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(Above: The Rainmakers perform “Another Guitar,” one of the more subdued moments in a long, rowdy night.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Rainmakers took a packed house all over the map Saturday night at Knuckleheads.

Cities like Tokyo, Omaha, Minneapolis, Boston and St. Louis cropped up in “Downstream,” “Snake Dance” and, of course, “Missouri Girl.” Lead singer and songwriter Bob Walkenhorst implored listeners to “walk on the edge of the world” on “Width of a Line” and to visit “The Other Side of the World.”

photo (2)
A Missouri native, Walkenhorst also referenced Carroll County, where he grew up, in setting up “Lakeview Man,” and nearby Ray County, the inspiration for “Swinging Shed.”

The four-piece roots-rock band started in the 1980s but took breaks in the 1990s and 2000s. Partway through the night, Walkenhorst mentioned the group’s 25th anniversary reunion show at Knuckleheads nearly four years ago to the day.

“That was intended to be a one-time, thank-you show,” Walkenhorst said. “But there were just too many new songs that kept coming up that needed a home.”

A second batch of songs were given a home late last month on “Monster Movie,” the quartet’s seventh studio album. Early in the show, Walkenhorst thanked fans who had already picked up the new album and promised everyone else a preview.

He wasn’t kidding. The concert opened with “Monster’s first three tracks, and all but two of its dozen songs were played during the night. The new material wasn’t as familiar, but it didn’t take prompting to get fans to sing along to the title song and dance to everything else.

One new song, “Your Time Has Come,” was dedicated to guitarist Jeff Porter’s son, who decided to celebrate his 21st birthday listening to his dad. Two longtime fans from North Dakota who drove in to experience the band in concert for the first time got a shout-out before “Shiny Shiny.”

photo (1)At more than 2 and a half hours and almost 40 songs, the marathon set gained steam as it progressed. The clock was nearing midnight when the band played around with “Drinking on the Job,” incorporating bits of “Going to Kansas City,” “Hey Paula” and “One Toke Over the Line.”

Admitting he had no idea where the song was heading, Walkenhorst, Porter and bass player Rich Ruth then paused for an adult beverage before finishing “Drinking on the Job.” That number went right into a spirited “Hoo Dee Hoo,” which stormed into “I Talk With My Hands.”

That would have been a perfect ending, but the band decided to make the performance legendary. It returned to burn through another four songs, including a monstrous “Big Fat Blonde,” before finally saying good night.

Even then no one, onstage or off, seemed ready to leave. As the crowd shuffled out, it had more to look forward to, because this show will be almost as much fun to relive in memory as it was to experience initially.

Set list: Sh-thole Town; Monster Movie; Who’s at the Wheel; Tornado Lane; The Other Side of the World; Snake Dance; Save Some For Me; The One That Got Away; Miserable; Missouri Girl; Width of a Line; Long Gone Long; Thirteenth Spirit; Your Time Has Come; The Wages of Sin; Reckoning Day; Believe in Now; Another Guitar; Given Time; Small Circles; Dogleg; Lakeview Man; Swinging Shed; Government Cheese; Spend It On Love; Battle of the Roses; Downstream; Shiny Shiny; Rockin’ at the T-Dance; Information; Drinking on the Job; Hoo Dee Hoo; I Talk With My Hands. Encore: Let My People Go-Go; One More Summer; Big Fat Blonde; Go Down Swinging.

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Review: BoDeans

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Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed

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(Above: The re-tooled BoDeans cover the Boss at a recent stop on their American Made tour. This is the band’s first outing without founding member Sam Llanas.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The urgency in Kurt Neumann’s voice was so strong that he repeated the phrase twice before ending the show: “Buy ‘American Made’ and we’ll come back and play for you.” Translation: we need you to buy our new album to keep going.

Neumann has a lot pushing against him right now. His band, the BoDeans, had a handful of near-hits and big opportunities in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Neumann is determined to be something more than a nostalgia act.Sunday’s 90-minute concert at Knucklehead’s was a defiant statement. Neumann confidently mixed songs from “American Made” with the band’s classic. Most importantly proved he could carry the BoDeans without founding member, songwriting partner and stage foil Sam Llanas.

Llanas may have been missed on the setlist – there was no “Feed the Fire,” “Far Far Away” or “Runaway” – but the fans flooded to the dance floor for “Texas Ride Song” and kept it crowded for most of the night.

The setlist bounced between four decades of work, but the songs all carried the same earthy rock feel that defied time. The new group of players Neumann assembled in the wake of Llanas’ departure brought a freshness to the material and were playing with something to prove.

