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(Above: The David Rawlings Machine perform the always-poignant medley of Rawlings’ “I Hear Them All” and Woody Guthrie’s timeless “This Land is Your Land” at musical celebration of the film “Inside Llelywn Davis” in 2014.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Folk music simultaneously looks back nostalgically at a bygone era while looking hopefully ahead at a better tomorrow. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk without becoming antiseptic and corny or preachy and naive.

With a repertoire that included an old-time telegraph man, a pretty, young mountain girl and several appearances by Old Scratch, David Rawlings showed Friday night at the Folly Theatre why he is one of today’s most sought-after folk artists.

The two-hour concert (with half-hour intermission) was Rawlings’ second performance at the Folly in a year. Overall, it was Rawlings fourth show in the area in as many years. Or as Gillian Welch, Rawlings’ partner and musical foil put it, “the rest of the country is not seeing us that often.”

daverawlingsmachinecolorThe first set was heavy on material from Rawlings’ just-released third album. Across the course of the night, he’d perform all but one of it’s tracks. While the songs aren’t as road-tested, they had a knack for seeming instantly familiar. By the end of several numbers, the crowd was quietly singing along, even if they were hearing them for the first time.

Old favorites dotted the opening half as well. Welch took lead vocals on “Wayside/Back in Time” from her 2003 release “Soul Journey.” That was followed by Rawlings’ early collaboration with Ryan Adams, “To Be Young (Is to be Sad, Is to be High),” introduced as a “song older than some of the instruments onstage.”

For their encore performance at the Folly, Rawlings and Welch brought the same musicians who backed them last year. Guitarist Willie Weeks, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, bass player Paul Kowert from the Punch Brothers and violinist extraordinaire Brittany Haas completed the ensemble.

In a group of world-class musicians, Haas stood out. Her fiddle provided a melodic counterpoint to Welch and Rawlings’ vocal harmonies and frequently drew mid-song applause, especially on “Short-Haired Woman Blues.”

The mournful “Lindsey Button” sounded like a lost Appalachian hymn until Haas started plucking her violin along to Rawlings’ solo, turning the performance into a minuet. Later, the ensemble returned to the classical motif on “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” as two fiddles and Kowert’s bowed bass accompanied Rawlings’ guitar.

Other high points included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” which featured a virtuosic Rawlings guitar solo that quoted “Midnight Rider.” Paradoxically, the solemn “Guitar Man” implored the crowd to “hear the band” and “clap your hands,” but Rawlings’ longing vocals and the band’s arrangement made it sound like they were looking at a faded photo and wistfully remembering something from long ago.

A medley of Rawlings’ original “I Hear Them All” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” has become the emotional centerpiece of the set. The pairing sadly never loses relevance, but seemed especially poignant in light of current turbulence and earned a standing ovation.

During “It’s Too Easy,” Welch swished her dress back and forth, dancing in place as Haas’ and Watson’s fiddles dueled. It seemed like the end of the night, but after another group bow, Rawlings reached back toward his guitar. After playing something Rawlings confessed they had been rehearsing at sound check, the night ended with all five musicians huddled around a single microphone. As the quintet sang “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” a capella, the audience provided percussive accompaniment with claps and stomps.

Keep reading:

Review: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Review: Bob Dylan

Review: Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle

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(Above: Shawn Colvin, left, and Steve Earle emplore listeners to “Tell Moses.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

With all the smiles, stories and strumming, Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin’s performance Wednesday night at the Kauffman Center seemed like very upscale busking.

The two artists stood on an all-black stage adorned with four monitors, one table, four guitars and two mandolins.

The concept was as straightforward as the setup. Over the course of 100 minutes, the pair performed ever song from their new collaboration, “Colvin and Earle” and scattered a couple of their own hits for good measure.

IMG_5969Despite nearly two dozen albums to their names, cover songs dominiated the setlist.

Earle introduced the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” by saying he learned how to play tennis racket to that song in front of a mirror. The spare arrangement brought Mick Jagger’s haunting lyrics to the forefront, particularly lines like “catch your dreams before they slip away.”

Other standout covers included Emmylou Harris’ “Raise the Dead” and the oft-recorded “Tobacco Road.” A laidback, almost effortless cover of “Wake Up Little Suzy” opened the night.

