June 22, 2010

Blast from the Past: Q&A with Josh Ritter 2005

This Q&A is a reprint from the May 2005 issue of Modern Acoustic (Josh Rocks; click HERE). Josh had just finished recording "The Animal Years" in Washington State. The issue's cover "story" was a pictorial by Boston photographer Jon Strymish of Josh and the band recording the album at Bear Creek Studios. Below is our mostly tongue-in-cheek email interview with him. Pay close attention because one of his answers actually reveals a lyric to a song that appears not on "Animal Years" but on the next album "Historical Conquests." Pretty great! Remember, this interview was in 2005, two years before "Conquests." Also, I jokingly asked him about picking up the electric guitar for "Animal Years,'' but certainly did not expect that he really would. Enjoy!
At Modern Acoustic we are not afraid to ask the tough questions – the “real” questions – fans would like to ask. So we got ahold of Josh by email and grilled him.

Q. Has signing that big record deal with V2 changed you in any way?
A. I hope not.

Q. Would you care to comment on the rumors that you’ve been seen hangin’ with J.Lo recently?
A. I will when she does. ... Has she?

Q. If the Stones called and asked if they could cover “Kathleen” would you grant them permission?
A. In a rock ’n’ roll heartbeat.

Q. How do you explain your rise to fame in Ireland compared to that of the US? Better beer?
A. To me, Ireland is proof that if you work hard and love what you do, great things come along. I try not to ask why, and try to do my best with what I’ve been given.

Q. You caused quite a stir among your fans with the beard. Any plans for your next fashion statement?
A. The beard is scary enough.

Q. There’s talk you’re a maniac with the wah wah pedal. Any chance you’ll be picking up the ol’ electric for this album?
A. I think there is a huge chance. Sometimes the music just isn’t loud enough.

Q. Some of the stories that you tell in concert seem a tad, well, far-fetched. Is your life really that weird?
A. I actually think those stories are closefetched. I think my life is far weirder. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and a pack of wild dogs is waiting for me. Other days, things are less exciting. The road is an invitation to strange occurrences. Each day you’re in a new place, new people show you around, you sleep in strange hotels. I could tell you some stories about Knight’s Inn that would make your blood run cold.

Q. Any hints to what the new album will be called?
A. All I know is that I’m looking for a title that will be as amazing as the record will be.

Mixing the new, old

As we mentioned in the new issue of Modern Acoustic (click HERE), there's a lot that goes on in the three months between editions. Timing of album releases certainly make it difficult to decide whether to run reviews early or late because of our magazine release schedule (usually March, June, October, December). That is what this blog has been for, to fill in the gaps and try to keep readers up to date. In the past it's been mostly concert reviews and tidbits of facts and ideas that come to mind, but not necessarily worthy of full stories.
To add to that, we're going to try something new... and something old.
You may have noticed in the last issue we ran a column on the List Page featuring snippets from blog posts written between issues. We are going to expand that idea in the magazine, most likely replacing in most editions the List Page, which is becoming more and more of a challenge to keep up.
And here on the blog, we will begin offering short CD reviews of albums we receive but don't fit the timeframe of the magazine. Most likely those reviews -- or snippets of those reviews -- will end up on the last page of the magazine with links to the blog review.
Also, here on the blog, we'll occasionally offer a feature called Blasts from the Past -- stories from past issues of Modern Acoustic. From the beginning, right up to the last four or five issues, stories were only available on the pdfs and to this day do not live on the Web in any other form. We're going to start it off with a short Q&A we did with Josh Ritter from 2005 (Issue No. 4; click HERE). I think you will find it amusing.
We hope you'll enjoy these new -- and old -- features. We think they will help fill in the empty spaces between issues.

June 16, 2010

With a Little Help From Their Fans

Musicians are seeking unique ways to fund their albums and tours, including offering exclusive sponsorships in exchange for donations. But is fan-funding sustainable?

Singer-songwriter Kevin So wants to make a live album, but has no record label to back him. Another singer-songwriter, Jenee Halstead, planned a tour to the Netherlands without the backing of a label to make it happen. A third, Jake Armerding, set out to raise $5,000 with the help of his fans to fund his 2009 album, “Her.”