Percussion player Alex Marrerro enhanced Neumman’s lead vocals with his high harmonies. The interplay between Warren Hood’s violin and longtime member Michael Ramos’ accordion and organ often recalled the roots/zydeco sound of John Mellencamp’s heyday. During “The Ballad of Jenny Rae,” guitarist Jake Owen slipped in a tribute to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.

Between songs, Neumann was chipper, explaining how a snowstorm in Montana inspired “Idaho” (the title state provided an easier rhyme) and plugging new single “All the World,” which is getting some airplay on CMT. The introductions to the Johnny Cash-inspired “Flyaway” and “Paradise” revealed similar themes of a positive mindset as the ultimate freedom.

Neumann was smart enough to know that the road to the future will be paved with his past, closing with four fan favorites that got everyone on their feet. He called it a night with “Closer to Free,” the song that served as the theme to “Party of Five” and landed the band in the Top 10. As the audience sang along, it’s hard to imagine the message didn’t resonant with the players onstage as well.

Set list: Stay On, Texas Ride Song, Good Work, Flyaway, The Ballad of Jenny Rae, Tied Down and Chained, Paradise, Idaho, All the World, Angels, American, Fade Away > Good Things. Encore: Still the Night, Closer to Free.

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Review: Farm Aid

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Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed

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(Above: Ryan Adams improvises a song about his pet badger at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 1, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

In a night that covered more than two hours and comprised 21 songs, including hits, rarities and fan favorites, the most memorable song may have been the one that didn’t even exist when the concert began.

Mistakenly hearing a fan’s song request as “My Badger,” singer/songwriter Ryan Adams immediately composed a song about his new pet badger “Admiral.” Containing references to the USS Enterprise, Mariah Carey and “Glitter” and the perils of domesticating wild animals, it was the “Iliad” of improvisation. The song contained four verses, a chorus and whistled bridge. It probably would have featured a drum solo if Adams weren’t the only performer onstage.“My Badger” wasn’t the only spontaneous song during Wednesday’s performance at the Kansas City Music Hall. The off-the-cuff material provided a nice contrast to Adam’s less-than-uplifting lyrics and allowed the singer to poke fun of himself as well. g.”

In the past, detours like those could have easily turned into wormholes that derailed the performance. This current solo/acoustic tour is an artistic showcase. Everything in the carefully crafted song arrangements and selections is designed to display Adams’ songwriting abilities. While Adams is a divisive performer and personality, there’s no question he has chops. A beautiful “Oh My Sweet Carolina” set the mood perfectly. Later, Adams gave a stripped down reading of his post-9/11 hit “New York, New York” on the piano, placing the familiar song in a new context.

For most of the evening, Adams was seated on a chair in the center of the stage with two red, white and blue Buck Owens-style acoustic guitars within arm’s reach. A notebook of song lyrics lay on a monitor at his feet. The low red lighting kept most of Adams face in shadows as he bent over his guitar, delicately finger-picking and strumming.

The setlist contained as many songs from Adam’s first solo album, 1999’s “Heartbreaker,” as his most recent, last year’s “Ashes and Fire.” In a way, the night had the same flaw as the album. Taken individually, every song was exquisite, but together they started sounding similar.

Varying tempos would have helped, but even upbeat numbers like “Firecracker” were slowed down. The songs that best fit the mood were the gentle “Please Do Not Let Me Go” and haunting reinterpretation of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” The sole number from Adams’ days in Whiskeytown, “16 Days,” was another standout.

Although stacking mid-tempo numbers created a steady stream of fans in and out of the theater, those who remained were pin-drop quiet during each song. Between numbers they shouted requests and egged on the singer’s eccentricities. There was nothing that would have converted an undecided listener, but after experiencing two frustrating concerts previously at the Uptown Theater over the years, the devoted finally got what they came for. And then some.

Setlist: Oh My Sweet Carolina; Ashes and Fire; If I Am A Stranger; Dirty Rain; My Winding Wheel; Sweet Lil’ Gal (23rd/1st); Invisible Riverside; Everbody Knows; Firecracker; Let It Ride; Rescue Blues; Please Do Not Let Me Go; English Girls Approximately; Two; Lucky Now; Wonderwall (Oasis cover); New York, New York; 16 Days; Come Pick Me Up. Encore: When Will You Come Back Home?; Sweet Illusions.

