Kansas, Courtney Marie Andrews, Soul of a Nation album covers

Random record reviews: Kansas, Courtney Marie Andrews, Soul of a Nation

By Joel Francis

Kansas – The Absence of Presence

The 16th album by wayward (and native) sons Kansas manages to capture the essence of what made the radio-friendly prog-rock band popular in the 1970s, while infusing it with enough new blood to ensure the group will carry on well into the 21st century.

All of the music on The Absence of Presence is written by newcomers Zak Rizvi and Tom Brislin. The pair handles the lion’s share of the lyrics as well, although founding member Phil Ehart co-wrote the words on four songs.

Absence also marks lead vocalist Ronnie Platt’s second outing with the band. He doesn’t sound like longtime frontman Steve Walsh, but his voice is familiar enough to slide into the void left by Walsh’s absence.

The result is what you would expect. Lots of violin/keyboard duets, powerful drums and big, chugging guitars that turn on a dime. The best moments on The Absence of Presence come during the many instrumental sections when the seven musicians are able to play off each other. Close your eyes during “Propulsion 1” or the instrumental breakdowns during “Animals on the Roof” and “The Song the River Sang” and it’s hard not to slip back in time.

Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers

Phoenix-born singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews bares her crushed soul on Old Flowers. Song cycles about heartbreak are nothing new, but Andrews makes her worthwhile addition to this vast cannon with a hushed production that rewards close – and repeated – listens and an eye for detail, like dancing in Nashville and walking on Venice Beach under a full moon.

Old Flowers opens with “Burlap String,” which sounds like an outtake from Neil Young’s Harvest and sets the scene of “a family and a house/where the memories of us belong.” The enchanting “If I Told” is a beautiful tale of longing that captures the spark of a new relationship. The ache behind the delicate melody is teased out by what sounds like the ghosts of piano keys in the background that ultimately swells into an organ that consumes the track.

These wistful memories give way to the devastation of “Carnival Dream” and a cascading drum part that reinforces the hurt. By the time we get to “Ships in the Night,” Andrews can admit to her onetime love “I know you felt the same way/but the timing wasn’t right.”

Andrews captures her pain so elegantly and perfectly on Old Flowers it is nearly impossible not to be moved. Its orbit is so powerful that it can draw in unprepared listeners. Played in the right time and space, it is a jewel.

Various artists – Soul of a Nation: Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher

Given the number of collections available, there must be a substantial appetite for jazz and funk music created during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Soul of a Nation: Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher is another new three-album collection covering the era of the Black Arts Movement, when jazz, funk, fusion and street poetry crisscrossed and inspired the mind as much as the feet.

Several of the names included here – Funkadelic, Gil Scott-Heron, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Cherry – should be recognizable, even if the performances are more obscure. Some songs may take some acclimation. “Theme De Yo-Yo,” by Art Ensemble of Chicago sounds like a R&B song wedged into a free jazz performance. “Space Jungle Funk” by Oneness of Juju is everything you think it is.

Even the more accessible numbers, such as Baby Huey’s “Hard Times” and James Mason’s “Sweet Power of Your Embrace,” a synthesizer-driven funk song that could have been the theme song to a ‘70s cop show, refuse to become background music. Jazz is the Teacher is a demanding collection, but if you’re willing to invest, it is richly rewarding.

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Review: Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Wilco

June 17-19, Clinton Lake, Lawrence (Kan.)

Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

Son Volt – Friday afternoon, Sun Down Stage
Jay Farrar’s revamped Son Volt made their regional debut on Friday afternoon to a collective yawn. Maybe it was the early hour of the show – 3 p.m. – but more people were greeting each other than grooving to the music. Son Volt Version 2.0 leaned heavily on classic material from “Trace” and “Straightaways” in its hourlong set, but were not as country-leaning as the previous incarnation. Uncle Tupelo was no where to be found._The new lineup is rawer and plays up Farrar’s classic rock influences – a sound closer to Joe Walsh than Joe Ely.

Matisyahu – Friday afternoon, Campground Stage
Matisyahu’s novelty – a Hasidic Jew playing reggae music – may have drawn people to his tent, but his music made them stay.
Dressed in a white dress shirt and glasses and sporting a full black beard, he may have looked like a rabbi, but he sounded like Toots Hibbert. Matisyahu’s groove spread quicker than a flu bug in day care, and though the tent was too crowded to give the music the motion it deserved, no one seemed to mind, least of all Matisyahu, who had to rest a hand on his head to keep his yarmulke from flying off as he jumped up and down. After proving his reggae credibility, Matisyahu dismissed the band and began an a capella beatboxing, incorporating dub, hip-hop and techno rhythms culminating in a call-and-response with the drummer.

