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(Above: They aren’t the mountain chain associated with bluegrass music, but the Rockies are still an excellent backdrop for Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

One of the perks of being a cult artist is that you can count on a good portion of your audience to follow you anywhere. Barely a month ago, Chris Thile was onstage at the Uptown Theater celebrating the reunion of Nickel Creek, the influential bluegrass trio he helped found in the ’90s.

A good portion of that night’s audience likely followed Thile across town for his Kauffman Center debut on Thursday night. Acclaimed classical bass player Edgar Meyer joined Thile onstage in Helzberg Hall.

The hall was three-quarters full for the two-hour and 15-minute performance (including a 20-minute intermission.) Although the music occasionally recalled Nickel Creek’s buoyant acoustic melodies, Thile and Meyer quickly established their own identity.

The pair play a hybrid of classical, bluegrass and folk, equally at home on the couch after dinner or dressed up at a wedding.

The delicate bowed melody of “Monkey Actually” recalled banjo player Bela Fleck’s classical work. The connotation is appropriate, since both Meyer and Thile have worked with Fleck separately. Together, the pair earned a Grammy for their work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Chris_Thile_and_Edgar_MeyerMuch of the evening focused on Thile and Meyer’s new album, “Bass and Mandolin.” The pair played all but two tracks from their second collaboration. Standouts included “Friday,” which sounded like both instruments were in a race, and the gentle “I’ll Remember for You,” which found Meyer on piano and Thile on guitar. “It’s Dark in Here” could have been a lost Rodrigo y Gabriela cut.

If albums like this had singles and radio had interest in playing anything like this, the enchanting “El Cinco Real” would be on every DJ and programmer’s desk in the country. Instead it will have to settle for a life of NPR bumper music.

The material’s musical intricacies were offset by the pair’s between-song banter and jokes. One running gag was how lazy the song titles were. After fretting that the audience might not be able to keep up with the show not knowing that “Ham and Cheese” and “Fence Post in the Front Yard” had been played, Thile casually referred to two Bach arrangements as cover songs.

One song had an intentional title. Meyer’s father introduced him to the jazz bassist Ray Brown when Meyer was a child. Later, Meyer learned that Brown once recorded a cover of “Doxie,” but unwilling to pay royalties to songwriter Sonny Rollins, Brown put a new melody on top of the same chord changes and called his number “FSR.” Meyer and Thile titled their tribute to Brown “FBR.”

After an improvised number the duo said since the piece changed every night, it should have a new title as well. They took several suggestions from the audience — “Swiss Cheese,” “Hole in My Sock,” “One Numb Toe,” “Succotash” — riffing on the ideas and sharing titles from other cities. In the end, Thile and Meyer decided they liked “Snuffleupagus” best.

After announcing the upcoming intermission, Thile joked that they had been counting people during the first half of the set and would notice if anyone snuck out.

“What Chris means,” Meyer said, “is we’re glad that each and every one of you is here.”

Setlist: Why Only One?, The Farmer and the Duck, Monkey Actually, Ham and Cheese, Friday, FRB, Canon, I’ll Remember for You, Fence Post in the Front Yard. Intermission. Tuesday, Tarnation, This is the Pig, Look What I Found, El Cinco Real, Snuffleupagus, Prelude, It’s Dark in Here. Encore: BM3.
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(Above: Steve Martin’s comedy chops are beyond reproach. For proof of his banjo skills, check out this clip of “The Great Remember.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It’s hard to tell if Thursday night’s performance by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers was a comedy show hijacked by bluegrass music or the other way around. Either way, it was a success.

The 100-minute show in front of a sold-out Midland theater was a convergence of two of Martin’s passions. The banter between songs was full of the one-liners and comic sensibilities that have made Martin a movie star and inspiration to comedians since the 1970s. It also showcased the Martin’s banjo prowess, an instrument he picked up at 17.

