Archive for April, 2017

JAY FARRAR: LOOKING BACK WHILE MOVING FORWARD

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 6, 2017 by midliferocker

Jay Farrar (center) and his band Son Volt (photo by David McClister)

An Americana music pioneer looks to the past while moving ahead.

By Steve Houk

The rise of Americana music wouldn’t have happened as easily or as profoundly without Jay Farrar in the mix.

The Illinois-borne singer/songwriter teamed up with Jeff Tweedy in the 80’s to form the now legendary Uncle Tupelo, a band that defined the blend of country/western and harder rock that was one facet of the burgeoning Americana sound. After they broke up in the late 80’s, with Farrar forming Son Volt and Tweedy starting Wilco, Farrar would continue that memorable mashup of C & W and garage rock on nearly all of his Son Volt records over the last 20-plus years.

Until now. Farrar’s most recent record, Notes Of Blue, was inspired by the blues and the unique alternate guitar tunings of artists like Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Nick Drake. It was a unique way for Farrar to delve into the roots of the music he grew up with and that has so deeply influenced his path. It’s still pure Son Volt, thanks to Farrar’s unmistakable vocals, but with a bit of a different edge.

“I think it was the realization, and this probably occurred over many years, that the blues were such a foundational part of early country music,” Farrar, 50, said on a break from his current Son Volt tour. “And I’ve always been around country music here and there, so I think that realization that the blues was such an integral part of early country music was a catalyst to dive deeper into the blues.”

Notes of Blue was an exciting challenge for Farrar, to not only pay homage to some deep seeded influences, but to also push himself to play music differently than he was used to.

“There were a couple of ideas I wanted to focus on for this recording,” Farrar said. “One of them being concentrating more on the finger picking method, that style of guitar, and having played pedal steel guitar in a side band gave me the experience to give it a go. I’d never really done too much finger picking style guitar on recording. And you know that’s also a common thread between some of these guys that were the source of the alternate tuning, Fred McDowell, Skip James, Nick Drake, there’ll all known for the finger picking guitar.”

“Another idea I wanted to focus on was really getting back to playing electric guitar. I have not played electric guitar over the last several Son Volt records, so this was an opportunity to focus on electric guitar. And as part of that, as part of passing the 20 year Son Volt milestone, I pulled out the old amplifier that’s pictured on the front of the first solo record Trace, it’s an old Webster Chicago amplifier that I felt just had the right aesthetic for this group of songs.”

Farrar’s musical family upbringing and his time living in St. Louis are both huge influences on his musical foundation, and so when he met Tweedy, Farrar already had a base on which to draw from, as did his new collaborator. Between their own individual roots and the current music out there, a unique musical style was born.

“I think it was more or less organic, I think there was sort of that convergence and that realization that the music that filtered down through your folks ultimately clicked and made sense, and coalesced with, at that time, alot of the music we were soaking up, which was punk rock and music coming from East Coast and West Coast. When Uncle Tupelo was starting out, I can hear a bit more angst, the result of alot of the stuff I was listening to, from Husker Du, to Meat Puppets, to The Clash or whatever. I think we probably came to the realization about the same time, although I was in bands before I met Jeff, with my older brothers, started playing out when I was like 11, 12, at parties and at school. I think even at that time we were playing some Buck Owens songs at 11 or 12, so the country element was there early on. And the rest was more garage-based, like The Yardbirds, we did a bunch of covers of theirs, it was blues based as well.”

So as Jay Farrar continues to make memorable music, he appreciates the challenges that trying out new styles and sounds presents.

“I felt it opened up a whole new creative process, you know you’re kind of going down a different path or road you haven’t been down before. It opens things up, and this time around I felt like it was a chance to connect with icons and heroes, I always felt like there was certain mystique attached. I just took it as a challenge and I wanted to learn those tunings and see what was there.”

Son Volt performs Tuesday April 11th at 930 Club, 815 V St NW, Washington, DC 20001. For tickets, click here

WILLIE NILE: HOW DOES IT FEEL

Posted in Uncategorized on April 5, 2017 by midliferocker

One of rock’s great singer/songwriters finds pure joy in playing the music of his hero.

By Steve Houk

 

There’s no doubt…Willie Nile is on a roll.

