Concert Review: Avett Brothers at the Cumberland County Civic Center (3.3.14)

It wasn’t until I saw the Avett Brothers live that I understood the big fuss surrounding this stripped-down roots band.  The recorded songs I liked from 2009’s I and You and Love I attributed to Rick Rubin’s studio wizardry, not to the magic of two North Carolinian brothers.

After giving a good vinyl listen to that record, I wondered, Is this just pop repackaged in a thin Americana facade?

AvettBrothers1Then I saw them live in 2010.  What to me was a mess on record gelled into a forceful live sound — seductive melodies, distinctive two-part harmonies, and dynamics that move from relentless acoustic thrashings to a magnetic whisper in a southern minute.

Famed producer Bob Johnston once said of Dylan, “I think God instead of touching [Dylan] on the shoulder he kicked him in the ass.”

This ran through my head as I watched the Avett Bros on Monday night (3.3.14) at Portland, Maine’s Cumberland County Civic Center.

Elder brother Scott appeared to float above the stage, only coming down to land on the kick drum pedal beneath him.  His right hand must have been ripped to shreds by his maniacal clawhammer banjo bashing.  He looked more Johnny Rotten than acoustic folk singer.  Avett the Younger, Seth, was a little more low key.  But only a little.

Monday night I was reminded why I like this band.  Their sound was raw.  Loose like The Band.  A calculated looseness that has more to do with intuition and feel than sloppy chops.  Their tireless acoustic wall of sound felt like it was going to come apart at any moment in a folk supernova spawning new galaxies that hum in an open G tuning.

AvettBrothers2Piano heavy songs like “Head Full of Doubt” and “I and You and Love” that strike me as pop on record erupted on Monday night at the Civic Center in full indie rock glory.  When the brothers urged, “Find what to be and go be it” on Monday, I felt an ethereal call-to-action flow through my veins.  They made me a believer, again.

The Avetts are operating at a high-velocity trajectory right now as a live band.  To say they’re magnetic is an understatement.  Their gravitational pull  threatened to implode the Civic Center and crush us all on Monday night.

More than punk-rock vitality or magnetism, though, it’s the harmonies between Scott and Seth that made their sound crackle.  It’s like Lennon and McCartney in the way that it feels like two lead singers coming together to make a sublime roar.  On Monday, that roar was grand.

I only have a couple of gripes.  Gripe 1) What’s the deal with the cello.  I mean, really.  What the hell is going on there?  I can’t pick it out in the mix.  It’s a facet of this band that befuddles me.  Gripe 2) How big is this band going to get before their acoustic sound — as adrenaline-fueled as it is — gets lost in the vast arenas they’re playing?  If they add any more auxiliary musicians to their touring band, their sound is going to quickly free-fall into the acoustic mush of Chicago.  The irony between their humble instruments and their arena surroundings could be the ultimate undoing to their grassroots street cred.

With all that stated, the band kicked bucket loads of Maine ass on Monday night.  Their unprocessed sound might never translate properly to record, but if their amphetamine-driven tour comes close to your town, enter their orbit.

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Jason Isbell’s “Elephant” is the Best Song of 2013

“She said, ‘Andy, you’re better than your past’ / Winked at me and drained her glass / Cross-legged on the barstool like nobody sits anymore.”

In these opening lines, Jason Isbell culls his listener with the vivid imagery, authentic voice, and sexual tension that spills from the edges of “Elephant.”  The words reach out of the speakers and clutch your throat, threatening to crush your layrnx.  So you listen as if your life depends upon it.

“Elephant” is honest songwriting that isn’t handed out often these days, or any days for that matter — a prescription to medicate the narcissistic anthems that abound.

SoutheasternIsbell continues, “She said, ‘Andy, you’re taking me home’ / But I knew she planned to sleep alone / I’d carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor.”  God, the tenderness of sweeping up the hair of the cancer patient Andy wishes to sleep along side.  I feel the song give a sharp squeeze to my throat.  What’s beautiful about these lines is that Isbell doesn’t fall into the melodramatic; rather, he lets his details show us the complex emotions Andy is feeling.  All songwriters take note of the nuance.