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Review: Old 97s, Lucero

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(Above:  The song is called “Playing the Part,” but Jamey Johnson is definitely his own man.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Jamey Johnson stood onstage at Crossroads in a black t-shirt and blue jeans. The wind that pushed temperatures to the mid-century mark on Saturday night frequently floated the long follicles of his hair and beard. Subtract the acoustic guitar and add some tattoos and Johnson could have easily been mistaken for one of the performers at Rockfest, occurring simultaneously just a few blocks away.

Call him the last Highwayman or forgotten outlaw, Johnson’s music is wedged in a narrow crevasse in today’s country landscape, too traditional for the alt. country/no alternative scene and rarely sweet and polished enough for the new/young country machine. (Johnson has tasted mainstream success in co-writing Trace Adkin’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” George Straight’s No. 1 hit “Give It Away” and his own “In Color.” He performed the latter two to great response, letting the audience take over on the chorus.)

Johnson basks in the music of his idols, both stylistically and aesthetically. Littered with signatures, his blonde acoustic guitar is clearly a tribute-in-progress to Willie Nelson’s famous six-string Trigger. Johnson’s 24-song was an immaculate honky tonk playlist, seamlessly crisscrossing between original material, Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Don Wilson, Hank Williams – both father and son – George Jones and Ray Price.

The one-third-capacity crowd oscillated in their responses throughout the 100-minute set. They were either completely invested, whooping and hollering and singing along with every word as on “Get Straight,” “In Color” and several of the better-known covers, or completely disinterested and conversing over the performance. Perhaps the consistently low-key, understated arrangements wore thin, but given their overwhelming responses at times it’s hard to believe this crowd didn’t know exactly what they were getting beforehand.

High points included a steamrolling “That Lonesome Song” that gained energy from the interplay between the pedal steel and electric guitarists. During a spirited reading of “Tulsa Time,” Johnson gave each of his six band members time in the spotlight as they passed solos across the stage. “By the Seat of Your Pants” opened with an a cappella verse capped with a rare Johnson solo on his acoustic guitar.

After slowing the set to a crawl with the romantic “Amanda” and remorseful “Walkin’,” the night ended with the crowd-pleasing “In Color” and jubilant “I Saw the Light,” the most energetic number of the night. A few more moments like this would have kept the crowd in hand more consistently.

When the houselights came up few could believe it was over. There was no encore and Johnson had barely acknowledged the crowd beyond working our town into his lyrics a couple of times. It was clear as he left, however, that Johnson was satisfied he’d made his mark.

Setlist: High Cost of Living; Lonely at the Top; Cover Your Eyes; Night Life (Willie Nelson cover); Country State of Mind (Hank Williams Jr. cover); Can’t Cash My Checks; The Door Is Open (Waylon Jennings cover); Playin’ the Part; Mary Go Round; Tulsa Time (Don Williams cover); I Remember You; That’s the Way Love Goes (Merle Haggard cover); That Lonesome Song; For the Good Times (Kris Kristofferson/Ray Price cover); unknown slow blues cover; Still Doing Time (George Jones cover); Misery and Gin (Merle Haggard cover); By the Seat of Your Pants; Give it Away; Set ‘Em Up, Joe; Amanda (Don Williams cover); Walkin’ (Willie Nelson cover); In Color; I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover).

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(Above: Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness says he’s performed “Story of My Life” so many times it belongs to the fans more than him – but it never gets old to hear.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Bathed in a white spotlight, Social Distortion front man Mike Ness generated a wall of distorted chords with his Les Paul guitar before belting out the lonesome words to “Making Believe,” a song first recorded more than 50 years ago. Ness was joined by the rest of the band on the second verse, adding a punch Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris probably never imagined when they recorded their hit versions of the song. Before the chorus came around again the classic country number had been converted to a punk anthem.

For many of the songs in Social D’s 90-minute set Tuesday night the Beaumont Club the reverse was also true. It isn’t hard to imagine songs like “Bad Luck,” “Bakersfield,” and especially “Prison Bound” as traditional country fare cast in only a slightly different light.

Social Distortion’s presentation recalls Black Flag – full of furious energy and tattoos – but its content – songs of the downtrodden and desolate searching for redemption – could have come from the Acuff-Rose catalog.

The Orange County quartet have been smearing the line between country and punk for more than 30 years now, long before the alt-country era of Uncle Tupelo or even cowpunk contemporaries Jason and the Scorchers.

The sidemen sometimes change, but Ness and company roll into town regularly enough that the singer/ lead guitarist knew where State Line divides the town and that he was firmly planted on the Missouri side. The current lineup includes drummer David Hidalgo Jr., son of the Los Lobos singer and guitarist.

