Friday, December 30, 2011

From the Land Down Under: Chris Altmann

Recently, I had the good fortune to receive an e-mail from Alysha Main, the manager for this next artist I’m going to write about today.  She was kind enough to send me his most recent album and said “I think you’re really going to like his stuff.”  This past week, and with many apologies to Alysha, I finally listened to the album she was gracious enough to send me.  And, I can honestly say, Alyshia was absolutely right.  This album came out of left field to me. I didn’t expect to hear the sounds that I heard from this album.  It was a great and wonderful surprise.

ChrisAltmann’s 2010 release “Que Paso” on Ridin’ High Records is a gem to listen to.  The first track, Who Knows Where, piqued my interest from the get-go, with a gritty opening guitar lick and vocal that is reminiscent of classic Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  A multi-instrumentalist, “Zig Zag Rag” is an infectious tune that showcases Chris’ talent on the keys, as this tune is filled with an excellent horn section and the sound of rockin’ piano. 

“Love Like This” is another great track that could have easily found itself on an album by The Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers.  Without having met Mr. Altmann, my gut feeling tells me that his musical influences lie with a hybrid of Southern California country rock, mixed with some great Texas/outlaw country music and combined with some old fashioned southern rock.  The result is a winning combination that nails “Hard Tac” and makes it one of the highlights on the album. 

To me the best cuts on this truly outstanding album is the wonderful, hidden duet with singer Suzannah Espie, called “All the Things You Do.”  This is a song that is made for a duet, as it deals with a lot of one-upmanship in a love-gone-wrong scenario.  The other track that appears earlier in the album is “Other Side of the Mountain”, a tune about working through life to find oneself. 

Chris has been gaining steam on a musical career that has taken him from his home country of Australia, to the fertile musical ground of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada and the move has paid off thus far.  Chris was heavily involved at this past years Americana Music Conference and Festival in Nashville, performing a few shows there during the week, most notably at the Saturday night showcase at The Rutledge sharing the bill with Ryan Tanner, Blackie and the RodeoKings, Great American Taxi and Orbo and the Longshots.  Chris was also involved with the Sounds of Australia show the next day at the Basement and Grimeys, a day long showcase featuring Chris and many of his fellow countrymen and countrywomen showcasing the musical talent that is so prevalent in the land down under.

This past November, Chris had his debut performance at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, Ontario.  Sadly, I was not able to attend that show.  Having listened to “Que Paso”, I can safely assume that it was a great show that would have had the Horseshoe crowd on their feet for the entire set.  Chris has his next show on January 20, 2012 at The Montreal House in Peterborough and again, I sadly will not be able to attend that show as I will be on route to Boston to cover the Robert Earl Keen/Deep Dark Woods show.  If you’re in the Peterborough area or are a short drive away, I invite you to make the trip to the Montreal House and check out one of the rising stars of Americana, Chris Altmann.  Keep an eye on this gentleman, there are big things in store for Chris in 2012.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays Everyone!!

Hello everyone,

I wish you and your families a great, healthy, happy and very Merry Christmas.  I know it's been a few weeks since the last post on this site, but I've noticed a lot of people still visiting and reading some of the older posts.  I cannot possibly thank you enough for taking the time out of your busy day to read the writings of a rambling man.  

One of my former managers at a former workplace often said it best at the holiday season, and I say it here to all of you: "You can do your job without me, but I cannot do my job without you."  There  will be thousands, even millions of web sites that vie for your attention and may be far more interesting than this site.  But without all of you reading these postings and sharing them with friends, leaving your comments, etc. there would be no site.  There would be no point.  

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts and writings with you.  

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays,

Jason Gartshore
Americana Review
A Proud Member of the Americana Music Association

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Concert Review: Matt Andersen, Showplace Theatre, Peterborough, Ontario -- Nov. 6, 2011

I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for musicians/singer-songwriters that have the God-given ability to sit in the middle of the stage with no accompaniment except for their own guitar and essentially own the crowd.  It has to be the toughest, most difficult task any performer could choose to endure with only the strong surviving the experience.  However, the superior performers seem to thrive on this challenge.

Such was the case on November 6, 2011 at the Showplace Theatre in Peterborough, Ontario where I had the great fortune to attend the Matt Andersen show.  Recalling the album review piece, Live at the Phoenix Theatre, I was looking forward to an evening of astounding entertainment and musicianship.  When the stage hands come out to set the equipment just right and they’re gone in the span of 30 seconds, leaving only a guitar, an empty guitar stand, a chair, a mike and two monitors behind, it looks very intriguing.  It’s either going to be really good, or it may not work out so well.

Matt Andersen quite clearly and emphatically falls in the former category and is an outstanding musician.  His strong voice and strong song writing make him one of the finest up-and-coming artists in Canada today with a wonderfully bright future ahead of him.  Performing familiar songs from previous releases on Busted Flat Records such as “When My Angel Gets the Blues”, “One Size Never Fits” and signature song “Round and Round”, the Peterborough crowd was treated to a sneak preview of two new songs from his just released Coal Miner’s Blues album.

Recorded at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, New York and produced by Colin Linden, he of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Coal Miner’s Blues will take Matt’s career to another level.  The title track is so well written and receives such wonderful vocal and instrumental treatment from Matt that it will eventually take its rightful place alongside the other great classics from the east coast of Canada that pay homage to the unbelievably tough occupation of coal-mining.  This song will stand the test of time and is a piece of work that Matt and Colin can be very proud of.

Attending a Matt Andersen concert really is nothing short of spectacular.  While I have talked about his songwriting and vocal abilities, the real highlight of his show is the other-worldly guitar playing of this mountain of a man.  Blues guitar is among the toughest styles of guitar playing there is.  Matt Andersen takes blues guitar to a whole new level that very few musicians could ever dare to reach.  Entirely acoustic, there were many times I thought the strings were going to snap off the instrument from Andersen's furious playing style -- a style that is all his own and it works for Matt flawlessly.  

Simply put, when you attend a Matt Andersen performance you will be sharing space with one of the greatest guitar players of our time.  Matt's fall tour continues this Friday November 18 with two shows this weekend in Halifax, Nova Scotia, followed by performances in St. John and Moncton, New Brunswick.  Visit Matt's web site for more tour dates, purchase CD's and all other things Matt.

Monday, November 14, 2011

CORRECTION: The Civil Wars Concert Review -- Nov. 1, 2011

While no one likes to make mistakes, it is nice when you can catch your own errors and do your best to make them right.

In the November 6, 2011 posting of The Civil Wars concert review at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, Ontario, I erroneously wrote that The Civil Wars performed a cover version of a duet by Faith Hill and Larry Stewart titled "I've Got This Friend."  While that song does appear on Faith Hill's 1995 debut album "Take Me As I Am", the version performed by The Civil Wars during their show is not the same version.  

The Faith Hill/Larry Stewart version was penned by Faith Hill, Bruce Burch and Vern Dant.  While sharing the same title, The Civil Wars version was written by the duo, John Paul White and Joy Williams, and is a vastly separate and different work.

While this posting has been solicited by no one, I felt it was in the best interest to highlight this error and properly acknowledge the artists involved in both pieces of outstanding work.  I regret any confusion this may have caused.

