Social Distancing Spins, Day 5

By Joel Francis

In observance of St. Patrick’s Day, here are some of my finest albums with Irish ties.

The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace with God (1988) The only thing wrong with this album is that the title song is too short. The extended 12-inch version on the Pogues box set solves this problem. Mentioning the highlights is like reading the track listing, but I’ll narrow it down to the absolute best. “Fairytale of New York” is my absolute favorite Christmas song and is just as powerful in August as it is in December. Hearing Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan trade stanzas in the final verse always crushes me. This song’s all-time status was cemented in my soul when Bill Murray slurred his way through it with David Johansen and Jenny Lewis in his Christmas special.

There may be no finer tribute to the hope and heartbreak of the 19th century immigrants who traveled to the United States to start a new life than “Thousands are Sailing.” And that’s just side one. We’d better move on or I’ll be here all day.

Stiff Little Fingers – Greatest Hits Live in London (2017) The glory days of this Belfast-born punk band were long over when this live set came out. Although most of the material here pulls from the groups mighty four-album run in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the fire on this inflammable material has dimmed. I really bought this album because it was marked down on a Black Friday sale and signed by the current musicians. As it’s the only SLF I currently own, it will be what I spin when I need to hear “Tin Soldiers” or “Suspect Device.” Oh, one more thing: “Alternative Ulster” makes a great alarm song on your phone. It’s hard not to want to kick the day’s butt after hearing that first thing.

Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1976) Yeah, this is the album with “The Boys are Back in Town,” the only song that classic rock radio deigns to circulate, but this is a solid slab of rock from start to finish. “Jailbreak” blows out the speakers like a lost AC/DC song. “Cowboy Song” starts off like a campfire ballad before Phil Lynott’s storytelling takes over and the guitars plug in. Can we talk about Lynott’s lyrics for a moment? “Emerald” reads like a preview to a great lost epic poem. The story in “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” is just as majestic as Mark Knopfler’s masterpiece “Romeo and Juliet.” All with those dual guitars that can sting like a scorpion out of nowhere. Thin Lizzy gets nowhere near the respect they deserve.

The Chieftains – 3 (1971)

Van Morrison and the Chieftains – Irish Heartbeat (1988) If you blindfolded me and played me any one of the Chieftains first half-dozen albums, I’m fairly confident I couldn’t tell them apart. The traditional Irish troupe expanded their sound when they started adding guest artists and gimmicks in the ‘90s. (The Chieftains play movie themes! The Chieftains go to Nashville!) There are many moments to savor on those albums, but I like the unvarnished simplicity of the jigs and reels on their initial run.

Ironically, it was the success of Irish Heartbeat that paved the way for these cross-genre exercises. I don’t begrudge the Chieftains for trying to reach a broader audience but to my ears they’ve never found a better partner than fellow Irishman Van Morrison. For proof, take a look at the group’s star-studded release Long Black Veil from 1995. Everyone from Sting to the Stones shows up, but Morrison steals the album with his own “Have I Told You Lately.” Irish Heartbeat brings out a playful side of Morrison rarely heard, particularly on “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and “Marie’s Wedding.” Hoist a pint and turn it up.

Dropkick Murphys – The Meanest of Times (2007) Irish by way of Boston, the Dropkick Murphys combine the traditional feel of the Chieftains with Thin Lizzy’s hard rock and Stiff Little Finger’s punk attitude. When I played this album in the morning my son announced that he didn’t like it and left the room. That evening he was captivated by the Murphys’ live performance online. I tried to tell him they were the same band from earlier, but he didn’t believe me. I guess some things need to be seen to be believed. (By the way, streaming this concert was a brilliant idea and really seems to be taking off while all of us are stuck at home. According to the counter in the corner, 128,000 people were watching live. That’s a far bigger crowd than they ever could have hoped to reach by playing a St. Patrick’s Day show in Beantown.)

Flogging Molly – Within a Mile of Home (2004) It’s hard to imagine a Dropkick Murphys fan not liking Flogging Molly as well. Molly are slightly less hardcore than the Murphys on record but both acts generate a considerable mosh pit in concert. I found Within a Mile of Home at a ridiculously cheap price on CD shortly after its release. Seeing Lucinda Williams was featured on one track, I picked it up. A couple years later, I found Whiskey on a Sunday, the follow-up EP/DVD under the same circumstances. Watching those live performances convinced me I absolutely had to see this band in concert. While Within a Mile from Home is the only Molly vinyl I own, I’ve seen them a handful of times in person and never been disappointed.

