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A SUPERHEATED MIX: The Hair and Skin Trading Company

The mighty HASTCO returns, as promised a year ago in this space, with a remarkable new record. Visit their Bandcamp page to preview (or download) it, and then settle in for our review of the digital album and our new interview with the musicians, below.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

Almost a year on from my previous interview with the Hair and Skin Trading Company (discussing their 1992 classic album Jo In Nine G Hell) and the debut of the first track from this new self-released record, I Don’t Know Where You Get Those Funny Ideas From, we finally have lift off.

If I look back to where Hair & Skin Trading Company (HASTCO)  has been musically over the past 25 years, from the metallic tribal intensity of Jo to Over Valence’s psychedelics to the LSD infused shocking soundscapes of Psychedelische Musique, the band have consistently made bold and matchless musical statements throughout their career. Here we have the coalescing of those disparate elements into a superbly wrought album filled with propulsive atmospherics and an updated sonic palette that takes us over the edge never to return.

“Cruz” is the ignition that lights the area aglow as the jets start to come alive and the superheated mix of gases detonates and expands over the area. Here the throb of the bass and the sonic chug keeps the listener on the edge of their seat as they leave the ground.

“Cezanne” is a shocker with its Kraftwerkian processed vocals and dance beat. It’s a fascinating number that should be played at any number of end-of-the-world shindigs should America’s Cheeto in Chief get reelected.

“Nihil” is a menacing tune that builds brilliantly and leaves the listener devastated at its conclusion. The droning voices in the background leave you questioning your own sanity. The head fake of calm in the middle then coalesces into a massive sonic assault that would be the perfect soundtrack for a Mad Max sequel.

“Octo” if you imagine Hawkwind’s “Valium Ten” stripped, processed and then electronically sequenced you might get part of what this track has to offer. The fuzz guitar, spare bassline and pulsing singular beat mated with hushed vocals creates a narco-haze that is hard to shake and left me wanting more.

“Wabi Sabi” is a 14-minute stunner that makes its case early on and then builds certain looped elements to a euphoric rush. Through the dilaudid churn, like a whirling dervish we spin, trancing out, as we round the next corner seeing a car aflame and a glow off the canyon walls.

“Lila” closes out the album and left me speechless. It’s a uniquely arresting final statement, replete with an off axis recurring background with hallucinogenic guitar stretched over it. It’s unsettling, introspective and beguiling all in the space of seven minutes.

I Don’t Know Where You Get Those Funny Ideas From left me stupefied and a tad melancholy since many of the numbers on here made me look back at my own life and contemplate what’s next. It’s that sort of visceral, cathartic experience I crave. It will take you to uncharted territory in your mind’s eye. Key tracks to target for your streaming and/or downloading pleasure: “Cruz,” “Cezanne,” ”Nihil,” “Octo,” “Wabi Sabi,” and “Lila.”

I’ve been telling people for most of my adult life that this is a band worth checking out. This record shows the band at a creative high water mark. HASTCO, who’ve put this album together mailing the tracks back and forth to each other, have created an otherworldly, bold and intelligent record that will have you clamoring to climb aboard for another rotation.

I talked to the band recently about the new record, and the artists – solely responsible for the music: Neil MacKay, John Wills, and Nigel Webb – were more than forthcoming with their disclosures and observations.

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BLURT: How long did it take to record this album and were there tracks left off it that will be used on future projects?

Nigel Webb: Probably took about 1 year to exchange songs/tracks and parts, ideas – total recording/mixing time a lot less. Similarly, I guess about another 10 months ‘maturing’.

John Wills : The album came together quite slowly mainly because we had to work remotely. We swapped files and tinkered with them but I found it a displeasing way of working.

Neil Mackay: Back a bit, John and I played in the Loop reunion and toured the UK and Europe a little. John left as he wanted to record and Robert didn’t want to record with us. When in London I met up and jammed with Nigel and we all somehow decided to do a new album. It took quite a while. I initially bombarded John and Nigel with tracks of varying quality! I have been doing online file swapping for quite a while with previous projects on the Escape Velocity Label,  also I recorded a nice album with Randall from Fuxa called Fuxa and Neil Mackay. The album probably took 2 – 2.5 years. [The] next one will be quicker I hope. Many tracks left off. We wrote 75 [plus] tracks I reckon ( Nigel hope you’ve still got them all ! ) … We write material specifically for an album, we do not just release [“demos”] we had lying around. It’s bloody hard work. Bloody good fun [that] but can be frustrating, confusing and all the rest, but once you have something you like it’s well worth it. Everyone should try using a multi-track recorder at least once! Creation is fun, If it isn’t [then] don’t do it !

BLURT: You mentioned to me that you mailed the tapes to each other to add and complete the songs. How was it working like this and what challenges did this present to completing the record?

Nigel: Working this way [via mail] is a lot different, almost a concept really – I learned a whole lot.

John: HASTCO really [works] best when songs come from jams and live improvisations that could be later developed. [Having] said that, I think we have produced an album that’s vibrant and exciting and made us explore things differently.

Neil: Of course it is always best for everyone to be in the same room at the same time. Playing in a group is about the inter communication between humans. I would always prefer analogue to digital but not so possible these days. I still keep meaning to get my cassette 4-track out again!

BLURT: How does this album differ from HASTCO’s other recorded output?

Nigel: Most HASTCO things were recorded with all three people being in the same physical space. [This is not the case on this.] We also sometimes used to work with engineers, there are none [on] this one. Also we used to all have home studios but recorded/mixed in proper commercial studios. [This is all ‘home’ (ish).]

Neil: Less live drums.  Less “liveness” to it in a certain way. Completely different in a way, although Psychedelische Musique  employed lots and lots of edit, cuts, sound manipulation. So there is a bridge there.

BLURT: Any particular tracks that you are especially proud of?

Nigel: I  like all of them but “Nihil”,”Yes/No” & “Cezanne” are my faves this week.

Neil: Same. Sometimes I think a track is awesome, spot on, then I spot the pimples, warts, varucas and scabs that we/I didn’t clear up. Listening back to your own music, one can be very critical of the work and attention to detail. FYI all the crap edits on the LP are mine(lol). In future it would be good if John could do all the editing so much more accurate!

BLURT: Will you release it on vinyl? Where can fans buy a copy of the CD/LP?

Nigel: Would be great to release it on vinyl/CD… but not sure if it will be possible (Neil?)

Neil: Yes of course Nigel, I have $3,000 NZ+. [I] would love to and am doing a limited CD soon. Keep your eye bananas peeled.

BLURT: Who did the cover art?                                                                      

Nigel: Dan Holliday did the cover art, [although I have been ‘experimenting’ with it further].

Neil: Our main man Dan Holliday, premiere art man for the Sausage Machine [who] still makes awesome vibrant art. Check him [out] on FB. He has a new screen print out soon. Plus check Dans daughters band, Skinny girl diet!  Thanks Dan. I/we owe you!

BLURT: It’s now been 25 years since your last record Psychedelische Musique. What informs the new record? Is there a certain statement you’re trying to convey?

Nigel: Yes, as a statement, you can still make records and be a band 11,659 miles (or so) apart, but you need much longer cables! I think we released a 4 track vinyl EP after Psychedelische Musique and had an album..or two of recorded material that hasn’t been released yet  that isn’t to do with this new one. This is all new material.

John:  I don’t know if there’s a statement other than we are all living in the most unpredictable times and this is how we all expressed it consciously or unconsciously.

Neil: I don’t know. I don’t understand what [you mean by] informs! I now do music as it is something I do. I try to be relaxed when I record / write, that’s the most fun for me. Creation! The record company side of things that I run is hopeless. In other words we need a manager but aren’t making any money to afford one. I must say I am really pleased and a big thank you to the people who have bought the album so far. Rock on. Hope you have fun listening and don’t take it too serious.

BLURT: In the intervening years, has your taste in music changed at all? What sorts of bands do you listen to these days?

Nigel: Since the last EP, I  have probably gotten into a lot of different music. I found myself personally revisiting ‘rock’ music & krautrock for a while, and getting into a huge amount of YouTube stuff I hadn’t listened to in years:

Roky Erickson, A Place to Bury Strangers,Trumans Water,Polvo, Swans,Can and recently  Son house,Charlemagne Palestine, and also The Urinals (SoCal 1980s) –  all sorts.