The odds of these musicians – and the many others like them -- meeting their goals have increased greatly in recent years thanks to their fans. Even in poor economic times, it appears fans are willing to donate anywhere between $10 and $1,000 to help fund their favorite acts’ new albums and tours. In return, fans not only feel like part of the process but in many cases get something in return – maybe an autographed CD or, depending on how much they donate, their name in the liner notes of their favorite artists’ album.

Fan-funding is an age-old system: the busker on the city sidewalk playing for spare coins offered up by an appreciative crowd. It’s also a fairly new system, pioneered and seemingly perfected by folk musicians Ellis Paul and Jill Sobule, who both, individually, raised enough money to fund their albums without any record-label support.

So while the system does work, the question remains as to whether it is sustainable enough for those same musicians to return to their fans and ask for their support for the next project.
“Yeah, I think I can,’’ says Paul, about going back to his fans again for his next album. Paul raised $100,000 to make the completely fan-funded “The Day After Everything Changed,” released in January. “I think next year I could start again. There were a lot of big donors last time, which I don’t know I would get again. But I’m confident I could do $50,000.”

Paul created what he calls a “ladder system of goods and services,” in which fans paid a certain amount and in return got exclusive merchandise or opportunities. Among them were: “The Street Busker Level” ($15), allowing them to be the first to receive the new CD; “The James Taylor Level” ($250) receiving an autographed CD and a guest list pass to a Paul concert; all the way up to “The Woody Guthrie Level” ($10,000), a list of 11 enticements, including being named executive producer on the album and a live Ellis Paul concert in your home.

Paul is adamant that in order for the system to work, and especially to be sustained, musicians must offer something back to the fans.

“Don’t do it as donations,” he cautions. “Give them something for their money. Offer house concerts, recording sessions.” It makes fans feel like part of the process and more willing to help out.

Indie folk-rocker Erin McKeown did just that by allowing fans to “attend” a series of four house concerts, she dubbed Cabin Fever, via the Internet for a small fee. Each show took place in various places in her yard and had different themes, and benefitted the recording and release of her album, “Hundreds of Lions.”

Jill Sobule, who may have actually been the originator of the fan-funding idea, raised $80,000 to make her album “California Years,” which was released in early 2009. She created a website called Jill’s Next Record to explain her idea to fans. She, too, offered staggered funding choices, which were funny and personal. At the highest level was this: “$10,000, Weapons-Grade Plutonium Level ­– You get to come and sing on my CD. Don’t worry if you can’t sing – we can fix that on our end. Also, you can always play the cowbell.”

Sobule is known to her fans as incredibly accessible. She is constantly chatting with her fans on Facebook, offering insight into what she is doing and thinking.
But she doesn’t feel she could just post the same fan-funding enticements as last time and get the same response.

“I am not sure I would do it in the same exact way, and for that much money,” says Sobule. “However, I am and would do it in more ... ‘micro ways’? For example, John Doe and I shared a band and paid the expenses for them as well as the studio by inviting fans to spend the day watching a record being made. We had to raise $4,000 and did it. It was very fun, by the way.”

Sobule offered fans different “packages” ­– including half-day ($125) to all-day ($200) access to watch the recording process, and wrote this about it on her blog: The energy of having people there was such a revelation, as well as a good antidote from the often times sterility of a recording studio.”

According to E. Michael Harrington, professor of Music and Music Management at William Paterson University in New Jersey, done right, fan-funding could be a long-term solution.

“In the past, a musician’s best means to success was through one of the large record companies or one of their smaller record labels. Labels had the best equipment to record as well as a large machine that created, developed and promoted an artist’s career.  The advantages with respect to technology are gone as CDs are not as important.  And the artist has much more control over how she/he gets known.”

Ellis Paul is a good example. He was with Rounder Records for years before striking out on his own.
“A label offers you a brand and some clout, a staff of artists for design work and a radio staff and marketing people do press. And distribution,” he said. “You pay back the label through record sales.” He said he wouldn’t see any royalties until after the album sold $25,000 in sales, a tough number to hit for a folk musician.

So after he saw what Sobule did, he decided to try it himself.

