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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Concert review - Bisco Inferno (Disco Biscuits and friends)

29 May, 2010 (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)

Every year, the Disco Biscuits host a long format concert/party called Bisco Inferno. This is the second year that Red Rocks has been the venue and this year's show was a great way to open the 2010 season. There was a full slate of musicians: Pnuma Trio, Aeroplane, the Crystal Method, the Glitch Mob, Booka Shade, and, of course, two full sets by the Disco Biscuits.

It was an interesting blend of genres. All the bands have some focus on the dance space, but most of the supporting acts were more club oriented and none explored the same kind of jam space that the Disco Biscuits live and breathe. The crowd was primed, though, and everyone went home with a bounce in their step.

Note: I only had permission to shoot The Crystal Method, The Glitch Mob and the Disco Biscuits, so that's why the other bands don't have photos here.

Pnuma Trio
Pnuma Trio led things off, with a jazzy, dance oriented groove. This solid band has some roots to Boulder, but their music reaches further. Most of the songs are focused on Ben Hazlegrove's keyboards, which are strong. Still, Lane Shaw's drum playing is phenomenal. Complex drumwork, intricate syncopation, and tight shifts are easily dispatched, kicking up the energy. The third member, Alex Botwin, shifts between bass and laptop. His bass playing is solid, able to bounce between a mellower, laid back vibe and a speedy drive as the song demands.

Pnuma Trio had a long set, with plenty of time to get the crowd excited and migrate their mood. The center of their sound was keyboard driven jazz, but the beats and disco elements had people dancing along. They also a lot of time building a more synth-driven trance space that sounded like Ozric Tentacles' more keyboard centric pieces.

It was a strong set. Pnuma Trio was a great start to a long set of performers.

Aeroplane is a pair of Belgian DJs who clearly know how to work a club. Red Rocks, even during Bisco Inferno, is no typical club, but they still worked the beat. They played a lot of break beat grooves, running through a variety of sounds, from sci-fi space groove to industrial to jungle to pop.

The twin DJ approach is a standard technique where the trade offs can really contrast some different styles, creating almost a conversation between the DJs. Vito De Luca and Stephen Fasano are very interesting, but they're too much on the same page musically. They specialize in creating some well crafted builds and smooth transitions. I would have liked a little more personality to come out, but I was dancing anyway.

The Crystal Method
Personality? The Crystal Method have all you need. They took the same dual DJ setup and took it to a new, harder rocking level. A big part of that is the energy: Scott Kirkland works the stage and the music is a lot heavier. Kirkland exhorts the crowd, sings along with all of the songs, and generally provides a strong visual component to the show, even communicating with the crowd with a tablet computer.

The music is a mountain of sound, with a pounding bass and beat. It was a darker feel than Aeroplane, but still hitting the club scene vibe. Their set was a constant flow of music, with no let up. The audience was up for it, though, dancing and responding to Kirkland's challenges.

Their remixes were all over the place, hitting a number of classic favorites, like Stevie Wonder's Superstition, Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love, and Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper. They were masters at taking these songs and creating something new: trippier and funkier, but also much more danceable. Kirkland and Ken Jordan have different musical approaches, too. So when they traded off, the change in sound was noticeable even if the energy wasn't.

The Crystal Method closed out with their remix of Ocelot's Our Time (Bird Peterson Remix). Sure, that's a couple of levels of remix, but the crazy heavy bass and industrial vibe left the crowd wanting more.

The Glitch Mob
This versatile trio reconfigured themselves throughout their set. Each had keyboards, some drums, and a laptop setup. Plus the Glitch Mob could throw in the occasional guitar or bass if the song called for it. They might start a song with a mix of roles, but then they could trade roles or all switch to percussion. This made for more of a stage show than some of the earlier acts.

Their music had a strong electronica foundation, with an emphasis on sound manipulation. This was firmly dance oriented music, but they could play more than just bass heavy grooves. The Glitch Mob had knack for creating moody instrumentals and trippy soundscapes. They were at their most interesting when the sounds got introspective. The high points were a set of progressive laptop solos, each musician riffing in turn, and the triple percussion section.

Booka Shade
This German duo played in between Disco Biscuit sets. Booka Shade is pretty well known and respected for their techno grooves and club friendly beats. So, it was fairly impressive to have an act like them here in Colorado. Maybe the crowd could have used a break after the first DB set. All they got was the 5-10 minutes it took to get Booka Shade's setup rolled onto the stage so they could kick it.

They played a mix of looping dance grooves and electro-house style music. With live drumming and synth work mixed in with pre-recorded/programmed material, this was somewhere in the middle of the continuum between the DJ work of Aeroplane and the full band based electronica of the Glitch Mob. The mood bounced from trippy electronic grooves to heavier jungle beats.

Aside from the energy of the performance, their stage lighting was really cool. Each of the guys had their own station setup with individual lights and screens. Along with the larger stage lights, these stations strobed and blinked, following the beat with some complexity. This helped Booka Shade turn the entire amphitheatre into a giant club rave. This served as a good palate cleanser between the DB sets.