Before “Someday,” Earle told a long story, recapping his days as a Nashville songwriter trying to get a record deal, then fighting to get another when his debut single disappointed everyone. A friend took him to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the “Born in the U.S.A.” tour, where Earle found inspiration to write his “Guitar Town” album. After success proved to be more of a struggle than failure, Earle fell into a spiral of drugs, only poking his head out of the darkness long enough to hear Harris recorded “Guitar Town” and Colvin cut “Someday.”

IMG_5974Despite a lack of drums (or band), the version of “Someday” that followed punched as hard as a metal band going full throttle.

Colvin bragged about all her depressing breakup songs, saying “I’ve known fans who won’t take their Prozac for a week before I come to town.” She backed up her words with her biggest hit, “Sonny Came Home,” and “Diamond in the Rough.” While most songs found Colvin and Earle playing off each other vocally, “Diamond” featured a long outro that saw the pair spar musically.

The auditorium was about two-thirds full, and needed little prompting to join in on Earle’s buoyant, mandolin-fueled “The Galway Girl.” The singing and clapping encouraged during “Tell Moses,” a new song, felt like an hootenanny.

After returning to the stage with a Beatles number, the pair closed the night with Earle’s biggest hit, “Copperhead Road.” Colvin got the chance to show off her guitar chops again on that one. With Earle playing mandolin, she had to provide all the song’s musical muscle.

Judging by the lines at the merchandise table afterward, it was more than enough to convince fans into throwing some more change in the hat on the way out.

Setlist: Wake Up Little Susie; Come What May; You Were On My Mind; Raise the Dead; Ruby Tuesday; Tobacco Road; That Don’t Worry Me Now; Someday; The Way That We Do; You’re Right (I’m Wrong); Burnin’ It Down; Sunny Came Home; The Galway Girl; Happy and Free; Tell Moses; You’re Still Gone. Encore: Baby’s In Black; Diamond in the Rough; Copperhead Road.

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(Above: William Elliott Whitmore looks forward to “Digging My Grave” on the outdoor stage at the 2015 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

(Note: With more than 100 bands performing on eight stages across four days, it is impossible to hear everything at the Middle of the Map festival. I spent most of the festival’s final day on an unseasonably cold day at the outdoor stage.)

Phox:

Despite cold hands and early sound issues, Phox delivered an enjoyable set that delighted the fans that filled about two-thirds of the parking lot around the outdoor stage.

The six-piece band from Wisconsin performs soulful, confessional indie rock that recalls fellow Wisconsinite and mentor Bon Iver. Their delicate melodies never got lost in the expansive outdoor environment, thanks to inventive arrangements.

“Evil” featured a New Orleans jazz trumpet solo, while “Never Love,” an unreleased song, opened with a recorder and African guitar line a la Vampire Weekend. Throughout it all, lead singer Monica Martin was the not-so-secret weapon. Her soulful voice and playful stage talk kept the songs weighty and the downtime light.

The band threw a curveball into the mix with a hushed, dainty cover of Blink-182’s “I Miss You.” More fans sang along with that number than any of the band’s original numbers.

murder by death

Murder by Death

William Elliott Whitmore:

Armed with a guitar, banjo and bass drum, William Elliott Whitmore did a great job prepping the crowd for Murder By Death’s Americana rock. His 45-minute set was filled traditional folk songs about train trestles, digging graves and devils.

Between songs, Whitmore bantered with the audience with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Whitmore said he wanted his time to feel like friends hanging out on the front porch. While he’s a bit early for that festival, he accomplished the feel.

Murder by Death:

Murder by Death play the kind of songs that make you more likely to get pulled over for speeding. Even the band’s down-tempo numbers are full-throttle. Case in point “Curse of Elkhart,” a torrid cautionary tale fueled by Sarah Balliet’s furiously strummed cello.

Several of the band’s Americana opuses unfold like novellas. Judging by apparel and lips, plenty of the crowd already knew the stories. Highlights of the hourlong set included the David Bowie tribute “I Shot an Arrow,” “Spring Break 1899” and “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs.”

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Middle of the Map 2015 – day three

Middle of the Map 2013

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(Above: Unplugged or electric, Los Lobos know how to move a crowd.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

To celebrate how far they have come as a band over the last 40 years, Los Lobos went back to where they started.

Over the course of more than a dozen studio albums, the quintet from East Los Angeles has covered folk, blues, R&B, film scores, and traditional and experimental rock. For two hours on Friday night at Yardley Hall, the only English spoken came between songs, and there were no electric guitars in sight.