Ozomatli – Friday evening, Sun Up Stage
Ozomatli isn’t afraid to toss a rap into a Spanish melody. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything musically. The10-piece band blended Spanish, rock, African, Middle Eastern and hip hop into the most contagious and diverse groove of the day. The 75-minute set drew heavily from Ozomatli’s latest album, last year’s “Street Signs,” but the band worked in a new song, a rap driven by a Middle Eastern flute. The crowd thinned considerably when the String Cheese Incident took the adjacent stage, but there were enough hands raised in the air and bodies shaking to show that these folks weren’t just killing time.

Junior Brown – Saturday evening, Revival Tent
Junior Brown took a mostly full and enthusiastic Revival Tent crowd honky tonkin’ early Saturday evening. Wearing an immaculate three-piece suit and backed by a three-piece band, including his wife Tanya Rae, Brown kept the stage banter to a minimum and kept his music plowing along like the Orange Blossom Special. His deep voice was cribbed in the same fertile tone as Johnny Cash’s and he deftly switched from traditional country melodies to a Spanish language song and even a surf guitar medley.
The highlights were all of Brown’s tasteful guitar solos, performed on his trademark “guit-steel,” a double-neck six-string and pedal steel guitar, and his drummer of 31 years, who was able to do more with his simple snare and cymbal set than most can from an entire trap kit.

Neko Case – Saturday night, Sun Down Stage
Despite having a large crowd assembled in anticipation of headliner Wilco, Neko Case did not go out of her way to win any new converts Saturday night. Case’s hourlong restrained set never moved above mid-tempo and failed to engage the patient crowd. Taken individually, each song was quite good, but together they became a long, lonesome lullaby. Like a mournful train whistle crying out late in the night, Case and her four-piece band wallowed in love gone wrong. The material was well-done, but best suited for an intimate club and Case looked a little overwhelmed by the crowd, which was polite in spite of the pacing problems and the fact that few of her subtleties transferred effectively to the lawn.

Wilco – Saturday night, Sun Down Stage
Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman and songwriter, had the sold-out crowd eating out of his hand from the opening strains of the first number, “A Shot in the Arm.” The 90-minute show only got better from there. Wilco’s expanded six-piece line-up, including two keyboards and two guitars, fought like siblings in the sonic mélange. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, creating the perfect atmosphere for each song. “Handshake Drugs” and “Kidsmoke (Spiders)” had thick walls of distortion that would have made Sonic Youth proud, while the folksier romps through the “Mermaid Ave.” material were warm and happy. If the audience participation bits failed, it was only because Wilco’s material isn’t really suited for it. Besides, Tweedy already had them at hello.

Proto-Kaw – Sunday afternoon, Sun Down Stage
Proto-Kaw will inevitably be compared to songwriter Kerry Livgren’s other band, Kansas, but the call-and-response in the opening number between Livgren’s guitar John Bolton’s flute should put those differences to rest. Formed in the early ‘70s, the band folded after failing to land a record contract and Livgren’s leap to a rival band and classic rock history. The septet belatedly reconvened when their archival demos were released to critical acclaim in 2002 and have since recorded an all-new album together. Proto-Kaw drew from both of those sources in their hour-long set that was enjoyed by the meager and decidedly older crowd that braved the mid-day sun for a set of progressive rock that somehow managed to replace arena-ready anthems with splashes of jazz and funk.

Jazz Mandolin Project – Sunday afternoon, Revival Tent
The Jazz Mandolin Project has more in common soncially with its good friends in Phish than it does the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, of which bandleader Jamie Masefield was once a member. Anyone expecting soothing acoustic jazz may have been pleased by the first number, but the songs grew more experimental and danceable as the set progressed. The quartet – mandolin, drums, upright bass and trumpet – is what the Flecktones would sound like if they were a jam band. The crowd was enthralled by the improvisation, but the bass and drums were sometimes so propulsive and funky one lost track of the mandolin. The 70-minute set culminated with the feel-good and danceable “Oh Yeah,” the best song of the night.

Old Crow Medicine Show – Sunday evening, Revival Tent
If, as the old saying goes, you can’t play sad music on a banjo, then Old Crow Medicine Show is the happiest band in the world. With half of the sextet on the jubilant drumhead five-string, the Crows threw a mighty hoedown as the sun set over the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival.
The Revival Tent was about half full at the start of the set, but by the end the tent was so full that people were dancing outside. The clappin’ and stompin’ were nonstop throughout the 70-minute set, which included classics like “CC Rider,” “Poor Man,” “Take ‘Em Away,” a cover of “Bluegrass Bob” Marley’s “Soul Rebel” and plenty of down-home stage banter.

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Wakarusa Music Festival (2007)

Wakarusa Music Festival (2008)