John: My musical taste is constantly changing. I try to live in the present and hate nostalgia. You know, Facebook posts about how great classic albums are really piss me off. We mustn’t stagnate we must all create. I like some of the latest Grime[s] especially the female rappers coming from a very direct feminist stance.  There’s some great poetry happening on this stuff. Other than that at the other end of the spectrum I’m really into field recording.

Neil: I worked at Rough Trade shops in London for 17 plus years so much musical tastes were pretty broad to start with (or after that I should say – what an education and a privilege to work with such awesome people and with such awesome product, music.) In my car I keep [flipping] between stations. I listen to Hindi, pacific islander, Chinese, NZ and anything and everything [that’s] on the radio. I do have a certain liking for Bollywood music. I find it is an awesome amalgamation of every style of music!

BLURT: Finally, any plans to play out for this album and are there future projects in the works? Any bands in particular that you’d enjoy playing with?

Nigel:  Would be great to play live again, not sure if it will be possible.

John: I’m working with 3D sound and creating VR for theatre which is very exciting.  I’ve just finished writing a new Pumajaw album which will have a vinyl release next Spring.

Neil: Love to hmu… everyone and anyone.

 

 

2019 LOCKN’ Music Festival 8/22 – 25/19, Arrington, VA

Our annual rolling thunder review of the ever-brilliant fest continues year after year, and 2019 was the proverbial banner year. Past coverage: 2018 Lockn’, 2017 Lockn’, 2015 Lockn’, 2014 Lockn’.

Text by Courtney Wheeler / Photography by Willa Stein

With so many music festivals to choose from, why LOCKN’? Let’s just say there is not enough time to list all of the reasons. Here are just a few of them.

The site: Oak Ridge Farm, nestled just south of Charlottesville in beautiful Arrington, VA in a stunning backdrop for this annual homecoming. The mountains, the vantages, the revolving stage & light show and for 2019, with the exception of an initial rainstorm, the weather on Oak Ridge Farm could not have been nicer!

The set-up: The ease of driving in and camping on site is one of the biggest selling points of LOCKN’ given the size of the farm. Car camping is a luxury for a lot of folks and LOCKN’ makes it easy. Once you are on site, you have at least a dozen food vendors to choose from and any number of beverage choices just steps away from world-class, one-of-a-kind music collaborations.

The people: The staff, even as they are searching your belongings make you feel welcome, from picking up your credentials, to coming through the gate, to the merchandise vendors, lost and found and information folks, LOCKN’ staff make you feel safe and at home. And more importantly, they make you feel like family. And of course, your fellow music lovers are right alongside you feeling the love and radiating love of their own! There is a special gift you get attending music festivals, they take you away from the worries of the world and allow you to enjoy life to the fullest, LOCKN’ does this well.

 

The music: Holy smokes the music. There were rumblings about no Widespread Panic and other LOCKN’ staples, but this year’s musical collaborations were, one-of-a-kind. From the incredible Neal Casal who we lost just after LOCKN’ and far too soon sitting in with Oteil & Friends featuring Bob Weir alongside Duane Betts & Melvin Seals, to the crazy talented Marcus King sitting in with Steel Pulse, or the Tedeschi Trucks Band collaboration with Trey Anastasio, the musical collaborations were off the charts special. And how can anyone forget the many times Bob Weir showed up on stage, earning himself an award for the most sets ever played from Peter Shapiro, one of the founders of LOCKN’ and chairman of Head Count, the non-profit organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy, with a focus on registering voters at live music events. These musical memories are ones that will not soon be forgotten.

The special touches: Every festival has something special that sets it apart from the rest and LOCKN’ is no exception. Planners have paid special attention to making the festival accessible to folks of all abilities by controlling the things they can. There is an entrance for folks with disabilities along with onsite parking, making getting in and out of the festival easier, and folks can request services and accommodations on sight at the LOCKN’ Access Tent. To that end, seeing American Sign Language (ASL) at the main stage every evening was a beautiful sight.

The festival footprint is huge and Paramedics were on sight and quick to respond to calls! I saw them in action first hand, administering first aid to cuts and assisting patrons with sprains. Enough cannot be said about the magnitude of the job they face and how expertly they handle it year after year.

The misting stations were a welcome relief and water refill stations made it possible to stay hydrated all weekend without breaking the bank for bottled water, not to mention keeping plastic bottles out of our landfills.

LOCKN’ pays attention to details and it shows throughout the festival footprint and 2019 was one for the books. Please enjoy this photo gallery and reminisce on the power of music.

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SOUNDTRACK FOR A NEW & BETTER AGE: Johnny Clegg

Arguably South Africa’s greatest export ever, the Juluka / Savuka bandleader, and solo artist of equal acclaim, passed away a month ago this week. Journalist and longtime Clegg fan James Tighe offers this analysis and appreciation of the musical giant. (Above photo: courtesy Wikipedia)

BY JAMES TIGHE

It came out of the blue. The BBC radio announcement just before midnight on Tuesday, the 16th of July, that South African musician Johnny Clegg had died earlier in the day. Pancreatic cancer. He was 66-years-old. The news hit me hard. I didn’t know he had been diagnosed with the disease in 2015.

I first heard Johnny Clegg’s music during a three month stay on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1989. It seemed like everybody on the island was listening to him. As it happened, he played his final scheduled tour date there in October 2018.

Mauritius, being situated 500 miles east of Madagascar, is a member of several pan-African political and trade organizations. It has a sizable population of black citizens, Creoles, of east African origin, descendants of slaves imported to work the sugar cane fields by a succession of colonial powers, Dutch, French, English. These Mauritians, in particular, were ready-made Clegg fans.

The story of Johnny Clegg’s introduction to southern Africa’s Zulu culture and his lifelong identification with it has often been recounted. Born in England, he moved with his divorced mother to Zimbabwe at a very early age, then at the age of 6 to South Africa. Growing up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, as the story has it, he met a street musician, a guitar player, who happened to be a member of the Zulu nation. The black street musician took the young white boy under his wing, introducing him to traditional Zulu music, dance, the larger culture.

The boy became enamored with all things Zulu, picking up the maskandi guitar and concertina accordion. He eventually became fluent in the language, mastered the male dance traditions, and becoming in the process something of an honorary member of the Zulu nation, if not an actual one.

His first musical incarnation consisted of assembling a mixed-race South African band, Juluka, releasing their first album in 1979. His partner-in-crime was the guitarist Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu migrant worker he met when he was 17. The songs were a mix of traditional Zulu music and rock-n-roll, with both English and Zulu lyrics.

Much of Clegg’s music is characterized by a chorus of deep male harmony vocals that help give the songs their power. Because the band was integrated, Juluka’s very existence was illegal, and the band members were arrested several times and their concerts broken up. At the time Clegg said that Juluka wasn’t founded as a political band, but, “Politics found us.”

He formed his second bi-racial band, Savuka, in 1986 (pictured above). Ironically, Clegg was expelled from the British Musicians’ Union around this time because he refused to stop playing shows in South Africa, a practice the international anti-apartheid movement didn’t condone.

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After returning home to Oxford, Mississippi, from my Mauritius trip, Johnny Clegg became the matrix for my meeting a fellow countryman of his. One afternoon I was sitting in an Oxford bar, drinking a beer. No one else was in the place but the bartender. Behind the bar was a cassette tape player rigged to speakers. I asked the bartender to play the Johnny Clegg tape I had with me, one that I had bought in Mauritius. After a couple of songs, a guy walked up the stairs into the barroom. He was stout of body, with a black beard, longish hair, and wire-rimmed spectacles. He was about to seat himself at the bar when he stopped, looked up at the speakers with a quizzical expression, and said in a pronounced British accent, “Who’s playing Johnny Clegg?”

Thus was born the start of a friendship.

Peter Lee, like Clegg, was a South African of British ancestry. At the time we met he was the editor of Living Blues magazine, a University of Mississippi publication. He told me he had originally come to Oxford to enroll at Ole Miss as a result of his chancing upon a flyer posted on a bulletin board of the college he was attending in South Africa. The flyer invited students to apply to a foreign exchange journalism program at Ole Miss. Peter, a longtime American blues fan and collector of the music, immediately went into a mad scramble to get here. Mississippi. The word was magic to his ears. The Promised Land. The Birthplace of the Blues.

