STRIKING MATCHES & THE SECRET SISTERS: DYNAMIC DUOS UNITE

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 22, 2015 by midliferocker

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Two stellar musical duos hit the T-Bone paved road together.

By Steve Houk

In the annals of popular music, there have been very few truly successful duos, I’m talking influential groups that are equally driven and led by two primary band members. Simon and Garfunkel and The Everly Brothers probably top the list, and there are a few others — perhaps Ashford and Simpson, The Righteous Brothers, maybe even the Indigo Girls, and today, you’d have to throw in the Black Keys — that spring to mind as duos that have truly made their mark.

But all in all, the duo is not a concept you really see every day, at least not long lasting ones.

Yet there are two dynamic duos out there making memorable music right now who just may have some staying power, Striking Matches and The Secret Sisters. These two different yet talented pairs who have one major thing in common — one of music’s best producers produced their latest record — are touring together for a May-June run that’s one of the best tickets of the season. The Matches/Sisters tour makes it’s way to the Birchmere on May 27th.

Country/rock/blues hybrid Striking Matches is made up of the engaging and uber-talented Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, whose evolution is just like, well, the flare of a match. Their first happy moment came when they met in a guitar class at Nashville’s Belmont University, and that began a string of serendipity that, along with their raw talent and great songwriting chops, have propelled them forward. This included a chance meeting with a record producer who was a guest speaker in a class Zimmermann was taking at Vanderbilt, and who would soon become their manager.

“He walks in and we start talking,” Zimmermann said, “and it turns out he had seen a You Tube video Justin and I and few friends did at Belmont, and he just really liked it. So we kinda got to talking and I think the next day, the three of us got together for coffee, and not long after that he became our manager.”

The two gained some early fame when, even before they released their own record, a few of their songs were used on ABC’s “Nashville.”  They noticed that when they played live, people knew those songs already, giving them a nice leg up. “We’ve had several moments like that along the way,” said Davis, “that just make us feel like we’re doing the right thing, or we’re headed down the right path. It’s been kinda, well, weird.”

In March, they released their debut “Nothing But The Silence” to very positive reviews, and rightly so, perfectly blending top notch songwriting, harmonies and strikingly adept guitar work. For these Matches, things are flaming brightly.

“(The record) came out a couple weeks ago and it’s been kind of a whirlwind since,” Davis said. “But when you put out your record you want it to be this busy. Because if you’re just sitting around at home and you’ve got a record out you get bored, and you’re like, what are we doing?. It’s been really really great. And we’ve just been really enjoying every minute of it.”

For Laura Rodgers — one half of the more traditional sounding Secret Sisters along with sister Lydia — putting out their well-received second album “Put Your Needle Down” last year meant that striking a balance was key to maintaining their burgeoning career. “We put it out and then pretty much toured all year, “Laura said. “Then we took some time off to do some writing, and then my sister got married. It’s difficult to navigate a music career when you have personal relationships and other life goals, but her husband is very supportive, so we’ve made it work so far.”

Lydia was the Secret Sister who appeared more destined for a music career early on, but the sisters found that singing together was what seemed to work best. “When we were growing up,” Rodgers continued, “Lydia was more inclined to performance, and I always had terrible stage fright, you couldn’t pay me money to sing in front of a crowd. We knew we could sing together, being raised in a church that sings a cappella, we knew we could sing. So we both auditioned separately and the people at the audition were like, ‘Hey have you guys ever done anything together, like in harmony?’ And we’re like, ‘Well, yeah if you want us to!’ We started singing and you could see the light bulbs going off in the room, they started talking about how we were the female version of the Everly Brothers, and about demos and record labels and all that. That was the moment when we realized, hey, we’ve been given the ability to do this, then we should give it a shot.”

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Secret Sisters Laura and Lydia Rodgers with T-Bone Burnett (far right), Buddy Miller (L) and Emmylou Harris (photo courtesy Getty Images)

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Striking Matches’ Justin Davis (middle) and Sarah Zimmermann with T-Bone Burnett

Speaking of serendipity, both Striking Matches and The Secret Sisters have one major element to their aspiring success in common: both of their recent records were helmed by revered Americana producer T-Bone Burnett, and like seemingly everyone who works with Burnett, they have strikingly similar and hugely glowing things to say about the experience.

“We’ve known T-Bone from very early in our career, “said The Secret Sisters’ Rodgers. “When he started working with us, we had so much in common and we wanted the same things for our music and we just hit off so well with him. The first record, he kinda put his touch on it, and with our second record, he helped us from the ground up. We need to see the big picture and that’s what T-Bone is so incredibly great at, the concept of the record. I don’t think we could have done that on our own. He was right on the same wavelength as us. He was so supportive and so smart about so many things.”

“(Working with T-Bone) was amazing,” said Striking Matches’ Zimmermann. “I expected it to be really intimidating, because on the outside he’s very tall and he always wears his sunglasses, and his resume is so incredible, so I think I expected to be nervous. But he was the most nurturing person in the studio, and just knew how to get us to where we needed to be. He makes you feel like you’re a superhero, you can do anything. It was really awesome.”

Striking Matches and The Secret Sisters perform Wednesday June 27th at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA. For tickets click here.

Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.

RISING APPALACHIA: FOSTERING WIDER CIRCLES

Posted in Uncategorized on May 8, 2015 by midliferocker

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A unique band with a clear mission crisscrosses the country making a powerful impact.