The Civil Wars concert review posting has been edited to reflect the correct version of their performance.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Concert Review: The Civil Wars, Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, Ontario -- November 1, 2011

It’s a great time to be involved in the Americana music scene.  Whether you’re a performer, songwriter, manager, producer, media worker or simply a fan, if you’re following this music scene or involved in some way, you are bearing witness to an incredibly fruitful time in this genre. 

I say this having attended The Civil Wars show this past Tuesday night, November 1, 2011 at The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, Ontario.  If you’ll recall the piece written around the Americana Music Association Awards in mid-October, my call for New/Emerging Artist of the Year was The Civil Wars.  The award went to the very deserving Mumford and Sons, but I based my decision on a few factors, first and foremost being talent.  However, I also considered the amount of chatter that surrounded this group before I had the opportunity to see them live.  Now that I have attended a show by The Civil Wars I can honestly say to everyone that if you don’t do it already, believe the hype. 

Both John Paul White and Joy Williams, the duo that comprise The Civil Wars take the stage with great class and elegance.  With their voices and John Paul’s stellar guitar playing as their only instruments, The Civil Wars captivated a nearly sold-out crowd at The Phoenix with song after beautiful song from their debut release “Barton Hollow.”  Very seldom has the world heard two voices come together so beautifully. The Civil Wars are on the verge of something very big and the audience was and is keenly aware of this.

The chemistry that exists between John Paul White and Joy Williams who are married, but not to each other, is palpable.  The playful interaction between the two on “Forget Me Not”, one of the earlier songs in their hour-long set, was very sweet to see.  There is a certain intimacy that takes place on stage between the two that is tough to describe.  One could argue that it’s almost like watching two people making love but not touching each other at all – not physically.  What is clear, is that White and Williams have found in each other their musical soul mate.  By their own admissions, they could not replicate what they do musically on stage in separate solo careers.  What they have is an awe-inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime creative connection.

When I speak of chemistry, it is not limited to just their vocal and stage performance.  One only has to listen to the words of arguably their most famous piece, "Poison and Wine," to acknowledge that they have captured the same chemistry with their writing.  "Poison and Wine" was an incredible highlight among many highlights in this show.  The absolute heartbreak that exists in this song is so real when these two perform this piece live.  The Toronto crowd stood silent, completely mesmerized while White and Williams delivered what can be considered the performance of the night. 

The Civil Wars gave the Toronto crowd a preview of some new music that, my best guess is, will be coming out next year.  “Oh Henry” featured Joy Williams on lead vocal and playing piano, along with White’s guitar.  I found this to be very gratifying as a listener, as this song was a greater example of the musical chemistry these two artists have.  I hope we can look forward to more offerings from The Civil Wars with Joy Williams on piano, as opposed to the limited amount that we heard at The Phoenix on Tuesday. 

Closing out The Civil Wars show was a brilliant cover of a timeless song, and one that was completely unexpected.  The last song anyone would have expected to hear at The Civil Wars I would think would have been “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.  But they played it, and played it to a tee.  I’m sure Michael would be, and is, thrilled with their version of his song.  This last selection, in my mind, shows the musical diversity that this act brings on stage every night.  It can be pop, rock, folk or straight-ahead country.  Whatever it is, The Civil Wars can take it and make it their own. We can look forward to The Civil Wars being around for a very long time.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening act for the evening, Milo Greene.  When speaking of this group of young musicians from Los Angeles, California, John Paul White noted that Milo Greene missed receiving the memo that opening acts “are supposed to suck.”  Of course, this was said in complete jest and was in fact very complimentary, because the one this Milo Greene does not do is suck.  The musicians that make up Milo Greene have such a good time onstage playing such great music, that you can’t help but become a fan.  They are the opening act for The Civil Wars for the rest of the tour.  The Civil Wars have done well to secure such a high-energy, creative and fun group to set the perfect tone for the evening.

Friday, October 21, 2011

New Friends, the Sequel

One of the truly great things that I appreciate about Nashville, and specifically about the Americana scene while I was in Nashville, is the real sense of community that is shared among the artists.  My initial reservations about attending the Americana Music Conference was short lived as I happened to come in contact with a fellow Canadian who now resides in Nashville and is working hard to promote a wonderfully talented Canadian artist trying to break through in Nashville and the United States as a whole.

At a showcase held at The Listening Room that was organized independently from the Americana Music Association Festival, I was introduced to three up-and-coming artists who we'll be seeing and hearing a lot of in the near future.  The one artist in this showcase that stood out in my mind was the talented Canadian I mentioned above.  

Hailing from the fertile musical ground of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Trevor Finlay has been in Nashville for the past few years showing Music City that he's there to stay.  Drawing from his many influences, which include guitar wizards like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and B.B. King, mixed with some Johnny Cash, Trevor delivers the kind of performance that gets you moving and feeling good in your soul.  His guitar prowess is powerful, reminiscent of another guitar wizard from Winnipeg, Randy Bachman.  It's not easy to master the slide guitar -- Trevor has it mastered and he gladly demonstrates this ability in his shows.  The clever original tune "Love, Peace and French Fry Grease" showcases Trevor's wonderful songwriting ability, making this emerging star the quintessential triple threat of singer, songwriter and instrumentalist. 

After releasing seven albums and receiving numerous awards from such respected bodies as the Toronto Blues Society, Trevor is preparing for his debut release in the United States sometime in early 2012.  We can all look forward to a long and extensive career from a fantastic artist who is continuing to grow his fan base and hone his craft.  Pay attention to this star on the rise.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Americana Music Festival Showcase Wrap Up -- Part 2

The final two nights of the Americana Music Festival bore two of the biggest surprises of the Festival Showcase's -- at least, for the shows that I personally attended.

Friday night October 14, 2011 found me at The Rutledge in Nashville, where I tucked in to see a couple of acts I had my eye on from the moment the lineup was announced.  Matraca Berg, arguably one of the top five songwriters in Nashville today (or any day for that matter) was performing at 9:00, while The Bottle Rockets were taking the stage at 11:00.  However, the first act of the night was surprise number one.

The Vespers are a four piece band comprised of two brothers (Taylor and Bruno Jones) and two sisters (Phoebe and Callie Cryar) from Nashville and Franklin, Tennessee respectively.  There really is nothing that sounds as wonderful as siblings performing in perfect harmony.  These four kids, all at or near their early-20's, can flat out play any instrument you can think of that has strings on it.  Working the upright bass, mandolin, ukulele, accordion, banjo, guitar, fiddle, piano, drums and electric bass in to a show and have it all happen seamlessly, is a task to behold.  The soaring harmonies of Phoebe and Callie Cryar are angelic.  Judging by the goose-bumps I had while watching this magnificent group perform the opening set, I can say with great confidence that The Vespers will be back at the Americana Music Festival and Conference, but on a much larger stage.  That stage will be at the Ryman Auditorium as a nominee for New and Emerging Artist at an upcoming Americana Music Awards ceremony.

As mentioned above, Matraca Berg has long been one of the most successful singer/songwriters in Nashville over the last 20 years.  Learning her craft from the late, great Harlan Howard, Matraca continues to be among the most sought-after writers in music today.  Performing songs from her recent Dualtone Records release, "The Dreaming Fields", Matraca held the packed Rutledge in the palm of her hand.  The crowd listened intently and respectively quiet as she told the stories behind the creation of such songs as "Oh, Cumberland", the title track, as well as her version of the tune co-written with Deana Carter, "You and Tequila."  Of course, "You and Tequila" recently became a big hit on the mainstream country charts for Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter.  Matraca closed off her set with one of her most recognizable songs, "Strawberry Wine" which was a 1997 award-winning hit for Deana Carter.