U2 – Boy (1980) If it is possible to think about this divisive Irish quartet without the hype, bombasity and preening it has accumulated over the years, then Boy is it. With the exception of opening track “I Will Follow,” the rest of the album has been excluded from setlists and compilations (although some songs have gradually crept back onstage). The menacing “An Cat Dubh” almost sounds like an anthemic early Cure outtake (with glockenspiel!) that slides into The Edge’s wonderful guitar textures of “Into the Heart.” (Along with Bono’s earnest vocals. U2 were never not-earnest.) There aren’t many hints of The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby here, yet all the essential elements of those albums are present. Sometimes spending time with the boy is more revelatory than hanging out with the man.

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.)

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed

(Above: Cross Canadian Ragweed show off their new song “51 Pieces.” What’s with the Raiders shirt on an Oakie?)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The television show “CMT Crossroads” found a niche by pairing seemingly disparate artists like Taylor Swift and Def Leppard or Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello for a one-hour performance. With their blend of arena-ready country channeled through classic rock radio, Cross Canadian Ragweed could fill a show all by themselves.

The Oklahoma-based quartet preached to a half-full Crossroads Friday night delivering nearly two dozen tracks from across their 12-year career and several songs from their just-released seventh album. Singer and lead guitarist Cody Canada played like a character from the latest edition of “Guitar Hero,” flipping between Eddie Van Halen’s finger-tapping technique, the heavy rhythm riffs inspired by Angus Young and subtle finger-picked solos a la Mark Knopfler.

Although it’s fun and easy, the congregated faithful weren’t playing spot the influence. They were too busy dancing in bliss, rocking to the music, hands raised, hallelujah. Their following is so loyal Canada could toss a lyric to the crowd and get it back twice as loud, but even he was impressed when the boisterous bunch sang along to material released just 10 days ago.

The high points of the two hour set came from opposite ends of the spectrum. “Anywhere But Here” opened like the country cousin of “Panama” and benefited from the extra muscle the band put into the extended reading. When snippets of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” appeared, it was less a cover than an assimilation.

Canada’s three-song solo acoustic set showed off his songwriting and storytelling chops. “Lonely Girl” was inspired by his sister while new number “Bluebonnets” was written for his four-year-old son. The trilogy of acoustic numbers was followed by a three-part medley Canada dubbed “The Trifecta,” which swaggered from rock to blues before ending with another new cut, “Pretty Lady.”

Bass player Jeremy Plato gave Canada a smoke break by handling lead vocals on two songs. His voice was a nice change of pace but too many bass solos – including two in the final three numbers – bogged the energy a bit. Ditto for the drum solo that preceded “Number.”

Ragweed’s set ended with guaranteed crowd pleasers “Carney Man” and “Late Last Night.” For “Time To Move On” Jonathan Tyler, who led the first act on the bill, joined the quartet on guitar. The night ended with a new song that felt old. Although it wasn’t officially released until Sept. 1, the crowd went ballistic for “51 Pieces” based on the opening lines of the story that introduced the number.

Lucero got sandwich billing between opener Jonathan Tyler and Northern Lights and Ragweed. The Memphis-based quartet sounds like the E Street Band via Uncle Tupelo and front man Ben Nichols sounds like Jay Farrar after too many cigarettes and way too much whiskey.

Their one-hour set was heavy on fan requests and included “Kiss the Bottle,””Raising Hell” and new material like “Darken My Door.” Although Lucero weren’t the band most of the crowd came to see, they did a great job of firing up the sizable swarm in front of the stage.

Setlist: Sister, Alabama, Burn Like the Sun, Mexican Sky, Deal, To Find My Love, Hammer Down, 42 Miles, Soul Agent, Anywhere But Here (including Won’t Get Fooled Again), Drag, drum solo, Number, (acoustic set) Let the Rain Fall Down (unsure if this title is correct), Lonely Girl, Bluebonnets, The Trifecta (including Pretty Lady), Carney Man, Time to Move On (with Jonathan Tyler), Late Last Night, (encore) 51 Pieces