Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Mix: Gold & Sage

Howdy Everybody,
So here's a download of my latest mix. It's all over the map, and rather awesome. I hope you enjoy the tunes:

Open the zip file and drag the folder into your iTunes. Then to add this mix as a playlist: Select "File" --> "Library" --> "Import Playlist" Then select the .xml file in this folder. Lemme know if you have any questions. And Boo-ya.

1. Generationals - When They Fight, They Fight
2. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Contender
3. Metric - Gimme Sympathy
4. Sum & Belief are the Lone Wolf - Kakalak All-Stars
5. Mos Def - Priority
6. Joe Henry - Stars
7. Fruit Bats - Singing Joy To The World
8. Magnolia Electric Co. - O! Grace
9. Lucero - Hey Darlin' Do You Gamble
10. Chuck Prophet - ¡Let Freedom Ring!
11. Gabriel Sullivan - Sewer Cats
12. Blind Pilot - Two Towns From Me
13. The Swim - Zoo Song
14. Bueno - Some Connection
15. The Drakes - Pitiful Place
16. Billy Bragg - Levi Stubbs' Tears
17. Gillian Welch - Look At Miss Ohio
18. Tom Waits - Fannin Street
19. Townes Van Zandt - Colorado Girl -> Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
20. Bob Dylan - She's Your Lover Now

Have a wonderful 2010...

2009 Best Shows

I let this list stretch a little long, but hey, I saw more than 80 shows this year and a hell of a lot of them were amazing.

Live music is what I live on, as much as anything else. I can’t count the times when I’ve gone out to see a show after a subpar day or few days and – pretty much no matter who was playing – was instantly removed from that bad space.

And that’s just the low end. At the high end, live music is at the core of some of my greatest experiences, year in and year out. Few things are greater than traveling for a great show experience, combining the camaraderie of great friends with a rare tour, or a uniquely enjoyable venue.

I was tempted to rank these, but that’s just too difficult, so I’m going with chronological order. I will, however, say this about what was probably my greatest show of the year: Mr. Chair, my longtime great friend and host in Denver, said he’d never seen me happier than when Okkervil River came out to join Wilco for an encore of “California Stars” on a gloriously beautiful July 3 night at Red Rocks. And he’s probably right.

• Elvis Perkins / Delta Spirit @ Club Congress, March 16
This was my first time seeing Perkins - whose record ended up as my best of 2009 - and the band was just so perfect. It's rare that seeing a band for the first time feels as comfortable as if you'd had their music forever, but that was the case with Perkins. (And his set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October was just as good.)

• Mike Watt / Garboski @ Plush, April 17
Sometimes you have to co-opt a little reverence. Mike Watt is my brother's favorite musician ever, and though it hardly meant as much to me as it did to him, seeing him play live was a treasure. Plus, he sits on the edge of the stage after every show, selling T-shirts out of a garbage band and signing whatever anybody wants. Now that's punk rock.

• Unwigged & Unglued @ Phoenix Dodge Theater, April 27
Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer could just sit on stage gabbing for two hours and it'd be worth seeing. Add in acoustic Spinal Tap and A Might Wind songs and it's two hours of high entertainment. What I love most about the trio's songs is how subtely the humor laces itself into the music. My full recap.

• SwedeFest @ Sport’s on Congress, May 3
Few things in life get better than getting several favorite local bands to play at a ridiculously self-indulgent 30th birthday celebration. Check out the full recap if you dare.

• Avett Brothers @ Rialto Theatre (and Bookman’s), May 7
Like I said at the time, every great show should be paired with an intimate afternoon performance that same day.

• Jonathan Richman @ Club Congress, June 5
Another one in which I borrowed some reverence from my brother... Richman is as great as they come and it's damn near impossible to believe that he's been recording music for 39 years already.

• Sunset Rubdown @ Plush, June 22
Early week summer shows in Tucson are notoriously under-attended, but still, this band deserved a lot more from the crowd. I don't think I would've fallen so much for Dragonslayer (my #2 record of the year) had I not seen it live first. Krug is definitely a musical genius.

• Wilco / Okkervil River @ Red Rocks, July 3
My aforementioned happiest moment... Read the full review.

• Outside Lands Festival @ Golden Gate Park, Aug. 28-30
Perhaps not as great as the previous year, with Radiohead, Tom Petty and Wilco headlining, nonetheless the 2009 Outside Lands was packed with great moments: Built to Spill, The National, Pearl Jam, TV on the Radio, Avett Brothers and Band of Horses, just to name a few, as well as the best tater tots I've ever had. Check the full recap.

• Bon Iver / Megafaun @ Oakland Fox Theater, Sept. 24
I wrote a feature on Bon Iver for the East Bay Express in advance of the show, and I'd seen the band before, so I knew what to expect: a gathering storm, if you will, of percussion and surging guitars all held together by Justin Vernon's singing, the high and often spooky howl that stamps his music with such a tremendous feeling of isolation. And they delivered. The hushed crowd developing a burning intensity as 4,000 voices came together for the chorus "What might have been lost."

• Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 2-4
From Steve Earle joining Tom Morello to sing "This Land is Your Land" on the first day to "Red Dirt Girl" in Emmylou Harris' closing set, this was once again a weekend for the ages. My full recap.

• Billy Bragg @ Great American Music Hall, Oct. 6
Billy Bragg had been my most coveted live act - the one I wanted to see most but never had - and I managed to see him twice in two days. One man, one guitar, two hours and throughout, I felt like one lucky sonuvabitch to even be there.

• Yo La Tengo @ Tempe Marquee Theater, Oct. 14
I couldn't have been more impressed with Yo La Tengo's seamless versatility. In a rare appearance in the Southwest, the band sent me from fan to superfan.

• Blind Pilot / The Low Anthem @ Plush, Oct. 25
Two quite different takes on modern folk music, Blind Pilot and the Low Anthem were a perfect pairing. Both bands feature excellent songwriters, but it was a cover song that blew me away the most:

• Dinosaur Jr. @ Tempe Marquee Theater, Nov. 3
I think J. Mascis is the best guitar player I've ever seen live.

• Calexico “Flor de Muertos” @ Rialto Theatre, Nov. 8
What a magical night: Calexico closing the festivities for the only-in-Tucson All Souls Procession, with extra great visuals for the filming of a live concert DVD. Amazing sound, great combination of mariachi, mambo and Calexico's unique blend of everything. And they did Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer." I can't wait for the DVD.

• Vic Chesnutt @ Club Congress, Dec. 2
It's tremendously sad that I can say I saw the third to last show Vic ever performed. What a uniquely captivating performer and songwriter - and what a loss for all his fans that he passed away on Christmas. In a review of the show, I wrote: "Live, Vic Chesnutt is a head rush, a grippingly emotional singer whose voice comes along like a raging windstorm. Some performers are great showmen – Vic is possessed." Check out the full review. And may you rest in peace, Vic.

Billy Bragg - Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key (live)
Blind Pilot - Two Towns From Me (Live Laundromatinee session)
Calexico - Across the Wire (live)
Vic Chesnutt - Flirted with You All My Life (live, final show)

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 Best Albums

This is the big one - the best/favorite albums of the year. This is the list that any music critic, blogger or big-time enthusiast hangs his or her hat on, the one that's subject to more internal debate than all others.

