhole? Some of ‘em get overlooked and even ignored. Others, like this in-demand Brooklyn duo, get invited to everyone’s parties!

BY JENNIFER KELLY

“I don’t know if I would call making things – or fixing things — a lost art,” says Arone Dyer, a sometime bicycle repair professor who constructed and now maintains the “buke” she plays in Buke & Gase.

The buke, a small-sized, six-stringed instrument originally built out of a baritone ukulele, is one of two unusual instruments in the Buke & Gase repertoire. Aron Sanchez, her partner, plays a Gase, which is a sort of bass/guitar hybrid. He got his start in instrument construction making equipment for the Blue Man Group.

“I think that only people who are really, really motivated would fix something that they work on,” Dyer continues. “A particular kind of person is probably more attracted to taking something apart and putting it back together and building something new.”

Buke & Gase is unusual in a lot of ways, from the odd-numbered time signatures that pace their work, to the eccentric, jittery sounds that come out of their hand-fashioned instruments, to the facility with which both principals handle welding tools. But perhaps the most singular thing about this duo is that last characteristic: they are perfectly willing to deconstruct their musical ideas, strip them down to essentials, turn them inside out and then build them back up again. Their latest album, General Dome is as intricate and quixotic as their instruments.

General Dome is the band’s second album. Their first, Riposte, established the band’s unusual aesthetic and drew widespread critical acclaim. (It was released under the slightly different band name Buke & Gass.)  Joshua Love, reviewing the debut in Pitchfork, noted that “all this ingenuity and rule-breaking engenders a noise that’s quirky and bracing,” while Dusted’s Tobias Carroll named it, “proof that the marriage of ingenuity, aggression and a push toward musical bliss can still yield unexpected results.”  Blurt contributing editor A.D. Amorosi called their spiky, unclassifiable sound “a cross between early Sonic Youth and the Horseflies.”  

 

Structure and improvisation

General Dome continues the band’s restless exploration but adds a layer of discipline. “For Riposte, the songs really came out of improvisation,” says Sanchez. “In making General Dome, we spent more time simplifying and getting to the core of the idea and then fleshing it out. A lot of the ideas and parts came from improvisation, but then we would really work on them and arrange them.”

Sanchez and Dyer recorded General Dome in Hudson, New York, in a large, unused, poorly heated room that belonged to an art gallery. Sanchez describes the band’s process as a kind of composition through improvisation. “What we do is we get together and we improvise for hours and record all of it and then listen back,” he says. “We find songs in the improv and take those ideas that we think could be a song and then try to make it into something either that it already is or that that it could be.” Then when the song is finished, the improvisation stops. By the time they were recorded for the album, the tracks were nailed down, exactly the way the band members want them to sound.

Sanchez explains that even though the songs may sound chaotic, they are rigorously structured. “From our point of view, these songs are probably 98% structured,” he adds. “The chaotic element may come in as we try to hold that structure together — in our failing to succeed in the structure that we’ve laid out for ourselves.”

“We also spent time trying to pare the songs down to the good parts that we really like and not putting as many parts in as possible,” adds Dyer. “That wasn’t necessarily the goal of the first album, but we were more chaotic, I think, in how much we would try to fit into one song.”    

 

Making two sound like more

Buke & Gase is a pure duo, with no guests, no loops, no drummer to fill out their sound (the two of them sometimes play percussion instruments with their feet). One of their challenges, Sanchez says, is to find ways to fill out sonic space with just the two of them.

“Because we’re two people, we try to do more. We’re always attempting to be as full-sounding as possible,” he says. “Whether it’s the notes we’re playing or how we’re making those instruments sound. So I think those two forces are making us sound more complex than we actually look like we are.”

Unusual instruments are critical to this fuller sound. Dyer originally started experimenting with her buke because it was smaller and less prone to exacerbate her carpal tunnel syndrome. She took a four-stringed baritone ukulele as a starting point and replaced the four strings with six.

“A buke can be very percussive, and it also can be very lush and full,” says Sanchez. “Also the effects that you’re using can do a lot to the tone. You really couldn’t get that tone from a guitar. It’s a different thing.”   

Sanchez arrived at his own instrument, the gase, through dissatisfaction with the limitations of the bass and guitar. “I was a bass player for a long time and in a previous band I wanted to do more than just bass parts, so I started adding guitar strings to a bass,” he explains. “That turned into creating something new, which now it has more guitar strings than bass strings on it, and then also figuring out different ways of tuning it and different arrangements of strings, and it’s just become this whole other animal. It’s not a bass and not a guitar. And what it’s offering me is something unique.”

“It’s more versatile, totally, too,” Dyer adds. “It’s got higher strings than a bass and lower strings than a guitar. You can cover a lot more ground with it.”

Yet Sanchez says that the gase is also inherently limiting, and that these limitations have shaped his sound. “What I like about the limitations is that it makes me do things that I would never think of. That I would never think of on a bass or a guitar. It’s giving this very particular flavor to the song.”

I ask the pair to pick out a sound from General Dome that illustrates the uniqueness of this instrument, and Sanchez says, “all of it.” Dyer, however, begins singing the off-kilter opening to “Split Like a Lip, No Blood on the Beard,” which is, indeed, an unusual riff.

Unorthodox time signatures add to Buke & Gase’s musical complexity, too, though in an off-hand, unpremeditated way. “We never really talk about time signatures. We’ll be like ‘What’s the time?’ And then we’ll say, ‘Oh it’s in 9…or 11…or 5/8,’” says Sanchez. “ I think part of us trying to sound bigger than we are, one of the results of that concept is that we naturally do not do four/four, because we want it to see more, not complicated, but more layered.”

 

Fitting nowhere, belonging everywhere

Buke & Gase’s music is hard to classify, containing elements of punk, noise, rock, pop and jazz, but not really belonging to any genre. (They are not crazy about the “folk” genre tags that still occasionally pop up in Buke & Gase reviews. Says Sanchez, “It’s like you haven’t listened to what we’re doing at all.”) 

The two band members listen omnivorously to music; during the course of our interview, they reference baroque classical music, Shellac, West African high life, Ethiopiques, reggae, Art Tatum and the Knife.    

Because they’re so difficult to pigeonhole, Buke & Gase gets invited to play with a wide variety of bands. In December 2012, for instance, they were invited to perform at the Shellac-curated Nightmare Before Christmas ATP, alongside bands that included Wire, Scrawl, Mission of Burma and, obviously, Shellac. A week later, they returned to Camber Sands for an ATP curated by the National and showcasing The Kronos Quartet, Owen Pallett, Nico Muhly and Sharon van Etten. “They’re completely different scenes, but somehow we kind of fit,” says Sanchez.

Still, Dyer seems especially psyched about performing alongside Bob Weston of Shellac. (There’s a video of Weston playing bass with the duo on “General Dome” here.)   “Shellac is dark and nasty and awesome, and they’re fun and funny. It’s just a trio, so they’re very pared down, very simple, but they’re huge sounding,” she says.

“Also I think we’re influenced by their guitar sound,” Sanchez adds. “The tone of Steve Albini’s guitar is an influence, for sure, for you. Some of the noise elements of their…the way they use distortion, we have definitely been influenced by them.”

Yet even when you can’t draw direct connections between Buke & Gase and the bands it shares stages with, Dyer says that they can often make it work. “Because our music is so hard to categorize, it makes it easier for us to share the stage with other types of music,” she says.   

Still, in a world where music takes lots of different forms, Dyer says that the ability to make an emotional connection crosses genres. Asked about her own personal definition of a great song, she says, “Some great songs are the kind of great songs that make you feel really good and you want to dance and move and that’s really fun, because that’s what you’re into,” she says. “I think it’s maybe something that really keys into how you’re feeling. At least that’s what I like about music, in that if I feel a certain way, chances are that there’s going to be a song that can amplify it and make that feeling justified.”

 

[Photo Credit: Aily Nash]

 

GUNN CONTROL: Steve Gunn

Steve Gunn

The master guitarist’s “good, short journey” to date bodes well for a celebrated musical career of the “long, strange trip” variety. Attention, heads: sonic alert!