Although the band released its first album in seven years in January, most of the night was dedicated to fan favorites and fevered sing-alongs. “Bad Luck,” “Sick Boys” and “Ball and Chain” drew especially hearty responses. On the rare occasion when the fans didn’t know the words, as on the new song “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown,” they participated by crowd surfing and jumping around.

Hard-driving instrumental “Road Zombie” took off like a brick dropped on the accelerator. The band barreled through half of their main setlist in about 30 minutes, before Ness paused to talk and slow things down.

Near the end of the first set, Ness introduced the fiddle player from  Chuck Regan’s band, who opened, and invited him to sit in with the band. Second guitarist Jonny Wickersham strapped on an acoustic guitar and an accordion player joined the ensemble for a pair of stripped-down songs. The resulting performances of “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” and “Reach for the Sky” proved even unamplified Social D was still electric.

Ness is clearly proud of his band’s legacy. Before one number he stopped to chat with a young girl who named Social Distortion her favorite band. She wasn’t the only pre-adolescent fan in the crowd. As Ness said before “Story of My Life,” these songs have been around so long they’re not really about him anymore. They belong to everyone who grew up with the band or is just discovering his music. Shows like this will ensure that circle remains unbroken.

Setlist: Road Zombie > So Far Away; King of Fools; Bad Luck; Mommy’s Little Monster; Sick Boys; Machine Gun Blues; Ball and Chain; Down on the World Again; Bakersfield; Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown; Down Here (With the Rest of Us); Reach for the Sky; Making Believe (Jimmy Work cover). Encore: Prison Bound; Story of My Life; Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover).

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Happy Clash-mas Eve

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(Above: Alejandro Escovedo and his Sensitive Boys revisit “Chelsea Hotel ’78” at the Record Bar on August 28, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Before playing a note, Alejandro Escovedo apologized for letting five years elapse since their last show in Kansas City. That show featured Escovedo’s True Believers band mate Jon Dee Graham, a string quartet and ended with Mott the Hoople covers around two a.m.

Saturday’s sold-out show at the Record Bar was a little more restrained in contrast, but no less potent. The strings were gone, and Graham was replaced by other True Believer, drummer Hector Munoz. He was part of a lean, four-piece band that knew how to wring maximum emotion from Escovedo’s songs. The 90-minute  show also ended at a more respectable time – just 30 minutes into the next day – with a Rolling Stones cover.

Escovedo’s songwriting holds more facets than a jewel, encompassing classical, country, Mexican, punk and classic rock. He displayed several of those sides, especially on the gorgeous instrumental “Fort Worth Blues” and the south of the border flavored “Rosalie.” Mostly, though, the quartet modulated between two modes – full-throttle rock and poignant acoustic ballads. Songs like “This Bed Is Getting Crowded” and “Tender Heart” were too mature to be straight-up punk, but they weren’t far off. It was invigorating to watch the 49-year-old songwriter rip into his material with such raw passion.

Ten years ago, Escovedo played a benefit show at the City Market for Jim Strahm. A big influence on the Kansas City music scene, Strahm sold a lot of musicians their first instrument, booked them their first gigs or joined them onstage. Sadly, Strahm did not survive his bout with cancer – Saturday would have been his 50th birthday. Fittingly, Escovedo dedicated the show to his friend, which added extra juice to the opening song, “Always a Friend.”

While the electric numbers were delivered with a fury that barely allowed anyone, band or audience, to catch their breath, the ballads were given ample space to breath. An incredible reading of “Sister Lost Soul” was delivered at half its album tempo and felt almost like a prayer. It was followed by “Down in the Bowery” and a story about Escovedo’s 18-year-old son who once called his father’s music “old music for old people.” Built on the generations’ shared love of the Ramones, it included the line “I hope you live long enough to forget half the stuff that they taught you.”

Regardless of style or tempo, one element was consistent: the intricate, interplay between Escovedo’s rhythm guitar and David Pulkingham’s tasteful leads. Some of their best moments included the solo over the stomping bass-and-drums introduction to “Street Songs,” “Fort Worth Blue” and “Rosalie” and “Real as an Animal.”

“Castanets” was one of a handful of the night’s songs that wasn’t pulled from Escovedo’s two most recent releases. Banned from setlists for a while after Escovedo learned it was a favorite of former president George W. Bush, it had the crowd dancing and joining in on the infectious chorus of “I like it better when she walks away.”