I joined the Usual Gang of Idiots over at the Tucson Weekly this year, so check out the four-barreled cannon of music writer awesomeness where this was originally printed.

And if you're really into lists, check out the amazingly thorough master list over at Large Hearted Boy... wow.

1. Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Elvis Perkins in Dearland (XL)

On his second album, this extraordinarily talented songwriter assembled a full-time band to perfect a ramshackle folk sound—full of horns, organ and unorthodox percussion—that updates The Band by way of Neutral Milk Hotel. "Doomsday" is the song of the year, with an exultant horn intro becoming a stomping celebration of life, defiant even against doomsday.

DOWNLOAD: Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Shampoo

2. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar)

Spencer Krug is at his best crafting intense and pummeling music, but by backing away slightly from his more experimental impulses, Krug has made his best album yet. Dragonslayer's greatest achievement is its taut focus that makes bombastic, lengthy and relentlessly twisting songs nonetheless accessible and catchy throughout.

DOWNLOAD: Sunset Rubdown - Idiot Heart

3. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (ANTI-)

Taking inspiration from nature's tumultuous power, Neko Case has written her most-assured, least-enigmatic batch of songs yet. Anchored by her soaring, radiant voice, the record updates Case's usual dreamy atmospheric sound with catchier songs like "People Got a Lotta Nerve" and "I'm an Animal."

DOWNLOAD: Neko Case - People Got A Lotta Nerve

4. Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine (Secretly Canadian)

Jason Molina's reedy, wounded voice gives this record a piercing, lonesome sorrow, matched impeccably by lyrics drenched in images of the open sky, deep shadows, ghosts and the faraway horizon.

DOWNLOAD: Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine

5. The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You (American/Sony)

With major-label polish from Rick Rubin, the Avett Brothers reach toward both rowdier rock songs and tender ballads, leaving their rootsy bluegrass as background accents. But it is versatility, talent and honest songwriting that carry the day for the Avetts, who offer musical abundance like few others.

VIDEO: The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You

6. Fruit Bats, The Ruminant Band (Sub Pop)

The Fruit Bats turn out 11 songs of blissful, sunny rock music. This is the best Beatles-influenced album of the year, full of the quirky enthusiasm that sparked labels like "zoology rock," "bootgazer" and "rustic pop."

DOWNLOAD: Fruit Bats - The Ruminant Band

7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)

This flawless debut cradles starry-eyed romance in fuzzy guitars, driving beats and boy-girl harmonies, a winning aesthetic for a band that wears both hearts and influences on its sleeve.

DOWNLOAD: The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Come Saturday

8. The Lone Wolf, Sum and Belief Are the Lone Wolf (Worker B)

The beats weave in acoustic guitar, piano, banjo and harmonica, and the lyrics are imaginative, poetic storytelling. Sum and Belief's first collaborative album sounds like what hip-hop might have been in the 1960s, mixing with blues, R&B and soul.

LISTEN: Sum & Belief Are The Lone Wolf

9. Metric, Fantasies (Metric)

This electrifying dance record stacks high-wire guitar riffs, surging keyboards and heavy bass on driving beats, but it's Emily Haines' spellbinding vocals that provide the irresistible charm.

VIDEO: Metric - Sick Muse

10. Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)

Hardly complacent with its most stable lineup in 15 years, Wilco's latest features mesmerizing guitar freak-outs, sweet ballads and jaunty piano rock. It's more proof that Wilco is the best band working today.

LISTEN: Wilco - Wilco (The Album)

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
Vic Chesnutt - At The Cut
Clem Snide - Hungry Bird
Justin Townes Earle - Midnight At The Movies
Fourkiller Flats - Treasure & Trash
Generationals - Con Law
Girls - Album
Golden Boots - Winter of Our Discotheque
Joe Henry - Blood From Stars
Mason Jennings - Blood of Man
Low Anthem - Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Lucero - 1372 Overton Park
Megafaun - Gather, Form & Fly
Mos Def - The Ecstatic
Modest Mouse - No One's First And You're Next
Pearl Jam - Backspacer
Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Provocative Whites - Evolym
Chuck Prophet - ¡Let Freedom Ring!
Dave Rawlings Machine - A Friend of A Friend
Tom Russell - Blood & Candle Smoke
Gabriel Sullivan - By The Dirt
Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

Previous Years:


2009 Album Reviews

Moving along with my 2009 Year in Review, here are links to all of the album and live reviews I wrote this year for the Tucson Weekly, East Bay Express and Zocalo:

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Clem Snide - Hungry Bird
Bob Dylan - Together Through Life
Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
Metric - Fantasies
Wilco - Wilco (The Album)
Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine
The Skygreen Leopards - Gorgeous Johnny
Joe Henry - Blood From Stars
Sum & Belief - The Lone Wolf
Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs
J. Tillman - A Year in the Kingdom
The Dodos - Time to Die
Circulatory System - Signal Morning
The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You
fun. - Aim and Ignite
Alec Ounsworth - Mo Beauty
Grand Archives - Keep In Mind Frankenstein
Gabriel Sullivan - By The Dirt
Chuck Prophet - ¡Let Freedom Ring!
Lucero - 1372 Overton Park

Live Reviews:
Gary Louris & Mark Olson
The Handsome Family

Starting the 2009 review

It's surprising how much more music you can listen to when you start making it at least a part of your job. I've kept this blog for almost six years now (crazy!) but the dedicated music focus goes back about three years. And in 2009 I started writing music reviews and features for other publications, mainly the Tucson Weekly and East Bay Express.

I want to start my 2009 Year In Review by looking back at some of that work, before jumping into the shows and albums of the year (and then the Albums of the Decade!). Below is a quick roundup of my feature stories for the year, then some of the bigger blog posts. Click through if you'd like:

Fourkiller Flats
Fruit Bats
HOCO Festival
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
Bon Iver
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (Billy Bragg, Nick Lowe, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Dave Alvin)
The Generationals

Top Blog posts:
Making Mixes
My Walls
Tucson Festival of Books Recap
UnWigged Review
SwedeFest Recap
Wilco & Okkervil River @ Red Rocks
Outside Lands Recap
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Recap
Vic Chesnutt

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Vic Chesnutt – two albums and a show

The only problem with having two new Vic Chesnutt records is the temptation to listen to both consecutively, which just may be more than most people can take. This is heavy, concentrated stuff, songs that approach like lurking danger, songs that convey the unavoidable pitfalls of self-indulgence and ultimately the inescapability of life’s shadowy depths.

To listen to Vic Chesnutt is to feel saturated in grief and despair, but also to walk hand-in-hand with the wise, to see beauty unexpected unravel from the lessons of life. The mind needs some time to work its way through the crevices in Chesnutt’s songs, time to smell the rotting roses along the way.

And those are just his records.

Live, Vic Chesnutt is a head rush, a grippingly emotional singer whose voice comes along like a raging windstorm. Some performers are great showmen – Vic is possessed.

I’m writing primarily about Chesnutt’s latest two records – At The Cut and Skitter On Take-Off, both released this year – as well as (belatedly) his performance at Club Congress two weeks ago, but because of his uniqueness as a songwriter and performer, to write about Vic at all is to write about him in total.