Instead, the set list focused on traditional Tex-Mex and Latin American songs, with a few originals tossed in for good measure. Despite their different sources, the material blended perfectly.

The songs also displayed different strengths and talents. Several showcased excellent three- and four-part harmonies. Guitarist David Hidalgo not only played violin during “El Gusto,” he also sang a lead vocal line that took him into falsetto on the chorus.

Perhaps the best singing of the night came during “Sabor a Mi.” The ballad allowed Cesar Rosas to show off a range and expression only hinted at on the band’s mainstream releases.

4006_loslobos_MARQUEE_SNP509546v1Taking the stage, spaced evenly in a single row across the front, Los Lobos opened with “Yo Canto,” a track from their latest album, 2010’s underrated “Tin Can Trust.” The song was typical of the night: rapid tempo, high energy and spot-on. In fact, the band slowed down only twice before pausing for a 20-minute intermission.

Behind the band rested enough guitars of different sizes and shapes to open a music store. Conrad Lozano, the only musician not to trade instruments throughout the night, played an acoustic bass so big it looked like a small rowboat slung over his shoulder with a short neck attached.

Steve Berlin was the night’s not-so-secret weapon. He didn’t play on every song, but his contributions added just the right color to the performance. He played two great soprano sax solos during “Borinquen Patria Mia” and “Bailar la Cumbia.” Berlin’s bass sax on “Chuco’s Cumbia” delivered the deep urgency that made the song hit even harder.

Several numbers were staples of Los Lobos’ earliest repertoire as a wedding and restaurant band. It wasn’t hard to imagine the band’s tip jar overflowing during the final three numbers of the night. “Volver Volver” finally got a few fans on their feet, while “Guantanamera” provided material familiar enough to sing with. Berlin also added a great flute solo on that one.

The quintet returned for a traditional reading of its biggest hit, “La Bamba.” The band has been playing this one since it hit No. 1 in 1987, but as the musicians traded verses and exchanged smiles it seemed no one, onstage or off, had gotten tired of it.

Setlist: Yo Canto, Colas, El Cascabel, La Pistola y el Corazon, Los Ojos de Pancha, El Cuchipe, Arizona Skies/Borinquen Patria Mia, Sabor a Mi, Pajarillo, El Gusto. Intermission. Los Mamonales, Cancion del Mariachi, Chuco’s Cumbia, La Feria de las Flores, Bailar la Cumbia, Mexico Americano, Ay te Dejo en San Antonio, Volver Volver, Guantanamera. Encore: La Bamba.

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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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(Above: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform a devastating cover of Radiohead’s “Black Star.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

The stage was adorned simply: two microphones, a pair of guitars, a banjo and a small black table set against a black curtained backdrop. In many ways it looked like the set-up for a radio show. The large banner advertising flour, soap flakes, a healing elixir or some other bygone product of American industry was implied.

For just over two hours on Sunday night, folk musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings delivered a spellbinding set to a near capacity Liberty Hall. The pair has been recording together for 15 years, but its music stretches back much further, back to the days of Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family and even Stephen Foster.

Rawlings provided the texture and coloring to Welch’s songs of isolation, desperate hearts, outcasts and murder. He coaxed many impressive solos out of his antique f-hole guitar, particularly on “Down Along the Dixie Line” and “Revelator,” the pair’s signature tune. The subject matter may have been bleak, but Welch’s  haunting voice and memorable storytelling, coupled with the duo’s understated but impressive arrangements made the material a joy to absorb.

They are touring behind their first album in eight years, “The Harrow and the Harvest.” All but one of the album’s songs found their way into the setlist, along with a handful of tracks from their four previous albums and a few surprising covers.

A well-schooled audience burst into applause at the opening notes of most songs, but then quickly quieted down to listen to every note. During the banjo-led songs “Rock of Ages” and “Six White Horses” the crowd stomped along so enthusiastically, the floor bounced along with it. Reverence was also broken when fans sang along with “Elvis Presley Blues.” David Rawlings’ side trip into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” briefly turned into a hootenanny.

It might be tempting to write off Welch and Rawlings as a museum act, but the vitality and vibrancy of their performance make them impossible to dismiss. Their choice of covers was also shows pair refuses to be sealed in an antique vacuum. The set-closing cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” found Rawlings framing the song with Spanish flamenco flourishes.

