Friday, March 18, 2005

Concert Catch Up

Music

I have a real bad habit of writing posts and setting them aside for proofing and editing and then never getting around to posting them. As a result, I’ve pitched about a dozen Days of Our Lives updates because they got to be so out of date. I really don’t want to do that to these concert posts, because I thought all the shows were worthy of comment. So, if you’ll pardon the length, here is a run down of the shows we’ve seen so far in 2005. I’m trying to paste and edit together all those old, unused blogs, so I hope it all flows okay.

Family Children First Fundraiser (sometime in January—can’t find the date now)

It was all about good music for a good cause in January at the Rudyard Kipling. Five local bands came together to raise money for Family and Children First, a local counseling/social service agency that had been hit by two devastating break-ins recently, resulting in the loss of many of the gift certificates and things they use to help families in need.

Some of our agency’s programs partner with and interact with Family and Children First, so I thought it would be good to go. The fact that two of my favorite local performers, Tim Krekel and Danny Flanigan, were on the bill had nothing to do with it, of course. The cause was good. The price was right for a show featuring three acts we didn’t know anything about.

I’m always up for exploring new artists, usually more than Keith, and there were a few signs that indicated I just might like them. The event organizers had gotten alt-country mag No Depression to sponsor the show, for one thing. As an avid ND reader, I know the music they support and it’s typically what I like.

Besides supporting FCF and hearing the bands, going to a show sponsored by ND was kind of important to me too. One of ND’s publishers lives in Morehead, KY and this was the first show in the state that I knew of where they were involved. I wanted to support that idea, so that maybe this kind of thing can happen again. Louisville and Lexington are full of the kind of musicians ND supports, so are Berea, Frankfort, the Northern Ky area, and on and on.

Tim Krekel opened the show with his rootsy rock. It was the first time we’d ever seen him with his band, which includes a couple of horn players. Tim can rock out on his own with just his guitar, so what the band added to his songs was a little more color and dimension. It was fun to hear live versions of songs like Sunshine Baby and Happy Town with full instrumentation.

I love acoustic music. I always have. I like the organic feel it has, and the way the unadorned connection between the performer/songwriter and song comes to life. It’s almost like hearing the song the way it was heard the first time it was played. Nevertheless, I also like the chance to get a different perspective to familiar songs. That’s what I got from the Krekel band that night..

Of course, Krekel ended up with a small crew of Krekies in the audience. Their singing and dancing brought an element of fun to the event and helped set the right mood for the evening.

I’d never heard The Betweeners, who came next. They’re a smaller group and their music struck me as a mix of old timey music, alt-country, and some rock. Unfortunately, the lead singer’s vocals weren’t miked very well, so he kept getting lost in the mix. That’s not a good way to hear a group for the first time, because you can’t get a handle on the lyrics. Still, I was intrigued enough by them to want to hear them again, which is a good thing to say about someone you hear for the first time.

Dallas Alice was next up. They take their name from Willing, a truck-driving song that’s been recorded by dozens of folks. I think of it primarily as a Linda Ronstadt song, but the band kept referring to Willie Nelson’s version. Of course they also performed it as part of their set. Their songs have some twisted humor in them, which I really liked. I’ll definitely be getting one of their CD’s soon.

I wasn’t that impressed with the next act, the John Mann Band. He had a three piece horn section, which was fun to watch and listen to, but his songs didn’t have anything to them that reached out and grabbed me.

Danny Flanigan closed out the show, with his band, the rain chorus. Like Krekel, it was the first time we had seen him with his band. They did a pretty complete set of their best crowd-pleasing songs: Vernon’s Mud, the ode to the working man, Flanigan’s exhortation for people to get involved and make change, Work the Change, Faith Never Sleeps, a song about hard times, Iowa, about an emotional family reunion, and others. They really rocked out throughout the whole set, on into the encore, where they did covers of Country Roads and Me and Julio among other songs.

Their best moment, though, came when Flanigan debuted a new song, one that the band hadn’t even heard before. He told them to take a break and started to play, but bit by bit they started picking up on the melody and playing along with him, even improvising guitar solos and backing vocals. It was fun to watch a group of creative minds coming together ad hoc to contribute to the song.

The only real downer to the night was slow service from the Rud, which is perennially understaffed. There was a huge crowd all night long, and there were only two servers to cover everyone. I felt sorry for them. Judging from the size of the crowd, Family and Children First raised quite a bit of money, which is good. I hope they’ll use some of it for new locks.

Music Weekend in February

The weekend of February 25-26 was a good one for music. That Friday night we went to see Chicago folk duo Small Potatoes at the Kentucky Theatre. I’m glad to see the Kentucky having more performances and getting active again. They’ve had a tough year in terms of funding. I hope things are starting to look up for them.