Martin was quick to mock his celebrity status. Then he checked e-mail, sent tweets and playfully berated the five-piece Rangers between songs. While many of Martin’s songs had humorous themes, it was clear music was serious business.

It didn’t take long for the Rangers to prove themselves worthy musical and comedic foils. Showcasing Martin’s original material, the night opened with three instrumentals. For the bittersweet “Daddy Played Banjo,” Martin turned the mic over to Rangers’ guitarist Woody Platt’s pleasant tenor.

Later, “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” had a nice moment when the performance dropped to just Martin and Graham Sharp on banjos before rebuilding.

Knowing the evening was either an introduction to bluegrass or the first bluegrass show some had attended in a while, Martin took a few moments to explain the genre. Before the nostalgic “The Great Remember,” Martin demonstrated the difference between the Earl Scruggs style of playing — fast-paced with three fingers wearing picks — and the claw hammer style, which is slower and played sans picks.

After showing how the acoustic instruments can provide a natural percussion, Martin lamented, “There’s a downside to traveling with no drummer — no pot.”

Martin gave the Rangers two solo numbers. The first song, an instrumental, featured dramatic flourishes on Mike Guggino’s mandolin. The second was a gorgeous a capella version of the gospel song “I Can’t Sit Down” that had all the Rangers singing into one mic.

Not to be outdone, Martin returned and led the Rangers through his own a capella hymn, “Atheists Don’t Have no Songs.” Martin gleefully punctuated lines about atheists always having Sunday free and keeping “he” lowercase. His enthusiastically off-pitch stanzas punctured the song’s carefully constructed harmonies.

The set ended with two new songs, “Me and Paul Revere,” a story about the famous ride from the horse’s point of view, and “Auden’s Train.” The latter was a showcase for Nicky Sanders’ absurd fiddle playing, in which he not only mimicked the sound of a locomotive, but played a lengthy solo that incorporated bits of “Norwegian Wood,” the “Hallelujah Chorus,” “William Tell Overture” and “Live and Let Die.”

Some of Martin’s best non-musical bits were good enough to stand alone. A sampling:

“The next song is a sing-along. It’s also an instrumental, so good luck.”

“I think of my banjos as my children, which is to say one of them is probably not mine.”

“I guess I’m doing two of my favorite things now — comedy and charging people to hear music.”

“If you’re not having fun tonight, you’re wrong.”

He was right.

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(Above: Pieta Brown sings to Loretta Lynn.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
When Pieta Brown was in town almost two months ago, she played her songs before a sold-out Midland Theater. As the opening act on Mark Knopfler’s tour, she had a dream gig of full houses and open-minded audiences.

Opportunities like that can boost a career, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Which is why just seven weeks later, Brown was back. The material may have been the same, but without Knopfler’s boost, Brown had trouble drawing more than three dozen people to her early evening set Friday night at Crosstown Station.

These are the roller coaster realities of an emerging artist, all too familiar to Brown. The daughter of folk singer Greg Brown, she released her first solo album in 2002. Her latest release dropped in April. On those albums Brown has crafted a sound that will please fans of Kathleen Edwards, Carrie Rodriguez and the Cowboy Junkies.

As before, Brown arrived armed with guitarist Bo Ramsey, who not only produced several of her father’s albums, but has also worked with obvious influences Lucinda Williams, Ani DiFranco and Calexico. Brown’s songs provided ample space for his tasty, slow-as-molasses solos to drip out.

Above: Bo Ramsey, left, and Pieta Brown during a 2009 performance.

The duo’s 75-minute set included several stand-out numbers, including “In My Mind I Was Talking To Loretta,” an homage to the time Brown’s parents took her to see “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and she came home wanting to be “Roletta Lynn.” The song is also a tribute to the run-down Iowa shack she grew up in surrounded by “miles and miles of haystacks and miles and miles of gravel roads,” as she told the crowd.