Disco Biscuits
Bisco Inferno was the culmination of three nights of Colorado shows. Performances at the Boulder Theatre and the Ogden (Denver) served as warm ups for the two long jamming sets at Red Rocks. This wasn't just a concert, though, it was a happening. With costumed audience members, a psychedelic stage setup, and a truly amazing venue, Bisco Inferno was a neo-tribal ritual and a jam bacchanalia.

There had been some concern about Jon "Barber" Gutwillig's wrist holding up (he broke it in March), but it didn't slow him down at all. Still, Chris Michetti joined the band onstage a couple of times, mostly to thank him for covering on guitar earlier in the year.

The Disco Biscuits maintained their reputation as one of the best jam oriented bands around. Their live mix is somewhat Phish-like in terms of musical scope and story -- some of Aron Magner's piano-based song transitions flow just like Page McConnell's -- but the electronic elements and club beats prove that they're not derivative of that scene. The set kicked off with an old favorite, Hot Air Balloon, which eased the crowd into the right mindset. As mentioned, Michetti sat in during Portal to an Empty Head, allowing Barber to cut loose and trade some guitar licks.

The recursive, intertwining melodic lines were hypnotic. Aside from evoking a little Phish, there was a fair amount of angular Frank Zappa intensity and Pink Floyd dreaminess. With some island piano riffing, Mindless Dribble was one of the high points. Marc Brownstein eased into a reflective bass pattern under the vamping that set up the inevitable build.

Typical of the Disco Biscuits, they weren't too interested in trying to push their latest record (Planet Anthem) at the expense of the song flow. So, the first set didn't even include anything from the album. They did play a strong,jazz groove version of On Time in the second set, though.

The stage lighting was phenomenal: bright pattern projections, color-changing, strobing light rings, and tight meshing with the music. This served to make Red Rocks feel like a more intimate venue and emphasized the surrender to the experience.

The second set started with the intricate, melodic jam of House Dog Party Favor. They opened it up with a dreamy interlude, giving Barber plenty of room to shred out (and lose his shades). In fact, he really had lots of room to shine as the set ran on into jam after jam. Heck, they all had room.

Drained after a long afternoon, evening, and night of music and dancing, the Disco Biscuits came out for their encore a bit before 2 am. A funky, reflective Home Again rang out like a final blessing of the crowd. Afterwards, it still rang in my ears during the walk downhill to my car. Shaken (booty) and stirred (head), Bisco Inferno was already becoming a fine memory which I savored on the drive home.

The vibe mutated so much over the course of the long day that picking a single beverage was impossible. Maybe a slate of energy drinks early, something rummy from the islands for the middle, and a spiked Orange Julius for the DB sets.

More photos at my Flickr.

Friday, May 28, 2010

CD review - Semi Precious Weapons, You Love You (2010)

Whatever happened to glam rock? The excess, the androgyny, the theatrical camp? Semi Precious Weapons whips out all of this and more. They're not so much snotty boys with guitars as bitchy boys with hard rock guitars. Lead singer Justin Tranter is an audacious bundle of attitude, but the rest of the band is equally cocky and brash. Their guitar sound is meaty and rocking, like AC/DC or some other primal rock band. Tranter's vocals can evoke Bowie or Simon Le Bon (Duran Duran), but sometimes you can also hear a touch of classical training.

You can tell that Semi Precious Weapons carefully crafts their songs for audience appeal, almost more than making any other point. The songs are packed with hooks and the lyrics stick in your brain immediately. Nowhere is this more clear than the eponymous opener, Semi Precious Weapons: "I can't pay my rent, but I'm fucking gorgeous!" This is cock rock at its finest -- strutting blues rock riffs, an AC/DC grind, and a punk glam vocal aesthetic.

Another strong song, Rock and Roll Never Looked So Beautiful, starts out with the intro riff from Golden Earring's Radar Love. The first verse is stripped down, but the chorus slides into a Bon Jovi hard rock drive. There's a drifting section:
Sometimes I cry cause it makes my eyes look bluer
Sometimes I bleed cause red is a good color for me...yes!...
This slams us into a ripping lead that builds a perfect tension before laying out a tenet of their filthy glamour philosophy:
Put me in a see through coffin
Stuff me up with mink stoll stuffing
Put me in a crystal casket
Before they mix diamonds into my ashes
Dance around my body
Just cause I'm dead, don't kill the party
This live version skips the Radar Love, but it gives you a sense of the Semi Precious Weapons experience.

You Love You isn't just glam-soaked rock, though. Leave Your Pretty To Me is a straight up heavy ballad that shows off Tranter's strong trained voice. A fair chunk of the music is a lift of Pachelbel's Canon in D, but a song like this is all about the lyrics and the mood. The words are catchy:
The only thing that ever came easy/ to her, was me (and tragedy)
So girl, go ahead and drink, I can only be so many things
Girl, go ahead and drink, I can only be so many things
But when you leave, please,
Leave your pretty to me.
They follow the standard hard rock ballad form: slow start, minor build, strip back, then build to full intensity. It's a sad, pretty song of dissolution.

