June 29, 2009

Sarah Borges on tour

I've blogged about this before, but Sarah Borges and her band of merry men, the Broken Singles, are such a fun bunch I had to post again. When they go out on tour, they take their video camera with them and chronicle the life of a rock band on the road. In their latest video, they fly from Boston to Tampa and then to Seattle where they meet up with their tour van. We see them silkscreening their own T-shirts in their hotel room, meet up with bassist Binky's mom at a radio recording stop and watch as drummer Rob Dulaney excruciatingly tries to get comfortable in the back of the van after hurting his back at a party.
We all may have dreamed of being in a band and taking off across the country on a tour -- thinking wouldn't it be great to be seeing the country and living wild and free. Well, of course, it's not really like that. There are miles and miles of driving, bad food, bad hotels, and little sleep. But Sarah and the Singles seem to revel in all of it, and we are better for it.
Here's the video:

June 11, 2009

Jenny Lewis at the House of Blues

(image from Seattlesoundmag.com)

Somwehere around the fourth song, a dude in the audience yelled out "I love you, Jenny!" Which prompted another dude to yell-respond "Join the fucking club!," which got a laugh from the crowd around him.
And that pretty much summed up the Jenny Lewis fans in the audience, a mix of indie dudes and chicks -- and a few of older semi-geezers (me included!) -- who came to hear the singer's mix of country, gospel and rock tunes. And let it be said, Jenny Lewis is the complete package. Yes, she can rock a T-shirt and jeans like no other, and her stage presence -- with her dancing and posing onstage -- keeps all eyes focused on her, but more than all that she can flat-out sing. Her range on her albums is amazing, but that she can do it all on stage is even more impressive. Her voice commands attention whether she's standing solo singing a gospel number or surrounded by the full-on rock 'n' roll crunch of her tight and versatile band. Playing for more than two hours, Lewis played a generous portion of her new album, "Acid Tongue," a few choice morsels from "Rabbit Fur Coat," a couple of Rilo Kiley numbers ("Silver Lining," played solo) and, by my count, two new tunes (one called "The Big Wave.")
Here are a couple of highlights: She opened the show in force with "See Fernando," immediately showing off a band that is creative and powerful, and incredibly versatile. A pair of women percussionists, Danielle Haim and Barbara Gruska, also played crankin' guitar on certain tracks. The guy next to Jenny, Johnathan Rice, was playing the part of a young Neil Young on acoustic and had a great voice. And Farmer Dave Scher, who was an opening act as well, played all sorts of guitars, from lap steel to electric to some weird lap instrument. Other songs included "Rise Up With Fists!!," "The Charging Sky," and the Willbury's "Handle with Care" from the "Rabbit Fur Coat" album. She really took off on the electric tunes from "Acid Tongue." "Carpetbagger" and "Jack Killed Mom" were killer (he, he) and "The Next Messiah" was massive, with each part building and building to rock climax. Awesome. She also did beautiful renditions of "Pretty Bird," one of my favorite tunes from the new album, and the tune "Acid Tongue," which was one of three encores.
This is why you buy a ticket to a concert instead of sitting in your living room listening to the stereo.
For a professional take on the show from the Boston Globe, click HERE

See Fernando
The Charging Sky
You Are What You Love
Pretty Bird
Sing a Song for Them
Jack Killed Mom
Trying My Best to Love You
Rise Up With Fists!!
Just Like Zeus
Handle With Care
The Next Messiah

Silver Lining
Acid Tongue
The Big Wave
Born Secular

I didn't bring my camera this time because the last time I went to the HOB, to see Derek Trucks, they wouldn't allow it in. But here's a video of "Acid Tongue" posted from the show.