I haven’t listened to all of his albums, but I’ve heard several since my introduction to his music at the Hotel Congress Festival in 2006, both new and old, and I’ve never been able to make clear exactly where Vic belongs on the spectrum of folk/country/rock music. Perhaps he inhabits his own genre, much like Tom Waits does, because almost nobody else can even exist out on those crossroads of profoundly weird and exceptionally talented.

Call it Southern gothic country, spook-folk or asylum rock, whatever it is, Vic has an authoritative magnetism, a pull familiar to fans of horror movies, haunted houses, murder ballads and the grotesque, morbidly curious thrill of slowing down on the roadway to view a mangled auto. Like I said, while tempting it’s nearly impossible to listen to two albums consecutively.

Chesnutt rarely writes pretty or catchy music, but what he puts onto record is truer to the trappings of human vice and frailty than perhaps any other writer – not just songwriter, novelists, essayists and poets as well fall in behind Vic – working today. And it’s not just the big-ticket items like death, fear and despair that haunt his songs – Vic puts more of life’s mundane trickeries into song than anybody, and certainly more humor than I’ve yet described.

Ultimately, his songs are not meant to be fancy or popular, they’re meant to drag you, by the hand, into a mythically dark forest, step-by-step, until you realize you’re further in than you’d ever want to go by yourself.

Chesnutt’s two 2009 records are starkly different from one another in sound, reflecting a collaborative versatility and a willingness to give up some control and let other folks help find out where the songs want to go.

At The Cut finds Chesnutt teaming with Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, the same band and production team that guided his first album on Constellation Records. The album opens with spare picked notes on an acoustic guitar, but the record’s overall sound is more of an electrified menace.

“Coward,” with Chesnutt screaming over pounding drums, and “Chain,” with an ominous and elemental power, are standout tracks, both live and on record.

But later on is the album’s true goldmine: “Flirted With You All My Life,” which may be as close to a signature song as Chesnutt has written yet. With a chorus of “O! Death!” he lays bare the suicidal longings that have crept up in his life. But the message is two-fold as Death also emerges as a cruel tease, one who ultimately must be told “I’m not ready yet.” In a song as shockingly personal as any I’ve heard, Vic manages to evoke both lightness and darkness in equal measure. Amazing.

Skitter On Take-Off, meanwhile, is spare and acoustic, with little more than Vic’s guitar and voice. Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins make up his “band” – with some spare drums from Larkin and harmonium and guitar from Richman – and production team this go around, and while it’s often softer sounding, Skitter may be even darker in lyrical tone.

Chesnutt edges political on “Dick Cheney,” marveling at the Machiavellian skills yet clearly reveling in the song's deconstruction of such a purely evil man, hiding instead of facing up to “all the unconscionable wrong” he did.

“Worst Friend” is a darkly hilarious, nearly eight-minute song about friends with a seemingly endless list of bizarre character traits (“You’ve got one friend who is really into feet, sexually; You’ve got one friend who could be a competitive eater; You’ve got one friend who claims to have taken a dump in the White House). But, in the kicker, Chesnutt sings “I’m the worst friend in the world / when you are down, I’m nowhere to be found.”

At Congress, Chesnutt played with a seven-piece band – basically his At The Cut collaborators – to flesh out his songs with a ragged energy. Even with plenty of backing, Chesnutt’s own guitar playing is always a stronger element of the show than I expect.

On “Coward,” the crescendo featured Vic screaming first into his microphone but then into his guitar pickup, producing a haunting wail. Shiver…

Song after song, the performance grew in emotional weight and there’s no way to adequately describe the attraction or appreciation I felt for such a roller-coaster ride that was so thrilling in both a visceral and an intellectual level. Few musicians can do precisely that, and it’s a shame that so few people are willing to look for it in the music they seek.

One thing is certain: the minor keys were made for Vic Chesnutt. And while that will never win him the fans his songwriting talents deserve, it also ensures that he’ll have the enduring and complete attention of every music fan he does capture.

I also suggest reading a some recent Vic Chesnutt interviews, at Aquarium Drunkard, NPR and Prefix magazine.

Vic Chesnutt - Flirted With You All My Life
Vic Chesnutt - Chain

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: Chuck Prophet - ¡Let Freedom Ring!

My review of Chuck Prophet's latest album is in this week's issue of the East Bay Express:

In an America that by bait-and-switch twists and stacked decks has mostly succeeded in pillaging itself, simply holding on now qualifies as hoping for the best.

With his richest album in a long career, Chuck Prophet manages to capture that cruel truth while avoiding traps on both sides, steering clear of falsely dressed-up, teeth-whitened optimism and the simmering anger of knee-jerk cynicism. By looking at the stagnating disillusion from the outside, Prophet's ¡Let Freedom Ring! is the album for our times, weaving together the failures of this American dream with its fraying cords of hope — what Bruce Springsteen captured so well during the dismal Reagan years (and failed so miserably at repeating on this year's Working On A Dream).

Recorded in the spring amid swine-flu panic and an earthquake in Mexico City, on equipment Prophet describes as "state-of-the-art, for 1958," the record is no-frills, timeless rock 'n' roll, urgent and sharp, but also soothing like an after-work beer. The title track is a barroom rocker, with Prophet singing, Let there be darkness, let there be light, as the hawk cripples the dove over a joyous slide-guitar riff. "American Man" is garage-rock-infused with a little Tom Petty drawl, catchy "ooh-wee-ooh" backup vocals and more excellent licks from the former Green on Red guitarist.

In recording what he calls "a political album for nonpolitical people," Prophet bypasses slogans and battle cries for the simpler truths: that even staring down the gun barrels of Wall Street's robber barons and Washington's warmongers, redemption is no further than friends, family, love, and good times. Life is only so long, Prophet sings on the album closer. Don't let it rub you raw. (Yep Roc)

Chuck Prophet - American Man

The Swim - I'm On Fire

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Sometimes I wish everyone I know all knew each other, just as well as I know everybody.

New Elliott Smith track

As I've been thinking about the decade in music, one question in particular is how Elliott Smith fits in. I saw him perform solo acoustic in the fall of 2000, which was at the beginning of my fandom. I worked backwards from Figure 8 through the rest of his albums, experiencing his evolution in reverse. After his death, his final record would have to stand as a final statement. And From A Basement on The Hill was an incredible album. Then the New Moon set of rarities, outtakes and whatnot became another strong posthumous statement of Smith's excellence and talent.

Today comes news from Kill Rock Stars that Smith's one-time label is adding two more of his releases to its catalog: Roman Candle and From a Basement on the Hill. Oh, and guess what? A new and unreleased track accompanies the announcement.

"Cecilia/Amanda" was recorded in 1997, which makes it roughly Either/Or or XO era. And it just feels so good to have a new song from Elliott Smith as this decade nears it's close.

Elliott Smith - Cecilia/Amanda

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Shearwater back with new song, album news

Another day, another dispatch from Matador Records, and another blog post to suggest that a band makes sure to add Tucson to its 2010 tour schedule...

Since I first met Jonathan Meiburg (about six year ago), he's left Okkervil River to focus all of his attention on Shearwater, with each album seeing more and more acclaim. The Golden Archipelago is Shearwater's third album to be released on Matador, and judging from the cover, Meiburg is still concerned with not only birds, but islands, the sea and a certain mystical otherworldness that remains at the core of his songwriting.

