Passerine Dream takes flight

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

In a previous life, Dave Tanner and I worked as reporters at sister newspapers in suburban Kansas City. He always had a positive spirit and was eager to talk out about music whenever our paths crossed.

When another friend and reporter suggested we drive across Missouri to see Ringo’s All-Starr Band at the Fox Theater in St. Louis, Tanner and I jumped at the chance. The three of us drove to the show, drove home afterward and were back at work the next morning, because we were young and could do things like that back then.

Since then, Tanner has become one of the best Paul McCartney stand-ins in Beatles tribute bands across the country. When the pandemic halted his touring – Tanner estimated he played 155 shows and was gone for 200 days in 2019 – Tanner turned to his backlog of songs and decided to record an album of his own material.

The album (and band) name Passerine Dream came from a songbird Tanner kept running across in his hobby as an amateur birdwatcher and bird photographer. (Those are his photos on the album.)

Tanner was kind enough to talk through each track on the album with The Daily Record during a break while performing in Georgia with the group Liverpool Legends. In the spring of 2022, the Liverpool Legends will set up shop in the Andy Williams Moon River Theater in Branson, Mo.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Be Together”

“The first complete song of words and music that I ever wrote. I wrote it on an acoustic guitar, which was tuned to the tuning McCartney uses on Yesterday, D standard. It is that way because I had that guitar sitting around from my live shows. I added bass to it for demo purposes. Another band I was in called The Depth and Whisper recorded it and played it live quite a few years ago. I used it as an icebreaker to break in the new album.”

“Little Dreams

“I had a little guitar lick that I’ve been messing around with for a couple years. I don’t know what exactly came into my head other than those first couple of lines when I was sitting there with a guitar. The first verse about came about through conversations with other birders, about how suburbia creates a completely unnatural ecosystem for wildlife. Cutting down grass helps sparrow, starling and robins survive. There are billions of these birds we have enabled to fill up our back yards. They are at war, but there is hope in everything that waits. Everyone wakes up thinking today could be the day I catch a break.

“When I took the thumb drive containing these tracks into the first mixing session, the files were corrupted (laughs). I had a sort-of, almost buried piano part on there so (producer) Paul (Malinowski) said let’s make this a piano ballad now. He started taking the covering off this amazing baby grand and started miking it up. He told me, you’re going to play that (song) on this (piano). I was like (deep breath) OK, here we go. Steve Davis from Liverpool played the slide solo.”

“On and On

“’On and On’ is an old song I’ve had kicking around in my demo files for a long time. The roots of some of these songs go back pretty far. I knew I had an acoustic guitar and multi-layered vocal breakdown recorded years earlier. Eric Voeks arranged that middle part, where he and I each sing multiple layers.

“It was going to be really stripped down, just acoustic guitars and voices. I sent it to my boss with Liverpool Legends, Marty Scott. He said it needs drums and that it had R.E.M. and Jellyfish written all over it. I just went with it. I didn’t want to talk myself out of it.

“I wrote the lyrics on an airplane flying to and from a gig. The hum of the aircraft gave me a melody and I started writing them down as fast as I could. They came flooding to me pretty quick. I’m amazed at how that song went from stripped-down demo to a 12-string (guitar) and rockin’ drum beat.”

“Driver

“I wrote ‘Driver’ in one day, music and lyrics. I started it, say, maybe, 10 in the morning. By 2 in the afternoon I had a five-and-a-half-minute demo cut.

“The well-intentioned narrator in the opening few lines, he wants to do what’s right. He’s also at the mercy of life and substance. Something happens to him. I had more stanzas, but I edited them down. It was becoming too (Bob) Dylan-esque for me, getting too long and laborious. What got cut out leaves it open to as to what happens to the narrator. He has a moment where he triumphs – his willpower and the love of his life win the day.”

“Hometown

“’Hometown’ is based on a few phrases and things my dad told me when I was leaving home. I grew up in a small town in Ontario, although I’ve lived in Missouri for quite a number of years. He basically said, if things don’t work out, my door is always open. Go into the world and do your thing. Without that confidence, I would have stayed in Ontario.

“My dad passed in 2014 and I had some of (the song) written then. I finished it for this album. It was an emotional song to sing. I know it’s a peppy kind of a song, (with a) driving beat and guitar riffs. When I was trying to lay down the vocal tracks, it took me quite a few days. The first couple days I tried to do it I couldn’t make it through.

“John Perrin, the current drummer for NRBQ, plays drums on this. On backing vocals is my friend Erik Voeks. I was stuck on what kind of vocal harmony use and it was starting to interfere with the melody. I sent the song to Erik and he was kind enough to send a suite of backing vocals. I wanted to see what others could do because I was hitting a brick wall.”