Here’s the kicker: “If I had fucked her before she got sick / I’d never hear the end of it / She don’t have the spirit for that now.”  It’s the aching desire of all great writing wrapped up into twenty-four words — it’s the human condition, the wanting of what we can’t have.  The use of the pejorative here adds to the raw energy of this song.  It’s not a song about the easy emotions of love; it’s a song about death and loss and fucking.  It’s an open wound.

“Elephant” also doesn’t commit the sin of being an earnest song about someone dying of cancer.  The song contains humor.  The dying woman gets drunk and makes cancer jokes with her “sharecropper eyes and her hair almost gone.”  Isbell hits all the emotional notes available to him in this story.  We laugh despite our tears.

As the song continues, Andy and this woman sing country songs and smoke dope.  Isbell writes, “We’d burn these joints in effigy / Cry about what used to be / And try to ignore the elephant somehow.”  Isbell elevates the act of smoking to a grand gesture of protest against their impending injustice.

In the narrator’s final epiphany, he wails, “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me / No one dies with dignity / We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”  Those lines are chilling and appropriate for this narrator.  He goes through this experience and understands that life will fuck you up and won’t even allow you a proper goodbye.

“Elephant” is a song about cancer and drinking and smoking and singing country songs, but Isbell hoists it to greatness.  It’s a song about being human, with all the pain and ecstasy that entails.  It holds you by the throat with a whisper.  It’s a song too honest for the Grammy’s, but for my money, it’s the best song written in 2013.

(Now listen.)

Mumford and Sons Video Injects Humor Into An Earnest Brand

Imagine a world where twenty and thirty-somethings are clad in dusty boots, tight fitting dungarees, suspenders, suit vests, and handle-bar mustaches.  A world where bands play in barns with all acoustic instruments, ne’er a synthesizer is to be heard.  This, my friends, is what Portlandia calls the Dream of the 1890’s.  (You really need to watch this sketch if you haven’t seen it.)

It’s also, sadly, the world we live in.

My BootsI’m not hating on the Industrial Revolution garb, Lord knows I have a couple pairs of dusty boots I clop around town in.  It’s just that the 1890’s hipster style is becoming so earnest.  I thought hipsters were all about irony.

You know, it’s like when one hipster says to another hipster, “Check out this 1980’s neon tank top I’m wearing.”

And the other hipster responds, “So ironic, man.”

But the 1890’s style is becoming an ardent way of life.  It’s a paradoxical I-wear-old-timey-suspenders-but-own-an-iPhone lifestyle.  My point is that it’s hard to take someone who looks like they belong in the Portlandia sketch seriously.

And who’s nourishing this style on a pop culture level?  Mumford and Sons.  What’s ironic about M&S’s fueling an old-timey Americana look and sound is that the band is British.  They dress in outfits that wouldn’t standout in HBO’s Deadwood, while they grew up playing cricket and drinking Pimms.  (Ok, that might be stereotyping on my part, but you get the point.)

Three years after their debut hit American ears, the entire scene’s become a bit stale.  M&S are a great band, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that the whole pre-WWI look seems a little uninspired at this point.

So, when someone told me to check out Mumford’s “Hopeless Wander” video, I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll check it.”

And thank God I did.

It opens with, presumably, a member of M&S at an upright piano in a field.  I’m already thinking how trite this whole scene is.  When the camera moves to Marcus Mumford, I get annoyed that the sun obscures his face.  I wonder how long I can watch this post-millennial, pastoral gobbledygook.

Then the band is shown walking down a dirt road with all their instruments.  One member laboriously pushes the upright piano.  On the far left, a member is carrying an acoustic guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, and he has a tambourine around his neck.  “This is ridiculous,” I think.

And then they show the faces and I understand, that, yes, this is beautifully ridiculous.

What follows is four minutes of absurdity, brimming with homoerotic overtones, Eddie Van Halen banjo playing, crotch bumping, beer spitting, and upright bass humping.

It is absolutely wonderful.

I’ve watched the video ten times in twenty-four hours.  Every time it’s hilarious.  Jason Bateman’s performance is magic.  Ed Helms is a gift.

Whoever produced this spoof got everything spot on: the outfits, the different settings (my favorite is when they’re on a tiny rowboat), even the instruments and how the actors hold them are perfect.