Add this to your no-doubt quickly growing list of most-anticipated albums for 2010...

Shearwater - Castaways

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

New Ted Leo track

Matador released the first track from the upcoming Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record yesterday, and I'm no doubt the last music blogger out there to write about it.

But that's OK - this is as much a request for the good Mr. Leo and his Pharm.D.'s to make sure that Tucson is once again on the agenda for whatever touring they endeavor to undertake in support of Brutalist Bricks. (And furthermore, you blokes should probably go ahead and have The Swim opening up the show again - that was awesome last time around!)

Anyway, the song is fantastic, a hard-hitting yet catchy track that will no doubt rise to the top of the heap in 2010. If these first few listens are any indication, "Even Heroes Have to Die" will soon top out "Me & Mia" as my favorite TL&P song, and if the rest of the album is just as strong, it'll top out Shake the Sheets, his best so far, as far as I'm concerned.

Ted Leo - Even Heroes Have to Die

Monday, November 30, 2009

Another 8tracks mini-mix

Here's another little mix, featuring some of the bands I've been lucky enough to see live over the last few weeks:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gabriel Sullivan - By The Dirt

Tucson singer-songwriter Gabriel Sullivan is definitely in the running for best local album of the year, but his fantastic debut By The Dirt has already started earning some well-deserved national attention. But, just to make sure the locals don't miss out on this fine talent, I wrote a review of the record for the new downtown magazine, Zócalo.

Released on his own record label, Gabriel Sullivan's By The Dirt is an expressive and forceful debut that strings together junkyard brawlers, country weepers, jazzy haunts and a sort of peyote-streaked desert blues.

The first song hits like a raging storm dragging a voice that growls like gnarled mesquite bark, a wicked harmonica wail and percussion credited in the liner notes simply as "auto parts."

From clinking chains to haunted clarinet to pedal steel and soft violin strokes, Sullivan runs through a wide circuit of sounds, aided by an all-star cast of Tucson musicians: Joey Burns, Tom Walbank, Nick Luca, Marco Rosano, Andrew Collberg and Vicki Brown.

Like Tom Waits, and locals Howe Gelb and Joey Pena, Sullivan has a voice that can rough up the most gentle songs, leaving them all the better for a bit of smeared grit. It's the sort of voice that makes lyrics like "I've done things / That would bring the devil to his knees" completely believable.

"Sewer Cats" is a piano and strings ballad on the order of Waits' "On The Nickel," swinging gently from downbeat and dreary to uplifting and wistful. "Dillinger's Wings" is a driving roadhouse rocker about the famous fugitive's capture in Tucson, with Sullivan singing of the outlaw's disgrace: "Go down sin, go down shame / Let it all go up in flames today."

Other highlights are Sullivan's choice of covers: the chilling and ghostly rendition of Rainer Ptacek's "Life is Fine," and the rustic "The Gardens," by Chris Gaffney.

It's hard to talk about Sullivan's music without mentioning Waits or Gelb, but it's a credit to Sullivan's talent, originality and ambition that long before the conversation ends, those names have receded into the background, more footnotes than foundations.

Gabriel Sullivan live @ The HangArt

The HangArt | MySpace Music Videos

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Neil Young' covering Fresh Prince

This is funny/brilliant enough that I might actually start watching the guy's show...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Generationals @ Congress TONIGHT

Generationals - Angry Charlie from LaundroMatinee on Vimeo.

New Orleans throwback rock band the Generationals are headlining Club Congress tonight, for the band's second Tucson show. Part of the same Park the Van roster as Dr. Dog and our own beloved Golden Boots, the Generationals are touring in support of their first album, Con Law. I talked to the band a couple weeks ago for a feature in the Tucson Weekly:

Catchy 1960s-style rock music built on the foundations of Phil Spector and the Beatles doesn't have much to do with the classic New Orleans sound.

But for the Generationals, reaching back in time to weave threads of different musical traditions together into their own new and exciting entity is exactly how the Crescent City has always functioned.

With a set of demos that had slowly been building since the 2007 breakup of their previous band, the Eames Era, singer-songwriters Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner formed the Generationals, now a four-piece band that mines the glory of sunny '60s pop. But even though they start with a Beatles/Kinks/Byrds-loving throwback sound, the Generationals' three-minute pop songs are a little jammier and a little quirkier, bedding down with some 1980s synth and even soulful horns.

"There aren't a lot of other rock bands in New Orleans. There are maybe three or four others that consistently play shows in the kind of genre we're dealing with," Widmer says. "It's strange to be based in a city that has such a strong musical history and be on the outer edge of any of it. But people in New Orleans do appreciate that, and people are thirsty for music that's not the traditional music in New Orleans."

Well aware of the fact that they're a throwback rock band in the city of jazz, blues and funk, Widmer and Joyner sought to play up the old by recording in the Washington, D.C., studio of producer Daniel Black.

"We definitely wanted most of it to sound pretty old, and we took some pains to get the sounds that we were trying to reference, using tape machines and archaic recording techniques," Widmer says. "The demos we cooked up for this record just wanted to be produced that way, so we ran with it."

Recording over six months, the band had time to tinker and experiment.

"We're kind of all over the map, and the thing with Dan is we have a lot of options, and he's good at nailing a lot of different sounds," says Widmer during a phone interview as the band made its way from St. Louis to Denver. "Some of it is definitely Phil Spector, '60s-influenced; some of it was Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, '70s-sounding stuff. We draw from different precedents and mess it up just enough to make our own kind of thing out of it."

Recorded on a 24-track 2-inch tape machine, Con Law manages to sound both as fresh as a debut record and familiar in its styles.

"Faces in the Dark" has a distinct Kinks feel, with shakers and bass doubling up on the bouncy vibe. "Our Time (2 Shine)" could've been a pre-new wave surf single, with a flighty organ riff, quickly strummed upstrokes from a chiming guitar and—of course—a horn-driven hook.

"When They Fight, They Fight" begins with a groovy guitar riff and handclaps, then gives way to its slinky soul bassline and bright horns. The vocals swing from quirky to irresistible sing-along. In the 1960s, this song could have been a huge hit; now, it's the blog download the band hopes sends music-seekers back to check out the whole album.

"Exterior-Street-Day" is a 1980s post-punk homage, starting with a detached sense of cool that fades as the big drums, squeaky synth and shouted "oh-way-oh" chorus coalesce into a dance-floor shaker.

For this summer's release of Con Law, the Generationals found the perfect partner in Park the Van Records, a label that returned to its founding city of New Orleans at the end of 2008 after three years in Philadelphia.

"They're a label that is full of other bands that seem focused on songcraft a lot, and less on virtuosity," Widmer says. "Mostly, the focus seems to be on shorter songs, more traditionally structured songs, and songs that are often recalling more of a '60s sound. It's a great place for us to land, especially with this record."

Joining a roster of similarly idiosyncratic and skewed pop bands—including Dr. Dog, the Spinto Band and Tucson's Golden Boots—the Generationals had plenty of tourmates for a year of criss-crossing the country. Widmer says they were glad for the opening slots that allowed them to play to bigger crowds and quickly build a positive reputation. (The band first played Tucson in August on a Park the Van showcase and is anticipating the return: "It's an unexpectedly weird, offbeat city. We took a liking to it last time," Widmer says.)