By Steve Houk

Somewhere out there, maybe over the rainbow, or even just in the haze of a beautiful dream, is a band. A band of troubadors, supremely talented musicians who have made it their primary goal to not only play their extraordinary music for people, but to touch the people they play for much more deeply. In this dream, the band strives to spend more time with their audience, to interact and congregate with them, not just blow into town for a couple hours, do a show, and then scurry out of town on a bus or plane steaming to the next town for another drive-by. And by doing that, they make it their quest to foster a deeper sense of community and unity and understanding, all as they bring a bountiful caravan of modern ideas and organic concepts that show a heartfelt and profound care for their fellow man and their planet along for the ride.

Yeah, wake me up, it’s gotta be a dream. Or is it?

Rising Appalachia would tell you it’s definitely not a dream, it’s all happening right now on their current tour, and in many ways, has for the last ten years since this unique band began their more-than-just-musical journey. Led by breathtakingly alterna-hip sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith, Rising Appalachia has taken their captivating roots-based folk/rock/world music sound and traveling convoy of social righteousness right to the people, most recently illustrated in their foregoing the road and sky for the rails and traveling town to town by train, all in an effort to not only heal the environment and show the power of rail travel, but to actually better experience the places they play as well as the people they play to. 

“We’ve always pursued alternative means of being a musician in the music industry,” says the engaging and powerfully committed Song. “On the train, we get to actually see the places we’re going through, but it also has a social and justice-based component, which is to create a means of travel that brings economy back into small towns, and also public transportation that is affordable. For us, it’s a way to be touring that feels much more connected to the communities that we’re working with, and a little bit less of this faster, bigger, better, immediate gratification that you see so much in the media, movies and television.  We try to create a context for public experience, a concert, a social gathering that can last longer and be anticipated for longer, and have a longer ripple effect. It’s all been really inspiring for us.”

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Inspiring for them, and refreshing and even exhilarating for their audiences. The dedication, the path, the mission of Leah, Chloe and their Rising Appalachia bandmates David Brown and Biko Casini — along with bringing their fascinating harmoniously glorious musical concoction to those they play for — is piercingly crystallized as you talk to, and become somewhat entranced by, the enchanting Song and her pulsating, swirling yet very focused vision. Her bottom line? Rising Appalachia want to be more than just a rock band out there playing music. They want to be a passionate force for social change and justice and heightened awareness, but not by preaching to their audience, but informing, educating and enlightening them as part of the overall musician/audience experience.

“I think that a really important part of our process is that we are not preachy, that we are mostly pursuing the voice of an artist, and there’s alot of room for creative and artistic interpretation,” Song said. “We don’t want to be politicians, we don’t want to spokespeople, we want to be able to pursue folk music as a living art form, so it’s influenced by contemporary culture, and also influenced by the creative process in and of itself. I agree that there’s always this component to political art that can be very preachy or dogmatic that says this is the way to change. We have a collective and captive audience, and we want to create a space where dialog is happening, where questions are being asked, where there is a community involvement to our music that goes back to the old fashioned relationship with the artist, the musician being the troubadour and the storyteller taking stories from one town and bringing them to the next. Planting seeds, sharing all this information, and not necessarily coming with the policies or the message, but coming with a whole lot of information, so our audience is free to pick and choose what works for them, what they want to get interested in, what they’d like to get involved in. And we’re not dictating that. We’re just creating a space where alot of information can be shared.”

Rising Appalachia’s quest for more of a mutual and beneficial relationship with their audience began a few years ago with what they call the Rise Collective, a method of introducing a variety of causes, campaigns and efforts geared toward positive change, whether it be environmental, social or even somewhat political, as in the case of Song’s vehement disdain for (and cry for the reform of) the dysfunctional prison industry in America. Again, Rising Appalachia do not intend to indoctrinate, just provide the opportunity for their audience to see for themselves how change can be a positive force in their lives, but only if they so choose.

“We wanted very much for our work to be bigger than just entertainment and the kind of glitz and glam of rock stardom,” Song said. “So the Rise Collective was the title that we took on to just give a platform to all of the elements, our teachers, the educators and activists, and non profits that we work in and work with, to give them a voice and a platform to have exposure and relationship as this was growing. It wasn’t exactly the same thing as Rising Appalachia, it’s more of a platform for the activism and the workshops and the creative components and the justice components to have a place to also be able to network, and for us to be able to showcase the communities that have helped shape our work and our voice and our vision. And we wanted that to be an acknowledged part of who we are and how we got here. They are separate entities but extremely symbiotic.”

Leah and Chloe Smith grew up in Atlanta with caring, involved parents who instilled in them a true global vision, one that said that we are all part of a bigger world community and need to experience that world openly and often. It has clearly stayed with them through their evolution as musicians, and people.

“We were raised in a family that really valued art and creativity, and also social justice,” Song continued. “Even though we grew up in downtown Atlanta, we had an incredibly diverse and vibrant social education. And our parents were really active in supplementing what was essentially lacking in the school system by being really involved in our lives. So we had relationships to politics and to travel and to the way that other parts of the world live, and we spent alot of time, our winter times and our Christmas breaks, and we would plan a trip and go and study another place. That was really very much how they wanted us to learn about how to be global citizens. So we were already infused with this relationship to the world being much vaster than America.”

From early on, Leah and Chloe clearly had exceptional musical talent, with harmonies that take your breath away, but they never planned on musical careers. College beckoned, and that seemed like the route they’d take. They recorded their first “album” in a day in a friend’s basement, and planned on just giving it to friends and family for Christmas, but after people heard it, the two were strongly encouraged to take it farther. Since then, they have produced their own records and garnered a cult following, all the while sticking to their plan of alternative performing, including where they would play and how they would get there and how they would engage. And because it wasn’t preordained or expected, their success has been all the sweeter.