 BY JORDAN LAWRENCE

 Steve Gunn is not renowned for his words. He’s not without lyrical skill — a point proven with understated emphasis by Time Off, the Brooklyn guitarist’s new LP out June 18 on North Carolina’s esteemed Paradise Of Bachelors label. But, as these things often go, his other talents overshadow his efficient couplets and soothing croon. He’s a master of mood and a sonic shapeshifter, capable of splicing graceful Takoma-style picking with the bleary mysticism of Indian ragas or trapping explosions of free jazz melody in layers of savory psych-rock scuzz. His instrumental command is singular and enthralling, able to unlock redemptive beauty from within fuzz-fueled semi-cacophony or entrance entire concert halls with winding acoustic gems.

 On Time Off, Gunn ups the songwriting ante, rounding out his already imposing skill set. In fact, at this point, he may be better than anyone else at summing up his hard-won niche.

 “Toss out your loose ends, I’ll come and tie them down,” he offers on “Street Keeper,” his words emerging from an easygoing flow of charming acoustic loops and striding bass lines. “I know how to use them. It’s why I hang around.” His vocal — like his guitar — is hypnotic: low and rich, nearing a mumble, but only insofar as it goads closer listening. Taken as a credo, Gunn’s words encapsulate what he has managed to accomplish. He has a firm grasp on a wide array of musical roots, binding them together to form multifaceted folk-rock that’s as adventurous as it is innately accessible. Refining this power required years of patient toil.

 “I just feel like I had a lot of work to do,” Gunn explains. He speaks over the phone, hiding from a spring storm under a New York City awning. Thunder crashes, cabs honk, and pedestrians shout. But none of this fazes Gunn. His responses are thoughtful and relaxed, much like his music.

“I put in a lot of time practicing, just on my own, working toward goals as far as being able to play certain things and being able to play in a certain style,” he continues. “I knew that I had to put in the time. When I finally ended up accepting offers for solo shows, I felt like I was ready. I felt like I was ready to put myself out there and kind of get a footing as far as doing that sort of thing. I’ve learned to really enjoy it, and it was a real challenge for me to perform solo. I really wanted to be ready and not come off as some sort of hack or someone that was just posturing.”



 

Gunn’s first solo show happened shortly before his move to New York in late 2001. He and a few of his musical pals served as the entertainment for a summer barbecue in his backyard. It was a low-key affair with little pressure saves for one daunting detail: The late Jack Rose, whose solo guitar pieces were instrumental in establishing the practice as a prominent form, was among the performers. Gunn was understandably intimidated, but he says that Rose was nothing but supportive, encouraging him to do it again, bringing it up again every time they ran into each other.

 It was years before Gunn again played solo. He kept busy with other pursuits — most notably the heady psych outfit GHQ — and worked steadily at his craft. The positive response to a self-titled CD-R lured him back to solitary performance a few years later. By 2006, he was playing a few dates on his own. By 2007, two of his early throwaways were reissued, leading the Oklahoma-based imprint Digitalis Recordings to approach him about a proper full-length. The resulting Sundowner — an intimate and mystifying collection of meandering guitar tunes marked by Eastern ideas of melody — arrived in 2008. Gunn’s early pace was somewhat slow, but his effort paid dividends. It’s a work ethic he traces back to Rose.

 “I’m constantly working at being a better player,” he says. “I’ve kind of taken that idea from Jack Rose as far as not being a lazy musician. There are certainly a lot of people who are. When you’re not, it’s kind of inevitable. I’ve always strived to be that way, not to be lazy about the music that I play. Maybe the fact that things have gotten more technical over the years is a reflection on that.”

 True to his word, Gunn’s subsequent recordings find him incorporating an increasing variety of styles. 2009’s stunning Boerum Palace found him repurposing Sundowner’s ethereal tones as the creepy backbone for stark and menacing blues numbers (“Mr. Franklin”) and the basis for warming acoustic drone (“House of Knowledge,” which is also graced by flares of fiery psych-rock guitar). A pair of LPs recorded with drummer John Truscinski as the Gunn-Truscinski Duo reveal his taste for free jazz abandon and his wowing touch for heaviest distortion and mind-altering effects. Last year’s Ocean Parkway, their most recent offering, finds room for psych-blasted squall, patient blues buildup, and blistering, upper-register solos — and that’s just the first song.

 Time Off builds on this experience, but it pushes Gunn’s eccentricities to the background, focusing on songcraft and opting for a loose folk-rock feel. His diverse supply of sounds and influences mark these songs in more subtle ways.

 “At this point, I want to simplify things,” he says. “For some reason, I wanted to make things complicated. Now, I’m thinking that I need to find a middle ground. If I got any more complicated, I would be teetering on some kind of weird fusion jazz or something. I think I took it as far as it could go with my playing. I’ve had all these different things swirling around in my head. I’m trying to keep it that way.”

 Recorded last summer with Truscinski on drums and Justin Tripp on bass, Time Off is Gunn’s first solo album to feature a full ensemble. Keying on the kind of rambling folk-rock made essential by The Band and others, these songs prove that he is influenced by the accessible as much as the arcane. With crisp acoustic patterns and swaggering riffs, the opening “Water Wheel” combines a carefree gait with intricate and interlocking melodies, hooking its prey easily and then trapping them within cozy confines. Like the rest of Time Off, it’s confident and compelling in a way Gunn simply wasn’t capable of a few years ago.

 “This record was a long time coming,” he says. “A lot of the stuff that I made before was sort of understated in its musicianship and singing. Listening back to it now, it’s like, ‘Oh man, I’ve come so far since then.’ I’m really happy with how the record sounds, and I’m really confident with singing and playing in public and touring and being serious about it and shaking people down for money and telling people to be quiet, figuring out how to travel without losing my mind and how to be gracious and outgoing. It’s been kind of a good, short journey to this point.”

NO FOOLIN’: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Live in L.A.

Tom_Petty_&_The_Heartbreakers@Fonda_Theatre_June_11_by_Scott_Dudelson

Exclusive gallery from our longtime shutterbug compatriot (and BLURT blogger) Scott Dudelson. The band held down a residency at the Fonda Theatre June 3, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 11; the photos below are from the closing night. Incidentally, over at Rolling Stone this morning they’ve got a nice Q&A with Petty in which he talks about the Fonda run and some of the deep cuts the band pulled from the archive for the shows. Explains Petty, “Our crew guys got us lists of all the albums. They keep records of everything we play, pretty much. The way we’ve done it is we’ve gone into rehearsal for, like, three weeks, which is long for us. We would just start to play and at the end of the night they would have lists of everything we played. And that would go on the next day. We’d be like, “What do you feel like doing today?” It would usually not be anything we played the day before.”

Concert photography by Scott Dudelson

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EXPLOSIVE, CEREBRAL, PUNK, ROCK: Bad Religion

Bad Religion

Longevity speaks for itself. Our resident punk expert talks with Greg Graffin.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

It’s been more than 30 years since a group of nerdy Southern California teenagers, obsessed with sci-fi and philosophy, decided to mix distorted guitars and machine gun drumming with three-part harmonies and in-your face lyrics about the hypocrisy of organized religion (among many other topics).

In that time, nations have disappeared off maps; political control has vacillated between the left and right in this country; and hundreds of bands have formed, sold records, sold out and broken up. But Bad Religion has remained a constant. There have been some lineup changes here and there – most notably guitarist and co-songwriter Brett Gurewitz leaving in the mid-90’s and returning in 2001 – but Bad Religion’s sound and more importantly their pointed lyrics have stayed fairly consistent.

While 2009’s release The Dissent of Man was overshadowed by the band’s three-decade anniversary tour and live album, the attention is back squarely on the here and now with Bad Religion’s latest True North, 16-tracks of brilliant two-minute (for the most part) explosive, cerebral  punk rock.

Singer, songwriter Greg Graffin spoke about the new record, the band’s legacy and why they are realistic about how much time they have left as a band.

BLURT: You guys recorded True North last summer. Did any of the discussion during the primaries and presidential election play into the lyrics at all on this record?