“We did it and then the economy crashed. Even still, we did every bit as well as the Rounder stuff ever did,” he said about the number of records sold – and this time he didn’t have to pay any of it back.
And it appears younger musicians are taking notice of what some of these trailblazers have done and are trying it themselves – on smaller scales.

The $5,000 Armerding raised for his album was solicited by personal email to his fans.
Halstead funded her tour of the Netherlands by raising more than $2,500 through the donation site Kickstarter, a Web service that helps facilitate the collecting of funds for a project of any kind. She raised it all through small-amount pledges from 50 backers. Both Halstead and Armerding offered “gifts” – CDs, T-shirts, etc. – to their fans for their donations.

Songwriter Kevin So, who is a friend of Ellis Paul, says he plans to follow the advise of his pal as well, to fund his upcoming live album.

“I think many new approaches have to be tried ­– musicians need to tap into previously unconsidered areas, companies and services to get support,” says professor Harrington. “Artists must become more involved with fans through all social media, YouTube. The more connected a fan feels with an artist, the better it is for both. An artist who would openly ask for money/funding could do well if she/he goes about it respectfully and innovatively.”

With major labels sinking and younger musicians finding success in building fan bases to their projects, “It’s only a matter of time before major label acts are going to be doing it,” says Paul.

To read the full issue of Modern Acoustic magazine, click HERE

June 15, 2010

Issue No. 29, June 2010

 As the recording industry continues to struggle with the reality of the digital revolution, musicians are looking for new ways to get their music to the public.
Many have realized that they have the ability to do it all themselves – fund, produce, promote, and tour – without the help of a record company’s backing.
Yes, it is a lot of work. But because of how far-reaching the Internet is, it is possible to make a nice career in music without the star-maker machinery, as Joni Mitchell so aptly put it.
How an artist funds their projects has become one of the more integral parts of this DIY process. In the past, record companies would give the artist an advance to pay for studio time, advertising, touring, etc., and the artist, in turn, would not see a dime of profit until that advance was earned back.
That might still work for Springsteen or U2, but for a young musician with only a moderate fan base, that just won’t work.
The idea of fan-funded projects is fairly new, and allows for creativity and innovation from musicians.
In its simplest form, an artist will ask fans to donate money to an upcoming project. In return, fans may receive special “gifts” or privileges from the artist.
This process has worked for more than a handful of artists. But the question remains whether those artists who have been successful with fan-funded projects – such as Ellis Paul and Jill Sobule – could return to their fans and ask for their support again. Is fan-funding a sustainable system?
On Page 4, we try to shed some light on this question.
OK, you’re probably thinking, wow, that’s some pretty heavy stuff. Good topic, but, come on, it’s summer! We’re drinking fruity cocktails, lounging in the sun, riding in the car with the windows down blasting the tunes. Can’t we just chill?
We hear you! We need new tunes too. So our special CD review section, starting on Page 6, has just what you need.
We’ve got new music from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Jakob Dylan, Pieta Brown, Crooked Still, Jackie Greene, Shannon McNally and In the Cinema.
There’s something for everyone here and it’s all worth a listen.
So go forth. Drink, lounge and ride in style. (Not all at once!)
Rich Kassirer, editor
To download the new issue, click HERE
To read the CD reviews, click HERE

Five songs that helped us survive this issue:
1. “Why We Build the Wall,” “Hadestown,” Anais Mitchell. We love the whole album, plain and simple.
2. “Rattling Locks” “So Runs the World Away,” Josh Ritter. It gets deep into your brain.
3. “Miss Mary” “Silver City,” Sarah Borges. When the weather gets hot, the music must rock.
4. “Magnolia Mountain,” “Cold Roses,” Ryan Adams. Summer also means Grateful Dead or Dead-inspired tunes.
5. “Squeeze Box,” “The Who by Numbers,” The Who. Classic rock always sounds better blasting on car speakers, with the windows wide open.