After graduating from the program, he was selected to become the editor of Living Blues. He went on to found Fat Possum Records in Oxford. His signing R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, among others, to the label revived their careers and helped put north Mississippi hill-country blues on the map.

It should be emphasized that Peter Lee didn’t start up Fat Possum just to make money. He founded the label to help black blues musicians make the money. And he wanted to promote the music. Peter’s deeply felt regard and respect for black people was catalyzed by his experience in the South African army where he witnessed first hand the brutality of his government’s apartheid regime.

As a South African soldier (military service being mandatory) he was literally placed on the front lines of the apartheid wars of the time, albeit not on the side he would have chosen. He witnessed up close and personal the savage inhumanity of violent racism as wielded by the state. The experience marked him for life. It is no wonder he loved Johnny Clegg and his music.

Johnny Clegg was an important public figure in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. His song Asimbonanga was dedicated to Nelson Mandela when he was still imprisoned on Robben Island. The song became an anthem of the movement. Clegg eventually received South Africa’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Ikhamanga, Silver. He was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government and was made an Officer of the British Empire. The list of honorary degrees he has received from universities around the world is a long one. I don’t think he was well known in the U.S., but internationally, especially throughout Africa and much of Europe, he was a super-star.

Back in the early ‘90s Johnny Clegg and Savuka performed on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. It was quite a spectacle. The band members were dressed old-time ceremonial Zulu-style, half-naked, barefoot, draped in big-game animal furs and skins. With spears and shields they demonstrated Zulu dance rituals as they played and sang, deep-throated, resonant Zulu voices booming in harmony. The studio audience loved it. “Just wait until we tell the gang back home in Peoria about this, Gladys.”

Around that same time, I made a cassette tape of Clegg and Savuka for my friend Larry Brown, the late Mississippi novelist. On occasion, usually late at night in a barroom, he would incline his head toward mine and in a low, barely audible voice, begin singing, “Asimbonanga. . .” completing the first line of the song, pronouncing the Zulu words perfectly. He would always end by saying how much he loved the song.

Johnny Clegg’s songs were not only of visionary politics but also of his love for Africa and the African people, the rains they depend on, the ground on which they walk, hunt, till, and otherwise wrest a living. Hearing of his death that Tuesday night awakened in me many of the past associations he and his music have for me. He touched my life in the best possible way. The world is a better place because of him and his music. That, to me, is the ultimate tribute any one of us can ever hope to receive.

Below, watch a complete Clegg & Savuka concert from back in the day.

COUNTING ON THEM: Curse Of Lono

A conversation with the London upstarts who, in just a few short years, have created the kind of international buzz you used to only read about in the UK weeklies. Oh, and according to BLURT’s ye olde editor, Curse of Lono is officially our current favorite British band. Don’t be surprised if the next time your read about them here, they’ll be our current favorite, period. Drill down on their latest album, 4 AM And Counting, cut at the inimitable Toe Rag Studios. PS: Hunter Thompson’s not dead, he’s just orbiting us in the stratosphere.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Over the course of just four years, London’s Curse Of Lono has delivered three near-perfect records (one EP and two LPs check the links for our reviews) embodying Americana better than most south of the Mason Dixon-based bands raised on RC Cola, Johnny Cash and not-so-subtle racism.

So how do they follow up a so-far stellar track record of album releases? Well, by going back and re-visiting their still fresh anthology of songs. Naturally.

On 4 AM And Counting, Curse Of Lono set up basecamp at Toe Rag Studios in London where they recorded stripped down, mellower versions of songs off those first few albums. They brought along pedal steel great BJ Cole (Dolly Parton, Elton John, Pink Floyd) and harmonica player Nick Reynolds (Alabama 3) to sit in on a handful of songs as well.

The vibe is infectiously low-key and the rootsier sound manages to highlight the sophistication of the lyrics even more so than on the original tracks.

Back in London and preparing for some European dates, singer/guitarist Felix Bechtolsheimer took some time recently to talk to us about the genesis of 4 AM And Counting, the prospects of finally pulling off a proper tour of the states, and kicking heroine while discovering the genius of John Prine and Guy Clark.

BLURT: Let’s start by talking about the concept behind 4 AM and Counting?

FELIX BECHTOLSHEIMER:  We normally strive for a very cinematic, widescreen sound, which requires a lot of planning and lots of layers. With this album we were aiming for the opposite. Instead of visualising the recordings on a big IMAX screen, we wanted the listener to feel like they’re sitting in the room with us. We really wanted to capture that intimacy. We had a bunch of chilled-out, stripped-back versions of our songs, which we’d put together for radio sessions and through the band jamming late at night, and we wanted to record a couple of those for a little video series. But we couldn’t decide which songs to go with, so we ended up recording 15 tracks in three days. The camera was rolling on one of those days, so we ended up with six session videos as well. I was a bit nervous about putting out a whole album with no new songs this early in our career but in the end, we agreed to do a limited-edition vinyl for Record Store Day. That went really well so we agreed to put it out properly.

You recorded this in Toe Rag studio – what was it about that studio that attracted you to it in the first place?

Toe Rag Studios is an incredible place. There are no computers. There’s no technology to tempt you. We just played everything completely live like we do when we’re messing around in our rehearsal room, so what you hear is exactly what was played. Liam Watson built the place in the nineties and he got a lot of attention when he recorded The White Stripes there and won a Grammy for their album Elephant. It was amazing working with Liam. He just knows how to get the right sound quickly so there is very little waiting around. We just plugged in and off we went.

You’ve also got some impressive guests on this one. How did you get BJ Cole and Nick Reynolds involved?

We’ve known BJ and Nick for a long time. Our drummer was in a band with BJ and my old band, Hey Negrita, toured with Alabama 3, so we’ve spent a lot of time with Nick. When we found out that we were getting the Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award at the Americana Awards in January, we thought it would be cool to take some of the tracks in a bit more of a rootsy direction as our first two albums tend to veer off the beaten Americana path quite a bit. BJ and Nick were the perfect guys to add a bit of that loose, Beggars Banquet style rootsiness. And it was really cool to hang out with two old friends for a couple of days.

Any chance you will ever playing a proper tour in the U.S.?

We certainly hope so. We are coming over for Americanafest in Nashville in September and our booking agent is inviting a lot of promoters and US agents down to see us. Hopefully one of them will bite so we can come back for a longer stint next year.

You mentioned filming some of the record sessions for this record. Videos/movies are pretty synonymous to this band. Why is the visual element important to the band?

I studied at the London Film Academy, so I’ve always been very interested in visuals. I think these days it’s getting harder and harder to break through the static to reach your audience. It’s so easy for people to access infinite amounts of music for no money while their attention spans are rapidly shrinking. As an artist you have to work really hard to convince people to give you a few minutes of their time and I find that videos and movies are a really great way to do that. They enable you to tell your story in a more detailed way.

There is a strong Americana sound to your music. Are there bands in particular that you draw a lot of influence from?

Yeah. It’s a weird one. We get a lot of love from the Americana crowd but we’re also getting great support from the rock and indie tribes these days. A lot of the songs I write start out as simple indie tunes but then we throw some slide guitar and a few four-part harmonies in the mix, and it automatically gives them a bit of an Americana flavour. I moved to south Florida in 2000 for a year to give up heroin and methadone. I had a roommate out there who turned me onto a lot of the great American country songwriters like Guy Clark, John Prine and Steve Earle. I guess some of that must still be in my system.

Any musical influences you have that might be surprising to some people?

Oh. There are loads. I love the Pixies, Sisters Of Mercy, the Prodigy, Black Sabbath and even a bit of Ministry when I’m in the right mood.

Have you started thinking about new songs yet for another album?

Yes, but it’s early days. I have some sounds, some melodies and some lyrical themes but I haven’t had the time to put them together yet. The past year has been pretty crazy for us but I’m hoping to get the first few tracks finished next month. I’ve already booked five days in a rehearsal room when we’re in Nashville in September so that we can start playing around with some ideas.

What’s next for the band?

We’re heading back to the U.S. for a couple of festivals in Nashville and Bristol, TN in September and then we have a UK headline tour in October. I’m really excited that one of my favourite songwriters in the world, a guy called John Murry, is opening for us. If you haven’t heard his music, you have to check him out. After that, we’re going to lock ourselves away until the next album is finished. No excuses!