Currently touring as a four-piece, the band is reworking songs on the fly, covering horn parts with keyboards and jumping between instruments song by song.

"We had to basically rewrite the songs to make them work live, and pick and choose what sounds and instruments we are able to play with," Widmer says. "A lot of the songs have horns and a lot of textures and different instruments, and we had to redo everything and tailor to the live set. It's a challenge, but I love to re-imagine things like that."

Widmer says the touring experience will push them in the direction of sounding more like a live band for the Generationals' next record. Friends since high school and musical collaborators for roughly a decade, Widmer and Joyner are working on their next batch of songs.

"We're each trying to cook up a handful of demos and work them to a point where even though they're still pretty raw, the main piano or guitar riff is there, and the lyrics are mostly there," Widmer says. "Then we'll shuffle the deck and try to finish off the other one's songs. We certainly have that shorthand to know where the other one is going to go and where to challenge each other to do something unexpected."

Generationals - Angry Charlie (live Laundromatinee Session)
Generationals - Exterior Street Day (live Laundromatinee Session)
Generationals - When They Fight They Fight

Monday, November 16, 2009

Grand Archives @ Plush tomorrow

Seattle's Grand Archives are playing at Plush tomorrow (11/17), and if it's anywhere near as good as the band's first Tucson show (June 2008), it's not to be missed.

I have a review of the band's latest album, Keep In Mind Frankenstein, in this week's Tucson Weekly. So check it out, and check out the show:
Not one to offer up much in the way of new tricks, Grand Archives' Mat Brooke instead maintains a remarkable level of quality control.

A veteran of both the cult-favorite Carissa's Wierd and the quickly ascendant Band of Horses, the Seattle singer-guitarist sounds content to remain firmly planted at the easy-listening end of the indie-rock spectrum.

Grand Archives' second record, Keep in Mind Frankenstein, returns with the same familiar pastoral sound: delicate harmonies, shimmering electric guitars and gently strummed acoustics.

The band went back to the same producer, Ben Kersten, to create the same comfortable sound found on the group's 2008 debut. While the album's weaker songs fade too softly into the background, the differences here are the subtleties, and taken together, they add up to a stronger effort.

Lyrics like "someday I will come back and burn it all down"—from album opener "Topsy's Revenge"—have never sounded so pretty, backed by an acoustic guitar, as well as touches of cello and accordion.

"Oslo Novelist" pairs the "come tomorrow, this will all be gone" chorus with a wistful pedal steel guitar, while Brooke's former Carissa's Wierd bandmates Jenn Ghetto and Sera Cahoone lend haunting backup vocals to "Siren Echo Valley (Part 1)."

"Dig That Crazy Grave" is the album's highlight, the catchiest song Grand Archives has recorded yet.

Grand Archives - Oslo Novelist
Grand Archives - Silver Among the Gold

Friday, November 06, 2009

Five videos for Friday

Forgive me for going a little lazy with the blog lately, but it happens.

Here are a bunch of videos of bands I've seen over the last three weeks (one hell of a great run, I have to say. It's been a bit hard to wrap my head around it all, especially coming on the hells of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival). The videos are in a reverse chronological order based on when I saw the bands:

Tom Russell - Tonight We Ride

Dinosaur Jr. - Feel the Pain

Art Brut - Emily Kane

The Low Anthem - Charlie Darwin

Blind Pilot - Two Towns From Me

U2 - Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
Stupid U2 official youtube won't allow embedding, but click through anyway since it's a fantastic video - live from the Rose Bowl.

Bob Dylan - Things Have Changed
Another non-embeddable clip, this is from this summer's AFI tribute to Michael Douglas.

Yo La Tengo - Nothing to Hide

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New video from Tracy Shedd

Tucson's very own Tracy Shedd has just wrapped up a video for a new song, "City at Night," from the forthcoming EP88, out early next year on Eskimo Kiss Records. If this first single is any indication, the record will be a more somber, piano-based sound. Check it out, and look below for more downloads.

Tracy Shedd - Whatever It Takes
Tracy Shedd - Never Too Late (LIVE from WMBR 88.1 FM)
Tracy Shedd - Paris (LIVE from WMBR 88.1 FM)
Tracy Shedd - Plastic World (LIVE from WMBR 88.1 FM)
Tracy Shedd - Not Giving Up (LIVE from WMBR 88.1 FM)
Tracy Shedd - Valentine (LIVE from WMBR 88.1 FM)
Tracy Shedd - Louder Than You Can Hear (full album zip file)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Blind Pilot / The Low Anthem @ Plush Sunday

Probably more than any other area of the broader indie music world, folk has lost its boundaries, been shifted and recontextualized, and parceled out again in even stranger-termed sub-genres. Nobody in particular has directed this expansive redefinition, it's simply that practitioners of acoustic music themselves have reached broader, in terms of instrumentation, lyrical themes and the ways in which the bands and artists reach and interact with their audience.

But the core element of the various records that have found their way to my ears is simple: it's too damn good to ignore.

Portland's Blind Pilot and The Low Anthem, from Rhode Island - two excellent examples of this contemporary take on folk music arrive - in Tucson together, for a show Sunday at Plush.

I found Blind Pilot from Mr. Chair, who threw "One Red Thread" on a mix he passed my way a few months ago. I've been listening to Blind Pilot a lot at night, usually pretty late, and I think that in itself is a pretty good description of the band's sound.Originally a duo, the band has expanded to a six-person touring ensemble, which gives their calming and introspective music a wonderful fullness live.

I missed Blind Pilot's last Tucson show when I had the flu, but I caught them at the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco in August and if they can top the short festival set tomorrow night, I'll be thrilled.

I'm newer to the Low Anthem, but the fact that the band's self-released 2008 album, Oh My God Charlie Darwin, was picked up and rereleased this year by Nonesuch had me sold. The album starts with spooky falsetto on "Charlie Darwin," but elsewhere the songs are rollicking. Sign up for the band's email list and snag and excellent cover of Dylan's "Dignity."

And I'm not sure whether the band knows it, but the Low Anthem comes with the Billy Bragg seal of approval. When I interviewed Bragg last month for a story on San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, we talked about how festivals are great for finding new bands, how previously unheard music can absolutely capture you in such a setting. And Bragg said that when he played Newport over the summer, he was impressed by the Low Anthem. So there you go.

The Low Anthem - Charlie Darwin
Blind Pilot - Buried a Bone (Live Laundromatinee session)
Blind Pilot - One Red Thread (Live Laundromatinee session)
Blind Pilot - Two Towns From Me (Live Laundromatinee session)

Blind Pilot / The Low Anthem Tour:

10/25/09. Tucson, AZ – Plush
10/27/09. Houston, TX – Bronze Peacock at HOB
10/28/09. Dallas, TX – Granada Theater
10/29/09. Austin, TX – The Parish
10/30/09. Baton Rouge, LA – Spanish Moon
11/02/09. Tallahassee, FL – Club Downunder
11/03/09. Orlando, FL – The Social
11/04/09. Atlanta, GA – The Earl
11/05/09. Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge
11/06/09. Asheville, NC – University of North Carolina
11/07/09. Norfolk, VA – Attucks Theater
11/09/09. Carrboro, NC – Cats Cradle
11/11/09. Washington, D.C. – The Black Cat
11/12/09. Boston, MA – Paradise

Ezra Furman @ Solar Culture Saturday

After watching the Wildcats kick UCLA's ass tomorrow, I'm going to head downtown to check out Ezra Furman & The Harpoons at Solar Culture (though I can't blame anybody who picks Why? @ Congress).