A spellbinding reading of Radiohead’s “Black Star” – complete with a delicate introduction that showcased a conversation between guitars – was the evening’s best moment. The duo opened with “Orphan Girl,” the song Emmylou Harris recorded before Welch had a record deal to announce her talent.

Setlist: Orphan Girl; Scarlet Town; The Way It Will Be; The Way It Goes; Rock Of Ages; Wayside/Back In Time; I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll; Black Star (Radiohead cover); Dark Turn of Mind; Dusty Boxcar Wall (Eric Andersen cover). Intermission. Hard Times; Down Along the Dixie Line; Elvis Presley Blues; Six White Horses; Look At Miss Ohio; I Hear Them All > This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie cover); Tennessee; Caleb Meyer. Encore 1: Revelator. Encore 2: The Way The Whole Thing Ends; White Rabbits (Jefferson Airplane cover).

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 (Above: The voice of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, transforms “Eight Miles High” and shows off his guitar chops with this stunning acoustic arrangement.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The stage was empty, but the sound was unmistakable. The shimmering jangle from the 12-string blonde Rickenbacker guitar rang clear throughout the Folly Theater as Roger McGuinn, voice and architect of the Byrds, strolled out casually from stage right. The chorus of the opening song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” resonated throughout the night: “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

For the next 100 minutes, McGuinn treated the two-thirds full theater to a stroll through his back pages, or, more specifically the music that influenced the sound of the Byrds and his songwriting. It took McGuinn half a hour to work his way up to the rock and roll era. He explained a reworking of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire” ended up as “She Don’t Care About Time,” a Byrds b-side, sang a sailor chanty, a spiritual and paid homage to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. He also used his own “Chestnut Mare” as an example of the cowboy songs from the old West.

These performances were interesting as a musical history lesson, but the show didn’t really take off until Elvis entered the building. Calling the transistor radio the iPod of its day, McGuinn explained how the portable radio freed him from having to listen to his parents’ music (and vice versa). The thrill of watching Presley inspired McGuinn to get his first guitar.

Now inspired, McGuinn told the audience about his lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where each week not only was a new song taught but several different styles of playing it. From there he took the crowd on a expedition through the Limeliters and Chad Mitchell Trio in Los Angeles into Bobby Darin’s band before landing at the Brill Building in New York City.

It was there McGuinn first heard the Beatles and recognized the folk-chord structures they used. Alone in his vision to marry folk with the British Invasion, McGuin fled the Greenwich Villagescene for the Troubador in Los Angeles where he met Missouri native Gene Clark and group that would become the Byrds were born.

Each adventure was illuminated by a musical representation of the time, from the Limeliter’s “There’s A Meeting Here Tonight” and Joan Baez’ “Silver Dagger” to “You Showed Me,” the first song McGuinn and Clark wrote together, which later became a Top 10 hit for the Turtles.

McGuinn performed most of the set seated on a piano bench at center stage. The only musician onstage, he was surrounded by four instruments, an acoustic and electric 12-string guitar, a 7-string guitar and a banjo. The open cases around him made McGuinn look like a posh busker.

The crowd relished every note and story. The room was often so quiet you could hear McGuinn’s pick hitting the strings. He frequently had to prod the audience to get involved, even singing the chorus on major songs like “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” another Dylan cover.

Although his tenor voice had lost some of its range, McGuinn’s singing was strong and his guitar playing was impressive. The best moment was a fascinating new arrangement of “Eight Miles High” that was more Ravi Shankar than Timothy Leary. Appropriately, the autobiographical journey ended with a relatively recent song, “May the Road Rise To Meet You.”

Set List: My Back Pages; She Don’t Care About Time; Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her (Time For Us To Leave Her); Old Blue; Chestnut Mare; Pretty Boy Floyd; Rock Island Line; Heartbreak Hotel (excerpt); Unknown Spiritual; There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight; Silver Dagger; Gambler’s Blues (aka St. James Infirmary); The Water Is Wide; You Showed Me; Mr. Tambourine Man; You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere; Mr. Spaceman; Dreamland; Up To Me; Eight Miles High; Turn, Turn, Turn. Encore: Feel A Whole Lot Better; Bells of Rhymney; May The Road Rise To Meet You.

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