“I think because we didn’t ever pursue being a band,” Song goes on, “we didn’t ever have the stress of having to make it, or having to get a certain thing, or really wanting to sign on a label, or needing to tour really heavily. Everything that has come in and been sort of handled accordingly where it’s been taken as a gift. We’re not the directors of it, so it’s always been very much like we’re following path that’s being laid by a much much greater force than us. Be that the community that comes to listen, or the longer relationship we have to traditional music and the idea that that music still wants to have a voice in contemporary society. But it still hasn’t turned, we still haven’t hit that moment when we we’re like, oh yeah, professional musicians. It’s been amazing, every step of the way.”

But with their excellent new record “Wider Circles,” clearly the most highly produced, succinct and crisply played record of their career so far, things could turn for Rising Appalachia very soon.

“I would say that this album is at a tier professionally, creatively, in its musicality, and the fact is that we’re prouder of it than anything we’ve been involved in. It feels like it’s just taken a huge girth of storytelling and of music. I do think this might be a turning point, as far as our creative caliber and maybe its reach as well. We’re very very proud of it.”

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Rising Appalachia (L-R, Biko Casini, David Brown, Leah Song and Chloe Smith)

As a symbol of their community-geared mantra, their recent train ride from Louisiana to Texas provided one memorable experience after another that involved creating their own mini-community as the train clicked along through small town after small town.

“There was a group of kids from different places whose parents were all riding, one family was moving from Louisiana to Texas, and another one had just been on a trip and they were on their way back home,” Leah fondly recalls. “And all of these kids that were in different cars all met up in the lounge car, and didn’t know each other before this train ride and kinda started a little club. We saw turtles and alligators from the ride, it was great. So seeing that people actually have a relationship with each other, and can kind of learn about the stories of other travelers, it was super inspiring. That’s something that you don’t get when you’re in a car or in an airplane, it’s such a pass-and-go kind of travel. This really felt like you could have a relationship with the actual act of traveling, and not just the destination you were trying to get to.”

Traveling by train to tour has it’s challenges, but the band is dedicated to their mission no matter what it takes.

“We have a really great relationship with our booking agent, and we’ve kind of agreed to meet in the middle. They’ve pushed a few things on us that we’d ideally wanted to do, and we have set some pretty strong parameters about the distances we’re willing to travel, the amount of off time we want. We’re kind of creating a middleground. From there I think we can continue to fine tune. We’re not able to jump straight into an already founded alternative music world, it doesn’t exist yet. So we’re trying really hard to create it, and foster it and work within the industry so that it becomes more about an awareness and an opportunity to do things differently, and less about us being so much of a hermit in the industry that we don’t have a relationship with them. We are connected with the industry, we are gonna end up touring our faces off this year, and we do have a new album, so there are components of it that will stretch us outside of our beliefs and our idealism. And we’ll continue to fine the work that we do and the way that we do it, in subtle ways and fast ways and new dialogs around that. I by no means think that we’ve got it all figured out, but I think we want to foster those conversations alot.”

So don’t be surprised if when you see a train passing along through your town this summer, it could be the coolest, hippest train around, the Rising Appalachia Express, carrying the wondrous Leah and her fellow minstrels through the small towns of America on their way to their own beautifully realized promised land.

“We are a people-powered world,” Leah likely says with a wide smile and a heart filled with wonder. “And the way we can move in collectivity, that can support everything from environmental sustainability to empowerment and beyond. We’re all about just bringing all of these dialogs to the table. This idea that we have a very disconnected culture, and that each element of reconnecting is a strength for all of us.”

Rail, YEAH.

REVEREND PEYTON’S BIG DAMN BAND: SO UNIQUE AND SO DELICIOUS

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2015 by midliferocker

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The one and only Reverend Peyton and his Big Damn Band find a delicious balance.

By Steve Houk

It’s been kinda the “thing” for a while now for young bands to make music that sounds old. Well, not really old per se, but music that has that true sense of authenticity and history and the magic of those musical spirits of yore that hover in the air.

Bands like Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers, the North Mississippi All Stars, even others like the Black Keys and Kings of Leon before they got too arena-ish, or true retro acts like Carolina Chocolate Drops, all have tried to create nostalgic moods using simple instruments and sounds that elicit thoughts of juke joints, front porches, campfires, and sitting on tree stumps playing your ass off while the jug with the three xxx’s is passed around.

But the key is to not only evoke the vibe of the front porch, but to try and carry it forward, not just be a Smithsonian Folk Archive rehash, but to bring the feel of this exceptional indigenous music to the modern day, while putting a personal spin on it. That’s the prime goal of Reverend “Joshua” Peyton, to a tee. He wants people to feel when they hear him and his amazing Big Damn Band, that they get not only a shining glimmer of the past, but also a big flash pot of the present.

“That’s the hope,” says the Reverend. “At the end of the day, if you can make music after people have been playing guitar, recorded guitar, for a hundred years, if you can make things sound original, then I mean, that’s one of the toughest things to do, and something we literally work on every day. I’m always trying to take finger style guitar to new places. That’s the idea, to keep making music so it does go forward. In the right way. From the heart. Made by hand.”

There isn’t really another act out there like Brown County Indiana’s Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. They’re a rousing, unabashed, highly animated trio that delivers a truly unique mix of blues, ragtime, folk, country and do-it-yourself, homespun, even some say punk fueled rock. Led by Peyton’s large carnivalesque bearded look, astounding finger style guitar playing and extremely unique vocals, the Big Damn Band is rounded out by Peyton’s buxom wife Breezy with her gloved thimbled hands pickin’ on a mean washboard, and drummer Ben “Bird Dog” Russell, who augments his small drum kit with a five gallon plastic bucket fitted with drum hardware. They would feel at home on the album cover of The Doors’ “Strange Days” for sure.

