Archive for the Uncategorized Category

DAVY KNOWLES: TO INFINITY AND BEYOND

Posted in Uncategorized on February 20, 2017 by midliferocker

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Playing alongside rock greats, and even for some astronauts in space, is all part of a guitar master’s amazing journey.

By Steve Houk

If you’re a rock and roll fan, especially a fan of blues-soaked guitar work that boggles the mind, and you don’t know Davy Knowles, well, you really really should. So listen and learn.

I mean, ever since the startling guitar wizard from the Isle of Man arrived in the states ten years ago when he was 19, he has quietly stunned not only thousands of rock fans, but has also impressed some pretty high-end colleagues that he’s worked with over the last decade, including Peter Frampton — who co-produced his first record Coming Up For Air — as well as Warren Haynes, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Sammy Hagar and dazzling guitar impresario Joe Satriani, who called Knowles his “favorite modern bluesman.” Knowles is nothing if not very humble when he hears those kinds of gold-tinged kudos.

“In all honesty, it feels like they’re talking about somebody else. It’s quite surreal really. Joe has always been incredibly encouraging, and someone of his stature to say something like that is really really cool, really lovely. I feel very lucky.”

Knowles still belongs in that ever-more-rare club, the club of bluesmen, and he has seen the industry and the genre change in these last ten years since making his first big splash. He feels that if you stay true to your muse, then you can do what you want without fear of selling out.

“I think you’re good as long as you’re being sincere with the music you’re playing,” Knowles told me during a break in his tour, which comes to the Tally Ho Theater in Leesburg, joining fellow guitar master Eric Gales. “You’re not trying to fabricate it just because you might find, ya know, a couple more people might enjoy it. As long as you believe in it wholeheartedly and you feel like you’re doing the right thing, your audience might go there with you. You run into trouble when you say, oh well, I need to get up the charts, that’s when you run into trouble.”

And Knowles appreciates the pioneers of the blues music that runs through his veins, especially some of the real originators of the music he holds so dear.

“You can’t play this kind of music without doing a big nod to those who came before. It’d be good if they got a little more noticed. And it doesn’t have to be electric, people in my generation and younger now are still very very hung up on the electric side of it, which is great, paying tribute to the late Freddie King and Albert King, ya know, those guys. But what about the Bukka Whites and the Son Houses, those guys from way back. There wouldn’t be any Freddie Kings or Albert Kings without them. I think it’s important to look back as much as possible and pay tribute to a few more of the originators, definitely.”

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In addition to collaborating with some true rock and roll heavyweights, Knowles has delved into another arena and found a sense of fulfillment he hadn’t found just playing music: filmmaking. After being named a cultural ambassador for his beloved Isle of Man, he wanted to do something different than just purely musical representation, and digging into the more traditional sounds of his homeland while working on the documentary Island Bound, featuring appearances from Frampton, Richard Thompson and others, provided a real sense of discovery.

“It was a project I really fell in love with,” the very affable Knowles said. “Being named a cultural ambassador for the Isle of Man was a really big honor and I wanted to make sure I did something with it. The first kind of idea was just to do a few songs in a traditional Manx sense, at least let’s record something, push myself to learn a little bit more about this genre. But as I talked to more people, as I kind of got deeper into Manx traditional music, I thought, wow, there is a really good story and it’s not altogether too different from the story of American music, it comes from all over originally. And that was fascinating to me. We pitched it to a film company on the island and said why don’t we do this as a bit of a documentary. I’m really pleased with how it turned out. If you just really believe in a project, like I believed in Island Bound, then I think you can’t go too wrong. You want to do it properly. But yeah I just really loved it. It was a great experience.”

And speaking of great experiences, who ever gets to play their own music for astronauts in space? Only two people have, Jimmy Buffett and yes, Knowles did too, thanks to a century old family connection. Check out the clip below when you’re done reading to see Davy’s space adventure.

“Talk about surreal. There’s an astronaut named Nicole Stott, and she’s got a connection to the Isle of Man, turns out her husband’s family goes way back like 150 odd years to be family friends of my family. So she liked some of my music and took some of my records up there with her. On I think the second trip up during a mission, she wanted me to record like a wake up call and I did that. Then she requested that I play to her from Houston Mission Control. It’s just an iPhone, which is the most baffling thing. We went over there and I was just terrified, it was the scariest gig of all time. Just an amazing thing, every kid wants to be an astronaut when they grow up and I was never clever enough to do that, but this was definitely a good consolation prize was to play to them. It was an amazing experience. I needed a drink to calm me down!”

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Davy Knowles knows the road to success, especially as a musician, is a one fraught with speed bumps and roadblocks. But he is simply elated at what music has given him in the decade since he came to the U.S. and really started to make his dream a reality.