Eric Brace and Peter Cooper have taken a somewhat unconventional way to find themselves sharing a stage.  As music writers for The Washington Post and The Tennessean newspapers, they certainly had much in common when they met for the first time in Nashville.  However, from that first meeting one of the great duos of East Nashville music has evolved.  Brace and Cooper have tight harmonies that are very easy to listen to.  The clever songwriting and brilliant interaction between Brace and Cooper make for a really enjoyable show.  Check out their combined efforts, such as 2009's "You Don't Have To Like Them Both", as well as their respective solo projects on Red Beet Records

The Bottle Rockets are one of the bands that I took an interest in when I started this blog 18 months ago.  Veterans of the road, they are out touring in their 16th year of existence, supporting their latest release on Bloodshot Records, "Lean Forward,"  the Rockets took a stripped-down approach to their performance with guitar, bass and a wooden box for a drum.  The Bottle Rockets are a group of guys who love what they do and they bring the crowd along with them.  This was a really enjoyable performance with great music and great interaction with the band and those in attendance at The Rutledge.

The next and final night of the Festival Showcase found me at a variety of locations, thanks to the assistance of new found friends and fellow travelers.  Kicking off the night at The Basement, the second surprise of the week was waiting.  Six Shooter Records recording artists, The Deep Dark Woods,  garnered the most attention of the week (at least that I could see).  With Buddy Miller, Kenny Vaughan and Americana Music Association President Jed Hilly in attendance, it became quite clear that the packed house at The Basement was in for a good show.  And the boys from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan did not disappoint.  Rolling out new tunes from their latest Six Shooter release (released on Sugar Hill Records in the United States), "The Place I Left Behind", The Deep Dark Woods had the huge crowd in the palm of their hand.  There was a reason why the best in Americana came out to view this show.  This is another band I can promise will be playing the Americana Music Festival in Nashville again, and like The Vespers, it will be on the much bigger stage of the Ryman Auditorium.  The only difference is, I think we can expect to see The Deep Dark Woods on the Awards show next year as a nominee for New and Emerging Artist.  It would be tough not to give these young guys some strong consideration for that honor, to be sure.  This is an act I will be keeping an eye on over the course of the year.

My next stop on this final night was back to the Rutledge where Americana/indie veterans Blackie and The Rodeo Kings (BARK) took the stage.  Another fantastic Canadian band, BARK  took the stage for their first ever appearance at the Americana Music Festival, even as most of the band now reside in Nashville.  Interestingly, this show also brought over AMA President Jed Hilly.  With the president firmly entrenched in the show at the Rutledge, as well as some much deserved hype from my new found friends that I met over the week in Nashville, BARK delivered one of the best performances I had the pleasure of attending during the week.  Supporting their latest release, "Blackie and the Rodeo Kings -- Kings and Queens", the boys from Hamilton, Ontario tore the place up.  Among the many highlights of the night was a surprise appearance from Instrumentalist of the Year nominee, Carrie Rodriguez, as she joined BARK on stage for a stellar performance.  

The final performance of the 2011 Americana Music Festival took place where my festival week began, The Mercy Lounge.  From Austin, Texas, Deadman was a group that I had not heard of until earlier that same day as another new friend had mentioned that I should stop by and check them out.  For a group to close out the week, Deadman was an excellent choice as they delivered a stellar set of Texas music to a still lively crowd who had witnessed some of the best artists that Americana has to offer over the course of four days and nights.  Scanning the crowd, I witnessed such longtime Americana stalwarts as Jim Lauderdale and Raul Malo in attendance to take in this young band closing out the week.  Interestingly, that performance was Deadman's first appearance at the Festival.  It was an impressive debut to say the least and I look forward to more great work from this wonderful Texas band.  And, this was a great way to conclude the 2011 (and my first) Americana Music Conference and Festival

Congratulations and very, very well done, to all the performers I had the pleasure of watching this past week.  Look out for next year, this will be a tough act to follow.  I know there are artists out there who are up for the challenge.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Americana Music Festival Showcase Wrap Up -- Part 1

The Americana Music Festival wraps up today in Nashville, Tennessee after a truly amazing week of great music, moments and periods of great growth and learning (especially the latter for this writer).  Trying to capture and eloquently describe the great music that was performed here this week is a daunting task.  But, this week was about overcoming mountains, so tackling this particular challenge should be fairly easy.

It's hard to believe that the festival has come and gone so quickly, but here it is Sunday and while some have started to make their way back home, I'm in Nashville for one last day and we'll call this a day of rest.  The music festival portion kicked off on Wednesday evening, October 12 and I decided to focus on the proceedings at the Mercy Lounge.  Opening up the festival was a well-known veteran band from Austin, Texas, The Gourds.  Performing tracks from their newest release on Vanguard Records, "Old Mad Joy", this hard working group was the perfect choice to kick off the proceedings at the Mercy (other showcases would take place simultaneously in four additional venues as well).  Working older material in to the set list kept longtime fans of The Gourds rocking long after the boys had wrapped their set and gave way to another Texas veteran whom has reunited with a longtime songwriting and perfoming partner.  Sadly, I am not familiar with much of The Gourds material, but they were outstanding.  I look forward to learning more about The Gourds and catching up on their lengthy career and extensive catalog.

Following The Gourds was an artist nominated for Instrumentalist of the Year at the Americana Music Association Awards and longtime guitarist for Marty Stuart, Kenny Vaughan.  Mr. Vaughan is one of the most gifted musicians in the world today.  This was my first experience watching Kenny on his own, having watched him on a couple of occasions with Marty as one of the Fabulous Superlatives.  Performing tunes from his debut Sugar Hill Records release "V".  Mr. Vaugahn is, in a word, "Superlative."  He commands the stage with the presence of a veteran guitar player who is ready to introduce a whole other side of himself as a leading entity on stage.  This was a perfect kick start to what will be a very long and successful solo career.

Up next was an act that I grew up admiring in my teens.  Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd, commonly known as Foster and Lloyd, have made their mark as songwriters and performers in mainstream country and Americana music for decades, both as solo and collabortative artists.  Their commercial success in the mid-to-late 1980's introduced Foster and Lloyd to a wide audience, but sadly, the industry never did quite figure out how to categorize the act.  As I mentioned to one of Mr. Foster's assistants at the CD table, I believe Foster and Lloyd, and indeed Radney Foster on his own, were ahead of their time and the industry didn't know how to react to keep their momentum going.  Mainstream country's loss is Americana's gain, as Foster and Lloyd showed the packed Mercy Lounge that they still posess the magic that brought them to the big stage all those years ago.  Kicking off with the title track to their standout new album "It's Already Tomorrow", Foster and Lloyd rolled through tracks from the new album while dropping in old hits such as "Fair Shake" and "What Do You Want From Me This Time."  The crowd knew they were in for something special with Foster and Lloyd on the bill, and the boys did not disappoint.  It was a treat to watch a rare performance from both of these songwriting masters.

