Monday, December 1, 2014

The Most Important Song Ever Recorded?

In the history of recorded music, there have been many songs that have been influential on artists through the generations.  The bluegrass stylings of Bill Monroe.  Pick any song by Hank Williams, Sr.  When Elvis Presley recorded "Heartbreak Hotel", it introduced the world to a whole new genre of music called rock n' roll.   The Byrd's and the Eagles brought about a whole new sound in the late 60's and early 70's taking country-rock to the masses.  And talk about influence, the Eagles emponymous album "Hotel California" remains one of the best selling studio albums in recorded music history and it keeps on selling.  However, an often overlooked fact was recently brought  home to me about a month ago and it prompted me to think:  if there was one song that a person could point to as the most important and historical song that has ever been recorded, what would that song be?  It took me a moment to mull it over and while there can be a case made for a great many songs, I think my selection is right up there.

In the spring of 2013, I had the great fortune to attend a Charley Pride concert in Peterborough, Ontario.  In the review of that show, I did not mention the opening act for that day.  But I should have, because that gentleman deserved the trooper of the day award. Battling a throat infection and still graciously coming out to see the crowd scores a lot of points.  But I suspect that's how Bobby Wright was raised, considering Bobby is the son of the legendary Johnny Wright and Country Music Hall of Fame member Kitty Wells.  Mr. Wright toured with his parents for over 50 years as part of their family show and indeed, their family business.  Bobby's stated purpose for accepting the opening slot on Mr. Pride's tour was to thank all the people who supported his parents and by extension their family, and to showcase their music.  

There was one fact Bobby mentioned that really stuck with me.  Well, two actually.  The first, was that Johnny Wright and Kitty Wells were married 74 years until Johnny's death at age 97.  Kitty re-joined her husband 18 months later at the age of 93.  The second surrounded the first big hit and big break that his mother received in her career.  Looking back on that break, it wasn't just a break for Ms. Wells.  It was a break for female singers all over the world.  And every other female singer whom has had a hit that followed her, no matter the genre, owes a part of their success to Kitty Wells.

In 1952 it was, as Mr. Wright quite rightly pointed out, a man's world in the music business.   You could run the radio dial from one end of the spectrum to the other, and you would rarely hear a female voice.  That all changed with one simple recording that was an answer song to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life."  The recording of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" by Kitty Wells essentially introduced the world to "girl singers." While Patsy Montana did have a 1944 hit with "I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart", her momentum did not last.  This was not the case with Kitty Wells, as her second single roared in to the top ten.  Another answer song, this time to Webb Pierce's "Back Street Affair", Kitty reached number 6 on the chart with "Paying For That Back Street Affair."  It was an indicator of things to come for Ms. Wells, as she remained a fixture in the upper reaches of the charts in to the 1970's. 

While those in the music business like to place heavy stock in one's chart success as to their influence on the future of the music business, and often times it's tough to disagree with that assessment, I was reminded at a close friends' gathering of how deep legendary influences can run. It all clicked when, at my friend's birthday celebration, her then 15 year old daughter got up on stage with the house band, and the sweet sound of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" permeated through the summer night air.  It all seemed to click as to the importance of this song.  In 2013, a 15 year old girl is on stage singing a Kitty Wells tune from 1952.  And she was damn good.  She could have a place on anyone's radio in the future, if she so chooses that route.  It felt as the torch had been passed once again listening to this young lady perform a song from more than 50 years ago.  But she, along with any of the female singers in any genre, would not have the opportunity to have their voice heard on stage or radio for that matter, were it not for the monstrous hit that destroyed the wall that had kept female singers off the radio.  

If you think about it, without Kitty Wells and "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", there may not have been a Patsy Cline. No Loretta Lynn. No Dolly Parton. No Tammy Wynette. No any female from any genre that's out there today.  Thank God for that song, and the lady who performed it.   

By all means, if anyone disagree's or has another suggestion, please leave it in the comment section.  This is one man's opinion, and this guy loves to talk music.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Album Review: Angaleena Presley, "American Middle Class"

As one third of the band Pistol Annies, fans the world over have already been introduced to Holler Annie.  But on Tuesday, October 14, those same fans will get to know the name and voice behind the stage moniker as Angaleena Presley is set to release her solo debut album today.  American Middle Class (Slate Creek Records) is an autobiographical project that sets Angaleena front and center, removing her from the shadows of her Annies' cohorts Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert.  

This album is the life story (so far) of Angaleena Presley.  It is a brave, thoughtful and inspiring project that sets the bar high for many singer-songwriters to follow.  The album kicks off with "Ain't No Man", an ode to youthful independence and individuality.  "All I Ever Wanted" speaks to the challenges of being faithful to God and church, but still feeling the desire to go and raise some hell.

"Grocery Store" is a beautiful snapshot of life on a given day in Presley's hometown in Eastern Kentucky, a hardscrabble region of the state where if you elect to stay you can either work in the coal mine or be unemployed.  The title track continues this theme, but what makes this track really special is the inclusion of her father on the record. Mr. Jim Presley introduces "American Middle Class", and this inclusion really lends to the authenticity of the song and album.  If one song could sum up Angaleena's life growing up as a coal miner's daughter, this is it.  It is brilliantly written and beautifully performed.  It is a true highlight of the record.

"Knocked Up" is perhaps the catchiest tune on the album, which describes yet another moment in Angaleena's life.  It offers a somewhat humorous look at a delicate situation that many families world wide have faced over time.  This is a great tune, and speaks to the bravery of Presley to include it on this project.  The topic of her relationship with the baby's father is not left alone with "Knocked Up" as we get an idea of how the relationship may have turned out with "Drunk." 

