(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Concert Review - Marc Broussard, Josh Hoge, Chad Price

30 January 2009, Aggie Theater (Ft. Collins, CO)

I went to this show to see Marc Broussard. He's been on my radar for a while but I've never seen him live. With a new album out, Marc is starting to become more popular: this fall he has appeared on Conan O'Brian and the Tonight Show. For this show, he had Josh Hoge opening for him. He was supposed to have Jessie Baylin open as well, but she wasn't able to make it for this show, so they had Chad Price start out the show.

Chad is a local performer who's played with the bands All (punk) and Drag the River (alt-country). Drag the River seems to be effectively on hiatus and Chad is mostly performing solo. What he played last night is squarely in the introspective singer-songwriter camp. Here's a video of Chad (with longer hair), which was typical of what he was playing. It's rough-edged, raspy country/folk - a little lower keyed than the Drag the River's typical songs. His stage presence was similarly low key, which is a little surprising because he's had plenty of experience touring with his bands. Anyway, I have a soft place in my heart for smaller-name opening acts. It's hard to get up there and play for an audience that's impatient for the main act. So, I really wanted to like Chad but, as my friend Tommy said, "he didn't make it easy." He didn't talk much and his material was depressive and a little whiny. On the plus side, he is a competent guitar player with some nice chops but it wasn't enough to shift the balance. The set mostly reminded me of a Tuesday night open-mic show. The poor sound mix didn't help either. The high point of the set for me was his cover of the Everly Brothers' song, Cathy's Clown.

The second act brought a lot more energy to the stage: Josh Hoge and his band kicked things off pretty quickly with a cover of the Allman Brothers' Midnight Rider. I had never heard of Josh before but there were a number of people there at the show who did know him. He also name-dropped a little about his music industry connections with Ne-Yo and others, so he's not quite coming out of nowhere. While the set started out with more of a rock feel, it quickly shifted into an R&B/pop space, which was very typical of his style. It would be easy to reference John Legend when I try to describe his style but I'll go old-school instead and bring up Darrel Hall (of Hall and Oates). They both have the same blue eyed soul thing happening, with the sensuous vocal style and the sudden breaks to falsetto. This sort of thing is not quite my sweet spot but it's easy to appreciate good talent.His band is really tight and they all knew how to work the stage. They also provided smooth backing vocals. In his banter between songs, Josh had an odd-cadenced, deadpan speaking voice - sort of like Mitch Hedberg. Like Mitch, he was pretty funny. Talking about his latest album, which airs a lot of frustration about a failed relationship, he summarized his feelings about the relationship with an understated, "That did not make me happy." Speaking of his original songs, I like his writing style. Nice lyrics, such as for his single, 360:
What goes around comes around
Baby I thought you knew
You do somebody wrong for too long
Its gonna get done to you
And you might think you got away
Played me for a fool
Thought you knew, 360 is coming right back to you
Good songs, entertaining banter - this was a great set. He closed with a cover of Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine, with a big "drive it home" ending that reminded me of the Allman's end to Whipping Post, which made a nice bookend for the set.

As I mentioned, I've been aware of Marc Broussard for a while but I haven't followed him closely. I've kind of thought of him as a blues and soul artist, maybe grouping him with Bonnie Rait or Eric Clapton. This doesn't begin to match what the show was like. The set started with a loose and dreamy intro that quickly built up as the band took the stage. This was a full band, with bass, drums, keys and guitar plus Marc playing on most of the songs - they had a big sound. If Josh was good, Marc was great! Following Josh's R&B groove, this was a more mature soul sound. It was also more versatile: Marc could slide into a Marvin Gaye thing on one song and then, on the next song, rock it out to reach for Living Color or Stevie Wonder. The set list moved from soul to rock to tight funk groove. Everything was paced perfectly to build the energy, then give us a chance to catch our breath, then kick it up another notch. When they dove into a cover of P-Funk's Unfunky UFO, everybody was bouncing. Throughout all of this, Broussard digs into his Louisiana roots to give it a little of that delta groove. I could keep pulling out musical touchstones, like Dr. John, Steve Winwood, the Funky Meters, and so on, but that's just trying to give y'all a taste of what you missed. He closed out the set with his song Home, which morphed into Whole Lotta Love and back. After that, we were drained but ready for more. He came out and started his encore solo, singing a couple of songs written for his daughter and son, before building it up with the band again.

I have to say, if you ever get the chance to see Marc Broussard, definitely make the effort. Dark rum and coke, with a splash of Kahlúa should give you the energy to weather the journey.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What's under the covers?

How do you feel about cover songs? I have a few different thoughts about them. First of all, as a musician, I’m conflicted. There are songs I love to hear so much that I get great pleasure from playing them myself. On the other hand, I hate covers. You see, when I was first learning guitar, I had painstakingly learned Stairway to Heaven. This is a normal rite of passage for all guitarists of my vintage or so, along with Sweet Home Alabama, Iron Man, and Satisfaction. Anyway, I forget who I played it for, but their reaction still echoes in my brain: "That’s not how the record sounds." Years later, I came up with the right response, "Well, I’m not Jimmy Page and he doesn’t have to play a beater like my old Crestline either." Still, my visceral reaction was to stop playing any recognizable covers. This was a patently passive-aggressive attitude but it did drive me into developing my own voice as a writer and my playing style.