The next night found me at The Station Inn following the Americana Music Association Awards.  After watching one of the truly great moments in music history with the pairing of Gregg Allman and Robert Plant with many other standout Americana artists to perform "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" off the latest Allman album "Low Country Blues," anyone who came on stage was going to have a tough act to follow.  Many kudos to the job that Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore did at The Station Inn on Thursday night, it was not an easy task.  Mollie's soaring vocals with Rich providing the right harmonies and gentle guitar picking was a great change of pace from the Awards show.  Mixing elements of classic jazz, folk and a tinge of latin rhythm made for a truly great and interesting show.

The final act of the Thursday evening at The Station Inn was a true legend in the songwriting world.  JD Souther has long been associated as one of the pioneers of the southern California country-rock movement of the 1970's.  Frenquently collaborating with Don Henley and Glenn Frey, he helped craft some of the biggest hits of the 1970's and beyond with and for the Eagles.  Putting his own spin on such Eagles classics as "New Kid in Town", and filling the crowd in on the backstory of how "Heartache Tonight" was completed with Bob Seger was a rare treat.  His performance of the night was his rendition of his own hit "Only Lonely." 

The first two nights of the Americana Music Festival had shown the depth and variety of the music that exists in this particular genre.  It was only two days in and I had the great fortune to see some truly gifted artists and groups.  The next two days were met with great anticipation.  But, those shows will be dealt with tomorrow.

Until then my friends, have a good day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Day After -- Americana Music Association Awards Recap

Well, as the old saying goes, sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug. The Americana Music Association held the 10th edition of their awards ceremony last night, honoring the best the genre had to offer in 2010/2011. The show itself was outstanding, a true celebration of the finest music created in the world today. There were many highlights which backed up the reason I love Nashville so much. There are things that you see on stage in this town that only happens in Nashville, Tennessee. If you have never been to Nashville, get your butt down here soon, this place is a gem.

Anyway, back to the show. Yesterday I made my predictions as to how the chips would fall during the proceedings, and honestly, I would stand by them today. This doesn't mean that my predictions were right ... I only connected on two of them. However, I feel this demonstrates the depth and quality of the talent and the projects that were up for consideration this year. I could have written another entire article with entirely different selections and made a great case for those other selections. Then, I could have written another, and another and so on ... all justifying why each of nominee deserved to win their respective awards. In the years I have been following music, I have never witnessed the depth of talent and quality that was up for consideration. The Association will be hard pressed to top the nominee list next year, but I feel the challenge can and will be met.
 The Instrumentalist of the Year went, to the surprise of no one I'm sure, to Buddy Miller. Buddy was once again the band leader for the Awards show and had ample time to showcase why he wins this award year after year.

Justin Townes Earle received the honor of Song of the Year for "Harlem River Blues", the title track to his latest Bloodshot Records release. All of the artists nominated in this category performed their song with the exception of The Decemberists with Gillian Welch as they were not present at the ceremony.

In what I felt was the first big surprise of the evening, The Avett Brothers picked up the award for Duo/Group of the Year. This isn't to say they are not deserving recipients. Everyone in this category had an excellent year, and The Avett Brothers are no exception. When I was making the call as to who would win this award, I felt that overall Mumford and Sons topped the other nominees over the course of the year. The Civil Wars have exploded on the scene and have brought new fans to the genre. They can look forward to a very long career in Americana.

The next surprise was in the New and Emerging Artist category. While I was convinced that The Civil Wars would pick up this award, as they clearly have emerged in a big way this year, the same argument can be made for the winner Mumford and Sons. Mumford and Sons were not present to accept the award but they did have their good friend Jerry Douglas accept on their behalf and read a statement from the group thanking everyone for their support. It is worth noting that Mumford and Sons' album "Sigh No More" is closing in on double-platinum status in the United States with sales approaching 2,000,000 copies. Mumford and Sons are currently on tour in North America.

The surprises in my mind kept coming for the next two awards. Yesterday, I said in this space that this would be the year of the Cook. The Association, while I'm loves Elizabeth Cook, decided otherwise. The Album of the Year was awarded to Robert Plant and the Band of Joy for their album "Band of Joy".  Again, a deserving win as a great case could be made for this album to receive this award.

The final award of the evening was also the most interesting choice. Buddy Miller walked away the big winner of the night with the Artist of the Year award, giving him a total of 3 awards for the evening when you include his participation in the Band of Joy album.

Receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards for their extensive careers and contributions to music are the following:

Executive -- Rick Hall

Instrumentalist -- Jerry Douglas

Songwriter -- Lucinda Williams

Trailblazer -- Bob Harris

Performer -- Gregg Allman

With the last award of the evening being presented to Gregg Allman for Lifetime Achievement, one of the most poignant moments of music (and I'm speaking personally here) followed with Gregg Allman performing the great Allman Brothers classic "Melissa" on center stage at the Ryman Auditorium. Mr. Allman sounded in fine form and the backup band sounded outstanding. Following this performance and at the invitation of Awards show host Jim Lauderdale, several artists took the stage to close the show out with a track from Gregg Allman's "Low Country Blues" album. Most notably, joining Gregg onstage was Robert Plant. Only in Nashville, Tennessee, and at the Mother Church of Country Music the Ryman Auditorium, could one witness two legends of the music world come together and close out a show.

I'll say it again. Man alive ... I love this town.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Predictions -- Putting it out There

This evening the Americana Music Association will acknowledge the accomplishments of their finest artists for the tenth time at the historic Ryman Auditorium. The Americana Music Association Awards recognize the best that the genre has to offer. Each year it gets tougher to pare the list down to the final four in each of the six categories, as evidenced by the number of stellar artists and album releases that were not nominated for awards (chief among them Gregg Allman’s stellar album, “Low Country Blues”). I feel confident in stating the belief that Americana hasn’t witnessed the mainstream exposure it’s been receiving since the days of the motion picture “O Brother Where Art Thou,” which was released ten years ago. Virtually all of the nominees have appeared on various daytime and late night talk shows, while receiving much love from various trade organizations and magazines. It is indeed time for a well-deserved celebration.

This will be the first year I have attended the awards, the second year making predictions as to how the awards will be doled-out at this evenings’ event. I expect a few surprises tonight as all of the nominated artists had a fantastic year and more than contributed to the overall growth and continued success. You will note from the list of nominees in the six categories that choosing just one winner would be no easy task for the voters. So, here we go with how I think the chips will fall tonight. Feel free to play along, leave a comment, and we’ll compare the results tomorrow. The nominees are:

Instrumentalist of the Year

Sarah Jarosz

Will Kimbrough

Buddy Miller

Gurf Morlix

Kenny Vaughan

The reign of Buddy Miller will continue in this category. His stellar album with Julie Miller, continued album work for many artists, and although it shouldn’t matter for this category (but I suspect it does factor in to some voters’ decisions), his many production credits over the year will put Buddy over the top in a field of excellent musicians.

