Friday, September 30, 2011

The best two-set Phish show – Hampton 11/22/97

Hampton Coliseum, November 22, 1997 - widely considered to the best two-set Phish show. Focused, exploratory, creative, nuanced.

Starting with an out of left field Mike’s Song that departs from its normal structure into a monstrous jam you can lose yourself in, transitioning to the tranquil I am Hydrogen, and finally merging into a precise stop/start version of Weekapaug.  I don't know of a show with a better opening segment.  Mike's>H>'Paug takes well over thirty minutes and when the band finally pauses briefly to decide on the next song, the crowd takes an opportunity to respond with deafening applause.  The next choice – Harry Hood – was a surprise for many.  Its placement in the middle of the 1st set was an indication that the band meant business on this night, as if that wasn't already apparent from the jaw dropping playing that preceded it.  Hood builds to peaks that don’t seem possible.  Close to an hour into the set, the bar is now so high that it’s downhill from here – in a good way – as the band glides into two of its mellower original numbers (Train Song and Billy Breathes) before finishing the set with two classic rock covers:  Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein and Jimi Hendrix’s Izabella.
The 2nd set began with the crowd trying to organize a group request for the rarely played Destiny Unbound.  Trey seemed to not understand what was being said and jokingly likened it to a cannibalistic chant, questioning whether human sacrifice had now become a part of the show.  Instead of Destiny Unbound the band kicked off the 2nd set with Halley’s Comet, starting off a run of songs that topped even the energy and direction of the first set.  If Mike’s>Hydrogen>Weekapaug, Hood to start the show was the appetizer, then Halley’s>Tweezer>Black Eyed Katy, Piper, Antelope is the main course.  When Trey finally says the lyrics “Set the gearshift for the highgear of your soul” at the end of Antelope, the audience echoes this command with a resounding affirmation that runs deeper than this review can transmit.

To try and convey the brainy throwdown that went at this show, imagine W.B. Yeats, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and James Joyce sitting in a cozy pub around a peat fire, strong drink in hand, conversing about the existence of God (while James Brown crashes the party), and you'll begin to understand the equivalent in musical conversation that went on between the four members of Phish on this night in Hampton.  While we are dwelling on that…the band comes back out for the encore.  With lights perfectly cued, Phish plays Bouncin' Around the Room, one of their most catchy and accessible songs, and follows it with Tweezer Reprise, putting some closure on this night that doesn't want to end.

Set I: Mike's Song > I am Hydrogen >  Weekapaug Groove, Harry Hood, Train Song, Billy Breathes, Frankenstein, Izabella
Set II: Halley's Comet > Tweezer > Black-Eyed Katy, Piper, Run Like An Antelope
Encore: Bouncing Around the Room, Tweezer Reprise


Stream from Sugar Megs

The Jayhawks Have Really Gone Back to Mockingbird Time

The Jayhawks are back with Gary Louris and Mark Olson at the helm!  The recently reunited Minnesota rockers released a statement concerning their new studio album Mockingbird Time saying that they (paraphrasing) “set out to make not just a good Jayhawks album, but the best one ever”.  That’s a pretty lofty goal considering the band’s classic one-two-three punch of Blue Earth, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, released in 1989, 1992 and 1995, respectively.

Mark Olson took-off after Tomorrow the Green Grass, leaving co-frontman Gary Louris as bandleader, and he notably released Rainy Day Music under the Jayhawks moniker in 2003.  Well, the Jayhawks are the songwriting team of Mark Olson and Gary Louris in most peoples’ opinions, so it’s those early three classic albums featuring the core lineup that Mockingbird Time will be stacked up against.  So what’s the verdict?  My first listen to the album was unavoidably met with some skepticism.  I was looking for reasons why this wouldn’t be the best Jayhawks album ever.  By about the 6th song in things started to change.

After listening to it several times now I’ll admit that Mockingbird Time doesn’t sound like “the new” Jayhawks album.  It just sounds like the Jayhawks at their best.  There are 12 individual tracks, but I don’t want to get into a song-by-song analysis.  (That’s how I came to listen to their older stuff – cherry picking my favorite cuts to make a "best of" mix).  Instead, I see Mockingbird Time as basically one long, cathartic piece.  The farther I stand back from it, the more I like it.

Perhaps years down the road, when we’ve “really gone back to Mockingbird Time”, it will sound even better.  Click the image below to hear the album's title track, or click below that for Rolling Stone's full album stream (while it's active).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Host Your Own Chamber Music House Concert

House concerts are not just for folkies any more.  The recently formed Richmond, VA classical cooperative the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble (ACE) is now booking house concerts!  But don’t expect these to be snooty, formal affairs.  ACE’s goal is to present eclectic, interactive programs involving lights and theater that don’t feel like traditional chamber concerts.  This means venues like your living room or backyard tent might be right up their alley!

The 11-member collective is mostly comprised of musicians from the Richmond Symphony and Virginia Commonwealth University.  Their unique combination of instruments and interests frees them up to tackle different styles and rarely heard works by both past and present day composers.  This accessible yet experimental approach to the chamber concert experience should fill a void in the Richmond music community.