“The very fact that I’m still a musician, the goal has been accomplished. It’s not like it’s been a steady trajectory, there are always bumps in the road, no matter what you do, whether you’re a musician, or you’re an accountant. The fact that I’m still playing, it’s all I ever wanted, it’s absolutely incredible. I wouldn’t take any of it for granted. There’s definitely some things I could have done without. But perhaps I wouldn’t be the person I feel I am at 29 without those things. Overall, I’m really happy, happy to be on the road, happy to be playing, happy to be making a living, that’s all I ever wanted from when I was 11, to yesterday.”

Davy Knowles opens up for Eric Gales on Thursday February 23rd at The Tally Ho Theatre, 19 West Market Street, Leesburg, VA 20176. For tickets, click here

TODD JONES & ANCIENT: ONE MAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH TIME

Posted in Uncategorized on January 29, 2017 by midliferocker

A composer uses a lifetime of sights and sounds to weave a fascinating, timeless musical voyage. 

By Steve Houk

When he was a kid on Long Island, Todd Jones did what young boys do. Played baseball, roughhoused with his brothers, got into a few pickles, and enjoyed life. He also liked music early on, but he loved doing something most that not alot of kids his age did: collecting and listening to movie soundtracks. He was drawn to the way they painted musical pictures of the epic stories they were telling.

Little did the ‘tween Todd know that this love of sweeping panoramas both musical and visual would be a catalyst for a journey that would be the central focus of his life, and helped foster and ultimately create an immense and virtuostic musical talent.

“I’ve always wanted to be a film composer, always. They used to have these Disney records that were basically like listening to a movie, with nothing visual. On a little kid’s record player, I’d be up there in my room by myself just listening, I ate those things up. They had sound effects, music, dialog. That was just a big part of my childhood. It immediately got me associating sound with vision, yet there was nothing visual at all, so it all had to take place in your mind. I think that shaped it all for me, more than anything.”

And what a glorious mind Jones has. Since those days with his little record player, Jones has developed what can only be described as a true mastery of creating exquisite sonic landscapes. His vivid and colorful imagination, coupled with a rare gift for musical composition and construction as a composer and songwriter — all fine tuned during his days at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and as a studio owner, performer and producer in Las Vegas — have brought him to a seminal moment: the release of his latest CD, Ancient: A Musical Journey Through Time, an epic, majestic and historic voyage through time and across the world.

Jones, 54, is no stranger to painting exquisite vistas with his music, or his pen. He is the author of several historical novels, and his last project before Ancient was the music for a NatGeo documentary series, “Odyssey: Driving Around the World.” But it is Ancient that truly combines two things that are very near and dear to his heart.

“I’ve always just loved history, I’m a history buff, I guess you could call it,” Jones told me from his home studio in Atlantic City. “The reason why this new project clicked with me so perfectly was that these are two things that I absolutely love: visual soundtrack-type music and history. So that’s where the orchestral and the film soundtrack world came in, because so much of my love of the world and geography and history came through movies and things that I grew up with, older movies from the 60’s like The Robe and Greatest Story Ever Told, the old Spartacus, those kind of things, that’s what shaped my view of what the world sounded like in those big movies. It just blends with the composition as well as the instrumentation.”

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Saying Ancient was a huge undertaking is a major understatement. Jones’ main goal was to be authentic to a fault, to use no modern instruments or vibes — “What a complete taboo it was for me to have anything electronic sounding, modern sounding” — while trying to accurately recreate sounds and music from long bygone eras, like ancient Greece, Tenochtitlan, Mesopotamia, Stonehenge; places and periods in history that have no true record of what music was played or experienced. But with his deep historical knowledge coupled with heavy research and intricate acquisition of a vast array of mesmerizing sound effects, Jones was able to craft truly astounding and unforgettable suites of music that brilliantly evoke the times represented. Listening to Ancient, you feel literally transported back in time to places no one has recounted visiting. But with every era, you feel you have.

“In my research of sounds, say in the case of Egyptian really old ones, you either don’t know what they used, or have a very vague idea of what they sounded like, and they don’t exist anymore” Jones said. “So they evolved into other instruments, like old harps evolved into lutes, and lutes evolved into balalaikas and guitars, and so on. I had to get as close as I could get historically for each piece, try to match it with something if I didn’t have the exact thing, which I did have fifty percent of the time. Like with the Aztecs, they didn’t have metal, so that just takes a huge chunk of things that you can’t use. No metal other than their jewelry. So I did some research, I knew alot about the Aztecs anyway, but not about their music other than they had the Ocarina flute and some drums, almost a more Native American approach. So I was using rattlesnake shakers and things like that. But those were percussion, what’s going to create the melodic part of it? They actually had on one site an Aztec death whistle, which is shaped like a clay skull that you would blow into, they would blow it before they went into battle or before a sacrifice. So I actually found a site with like 100 Aztec death whistles. In the end, there is no metal in that whole nine minute piece, nothing with metal in there at all.”