My Boots 3By the end of the video, I had a new respect for M&S.  They suddenly seemed self-realized.  If they allowed this to be produced, they must understand the layers of irony their style is awash in.

This video injects a new life into the Mumford brand.  Kudos to everyone in the Mumford camp who made this happen.

Concert Review: Lake Street Dive at the LL Bean Concert Series (7.20.13)

The name Lake Street Dive doesn’t exactly invoke classy connotations.  The band name makes me think of smoky bars in backwoods towns where shiftless people drink cloudy beer and think shiftless thoughts.

The band that hit LL Bean’s outdoor stage on Saturday night (7.20.13) was anything but shiftless.  With lush, tasteful harmonies, beautiful pop grooves, and soulful gravitas, Lake Street Dive captivated the Freeport audience with everything good about pop music.  By the end of the first song, it was clear that we were in the hands of four musicians who knew their instruments and were all pulling in the same musical direction.

Lead singer Rachael Price is magnetic.  Few frontmen/women are able to hold court the way that she does.  With only her big, soulful voice and her arms planted firmly on her gyrating hips, she had us eating out of her pop diva hands.  Her voice is a nuclear power house one moment, and a sultry whisper the next.  It’s the kind of voice Homer had in mind when he envisioned his Sirens.  I might drive my boat into a jagged shoreline if it meant getting closer to that voice.

Here’s the deal with Lake Street Dive, though, every member of the band is adept at his or her instrument.  Bassist Bridget Kearney played funky, jazz-laden bass grooves song-in and song-out.  Her version of “I Want You Back” had James Jamerson smiling in bass player heaven.  Mike Calabrese held it down on the drums, playing a four-on-the floor beat when appropriate, and opening it up and letting it rip when the song called for big playing.  And who has a guitarist who also kills it at the trumpet?  Lake Street Dive does in Mike Olson.

It’s no surprise that these guys met at the New England Conservatory.  They do not disappoint in the musicianship category.  What’s most impressive about this classically trained band, though, is that they don’t overplay and they don’t get in each other’s way.  When Price pushes on the gas pedal of her voice, the rest of the members pull back to let her vocals shine.  And that goes for every member of Lake Street Dive.  The band listens to each other and steps back when someone else steps up.  So refreshing to see, especially from a band comprised of such real-deal talent.

You want more props heaved upon this band?  Here you go.  They all seem to share songwriting duties.  It was common for Price to say, “This next song was written by our drummer” or “Here’s one Mike Olson wrote.”  They kill it on their respective instruments and they write songs.

You want even more?  Their harmonies are so tight, so present, so heavenly that at times it sounded like they had an organist.  Apparently, singing brilliant three-part harmonies is a prerequisite to get in this band.

Don’t let their name fool you.  This is no backwoods band comprised of half-drunk schleps.  Lake Street Dive is armed with conservatory chops and soulful pop music, and they’re ready to take on the world.

(Buy Lake Street Dive music and merch.  Listen on Spotify.)

Album Review: American Kid, Patty Griffin

PattyGriffin-AmericanKid

We all ache at our own frequency.  Maybe it’s the suffering Buddhism talks about.  Maybe it’s Christianity’s Original Sin.  Maybe it’s simply the pain of being on a lone planet in an ever-expanding universe.  Whatever you want to call it, the important fact is that it’s there at the edge of all our moments of bliss and contentedness.

But this human ache is part of what makes our species beautiful.  Enter Patty Griffin and her voice that knows the precise timbre of human pain.  On her seventh studio album, American Kid, her voice is locked in to something ethereal and timeless.  There’s a rapturous pain in her vocal approach.  It breaks your heart in a joyful kind of way.

Her voice is like laying in a field and looking up at the blue sky and realizing that this life might be all the existence we’ll ever be granted.  That thought is painful and exhilarating.  That’s how I can best describe Griffin’s voice.  It’s in the realm of Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss.  But if you listen carefully to these three Americana Sirens, you’ll hear the nuances of their respective virtuosity.  Each sings in a different color of pain and joy.

On American Kid, Griffin lands firmly on the kind of pain that speaks to my frequency.

Enough of this loosy-goosy talk on human suffering — let’s get to the specifics of American Kid.