There are plenty of other gems here. You Love You is due to hit the record stores June 22. In the meantime, they're opening for Lady Gaga's Monster Ball Tour.

Semi Precious Weapons is a demanding, challenging band -- little like my dad's Galliano. But not straight up, instead have a flaming Lamborghini. That should be enough filthy glamour for anyone.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

CD review - Vampire Weekend, Contra (2010)

Paul Simon's Graceland has been reincarnated as a hyperactive tot. Like Simon (or Bow Wow Wow), Vampire Weekend has taken Afro-pop elements and filtered them through their own indie pop taste and experience. The beats are often hectic and rushed, but the music is bright and chiming over a darker foundation. The Paul Simon vibe is strongest on White Sky and Diplomat's Son, but it's pervasive across Contra. Ezra Koenig's falsetto voice and ironic phrasing give the band a distinctive tone.

On Horchata, the first song, Koenig performs simple rhythmic chant of the lyrics. The Afro pop arpeggios and the kalimba tone, bring in the African feel, while the sequenced keys, deep bass and drums hit the indie pop sound. It all comes together, just like the repetitive lyrics capture a special moment. The strings that come in near the end add a musical depth. It's catchy start to the CD.

Later, Cousins, the first official single, pairs up a frantic beat with a speedy Dick Dale style guitar lead. With the rapid fire vocals and oddly syncopated percussion fills, it's as much spasm as it is a song. The chorus contrasts, briefly catching its breath with a few repeated breaks.

Contra closes out on a dreamy note, with I Think Ur a Contra. Like several sections of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), loose parts fade in against a variable synth wash. Odd background snippets collide almost randomly, adding to the spaced mood. The lyrics don't fully make sense:
You wanted good schools
Friends with pools
You're not a contra
You wanted rock and roll
Complete control
Well, I don't know

Never pick sides
Never choose between two
But I just wanted you, I just wanted you
I think you're a contra
Vampire Weekend has a quirky, but interesting musical vision. While the African influence is there, it's not a cultural appropriation. Sip a triple espresso and tap your feet.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

CD review - MTHDS, the methods (2010)

The party boys have grown up. A year and a half ago, I reviewed the MTHDS' Music That Heightens Different Senses EP as a nice slice of party music. Since then, they've spent some time in a quality studio and recorded some better songs. While their EP was good, the methods has smoother flow, much better lyrics, tight music, and a cleaner sound. Even the two older songs, Riot (called Riot Joint on the EP) and Wicked Style, benefit from the improved sound. The shame is that they don't have a label promoting their stuff, because they should be bigger. Several of these songs are just as good as the Flobots, another regional favorite.

The album starts out strong, with Rise. First the organ, then a rocking electric guitar pound out a retro rock groove before smoothly dropping when the vocal comes in. Donald Dillionare lays out some velvet lyrical flow:
Sometimes, it ain't the what but the who you know
So allow me to reintroduce my flow
The Don Dilly say hello, mucha gusta to the crew you know
Also fools you don't
After the intro section, the lyrical them is about reaching and growth. The organ and guitar fills make sure that no one forgets that this is a real band, not just a backing track.

A couple of songs later, Time creates a De La Soul style jazz rap groove. It's all built on top of a sparkly arpeggiated guitar riff and a jazzy syncopated drum beat. Even though there's a laid back vibe, the drums and vocal delivery keep an intense pace. The echo-laden guitar solo evokes a taste of Eric Johnson before drifting into a dub-like dreamy section.

the methods is a more serious take on life than their earlier EP. Aside from those tracks, Brand New Life takes three brief sketches of story and brings them together, to reflect a larger theme. But there are still some good party tunes, like Uppers and Downers.

If this music sounds interesting to you, stop by their website, where you can download the album and donate to the cause of supporting good music. Raise a toast of some Fat Tire for the band.

Additional listening pleasure:
the Flobots, Superhero
De La Soul, The Magic Number
Eric Johnson, Cliffs of Dover

Sunday, May 23, 2010

CD review - Project Trio, Winter in June (2007)

The world is full of surprises and the Project Trio is one of the more interesting ones. They're an experimental jazz trio, with a unique twist on chamber music lineup: Eric Stephenson plays cello, Peter Seymour plays bass, and Greg Pattillo performs beat box flute. Imagine something like Ian Anderson's flute vocalizations from Jethro Tull, but more percussive. The overall soundscape is an interesting balance between the bottom heavy strings and the more piercing flute. In general, the flute tends to dominate, but Stephenson manages to wrest the focus a few times.

The music is jazz-centric, with elements of progressive rock and blues. Over the course of Winter in June, Project Trio varies the rhythm, mood, and style. There are sonic sound-checks from a variety of artists, like the Kurt Weil (Alabama Song) vibe of The Moon Over the Ruined Castle, the Tom Waits elements of Semuta, and various bits of Jean-Pierre Rampal and Claude Bolling (noted jazz classical artists).

The title track, Winter in June, is quite evocative, with light percussion and a stark, moody feel. The creaking of winter is evident, but it's harder to find the June. It's a well constructed piece, but all too short as it drifts into a premature fade.