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The periods you can travel through on Todd Jones’ “Ancient: A Musical Journey Through Time” (courtesy Todd Jones)

Jones used a very specific formula for the development and construction of Ancient, one he had not used in previous projects: building the foundation of each period first with the sound effects, and then weaving the music in around them. It was this formula that really set the tone for his writing process.

“I wrote this album faster than I’ve ever done anything else, I did it in almost ten weeks, I wrote almost a song a week, and I’ve never written that fast, especially something this complicated. But I worked on it seven days a week. And once I got into the flow, I went in order, it really helped spur me along to go in order and move through time.”

“As for the sound effects, I had to find those first, not the other way around,” Jones continued. “I didn’t say, oh, I’m going to drop those in later. Like with Mesopotamia, The Cradle of Two Rivers. There’s almost nothing left of Mesopotamia, it’s dust, there’s no written history, it’s very vague. But you knew that human civilization started there because of the fertile two rivers. So how could I write that without the sound of a river in the background? That’s where they were. So I put that in there, and that set the mood and the atmosphere, and got my juices flowing. When you hear these sound effects, they really were a big part of me even getting creative to begin the writing process. This made the writing of the music so much easier and much more fun. It’s the only time I’ve done it that way, and it was very important to getting me into every piece I did.”

Once the sound effects from a particular period were inserted into place, next came another challenge: how would he craft his orchestral accompaniment, given there were no orchestras in any of the eras he was visiting.

“Obviously they didn’t have an orchestra back in any of these time periods, so that’s where the cinematic part of the formula came in, using strings, using brass, percussion, whatever, to not take away from the flavor but to fill in the gaps between, and appeal to the Western sensibilities that people associate with certain places or times. I learned that no matter what, we’re still trained by our Western ears. So whenever I was writing music for scenes that were taking place inside say China, in Cambodia, wherever they were, if you were to listen to actual Chinese music, or Cambodian music, to Western ears it’s very unpalatable, it actually can be annoying and horrible-sounding. It’s almost like spices in the kitchen, you can throw a bunch of foreign species in there, but if that’s all you have, it’s gonna be inedible. It has to fit the pallette.”

The genre of music Jones dwells in with Ancient is not necessarily the ticket to selling millions of records, but along with his previous project, Jones may have found a valuable niche in a world made up of simply astonishing and breathtaking instrumental music.

“The ‘Odyssey’ album is almost a set up for this, in the sense that these are never gonna be million selling records, I have no illusions about that,” said Jones. “But I have been reaching people around the world every day who like this kind of music. I think it will appeal to people, number one, who like soundtracks, right off the bat. And for me personally, I have to like it. I have to like it as a fan, would I buy this album. First and foremost, I did this for myself as an artist, this is an artistic journey for me, it really was. I hope it appeals to people who have similar interest.”

So for Jones, whose next project Black will take you on a different journey, this time to the final frontier of space, loves the challenges that Ancient and his other sweeping and panoramic projects present.

“It was very important to me that each piece has its own personality. This was all a fantastic musical challenge for me, to set parameters, stay within them, and create different worlds…you know, like you’re traveling through time.”

Check out Todd’s You Tube Channel here and his Facebook page here.

To purchase Todd’s CD, click here on cdbaby.com, Amazon or iTunes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MUSIC LIGHTS UP A WORLDWIDE CRISIS

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2016 by midliferocker
From left, Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle perform during the Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees at The Vic Theater in Chicago, Oct. 13, 2016. (Christian Fuchs Ñ Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle perform during the “Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees” Tour. (Photo by Christian Fuchs/Jesuit Refugee Service USA)

The Lampedusa concerts cast a beam on a growing humanitarian plight.

By Steve Houk

Lampedusa is a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea, about 70 miles off the coast of Italy. Its name has a few known connotations, including “rocky” given its stony shores, and yes, those well-known Lampedusa oysters, found in the waters surrounding the seven square-mile island.

But surely its most evocative meaning, given the island’s history as a passage for refugees, is “torch,” named so because of lights that were often placed on the shores for sailors to find their way. Since ancient times, Lampedusa has been both a bright beacon of hope for some, as well as a flickering ember of sadness for others. Most recently, hundreds of souls perished there in different boat sinkings offshore, all as they were fleeing the horror of their homeland. Coincidentally or not, Pope Francis, during a visit to Lampedusa soon after the 2013 boat tragedy said, “May (Lampedusa) be a beacon that shines throughout the world, so that people will have the courage to welcome those in search of a better life.” Torch, indeed.

