Monthly Archives: May 2018

Sarah Shook & The Disarmers

Album: Years

Artist: Sarah Shook & The Disarmers

Label: Bloodshot

Release Date: April 06, 2018

www.bloodshotrecords.com

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

With their unapologetic debut Sidelong, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers established themselves as rowdy, forthright rebels who made it clear they wouldn’t be intimidated by the fact that they were competing for attention with artists who were far better known and possessed a far more substantive pedigree when it came to petulance and tenacity.

Nevertheless, Shook and company showed no remorse in executing their reckless and rebellious sound. Naming a song “Fuck Up” was clear indication that regret wasn’t a word that fit well into her vocabulary. On the other hand, titling a song after Dwight Yoakum did show a certain reverence regardless. Indeed, the fact that the music sticks to a well-worn template — all rootsy, rocking, upbeat shuffles that underscore their barroom bravado — suggests a certain devotion to a timeless template. Consequently, Years, the band’s able follow-up, shows the same grit and sass that they bowed with on their debut. “I didn’t meant to stay out drinking…believe me it just happens this way,” Shook concedes on the tellingly titled “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down.” Likewise, songs named “New Ways to Fail,” “Damned if I do, Damned If I Don’t” and “Heartache in Hell” suggest Shook’s more or less committed to the fact she’ll remain an outlaw and an outcast as long as it serves her songs.

Granted, Waylon and Willie, Kris, Cash and Bobby Bare have all ploughed this path before. Nevertheless, Shook’s unerring insurgence and commitment to the cause are admirable traits, proof that edge and attitude never go out of style.

DOWNLOAD: “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down,” “New Ways to Fail,” “Damned if I do, Damned if I Don’t”

Lloyd Green and Jay Dee Maness – Journey to the Beginning: A Steel Guitar Tribute to the Byrds

Album: Journey to the Beginning: A Steel Guitar Tribute to the Byrds

Artist: Lloyd Green and Jay Dee Maness

Label: Coastal Bend Music

Release Date: April 20, 2018

(www.coastalbendmusic.com)

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Any attempt to pay tribute to a significant album that helped alter the course of modern music comes with risk. For one thing, it’s never going to be as great as the original masterpiece. For another, it’s forced to measure up to a higher bar, that is, that set by the seminal effort in the first place. While the cover artists involved may have the best of intentions, the fact remains that their best chance for success is to evoke the feel and aura that was shared early on.

That said, there can be additional justification for the attempt when the artists charged with the re-imagining had some connection to the album initially. Happily, that’s the case here, as venerable pedal steel players Lloyd Green and Jay Dee Maness revisit the Byrds’ often unappreciated classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the album that provided the elusive link between country and rock and roll 50 years ago. While recreating the songs sung by Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons is a formidable task at best, one that will never supersede the Byrds accomplishment, Green and Maness can claim some share of the glory in that their contributions on pedal steel, as well as that of another of the current participants, piano player Earle Pool Ball, provided some of the essential elements in helping to bridge the stylistic divide.

Consequently, there’s an unerring feeling of familiarity in these instrumental renditions, based largely on the fact that the arrangements stay so true to the template. There’s instant recognition on first hearing, particularly when it comes to songs such as “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “You’re Still On My Mind,” “I Am a Pilgrim, “Hickory Wind,” and the like, but inevitably, without the distinctive vocals that graced the songs early on, it becomes akin to hearing the demos or backing tracks sans the complete package. The final reprise, a new vocal version of You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” featuring an all star ensemble that includes Richie Furay, Jim Lauderdale, Herb Peterson, and Jeff Hanna,constitutes a remarkable read, but also leaves one wishing that their vocal talents had been utilized throughout. A credible remake, the album’s  biggest accomplishment will likely be to drive listeners to the original album in order to hear more.