June 10, 2010

Three cheers for Treme

Steve Zahn, musician Kermit Ruffins and Wendell Pierce in "Treme"

I'm not a big TV watcher. Luckily, "Mad Men" is on a station I get and I can't wait for it to resume this summer. I enjoy a couple cop shows network TV, but don't get too attached too many dramas or sitcoms. I don't have HBO or Showtime, etc., so my only access to shows on these channels is the Internet. I've watched "Weeds" and "Californication" after they've aired by the links at www.alluc.org. And now I'm doing the same with "Treme," and I'm this close to getting HBO because of this show.
For those who haven't seen it, "Treme" is based in New Orleans a couple months after Katrina. The people are still dazed by the disaster and are trying to put their lives back together as the first post-hurricane Mardi Gras approaches. The series focuses on a diverse group of characters, whose lives weave in and out of each other. The acting is brilliant, and while John Goodman is probably the best-known actor of the cast, the show is filled with amazing characters.
Among the cast are: Wendell Pierce as trombonist Antoine Batiste, who is always searching for his next gig. Khandi Alexander as LaDonna, who is looking for her brother, who has been missing since the storm. Goodman is a college professor who makes a name for himself locally with his YouTube rants about lack of aid and caring for the city. His wife is played by Melissa Leo, a civil rights lawyer.  Kim Dickens plays Janette, a chef who loses her restaurant because she can't pay her bills. The superb Clarke Peters as a Mardi Gras India chief. Lucia Micarelli and Michiel Huisman as buskers. And the hilarious Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary, who is constantly getting himself in and out of trouble.
The other stars of this show are the city and the music. The producers of this show do an amazing job of staying true to both. They let you see both the bad side of the city as well as the good. You want to help the characters and to slap them, sometimes simultaneously.
There's a great jazz blog on NPR.org called A Blog Supreme that breaks down, in incredible detail, the show's story lines and the music. NPR's Patrick Jarenwattananon with the help of  Josh Jackson, a DJ at WBGO in New Orleans and knows first-hand about the city and the scene, break down the songs, the characters, the food and, the best part, who the musicians are. There are tons of cameos on the show. Dr. John, Elvis Costello, McCoy Tyner, and Steve and Justin Townes Earle.
There is so much to discuss about this show. I hope it continues for years, but I'm guessing its run will be short. I've been lucky to be able to find these episodes on line. You really have to search, especially if you are trying to do it as it's airing. If you have HBO, you have to watch this show. If you don't, it's definitely worth searching for.

June 7, 2010

Dave Rawlings Machine at the Paradise

Here's my surefire remedy for temporary relief of serious back pain: Start with some exquisite acoustic guitar solos. Add some beautiful harmonies. And a dash of dueling fiddles with some tasty harmonica.
This works so well you might even find yourself moving your hips a little when you could just barely stand upright hours earlier.
Yes, my solution has a name. It's the Dave Rawlings Machine and for three hours Saturday night at the Paradise I forgot all about my woes because Rawlings, backed by his more famous partner Gillian Welch and a trio of great musicians  -- fiddler Ketch Secor and bassist Morgan Jahnig from Old Crow Medicine Show and fiddler/guitarist Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers -- performed some serious magic onstage.
Gillian may be more popular with the masses but Rawlings guitar work is like no one else: it's melodic, it's intricate, it weaves in and out like Jerry Garcia used to do but never meanders. The group is absolutely tight. When Gillian is in charge (billed as Gillian Welch), she takes the lead and, yes, her vocal prowess is stronger than his. But the beauty of The Machine is that they really swing -- they almost rock those acoustic instruments.
I didn't keep a set list so I'll do what I can from memory.
First they started a little bit late when one of the roadies tripped over something, knocked over a table and nearly busted the bass. Once that was cleared up, on came the Machine starting off with "Monkey and the Engineer." Most of the set was made up of Dave's "A Friend of a Friend" album.  "I Hear Them All" was in there early with "This Land Is Your Land" sandwiched in the middle of the song.  The beautiful "Ruby" shined with Gillian's amazing harmony vocals backing his. She and Dave were just meant to sing together. They just seem to fill in each other's empty spaces like no pair I can think of.
Next they broke out the banjo (maybe for "It's Too Easy," not exactly sure) to roars of cheers from the crowd, and Gillian exclaiming that Boston is a banjo lovin' town.
One of my favorite moments was when the other musicians left the stage and Dave and Gill played their unreleased song, which I know as "Throw Me a Rope" (others call it "The Way It Should Be"). After the first verse, Gill stopped abruptly saying she couldn't go on because Dave's guitar was so out of tune. They started up again and that song is just mesmerizing. If Gill doesn't put out a new album soon and include that... well... I keep telling myself it's coming.
Then Gill got to lead a couple tunes of her own. A request for "Red Clay Halo" (the banjo again) and "Miss Ohio." And I think just before the end of the set, Gabe Witcher led the group through The Band's "Ophelia." It's funny I had just seen Witcher a week before with the Punch Brothers opening for Josh Ritter. I didn't recognize him fully until they mentioned who he was.
After a short break, they came back for a second set that included a bunch of songs about candy, including "Sweet Tooth," "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and a third one. Then the exquisite pair of "Method Acting"/"Cortez the Killer" and "How About You" was in there somewhere.
I'm sure I'm forgetting stuff, but it was all so great. I haven't said much about Ketch Secor, but his fiddle and harmonica playing adds so much to the sound as does his baritone voice. The main set ended with Dylan's "Queen Jane Aproximately."
They came back for two encores and the crowd was rocking. I've seen Gillian and Dave a couple times before but I've never seen such a rowdy, excited crowd -- and they knew almost all the words to the songs.
The first encore included three tunes: "Too Be Young (Is to be Sad)" and "The Weight" and I cannot remember the third -- maybe someone can recall.
They left the stage and came back again to a huge roar. They all stood center stage around one mike and sang the a cappella "Go to Sleep Little Baby," with the crowd clapping along and Gillian adding a stomp and a clap for emphasis. They left the stage again to more roars. It was a great night.
Please feel free to chime in if I missed something or have something wrong...
I'll post pics and/or a setlist when I find it.