40 Years On: The 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival

This year’s event, held June 26-July 6, made for a remarkable experience regardless of what you were expecting.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY ALISA CHERRY

Over the course of the past four decades, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (also known as the Montreal Jazz Festival), has rightfully become one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals regardless of the competition. This was a milestone year for the festival and the fact that its two long-time leaders and cofounders, Alain Simard and Andre Ménard, announced their retirement, the 2019 edition of the festival took on additional significance as well.

Nevertheless, there will always be consistency. Montreal’s downtown district offers both ticketed main stage performances and outdoor musical events that are free to the public. People attend from all over the world, all marvelling at some of the best bills found at any festival of a similar size.  Indeed, the Montreal Jazz Festival’s reputation for providing imaginative and adventurous music in a variety of forms will likely continue unabated. This year’s line-up included Peter Frampton, Alan Parsons Project, Buddy Guy, Holly Cole, Charlotte Cardin, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Blue Rodeo, Steel Pulse, Victor Wainwright, Dianne Reeves, George Benson, Lee Fields & The Expressions, Joshua Redman, Bryan Adams, Chet Faker, John Pizzarelli, PJ Morton, Popa Chubby, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Elling, Pink Martini, Richard Reed Parry, Colin James, Sue Foley, and Mercury Rev among the many. Its banner to the contrary, the festival isn’t limited to jazz, but rather some of the most eclectic offerings possible.

(Above: Buddy Guy on July 6, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

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Here then are some of this year’s highlights in the order of their presentation:

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s tribute to Django Reinhardt was an early highlight, as was Gabriel & Rodrigo’s demonstration of duelling guitars. “People ask is what kind of music we play,” Gabriella remarked. “I tell them I don’t know. We have no boundaries in our heads.”

(Alan Parsons on July 4, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal)

The Alan Parsons’ Project provided another extraordinary performance, and the group’s takes on such signature songs as “Time,” “Breakdown” and “Games People Play” were, by measure, both stunning and surreal.

(Peter Frampton on July 5, 2019, The Farewell Tour, we hope not, at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

Peter Frampton’s performance was highly anticipated due to his decision to make his current Farewell Tour a final farewell due to the fact that he suffers from a disease called IBM which attacks the muscles with varying degrees of speed and progression. “I never want to stop playing. I love being on stage,” he continued, while insisting that the choice depends on the progression of his affiliation.

For the moment however, Frampton was still in top form. A slide show captured images of him from his earliest efforts with the Brit pop band The Herd through his efforts with Humble Pie and then into his tremendously successful solo career. He began the 2 1/2-hour concert with the upbeat song “Something’s Coming,” an apt opening anthem. From that point on, the setlist offered some obvious choices — “Show Me the Way,” “Do You Feel Like We Do,” as well as covers of “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Same Old Blues,” the latter two from his chart-topping new album All Blues. He went back to the beginning with several selections from his first solo album Wind of Change and then even further back with a pair of Humble Pie staples, “Four Day Creep” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” as part of his encore. A dramatic read of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” ended it all, with an obviously emotional Frampton telling the audience “I’m not going to say goodbye,” while fighting off a few tears as he walked off the stage.

(Press Conference with newly festival president, Jacques-André Dupont and festival founders, Alain Simard and André Ménard on July 6, 2019  – Salle Stevie-Wonder, Maison du Festival, Montréal  – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

The founders of the festival, Simard and Ménard, took center stage later that evening in Le Club, where they were interviewed live on the radio and a given special serenade by several of the festival’s past and present performers. A slide show was shown on a screen behind them as the musicians entertained the small invited audience. The l two song set by Holly Cole was especially memorable, and her rendition of “Bali Ha’i” from the musical South Pacific were nothing less than magical.

The festival’s new team in charge — programmers Marin Auxemery and Lauren Saunier, and newly installed festival president Jacques-Andre Dupont — shared their satisfaction. “We are really pleased,” Auxemery insisted. “We’re on budget, we have good ticket sales and a lovely vibe within this community. It’s an excellent first year.”

The others echoed his enthusiasm, hailing Montreal as a city that’s an ideal match for the diversity of the festival’s artists and audiences. It is, they agreed, a perfect place for musicians and music lovers to gather and celebrate such an astounding array of sounds and styles.

(Colin James on July 6, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

Later, local proud again became evident when Canada’s Colin James opened for blues legend Buddy Guy. He occasionally ventured offstage into the first few rows of the crowd, keeping a constant grin on his face as he shared his songs with both aplomb and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Guy showed he was in a playful mood as well. Even at age 82, he’s as vibrant as ever, gyrating his hips, mugging with his moves and showing he’s still earnest and enthusiastic when it comes to showing off his skills,

Leslie Odom Jr., known for his role as Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit Hamilton — as well as for his various TV roles — did a superb job of sharing standards in the company of a three-piece jazz band of considerable skill. His voice climbed to higher octaves while retracing some familiar fare, his take on “Killing Me Softly” being but one example.

On the other hand, experimentation was on tap with the final show of the festival, a performance by the adventurous ensemble Mercury Rev in the intimate environs of Le Club. The music was mesmerizing given its shifting tones and textures. Singer Jonathan Donahue was an inventive frontman, preening and posing with obvious aplomb. It was an apt ending for Montreal Jazz, and the extraordinary encounters that have always been so essential to its existence.

Granted, being in Canada over the 4th of July holiday does seem somewhat unpatriotic. Visiting a foreign city sans fireworks or any other homage to American pride can be cause for remorse.

Still, the sacrifice is well worth it. The Montreal Jazz Festival has a remarkably gracious staff that helps make the journalists that congregate onsite feel welcome and decidedly at home. Indeed, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as mingling with the crowds on the bustling streets of Montreal. The combination of those wonderful sights and all that remarkable music clearly makes for an amazing adventure in itself.

 

FROM THE PISTOLS TO PALESTINE: Glen Matlock

Rock musician quote of the year: “If you put a four-legged table on rough ground, it’s wobbly. But if you put a three-legged one [there], it stays there.” The erstwhile Sex Pistol, Rich Kid, Philistine, and more has never been unsteady, that’s for sure… Mr. Matlock explains. Additional reading at this fan site and at his Facebook page.

BY DAVE STEINFELD

Among the many “what if” questions that abound in rock and roll’s 65-year history, it’s interesting to wonder what might have happened if Glen Matlock had not left The Sex Pistols.

The popular narrative, of course, is that Matlock didn’t actually leave — that he was sacked by Johnny Rotten and company for liking The Beatles and for not being “punk” enough. While the relationship between Rotten (or Lydon) and Matlock has been bumpy over the years, it’s also clear that the popular narrative isn’t factual. Bearing in mind that there are three sides to every story, the bassist’s claim that he left the Pistols by choice is substantiated, among other things, by the fact that he had already started another band. The Rich Kids unveiled their debut album, Ghosts of Princes In Towers, in 1978.

What’s also clear is that with all due respect to the Pistols, the band suffered musically from Matlock’s departure. Even Rotten told the noted UK music journalist Jon Savage, “Glen was… the best musician out of the lot of us.” His replacement, Sid Vicious, certainly added to the Pistols’ legend — and there’s no question that his attitude was more in line with their punk rock ethos. But it’s also obvious that Vicious had little (if any) musical ability. He wasn’t much of a bassist and, unlike Matlock, added nothing to the band’s songwriting catalog. In truth, he was little more than a junkie who was in the right place at the right time.

Matlock, on the other hand, has spent the last four decades or so as a working musician. The Rich Kids called it a day as the ‘80s dawned but he stayed busy — and has remained busy to this day. He’s played with everyone from Iggy Pop to The Faces (probably the band who influenced him the most) and, more recently, has fronted The Philistines. Matlock has also reunited with the other three Pistols (Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook) for the occasional tour.

This year, Matlock is touring in support of his most recent solo effort, Good To Go. In June, he did a three date mini-tour of the States which kicked off at Joe’s Pub in NYC. The show itself was just Matlock and his guitar but he turned in a spirited and diverse set to an adoring crowd. In addition to several tunes from Good To Go (including the single “Sexy Beast”), he included songs from both the Pistols and Rich Kids catalogs as well as covers of Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing,” Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” and Scott Walker’s “Montague Terrace in Blue.” I spoke with him backstage, before the show, and found him to be a down to Earth guy with a singular history and a good sense of humor.