Those words of hope from the Pontiff prompted the Jesuit Refugee Service to embark on an effort now in the second year of a five year campaign to raise $35 million to increase educational services to refugees in both camps and urban settings. Currently, JRS serves some 750,000 refugees in 45 countries annually — and 130,000 attend JRS school programs. “We want to be able to double that number by 2020,” said Gail Griffiths, Director of the JRS’ Global Action Initiative. “We often say that an education is the only thing you can offer a refugee that cannot be taken away.”

Advancing this Lampedusa beacon was the “Lampedusa: Concerts For Refugees” tour, which blazed through eleven cities in October, completing its run at Washington’s Lisner Auditorium. Featuring such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, The Milk Carton Kids, Joan Baez and Robert Plant, the ever-present power of music helped both raise funds and cast its own ray of light, illuminating the gravity of this worldwide crisis.

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Board Members Dave McNulty and Margaret Green Rauenhorst, singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris and JRS International Development Group members Margaret Chin-Wolf and Elaine Teo visit the JRS project in Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, June 8, 2016. The camps are home to refugees from Eritrea, and a significant percentage of the population are unaccompanied children. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Emmylou Harris at the JRS project in Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, June 8, 2016. (photo Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Griffiths, Harris and Earle had combined forces in the past with the “Concerts For A Landmine Free World” tour in the late 90’s, so it was a natural fit to do another tour in service of the refugee plight .

“For me, (Lampedusa) was this place where so many have tried to find refuge,” said Harris, who had previously visited Ethiopia to see the predicament first hand. “Refugees who have tried to find a place to go to get away from, you know, the war, the fact that their homes were gone. It’s a place of safety, or limbo, in a way, where so many people have died trying to find another life. In one sense it’s a place of sorrow, and in another, it’s a place of hope.”

“This issue’s about all of us,” said Earle, who’s always been politically active. “I think it’s like America itself, a constantly evolving thing. The Irish that came here originally were refugees. World War II sent alot of people here. It’s who we are. And I hope this tour shed a little light on that.”

Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris perform during the Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees show at the Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Oct. 21, 2016. (Christian Fuchs Ñ Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris perform at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., Oct. 21, 2016. (photo by Christian Fuchs/Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

The concerts, which featured all the musicians on stage at the same time alternating songs, were lauded for being able to maintain the delicate balance between awareness and preachiness, often a challenge in such settings. In the end, the players just wanted people to hear great music and come away with some knowledge they didn’t have before. And by all accounts, they succeeded in their mission.

“If they weren’t aware of the issue, then it’s just the information that they got, just the sheer number, the 65 million refugees,” Harris said. “This is a terrible crisis and there are awful things going on, but I want them to remember these are people full of promise. All we can do is raise the issue and see it in a positive light and make them realize that this is the right thing to do. We are all in this together.”

“I hope they take away from it that it’s OK to stand up for who we are, for immigrants, and refugees, even though that’s become a political football in this cycle,” Earle said. “I expected a little flak from this tour, and there really has been almost none.”

And once again, it’s music that’s proved to be an enlightening beacon of its own.

“These particular musicians come from the same musical tradition as folk icons of conscience from a prior generation,” Griffiths added. “Artists who are willing to use their incredible gift to change the world for better. Music is the ultimate connective tissue, in my view. You can use music to distill a complicated policy issue, and reduce it to its essence. In fact, we co-op’ed Steve’s song ‘Pilgrim,’ because it does just that. As he says at the close of the concert, ‘We are all pilgrims, and everyone deserves a home.’ ”

Support JRS by making a donation on line now at jrsusa.org

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 12, 2016 by midliferocker

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A Jersey legend keeps making music and remembering his roots. 

By Steve Houk

There are plenty of treasures that have to do with the Jersey Shore. The boardwalk. The salt water taffy or the fudge you get there, maybe a Kohr Bros. cone. The old restaurants and legendary bars. And of course, the beautiful beaches.

But the Shore’s biggest treasure might just be the music it inspired. Of course, it gave birth to Bruce, with that Aurora risin’ behind him right there in Asbury Park. But of the slew of other great bands and musicians that have risen out of the sand, surf and beer soaked bars up and down the coast, none screams Jersey Shore louder than Southside Johnny, aka John Lyon, who fed off the influences of his other Shore brethren as well as those who came before all of them and crafted a sound that’s been blasting across the globe for decades now and is still going strong. And it’s been a combination of Lyons’ determination and a little help from his friends that has kept him going this long.

“I love playing so I knew I would play music somehow, but I thought I’d be like most of the guys in Jersey, and play on the weekends and have a regular job and that kinda stuff. But I got very lucky, got some publicity, and Bruce and Steven both helped. My sheer tenacity has kept me goin’.”