June 10, 2009

In Praise of Neil Young

(Reprinted from Modern Acoustic magazine, Issue 25, June 2009)
The ultimate Neil Young career retrospective is finally here. Years in the making, months in the start-and-stop release, this first collection highlights the years 1963-1972 and features an unprecedented 10 Blu-ray discs-worth of Neil classics, previously unreleased material, alternate takes and live cuts, from his earliest days with the little-known band the Squires through his classic “Harvest” album. This series – the latter years edition(s) still to come – according to press material, is the “definitive, comprehensive, chronological survey of his entire body of work.” At a cost around $200, you will have to be the biggest of Neil fans to own it.
However, the release of the retrospective does present a good time to discuss Neil Young’s place in the pantheon of popular music.
He is, in my opinion, one of the top 5 American songwriters in pop music history. There is Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Paul Simon, Springsteen. And then… Neil Young? He is surely right up there. I’m not talking about number of hit songs, but quality of output, longevity, versatility and passion.
His longevity alone qualifies him. Music lovers can recite with ease the stages of Neil’s career: folk-rock pioneer with Buffalo Springfield in the ’60s; the loner rocking in early ’70s; his on-again, off-again musical love affair with Crosby, Stills and Nash; his guitar-hero frenzy with power trio Crazy Horse; and his laid-back country acoustic side. In his four-decade past he’s compiled album upon album of songs now forever referred to as classic rock – from Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” to CSNY’s “Ohio” to “Tonight’s the Night” with Crazy Horse and “Like a Hurricane.”
These stages were not a bunch of side projects, but a full-blown part of Neil Young’s musical spirit. And each stage, no matter which he chose, felt like a perfect fit for his talents.
Yes, his music took some unexpected turns. There was an electronica album (“Tron”), a rockabilly album (“Every-body’s Rockin’ ”), and a jump blues album (“This Note’s for You”). Each seemed like a detour down some dirt road to nowhere. But at the time, they were what felt right to him and he didn’t give a darn what anyone else thought. If he had to go the trip alone, so be it.
In the mid-’80s, I went to see him in concert during the “This Note’s for You” tour. In an interview beforehand, he warned his fans that he was only going to play his “blues stuff.” Yet those at the show came expecting to hear “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Hurricane,” etc. As promised he hardly played any of his hits, and the crowd was not pleased. Finally, as an encore, he played “Tonight’s the Night” and fans roared with approval.
That desire to follow his heart has lead Neil to some pretty tough places, including battles with CSN over commercial success, and with critics over perceived poor material. But that’s what makes Neil great. His whole musical existence is to play what moves him. Luckily a lot of what moves Neil, moves others as well.
His work with Crazy Horse on 1979’s “Rust Never Sleeps” through 1989’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” inspired the grunge movement so much that Pearl Jam basically made him an honorary member. In 1992, at a time when folks started to worry Neil might be washed up, he delivered a stellar acoustic sequel to his 1972 hit album “Harvest,” called “Harvest Moon, which sweetly celebrated of aging and his love for his wife.
In fact, the latter album’s song “You and Me” talks directly to the “Harvest” song “Old Man”: Old man sittin’ there/Touch of grey, but he don’t care /When he hears his children call.
The song is sung with an elegant simplicity, yet it captures the phrasing and style of the original and echoes the tune without stealing from it. It’s genius songwriting.
Neil’s lyrics run the gamut from very personal, simple messages (“Only Love Will Break Your Heart”), to political rants (“Rockin’ in the Free World”), to complex story songs (“Cortez the Killer,” “Pocahontas”), each played with equal earnestness.
And Neil’s electric guitar playing, while not the most sophisticated or flashy, has reached legendary status for the way he maniacally hunches over his axe and stomps around the stage shooting out wailing solos. His acoustic playing is more subtle, but just as heart-filled.
As he’s gotten older, he’s returned to genres he loves, with varying degrees of success. 2005’s “Prairie Wind,” made after Neil came back from a brain aneurysm. And just as we thought he might again be was slowing down, he followed that up with the scathing “Living With War,” which was filled with songs blasting George W. Bush in a fury of electric guitars.
The former was praised by critics, while the latter was dubbed a Grumpy Old Neil album.
Now at 63, he’s released another rocking album, “Fork in the Road,” inspired by his Linc Volt electric car. Like it or hate it, this is a perfectly fitting album for him. It’s about what he is absolutely passionate about: cars, politics, going green, and rock ’n’ roll.
As usual, if you don’t care to take the journey, he’s OK to go it alone.