GREG GRAFFIN: Lyrically, the songwriters – Brett and myself – are always pretty active throughout the year; we tend to just write songs all the time, we’re always keeping notes and ideas and to some degree it does reflect the political climate. We’re, of course in touch with the current political climate, it’s a part of conversation, and it’s kind of a long standing tradition, for 33 years now we’ve been writing songs that are philosophical, that are about science and religion. These are topics that are always current and always in the public eye outside of punk rock… I tend to think that we’re lucky that we stumbled upon that subject matter as teenagers. We were kind of nerdy kids who liked talking about science and sci-fi and philosophy. You wouldn’t think that would be popular.

Not the obvious choice of teenage conversations.

(Laughs) We had this tradition of putting these views to punk music and that’s very fortunate, because that’s lead to our vitality. We’re not talking about our girlfriends or whatever and the songs tend to age well. You can’t really age gracefully if you’re still talking about your heartbreak from high school. In some respects we’re always writing about certain topics and that tends to reflect the current conversations that are going around. I’d say there are some songs (on this album) that are overtly political and talk to the current topics, like “Robin Hood In Reverse” and the other one is “Land of Endless Greed”. They’re very current to what’s going on in politics. But they’re not really the featured songs on the album in the sense that the album is revolving around this theme of “True North,” trying to find truth in this world which is getting harder.

Can you talk a minute about another song of this record: “Fuck You”? What was the story behind that one?

Almost all of the lyrics were written before I even had a title. I just kept humming it and I had the lyrics written, but I just couldn’t think of those two emphatic words. What am I going to put here? After 33 years, you’d think I would have been able to express how I feel. Then it came to me. The band liked it and a lot of other people liked it too. I like the fact that it’s not a very nihilistic tone. Its tongue and cheek and keeping with Bad Religion’s tradition of analyzing human nature. It’s kind of a Pavlovian response that that can get you into so much trouble.

I’ve got to say, as a 39 -year-old punk fan, I’m glad this song came from you and not some brand new pop-punk band just looking to be controversial.

Yeah, thanks. I appreciate that. I also think, you know what? It’s time. We’ve skirted around the subject so often, why not just come out and say it.

True North also seems very reminiscent of some of your earlier stuff like No Control and Suffer and a departure from the last few records. Was that a conscious decision or am I reading into it too much?

Well, we had our 30th anniversary with the last album, the Dissent of Man, and it turned out people were really encouraging and there seemed to be a reinvigoration. The focus was more on the celebration than the album. I think we went back and rested for a while – because it was a long tour – and started revisiting some of what people call the classic era, like Suffer, No control, Against the Grain and Stranger than Fiction. I think those are really good albums, but I also think we’re a much better band now. In the last 12 years, we’ve gotten a drummer who can add so much more to our sound and I think out songwriting has gotten so much better. I consider myself more skilled at singing better and I know the guys consider themselves better at their instruments now that they’re sober (laughs). We definitely gave ourselves kind of a challenge and said let’s try and write songs that are no longer than two minutes and we got some really cool songs. They are not some half-finished ditties, they are full productions. Add that to all of the skills and abilities we have built up over the years.

During the process did you ever regret that two-minute restriction you put on yourselves?

You know when I write a song and when Brett writes a song we usually start with a pretty traditional formula, which is: three versus, two choruses and the refrain at the end, and maybe a bridge. When you consider the tempo we play at, a normal rock song with that formula – a normal rock band plays at 120 beats per minute – that ends up being a four-minute song. But Bad Religion plays upwards of 300 beats per minute that ends up being a perfect two-minute punk song, so it doesn’t feel constraining at all. But there were a couple of slower tempo songs that did go over the two-minute mark.

You forgave yourself for that?

Yes, exactly. 

I know I’m in the minority here, but while I really appreciate the classics you named, I am a big fan of some of your later albums like New Maps of Hell and The Empire Strikes First. I think you like a tighter band on those records.

Thanks. We really are a much stronger band now. I think anyone who has been around for this long really does want to improve on their work. I believe that combined with the fact that we have a much better drummer speaks for itself.

There was a lot of speculation before you started working on this record that the band was going away, or at least taking a very long break. Was that ever considered?

We consider that after every third concert. We don’t know how long we can continue and it’s kind of silly to say that, but you have to take it lighthearted. We consider it a gift that our fans have been so generous and supportive over all of these years, but anytime that we can’t perform to the best of our ability; we have to think about that. We’re totally blazing new ground here. There aren’t many bands, from any genre that have been around for 33 years that are still making new and good albums that are still in their tradition; that are consistent with their tradition. We have to be a little bit humble and take that attitude that any of these tours and shows could be the last time that we appear.

That being said, you recently announced some European dates. Do you plan on touring in the U.S. this year?

Yes, we’re actually going to start out with a U.S. tour, so watch the website.

 

And do you have plans for another solo record? It’s been about seven years since Cold As Clay came out.

 Yeah, actually I do have plans for another solo record. The question is when can I find the time to record it and what genre will it be. But definitely I feel it’s time. Every eight years seems about right.

***

John B. Moore can be found at : Blurt/New Music Magazine/InSite Atlanta Magazine (Music Editor)/Innocent Words/NeuFutur Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at his handle @Jbmoore00. Oh, and he also posts a regular blog about all things punk at Blurt, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”

 https://blurtonline.com/category/blog/

AN ANTIDOTE FOR WHATEVER AILS YA: The 2013 Nelsonville Music Fest

NMF poster

Gracing the stage was everyone from heritage acts like John Prine, Wilco, Jonathan Richman and Lee Fields to contemporary buzz artists like Calexico, Tift Merritt, Sharon Van Etten and Lucius, and the musical yield—even after a meandering, forgettable set from the ever-inscrutable Cat Power—was bountiful. The Nelsonville Music Festival took place May 30 through June 2 in Nelsonville, Ohio.

BY STEVEN ROSEN

A friend of mine, a well-traveled music aficionado, was explaining – as we were waiting for Calexico to follow Sharon Van Etten on stage at this year’s Nelsonville Music Festival – why this has become his favorite fest. “They don’t blow you out with loudness. And it’s carefully curated.”

 That’s so true. For every act that performed, from sound-design sophisticates like Wilco to acoustic minimalist Jonathan Richman, you could hear every word they sang. At bigger festivals (at Nelsonville, on the grounds of Hocking College, the main stage faces an open field that can only hold several thousand) the rock acts tend to crank up the volume to such a painful level you wait for the birds flying overhead to land and surrender.

 And yet, at the same time, Nelsonville isn’t a predictable roots-music fest full of alt-country troubadours and/or polite bluegrass/folk bands. It has them, true, but it is idiosyncratically programmed with a sharp eye. It leans to the “organic” side of alt-rock (no EDM acts) with a couple headlining legends, but is full of surprises.

 And it can rock out – Shilpa Ray proved that at about 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, howling and screaming (with precise diction and that unusual twist of bittersweet vocal warmth that makes her so engaging) her post-punk blues mantras into the cool night air while she played harmonium and her accompanists provided musical heat.

 Nelsonville also is a pleasant, semi-rural environment in a part of the country – southeastern Ohio, near the college town of Athens – that seems to be a haven for well-preserved older hippies and younger folk who respect their elders’ musical values taste in hair styles and colorful clothing, including brightly patterned sundresses and wry t-shirts like “Bad Spellers Untie!”

 The fest also has its mysteries. For a few acts, signers for the hearing-impaired stand to the side of the stage and provide a translation of lyrics as they’re being sung. It was often a dancing commentary – the signers used a lot of body language. Who exactly they were signing for was a mystery. It’s possible they were Hocking College students on assignment, but nobody I asked had any idea.

  Signer

All this local flavor may be why it not only can attract acts that seem a little too big for the festival’s scale, but also why the musicians seem to praise it so highly from the stage.

 I caught three of festival’s four days, missing opening-night (Thursday) headliner Gogol Bordello. Of those I watched, only a couple were disappointing, for reasons not entirely the artists’ fault.

 Cat Power – who had to follow a long rain delay on Friday night – gave a somewhat meandering set as her voice and wandering stage presence didn’t seem up to her ensemble’s strong playing and back-up singing on numbers from her last album, Sun.