June 1, 2010

Grace Potter at the House of Blues, Boston

                                                        Photo by Mallory Finley

This was a band supposedly jet-lagged.
Six months after  Grace Potter and the Nocturnals last played the House of Blues, the band returned to the venue just off a tour overseas and ripped through a two-hour set filled with soaring vocals and guitar-heavy highs. Despite comments about her jet lag, Grace sang and danced up a storm – moving easily from the center stage mike, with guitar or without, to her Hammond B3 – never missing a step, a lyric, a breath. She's Tina Turner for a new generation.
And she's finally backed by a band that can keep up with her. In the six months since I saw them last, the new Nocturnals – guitarists Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco, bassist Catherine Popper and drummer Matt Burr – have melded into a cohesive, dynamic group, adding power and finesse to new songs off the upcoming self-titled album as well as the fan favorites.
The group has transformed itself. The once neo-hippie jam band has grown up, dressed up and given itself a harder-rocking sheen. They can still jam, and do it well, but there is a little more pop attitude thrown into the mix. In my review of the band from November (HERE), I foresaw them as a female-led version of the Allman Brothers. I would now like to amend that. I think they are leaning more toward an early-'70s version of Heart. Nothing wrong with that.
Grace and Catherine Popper arrived on stage in swishy mini-dresses and heels (though for both the shoes came off somewhere around midpoint), the boys in suitcoats. They blasted through an early set of new and old songs, including band classic "Ah, Mary" and the new, reggae-ish "Goodbye Kiss." The band showed its ability to mix song styles, as it moved from more new tunes, the jammy "Oasis" and the poppy "One Short Night," to the blues of "2:22."
Grace was completely into it. Dancing wildly, arms over her head, jumping up and down in place. The main set's end was something to behold as the band tore through two more new songs, "Hot Summer Night" and "Paris," with confidence and authority. "Paris" featured some screaming guitar from Scott Tournet. And "Nothing But the Water" went from Grace singing alone to rip-roaring band accompaniment back to just Grace. She knows how to work an audience.
The encores were great as well. Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" seemed to be meant for them to cover. It was followed by another fan favorite, "Stop the Bus,'' and a super new tune, "Medicine," which is sure to be a showstopper for a long time.
This is a band on its way up. How far and which direction are the only questions.
The show if available for download HERE
View Mallory Finley's pics from the show HERE

Setlist (from This Is Somewhere blog)
Only Love
Sweet Hands
Goodbye Kiss
Ah, Mary
One Short Night
Tiny Light
Big White Gate
Falling or Flying
Here's to the Meantime
Hot Summer Night
Nothing But the Water I & II
White Rabbit
Stop the Bus