Interlude: 2nd Happiest Song in the World is a bluesy jazz piece that lets the cello shine with an exotic Indian style riff over a beat box line and flute accents. The bass and cello mesh perfectly. The bridge gives the flute some room to break loose, so the song is balanced as a whole.

The high point is Interlude: Tribal, which rolls through a number of shifts. It starts out with a stately procession centered on the cello and bass. This slides into a syncopated cello solo that feels like a focused intent, before slipping into a squirming cello deconstruction. The flute takes over with a sassy jazz section. The rhythmic drive during the flute solo creates a higher energy. Tapping percussion rolls us back to the original processional feel. It's nice piece of sonic art.

Winter in June is pleasant little trip nicely paired with a cinnamon iced tea - just a little bite to get your attention.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

CD review - The Morning Pages - Rising Rain (2010)

The Morning Pages have gotten some recent web attention with their take on Lady Gaga's Telephone, which is more tongue in cheek than anything on Rising Rain. But it does give a sense of the band's range, which is more of a mix of '70s folk and country rock blended with mid-'60s rock. It's retro, but vibrant enough to avoid sounding like a museum relic. There are plenty of other references scattered across Rising Rain, which all seem to mesh. The surprise is that this Brooklyn band evokes such a strong California feel.

The opening couple of songs, With the Lord and Stumble Towards the Light, have the strongest country feel. Despite (or maybe because of) the repetitive lyric format, With the Lord is an earworm. It's got a great chorus hook, with sweet harmonies. The leads alternate between a rock grind and a country twang.

Songs like Live With You stir up Jefferson Airplane with the Zombies. This rolls in a smooth retro channel: it's got the changes, the instrumentation, the acid lead, and the general feel of late '60s rock.

This City Keeps Me Down is like Creedence Clearwater Revival covering Chuck Berry's Memphis. Throw the right lead voice on it and it could be anyone from the Beat Farmers to Drive By Truckers. Regardless of the references, it's a rollicking, fun foot-tapper.

For me, though, the sweet spot is Makes Me Cry. It owes a lot to Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready and a bit to Blind Faith's Presence of the Lord. The piano and organ work are exquisite, like Al Kooper going to church. All the pieces fit together perfectly -- from the smooth guitar to the lagging bass to the rich backing vocals. The bluesy gospel feels perfect after blues vibe of All My Friends.

There's nothing experimental or challenging here, which makes it a comfortable easy chair of an album. There's a plain honesty to these songs, though, that satisfies. It's not a guilty pleasure, Rising Rain is just a pleasure. The effect is like a fine traditional mead; simple honey can still be complex.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

DVD review - Still Bill (2010)

Like any movie, a documentary has a story arc. In Still Bill, the focus is on the talented Bill Withers dealing with detachment and his journey to reconnecting, both with music and his past. The story line is compelling, but it misses the point that Bill Withers is already incredibly grounded. His insight into himself and his times are both deeply personal and universal.

Bill Withers was an unlikely star: he came from a small coal mining town in West Virginia, he was already in his 30s, and he was working in a factory when his music took off. Right off the bat, he had a breakaway hit with Ain't No Sunshine in 1971. Grandma's Hands from the same album was also a strong single. The title of that first album, Just as I Am, was fitting. In Still Bill, we're treated to bits of interviews from this period, where he proved to be self deprecating, witty, and thoroughly comfortable in his own skin.

This confident character is one he developed on his own, overcoming a stuttering problem and escaping his small town life by joining the Navy. The filmmakers, Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, use an interesting technique for introducing us to Withers. They edit the footage and voice overs so that it's often hard to tell whether a particular quote is coming from the younger man or the older one. Both men are genuinely interesting people, less interested in fulfilling a stereotype than staying true to a personal ideal.

All the favorite songs get their due, from Lean On Me to Use Me to Just the Two of Us. But Still Bill also spends a lot of time showing a view of Withers' life today. Vlack and Baker lay the groundwork for that story arc with quotes from Withers, like:
I have to be careful that I don't just wallow in my own comfort. Probably now, I'm trying to find some motivation. I'm not lazy. I don't even understand. I'm trying to give myself a chance to get driven. Where just the sheer activity of doing something just jacks you up, makes you excited.
or the even starker:
Thoreau said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.
Along with this, they follow him back to his hometown in West Virginia, as well as introducing his wife and two children. This makes it clear: Withers may have detached himself from the music business, but you can see the results of the energy he's put into his family. There are also some great snippets from a filmed conversation between Bill, Dr. Cornell West (civil rights activist), and Tavis Smiley (talk show host/commentator). The most powerful insight into Bill Withers, though, comes with his visit to the Our Time Theatre Company, a theatre troupe for young people that stutter. He talks with the kids and shares his experiences and lessons learned: "If you can value the people who value you..." Seeing his emotional reaction is moving.

The close of the story arc includes a recording session with Raul Midón, Bill recording his daughter, Kori, play a song she's been working on, and finally, Bill sitting in with guitarist Cornell Dupree at a 2008 tribute concert.