New/Emerging Artist of the Year

The Civil Wars

Jessica Lea Mayfield

Mumford and Sons

The Secret Sisters

The future is very bright for Americana, as indicated by the list of nominees in the New/Emerging Artist category. Jessica Lea Mayfield spent the year opening shows for high profile Americana acts Justin Townes Earle and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. The Secret Sisters emerged with a new yet classic sound that only siblings can capture. But the category this year comes down to two acts who have pulled away from the field. The Civil Wars have recently emerged as a force in Americana, selling 150,000 copies of their debut album “Barton Hollow”, touring the country to packed houses, and appearing on various media outlets. While a great arguement could be made for Mumford and Sons to get the nod for this trophy tonight, The Civil Wars should pick up the win adding to their ever expanding list of public and industry accolades.  Which leads us to …

Duo/Group of the Year

The Avett Brothers

The Civil Wars

Mumford and Sons

Robert Plant and the Band of Joy

Again, this is an extremely tough category.  It really is nearly impossible to select just one artist, as they can conceivably all be acknowledged as the Duo or Group of the Year.  But tonight, the winner will be Mumford and Sons. To my knowledge, no group has captured the attention of such a large cross-section of the public around the world as has this British band.  Their appearance on last year's Grammy Awards with The Avett Brothers and Bob Dylan catapulted the boys from England in to the stratosphere. Their album "Sigh No More" is a runaway success the world over, and they have fans aged 8 to 80. Mumford and Sons will be around for a very long time and will receive what could be the first of many Duo or Group of the Year Awards by the Americana Music Association.

Song of the Year

"Down by the Water," Decemberists with Gillian Welch

"El Camino," Elizabeth Cook

"Harlem River Blues," Justin Townes Earle

"Kmag Yoyo," Hayes Carll

Again, this is a very tough category to pick just one. I do have this whittled down to two. “Harlem River Blues” is a great, spiritual rocker that kicks off his recent album of the same name. It perfectly sets the tone for an outstanding album, one which is nominated for album of the year. Elizabeth Cook’s “El Camino” is another fantastic tune, a fun song with a fabulous funky/psychedelic beat that captures Cook’s clever song writing to a tee. In this category, I’ll go with “Harlem River Blues” as AMA song of the year. But fear not Elizabeth Cook fans, two more categories remain … and I believe it will be the year of the Cook.

Album of the Year

Band of Joy, Robert Plant

Blessed, Lucinda Williams

Harlem River Blues, Justin Townes Earle

Welder, Elizabeth Cook

When I think of the great Americana albums that have been released this year, I have no idea how you go about whittling this down to a top four. Certainly, all of the above nominees deserve to be there. The Association got it right with the four albums in this category, but I think of other deserving albums such as the aforementioned Gregg Allman’s “Low Country Blues” and I think “Wow, what a great time we’re in right now for the state of Americana music.” All of these albums are excellent and are worthy of residence in your record collection. However, the Album of the Year in my mind, regardless of who was or wasn’t nominated, is “Welder”, by Elizabeth Cook. Cook really put her heart on her sleeve for this album, a record which in many ways is autobiographical. The album features lighthearted fare such as “El Camino”, to the heart-wrenching true story of “Heroin Addict Sister”, to the sad yet celebratory true story of “Mama’s Funeral.” This is the album of the year, and it could be the album of the year for any year. It’s that good.

Artist of the Year

Hayes Carll

Elizabeth Cook

Buddy Miller

Robert Plant

I’m sure by now you’ve figured out where I’m going with this. Taking nothing away from any of the accomplishments of Hayes Carll, Buddy Miller or the great Robert Plant, this has been Elizabeth Cook’s year in my mind. From her successful radio show “Apron Strings” on Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Country channel, to her landmark album “Welder”, to her constant touring and appearances on television and in print media, Elizabeth Cook has long been a torchbearer for Americana, roots based and country music. Ms. Cook continues to work hard to hone and refine her craft, while remaining a down-to-earth soul who will spend time with fans like they’re old friends. For these and many other excellent reasons, Elizabeth Cook will be so honored tonight as the Americana Music Association Artist of the Year.

It may sound cliché to say “it’s an honor to be nominated”, but this year I believe that statement holds true. Looking at the list of nominees, all can make an excellent case for winning their respective category. This years’ list of nominees shows exactly how strong the year was for Americana and provides an excellent road map of the future of this genre. Indeed, the future is very bright. I’m proud to be just a small part of it. Good luck to all the nominees this evening, and I’ll have the results up tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Day(s) Ahead

It was with much excitement that I left home and made my way to Nashville yesterday (October 10).  I have had the great fortune to visit many cities across North America, but Nashville is at the top of my favorite places to be.  There is a certain creative energy that exists in this city, one that can't really be described.  It's one of those things where you sum it up by saying, "You have to be there" if you want to fully understand it.  I acknowledge there are many great cities out there that have a creative energy of their own (New York, Chicago, Toronto), but the energy here is in a class all its own.

I'm in Nashville this week to attend the Americana Music Festival and Conference.  This is my first time attending such a conference.  I admit to having some butterflies.  I'll be sharing the company of people who work in this business for their living, some will have spent many decades in the music business.  My attendance this week has me in the role of the rookie in the Super Bowl ... I'm happy to be here, I'm thrilled to be taking this all in, and I hope to make a positive contribution when the time comes.  

I have three simple goals this week:  gather and share ideas on what can be offered on this blog, establish contacts to expand what's offered on this blog and write/share the daily events of this week.  There are many, many events happening around town this week both affiliated with the Americana Music Association and non-affiliated.  The week culminates with the pinnalce of the Associations' year as the Americana Music Association Awards take place on Thursday October 13.  Watch for the predictions piece tomorrow.

I have spent the morning crafting my agenda for the upcoming days, and it's pretty stacked.  Conference week starts at 2:00 tomorrow afternoon, and we hit the ground running.  For the rest of the day though, I'm going to take in the music history of Nashville.  I'm off to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and cap off the day with a performance of the Grand Ole Opry. 

Man alive, this is a great town!!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Nashville Bound!!

I'll consider this week a bit of a milestone for this blog space.  As some of you read this on October 10 I'll be in the air, on route to Nashville, Tennessee to attend my first Americana Music Association Conference and Music Festival.  Nashville is a really special city.  If you love music, any genre of music, Nashville is a place to visit, enjoy and appreciate.  Nashville earns its moniker of "Music City USA" for good reason.  This is where the finest songwriters and musicians, the famous and not-so-famous, and fresh-faced music rookies all ply their trade.  I'm very much looking forward to attending this Conference and Festival.

I've been paying close attention to the Americana Music Association website for the past several weeks as the Conference schedule and Showcase lineup has grown and expanded over time.  My first thought is, "Sweet Jesus, this could be overwhelming ... there is a TON of stuff to do and try to take in."  However, I feel more than up for the challenge to attend as many of the sessions as I can, and attend as many showcase events as I can.  Yes, it is mostly about the music, but I am there to learn as much as I can in a week as well.  I am a proud member of the Americana Music Association and my ultimate goal is to see what more I can do to showcase the great art that is Americana music.  The week itself reaches a pinnacle on Thursday evening as the 10th annual Americana Music Association Honors and Awards ceremony takes place at the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium.  

I invite all of you who visit this site to come back often, especially this week, as I'll be submitting blog pieces every day on my upcoming adventure.  I'll be writing about the daily events, the Showcase's that I've attended the night before, and a couple of extra features as well.  On Wednesday morning, look for a piece on my visit to the Tuesday night broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry and on Thursday morning, I'll be stating my predictions for that evenings Americana Music Association Awards, with the Awards recap on Friday morning.  