Angaleena's story is compelling, and it's told in all 12 tracks that she wrote or co-wrote on this album.  There is virtually nothing that is left behind the curtain where this album is concerned.  Songs that deal with small town teenage life ("Dry County Blues"), drug addiction ("Pain Pills") and moving your life forward ("Surrender") are all covered here. Some of the stories presented may not make her too many friends in her hometown, but to present them in any sugar-coated fashion would hurt the authenticity of the song and the story.  This is not to suggest in any way that the stories are presented in a mean-spirited fashion, in fact it is very much the opposite.  The presentation is beautiful, and the listener only feels compassion and love for those involved. 

American Middle Class is an outstanding solo debut from one of the brightest talents to have graced us with her presence.  The songs on this album are real, and they are honest and truthful.  With this debut, Angaleena Presley can take her rightful place among the stellar crop of young female singer-songwriter's who are writing and performing the best country music that is being created today, far away from the clutches of Music Row.  This album is among the best that has been released in 2014, and signals to the music world that not only has Angaleena Presley arrived on the scene, she's going to be here for a long, long time.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Americana Music Festival 2014 - Day 4 Roundup

Saturday September 20 marked the final full day of activities at the 2014 Americana Music Festival and Conference.  This year's edition went out in style with a night time lineup that included many great new artists, a solid veteran crew and one songwriting legend from the great state of Texas.

The evening kicked off at the High Watt where a future star in Americana made his festival debut.  Emerging from the amazing creative and developmental ground of East Nashville, Aaron Lee Tasjan played a solo set that was one of the most entertaining performances of the week.  The lead guitarist in Elizabeth Cook's band, Aaron is a cross between a young Neil Young for his guitar playing skills, and a young Bob Dylan for his songwriting.  Proudly flouting the rules of the Music Row establishment, Tasjan is right at home in Americana performing his style of music and writing songs that are true to his heart.  Songs like "Move to East Nashville and Write a Song About a Train" show the depth of this singer-songwriter's talent, as virtually every song is a story with meaning. This is a young man who's star is on the rise.

Next up over at the Mercy Lounge was a true living legend. Prior to his 9:00 set that evening, I had the good fortune to sit in on an interview with Billy Joe Shaver at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  The writer of every song on Honky Tonk Heroes, one of the most successful albums in the 1970's by Waylon Jennings, Mr. Shaver remains a creative force to this day.  The interview at the Hall of Fame brought forth stories of a man who has lived a remarkable life that has been anything but simple. As listeners, we are all beneficiaries of his experience.  Mr. Shaver's performance contained the bulk of his standards, including "Georgia On A Fast Train", "Old Five and Dimers Like Me", the aforementioned "Honky Tonk Heroes", and perhaps the finest song he has ever written and recorded, "Live Forever."  Billy Joe Shaver has recently released a new album, Long In The Tooth, and you can find it in your local record store now or on his web site.  Look for an album review in the near future.

The final performance of the evening at the Mercy and the 2014 festival was from Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys.  Chuck first gained national prominence in the early 1990's as one of the founders and lead singers for BR-549, a group that would be considered Americana before there was such a label for the genre.  While BR-549 plays the occasional gig, Chuck has long established himself as a strong solo act with an incredibly talented, solid backing band.  Performing an energetic set of straight-up rockabilly and country, Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys were the perfect act to close off the festivities at the Mercy Lounge.  The band turned in a killer version of the old Del Reeves classic, "Girl On The Billboard" and performed tracks from his latest Plowboy Records release Free State Serenade, including "Neosho Valley Sue" and "The Devil By Their Side." If the mission for Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys was to leave the crowd wanting more and looking forward to next year, it was clearly mission accomplished.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Americana Music Festival 2014 - Day 3 Roundup

The 2014 edition of the Americana Music Festival rolled in to day 3 with arguably the deepest talent pool performing on the same night in Festival history.  Where else could you find a great Americana artist like Allison Moorer, newcomers Sons of Bill and veteran performer Suzy Bogguss performing on the same night, at the same time in three separate venues?  Only in Nashville, and only at the Americana Music Festival.

So it was off to 3rd and Lindsley for an 8:00 set by Suzy Bogguss that kicked off day 3.  In February 2014, Suzy released Lucky (Loyal Duchess Records), an album in tribute to the great Merle Haggard.  Suzy's performance included many songs off this album, including such Haggard classics as "Silver Wings", "Let's Chase Each Other 'Round The Room Tonight", and the seminal "Today I Started Loving You Again."  A regular presence on country radio in the 1990's, Suzy worked in a couple of her own hits as well and to her credit, those hits were written by those who would be considered among the pillars of Americana.  "Someday Soon", written by Ian Tyson, has been a hit several times over, was most recently was a hit for Suzy back in 1991.  "Drive South", from her Voices in the Wind album was a top 5 hit for Suzy in 1992 and written by John Hiatt.  Suzy was a great presence back in those days, and still carries a voice like a songbird today.  While Suzy has been releasing great albums over the last number of years, Lucky could be considered her second official Americana release and is well worth your time.

Following Suzy, it was off to The Rutledge to catch Lauren Shera.  A relative newcomer to the Americana scene, Lauren is no stranger to the stage.  Fresh off a European tour supporting her latest release Gold and Rust (DigSin), Lauren delivered a beautiful set to The Rutledge crowd.  This young lady is an artist on the rise.  The haunting lyrics and tight musical arrangement of "Hell's Bells" grab the listener's attention and hold them in place until Lauren is ready to let you go.  A 45 minute set is not nearly enough to travel the depth of this young lady's journey, but it is enough to bring you back for more.  Of the new acts that were involved in this festival, Lauren Shera is at the top of the 2014 class.