I eventually overcame my problems with covers, but I suspect this still fuels my attitude about them as a listener: I really prefer cover versions that drift significantly away from the original, like Jimi’s version of All Along the Watchtower or Kronos Quartet’s version of Purple Haze. Many of the covers I perform have their own drift, albeit not quite so drastic, like my acoustic arrangement of Purple Haze or my take on Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet. This is sort of like the folk tradition of making an old song your own.

I would split the world of covers into three groups: the drifters that reposition the song in a fairly significant way; the precise, note-for-note approach, staying as close to the original as possible; and the default approach, which generally follow the arrangement but don’t quite aspire to obsessive imitation. This last case is not so interesting but the first case has the greatest potential.

Lots of performers have made the big leaps. The two I mentioned above are good examples. The problem is that it’s really easy to slip from a great re-imagination of a song into a cute joke. Sure, Dread Zeppelin doing reggae influenced Led Zeppelin or the Austin Lounge Lizards covering Pink Floyd’s Brain Damage are both entertaining, but they’re not really great art.

Two of my personal favorites that do transcend are Nouvelle Vague and Charlie Hunter. I’ll also throw an honorable mention to Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé (more on this in a moment).

Nouvelle Vague is a concept group by Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, which favors Latin versions of punk/new wave songs.Give a listen to this excerpt from their version of Guns of Brixton by the Clash. They’ve really turned this piece on its head – the distant vocal delivery contradicts the drive of the lyrics to create a wonderful sense of cognitive dissonance. At the same time, the sparse arrangement echoes something of the punk ethos. Even though some have dismissed this work as the kind of camp I mentioned above, I really think there’s something cool here, whether intended or not.

Charlie Hunter’s example is his jazz version of Bob Marley’s Natty Dread. He covers the whole album, with each song taking the original melodies and arrangements as a starting point to showcase Hunter’s jazz sensibilities. Compare Charlie to Bob with these samples of Lively Up Yourself. Hunter stays true to the original, but pulls a totally different feel.

Coming back to Steve and Eydie, their cover of Black Hole Sun is a case where camp grows into art somehow. By no means was this a labor of love (a brief interview about this song with Steve Lawrence is here) and yet it really works for me.

I know I’m skipping plenty of other great examples, like the Easy Star All-Stars version of Dark Side of the Moon or Henry Kaiser’s work on Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It or that other one that you’re sure I should have mentioned. I’ll leave you to track those down on your own.

The other two classes of covers (the precise and the standard) are not quite as interesting to consider, but I personally prefer the latter. The note-for-note covers tend to be found mostly among tribute bands. Here’s a YouTube example of Rico Pereira from Surfing With the Cowboy playing the Stevie Ray Vaughn song, Lenny. This is a great technical achievement, but it's ultimately an artistic dead end. There’s a lot to be learned from working out a piece this way, but performing it live is like dusting off the original 8-track for yet another play. A serious tribute band, be it an Elvis, Beatlemania, or the Joshua Tree (U2 tribute) is striving to deliver a real sense of the original. So, the entertainment part trumps art for art's sake. Still, for me, there’s always a jokey element to this. I know that what they do is technically challenging, but I don’t quite get it.

The standard approach to covers is to more or less deliver on the original song. The arrangement is roughly the same, but often it is constrained by the natural style of the performer: the Beatles covering Roll Over Beethoven, the Blues Brothers, or that band playing down at the corner bar. Ultimately, most of my own covers fall into this range, even though I wish they were a little further out.

As a musician, I’ll step back for a moment and ask the non-musicians out there: Do you like cover versions? How close should they be to the originals?

If this whets your appetite, drop by the Covers Project.

Monday, January 26, 2009

CD Review - MTHDS, Music That Heightens Different Senses

When I caught MTHDS earlier this month, I didn't get enough of a feel for them. As I mentioned, they came across as mostly a rock/funk/rap hybrid, which didn't match the sound on their site. Or at least, it was just a piece of the whole. I'm sure that if I could have stayed later, I'd have heard more of the reggae/ska influenced jams they do, too. On the positive side, I did pick up their EP, Music That Heightens Different Senses. I'm glad that I got this. It's a nice little 6 song slice of party music.

MTHDS is reminiscent of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Spacefish (here's a great review of that relatively unknown band), or Infectious Grooves: laid back funk with lyrics half rapped/half sung. Several of the songs bring in a ska backbeat to get that extra skanky feel. So, I wouldn't quite call this hip hop, even with the rap lyrical delivery.

Since this is a short one, let's take it track by track. First up, What Yall Want. This is the most hip hop of the tracks. This introduces the band and talks a bit about what they bring:
What yall want
What you want it, we got it
Probably droppin' the hardest of our performance edit
What yall need
What you need is provided,
We dreamin' schemin and plottin', leavin' demons in coffins
Sure, it doesn't make the most sense in the world, but it kicks. Just listening to it, I want to shake it a bit. The guitar covers a choppy groove during the verses and throws up an assertive breakdown lick at the end of each chorus.