ACE gave its inaugural concert on September 26th at VCU’s Singleton Performing Arts Center, performing works by Shostakovich, Barber and Martin┼».  The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble has also been named ensemble in residence at WCVE Public Radio (88.9FM).  This means their performances and in-studio concerts will get to be heard by the thousands of listeners who tune in over the air or via WCVE’s program stream. 

For booking inquiries and to find out how you can host your own house concert featuring the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble, contact clarinetist Ralph Skiano at

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ajuba Indian Restaurant in Ashland, VA

Ashland now has an Indian restaurant!  It is called Ajuba Indian Cuisine, 141 Junction Drive, Ashland, VA, 23005, 804-752-7552, near the Food Lion.  We've eaten there three or four times and recently had our best meal yet.  I got the Dal Maharani (black lentils with red kidney beans in a rich creamy sauce) while Laura got the Badami Chicken (boneless chicken cooked with onion gravy and almond paste).  With a side of Aloo Parantha (whole wheat flour naan bread stuffed with spicy potatoes). We shared.  It was awesome.

Spiciness doesn't have to mean "spicy hot" in Indian food - it can just mean flavorful.  Although when you order off the menu at Ajuba they allow you to select the spiciness of your meal on a scale of one to ten.  I chose a six for my dish (I used to go even spicier but I'm scaling back) and Laura chose a four.  I did level seven here once before and that was a little too hot for my taste.  Five is probably a good number if you're OK with some spiciness but don't want to be overwhelmed.

Ajuba is open seven days a week. There's a lunch buffet every day from 11:30am to 2:30pm and dinner is served from 5 to 9pm.  Effective October 5th they will also be doing a dinner buffet on Wednesday nights.  Buffet style is a great introduction and way to sample Indian food due to the variety of things you get to try for a set price.  When doing the buffet I try and make mental notes of things I enjoyed (one of my favorites is Chana Masala) to help me decide when I have to order off the menu.

One of the reasons I love going to Indian restaurants is because besides maybe a table or two of actual Indian people there's hardly ever anyone else there.  ("stuff white people like").  That's actually a shame because Indian food is soooooo good!  It's also a Catch-22.  I want Ajuba to succeed and stay in business so I hope more folks will check it out. It's definitely one of the top dining options we have in Ashland.  Much, much better than the chain restaurants right off the I-95 exit.  Oh yeah....they also have beer!  Domestic bottles for the non-adventurous plus some tasty Indian varieties like Kingfisher and Taj Mahal that pair well with the food.

Besides Ajuba, the nearest Southern Asian cuisine to Ashland is several miles away in either downtown Richmond or the West End (unless you count Thai Gourmet near King's Charter), so Ajuba is a welcome addition.  If you love this type of food then it's also another reason to make the trek to our cool little town in the Center of the Universe.

See below for the Ajuba menu.


Branch out!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Killdares - Up Against the Lights DVD review

I had not heard of the Dallas, Texas Celtic rock band the Killdares before I watched their recently released concert DVD Up Against the Lights. The first thing I noticed was the professional look.  There's a polished, modern style to the editing that gives it the feel of an arena rock show.  The second thing that got my attention was the non-stereotypical songwriting evident in their originals.  I was halfway expecting standard songs about whiskey, murder and politics - you know...Celtic rock stuff - but actually what I picked up on was a 1960's "smile on your brother" kinda vibe coming from drummer and lead vocalist Tim Smith's lyrics.  Pleasantly surprised.
While the lyrics may have a folk-rock bent, musically the Killdares have more in common with Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin.  This is mainly due to the playing style of electric guitarist Brek Lancaster, who must have spent some time in bands of that nature.  If you took away the fiddle and bagpipes The Killdares wouldn't sound all that Celtic to my ears, but as soon as those instruments join in they perfectly blend with what the guitarist, drummer and bassist Gavin Kelso are doing in a way that does not sound forced.

Yes, the fiddling of Roberta Rast and the bagpiping/uillean piping of Matt Willis are what put the word Celtic into descriptions of the Killdares, allowing the group to serve as a sort of gateway band for rock fans with an interest in Celtic music. Roberta and Matt are both excellent players of their chosen instruments, and it's especially cool to hear the somewhat exotic uillean pipes in this context. (Uillean rhymes with illin' like a villian). The Killdares have also perfected an exuberant video-friendly stage presence that adds to the buzz exerted by the music. On the other hand, a highlight for me came late in the DVD when Tim Smith switched to bodhran for a medley of acoustic fiddle tunes with Roberta Rast before the rest of the band joined in; toning things down a bit to focus on the essence of the music.

Included in the DVD's bonus features is a casual interview with the band members that shows them to be more humble and down to earth than the fearless, no holds barred performers depicted in the concert film.  That interview left me with an even better impression of the people in the group.  A two CD audio recording of the complete concert (7/30/10, Granada Theater, Dallas, TX) is also included as part of the 3 disc special edition.  Audio-only is another great way to experience this recording - just you and the music with visions of peace-loving leprechauns dancing in your head!