Speaking of acts at the top of the class, the closing group at the Mercy Lounge this Friday night had tongue's wagging days before their set.  The Brothers Landreth are the latest group to emerge from the fertile musical landscape of Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. Performing tracks from their upcoming 2015 release Let It Lie (Slate Creek Records), the Brothers Landreth delivered an impressive set to a crowd that consisted of many executives from the music industry along with the general public.  At the conclusion of the set, all emerged as huge fans and huge believers in the potential and future of this band. Listening to tracks like "Tapping on the Glass", and the crowd pleasing "Runaway Train", this listener and writer believes the sky is the limit for this group.  The musicianship is stellar, the lyrics are tight and the sound is engaging.  With their upcoming album release, a record label and team that believe in their music and potential, and an ever-growing fan base (which includes famed BBC broadcaster Bob Harris), The Brothers Landreth are the band to watch in late 2014 and 2015.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Americana Music Festival 2014 - Day 2 Roundup

We're in full swing now down in Nashville, as the first full conference day and evening showcases are in the books.  Deals are being signed, relationships are being developed, beer is being drank, awesome music is being played and we're having a blast.

For this guy, the evening kicked off at the High Watt for a 9:00pm set with Americana newcomer Angaleena Presley.  You'll recall in yesterday's recap that Angaleena presented Loretta Lynn with her lifetime achievement award, but on this night it was all about Angaleena.  Stepping out of the shadows of her Pistol Annie's persona, Angaleena showed the Nashville crowd that she's no slouch on stage and can easily run with her Annie's cohorts.  Performing a set that included 11 out of the 12 tracks from her upcoming debut album "American Middle Class," Angaleena and her fantastic backing band rocked the High Watt with an outstanding set.  The album itself is the story of Angaleena Presley so far. An artist of the highest order, this young lady does it all - singer, songwriter and musician.  I had the good fortune to chat with Angaleena in a pre-show meet and greet where I told her that I think she will be on this scene for a very long time. If last nights show and upcoming album are any indication, that's the safest bet I've ever made.

Following Angaleena on the High Watt stage were Knoxville's own The Black Lillies.  I caught this group a couple of years ago at the Basement and things have been going quite well for the Lillies since then.  As solid and hard working band as you will ever find, they are touring extensively throughout the northeast United States this fall.  Following the Black Lillies was an artist that I had not heard before, but will be checking him out in the future. Israel Nash is on tour supporting his new album "Rain Plains", which is receiving great reviews and I can see why.  He's got a great sound, solid writing and musicianship, and a top rate backing band.  These two acts and their sets complimented each other well, both have an outstanding sound and love for what they do onstage.

A change in venue led me over to 3rd and Lindsley for an artist who is no stranger to the Americana scene.  The Paul Thorn Band closed things out with a midnight set that just brought the house down.  Performing his unique blend of country, mixed with a little rock and Mississippi Delta Blues, the crowd was up dancing and singing along to whatever the band was offering.  A new song was introduced, its title inspired by an elderly lady attending the same church.  "Too Blessed To Be Stressed" is a catchy song with a fantastic message to just enjoy life and be thankful.  The sets final song was both audience participation and singalong, as Paul came offstage and joined the audience on the dance floor to sing "Take My Love With You Everywhere You Go."  It was a great set from a veteran artist that I had been hoping to catch for some time.  It was well worth the wait.

And, speaking of waiting, that's what will have to happen until tomorrow for the Day 3 Roundup.  Have a great day, enjoy everyone!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Americana Music Festival 2014 - Day 1 Roundup and Awards Recap

The 2014 edition of the Americana Music Festival kicked off in grand fashion last night deep in the heart of Music City.  The 13th Annual Americana Music Association Awards ceremony ushered in the first of four nights of artists from around the globe performing the best music on the planet.  

In what should really be no surprise, the award night belonged to Jason Isbell, who made it a clean sweep when he won all three award categories he was nominated in.  Recognizing the enormous year Isbell had, Jason walked away with honors for Song of the Year for "Cover Me Up", Album of the Year for the incomparable "Southeastern", and the top award for Artist of the Year.  Country music is in good hands, especially with Emerging Artist winner Sturgill Simpson at the helm.  The Milk Carton Kids were nominated in the Emerging Artist category last year, this year they walked away with the Duo or Group of the Year Award.  Buddy Miller was once again recognized as the Instrumentalist of the Year, and received his award from another great instrumentalist, Mr. Vince Gill.  

As is the norm at the Americana Music Association Awards, legends that have blazed the trail for other artists to follow were recognized with Lifetime Achievement Awards.  Latino instrumentalist Flaco Jiminez, blues legend Taj Mahal and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne received honors for their work and dedication to their craft.  It's always special attending these awards at the Ryman Auditorium, as it's not everyday you will get to see Taj Mahal and the house band jamming away on a blues standard, or Jackson Browne performing with another legendary songwriter J. D. Souther at the middle of the Ryman stage.  However, for this writer, the most special moment of the night occurred during the shows' opening minutes.  

If there was one artist in country music history that clearly holds the role of "trailblazer", it's Loretta Lynn.  Writing and recording her own music, driving thousands and thousands of miles to sing and deliver her songs to radio stations, all of this while female country music singers were seldom heard, if not outright discouraged from performing, Ms. Lynn is the epitomizes the role of legend.  This fact was not lost on two young newcomers, Kacey Musgraves and Angaleena Presley, as they struggled to keep their emotions in check when presenting Ms. Lynn with her Lifetime Achievement Award.  And the tears were more than welcome, as everyone in attendance recognized the significance of what we were witnessing.  Sitting at the Ryman Auditorium, watching the latest generation of female country music singers honoring one of their heroes, and then watching Ms. Lynn stand at the middle of the Ryman stage to sing "Coal Miner's Daughter" is one of those moments that money cannot buy.  You can't put a price tag on it.  It is one of those moments that reminds you of why we do what we do.  A moment I will not forget.  