I first heard of Furman a couple years ago via Paste writer and blogger Andy Whitman, who dared use the New Dylan tag, calling Furman untamed, freewheelin' and manic, and saying the then 20-year-old "sings like his skull is ready to explode." So, I checked out Furman's debut album, Banging Down the Doors, immediately. Whitman was right. I put "Hotel Room in Casablanca" on a mix, and grabbed Furman's follow-up, last year's Inside the Human Body.

Furman is the very definition of raw talent, putting together two fantastic albums before evening coming close to scraping up against his mid-20s. This is mostly acoustic music, but it's pulsating with adrenaline and urgency. His lyrics rush by, a stream of language covering more ground than I would have thought possible. And it's perfect for his rapid fire singing, unpolished and nasaly, but like John Darnielle or Jeff Mangum or Dylan himself, Furman can pack his voice with enough unhinged emotion to launch his songs into the stratosphere.

Ezra Furman - We Should Fight
Ezra Furman Live on NPR's World Cafe
Ezra Furman Live Daytrotter Session

Oct 24 – Tucson, AZ @ Solar Culture
Oct 25 – Scottsdale, AZ @ Chyro Arts
Oct 27 – Norman, OK @ Opolis Coffee
Oct 28 – Houston, TX @ Walter’s on Washington
Oct 29 – Austin, TX @ The Mohawk
Oct 31 – Hot Springs, AR @ Maxine’s
Nov 1 – Little Rock, AR @ Juanita’s
Nov 3 – Memphis, TN @ Hi-Tone Cafe
Nov 5 – Nashville, TN @ 3rd & Lindsley
Nov 6 – Atlanta, GA @ The Drunken Unicorn
Nov 7 – Chapel Hill, NC @ Local 506
Nov 8 – Charlottesville, VA @ The Southern
Nov 11 – Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
Nov 12 – Stevens Point, WI @ The Encore – Univ of Wisconsin
Nov 13 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
Nov 14 – Iowa City, IA @ The Mill
Nov 17 – Columbia, MO @ MOJO’s
Nov 18 – Lawrence, KS @ The Bottleneck
Nov 19 – St. Louis, MO @ The Firebird
Nov 20 – Indianapolis, IN @ Vollrath
Nov 27 – Chicago, IL @ Double Door


Yo La Tengo, Bob Dylan and U2 - all in six days. And I could've added either the Pogues or Gogol Bordello to make it a four show week, but for the following constraints: broke, tired, lack of transportation. Still, what a week. More later.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I know it happens just as often the other way, but I still get a little stab of disappointment when I discover a new band, and said band is touring soon, only to play Phoenix in favor of Tucson.

Evangelicals sound a little psychedelic, a little pop, and seem just as fun as fellow Oklahomans The Flaming Lips. They tread some of the same ground as 80s and 90s alternative giants like James, but there's also a fresh and unrestrained side to Evangelicals. And they're just weird enough to make a perfect lead-in to the Halloween season (Halloween gets its own season, right?). It's just too bad they play Modified instead of a Tucson club.

I missed the band's 2008 album The Evening Descends (an 8.3 at Pitchfork), but now comes word from Dead Oceans that the band has been in recording sessions for a 2010 record.

Evangelicals - Halloween Song
Evangelicals - Skeleton Man

10/31/09 Norman, OK - Opolis
11/02/09 Phoenix, AZ - Modified Arts w/ Holiday Shores
11/03/09 Los Angeles, CA - Echo w/ Port O'Brien
11/04/09 San Francisco, CA - Hemlock Tavern w/ Holiday Shores
11/05/09 Portland, OR - Holocene w/ Holiday Shores
11/06/09 Seattle, WA - The Vera Project w/ Holiday Shores
11/07/09 Missoula, MT - The Palace w/ Holiday Shores
11/08/09 Salt Lake City, UT - Kilby Court w/ Holiday Shores
11/09/09 Denver, CO - Hi Dive w/ Holiday Shores
11/11/09 Kansas City, MO - The Record Bar w/ Holiday Shores, Eli August
11/12/09 St. Louis, MO - Firebird w/ Holiday Shores
11/16/09 Washington, DC - The Red and the Black w/ Holiday Shores
11/17/09 Philadelphia, PA - Kung Fu Necktie w/ Holiday Shores
11/18/09 Brooklyn, NY - Union Hall w/ Holiday Shores
11/19/09 Allston, MA - Great Scott w/ Holiday Shores
11/20/09 Buffalo, NY - Mohawk Place w/ Holiday Shores
11/21/09 Cleveland, OH - Beachland Tavern w/ Holiday Shores
11/22/09 Chicago, IL - Schubas w/ Holiday Shores
11/23/09 Bloomington, IN - The Bishop w/ Holiday Shores

Monday, October 12, 2009

Preview Tom Waits' Glitter & Doom live disc

One of the best shows I've ever seen was the Tom Waits performance in El Paso last summer, and across the country, his Glitter and Doom tour was widely praised. So a live album from the tour is more than a little thrilling - and it's great to hear a full disc will be devoted to nothing but Waits' fascinating banter.

The kind folks over at Anti- Records have released a free digital preview of eight songs from the upcoming release (available Nov. 24). Just click on the widget below, enter your email and download away.

Here's the info on the release:
Available November 24th, Glitter and Doom is a 2 disc collection of the best of the best tracks from Tom Waits' sold out, highly acclaimed Glitter and Doom tour of the US and Europe in the summer of 2008.

Disc One is designed to sound like one evening's performance, even though the 17 tracks are selected from 10 cities, from Paris to Birmingham; Tulsa to Milan; and Atlanta to Dublin. Sonically the album is superb and has been beautifully recorded and meticulously mastered . Disc Two is a bonus compendium called TOM TALES, which is a selection of the comic bromides, strange musings, and unusual facts that Tom traditionally shares with his audience during the piano set. Waits' topics range from the ritual of insects to the last dying breath of Henry Ford.
Tom Waits - Live NPR Broadcast 2008-07-05 (2 hours 20 minutes, 130 mb)

Friday, October 09, 2009

Grove & Divisadero

As I say good-bye to San Francisco, here's a batch of tunes that will always remind me of my long and adventure-filled stay in this fantastic city. I'll be back soon...

Review - fun. - Aim and Ignite

My review of Aim and Ignite, the new album from former Format singer Nate Ruess and his new band fun., is up at the Tucson Weekly:

The opening line of Aim and Ignite —"As I walk through the streets of my new city, I'm back feeling much better, I suppose"—is the same sort of heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality that distinguished fun. singer Nate Ruess with his previous band, The Format.

It's also a statement of purpose for Ruess, whose work here is a more theatrical and slightly more musically varied version of the ultra-catchy indie-pop that sent the Phoenix-area native on a quick ascension.