“Path of Least Resistance

“This one came from a couplet in an old notebook. I had a vague melody going and it came together pretty quickly during the recording process. I thought to balance the album, I should have another rocker and so I kind of wrote it that way, to drive a little bit. I sent the tempo and chords to Marty and he pounded out a great drum part in his home studio. He sent that back to me and I layered a few more things on here. It’s my own voice, rhythm and creation, but it does harken back to right about 1980 or ’81, something that might have been around then. It balances out the album pretty well. I couldn’t think of the album without having that rocker.”

“Breaking Through

Dave Tanner

“This song was written during the period of 2020 when I was fighting with self-doubt and depression. I started asking myself when are we going to break through? Even as humanity, we’ve got to break through somehow again. The next revolution has got to be in our minds, to look forward and break through all the monotony, hate, self-loathing and rancor out there.

“People started asking if the song is about coming out of the pandemic and I guess it kind of is. We’ve gone to the edges, the highs and the lows. We can psychologically put ourselves anywhere, we can go down or give ourselves hope.”

“Feel/My Heart

“It comes from an original demo called ‘Feel.’ I had that opening guitar hook and verse and chorus. The melodic part just came to me – something to lift the chorus. Without that, the song is at one level. It shows the narrator is affected and uplifted by how the other person makes them feel. Sometimes you can’t do it with words.

“When I was laying down the groundwork, I had two minutes left on the click track after I was done with the song. Rather than just erase it, I thought I’d try to write another two minutes, so I wrote the poem ‘My Heartbeat,’ where the narrator actually finds the words. I was pretty proud of that, because the first part of the song sounds unrequited, not necessarily finding the words, but then there’s a love poem at the end. The words were there the whole time. Marty Scott played drums and I did the rest.”

“Opened Your Eyes

“I had a demo called ‘When You Opened Your Eyes Today.’ It had some guitar chords and asked some questions. It pointed inward a little bit: Who are you going to be today? Musically it’s almost a little haunting. Lyrically, it is about looking at one’s self and asking the question, when you step out into the world, what’s the deal? Where are you going? What are you going to do with your life?

“If you listen closely, there’s sort of a secret when those haunting background vocals enter in the second half of the track. Those are the attempts to answer those questions. In the first half I’m asking when you open your eyes, who are you going to be? The answer in the second half is myself. I’m going to be myself.

“The reason this song is last is that I had the other eight songs done and I saw if I was going to put this album out on vinyl, I still had some time to spare on side two. I went into my notebooks and pulled out these lyrics. It’s the last one on the album because it was the last song I worked on and I already had how the album was going to be in my head. It’s my own bonus track without being a bonus track.”

To purchase the Passerine Dream album or follow Tanner on social media, visit the band’s website.

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GA-20 BRING THE BLUES

By Joel Francis

Guitarist Matt Stubbs, a veteran of blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite’s band and one third of the new blues act GA-20, thinks it’s time for a blues revival.

After all, Stubbs reasons, soul music had its resurrection with Lee Fields, Sharon Jones and the Daptones. Traditional country had a resurgence with Coulter Wall and Charlie Crockett.

“What I’d like to see is more traditional blues,” Stubbs said. “I think if more people heard this style of blues, they would like it. That’s a lot of why we make the records we do and why I produce the as I do. We’ll have people come up to us after shows and ask ‘What kind of music is this?’ I tell them it’s traditional blues.”

Traditional blues is more raw and primitive than what came later, when blues musicians – who often also worked as sharecroppers – migrated north from Deep South in the 1940s and ‘50s, settling in Chicago, Detroit and other northern cities.

The primarily acoustic blues from the Mississippi Delta became electrified to overcome the noise in the clubs and on the street. British musicians heard this amplified blues, absorbed it and imported it back to the United States on early albums by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few acts.

See GA-20 in Kansas City, Mo. at Knuckleheads on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

“These days, if you go to a blues festival, you get a lot of the modern blues or rock take,” Stubbs said. “A lot of great artists do that, but that’s not we are doing. That’s not what I put on my turntable. I think when a lot of people hear the word blues, they think of guitar shredding and music derived from British blues and classic rock.”

On their second album, GA-20 pay tribute to Hound Dog Taylor, a less-celebrated figure from the Chicago blues scene. Stubbs discovered Taylor when he heard “Give Me Back My Wig” on a blues CD at 15 or 16 years old. Stubbs said that song stood out because it was a little more rough around the edges.

“That’s the kind of blues that’s always spoken to me,” Stubbs said. “I like it to be kind of raw.”

Taylor is a good fit with GA-20 for several reasons. Like GA-20, Taylor’s band The Houserockers featured a lineup of two guitars and drums – no bass. GA-20 (named after a vintage guitar amplifier) and Taylor also both caught the ear of Bruce Iglauer, founder of the blues label Alligator Records.

