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

SWAMP FOLK WITH HEART

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2016 by midliferocker

The Krickets lurkin’ in the swamp (L-R: Katrina Kolb, Melissa Bowman, Emily Stuckey Sellers and Lauren Spring)

Sheer talent, a love of home and some Muscle Shoals magic make beautiful music for The Krickets.

By Steve Houk

During just about any evening down on the Florida panhandle, if you listen closely, along with the sounds of lapping waves or a distant boat horn…you can hear it.

Amidst the Gulf Coast’s swaying cypress trees and blowing palms, amidst the ambling gators, skittering lizards and floating pelicans, amidst the thick marshes and moonlit beaches, there is…music. Oh boy, is there ever. Singers and songwriters are plentiful and plenty talented down here, with many often writing musical homages to, and evoking the legendary lore of, this truly breathtaking part of the world.

No group of artists is more happily steeped in the innate beauty and fascination of their homeland than The Krickets, one of the Gulf Coast region’s musical treasures. A quartet of supremely talented women who recently found brilliance as a powerful folk/Americana quartet, there’s is a tale of four individual talents who became one big one. And no one is more appreciative of where they live, and what they write about, than they are.

“You cannot live here and not be touched by the beauty in what God put out there in front of you,” said Lauren Spring, one of the four multi-talented ladies who make up The Krickets. “It’s absolutely stunning. Every day, in some different way, it doesn’t matter if you’re staring at the water, or you’re staring at an eagle, you’re staring at something pretty awesome every single day. You can’t help being inspired, you can’t help writing songs about it. And to find a group of people who want to do that with you, and they’re like, pretty phenomenal? I’m gonna do it every day.”

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That “group of people” are Spring’s beloved Krickets’ bandmates Melissa Bowman, Emily Stuckey Sellers and Katrina Kolb, and these four forces of nature, their beautiful harmonies wrapped around the sounds of mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo and stand-up bass, are like one of those majestic osprey that you see soaring and then diving into the Gulf after fish: they’re flying high and on a mission. With their indigenous panhandle-bluegrass-meets-Americana sound —  “swamp folk” as it’s been coined — they’re gigging consistently on the Gulf Coast and beyond to adoring crowds, were just named Best Folk Artist at the International Music and Entertainment Association’s (IMEA) Awards, and recently released their first record, Spanish Moss Sirens, which has not only garnered a slew of positive reviews, but was just nominated for three Independent Music Awards for Best Alt-Country Album, Concept Album, and won for Best Folk Song (Cool Cool Water). Seems they’ve caught that fish.

The Krickets’ personal connections run deep and wide, sorta like the long strips of Gulf sand bar these ladies have spent time wading along. Sellers and Bowman played with each other years ago in their native Alabama, and after Bowman moved to Port St Joe on the eastern panhandle, she hooked up with Spring amidst some poignant circumstances surrounding a fund raiser for The Cricket Fund (thus the band’s name although with a “K”), which supplies free mammograms to local residents in memory of 22 year-old Port St Joe resident Kristina “Cricket” Russell, who died of breast cancer.

“Lauren was asked to play this Cricket Fund event because they wanted a female musician, and she wanted to have somebody play with her, and knew that I played,” Bowman said. “So we practiced I think one time, and then got together for the event, and we had so much fun practicing and playing that we decided that we wanted to do it as a weekly thing just so that we could get together and see each other and keep playing music. We had a connection on a couple of different levels.”

Sellers eventually moved to the Coast and joined up with Spring and old pal Bowman, and things clicked from minute one. “We knew it was magical,” said Spring. “The first time we heard our three part harmony, I looked around at the audience just to see if anyone else is like, hearing this, I mean, I was thinking, is anybody else picking up on this?” Then Sellers recruited her friend Kolb, and last fall, the Krickets were born. “I was like, you wanna come jam with us and (Katrina) was like, yeah!” Sellers said. “So we all got together, and that was another big explosion of awesomeness.”