Despite these emotional moments, Bill Withers is more interesting than a simple story of reconnection. His depth comes because he's always been connected to himself. I'll close with my favorite quote, even though it's gotten plenty of play already:
One of the things I tell my kids is that it's okay to head out for "wonderful." But on your way to "wonderful", you're going to have to pass through "all right." And when you get to "all right", take a good look around and get used to it because that may be as far as you're going to go.
Complement Still Bill with a full bodied Burgundy when you watch it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Interview - Joey Siara (The Henry Clay People)

I met with Joey Siara, the front man for the Henry Clay People, on Friday night before their show at the Aggie Theatre. We had a chance to talk about their new album, Somewhere on the Golden Coast, their influences, and how they make their music.

Jester: How has opening up for Drive By Truckers been? Is their crowd into what you guys are doing?

Joey: I think so. For some of them, we’re a little punky and brattier than their taste. But I think that overall, I’ve been impressed by the crowd’s openmindedness, letting a young band flop around on stage for 45 minutes and not booing us off the stage. We’ve been on a couple of tours with different bands and this is the first time where I feel like there’s the most crossover.

Who else have you opened for?

Ben Harper. We opened for the Airborne Toxic Event…those are the two main tours we’ve been on.

I’ve named a particular sub-genre “snotty boys with guitars” – bands like Lit, Green Day, Dramarama. They all have a kind of smart ass attitude, clever lyrics, and simpler music, but…

A little wink and a nod.

Exactly! That seems to be part of what you guys do.

Yeah, Pavement is one of my favorite bands and Pavement’s a bunch of smart asses. I guess that all the music I listen to is usually pretty simple music. But there’s got to be something else that you kind of sneak it in there underneath the simple music.

You guys have some nice dual guitar arrangements.

I think it helps, being in a band with your brother. Because my brain is not much different from his brain. So, when we come up with guitar parts, it’s pretty easy to just follow each other’s lead.

I’ve sat in with my brother’s band and it’s a lot of fun. There are things we do that are really similar and things we do that are completely different, like you’d expect.

Yeah, he’s got some different instincts, but I’ve always…he’s younger than me and so, I feel that growing up, we was kind of more on the shy side. But lately, he’s gotten a lot more confident and a lot more daring. I trust his instincts and let him go and I’m usually not disappointed. And if I am, I’ll tell him right away.

And he’ll take that feedback as positively as possible.

Or he’ll just slap me in the face and get over it (laughs).

You've released a couple of songs on the new album on earlier recordings.

Oh yeah, Working Part Time and This Ain’t a Scene.

Yes, why did you revisit those songs?

Our label wanted those songs because they felt like our last record didn’t get enough of a push. They felt like it was more of a local record. People in L.A. heard it and liked it, but it still never got that national push. I think they felt like those songs deserved another chance. Working Part Time is probably the song that’s been the best for us.

It’s a great song. On this album, it fits tightly into the first few songs. So, how intentional were the segues in those first three songs.

That’s really important to me. I’m a huge fan of a kind of rapid fire, keeping it like a live set, where we try to play it back to back to back. Then take a quick breather and then back to back to back. It’s part of the punk rock thing. Nobody Taught Us To Quit right to Working Part Time

That pause, though, is the exact wait you’d have to count.

That’s what we did when we were mastering it. So, we ended it and the mastering guy said, “How close do you want it?” So…”duh duh DUH…2, 3 4” That’s what I wanted

And then, the last line of Working Part Time sets up the rhyme for Keep Your Eyes Closed.

Sick/brick (laughs)? That was just a little smirky thing.

That segue was one of the first things I mentioned in my review as a thoughtful thing that I hoped wasn’t an accident.

It’s thought out. We contemplated that song (Keep Your Eyes Closed) being the first song on the record: (sings) “You fell in love and you fell like a brick.” Then I ended up recording Nobody Taught Us to Quit, which became the first song. That was very last minute.

Also, Saturday Night and Your Famous Friends are two of the last songs on there. There’s this burst of feedback at the end of Saturday Night and that cuts into Your Famous Friends. We did that in one take because we had a pretty good vibe in the room and we felt good. So we just yelled at each other “Play Famous Friends… Keep going, keep going!” We played Famous Friends way faster and way looser than we usually play it. But spirit of it was definitely there. That’s my favorite part of the CD.

Who would you identify as influences?

Overall, my favorite band of all time is the Replacements. I think that the spirit of the Replacements … they’re a punk band, but…Paul Westerberg happened to be this punk kid who could actually write some songs and he had heart. Not every Replacements song is a great song, but the good ones are fantastic. So, them and Guided By Voices. They’re another band that releases just about everything. Some of it’s great and some of it’s not, but the ethic of putting it out there and going for it…I like that a lot.

And Ian Hunter is one of my heroes. We’ve covered Roll Away the Stone. Last night, we didn’t do it. So we’ll probably do it tonight.

Famous Friends has a little bit of that Ian Hunter vibe.

Yeah, like All the Way to Memphis kind of starts and stops. We’re kind of a bunch of geeks when it comes to classic rock. Ultimately, I think we just pull bits and pieces from our favorite classic rock bands and Mott is definitely up there. I think they’re one of the most underrated bands. I think a lot of people look at them and hear All The Young Dudes, and think “oh”.