Chuch is where we start to get into party mode. I can imagine the band pumping this out at a house party and getting everybody dancing. This has a stronger RHCP sound than the first one, although there's also a touch of De La Soul in the vocal approach. These guys are having a great time and you can really tell.

Next, we slip into a ska groove for Wicked Style. Sure, this has that blue-eyed reggae feel, but it's okay: they're having fun and they're willing to share. The last section of the song kicks into double time, then a little arena rock and, finally, a bit of dub.

Time to Ride is the song that reminds me the most of Spacefish. It's balances between a bouncy stream of consciousness riff and a more open, funky chorus. With this and a couple of the other tracks, you'll be reminded that these guys come from Vail, tied into the ski culture.

Back to the outskirts of ska-ville for Riot Joint, a story about a lovers' triangle conflict that escalates into a bigger riot pitting the band against a crowd. The thing I like the most about this song is that it evolves through a number of separate sections, each with their own vibe. There are also plenty of dynamics with the music dropping out periodically but a big rock chorus.

Pritty Slizzes heads back to the party zone. It's sort of a Smash Mouth kind of song, but with a rolling rap delivery. A paean to the pretty party girls and the singer's lack of success with them. Hope (and sexism) springs eternal but it creates a mood and it's perfect to fade out on for this short party album.

This takes me back to many of the live band scenes that I've been to and played at. Snotty boys with guitars and a party attitude: it's all fun. I'd really like to see what they could do with a longer disc. In the meantime, I'm guessing that live shows are their strength, so I'll keep an eye out to catch them again.

This one has to be paired with a pony keg of whatever was on sale and you don't care 'cos the room is hot and everybody's dancing.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

CD Review - Whiskey Blanket, Credible Forces

I covered Whiskey Blanket's live performance earlier in the month, now I'm finally getting to their CD, Credible Forces. This is a deeply layered set of tracks with a fairly unique musical feel. On the whole it's an impressive effort but, occasionally, the lyrical coherence doesn't hold together.

Three guys make up this Boulder band, each with his own stage name and personality. Sloppy Joe is a little bit more funny and a bit of a smart ass, sometimes playing the "Humpty Hump" role. In addition to rapping, he plays violin (and mandolin) on many of these tracks. Funny Biz seems a little more political and serious, although there are plenty of references to his party animal side in the lyrics. He raps and does some machine gun speed beat boxing. He also plays cello on a couple of tracks. Steakhouse is the main producer on the disc. As a rapper, he falls closer to Funny Biz's style. He handles the scratching and DJ role and also plays a fair bit of the live music mixed in on this CD (keys and bass with occasional guitar). Overall, they deliver conscious rap lyrics, with fairly fast toasting-style rhythms.

The live music bits on this album go a long way towards creating the unique sound. While plenty of hip hop takes on an R&B groove or rock feel, WB is more likely to slide into a classical mode or some kind of jazzy world beat. The first track, a short introduction, has a chamber music piece with some voice over mixed in. That sets up the second track, Night Waltz, with a deep layering of chorale vocals, accordion, live bass and guitar, and scratching. The "mood classical" permeates the CD, including Make Believe, Crunkster Malunkster, and Immaculate Dungeon of Manifested Solitude (where beatbox and violin collide), but there are plenty of other sounds, like klezmer, Gipsy Kings, and Pink Floyd. In some ways, they remind me a little of the Dutch DJs, C-Mon and Kipski.

One of my two favorite tracks on the disc, Wake and Stretch, starts out sounding like It's a Beautiful Day, but drifts more into a String Cheese Incident kind of groove. Once again, there's a lot going on musically here and it all fits together with the rap. Credible Sources, which is a shout out to the jazz greats, also gains complexity by the live mandolin and bass tracks in the mix. These two songs really showcase some of the originality that Whiskey Blanket brings to their sound.

So with all of this, what's not to like? A little bit of contextual muddiness, maybe. Dark Secrets starts out with a driven feel, fueled by a herky-jerky piano and funk guitar. The lyrics fit that mood, even if they're a little metaphorical:
I gotta rifle through the trash bins and stifle all the has-beens.
Fight for my passions and write off when I cash in...
The second verse keeps up this feel but the third verse just falls into a standard bragging rap that doesn't fit the feel of the song or the earlier lyrics:
Understand that we got the baddest, fattest raps on the planet
And it's set in stone, matter of fact, it's grafted in granite
We rock Pacific Atlantic, White Asian, Black, and Hispanic...
It's not bad, it would just be better in some other song. Another example is Temptations, which starts with introductions of the guys then eventually becomes a conscious rap about creative growth. The point is good to make, but the first third of the song just doesn't fit together.

Is any of that a reason to pan this disc? Not at all. The musical originality and interesting production make this very worthwhile. Even if you don't like rap, there are plenty of elements to make this worth checking out.