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After raising nearly $25,000 from fans and friends via Kickstarter to record Spanish Moss Sirens, The Krickets felt obligated to deliver a worthy product. “It makes you feel responsible to them, you’re accountable to give them something worth what they gave,” Spring said. The band first tried to book sessions at revered Muscle Shoals Sound, not just because of the studio’s legendary reputation, but also because of something deeper and even more meaningful. Bowman’s father had been close with the Swampers, Muscle Shoals’ storied group of session musicians, and after his passing a year before the Krickets’ sessions, she and her family had scattered his ashes in Muscle Shoals. Unfortunately, Muscle Shoals Sound was closed for renovations so they recorded at Sun Drop Sound in nearby Florence. But when The Krickets arrived, they had a special welcoming committee, in both body and soul.

“When we showed up in town to record,” Spring recalled, “his people were there that he used to run with, the Swampers crew, they were there waiting for us with open arms. We felt his presence there too, it’s just magic, it’s all holy, and you couldn’t not feel him there. When we were frustrated or it got harder during the sessions, you could just feel it.”

“I was incredibly nervous because these people, the Swampers, were our heroes,” said Bowman, whose musical lore also includes being babysat for by Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood when she was a kid. “When we were ready to record, I knew we were just standing on the precipice of something great. And the studio itself was really laid back and cool and quirky, and the engineer and the assistant engineer were hilarious. And we could be ourselves, we could make inappropriate jokes and have fun, and also make great music.”

As if the Daddy and the Swampers legend plus recording at a top studio wasn’t enough, the group also had Alabama Shakes‘ touring keyboardist Ben Tanner as their producer, seems he had asked to record the band once he heard some of their demos. It was his ability to let The Krickets’ music remain their own while also making his presence known just enough that made the sessions so successful and fulfilling.

“(Ben) was really encouraging us to stick with our authentic sound and not try to make it sound too perfect and too commercialized,” Bowman elaborated. “He wanted to make sure that we kept the ‘it’ that we have, that thing that we have. So alot of it we did live, alot of the vocals we all sang at the same time in the same room, alot of the instrumentation is done at the same time in the same room. So it was all very real, and he would push us to make the right take, and then would be a wizard on things that just really had to be twerked….wait, is that the right word? Ha! Tweaked.

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All of the Krickets also have solo or side projects, Spring with her husband Bo in his excellent (and also local) Bo Spring Band, and the others with their own enriching endeavors. But when they get onstage in Kricket mode, it’s all for one and one for all, for sure.

“As far as personalities go, we are actually really good in kind of specializing in different things,” Bowman said. “So it makes it run pretty smoothly when we’re onstage, we have alot of fun and it’s really a joy to be able to share the spotlight and not worry about stepping on people’s toes. This is the least diva-ish group of musicians I’ve ever worked with before, which is hilarious ‘cuz it’s an all-female band.”

And as far as their beautiful, memorable music, it is the spirit of the Gulf Coast that drives them, and fills their music with evocative images of home.

“There’s something healing and sacred about those waters, and I don’t know exactly what it is,” Bowman said. “It was important to us to kind of contribute to the mythology of this area, the panhandle area. I was inspired to write the songs that I did because of Lauren’s song ‘To And Fro’ where she talks about cypress trees, and that was really kind of the song that inspired the whole mood of the album. Kind of like that, ethereal, dark, talking about the water, talking about the area, it really kind of inspired the whole thing.”

“The history of Port St Joe is a folk story that you could not make up if you tried,” Spring added. “I thought it was the coolest story I’d ever heard in my life. Bringing the stories and the traditions and these weird quirky things that are old Florida kind of out into the limelight, it’s just incredible to me.”

THE HEART OF ROCK AND ROLL

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 16, 2016 by midliferocker

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Three recent Rock & Roll HOF inductees bring their rockin’ A-game to a sizzling summer triple bill.