First thing that sticks out on American Kid is the production.  It’s one part T-Bone Burnett and another part Patty Griffin.  I love that she didn’t make this album with T-Bone.  Not because I have anything against T-Bone — that guy has made some of the most beautiful music ever — but T-Bone brings such a specific sound to his projects.  Griffin co-produced the album with Craig Ross, and the two find a way to align the sound of American Kid with Burnett’s sound without being a stale imitation.  The spare sound has space for the vocals to breath, melodic lead lines, and dynamics that keep the acoustic album from being a snoozer.  A+ on production.

The songwriting on American Kid is top-shelf.  Lyrically, Griffin eschews the cliches that come with writing songs in the old-timey, American songwriting tradition.  Griffin doesn’t lean on her euphoric voice to hide thin writing.  The words and the vocal performance soar together.  Griffin sings, “It’s a lonely highway / Sometimes a heart can turn to dust / Get whittled down to nothing / Broken down and crushed.”  Her pain-filled voice wraps around these lines and drives them deep inside you.

I cannot write about Patty Griffin without discussing the rock god elephant in the room: Robert Plant.  It’s been rumored for years now that Griffin and Plant are an item.  Griffin is part of Plant’s Band of Joy.  I’ve heard of Robert Plant sightings at our Portland, Maine Whole Foods.  Selfishly, I’ve been hoping to run into Plant and Griffin in the organic grass-fed beef aisle, so we three can become fast friends.  It hasn’t happened yet.  I’ll keep you posted.

When I caught wind that Griffin had a new studio album, I was so hoping that Plant would sing on some of the tracks.  Since 2007’s Raising Sands, it’s been a pleasure to watch the post-Zeppelin Plant reinvent himself in the American Appalachian tradition.  He’s done it well.  On American Kid, Plant gives us some of what we want — we get a touch of his voice without him taking the limelight from Griffin.  Listen to “Highway Song.”  The duet offers surprising harmonies.  Two of the greatest voices on this lonely planet tap into something important here.

I have a good friend who worked with Patty Griffin at Governors in Bangor, Maine back when she was in high school.  He describes Griffin back then as meek.  Barely speaking.  Avoiding eye contact.  He explains that it was an enormous surprise when he first heard her sing.  On American Kid, that once meek girl from Maine boldly sings her way to the top of Nashville’s good side while giving voice to our ever-present human suffering.

(Click to listen through Spotify.  Do it!)

Album Review: Wrote a Song For Everyone, John Fogerty

FogertyTribute albums can be the saddest damn things.  Music executives shamelessly trying to squeeze every last gold nugget out of beautiful music.  Aging rock stars with plastic faces struggling to hit notes they once reached with ease.  Flat duets with a new top ten sensation.

Tribute albums reek of the cheap perfume of sloppy nostalgia and human desperation.

It’s with this in mind that I gave a listen to John Fogerty’s new effort, Wrote a Song for Everyone, and from the moment the phat drumbeat of “Fortunate Son” dropped in, I knew I was listening to something special.

In my first two listens, this album continually gave me chills.

These songs are not flaccid covers of great songs.  They are brimming with new energy.  The songs move from rock to country to R&B with a natural ease and authenticity.

In an interview on WTF with Marc Maron, Fogerty explains that this project was his wife’s idea.  She suggested that he ask his favorite musicians from the New Guard to collaborate with him on an album.  So he contacted the musicians he admires and asked them to come up with their own takes on his classics.  The mutual respect that exists on Wrote a Song for Everyone between the songs’ creator and the new musicians is what makes the entire project sizzle with vitality.

The Foo Fighters, in true Foo Fighter form, blow “Fortunate Son” out of this universe with their rock and roll ferocity.  To hear Dave Grohl and John Fogerty trade verses of this Vietnam-era rager is a gift from the rock and roll gods.

Somehow the transition from the rock and roll force of “Fortunate Son” to the banjo opening of “Almost Saturday Night” feels perfect.  Keith Urban sounds great here.  (Did I just compliment Keith Urban?  Why, yes, I guess I did.)  This song could be a number one country hit now.  A country hit I would actually listen to.