After performing a new song, Escovedo closed the night sans guitar on a lengthy cover of “Beast of Burden.” With a trio of fans onstage providing backing vocals or percussion, Escovedo worked the crowd like, take your pick, an exuberant wedding singer or fevered rock and roll evangelist. By the end, everyone was converted.

Setlist: Always a Friend; This Bed Is Getting Crowded; Anchor; Street Songs; Tender Heart; Fort Worth Blue; Sister Lost Soul; Down in the Bowery; Rosalie; Chelsea Hotel ’78; Castanets; Real as an Animal. Encore: Sensitive Boys; Lucky Day (new song); Beast of Burden (Rolling Stones cover).

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(Above: The Old 97s road-test the new song “Every Night Is Friday Night Without You.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The 16-year history of the Texas-born Old 97s follows a trajectory well worn by other bands: start out with plenty of youthful energy and fire in the belly and gradually grow more mellow and/or pop-oriented. For theirThursday night’s performance at Crossroads, the alto-country quartet shrugged off its pop trappings and attacked their material with vibrant intensity.

The first sign of the evening’s energy came on the second song, “Dance With Me.” Recorded as a pop song for their latest album, 2008’s “Blame It On Gravity,” guitarist Ken Bethea tore into the main riff like a buzz saw, pushing the tempo to nearly double its original speed. When bass player Murry Hammond was given the mic shortly thereafter for a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” the band pushed and prodded the laid-back vocalist.

Flanked by Bethea and Hammond in nearly matching red plaid shirts, photogenic singer/front man Rhett Millershook his hips like Elvis behind his Stratocaster. He yelped, yowled and screamed his way through the 90 minute set list that featured as many cuts from their first album – four- as their latest.

The band’s third album, “Too Far To Care,” is widely considered its best. They treated the crowd to six cuts, or nearly half the album and they consistently received the biggest responses of the night. “Big Brown Eyes” and “Barrier Reef” got everyone dancing and Miller took an audience request of “Niteclub” during the encore.

Miller seemed to enjoy playing the scorned lover and dumping extra venom into likes like “I hope you crash your momma’s car” and “Thought so much about suicide/parts of me have already died” on back-to-back trips down lonely street during “Lonely Holiday” and “Wish the Worst.” A couple songs later, on “Melt Show,” he emphatically kicked the air during the chorus.

Bethea spurred Miller’s energy, leaping into the air at the start of “The Fool,” dropping a Dick Dale-style guitar solo into “Smokers,” another Hammond vocal showcase,” and adding a nice countermelody to the most delicate and upbeat song in their catalog, “Question.” His solo leading into “Timebomb,” the traditional closer, turned the already fast number into something like a punk song.

Drummer Philip Peeples was the brick on the accelerator that never let up. His cadences consistently pushed the band harder and faster. His kit was at the center of “Every Friday Night Is Lonely Without You,” a staccato-riffed song from the band’s upcoming fall album. It was the only song the half-capacity crowd didn’t sing or air guitar along to all night, but embraced just the same. Peeples also took nice mini-solos during “Doreen” and “Early Morning.”

Lucero rock the Bottleneck in 2008.

The drum solo after “Early Morning” led into a reading of R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” one of covers the band cut for its new “Mimeograph” EP. The arrangement hewed closely to the original, but it was interesting to hear the lyrics through Miller’s enunciation.

Normally the more rambunctious of the two bands, Lucero was more subdued that night. Singer Ben Nichols embraced the band’s mellow side with numbers like the gospel piano ballad “Goodbye Again,” “Kiss the Bottle” and the one-two of “Hey Darlin’ Do You Gamble?” and “Nobody’s Darlings.”

The five-piece band displayed its Memphis roots by adding a two-piece horn section for a set that featured several cuts from last year’s album “1372 Overton Park.” Early in the set the horns competed with the pedal steel in the mix, but they soon settled in adding extra punch and depth. The brass gave “That Much Further To Go” and “Sixes and Sevens” an E Street sound.

Lucero’s 65-minute set ended with nearly everyone taking a solo during the joyous “All Sewn Up.”

Old 97s setlist: Streets of Where I’m From; Dance With Me; Won’t Be Home; Mama Tried (Merle Haggard cover); Lonely Holiday; Wish the Worst; The Fool; Smokers; Melt Show; Question; Stoned; Up the Devil’s Pay; Barrier Reef; Driver 8 (REM cover); Early Morning; Can’t Get A Line; Big Brown Eyes; Doreen. Encore:Every Night Is Friday Night Without You; Niteclub; The Easy Way; Timebomb.

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Review: Old 97s (2008)

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed (with Lucero)

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