“Bruce started the label because Hound Dog couldn’t get a record deal at the time,” Stubbs said. “Bruce saw us before the pandemic and was interested in working for us, but we were already signed to Colemine Records.”

Stubbs brainstormed ways to make something work and realized it was approaching the 50th anniversary of Alligator Records and Taylor’s first album. He came up with the idea for Colemine and Alligator to pair up and recognize those anniversaries.

Music was always present when Stubbs was growing up in Boston. His dad is also a guitarist and the young Stubbs was always listening to his father rehearse and perform. When Stubbs heard Lenny Kravitz’ “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” his dad told him if he liked that, he’d probably like Jimi Hendrix. That opened a door to Albert King and Freddie King.

“When I was 16, I joined my dad’s band,” Stubbs said. “I went to music college, dropped out and started gigging as much as possible.”

In his early 20s, Stubbs got the chance to join blues singer Janiva Magness. That lead to playing with John Németh. One of the musicians in Nemeth’s stable was June Core, longtime drummer for Charlie Musselwhite.

“When Charlie’s guitar player moved onto other things, Charlie called me up and asked if I wanted to play guitar,” Stubbs said. “There was no rehearsal.”

That was about 13 or 14 years ago, Stubbs guesses. GA-20 grew out of a year when Musselwhite went on the road with Ben Harper and his band for a year. With nothing to do, Stubbs formed another band with guitarist Pat Faherty so he could work.

“Pat was a friend who came to a lot of my shows. He was into other music before the blues,” Stubbs said. “We started with two guitars and a harmonica for a gig or two. It ended up morphing into drums and two guitars with no harmonica.

“We had to keep the band lean out of necessity to make money,” Stubbs continued. “We started to sound pretty good, so I booked some studio time to record that first album. There were no expectations, it was just a fun project.”

Those session resulted in Lonely Soul, GA-20’s debut release, which featured Musselwhite’s harp on one track and was released on Colemine. The album hit No. 2 on the Billboard blues chart in 2018. A four-song live EP came out in September, 2020, when live concerts were shut down.

Now Stubbs is back on the road with both GA-20 and Musselwhite. A European tour and several festival appearances in 2022 are currently in the works. Stubbs said he hopes to put out another GA-20 album in May.

GA-20 plays Knuckleheads with J.D. Simo on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Go here to buy tickets online and get more information.

“I think the only place I’ve played in Kansas City is Knuckleheads,” Stubbs said. “I was there with John Németh and Janiva Magness. I played there before the venue across the street (Knuckleheads Garage) was open.”

Follow GA-20 on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

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Fans fuel Toad the Wet Sprocket’s success

(Above: Toad the Wet Sprocket “Fly from Heaven.” The band lands at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo. on Thursday, Nov. 20.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The question never went away. Inevitably, someone would ask Glen Phillips when his old band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, was getting back together.

When that finally happened, the question changed: When are you making a new album? Sixteen years after their previous release, the answer arrived last summer with “New Constellations,” a Kickstarter-funded set of 15 new songs.

If that sounds like a long wait for a fan, think of it from Phillips point of view. Although happy to be back onstage with his friends, he was confined to singing material written during his early 20s.

“It was nice to be young, but I don’t want to live there forever,” said Phillips, now 43. “The new songs feel like us, but also feel relevant to what we do now. In addition, they have also brought our older material into new, broader context.”

1-toad2Toad the Wet Sprocket formed in the late ‘80s, and peaked in the early ‘90s. The quartet’s laid-back vibe provided an antidote to the angsty grunge dominating the radio at the time. In 1998, after two platinum albums, one gold record and a dozen Top 40 hits, the band called it a day.

“Enough years have passed and there is enough ease between us now that it was fun to come in and get to deal with Toad as a project,” Phillips said. “It used to be every song I wrote I brought to the band. If it didn’t work there, I had no other outlets.”

That depth was also helpful in selecting songs. “Finally Fading” originally appeared on Phillips’ 2005 album “Winter Pays for Summer.” “Bet On You” was built on “See You Again,” a song from fellow Toadster’s Todd Nichols and Dean Dinning’s Lapdog project.

“We did a lot of culling. Todd and Dean brought some songs in where I’d finish lyrics on them,” Phillips said. “When we reached the end it felt like there was a lot of up-tempo pop songs. We needed more slower, emotional material. That’s when I came up with ‘Enough.’”

With the amount of time between releases and amount of preparation that went into “New Constellations,” Phillips cautions this may be Toad’s final album before conceding even he doesn’t know the band’s future.

“What we may do in the future is do a single than a full ramp-up to an album,” Phillips said. “Making an album puts you on a long schedule. It is interesting to think about. We may look back and say ‘Why did we go through all of that?’

“Or maybe we will do another whole album. I don’t know.”