At 68, two years older than his childhood buddy Mr. Springsteen, Lyon is still packing clubs and theaters and touring heavily in both the US and Europe, and released his 13th studio record Soultime last year. He and his Jukes appear at The Birchmere on Saturday December 17th.

For Lyon, it was those he surrounded himself with early on that helped pave the way, a group of buddies that seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do from the get go.

“(E Street Band bassist) Garry Tallent was my big inspiration,” Lyon told me recently. “He and I went to high school together, and Sonny Kenn and (original E Street Band drummer) Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez, they were all like, we are going to be musicians. And they were 16 years old! 15, 16, 17 years old. And then I met Steve and Bruce, all these other people, and they all said, we’re gonna be musicians. I’m thinking, how can you know at 17 that there’s not going to be some other path you’re gonna take? They just were so focused. And I joined up with all those people and it was music 24 hours a day. We would listen to it, we would talk about it, we’d play, we’d jam, it just was all music. For years, that’s all we concentrated on. It just became this great obsession with all of us. It was just the greatest time ‘cuz we really had a purpose and a focus.”

And it was that sense of camraderie that continued and pervaded the Jersey Shore music scene, helping the budding musicians to hone and craft their own sounds.

“There was no real competitive scene, in the sense that we all really rooted for each other,” Lyon said. “Steven of course was a big influence because he had so much ambition and he wanted to learn how to produce, and he wanted to learn how to arrange. He really had the push to get things done. Just like Bruce. Bruce was a ball of energy as far as rehearsing and writing and playing.”

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Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Southside Johnny on stage together

Lyon made a decision early on to add horns to his music, something that helped set him apart from other bands on the scene and cemented his trademark sound.

“I was in blues bands, playing and singing, and that’s fine, but two hours of blues just didn’t sound fulfilling for me,” Lyon continued. “I needed to hear some R & B, and some rock and roll, even a little jazz if we wanted to. I wanted it to be a broader palette than just blues. And one of the things I grew up listening to was Count Basie and other big band stuff, then there was the Stax horns. And you think, yeah that’s what I want, I want horns. Steven and I had bands together, we had an acoustic duo, and finally when we started to get into the recording, after Bruce made his first record, I said I’d like horns on some songs, and Steven said yeah, I’d love to have a horn section in the band. So we made the first demo of four songs with some guys from the Asbury Park High School Marching Band, believe it or not. They weren’t skilled musicians but we got what we needed out of ’em. It was alot of fun. The horns have been the thing that makes us unique in some ways but it also…when you start a song and the horns come in, it just takes it up that step and people really get excited, and I do too. It lifts me up, too.”

And like his Shore buddies, the power and magic of the live experience would be something that would not only drive his success from then until now, but it would save his sanity, much like Springsteen recently revealed about himself in his autobiography.

“That’s the place where I feel most comfortable. I went through an anxiety period, and I would really not want to be around people, until I walked on stage and everything was OK. It was the weirdest feeling just to be…you can’t talk to anybody backstage and you just want to run out screaming into the night. And then you walk out on stage and the band starts and you feel completely comfortable and like, everything’s alright. It’s two hours of being who you want to be. For me it has always been therapy, giving it all up on stage, we all learned that from people like Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. If you’re not sweatin’, you’re not workin’.”

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes perform Saturday December 17th at The Birchmere,  3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets, click here

 

 

GEORGE WINSTON: ALWAYS BREAKING ON THROUGH

Posted in Uncategorized on November 29, 2016 by midliferocker

George Winston plays The Birchmere Monday December 5th (photo courtesy Joe Del Tufo)

A modern piano master isn’t slowing down anytime soon and the world is better off for it. 

By Steve Houk

First, imagine Jim Morrison and his bandmates, especially Ray Manzarek‘s unmistakable keys, powering through a churning Doors’ classic. Next, picture Linus and Lucy bickering over a bouncy Vince Guaraldi composition as they glide in front of a Charles Schultz-induced Peanuts background. Finally, harken back to the mesmerizing rumba/mambo/calypso sounds Professor Longhair played on his piano in some smoky New Orleans club so many years ago.

To most people, it’s hard to think of three more different, more contrasting, more distinctive styles of music. But all three of them have an equal part in the creation of George Winston‘s musical soul.

Yes, amidst the many magnificent and memorable musical landscapes that Winston has created in his unparalelled, almost fifty-year career, it is those three distinct musical feels that have become his main motivations, his constant muses. They are the core of influences that drive his brilliance, his seemingly never-ending creation of instantaneously recognizable musical beauty.