Post-awards, it was off to the showcase performances at several venues around town.  I attended two sets on this evening, the first being Shinyribs at the High Watt.  This high energy show was the perfect kick off to the festival portion of the events this week. These guys were having a blast on stage, with singer Kevin Russell leading the way.  You don't often see a big man move like this guy does, but it's infectious.  "East Texas Rust" and "Poor People's Store" were killer performances and the crowd responded accordingly.

Playing an extended set in the Cannery were the Hard Working Americans, led by Todd Snider and joined on stage by special guest Elizabeth Cook. From the moment they stepped on stage, it's clear Todd Snider was born to entertain.  This performance was one of those rare shows that takes on a life of it's own.  The energy in the Cannery was nothing short of electric.  The band on stage was at the top of their game, and the audience was giving everything they had right back.  It's one of those clear nights where artist and audience were feeding off each other, and it took the show to a whole new level.  Playing a roughly two hour set, the Hard Working Americans set the bar very high right off the bat.  I can't wait to see who will step up and try to reach it ... it was only day 1, after all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meanwhile, Back in Nashville ...

I woke up this morning in the great city of Nashville, Tennessee with the realization that two months is wayyyy too long between writings.  There have been so many of you reading the old stuff, which is absolutely wonderful.  Thanks for keeping it going!

The 15th edition of the Americana Music and Festival and Conference kicks off today, and what a week it is shaping up to be.  There are many indicators as to the new heights that the Americana genre is reaching, not the least of which is the significant increase in attendance at this year's Conference and the expansion of the Festival to include City Winery as a performance venue.  The addition of a special concert this Saturday at Riverfront Park featuring the Avett Brothers with guests Shakey Graves, Angaleena Presley and The Lone Bellow is a huge addition to the festivities.

Kicking things off tonight is the 13th annual Americana Music Association Honors and Awards show which will see the best in Americana get their just recognition, and will witness all time greats such as Jackson Browne and Loretta Lynn receive Lifetime Achievement honors for their contribution to the growth of American music. 

And of course, once we get through all of the conference panel sessions through the day, we get to the reason why we're all here and that's the music.  The nightly showcase performances will satisfy any musical hunger you could possibly have.  From artists that have had mainstream country radio success like Marty Stuart, Suzy Bogguss and the great Lee Ann Womack, to rising stars Sturgill Simpson, Lindi Ortega and Robert Ellis, to festival newcomers such as Matt Andersen and the Caleb Klauder Country Band, a broad range of musical styles and tastes can and will be explored.  This is Music City USA, after all.

Some artists I'll be checking out this week are Greensky Bluegrass, the aforementioned Angaleena Presley, Del Barber and Robbie Fulks to name a few.  What's great about this festival is that you will find that one artist or that one group where you're not familiar with their music and they will blow your mind.  It's the one thing that is guaranteed to happen. Last year for me, that artist was Drew Holcomb and the Neighbours.  I can't wait to see who it will be this year.

Starting tomorrow check back for the daily wrap up of the previous night's activities and by all means, if you're not here start making your plans now to join us in Nashville next year. Get on board this train, there is room for everyone.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TURF 2014 Day 3 Recap and Final Thoughts

The final day of this years' edition of the Toronto Urban Roots Festival kicked off with an early start on Sunday July 6.  When I say early, that would be 12:45pm with The Waco Brothers and the Burlington Mens Welsh Choir on the main East Stage, and the Devin Cuddy Band kicking things off at 12:50pm on the South Stage.  If you were rocking out at the Horseshoe Tavern or Lee's Palace as part of the TURF Club Bonus Series, then that was early.  What can I say, for some folks, Saturday at TURF was a long day ... a good day for sure, but a long day.

Settling in to catch the final half of the Devin Cuddy Band, I realized at that time that I could be seeing the next breakout star in the Americana scene.  The son of Jim Cuddy, one half of the lead singing/songwriting partnership with Greg Keelor that makes up the legendary Canadian group Blue Rodeo, Devin is out on his own and creating his own path.  Among the many highlights of Devin Cuddy's set, the band performed a great cover of the Hank Williams Sr. classic, "Jambalaya", and a great protest song titled "Afghanistan."  Mixing in elements of blues and jazz, with a bit of rock and country, the Devin Cuddy Band is a group that captures all the elements of Americana.  Keep your eyes and ears open for Devin Cuddy, this is a young man you will be hearing a lot of over the years.  

The hardest working band at this year's TURF had to be the Waco Brothers.  Performing their second set in just over 12 hours at the festival (with one more to go that night at the Horseshoe Tavern!), this set was special as it featured the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus.  This show had a real intimate feel to it, as the crowd was rather sparse for this performance.  This had more to do with the timing of the set, as opposed to the quality of the show ... people still had some hangovers to nurse.  As with the previous nights' set by the Waco Brothers, they once again put on a solid show.  They have such a good time together on stage, as well as the interaction that lead singer Jon Langford has with the audience, that it's impossible not to share in the fun. 

Good things were happening over on the South Stage too, as Seattle, Washington native Noah Gundersen performed a beautiful set.  Working an original song, "Stone Cold", and blending it with the Alison Krauss classic "Down to the River to Pray", this young man showed his creativity and musical knowledge.   It was performed in stunning fashion.  A true highlight of the entire festival was his performance of Neil Young's "Helpless."  An incredibly well written song, Noah delivered a stunning performance that would make Mr. Young proud.  There was a real sweetness to this set.  Noah is on the road with himself and his sister accompanying on vocals and violin.  It's a great story, just a brother and his younger sister out on the road, seeing the world and performing their music one stage at a time.  

