Yes, we finally recovered… pictured above is the always-dapper Alejandro Escovedo at the Continental Club on March 16.
PHOTOS BY SUSAN MOLL / TEXT BY FRED MILLS
Where were you March 12-15 this year? The BLURT crew was at our favorite city on the planet, Austin, TX, for our annual SXSW sabbatical. As always, it was a gas at SXSW 2014, from NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s long-distance lecture (apparently the government does not have our best interests in mind, duh); to Tyler, The Creator getting busted for inciting a riot (he instructed fans to storm the gates at a sold-out concert) to Lady Gaga’s scathing keynote address/interview (she claimed that most people are clueless as to how the music business really works, in an attempt to justify sponsorship intrusions) to Neil Young’s marketing-schtick-disguised-as-a-keynote (he was launching a crowdfunding campaign for his new PONO music device and treated attendees to a video of him hanging out with a bunch of fellow musicians who sang his praises to the high heavens).
There was also the shocking tragedy of a man driving his car into the crowd on Red River while trying to escape a traffic stop; to date four people have died, and 21 more were injured. The event cast a pall over the entire festival and also prompted a chorus of “SXSW has gotten too big and unwieldy,” which of course has been heard every year for the past decade (or more) and obviously ignores the basic question of what could have been possibly done to predict and prevent the tragedy (the answer: nothing).
Meanwhile, there were hundreds of must see performances, and yeah, we saw a few of ‘em, and our own Little Miss Shutterbug, Susan Moll was on hand to document ‘em. Some were official SXSW showcases, while others took place Wednesday through Saturday at our annual Industry Of Music Showcase day parties on the eternally sunshiney patio of the Ginger Man Pub (301 Lavaca St., between 3rd and 4th Streets). Many thanks to our partner Dogfish Head beer as well as the good folks at the Ginger Man – we couldn’t have done it without ya, folks. (Check out our Austin report from last year right here,.)
Nicole Atkins at the Ginger Man
Waco Brothers at the Ginger Man
St. Vincent at Stubbs March 12
Urge Overkill at the Ginger Man
Lou Reed Tribute March 14 at the Paramount Theatre
Peter Zaremba (Fleshtones)
Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet)
Richard Barone & Alejandro Escovedo
Linda Pitmon of Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 at the Ginger Man
Jason Victor of Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 at the Ginger Man
The Baseball Project at the Ginger Man
Haley Bonar at the Ginger Man
Basia Bulat at the Ginger Man
The Autumn Defense at the Ginger Man
Churchwood at the Ginger Man
David J at the Ginger Man
Dog Trumpet at the Ginger Man
Keith Streng w/The Split Squad celebrates another successful SXSW at the Ginger Man(photo by Marybeth Kurzynowski)
The Columbus, Ohio alt-country songwriter has no plans to slow down — and not even metal gods The Scorpions, the hipster tastemakers at Pitchfork or the lingering ghost of her fraught first album will get in her way.
BY SCOTT RECKER
After blasting through a few of the gritty, rock-infused alt-country songs from the new Bloodshot album, Somewhere Else, Lydia Loveless starts taking requests, as her backing band leaves the stage of a roadhouse about a half hour north of Detroit. It’s her first stop on tour and after about five people shout out “Steve Earle” — a song about having a stalker that looks like the musician — off of 2011’s Indestructible Machine, she admits it’s been a while since she’s played it, but decides to go for it anyway. She stumbles a little, humming parts of a bridge and a verse, but it still sounds brilliant, probably because her firehouse of a voice gives her the ability to be one of the few people that can pull off playing solo singer-songwriter material with just an electric guitar live. The room has decent acoustics — although it’s not particularly built for it — but her voice has serious takeover power, making it seem like you are behind a studio soundboard with headphones on, instead of what it actually is: being in a large, open space.
When Loveless finishes, someone yells out “Girls Suck”, a vicious, middle-finger of a track off of her 2010 debut, The Only Man. This time she’s not as receptive: “Absolutely not. ‘Girls Suck’ is where I draw the line.”
A Winding Road
It’s hard to remember that she’s only 23. And, since the Coshocton, Ohio native — who currently resides in the nearby city of Columbus — has been writing songs since her early teens, there is obviously some material that she doesn’t relate to anymore.
“Definitely ‘Girls Suck’ would be something that was totally embarrassing,” she tells me by phone the day after the Detroit-area show.“I think I wrote it when I was 16 and I was really mad, pouting about my boyfriend dumping me. I probably can’t even remember the words at this point. Not that they would be hard to remember.”
She definitely holds a certain amount of resentment for the first album. Not only about some of the lyrics that she feels a very different person wrote, but also about the slick production that made her sound like an unhinged, debauched version of Loretta Lynn.
“On the first one, there is no mistaking that I was not in charge,” she says. “So, since I’ve been sort of producing my own stuff, it’s been more fun for me.”
But, the truth is, she’s probably way too hard on herself about the early material. At times, it was bottled lightning. Sometimes it was poignant. Sometimes it was heartbreaking. Sometimes it was funny. But, mostly, it was incredibly candid, especially for someone so young. And that unfiltered honesty and fearlessness caught some attention.
A year later she dropped Indestructible Machine, marking the beginning of her gradual transition from honky-tonk punk to a more layered rock n roll sound. With fuzzy electric guitars, heavy drums and aggressive bass lines, it brought out a super-charged energy that the previous album lacked. Indestructible Machine made it obvious Loveless was never going to be a redundant or stagnant artist. The album was both a turning point and a statement.
This year’s release, Somewhere Else, doesn’t hit as hard at first, but it creeps up on you and seems to get better with every listen. Even though it digs the deepest into the well of rock ‘n’ roll, it has just the right touch of pop sensibilities. And some of the songs, especially“Everything’s Gone” and “Really Wanna See You”, dig deeper than anything in her catalog.
And, although her evolution has been drastic, she says it hasn’t been forced.
“I think it was natural, just part of being more grown up and mature,” Loveless says. “I’m just caring more about what we put into the album. When I was younger I just wanted to get recording over with and I didn’t really think about my guitar playing a lot. So, this time, I wanted to add some texture and some moods to it and use my guitar as an instrument instead of just something I’m banging away on to get a song written.”
For every show in the Midwest, Loveless’ band will be — including her — a five piece, but when they leave the region, the steel player will head back home. Most of the members of her band — which includes her husband, bassist Ben Lamb — have been with her for the better part of four years, something she says makes the studio and touring much easier. Her father was the drummer up until about a year ago.
“I was just like, ‘time to pull the plug.’ I felt like dragging my dad out on the road was kind of irresponsible of me and I just wanted him to be at home with the family. He’s kind of the rock of the family.”
She used to play bass in her oldest sister’s band, Dead Girlfriends. And another sister, Jessica, is the lead singer of The Girls!. But, it’s her younger brother, a metal drummer, she thinks it would be fun to collaborate with.
“My little brother, I would love to play with, but he is too metal for me. He is phenomenal; I would love to do something with him, but he’s kind of just too cool for school right now. He’s really good, but he has this dead-pan face, so he’s doing all this crazy shit, but you would never know, since he just looks like he’s sitting and thinking.”