It's going to be an exciting week and I'm really looking forward to sharing this experience with you.  If anyone reading this is attending, I hope to see you in Nashville!!  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?"

That question, which could also be a statement, is the title of a track from Marty Stuart's latest release, "Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions."  Recorded at RCA's famed Studio B, this album is the latest in a long line of quality, down-to-earth country music at its roots that Marty Stuart has become famous for.  I reviewed this album in a previous post, but I wanted to focus specifically on this track for today's piece.  

I was driving home after working at my day job (the one that pays the bills and helps fund this new love that I have for the Americana genre), when I popped this CD in the player and had a listen.  It's funny how you can listen to a new disc and analyze it with all its newness, yet when you hear it again after a long break, only then do you realize how profound a couple of the tracks can be.  "What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?" is such a track.

As I've mentioned before, and highlighted in the "Art of Social Relevance" piece, country music (and by extension Americana) has enjoyed a long, lengthy history of capturing the social fabric of the lower and middle classes around the world.  Certain songs become part of the social conscience, no matter how large a commercial success that particular song may be.  In this case, "What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?" will not appear on any mainstream charts, but it could appear on the Americana chart.  Wherever it may or may not end up this song, like Ronnie Dunn's "Cost of Livin'" strikes at the very core of society as it exists today.  Where Dunn's "Cost of Livin'"  shares a story of a job applicant near the end of his rope, "What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?" is a scathing indictment of the powers that be that allowed such a catastrophic recession to happen in the first place.  It's a scathing indictment of those that have and will contract jobs to other nations while watching their fellow countrymen and women starve -- all in the name of profits.  It's a scathing indictment of all the executives that begged Washington for money and once they got their bailout, made damn sure they lined their own pockets with buyouts and bonuses first before they took care of their staff ... only by then most of the money was gone.  Gone to the said buyouts and bonuses.  

Marty Stuart has a long and storied history in the music business.  I believe this particular song is his crowning achievement, far more important and far bigger than his charted commercial success.  He has successfully captured this moment in time and framed it for future generations to listen and understand how desperate the situation was and is for people and families in 2011.  It also captures one stark fact: while the song asks the point-blank question, "What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?", there are no answers forthcoming.  Which is exactly where we are today.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tragic Legacy: Hank Williams, Sr.

For the last few weeks I've been reading Paul Hemphill's biography of Hank Williams Sr. "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams."  Published in 2005 by Penguin Books, Hemphill takes a unique approach in his analysis of the elder Williams in that he speaks to the special bond he had with his father through his early exposure to Hank Williams Sr.  The approach makes for a very interesting read, as it's clear from the outset that Hemphill has more than just a monetary interest in the quality of this project.  This is a project from the heart, as much a tribute to his father as it is to the legacy of Hank Williams.  This is not a bad thing.

I picked up this book when I was at the local library.   The covering artwork caught my eye at first and then I realized, I had never read a book on Hank Williams, Sr.  I'm a huge fan of Hank Williams, Jr, and I like some of Hank III's stuff, but I had never seemed to take the time to read a proper biography on the first superstar in all of music.  It struck me that it was time to correct this error, and so I set out to read Hemphill's take on Hank's life.  

I do like how Hemphilll starts the book off by relating personal childhood memories of being introduced to Hank Williams, Sr.'s music from his truck-driving father in 1949.  This was long before the days of satellite radio and truck cabs with luxury sleepers in the back.  The road was long and lonesome, with all-night radio a truckers only company.  Hank Sr. sure gave them something to listen to, and Paul Hemphill and his father listened up in a hurry.  

Hemphill had a lot of valued assistance in writing his book from Hank's right-hand of the Drifting Cowboys, Don Helms, as well as Marty Stuart and a host of other Nashville historians.  This allows Hemphill to paint a vivid picture of the tragic life that was Hank William's Sr.'s existence for virtually his entire all-to-short life.   Growing up in a home with a controlling and (one could argue) unloving mother, Hank spent his whole life trying to find the love that he never really received at a young age.  Following an accident, his father had been pushed out of the picture by his mother.  Never receiving a proper education, somehow he managed to channel his creativity into singing and songwriting.  Along with this natural talent however, came an early and lifelong addiction to alcohol.  It's well known that this addiction would ultimately cost him his life in the early morning hours of New Year's Day in his Cadillac en route to Canton, Ohio.  But what is not as well known, at least to my generation, is how crippling this addiction really was.  

Hemphill's book paint's a picture that is at times beautiful, yet so tragic at the same time.  He speaks in detail of the times where Hank would stay sober for an extended period, then he would fall completely off the rails to the point where his career would suffer immeasurably.  Hemphill is quite critical of the women in Hank's life, specifically his mother Lillie and his first wife Audrey (the mother of Hank Williams, Jr.), however, Hemphill portrays the elder Hank's second wife Billie Jean in a rather sympathetic role.  From Hemphill's account, Billie Jean really does seem like the only woman who truly loved and supported Hank Williams, Sr. during his lifetime.

At the time of his death, Hank Sr. was arguably the first real superstar in all of music.  What may not have been known at that time is what a mess his personal life and career had become.  It did seem like he could have turned his life around when he met and married Billie Jean.  I found myself really pulling for him to get it together, almost willing a different outcome that the world has known for almost 60 years.  Sadly, like the story goes when most stars fade at the height of their prime, Hank's popularity would soar higher than it had ever been.  It remains strong to this day, 58 years after his death.  Truly, an amazing legacy that may or may not loom as large as it does had he survived.   

Paul Hemphill does a great job putting together this story, which makes for a nice read.  This book is a great start for anyone who is looking to begin their journey in learning about arguably the greatest singer-songwriter in history.  Check out "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams" at your local bookstore or library.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Misunderstanding Shooter Jennings

Recently, while listening to Outlaw Country on my Sirius/XM radio, I heard the new Shooter Jennings tune that is creating all kinds of controversy in many music circles.  The tune, "Outlaw You", speaks to a recent spate of newer mainstream country artists who are finding success in Nashville, while claiming to be "outlaws" in the same vein of Waylon Jennings.  Of course, if these alleged comments have actually been said, those comments are rather ill-advised to say the least, and border on the absurd at the worst.

Since this songs release, Shooter has taken some heat from some fans as they speculate over the target of his well-intended message.  I have my opinion on who it could be, but it would only be speculation as well, and I'd rather not get into that.  The question I have for those who are railing against Shooter is, "What do you expect the guy to do?"  For anyone to allegedly come out and say they are anything like Waylon Jennings, in my mind, hasn't done their proper research.  I make no claims about being an expert on Waylon, but his trials and tribulations against the well-controlled recording establishment in Nashville to wrest creative control are well documented.  One need only read Waylon's autobiography from the mid-1990's to see how tough it really was for Waylon, and how big a gamble this move was.  It was a gamble that could have cost him his career, his livelihood.  Had Waylon lost the battle, it wouldn't have been just his loss.  It would have been a resounding defeat to all recording artists in every genre of music at that time as well as all of those that followed.  Creative control rarely existed, if it all, until Waylon Jennings came to town, took on the Nashville establishment, and won.