I think they got eclipsed by the whole Bowie connection.

I think so too, and that happened late in their career. Mott and The Hoople and actually All the Young Dudes. Even the older stuff: Brain Capers is one of my favorite records and that’s a pre-Bowie one. You can’t knock the songwriting and Ian Hunter as a frontman, and his voice.

It’s very distinctive.

Right. It’s not a good voice, but it’s a memorable voice and his delivery and his charisma…I like a lot of singers that can’t sing. It might be self serving, but (laugh).

I’m glad that you have a deeper sense of history. Bands nowadays don’t always get it.

Copies of copies…they degrade. So a lot of mainstream bands, by the time it’s on the radio, it’s kind of watered down. All the bands that I’ve really liked seem to care about the music that they’re inspired by. And they delve into it and become music geeks. I was a history major in college, so I feel like I want to be a music historian.

I have a friend who’s a TV writer and I always get into these debates with her about how to be the best TV writer, how to be a better creative person. I think the best thing to do is just listen to the greats. If you want to write hour long TV dramas, sit down and watch The Sopranos. If you want to write screenplays, familiarize yourself with The Godfather. Go to the greats. Your own voice will eventually come out. I don’t sound like Bowie. But if his music informs me somehow and it comes out filtered through our band: our limits, our talents, and our strengths and weaknesses…that’s what a rock and roll band should be.

What about lyrical authenticity? Are you guys the kinds of people in whose voices you write in?

So many of our lyrics begin with “we”. Instead of it being about “I love this…”, most of it is usually “we”. I try to write from the perspective of our band as a bunch of dudes in our late 20s/early 30s. There’s sad stuff that’s happened as a result of us going on tour. Relationships…it’s hard, the whole rock and roll thing. I like to think that all the things we write about comes from something real. About half the songs have this kind of sad thing and the other half are celebratory. It’s a weird balance, but it’s all real.

In the last year or two, my brother and I have kept a journal of all the crazy stuff that’s happened to us. For the next record, we’ve got a nice little book of memories.,

Stuff to draw on.


So, how much longer is this tour?

This is the last night. We’ve done about two weeks with them and it’s been awesome. Then we go out on tour from mid July through August with the Silver Sun Pickups and Against Me. Which is cool, because it’s also like a totally different demographic, different crowd. And my goal is to play for a Drive By Truckers crowd, a Silver Sun crowd, for a punk crowd. They don’t all have to love us, but at least we wouldn’t get booed off stage. That’s the goal, to get 10% of each audience to be like “all right, they’re cool”.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Concert Review - Drive By Truckers with the Henry Clay People

14 May 2010 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Despite the cold drizzle outside, it was cooking inside the Aggie. A full crowd came out, ready to party down with some earnest rocking music. The Drive By Truckers pulled fans from as far away as Nebraska -- there's no question that it was worth the drive.

The Henry Clay People
I talked to frontman Joey Siara before the show and he was upbeat on the audience crossover from the Drive By Truckers to the Henry Clay People. "I think that overall, I've been impressed by the crowd's openmindedness, letting a young band flop around on stage." This was the last night of their tour together and they were making the most of it.

The Henry Clay People balanced professionalism with fun. The transitions between songs were fairly quick and smooth, but they had a wilder feel during the songs that grabbed the audience. With a hard rock beat and resonating guitars, the sibling energy between brothers Joey and Andy was a strong symbol for the tightness of the band. They had a great stage presence. Andy's lead guitar was soulful and tasteful and the keys were a stronger component of their live sound.

They played through a number of new songs from Somewhere on the Golden Coast (reviewed here), including Working Part Time, a faster tempo version of Your Famous Friends, the Ian Hunter tinged Slow Burn, and the slow ballad A Temporary Fix. They also played some of their older songs, like Rock and Roll Has Lost Its Teeth and the The Switch Kids.

Having proven their chops with their original songs, they pulled out some nice covers, including Mott the Hoople's Roll Away the Stone, an impromptu Life on Mars (Bowie), and CCR's Who'll Stop the Rain. Closing out their set, they did a medley of classic covers with references to Lou Reed, David Bowie, the Faces, and the Who. It was energetic, earnest rock and roll. The Henry Clay People are definitely worth seeing live. This summer, they'll be touring with Silver Sun Pickups, mostly on the East Coast.

Drive By Truckers
The anticipation built, waiting for the Drive By Truckers to take the stage. After a fairly long wait and rowdy chants of "DBT! DBT!", the band took the stage. They rolled into a hard rocking Drag The Lake Charlie, with a cool offbeat rhythm on the verses and sweet pedal tone lead licks.

The Drive By Truckers are sometimes classed as alt-country or country rock, but their music transcends genre. Last night, they leapt from ballad to rocker to blues, more concerned with keeping the show moving than pigeonholing their style. There was a tip of the hat to country music, but their influences came from across the board: Southern rock like the Charlie Daniels Band, Allman Brothers blues, a taste of REM and plenty of Tom Petty rock. Their open sound drove their appeal to different crowds, which all came together Friday night.