As the opening cascade of strings and accordion on "Be Calm" gives way to a herald-like trumpet and military drum rolls, it's clear that Ruess has progressed as a singer, able to both whisper and wail, conveying an emotional range that stretches from joyousness to vulnerability.

But however unrestrained Ruess feels with new bandmates Andrew Dost (Anathallo) and Jack Antonoff (Steel Train), there's still something missing from his collaboration with The Format's Sam Means, whose more grounded and understated skills as a guitarist made him such a fitting foil for Ruess.

"Benson Hedges" and "All the Pretty Girls" swell with handclaps, strings and sing-along choruses, while "At Least I'm Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)" and "Light a Roman Candle With Me" could easily find their way into a 21st-century indie musical.

Produced by Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) and Roger Joseph Manning Jr., who filled the same roles on The Format's Dog Problems, Aim and Ignite rushes along with the exuberant flair and candied adrenaline that you'd expect from a band named fun.

fun. - All The Pretty Girls

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Review: The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You

I wrote a review of the new Avett Brothers album for this week's East Bay Express:

North Carolina's Avett Brothers approach their major-label debut with a heady adventurousness, perhaps trying to bottle their excellent and frenetic live show while sticking close to the themes that have driven the band for a decade.

Working with famed producer Rick Rubin, the band reaches for a bigger and often rowdier sound — including plenty of piano and a rock 'n' roll backbeat with more drums than ever — leaving their rootsy bluegrass as an accent that colors in the edges.

While that might sound as if the Avetts are working against their strengths, the real revelation of I and Love and You is that the band is versatile and talented enough to pull it off with the same passion and straightforward tenderness that made Emotionalism one of 2007's best albums. Their songwriting blossoms from its core honesty into songs about friendship, family, love, challenges, doubt, and striving for the right things in life.

The opening title song is a gradually swelling cello and piano ballad that highlights both the ache and the buzzing excitement of starting over. "Laundry Room," the album's next most memorable song, layers piano and strings on a bed of guitar and banjo picking, and the Avetts' superb harmony vocals, buoyant enough to dig hope out of heartbreak: Tonight I'll burn the lyrics, 'cause every chorus was your name.

In expanding their sound, the Avetts have crafted an album of abundant thrills, and while not quite a masterpiece, I and Love and You continues the band's long ascendancy.

The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Recap

Everyone finds his or her moments to cherish over three days and 80 some bands. That sentiment stands out among the few music festival truisms. The moments are the memories, the reasons to put miles upon miles on your feet, fretfully scan schedules to make the tough calls between two favorites playing a half mile apart at the same time, and make so many people agree to come together, to make a silent pact to enjoy it all as much as possible.

Those moments are why people play music, listen to music and find joy in a fellowship that extends from the artist on stage straight through the crowd to the very back, which in this case felt like it stretched clear to the Pacific Ocean.

They're both intensely personal and communal - communal between a small group of friends or tens of thousands of like-minded strangers - sown amid a brew of exhaustion and elation that can only be found at a gargantuan music festival. Here are my moments from the 2009 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival:

• Tom Morello closing out his Nightwatchman set with "This Land Is Your Land," joined by Steve Earle, Allison Moorer and even Boots Riley. Woody Guthrie and his towering spirit were prevalent through much of the festival, but I felt him strongest during that song, singing "From California..." along with the rest of the crowd, and following Morello and Earle in an all-crowd jump-along.

• John Prine's voice ain't what it used to be, but he warmed up amazingly well during his set, which was laced with humor and grace. "Angel From Montgomery" was another heart-swelling sing-along for me.

• I'd never seen Lyle Lovett before, and damn if his voice live is even richer and smoother than on any record I've heard. "If I Had A Boat" is the song that'll stick in my mind, but Lyle's Large Band blew me away every song with their Texas Swing, blending honky-tonk, blues and gospel like a thick stew.

• Saturday's first big priority was Okkervil River, but on stage before them was the legendary Buddy Miller, and he was joined by Emmylou Harris (holy shit!) and then Robert Plant (holy shit!!!).

• Okkervil is better than ever - energetic and beaming with a lively sort of poise that's developed slowly in the six years since I first saw the band. "Westfall" is a live treasure, like always, but I'm falling more and more for the latest album - "Lost Coastlines" in particular - each time I see the band play.

• I left our Towers of Gold homebase to catch Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women, who tear shit up. I interviewed Alvin for my Hardly Strictly feature in the East Bay Express, and while they were on stage, I kept thinking about how he described The Guilty Women. An all-female band was a different direction for Alvin, no doubt, but they fit together on stage like they were born playing together instead of a one-off all-star team. Which makes it no surprise that Alvin & The Guilty Women are stronger than ever.

• It'd been eight years since I'd seen the Old 97's, but they haven't diminished a bit. If you can't sing along with "Barrier Reef," you can't sing along with anything.

• Unless you stake out a place for the main Banjo Stage by about 11 a.m., you're going to be nowhere near the stage. But a less-than-ideal spot for Gillian Welch is still amazing. I wanted to see her Fillmore set the night before the festival began, but it was sold out. Gillian, David Rawlings and Emmylou Harris teaming for "Didn't Leave Nothing But the Baby" is always going to be excellent.

• The cold and the wind hit with vigor just before Steve Earle hit the stage, and the day's Tecates were taking their toll, so I sadly have to admit that Saturday's closing set was spent mostly shivering, and being glad I saw Earle in August so I didn't feel like I missed out on too much.

• After his early Sunday set, I'm more convinced than ever that Elvis Perkins has put out this year's best record. "Doomsday" brought me chills at 12:30, and that's saying a ton.

• I broke away from a completely enjoyable Dr. Dog set to trek across the park and settle in for Billy Bragg, who had the best performance of the festival, hands down. Opening with "Help Save The Youth of America" and hitting several Woody Guthrie high notes, Bragg was everything I was hoping for the first time I saw him. "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" will always be one of my top-5 favorite songs.

• The crowds (estimated about 750,000 over the weekend) started taking their toll on me and the crew about that point, and several friends called it quits before the Neko Case set. I was glad I stayed, but from the excessively far distance, it's hard to say much about her performance. The setting sun, however, put a memorable glow in her red hair, and it was all worth it to hear my favorite songs from her new album, "I'm An Animal" and "People Got A Lotta Nerve."

• Then it was once again time for Emmylou Harris, the queen of Hardly Strictly. And for some reason (Monday morning work, Saturday's horribly cold weather, who knows?) the park emptied quite a bit, so were were able to get closer to Emmylou than were for any other act that entire day. "Pancho & Lefty," "Shores of White Sands," and "Return of the Grievous Angel" were all stunners, but I have to agree with the Hardly Strictly booker Dawn Holliday, who told me that he favorite moment of the festival is when the sun is going down and Emmylou is singing "Red Dirt Girl" - "I could stay in that moment forever," she said.

And those are the moments.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Slow Doomsday
Dr. Dog - My Old Ways
Okkervil River - Westfall (live)

Friday, October 02, 2009

It's Hardly Strictly time!