When Phillips and his bandmates last came to town, they were previewing “Constellations” material. Now, 15 months later, audiences have had time to learn the new songs and sing them back with the same passion as old favorites.

“We were never the cool kids,” Phillips said. “the people who stuck with us did because our music means a lot to them. That really benefited us (with the Kickstarter drive). We have been speaking to people’s hearts for a while and they decided to give back.”

Keep reading:

Review: Toad the Wet Sprocket

Matthew Sweet returns to Midwest Roots

Review: The Rainmakers

Matthew Sweet returns to Midwest Roots

(Above: Matthew Sweet’s performance is definitely a time capsule.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Matthew Sweet is bringing it all back home.

The power-pop singer/songwriter grew up in Lincoln, Neb., but spent 20 years living in Los Angeles.

Last year he returned to his Midwest roots and moved to Omaha.

Around the same time, Sweet released a third volume of covers recorded with former Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs. The project focused on the 1980s and let Sweet play songs from his formative years as a music fan and musician.

Musically, he is returning home too. Sweet, who performs Tuesday at Knuckleheads, has been extensively revisiting his breakthrough album, 1991’s “Girlfriend,” along with its follow-ups, “Altered Beast” and “100% Fun.”

“I guess I have been a bit nostalgic lately,” Sweet said, revealing the idea to revisit “Girlfriend” came out of marking the album’s 20th anniversary.

“The crowds have been so happy to experience the feelings they had back then. It’s not a thing I feel weird about because it feels really natural and healthy.”

Sweet and Hoffs started their collaborative cover albums back in 2006. Each installment focused on a different decade, starting with the 1960s. The series concluded with the ’80s, the decade that saw Hoffs’ greatest commercial success with the Bangles and Sweet’s initial success in the music world.

matthewsweet“I graduated from high school in 1983,” Sweet said. “We covered XTC’s ‘Towers of London’ on our last album. I remember when I bought (the XTC album) ‘Black Sea.’ I definitely got to experience more connections like that on this album than the ’60s and ’70s projects.”

Four years passed between the second and third “Under the Covers” volumes. Sweet said their record label, Shout Factory, grew impatient waiting for the next installment.

“It took a long time for the ’80s volume to come together. We were like a year and a half late turning it in,” Sweet said. “Susanna and I still Skype tracks back and forth occasionally, but I feel the trio of albums will be it for us. We have not planned on doing a ’90s album.”

The 1990s were good to Sweet. After bouncing between labels and releasing a pair of albums in the late ’80s, Sweet found a home at Zoo Entertainment and started a run of critically acclaimed albums that also landed a handful of tracks in the Top 40.

Sweet moved from New York to Los Angeles to capitalize on his success.

“I’ve lived on both coasts and in the South,” Sweet said. “It’s been real comfortable to go back (to Nebraska). I’m rediscovering things I remember liking as a kid, like seasons. I’m a big fan of weather and nature, and it is amazing to experience distinct times of the year and see them change.”

Now back in Omaha, Sweet is no longer affiliated with a label. He plans to record at home, and his fans are helping.

Money for his 12th solo album eclipsed its Kickstarter goal of $32,000. The project’s funding closed Saturday. He’s now writing songs.

“I’m also going to make demos of every song, because I haven’t done it in forever because we’ve just recorded as we went. Those will be available for fans and also will let me pick and choose what I want to use,” Sweet said.

Fussing over demos is almost exactly opposite of the approach Sweet took on his previous solo album, 2011’s “Modern Art.” For that album, Sweet intentionally tried to keep his right brain out of the process, making up melodies and recording where his imagination took them.

“That was almost a stream-of-conscious process,” Sweet said. “I’d hum something into my iPhone, then overdub on that and build a whole song.”

Sweet hopes to have the Kickstarter album out in the spring. Right now there isn’t any new material to debut on tour, but Sweet hopes it won’t be long before he can play new songs.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve played Kansas City,” Sweet said. “Hopefully with me living just up the road now we can make it there more frequently.”

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Five Finger Death Punch aim for TKO

(Above: 5FDP land a knockout in Lancaster, Penn. on Oct. 13, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When your band is called Five Finger Death Punch, covering LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” seems preordained.

The surprise isn’t that the five-piece metal ensemble decided to record a hip hop tune, but that it took them four albums to do it. When the band finally decided to put their stamp on the classic rap track, they found perfect person to help out: Tech N9ne.

“Zoltan (Bathory, guitarist) came up with the idea, and the riff was laying around for a couple years,” said Death Punch drummer Jeremy Spencer. “Ivan (Moody, vocalist) and I are big Tech N9ne fans, so we asked our management to reach out. I thought he did an incredible job.”

Although he was on tour, Tech N9ne jumped at the request. The only time his schedule would allow was the very un-rock-and-roll time of 8 a.m.