DOWNLOAD: “I Am a Pilgrim,” “Hickory Wind,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Reprise)”

Matthews Southern Comfort – Like a Radio

Album: Like a Radio

Artist: Matthews Southern Comfort

Label: MIG

Release Date: March 09, 2018

(www.mig-music,de)

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

To some, the name Matthews Southern Comfort might appear to be an anachronism, a blast from the past whose sole major hit — a redo of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” — successfully competed with Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young’s similarly sublime adaptation and found its way to the top of the charts. Finding them revived now, nearly 40 years after their original incarnation, may seem like an attempt to make up for lost time, but those who have followed its namesake’s long and prosperous career certainly know that he’s never reticent to return to his past, whether it’s through his appearances with Fairport Convention, the band he helped found, at their annual Cropredy reunion concerts, or rebooting Plainsong, a group that put out a single album in their original incarnation and boasts multiple efforts ever since. Consequently, this belated remake of his seminal ensemble isn’t as opportunist as some would tend to think.

On the other hand, given the fact that that the band is centered entirely around Matthews’ lofty singing and consists entirely of completely new recruits, it’s easy to believe that this manifestation of Matthews Southern Comfort is simply another attempt by Matthews to once again reinvent himself. The band’s prior return took place in 2010 with the aptly titled album #Kind of New#, which never gained much traction due to a simultaneous repurposing of Plainsong. Apparently the latter kept his attention, but Matthews Southern Comfort didn’t, even though in reality, there’s scarcely any difference between them.

Matthews’ multi-tasking aside, Like a Radio is a solid step forward, as well as a reach back to his roots — all smooth, seductive melodies that sound of a vintage variety. It’s an agreeable mix in every way, one that boasts several exceptional offerings in “Phoenix Rising,” Right as Rain” and “The Thought Police” in particular. One would be hard-pressed to distinguish it from any of Matthews’ solo offerings, but with two notable covers — the traditional chestnut “Darcy Farrow” and James Taylor’s Apple era “Something in the Way She Moves” — it sounds like it’s of a vintage variety. Silken harmonies and acoustic trappings frame it with finesse, a sound that resonates with both ease and appeal.

DOWNLOAD: “Phoenix Rising,” Right as Rain,” “Something in the Way She Moves”

Steep Canyon Rangers – Out in the Open

Album: Out in the Open

Artist: Steep Canyon Rangers

Label: Ramseur

Release Date: January 26, 2018

(www.ramseurrecords.net)

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Suffice it to say, the Steep Canyon Rangers are not your typical bluegrass band. Or your typical anything band for that matter. Nor are they simply another populist outfit that draws audiences with their dazzle rather than their dexterity. Indeed, it’s their combination of astute songwriting and deft instrumental interplay that make categorization within any single genre all but impossible.  Their music veers towards a stylistic intersection where folk, country, rock and even jazz find clear compatibility.

Out in the Open, the band’s latest opus, is the band’s most fully realized offering yet, a seemingly improbable feat considering the excellence of so many of the albums that preceded it. Mostly on the soothing side, it’s populated by easy, rambling narratives boasting resolute yet sentimental sensibilities, and easily some of the finest songs Graham Sharp, the band’s primary tunesmith, has ever delivered. The tunes are of such a high quality in fact, that a rugged cover of the archival Dylan classic “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” finds an easy fit, as if it was penned along with the originals.

While the band’s instrumental dexterity still remains at the fore, the vocal harmonies supplied by every member of the band, save departed bassist Charles R. Humphrey III, have never been as prominent as they are here and now. While Sharp’s rich, resonant voice consistently comes to the fore, the vocal blend that illuminates such songs as “Out in the Open,” “Roadside Anthems,” “Can’t Get Home,” “Best of Me,” and the aforementioned Dylan tune play a prominent part in the mix. Producer Joe Henry manages to capture every nuance in the band’s multi-faced performance, creating something that ranks as a near classic of the genre, regardless of whatever genre the band delve into. Out in the Open defines the undefinable and gives it a new name… Steep Canyon Rangers.