Photo by Ken Friedman

In four hours, I'll be in Golden Gate Park, listening to the Nightwatchman, Tom Morello's folk persona, to be followed by John Prine and Lyle Lovett. And that's just the slow first day at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Did I mention it's free?

I first came to the festival two years ago (and I'm listening to the Jeff Tweedy set from that year as I write) and of course fell in love with the park as a venue for live music. I missed out on last year's Hardly Strictly, but I've seen the two Outside Lands Festivals in the same location, so now it feels like I'm an old pro at navigating between the Speedway and Lindley meadow stages.

The lineup is amazing and there's no way I'll be able to see everybody I want. But my priorities are clear: Billy Bragg, Lyle Lovett, Mavis Staples, Richie Havens, Aimee Mann and Nick Lowe - none of whom I've seen before - as well as Elvis Perkins, Okkervil River, Neko Case, Old 97s, Dave Alvin, Steve Earle and the queen of Hardly Strictly, Emmylou Harris.

Aside from the big, big names playing the festival, the vibe at Hardly Strictly is what's truly special. It's free, so there are no fences, no gates, no long lines (excepting the johns at times), no pressure. It's an easy come and go if you want. Lay out a blanket, bring some food and your own beer and just soak it all in. The weather is great. The friends are great.

Simply put, if the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival isn't the highlight of the year, then your life is a hell of a lot more exciting than mine.

I'll end by referring everybody to the feature I wrote on the festival for the East Bay Express. And I have to say it was a bit of a thrill to interview Nick Lowe, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dave Alvin and Billy Bragg:
Golden Gate Park's biggest musical event, the always-free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, returns this weekend with another impressively rich and varied collection of roots music. While maintaining the festival's core spirit — a classic Bay Area combination of generosity and creativity — organizers are going bigger and bluesier in this ninth year, adding a sixth stage and welcoming artists who might have found a stage at the cancelled San Francisco Blues Festival.

Heavy on legends and local favorites — including the perennial headliner Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, Lyle Lovett, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Del McCoury, and Earl Scruggs — the lineup has 81 acts, spread across six stages. Organizers say about 750,000 people attended over the course of three days last year and, weather permitting, they expect at least as many this year. (Full lineup, schedule, artist biographies, and festival map at

"There's a vein of music that if you're turned on to, you're going to like, it's just a matter of being exposed to it," said Dawn Holliday, who books the festival. "By the eighty bands we chose, there's going to be a similarity that's going to flow through that crowd. Last year was a perfect example. People who love Steve Earle and Emmylou got to hear Iron & Wine and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, and people who love them got to hear Earl Scruggs."

The festival's lone sponsor, financier and banjo picker Warren Hellman, started the festival in 2001, with twelve bands on two stages. "Warren wanted to do a bluegrass festival in the park and we booked Hazel Dickens first," Holliday said. "I said I think we better hire Emmylou, or we'll have thirteen people there. He called it Strictly Bluegrass music to begin with, to try and shame Emmylou into doing bluegrass. I was booking songwriters and Americana and Cajun music and diversifying every year, and I don't think Emmylou did bluegrass until year seven."

This year, Holliday hopes the Hardly Strictly helps pick up the slack from the cancelled San Francisco Blues Festival, another early fall fixture that had run for 36 years. "Because of the blues festival closing, I knew that Allen [Toussaint] and Mavis [Staples] and Booker T would be good acts," she joked. "We're going to have more B3s than banjos."

It's a festival known for special guests and collaborations. At one of last year's most acclaimed performances, Hardly Strictly regular Dave Alvin unveiled his new project — the Guilty Women. "They asked me last year to do something different and I said, without really thinking about it, 'An all-female band,'" Alvin said. "And within a day, everybody had agreed to do it. It was all musicians I'd more or less worked with, but a lot of them had never played together. I just kind of had the feeling it would work out — blind faith in fate."

Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women felt so good for everybody that the band regrouped a couple months later in Austin to record an album. "Everybody walked off stage pretty excited about it," Alvin said. "Everybody in the band is an amazing musician. It's a cooperative kind of effort. Even though it's Dave Alvin's band, it's not really Dave Alvin. It's not me with a backup band. It's more of a meeting of the minds."

Alvin — who will perform this year with the Guilty Women and with the Knitters — said the festival's easy-going vibe comes from the generosity of Hellman. "There's a huge audience for this type of music, but it's not very well represented in pop culture as a whole, not catered to at all," he said. "A festival like this is about traditional music, done in a variety of styles, and here's 80,000 people, 90,000 people who love it. You get a feeling of communion. You're sharing a love of this music with other people. That creates a very nice vibe among the crowd. And you can't beat the location of Golden Gate Park."

Returning for his second Hardly Strictly performance, British folk-punk icon Billy Bragg said singer-songwriters flourish at the festival, a strong draw for him. "It brings people from all sorts of different traditions, but what we have in common is a storytelling aspect of what we do," he said. "It's always an honor to share the space."

Known to introduce topical updates to "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" — from his 1988 Workers Playtime album — Bragg said a 2009 version is in the works. "I'm sure there'll be something local and up-to-date that I might want to sneak in," he said. "That's the good thing about that song — you can shape it for so many different reasons."

English singer-songwriter Nick Lowe is back at the festival for the fourth time, saying that despite its growth in popularity, Hardly Strictly has remained sociable. "It's real fun to walk around and it's very friendly without being a hippie weird-out."

"I make no secret of my love for American popular music, of course that includes many folk stylings as well, folk and blues and so on," he continued. "I love it. Being British, we tend to feel that we have carte blanche to jumble the stuff up as we see fit."

In addition to playing a solo set, Lowe will join James Cotton, Austin de Lone, Buddy Miller, Derek O'Brien, Wes Starr, Jimmie Vaughan, and Jack "Applejack" Walroth in Boz Scaggs' Blue Velvet Band, put together specifically for the festival. "It's wonderful to get the opportunity to play with these great musicians," Lowe said. "There isn't really a great live music scene in the UK anymore, and there really isn't a place where you can just turn up and play away."

Texan Jimmie Dale Gilmore is another Hardly Strictly veteran, playing this year with longtime friends and collaborators Butch Hancock and Joe Ely as the Flatlanders, the on-again, off-again band that released Hills and Valleys earlier this year. "I've told a lot of people that it's probably my very favorite festival," Gilmore said. "To me there's an aura around the whole thing. What it boils down to is there's a love for the music other than a love for the profits and you can just tell. It comes out in so many different ways."

The Flatlanders will introduce some of the band's new album to the Golden Gate Park audience, but are also planning for a loose, spontaneous set. "Working with Butch and Joe, anything can happen," Gilmore said. "We all have a real experimental streak in us. As the Flatlanders, we never were pushing any kind of a commercial career. It's purely been the love of the music. We have to blend that with the fact that we have our own separate careers and we have to make a special place to work as the Flatlanders, but it's something we really enjoy a lot."

For her part, Holliday shuns the backstage friends and family section, preferring to spend her time in the audience to take in all the music she can. "The highlight of the day for me is the end of the festival and Emmylou is singing 'Red Dirt Girl' and the sun's going down," she said. "I could stay in that moment forever."

Billy Bragg - Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards (live)
The Flatlanders - Homeland Refugee
Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women - Fourth of July (live from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 8)
Nick Lowe - All Men Are Liars