Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer Road Trippin'

Summer may have officially arrived on June 20, but with the kids wrapping up their school year this week, we can now say summer is officially here.  It's a holiday weekend in my native Canada, as we celebrate the birth of our nation on July 1.  With this long weekend, comes the annual rite of summer passage for many of us out there, and that's the summer road trip.

Many of us won't be taking that summer road trip this weekend, but trust me, there will be millions of people more than willing to fill our spots on the highways and byways of North America.  If you're like me and won't be hitting the trail this weekend, don't despair and don't feel like there's nothing to do later this summer.  With summer season of course comes festival season, and there are plenty of music festivals out there over the next few months that will make for some great road trips and create more than a few memories.  Here are just a few of the many wonderful music festivals that are taking place around the United States and Canada.

July 6, 7, 8 -- The Great Blue Heron Festival, Sherman, New York.  Located about an hour southwest of Buffalo, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania, this festival features camping and music that ranges anywhere from country to bluegrass, to blues and cajun zydeco.  Passes for all three days are $75 ($85 at the gate) making it a fairly cheap weekend of entertainment. 

July 6 and 7 -- Jam in the Valley, Varysburg, New York.  Located an hour south of Buffalo, New York, this festival has been growing in stature over the last three years.  Modeled after the larger festival I'll highlight next, this festival has become a 4th of July weekend celebration in Western New York that's not to be missed.  This year's show features headliners Miranda Lambert and Jerrod Niemann on Friday July 7, with Randy Houser, Justin Moore and Lynyrd Skynyrd headlining on July 8.   Another exciting feature to this festival is the focus placed on many of the wonderful local acts of this region.  Campgrounds open for load in on June 30 for large groups, Thursday July 5 for everyone else.

July 19 to 22 -- Jamboree in the Hills, St. Clairsville, Ohio -- While this isn't an Americana music festival, this is the biggest party of the summer.  I have experienced JITH a dozen times and love it each year.  I won't be attending this year, which is a bit of a downer, but I know the many friends I have made over the years at JITH are in for a major, major treat.  Over 100,000 people, solid food selections, the option to bring in your own beverages (yes, I am referring to alcohol), local hotels, and the largest campgrounds I have ever seen.  St. Clairsville is located about an hour west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Interstate 70.  JITH is easily accessible from I-70 as well, just follow the signs.  Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackberry Smoke, Ronnie Dunn, Jason Aldean, Neal McCoy, Tracy Lawrence and Jamey Johnson are but a small sample of the many stars performing on this weekend.  Helpful hint if you're going:  bring lots of water with you.

July 28 and 29 -- Newport Folk Festival, Newport, Rhode Island -- Perhaps the granddaddy of all Americana/folk music festivals, the Newport Folk Festival has been an annual east coast celebration of American music since 1959.   It's rich history has seen such luminaries as Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Justin Townes Earle, Steve Earle and so many others it is really impossible to list them all here.  An interesting fact about Newport, according to their web site, Joan Baez's 1963 performance at the Newport Folk Festival also marked the debut national of a gentleman who would go on to influence modern music in more ways than we can imagine, and he still does to this day.  That performer making his national debut, as a guest during Joan Baez's set, was Bob Dylan.

August 17 to 19, Philadelphia Folk Festival, Schwenksville, Pennsylvania -- Celebrating it's 51st year in 2012, this suburban Philadelphia festival is playing host to such Americana mainstays as Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three, Steve Earle and the Dukes, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Mary Gautier and Mary Chapin Carpenter.  There are many hotels within the region for this festival, but rooms are booking up fast.  12,000 people attend this festival each day, making it one of the most well attended festivals of it's kind.  

September 6 to 10, Ottawa Folk Festival, Ottawa, Ontario -- Expanding to 5 days, this festival is a key part of the late Ottawa summer.  I attended the festival last year on the last day, which turned out to be a rather special day.  In my review posted on this site, I wrote about Hayes Carll, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, Sean McCann and Jimmy Rankin.  However, on the main stage and the act I did not write about (simply because I felt these other artists were due some exposure), was the Levon Helm Band.  Levon Helm was a wonderful friend to the Ottawa Folk Festival.  His 2011 performance as it would turn out, sadly was his last at Ottawa.  Included in this year's stacked lineup, is his daughter Amy Helm, along with Danny Michel, The Abrams Brothers, Corb Lund, on his own from Fleetwood Mac Lindsey Buckingham, and the always incredible Great Big Sea.

September 12 to 15, Americana Music Association Conference and Festival, Nashville, Tennessee -- I would be remiss if I did not include this in the list of road trips.  Nashville, Tennessee is honest to God, one of my favorite places to be in the world.  It is music and friendly people everywhere. The history of North American music just overflows in this town.  In September, Nashville plays host to the 12 edition of the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival.  It's apex is the annual presentation of the Americana Music Association Awards held at the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium.  Nightly showcases featuring the best in Americana take place at several venues around town.  Tickets are available for both the conference and the showcases.  I would suggest that if you're not in the industry, you are safer in purchasing the much cheaper wristband ($50) which is good for all four nights of showcases and will get you in to all of the venues.  Artists announced for the showcases are Rodney Crowell, Brandi Carlisle, Reckless Kelly, Mary Gautier, John Hiatt, the Punch Brothers, The Deep Dark Woods, Eileen Jewell, Billy Joe Shaver and many more.  This is a great way to close out the summer.