Throughout the show, their famed three axe attack carried the songs, providing a tangled jangle of guitars. In particular, John Neff played riff after riff of tasteful lead. Whether he was playing slide or more standard leads, he was always laid back in contrast to his hot finger work.

Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood took turns driving songs, most the time with the audience singing along. They played a number of favorites, like Your Daddy Hates Me, The Company I Keep, and Checkout Time in Vegas. My favorite two tunes were the cool angular vibe of Sink Hole, which reminded me of the Beat Farmers, and the beautiful Santa Fe, anchored by sweet steel guitar work. Santa Fe's psychedelic lead jam contrasted nicely with Patterson's heartfelt vocals and the simple rolling rhythm.

Throughout the set, bassist Shonna Tucker was steady and true, following all of the stylistic shifts and contributing the occasional vocal. A key part of that three axe attack was how well the bass fit in, meshing with one part, then another.

The encore dragged the night on, but no one was in a hurry to leave. At the very end, they brought the Henry Clay People back out to play a crowded cover of Jim Carroll's People Who Died. We may not have died, but we were in heaven.

Raise a glass of fine Bourbon to the Dirty South.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

CD review - Setting Sun, Fantasurreal (2010)

Frontman Gary Levitt steers his band, Setting Sun, on a meandering line between indie pop and folk. Their latest release, Fantasurreal, due out on June 1, has a foundation of booming drums and electronica fills with Levitt's fragile toned, distant vocals -- which tips the scale towards pop. But the ever present acoustic guitar, sweet harmonies, and strings pull things back into balance. It's an original mix of sounds, even as they evoke elements of Status Quo (Pictures of Matchstick Men) and Camper Van Beethoven. The songs vary from the very upbeat Driving to the simple, reflective The Tree.

One Time Around is a bipolar somersault of a song. The verses take a big drum beat from the Clash's Guns of Brixton, toss on a layer of vocals, and throw in some horn accents to create a philosophically detached feel, The bridges, on the other hand pick up an Eastern European vibe and ominous psychedelic fatalism. The tidal forces try to tear it apart, but it persists unbowed.

Don't Grow Up also shifts sections from a downbeat ballad with a flattened, minor tone to an arcing soar that sounds a little like the Flaming Lips. The drum mix is particularly interesting, with a fat snare and booming kick drum that build in distortion as the song progresses. The embracing strings and earnest lead are just icing on this rich, satisfying tune.

Fantasurreal is a ginger tea of an album, refreshing and occasionally sparkly on the palate.

Monday, May 10, 2010

CD review - Michael Juan Nunez, The American Electric (2009)

Louisiana is a national treasure, providing countless great musicians over the years, from blues to Zydeco to jazz. Michael Juan Nunez is a proud son of that musical tradition. Cutting his teeth with Lafayette's RiverBabys, he's also played with a fair number of classic LA musicians. The American Electric is his third solo release and it's quite a wild ride, bounding from Cajun flavored blues rock to old-time blues, with several side trips besides.

A key element of his sound is his slide guitar playing, which I put on par with Johnny Winter. He's got wicked tone and great control. While he's not quite as inventive as Sonny Landreth, he's no slouch. Listen to the tight electric blues of Bulldog. While that live version lacks the bass and percussion of the album version, you can catch the slide accents thrown into the basic groove, with some more interesting slide work coming in during the lead. The lyrics are clever and this is clearly a club favorite.

The next track, Mr. Jones, crosses a stumble-rhythm blues rocker with Hendrix's Voodoo Chile Slight Return. It's lyrically derivative of Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man, with some of the acid tone, but more repetitive. There's a fair amount of White Stripes in there too, as Nunez cops an in-your-face attitude. Once again, the slide sails in over the top and howls an inner angst. This is the rough diamond of The American Electric.

There are plenty of other good tracks, including the soulful R&B of Groove With Me and the old time blues of Doney. The only odd note is NeckTie, with its cut time beat and weird retro feel. It's not a bad song and I suppose it helps show Nunez's range, but the album would have been fine without it.

While a drinking party can be fun, this music calls for a flavorful session beer -- good taste and nothing to slow your feet from feeling the beat. Maybe a Pilsner Urquell would hit the spot, balanced and smooth.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Concert review - Murs with Sick Jacken, VerBS, J.O.B.

6 May 2010 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Too many MCs? Too much is never enough. It was a full night of rap at the Aggie, with Murs bringing out a couple of special guests. West Coast style was firmly in the house. And this was after local rap band, Just Ova Broke, opened the show.

Just Ova Broke (J.O.B.)
Just Ova Broke is a Colorado trio, with a DJ, a live drummer, and an MC. This kind of lineup is not unique, but it's always nice to get some live beats on the side. Unfortunately, the sound mix worked against the band, with MC Vaughn Helm's voice buried under the DJ's music mix. He had plenty of energy working the stage, but it was almost impossible to dig out the rhymes. That's fatal for a rap act. Despite this, they had some loyal fans in the crowd.