Recommended Reading: George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown, photo
from Gunnie Moberg Archive
When Laura and I made our journey to the islands of Orkney, Scotland in 2007 I became aware of the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown who was born, lived, and died in the picturesque little town of Stromness on the main island of Orkney. Mackay Brown rarely traveled outside his home base, yet he is considered one of the greatest British poets of the last century.  I was further intrigued when I learned that for decades he wrote a weekly column for The Orcadian newspaper.

Stromness can be a pretty sleepy place. Sure, it does have a tourist draw being the seaport that connects summertime ferries laden with visitors in search of the Stonehenge-like stone circles, standing stones and other ancient sites that are dotted around the archipelago.  However its Scandinavian remoteness - over ten miles north of Scotland proper across some rough waters - does limit the amount of people who will visit here.  Despite living practically his whole life in a place where not a whole lot seemed to be going on, George Mackay Brown was never at a loss for content.  These weekly observations, musings and essays were intended to be "light reading for quiet townsfolk on a Thursday afternoon".  I find them to be mystical.

Over twenty years of George Mackay Brown's columns - from the early 1970's to his death in the mid 1990's - have been collected in four volumes entitled Letters from Hamnavoe, Under Brinkie's Brae, The First Wash of Spring, and Rockpools & Daffodils. The books are in successive order with the date each column was originally printed shown.  You can read these in chronological order as a weekly narrative or randomly jump around...picking out pages for a glimpse into his mood on that particular day. Either way you do it, his love for his native Orkney shines through.

I've only read the first two volumes so far - Letters from Hamnavoe and Under Brinkie's Brae - so there's still a lot left to study.  Plus I haven't even begun to dip into Mackay Brown's poetry, novels and other work, although I believe a fair amount of poetry was already on display in his weekly contributions to The Orcadian.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fall 2011 Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival Preview

Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival is October 6-9, 2011
When it comes to small-scale, progressive, efficiently run, roots music camping festivals, it doesn't get much better than...
Shakori Hills takes place twice a year - spring and fall - in a bucolic, pastoral setting amidst rolling hills and old oak woods; about 20 miles southwest of Chapel Hill near the town of Pittsboro, NC.  The emphasis is on dance-oriented folk musics: Appalachian, Cajun, Afrobeat, Celtic, bluegrass, hip-hop, salsa, honky-tonk and more...featuring everything from accomplished national touring artists to indigenous world music acts to revered regional blues musicians, as well as up and coming acoustic/electric indie bands from both the Raleigh/Durham, NC and Ithaca, NY scenes.  A family-friendly, party-friendly, socially conscious, hippie haven in rural North Carolina!

I'm going to have to miss the first two days, but if I were there on Thursday and Friday I would definitely check out Dirty Bourbon River Show, dub Addis, Emmitt-Nershi Band, James Olin Oden, Mike Quinn, Noot d'Noot, and The Old Ceremony.  However, I have poured over the schedules for Saturday and Sunday and come up with a weekend itinerary that may be helpful to you.

The Grady Girls
Saturday, October 8, 2011
The first music I'll want to check out on Saturday is the Diali Cissokho Drum Workshop at 2pm in the Cabaret Tent where he will be teaching drum rhythms from Senegal, West Africa.  Bring your drum!  Then I'll head over to the Dance Tent to check out the Irish session by The Grady Girls, an all female trad quartet from Ithaca consisting of twin fiddles, flute and bodhran.  They sing, step-dance and play a mixture of jigs, reels and hornpipes.  Their set is scheduled for 2:15pm.  The next performer I hope to check out is named Nawal (4pm, Meadow Stage). She is from the Comoros Islands off the Eastern Coast of Africa and her music is a combination of Indo, Arabian, and Persian influences.  I listened to her music a little bit while preparing this article and it sounds very exotic and meditative.  I'm definitely curious to see what she is like in person.

Diali Cissokho & Kairaba
After Nawal the African theme on the Meadow Stage continues with Sidi Toure at 5:45.  Sidi is a practicioner of a droning style of nomadic desert blues that I think will be similar to Tinariwen and Vieux Faka Toure (no relation). Kind of like an African jamband!  The fun continues at the Meadow Stage at 8pm with Miami urban cumbia/salsa/reggae group Locos Por Juana who will be providing a tropical, psychedelic sizzle.

