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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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 In a way, David Bowie’s unexpected death last January has freed his songs. Because we are no longer dependent on him to sing them, they are available to everyone to perform as they wish. On Saturday night at the Uptown Theater, the magic happened to come from a couple of the guys who helped create it in the first place.

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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.”

Keep reading:

Middle of the Map 2015 – day three

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: Vampire Weekend

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(Above: The Clash perform “Three Card Trick” at what would be their next-to-last concert in June, 1985.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Thirty years ago today, The Clash took the stage at Starlight Theater for their first and only concert in Kansas City. They were a far cry from The Only Band That Matters, as the groundbreaking punk band was known when it London by storm in the late ‘70s. Key members Mick Jones, guitar, and Topper Headon, drums, had been replaced by three hired guns. The mission, however, remained the same.

clashKCstarlightStub“You’re gonna do ten days’ work in ten minutes when you deal with us,” lead singer Joe Strummer told NME in 1984. “We’ll smash down the number one groups and show that rebel rock can be number one.”

Alan Murphy, 28, didn’t have to wait long for his favorite song. “London Calling” kicked off the night, followed by the powerful “Safe European Home.” The Starlight setlist could not be located, but staples of that tour included “Career Opportunities,” “Clampdown,” “Brand New Cadillac” and “Janie Jones.”

A pair of covers made big impressions on a pair of fans seeing the band in concert for the first time. Michael Webber, 20 at the time, was happy to finally experience the band’s iconic reggae cover “Police and Thieves.” “I Fought the Law” was a high point of the show for Derek Koch, then 23.

The “Out of Control” tour marked the Clash’s first extensive U.S. tour in two years. Although there was no new album to support, the band played many new songs that would end up on its final album, “Cut the Crap.” These included “This is England,” the last great Clash song, “Three Card Trick” and b-side “Sex Mad Roar.” Two new songs never saw studio release. “(In the) Pouring Rain” was released in live form on “The Future Is Unwritten” soundtrack and “Jericho” is only available on bootlegs.

Clash_PaulJoe-Roskilde-850005_∏Per-Ake-Warn-1024x976Koch recalls watching bass player Paul Simonon “throwing all the great poses I had only seen in pictures on TV or video, and Joe prowl(ing) the stage like an angry lion.”

Coverage of the Clash’s Sunday night concert at Starlight was surprisingly light. The Kansas City Times ignored the event entirely, and the Star only mentioned it in a run-down of summer concerts. A monster truck rally at Arrowhead Stadium dominated entertainment coverage that weekend, receiving both a preview story in Saturday’s paper and event coverage on Monday. Copies of The Pitch were unavailable for research at press time.

For Webber, Murphy and Steve Wilson, 31, the absence of Mick Jones, put an asterisk on the concert. Although everyone interviewed wishes they had trekked to other cities to see the band in its prime, that Sunday night at Starlight still carries great memories.

“(We arrived) just as the band began to play,” Wilson said. “I think what struck me was this sense, however diminished by Mick’s absence, that ‘Wow, I’m finally seeing the f-king Clash.’“

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(Above: Jazz pianist Mark Lowrey teamed up with local musicians for the second installment of the Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop series.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Mark Lowrey sits behind a grand piano, contemplating using a Thelonious Monk number as an introduction to the rapper Common’s song “Thelonious.” As his fingers coax a signature Monk melody from the keys, bass player Dominique Sanders and drummer Ryan Lee nod in approval.

“I thought it was really obvious at first,” Lowrey admits. “But sometimes obvious is good.”

Two days before Thanksgiving, Lowrey and his rhythm section are sorting through ideas, sketching a musical landscape. They are joined by singer Schelli Tolliver and MCs Les Izmore and Reach. The final vision – a bridging of jazz and hip hop, structured and improvised – will be displayed tonight at Crosstown Station. The Black Friday ensemble takes the stage at 10 p.m. Cover is $10.

“We’ll be doing a mix of originals and covers,” says trumpet player Hermon Mehari, who will also be participating. “We’re playing tribute to some of the great hip hop artists of our time like Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla. Additionally, Reach and Les will both do some originals.”