“I usually get up about 11-ish, 12-ish,” Tech N9ne said. “I was worried about my voice because I had just done a show the night before. It was too early for me to be screaming, but it was meant to happen. I don’t sound groggy at all.”

tech-fiveWith the instrumental track complete and a scratch vocal track to provide direction, it didn’t take the Strange Music MC long to record his part. The hasty departure meant although they collaborated on tape, Spencer and Tech N9ne have still yet to meet face-to-face.

“I got an email from their people about two weeks ago saying they were playing Kansas City and asking me to join them. I just about died,” Tech N9ne said. “I wanted to perform with those guys, but will still be on tour. It would have been such a surprise to Kansas City. But don’t worry, I think we’ll be working together a lot in the future.”

Tech N9ne isn’t the only guest on the new Five Finger album. Judas Priest frontman and metal god Rob Halfort joined the band on lead single “Lift Me Up” and members of Soulfly, In the Moment and Hatebreed also appear.

“We’ve been able to experiment a little bit,” Spencer said. “There are some instrumental interludes that link one song to another, and one song has a spoken-word narration from Zoltan.”

The Los Angeles-based band had the freedom to expand their boundaries when they realized they had more than enough material for one album. Instead of culling the material for one release, they decided to release it all in two parts. “The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Vol. 1” came out in July. Volume two drops November 19.

“When you are touring, there is a lot of downtime. We’ve always had some kind of portable studio or recording device with us to keep that (creative) muscle flexing,” Spencer said. “We went into the studio this time with a wealth of material. When we got to 24-25 songs, we thought they all fit so well we didn’t want to separate them.”

Spencer said the band consciously spread out the tempos and textures across both albums rather than creating a common theme for each volume.

“I think you get a wide variety of emotion on both albums,” Spencer said. “You can interchange songs on either volume.”

The recording studio can be a harsh master that will fray even the best of bands – look no further than the Beatles’ “Let It Be” – Spencer said his band emerged from the process even stronger.

“I don’t want to overthink what happened. We just let the ideas flow and got out of the way,” Spencer said. “We all supported each other’s ideas, and the songs just happened. I definitely feel the group is tighter for whatever reason I can’t put my finger on.”

Thinking twenty-six songs and more than 90 minutes of new Death Punch material might be too much for fans to digest in one sitting, the band opted to pace releases. The glut of new songs also created issues when planning setlists.

“We try to balance the old and new. We don’t want to forget about people who want to hear the old hits,” Spencer said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have this much good new material.”

They may have nearly doubled their catalog this year, but Five Finger Death Punch aren’t resting on their laurels.

“We’ve definitely started talking about ideas,” Spencer said. “It will be exciting to move forward and see where it goes.”

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Sea Wolf gets back to its roots

(Above: Sea Wolf perform at the Riot Room in Kansas City, Mo., on May 29, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Alex Brown Church had to come full circle to see how far he has come. As the singer/songwriter/producer and main musician behind Sea Wolf, Church decided to return to his roots, recording at home by himself.

Sea Wolf started as Church’s California bedroom recording project because he didn’t have the resources to work with a band in the studio. When it came time to go on the road with his debut album, “Leaves in the River” (2007), he was amazed by the intensity that developed over time as the material was played each night with a full band.

Alex Brown Church of Sea Wolf.
Alex Brown Church of Sea Wolf.

“The reason why I took the band into the studio for the second album (“White Water, White Bloom,” 2009) was because I wanted to replicate that feeling, and I think we did that,” Church said.

Church was lured to record in Omaha, Neb., by the opportunity to work with Bright Eyes guitarist Mike Mogis, the sonic architect behind many Saddle Creek artists, including Rilo Kiley, Cursive and Jenny Lewis.

“I thought it sounded like fun to go somewhere as a group and be holed up in the studio for a month,” Church said. “That was definitely the experience we had, because being in a relatively small city not knowing anyone made us focus on the record.”

For “Old World Romance” (2012), Church wanted to return to working alone. He wanted the ability to pick up and put down songs as he saw fit — not possible with band members waiting and a studio clock running.

“This time I feel like I’ve gotten better at making albums, and I can match that energy by myself.”

In other words, if you like Sea Wolf’s latest album, “Old World Romance,” you’ll probably like Sea Wolf’s concert Wednesday at the Riot Room. Church is touring with a five-piece band and said the live sound is “pretty close to the record.”

“When I’m working on a lyric, I only work on one song at a time,” Church said. “I might spend weeks on one song. If I’m not feeling it one day, I’ll put it aside and do something else. I’ll wait and try a little every day and usually, after time, inspiration strikes.”

Despite being left to his own devices, Church said it was never hard for him to know when a track was ready.