Which brings us back to her living in Columbus, a place that has always made sense— especially with modern technology — to stay in, but, lately, especially with the consistently inclement weather, she’s playing with the idea of relocating.
“It’s really easy to tour out of, it’s affordable, my family is there and, mostly, I guess, I just think in 2014, you can make it work from anywhere — in America, anyway. I been thinking a lot about California just to not be so cold and miserable; just to kind of have a change of scenery. But, I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but it’s definitely in my thoughts.”
During the week after Somewhere Else dropped in mid-February, Loveless attempted not to read any press coverage, but, in one instance, it became unavoidable.
“People were texting me, ‘What’s this about you shoving a hand up an ass.’ And I read it and I was just like, ‘How can you possibly think that’s what I’m saying?’ So, I got into a little trouble for making fun of the mighty Pitchfork, but I really don’t care.”
Her response on Twitter: “Can someone please tell Pitchfork I metaphorically put my head up people’s asses, not literally my hand.”
Then: “I just don’t want any fisting rumors going round.”
While there is no rush to make another record, the wheels are already turning, making it more and more obvious that she has one of the most important attributes an artist can have: the one that leaves Lydia Loveless never truly satisfied with her work.
“Well, I don’t want to be Taylor Swift” — *Loveless breaks out into a Taylor Swift song on the phone* —“every fucking song. I just kind of want to chill for a little bit — lyrically and musically. And then just try something different. I’ve been playing a lot of piano, so that might come out.”
Detroit Rock City
Sometimes the Detroit area isn’t an easy crowd. Someone told Loveless to “stop being nerdy” after she advised never to write a song in E, especially when using “the E-chord 7 thingy.” Before she played a forthcoming iTunes exclusive, she asked how many people use iTunes. The whole crowd just blankly starred at her. But, it was all relatively innocuous and when she started to get the tendencies and pace of the crowds banter, it became wildly entertaining.
“This is our hit song,” Lydia Loveless says with a hint of sarcasm toward the end of the show. “But, really, who has hit songs anymore?”
“The Scorpions!” someone drunkenly — and nonsensically — yells from the crowd.
“Don’t tempt me to play some Scorpions, because I’ll do it,” she responds, as she pulls her hair back. “Shit’s getting real,” Loveless whispers, sounding more excited than upset.
On his latest album, Mark Kozelek ponders life’s persistent questions—and even finds a few of the answers.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Death, death, death, death. The Pale Rider gallops through Mark Kozelek’s latest LP via every imaginable avenue: relatives who die too young, the impending passing of parents, the random victims of serial killers and gun fanatics, accidental fire victims (two of them!), the euthanized, and, underlying this all, the death of our younger selves. For, in the end, that’s the real story behind Benji (Caldo Verde Records) — the middle-age awakening of mortality as the friends, relatives and acquaintances who people our lives lose theirs, leaving behind only memories.
One paragraph in, many of you will have run for the Internet hills and more light-hearted fare —Parliament/Funkadelic or Black Sabbath would qualify. But if you find solace in commiseration and beauty in the bonds that honest, well-told stories build between us, then Benji’s 11 story-eulogies will leave you marvelling.
Dating back to his Red House Painters days, Kozelek has always filtered the world through first-person story-telling. Recasting himself as Sun Kil Moon in the early 2000s, he expanded his sonic palette with more orchestral arrangements and the occasional Crazy Horse guitar epic. He also added dark, wry humor now and then, but the song and narrative formulas remain essentially unchanged.
All this confessional introspection could, in the wrong hands, be reduced to the self-centered navel-gazing of the average narcissist. And over his last few lackluster releases, Kozelek seemed to have mined that vein dry. But these new stories — a young cousin’s accidental death in “Carissa,” an old man’s mercy killing of his sick wife in “Jim Wise,” the numbing litany of mass gun killings (“Pray for Newton”) — come embedded with strings of memories so vivid they can’t help but ignite our own.
Benji’s stories are spotted with a novelist’s detail and unfold like chapters in a memoir. Over an intensifying tempo, “Dogs” recounts Kozelek’s sexual initiation from his first kisses to first fucks, but pivots on broken hearts given and received. He bemoans the capricious nature of love, including one relationship that stretched from Red Lobster visits to Tangiers trips: “She had motherly love, she was warm and she cared/she was a beautiful girl and she had a big heart/but I drifted away…”
Similarly, as the 10 minutes of “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same” spool out, Kozelek uses the Zeppelin concert movie to frame not just his musical career, but what music has meant along the way. Right away he’s drawn to the more melancholic fare of “No Quarter” and “Rain Song,” though his understanding of why at this tender age is incomplete. Still, he recognizes the ties between those indigo moods and the deaths that first affect him, like “the girl who sat in front of me in remedial/(who) was killed in an accident one weekend /and quickly forgotten about at school.” By the time he sees the film again, it’s the deaths of John Bonham and Peter Grant that stick with him, only now he’s come to terms with his own melancholic tendencies and is grateful for the outlet his music provides.
Kozelek has stripped down the songcraft here to put the emphasis even more squarely on the stories. Since 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises, Kozelek’s relied on the warm tones of nylon acoustic guitar to accompany his nocturnal tales, double-tracking his vocals or adding strings for depth and texture. Benji’s songs rely almost entirely on repeated finger-picked patterns rather than strummed chord progressions, and only rarely does Kozelek switch up instrumentation (the keys on “I Love My Dad,” horns on “Ben’s My Friend”) or highlight the occasional cameo (Steve Shelley, Jen Wood and Will Oldham among them).
Still, for all its bleak fare, there’s warmth here that’s been drawing critics and listeners in. Kozelek’s laconic, smoke-cured croak spills out the stories in a semi-spoken word style, each line tending to dissolve just like our memories. In capturing the quotidian – hornet stings and pizza runs, calling the plumber and recording an LP — and using it to frame the deaths, loves, break-ups and funerals, Kozelek replicates the rhythm of our lives, the tricks of memory, and the portents we later find in seemingly banal moments. And isn’t that the goal of any good story?
Editor’s note: BLURT hereby presents an interview/feature from yours truly’s deep – some would say dark – archives. This marks the first installment of what I’m calling “The College Rock Chronicles,” having cut my teeth as a journalist during that era, writing for the likes of Option, Puncture, The Bob, Bucketful of Brains, etc., and subsequently feeling a deep loyalty to and kinship with those bands who defined it. Sometime later, I found myself as a featured columnist and contributing editor for Harp magazine, each issue authoring the “Indelibles” in which we spotlighted a favorite band from the past (often prompted by a key reissue). Here’s the one I did on Boston’s late, great Dumptruck. I hope you enjoy the trip down memory lane as much as I do and that you’ll be moved to dig out your battered old Dumptruck LPs…
BY FRED MILLS
It’s a rock ‘n’ roll story as old as Keith Richards’ teeth: Band self-releases album in the mid ‘80s and lands deal with hip upstart indie label; band issues second album and tours the country as a critical and college-radio fave; hip upstart indie label has plug pulled on its funding and leaves band floundering with no promotional support; hip upstart indie label sues band for $5 mil….
Waitaminnit – did someone say “$5 mil”? As in, five million bucks? That wasn’t part of the script! Sadly, though, the foregoing is a pretty accurate précis of the trajectory of Boston’s Dumptruck, initially extant and thriving from roughly 1984 through 1988 until being capsized by what amounted to the perfect legal storm, a confluence of band naiveté, label attorney hubris, a torturously slow court system, and just plain bad luck.