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But rest assured, you have never seen anything like the Big Damn Band before. And after a dozen or so year run exhaustively playing over 250 dates a year and churning out more than half a dozen records, it may all have finally come together with their latest country blues fueled romp, “So Delicious.” Peyton’s intended delivery of retro meets the modern day with a twist all their own has finally jelled just the way the Reverend was hoping it would.

“I’m really proud of (the new record), I felt like when it was done, I was just like, you know, if people don’t like this, I think they just don’t like me,” said Peyton, 34, during a break out on the road. “That’s all there is to it, I just don’t what else I can do. This is the most me of any record we’ve ever done, I’m just really proud of the songs, I’m proud of what it’s about, I’m proud of the innovation on the finger style, I’m proud of the way the band sings the background vocals, I’m proud of it all, just top to bottom. At this point during a record I’m usually kinda like ehh, wish we’d done this, wish we’d done that. I really just don’t have anything like that with this record. I just feel like we finally did one just like we should. I also feel like there’s a little bit of somethin’ for everybody on this record, that’s somethin’ I’m kinda proud of too, ya know.”

And that’s key to Peyton, that he and his band don’t come off like a retread act, but combine the charms of the old with the dynamics of the new and appeal to a bit wider audience, like the song “Scream At The Night” off the new record that walks the line between old school and new sound. “My whole goal whenever I do anything is timelessness. I don’t want it to sound necessarily like there was an era. I want it like maybe you could have come out of any decade. That’s my goal, is to make timeless music. Make it feel timeless.”

Peyton is a finger style player, a rare breed of guitarist that uses the technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to flatpicking or picking individual notes with a single pick. He has worked hard to perfect the style and has reached a point where he is proud of what he’s able to do, and sometimes, even who he is able to fool.

“The guitar playing might not sound overly difficult, but it is,” the good-humored Peyton told me. “It’s alot harder than it sounds. It’s one of those things where I’ve never heard anybody else finger pick in quite that same way before. It’s all one guitar, the whole record. i Tunes editors, they gave the record five stars, but they talked about the interweaving guitars. And it made me laugh, because there is no interweaving guitars, it’s one guitar. I love that. I was able to literally trick music reviewers into thinking that it was two guitars, or maybe three! To me that’s part of the idea, is to take finger style to places that people can’t believe. But also write songs that are accessible, that aren’t just songs for musicians to listen to and go, oh man, this guy’s cool. Listen to him play guitar. I want to make songs that are accessible, that you don’t have to be a music nerd to be into it.”

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After playing guitar as young boy, Peyton’s hands betrayed him in his late teens, and his guitar playing future looked like it was in real jeopardy. “I was lost for a while, almost two years, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. It was cysts that grew on my tendons. Why, we don’t know. Both hands. And on my left hand which was the worst, they were almost miscroscopic and they caused all this scar tissue to grow. And once they were cut away, man, I was fine. It was all after I’d been playing guitar for years. I started giving lessons when I was 13, and this happened when I was 18. But I met Breezy one week after my hand surgery. Things were looking up.”

Peyton has a stable of heroes that he has modeled his unique sound after that reads like a who’s who of country blues. But for him, it always comes back to not letting yourself get mired in reproducing the same ol’ music. It’s cool to pay homage, but it’s critical to put your own exciting and individual, contemporary spin on it.

“When we say country blues, they don’t know what that is,” Peyton continued. “It means rural blues, really, it starts with people like Charlie Patton, John Hurt, Furry Lewis and Fred McDowell, Bukka White. But over the years, I don’t want to just be like a museum piece throwback to that. I’m never one to be that. I want to be next in line. I work really hard to take the concept, those styles, the finger style country blues guitar, and really try to take it to places it has never been, with new melodies, new fresh stuff, not just the same old regurgitated stuff.”

And as for Peyton’s very distinctive, idiosyncratic vocals, well, just play the song below and you’ll see what I mean. And it leads this wonderfully energized, fun loving band right down the path the Reverend wants them to go.

“I just sorta sing from real deep in my gut. It’s wild, that’s just the voice I got. I think some people they think that’s it’s like affected or something. It’s the just the voice that I got. I was told one time by someone who was trained and they said that I actually sing in a similar way to an opera singer. A beat down like an operatic singer does. And I think some musicians as they get older, they get tired, or they get burned out. I feel like I’m just gettin’ warmed up, you know. I’m figuring myself out.”

JAMES McMURTRY: THINGS HE’S COME TO KNOW

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 17, 2015 by midliferocker
(photo courtesy Shane McCauley)

(photo courtesy Shane McCauley)

Folk rock legend James McMurtry weaves magical tales from out on the road.

By Steve Houk

It used to be that you could spend a buncha straight time doing a record, a few weeks or even months at least. Stay camped in the studio, work the tunes, get ’em just right, and then once you’d honed it and fine tuned it, you could head out on the road for some dates when you could, the record in the rear view.

But times have changed, and touring is more important than ever. People aren’t buying albums like they used to, the masses download songs to their devices and maybe if they like what they hear, they’ll grab the whole record. Maybe.

James McMurtry gets that. So that’s why for his brilliant new album Complicated Game, the latest of several critically acclaimed, masterfully written records he’s done over the years, he’d record a little and then head out on a long stretch of shows, and then pop back into New Orleans to record some more. And his studio guys might even snag a top player to do some fills, all while McMurtry is out making the bread.