I'll pair this with a nice Belgian lambic (say Drie Fonteinen) because the sour complexity works for me but may not be to everyone else's taste.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stepwise refinement

That seems to be the arc that my band experiences have followed. Take a step, evaluate, plan before the next step. That's my engineering mindset as applied to "Real Life". Or at least "Real Music"

I think I first noticed it during the last gasp of a band I was in that I dubbed the Nowhere Band. Mostly because "you can't get there from here", as I was fond of saying in those final days. This started out as power trio, but we later added a keyboard player and a lead singer. The coolest aspect of the band was that everybody got their way: I got to play my original songs, Bob the drummer got to bring in some R&B, the bass player got his hard/classic rock, etc. Now, eclectic is cool and it can work (I've done it since;-), but we never found that path. As you can guess, the worst part of this band was that everybody got their way and it was a muddle.

After the slow fade with some minor fireworks at the end, we called it quits and went our separate ways. During that fade, I swore that my next band was going to have a clearer vision of what they're doing. After the next band (or so), I swore that my next band would have a someone cooler drive that clear vision. And so on. It's not like all of these groups sucked, it's just that I sensed there was something better out there that was worth looking for.

Eventually, I ended up playing in a reggae band (Cool Runnings), which is where I discovered my fundamental philosophy: dedication to the groove. I'll write more about this band later. The only reason I left that band is because work moved me to another city. Even so, I still looked for a band that would hit the sweet spot that Cool Runnings did but fixing some minor stuff. Because, as great as that band was, there's still got to be something a little closer to my ideal. Each step I take gives me another glimpse of what that ideal might include.

During this search, I've had a number of wonderful, transcendent musical interludes in my playing. My obsession doesn't block me from enjoying those. Anyway, looking for the "perfect band" is a doomed mission. I realize that and yet, every time I find myself looking for a new band, I have my list of stuff to fix from the last one and the dream of what could be. Always trying to move one step closer to my ideal.

This ties in with the see-saw I described in my musical history. Right now, I'm diversifying a bit: band and solo in parallel, following and leading, becoming a better bass player and doing it all. But above all, dedication to that groove.

Will the next step bring me closer?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

CD Review - Macklemore, The Language Of My World

Macklemore, out of Seattle, is a good live show, so let's give a listen to his CD, The Language of My World. I'll say straight up that I think this is a damn good disc: deeply personal and still relevant with good beats and lyrical flow.

Fundamentally, this is a concept album focused on his personal mission to strip away everything fake to reveal himself. In his liner notes, Macklemore says:
...If there was something I was scared to say, I said it. If there was a topic I thought would make people uncomfortable, I touched on it...
In large part, the songs deliver on his promise. Macklemore takes a personal learning experience from consciously confronting his id and creates some good art, which is not an unusual approach for art, but it is one that is not encountered so often in hip hop. There's plenty of honesty out there, but not nearly so much introspection or vulnerability.

This revelation begins with a fanfare intro and jumps right away into White Privilege, which directly addresses the conflict of being a white rapper. He did this live at the show and I wrote about it in my review, but this really is a springboard for the whole album. He strongly identifies with the hip hop cultural values but recognizes that he's outside of it. "Does privilege preclude someone from this art?" This is a good philosophical question, but to have the mindset and perspective to even ask it is, to a large extent, a matter of privilege as well.

Moving through the rest of the album is a journey of self actualization, stepping up to topics like dedication, ego, foregoing distraction, fidelity, and human connection. He calls himself out but calls us out, too.

I don't want to give the impression that this is all heavy and philosophical. He talks a lot about the joy he gets from hip hop, too. B-Boy, I Said Hey, and The Magic all visit this theme. Of course these songs also encourage being true to the spirit of the art of making this music. Crap, there I go talking about philosophy again. Anyway, he handles that smoother than I did: making the point but sharing the joy. There are also some funny moments, like Fake ID and Penis Song.

The only false note is Bush Song, which is a fairly weak attempt to satirize our Failure in Chief as a hateful, racist, homophobe. It's ham handed and not particularly on-target as a dig at the president. Jim Infantino did a better job with his WTFMFWTFAYT? Or Todd Snyder's You Got Away With It. Bush Song works better as a parody of the left's anti-Bush rants, which could be its point, I suppose. Anyway, my gripe is not the politics, it's that it doesn't fit the theme of the rest of the album. Even if Macklemore's point is to own up and face his own rage, it lacks the clarity and directness of songs like Ego.

Phew. Let's take a break from the direct theme and lyrical content and talk about the sound. That's another big part of what I like about this disc. There are a couple of songs (Claiming the City and Hold Your Head Up) that wouldn't be out of place on a Fugees project. City Don't Sleep brings Gil Scot-Heron or Michael Franti to mind. Throughout the joint, there are some real fresh sounding loops that aren't rehashing the same old set of samples. This brings an old-school groove to the songs. Vocally, Macklemore often uses a conversational delivery that slides in smoothly. There are elements of Eminem or Lyrics Born in his rap style, too, but it's still his own sound, not a ripoff. The album also stands out by including some great producers and collaborators that provide some variety to the sound overall.

Pulling it all together, this is a very good album. Without Bush Song or with a better attempt that fits with the concept, I'd call it a great album. Certainly worth checking out.

