RISING APPALACHIA: NEVERTHELESS, PERSISTING

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23, 2017 by midliferocker

An exceptional folk-hybrid band takes stock of a rapidly changing world as they continue on their journey.

By Steve Houk

Of all the bands in the land that could have their heart and soul most deeply affected by the recent US presidential election, it just may be Rising Appalachia.

Not only because of their own inner belief systems, but because of the beliefs and practices of the “collective” that their band experience encompasses — which includes not only their fans but the roving community of activism they have fostered — and how they might be most potentially impacted by the new political climate.

But with worrisome, tumultuous times comes the power of a voice, or millions of voices. And along with dissent can come meaningful and powerful music also borne from turmoil.

“If you look at times like the 60’s, and even the Bush years, the creativity was pretty on point, and on fire, and charged,” said Chloe Smith, one quarter of Rising Appalachia, as she and her bandmates drove from Raleigh to Charlotte on the start of their 2017 tour which stops Saturday at 930 Club. “And I think that will be the balancing side of this political time frame that we’re in right now. That artists and teachers and activists and movers and shakers will be the voices of America even more. And I think Rising Appalachia feels that so much right now, since we have this massive voice that does not at all represent our feelings or emotions. So we have to do that much more to make sure that the voice of this country is not…well…what I want to say you shouldn’t print.”

As Smith and her three Rising Appalachia cohorts — her sister and band co-founder Leah Song, percussionist Biko Casini and multi-instrumentalist David Brown – prepare for the next phase of their wondrous musical and spiritual journey, they are keenly aware and quite concerned about the effect a Trump administration will undoubtedly have, and in some cases already has, on the people and groups and movements within their core, their center, their base, one they have come to rely on and adore and learn from, all as they have made their way across the world playing their exceptional brand of folk/world/bluegrass music.

“There’s alot of deep concern for different things,” Smith continued as the RA caravan rolled through the North Carolina hills. “Like cutting funding for the arts. We have so many friends that are in theater companies and circus groups and journalists and all sorts of things that rely heavily on grant funding. Luckily our project is funded by the people, which we are very grateful for, and we don’t really rely on any government arts funding. However, so many of our collaborators do, and there’s alot of anxiety and care for people’s careers, for people’s passions and their work and their neighborhoods and their funding, alot of that is getting cut pretty drastically. So as an artist, you know, seeing our collective get sort of cut, cut, cut, is a little concerning.”

D6HZMwrx7S9Dsp2ErSDaF4NYR2zrZkZOhnm5we4dKmrstKd2Kg95Lh4MKwnQ4KEdp

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

For generations, songwriting has been a conduit for thoughts and feelings and emotions surrounding political upheaval. And that’s no exception for Rising Appalachia, who are currently working on a new album that will follow a live record due out this spring. Their music has always managed to walk the line between measured political expression and preachiness, and this period in world history will be no exception.

“There’s inspiration to be drawn from unrest,” Smith said. “So I’ve been writing quite furiously. Some of it’s political, but alot of it is also just like a balm to get out of the political spectrum and speak to some of the beautiful things that songs are always being written about, like love and life and family and nature. So it’s a bit of both, we always try to strike that balance of being political but not bashing anybody over the head with one political rant after another.”

Smith realizes that despite the vehemence of those who are opposed to the policies of the new administration, change can’t happen overnight. But it’s staying active and involved that is the common mantra.

“I see it already,” Smith said, “I think one of the main hopes is the daily localized efforts which have been fortified. I think alot of people have been like, OK, now’s the time where I really need to step it up. But I also see people getting more involved in local politics, like, who are your representatives, and getting to know a little bit more about the localized government system, which I think people of my generation were a little bit clueless about to a certain extent. And I think there’s been a magnification of that being a necessity of change, of people running for office, at least knowing who is in their local offices, calling them, writing them letters, showing up for meetings. And I hope that will continue in the years to come.”

“I know it’s gonna be a long journey,” Smith continued. “I think people will need to step in and out of that so as to maintain their own internal fire and not get burnt out, cuz it’s not necessarily like immediate change that you see when you write a representative a letter. But I think hopefully that some scales will get tipped even in the years to come, even in five years. It might not be immediate, but I hope that people will get more engaged and activated with the political system of this country. Because obviously it slips quite far out of so many of our hands.”