DOWNLOAD: “Out in the Open,” “Can’t Get Home,” “Best of Me”

 

Superchunk – What a Time to be Alive

Album: What a Time to be Alive

Artist: Superchunk

Label: Merge

Release Date: February 16, 2018

www.mergerecords.com

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

It’s one thing to be a prolific musician who fronts a band with a 25 year long career and eleven groundbreaking albums to their credit. It’s quite another to found a successful record label that’s become a bastion to other indie artists. So credit Superchunk singer/guitarist/helmsman Mac McCaughan for accomplishing all that and more, including undertaking several side projects and mentoring other artists with similar designs. It’s a legacy to be proud of, and one that continues to unfold with every new undertaking McCaughan and his crew are involved in.

Their latest results, as embodied in Superchunk’s new album What a Time to be Alive, is similarly inspired, a steady, insistent set of songs of unceasing intensity and punk-fuelled passion. One wouldn’t expect such an intensive effort at this stage in the band’s career, but indeed, a single listen to songs such as “Lost My Brain,” “Break the Glass,” “Dead Photographers,” and “Erasure” offers the impression that they’re still the upstarts they were in the beginning, unrepentant and undeterred in their determination to make a frantic noise. An apparent commentary on our times (“…the scum the shame the fucking lies”) and its insidious origins (“Reagan youth/Taught you how to feel/Reagan your/Showed you what was real”), it’s an album that repudiates the half-truths and tactics of fear and suppression that seem to have become part of our national calling. The music seizes on those dire designs with spit and ferocity, –dark, defiant and fully roused.

Ultimately, Superchunk deserve credits for having not been tamed by success or their great degree of respectability. (This is the same group whose earlier album  once opined “I Hate Music.” An album flush with both vicissitudes and vitality, <I> What a Time to be Alive <I> resonates with its resolve.

DOWNLOAD: “Lost My Brain,” “Break the Glass,” “Dead Photographers”

Steve Barton – Tall Tales and Alibis

Album: Tall Tales and Alibis

Artist: Steve Barton

Label: Sleepless

Release Date: March 02, 2018

www.stevebartonmusic.com

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

At this point in his career, Steve Barton’s solo efforts rival those of his much ballyhooed band Translator. He’s achieved an exceptional standing with each endeavor, but considering his ongoing ambitions, he’s clearly equalled the accomplishments he once claimed early on. If any further proof is needed, one need only refer to his new album, Tall Tales and Alibis, as an ideal example. Flush with ambition, this three CD set suggests that Barton had plenty of music yet to express and was only waiting for an opportune time to share it in its entirety. An obvious opus, it’s Barton’s version of the White Album as far as the diversity of ideas is concerned, and yet it’s all the more impressive considering the fact that he wrote the majority of the songs, wholly produced the first two discs and played the most of the instruments singlehandedly.

 

Of course none of that would matter if quality wasn’t on equal footing with quantity. A combination of bare-boned ballads, ominous Lou Reed-like intonations, populist protest tunes, and straight-on rockers, it finds Barton excising his emotions in ways that resonate with craft, creativity and conviction. Even with 37 songs, the bar remains consistently high, with nary a wasted moment to be found. Several of its offerings — the anthemic “How Can I Believe,” the beguiling “Breath” and “Northwest Girl,” and a remarkable take on the Rolling Stones standard “Dandelion” that’s freshly retuned — rank among the best efforts of Barton’s career. Granted, he has some help at times — drummers Pete Thomas and Dave Scheff, the Wondermints’ Nelson Bragg and producer/multi-instrumentalist Marvin Etzioni all lend their talents to the third side. Yet when Barton emphatically declares “I fucking love you” on final track “I Fly,” it becomes a singular statement that exudes its own special sort of enthusiasm. A more spirited statement of purpose would be hard to imagine.

DOWNLOAD: “How Can I Believe,” “Dandelion,” “I Fly”

Jason Isbell + Richard Thompson 5/8/18, Knoxville

Dates: May 5, 2018

Location: Tennessee Theater, Knoxville TN

Isbell and his 400 Unit team up with the British legend at the Tennessee Theater.

