(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.”
The 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.
The sunglasses every artist wore onstage at Thursday’s Lilith Fair were more than a fashion accessory – they were as vital as the instruments.
For five of the festival’s eight hours of music, performers played directly into the sun. Singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson summed up the misery.
“It’s so hot out here I felt sweat dripping down my legs, and for a second there I thought I pulled a Fergie,” she said, referring to the pop star’s onstage pee incident.
The performers had it easy compared to the fans. After their 40-minute sets they could retreat to cooler confines. Fans had fewer options. Many ditched their seats and scrambled to whatever shade they could find. This made an already undersold Sandstone Amphitheater look even emptier.
All facilities past the second section of seating were closed. Drivers expecting to park in the main lot at the top of the hill were directed to the auxiliary lot. Fans with lawn tickets were upgraded to second-tier seats, while those with second-level seats could move down. As the sun shrank the crowd grew, filling most of the seating, but it was rough going for the early bands.
Vedera fared better than most acts. Sequestered to a tiny side stage, several hundred dedicated fans crowded into the awkward space to hear the local band deliver new gems like “Greater Than” and “Satisfy” in their half-hour set. Vedera was the last of three local acts, which also included singer/songwriters Julia Othmer and Sara Swenson.
Metric was the first band to appear on the main stage, and red flag the fact that holding an all-day event in a venue with little no cover was a poor idea. The relentless sun rendered moot any lighting or special effects. When it was finally dark enough for these tricks to emerge, the video screens captured a static image of the Lilith Fair logo, meaning fans in the back had no close-up view of events all day.
The four-piece indie band’s dark synth pop isn’t built for daylight. Sound problems plagued the first couple songs, but what the atmosphere didn’t kill the temperature did. When you’re sweating just standing still, it’s hard to be convinced to dance. Singer Emily Haines did a robotic dance to the Big Brother-esque lyrics of “Satellite Mind,” and prefaced “Gimme Sympathy” with a bit of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My.” Their set was heavy on last year’s “Fantasies,” but surprisingly did not include their contribution to the latest Twilight film, “Eclipse (All Yours).”
Michaelson had better success connecting with the sparse crowd with her jangly pop. Backed by a five-piece band, Michelson bookended her set with ironic covers, incorporating Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” into her own “Soldier” and closing with Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” which featured everyone onstage in a synchronized dance. Both moves drew big cheers. In between, she delivered her hit “The Way I Am,” which recalled Regina Spektor’s quirky vocal phrasing, the bouncy “Locked Up,” and new song “Parachute.”
Halfway through the Court Yard Hounds’ set, Emily Robison found herself in trouble.
“This is a quintessential chick song,” she said, intending to introduce Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight.” The chick the crowd knew, however, was Robison’s main gig with fellow Yard Hound and sister Martie Maguire, the Dixie Chicks. The unexpected burst of delight flummoxed Robison for a moment.
“No, no, not that chick,” she said, trying to recover. “I mean a hippie chick.”
Robison and Maguire released three Dixie Chicks albums before singer Natalie Maines arrived and turned the group into superstars. When Maines bowed out of making new music, the sisters soldiered on. Their sound hews closer to Americana and roots music than the Chicks’ pop country, but suffers without Maines’ feisty spirit. “It Didn’t Make A Sound” featured a nice honky tonk piano solo, and “The Coast” was a pleasant tribute to the sister’s native Texas beaches, but it was too gentle to engage the crowd.
Conversation ceased, however, when the sisters unleashed a furious bluegrass instrumental that had fans on their feet, clapping and stomping along. The set ended with a moment out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” when Maguire’s 6-year-old twin daughters joined the ensemble, tentatively playing percussion alongside their mother.
Emmylou Harris is the Mother Maybelle Carter of her generation, collaborating with everyone from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Ryan Adams and Lyle Lovett. The artists everyone else on the bill respect as legends, she calls contemporaries. Yet even her distinct, wonderful voice wasn’t enough to sway the crowd. As with most artists during the day, the audience was divided between hardcore fans, politely curious listeners and everyone else, waiting impatiently for their act to appear. The ambitious and diverse bill ended up leaving everyone out at some point during the day.
Harris and her four-piece Red Dirt Band leaned heavily on her 1999 album “Red Dirt Girl,” mixing in the good old country of “Wheels” and “Born to Run” (a Paul Kennerly song, not a Bruce Springsteen cover). The most riveting moments were the a cappella gospel arrangement of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ own hymn, “The Pearl.”