“The three composers I play the most of are The Doors, Vince Guaraldi and Professor Longhair,” Winston told me right before his upcoming tour gets underway. “So I’m always working on things of those three. They’re all hard to play, so some things take me years, or decades. I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to play ‘Break On Through’ by The Doors for 49 years. You certainly learn during the journey, and then you wake up one day and go, ‘Oh, put it in this other key and slow it down, OK, OK, now I got it.’ Ya know, who knows.”

Well, HE knows, for one. Winston has been playing his miraculous style of piano (and let’s not forget his virtuostic talents on harmonica and Hawaiian guitar as well) for audiences around the world over four-plus decades, and as he nears 70, isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Winston brings what he calls his Winter Show to The Birchmere on December 5th.

“Right now, I’m on a third volume of Vince Guaraldi’s pieces called Bay of Gold,” Winston said. “I never care when anything comes out, I just care that it does someday. There’s some other future recordings that are worked on slowly. Like another volume of Doors’ pieces, probably a fourth volume of Vince Guaraldi way down the line.”

Winston is known mostly for his majestic and sweeping piano pieces that evoke special places, landscapes and seasons, as well as those three main influences he loves to continually revisit. He has recorded seventeen albums that cover a wide array of moods, even contributing unforgettable compositions to soundtracks for The Velveteen Rabbit and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes among others. But no matter what music it is, Winston wants it to come when it’s ready, and is in no rush to complete it.

“The songs are kinda like cats, or like things growing in a garden. They’re gonna grow when they wanna grow, not when I tell them to grow. You have to see what fits together. If you don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle, well, then it’s not living and breathing, it’s not ready. You just gotta wait. Gotta practice, you just have to let time go by sometimes.”

George Winston with a friend’s cat named Winston, no relation (photo courtesy Steve Lankford)

Winston is lucky that his recording process hasn’t been dictated by anyone but himself, because he feels he wouldn’t succeed under those constraints.

“It’s hard to be inspired on demand, I would never have a thing where I’d have to do a record by a certain time,” Winston said. “That’s asking to have a record that’s not as good as it could be for sure. When they really feel done, then it’s done because I want it to be done, because it really is done, not because of some deadline. It would be bad for the music, so it couldn’t happen. If you don’t take care of the music, then there isn’t anything. A song will emerge, it’s a piece when it emerges, but if I tried to make it emerge, I wouldn’t do very well. And there’s people that do that very well, I am absolutely not one of them. I can tell you that.”

If you’re new to Winston’s music, well, shame on you. But it’s your lucky day, because here from the man himself is a primer on just how to get a proper taste of the wide swath of music he has created from his debut Ballads and Blues in 1972 to his latest, 2015’s Spring Carousel – A Cancer Research Benefit EP, recorded as he was battling a life threatening illness.

“If somebody hasn’t heard of me, I kind of start people…when they ask I say, I say OK, well, start with Autumn, and then maybe Linus and Lucy, the first Guaraldi volume. Kind of a more uptempo thing and a melodic thing. If they’re still interested, I’ll say OK, how about Winter & Spring and The Doors Volume One? I don’t want to drown people with all seventeen (records), so it’s about how do we start. Kind of in stages, like reading Volume One of a book, or Volume Two or something. I mean personally I like to have the whole ball of wax dumped on me, but that can be hard for some people in some circumstances.”

Winston’s continually magical music seems effortless, like it just kind of pours out of him and into our minds and souls. Not true, says Winston, who again truly feels that his music comes to him when it’s ready to, not when he asks for it to.

“It’s all hard for me, none of it’s effortless. At least for me. I gotta work on it all the time.  I mean, when a song comes together, it kinda happens by itself. That’s kinda not an effort, because I’m not trying for anything. I’m always just trying to broaden it, try to widen it, try to deepen it, try to get it better. But there’s only so many hours in the day.”

George Winston performs Monday December 5th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets, click here

SISTER SPARROW & THE DIRTY BIRDS: SOARING FROM THE START

Posted in Uncategorized on November 6, 2016 by midliferocker

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Led by an explosive redhead with a voice to be reckoned with, a soul-filled rock band is flying high.

By Steve Houk

OK, let’s get all the bird references out of the way right at the beginning. I mean, with a band called Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, you gotta have some, right? So let’s make it fun for a sec, a cool modern folk tale of sorts.

So the Kincheloe family had a nest in the tiny hamlet of Halcottsville New York, about 150 miles north of the big city, the one with all the pigeons, aka Dirty Birds. Halcottsville is where Sister Sparrow, her brother (and future Dirty Bird) Jackson and their sister Mama Quail grew up. The Kincheloe parents would often bring music back gleefully to the nest and feed it to their family, classic vintage rock mostly. Eventually, they would push young Arleigh gently out of the nest out into the world and let her fly…er, sing…with them at their own gigs. It was that musical spirit that set their little Sparrow aloft to begin her own soaring journey.