I had not heard Small Potatoes, but had heard of them. I talked Keith into going based on that reputation, which is the kind of thing I’m prone to do. He calls me our social planner, based on my tendency to find some odd little musical event or art exhibit for us to check out.

Anyway, it was a great performance. Like a lot of more grass-roots oriented musicians, Small Potatoes’ repertoire is a combination of insightful songs mixed with slightly silly ones. The best of the silly category was a ditty about a traveling salesman who meets the Knott family: Will, his wife Norma Lee, and daughters May Bea, Shirley, and Wy (short for Wynona). They called this their “Abbot and Costello on Hee Haw” song, and if you say those names out loud with the family name, you’ll see why. It was fun.

Their other songs dealt with the things that make up life: aging, love, living in community, trying to make each moment count. The song A Thousand Candles, A Thousand Cranes used the story of two women scarred by World War II to make a case for growing beyond past pains to build a peaceful world. The lifetime of hatred one woman has borne for the Japanese after losing two of her sons in the war is finally overcome when a woman who survived Hiroshima becomes her nurse.

Small Potatoes play several instruments and a variety of genres, referring to themselves as “eclectomaniacs,” but their greatest strength is their songwriting. During the song Time Flies the narrator grapples with getting older, saying “Time flies and I can’t get off the ground.” In their closing song, they used a series of (not so) rhetorical questions to make a case for deliberately living to make a difference, even if it’s small.

For me the high point of the concert came after the intermission, when they opened with an ancient Irish tune and segued immediately into Phil Ochs’ I Ain’t Marching Any More, a poignant anti-war song, which details the devastation wrought throughout American history by war. At the end of the song, they made the comment that a few years ago they would have thought the Ochs song was just a “quaint bit of nostalgia.” Sigh!

Saturday evening, we went to Headliners to see Buddy Miller. It was the most interesting Headliners experience I think we’ve ever had. We got there a half hour before the door opened to find we were the first people in line. Usually getting there that close to opening puts you behind a couple dozen people. This is significant when you realize that Headliners doesn’t have a whole lot of seating and all the shows are general admission.

By the time the doors opened, there was only one other couple waiting there with us. We actually began to worry that the turnout would be low. The place filled up after a little while though. Since the only station that plays Miller’s music is our AAA format public radio station, the audience was largely made up of station-listeners, which meant a lot of people our age or slightly older. As a result, there was a lot less cigarette smoke to deal with and fewer annoying drunks. It was Headliners like we had never seen it before. I almost think I could get used to that.

The most noticeable exception was the other couple who was waiting outside with us. They pulled up in a cab, and she was carrying a highball glass from the hotel where they were staying. (They were from out of town.) Before the show started, they had several mixed drinks, and I saw him ordering vodka shots at the bar. After the music started, they had no telling how many beers. Still, they managed to keep to themselves and not bother anyone else the whole night. And at least they weren’t driving!

The opening act was Louisville alt-country band 10 Months Later. I had not heard them before, but I liked what I heard enough to want to check them out again some time. Some times that’s about the best thing you can say about a band that’s new to you.

Buddy Miller only had a three piece band (drums, bass, keyboards, along with Miller on electric guitar), which gave the songs a sparse, stripped down feel that benefits his somewhat dark, brooding material really well. I thought things would feel different without the powerful, gospel-oriented back up singers he’s been using lately, but the low key back up let the power of Buddy’s killer guitar playing and songwriting take center stage.

They opened with rocking versions of Hole in My Head, Does My Ring Burn Your Finger, and Worry Too Much, and then went in to some of the more gospel-oriented material from his latest CD, Universal United House of Prayer. There was an oddly communal feeling to signing along with his cover of the Louvin Brothers’ Higher Power with a room full of strangers! Shelter Me Lord had a similar feel to it. Much more of that and it would have been almost like being at church, albeit one which features alt-country bands and keeps an open bar.

That churchy vibe might explain the wedding in the middle of the show. Yes, I said “wedding.” The drummer and his long term girlfriend were married by the keyboard player who is apparently ordained in some fashion. The band put on little while silk flowers as boutonni√®res, and the bride carried a bunch of carrots. The ceremony was short and direct: The keyboard player asked if they loved each other and wanted to commit. They said “Yes.” He pronounced them married. They kissed and put on rings made of guitar strings. As odd as it all sounds, I think it was serious.

Keith was even recruited to serve as official wedding photographer. He was taking pics of the band, when two women asked him if he would take some shots of the ceremony. He talked one of the security folks into letting him go up into the balcony area, which was closed for this show, and fired away. You just never know what’s going to happen when you leave the house some evenings.