 And after a long Saturday-night rain delay interrupted her set, Mavis Staples elected to not continue. “God told Mavis she needs to sit down,” the emcee intoned from the stage. It was a shame because Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy had just joined her onstage for “You Are Not Alone” – the title song from the 2011 album he produced for her – before the storm struck. She also had done a strong, tantalizing version of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” from the upcoming, Tweedy-produced One True Vine album. Everyone wanted more.

 After that Saturday storm, Wilco played the night’s centerpiece set. Over the years – decades – Tweedy has put together a distinctive sound, a creative amalgam of his favorite strains of rock. On many of the set’s songs, he started out on acoustic guitar with his shaky voice perfect for straightforward Americana music, where the words are more important than the technical perfection of the vocals.

 But as the band would kick in to expand the sound with orchestral grandeur, the hooks and choruses emerged and revealed the selections as pop songs, or at least commercially oriented sing-along alt-rock songs. And then Wilco’s showcase guitarist (and secret weapon), Nels Cline, would take over for a blisteringly transcendent lead with avant-garde overtones that echo fusion-jazz and No Wave. Each song was a veritable mix tape.

 Wilco’s enthusiastic set, which Calexico – which had played earlier – joined toward the end, featured a long encore that left everyone satiated. It also left me to wonder what the heck Wilco is doing playing back-up to Bob Dylan (and even My Morning Jacket) on the upcoming Americanarama tour.

 The fest, which is run by (and raises funds for) the 135-year-old Stuart’s Opera House in downtown Nelsonville, showed its prescience about the pop side of alt-rock with numerous bookings. One especially successful one was the five-member – three men, two women – Brooklyn band Lucius, whose first album isn’t yet out.

 Outfitted a bit like Devo with their matching black tops and green pants/leggings (and the women had pretzel-twist hair styles), they were capable of a poundingly irresistible multi-rhythmic attack. On one number, “Genevieve,” four members played percussion instruments, including a wooden block, at once. But they also had a fine sense of melody, with catchy and arrestingly songs that emanated joy.

 And as an example of Nelsonville’s prescience in booking rising folk-rock singer-songwriters, there was Joe Pug’s involving set. The blossoming Chicago troubadour’s heartfelt songs delicately straddled melancholy, until his guitar and harmonica let them soar forward. He seemed inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s intimate, introspective side (“Atlantic City”), and could be a successor. Playing with two accompanists on a secondary stage, he showcased excellent compositions like “Speak Plainly, Diana” and “Hymn 105.” He also championed an unknown writer named Harvey Thomas Young by singing his “Deep Dark Wells,” originally written as a poem to a brother in prison. The set left many talking about his potential for stardom.

 Another folk-rock singer-songwriter who wowed the crowd was the more established Tift Merritt, the former North Carolinian making her first visit to Nelsonville. The surprise during her Sunday afternoon set was just how hot – how rockin’ – a stage presence she is. With her trio providing rousing support, she would swing her guitar and let her auburn hair flow, moving like a rockabilly savior cutting loose. Or she would play keyboards like she was leading a stomping garage-rock band onward. Besides her own songs like “Mixtape,” “Traveling Alone” and “Spring, ” she chose some potent and not overly familiar covers – James Carr’s “Your Love Made a U-Turn” and Tom Waits’ “Ain’t No Train.” She left the stage leaving many thinking she’s Emmylou’s heir apparent – or Wanda Jackson’s.

 Tift

Jonathan Richman’s set on Saturday afternoon didn’t have the biggest crowd of the fest, but he had some of the most devoted attendees. They are acolytes and they get as close to him as possible.

 It was just him, wearing a long-sleeve shirt in the heat, on acoustic guitar with drummer Tommy Larkins. The songs were relatively familiar, too – a snatch of “That Summer Feeling,” “Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild,” “Let Her Go Into the Darkness…” But as someone who has been catching Richman since seeing him in Boston in the early 1970s, I’ve noticed he has gradually changed. Where once the lure of his act was the naïf-like goofiness, the child-like innocence, of his persona (especially after he appeared in There’s Something About Mary), now what stands out is how he lives by his humane principles. He stands for following your artistic sensibilities and making a living out of it, being generous on stage, and maybe even imparting some wisdom in his off-handedly digressive and seemingly spontaneous way.

 During a version of “When We Refuse to Suffer,” his protest against anti-depressants and the dulling of senses he believes they cause, he sang that (with the drugs) “Porno is possible/But not Michelangelo.”  Then, as an aside to the crowd, he added, jokingly but pointedly, “Incidentally, you want the second.” As my observant friend said, Richman has become a sage.

 There were several “developing” acts – for lack of a better term – whose sets impressed at Nelsonville. Sharon Van Etten showed she’s nicely evolving from a performing songwriter to a rock act, growing comfortable with a band, electric guitar and an increasingly effective, forceful vocal range on her hypnotic mid-tempo songs like “Don’t Do It” and “Peace Signs.”

 Sharon Van Etten

Wussy, the scrappy and highly praised Cincinnati quartet (augmented at Nelsonville with a pedal-steel guitarist) whose songs’ lyrics can be hauntingly poetic, played a blisteringly defiant Saturday-night set, on a secondary stage opposite Wilco. There was just a determined scattering of fans there, despite co-singer/guitar Lisa Walker’s plea for fans to text friends at the Wilco set to come over. The band deserved better than this Wussy-Wilco showdown where the underdogs never had a chance.

 Lee Fields, a classic-soul singer just finding a wide audience at age 60+, killed with his band the Expressions and a repertoire of  contemporary songs that mixed Wilson Pickett-ish raw deep soul with a hint of the disco-Caribbean lilt of 1970s-era TK Records. And on workouts like “Faithful Man” and “Wish You Were Here,” James Brown was probably smiling from above. If there is an above.

 But for great soul music, even Fields couldn’t trump the Sunday afternoon set by the large gospel ensemble (singers and band) Flying Clouds of South Carolina. They turned a religious number that sounded a lot like the Valentinos’ classic “Lookin’ For a Love” into an almost-half-hour ecstatic reverie that featured their trim, energetic white-haired co-lead singer leaping and jumping, as if trying to launch into that heavenly “above” from a trampoline. It was a revelation.

 Flying Clouds

But so, too, in a different way was festival-closer John Prine. Debonairly dressed in sport coat, dress shirt and bolo, with lead guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist David Jacques equally well-attired, his presence gave the event’s closing hour the aura of a formal party – a commencement address. Prine has had his health problems, and he looks like he’s had, but (and maybe this is the reason for the clothes) he also looks like he’s faced it with dignity, resolve and respect for life. Yet all that went uncommented-upon during his set. Instead, he thrilled the crowd with persuasively sung and played versions of his material. The arrangements were tight yet never pro-forma; his own guitar work was rousing. And what a great, deep catalogue he has.

 The funny songs had a singular kind of eccentrically winsome folk wisdom  (“Spanish Pipedream,” “Fish and Whistle,” “Don’t Bury Me”); the story songs had the depth and nuance of novels (“Donald and Lydia,” “Sam Stone”); and the straightforward observational songs about relationships were heartrending and wise (“You Got Gold,” “Storm Windows” and the monumentally magnificent “All the Best” with its couplet “Then your heart gets bored with your mind and it changes you”).

 John Prine

Prine isn’t maybe as widely heralded in pop culture as an influential elder singer-songwriter on a par with Dylan or Leonard Cohen. But he has a following that reveres him. At Nelsonville, the audience knew and sang along with virtually every song and called out for more. Some of Prine’s tunes people liked because they were witty, others (as in the early composition about elderly loneliness, “Hello in There”) because he saw a sad universal truth way early (and expressed it openly and sweetly). People seemed not just to like Prine, but to need him as an antidote to whatever malaise, physical or spiritual, ailed them.

 And Prine knew he was connecting. He joshed and extended the show – it was an almost 1½-hour set. There were two encores, and everyone left spent. 

 When Prine departed, he left as a giant. And he left Nelsonville 2013 a memorable triumph.

 There were other strong acts I saw that I just can’t describe in depth even for a reasonably long feature like this. So, forgive me Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Calexico, Michael Hurley, Cotton Jones, Catherine MacLellan, and He’s My Brother She’s My Sister (with their crowd-pleasing, tap-dancing, fashion-plate drummer Lauren Brown). Your sets all were strong. Come back next year. I will.