By Lee Zimmerman / Photos by Alisa B. Cherry

Though some members of the audience might have had some reservations about a 50 year musical veteran like Richard Thompson playing a solo opening set for a comparative newcomer like Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit, the commonality in terms of their songwriting styles helped ensure a seamless evening.

Thompson, armed with only his guitar and his subtle sense of humor, was consistently communicative with the audience, albeit in a self-mocking manner. “Some say that my music is almost devoid of emotion,” he joked. “Can you believe that? It may be depressing but it varies from slow depressing to medium depressing. Now here’s some fast depressing,” and with that he launched into an uptempo take on “Valerie.”

“I’m quite old, at least compared to you frisky young people,” he wryly remarked, before catching a glimpse of the mostly middle aged crowd and causing him to correct himself. “Oh I take that back,” he joked. Nevertheless, a touching take on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” written by and dedicated to Fairport Convention co-founder Sandy Denny brought some sobriety to the proceedings, before being upended by the rousing “Feel So Good,” one of the most rollicking tunes in the Thompson repertoire.

Introducing his classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” Thompson credited Del McCoury for turning the song into a hit on the bluegrass charts, while also noting that though he originally referenced the rolling hills of England in the lyric, the imagery could just as well have referred to East Tennessee.

Nevertheless, it was evident that the crowd was there to see Isbell and his crew, and the recognition that greeted his hour and half- long set — much of it drawn from his remarkable new album The Nashville Sound — was both rowdy and receptive. Isbell showed off his skill on lead guitar, but it was his sheer presence alone – an image that suggested a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle – that had the most riveting effect. A journeyman musician of the working class variety, his songs evoke both persistence and pathos, and when the band went full throttle on songs such as “Anxiety,” “Hope the High Road,” “Last of My Kind” and “Something More,” they did so with a ferocity that was absolutely anthemic in proportion.

 

That said, Isbell kept his comments to a minimum, thanking the crowd for coming, introducing the band and noting his admiration for his surroundings — no surprise considering the historic theater’s regal environs. Mostly, he dug into the melodies, extracting every bit of energy and intensity he could ply from his delivery. By the time the band reached the second offering of the two song encore, he was content to simply ply some emotion. The tender and touching “If We Were Vampires,” a song about the fleeting time span of lifelong romance, ended the set on a thoughtful note, a compelling contrast to the intensity he and his bandmates exuded earlier.

Contact photographer Alisa B. Cherry: alisabcherry@gmail.com

 

 

 

The Cheer’ly Men, 1916 & CRAIC 4/14/18, Pittsburgh

Dates: April 14, 2018

Location: Pittsburgh

Bringing A Bit Of Irish Influence To Pittsburgh

BY TIFFINI TAYLOR

1916, a band from Rochester, New York, brought their Irish punk music to Hard Rock Pittsburgh. This was a great show from beginning to end. When I think of Irish punk automatically Dropkick Murphy’s come to my mind, but what people do not realize is that there is a more than one band that does this style of music. No matter what you want to call the music itself, it is a great music scene to see. What 1916 does is very different than today’s pop music or even punk for that matter. It is actually in my opinion, completely undefinable, and that is what makes it great. Any way you want to explain the music style or genre is fine, it is just uplifting good music.

This night is especially cool because I had never seen them live. This was exciting for me. The night began with The Cheer’ly Men (pictured above) and there is a theme of modern Irish influenced music throughout this line-up tonight. They are a local band in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cheer’ly Men formed in 2015 and continue to play throughout the area and other parts. They are a talented and fun band to see live. They are a shanty band and play rowdy and bawdy bar songs that anyone will know an enjoy. Their music is inviting to the audience to participate in the fun of the music and song. I liked them. Anyone can tell that there is a lot of talented musicians in this band. A good way to start this night of music.