Tell me what prompted this sort of mini-tour of the States that you’re doing now.

Well, I put my album out at the tail end of last year. I’m not the most organized guy in the world, and I didn’t get to tour it. [But] earlier this year in England, I have done. I just finished a full band tour.  Right after that, I met this guy Jon Halpen, who said, “Do you wanna come do some shows [in the States]?” And they offered me these three shows as a ‘come and say hello’ kind of thing. Then maybe I’ll come back in September with a band.

So, are these shows solo?

These are totally solo. It’s something that I’m used to doing. I’ve been doing loads of solo shows, all around the world, for the past 10 years. I’ve played in Japan, Australia, South America — Iceland, even. That’s why I made my [new] record sound the way that it does. Instead of doing a heavy rock record, I’ve really enjoyed doing the acoustic thing.

Most of the [new] album was done [in upstate New York]. We recorded about 18 songs but a few were covers we did for a laugh. And then when I [went] back to England, I thought “Well, this is not quite an album.” Not the number of songs but [how] they all fit together as a kind of whole. So, I wrote a couple of other songs that were a bit more in keeping with what the album was about in my mind.

I’m fortunate in that I’m a musician. I get to travel the world and see how it is. [And] it’s pretty much the same everywhere. Not in terms of how much money you’ve got and all that. But people wanna feed themselves, they wanna look after their families, they wanna be able to cut loose and not be told what to do. Wherever you go in the world, it’s the same. You know, I’ve just come back from Palestine.

Can I ask you a little about what that was like?

 Well, it was horrible [for the] Palestinians. You do not want a border wall in Mexico. It’s divisive; it creates so much trouble and dissent. And they’ve got walls everywhere [there], snaking in and out…. Until you go there, you don’t see it. You know, I came away thinking “If you put people in cages, you shouldn’t be too surprised if they want to rattle [them] every now and then.”

I [also] wanna ask you some stuff about back in the day. What was the inspiration for “Ghosts of Princes In Towers?”

Ah! Are you coming to the show [tonight]? I was gonna tell that story!

Basically, I didn’t want to be a second division Sex Pistol; I wanted to do something different. And I wanted to get the singer Midge Ure, who we all thought was very good. He’d had a number one record and was a bit of a teen idol with a band called Slik: kind of pop [with] big, dramatic beginnings.

So, I wanted him in the band. He was gonna be in the band, then he wasn’t, then he was, then he wasn’t. He couldn’t make his mind up! So [in the meantime] I thought, “Sod this, I’m gonna do some gigs.”  Mick Jones from The Clash was a friend of mine. [He] played guitar and I had a go at singing. We did this gig in London at a place called The Vortex. And because I didn’t wanna be a second division Sex Pistol, we thought we’d look a bit different. It was the height of punk [but] we were kind of growing our hair out a little bit and had sort of slightly flouncy shirts on. And somebody wrote a review and said, “The band came onstage looking like the ghosts of princes in towers.” So, I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

But a few other ideas were going through my head at the same time. I’d been reading a lot of Jean Cocteau. He’d written a book called Thomas the Impostor, about this bloke who just lies his way through life and gets shot in the first World War. And then also, it was the height of the teddy boys vs. the punks and the punks vs. the skinheads. Everybody was trying to be forward-looking but they were all staving each other’s heads in.  I didn’t think that was right. So somehow, it’s all in the song.

Interesting. It’s a good song!

 I love it. It’s about something.

What’s an album that really influenced you early on?

 A Nod Is As Good As a Wink to a Blind Horse [by] The Faces.  It opens with “Miss Judy’s Farm,” which is one of the best rock-soul workouts ever. The Faces seemed like they had a laugh about everything, all the time. Ronnie Wood’s pretty much my favorite guitarist. Ian McLagan’s my favorite keyboard player — really unsung.  And any 15-year-old boy wanted to be in The Faces.

What do you have on the agenda for the rest of this year?

Well, I’ve got this show tonight [and then] two more: Hollywood and Long Beach. So, I fly to Los Angeles tomorrow. I might hang out in the States for a little bit. And then I’ve got pretty much enough songs for a new album. So, I’ve gotta decide how I’m gonna go about doing [that]. Then we’re going to Japan in July, and there’s talk about coming back here and doing a band show in the fall. I’m kinda busy.

 

One last question. What did each of the four of you bring to the original Pistols that was unique?

Steve and Paul were the kind of musical sound, I think. I was the tunesmith. Came up with lots of riffs and some of the guitar parts that Steve plays. He interprets them very well but they’re my little ideas. And John was the nut case with the chip on his shoulder. But the real attitude for The Sex Pistols came from Steve Jones. He was what you’d call a bit of a Wide Boy, a likely lad. Like something out of a Jean Genet book.

When I was in the [Pistols], there wasn’t four people in the band; it was like a triangle. It was John… Me… And Steve and Paul. [But] you know what? If you put a four-legged table on rough ground, it’s wobbly. But if you put a three-legged one [there], it stays there.

 

 

 

LIVING. LOVING. AND… Drivin’ N Cryin’

(Above photo by Lisa Mac.)

 

BY JOHN B. MOORE

It’s been a decade since longtime BLURT heroes Drivin’ N Cryin’ last put out a full-length record. During that time, they’ve had some line-up changes, been the subject of a documentary, put out a remarkable collection of themed EPs, were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame; all the while continuing to tour.

But the release of Live The Love Beautiful (available, incidentally, on gorgeous blue vinyl) finds singer Kevn Kinney and his band at the forefront yet again of a genre – a mix of Americana, punk and Southern rock – that they they’ve been playing since the mid-80s, a time when that style of music was hardly en vogue for the masses. And while they didn’t create that sound, they sure as hell put their own stamp on it.

The band called on fellow musician Aaron Lee Tasjan – a one-time member of Drivin’ N Cryin’ – to help produce this one. Kinney spoke with us recently about working with Tasjan, writing for an LP versus an EP and, to paraphrase him, Living the Love Beautifully.

BLURT: How did the band first connect with Aaron Lee Tasjan? He actually played guitar with you guys for a bit, didn’t he?

KEVN KINNEY: I met Aaron over 10 years ago in New York city. I was a big fan of his band Semi Precious Weapons and the Madison Square Gardens. He also played with me and Anton Fier as well. When I first met him, we did a solo tour of Holland together with Tim Easton another great Ohio musician. I knew the first time I met him his knowledge of music was pretty vast. He joined Drivin’ N Cryin’ briefly when he first moved to Nashville. He probably knows how to play every song I ever wrote we spent so much time traveling with the solo band and solo shows he really knows me inside and out

Unlike many producers, he’s actually a working musician himself. What was it like working with him on this record?

Interestingly enough I don’t think Drivin’ N Cryin’ or myself have you ever made an album
that was not produced by a musician. I think it’s important for a producer to be able to get inside the minds and desires of the band and songwriter. That’s a lot easier to do with me if you’re a musician. But if you’re not a musician the main requirement would be to have an extensive knowledge of all music recordings for as long as they’ve existed. Music history is important to me if not only to pay due respect to those who came before me. All of my music is an amalgamation of all the music that I love from Buddy Holly to Mastodon.

I remember seeing Drivin’ N Cryin’ play around Atlanta in the ’80s and you had a sound that few were playing at the time – blending punk with Americana. There are a lot of bands nowadays that are playing music that type of music. Does it seem like the world finally caught up to you?

Well we weren’t the first. We were in the audience for The Replacements, Husker Du,
Jason and the Scorchers, Elvis Costello, Rank and File, etc. What we do was definitely inspired by those bands as for as diversity within an album. I’m not sure who’s catching up to who. I’m more interested in learning with this new generation has.

It’s been a decade since your last full length – was working on this one much different than the way you approached the last couple of EPs?

It’s surprising how many more months it takes to add five more songs to a five-song EP to make an album. I have a pretty short attention span and unlike, I think, a lot of musicians I don’t like sitting in the studio. Some days I’d rather go to the dentist. It can be pretty stressful thinking about what you’re putting down now. What people are going to be listening to in 30 years. How relevant is it? How truthful is it? How boring? Is it exciting? Is it tearing it down? Building it up? Listening to that voice that doesn’t sound like the voice in my head, but I’ve learned to live with it, babysitting a project to keep it cohesive. It’s not easy. That’s why I think Aaron did an amazing job of shepherding this music to your turntable.