With the Seattle connection, I'm tempted to pick something like a Pike Brewing Pale Ale, but for feel, I'm going to say black Russian instead. While a late evening is when you'd want to hear it, play it in the light of day.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Concert review, Jonathan Coulton with Paul and Storm

16 January 2009, Soiled Dove Underground (Denver, CO)
Like many people, I became a big Jonathan Coulton fan when his song Code Monkey became an internet hit. Aside from the geek factor, it turns out that he's a talented guitarist and songwriter of some depth. Since he's never come to Colorado before, I've been committed catching this show since it was scheduled back in early October. Walking into the Soiled Dove, which is a small, intimate club, I was struck by the multitude of longish haired, bearded, slightly overweight guys...these are my people.

The opening act was Paul and Storm, ex members (survivors) of the a cappella group Da Vinci's Notebook. They play with Jonathan fairly often and they describe their act as part music, part standup. True, but they were all funny. Most of the songs are performed with simple guitar accompaniment, with occasional keyboards. They started off with a meta-referential song about being the opening band and it just build from there. Lots of clever songs mixed with comedy bits kept the crowd laughing for the whole time. My favorite song was A Better Version of You, which explains to a kid that Mommy and Daddy are hoping to learn from their mistakes this time. I'll be sending that to my younger brother -- he can certainly appreciate it. The comedy bits ranged from humorous jingles (e.g. Pillsbury Cookie Dough) to short impressions (James Taylor on Fire) to longer bits like the Fighting Nuns. And did I mention the audience participation? Closing out the set, The Captain's Wife's Lament had us all method-acting as pirate geeks:
Give me an R --- "Arrrrrrrrrr!"
Give me 2 Rs --- "Arrrrrrrrrrrr, Arrrrrrr!"
Give me pi Rs --- "Arrrrrrrrrrr, Arrrrrrr, Arrrrrrrrrrrrr, Ar...."
Yes, that was exactly 3.14159 arrs. I was counting!

Wow, with an opening act like this, can JoCo measure up? Of course he can. He started out with the kind of clever, off-beat songs that he's most famous for. The opener, Better, is a break up song where the problem is that his partner has "changed". Also among the early songs in the set was one of my faves, Skullcrusher Mountain. He also played crowd favorites like Tom Cruise Crazy and his genre bending cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back.

If he were merely a clever, quirky guy, it would wear thin by the end of the show but Coulton also has a more sensitive side that brings depth to his show (and his song catalog). Songs like Saturday Boy (a Billy Bragg cover) and Space Doggity (a song about Laika, the first dog in space) pull the audience into a more intimate connection with Jonathan and his emotional world. He can evoke pathos and self-doubt and love without becoming schmaltzy (i.e. pulling a Manilow), which really makes you feel more human when you're listening. More importantly, he can smoothly shift between this and the oddball stuff, so there's a flow to the whole set.

Other high points included a cover of Birdhouse in Your Soul (They Might Be Giants), Paul and Storm joining in on Creepy Doll, and the final encore, First of May. This was a terrific show, hopefully the first of many for Jonathan Coulton in Denver. Check out his site for downloads and catch him live if you can.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On the radar

Just a taste of what's coming up:
  • Concert review: Jonathan Coulton
  • CD review: Macklemore
  • CD review: Whiskey Blanket
  • CD review: M.T.H.D.S.
  • More musical musings

Concert review - Macklemore, Whiskey Blanket, MTHDS

14 January 2009, Hodi's Half Note (Ft. Collins, CO)
Sometimes, it all comes down to happenstance. Yesterday afternoon, I surfed the sites for two of our local venues to see who would be playing soon. I saw that Hodi's was having a hip hop "house party" with a band called Whiskey Blanket and the description sounded kind of interesting. Since the show was fairly cheap ($8), I decided to go check it out. Man, am I glad that I did. There was a small crowd, but it was a great show.

Before I go into details, I'll talk briefly about my musical tastes. I listen to all kinds of music including rap and hip hop. When I listen to hip hop and related styles, I'm looking for a number of things: cool (and obscure) samples, lyrical sophistication, dance-worthy beats, and flow. I especially dig a more self-effacing, humorous attitude and genre-stretching mashups. So, De la Soul, Beastie Boys, Tone Loc, and Michael Franti all work well for me. Which doesn't block me from enjoying groups like Public Enemy or NWA - but gangster for its own sake doesn't really move me. Anyway, that gives you the grain of salt you might need for this review.

First up, Macklemore, a rapper out of Seattle. When he started his set, he was so low-key, I thought he was just doing a sound check. Pretty soon though, he had things hopping. It was just him and some pre-recorded beats. Samples were from all over, but included artists like Buffalo Springfield, John Mellencamp, and Nirvana. He stalked the stage, one minute bragging his skills, then dancing a bit, then sharing a more personal tip. White Privilege was one of my favorite songs - he talked about the hip hop scene and how it's an integral part of his self expression, while at the same time acknowledging caucasian appropriation and his own unsettled position as a white rapper. As a white guy whose best musical experience was playing in a reggae band, I can really relate. But it wasn't all serious, though. His red-state parody (in costume with a mullet and fake 'stasche) was hysterical and The Penis Song, where he laments his average stature, also had the crowd laughing. This act alone was worth the price of admission.