VerBS hit the stage with partnered with the DJ who would back the rest of the acts. The first song mixed up a taste of Chicago's 25 or 6 to 4, using the horn punches to accent his rhymes. He had plenty of energy, bounding around and about. The mix was better, but still a touch muddy.

VerBS has good flow, with some nice off-rhythm hits to add some syncopation. The DJ was feeding him a lot of soul backing tracks, giving a little bit of a retro vibe to the set. There was also some nice interaction when Murs joined him on stage for a little bit.

Sick Jacken

If VerBS had strong stage presence, then Sick Jacken was positively manic. High on attitude, he started off chanting, "Cali is Colorado," stoking the crowds. His voice cut through the mix a little better, which was a pleasant development.

Sick Jacken changed things up a bit by throwing in some Spanish, flowing tight in either language. With his shaved head and his habit of stalking the stage, he brought some welcome intensity to the show. It was a short set, but, like VerBS, he had Murs join him for the closer (Paid Dues).

Hearing Murs sit in with the other guys gave us a sense of his style, but it was just a taste. Murs took the stage for his own, setting the crowd to bouncing with the beat. Early in the set, he tossed out a loose version of 3:16 Pt. 2, with his voice complementing the soul backing track.

He could keep things tight, too, as he showed with Fornever. Murs shifted mood from song to song, going from playful to fronting serious attitude. The beats and the flow kept us dancing all night.

Let's pair this show with a good West Coast beer, like Stone Brewing's Ruination IPA.

More photos at my Flickr.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

CD review - The Henry Clay People, Somewhere on the Golden Coast (2010)

With a taste of Cheap Trick crossed with Green Day, The Henry Clay People could be dismissed as just another group of snotty boys with guitars. Listening closer, though, their skill and scope go beyond this simple assessment.

Somewhere on the Golden Coast manages to impress in the first three songs, which loosely feed into one another. Nobody Taught Us To Quit ends sharply with a brief pause that makes the start of Working Part Time sound like a continuation. "We were working part time, all the time." The lyrics are clever during this anthemic assessment of living at the bottom of the economic food chain. The last line reprises an earlier bit of the chorus, which then sets up a rhyme with the first line of Keep Your Eyes Closed:
We got drunk and called in sick We got drunk and called in sick... (Working Part Time) You fell in love and you fell like a brick... (Keep Your Eyes Closed)
Sure, it may all be coincidence, but it sounds like The Henry Clay People have a bigger arc than simple indie pop songs with a classic rock edge.

The peak comes with the caffeinated Freebird lead intro of Slow Burn. The driving beat anchors a catchy tune. This is where the Green Day sound stands out, especially during the lead. They throw in some dynamics to emphasize the earnest lyrics, too. All nice touches.

This feeds smoothly into the rocker, End Of An Empire, which sounds a lot like Dramarama's take on the Stones' classic, Message From Turner. They keep the slide and slinky lead and layer on some honky tonk piano. It's high energy and low art...it's only rock and roll.

The other songs on Somewhere on the Golden Coast are more than filler -- some Wilco noise, a bit of Too Much Joy, and a nice tip of the hat to Ian Hunter's Mott the Hoople on Your Famous Friends. It's bracing and fun.

I'll be catching their live show in a week or so. We'll see how they compare, but I'm expecting a great time. For the time being, I'd say a Meyer's rum and Coke would feel good about now.

Monday, May 3, 2010

CD review - Rene Lopez, People Are Just People (2010)

The modern take on pop R&B is often calculated, cynical, and ultimately bland. So, it's refreshing to hear Rene Lopez reach back and channel the joy that used to infuse this music. People Are Just People is a love letter to the golden age of classic R&B, soul, and funk.

In interviews, Lopez has talked about getting hooked on Prince, then tracking back to earlier influences. You can hear Prince in his occasional falsetto (listen to the title track) and also in his approach on this record. He plays most of the instruments on these tracks, usually bringing in help for bass, some keys, and backing vocals. Some artists can't pull this off because they lose the interplay and spark of the song, but Lopez keeps the vibe loose. It sounds like a regular band recording the tracks.

The two best songs have opposite perspectives on relationships. Pretty Much Happy is a catchy pop song, infused with joyful love:
Baby don't you know, you're the only one
That makes me pretty much happy
I took the medication
All sorts of meditation
I dipped into religion, but I couldn't be forgiven
But when I found you near me
I start to see things clearly
So can you help me out and stick around
The soulful pop has some gospel undertones. I smile just remembering it.

On the other side, Especially You is a little more complex. Lyrically, it's bitter and resigned, dealing with betrayal and the need to move on:
I don't need your love to tell me I'm a man
I cannot be saved by Jesus or a woman
All I need is time, away from all the madness
That happens in my mind
Along with my bad habits
I don't need nothin' more from anyone
Especially you
The music puts doubt to the words, with a laid back soul vibe that feels more in love than it should. It's just as catchy a tune, though.

Other songs stand up well, from the simple ballad, Can You Relate, to the upbeat pop blues of Wednesday. Change has that Sly Stone funk feel, with a complex layered groove and sweet guitars.

People Are Just People has an instant classic sound, so let's pair it with a good retro cocktail, like a Harvey Wallbanger.