INSTANT COMMUNICATION: Shannon Wright

Shannon Wright 1 a

Nowadays the southern singer-songwriter and former Crowsdell frontwoman is all about connectivity.

By John Schacht

These days, to suggest that maybe the digital communications revolution isn’t really doing all that much for communication between humans is to quickly get yourself dismissed as a techno-troglodyte or cranky, progress-hating Luddite.

That’s certainly the narrative driving us all toward faster and faster “connectivity” – otherwise known as the planned obsolescence of last season’s smart phones, tablets and iPads. But can cyber-stalking, “Like” buttons and what-I-had-for-dinner Tweets really replace genuine moments shared with a community of people?

Atlanta-based singer and songwriter Shannon Wright sure doesn’t think so and her new LP, In Film Sound, is an ode to the kind of face-to-face connectivity that used to build communities like the one she came of age in. After starting her career fronting indie outfit Crowsdell in the mid-90s (Stephen Malkmus produced and played on the band’s excellent debut Dreamette) , Wright went solo and built a reputation for intense live gigs and visceral recordings — most of which appeared on the venerable Chicago indie label Touch & Go’s Quarterstick imprint before it essentially shuttered in 2009.

Touch & Go, operating mostly under the steady hand of former Necros bassist Corey Rusk, grew from a fanzine in the late 70s into one of the nation’s poster children for DIY independence during the Big 6 major label 90s. T&G’s eclectic roster ranged from Big Black and the Jesus Lizard to Calexico and TV on the Radio, and the label’s longevity and reputation earned it the right to manufacture and distribute for other respected indie labels such as Kill Rock Stars and Merge.

But like the doomed coalmine canary, Touch & Go succumbed to the 2008 financial crisis and the shift to digital downloading, legal and otherwise. For Wright, who came of artistic age in that community of musical outliers, the label’s demise represented much more than just the loss of her U.S. music distributor. It was, she says, a symptom of the niche-fueled alienation the digital world ironically fosters.

“The Internet’s supposed to be this thing where you can connect with everything, but you’re not really making a community that way,” Wright says, citing indie DIY acts like the Minutemen that she grew up on. “Bands that came through were real, and you could connect with them. They came from the same working class world and made you feel, ‘okay, I’m not alone in this.’ That was exciting, you felt like you were part of a community, and I feel like that that has gotten really lost.”

Wright’s response has been to focus her efforts on Europe, where she has a very supportive French label and draws much bigger crowds. But her latest, out in the States on Ernest Jenning, is arguably her most visceral and anguished howl of beauty since 2004’s Over the Sun, and a conscious rejection of current music trends. Recorded in just nine days with members of former T&G label-mates the Shipping News, In Film Sound eschews ProTools’ multi-layered approach and click-tracks for a straight-to-tape ideal. Wright even extends that beyond the music in her attempt to document something emotional and authentic, including the LP’s titular artwork —a graffiti tag Wright did herself rather than Photoshop.

“I just wanted to record a record how I did 10 years ago, and how most everyone I knew recorded,” says Wright. “I wanted to go back to the most basic thing, which is: write music, record it, take a picture for your artwork, have it printed out, done. Very simple.”

The music certainly captures that less-is-more aesthetic. Turning from the more nuanced flavors of Let In the Light (2007) and Honeybee Girls (2009), In Film Sound detonates first with the sinister riffs and crushing beats of “Noise Parade,” and Wright never really takes her foot from the intensity pedal the rest of the way through. The opener lands somewhere between doom-y Sabbath, Shellac angularity and Sonic Youth noise, while the dark, swampy blues of “The Caustic Light” and “Mire” escalate into an ass-kicking pummeling built on furious drumming and exploding cymbals, as well as Wright’s percussive guitar playing.

But this isn’t an ode to dissonance, either. Elements of melody, graceful tempo alterations, and instrumentation beyond the guitar-bass-drum backbone the record’s built on supply strategic contrast, too. Even Wright’s mellower songs crackle with intensity, mini-conflagrations of emotional catharsis. “Who’s Sorry Now” rides a slow riff and pretty melody over distorted guitars and rich organ swaths, and “Bleed” finds Wright yearning for a missing lover atop elegiac piano chords.

Throughout, you can hear Wright’s desperately seeking connections — between friends, lovers and humans in general. Citing the shift in American culture from DIY necessity to trendy hipster slumming, Wright has increasingly sought and found refuge in Europe. YouTube clips of Wright’s European shows back up her popularity there, and though the Internet is just as accessible overseas, she says there’s a fundamental cultural difference that’s found her touring less and less in the U.S. (Wright doesn’t even currently have a U.S. booking agent.)

“They’re very emotive people and they want to be moved in the same way that I was when I was listening to bands like the Minutemen or any of those types of working class bands that had to make music because that’s what they did to get out their frustrations,” Wright says “One thing that keeps drawing me back to Europe is the fact that people need those moments in their lives — they need to feel something. Because otherwise it’s like being in a factory of life.”

And Wright never cheats listeners out of those moments — she probably wouldn’t know how to even if she wanted. While she concedes her music won’t be for everybody, that doesn’t bother her either. What matters is that she and the audience both reach that state of transcendence where that night’s communal experience leads down the road to a community of like-minded souls.

“It’s definitely an intense show, but it’s not intense in a bad way, or bad feelings — it’s more of a comfort, and letting things out, but also finding beauty in those emotions,” she says. “It’s just like the purest, most honest form of instant communication — that’s the beauty of music, it’s instantaneous. For the people that are open to experiencing those feelings that we all suppress — whether it’s longing for beauty or love or being frustrated because things are unjust — I feel like when I’m playing live I’m just expressing what everybody’s feeling. I’m just the vessel for that.

“You’re standing in a crowd, but everyone around you is feeling the same way, so that when you leave you’re like ‘oh, my god.’ That’s how I feel when I walk off the stage — I’m so happy, and it’s not because the audience thinks I’m amazing or whatever, I just feel really happy that we were able to communicate like that.”

Europe’s rewarded her with sold-out tours, decent hotels and good meals, and even money to take home with her to the States. Still, though the U.S. hasn’t been as open to Wright, she’s not quite ready yet to give up on it yet.

“There has to be some point where people go, ‘my god, I want to feel something. I don’t want to sit on my fucking computer for hours on end and live through a screen,’” she says.

OUT OF THE BLACK, INTO THE GREEN: Biodiesel for Bands

Biodiesel

A diligently-focused non-profit aims to help keep the touring milieu’s carbon footprint small.

 BY ROBIN COOK

  Biodiesel for Bands is a new non-profit organization based in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Spearheaded by president Eric Skjerseth and executive director John Long, its goal is to help aspiring bands keep their carbon footprints small when they tour. Most recently, Biodiesel for Bands partnered with SpokesBUZZ, an organization that promotes the Fort Collins music scene. Using a biodiesel-powered bus, they brought Fort Collins artists to South by Southwest for the SpokesBUZZ music showcase. I interviewed John Long about the goals and history of the organization.

 

BLURT: Could you tell me a little bit about Biodiesel for Bands? 

JOHN LONG: The idea is that musicians join with our annual membership fee and in return they get benefits that include access to biodiesel fuel all over the country.  Also discounts on fuel and discounts on vehicles, rental vehicles that they would tour in.  Of course many bands may already have their own vehicles, so they would basically be looking more for the fuel.  But we want to do other things with the bands in terms of promotion and marketing through the Web site. 

Could you tell me a little bit about how the organization got started? 

Well, I had been involved in nonprofits in the past and also started businesses in the past.  One in particular is a biodiesel company called Blue Sun.  I started that company about twelve years ago, and now it has grown into a pretty large business that produces 40 million gallons of biodiesel a year.  We have a production facility in the Midwest and also some diesel and biodiesel terminals out in the Midwest region.  So that is one of the key partners in this play in terms of getting access to fuel and so forth.  But really, we’re going to need to rely on the hundreds of biodiesel retail outlets that are already established all over the country, you know, work through them, and the national Biodiesel Board, there’s quite a bit of biodiesel infrastructure already set up.  And we plan to use them as a valuable partnership to help our members, which are the musicians, get fuel while out on the road.