Miller interacted with the crowd all evening, on and off stage. I actually ran into him going into the bathroom before the show. He smiled at me! During the show, he talked at length about how Emmylou Harris intervened when his record label wanted to call Universal something else. He didn’t find out she did that until after the fact, but for me it only reinforces her status as the Mother Goddess of Music. She looks out for her “children.” He also shared his conversation with Jim Lauderdale about appropriate Grammy dress.

Even with all the extra happenings, it was Miller’s music that was the star of the show. His version of his wife Julie’s song In My Father’s Arms raised the hair on my arms, while his wail in Midnight and Lonesome ripped my heart out. It was a heckuva show and a heckuva night. Awesome.

Homefront in February

The new season of Homefront started last month, and we were right there picking up our season passes. We both feel so guilty for missing so many shows last season that I doubt we let one go by this spring.

John Gage and company started off on the right foot this time, with Traveler’s Dream, Junkyard Jane, Janis Pruitt, and Steve Jowasis. The first show opened with Jowaisis, who used traditional instruments to perform a variety of traditional and orginal tunes. He performs in a variety of venues, including schools, and his love for traditional music and drive to share with any audience that will listen was evident in his performance. I bet that his engaging personality is great with kids.

Traveler’s Dream was next up. Like Jowaisis, they perform a variety of traditional and original tunes, but they incorporate folk tunes and instruments from a variety of other cultures that have helped form the American experience: Irish, French, Gypsy and others. Their performance was marred by a couple of technical glitches, but part of the fun of going to a Homefront taping is the occasional re-take. Given all of the things that can go wrong in a live performance, I’m always surprised that there aren’t more do-overs.

The second show veered more towards the contemporary end of the scale with singer-song-writer Janis Pruitt. I’ve only heard Pruitt a couple of times, but she has a way of telling stories and crafting songs that reminds me of both Kate Campbell and Carrie Newcomer. I was especially touched by her song about the way love of music helped form a bond for Pruitt and her father, despite the fact that their musical tastes were wildly divergent. I also liked the bouncy Amsterdam, an ode to a love long lost.

Junkyard Jane followed with their “swampbilly” sound—a conglomeration of rock, Cajun, folk, blues, country and anything else that can be thrown into the mix. They’re almost as much fun to watch as to listen to. Their drummer has a kit that’s largely homemade, seemingly out of whatever odds and ends he could get his hands on, while vocalist LeeAnn Trevalyan also plays everything from a washboard to a kazoo shaped like a trombone. They were great!

In between the acts on both shows, storyteller Graham Chapman shared stories of his experiences teaching English in Japan. Each story was liberally sprinkled with bits of Japanese (along with a translation), which gave them a grounding in the culture where they happened. It was a great start to a new season.

Homefront on March 12

In honor of St Patrick’s Day, Homefront shows in March typically feature Celtic acts, featuring a couple of this region’s many talented bands that play music of Irish origin (frequently with some Scottish, English, and Bluegrass tunes thrown into the mix). I tend to look forward to those shows, because we’re guaranteed good music. (I really like authentic Celtic music.) Unfortunately, this particular Saturday’s show didn’t fully deliver on that promise.

The first hour was the Celtic hour, as the show that was taped featured Colin Grant-Adams and Guilderoy Byrne. Grant-Adams is a transplant to Kentucky from Scotland, and his set included both original and traditional tunes. While introducing Grant-Adams’ set, Homefront host John Gage said that they had been trying to get him on the show for a long time. After his set, all I could do was wonder “Why?”

He has a pleasant enough voice and plays guitar competently, but his original compositions were underwhelming, with awkward lyrical structures that made them hard to follow. His rendition of Barbara Allen sounded like it was lifted right off a Burl Ives album, turning this tragic love ballad into some kind of bouncy, sing-a-long campfire ditty. The only good song in his set was another original Where the Rhododendrons Grow, which drew upon this plant, common to both a certain area in Scotland and a part of Tennessee where many Scots settled, to tell the story of people making their way in the new world, taking comfort in the familiar, while overcoming the challenges of the new. The song’s lyrics were plain and direct, which meant that the emotion they carried was powerful and real. Unfortunately, from there he went back into sing-along schmaltz mode by closing with When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

Thankfully, Guilderoy Byrne more than made up for the poor first act with their set, a mixture of traditional music, original songs, instrumentals, and more. They played a combination of traditional instruments with non-trad items like bongos mixed in. I was really impressed with their fiddle player (who also played the viola at one point). In addition to the nimble fiddling typically associated with Celtic music, she frequently used her instrument to add mournful undertones to the songs, an effect I found really haunting. The mix of music (including a couple polkas!) kept the audience engaged, clapping along, and singing from time to time. They closed with a four-song medley that showcased a variety of instruments and left me wanting much more.