Harris also shared the day’s best musical moment when she joined Sarah McLachlan on “Angel.” These multi-artist bills should have more of this synergy. Witnessing Harris and the Hounds collaborate on a Bill Monroe bluegrass number, or Haines join McLachlan on “Possession” would have been special events fans would treasure long after they had forgotten the heat and the ticket price.
It wasn’t until Heart took the stage at 8:45 that the fair had its first galvanizing musical moment. The raucous blast of “Barracuda” eradicated the gentle sway of the afternoon and invigorated a crowd that had traded the sun for the moon and was finally ready to move. Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson delivered a heavy slab of ‘70s rock that had fists pumping and hips shaking. Guitarist Nancy Wilson concluded her acoustic intro to “Crazy On You” with a scissor kick, cueing the rest of the six-piece band. Singer Ann Wilson was in top form, belting the refrain from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” during their own “Even It Up” and easily finessing the dynamics of “Magic Man.”
Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan closed the day nearly eight hours after the first act appeared. The Vancouver native congratulated the crowd for braving the heat and rewarded them with many of her biggest hits, including “Building a Mystery,” “World On Fire” and “Adia.” She needlessly apologized before playing each of her three new songs, but the crowd responded well to those numbers as well.
Here’s a tip to established artists trying to introduce new songs: If you act proud of your new material, fans will be more likely to embrace it. Today’s new song is tomorrow’s sing-along.
The night ended with the gentle lilt of McLachlan’s “Ice Cream” before most of the day’s artists -– including Swenson, who shared a mic with the Court Yard Hounds -– joined together for a joyous romp through Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.”
Metric – “Twilight Galaxy,” “Satellite Minds,” “Help I’m Alive,” “Gold Guns Girls,” “Hey Hey, My My” > “Gimme Sympathy,” “Dead Disco.” Ingrid Michaelson – “Soldier” > “Pokerface,” “The Way I Am,” “Parachute,” “Maybe,” “Locked Up,” “The Way I Am,” “Toxic.”
Court Yard Hounds – “Delight (Something New Under the Sun,” “It Didn’t Make a Sound,” untitled new song, “Then Again,” “Fear of Wasted Time,” bluegrass instrumental, “The Coast,” “Ain’t No Son.”
Emmylou Harris – “Here I Am,” “Orphan Girl,” “Evangeline,” “Wheels,” “Born To Run,” “Calling My Children Home,” “Red Dirt Girl,” “Get Up John,” “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Shores of White Sand,” “The Pearl.”
Heart – “Barracuda,” “Straight On” “Even It Up/Gimme Shelter,” “WTF,” “Hey You,” “Red Velvet Car,” “Alone,” “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You.” Encore: “What Is and What Should Never Be.”
Sarah McLachlan – “Angel” (with Emmylou Harris), “Building a Mystery,” “Loving You Is Easy,” “World On Fire,” “I Will Remember You,” “Forgiveness,” “Adia,” “Out Of Tune,” “Sweet Surrender,” “Possession.” Encore: “Ice Cream,” “Because the Night” (with most of the day’s perfomers).
James Brown is certainly the best-known artist to record for Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based label, but King Records had forged a reputation long before Brown emerged. For a quarter century, from 1943 to 1968, King recorded some of the top performers in not only R&B, but gospel, jazz, bluegrass, rockabilly, blues and early rock and roll.
Here are some other King artists worth checking out.
Bill Doggett Organist Bill Doggett was the biggest-selling instrumentalist on King. He joined the label after leaving Louis Jordan’s band in 1951, and recorded several sides with a trio. When the results weren’t what he’d hoped, Doggett added saxophone and guitar to the lineup and scored big hits with “Ding Dong, “Hammer Head” and “Shindig.” Doggett’s biggest success, though, was the 1956 smash “Honky Tonk.” The record sold 1.5 million copies that year, spent seven months on the chart and won several awards Doggett left King for Warner Bros. in 1960 when King owner Syd Nathan refused to increase Doggett’s royalty rate.
Swan Silvertones Claude Jeter’s Swan Silvertone’s were the biggest gospel act to record for King. They were only with the label for five years, from 1946 to 1951. The 45 songs cut for King bridged the transition from the traditional barbershop-based style of gospel singing to a more spontaneous, emotional approach. Jeter’s duet with co-lead singer Solomon Womack on “Working on a Building” epitomized the potential of the new method and influenced future stars Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke. The Slivertone’s later recordings on Specialty and Vee-Jay receive more attention, but the half-decade at King cemented the group’s sound and reputation.