“I’ll revisit a song and tinker, but that’s not to say I think about things too much,” Church said. “I want a song to feel fresh and inspired, and when I labor over it, it loses that. As soon as I get to the point of not knowing what to do, I put it aside until it feels fresh again.”

Though Church labored in relative solitude, the album never sounds insular. For every sparse track, like “Old Friend,” there is one with lush production, like “Saint Catherine St.”

“I was fortunate, because I could call Lisa (Fendelander, keyboards), Joey (Ficken, drums) and Ted (Liscinski, bass) — my live Sea Wolf band — to come play on songs,” Church said. “My friend Zac Rae, who is mostly known as a session musician but has his own amazing studio, also helped me record some stuff.”

To other do-it-yourself recording artists working at home, Church encourages having two back-up hard drives and backing those up religiously.

He picked up this advice when the hard drive he was using to save his music crashed and he lost everything. Working from MP3s as reference tracks, Church had to tediously re-create his songs.

“Before the crash, the album would have been done early last year,” Church said. “The final turned out a little different, but not in a bad way. I had to let go of what I had done before and just be happy.”

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Acid Mothers Temple

(Above: Acid Mothers Temple perform at Kansas City’s Riot Room in April, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: This feature was scheduled to run in the Kansas City Star.  Because of our language barrier, Kawabata Makoto requested an interview via e-mail. Unfortunately, the Mothers’ touring schedule didn’t give Makoto much time to respond to my questions. His short answers necessitated using quotes from the band’s Website. Ultimately the feature was shelved.

The Acid Mothers Temple welcomes all, but entry can be daunting.

The ambition of Kawabata Makoto, the founder and leader of the Japanese rock band, is both impressive and intimidating. For fans, the group and its affiliated side projects has released more than 80 titles since forming in 1995. For musicians, Makoto offers several homes across Japan where musicians can jam and do whatever they like. There is a good chance, however, that neighbors will report these free spirits as terrorists.

“Our slogan is “Do whatever you want, don’t do whatever you don’t want!!’” Makoto said in an extensive interview on the Acid Mothers Web site. “When all the Aum Shinrikyo (the group behind the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 people) stuff was going on in Japan a few years back, the neighbors mistakenly thought that our house was a secret Aum hideout and managed to get us evicted. Also, mountain villages are always suspicious of outsiders, and sometimes we are ostracized by the community. These kinds of problems pop up from time to time, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

It’s not unusual for a Mothers’ composition to reach well beyond 20 minutes. Makoto wears his influences like badges of honor, naming albums in homage to Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The music often sounds like an update to the rock scenes in Haight-Ashbury and London in the late 1960s. Psychedliec rock may be an easy handle to hang on the band, but Makoto prefers the term trip music.

amt“As I see it, psychedelic rock is a type of rock music that evolved under the influence of the drug culture,” Makoto said. “For me trip music does not mean the same as psychedelic rock. … A simple explanation of what I mean by a trip is something that allows you to hear sounds that you do not usually hear, or that allows you to experience those dangerous frequencies that mount a violent assault upon your soul.”

The writing and recording process is relatively straightforward. Makoto gathers whatever musicians he can find in a collective attempt to record whatever he is hearing in his head. Beyond that, anything goes.

“Music is constantly changing, depending on time and place and atmosphere, and attempting to tie it down never breeds good results,” Makoto said. “Our recording process is basically to improvise the broad structure of the songs, then to overdub stuff later. The line-up depends on who’s available on the day. So I suppose you could say it’s down to fate, since we don’t adjust the schedule to try and fit in with everyone’s plans. “

Makoto formed his first band in 1978, when he realized there was nothing on the radio like the sounds in his head. Completely self-taught, Makoto and his bandmates played through trial and error. It took four years, Makoto said, for him to realize there was a standard way to tune the guitar.

“I have always only mastered just the bare minimum of technique so that I can play my own music,” Makoto said. “I believe that it’s best in all things to have neither too much or too little. If you have too much knowledge or technique, then you’ll naturally want to show that off to others. At that point it ceases to be music, and just becomes a display of skill. That is not what I want my music to be.”

The Mothers’ were the final act of last year’s Middle of the Map festival. Unfortunately, their start was delayed and the band was unable to play a full set. Makoto is hoping to play a full set this visit.

In his many trips around the world, Makoto has noticed audiences behave differently depending on the country.

“Japanese audiences come to hear the music and that American or European audiences come to enjoy themselves,” Makoto said. “I don’t know which attitude is better. If you’ve paid your money to get in, then you should have the right to enjoy the music in whichever way you like. You can listen quietly or if you’re bored you can chat with your friends, it’s up to you. Maybe it’s more important for the musicians to try and play in such a way that people won’t feel like chatting.”

With Makoto’s AMT label dropping new albums in March, April and May and the band a third of the way through a six-week tour, it doesn’t look like the Mothers will be slowing down anytime soon. But Makoto knows there may be a day when his days of exploring new sounds and textures will come to an end.