But there was more to come. Next up was Whiskey Blanket, from Boulder. Two front guys, Funny Biz and Sloppy Joe traded raps with a great Beastie Boys feel, while a DJ (Steakhouse) scratched and occasionally stepped out to join in the rap. The music was pretty interesting and added a lot of depth but the first time that Sloppy Joe pulled out his violin, everything kicked up a notch. The violin pushed the groove into classical mashup territory, especially when Funny Biz layed down some mad rapid fire beatbox sounds to go with it. Later, Funny Biz pulled out a cello and the two did a relatively modern sounding classical piece (a string duet) that eventually pulled in the beatbox, too. The mix was a little louder and busier, making it a bit harder to hear all the lyrics, but these guys had some nice props for old school jazz (Credible Sources, with a Miles/Monk(?) sample, talking about Monk and Coltrane, and some Ella scat) and also some funnier braggadocio, with Sloppy Joe threatening to make the ladies in the house (and men!) pregnant with the force of his rap. All in all, this was fresh and alive and I really enjoyed it.

The last group was M.T.H.D.S. (Music That Heightens Different Senses) from Vail. This was a full band, with guitar, bass, drums, and two rappers. The truth is that it was turning into an early Thursday morning and I didn't stay for the whole set. I did catch the first 5 or 6 songs and I liked the feel. Musically, they had a hard rock/funky sound, with the rappers mixing on in. I'm not so sure how typical that is, though. When I went to their page, their playlist music was more reggae influenced. In any case, they had a tight groove. Hearing them bring in some reggae would have been a welcome thing, too. On the downside, the vocals were way too muddy and low in the mix, which made it very hard to hear the lyrics. I'd like to catch them again some time and give them a full listen. I did get their CD (along with those of the other bands), so I'll be able to give a fuller review of that.

So: 3pm, no plans for the evening; 4:30, possibility of music; 8:30, sudden decision, YES; 9:30, kick out the jams!

I did pair O'Dells' nitro Cutthroat Porter with this set of music, but alternating Red Bull with Fat Tire would have worked, too.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

CD Review, The Poudre River Band, The Bellvue Dome

First of all, I have to get the disclaimer out of the way. This is a local band here in Ft. Collins that my friend Jack plays bass in. He's a good guy and I think that local musicians should support one another. I've gone out to hear them and when he mentioned that they had finished their new CD, I wanted to get one. We ended up working out a trade for some homebrew. Hopefully, he'll get the chance to read my review, but we haven't even talked about it. I don't think I'm too biased here.

Fundamentally, this band is carrying out the vision of founder Tom Barbour. A vision anchored in the old west of Colorado, with a sound that divides itself between classic folk country, Gram Parsons era Byrds, and the 70's country rock influenced by Parsons. Tom's written all of the songs here and he's the primary lead vocalist and guitar player. Overall, the album delivers on this vision, with storytelling songs, thick harmony vocals, tight rhythms, and a little touch of twang.

I think that if you know the places and people that he alludes to in his songs, it adds a bit of depth. Certainly, if you live here, you recognize the place names: the Bellvue Dome, the Overland Trail, Virgina Dale. The album is strongest on these story songs, like Virginia Dale and the title cut. On the other hand, there are a couple of songs that just don't quite fit that feel, like I Admit It and Adelene, which I would have saved for a different album. I Admit It is more of a pop country song (although the female vocal is strong) and Adelene feels more "Americana" and wouldn't be out of place on a Roger Clyne CD.

As I mentioned above, almost all of the songs have very strong harmony arrangements. The reverb and chorus are applied a little thickly for my taste, sounding a little overproduced at times, but that doesn't mask the work the band has done in building the parts. Tom's voice occasionally channels a very young Johnny Cash, but that might just be the style, the EQ, and echo.

The rhythm section is tight, with a fairly steady hand. Guitars are the most interesting for me: bits of Mark Knopfler, Chet Atkins, and Roger McGuinn adding fills, even a song (A Dandy) that brings Jerry Garcia in his country guise to mind. There's also some nice fiddle work, a little accordian, and keyboards.

All in all a solid country rock album, whose story telling makes it stand out.

Set up some bourbon and branch and think a little on the heat of summer.

Monday, January 12, 2009

CD Review - Keller Williams with Moseley, Droll and Sipe, Live

I got this back in early December when I saw Keller perform solo at the Aggie Theater here in Fort Collins. I'm not going to write all that up - it's not as fresh for me, though it was a great show. I really like Keller, especially live. Watching him use loops to build songs like architecture is truely entertaining. Anyway, I was psyched to buy another Keller Williams CD. So, I saw this disc: it's new and live and it's a double CD with a DVD. All this and affordable, too. So, I got it but I didn't check it out until the next day.