After a few trials, the Monk number “I Mean You” has been successfully married to “Thelonious.” On “The Light,” another Common song, the band suddenly drops into Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” right after the lyric “It’s kinda fresh you listen to more than hip hop.”

KC MCs Les Izmore (left) and Reach salute Charlie Parker inside the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

“When Les and Diverse played this (‘The Light’) earlier this year they did ‘Unforgettable’ in that spot,” Lowrey says. “Everybody liked that, but we didn’t want to use the same thing. We were tossing out ideas, and someone suggested Michael Jackson.”

That same process informed the playlist. Everyone presented the songs they wanted to do, and the set was culled from what worked and how the band’s reactions. When Reach takes the mic for Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” he intersperses short bursts of freestyle around the original lyrics. A later run through of Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” reveals an energy only hinted at on the Top 10 single. As Reach commands the imaginary crowd to wave their arms, Lee goes berserk on his drum kit.

“These shows have a different energy than Hearts of Darkness,” Izmore says of the local Afrobeat group he fronts. “With those shows you’re always trying to keep people dancing and keep the energy high. Here you can chill out and listen.”

Rehearsals will soon move to Crosstown Station, but for tonight the Mutual Musicians Foundation is home. The hallowed hall on Highland, home to Hootie and Bird, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. The spirit of innovation those musicians introduced to the world via Kansas City is very much on display in the current sextet. Some may scoff that jazz and hip hop may seem to exist on disparate planets, but their orbits collide surprisingly often.

“I grew up on jazz, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald,” Reach says. “She (Ella) very much influenced my delivery and the way I play with cadences.”

Lowrey first toyed with combining rap and hip hop when he invited local MC Kartoon to sit in with his group a couple years ago. Both artists enjoyed the experience and Kartoon put Lowrey in touch with other vocalists in the KC hip hop scene.

“Hip hop has always been influenced by jazz,” Reach says. “Now, because the younger jazz musicians have grown up with hip hop, we are seeing it influence jazz. It’s kind of come full circle.”

In the past year, Lowrey has hosted several Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop concerts. The shows are basic, but explosive. Lowrey and drummer Brandon Draper create free jazz textures, as MCs and musicians alike improvise over the ever-changing structure.

“Our arrangements for this show are based in the tradition of jazz where you play the melody, then improvise over the chords before coming back to the head (melody),” Lowrey says. “The only difference is that we’re adding MCs in the mix with the horns.”

At another jazz/hip hop mash-up last February, Izmore and Diverse, a local jazz quartet that includes Mehari and Lee, celebrated the 10th anniversary of Common’s album “Like Water For Chocolate” by rearranging and performing the record in its entirety. The night ended with an encore of the Charlie Parker song “Diverse.”

“I’ve never seen a crowd of non-jazz fans so into the music,” Mehari says. “It’s the perfect example of what we want to do. Bring people in with hip hop and music they want to hear, then take them on a journey to new sounds. Once we’ve earned their trust, they’ll follow us anywhere.”

Keep reading:

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Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

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(Above: Hot Club of Cowtown get lowdown at the Americana Music Association Festival in 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When Elana James was growing up in Kansas City, you could usually find her in Westport on the weekends. After checking out the bookstore, window shopping for clothes or catching a movie she’d take out her violin and busk.

What James played, though, wasn’t the classical music she’d been trained. James’ bow bounced to old timey fiddle music meant for dancing. And it tormented her.

“I thought it was the road to ruin,” James (nee Fremerman) said. “It wasn’t until I graduated from college I realized I wanted to play a more immediate, social music and, especially, dance music. It was such an undeniable pull by then I didn’t feel bad about leaving classical music, but I was at war with myself for a long time over it.”

James may have gotten over her classical guilt, but she had a harder time getting over the demise of her band, the Hot Club of Cowtown. In the past decade, the band broke through and found success, only to crumble at its peak. After a few years apart, the trio reformed to try it all over again.