So how, really, can any of today's artists come to Nashville for a country music career (or otherwise) and claim to be another Waylon Jennings, at least as far as the "outlaw/rebel" tag is concerned?  I don't really think anyone can.  I think they can say they are paying homage to the man that made creative freedom in the music industry a reality.  But to claim that you're Waylon in a lot of ways, disrespects the sacrifice and the tremendous effort that Waylon Jennings exerted to make creative control for recording artists across North America a real possibility.  Indeed, many artists of all genres today owe a great debt to the battle fought, and won, by Waylon Jennings.

With this in mind, I don't blame Shooter Jennings, Waylon and Jessi's only son, for taking hombrage to anyone who claims they are another Waylon.  He would have seen the sacrifice first-hand and lived it along with his parents.  Comments from fans who are not as supportive of Shooter border on the ridiculous.  People are entitled to their opinion, which is something everyone can express.  But if you're going to comment on Shooter's thoughts, feelings, and music, perhaps you should listen to his music.  Shooter, much like his dad, isn't in the business to sell a bunch of records.  He's there for the music, and creating the music he feels that is relevant to him.  He is a stylist, a true artist.  Above all, he is a son who is honoring his father's life, legacy, music and above all, his father's sacrifice to an industry that allows performers to create music for their own creative purposes, not necessarily for commercial gain.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ottawa Folk Festival Concert Review Park 2: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison; and Jimmy Rankin

My experience at the Ottawa Folk Festival for this year concluded with two acts that I have followed for a long time. The husband and wife team of Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison may not be household names per se, but if you follow mainstream country music in any way, you are well aware of at least Bruce Robison.  The career of Kelly Willis has always been a mystery to me.  She has one of the most unique and soothing voices of any female performer out there today, yet she has been completely unable to break through as a mainstream country artist. Hell, I don’t know if one can really say she’s broken through as an Americana artist, but I’m willing to go with saying that she has.  Kelly and Bruce took to the main stage following Hayes Carll, and they did not disappoint.  Kelly Willis has such a wonderful voice, she really sounds like no one else.  Together with Bruce Robison, they are akin to a songwriters version of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.   Bruce Robison is a songwriter whose career is on fire right now.  Many songs familiar to fans of George Strait have been written by Bruce Robison, perhaps with George’s number one from a few years ago off the It Just Comes Natural Album, “Wrapped.”  Bruce has also had the pleasure of writing a song that became an enigma unto itself.  “Travelling Soldier”, which in my opinion was the best performance of the night from Bruce and Kelly, was a big number one hit by the Dixie Chicks in 2003 from their “Long Road Home” album.  The song rocketed to the top of the country charts and then the success of the tune was blindsided.  The same week that it hit number one Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, mentioned to a London, England crowd that they were ashamed the President of the United States was from their home state of Texas.  Keep in mind, we’re talking about 2003.  Once those uttered words reached American soil, “Travelling Soldier” became the fastest descending number one song in chart history.  But as Mr. Robison stated, he is very proud of that song, and rightly so.  Kelly and Bruce don’t perform together very often, so those of us who attended on this cold Sunday afternoon were fortunate to see them.  I note on their web site that they will be performing at this year’s Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee in October.  I hope to catch them again during their performance, if the schedule allows it. These two are great everyone, among the best singer-songwriters from the Great State of Texas that you will hear. Do check them out, either separately or collectively as the performance allows. They were an excellent lead-in to the final headlining act on the main stage, The Levon Helm Band.

However, I did not stay to watch The Levon Helm Band performance in their entirety.  I saw the opening number, “The Shape I’m In”, as much for curiosity as anything.  I did have a plan to watch Jimmy Rankin.  He was playing on a separate stage at the same time as Levon Helm.  The one thing I noticed about Levon Helm and everyone else was that everyone else performing at the festival packed pretty light. No roadies, just the performers taking their own guitars, drums, various string instruments off the stage themselves.  Not so with Levon.  These guys were a 13 member band with every instrument imaginable out on that stage.  The sound was great, but holy mackerel, what a contrast to the other performers I had seen to that point, as well as Jimmy Rankin.

Jimmy Rankin has been a mainstay in Canadian country/folk/Canadiana/Americana music for over 20 years now.  Originally the male voice and driving songwriter for the well known family band The Rankin Family, Jimmy has carved out a very respectable career as a solo artist in Canada.  Having recently made the move to Nashville from his native Inverness County, Nova Scotia (on Cape Breton Island), Jimmy Rankin has recently released a new album titled Forget About the World that has received rave reviews and spawned a huge hit at radio, “Here in My Heart.”  Jimmy Rankin has to be one of my favorite performers. The last time I saw him perform live was also in Ottawa, as he opened for Great Big Sea as part of the 2004 Grey Cup festivities (the Grey Cup is the championship of the Canadian Football League).  This time around, Jimmy performed with just one player accompanying him on guitar.  Rolling through a long line of hits such as “Midnight Angel”, “Follow Her Around” the aforementioned “Here in My Heart”, Jimmy introduced a fantastic new song based on a legendary figure from Cape Breton.  “Colorado Dave” is the story of a young man who leaves Cape Breton to explore and find himself out west in the 1800’s.  What Dave found was his way to the Jesse James gang. The song carefully and creatively tells the story of Dave, complete with his trials and tribulations, as well as his return home to his family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  Jimmy also has the foresight to know that his show would not be complete without a nod to the act that brought him to the international stage, as the show included a few hits by the Rankin Family.  Jimmy did a fantastic job of dusting off Rankin Family classics such as “Orangedale Whistle” and “You Feel the Same Way Too.” Jimmy’s show brought back great memories for me personally, as The Rankin Family played the one and only country music festival that took place in Minden, Ontario many, many years ago.  My grandmother, who has since passed away, and I attended that day long show that was capped off by the Rankin’s.  I have a lot of great memories from that day with my grandmother, and I certainly treasure them.

One last point on Jimmy’s show.  I would say that Jimmy Rankin wins the Trooper of the Weekend award, if such an award were to be issued.  Jimmy had the tough task of playing on a neighbouring stage at the same time as The Levon Helm Band.  Let’s just say that the added gear from Levon was enough to win any sound competition that may have existed between the two stages.  Jimmy, to his credit, took it all in stride.  He exhibited great professionalism and the truly wonderful sense of humour that exists with a great many people who are from the East Coast of Canada. 

The Ottawa Folk Festival was a truly wonderful experience.  I look forward to attending next year’s festival for an extended visit.  Please visit the web sites of Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis and Jimmy Rankin for tour information, or to purchase one of their albums.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ottawa Folk Festival Concert Review Part 1: Sean McCann and Hayes Carll

Yesterday, I wrote about my first excursion to the Ottawa Folk Festival, which was my first experience at such an event.  My focus of the day was to check out four acts on what was a very large bill.  Today's write up is on the first two artists that I had the pleasure of seeing on the main stage at the show, Sean McCann and Hayes Carll.