To keep the groove going I'll position myself at the Dance Tent at 10pm for Diali Cissokho & Kairaba, who have a modern, improvisational, polyrhythmic take on West African dance music.  Dancing/sailing shoes now on, it will soon then be time for local indie-pop power trio Hammer No More the Fingers, sure to be the highlight of the day as they close out the Carson's Grove stage at 12:15am.  In an outdoor festival setting like this, Hammer tends to play with a more laid back, patient approach - letting their perfectly crafted 3 minute radio songs build into monstrous soul growing palate cleansers.  Hammer has one of 2011's best rock albums Black Shark under their belts and is prepped to unleash a majestic after-midnight set for the night crawling music lovers.  That's Saturday.
Hammer No More the Fingers

Sunday, October 9, 2011
Leyla McCalla
The first person I want to hear on Sunday is Leyla McCalla, who will be performing at 11am on the Meadow Stage.  Leyla plays what appears to be a 4-string banjo and a cello, and has the look and demeanor of someone from another era - like she just walked out of a Southern time machine. I would like to know more about this performer and find out how she arrived at the music she makes.  Next up is the Blackberry Bushes Stringband (noon, Dance Tent) for a good ol' hoedown.  The Blackberry Bushes, who are from Washington state, recently took 2nd place in the band competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.  At 2pm I intend to grab my tenor banjo (my wife her bodhran) and swing by the Front Porch Stage for an Irish tune learning workshop with The Grady Girls. They'll split participants up by instrument and/or skill level to work on a tune and then regroup everyone to play it together at the end of the workshop. Should be fun! 
Meadow Stage

The progressive bluegrass band the Jon Stickley Trio is the next group I'll want to see on Sunday.  They are on the Carson's Grove stage at 3:45pm.  Jon is an excellent flat picker and this trio is a new project he has brewed up.  The lineup is flexible, but usually consists of guitar, fiddle and drums.  After Jon Stickley Trio, Durham's own Hammer No More the Fingers returns for their 2nd set of the festival, this time in the Cabaret Tent at 5pm.  Concidentally, Jon Stickley's brother Jeff Stickley is the drummer for Hammer.  This will be a rockin' way to almost end Sunday.  I say almost because by the time HNMTF finishes, headliners Bela Fleck and the Flecktones will have already started on the Meadow Stage (6:30pm).  The Flecktones consists of long time members Victor Wooten (the bass virtuoso) and Futureman (drumitar), plus original member Howard Levy (harmonica) who is once again touring with the ensemble.  After Bela is done it will be time for us to hit the road and get back to the real world.  

If you found this schedule helpful let me know.  By following it you will get to see a lot of great performers at least once over Saturday and Sunday.  Did I leave out any "must see" Saturday or Sunday sets?  Don't forget there are also many great bands playing on Thursday and/or Friday only.  There are some that look really good, especially Noot d'Toot

Here's my personal Sat/Sun schedule once again:

2pm - Diali Cissokho Drum Workshop, Cabaret Tent
2:15pm - Grady Girls, Dance Tent
4pm - Nawal, Meadow Stage
5:45pm - Sidi Toure, Meadow Stage
8pm - Locos Por Juana, Meadow Stage
10pm - Diali Cissokho & Kairaba, Dance Tent
12:15am - Hammer No More the Fingers, Carson's Grove

11am - Leyla McCalla, Meadow Stage
noon - Blackberry Bushes Stringband, Dance Tent
2pm - Traditional Irish workshop w/ the Grady Girls, Front Porch
3:45pm - Jon Stickley Trio, Carson's Grove
5pm - Hammer No More the Fingers, Cabaret Tent
6:30pm - Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Meadow Stage

Season 37 of Austin City Limits debuts October 2011

Season 37 of Austin City Limits kicks off on WCVE PBS at 11pm Friday, October 7 with a double shot of Mumford & Sons  and Flogging Molly.  This is ACL's first season in its brand new home, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, a 2,700+ person capacity music venue on Willie Nelson Blvd. in downtown Austin where each episode will now be filmed. 
Mumford & Sons from ACL Season 37 Episode 1
Other highlights this season include the returns of Widespread Panic, The Decemberists, Gillian Welch and Arcade Fire, as well as an appearance by Preservation Hall Jazz Band and ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival 2011. There will be all new episodes throughout October and November with more to follow! 

Here are the broadcast dates for the first 8 episodes on WCVE PBS this season:
October 7, 11pm Mumford & Sons Flogging Molly
October 14, 11:30pm Raphael SaadiqBlack Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
October 21, 11:30pm Widespread Panic
October 28, 11pm  The Decemberists  / Gillian Welch 
November 4, 11pm  The Steve Miller Band Preservation Hall Jazz Band 
November 11, 11pm Miranda Lambert Jeff Bridges
November 18, 11:30pm Randy Newman
November 25, 11:30pm ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival 2011

ACL began taping in 1976 and is the longest running music series on television.  They have created a Tumblr blog called "Experience ACL" featuring some of the best photos from the last 36 seasons. Check it out at

Flogging Molly at ACL: Behind the Scenes from Jonathan Jackson on Vimeo.

Also check out the regular ACL blog for updates as additional new episodes are announced.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bristol Rhythm and Roots 2011 Re-cap

I went to Bristol Rhythm and Roots mainly to see Dawes, Zoe Muth, Christabel & the Jons, and Spirit Family Reunion.  Those were the artists I knew I didn't want to miss.  But one of the great things about a music festival with 20+ stages and 160+ performers is the exposure to acts that you haven't heard.  Here are a few impressive ones that were new to me.