“Ian McLagan” is a beautiful song. We’ve lost some great musicians over the years. What was it about him that inspired you to write the song?

The fact that I never met him. I had that opportunity when I saw him walking up the alley, but I didn’t want to stop him in the rain. And when he passed, I thought of all the great music that he made and how he could’ve just done one thing and sat on a barstool his whole life. I also think that the name Ian in the song represents a lot of different of my favorite musicians who are still driving this country, sharing music with the audience; Dan Baird, Peter Buck, Chuck Prophet, Todd Snider, Alejandro!

“Free Ain’t Free” is another great song on this record. Was it based on a real couple?

No couple in particular, no. But just about every city in America right now has similar situations going on, squatters, flippers, blockbusters. I understand neighborhoods change and I think that’s fantastic, but I think that city government should structure some sort of tax relief for your families that have lived in homes and created neighborhoods and bonds with neighbors. I think the family home and family unit is sacred. There should be a place for them to it’s not always about more money, more money, more money.

What’s next for the band?

Space, the final frontier. Either that or maybe someday will be huge in Cleveland. Baby steps. In all seriousness, we are just going to keep driving around sharing music until the wheels fall off the van and then buy another van. I hope to be doing this for the next 10 years. I’m really proud of the group of musicians I’m surrounded by. I love touring the different crowds every night. I love the challenge; I love the camaraderie and I love to come home.

Those are all the questions I had. Anything else you want to cover?

Be you. Live the love beautiful.

DOOM PUNKS: George Hage (Jack The Radio) & Nick Baglio

With their new Doom Punks rec storming both the indie rock and comics dimensions, let us investigate….

BY JOHN B. MOORE

George Hage, on top of being an incredible guitar player for the New Reveille and Jack The Radio (the latter for which he also sings for), is a pretty stellar artist, whose recent book, Daydreaming: The Art of George Hage, impressed scores of reviewers, including our editor here at BLURT. When he’s not touring or recording, he’s designing posters, shirts, album covers, beer labels, hell even drumhead logos. So, the fact that he would one day marry his two passions into a new project was simply a given.

Along with longtime friend and fellow musician, Nick Baglio, Hage created Doom Punks, a comic book-themed punk rock band.

The duo recently put out their debut EP, so now seemed like an ideal time to catch up with Hage to discuss the Doom Punks, his latest venture into the comic world and the status of his other bands. (Useful links follow the interview.)

***

BLURT: Can you start out by talking about the idea behind Doom Punks?

GEORGE HAGE: Doom Punks started as a pie in the sky idea to combine my love for comics with my love for music. I imagined some of my favorite indie comic books were transformed into their own Saturday-morning style cartoons and our songs were their theme songs similar to what The Ramones did with Spider-man.

The past few years led to something more. We were able to create a song for a very talented friend of mine, Skottie Young’s comic Middlewest, and put an ad with a link to the song at the end of the comic, which created a whole new dimension to the comic book experience. This is something I haven’t really seen or heard before and hope that our music provides the comic reader with an enhanced experience much like the score to a film does.

Had you written these songs before you got together with Nick in 2016?

I had starting writing some of the songs for myself, just for fun. I initially never thought they’d see the light of day. After sitting in on guitar for some shows with my longtime pal, Nick Baglio, we got to talking and I threw the idea out there and he was in to bringing the songs to life with his immensely great drumming.

 

How did you connect with Image Comics?

I primarily worked with Skottie Young and Jorge Corona directly to create the song for their creator-owned comic Middlewest with Image Comics. It was exciting to see Image create the animated promo video for book with the song as the score for the video. It will be exciting to see if we can find more ways to collaborate on future projects.

Obviously, you have a passion for comics. Do you remember how you first got into them?

I remember being 9 or 10 and seeing comic books for the first time at the grocery store. Around that time Death of Superman was happening and Jim Lee’s X-men number one was exploding everywhere. My parents would give me a small allowance for doing stuff around the house and I would use that money to pick up the comic books. Eventually they started taking me to local comic shops, Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find being one of them that I still go to when I’m in Charlotte.

 

Given your love of comics, it must have been pretty cool to work on that print for NC Comic Con. How did that come about?

Creating the art for the NC Comic Con Oak City print was a real treat. It’s been great watching that convention grow from a small shopping strip to a multi-town convention that’s now held at the convention center. It’s a con that I started going to as a fan year and years ago. Over the years I’ve lucky enough to connect with the great folks behind the scenes at Ultimate Comics and they have supported my art and have been kind enough to include me over the years.

You’re a pretty talented artist – have you thought about creating your own comic based around songs?

I’ve always wanted to and still do want to create my own comic book and had plans to do something with the Jack the Radio character. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to do that yet. The good news is sequential art takes a lot of skill and the longer I wait the more I get to practice and study up. That’s what I tell myself at least, (laughs).

 

Do you see this as a Doom Punks one-off project or any plans for more Doom Punks albums?

Nick and I have talked about it a bit and we definitely want to do more songs going forward. I’d love to connect with more comic creators and publishers to collaborate on the songs to create something that adds to the comic book experience and is something that can be used in promoting the books.

Have you and Nick played any of these songs live yet?

We haven’t played any of these songs live yet, however I go down with some of the Jack the Radio guys every year to Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC to play some music at their annual Drink N Draw event with Team Cul De Sac, which raises money for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. We might have to break out a song or two there.

 

Anything new happening with Jack The Radio?

Jack the Radio has slowed down a bit in the past two years with some line-up changes due to jobs, family, etc. but we are gradually working on another record at Warrior Sound in Chapel Hill, NC, which is where we’ve recorded our past studio albums. With a different line-up the sound is evolving, which has been an exciting process.

 

Growing up, did you imagine you’d be able to make a living by playing music and drawing?

Honestly, no. Growing up no one in my family really played an instrument and no one drew. We didn’t know anyone that did either for a living, nor have anyone in my family in the biz so it didn’t cross my mind it could be a way to make a living. It was always something I loved and that I did for fun. I was a pretty introverted kid at times and it really helped me build my social skills and confidence. Music specifically challenged me to overcome any fears of talking or performing in front of people. I think it gets overlooked a lot, but music and art is a great way to meet people and I’ve made some great friends through both.

 

What’s next for you – what else have you got going on?

Musically I’m focused on tightening up my live show and pushing myself to grow as a songwriter. Artistically I have a lot of projects going on with businesses, bands, festivals and more that I’m looking forward to sharing with folks. Most recently I was able to work with a great designer and art director, Landon Elmore, on some illustration work for the 2019 World of Bluegrass fest branding produced by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). It’s one of the largest, if not the largest street festivals around. Also be on the lookout for some artwork for Foo Fighter guitarist, Chris Shiflett. And if you’re in Raleigh feel free to check out my latest art installation at Transfer Co. Food Hall downtown.

***

Links for your edification:

www.doompunks.com

www.george-hage.com

www.nickbaglio.com

 

 

 

VOICES CARRY: Calexico

“Literary lint and artifacts from the transient American escape”: It’s hard to believe that the Tucson-based—and, as it turns out now, partly El Paso-based as well—rockers have been seducing the sonic synapses of fans of their patented “desert noir” for nearly two decades. But with a celebrated studio album and key reissue recently in their rearview, plus a fresh collaboration and tour with Iron & Wine in their headlights for this summer, it’s not a stretch to call them a true legacy band. Founders Joey Burns and John Convertino talk about the upcoming album, reflect on their past, and enthuse about their headlining show this weekend at the Cold Mountain Music Festival in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

BY FRED MILLS

Calexico: think Americana, yes, but also think border music, Mariachi rock, folk-psych and experimental musings, wide open expanses of the Southwestern frontier, desert noir. More on the latter in a sec. The Tucson outfit, founded in 1995 by guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns and percussionist extraordinaire John Convertino, is in the middle of a remarkably active and productive period, having issued  in the past year both a new studio album (The Thread That Keeps Us, via Anti- in the US and City Slang overseas; it’s reviewed here), and a 20th anniversary expanded reissue of their 1998 classic, The Black Light. Along the way, they also decided to renew an old friendship in the form of Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, and the fruits of that studio connection will arrive in just a couple of weeks as Years to Burn via Sub Pop (on digital, CD, vinyl, and limited edition colored vinyl… you can guess which iteration yours truly preordered), which will coincide with an extensive international tour with I&W that kicks off June 18.