“I was kind of pissed off,” recalled Dumptruck co-founder Seth Tiven, talking to me in 2003 about the protracted five year period during which his band found itself branded a hot legal potato by record labels, couldn’t release any records on its own, and had to fork over any touring revenue to its lawyers. Tiven’s deadpan tone, however, gave the guitarist away; he’d told his story many times in the past, but now, with the first three Dumptruck albums newly available, each immaculately remastered and boasting a wealth of bonus material, he was finally getting – not to put too much of a new agey spin on things – some closure.
Reexamining the script we find a post-college Tiven pulling up his New Haven, Conn., roots in the early ‘80s for Boston where, in the wake of some fruitful songwriting and jamming sessions with fellow guitarist Kirk Swan (like Tiven, a New Haven expat), the embryonic Dumptruck was born. In order to make the demos that would become 1984’sD is for Dumptruck album the pair swapped off on guitar and bass duties; drums for two recording sessions were manned by two different drummers – one of whom, New Haven’s Mark Mulcahy, would later notch his own share of fame fronting Miracle Legion. [Go here to read my interview with Mulcahy from 2009.]
Right off the bat, critics spotted Dumptruck as not just another jangly college-rock band, taking note of influences ranging from Richard Thompson and Roger McGuinn to Television and assorted post-punk outfits. (The moody, modal-flavored “Carcass,” in fact, actually suggested Thompson fronting Television and plundering the Byrds songbook.) “One thing that set us apart was the guitar thing, definitely,” agreed Tiven. “Most band will have a rhythm player and a lead player, but we were both equally comfortable doing either. Sometimes there would be kind of ‘lead-y’ parts that might interlock, or sometimes they’d both be rhythmic parts. We didn’t think like, ‘Okay, here’s the rhythm guitar track. Now the guitarist will record a lead over it.’”
Having two strong songwriters and personalities in the band would eventually prove its temporary undoing, but for the time being Dumptruck, buoyed by good press notices —including the proverbial “A-minus” in the Village Voice — was on a roll. A full-time rhythm section was secured and regional touring commenced, and by the summer of ’85 Dumptruck had a deal with a hip upstart indie label (now where have we heard that term before?), the Australian-based Big Time Records, which had recently opened an American office and, with flagship band the Hoodoo Gurus doing gangbusters, was looking to capitalized on the guitar-band groundswell then going on in the U.S.
Positively Dumptruck was the first fruit of the Dumptruck-Big Time alliance and by virtual unanimous critical judgment, it was one of the tastiest fruits to drop in 1985, a heady mélange of classic pop melodies and moody minor chord anthemism. Recorded at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studios and overseen by Easter chum/R.E.M. co-producer Don Dixon (who additionally played keyboards),the album sounds by Tiven’s 2003 hindsight reckoning, “really dated, very much of its time period, with lots of gated reverb on the drums and such. A lot of compression and reverb was put on in the mastering process, too. So it made sense then, but I hear it now and say, ‘How could we have done it with that much reverb?’”
That said, Tiven remained immensely proud of the record, freely admitting that its immediate embrace by critics and college radio gave Dumptruck cachet to burn. “We were never living in the lap of luxury — and you can’t go out to dinner on a record review! – but we were making enough to live on,” he noted. In the end, though, the band simply burned – out, that is. Protracted roadwork took its toll, magnifying petty personal differences between Tiven and Swan, and with the pair having already begun to diverge in their respective musical tastes at that point, Swan abruptly gave his notice around Christmas of ’86, taking the bassist with him.
In our interview Tiven hastened to point out that lingering hard feelings between he and Swan had long since dissipated (he’d recently visited his former bandmate in L.A.), but at the time, back in ’86, he felt both angry and shaken. Then he got word from Big Time, which had just gotten a major cash infusion via a distribution deal with RCA Records, that funding to the tune of between $80k and $100k was available if Tiven wanted to record a third Dumptruck album.
Tiven laughs at the memory. “They said, ‘Are you ready to do it?’ ‘Hmm, do I want to start fresh, from scratch, or do I want to fly to Wales and do a record at Rockfield Studios with my favorite producer in the world, Hugh Jones [Echo & The Bunnymen, Simple Minds, Damned]?’ I got a band together as fast as I could!”
Tiven and longtime drummer Shawn Devlin rounded up bassist Tom Shad and guitarist Kevin Salem, performed a few preemptory gigs, then hopped a plane to the U.K. On paper a no-brainer, although the artistic weight placed upon Tiven’s shoulders was understandably massive. When For The Country appeared in late ’87, however, nine out of ten critics had to agree: Tiven had pulled it off, delivering a brace of Dumptruck anthems (notably tough-as-titanium rocker “50 Miles” and the Byrdsian “Wire”) every bit the equal of the preceding albums’ tunes.
“Sometimes I tend to work best under pressure,” quipped Tiven, adding that producer Jones’ strong critical ear and easygoing bedside manner made the experience an altogether rewarding one.
After the high, though, came the crash.
Unbeknownst to Tiven, while he and the band were overseas Big Time learned its cash spigot was about to be turned off by RCA. And when Dumptruck hit the road in the fall of ‘87 to tourbehind For The Country it found its own expectations being rudely downsized: no publicity staffers remaining at Big Time equaled no promotion or tour support for the band. Even worse, in many cities the album wasn’t even available in stores. Tiven sighed at the painful memory. “I suppose it had been a bad omen when our A&R guy got fired in the middle of recording the record, and then we go on tour and it was like your worst nightmare, where you go and make what you feel is your best record, yet there’s no support for it.”
But wait, it gets worse! To make a bitterly protracted story short: Bloodied and definitely bowed, Dumptruck nevertheless soldiered on with its tour. Things looked up briefly when Tiven learned Big Time had somehow neglected to pick up the band’s option and Dumptruck was legally free to sign with another label. Then as lawyers for the group began negotiations with several labels, Big Time, in a hissy fit of embarrassed pique, filed a $5 million breech-of-contract suit. A frivolous suit, mind you (at that point there was no legal contract in effect), and one which was ultimately dismissed three years later, but one which not only forced Dumptruck to divert precious funds to pay legal bills but effectively put it up on blocks; not a label on the planet would touch a band saddled with that much legal baggage, temporary/frivolous or otherwise.
Dumptruck eventually recovered – sort of. 1991 saw the group record its fourth album, Days Of Fear, although by that point the Dumptruck name had been all but forgotten by the music industry and the record didn’t see the light of day until ’94. In the interim Tiven got married and moved to Austin, and since then he’s periodically revived the band – using various Austin musicians — for recording (1998’s Terminal, 2001’s Lemmings Travel To The Sea, both on the Devil In The Woods label – the latter including a bonus CD of live recordings from ’86 and ’88) and low-key touring. Along the way Tiven also won back the rights to Dumptruck’s master tapes, ultimately yielding the happy situation in 2003 with the Rykodisc reissues.
Did Tiven still nurse any lingering bitterness from the Dumptruck ordeal?