        A lot of times these aren’t necessarily just regular gas stations, they’re locked up and they have special hours and things like that, so we’ll basically be kind of most like a fueling managing arm for these touring bands so they can get the fuel and get it at a discount so they can save money and put more money in their pocket and make more money while on the road, ’cause it’s as you know very difficult for bands to make money when they’re just starting out.

What interested you in moving into touring or using biodiesel fuels for touring?  Were you always a music fan as well as involved in green movements?

Yeah, I was always a music fan.  The big thing with Blue Sun in the early days was starting a biodiesel company.  We worked not so much on operating a plant, which is what we do now, but we worked on getting the fuel out to the market through distributors and retail outlets.  So that was my job.  I was originally the president of the company and then we hired a CEO and I started working more on the sales and marketing side.  Basically, we had a lot of opportunities, a lot people contacting us, trying to get biodiesel. 

        Ten years ago, biodiesel wasn’t nearly as readily available as it is now.  When we started getting phone calls, some of them included big bands like Willie Nelson and Neil Young and some of those touring artists that are always looking for biodiesel when they’re out on the road.  And we were able to provide that for them, even as far back as seven years we started providing fuel for them when they would come and play at Red Rocks or whatever venue. We would arrange for our distributor to meet them and their bus drivers at the venue or at a venue or alongside the road, wherever it had to be.   We would just coordinate fuel laps for them so they didn’t have to go out of the way and use up valuable time to do that.  We were able to come to them with trucks. 

        And that gave the idea and the understanding that musicians are musicians and they’re on the road and they need fuel just like anyone else, but they don’t have a lot of time to go out of the way and look for it. . . .And now this [Biodiesel for Bands] is kind of an evolution of that where the nonprofit would actually represent these bands as they join our membership association and then as a benefit we help them get fuel on the road.

And these are all relatively new bands.  It’s for bands that are just starting out who need also to tour economically of course. 

Right.  Those are the kind of bands that we can help the most because they are just starting out.  But we also still have those connections with Willie Nelson and Widespread Panic and some of these really large bands so we’re hoping that we’ll get some of those bands to also join as members.  But they don’t really need the same kind of benefit structure as these startup bands so they would join at a different level and basically the money that they’re putting in would mainly go back to helping these younger bands that are just starting out, ’cause they’re the ones that need that help the most.

As far as bands, do you find that a lot of them are really eager to look into biodiesel as a more green-friendly way of touring?  I mean not just the top ones like Neil Young or Willie Nelson but lesser-known, new bands?

Yeah!  Pretty much all of them.  All musicians tend to have the time and interest in reducing their carbon footprint….They’re always on the road and they see the gas meter…tick tick tick.  And they’re using a lot of fuel every day; they’re at a gas station filling up with more petroleum products.  Anything they can do to reduce that impact is pretty attractive to them.  They just don’t know how.  They don’t have the time or the wherewithal to find biodiesel and deal with that ’cause they’re struggling to survive, just out on the road and got so much else going on.  It’s hard for them to take any concrete steps toward reducing their carbon footprint.  So our main goal is to help them do that easily without having to think about it to much.

ALONE NO LONGER: Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

With Southeastern, released June 11, the Southern songwriter probes the depths of his soul to rediscover reason to believe—and reason to start living again.

 BY FRED MILLS

The moment comes three songs in to Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s fourth studio album. The track is called “Traveling Alone,” an easygoing, fiddle/acoustic guitar-powered toe-tapper which, upon a surface reading of the lyrics, could easily be taken as one of those weary-of-the-road numbers that perennially finds its way into musicians’ repertoires. After all, travel is what those folks do, a lot of it, and the other thing they do a lot of is writing about what they know. Early in the song, Isbell is struggling to get his car through a winter snow—“I’ve been fightin’ second gear for fifteen miles or so,” he sings—as he descends into reflection, wryly taking note of his vices (“Damn near strangled by my appetites”) and remembering a Friday night not that long ago when he was so messed up even the hookers on the street wouldn’t take his money.

 Then Isbell delivers the emotional K.O., crooning in a voice wracked with recrimination and suffused in desire:

 “I’ve grown tired of travelin’ alone/ Won’t you ride with me?”

As he sings, a female voice quietly joins in; both the voice and the aforementioned fiddle belong to Amanda Shires, who’s worked with Isbell in the past (I also saw the pair play a set together one year in Austin at SXSW), and it was she who joined Isbell on his ride last year by agreeing to become his bride.

 Knowing that—how Shires and Isbell are in fact singing to one another as lovers and not merely as country duet partners—elevates this song to a whole other level. It’s like seeing a guy drop down to his knees in a public place, gaze up at his girlfriend, and ask her, in front of everyone, if she’ll marry him.

More than that, though, the song’s an extended metaphor for the human condition and how eventually even the most ardent outsider must grow weary of doing things all by himself—how we can’t grow and evolve without the benefit of external contact and interaction. That second gear Isbell was stuck in during the first verse of the song? Ask yourself how many times you’ve privately fretted over spinning your own wheels. Strangled by appetites? It can be booze, or drugs, or sex, or even something wholly mundane, like collecting string; the point being, all too often, we allow ourselves to be consumed by our obsessions and addictions.

 What a simple confession—“I’ve grown tired of travelin’ alone”—yet what a difficult one to make, in a world that prizes self-sufficiency. The plea is even simpler—“Won’t you ride with me?”—yet it, too, isn’t easy, for to ask it is, in the minds of some, to admit to weakness.

 That Isbell understands this isn’t idle speculation. A notorious party hound, he decided to get sober a year or so ago, and when the fog lifted he not only realized that there was suddenly a lot more to live for (those gears had come unstuck), he was also deeply in love. All of it got poured into Southeastern.  But it would be a critical indulgence to characterize this as a so-called “recovery” album. Granted, there’s self-examination a-plenty here, with no small amount of truth-telling; and sure, booze gets mentioned frequently, while cocaine’s referred to at least twice. But the songwriter is astute enough to sense that a litany of sins doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting narrative. Instead, he drops in a series of mini-character sketches that help flesh out the broader portrait being painted here of a man who found himself thrust into the wind tunnel of self-awareness.

There are moments of straightforward autobiography: in addition to “Traveling Alone” there’s restrained album opener “Cover Me Up,” which outlines the beginnings of the unexpected Isbell-Shires courtship (the clip above shows them doing the song this year in Austin), plus the elegant, Rodney Crowell-styled “Stockholm” which describes the wages of subsequent loneliness and longing the pair must have experienced. There are also instances where Isbell’s lead character is joined by a supporting cast that for better or worse includes his own unfiltered ego jostling for screentime: blazing garage rocker “Super 8” outlines a raucous, destructive night that starts down at the bar and ends up with a motel housekeeper screaming and the paramedics being called. Yet at other times he adopts a more nuanced stance, worthy of a novelist; as in “Elephant,” an elegant and heartbreaking elegy for a friend who succumbed to cancer, in which Isbell’s protagonist, after weighing the good/funny memories alongside the sad ones, is left haunted:

“There’s one thing that’s real clear to me/

No one dies with dignity/

We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”

If you have a pulse, it’ll bring you to your knees. All in all, Southeastern is as compelling a compendium of musical storytelling you’ll hear this year. In talking about his previous studio effort, 2011’s Here We Rest, I compared Isbell’s songwriting to Springsteen circa Darkness On the Edge Of Town, given how the two albums were similarly populated by people who were grinding through assorted crises, some literal and some existential, and learning how to cope—or in some instances failing to cope, and suffering the residual fallout. If that notion holds, then I’m willing to propose that Southeastern is Isbell’s The River. Like Springsteen, he’s now turned the lens decisively inward in order to move beyond merely whiffing life’s elusive truths and gain a primal understanding of the ties that bind.

 The writer’s mandate: to provide hope, and to offer solace. Meeting that challenge is what makes Isbell one of the greatest young songwriters we’ve got right now, and it’s also to his permanent credit that when he hit his moment of clarity, he instinctively grasped what he needed to do next. Listening to this stunning album will provide you with your own such moment. Don’t let it slip away.

