JAY FARRAR: LOOKING BACK WHILE MOVING FORWARD

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

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

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

By Steve Houk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WILLIE NILE: HOW DOES IT FEEL

Posted in Uncategorized on April 5, 2017 by midliferocker

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

By Steve Houk

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo courtesy Cristina Arrigoni)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

ANN WILSON: STRUGGLING TO BE FREE

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23, 2017 by midliferocker

Photo by Jess Griffin

A rock and roll legend finds a much needed respite away from her groundbreaking band.

By Steve Houk

At 66, she remains the reigning queen of classic rock, still with the unmistakably powerful pipes that blazed through such hits as “Barracuda”, “Crazy On You” and “Even It Up.” But even with the almost 45-year career of her legendary Hall of Fame band Heart still going strong, Ann Wilson yearns for more, a chance to get out from under the behemoth she helped create, and find other outlets. She talked to us about her musical desires, her current tour, and even a little politics.

Steve Houk: After seeing Heart last summer here in the DC area, it’s clear at 66 that your voice still remains as strong as ever. What do you attribute that to?

Ann Wilson: Thank you very much, that’s a nice compliment. Honestly, I just think it’s stopping some things, ya know like smoking and drinking, now I live a pretty healthy life. And I don’t always scream and yell at shows by doing other things than just Heart. And it also really helps when you put the songs in just the right key for yourself.

SH: What’s the main motivation for you to do a solo tour?

AW: I think I’m always struggling to be free, from even the best situations. I’m always moving on. Though I really enjoyed last year touring and everything, I felt that I wanted to get out from under the expectations that are on Heart, and just see where it would take me. I’m really not satisfied with being a nostalgia act, so it’s a chance for me to stretch out. That’s part of the reason for me doing this thing this year.

SH: What can people expect when they come see you and your band at The Birchmere on March 23rd?

AW: This is the first time I’ve done a solo tour of this scale. Last year we did just small little jaunts out, this is the first time it’s full scale. I’m really looking forward to it, it’s gonna be really fun. And hopefully when people come to the show, they know that they’re only to get maybe fifty percent Heart songs, and the rest of the songs are going to be things that I choose to do like really super cool covers, and other songs that I’ve written.

SH: What do you attribute the longevity of you and Heart to…is it the songs, or is it the familiarity, I know I feel so wonderfully comfortable when I hear your music.

AW: I think it is the latter, what you just said to a large degree. It’s also the fact that we keep showing up. Ever since about the turn of the century, we’ve been out touring, so people can come out and they can see something and hear something that they love.

SH: You’re no stranger to Washington, having lobbied on Capitol Hill for fairer payments to musicians by online music portals. Is that still a focus for you?

AW: You know, right now, to be honest, I see that there are a lot more important things that would need skin. Way more important things than that. Say funding for Planned Parenthood, for example. I’m much more apt to get out there and lobby for women’s education and reproductive rights right now.

WL: What has your career in music given you that you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere?

A complete connection to people. It’s a blessing being able to stand up in front of thousands of people and feel that you’re connecting with their one mind. Their common mind, you know. That’s pretty powerful stuff. It’s hard enough in real life to connect with one person, so that’s the thing that I’ve been given, really, through all these years.

Ann Wilson performs Wednesday March 29th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets, click here

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.”

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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

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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. ”

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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

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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.