“At like 8 or 9, I started sitting in and singing with the band,” said Sister Sparrow, aka Arleigh Kincheloe, recently from the road. “I was already doing it here and there, so my parents said let’s give it a shot. Even for an 8 year-old, I was so little, I’m still pretty small. But I was really doing it since the time I was growing up, it really helped me get comfortable on stage. And it let me just know that I really loved it.”

The bird stuff is cool but let’s cut to the chase. Arleigh Kincheloe took that musical foundation, fine tuned it a bit in the Catskills, and then moved to New York. She got her harmonica-playing bro to take flight with her (sorry, couldn’t resist), and in 2008 started Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, who since then have become one of the most talked-about soul-rock bands in the land. They’ve released three critically-acclaimed records and an EP, and most recently, an explosive live album Fowl Play (ya get that one?) that truly captures the essence of this sensational band at its most powerful. They play The Hamilton Thursday November 10th. 06-26-15-mountain-trout-1

But it is Sister Sparrow, and her otherworldly, soulful vocals and mesmerizing stage presence that drive the band’s dynamic. Kincheloe, who started writing songs around 18, adored tiny Halcottsville, but knew early on that she needed to fly south (darn it, sorry again) to the Big Apple and take a bite out of it to really make her mark.

“I loved where I grew up,” said the affable, red-headed dynamo, “but there were not alot of young musicians up there who wanted to really go for it. I wanted to — A — find other musicians I could play with — and B — sort of push myself to be motivated and driven and focused. It’s fine to be proud of where you grew up, I think that’s beautiful, if that’s where you’re happy. But I think I had to push myself off the edge, you know.”

The dimunitive Kincheloe has honed her voice mightily since finding her Dirty Birds, creating an onstage and studio vibe full of rock and roll soul that is both ferocious and finessed at the same time.

“It’s a hard thing for me to pin down,” Kincheloe said. “I’m just trying to be authentic to how I feel and what my voice does. People say, ‘You love Janis Joplin right?’ and I say I respect her, but I didn’t study her, I wasn’t trying to be her, it’s just that when I open my mouth, this is what comes out. So I think that’s where the soul comes from, I guess it’s just my soul, it’s just kind of what happens when I get to be free and express what’s going on inside my head, or my heart, or whatever.”

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The live experience is the essence of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, and that’s why they’ve been playing 150-plus shows a year since the beginning; a tiring, exhilarating and very necessary aspect of making a successful rock and roll living. But when Kincheloe and her supremely talented band — harmonicist brother Jackson Kincheloe, guitarist Sasha Brown, bassist Josh Meyers, drummer Dan Boyden and horn men Brian Graham and Phil Rodriguez — get in the groove live, duck, because there are few bands out there right now that can compete with their towering, formidable live energy.

“The touring can get a little exhausting at times, but that’s why we’re at the place we’re at now,” Kincheloe said, “because we have done the touring for so many years straight. But it’s getting one fan at a time, that’s what we like to say. That work that we’ve put in surely has to pay off in some respect. I don’t like to think too much about what’s gonna happen in 6 weeks from now. I like to think about each day and each show, and trying to kinda maintain my sanity. And does the music still sound fresh and make us all happy when we’re on stage.”

Describing the band’s sound or putting them in a box genre-wise is not easy, they can come at you with a bevy of different sounds during their absolutely killer live shows. And that may be just the thing for them as they keep their flock flying high. Yes, I said it.

“People are always trying to compare us to people,” Kincheloe explained. “Moreso my voice than the actual sound of the band. I think there is something a little different going on, with all of us playing together. The arrangements and the style that we have sort of grown into. I always wanted it to be unique, and I was always striving for that. Because the last thing I wanna do is be the band that sounds like the other bands. It doesn’t feel like we’re reinventing the wheel, we’re playing sort of vintage stuff, even if it has it’s own little flavor to it.”

Sister Sparrow and The Dirty Birds with special guest Kolars perform Thursday November 10th at The Hamilton, 600 14th Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here

 

 

 

 

 

SUZANNE VEGA: THE SQUARE ROOT OF WONDERFUL

Posted in Uncategorized on October 25, 2016 by midliferocker

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A luminous folk/rock mainstay brings a lifelong project to its final stage.

By Steve Houk

She really wanted to be a dancer.

Lucky for all those who think Suzanne Vega is one of the most brilliant musical voices of our time that she realized hoofing it just wasn’t for her.

“I was going to be a dancer, all my training is in dance,” the soft spoken and eloquent Vega told me recently from her home in Manhattan. “And I decided at 18 that I wouldn’t be a good professional dancer because I would only work for the choreographer if I liked them, and if I liked their ideas. So, ha, that did not bode well for me in that world.”