“Nowadays, you have to tour alot more than we used to, ‘cuz that’s where all the money is,” McMurtry told me from Austin during a break at this year’s South by Southwest Festival. “The new record was piecemeal, it took a year to make. We can’t afford to just stop for six weeks and just go in and make a record. I’d lay down some tracks and then go away, and Charles and Matthew would try to figure out what to do with them. I guess Benmont Tench was in town at some point, so they cornered him and got him in the studio, I wasn’t there for that session. I was there for one of Ivan Neville’s vocal sessions, which was great. Harmony sessions can really be painful, trying to get a guy to match your phrasing and hit the notes at the same time. And he just walked in there and nailed it.”

After almost 30 years making music, that’s the way it seems to work for this truly gifted mainstay of the Americana/folk rock scene. A unique character with dashes of Prine, Zevon and Cockburn sprinkled about but with beautifully crafted songs that are all his own, James McMurtry sounds like a guy who’s spent alot of time on the road. His slow, steady, weathered way a’ talkin’ and his seemingly laid back demeanor would lead you to believe he really is just ambling along, making music, nary a care. But listening to the sharp wisdom, inherent beauty and savvy insight of his songs reveals a guy who really gets what a compelling musical tale is all about.

McMurtry was raised not far from D.C. in Waterford, Virginia, out in the Catoctin Valley of Loudon County. It was an area steeped in indigenous music that he sapped up as he began to gather the paint for his musical pallette.

“Being around Waterford was actually really good,” McMurtry said. “I got exposed to a little bit of bluegrass, which I never learned to play all that well, but I got to hear bluegrass played by the people who’d actually done the things that were described in the song. Like plowing the field and this, that and the other. There’s a one room schoolhouse in Lucketts, which is over the hill from us on Route 15, between Leesburg and Point of Rocks, they’d have bluegrass every Saturday night. They had a local house band and they usually had a road act, the Potomac Valley Boys or Country Gentlemen, something like that.”

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Alot of McMurty’s songs are largely small stories, which makes sense given what he listened to early on, and as he began to write his own songs. “Started from records really, I was a Johnny Cash fan as a child, and then somebody turned me on to Kris Kristofferson. Later on I got into Dylan, I didn’t like him at first, I thought he sang funny.  It came pretty easily to me once I started writing.”

McMurtry’s father Larry is one of America’s most well known authors, penning novels many of which were made into memorable films, like “Hud,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Did having an accomplished author for a father help him as he learned how to write songs?

“It was more listening to songwriters, I think. I listened to Kristofferson, I listened to Prine, it comes more from listening than from reading. I get a couple of lines and a melody and try to imagine who would have said those lines and then make it a character from that, and then I can get the rest of the song from the character.”

James McMurtry performs Monday April 20th at The Hamilton, 600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.  

Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band  Second Wind  plus other local rock ensembles.

 

JOHNETTE NAPOLITANO: A FORCE OF NATURE

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on April 13, 2015 by midliferocker

Johnette Napolitano, a true rock ‘n’ roll survivor, keeps making music amidst her busy life. 

By Steve Houk

Johnette Napolitano plays Gypsy Sally's on April 19th (photo courtesy Catherine Copenhaver)

Johnette Napolitano plays Gypsy Sally’s on April 19th (photo courtesy Catherine Copenhaver)

Johnette Napolitano, the lead singer, bassist and co-founder of 80’s alt rock band Concrete Blonde, is not one to sit still, even 30 plus years after her career began.

At 57, she is still very active musically, even embarking on a short solo tour soon on the heels of her new three song EP “Naked.” But in her jam packed career, she has also worked for Leon Russell and at the famed Gold Star Studios, written a book, still dabbles in art including getting her work shown in galleries, occasionally contributes music to TV and film, and has collaborated with some of music’s biggest names. Yep, this is one busy hard rockin’ tattooed lady. 

Oh, and she rides horses too. Early in the morning, before the day gets going too fast.

“This is the first horse I’ve had of my own, she’s got blue eyes, is pure white and a real brat,” said the high-energy, highly engaging Napolitano from her home out west. “I have an inflatable unicorn horn I put on her sometimes, and she really likes that. I’m about to go out and give her breakfast in a little while, but I’m usually up at about 5 and get a couple (riding) hours in, and then by the time I do that, it’s all cool and it’s all fun and it’s all fresh and nice, and then you know, phones start ringing and things start happening.”

Clearly, Johnette Napolitano is a true force of nature. Or perhaps better yet, is still a force of nature, given when you watch videos of or listen to Concrete Blonde’s songs, or even with her solo work, you see the raw, honest power of her delivery and the compelling nature of her songwriting that has been evident from day one. But with Concrete Blonde in the rear view after their triumphant last reunion tour in 2012, Napolitano continues to write her brand of emotionally enrobed music, it’s simply part of her DNA. And her fans tell her whenever she’s out on the road that they want more music, it’s just about finding the time to do it.

“People have been asking for music, but I haven’t really had time because I’ve been touring a week out of every month, that’s the pace that’s doable for me right now,” Napolitano says in her frenetic yet appealing style of speaking. “I’ve been touring alot the past year or year and a half solo, which has been really challenging. But that’s what’s been great about it. I’ve worked out this show that has a really fun and good flow, emotionally it has peaks and valleys, and it’s funny in places, and then I do songs that people know of course, and then I do new ones, so I found myself more and more with a guitar in my hands, just by the default, you know, if I’m in a hotel room, sitting there with a TV on the night before the show and I’ve got a guitar in my hand, I’m gonna come up with something. Being on the road is always kind of kicked me in the ass as far as writing because I’m fidgety and I’ve got to play constantly because I get real nervous and I feel like I need to practice alot. And in between there’s alot of other shit to do, so I haven’t really had a chance to actually kick back and be in the space that I need to be to dissapear down the rabbit hole to make a real actual full-length record. But I knew I was going out in the spring and I knew I had to come up with something, and so I (did) “Naked.”