Immediately following Noah was a real veteran of the road, Joe Pug.  Always a popular performer in Toronto, Joe warmed up the crowd with familiar favorites like the title cut from "The Great Despiser", his most recent album.  We were fortunate to hear that Joe will be releasing a new album in the near future, an album of cover songs.  He performed one such track, "She Drives Me Crazy", a hit for the Fine Young Cannibals.  Joe Pug is another outstanding songwriter, very deep and creative.  Joe mentioned that he may be returning to Toronto in the fall, and I look forward to giving a more fulsome review for this very deserving entertainer.  Both Noah and Joe performed the early set later that evening at The Horseshoe Tavern.  The crowd in attendance were treated to one of the best sets in the Club Bonus Series for the weekend with these two sharing the stage.

Up next was one of the biggest stars to take a stage at this young festival. Former lead singer for Uncle Tupelo and current leader of Wilco, Jeff Tweedy kicked off a set on the West Stage, performing before one of the largest crowds of the weekend.  With a set featuring a his full band (including his son Spencer behind the drum kit), Tweedy kicked off with "Down From Above", a solo track and followed up with "Low Key."  "Nobody Dies Anymore" was a really solid performance, but for those in attendance, a real treat was the performance of the Wilco classic, "California Stars."  Jeff Tweedy is an American original, a fearless singer-songwriter who was one of the original players in the "alt-country" movement, although really, his music cannot be categorized as anything other than outstanding. Calling what started out as his first solo album in all actuality a duo album (as his son plays drums on the project), Tweedy will be releasing their debut album "Sukierae" on September 23.  Click here for a preview and to purchase copies.

Neutral Milk Hotel closed out the Second Annual Toronto Urban Roots Festival, and while I did like what I heard of their set, I did not stay and watch.  I will catch one of their shows in the future. Speaking of the future, the promoters have announced this festival will be back next year and I'm sure for many more years to come.  I would like to have seen more in the way of attendance, but this is not to suggest the event was not well attended.  I believe the artists and performers simply deserved more people. For a second year festival to attract the likes of Gary Clark Jr., the Drive-by Truckers and the aforementioned Jeff Tweedy, is astounding.  There is every reason to believe this festival will become a staple of the downtown Toronto summertime.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable time and has enough musical variety that every fan of music, regardless of genre, will find something they will like.  I look forward to next year and beyond, as the Toronto Urban Roots Festival takes its rightful place among the important music festivals this city has to offer.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

TURF 2014 Day 2 Recap

An absolutely gorgeous day greeted the thousands in attendance for the second day of the Toronto Urban Roots Festival.  Festivites on the South Stage kicked off with Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose.  Most regrettably, I did not arrive in time to catch this set which is unfortunate, as Caitlin was on my list of artists to catch this weekend.  I do look forward to attending one of her shows in the future.

So the afternoon, for me anyway, started with award winning duo Shovels and Rope.  Still riding high on the success of their second album O' Be Joyful, they are preparing for the August release of their follow up album titled "Swimmin' Time."  Judging from the performances of some new songs from the upcoming release and the response of the fans in attendance, Shovels and Rope have another hit on their hands.  A wide range seems to be covered on this new album, from relationships as noted in "Pinned", to historical events captured in "Stono River Rebellion" about the slave uprising in the 1700's at that location, to the darker edges of humanity with "The Devil Is All Around."  Favorites from O' Be Joyful were not to be ignored, as the crowd was graced with fiery performances of "Birmingham", "Keeper" and the closing number "Hail Hail."  There is a sweetness with the chemistry that exists between Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband and wife team that make up Shovels and Rope.  It translates in their performance and it resonates with the audience, which had a variety of age ranges. They are the real deal and people will always be attracted to that.

Next up on the East Stage (the main stage) was a band from the "dirty south" that's been rockin' the roads for many years.  The Drive-by Truckers are no strangers to Toronto, or Canada for that matter.  Kicking off their set with "Birthday Boy" from the album The Big To-Do, the bar was set early for what would be a highlight show at this year's TURF.  Next up was Patterson Hood on lead with "Righteous Path."  The Truckers have a tremendous advantage, in that they can trade off lead vocals with the aforementioned Hood and Mike Dooley. Both have distinctly different vocals and both work very well with the sound the Truckers have captured. Other fan favorites were "Lookout Mountain" from The Diry South album, as well as "18 Wheels of Love", a true story song about Patterson Hood's mom.  

One of the more unique artists to appear at this year's TURF is Pokey LaFarge.  Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, this young man has managed to carve out a solid career by capturing an authentic roots music sound. That's really the only way to describe an artist who's stage attire of that and his band resembled a cross between Hank Williams, Sr. and Jimmie Rodgers, and there's nothing wrong with that.  A talented group of musicians they were able to easily sway from rockabilly, as with " Angel Won't You Be Mine" to 1940's jazz with the Hoagie Carmichael classic "Riverboat Shuffle" and his own unique version of the Hank Williams, Sr. classic "Lovesick Blues."  LaFarge shows off his songwriting chops with originals "The City Summer Blues" and "Cairo, Illinois."  A generous artist, he allows his band members to take their turns front and center for a solo, and each one more than rises to the occasion.  Pokey LaFarge is continuing his tour this week with a sold out show in New York City at the Bowery Ballroom, then on to stops in Virginia this weekend.