By Steve Houk

If there was anything to come away with from last weekend’s Heart/Joan Jett & The Blackhearts/Cheap Trick triple bill out at Jiffy Lube Live (other than they raised the damn beer prices again), it’s that the heart of rock and roll is still alive and well and beating hard in three bands who were all FM radio darlings of the 70’s and 80’s. One thing that connects them is they were all recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame (Heart in 2013, and the other two last year), thus the cute “Rock Hall Three For All” label on the tour.

But the more deep-seeded connection is that when all is said and done, when these bands are long gone, they’ll say that all three always delivered damn good rock and roll music. They may have different modes of delivery for said R & R, but this common thread was never more evident on this balmy yet comfortable late summer evening. From the first chords of Cheap Trick’s opening song “Hello There” (“Hello there ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rock?“) to the last notes of Heart’s epic cover of the rock-anthem-to-beat-all-rock anthems, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven,” good ol’ rock and roll was the name of the game on this night, and all three bands came, saw and conquered because they fell right into the rock and roll wheelhouse that has kept each of them going for decades.

If anyone has a standard rock and roll type repertoire, it’s opener Cheap Trick, and their set was rife with classic rock riffs, lyrics and postures. Amidst a couple of their 80’s power ballads like “Tonight It’s You” and “The Flame” and a cool Velvet Underground cover, the Illinois-bred band steamed through a short set comprised mostly of true hard rockers, from the short “Hello There” opener to “Baby Loves To Rock” to their live Budokan staple “I Want You To Want Me” to their ode to teen survival, “Surrender.” Between the textbook rock posing (complete with top hat) from lead singer Robin Zander, to the wild guitar God persona of Rick Nielsen, Cheap Trick reminded us why legendary Beatles’ producer George Martin produced one of their early 80’s records: because he knows what good old fashioned rock and roll sounds like. And when these guys really get down to it, even decades in, they can still hang with alot of great rock and roll bands.

As for Joan Jett, she has proudly carried the tattered rock and roll flag ever since her early days with groundbreaking all-girl band The Runaways, and so many shows later, she and her Blackhearts haven’t really missed a beat. Her strong set would have been just as good, or maybe better, in a dark, beer-soaked basement rock club, but it was still cool to see her still get down and dirty even with high-tech screens and high-end lighting blaring around her four-piece rock and roll steam engine. And rock she did, through a swath of her biggest hits, pounding through pump-your-fist tunes like (what else) “I Love Rock and Roll,” “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” “Do You Wanna Touch” and her popular cover of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover.”  The pinnacle was the Bruce Springsteen-penned “Light Of Day” which roared good and loud amidst clips of the film of the same name that Jett and Michael J. Fox starred in 1987. Jett finally got her just due with her recent HOF induction, but to see her play such a formidable and solid set 40-plus years after her Runaways blasted into the picture was a testimony to her status as a true rocker.

Headlining the night was Heart, and after a long and sometimes meandering career since their heyday, the Wilson sisters and company showed up and delivered an excellent rock and roll power punch to close the night. In a set that also featured 80’s power ditties (“These Dreams”, “Alone” and “What About Love” had women throughout singing aloud), Heart churned more than admirably through some of their biggest radio rockers like “Barracuda,” “Even It Up,” “Magic Man,” and an especially good “Crazy On You” preceded by Nancy’s stellar acoustic intro. Ann’s vocals were even stronger than expected and she impressed throughout the set, and Nancy looked and played as delicious as ever handling her various axes.  But their lasting rock and roll brand was never more evident than in the encore, when the world’s greatest Zeppelin cover band rolled an impressive finishing double shot of “Immigrant Song” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Not a bad twofer to end with.

Those Zep tunes were the cherry on top of a highly satisfying hot fudge sundae of classic rock, as these three legendary bands supplied a packed crowd with rock and roll music that even decades later still rattles your teeth and makes you shake your tail feather. And isn’t that exactly what rock and roll is supposed to do?