Napolitano got a pungent taste of the backchannels of the music business even before she began her own career, working at Leon Russell’s L.A. studio in the early 80’s. It was an experience that prepared her well for what would come next, and one she wouldn’t trade for the world.

“You go through a special initiation in life when you work for Leon Russell,” she says with a clear fondness for the quirky rock legend and the opportunity working for him provided. “We called it Leon boot camp. When you work for Leon, you do everything, you’re on call 24 hours a day. If you had to stay up for three days in the mobile unit on camera 3 because Leon and Willie Nelson feel like staying up for three days making a record, then that’s exactly what you do. And then JJ Cale drops by, and if George Harrison drops by for a burger with Leon, and Leon wants you to find something in the tape library, then you go to the tape library, and come back and ask Leon, why don’t you just let me redo the whole tape library? I opened the 1/4″ box for the master of ‘Will O’ The Wisp’ and it’s got pot seeds in it, but no tape! But really, Leon surrounded himself with the top tech people, the top creative minds. He was very forward minded, and open-minded in everything he did. It woulda been stupid to be around all those people and not watch and learn what was going on. It was an education, is what I like to call it. To be around genius is really great.”

Life circumstances eventually caused Russell to move to Nashville, and although she was invited to come along, Napolitano stayed behind in the familiar surroundings of L.A. to begin to carve out her own path. “Working for him, you’re a satellite in Leon’s universe, but at the end of the day if you’re any kind of person that’s got your own thing to say and do, then you have to say and do it, you know? So we stayed in L.A. and that was the right thing to do.”

Napolitano next worked at L.A’s famed Gold Star Studios, where some of rock’s greatest albums and songs were recorded, including parts of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP, much of Phil Spector‘s Wall of Sound recordings, as well as songs and albums by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and countless other legendary acts. “I worked there about three years too and was really into that place, it was just amazing, I mean, the stuff that was recorded there? Phil Spector used to send us a copy of John and Yoko’s Christmas song on white vinyl every Christmas. He would call every Christmas with that little voice, ‘Is so and so there?’ It’s pretty cool, man.”

After her two life-altering studio jobs, Napolitano decided it was her turn, and formed Dream 6 which morphed into Concrete Blonde, a name suggested by REM’s Michael Stipe, who noted the contrast between their hard sound and deep lyrics. And for a period from the early 80’s to the mid 90’s, Concrete Blonde became one of the most talked about bands around. They would break up and reunite a few times over the next 25 years or so, culminating with their 2012 “farewell” tour which included headlining a festival in China, one of the pinnacles of their career. To Napolitano, Concrete Blonde was an unforgettable experience, with all the agony and ecstasy that comes with a successful band.

“In any incarnation, I think we were one of the best bands on the planet,” she said. “But this band has an incredibly tumultuous history, and alot of it’s really difficult to shake. There’s just some damage that you can’t repair. I’m still wrestling emotionally with some of the songs we played, and because I wrote them, I play them when I tour, of course. And just to keep an arm’s length from not actually reliving that emotion again, because there were alot of unhappy times in my life, and now I’m just grateful I made it through and I am where I’m at. But it’s done, everybody’s lives are in different places right now, and musically the guys want to do a certain thing and I think I want to do other stuff. But I feel very fortunate.”

(photo courtesy Amber Rodgers)

(photo courtesy Amber Rodgers)

As Concrete Blonde was beginning to wane, Napolitano did some memorable collaborating, including a killer duet with Paul Westerberg for the song “My Little Problem” that appeared on The Replacements’ “All Shook Down” record. But the most memorable may have been her almost becoming the new singer for Talking Heads after David Byrne left the band.  She recorded a song for an album the remaining band members did with a host of lead singers, “No Talking, Just Head,” and then toured and recorded with them in 1996. But legal problems killed the effort.

“The story was that Jerry (Harrison, Heads’ keyboardist and guitarist) had come to alot of Concrete Blonde gigs,” she recalls, “and after David Byrne left, they were working on a record with a whole bunch of different singers and they asked me to be on it. And so I’m like sure, cool, I’d love to be on it, so they sent me a track, “Damage I’ve Done” and I threw the guitar down and the vocal down and sent it back to them and they loved it. The problem with the Heads since David Byrne left was their identity, to keep going they needed somebody there to prove that they had some focus. So we had a plan to record the new record and try and cement the new identity. But when we were recording, we were in the middle of a lawsuit the whole time because David Byrne wouldn’t let them call themselves the Talking Heads. So all that hostile shit is flying back and forth the whole time we’re making the new record. It was brutal, I’m getting death threats from people. And the record never saw the light of day.”

Amidst her various art projects, her horse riding and just living her super busy life, Napolitano’s heart remains in her music. And her latest effort and impending tour is another powerful emotional expression that is her trademark, with a title that symbolizes her typical MO of putting it out there for all to see.

“I thought of ‘Naked’ which just indicates how you feel when you’re on stage with nothing but you and a guitar, pretty much. That’s exactly how you feel. I do anyway.”

