Review: Pieta Brown, Truckstop Honeymoon

(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.

Keep reading:

Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

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

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

willie2By Joel Francis

“Epic” is the key word in the title of Joe Nick Patoski’s 567-page biography on Willie Nelson. Drawn from dozens of interviews and scores of oral histories, books and articles, Patoski paints a comprehensive picture of his fellow Texan.

If Patoski skimps on Nelson’s childhood – less than 50 pages are devoted to his years as a minor – he makes up for it by piling chapter on top of chapter about Nelson’s early family life, struggles as a disc jockey and songwriter for hire and, finally, as a nascent country performer. Patoski also devotes an entire chapter on IRS struggles and puts in strong perspective how such horrible accounting could have transpired.

But while Patoski’s journalism skills and research is impeccable, he spends too much of his time telling and not enough showing. For example, there piles of anecdotes about Nelson’s generosity and his inability to say no. He sticks around for hours after concerts to sign autographs, and lavishly gifts his friends and family. When a credit card company asked him to put his face on their card, he said yes without thinking of the consequences. Manager Mark Rothbaum has to explain the implications.

“Well think about it: A third of all credit cards go into receivership, so a third of your fans will go bankrupt, and they will have to look at your picture on that card,” Rothbaum tells Nelson. “Every time they see your picture they will think, That prick is making money off of me.”

Nelson asked Rothbaum to get him out of the deal, but the reader is never given understanding of what compels Nelson to be so affable.

The person who shines best is Nelson’s longtime drummer Paul English. English doesn’t appear until a third of the way through, where he initially surfaces as a pimp who drills and robs pinball machines and operates backroom card games. When Nelson’s drummer failed to show up for a radio session, English is recruited. Even though he had never played drums before, but the experience went well enough English accepted Nelson’s invitation to walk away from the lucrative prostitution business and join the band on the road.

English’s skills with a gun and knife were handing in prying a reticent promoter away from the band’s money and bailing Nelson’s smart mouth out of fight. English was never shy about displaying the pistol he always carried, which was usually all it took to calm any disagreements. English’s black market background also came in handy procuring marijuana for the band.

Patoski’s meticulous exploration sheds light on Nelson’s long walk to fame, where record labels and producers try in vain to pigeonhole the artist, and Nelson’s inability to fit into their boxes, even when he gamely goes along. Later, as Nelson’s fame and wealth grows, he builds a studio on his Texas estate. Patoski conveys a laid-back atmosphere where music flows as freely as beer and songs are recorded as effortlessly as lighting a roach. That Nelson practically lived in his studio explains the prolificacy of his catalog (he released two albums in 2008), and the easygoing environment explains how his financial problems reached the boiling point.

The vision of Nelson unearthed in the book refuses to be worried about anything except his music, even when doing so compromised his family and friends. His nature reminds me of a line from the film “Walk the Line.” When Johnny Cash tells June Carter on the back of the tour bus that everything will work itself out, she replies “No, John. People work them out for you, and you think they work themselves out.”

That Nelson’s music has attracted rednecks and hipsters alike is less mystifying after this thorough examination of the man. The songs are merely an extension of the personality: Nelson is willing to meet anyone anywhere for a good time. The access Nelson provided for this thick tome can rest proudly alongside his albums as a testament to the man’s generosity.