 ***

 Top photo Credit: Michael Wilson. Jason Isbell plays a pair of shows tonight and tomorrow night (June 7 & 8) in Louisville and Chicago, and then kicks off his US tour proper on June 14 at Bonnaroo, running through the end of July. (Selected shows in July feature Mrs. Isbell—Amanda Shires—as opening act, so expect some onstage sparks.) Tour dates can be viewed at his official website.

Meanwhile, read the BLURT review of Isbell’s 2011 album Here We Rest right here , and you can also check out my 2011 interview with Isbell right here.

Pictured below: the album artwork, plus the numbered/limited edition vinyl “bootleg” version which was released to indie record stores a week early.

Jason Isbell CD

 Isbell LP

BOMBS AWAY! Akron/Family

Akron Family

On their latest album everybody’s favorite “exasperatingly unknowable band” set out to thwart their perceived reputation as freaked-out freak-folkers via spontaneity (and maybe even a little spontaneous combustion, too).

 BY ERIC SWEDLUND

 Searching out a new sort of heaviness, both sonically and thematically, Akron/Family found inspiration in the vast open deserts of the Southwest. The band has always placed a significant value the process of creation – their last album was written near a Japanese volcano and recorded in an abandoned train station in Detroit – and naturally infused that harsh and primal landscape into the new Sub Verses (Dead Oceans). In doing so, the trio of Dana Janssen, Seth Olinsky and Miles Seaton called on their experimental and improvisational live show to boost the record’s intensity.

 After writing, recording and touring for 2011’s mystically sprawling and vividly expressive Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, Olinsky and Seaton both relocated, Olinsky to Tucson and Seaton to Los Angeles. The moves brought a sharp visual sense of what they wanted the band to capture on Sub Verses, Akron/Family’s seventh album. From the ancient expanses of scorched earth, the hot winds, the jagged isolation and the grand stone mountains, the band started drawing musical ideas and snippets of stories to explore in the lyrics.

“Seth and Dana and I wanted to make something intense. All of us wanted to make something that felt big and large and had a lot of sonic power and depth,” Seaton says. “I definitely had some ideas about sound and feeling and themes that I was really looking for. Interesting things started happening when we found what those different things meant to each other. Heavy means a lot of different things, emotionally heavy, or loud, or having a lot of bass.”

Akron/Family found what they needed in El Paso with producer Randall Dunn.

“We were pretty set on recording somewhere in the American Southwest. We were both pretty inspired by the vastness and the dryness and the ancient magic of the open space in the desert,” Olinsky says. Dunn pushed the band to expand, bringing synthesizers and other synthetic elements to the recording and creating a deeper world of sound on the low-frequency end.

 “Randall is just a really top level engineer who really has subtlety and an amazing way to capture and represent sound. He got us to stretch our boundaries and adding some noise and chaos and unknown elements,” Olinsky continues. “Randall is such an expert sonically. One of the things he does is reveal this conversation between these sub-frequencies. I don’t think any of our records had before this sculpted low end. I thought that was really cool thing I didn’t even anticipate.”

That unexpectedness, he notes, fits right into the plan for a band that relies on improvisation and in-the-moment creativity. “It’s a combination of what we went in thinking we were doing and getting surprises in the middle of the process. It’s a balance of what we were planning and what was actually happening, riding that line of making something that we have the intention of doing and being aware of what’s happening. An Akron/Family record is when the three individual ideas get mashed together and is something that’s sort of unfamiliar to all three of us.”

Or, like Seaton suggests, it’s like a big rock tumbler is at work: “It eventually comes out feeling like a different object than what we thought we were looking at. It keeps changing until at some point it emerges.”

Creating a heavier rock record also lets the band step further away from the folk or freak-folk tag that’s been a misapplied label since Akron/Family’s debut.

“I don’t think we ever necessarily saw ourselves as a folk group in the way it came off the way the world interpreted us,” Olinsky says. “We had to record quietly in these apartments when we were in Brooklyn. And then we were out on Young God (Records) right after Devendra (Banhart) and we became part of this scene that was almost specifically folk, but we were also playing with free jazz players and rock players. This label of freak folk has sort of followed us around because of that initial time, but we’ve always been a dynamic band depending on which lens you catch us through.”

Seaton appreciates the term “folk” in terms of being a traditional music of the people, but not as a specific genre. “I’ve never really identified with the idea of folk as a genre, but I heavily identify with making music that can speak to people, something that’s very true to me and has this immediacy to it that comes from telling the truth and not hiding from that,” he says. “Folk music has a very truthful quality to it, so it can resonate. But to me rock and roll has that too in an interesting way.”

 Captivated by the almost futuristic type of sounds the band was getting in Dunn’s studio, Olinsky developed a sci-fi aesthetic with his lyrics, explaining, “I feel like it brought out this intensity of this modern present/futuristic sort of overload. I had come to the table with the sound feeling really saturated and distorted and blown out and the intensity of colorful harmonics that come out of that.”

Having just read Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, Olinsky says the plots of the books mirrored the layers of sound the band was creating in the studio, creating a musical atmosphere fitting for lyrics that delve into the sci-fi realm. “For me it felt like a very failed future, from an overwhelming technological perspective. The oldness of humanity and basic human narrative confronted by the non-humanness of the way machines and computers and modern life is structured and operates. A lot of sci-fi takes place where those two things are being juxtaposed and then explores what that means.”

The title Sub Verses works within that same context, describing and album that invites below-the-surface exploration.

“When I write words,” says Seaton, I work on trying to make them have different interpretations. There’s the surface meaning and what’s beneath it. With all the music, I feel like there’s a lot of stuff buried inside of it. With this record, moreso than most of our records, there’s this level of being a lot of things being encased in other sounds.”

Part of the band’s boldness in adding layers upon layers of sounds comes from an experiment during the last album. Akron/Family produced a series of alternate mixes of The Cosmic Birth, often burying the songs in wild and harsh bursts of noise, then leaked the mixes, which they called “bombs” online. Because it was essentially a prank, the bombs allowed for an extremism the band had never attempted before.

“The bombs project was letting ourselves be totally, unapologetically extreme,” Olinsky says. “As we try to meet all these different places artistically and balance it out, we ended up with something that goes to all these different places we’re interested in. On this record, we were going for a similar intensity in the expression. There was the idea of ‘Let’s go all out and be totally heavy.’”

With Sub Verses another artistic statement that, at the very least, challenges listeners, Akron/Family met their own goal. But how does the band confront its reputation as being an “exasperatingly unknowable band,” according to the All Music Guide.

“Life doesn’t feel like it follows any linear progression and I feel like our art reflects that,” Seaton says. “A lot of singers, I can hear their voice and read their lyrics and I can feel a lot of validity with that, but I feel like they’re not singing my song. Over time we’re tying to be as honest and truthful as possible and ideally that connects with people.

“When I’m making music, the idea is to try to express this thing with as much intensity and trust and presence as possible and ideally that can resonate with people. Reviews are centered around recordings of music. There’s a level in a room with people that we have a really different effect with the music that we’re making.”

Olinsky adds he sees the truth in the band being “unknowable,” a sentiment he feels to a certain extent even having participated along the way.

“I think there has been some sort of a commitment and an attempt to this idea to explore and change and follow our whim with a certain sense of spontaneity,” he says. “If I look at our whole career as an arc, I think our live show has been a little bit more successful than our recordings. We’re exploring all these different aspects of life through music and when we do that live, there’s a way of being present there with the people and the willingness to go in different directions works.”

[Photo Credit: TJ Nelson]

FOOL IN THE RAIN: Shaky Knees Festival Report

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A waterlogged dispatch from the Atlanta event’s debut, May 4 & 5, in which our intrepid correspondent takes in the likes of Hanni El Khatib, Jim James, Kurt Vile, Drive-By Truckers and others—and lives to write about it.