This review is colored in part by expectations. I think we all bring expectations to any art we approach. Having those expectations twisted can be one of the sweetest things about art. But you have to be willing to take that ride. In the dark of the club, I didn't really look that closely at the CD. Later, I was surprised to find that this was a band effort, with Keith Mosely (from String Cheese Incident), Gibb Droll, and Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit). Oh. So not so much looping and more of a jam band kind of sound. To be quite honest, I was a little disappointed. After a couple of listens, though, I feel better about it.

The first track, Same Ole, starts with a classic Keller Williams sound, but after a little vamping, it picks up a big Jerry Garcia feel. In large part, that's how the album comes across. This really is a groove-fest jam band that mostly uses Keller's songs as a starting point. Lots of Dead/Phishy/String Cheesy fun. Speaking of which, there is a String Cheese song in the set, a tasty arrangement of Camper Van Beethoven's Still Wishing to Course, and a few of Gibb Droll's songs. For me, my favorite tracks include You Are What You Eat, which has a nice evolutionary groove, melding from one sort of song into another and back. Still Wishing is quite nice and The Juggler is one of my favorite Keller songs and this time it slides into Dancing in the Street and Groove is in the Heart.

Ok, so I got my head in the right space and I have to say that I do like the CDs. They're in rotation on my iPod and I listened to them again this last weekend when I was brewing. What about the DVD? Well, the music is great. 9 more tracks and some great music (different than the CDs), There are more "cover" moments (Grateful Dead, The Guess Who, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix), which are pretty entertaining. But the video sucks. If you're going to have a live video of a jam band, I want to see them jamming. There is some of that, but most of the time, the camera cuts to spacy video "visualization" stuff. I get it that this is more or less the same stuff that's on the stage screen, but it was less of a live band experience than a Winamp experience. I'll be ripping the audio track to listen to but I probably won't watch the DVD again.

The pairing here calls for something a little more interesting...I'll say my homebrewed Saffron Cumin mead (Cumino Oro) on a sunny Saturday afternoon. With a little bit of incense in the air;-)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

My musical history...

...is nothing unusual. I started out on piano and picked up the guitar. I was planning to play an hour a day at each instrument, but it quickly became 2 hours a day of guitar. I played folk songs, blues, rock, and started try to learn songs I had been making up. Over time, I got proficient at guitar, picked up bass, and learned to sing and to perform. I've traveled to a multitude of places on the musical map: punk, reggae, funk, bluegrass.

Over time,though, I've flip-flopped between solo performance (in public and in my own room) and bands, with regular forays into informal jams. What I notice is that, when I'm doing the solo thing, I miss the band. I miss having the space to explore a musical idea while others help support it and I really miss going somewhere unexpected because someone else is driving. On the other hand, when I'm in a band, I miss the solo thing. There's a simplicity and clarity of being able to make music happen without having to deal with other people's busy schedules and agendas. Flip: I'm playing coffee houses for little or no money. Flop: I'm playing the same songs over and over in a basement. Flip: I'm indulging in my full eclectic glory. Flop: I'm part of groove pumping orgiastic bacchanalia that's making the house dance-crazy. Sometimes, I cheat and do the middle path: recording projects that have a taste of the band but are just me, playing with myself;-). These don't satisfy in the same way that playing in public does, although it is easier to share the music with my wide circle of friends and supporters.

Right now, I'm kind of straddling both: I've been keeping up some solo gigs and I'm playing bass in an R&B/Classic rock band called the Fabulous Juveniles. Unfortunately, the band has been progressing slowly - we haven't played a lot since last spring. I really need that to pick up to satisfy the band craving. That's the other side of the band thing: each band has its stuff-you-need-to-fix. Sometime, I'll walk through some of that history here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Concert review, Eric McFadden Trio

30 December 2008, Dulcinea's 100th Monkey (Denver, CO)

First of all, you might not know about Eric McFadden Trio. They are one of my favorite bands to catch live and their CDs are every bit as enjoyable. I first discovered Eric through one of his songs on the old riffage.com site, Crucify Me. His music is a little hard to qualify - hard rock gypsy blues comes close. With some dark lyrical sensibilities reminiscent of Tom Waits, he visits the Dark Carnival and shows us around. Eric plays acoustic guitars on stage, but this is no folk act. It just lets him move from classical guitar riffs that transform into spiky, blistering leads. With Eric, I skip past envy at his playing skills and jump right to open mouthed awe. James Whiton plays the upright death machine (a minimalist electric standup bass) and I have to say that he is one of the most versatile and gifted bass players I've ever watched (ditto on the envy/awe), jumping from looped bowing to slap funk to Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Their current drummer, Doug Port is equally amazing - tight fills and great intensity.

So that's all about the band. Let's talk about the show. This was the middle date in a run of three shows in Denver. Unfortunately, it was the only one I could make. The crowd was fairly thin - I'm not sure whether that was because people were saving their energy for New Year's Eve or if they were at the Widespread Panic show. It doesn't matter because there were a number of the faithful there. The small crowd didn't deter the boys from rocking out the house, either. Before the show, James was complaining about a crushed finger on his right hand. It didn't seem to slow him down any, though. They played a typical set, with quite a few songs from the new album, Delicate Thing. Near the end of their break, the bar was playing Johnny Cash's Get Rhythm on their sound system. Eric started jamming along until they killed the CD for the second set, which just led them into playing Get Rhythm as their starter, taking it into rockabilly rollercoaster mode. Nice ride to get us moving. The band played on. And on. And on. We finally left at about 2:20 am because I had a 75 minute drive back home to Ft. Fun and they were still playing. The bar had already shut the taps and locked the doors, but EMT wasn't ready to call it a night. After they unlocked the door for us to head out, the ringing in my ears kept me warm on the cold walk to the car.