JOAN ARMATRADING: STILL ILLUMINATING THE WORLD

Posted in Uncategorized on April 7, 2015 by midliferocker
Joan Armatrading plays the Birchmere on April 15th (photo courtesy Andrew Catlin)

Joan Armatrading plays the Birchmere on April 15th (photo courtesy Andrew Catlin)

A world class musician gets closer to her audience in the twilight of her career.

by Steve Houk

Joan Armatrading has done just about everything she wanted to do when she set out on her illustrious musical journey over 40 years ago. And if you ask her devoted fan base, the world is a much better place because of it.

For decades, Armatrading has traveled the globe with her exceptional canon of timeless songs, tirelessly touring, endlessly writing, gloriously singing, and ultimately, generously sharing some of the most emotionally transforming popular music ever written. She’s even received an MBE from the Queen. So as she embarks on what she is calling her “last major world tour,” what would she like people to take away from experiencing her music?

“I want them to feel connected to the music,” she told me from the Isle of Man where she was playing a show that night. “I want them to fall in love with it. I want them to use it as a communication tool, which people tell me they do, they use my music to communicate with each other. I did an interview with a chap in Europe a couple of years back, and he said after the interview he was going to propose to his girlfriend, and he was going to use my music. You can’t get better.”

Armatrading, 64, is quick to point out that this not her final tour ever, just the last time she will undertake one that will take her away from home for extended periods. And she is doing it solo, just her, without a backup band, because, well, it was simply the right time to do that kind of presentation.

“I was 64 when I played Australia in 2014, and by the time the tour ends I’ll be 65,” the personable and gracious Armatrading said. “I don’t want to be on the road eighteen months non-stop after I’m 65, so that’s why I’m saying this is my last major world tour. But I’m not retiring. I will be writing until the day I die.”

Armatrading has carefully chosen where she will play on this special tour, picking venues that will enable her to get a little more up close and personal to her audience.

“I wanted to create this kind of intimacy and a special memory for me,” she said, “and I wanted to feel for myself and for the audience a kind of a closeness, where we can kind of feel involved with each other. So I deliberately chose some places that I’ve never played before, and some smaller places.”

Another very “Joan-like” thing she is doing this go-round is picking local talent from the places she plays to warm her up each night, something she has done before but not to this extent. Armatrading has always been cognizant of giving other musicians the exposure they strive so hard to find, and seems to share in their excitement and growth.

“To watch them grow, from their first time of coming on stage, some of them,” she said, “I mean, the most people they played to is 10, maybe 50 at the most, and the next thing they’re playing in a hall of 2000 people. It’s wonderful, and I have people say it’s their hometown and they’ve been to that theater however many times to see whichever artist, and never dreamt that they would actually be on the stage, that stage, performing for their loved ones. Something like that, it’s fantastic, it’s absolutely fantastic, it’s wonderful, to watch that confidence grow as well. And just to watch them kind of have a little bit more hope that things will work out as well. It’s a nice thing.”

And when her warm up act is onstage, where will you find Joan? Right there watching them, sometimes to the performer’s surprise.

“I like to see the people and I like to see how the audience reacts to them. I had one person who was on the stage and they were doing absolutely fine, everything was wonderful, and then they happened to look across the stage and they saw me, and they went “Ahhhh!” and froze for a second. (laughs) I shouldn’t laugh, but it was funny.”

The sheer magnitude and global reach of Armatrading’s music is stunningly revealed in a story she very cautiously tells so as not to sound arrogant, a word you would never associate with Joan Armatrading in any way, or in any scenario. But it deserves telling. She has played before for Nelson Mandela, but while performing recently in South Africa, she met Ahmed Kathrada, a political prisoner who was jailed alongside Mandela. He told her that as they went through their suffering and struggles in a South African prison, her music helped see them through their ordeal, an admission that greatly humbles and deeply moves Armatrading.

“I said to myself, hang on a minute, get this into perspective. For him to be saying to me, your music was very important to us during that immensely stressful time, that was absolutely wonderful. It was a complete and utter privilege, and a pleasure and an honor to have met them.”

RHIANNON GIDDENS: WHAT CAME BEFORE AND WHAT COMES AFTER

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on April 7, 2015 by midliferocker
Rhiannon Giddens appears at the Lincoln Theater Sunday April 12th (photo courtesy)

Rhiannon Giddens appears at the Lincoln Theater Sunday April 12th (photo courtesy Dan Winters)

Rhiannon Giddens is always looking back, as she looks gloriously forward.

By Steve Houk

In music, who came before does matter.

The heritage, the beginnings, those risk takers and visionaries, is how music came to be. I mean, no Robert Johnson, maybe no Eric Clapton. No Bessie Smith, perhaps no Billie Holiday. No Louis Armstrong, maybe no Wynton. No Chuck Berry or Elvis, maybe no Beatles. The influencers, the pioneers, the groundbreakers of music, are what give it its heart and soul.

Rhiannon Giddens passionately understands that without those who came before her, she wouldn’t be where she is right now, an immense talent on the precipice of true greatness.

“We don’t come to any of this alone,” Giddens said as her first solo tour, which brings her to the Lincoln Theater on April 12th, begins. “We come with not only people helping us now, but the people who came before, and it’s always just this continuum that we’re on. We don’t come outta nowhere. There’s always something going on before that makes it possible for us to do what we do.”

Rhiannon Giddens gets it, and “it” comes out profoundly in her exceptional music. In the liner notes of her astounding debut solo record “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” Giddens pays devoted homage to a who’s who of roots and blues and popular music pioneers, and as it should be, they all seep beautifully into her sound. Whether it’s Odetta, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline or Nina Simone, or her own powerful voice, Giddens has crafted a glorious and rare tapestry, influenced by others but all very much her own. The result is the emergence of one of the most memorable artists in recent years.