“It was demoralizing,” he admitted to me. “But I was also kind of naïve in a lot of ways back then, too. In thinking that, ‘Okay, contractually we’re in the right, it will take maybe six months to wind its way through the court system, and someone will want to sign us when it’s done.’ Then it takes three years to get resolved, and once it did, no one was interested in us anymore!
“But I still have a lot of good memories of that whole era. You know, it’s not the same now as it was back then, though. College radio, the 200-300 capacity clubs, that was all pretty much left to the independents [labels] because major labels didn’t care. Indie labels and bands had that whole area to themselves. After that changed in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, it crowded out a lot of the independents – the majors bought up a lot of the independents! And in a way, I think that factor has hurt music in general a lot.”
D is for Dumptruck (Rykodisc; 2003). Original LP (Incas, 1984) plus “Thanksgiving” (from Throbbing Lobster Let’s Breed! compilation, 1984);“Watch Her Fall,” “Repetition,” “Things Go Wrong” and “How Come?” (live CBGB 7/12/86).
Positively Dumptruck (Rykodisc; 2003). Orig. LP (Big Time, 1985) plus “From Where I Stand” and “Will It Happen Again” (from LP sessions); “Carefree,” “Bound To Happen,” “Friends” and “Movies” (‘86 demos).
For The Country (Rykodisc, 2003). Orig. LP (Big Time, 1987) plus “Didn’t Know” and “Waiting For You” (LP sessions); “Bad Day,” “Waterwheel” and “Better Of You” (‘88 demos); “Carefree” and “For The Country” (live CBGB 1/16/88). First two LPs remastered from stereo analog masters, 3rd LP from stereo DAT master.
Days of Fear (Unclean, 1994) Comprises sessions recorded 1988-91.
Terminal (Devil In The Woods, 1998)
Lemmings Travel To the Sea (Devil In The Woods, 2001)
Postscript: In 2006 Rykodisc (which has since folded) issued the Dumptruck compilation CD Haul of Fame. Tiven subsequently released a 2007 solo album Solitude and still revives the Dumptruck name for occasional shows around Austin. Kirk Swan has also released several solo records, as has latterday member Kevin Salem.
Smell the glove and make the sign of the umlaut, kids: announcing the second installment in our latest genre study, with Hirax, Hell, Conan, Artificial Brain, Psalm Zero, and more.Go here to read the first episode, Pt. 666.1, if you dare.
BY METAL MIKE TOLAND
Eighties refugee Hell never got to release an album during its original lifespan. Curse and Chapter (NuclearBlast), however, is the British act’s second LP since reuniting in 2008, with guitarist/producer Andy Sneap and singer David Bower (brother of bandleader Kev Bower) joining in place of original singer/string-slinger Dave G. Halliday. Nearly 30 years on, the band is in better command of its thrashing proto-power metal than ever. If the singing Bower’s roots in musical theater sometimes show a little too much, his projection-to-the-cheap seats style at least puts him on equal footing with the riff-roaring guitars. Given the genre’s continuing obsession with religion in general and Lucifer in particular, Hell’s lockjaw grip on the same subject veers between timely and quaint, but the utter conviction with which sentiments like “End ov Days” are delivered blows past any eye-rolling. Check out the raging “Age of Nefarious,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Darkangel” or the dramatic epic “A Vespertine Legacy” for catchy, exciting lessons in heavy metal bombast.
Speaking of ‘80s metal, Hirax, a veteran of that gilded age, storms back to life with Immortal Legacy (Steamhammer/SPV), its first LP in five years.The California bunch still thrashes it old-school like Metallica’s black album never happened, with Katon W. DePena’s powerhouse larynx leading the deadly charge. Cf. “Victims of the Dead” and “Tied to the Gallows Pole” for some perfectly hair-whipping kicks. Chrome Division doesn’t go back any farther than the mid-’aughties, but definitely looks to the Reagan years for inspiration. Infernal Rock Eternal (NuclearBlast), the Norwegian four-piece’s third album, finds a sweet spot between Motorhead and hair metal and rides it like a sleek Harley zooming down the road with a chick on each arm. “The Moonshine Years,” “Reaper On the Hunt” and “(She’s) Hot Tonight” rock like proper sleazebags, while“Lady of Perpetual Sorrow” digs out the ambition and acoustic guitars for something more grandiose. Sweden’s mighty Grand Magus eschew glam and go straight for blood and leather on its seventh platter Triumph and Power (NuclearBlast). Though the trio still hasn’t quite lived up to its massive potential, this is still a satisfying slice of NWOBHM-laced epic hard rock, as songs like “Steel Versus Steel,” “Holmgång” and the title cut slot nicely between Iron Maiden and Manowar.
Conan revels in the kind of slow, sludge-caked riffery found in the first Black Sabbath album. Hardly unusual for a doom trio, but the band evolves its craft to the point of near-perfection on its second album Blood Eagle (Napalm). Spiking its collective vein with the kind of wild-eyed charge favored by fellow travelers Electric Wizard and the late Cathedral, Conan literally lays it on thick here, translating the sound of Godzilla stomping through the Japanese mountains into amplifier abuse. “Crown of Talons,” “Gravity Chasm” and the relatively brief but mighty “Foehammer” wield the mace of doom with fierce power and a surprising grace. Blood Eagle climaxes with the roiling “Altar of Grief,” a rumbling roar of pain and defiance that encapsulates what both Conan and doom are all about.
Conan’s fellow Brits the Wounded Kings stride across the landscape with less elegance, but make up for it with sheer bulk on their fourth album Consolamentum (Candlelight). No need for any fancy experimentation or genre-diddling here – the flattening weight of “Lost Bride,” “The Silence” and the monstrous “Gnosis” are this band needs to be effective. Kudos especially to singer Sharie Neyland, a siren amongst monsters – a black-eyed and -hearted siren, but still. A long distance collaboration between Canadian musicians and a Swedish vokillist, Culted pukes up some particularly frosty blackened doom on its second LP Oblique to All Paths (Relapse). Redwood-thick riffs grind the soil while Daniel Jansson’s other-dimensional devil rasp finds unholy secrets in every corner of the dim, pre-dawn haze. It’s not easy listening – especially with a near-20 minute opener in “Brooding Hex” – and, frankly, it’s too long, but the creepy edge of Culted’s arty take on dinosaur sludge sets it apart.
Houston’s Omotai keeps one claw on doom-soaked sludge, the other on bristling thrashcore and its teeth in the throat of raging noise rock on its sophomore slab Fresh Hell (TheTreatyOakCollective/The Path Less Traveled). “Get Your Dead Straight,” “Back Office” and “Giant Pygmy,” the troika of tracks that open the record, wax both savage and lyrical, vein-popping and brow-furrowing, and that’s just the tip of the ship-sinking iceberg. Put this riffmongering troop on tour with fellow barbarous Texans Lions of Tsavo and you’d have a hell of a headringing double bill.