The 68 year-old rock and roll mainstay and almost peerless songwriter is coming off months of worldwide touring behind his acclaimed latest record World War Willie, and he continues to gain new fans while also retaining the respect of both critics and his loyal fans alike.

So when he was asked to close a Bob Dylan birthday tribute show in New York City a few months back, he jumped at the chance, and then some magic happened. Not only did he blow the room away, but Nile felt the Dylan vibe grab him, the music of one of his true heroes really took hold. So he decided to record a whole album of Dylan songs and has been ecstatic at the result. And like anything he does, it’s all about having fun playing music.

“It’s a labor of love, because it was fun,” Nile said from Michigan in between shows on his current tour. “I mean, the reason I got into this business in the first place was for fun. The beauty of music, the thrill of expressing yourself, whether that’s about anti-war, or about love, or life, or mystic revelations or visions, or whatever. This…is fun.”

Nile, who appears at The Hamilton on Saturday, has been a favorite of rock fans and rock musicians alike ever since he burst back onto the scene in the early 90’s after recording two records and then kissing the music business goodbye — “It wasn’t fun, it became more about business than music” — and starting a family in the 80’s in his native Buffalo. Ever since his return, he has crafted evocative, brilliant music on one album after another, evoking his hero Dylan as well as other songwriters like his pal Bruce Springsteen and others. But the Dylan project has him more energized than ever, and it all became clear that night at the City Winery that he wanted to do more than just sing Dylan at the show.

“They wanted me to close the show, so one night I went through every song on his website,” Nile said. “And I thought about each one…no, not that one, no, nuh uh, OK, well, maybe that one, I was really looking for songs I could bring something to. So I picked out four songs, and we brought the house down. I opened up with Love Minus Zero/No Limit, I said to the crowd that it was a beautiful love song and you don’t hear it. And then I did Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, like Bolero, and the place, I mean, after each verse they’re cheering. I mean, the guy was 21 years old, writing a song like that. And then I did Rainy Day Women and then we closed with You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. It was so much fun that I thought, ya know what, I can sing these songs, and I wanna pay a tribute to Bob. And his songs speak for themselves.”

Still on a buzz from the tribute, Nile picked a handful of other Dylan tunes he thought he could bring the most to, and hit the studio with a killer band that included his own bandmates Johnny Paisano and Matt Hogan, Spin Doctors’ drummer Aaron Comess and British singer/songwriter James Maddock. And by all accounts, everyone who has heard the rough cuts, including some people very close to Dylan himself, is blown away by the result.

“The record is off the hook,” Nile said enthusiastically. “The reaction that I’m getting from the few people who’ve heard it…yeah not him, but others…it’s a blast. The thing is all the musicians who played on it, everyone kept after each song, and every single vocal is live. The vibe, the players…we all kept exclaiming, as you know ‘cuz you play in bands…we all we would say, can you believe this lyric, this song, what the hell! I’m starting to think just from the initial reaction, that maybe this could be somethin’.”

(photo courtesy Cristina Arrigoni)

Nile goes way back with Dylan, not only holding him up as one of his greatest influences — “He just opened so many doors for me personally, and for our culture for sure” — but also as a colleague in the music business from the very beginning.

“When my first record came out in 1980, his publishing company, they administered my publishing. I think they represented two people, David Amram and me. So I met him back then. And I met him again when I was playing with Springsteen at Shea Stadium, the end of Bruce’s tour in 2003. I got there for the very last show, and Bob was there, and they played Highway 61.”

If there’s one point that Willie Nile keeps making, it’s that whether it’s his own music or Dylan’s, playing music in general needs to be fun, it needs to be enjoyable, or why do it? And the way things are going for Nile, it looks like he will be having fun rocking and rolling well into his 70’s.

“People say, how are you able to do this kind of show at your age? And I go, you know what, clearly the music has kept me going. No doubt about it. I’m having the time of my life. Even if I’m tired or not well, I go onstage and start singing, and boom. And I have always pursued my heart and my instincts, for better or worse, ya know, the ups and down of being an artist. And it’s paid off in spades.”

Willie Nile with special guest Jamie McLean Band performs Saturday April 8th at The Hamilton, 600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.