Through her teens, Vega had already written a bank of songs when she made that life-altering decision, and by the time she decided to take singing lessons, she’d already sold a million copies of her debut record.

“My teachers were like, alright, just forget about (the lessons), do whatever you wanna do. So I guess I’m still playing around with how to express one’s self…well, my task in life is to figure out to express myself, and I have not really committed yet to how I want to be defined, I guess.”

However she wants to be defined, the world can comfortably define Suzanne Vega as one of the most special musical artists of our time, and 7 million records sold and a Grammy during an almost 40-year career speak loudly to that definition. From her superb early records like the career-making Solitude Standing (1987) with breakout songs “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” to other exceptional albums she’s released over the years, to her various collaborations with the likes of David Lynch, Danger Mouse, Joe Jackson and others, Vega has been lauded as a leading figure of the folk revival that started in the 1980’s.

Yet over the last four decades, she has continued to break the mold and push herself into new and even groundbreaking areas of expression, including her ongoing writing and poetry (“I’ve got more than 50 notebooks I’ve kept over the years”), being the first recording artist to perform in an internet-based virtual reality world, and something she enjoyed immensely, hosting an NPR series, American Mavericks, which introduced her listeners, and often herself, to modern composers like Bartok and Shostakovich.

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And then there’s her most recent project, a stunning album of songs based on the life and writings of noted Southern author Carson McCullers, an undertaking Vega has been intertwined with almost her entire life. It began years ago with a college thesis, morphed into a 2011 Broadway play she worked on with singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik, and then came the album, Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, released this year. Vega will be playing songs from the new record as well as her whole career at The Birchmere on November 1st.

“The songs were written over time,” Vega said, “not just for the 2011 show. I discovered (McCullers) in college and did my thesis on her, it was a one act play with songs back then. So this has been brewing over many years. The first ‘version’ of the play came out in 1981, before I had my career or anything. And then I put it away for thirty years or whatever the math is. Then I sat next to a woman at a gala dinner in New York, she said, ‘Oh I’m a director’ and I said, ‘Oh I have a script.’ And so she took a look at my script and took it on. And we decided to redo it, and in 2011 it was kind of an experimental version of it. So I ripped up that and this is the third ‘version’ of the play. But I did put it away for nearly thirty years, so I sat there every day, working on it through the rest of my career, and I always felt that I wanted to finish it to my satisfaction. So that’s what’s going on here.”

And why McCullers? What was the draw to her that made Vega spend time on and off throughout her life writing songs about her and her works?

“I used to love reading short stories as a teenager,” Vega described. “It’s just a great way of getting a big chunk of something literary that you don’t have to devote yourself to, and so I had a collection of short stories and one of those short stories was one called ‘Sucker’ by Carson McCullers. And I loved everything about it, I loved the toughness of the language, I thought Carson was a male writer. I just thought, wow, this is so cool, whoever wrote this really speaks in this truthful way. Her feel, her language, especially the language of teenagers and kids, I just loved it. And sometime shortly after that, her biography came out, and I read her biography, and then after her biography, I read all her stuff.”

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(photo courtesy Laura Fedele)

Way back when, after deciding dancing wasn’t her thing and music was to be her path, Vega hit Greenwich Village to test her wares. It was a period that really defined the trajectory of one of music’s most memorable talents.

“I had avoided Folk City for years because I was afraid to go in, because it was where Bob Dylan had started,” Vega said candidly, “so I thought I wasn’t worthy and I wasn’t good enough to cross the threshold of the club, you know. So I tried getting a gig at The Bitter End, and finally it occurred to me, just forget about that, and just go around the corner and try out at Folk City, and to my surprise I found myself embraced, and it was a great, tumultuous, funny five years of, you know, hanging out, watching everybody who played Folk City, people on the rise, people on their way down, we saw all kinds of musicians there. Rick Danko from The Band, Mose Allison, Odetta, all these people. And back then, you could buy a drink in the bar and hang out all night. So, it was wonderful, and then my first album kind of plucked me out of that scene, and then I started to travel and do it more as a profession.”

And when she’s told that her music has become a part of people’s lives, and a staple for many, she is appreciative and pleased, since music was her main company back when she was young and finding her own self.

“I always hoped that it would be (appreciated), music meant so much to me as a kid.  I was one of those kids just constantly listening to music, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Laura Nyro were like, my friends. They were like my lifeline to the world…as was Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, all of that, it just meant so much to me. So I had always hoped to join that group of people whose music really meant something, and that people would think about, and live with. So I’m happy about that, it makes me feel like, yeah OK, I’ve done the right thing with my time here.”

Suzanne Vega performs Tuesday November 1st at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here