A meeting of sick minds, Artificial Brain is a collaboration betwixt Revocation picker Dan Garguilo and former Biolich frontdude Will “No, not that one” Smith. (The ashes of the apparently seminal Biolich also gave birth to the excellent Castavet.) Labyrinth Constellation (ProfoundLore), the duo’s debut full-length, puts a science fictional spin on murderous death metal, as titles like “Brain Transplant,” “Worm Harvester” and “Frozen Planets” indicate. (Smith’s vocals are beyond guttural, the lyrics a feral blur.) Apparently that theme gives Garguilo license to add subtly psychedelic bits to the teethgrinding brutality, like the droning Farfisa in “Absorbing Black Ignition” and the sine-wave synth intro, pounding doom bass, looped coda and cosmic changes of “Hormone’s Echo,” making the LP more than just a thorough pummeling.
Equally beloved and maligned, the whole stoner rock thing always seems on the verge of being done to death, but then a band comes along that reminds us why the style was cool in the first place. Cue Pagan Fruit (SmallStone), the second album from Salt Lake City’s Dwellers. The mindgames of former members of Iota and SubRosa, the record filters doomy blues rock through a blotter of shimmering desert psych, balancing Joey Toscano’s skilled axework with songwriting stepped up several notches from the group’s 2012 debut. Check out “Call of the Hallowed Horn,” “Rare Eagle” and “Return to the Sky” for some nicely illicit pleasure spikes.
There’s been a trend over the last decade or two that involves reviving progressive rock melodies and dynamics while eschewing the solos and pointless timeshifts. Norway’s Sahg definitely falls into that camp on its fourth disk Delusions of Grandeur (Metal Blade/Indie). The Bergen band keeps the melodies flowing and the sonics racing to the rafters, whether on chugging cosmic metal like “Firechild,” atmospheric riff-pounders like “Ether” or widescreen heavy prog a la “Sleepers Guide to the Galaxy.” Ambitious and powerful. Speaking of progressive, Psalm Zero reaches for that accolade as well on its debut The Drain (ProfoundLore), but in the sense of pushing the envelope of heavy rock, rather than trying to sound like Yes cranked to eleven. The duo of Charlie Looker (ex-Dirty Projectors!) and Andrew Hock (of Castavet) melds industrial rhythm programming a la Godflesh to moody, knotty, occasionally anthemic melodies, alternating broody indie boy vox (Looker) with vein-popping growls (Hock). Check out “Meanwhile,” “Force My Hand” and “In the Dead” for a rifftastic journey through the imagination of an act not content to just regurgitate familiar tropes.
The Traveling Wilburys of U.S. extreme metal, Twilight has led as tumultuous an existence as one might expect, given the personalities involved. The Stateside chapter of the black metal underworld tends to lean towards depressive misanthropy, rather than Satanic ego worship, which must’ve led to some tense group therapy sessions (AKA band meetings). Now consisting of original members N. Imperial (leader of Krieg) and Wrest (majordomo of Leviathan and its alter ego Lurker of Chalice) with Stavros Giannopoulos of the Atlas Moth, Sanford Parker of Minsk and a thousand headbanging production jobs and, shockingly, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, the supergroup delivers as its final album a coup de grace entitled III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb (CenturyMedia). With that pedigree, it’s no wonder some non-trad BM sounds sneak into the mix, from the alt-tuned guitar shreeng that intros “Swarming Funeral Mass” to the anthemic arpeggios of “Oh Wretched Son” and the noise rock bass thrud of “Below the Lights.” But most of the audio hallucinations herein sound like an absinthe-sodden vampire dragging itself through its own muddy lair by its broken fangs – classic black metal filth given the royal sonic treatment.
Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where, coincidentally, for a number of years a mysterious spate of as-yet-unsolved cattle mutilation crimes have been occurring at regular intervals. We at BLURT have no insight into any of this, however. His Lone Star State accomplices include The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV.
You’re about to enter a world of pain. Since BLURT launched in 2008 we’ve asked musicians, comedians and authors to write about their most outrageous stories. They’ve really delivered the gross-eries – we have sex, scat, puke, violence and heart-wrenching tragedy among almost three dozen columns at BlurtOnline.com and in this magazine. What follows is another true story chronicling seriously fucked-up events. It might make you laugh; it might make you cringe; it might make you puke. Grab a bucket; it’s about to get weird. —As told to Senior Editor Randy Harward
THE SOUND OF ONE DOG PANTING
BY NADINE SHAH
I was driving from a gig with my friend in the far east of Turkey a few years ago, when the car started making some huge thumping noises. It finally ground to a halt around 10:00 at night in a petrol station.
After a little running around we managed to get it to a local garage, and found somebody who spoke English to translate for us. The good news was he could fix the car, but the bad news was he couldn’t do it to until the following morning. We didn’t have enough money to get the car fixed and get a hotel for the night, so the mechanic said we could sleep in the garage overnight to save money.
He took us upstairs and showed us two pretty dilapidated sofas we could sleep on, and gave us a blanket each. Then the night guard came in. He was about 60 years old and 6-foot-5, with a few missing teeth and a lazy eye. He also had a large German Shepherd, and a shotgun.
We were told he was going to stay with us as well, to make sure no wild dogs got in and the place was safe. He didn’t speak any English, so the three of us just sat there in silence drinking a large whiskey. I needed one if I was going to get any sleep in this place! We curled up to go to sleep on our different sofas, and I slowly drifted off.
I woke a few hours later to a heavy panting sound, I gingerly opened my eyes, scared of what I was going to see, but thankfully the guard was still asleep in the easy chair opposite. His dog wasn’t, however. The German Shepherd was up on my friend’s face, gently humping away, panting and all. His lipstick was out and just rubbing on his face, but my friend was still fast asleep.
Now it’s difficult to know what to do in this situation. Obviously I wanted to stop it, but disturbing a large German Shepherd mid-mating really didn’t seem like a good idea. Especially when his owner was 10 feet away with a shotgun. I was trying to figure out what to do when with one final large pant, he was finished. The German Shepherd climbed off my friend and curled up for the night, with a pretty content look on his face.
I also saw a video of a snake that had been decapitated today. The decapitated head turned and bit its own detached body. Meh…
British singer-songwriter Nadine Shah’s debut album Love Your Dum and Mad is out now on R&S/Apollo Records
In tune with the Amerindie underground, yet barely tuned in to one another, the 1988-89 incarnation of CVB wasn’t long for this astral plane. But as two newly remastered and expanded reissues illustrate, the group was musically—and brilliantly—multidimensional. Check out a live video from ’88 at the bottom.
BY STEVE PICK
They just seemed so goddam confident on stage. Camper Van Beethoven knew they were good from the beginning, but by 1989, they carried themselves on stage as if they felt life would never be better than this. Part of it was the natural strut of frontman David Lowery, who has never seemed unsure of himself, but most of it was the sheer craft and emotional heft of the music. Camper Van Beethoven was a group of five musicians proudly converging into one perfectly tuned unit.
Except, to read the liner notes to the newly reissued (via Omnivore; www.omnivorerecordings.com) Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart from 1988 and the following year’s Key Lime Pie, and to remember how little time they had left as a band, they weren’t anything like in tune with each other. Violin player and co-focus on stage Jonathan Segel was gone shortly after the tour finished; David Lowery, bassist Victor Krummenacher, lead guitarist Greg Lisher, and drummer Chris Pedersen apparently had multiple ideas for the direction the music should go from there. A final album was cut with session violinists and a final tour was undertaken with a new member, Morgan Fichter, and it was all over. (The latter lineup is pictured below.)