Jack straight up with an American IPA chaser. Late night, natch.

Friday, January 9, 2009

CD Review - Porcupine Tree, Stupid Dream

First of all, I have to thank my pal Tommy for turning me on to Porcupine Tree. They are a modern prog-rock outfit out of England. Sometimes, they drift to a dreamy Pink Floyd-ish psychedelic groove, other times they shake out metal and grind. I'm not a huge metal head, but Steven Wilson has such a strong creative voice and his melodies are compelling. I've mentioned Floyd (especially Gilmour), but these guys also have a touch of old Genesis...still, they don't sound dated or stale.

Stupid Dreams is pretty much like they're more recent stuff, even though it's from 1999. A little more song oriented than their earlier albums. Tommy loaned this to me and I'll definitely be buying a copy. Most of the songs have a smooth wall of chorused/reverbed out guitar and big chorused vocals. Some songs, like Slave Called Shiver blend more into a driving funky groove. Another favorite cut is Tinto Brass, which starts out with a sound collage and evolves into a jazzy Martin Denny feel...or is it Gil Scott-Heron? And then we're mutating into a thrashy industrial feel.

Hmm...Espresso, maybe? Dry Irish Stout, instead? Crystal clear cold day or impending storm.

CD review - Matt Nathanson, Live at the Point

Over the holidays, I was in Davis, CA visiting relatives. We all cruised over to Borders so those with gift cards could trade them for something more entertaining than a plastic card. So, I was killing time waiting for the others when I saw this disc at Border's in Davis, CA. I didn't recognize the name, but I was still kind of interested. I went to scan it to listen to it and they didn't have this one, but they did have one of his studio albums. The sound was cool, but I was more interested in the solo album. Later, when I got home, I went out and got it (with my own plastic gift card (thanks, Dad)).

I guess he often records with a backing band, but this was a simple solo live show. In general, I really like a more austere guitar/vocal singer/songwriter thing. He can pound the crap out of his guitar, getting a sweet chimy sound. In some ways, it reminded me a little of the Rembrandts. Rhthmically he often does this fast, jerky little strum thing that reminds me of Keller Williams. Matt writes catchy personal songs with some amusing patter between songs. There's a fairly satisfying cover of Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet". His personality goes a long way towards selling his music for me.

Pop a Sierra Nevada pale ale on Sunday afternoon and enjoy.

CD review - Michael Franti and Spearhead, Yell Fire

I've been a big fan of Michael Franti for a long time. I first got turned onto the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (which is also where I discovered Charlie Hunter). Then I found Spearhead more or less independently a little bit later. Spearhead has a strong reggae sense moderated by R&B with a moderate rap influence. Generally, Franti brings a left-leaning politically active lyrical perspective (which I'm totally comfortable with;-), although they can do some nice R&B influenced love songs

Anyway, on to this album. Yell Fire is a very nice groove-oriented album. A healthy mix of reggae, rap, and ballads. This album came after Franti had traveled to conflict areas in the mid-east. Lots of the positive message you'd expect along with being quite singable and danceable. This is my favorite Spearhead album to date (not counting Franti's Live from the Baobob). My favorite cut is either "East to the West", which is a nice rock steady groove with a nice rap, or "One Step Closer to You", a sweet reggae ballad that builds in intensity (and has a toasting intro).

Sip some Left Hand Juju ginger ale while you listen on some nice sunny afternoon.

CD Review - Zoë Keating, One Cello x 16: Natoma

This was a gift from the wonderful Dr. Vince. He had heard about her on WNYC's Radio Lab. Zoë is a cellist who has integrated looping and electronic effects into her live performance. It's truly interesting music: a mashup of classical and new age and even alt rock with a sense of psychedelia in parts. I'm familiar with looping as a listener (think Keller Williams, et al.) and as a performer and she really has a unique sound. The whole CD is standout, but Legions (War) and Tetrishead are my favorite tracks. Her story is interesting, but even if you ignore that and don't know anything about the cool technical aspect of the looping, it's still compelling music.

Pairs nicely with Belgian Abbey style beer, a nice fire, sunset.

Thanks again Vince!

Catching up...getting started

Why write?
Over this last holiday, I was talking about some of the shows I had seen over the past year and realized that 2008 was a tremendous year of great music for me. Seeing bands like Eric McFadden Trio, Mike Gordon from Phish, Ozric Tentacles, Keller Williams, Charlie Hunter, and others was part of what made it great.

Playing had its high points, too. I started playing bass with the Fabulous Juveniles early in the year and continued my solo singer/songwriter performances through the summer.

I want to capture all of this as well as reviewing the music I've been enjoying.