It was life and death trying to get to Hog's Back Park, the location for the folk festival, in time for the 4:45 start of Sean McCann's portion of the show.  It's not like Ottawa is around the corner from my hometown, and making a wrong turn on Riverside didn't help ... but luck was apparently on my side, as I reached the ticket booth at 4:43 and walked in to the festival area just in time to hear Sean McCann being introduced.  What followed was a wonderful hour long performance by one of the truly great veterans of Canadian and East Coast folk music.  Sean McCann is one of the founding members of the fabulous band from Newfoundland and Labrador, Great Big Sea.  McCann, understanding that there can only be one Great Big Sea, has embarked on solo career on the side where the music is much different than that of his GBS alter-ego.  The music of Sean McCann is much quieter, much softer, and more personal than the rocking-Celtic sound of Great Big Sea.  And, it pays off for McCann, as he shows fans old and new of another side to his great creativity.  With many years of performing on a stage behind him, and many more ahead of him for that matter, Sean McCann has such a welcoming stage presence and persona that no matter the size of the venue, it feels like you're sitting in Sean's living room -- or kitchen, as the tradition goes "down east" -- while Sean and his capable back-up musicians walk you through a personal history of growing up in Newfoundland.  The beautifully crafted song dedicated to his grandparents, "The Reply (The Ballad of John and Mary)", perfectly illustrates McCann's ability to capture a highly personal story and share it with his fans ... fans, who come away feeling more like friends by the time the show is over.  Sean has recorded two solo albums, "Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes" and "Son of a Sailor", both of which are for sale via his web site or your local record store.  Sean's web site contains a sampler portion where you can listen to all the tracks from the two albums.  Many of these tracks are performed by Sean on stage, and they are all gems.  In addition to "The Reply", pay particular attention to "Wish", "Don't Cry (for Keegan)" and "Hold Me Steady."

Hayes Carll has been around for a number of years, but this year in particular has been somewhat of a breakthrough for this Americana singer, what with appearances on the Tonight Show and Imus in the Morning.  Hayes Carll is a wonderful stylist who is finding acceptance and appreciation from mainstream media who have placed his album "KMAG YOYO" at the top of many critic's choice lists.  The great appeals of Carll as a stage performer, is his deadpan delivery of stories from the road and his keen ability to capture life and society in a song.  Telling the story of his Tonight Show experience was from the point of view that some things don't quite work out the way we would like them to be ... for example, with the Tonight Show appearance, Hayes and the boys were looking forward to meeting a big-time celebrity and, with all do respect, got Kathie Lee Gifford instead.  You know what I mean ...

Hayes and his talented band rolled through tune after tune from his award-nominated album "KMAG YOYO" with tight precision.  Carll took care of the rest with his great vocals and more wonderful storytelling, as he deftly setup each performance by providing the back story to the song's creation.  Two particular stories and songs stand out in particular.  The story of two politically opposite, yet lonely and somewhat intoxicated, people falling for each other in "Another Like You."  As Carll has said before, and he said it in Ottawa, "alcohol and sexual attraction can overcome a lot. "  The other great story and song that was written, was a co-write with Bobby Bare, Jr.  a tune called "One Bed, Two Girls and Three Bottles of Wine."  This was a great song about a situation that is often fantasized about, yet has a somewhat tragic ending ... if you know what I mean.  I'm looking forward to catching Hayes Carll and his band in Nashville this October at the Americana Music Festival and Conference.  The album, on Lost Highway Records, is nominated at this year's Americana Music Awards for Album of the Year.

Both Sean McCann and Hayes Carll are on tour throughout the United States this fall.  Check out their respective web sites for dates and cities, and be sure to check them out when they come to or near your hometown.

Tomorrow:  Reviews on Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, and Jimmy Rankin.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Discovering Folk Heaven

It was an exciting day for me yesterday (Sunday August 28, 2011).  While I've been writing this blog for over a year now, yesterday was my first experience at a major folk festival.  The Ottawa Folk Festival is, as the name suggests, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada's National Capital. Ottawa is roughly a three and a half hour drive up Hwys. 401 and 416, which is more than manageable.  This trip however, was completely spur of the moment.  While contemplating on whether or not I was prepared to make the drive on Saturday night, I pretty much decided to go at the drop of a hat on Sunday morning.  The festival itself had been going on since Thursday, with such top flight folk and Americana acts as Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses, with Allison Moorer, Steve's son Justin Townes Earle, Bruce Hornsby and the Noise Makers, Hawksley Workman, the Punch Brothers, with a long list of local, national and international artists taking three stages over a four day weekend.  My reasons for going up on Sunday to check out a few people I've wanted to see for  a long time, and they all happened to be playing on Sunday, one right after the other.  So, while I would love to have been there for all four days, if I could only do one day it was going to be Sunday.  I'll have the concert reviews from Sean McCann, Hayes Carll, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, and Jimmy Rankin posted over the next two days, but for now I'm going to talk about this festival.

The Ottawa Folk Festival, as I mentioned, was my first experience at what I'll call a major folk festival.  I had hoped to check out the Newport Folk Festival this year, but you know how it goes, things happen and sadly, I couldn't be there.  I will say though, for a first experience, the Ottawa Folk Festival is absolutely wonderful.  I arrived in time to see Sean McCann take the main stage at 4:45, with a crowd of hearty people that braved the effects of then Tropical Storm Irene.  Don't let the word "tropical" fool you either ... it was anything but tropical.  It was freakin' cold for August.  It's like someone turned summer off at around midnight, or some crap like that.  Anyway, I got my ticket and walk over to the stage to listen to the show, and I can't help but notice how different this festival is compared to the festival I'm used to attending in July.  If you'll recall an earlier piece for this blog, I usually attend Jamboree in the Hills, a four day country music festival that is one of the biggest parties on the planet.  One of my good friends sums up Jamboree in the Hills quite nicely, specifically some of the craziness that you can see over the course of those four days ... "You can't make this s**t up."  And that's the truth.  At Jamboree in the Hills, you truly can't make that s**t up.  There are at least two moments over the course of that time that will make your jaw drop, make a double-take and just simply say "What in the hell did I just see?!" 

Clearly, the Ottawa Folk Festival doesn't quite have that crazy shock value, at least from what I could tell on Sunday.  The crowd was a great cross-section of people.  There were students, couples, groups of friends, artists, hippies and a few eccentric types, all of which made for a very cool feeling.  Everyone was there to celebrate the art of it all, not so much the party.  There was no judgement on anyone.  Whether it was the music, the artist and musician workshops, or the visual artists selling their works in the vendor section, everyone who attended was there to celebrate arts, music and people.  It was a very relaxed atmosphere.  I quite liked the community aspect of the Festival, as there were tents set up for jam sessions where attendees can bring their own instruments and play among old and new friends for a time. Health and wellness is actually promoted at this Festival, with organic fare offered in the food services area of the Festival grounds.  A different kind of wellness is offered at Jamboree, which admittedly, is pretty cool too for those few days.

I would say ten, twelve, or maybe fifteen years ago, I don't think I would have appreciated or "got" the Ottawa Folk Festival for what it is.  It seems to me the Ottawa Folk Festival, and indeed other folk festivals that I have researched since returning home early this morning, that arts, music, health and well-being are staples of folk festivals in North America.  I can't speak about overseas festivals because I haven't researched them yet.  But this was a very cool, very relaxing and invigorating experience.  This doesn't mean I won't be going back to Jamboree, far from it really.  I'm planning on going back next year for my thirteenth visit.  It's a community as well, and a community of really great people that I get to see once a year and I think the world of them.  But I can tell that I've grown to really love and appreciate this type of music that I really don't believe I would have accepted in my 20's, for whatever strange reason.  Whatever that reason was, it's not relevant today.  The Ottawa Folk Festival was the first major folk festival that I attended ... the first of many to come.