In retrospect, it makes sense that a surplus of musical ideas would be way better than a surfeit of same. With every member of the band contributing to the songwriting together, there would be no single identifiable Camper Van Beethoven sound so much as there was a CVB attitude. Music could be fun and serious at the same time; the band would be without ego, even if in reality it took five egos fighting for their own spot in the sun to get there.
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart was the fourth full-length CVB album, but the first for a major record label. As college radio seemed to be breaking more and more acts into either the big time (R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs) or at least a pretty solid run at mid-size prosperity (Husker Du, the Replacements), the major labels started snapping up the heroic underground acts of the late ‘80s. There was controversy in the fanzine scene of the time, but the bottom line was it became easier to find the music under the aegis of corporate distribution.
While Sweetheart had a few tweaks in the direction of radio-friendly sound (most notably the slightly bigger drum sound than before), it wasn’t a dramatically different record than Camper Van Beethoven had delivered in the previous year’s eponymous release. There were instrumentals and there were vocals, there were ironic views of historical figures and there were devastatingly direct statements of purpose. There were hints of eastern European influences as well as Appalachian folk; there were dynamically vibrant arrangements allowing each member of the band to shine without drawing attention away from the song itself.
Whether introducing ‘80s indie rockers to one of the oldest songs in the American folk repertoire, “O Death,” or finding inspiration in the tale of Patty Hearst’s experience with the Symbionese Liberation Army for “Tania”; whether creating a richly intoxicating pop confection suddenly exploding into musique concrete in “She Divines Water” or roaring a riff-laden heavy folkish instrumental called “Waka,” Camper Van Beethoven were clearly at the top of their game for Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
Not that there was anything wrong with the subsequent Key Lime Pie. Fichter was almost as riveting onstage as Segel had been, and the concerts were every bit as intoxicating as they always were. According to the liner notes for both albums (written by long-time superfan Jill Stauffer, who is full of anecdotes and insight), the members of the band were no longer pointing in the same musical direction, and the music was darker than before.
Two superficially similar songs reveal the distance between these two albums. Both “Tania” from Sweetheart and “Jack Ruby” from Pie are based on real life events seen on television, both about people with guns. But “Tania” is light-hearted, albeit with a strong ironic distance from real feeling. There is no sense that what Patty Hearst did had consequences, no feeling that actual human actions took place. That familiar image of Hearst with a gun was seen as a relief from boredom, an achievement of the ultimate goal, the fifteen minutes of fame Warhol had promised. “Jack Ruby,” on the other hand, is about the nature of evil and our complicity with its effects. The good guys and bad guys mingle, the act of Ruby was to murder a murderer, and we cannot ultimately escape from implications of our actions or inactions. Sure, Hearst didn’t actually kill any one, but the SLA did, so her story has plenty of similar implications. They simply aren’t considered in that song.
None of this means Camper Van Beethoven wasn’t tackling serious issues before Pie. Taking the skinheads bowling was a crafty joke, but singing about “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac” was connecting the dots between dictators, fascists, and the general desire for order we all have inside us. There is, however, a dramatically different feel to the songs on Key Lime Pie, a sense that at least for now, hope is not on the table. At the time, Pie felt like a major breakthrough, but in retrospect, it’s doesn’t have as broad a range of musical treasures as the band usually provided.
Virgin Records obviously pumped more money into the band for Pie, as the sound is crisper, thicker, and clearer than on previous records. Segel is usually replaced by Don Lax, who does a good job while only rarely insinuating himself into the bones of the songs. He is more likely to merely color the music, though this could have been a conscious decision of the album’s producer, Dennis Herring. At any rate, the full throttle multi-part instrumental commentaries are much rarer behind Lowery’s vocals than they had been before.
Fichter came onboard for “Flowers” and most spectacularly, the definitive cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” which the band had been performing in concert for years. Camper Van Beethoven had never been afraid of cover material – they’d already released a countryish take on Black Flag’s “Wasted” and an exuberant take on Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” It seems likely the record company pushed for “Matchstick Men” as a potential single for radio; it’s easily the hookiest cut on Key Lime Pie. But rather than just doing a straight version of an old rock song, the band turned in a masterful reimagination, with Fichter’s violin taking the catchy riff to new heights. There aren’t many covers which can be said to have replaced the original, but this one just might.
Both reissues are padded with multiple rarities and live cuts, including songs by the Damned, the Stranglers, and the Buzzcocks which clearly show Camper had roots in the emerging punk/New Wave scene before they were old enough to make their own kind of music. The remastering is terrific, opening up the music and letting it breath in ways the original CDs didn’t quite allow.
An expanded anniversary edition of the erstwhile Hüsker Dü frontman’s 1989 solo debut proves what longtime fans knew along: it was his finest hour, period. Above: the artist in ’89, from the original Virgin Records promotional photo; at the bottom of the page is the artist today.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Full disclosure: I have a personal relationship with this record. Not in the sense that I had anything to do with its creation – I certainly do not. Nor that it came along as a difficult or trying time in my life and helped me get through it – outside of having to constantly take my ‘69 Volkswagen Beetle to the shop, I was feeling pretty good about life in 1989.
It’s only that for some indefinable reason I’ve never quite been able to figure out, Workbook, Bob Mould’s debut solo album he cut after spending nearly a decade in Hüsker Dü, hit me where I lived, and has been a perennial favorite ever since.
Keep in mind when I say this that this is the first Mould music I ever heard. That’s right – I’d read about but never actually heard Hüsker Dü when this LP came out. I read a review of Workbook in Rolling Stone that praised it to the skies and was curious about what a singer/songwriter record from the former leader of a punk rock band would sound like. Yep, I bought it on a whim after reading a review in Rolling Stone and it’s been in my all-time top 10 list ever since. How often do we thank the Old Grey Lady of rock journalism for a personal milestone like that?
Which brings us to Workbook 25 (Omnivore/Universal Music Special Products/Virgin),which is, as billed, the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this landmark record. Begging the obvious question: how does it hold up after a quarter of a century?
The answer: pretty goddamned well.
In a sense, the album was a continuation of Mould’s work in the Dü. His lyrics had for years conveyed the idea of listening to deep thoughts and feelings. Whether or not it’s true (and no songwriter worth his or her salt ever confirms or denies for sure), Mould’s libretto always had the ring of personal truths, and that goes double for the songs here. Written and recorded in the aftermath of the breakup of one of rock’s most influential acts, the tracks struggle with the loss of a relationship, alternating between lamenting the causes of the breakup (“Poison Years,” “Lonely Afternoon”) and fortifying the soul for the task of moving on (“Whichever Way the Wind Blows,” “Heartbreak a Stranger”). It’s a situation to which anyone can relate, whether they’ve been in a band or not.
Though usually referred to as Mould’s acoustic record, the truth is more complex: a mix of acoustic and electric guitars, with forceful drums and a prominently used cello conjure up a set of rock sonics pretty distinctive at the time. While it was a departure from the Dü, it wasn’t so much of one as to be the equivalent of a bucket of cold water thrown on a copulating couple. There’s plenty of meltdown guitar (“Wishing Well,” “Whichever Way the Wind Blows”) and rock drive (“Lonely Afternoon,” “Poison Years”), not to mention that spectacular sense of pop melody that gave so much of his Hüskers material its buzz (“See a Little Light,” “Dreaming, I Am”). Besides, Mould had been dropping hints on Dü records for years about this creative move: cf. “No Reservations” on the final HD LP Warehouse: Songs and Stories, or “Hardly Getting Over It” and “Too Far Down” on Candy Apple Grey, or even “Celebrated Summer” on New Day Rising. Acoustic instruments went back as far as Zen Arcade, and “Hardly Getting Over It” is practically this album in microcosm.