Clearly this is not a comprehensive list, I would say this barely scratches the surface. But I think it does highlight all of the great music that is available to us and within a short drive from just about anywhere (at least in the eastern United States and Canada).  Regardless of where you may end up, enjoy yourselves and may you have the best summer you've ever had in 2012.  Travel safe everyone!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Album Review: "A Bakersfield Dozen", Stephen David Austin

I've always admired artists who are not afraid to take up a challenge.  As I've come to know, one of the toughest challenges in the world is trying to establish yourself in the music business.  It takes an immense amount of time, patience, perserverance, more patience, dedication, commitment, discipline and top it off with some more patience.  So when I received the promo copy of this album from Kim Grant at KG Music Press, I was curious. 

Stephen David Austin is a California native who is a long-time veteran of the West Coast music scene who has recently released his debut solo album, A Bakersfield Dozen.  Austin has been in the music game for a long time, and this album is a labour of love that catches the listener with brilliant songwriting, first rate musicianship and strong vocals from Austin.  Staying true to California country/Americana roots, Austin takes us on a journey that harkens back to country music of days gone by, mixed wonderfully with the issues of today.  Opening up with "Best Ex I Ever Had", Austin shows us the somewhat humourous side of divorce when things go awry with a somewhat free-spirited woman.  "Heroes and Heroin" is a fairly explicit account of the underside of mega stardom that is not seen by a performers' adoring public.

A staple of fellow Bakersfield resident Merle Haggard's songwriting repetoire was prison, and Austin gives that story royal treatment here with "The Cage", a story of a man who has spent 40 years in prison and finds himself on the outside in a vastly changed world.  The opening bars of "Kansas Ain't in Kansas Anymore" is reminscent of Waylon Jenning's "Closing in on the Fire", and is a great social commentary on what's happening in our big cities today.  An album called A Bakersfield Dozen would not be complete without paying homage to another of it's most famous son's in Buck Owens.  "The Day Buck Owens Died" is a great song capturing the final moments of Mr. Owens and the affect it had on Austin's musical life.  Indeed, the world lost one of its truely greatest artists and originals on that day.

There are two songs that stood out of particular interest to me for two very different reasons.  The issue of bullying is seldom addressed in song.  For most, it's too messy of a subject.  To his credit, Stephen David Austin has written a story song, "The Fat Kid", that perfectly captures the teen angst of the victim, the wrong and hurtful mindset of the bullies, and the equally wrong, yet in this story eventual, final act of vengeance.  Bullying is a subject that invokes a lot of passion in all facets, a subject that has recently come under intense scrutiny and debate ... at least in my native Ontario, Canada.  Austin's story is blunt, the story ends ugly, and he takes no sides in the story.  Excellent, very well written song.

The other song that I loved is the polar opposite of the hate that spills out in "The Fat Kid."  "Bad Dog" is a duet with Austin and his grandson Kayleb, who was not quite two years old at the time of recording.  The joy that grampa has singing and recording a song with his grandson is palpable and shines through on this recording.  It is a piece of work that Austin can be very proud of.  "Bad Dog" is the perfect way to close out the album.

I started this piece by stating my admiration for those who will take on a challenge, no matter which stage of life they may find themselves in.  Stephen David Austin, a longtime music veteran, father and grandfather, of California gathered an A-list group of fellow musicians and produced an album that stands up and stands out in a sometimes crowded music scene.  It is to his credit that this album has seen the light of day.  And it is to the credit of the Americana genre to have been wise enough and inclusive enough to welcome this gentleman to the stage.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Recognizing Our Best

Last week the Americana Music Association announced the nominees for their upcoming awards show in September.  Looking at the list of nominees, it has been another banner year for the genre as evidenced by the talent being honored. 

Leading the way with four nominations, including Artist of the Year and Duo/Group of the Year, is Jason Isbell, along with his band the 400 Unit is just about every category that he can be honored.  Look for an upcoming review of their album "Here We Rest" in the coming weeks.  I had the great fortune to check out Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit in Toronto at the Horseshoe Tavern several months ago, and they were excellent.  A very tight band, who are absolutely deserving of the recognition the Association has provided this year.

Gillian Welch has three nominations for herself, including Album of the Year for "The Harrow and the Harvest", as well as Duo/Group of the Year with Dave Rawlings.  Gillian has been a mainstay in the Americana scene for many years and is always deserving of recognition for her work. 

The nomination that brought the biggest smile to my face is that of The Deep Dark Woods in the Emerging Artist of the Year category.  I have written about this very talented group from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on two other occasions on this site, from my first discovery of the band in Nashville at last year's Americana Festival and a review of their show with Robert Earl Keen in Boston this past January.  Win or lose, The Deep Dark Woods will be around for as long as they desire.  They are that damn good.

This year's edition of the Americana Music Association Festival and Conference takes place in Nashville, Tennessee September 12 to 16, 2012, with the Awards show taking place on opening night.  It was a pleasure to attend last year, and I look forward to attending again this year with music lovers from around the world.