“My personal goal is to recreate the music played by a heavenly orchestra I heard once in a dream. If I ever succeed, I will have no more need to play music,” Makoto said. “The other members of Acid Mothers Temple may have different goals – I don’t know. But even if I were to quit, I would like AMT to continue to exist, since I think of it as less of a band and more of a collective will.”

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Black Joe Lewis plans new album

(Above: Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears rip up the Riot Room in Kansas City, Mo. on Valentine’s Day, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Thursday may be the first time Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears have headlined a show in Kansas City, but it’s far from the bandleader’s first visit.

The soul and roots music front man has lots of family in the area. For several months in the mid-’90s, his family lived with his grandmother off Cleveland Avenue.

“I was only about 15 or 16 at the time,” Lewis said. “I remember hanging out in the neighborhood playing basketball, hearing gunshots, BBQ. We weren’t there long, only about 6 months.”

black_joe_lewis_soundcheckmagazine_03Just a few years later, Lewis was busking on the streets of Austin, Texas. Five years ago, he started assembling the Honeybears, a five-piece horn and rhythm section welded tight after countless shows and miles touring by van.

Lewis has shuffled in and out of town on family visits several times over the years, but his band is in a vastly different place from when it last stopped in the area.

In 2010, when the group played the Bottleneck in Lawrence, it was touring on the back of its first full-length album, “Tell ’Em What Your Name Is!” In the two years since, the Honeybears dropped their sophomore LP and shuffled members. A third album is underway.

“Our set now is mostly new stuff, but we still play the older songs, too,” Lewis said. “It’s a lot of fun for us. We know fans sometimes want to hear stuff off the records, but they get into it. It will be nice when the record comes out and people will know what to expect.”

Right now Lewis’ plan is to get the six-piece combo in the studio once a two-week tour wraps up, then try to set up a distribution deal. Lewis said he hopes to have the album out this summer but doesn’t have a timeline. Regardless of when it’s released, Lewis can’t wait for fans to hear it.

“I feel like with what we’re doing right now, I’m putting out my first record,” Lewis said. “On a lot of it, we sound like a rock and roll power trio with a horn section.”

Sometimes songs start from skeletons worked up by Lewis or bass player Bill Stevenson. Other ideas come out of jams, either during rehearsal, sound check or a show.

“Somebody might record our jam on their phone and we’ll come back to it, but even when we’re playing live, the stuff that sounds cool, I’ll work on lyrics for it,” Lewis said. “For me the structure of the song is the meat of the song, and the lyrics put it over the top.”

Forces that compromised the band’s sound in the past are gone now. The contract is up with label Lost Highway, which commissioned DJs to create a Honeybears mix with an electronic and hip-hop flavor aimed at the dance floor. Band members who pressured Lewis to clean up the band’s sound are gone.

“To me, those first albums sound wimpy,” Lewis said. “Back in the day, different guys wanted to do different stuff, and I went with it because that goes with being in a band. Now that stuff isn’t around. I get to cut loose.”

A fully unleashed Lewis could be dangerous. There’s not a lot of sheen or timidity in the Honeybears’ catalog. Lewis doesn’t have any trouble channeling Wilson Pickett or Howlin’ Wolf. He isn’t as concerned with re-creating a specific sound or era as are contemporaries Sharon Jones, the Daptone family and Raphael Saadiq, but he works in enough similar circles to draw comparisons.

“Honestly, I think we’re doing something completely different,” Lewis said. “I feel like we’re American roots music with our own twist. Once the new record comes out, the differences will be more obvious.”

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Bill Joe Shaver: Honky Tonk Survivor

(Above: Survivor Billy Joe Shaver performs “Old Chunk of Coal” at Farm Aid 2011 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Search the name of country legend Billy Joe Shaver and the phrase “honky tonk hero” isn’t far behind. It’s the name he gave his autobiography and the name of the landmark album Waylon Jenning recorded of Shaver’s songs in the early 1970s. That association earned him a seat at the far end of the outlaw table, another handle that has stuck with Shaver over the years.

It is difficult to summarize a life that reaches back to the Great Depression, when Shaver was born, and a catalog of music that spans five decades, but a better word to describe him may be survivor. Check out this passage from Shaver’s self-penned, online biography:

“I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head,” Shaver writes, “fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of one year.”

billy_joe_shaverWhen Shaver lost his fingers, he taught himself to play guitar again without those digits. The night his son died, he was back onstage, playing the scheduled gig. Guitar and pen are Shaver’s constant companions through crisis.

“I write songs as my way out of life’s corners,” Shaver said in a recent phone interview. “I always just wrote for myself, but it worked out that a lot of people got in the same kind of shape I did and identified with what I was writing and held it close to their chest.”