Charlie Feathers Rockabilly guitarist Charlie Feathers is one of those criminally forgotten musicians whose talent outshines his reputation. Feathers grew up in Mississippi listening to the Grand Ol Opry, but learned guitar from bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Feathers briefly recorded for Sun before coming to King in 1956. After cutting several raw, visceral rockabilly numbers that went nowhere, commercially speaking, Feathers decided to model himself after Elvis Presley. When the sanitized new records also refused to budge, a frustrated Feathers left King. He bounced around from label to label, continuing to perform until his death in 1998. In 2003, director Quentin Tarantino resurrected a couple Feathers songs for his “Kill Bill” films.
Stanley Brothers Bluegrass legends Carter and Ralph Stanley were already stars when they signed to King in 1958. That fall, the duo released one of the genre’s landmark albums, an untitled recorded nicknamed after its catalog number, King 615. Along with old-timey mountain music, the Brothers recorded gospel and even R&B numbers, putting their stamp on Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time.” The Stanley Brothers reached new audiences during the folk revival of the early ‘60s, and cut their final album for King in 1965. Carter Stanley died the following year, but his Ralph kept the flame alive. In 2006, Ralph Stanley found improbable acclaim for his a cappella reading of “O Death” on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.
Little Willie John Soul singer Little Willie John had one of the longer tenures at King, spending one third of his life on the label. Unfortunately, John only lived to 30 and all his success came early. The Detroit native was just 18 when he landed his first big hit, “All Around the World.” In the next few years, John racked up 10 more To 20 R&B hits, including his signature number, “Fever.” A has-been at 25, John struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. He was charged with manslaughter after stabbing a man to death following a concert in Seattle. In 1968, John died in prison.
(Below: “Can’t Hardly Stand It” was one of several great rockabilly songs Charlie Feathers cut for King in the 1950s.)
When Elvis Costello picked up an acoustic guitar in the mid-‘80s after two baffling albums full of horns and keyboards, the result was one of the high points in Costello’s already-great discography. Costello teamed with producer T-Bone Burnett for that album, “King of America,” and 23 years later the two are back together for “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.”
Costello has never quite eclipsed that peak, settling into a pattern of churning out reliable genre exercises in country, jazz, classical and rock and collaborating with Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and Allen Toussaint. Burnett, on the other hand, has become the go-to man for Americana/roots recordings, winning a Grammys for his production on Robert Plant and Allisson Krauss’ debut album and the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. The reunion of Costello and Burnett creates an accessible entry point for a public that reaches beyond his usual audience of the core and the curious.
Unfortunately, the magic that sparked “King of America” is absent on “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.” While Burnett has rounded up an all-star cast of bluegrass musicians, the music feels like a stiff genre exercise. It is almost as if Costello is guesting on his own “Pickin’ On” tribute, or starring in “O Brother Where Art Costello.” Costello’s decision to revisit two songs from his back catalog reinforces this notion. “Complicated Shadows” was a great Johnny Cash-inspired slow-burning rock song in its original incarnation back in 1996. Here, it’s half the length and feels like Costello slapped his old lyrics over a generic bluegrass arrangement.
It neither helps nor hurts the listening experience to know that these songs were culled from an unfinished opera about Hans Christian Anderson, previous albums and leftovers from other projects. With little exception, they are all painted with the same brush and do little to distinguish themselves from the gray wash of an album that is neither offensive nor interesting.
The songs that do stand out are the two co-written by Burnett and Costello. “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is an extended innuendo delivered with a broad poke in the ribs and exaggerated arched eyebrow. It recalls the routines of Dusty and Lefty, the off-color cowboy duo played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Riley in the film “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“The Crooked Line,” however, is a standout in the good way. This next-to-last tune rewards the listener for nearly making it through the album with the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. Harris may be the best and most underrated duet singer in music. She consistently works harder on her supporting vocals than most singers invest in their singles. Her voice soars, subtly complimenting the melody, adding a mesmerizing countermelody. Whether on Lyle Lovett’s “Waltz Through the Bottomland” or Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique,” her voice never ceases to inadvertently creep into the spotlight and eventually command full attention.
Drawing on the chemistry she and Costello established in their previous collaboration on his “Delivery Man” album and subsequent tour, Harris doesn’t disappoint on “The Crooked Line.” Like a jazz musician breathing life into a trite pop standard, Harris signing salvages a ho-hum song and arrangement and turns it into something worth repeated listens.
“Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” has been released on Starbuck’s Hear Music label, and it seems a perfect fit for the latte-drinking, NPR-listening caricature scribbled up in political circles. For this audience, Costello’s name means maverick, Burnett’s means quality and the country-folk stylings make it unique, yet comfortable. But fans of Costello, Burnett and bluegrass alike can do much better than this.