Before a solo career beckoned, Giddens, a North Carolina native and opera trained singer, was (and remains) the face of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, a rockin-on-the-front-porch old time string band that conjures up a foot tappin’ hip shakin’ old school vibe replete with banjos, fiddles (both played by Giddens), washboards and singalongs, with Giddens leading the way with her soaring vocals on mostly traditional songs and arrangements. Speaking of paying homage, the Drops were steeped in it.

Things were going just fine when in 2013 Giddens was asked to sing solo at a one-off show, Another Day, Another Time at NYC’s Town Hall, a star studded event celebrating the folk music awash in the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Giddens’ stunning version of Odetta’s “Water Boy” was the talk of the evening, and event organizer and respected producer T-Bone Burnett literally found her backstage and offered her a solo record opportunity. She jumped at it, and the result is her tremendous solo debut.

“It kind of just snowballed, I mean, this was the first show I’d done on my own,” Giddens says, “there was never any intention to do a solo career, for me, it was just like, a show. It was definitely in my book of things to do, I was thinking about it a little bit, but more sort of maybe in the next couple of years kinda thing. We were working on the next Chocolate Drops record and was just like super stoked about the direction that we were going in. But you know when the universe presents an opportunity to do solo records where (T-Bone) goes,”What do you wanna do?” so do you go hey, can you come back in a couple years? Like, you just don’t do that. Yeah, I’m gonna take this opportunity and see what happens.”

But was the somewhat jarring emergence of her solo career a tough sell to her family in the Drops? On the contrary, it seemed like a sweet twist of fate, and her mates has been incredibly supportive of Giddens’ move.

“I talked with the Chocolate Drops and I was just like, look guys, I’d really love for you to come with me  on this journey, because A, it would keep us together and keep working on the material, and B, that’s what I want, you know, for my band, I’d like you guys to be part of it. And they’re really really supportive, and have done such a great job on the material, and it just feels really wonderful. It’s kind of like, the universe is doing things for me, I wouldn’t have ever stepped out like this, but it happened. I’ll follow the music, you know? And I think it’s just elevated us all. And I think whatever the next Chocolate Drop project will be will be better because of it. We’re all kind of lifted by all the stuff that’s happening. But it’s pretty astonishing, the course my life has taken in the last year and a half.”

Rhiannon Giddens (Photo courtesy Dan Winters)

Rhiannon Giddens (Photo courtesy Dan Winters)

And the word astonishing certainly fits “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” where the listener is transported into a swirling and sublime potpourri of sounds amidst a bevy of genres, all anchored by Gidden’s majestic vocals. You hear a dash of Judy Collins, even Joan Baez, Dionne Warwick, Etta James, but it’s all essentially Rhiannon Giddens. And the result is a masterful combination of a burgeoning world class artist and a nurturing veteran producer working together in each of their wheelhouses to make utterly memorable music.

“T Bone is such a great producer, and we worked really hard on it,” Giddens said. “When you have a labor of love like T-Bone and I did, that’s the jackpot for me. I feel like we were a really good match for this material. I brought the majority of it, and he has such a deep knowledge of Americana and the roots of American music, and we put together this amazing band, and it was kinda one of those moments in time, and something I’m really proud of.”

In 2014, in the midst of her solo transition, Giddens was asked to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, being a part of Burnett’s Bob Dylan-lost lyrics project “Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes.” Giddens jumped at the chance, who wouldn’t, to collaborate with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith on this treasure trove of a project. It was a soul-searching, challenging yet transcendent experience for her, and one that would ultimately even better prepare her for her next journey.

“When I was in the middle of it,” Giddens confided,”I was like, oh my God, I’m gonna die, I’m so overwhelmed right now but I have to keep going, I just have to. At the end of it, it was like, oh my God this is amazing, it’s incredible. I think these things really test you as an artist, I mean, that’s where it’s at. When you really have to rise to the occasion, you have to push yourself, you kind of have to push through barriers within yourself. There were no barriers at that studio other than the ones that were in my own heart and my head. I felt so grateful to have that experience because I learned so much about myself as an artist, and I’m so proud of the music that came out of that. The whole thing was amazing. There’s very few things in my life that have been that incredible, and like, changed my life. That’s definitely one. The whole thing, the recording, just kind of battin’ with those guys, it was just a really great experience. And all the hard stuff that’s wrapped up in it is just as important as the stuff that’s so fun. It’s still really important to have the moments where I just wanted to go stick myself in the eye with an ice pick or something, you know? It’s important for the artistic process.”

Late on the final night of the Dylan project, Giddens wrote a song, “Angel City.” She sang it for the group the next day, encompassimg her deep emotions about the experience, all part of her amazing journey.

“I stayed up all night the last night, and this (song) was my experience. I felt like I learned from and was able to apply the things that I learned. I just kind of realized that all at once and kind of had this epiphany, and I wrote the song. It’s such a story, I usually don’t write music that way. And when T-Bone suggested we put it on the record, it seemed to fit.”

For Rhiannon Giddens, the sky is the limit. Her talent and conviction are all she needs to soar to new heights, as well as reinforcing that important deeply held belief to remember those before her, all as she soars mightily ahead.

“That’s what makes my life sort of meaningful is being connected to the past and knowing where I stand on that continuum,” Giddens said. “The whole theme of honoring and paying homage to women who’ve come before me, who had paved the way, and who had much harder lives than I did for the most part. If I don’t have that meaning, then my music has no meaning. It really kind of makes what I do make sense and that’s how I like to go about it.”

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