Shotgun Party
This trio from Austin, TX packs a lot of fun into its vintage sound.  Jenny Parrott has an infectious stage presence that extends all the way to the between song banter.  Her original songs are unique, witty and tight. She is helped by skilled fiddler Katy Rose Cox and Andrew Austin-Petersen's thumping bass.  I'd like to see Shotgun Party again before next year but I think they are calling it quits after this tour, unfortunately.  Say it isn't so!

When I came upon this band their set was already in progress.  It seemed like they were in the middle of an improvised jam.  For a band with six guys on stage they navigated their way back into the song pretty effectively.  They went on to play some exciting originals and put some unique twists on bluegrass standards such as High On A Mountain Top. From what I saw I would use the word jamgrass to describe them, with the understanding that there is more substance to this band than that word sometimes conveys.  I even picked up the solo CD Pappy Time by Cabinet's Pappy Biondo which has a rootsy, hand-made, old-timey sound that I like a lot.

Sam Quinn and Taiwan Twin
For some reason I never listened to The everybodyfields so I really had no idea what Sam Quinn sounded like.  When a band we intended to see at 2pm Sunday didn't interest us, we decided to pop into State Line Bar & Grill to check out Sam Quinn's set.  It was packed, as I thought it might be, but we actually found a good vantage point.  In hindsight, I almost can't imagine a better a better band to see in a crowded bar room on a lazy September Sunday afternoon than this band Sam Quinn had assembled.  I didn't recognize any of his original material, but I liked the way he sang and played bass.  I'm always impressed by anyone who can play at slower tempos but still retain the intensity of a faster song.  He managed to work in cool, almost honky-tonk like covers of Pink Floyd (Vera), Grateful Dead (Peggy-O) and Neil Young (Transformer Man) that fit right in with the rest of his material.  It helped that he had an intuitive pedal steel guitar player with him named Tom Pryor who came up with creative solos at almost every opportunity.  I will definitely pay attention to Sam Quinn from now on.

Westbound Rangers
These guys have a good time on stage so it's easy to have a good time right along with them.  I like the way they handle traditional tunes like Big Scioty.  The best cover of the weekend award definitely goes to the Westbound Rangers for John Hartford's Going to Work In Tall Buildings.  There's a slight cheesiness and novelty factor to this band - they have their own theme song and they did a bluegrass take on a pop song by Coldplay - but that should only add to their popularity down the road.

Now onto the bands I originally went to see.

Dawes' two albums so far are brilliantly composed masterpieces, but live they add levels of urgency, umph and looseness to their songs.  The impeccable musicianship and harmonies are still there though. Their outdoor set on the Piedmont Stage on Saturday had an energy that the audience easily connected with.  I likened the experience to what it must have been like to see Springsteen or The Band in their prime.  Dawes' current repertoire consists of one-hundred-percent solid songs so everything they choose to play - no matter what the order - seems golden.  Seriously heavy lyrics keep coming at you back to back to back.  We stuck around on Sunday to see them in the beautiful Paramount Center Stage theater, and what transpired there was a more nuanced but equally impressive performance.  It was fun seeing them in both settings - from the raucous crowd cheering, clapping and singing on Saturday to the captivating and hushed performance on Sunday.  Still pondering the meaning of the lyrics "You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks. You can stare into the abyss but it's staring right back."  Go see these guys if you love great modern/classic rock n' roll in the vein of Wilco, the Hold Steady, Dr. Dog, and so on.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers
Zoe Muth (pronounced like "youth" with an M sound in front) played to smallish crowds on out of the way side stages, which is unfortunate because her pure, traditional country sound is well suited to Bristol. There's also a darkness and sorrow in her music that I picked up on.  I haven't heard Zoe's newest album yet, but it was a treat to experience her newer songs for the first time here where the beauty of them really sank in.  The interplay between her pedal steel/electric guitarist and mandolin player was some of the best musicianship I saw all weekend.  I'm looking forward to seeing Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers this Thursday, September 22nd at Ashland Coffee & Tea.

Christabel and the Jons
I've been wanting to see this band again ever since I first saw them about a year and a half ago.  Christabel is easily able to charm an audience.  She casts a scintillating spell.  It helps that the Jons are a great band in their own right.  Their set at State Line was probably 2nd only to Dawes as my favorite of the festival this year.  Loved the cover of Jambalaya that they pulled off!

Spirit Family Reunion
I'm not sure what to think of this band.  What transpired at O'Mainnin's on Saturday night was something akin to Gospel. I'm pretty sure some audience members were speaking in tongues.  Some were lifted up - perhaps to the point of levitation. Some may have fainted.  Or maybe it was just the Jameson?  I didn't see their set on Sunday but I'm sure it contained the same sort of magic and intensity.  What fun they must be having bringing this music to audiences across this land.  Very Woody Guthrie like.