It’s rare when Homefront has an act disappoints me as much as Grant-Adams did, but the other three acts usually make up for it. This Saturday turned out to be the first night that two of the acts were mediocre. The second set featured Jason Eustice and Danny Flanigan. I knew that Flanigan was performing without his band, and I only saw one chair set up for Eustace (who opened), so I guessed that the theme for the show was going to be sensitive singer-songwriter guys. Boy, was I wrong.

In introducing Eustice, John Gage described him as a young man making his way in Nashville, which started to make me a little apprehensive. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how one goes about making one’s way. Then he started to sing. And it wasn’t a good thing. Not at all.

It’s not that he wasn’t talented. He played well. He sang well. He’s young and cute. He’s got good hair and trendy clothes. And he writes overwrought, sentimental songs with all the substance of a cotton ball. In other words, with the right management, he’s primed for mainstream, contemporary country music success, either as a songwriter for others or a performer in his own right. And none of that is what I go to Homefront to see.

About halfway through the first song, I thought: “This is way too Rascal Flatts for me.” Two songs later, he announced that the next song is being considered for a Rascal Flatts album! (And this was after two that were being considered by Brooks and Dunn.) The whole set was just awkward and out of place. Homefront is about preserving musical traditions and grassroots artists. It’s not about lyrics like: “Every morning when I wake up/The first breath I exhale/I tell the man in the mirror/To go straight to hell.” (Try saying that with a straight face. I dare you.)

Admittedly, I’m not the demographic for this kind of stuff, but bad music is bad music. And Homefront exists to counter stuff like this and celebrate the good music that’s out there. I’m chalking this one up as an aberration.

Once again, the show was saved by the second set. After John Gage sang an Irene Kelley song and reminded us how good country music can be when it’s simple, honest, and direct, Danny Flanigan took the stage and repeated the lesson. Opening with Three Days to Benjamin, his song about leaving his son to go on a tour. With a few simple, low key phrases, Flanigan sums up his frustration with having to leave the son he loves to play the music he loves. Rather than dwell on the difficulty of the separation, he builds on the anticipation of the reunion, as the song counts down the things that stand between him and his son: three days, three states, three hours, three roads, three walls. It’s bittersweet and touching, and the complete opposite of anything performed in the first set.

The rest of his set was just as moving—sometimes to laughter, sometimes to deep thought. Unfortunately, the show was running over, and to make the tape length, he had to cut things short. But Gage asked him to do an encore once the tape stopped, and he obliged with Dumpy Like Dad, a new song about the perils of middle-aged metabolism.

It was the most mixed night I’ve ever seen at Homefront. But even a mixed night at Homefront is better than a good one somewhere else. On the plus side, the place was packed. I haven’t seen it that full in a long time. There were hardly any empty seats! I hope those folks saw enough of the good side of Homefront to want to come back.

They announced at the beginning of the show that they’re looking into taping the shows for TV broadcast in addition to radio, which is a fantastic opportunity for them. To prepare for this, they’ve been putting together a new set for the stage. It’s supposed to debut next month. Unfortunately, I have to miss that show, so I’ll have to wait until May to see it. They’ve also gotten back into the groove of updating their web page regularly, which is a good thing.

Whew! Thanks for bearing with that. I’ll work harder at keeping up with that. I’m worn out from putting it all together!

Upcoming Shows

For Keith and Eddie:

Natalie MacMaster at the Kentucky Center for the Arts (Tonight!)
Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Brown Theatre (Next Friday)

For Eddie in San Francisco:

Shivaree with Clem Snide
Michael Penn

For Keith in Louisville while Eddie’s in San Francisco:

Steve Earle at Headliners(!)
Todd Snider at Headliners

Looks like we’ll both miss Homefront in April!

Possible Shows for Keith and Eddie:

Kieran McGee at Ear X-Tacy (This Saturday)
Sahara Odyssey: Arabic Music and Dance at Kentucky Theater (Next Saturday)
Girlyman at the Rud on March 30 (I just got an email saying that they've got a new CD ready to come out soon!)
Alan Rhody and Tim Krekel at the Rud on April 15
Slaid Cleaves at the Rud on April 27

(I haven’t talked with him about any of these, but they’re all easily doable.)

I also have a feeling—call it a hunch, if you will—that Keith will catch the free Todd Snider show at Ear X-Tacy on April 9….

And there’s also a certain singing Cajun passing through here in May….

Plus, this guy coming in April!

Musically, at least, life is good!

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