“It’s funny,” James said, “a lot of stuff has changed around us, but I don’t feel like what we do has changed, only gotten better.”

The Western swing trio opened the decade with two albums under their belt and were building a steady following with their dynamic live shows. In 2004 they caught a deserved break when Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson invited them to offer their joint tour of minor league ball parks.

“We were in England on tour when our manager told us of the offer,” James said, recalling the fateful day. “It was totally incredible – it was one of the happiest, most exciting things I had experience in my life at that point. There were no expectations for the tour. We just thought we’d play our 23 and a half minute slot and that’s it. It turned out the tour was incredibly fun, musically gratifying experience.”

What should have been a tipping point turned to disappointment when Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith decided to pursue other projects. Fortunately another guitarist, Bob Dylan, offered James a spot in his band.

“It’s not something I like to talk about,” James said. “He (Dylan) loved my playing and was a huge advocate of me musically and personally. He gave me a lot of confidence and it was an honor to have that reception from him.

“The highest compliment you can get is to be asked to play with somebody else,” James continued.”I got a lot out of my friendship with him and his enthusiasm for the things I was doing.”

After double-duty time with Dylan – James also served as opening act on the tour – James formed the Continental Two and released a solo album. She couldn’t stay away from her Cowtown bandmates, though. Smith frequently sat in with James. Before long, bass player Jake Erwin was back in the fold as well.

“The band is the best at what we do,” James said. “Nobody sounds like us or does what we do as well. That’s why we got back together.”

But a lot changed over the band’s four year hiatus. Print outlets that used to champion the band, like “No Depression” were no longer around. And the decay of the major labels meant the standard system of filters were no longer in place.

“It’s been difficult after stopping to regain that momentum. We’ve had to come back and reintroduce ourselves. The media opportuines – so disorganized and spread out,” James said. “We are swimming in a difficult sea.”

Between the release of a greatest hits compilation in 2008 and a new album in 2009, the threesome spent the year touring the world, reintroducing themselves to fans.

“We weren’t expecting it, but people found out about us and things have been going great guns,” James said. “We’re actually having more work than we can accommodate. We have to be choosy.”

While there won’t be a new Cowtown album this year, James said the band will “probably start heading in that direction.” In the meantime, they just want to enjoy their accomplishments.

“This is our fun year,” James said. “There’s no major agenda. Last year was hard work, making the record, then putting it out on three continents and touring to support it.”

Although James didn’t know it at the time, the country music she plays today is just as much a part of her upbringing as the classical instruction she started receiving at age 5.

“Coming from Kansas,” James said, “even though I didn’t grow up listening to fiddle tunes and old dudes sitting on the porch and drinking moonshine, when you pull back I can see how that culture just seeped into me. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my time in Kansas City.”

Keep reading:

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(Above: This could be you – or one of your really drunken friends.)

Be it Jimi Hendrix with a broom stick or Eddie Van Halen and a tennis racket, every music fan has gone through an air guitar phase, whether he (or she) wants to admit it or not.

If you’ve kept practicing your air guitar moves or like to laugh at those who have, then make plans to be at the Record Bar, on Tuesday, June 9 for the Air Guitar Championships.

Tickets for the competition run $10 online (plus TicketBastard fees), but The Daily Record is giving a one of its loyal readers the chance to get in free.

Here’s how this will work: If you live in the Kansas City area and want to go, simply leave a comment for this entry describing your favorite air guitar song or greatest air guitar moment. Be sure to leave your e-mail address, because that’s how I’ll contact the winner to let them know they’ve won a two tickets to witness or participate in the Air Guitar Championships.

Originality counts, folks, so don’t inundate us with stories about “Eruption” and “Stairway to Heaven.”

The people throwing this competition are serious about finding the ultimate air guitar hero. Winners at the 23 regional showcases will have the chance to compete in the championship round this August in New York City. There they will be judged by reigning U.S. and World Air Guitar Champion “Hot Lixx” Hulahan (I know, but that’s what it says in the press release) and Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones.

For complete rules, videos and other information visit the Air Guitar Championships Web site.

Commence sending your stories … now!

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