1916 took to the stage with an enthusiasm that is electrifying. Anybody in the audience could tell this is going to be special. The passionate way these musicians play their instruments is electrifying to say the least. They are genuinely having a good time on stage performing their music. This is refreshing to see. This is not saying other bands don’t enjoy themselves on stage, it is just a difference on how an audience can perceive a performance. The band is energetic and has a good way of composing music. This band has performed with some notable names which includes The Street Dogs, Flogging Molly, and New Politics. The interesting diverse of the band is made up of Bill Herring, Steve Ladue, Jon Kane, and Ryan Hurley. They are 1916.

Ordinary Man is a song that had the audience roaring. This Celtic modern punk band is one of the best punk bands to see a live performance from. The Hard Rock Café Pittsburgh is a good setting for the band. The bands addictive hooks and all around good playing of their instruments is what makes this band unique. Their bass player is interesting with the standup bass which has spider webs on it. The crowd was into it and once the song For Whiskey was played you could tell how much love for music was in the room. A great performance by 1916.

The last band of the night was CRAIC. The term CRAIC is Gaelic and it means interesting banter and good company including music. This is just what seeing them perform live is. It was a good show all the way around. The audience had fun, the bands had fun and I had fun. This is what good modern Irish punk rock is all about. If you are looking for a good live show go check out this show. Until next time rock on!

 

LISA MEDNICK POWELL – Blue Book

Album: Blue Book

Artist: Lisa Mednick Powell

Label: Cicada Sounds

January 01, 1970

www.lisamednickpowell.com

The Upshot: Ten remarkable, and timely, tunes that chart the gifted singer-songwriter’s personal history while applying universal truths to the world we currently live in.

BY FRED MILLS

In a stroke of serendipity, the arrival a few weeks ago of the latest album from singer-songwriter Lisa Mednick Powell very nearly coincided with an interview I did in early March with some college journalism students. (The record was officially released this past November.) Their topic was songs about North and South Carolina, and they tapped me for my knowledge of contemporary musicians (a couple of professors had been their sources for pre-British Invasion artists); had I heard Blue Book prior to the interview, I surely would have included Powell’s haunting “Smoke Over Carolina,” the album’s opening track and the third in what she calls her Civil War trilogy, although it was specifically inspired by a news story she heard about a deadly fire at a chicken processing factory in which the workers were trapped inside. “I’m leaving today,” her protagonist sings, “there’s fire in the trees, and smoke over Carolina,” With harmony vocals from Powell’s husband Kip and Victoria Williams (the tune was recorded in Joshua Tree, where Williams lives), and against a backdrop of bass, drums, spectral organ, and Greg Leisz’ guitar and mandolin, Powell beautifully evokes that not-yet-forgotten era, deftly echoing an earlier song about the South, The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

It’s a rich, contemplative album, from the gentle country-folk of “Pieces of Your Soul” (observes Powell, “Some things we carry/ Some things we must let go,” uttering a simple-yet-sage truism too many people fail to heed) and the honky-tonk-tinged “To the Wilderness” (which was produced by hard-twanging guitarist Tommy Malone in New Orleans), to the eerie, Tom Waitsish sonic collage of “Crow,” to the show-stopping anthem that is “Give the Guns to the Girls,” which unfolds in suite-like fashion, part rock, part Americana, part cabaret jazz, and wholly political. It may have been inspired by the Boko Haram abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls, but considering the current climate in the United States, it’s as timely a song as you’ll likely encounter right now.

Blue Book is Powell’s third album, and considering it’s been nearly 16 years since her previous album, 2002’s acclaimed Semaphore, the obvious question becomes, why the delay? Part of the reason is that she was busy getting a Master’s degree, but really, the answer resides in these ten remarkable tunes: She was taking the time to live her life, learn its many lessons, and turn those experiences into songwriting gold.

DOWNLOAD: “Give the Guns to the Girls,” “Smoke Over Carolina,” “Highway Prayer”