The final act of the evening was Chicago's own The Waco Brothers, led by Jon Langford, with a special appearance by Sally Timms of the Mekons.  The Waco Brothers, for all intents and purposes, were the Iron Horses of TURF this year.  They performed on two consecutive days at the festival, as well as performing a late night gig at TURF Club Series at the Horseshoe Tavern.  Their energy on stage is infectious.  This is a band who loves what they do and the audience just joins in on the fun.  Performing with Sally Timms, I caught the Waco Brothers set as they played a solid cover of the Dolly Parton hit "Old Flames", followed by a great singalong to the John Anderson hit "Wild and Blue."  It was time to kick it up a notch after these two ballads, so what better way to start than with an ode to Alejandro Escovedo and "Sensitve Boys."  Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and The Who's "Teenage Wasteland" found their way in to the set as well.  But trust me, this is not a cover band, as I was about to find out with their performance on Sunday, Day 3 of the TURF.  

Saturday, July 5, 2014

TURF 2014: Day 1 Recap

A sun-drenched Friday afternoon greeted the opening day of the second annual Toronto Urban Roots Festival (or by it's moniker TURF) on the grounds of historical Old Fort York.  To get a certain amount of irony out of the way, the festival was fortunate enough to have some great artists from the United States performing on their stages on what was the 4th of July.  Fort York is a defensive fort that was built by the British and was the site of a few battles between British (Canadian) soldiers and American soldiers in the War of 1812.  An invasion of American artists and musicians ... that kind we'll happily take!  Anyhow, enough history for today ...

The festival kicked off mid-afternoon with folk/Americana singer-songwriter Tift Merritt taking the South Stage and later joining Andrew Bird over on the West Stage.  Andrew Bird was the first artist I was able to catch yesterday ... a little thing called my paying job pre-empted my earlier arrival. Admittedly, I was not familiar with Andrew Bird's music, but I walked away a fan. An unbelievably gifted musician and vocalist, Andrew Bird has the ability to captivate an audience from the moment you first hear him.  What this gentleman can do with a violin is eye-opening.  At one point I thought I could hear a mandolin on stage, but there was none to be found ... it was Andrew Bird strumming the violin that gave that sound.  On the road to support his latest release "Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of ... ", Bird is worthy of your attention.  And he's getting attention to be sure, as his song "Pulaski At Night", is featured in the Season 2 premiere of Orange is the New Black.  I will be watching out for Andrew Bird to catch a future performance.

As the afternoon wore on to the evening, another act I was not familiar with performed on the festival's South Stage.  Deer Tick is a roots-rock outfit from Providence, Rhode Island, and they have acquired quite a following over the years.  The large crowd gathered at the stage was a youthful and exhuberant bunch, dancing the night away.  Several tunes prompted a sing-along with the crowd, including a great cover of the Richie Valens' classic, "La Bamba."  This group put on a great, energetic performance with a sound reminiscent of another great roots-rock, alt-country act, The Bottle Rockets.  Veterans of the road, they are on tour to support their new album Negativity, and more than set the table for the nights closing act on the South Stage.

Hailing from Austin, Texas, Black Joe Lewis is from the musical breadbasket of North America. An outstanding guitar player, he brought his unique style of super-charged blues to the opening night of TURF 2014.  Performing with a stellar back up band, complete with horn section, Black Joe tore up the stage playing new tracks off his latest release Electric Slave, including "Come To My Party" and "Skulldiggin."  "Black Sin" and "Booty City" were popular cuts with the crowd, who by this time must have been feeling like they've been put through the ringer with so many high energy performances by this time, but in a good way.  

For the first day and night of TURF 2014, the show of the day surely had to be the performance of Gary Clark, Jr.  Performing earlier in the evening, Gary Clark, Jr. set a fairly high bar early in the festival for those to follow.  It would not be a stretch to say that this gentleman is one of the best guitar players in the world today.  One can tell he is a pure, natural, musician and artist. The large crowd that was gathered for the show was treated to a masterful performance. Watching and listening to Gary Clark, Jr. perform such tunes as "Next Door Neighbour Blues", "Bright Lights" and the title track to his latest release "Blak and Blu", it's not a long stretch to say that he has completed the impossible task of melding elements of Muddy Waters with the guitar prowess of Jimi Hendrix.  He manages to mix in elements of Motown with his GRAMMY winning hit "Please Come Home."  The fact that he's only 30 years old is even more astounding when you consider the talent level.  Mr. Clark will be around for a very long time, and the sky is the limit as to where this young man's talent will take him.

What adventures will day 2 bring?  Find out tomorrow, or better still, join me and the many thousands at Old Fort York in downtown Toronto, Ontario!  

Monday, June 30, 2014

Album Review: Hannah Aldridge, "Razor Wire"

For many artists, their debut album is a labor of love, the realization of many years of hard work and long miles on the road plying their trade from bar to bar and town to town.  Some debut albums really stand out from the crowd and are a good indication of the potential staying power of the artist.  Such is the case with "Razor Wire" (Trodden Black Entertainment) by Hannah Aldridge.

Co-writing nine of the ten tracks on the album, Ms. Aldridge takes us on a journey through her young life so far.  Kicking off with the feisty "You Ain't Worth The Fight", the listener knows right away that this lady doesn't put up with crap from anyone.  The character in "Old Ghost" is a woman that many of us, male or female, can relate to when finding your way through the beginnings of certain new relationships.  

Two of the darkest tunes on the album are also among the best written.  The title track, "Razor Wire," could be the among the bravest songs I've ever heard written and recorded.  A stark piece of truthful storytelling, one can really sense the place of vulnerability that Hannah was feeling both in her life and at the time of writing.  This young lady really put her heart on her sleeve with this track and it is a true highlight of the album.  When you have a song as melancholy and dark as "Razor Wire", the only thing you can do is follow it up with something darker and more melancholy.  A tale of life on death row, "Parchman" fits the bill in spades.  I don't think I have to tell you that a story about life on death row doesn't end particularly well.