Our favorite Neil songs, and the album the songs come from:
1. Needle and the Damage, Done, “Harvest”
2. Tonight's the Night, “Tonight’s the Night”
3. Pocahontas, “Chrome Dreams”
4. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”
5. Down By the River, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”
6. Cortez the Killer, “Zuma”
7. Tired Eyes, “Tonight’s the Night”
8. The Loner, “Neil Young”
9. A Man Needs a Maid, “Harvest”
10. Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty), CSNY’s “Deja Vu”
11. Comes a Time, “Comes a Time”
12. Don’t Let It Bring You Down, “After the Goldrush”
13. Cowgirl in the Sand, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”
14. Helpless, CSNY’s “Deja Vu”
15. I Am a Child, Buffalo Springfield’s “Last Time Around”

Issue 25, June 2009

That Magic Moment - Our favorite musicians tell us why they do what they do
What would it be like to be standing on stage bathed in the warm glow of blue and green spotlights, looking out on a crowd of people waiting eagerly to hear your songs? You start playing, picking out chords to your most personal of tunes, the one you wrote when you were in that private place and time where the words and music came together. And then the band kicks in behind you – the drums tap out the beat, the bass follows, and then guitar, keyboards, and other instruments. There is a swelling of sound, a surge of energy and then…
What comes next? What does it feel like? We haven’t had the opportunity (or the skill!) to know the pleasure or the terror of what comes next. But it is something that has always intrigued us: Can you feel it when everything is going right? You surely know when things are going wrong, but can you hear it when you are in that Magic Moment when it is all perfect?
Modern Acoustic asked some of our favorite musicians to describe that Magic Moment to us – when they really knew why they do what they do: why they spend hours on end putting their most personal of feelings to music; why they are willing to travel great distances for potentially little pay and small crowds; how they are able to get up in front of those people and perform as if the whole world was listening.
It is a feeling that those of us who have never done it may have a hard time understanding, but we believe, with a little help from our friends, we’ve captured some of that Magic in our four-page feature.
Someone we didn’t hear from (but sure would have loved to!) was Neil Young. What makes Neil tick? We’re not quite sure, but we do know that he loves what he does – and that it should be celebrated. His long-awaited retrospective box set is finally out and that gives us reason to rejoice in his four-decade-long career and see him for what he is: one of the best songwriters in pop music history. Where would you place him in the pantheon of rock, folk and pop music? Can you think of anyone else who has covered so much ground for so long? Also, we offer up our favorite Neil tunes, and a list (one we don’t completely agree with) of the best living songwriters.
To read the Magic Moments, click HERE.

MA5- Songs
Songs that helped us survive this issue.
1. “Knuckleball Catcher,’’ not available yet, Gillian Welch. YouTube is the only place you’ll find this, but it’s worth the search.
2. “From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea),” “Picaresque,” The Decemberists. Their story songs just hit a nerve.
3. “Ain’t No Grave,” “Shaken by a Low Sound,’’ Crooked Still. We keep coming back to this album. Fantastic.
4. “James!,” “Grand,” Erin McKeown. Waiting (im)patiently for the new album.
5. “Loretta,” “Rear View Mirror,” Townes Van Zandt. After seeing Steve Earle, we had to go back and listen again.

June 5, 2009

Erin McKeown's house parties

In the past couple of years musicians who have decided to free themselves from the corporate structure of the music industry have come up with creative ways to finance their albums. One way they've done this is by offering their fans special deals in exchange for some help with funding. This has included exclusive meet-and-greets, autographed items, special concert seating, and even personalized house or backyard concerts for top donors.
Well, Erin McKeown has taken her house concert idea to someplace totally new: her house. Erin is offering up a series of concerts at her own house in Western Mass., and is inviting fans to join her over the Internet. In what she is calling Cabin Fever, Erin will play four shows from various places in her yard, all with different themes, and is asking people to pay $10 per show to stream it live on her site. A cost of $30 will get you all four shows. This is all to benefit the recording and release of her new album "Hundreds of Lions."
She writes: "In the grand tradition of barn-raisings and house-rent parties, Erin McKeown is inviting you into her living room, onto her porch, into her river, into her yard and asking you to lend a hand... just as farmers needed their neighbors to help raise the roof and musicians have sung for their supper."
Here's how it works. You sign up with a credit card on her site and then the day of the show, you log in with a password and watch the show live. If you aren't available that day, you can still view it at your leisure afterward.