Other high points included the new song “Prayer of Roses,” and “4th of July,” a poignant memory of a rural holiday. The country girl also mixed in several blues numbers, including an adaptation of “Rolling and Tumbling” and a cover of Memphis Minnie’s “Looking the World Over.”

The sparse crowd sat attentively, appreciative, but distant.  It was the type of polite crowd that would wait until between songs to get up and head to the bathroom. No one thought, however, to stand up and move closer, which left a 15-foot chasm between the stage and the first row of tables.

Although Brown’s material was strong, the similar moods and arrangements caused them to blend together after a while. Some of the audience started to get bored, as the chatter from the bar picked up until it threatened to overwhelm the last quarter of the set.

For all of her considerable talents, Brown would be better off teaming up with similarly minded and situated artists. This would take the pressure off of having to sustain a full set, and broaden her reach. She would be a great addition to the July bill at Crossroads that includes Dar Williams and Rodriguez.

Brown was long gone by the time Truckstop Honeymoon took the stage an hour later. The quartet not only had the benefit of a later time slot, but also a local following. After Hurricane Katrina washed out bass player Katie Euliss and guitar/banjo player Mike West’s New Orleans home, the couple relocated to Lawrence, Kan.

Augmented by mandolin player Jake Wagner and drummer Colin Mahoney, the pair traded and harmonized on verses like Johnny Cash and June Carter, refusing to take anything seriously. When Euliss sang about the Christmas she got her mama high it was hard to tell how much was she made up. Later, West introduced the original “My Automobile” as a P-Funk cover.

The 90-minute set also included several new songs, like “Latch Key Kid Recipe Book,” an ode to absent parents and oven pizzas. “Kansas in the Spring” drew a parallel between tornadoes in the heartland and hurricanes on the coast.

The best moment was “Vacation Bible School,” another song that felt autobiographical. After coaxing the crowd into singing along on the ridiculously convoluted chorus about getting kicked out of bible school, West broke the audience into three parts and held a yodeling competition.

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(Below: You have to hear it at least once – Truckstop Honeymoon’s ode to vacation Bible school.)

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 (Above: The groundbreaking “Working on a Building,” which the Swan Silvertones cut for King Records.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

James Brown is certainly the best-known artist to record for Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based label, but King Records had forged a reputation long before Brown emerged. For a quarter century, from 1943 to 1968, King recorded some of the top performers in not only R&B, but gospel, jazz, bluegrass, rockabilly, blues and early rock and roll.

Here are some other King artists worth checking out.

Bill Doggett
Organist Bill Doggett was the biggest-selling instrumentalist on King. He joined the label after leaving Louis Jordan’s band in 1951, and recorded several sides with a trio. When the results weren’t what he’d hoped, Doggett added saxophone and guitar to the lineup and scored big hits with “Ding Dong, “Hammer Head” and “Shindig.” Doggett’s biggest success, though, was the 1956 smash “Honky Tonk.” The record sold 1.5 million copies that year, spent seven months on the chart and won several awards Doggett left King for Warner Bros. in 1960 when King owner Syd Nathan refused to increase Doggett’s royalty rate.

Swan Silvertones
Claude Jeter’s Swan Silvertone’s were the biggest gospel act to record for King. They were only with the label for five years, from 1946 to 1951. The 45 songs cut for King bridged the transition from the traditional barbershop-based style of gospel singing to a more spontaneous, emotional approach. Jeter’s duet with co-lead singer Solomon Womack on “Working on a Building” epitomized the potential of the new method and influenced future stars Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke. The Slivertone’s later recordings on Specialty and Vee-Jay receive more attention, but the half-decade at King cemented the group’s sound and reputation.