Honorable mention goes out to the following bands that I enjoyed performances or partial sets by: the Red Stick Ramblers, James Leva & Danny Knicely, Jason Byrd & Friends featuring Patrick Turner on fiddle, Ian Thomas, Frontier Ruckus, and Dangermuffin.  I hate to say it, but I completely missed seeing the following big names: Justin Townes Earle, Railroad Earth, Tony Rice, Robert Randolph, Marty Stuart, Danny Barnes, Darrell Scott, Jim Lauderdale, and the Seldom Scene.  (You'd have a great festival if all you had were the artists listed in the last sentence that I missed seeing).  Personally I would have also liked to have caught Ryan McGiver & Cillian Valley but I missed them too.

Until next year!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Music in St. John's, Newfoundland

(This is a re-post of an article I contributed to the roots music site No Depression.  Click here to view the source article.)

I recently returned from a visit to St. John's, Newfoundland, North America's oldest and most Easterly city.  St. John's is known to be saturated with Irish traditional and Celtic rock music, but for a smallish city on a fairly remote island, I was surprised by its many other live music offerings.  Here's a rundown of some of the performers I got to hear.
Andrew James O'Brien
I'll start with Andrew James O'Brien.  When this young fellow stepped up to the mic to perform some of his songs during Folk Night at The Ship Pub, I was not expecting the caliber of music that came out of him.  I likened it to  the wind and the water - the way his songs and melodies seemed to flow so naturally.  The whole room was instantly spellbound, as if an unknown Paul Simon or Jim James was first being heard, on what was basically just an open mic night.  The next afternoon I went to Fred's Records on Duckworth Street to buy his CD Songs For Searchers and happened to run into Andrew.  (I think he works there, or was on this day).  The CD is a bit different than the music I heard on that stage at The Ship - more produced and less raw - although still very enjoyable.  The quality of his songcraft still comes through and I don't think it will be too long before we are hearing more of Andrew James O'Brien in the states.

One night, having got a good sense of my musical taste, a bartender encouraged me to  go over to The Rose & Thistle to check out  Sherry Ryan who was playing there that evening.  Unfortunately by the time I got there she was almost done, however I heard enough to intrigue me.  Some readers may already be familiar with this alt. country singer who has been compared to Lucinda Williams.  She's the kind of artist who could fit right in at a festival  like Bristol Rhythm and Roots.  Check her out.

Neil Conway
After Sherry Ryan finished, Neil Conway and the Somethin' Family took the stage.  I think this band has been doing a Sunday night residency at the Rose & Thistle.  If you are going to be visiting St. John's, do yourself a favor and find out where they are playing.  I would describe Neil Conway as freak folk > western swing > vaudeville.  Definitely a musically kindred spirit of Richmond, VA's  The  Hot Seats in their earlier incarnation as Special Ed and the Shortbus, or New York City's Two Man Gentlemen Band.  With song titles  like Wake & Bake Weekday, The Lesbian Boxer Song and Set My Willy Free this is music for someone with a "refined" sense of humor!   Here's a link to the Somethin' Family CD on CD Baby.  Neil Conway also has a catchy hip-hop persona under the band name The Discounts.

Fergus O'Byrne
We also lucked into seeing 12-string guitar/5-string banjo/bodhran/concertina player and singer Fergus O'Bryne at O'Reilly's on George Street.  I think Fergus has a regular gig there on Thursdays at 8pm.  This is in the heart of the most touristy street, and the crowd can be kinda drunken and indifferent, but Fergus manages to put on a good show in front of a mixture of folks who are probably completely unaware of his history.  Fergus was born in Dublin, Ireland, emigrated to Toronto in the late 60's then moved to St. John's in 1971 where he became a member of the legendary Irish-Newfoundland band Ryan's Fancy.   O'Byrne is a life-long student of traditional folk music and his show stands out among the plethora of dudes belting out "Dirty Old Town" in every open door on George Street.   And a nice guy too, I might add, as was everyone I met in St. John's.

I should also mention the tremendous dobro player John Clarke who was the host of the folk night that I attended.  John may have a funny on stage persona, but his playing is as serious as it gets.  More info here and here.

Finally, anyone with an interest in traditional Newfoundland/Irish accordion/fiddle music will want to check out Graham Wells and Billy Sutton during their regular sessions at Erin's Pub (Tue & Fri 8:30p) and Nautical Nellies (Sun 5p).   Inquire at those pubs or at  O'Brien's Music Store to confirm that schedule.

Click on the following links to read more about my St. John's trip and the restaurants, pubs and hiking I encountered.

Highwoods String Band and Green Grass Cloggers Documentaries

Horse Archer Productions, the makers of the films Why Old Time* and The Henry Reed Legacy^, have two new old time related documentaries in the works.  The subjects are 1970’s old time bands Highwoods Stringband and the Green Grass Cloggers.  Both films will address the history, influence and legacy of these groups and are set to be released in spring 2012.

Upstate New York’s Highwoods Stringband were largely responsible for the pre-O Brother surge of interest in traditional Appalachian stringband music in the 1970's, but until now their story hasn’t been properly told.  All five original band members - Walt Koken and Bob Potts (fiddles), Mac Benford (banjo), Doug Dorshug (guitar) and Jenny Cleland (bass) – are involved in the film.