The feisty side of Hannah Aldridge makes its return with the rockin' "Howlin' Bones" and a tremendous cover of Jason Isbell's "Try."  Both songs present an opportunity for Hannah to stretch out her impressive vocal range, as well as matching her up with Isbell's backing band, The 400 Unit for "Try."  Lyrically, this song fits in well with the overall dark theme of the album, with its contemplation of trying to control an individual.

The final three songs on the album complete Hannah's open book that has brought her to this point in her life.  "Black and White" draws on her life experience in her native Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and ties in to her present as she sings a verse inspired by her young son.  "Lie Like You Love Me" is a tale of longing for and needing an old flame if only for one night at a time, followed by the inevitable morning-after-regret.  This tune is a straight ahead country song and highlights the diverse performing styles of Hannah and the talented musicians playing on this album.  "Lonesome" is a beautifully written and performed song that reflects the time of her parents divorce.  It's a stripped down semi-closing number, with just Hannah and her guitar once again leaving herself out in the open and inviting the world to listen to her story.  An acoustic version of "Razor Wire" is the real closer of the album, appearing as a 'hidden track' after "Lonesome."

For a debut effort, Hannah Aldridge has created a stand-out album that should signal the beginning of a long career for this young lady.  Described by Hannah as 'Dark Americana', it's tough to argue with that assessment.  The topics on the album are certainly dark in nature, but along with this darkness, there appears to be an overall sense of reflection and vulnerability. This album truly is a brave project, one that Ms. Aldridge can be very proud of. What's more exciting is, this is only the beginning.  We will be hearing from Hannah Aldridge for a very long time and I can't wait to hear the next chapter from this gifted singer-songwriter. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Album Review: The Loudermilks, Self-Titled Release

The Loudermilks image

It's a special thing when talented musicians come together for the common purpose of making great music and creating art.  Such is the case with a debut album released this week by an act made up of veteran artists who have experienced the ups and downs of a musicians life, and have shown that their passion for this business cannot be denied.

The Loudermilks are an act based out of North Carolina and are named in honor of the legendary Ira and Charlie Loudermilk (aka, the Louvin Brothers).  Members of the band include brothers Alan (vocals, mandolin) and Chad Edwards (vocals, guitar), Jason Atkins (piano, organ), Shawn Lynch (vocals, bass), and Mike Kenerly (drums). This four-man band captures the essence of the roots/Americana sound, as their diverse musical styles shine through on this album.  The lead track, "Watch 'Em Fall" starts off acousitcally with a beautiful mix of guitar and mandolin, soon followed by haunting pedal steel backed by an electric organ.  The harder edged "Quite Honestly" highlights the rougher side of The Loudermilks, showing the diversity of this talented band.

"Come Along With Me" is a raucous number tailor-made for Saturday night at the honky-tonk.  One of the real highlights on the album is the beautifully written and performed "Everybody Knows You", a tale of longing and wishful thinking.  What sets The Loudermilks apart from a lot of other acts, is their ability to move seemlessly from their ballad side to their rocking side with absolutely no effort.  "Broken Record" is a song that features heavily on electric guitar, which is followed up by the haunting "Jim Dugan", which is subsequently followed up by the quirky "What It Is."

The songwriting credits are split between brothers Alan and Chad Edwards.  Together, along with their bandmates, The Loudermilks have crafted a solid record that's been released in time for summer road trips, patios or just relaxing at home listening to some solid music.  A great cross between Canadian roots group Blue Rodeo and Americana stalwarts The Bottle Rockets, this self-titled debut represents a great starting point for this North Carolina band who should be on their way to a long and storied career.  Check out The Loudermilks web site for tour dates and to purchase the album

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Concert Review: Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Kacey Musgraves - Lewiston, New York - June 7, 2014

A beautiful late summer evening greeted thousands of music fans gathering at the Artpark Amphitheatre on the banks of the Niagara River Gorge on June 7 to see and hear one of the most varied and eclectic package shows in recent memory.  Indeed, the cross-generational appeal of the bill featuring young rising singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves, the so-incredibly-talented Alison Krauss and Union Station and the timeless legend that is Willie Nelson was a show for the ages.  This show was out of this world.

On the road in support of her GRAMMY winning album "Same Trailer, Different Park", Kacey Musgraves is one of the very few young artsits in country music today that is producing high quality material.  Her songwriting is impeccable, as evidenced by the cool "Blowin' Smoke", her uplifting signature song "Follow Your Arrow", or the beautiful and melancholy "I Miss You." For long time country music fans like me, Kacey Musgraves is a breath of fresh air.  A young lady who is sticking to her guns seemingly not to care about what's commercially successful on radio, just carving out her own path doing what feels right for her.  The album has gone gold, she has had significant radio air play, the people recognize she's real and are buying it.  One other intangible that I loved about her performance was the respect for the history of country music she shows: her backing band were all dressed up in smart, Nudie Cohn-style suits, they performed a latino-style cover of the George Strait hit "I Just Wanna Dance With You", and closed the show with an a capella version of "Happy Trails."  Kacey's performance was the perfect way to kick off the show.

What more can one really say about Alison Krauss and Union Station.  Ms.Krauss has been courted by virtually every major record label in Nashville, but continues to record for Massachussetts based independent Rounder Records.  Union Station could arguably be the greatest collection of backing musicians ever to take a stage.  Couple that with Ms. Krauss's angelic vocals and you have one of the most timeless groups in the history of country and Americana music.  When Alison Krauss and Union Station take the stage, you arguably have the greatest collection of musical talent in any genre in one place.  Performing many of their best known songs in a lengthy set which included "Every Time You Say Goodbye", "The Lucky One", "Ghost In This House" along with several instrumentals, the group left the audience spellbound.  What makes this group function so well together is that they're smart enough to recognize each other's talent.  When you have a musician that is the calibre of Jerry Douglas, it's only right to turn him loose on a couple of songs.  When you have a talent the calibre of Dan Tyminski, it's only proper to put him out front on lead vocal on a few tunes, most notably the song that kicked off the whole roots-revival, "Man of Constant Sorrow".  While Alison Krauss is the featured vocalist and is clearly the featured performer, she is smart enough to realize that her fellow artists deserve to share in the spotlight and she is more than accomodating.  They are a special group of artists who deserve the respect and appreciation they receive.