Charlie Feathers
Rockabilly guitarist Charlie Feathers is one of those criminally forgotten musicians whose talent outshines his reputation. Feathers grew up in Mississippi listening to the Grand Ol Opry, but learned guitar from bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Feathers briefly recorded for Sun before coming to King in 1956. After cutting several raw, visceral rockabilly numbers that went nowhere, commercially speaking, Feathers decided to model himself after Elvis Presley. When the sanitized new records also refused to budge, a frustrated Feathers left King. He bounced around from label to label, continuing to perform until his death in 1998. In 2003, director Quentin Tarantino resurrected a couple Feathers songs for his “Kill Bill” films.

Stanley Brothers
Bluegrass legends Carter and Ralph Stanley were already stars when they signed to King in 1958. That fall, the duo released one of the genre’s landmark albums, an untitled recorded nicknamed after its catalog number, King 615. Along with old-timey mountain music, the Brothers recorded gospel and even R&B numbers, putting their stamp on Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time.” The Stanley Brothers reached new audiences during the folk revival of the early ‘60s, and cut their final album for King in 1965. Carter Stanley died the following year, but his Ralph kept the flame alive. In 2006, Ralph Stanley found improbable acclaim for his a cappella reading of “O Death” on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.

Little Willie John
Soul singer Little Willie John had one of the longer tenures at King, spending one third of his life on the label. Unfortunately, John only lived to 30 and all his success came early. The Detroit native was just 18 when he landed his first big hit, “All Around the World.” In the next few years, John racked up 10 more To 20 R&B hits, including his signature number, “Fever.” A has-been at 25, John struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. He was charged with manslaughter after stabbing a man to death following a concert in Seattle. In 1968, John died in prison.

(Below: “Can’t Hardly Stand It” was one of several great rockabilly songs Charlie Feathers cut for King in the 1950s.)

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(Above: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of many artists to get some love in a recent Oxford American music writing anthology.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Oxford American “Southern Music Issue” is an annual treat, loaded with great writing that unearths wonderful stories on longtime favorites and introduces several new discoveries. Coupled with a CD – in recent years it’s come with two discs – the magazine effectively serves as the ultimate set of liner notes to a killer compilation.

Now in its 11th year, these editions are been rightfully prized; back issues frequently fetch more triple face value online. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way for new readers to access the previously published essays and features.

The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing compiles the best articles from the magazine’s first decade. The 420-page book reads like a mixtape, transitioning smoothly from all the usual suspects – blues, country, jazz, rock and bluegrass – and spiking the playlist with pieces on Southern metal, the Sex Pistols and the art of playing.

Several of the best features provide an intimate view of the artist or their environment. Tom Piazza’s account on hanging out backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry with snubbed bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is so awkward Ricky Gervais could turn it into a screenplay. Similarly, John Lewis’ weekend at Ike Turner’s house puts the much-savaged abuser in new light, particularly when the host shows up in his pajamas at the end of the day to thank Lewis for coming and hug him goodnight.

A history of jazzman Bob Dorough by Paul Reyes takes us from the obscure keyboard player’s origins touring with Sugar Ray Robinson, recording “Blue Xmas” with a dismissive Mile Davis and ultimately as the force behind Schoolhouse Rocks. The line from “Up a Lazy River” to “Conjunction Junction” was never so clear.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s description of a night at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint with R.L. Burnside and Cynthia Shearer’s search for understanding in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas both paint a clear picture of the artists’ native perspectives. One can feel the plywood sweat at Junior’s Place and imagine Joplin longing for some niche in town where she felt comfortable and ultimately yearning to get the heck out.

Despite a mention of Wu Tang Clan producer RZA in the introduction, the book eschews hip hop and most new music. A dated piece on R.E.M. circa “Automatic for the People” is the only time when the mainstream and the modern intersect. But while the book doesn’t touch on modern artists, it will certainly send readers scrambling back to dusty old platters, either on vinyl, acetate or plastic, to unearth old favorites, possibly for the first time.

Easier to carry than a stack of magazines, less trouble to hunt down online, the Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing will be a pleasant voyage for adventurous fans of both good writing and good music.

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