The 2nd documentary covers the Green Grass Cloggers, a dance band formed at East Carolina University in 1971 and currently celebrating its 40th anniversary.  The filmmakers will address the history and cultural significance of this mountain music group who introduced a new and exciting approach to traditional square dancing.

Horse Archer needs your help funding these projects.  You can assist by purchasing and pre-ordering DVDs, posters, t-shirts and more.  Click on the link below for details.

Here's some info and clips from their previous two productions.

*Why Old Time looked into why modern day people play old time music.

^The Henry Reed Legacy detailed the life and musical legacy of Giles County, VA old time fiddler Henry Reed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How I Fell in Love with Irish Trad, Doolin, Ireland 2004

When our flight arrived at the Shannon airport on an early morning in November, 2004 I knew very little about Ireland and certainly nothing about Irish traditional music.  This was my first trip out of the USA, let alone to the Emerald Isle.  I had my car rental set up, B&B vouchers in hand, and had sketched out an itinerary which would have us going to County Clare, County Galway and onwards up into the Connemara region.  I was in search of adventure, Guinness, craic, music, and more Guinness.

By some stroke of luck I had booked our first two nights in the small village of Doolin, probably because of its proximity to the Shannon airport and for its reputation as a good place to hear trad.  After checking in early to our room and having a brief lie-down to catch up on some jet lag, we awoke in the early afternoon to check out our surroundings.  I was immediately taken in by smell of peat in the air.  Doolin seemed like a place out of a fairy tale...basically 3 pubs and a cluster of could such a little place be a center of Irish music?  What else to do but hit those three pubs and try and find out!

We noticed signs up in McGann's announcing a CD release party for Yvonne Casey the next night.  Later that first day, while having dinner at the Doolin Cafe, we got to hear the self-titled Yvonne Casey CD being played in the restaurant.  It had a unique sound like nothing I had ever heard before, which in some ways holds true to this day, even though I am much more acquainted with that style of music now than I was then.  I ended up buying the CD in a pub later that evening, which allowed us to listen to it on repeat the next day as we drove around the Burren taking in the sights.  By the time of the CD release party on night 2, I'd say we were fairly familiar with the tunes but still not sure what we were in for.

Quentin Cooper, Yvonne Casey and Eoin O'Neill
McGann's was packed that night.  Despite the fact that Yvonne Casey was already a member of the band The Ceili Bandits, which had a couple albums out, this was a big deal for the local girl to be releasing her very own CD.   In addition to Ceili Bandits band members Quentin Cooper and Eoin O'Neill, several other accomplished musicians were on hand to sit in on some tunes and lend support, including guitarist and singer Luka Bloom, bodhran player Ger Hoyne, fiddler James Cullinan and tenor banjoist Kevin Griffin (and probably many more I'm not aware of).  I had no idea what an all-star lineup this was.

The rest of the evening is kind of a blur, and not just because I'm remembering it some 7 years later.  It was kind of a blur the next day as well - massive amounts of Guinness, Smithwick's, some Bulmer's, champagne and who knows what else saw to that.  I do remember having one of those "aha" moments where you feel like something very special, perhaps even life changing, is going on.  Fortunately we got some pictures.  At some point in the later hours long after "closing" it had evolved into a session attended by a few drunken hangers on, including Laura and me.  It was probably 4am when we finally snuck out of there with the music still playing. 

It would take two more years and two more visits to Ireland before I would decide to take up Irish tenor banjo, but that night in Doolin has had a lasting impression on me. To this day, the Clare region is still my favorite and I have yet to hear any better trad recordings than that Yvonne Casey CD and the Ceili Bandits album Hangin' at the Crossroads, which features basically the same lineup. In recent years Doolin's reputation as a hub for music has become well known and the result, unfortunately, is a less than attentive crowd at the pubs and less authentic sessions.  Nowadays, for music, you might be better off going to nearby Ennis or Lahinch.  The Ceili Bandits have a Facebook page and are currently doing a regular gig at Kenny's in Lahinch on Sundays.  Band members Yvonne Casey, Quentin Cooper and Eoin O'Neill have become my favorite trad musicians, and I try to track them down whenever I'm in Clare.  Quentin and Eoin still host a longstanding session at Brogan's in Ennis on Tuesdays and Thursdays, if I'm not mistaken. Below is a video featuring these guys.

We would return to Ireland in 2005, 2006 and 2009 (and have plans to return in 2012), but despite seeing many places and having awesome, unique visits on each of those occasions, we've never been able to recreate the magic felt on the night of the CD release party in Doolin.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bristol Rhythm and Roots Preview

Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion is September 16, 17 and 18.  This will be my 7th consecutive year at this music festival in Bristol, TN/VA.
– Ticket costs are low.  $50 for a weekend pass in advance or $60 at gate.  What a deal!
– Three days, twenty stages and over 160 Americana, country, bluegrass, folk and oldtime artists.
– Located in the heart of downtown Bristol, centered around State Street where the VA/TN line literally runs down the middle of the street.  (Remember the Steve Earle lyric, “I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennessee”?).
– The TN side is heavily saturated with taverns, restaurants, theaters and beer gardens…each one with its own stage.    

