Sunday, February 13, 2011

Live Review - 2/11/2011 Josh Ritter at The House of Blues

A great band isn't necessarily a great live band, but Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band do everything they can to make sure they give folks a good time.  It's almost like they have a "great live band" checklist.  A raucous version of "Harrisburg" that turns into Talking Heads' "Once In a Lifetime" partway through (after a funny discourse on Valentine's Day through the years), only to return?  A bass player (the incomparable Zack Hickman) with a crazy moustache?  Calling extra people on stage to bang chopsticks together on the dark, rocking "Rattling Locks?"  Sending everyone off to go solo with fingerpicked guitar on clever new track "Galahad?"  Tossing guitar picks into the crowd like he was in Styx?  Check marks all around.

The show was billed as a Valentine's Day Brawl, and it's clear Ritter and the band put thought into what that meant.  At points he read dedications the audience had filled in online previously; one was even a proposal.  The microphone stands were dressed in roses.  Fan favorite "Kathleen" broke down into a slow dance partway through.  I've praised Ritter's music here before, but there are bands that are great on album who are nothing special live.  With Ritter and the Royal City Band, it's clear they care about putting on a great live show and making sure everyone has a good time.  I can recommend seeing them live without reservation.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

High Atmosphere

I used to argue with my girlfriend senior year of college, who was Mexican. She would tell about family gatherings where folks would sit around, one or more with a guitar, and play traditional Mexican folk songs that all of them knew, and she pointed out that American lacks culture in this way. I thought she was wrong - America has plenty of universal musical traditions, whether popular tunes everyone knows, or Christmas songs.

It's fair to say that in the years since, I've mostly come around to her point of view.  One experience was in the UK; I was on business in London and had a spare weekend, which I spent in Derry, Northern Ireland.  I was tracing my genealogical history and spending some leisure time.  On my way home from the movies, I heard music emanating from a bar, and I decided to stop in for a drink.  A solo guitarist was playing and singing.  After a few minutes he took a break, and a young woman got up to play and sing.  She had a shaved-head and a lip ring and it was hard to tell if she was going for punk or goth.  She looked like the last person who was going to play traditional tunes, but she did.  I can still remember some of the lyrics.  The amazing thing was how the whole bar reacted with recognition and even sang along to some of the tunes.  I finally understood what my ex was talking about; this feeling of music that is shared by the community is rare in the U.S., aside from Christmas songs and maybe the odd Stephen Foster tune.

This long-winded introduction is to lead to the following conclusion: if you are interested in the community music of America, specifically Appalachian tunes handed down from Scotch-Irish immigrants by way of poor Southerners, white and black (you don't think white folk are funky enough to invent the banjer, d'ya?) alike, you should pick up High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina Collected by John Cohen in November of 1965.  It's an entertaining album, mixing a capella ballads with fiddle and banjo tunes from the rural South.  Some of it is really affecting: Lloyd Chandler's "A Conversation With Death," a dialogue between a damned man and the dispassionate spirit come to collect his life, is unlike anything you hear on the radio today.  The album is sparse and plain by today's standards, but this just reinforces how raw and primordial it is.  It's essential listening for those who wonder where American music came from, and where it went.

Live Review - 2/9/2010 Della Mae at The Burren

I never did get to see Della Mae's "old lineup," but I've been aware of the Boston-based all-female bluegrass quintet for some time, and when I heard they were doing a "secret show" at The Burren with new singer Celia Woodsmith, formerly of Hey Mama, I had to check it out.  I only got to see about an hour, but it was enough to get a flavor of the group.

Woodsmith made her impression felt right away; she has a great bluesy voice that really shines on numbers like "The Sun's Gonna Shine In My Backdoor Someday."  The group mostly played traditional songs, but mixed it up a bit with slower waltzes like "Dark As a Dungeon" mixed with peppier tunes like "Big Spike Hammer" (the chorus of which gives the band its name).  The vocals were augmented by adroit picking by fiddler Kimber Ludiker, mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner, and Grave Van't Hof on the five-string banjo, though the acoustics didn't always make it easy to hear.  Laying down the rhythm was the terrific Amanda Kowalski, who really impressed me with her bass playing and presence when I saw her with John McGann a few months ago.

There were a couple growing pains, but nothing outstanding - at one point the group missed a verse in a song, which few wood have noticed without Woodsmith pointing out.  Humorously, Woodsmith also unintentionally referred to Van't Hof's instrument as the fiddle rather than the banjo during introductions.  These minor quibbles just highlight how new this arrangement is.  If Della Mae is this good on their first gig together (in a less-than-ideal venue), how amazing are they going to be after they've been playing together a few weeks?  I look forward to finding out.

Della Mae official site

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane

Rating: B

If you're a music fan, unless you have unlimited time and money, you're going to have some blind spots: acts, artists, or bands that you know you should know better. Maybe you've heard of them but haven't heard them. Maybe you know they're a style you like but you don't own any of their albums. Maybe you have an album but haven't really listened to it or haven't seen them live. Elvis Costello is definitely one of those artists for me. An erudite singer-songwriter who spans genres and decades? Why don't I have any of his CDs again? When I found out he made a bluegrass record, Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, it seemed like a great opportunity to get into his music.

I was misinformed, because Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane is not a bluegrass album.  The instrumentation has a bluegrass aesthetic, as he's backed by staple instruments mandolin and fiddle, but the feel of the music is much swingier.  A lot of that is the vocal delivery; most bluegrass singers play things pretty straight, but Costello has a crooner vibe to him throughout the album; listen to "My All-Time Doll," it sounds like a tune one would hear at a smoky jazz club, not a hoe-down.  This isn't bad, and it's definitely better than Costello trying to be something he isn't.

The strongest track on the album is a lovely cover of "Changing Partners."  It's a cover of a tune Patty Page made famous, and Costello treats it right, not making it maudlin nor ironic.  The problem is: if Costello is a great song-writer, shouldn't the standout tunes be his own?  That's not to say the rest of the disc is crap; it's fine, just unremarkable.  The strongest Costello-penned tune is the clever "From Sulphur to Sugarcane," which features a delightful bridge consisting rhyming names of places with comments on how ladies from said places are easy to sleep with.  It's quite witty; on the other hand, it's not touching on any Truths with a capital T.

This is a decent album but not a great one.  I suspect if I pursue further Elvis Costello recordings, I will find some which show him closer to the height of his powers.  This probably has more to offer to seasoned Costello fans ("Cool, he's doing Americana!") than to the uninitiated.

Elvis Costello official site