Meanwhile, this weekend Calexico will be headlining the 3rd annual Cold Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina (read my preview of the fest elsewhere on the Blurt site) prior to the aforementioned tour with Iron & Wine, so, as suggested, they are a busy bunch. As befits an ensemble with an ever-expanding back catalog, acclaimed collaborations galore, and what might be termed as a clearly relentless musical mission.

Full disclosure, I feel permanently linked to the band by virtue of several factors: I was living in Tucson, Arizona, when they initially formed as an offshoot of Giant Sand and were also moonlighting in Friends of Dean Martinez, and, thanks to Burns and Convertino, privy to some of their earliest musical endeavors; years later, a stray quote of mine that I once used in a review to describe the band (“desert noir”) was uttered by Burns during an NPR interview, along with his acknowledgment of the term’s source; and certainly the honor of working with the band on the liner notes for their sprawling 12-LP 2001 vinyl box set, Road Atlas 1998-2001.

All that aside—and my devotion to the entire Arizona music scene is well-documented here at BLURT, so I won’t belabor it—the fact is, the duo, which can morph into a full-sized band, replete with a mariachi horn section, at the drop of a castanet, remains one of our premiere American musical ambassadors, and will always be emblematic of the sonic serendipity that the Southwestern desert region can bestow.

As Convertino succinctly offered, “The whole ride has been amazing.”

For us as well, John. I caught up with my old Tucson compadres recently via email.

***

BLURT: John, Joey, it’s great to connect with you again—I must confess, whenever I hear you on the radio these days, I get a twinge of homesickness for Tucson. So, now you’re coming to my current home, near Asheville, North Carolina. Have you ever played this area?

JOHN: To be honest, I am not sure if we have. I know we have played Saxapahaw before, and we are scheduled again with Iron & Wine [June 18, at the Haw River Ballroom, near Chapel Hill]. For us, it’s always a pleasure to get to the parts of the country that are so lush and green, spend some time in the shade trees and find a lake to jump into. So, we’re looking forward to the Cold Mountain Fest—we are not “on tour” right now, and we may be doing some interesting covers we don’t normally do because [we will have] Brian Lopez on guitar and vocals, who has his own band and songs that we sometimes do with Calexico. [Ed. Note: Lopez, also based in Tucson, has an amazing band, XIXA, which also boasts Gabriel Sullivan, who we’ve featured and reviewed here at BLURT.)

JOEY: We’ve played Knoxville, TN, before but I don’t recall ever playing in Asheville. Glad to be finally playing here. We will be playing both old and new songs, with Brian; Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet, vocals, and vibraphone; and Sergio Mendoza on keyboards, bass, vocals, and samples. Looks like a cool festival too—Cold Mountain Music Festival on Lake Logan sounds pretty damn nice for a bunch of desert dwellers from Arizona. 


BLURT: In the time I’ve been away from Tucson, since mid-2001, what would you say have been your most notable successes or milestones?

JOHN: The whole ride has been amazing; we have been so lucky with having such great labels to work with, and fans that have been loyal and willing to go to different places with us, musically and emotionally. I think being able to bring the mariachi on tour in Europe was huge, as well as having some of our songs charted for symphony orchestra and performing them with the Louisville Symphony, and then later in Berlin and Austria with those orchestras.

JOEY: We’ve done a bunch of benefit concerts for our local radio community radio station KXCI [My favorite radio station on the planet.—Ed.] and helped our friend and congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she was running for office. January 8, 2011, our world was shattered when Gabby and others were shot in a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson. It opened us up and connected us in a way that I would have never imagined. It changed our town forever and highlighted how important community is for healing and living together despite our differences. We offered our help through our music, and I’m grateful to have been part of the process of healing.

Friendship is what has connected us and sustained our band for the long haul. It’s a real gift to get to meet with musicians and continue on the path of being creative and supportive to one another. We’ve had some incredible shows in amazing places around the globe and from this point on I will be extremely grateful if we can keep it going and continue branching out with.


BLURT: Any pitfalls or downsides during that time as well?

JOHN: Well, life on the road can most definitely put you and your family through the meat grinder. There were times when we were overbooked, and overworked—it takes its toll, my friend, but we are living to tell, and that story continues to be told.

Calexico and Iron & Wine

BLURT: Tell me a little about the upcoming Years to Burn and connecting with Iron & Wine—maybe a little background on how that came to pass, and a bit of a preview of the upcoming tour with Sam.

JOEY: We’ve been throwing around the idea of doing another collaboration with Sam for a while. [In 2005 Calexico and Iron & Wine released the In the Reins EP.] Once we found a window of time, we jumped on it. We spent four or five days recording with Matt Ross-Spang at The Sound Emporium in Nashville with Rob Burger on keyboards, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, and two of the other Calexico members—Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet and vocal, as well as Paul Niehaus on some gorgeous pedal steel.

JOHN: Since we did In the Reins almost 15 years ago, we have always talked about doing it again, and just about when I thought it was never gonna happen, it happened! Sam was coming off his touring for Beast Epic and had a batch of songs he wanted to play with Calexico. So, we decided on Nashville, and along with Sam’s bass player Sebastian Steinberg and keyboardist Rob Burger, Joey and I met up with Sam and recorded and mixed these songs in about five days. The tour should be fun—we have all been around the block multiple times now, up down and all around, so safe to say, we all look forward to those few hours on stage continuing the musical dialogue, try some new things, some new covers.

BLURT: What were some of your thoughts or emotions as you put last year’s 20th anniversary reissue of The Black Light together? And where were your heads originally at when making that album in 1998? I will always think of you guys in the context of my “desert noir” description, and how you’ve continued to tap that metaphysical vein with your music.

JOEY: Thank you so much Fred—you’ve always been a beacon and an inspiration. I love the “desert noir” term. Today I accidentally typed “Desert No Water” and was surprised how accurate that fits to not only the current state of things in the West and the growing importance of sustainable resources, but also the whole symbolism of why we do what we do. We venture out, despite the risks or the voices inside saying, “maybe it is time to do something else,” or “do people still want to listen to live and recorded music, enough to justify hopping in a van and seeing where the road will take you?” Back in 1998, we were mainly concerned with playing music and getting out on the road in whatever way possible. That spirit is still there, and it feels good releasing a 20th anniversary edition of an album that was our most intuitive and eclectic. I’m curious how it feels to audiences today.

JOHN: It was really nice to revisit The Black Light, especially since I live in El Paso now, which was home to Cormac McCarthy during his years of writing “The Border Trilogy,” which was, in part, the inspiration for some of the stories and lyrics on the record. Living here, in some ways, has brought to life a lot of what I could only imagine the border stories [while] living in Tucson or reading books, so listening back with what I know now, I feel the record still holds up, and hopefully will for years to come. I think what the music represents is much more important now than when we made the record. Musically, we were experimenting with what the studio could offer us, and the time and space of Tucson, which was a pretty small town back then.

JOEY: In 1998 we were lucky enough to find a few record labels that would take a chance on an album that didn’t conform to any one genre or style. We were just as mixed up with influences back then as we are now, but maybe the scope was more focused on our thrift store aesthetic than it has been more recently. It reads like a well-worn book you would find at a motel buried with old National Geographic magazines and paperback novels. Tucson has always been a cul-de-sac and spiritual corner that collects literary lint and artifacts from the transient American escape. It’s a monumental valley of nostalgia that seeps into the cultural subconsciousness. If you like ghosts and graveyards, then this is the place for you. That was the vibe of downtown Tucson in the mid 1990’s. [He’s right.—Ed.] It was a great big canvas of empty warehouses and parking lots. I saw this corner of the world suspended in time. Contrast to that was the growing urban tribal art scene and university dropouts that made for some really creative tangents and creative directions. There was a little more grit in Tucson back in 1998, but it still resonates in a beautiful way here.