Here’s a highly subjective guide to some of the performers.  With the large number of stages and vast lineup, it’s impossible to see it all.  I’m fully aware that I am omitting some big names and headliners.  Still, let me know if I neglected to mention anything that I should definitely check out.

Saturday, 7:45pm, Piedmont Stage
Sunday, 4:45pm, Paramount Center Stage
I wasn’t really a fan of Dawes until recently but I am currently loving both of their studio releases, especially the newest one Nothing Is Wrong, which has my vote for album of the year.  I’ve never seen them live and this is their first time playing Bristol Rhythm, so I’m especially looking forward to both of their sets.

Saturday, 4:30pm, Paramount Center Stage
Saturday,  6:30pm, CJ & Company
Sunday, 3:15pm, Eatz on Moore
I became aware Zoe Muth a couple years ago after a No Depression review of her debut album caught my eyes and ears.  I’ve been keeping track of her tour dates and I don’t think this Seattle girl has made it out east until now.  Zoe has that classic twangy sound and she’s backed by a solid country band in the Lost High Rollers.

If you can’t make it to Bristol but are in the Richmond, VA area Zoe Muth will also be playing Ashland Coffee and Tea on September 22nd. 

Spirit Family Reunion
Spirit Family Reunion
Saturday, 9:15pm, O'Mainnin's
Sunday, 5:30pm, Dance Tent
This folk/oldtime/indie band was a highlight for me at the spring 2010 Shakori Hills Festival where I caught them doing an afternoon set.  They stirred up quite a dustbowl in the middle of a rainy day at Shakori.  I can only imagine what Spirit Family Reunion will do when they bring their hootenanny to O'Mainnin's on Saturday night!

Danny Barnes
Danny Barnes
Sunday, 5:15pm, State Street Stage
Wait...what?  Danny Barnes is there?  I didn't see his name listed before but when I was looking over the schedule this morning for this article I saw him in the lineup!. A lot of folks still remember him from his days as the frontman for the punk/bluegrass band the Bad Livers. Since then he has enjoyed a successful solo career.  When legendary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell was looking to learn some Appalachian music he recruited Danny Barnes for lessons and the result was their excellent The Willies album.  Barnes has also collaborated with Yonder Mountain Stringband, moe. and Mike Gordon. He plays kinda late in the afternoon on Sunday but stick around for this one! 

Saturday, 5:30pm, State Line Bar & Grill
Other times, if any, TBA
I always seem to miss Christabel and the Jons at Bristol Rhythm due to logistics, timing or something.  I’ll be at a stage several blocks away and by the time I get to where she is playing it’s either too packed to get in or she is finishing up.  Or she’ll be playing on the Sunday after we are leaving.  I did manage to see her once at Ashland Coffee and Tea so I know that this sexy songstress puts on a good show.  Her band is a welcome late addition to the lineup and hopefully I'll get to see them play this time.  

Roan Mt. Hilltoppers
Roan Mt. Hilltoppers
Saturday, 11:30am, Dance Tent
Saturday, 4:00pm, Shanghai Stage
The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers are always fun.  It doesn’t get much more “old time is a good time” than these guys.  Legend has it that they hosted Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious at their Roan Mountain homestead for a spell back in the 70’s and therefore were an indirect influence on the Sex Pistols.  Good stuff. It's not every day you get to see someone play left-handed, upside down, backwards banjo the way Bill Birchfield does.

High Country All-Stars jam
Friday night, 11:59pm, Piedmont Stage
We’ll be arriving late on Friday after most acts are done playing, but hopefully in time to see this mystery band performing at midnight on the Piedmont Stage.  Hmmm…I wonder who will join in on the jam?  Railroad Earth will have just finished playing on the same stage and Tony Rice, James Leva and Danny Knicely should be around since they are playing earlier that night.  I feel like something special could be in the works.

Other Performers
Favorite Bristol Rhythm acts such as The Hot Seats, Pokey LaFarge, Dr. Dog and The Two Man Gentlemen Band are absent this year, so I’m having to poke around a bit more through the schedule to find new folks to check out.  Often I will make an instant “yay or nay” decision about a band simply by their picture alone, and Cabinet is one I came across that looks like they might be good.  Well, at least I think I see someone with a banjolin in the picture.  Having a banjo uke or banjolin in your band automatically qualifies you as a group I want to see.

Saturday, 3:15pm, Borderline Billiards
Sunday, 4:15pm, Machiavelli's

Other acts I intend to see over the weekend include Thrift Store Cowboys, Larry Cordle, Possum Creek Playboys, Jason Byrd and Friends, David Wax Museum, Red Stick Ramblers, Bombadil, The .357 String Band, Ian Thomas and Dangermuffin.  Due to arrival time on Friday we may just miss Justin Townes Earle, Railroad Earth and Tony Rice, but I would definitely try and check those out if I were you.