To Shaver, “Try and Try Again” and “Live Forever” aren’t just classic show-stoppers and sing-alongs – they’re literally lifesavers. When Shaver started writing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” he was in a particularly bad spot.

“I was set up to be the next big deal in Nashville, but I was drinking, doing drugs, chasing women. I was doing everything you weren’t supposed to do,” Shaver said. “One night, I had a vision of Jesus Christ. He was sitting there, eyes like red coals.”

Too intimidated to make eye contact, Shaver sat there, stewing in humiliation.

“His head was in his hands and he was going from side to side with his head,” Shaver continued. “He did have to say it, but I knew he was asking How long are you going to keep doing this?”

Overcome with guilt, Shaver drove in the middle of the night to a special place away from the city he discovered with his son, planning to kill himself.

“I could have sworn I jumped off a cliff going to do myself in, but I wound up on my knees with my back to the cliff asking God to help me,” Shaver said. “He gave me this song when I was coming down the trail.”

By the time Shaver reached the bottom of the steep, tricky path he had half of the song. Getting the second half was no easier. Pulling his wife away from her friends and his son from his school, Shaver moved the family to Houston to distance himself from his dealers and temptations.

“I went cold turkey from smoking, doping, everything. I couldn’t keep any food down so I dropped to 150 pounds. One night, after I was finally able to eat again, I finally wrote the rest of the song. It took a year to finish.”

Whenever Shaver writes a new song, he holds it up to the standard of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” It’s one of the first songs he wrote, not only a key track on Jenning’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, but the title song on Shaver’s first album, both released in 1973.

“I wrote that song when I was eight years old,” Shaver said, “and I’m always trying to beat it.”

Next month Shaver plans to release his first new studio album since 2007. He’s been working on the project with Todd Snider, and is finalizing the tracklist, making sure everything is up to the “Five and Dime” standard.

“I don’t want to spill all the beans, but we’ve been doing a few of the new songs live,” Shaver said. “I’ve got a four-piece band that makes enough racket, but still lets people hear the words.”

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The Man in (Frank) Black

(Above: Frank Black visits “Manitoba” all by his lonesome.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It’s hard to believe, but the Pixies have been around as a reunion act for almost as long as their original incarnation. When Frank Black (aka Black Francis) announced his new project shortly after the Pixies’ first triumphant reunion tour, few could have predicted where he would end up.

The self-taught, idiosyncratic king of indie rock was working in Nashville, Tenn., with seasoned session musicians. The impulse yielded two albums, 2005’s “Honeycomb” and 2006’s double album “Fast Man Raider Man.” Earlier this year Black announced a third Music City installment was on the horizon.

“If you’re into the pop music of the 20th century and you happen to be a post-punk record maker, chances are you’ll like Patsy Cline and Miles Davis,” Black said. “Most rock musicians aren’t going to put out a bebop album, so we go to blues, folk, roots music, whatever you want to call it. It’s not that much of a jump for me — it’s all part of the same grassy hillside.”

It’s also a road well traveled. In 1966, Bob Dylan left New York City to record at the CBS studios in Nashville with the day’s top session players. More recently, Robert Plant ventured to middle Tennessee to work with Allison Krauss and Buddy Miller.

“The reason why you see this happening again and again is because of the opportunity to play with some of the best musicians in the world,” Black said. “It’s not just country music, but R&B and the whole world of 1950s and ’60s pop recording.”

Black’s collaborators are a world removed from the Boston underground scene where the Pixies formed in the mid-’80s. His album credits today include Muscle Shoals legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Chester Thompson, pal of Genesis and Frank Zappa.

During sessions in Los Angeles, Black worked with Funk Brother Bob Babbitt, Al Kooper, Phil Spector veteran Carol Kaye and drummer Jim Keltner. Grab any of your favorite major-label albums from the late ’50s to the mid-1970s and at least one of these names will be found on the sleeve.

“I guess you could say the era peaked in the ’60s and got a bad rap in the ’70s, because by then there was just too much easy-listening and knockoff, quickie records,” Black said. “But the people who grew up under the punk badge were young 20-somethings who didn’t have a lot of money and shopped at used clothing stores and decorated their apartments with kitsch. All of a sudden, out come those old Dean Martin albums again. Ultimately, what you rebel against becomes hip again.”

When Black comes to town on Monday, he’ll be without any of his all-star assistants. In fact, Black’s only company onstage will be his acoustic guitar. But regardless of his surroundings, Black said, his goal is the same: to satisfy the customers.

“That’s where I’m at now and it’s no different from when I played my first gig,” Black said.

“It’s all part of the world of the musician. Sometimes you play huge festivals for tons of money in front of tons of people, other times you’re playing Knuckleheads in Kansas City. Both are equally valid.”

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