The result of all this creative effort is a magnificent collection of finely crafted, emotional, musical tunes that hold up to hundreds, if not thousands, of listens. The textures that color “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” and “Compositions For the Young and Old,” the moody atmosphere that floats “Sinners and Their Repentances” and “Heartbreak a Stranger,” the bright hope and cathartic fury that power “See a Little Light” and “Whichever Way the Wind Blows” respectively, the singular achievement of “Wishing Well,” perhaps the finest track of his career – all of it comes together to manifest a record that in many ways set the tone for Mould’s career thereafter, while also becoming the benchmark against which his solo work would be judged. Time has been kind to Workbook, and repeated listens over the decades reveal new wrinkles with every spin.
Workbook 25 adds the usual bonuses to expand the package, most of them from the forgotten compilation record Poison Years, but that’s not meant to be dismissive. The B-side “All These People Know” rocks like vintage Dü, and shows that Mould wasn’t ready to abandon industrial strength pop-punk just yet. The stupendous live set comprising disk 2 is a real treat. Recorded at the Cabaret Metro in 1989 with the Workbook rhythm section of Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) and Anton Fier (Golden Palominos, Feelies), plus second guitar from Chris Stamey (dB’s, solo), it presents fired-up live versions of every song from the record, given tougher readings minus the cello, plus “All These People Know” and the unrecorded rocker “If You’re True.” Also included is a righteous burn through Richard & Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights” and three set-closing Hüsker Dü songs, performed solo acoustic: “Hardly Getting Over It,” “Celebrated Summer” and “Makes No Sense At All,” setlist perennials to this day. (The Metro concert, originally broadcast via Chicago’s WXRT-FM, originally yielded the four live tracks that appeared on Mould’s promotional-only “Wishing Well” 12” EP. The full show was subsequently bootlegged repeatedly on CD.)
There remains a contingent of Mould fans who believe that any music he makes that strays from the Hüsker Dü template of loud, power trio rock-pop isn’t worth the plastic it was imprinted on. Don’t believe it – not to take away from his work in that style, but Workbook 25 is his masterpiece.
Gordon Robertson on hymns, habits, the Chicago music scene, and why his band got involved with pit bull advocacy.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Being raised in a fanatically strict, fundamentalist household – where even your choice in music could be an indicator if you’d spend your afterlife up in the clouds or sentenced to the pits of hell – can really have an affect a kid. For Gordon Robertson, it helped shape the musician he is today.
Long since removed from that church, Robertson, now fronting the aptly named The Damn Choir, has spent the past few years in his quest to write the “perfect hymn,” something a little more sincere and relatable than the songs he was surrounded by in church. Judging by the 13 tracks that made it onto his band’s debut, Creatures of Habit, he’s pretty damn close.
Robertson, now based in Chicago, spoke recently about his background, his quest to write a more appropriate hymn and his band’s connection with pit bulls.
BLURT: You talk in your bio a little about growing up in a fundamentalist household. How did that shape this band?
GORDON ROBINSON: Growing up in a fundamentalist house was a very different experience as you can imagine. I have four sisters and one brother, and we were all homeschooled. This shaped the music because I was forced to be creative. My school was a tiny house filled with kids, dogs, cats, lizards, and everything you need to know about God.
Were you allowed to listen to rock music growing up?
I was not allowed to listen to rock music. When I was a kid, the music I knew was DC Talk, The News Boys, and Steven Curtis Chapmen. All Christian alternative bands. I remember going to a friend’s house and he was watching “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.” I saw Mick Jagger and all I could think is, “he is so cool.” I think that was my first taste of rock and roll.
Can you talk about your quest to write the “perfect hymn?”
I wanted to write a hymn that made sense to me. When I was a kid, I would hear people in my church singing these hymns about how everything is perfect, but I knew there was nothing perfect about their lives. In my opinion, a hymn should be honest and sometimes hard to listen to.
How long have you been working on the songs that made Creatures of Habit?
Creatures of Habit took us two years to write. We thought we finished it a year-and-a-half in, but then Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Apples in Stereo, Evan Dando, etc.) wanted to produce the album. He didn’t quit hear a complete album yet, so we kept writing. We wrote around 25 songs and kept 13.
There has been some lineup changes over the years. How did you pull the current version of the band together?
There have been a lot of lineup changes over the years. It’s not easy to find people that want to travel in a windowless van and not get paid. But we have a solid crew and we are super excited to see how this album does.
Can you talk for a minute about the inspiration behind the song “Violet”?
“Violet” is about someone I love moving to New York from Chicago. The song talks about a day we spent together in Ohio walking through fields of corn and wheat, and she tells me she is moving to New York. The song is named after Bryce Goggin’s daughter.
Chicago obviously has a great track record for music (punk, alt rock, blues, etc.). How would you describe the music scene there?
The music scene in Chicago is great. It gets a really bad rap from most bands. It’s not always easy to get people out because there are a million shows and the weather sucks. The local music is so good though. I’ve been humbled so many times from Chicago local bands like Paper Thick Walls, Brendan Losch, Archie Powell & The Exports (to name a few). There is so much talent it keeps you shape.
Can you talk about how you guys got involved with Pit Bull advocacy?
I’ve always have had pit bulls and we wanted to do some sort of charity. I found A New Leash on Life and loved what they are doing. They are finding homes for dogs through social media. I found a local Chicago artist and gave her a picture of my pit bull, Snorkel, and she designed us a shirt for A New Leash on Life. Five dollars from every shirt sold goes to the dog rescue.
So what’s next for you and the band?
We are going to be on the road for the next year touring with our new album, sleeping on floors, eating Taco Bell, and selling dog shirts.
Anything else you want to cover?
I just want to thank you for your questions, and thank all of the great members of our team: our publicist Heather West, our booking agent Kat Lewis, our families and friends, our backers, and all of the people we’ve met so far on this tour.
Photo Credit: Vanessa Buholzer. The group performs tonight, March 14, at SXSW in Austin at Licha’s Cantina as part of the Audiotree showcase.
John B. “Moshpit” Moore blogs for BLURT and is a charter member of our Circle of Trust. He additionally writes for New Music magazine, InSite Atlanta Magazine, Innocent Words and NeuFuture Magazine.
The African-American rock critic-turned-singer-songwriter looks for a Country Of Many Different Colors—as well as Negroes Who Do Strange Things.
BY DENISE SULLIVAN
Kandia Crazy Horse is on a crusade to become the first black woman to be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.
“I have my Minnie Pearl dress.I’m not a casual fan of these things or a country carpetbagger” she says. And while her Southern harmony and musical debut Stampede is a collection of eight gleaming originals and two canny covers that fits right inside the pocket of ‘70s California rock with a light touch of twang, there are few other women of color picking up the fiddles and banjo in solidarity. If Kandia has her way, that’ll all change—and real soon.