 

BLURT: If we count 1995’s self-released Superstition Highway cassette as the Calexico debut – or perhaps 1996’s Spoke, however, since it had actual distribution — that means 2020-2021 will mark your 25th anniversary. If so, any special plans or surprises in the works? Maybe a protest concert during the Republican national convention?

JOHN: There have been talks of re-releasing that and maybe doing a special show in Germany for Hausmusik, the label that put Spoke out originally. It would probably be better for us to stay out of politics, but it’s pretty much impossible these days—the division is so clear cut now, it’s easier than ever to make a choice.

JOEY: We plan to continue tour with Calexico and various collaborations for as long as the road will take us. There are no retrospective tours planned as of yet. I would rather focus on recording new ideas and touring with new projects. As for the political state of things, life is full of challenges on many levels, and with art, music, food, writing, dance, culture, comedy, film, we can embrace one another, listen to one another, and harmonize together. Definitely being a father is teaching me to be a better listener and to help take care of others. It’s basic, and each community that grows strong will help influence each, state, government and continent. My kids are worried about the health of the planet and I am too. I would love to keep finding ways to help thru music. That’s what I want to teach my kids.

 

BLURT: Lastly, tell me something surprising, unusual, or otherwise cool about Tucson these days that I probably don’t know and would be fun to share with Blurt readers…

JOHN: Well, Tucson has changed a lot since you left there, Fred. The downtown is totally happening, you can walk around and have everything you could possibly want. Here in El Paso, things are a little slower… we did just get these amazing refurbished vintage trolley cars that make a loop through our downtown, to the university, and along the border. That’s very cool. Come visit El Paso sometime— you would love it!

JOEY: In the past we’ve seen a wave of various businesses: Sonoran Hot Dog stands in empty dirt lots, tattoo parlors, mattress stores (some even across the street from one another!), barber shops, used car dealerships, pizza and hamburger joints. Tucson is a test market. One of the benefits is that we have a pretty good food scene here. In 2017 Tucson won the first UNESCO award for City of Gastronomy. I hope it continues growing in a thoughtful and healthy way.

WELCOME, ALL: The 3rd Lake Logan, NC, Cold Mountain Music Festival

Taking place Friday and Saturday of this week, May 31-June 1, in Canton, North Carolina, it features a slew of diverse artists—among them, Calexico, Milk Carton Kids, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Kat Wright. We talked to one of the festival organizers about its origins, its intention, and its overall success to date. (Above photo the official festival photo; image below, by David Simchock www.davidsimchock.com / courtesy CMMF)

BY FRED MILLS

The summer festival season begins anew—having already been sufficiently primed/goosed by numerous pre-summer festivals, which seem to occur earlier and earlier each year—with festival-goers and musicians alike fairly frothing at the mouth over, respectively, the ensuing fun-potential and the ridiculously easy paychecks.

One relatively young event is the two-day Cold Mountain Music Festival, May 31-June 1, occurring in Canton, North Carolina (specifically: 25 Wormy Chestnut Lane, Canton, NC 28716). Canton is about a half-hour west of Asheville, already renowned for its thriving music scene, and the hills of Western N.C. are similarly alive with the sound of music (to paraphrase a great philosopher). And as we pointed out not long ago here at BLURT, it’s to be “a tasting board of artists ranging from the folk, funk, Americana, bluegrass, and post-rock worlds, with highlights including Grammy-nominated alt-rockers the Milk Carton Kids, critically acclaimed “desert noir” duo Calexico, crowd-favorite jamgrass ensemble Yonder Mountain String Band, fast rising troubadour J.S. Ondara, “soul queen” Kat Wright, the equally Stax-worthy Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics, and improvisational genre-benders Driftwood, among others.”

There’s an interesting angle here, too: the family-friendly camping festival, now in its third year and located in Pisgah National Forest at the wonderfully scenic Lake Logan, is put on by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in order to support the work of the ministries of the Lake Logan Conference Center and Camp Henry. Doesn’t exactly sound like your garden-variety sex/drugs/rock’n’roll gathering, where topless girls get hoisted upon the shoulders of their E-gobbling boyfriends and frats on leave from campus slam beer-bongs in between actual bong hits, eh?

I posed that question, or at least my somewhat toned-down version of it, to Lake Logan Conference Center’s Development Director Michelle Robinson, as I was curious to learn if the festival organizers have ever encountered raised eyebrows when informing someone about potential looming collisions between Dionysian youth practices and Faith-based church cultures. I got a firm “LOL” from her…

“We haven’t seen any of that,” chuckled Robinson. “I hope it’s respect for the place we are in and for those around us. If we are to continue to have this festival, we can’t have issues like drugs destroying the vibe. Christians are not excluded from liking good music, be it rock ‘n’ roll or any other. And we count it as a blessing that we have very poor Wi-fi here—people aren’t walking around with their faces in their phones. Instead, they are connecting with their neighbors and enjoying nature. It’s amazing to watch.”

In our conversation, Robinson professed to be a big fan of music festivals in general, adding that she has prior experience with large such events. She always had a hunch that the Lake Logan setting would be an ideal one for such a gathering, and explained that while the venue had always been used primarily for summer camp and church groups, “the festival arose as a thought between a few long-time supporters of Lake Logan and myself—I knew we could make it happen. My best friend is married to one of the Steep Canyon Rangers, so she was very helpful, as were the Rangers, with getting the first one going. We knew the location was perfect for it! It took a lot of work that first year from the entire planning committee, the Diocese staff and Lake Logan staff—I’m always afraid our head of facilities will retire! We have great people at Lake Logan and in the Diocese office in Asheville. Everyone works hard to make this a success.

“And there is a great deal of organization to it. I work for Lake Logan and Camp Henry, with support from the Episcopal Diocese of WNC. And Bishop José McLoughlin has been our strongest supporter. He understands our goal [is] to bring all people together in this place where all are welcomed. He lets us do the job and trusts us to make good decisions.”

Good decisions, indeed. Early on, the festival organizers determined that strategic partnerships would be key, and by the second year they had brought on well-respected and -connected Asheville concert promoter and talent buyer Jeff Whitworth, of Worthwhile Sounds, to help line up performers, along with Chad Stewart of Asheville’s Sound to coordinate the lighting and sound systems. (Robinson: “He’s the best, so that was an easy choice.”) Also in the mix now: Haywood County’s weekly newspaper the Smoky Mountain News, the Haywood Tourism Development Authority helping out with some of the talent costs, and the Haywood Sheriff Department for festival-related security and traffic control (not to mention accompanying bureaucratic hoops). Plus, plenty of participation from local breweries, food trucks, and regional merchants—crucial for probably every kind of music festival on the planet.

Robinson adds that another crucial element in mounting a solid festival is lining up sponsorships in order to cover the costs of the booking budget. “We have been successful financially so far,” she says. “It isn’t a huge profit yet, but we keep growing. We have many generous sponsors who come back year after year to help us make this happen. And the Haywood TDA gave us a grant this year that has been a huge help for getting great talent. In terms of genre, we stress that this festival is not a bluegrass festival. We love bluegrass and we have it on the schedule, but we don’t stop there. We want diversity in the music and in the musicians. This year, we have some great soul acts, Americana, folk, country, and bluegrass—and some that I’m not sure how to categorize, but it’s good music.”

And she’s quick to point out that the Cold Mountain Music Festival is intended to be more than simply musically inclusive:

“This festival sort of announced to the community that Lake Logan is open for all. We are not a private campus and we welcome all. You don’t have to be Episcopalian to be here. We host artist retreats, family reunions, private retreats, dancing, and the list goes on and on. Last year, our new-ish Executive Director, Lauri SoJourner, opened Lake Logan for annual memberships. That has been a huge success with our neighbors. People can come out for the day to enjoy the lake or to fish.

“We really do welcome all.”

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For further reading about the festival, check out my interview with Joey Burns and John Convertino, of Saturday evening headliner Calexico, along with don’t-miss featured performer Kat Wright, who plays late afternoon on Saturday.. – FM

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Check out the festival line-up and visit www.coldmountainmusic.org for tickets, festival tees and more info — with The Milk Carton Kids, Kat Wright, Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics, Joe Lasher, Calexico, J.S. Ondara, The Travelin’ Kine, Yonder Mountain String Band, Logan Ledger, Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Cuisine, Noble Cider – Taproom & Cidery, Hit the Pit BBQ Co., Driftwood and Mo Pho Pho Sho.