Rising Appalachia’s main focus is their incredible music, it always has been, and theirs is a musical experience that has transfixed a legion of followers over their 11 years together. But amidst the turbulent and even explosive times now facing the landscape, they know that in addition to dissension and objection, that togetherness and understanding are still what can best save the soul, not division and alienation.

“We can’t let anxiety and fear run away with our better selves,” Smith said with a clear passion. “There’s already so much separation and this ‘us versus them’ mentality in this country, it’s not gonna get us any further if we continue down that route of separation and fear. So I think it’s about the daily work and daily practice of talking to people that don’t look like you and think like you, and reaching out and knowing your neighbors. And yes, doing daily acts of ‘resistance’ but really also love and kindness, that will help soothe alot of the boistrous unsettled energy that I think we’re all feeling.”

Rising Appalachia with special guest Lowland Hum performs Saturday March 25th at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW, Washington, DC, 20001. For tickets, click here.

 

SUBLIME STORYTELLING WITH THE SOUTHERN SOUL ASSEMBLY

Posted in Uncategorized on March 3, 2017 by midliferocker

southern-soul-assembly_12-07-16_19_584839820f7e5

Four superb musicians make magic together playing stripped down songs and telling stories.

By Steve Houk

If you’re gonna sit around the bonfire or up on the front porch, drinkin’ a couple cold ones with your buddies and playing music, laughing, telling the stories that made the songs, it’s hard to think of four more exceptional players to do that with than (left to right above) Marc Broussard, Anders Osborne, Luther Dickinson and JJ Grey. I mean, all four of these guys have songs that, especially when played stripped down and just with guitar, make your hair stand up on end and then some.

And even though each of these incredibly talented guys has a rabid following with their individual bands — Grey with his band Mofro, Dickinson with the North Mississippi All Stars etc, and Broussard and Osborne leading their own bands — collectively as the Southern Soul Assembly, they have found a truly unique and special bond, one that they might not necessarily get with a bigger band. And mutual respect is in full force when these boys get together.

“It’s awesome,” said Grey, in between mopping up hurricane damage at his Florida home. “We do it every couple years, just get together and do a string of dates, and just have fun. I really enjoy it, I’m blown away by those guys, they’re all such heavy hitters, in what they do. It’s inspiring, to be honest with you, to be able to hang out with ’em, and watch them do what they do.”

Southern Soul Assembly (L-R) Luther Dickinson, Marc Broussard, JJ Grey and Anders Osbonrne (photo by Arthur VanRooy

Southern Soul Assembly (L-R) Luther Dickinson, Marc Broussard, JJ Grey and Anders Osborne (photo by Arthur VanRooy

The four men knew each other through their various musical endeavors and got together three years ago as the SSA, just to explore the potential. They have let the remarkable vibe they discovered continue to evolve with no real road map, finding a rare, acoustic sanctuary for their often deeply personal music.

“We just figure it out as we go,” said Grey. “We just keep tradin’ out songs, and tellin’ stories about our songs, and just kinda let it go where it goes. That’s how we did it to begin with, we didn’t rehearse or nothin’, we just all showed up the first day and just started playin’. Watch each other’s hands and figure out what the chord changes are for all the songs, and just roll with it. It’s a little bit more like we’re all sitting on a porch drinkin’ beer, and somebody had a guitar laying there, and we’d grab it and play. ”

20141116-dsc_4385

Dickinson, Grey, Broussard and Osborne have all played solo shows and done solo projects largely sans a band behind them before, but that solo vibe times four has produced some of the most special musical moments any of them has ever had. And for four of the best singer/songwriters music has to offer, the atmosphere created around the Southern Soul Assembly provides unforgettably raw and real experiences for all of them, and their audience.

“It becomes a little bit more about the songs,” Grey said. “It’s just you and a guitar, so it becomes really about the lyrics. No soloing, or that kind of stuff. It’s more about the stories, and the songs. Kind of more like a storytelling like thing. It’s special, man.”

Southern Soul Assembly performs on Saturday March 11th at The Howard Theater, 620 T Street, NW • Washington, DC 20001. For tickets, click here

DAVY KNOWLES: TO INFINITY AND BEYOND

Posted in Uncategorized on February 20, 2017 by midliferocker

davy_knowles_tmscom-6783

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.”

dp001

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!”

davy_knowles_tmscom-6718

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.”

ancient-cover-art

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.”

ancient-inside

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

ssj-01

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.”

ssj-14

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