“I pay attention to Negroes Who Do Strange Things—especially in country and roots music,” she says. “We’re trying at the street level, to expand the notion of what country can be in the 21st century and there’s resistance on so many sides” she says. And yet, she sees the successes of Gary Clark, Jr. and Darius Rucker as encouraging signs.“I think these are the best years for country since the mid-‘80s,” she says, recalling the insurgent movement that produced Jason and the Scorchers, Lone Justice and Steve Earle. “There’s so much going on under the radar, young people with no hereditary ties to Nashville are making great music. But something else has to give,” she says.
Noting that the oval office, hockey, tennis, “and even show jumping” can claim high-ranking blacks breaking the color barrier, Kandia asks, “Why not in country music? I wouldn’t want my children to think the only Black Country singer was Charley Pride.” Creating a black female presence in Americana is Kandia’s personal Kilimanjaro.
The singer’s love of hardcore twang is part DNA (her grandmother and great granny also loved the Opry), and part life experience that’s carried her from D.C. to parts of Africa, and back to rural Georgia where her family ties directly to American musical and political history: Stampede is the first part of a planned trilogy that attempt to tells that story and then some. “I have porch pickers in all previous generations of my family,” she says.“My grandfather was my primary writing influence and my cousins are singers. My family lived the life that people from the Rolling Stones to the blues revival artists in the west idolized.”
Insisting she’s “fundamentally Country & Western, not an outlier or eccentric of the genre,” as a New York-based writer, Kandia traveled below the Mason-Dixon on the regular, making Southern jam bands her beat. Northern peers and mentors were prone to scratch their heads, implying she’d lost her natural mind, though now that she’s gone and made a country album, chances are colleagues and ancestors alike are smiling knowingly:It’s just their rebel belle, doing what she does, shaking things up again, this time with her own band and an album, produced by Albert Menéndez, known primarily for working with Shakira and a team of players with Latino rock bona fides the likes of Gloria Estefan.
“Albert knew of some of my favorite contemporaries like the Black Crowes and David Ryan Harris, but never heard of Gram Parsons or most LA Canyon Rock beyond the Eagles. That’s why he chose J.D. Souther’s ‘Never Kid In Town’ for me to cover,” she explains. “I came up with the feel and arrangement, he identified with the Spanish tinge in the original version,” but that’s strictly where allusions to the producer’s heritage ends in the mix. “California,” the original that opens Stampede, has the kind of familiar country gospel choruses and plucky banjo you’d be unlikely to hear on those overworked records made in the high cotton days of California rock. “Congo Square,” an unflinching and super-rocking Katrina lament, sounds like an answerback to the best of what the Black Crowes done did.The autobiographical “Gunfight at the Golden Corral” is heartbreak at the trailer park, while “Quartz Hill,” closes the album on an ambitious progressive country note, not unlike the Laurel Canyon sound laid down by Englishman Terry Reid. Studio time is already booked in April for the follow-up to Stampede to be titled Canyons.
Fuelled by a lifetime of border crossing, boundary busting comes perfectly natural to the daughter of civil rights activists whose lives were inextricably linked to music.
Kandia was between ages 8 and 20 when she traveled Africa with her mother, a US Ambassador to Mali who was also posted in Cairo, Lesotho and Ghana during her tenure with government organizations. “Every morning before dawn, I would sit on the veranda and write and listen to the sounds of an African morning.”Traveling with records by Crosby Stills and Nash “and sometimes Young, it was a case of taking Southern music with me.” And when Kandia says Southern, she means at the root of each band members’ lineage—as in Texas-born military brat Stills and Young’s matrilineal ties to Jamestown. “That was our land, so it’s very interesting,” says Kandia whose own mother’s descendants were the indigenous people of Powhatan Territory on the Atlantic Coast. “Which due to chattel slavery eventually wound up in Staunton, near the West Virginia border,” she explains. “I didn’t know that when I was 15 and a Buffalo Springfield fanatic, but I knew there was a Southern piece to their music and brought it and the Allman Brothers with me, all over Africa as an adolescent.”
Gravitating to Southern Rock with its triple guitars and drums at the core was a natural for someone who cut her teeth on her mother’s beloved jazz sides. “I carried that knowledge and I understood what the bands were doing.” Seizing the opportunity to run off as a reporter to Alabama, or to Macon, “To stay in the big house with the Allman Brothers… I almost bought the house right behind the big house!”she declares.Referring to the Allmans’ founding drummer, “Jaimoe saved my life a couple of times. Once when I was born, and again when I was an adult,” she says taking a breath. Promising to tell the full story one day, her point remains: “I became family with a lot of those bands.Derek Trucks, Leftover Salmon, Col. Bruce Hampton…Drive-By Truckers were my personal entrée to the whole Muscle Shoals scene. It was the most important era of my life in terms of personal adventure and the written work I did and it was my life for most of my adulthood and the immediate period before I got married and moved to Missouri.”
And then things changed: The marriage tilted and her mother took ill. Tending to family business, and as one does at such crossroads, she got to thinking. There was also the impulse to create the work that eventually became Stampede, forged as a tribute to her mother.
“She loved jazz first, but also she loved Motown and African music. She cared so much about music and didn’t put it on the shelf,” she recalls. “She also drove the car, and thus she dominated the radio, and brought as many if not more of the records into the house as my father.” And yet, professional singing had never much crossed Kandia’s mind, though a seed had been planted.
Restricted from television until the watershed mini-series Roots was broadcast,
“We were allowed Soul Train and the redneck Soul Train, otherwise known as Hee Haw.” But as much as she loved the country songs and revue, she always figured she’d end up behind the music. “My initial inspiration was to become Jerry Wexler in a skirt. Because black people have always danced for pennies, I was always very self-conscious of not wanting to be in front of the camera. I wanted to work behind the camera. And I always knew about the Black West, about our presence in country, and that a lot of that history was invisible.”
nd so it was, she proceeded to make her mother, Anne Forrester, as well as herself, just a little more visible. Today she wants girls and others to “See a face like mine,” to let them know, “We on this side of the racial divide have not forgotten that it’s a multiracial, multidimensional culture.”
While the story of black artists making country music—from the invisible inspirers of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers to the Opry’s first black member DeFord Bailey and others—are waiting to be told, for now Kandia has no such plans to tell them. Though she knows her history better than the average music critic, she’ll be using the stage rather than the page to create history.
“There’s been a slow revival of the recognition of this heritage,” she says. “I commend my friends in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They’ve helped people to recognize that Africans have a huge part to play in the development of Southern music which splintered into many forms that later became rock’n’roll.”
“There needs to be less tokenism and more expansion and room to let more people in. My parents were part of the only revolution that occurred in the last century. We have overcome as a result of their sacrifices and vision.I don’t have a choice to sit on my laurels.I’m armed with Stampede and Canyons.”
Kandia Crazy Horse appears in Austin during SXSW on Friday, March 14th 7:40 – 8:05 p.m. Maria’s Taco Xpress (outdoor stage, 2529 South Lamar) at a day long event sponsored by KG Music Press, Medina River Records and Carolina Chickadee Presents.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing, Black Power Music From Bluesto Hip Hop and Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors.
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