Album highlight: My Morning Jacket’s take on “Long As I Can See the Light.”  This song has always moved me.  In high school, it was one of the first songs whose lyrics I payed special attention to.  That first image, “Put a candle in the window.”  Shit.  On Wrote a Song, the song has such reverent restraint for the first two minutes, then MMJ open things up, moving towards a scorching solo that embodies the yearning, the beautiful desperation at the song’s heart.  It sounds like Jim James and John Fogerty are trading solos at the end.  Come on!  Could you think of a better collaboration?

Other standouts: Tom Morello’s solo on “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” Zac Brown Band’s lively “Bad Moon Rising,” Dawes on “Someday Never Comes,” and the one and only Bob Seger on “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”

Do you like CCR?  Trick question, of course you do.  If Fogerty’s songs have ever moved you, like I mean ever, then you have to, I repeat, have to listen to this album.  In an age where you can access every song ever recorded using a device that fits in your hand, you have no excuse not to listen.

Get in your car.  Roll down your window.  Turn the radio loud.  Let the beauty of Wrote a Song for Everyone pour over your soul.  Because that’s what I plan on doing all summer.

(Click to listen through Spotify.  Do it!)

Concert Review: Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band Reach New Heights

Ritter LiveIf you’ve found yourself on my blog before, then you most likely read the post where I gush over Josh Ritter.  Gush might be too minor a word.  Lyrically, the guy can ne’er do wrong in my ears.  I’m even willing to let slide the occasional musical shortcoming because atop that shortcoming is usually a clever or poignant lyric.

What I wrote in my I’ll-follow-Josh-Ritter-to-the-gates-of-hell album review of The Beast In Its Tracks didn’t say much about the Royal City Band, Ritter’s long-time backing group.  For one, bassist Zack Hickman didn’t play on the record, and musically, the album didn’t really push sonic boundaries as much as it did emotional boundaries.  The band on the album sounds good.  Not transcendent.

The band I saw on stage at the State Theater in Portland (5.8.13), however, was a sonic beast.  Trans-friggin-scendent.

My first tip o’ the hat goes to lead guitarist Austin Nevins.  The Danelectro wielding guitarist was a standout.  I’ve seen him three times now as part of the Royal City Band, and this was the first time he grabbed my attention.  His lines were melodic.  Simple without being bland.  The guy has killer tone and great instincts as to when to hang back and let Ritter’s lyrics shine, and when to rip and take the band to the next sonic level.

HickmanAnd countless times did the band take Ritter’s folk songs to the next level.  Each member played with severe intensity.  So badass was this band, so full in command of the songs and the collective sound, that they pushed the songs out of the folk category and into rock (not folk-rock, mind you) or at least the indie-rock sound.  Thank God they do.  It’s an absolute treat to be able to hear both brilliant lyrics and a brilliant band in one sitting.  Name me one other act offering that package on the contemporary music scene.  (No, seriously, please do.  I want to hear it.)

What is most beautiful about Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band is that they all believe deeply in the songs.  The band members could be seen singing Ritter’s lyrics even when they weren’t on a mic.  And Ritter believes in his band.  In the pockets of the songs when he’s not singing, he’s smiling at his bandmates.  Nuzzling up to Nevins during a guitar solo.  On his knees bowing to Sam Kassir during a keys solo.  There is mutual respect between songwriter and band.

I should note that Ritter did rip a solo on his maroon Gretsch during one of the tunes — flexing his own musical muscles.

The State Theater performance was the best I’ve seen from the Royal City Band to date.  Maybe Ritter’s recent divorce, made very public in his writing on The Beast In Its Tracks, is the catalyst for the forceful performance of the entire band.  An hour into the show, Ritter addressed his divorce in a five-minute monologue.  He talked candidly with the audience about the difficulties of marriage — any marriage.  He was raw, honest, and human with his audience, just as he is in his songwriting.  It was a beautiful moment.

Maybe the fire the Royal City Band is exuding during this tour is their way of showing support for their frontman as he picks up the pieces and tries to move forward with his life and his music.  For the final number the band donned construction helmets, perhaps as a symbol for the falling debris in Ritter’s life and their steadfast desire to deliver their music amidst the wreckage.

Whatever the reason for their forceful performance, these guys are a full-burning inferno right now.