Here is the info and schedule for the four shows:
Tuesday, July 7 - 7 p.m.: An intimate, acoustic candlit evening in Erin's living room, plus a tour of her house
Thursday, July 16 - noon: An interactive, all-request electric set from Erin's riverside porch
Wednesday, July 22 - 5 p.m.: Erin performs classic cover songs about water of all sorts from a rock in the middle of her river.
Sunday, July 26 - 3 p.m.: The new album performed in sequence by Erin and band, from her front yard
Rain Location: They'll broadcast from the inside of Erin's Sprinter Touring Van.

I love the idea that musicians are coming up with unique ways to share their music and give fans a chance to feel closer to the artist and to being a part of the creative process.
When I first got the email, I thought I was being invited over to Erin's house to hear her play live. That was exciting. But this makes more sense as a funding idea since fans can still feel some of that intimacy, but the reach for the artist is far wider than having fans who live in geographical proximity stop by... and it saves on cleanup!
Seriously, if this is the future of the music industry, it is so much better for consumers than going to some big box store and plunking down $18 for a CD, with most of the cost going to some fat cat label executive. At least you know you know where your money is.

I don't know what the quality of the broadcast will be. The technological aspect of this may be the tough part, though streaming video is getting better and better very quickly.
My guess if Erin's idea goes off without a hitch, there will be a lot of artist's following suit. And if so, I will be a happy music fan.

Check out the video preview:

June 1, 2009

Steve Earle and Joe Pug at Berklee

Friday night I had the chance to experience a performance that symbolizes all that is right about music and the music business. Steve Earle is one of those performers who is the reason folk music exists and thrives. Earle said he learned his musical outlook from the great Townes Van Zandt, Earle's idol and mentor and whose songs he covered on his latest album: Be true to yourself and sing what is true to you. And Earle has followed that.
Before we get to the Earle specifics, let me say a few words about Joe Pug, since I was invited to this show to see the young folksinger from Chicago. Pug, a lanky dude, got up on stage with a guitar and a harmonica and no backup. He has been compared to John Prine, Josh Ritter and M. Ward, though I would say he's not quite there yet. He seems to have a good sense of humor -- a reference to how he travels to gigs was humorous -- but he could more stage presence. To say his influences included Bob Dylan would be an understatement. In fact, one of his numbers could have been called "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall Jr." But Pug is his own self too. "I Do My Father's Drugs" speaks to a generation that will be left to pay the bills of their parents. And his CD title song "Nation of Heat" is catchy. A little more seasoning could make Pug a name to listen for in the future.
As for Earle, well, I went to the show with the following knowledge. He is a straight shooter, not afraid to speak his mind. He spent much of the Bush years railing against the government (for good reason!) and he is married to country hottie Allison Moorer.
What I didn't know was about his love and dedication to the spirit of folk music, of following your heart on a musical journey, no matter where it leads. His set was littered with songs of his hero, Townes, but also with his own tunes, both political and satirical. At one point he stated that he though the country felt different now that Barack Obama is president. He said he voted for Obama and he was happy with what Obama was doing... right now, but he reserves the right to change his mind. He mentioned clean coal, and how he disagreed with Obama on it's potential use. He was funny, engaging and told some great stories about his relationship with Townes Van Zandt, especially about the first time Earle played in front of Townes in a down-and-out Texas bar. Townes kept shouting at him to play the "Wabash Cannonball."
As far as songs he played, well, I'll defer to Mark at whatilikeissounds.blogspot.com, who provides an almost-complete setlist:

Where I Lead Me (TVZ)
Colorado Girl (TVZ)
?? Unknown
Fort Worth Blues
Pancho & Lefty (TVZ)
Brand New Companion (TVZ)
Tom Ames' Prayer
More Than I Can Do
Valentines' Day
Hometown Blues
My Old Friend the Blues
Mr Mudd and Mr Gold (TVZ)
City of Immigrants
Soldiers' Joy (instrumental)
The Mountain
Lungs (TVZ)
To Live is to Fly (TVZ)

Marie (TVZ)
Sparkle & Shine
Copperhead Road

(TVZ = Townes Van Zant cover)

For more pics, click HERE
Below is a video I shot during the show. It's a long, rambling explanation of his love for Townes. Awesome. If you know the name of the tune, let me know.