 TEXT BY STEVE LABATE; DAY 1 PHOTOS BY JESS SMITH, DAY 2 PHOTOS BY MATTHEW SMITH

 Rain. Grey skies and rain. Cold rain. Despite some great music, that’s what I’ll always remember about the inaugural Shaky Knees Festival. Standing in a 50-degree chill, sopping wet in a spontaneous swamp, squinting down past the brow of my windbreaker’s hoodie at rainbow swirls of splashing rain boots, my own non-waterproof sneakers like semi-frozen water balloons buried ankle-deep in mud.

 In the midst—or should I say, mist—of all this, tattooed L.A. greaser Hanni El Khatib is onstage, tearing through a muscular, modern update on rollicking garage rock. I pull a tiny spiral pad from my pocket to jot down a few notes, and as soon as pen hits paper, the ink bleeds into indecipherable Rorschach blots. I try my smartphone, but tiny oceans are gathering on the suddenly unresponsive touchscreen, my fingers the useless paddles of a rowboat a thousand miles from shore. Even the mic for the voice recorder is flooded.

 “Fuck it,” I think, slipping my phone into a ziploc bag in my backpack and tossing the waterlogged notepad into a trashcan. This is not the kind of weather you hope to find at any outdoor concert, let alone the first run of a major new indie-music festival. Still, the people are out in droves, many of them dancing through the downpour.

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A few soggy hours and a plastic cup of moonshine later, a glorious racket is spilling from the speakers. It’s the band I wanted to see more than any other at the festival—The Orwells. Their unjaded teenaged onslaught loads a syringe full of trippy grunge squall, stabs it into the main artery of nascent rock & roll and slams down the plunger like it’s attached to a brick of TNT. This sound is on blessed display at Shaky Knees (just as it is in The Orwells’ jangling, fuzz-laden freakshow prom jam of a single “Halloween All Year” [watch: http://youtu.be/T6coOzqKGpw]).

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After blasting through the unfortunately timely “Hallway Homicide” (“Cartridge is loaded, my trench coat unzips / My eyes on the clock and my hand on the grip” / Sawed-off, Zoloft, my cocktail is lit”), frontman Mario Cuomo’s pale face is red from screaming his fucking balls off. Eyes rolling, he prowls the stage frantically, slippin & trippin. He is every misunderstood kid I used to know in high school back in the ’90s. And it’s pretty damned cool to hear the masses give it up with such genuine enthusiasm for these would-be outcasts and underdogs.

The band closes its set with a blistering and brutal cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Cymbals explode. Broken notes are ripped from buzzing guitar strings. At the apex, Cuomo leaps from the towering stage into the slippery hands of the crowd, which somehow manages to hold his wiry body aloft, his wavy, Cobain-blond hair dangling like a smoky rock & roll halo.

To be honest, I was having a pretty shitty time until The Orwells hit the stage. But from their first riff, I didn’t think about how goddamned uncomfortable freezing drenched I was. It’s the kind of instant transmutation I’ve been lucky enough to experience countless times, the kind of electric moment that keeps me and all the other junkies and true believers out there in the rain for hours chasing the dragon—the chance to experience the elusive, healing power of good, simple rock & roll.

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Later, as grey skies fade to black, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James stands in a dark, dapper suit in front of a half-rainbow pinwheel of neon carnival lights. It’s always impressive to see the effortless way James imbues his cavernous stadium rock with such fragile intimacy. His space-loungey set at Shaky Knees draws mainly from his laidback new solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, though he brings it all home with a trio of tunes from his supergroup side projects Monsters of Folk (Conor Oberst, M. Ward & Mike Mogis) and New Multitudes (Jay Farrar, Will Johnson & Anders Parker)—the country-tinged “Right Place,” the anthemic “Losin Yo Head” and slow-burning, African-pop-indebted Woody Guthrie cover “Changing World.”

Satisfied, but having had enough waterboarding at the hands of mother nature, after James disappears backstage I slip out the exit and make my way home to a hot shower and dry bed.

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DAY 2

When I awoke the next morning, my lungs felt like lead. For a moment I’m afraid I’ve come down with pneumonia. Some hot tea, a plate of biscuits and gravy and a couple bloody marys later, though, I’m good as new. It’s no small help that the sun is shining again. The festival grounds, of course, are still a disaster mess, the world’s largest ball of mud sprayed with a thousand fire hoses and sloshed and kicked all over Atlanta’s Old 4th Ward Park for hours on end. To combat this, the festival crew spread bail after bail of wheat straw overnight to prevent unsuspecting festivalgoers from disappearing forever into any Mariana Trench-deep pools of quicksand that might be lurking just below the surface.

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Ambling across this precarious safety net, I stake out a sunny spot for Kurt Vile and the Violators. When the band begins to play, its liquid tunes wash over the crowd like a cascading waterfall. Vile is hunched over the mic, a resplendent wallflower rustling in the Georgia breeze. He and his cohorts don’t so much make music as bleed it out from a pinprick. They are slowly mutating lysergic journeyman for a new generation, but instead of soundtracking the chaotic, mindbending madness of the trip, they focus on the long, serene comedown, their performance like a 45-minute descent from some esoteric alternate reality.

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Toward the end of the set, a lightning storm approaches, and the music turns as ominous as the sky. When it hits, the soundboard tent is nearly carried off by gusts of wind. I can’t tell if the flashes are from the stage lights or the storm—seems like a little bit of both.

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By the time festival-circuit regulars the Drive-By Truckers hit the stage, the most violent weather has passed, the rain now coming in gentle spurts. It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen the band, and to be honest, I’ve got mixed emotions. In the middle of the last decade, in the wake of their holy trinity of modern Southern-rock records—Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South—DBT was one of the most exciting bands on the scene, boldly reinvigorating (and reinventing) the genre while coming to terms with their complex regional roots via classic story songs and epic guitar riffs. Since then, they’ve certainly cranked out some solid records, but have never quite reached the peak of their heyday, and the last few shows I’ve caught have lacked the passion that once made their music so urgent and powerful.

Most bands with the Truckers’ longevity eventually fall into this rut, for various reasons. In their case, it probably has a lot to do with the constantly shifting lineup, one that has changed with nearly every record they’ve made. But the band that core members Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Brad Morgan show up with at Shaky Knees Fest is in fine form. New addition Matt Patton (The Dexateens) adds a burst of energy on bass, and relative newcomer Jay Gonzalez adds plenty of depth with his stinging licks and rambunctious piano thumping.

After 15 years of making records, the band has an impressively deep catalogue. Live, there’s an anticipation before each song, followed by an electric moment of recognition—when they launch into “Sink Hole,” “Lookout Mountain” or some other fan favorite—that jolts through the crowd, making temporary friends out of complete strangers as knowing glances are exchanged.

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The rain falls soft and persistent through rock & roll ballads “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” and “The Living Bubba.” During the latter, Hood doles out a history lesson about the nearby Cabbage Town neighborhood(known in the ’90s as the “Rockabilly Ghetto”) and his old Atlanta Redneck Underground-scene inspirations Gregory Dean Smalley and Earl “Bubba” Maddox, the former having passed away years ago, and the latter just a few weeks before the festival. Before the song is over, Hood also pays tribute to recently fallen comrade, musician and DBT crew member Craig Lieske. Hood’s reverence for his friends and predecessors—for the obscure yet valiant local musicians who have influenced him is always poignant. He is simultaneously their torchbearer and evangelist, using his own band’s success to shine a light on their admirable under-the-radar contributions.

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After DBT’s set, I’m momentarily aimless, trudging through the mud and mist, debating whether to stay or go. I can hear new acoustic heartthrobs The Lumineers in the shivering distance as they hokey-pokey their way through Creedence Clearwater’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” Yes, I have, thanks for asking—I’ve seen just about enough of it for one weekend. A few thousand stick it out to hear the festival’s final act, but I decide there’s no way I’m going to let the consumption sink its icy, congested claws into my lungs to watch a bunch of carefully coiffed goons in suspenders and pre-distressed fedoras hump their acoustic guitars for an hour. So out the Shaky Knees gate I slip for the last time, wandering the rain-slick Atlanta streets in the dark, pondering the weekend’s gauntlet; the wringer that just wrung me out. Standing on the corner, waiting alone for the hellish glow of the Don’t Walk sign to gleam heavenly white, a Cadillac barrels past, blasting me with a wall of water.

It’s like Andre 3000 said, “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.”

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