It's recently dawned on me that a Willie Nelson concert is really an experience, one that is to be appreciated.  Now well in to his 80's, Mr. Nelson has transcended beyond a country artist or singer-songwriter.  He is a national treasure, an icon in the true sense of the word.  Touring with The Family in support of his newly release album "Band of Brothers", Willie took the crowd on a non-stop hour and 45 minute trip through the history of his career.  Kicking off with "Whiskey River", and moving us through a stretch that paid hommage to his fellow Outlaw, Waylon Jennings, Mr. Nelson performed his lengthy set without even stopping for water.  He showed the world he still has the guitar chops on his version of "Night Life", a signature song for fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member the late, great Ray Price.  A solo version of his duet with Toby Keith, "Beer For My Horses" worked it's way in to the set, as well as a couple of instrumentals featuring Mr. Nelson's sister Bobbi on piano.  The final moments of the show re-created a church revival, as Kacey Musgraves, Jerry Douglas and others joined Willie on stage for rousing versions of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" and "I Saw the Light."  Post performance and with the band still playing, Mr. Nelson graciously signed autographs for those lined up at the foot of the stage for several minutes before waving goodbye, thanking the audience and leaving the stage.  

And thus concluded an outstanding night of music from the best cross-section of artists you could gather.  A beautiful and talented newcomer who's brigtest days are ahead of her; a beautiful and talented group of artists that are still at the top of their game and getting better; and an icon in music and artistry who showed his two opening acts that if they keep honing their craft and staying true to themselves, that it's entirely possible to keep doing this thing they all love for 50+ years if they so choose.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Americana Music Association Announces 2014 Awards Nominees

May 12th, 2014 was a special day for many in the Americana movement as the Americana Music Association revealed the nominees for the 2014 Honors and Awards Ceremony, set to take place on September 17.  Looking at the list of this years nominees, a shift appears to be taking place where younger artists are beginning to turn heads amongst the Association faithful.  As a member of the Association myself, I admit that it's a necessary shift.

Leading the list with the most nominations are Jason Isbell and Roseanne Cash.  Nominated in three categories each, the nominations are much deserved as both artists issued stellar albums in the past year with Isbell's "Southeastern" and Cash's "The River and the Thread."  Both albums are up for Album of the Year, with Isbell's "Cover Me Up" and Cash's "A Feather's Not a Bird" nominated in the Song of the Year category and both artists named in the Artist of the Year category.  Rounding out the Artist of the Year category are nominees Rodney Crowell and Robert Ellis.  As you can see, it's a great mix of two veteran artists who still bring it with every project they issue and two younger artists who are just hitting their creative stride. 

A similar situation exists in the Song of the Year category with Robert Ellis receiving a second nod of the night for "Only Lies", while veteran Patty Griffin receives her only nod for "Ohio" off her American Kid album.  The parable here is that the Association is (to some, finally) recognizing the amazing young talent that exists in this genre and acknowledging this talent accordingly by nominating these artists in categories with the well known veterans who have laid the groundwork for the Americana movement.  While it may not be a full passing of the torch, it is nice to see the youth of the genre receiving this type of recognition.  Having said that, it's always nice to see veteran artists like Rodney Crowell, Roseanne Cash and Patty Griffin receiving the same recognition by the only Association who appreciates the talent, skill and knowledge that only a veteran artist can bring to the table.  They deserve to have their recent projects acknowledged accordingly where appropriate, as this is the only genre that considers a veteran/legendary act relevant in today's musical landscape.

Perhaps the most hotly contested category will be that of the Emerging Act of the Year.  Sturgill Simpson and Parker Millsap are stone cold, straight ahead country artists, mixed in with the more roots based sounds of Hurray For The Riff Raff and Valerie June.  The dark horse in this category could be St. Paul and the Broken Bones.  I wrote about this act in my coverage of the 2013 Americana Music Festival and Conference, and I'm telling you, this group blew the doors, windows and roof off the High Watt in Nashville.  They are one of the most unique and high energy acts on the road today, and they could very well walk out of the Ryman with the Emerging Act of the Year trophy in September ... an early prediction I know, but it's possible.

Regardless of who wins, the Americana Music Awards is a special show.  It is a night where the community comes together and for some of us, it's a chance to catch up with old friends, make some new friends and celebrate the best music and art that is being created in the world today.  I hope to catch up with many of you in Nashville from September 17 to 21.  In the meantime, here is the list of nominees, courtesy of the Americana Music Association web site.

Build Me Up From Bones, Sarah Jarosz
The Lights From The Chemical Plant, Robert Ellis
The River And The Thread, Rosanne Cash
Southeastern, Jason Isbell
Rosanne Cash
Rodney Crowell
Robert Ellis
Jason Isbell
The Avett Brothers
The Devil Makes Three
Hard Working Americans
Lake Street Dive
The Milk Carton Kids
"Cover Me Up", Jason Isbell
"A Feather's Not A Bird", Rosanne Cash
"Ohio", Patty Griffin
"Only Lies", Robert Ellis
Hurray For The Riff Raff
Parker Millsap
St. Paul & The Broken Bones
Sturgill Simpson
Valerie June
Larry Campbell
Fats Kaplin
Buddy Miller
Bryan Sutton