Social Distancing Spins – Days 22-24

By Joel Francis

Saturdays and Sundays are for family time. I think the trend of fewer weekend spins and a combined entry spanning Friday through Sunday will continue going forward.

The Dirtbombs – Ultraglide in Black (2001) Musically speaking, the Motor City is best known for two groundbreaking styles of music: Motown, of course, and the raw rock and roll that would become punk, pioneered by the MC5 and Stooges. The Dirtbombs combine both of these genres masterfully on this tribute to their hometown. Hearing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye get a layer of scuzzy guitars and blown-out drums not only casts the songs in a new light but is a pure delight. If you like Detroit music, heck if you’ve ever driven a Ford, you’ll find something to like here.

I saw the Dirtbombs touring in support of another album, several years after Ultraglide came out. The show started after midnight and there were about a dozen people in the audience. It was fantastic.

The Temptations – All Directions (1972) Before taking the compass to All Directions, let’s pause for a moment and marvel at the industriousness of the Motown machine. All Directions was the first of two Temptations releases in 1972. Overall, it was their 16th studio album (counting two full-length collaborations with the Supremes) in only eight years. Think about that for a moment. In less than a decade, they went from “The Way You Do the Things You Do” to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Wow!

“Papa” is the standout track here, a No. 1 hit on the U.S pop charts, but the rest of the album isn’t a bunch of cast-offs. “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On” starts the album with a faux-concert intro before the five Tempts trade lead vocals a la “Ball of Confusion.” Album closer “Do Your Thing” is a rare example of Motown covering Stax. The version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won’t make anyone forget Roberta Flack, but newcomer Richard Street handles it well. After this album, the Temptations took a whole seven months off (during which they were no doubt touring) before releasing their next album.

Tom Petty – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)

Tom Petty – The Last DJ (2002) Last autumn, I was on a business trip with the better part of a day to burn in Gainesville, Fla. Knowing that was Tom Petty’s home town, I did some online sleuthing and found several Petty-related points of interest to visit. The night I got in, I was walking around a nice little square of shops near my hotel when a sign caught my eye: Lillian’s Music Store. I had to go in. As I ordered my drink the bartender who gave me the scoop: Lillian’s hadn’t been a music store for some time (it claims to be the oldest bar in Gainesville) but kept the former occupant’s business name. Which is why on the song “Dreamville,” the third track on The Last DJ, Petty sings “Goin’ down to Lillian’s music store/To buy a black diamond string/Gonna wind it up on my guitar/Gonna make that silver sing.”

Now, the larger question is this: If I am going to buy a drink at Lillian’s Music Store chiefly because it appears in a Tom Petty lyric, as a Clash fan am I likewise obliged to get inked at the Death Or Glory tattoo parlor? The answer of course, is yes. And yet it didn’t happen. My apologies, Mick and Joe.

One more quick note about Lillian’s. They had these weird heavy, glass dishes that I hadn’t seen for several years scattered around inside. Ashtrays. Because indoor smoking is still cool in Florida, I guess. All my clothes smelled afterward and I had to double-bag them so they wouldn’t reek into the rest of my luggage.

A couple quick thoughts about the music on these albums before moving on, because this is already running long. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) contains one of my favorite Petty deep tracks, “Runaway Trains.” It has very ‘80s production and feels almost more like an adult contemporary tune closer to something Sting or Steve Winwood would come up with than anything in the Heartbreakers catalog. I love it because it is so unusual and has those great Petty lyrics and singing. This album also has “It Will All Work Out,” one of my all-time favorite Petty songs. The Last DJ is excellent, except for the song “Joe,” which is my least favorite Petty song. It sounds like a demo that should have been scrapped in the studio. You should still own both albums.

David Bowie – Station to Station (1976) One of many favorite moments from catching David Bowie’s concert on the Reality tour during its stop in Kansas City, Mo. was watching him hang out on the side of the stage, arms holding on to the scaffolding, grooving along to as his band churned through the long instrumental introduction to “Station to Station.” It was the first song in the encore set and for those minutes, Bowie was just another music fan, like all of us in the crowd.

Bowie claimed to have no memories of making this album, but Station to Station’s detached, synthesized paranoia paved a direct path to Joy Division.  Single “TVC15” was durable enough to find a spot in Bowie’s Live Aid set nearly a decade later and his cover of “Wild is the Wind” is an touching showcase of Bowie’s vocal talent. An essential addition to any rock fan’s music collection.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982) Elvis Costello’s seventh album concludes an incredible opening run with the country tribute Almost Blue as the only misstep. (Almost Blue doesn’t miss because of the genre – the songs and performances just aren’t as strong as on the surrounding albums.) Former Beatles engineer pulls several tricks out of George Martin’s playbook with his gorgeous production arrangements. I love the orchestral countermelody on “And in Every Home” and what sounds like a sitar on “Human Hands.” Not every song is dressed up. “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Man Out of Town” have a pared-down Attractions sound that could have come from Trust, Costello’s previous album. It’s not hard to imagine bands like the Decemberists obsessing over Imperial Bedroom and coming away with dozens of ideas. Costello wouldn’t stay in this baroque mood for long, however. By the next album (and year) he had moved on to a more modern sheen and added the TKO Horns for Punch the Clock.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019) Lana Del Rey got a lot of buzz when her album Born to Die came out nearly a decade ago. I watched her on Saturday Night Live, eager to hear what the fuss was about and sampled her debut album before dismissing her as a joke trying too hard to be ironic (and iconic). NFR is the album that finally won me over. Del Rey has built her catalog almost exclusively on torch songs, but here she does them really, really well. Early in the album, the sweeping guitars at the end of “Mariners Apartment Complex” lead right into “Venice Bitch,” which slowly builds into a psychedelic meltdown. Later, Del Rey delivers one of the sexiest music nerd songs ever on “The Next Best American Record.” Don’t ever say she doesn’t know her demographic. The super-profane opening couplet that opens the album belongs in the poetry hall of fame as a stand-alone lyric. I don’t know how long LDR will be able to hold me, but she definitely got me with NFR.

Slobberbone – Bees and Seas: The Best of Slobberbone (compilation) Alt-country fans lamenting the end of Uncle Tupelo need look no further than Slobberbone. The questionably named quartet from Texas perform with the same reckless abandoned that fueled UT classics “Screen Door” and “Gun.” This two record set devotes roughly one side to each of the band’s four albums. The band remains remarkably consistent in sound a quality throughout. There are no detours into horn sections or bagpipes and Brent Best’s songwriting via scenes of everyday life never fail to suck me in. Sadly, like Uncle Tupelo, Slobberbone is no longer releasing new material. Unlike their forebearers, though, Best and company frequently reunite and tour.

The Kinks – Face to Face (1966) As the Fab Four started to migrate toward more intricate, artistic material, the Kinks stepped right into the void, albeit with a more garage-y sound. Straightforward rockers “Party Line” and “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” set the album off strong, but Ray Davies takes a couple surprising turns with the Indian instruments on “Fancy” and faux-Hawaiian guitars on “Holiday in Waikiki,” a charming tale about winning a holiday in the Pacific. “Dandy” is the type of music hall number only an Englishman could write (and probably stomach – it’s much to cloying for me). Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ray Davies perform “Sunny Afternoon,” my favorite song from Face to Face, in concert. It remains an enduring memory of a fantastic night.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 9

By Joel Francis

A 30-day lockdown in my hometown of Kansas City, Mo. was announced today. It looks like this trek through my record collection will continue a while longer.

Bruce Springtsteen – Western Skies (2019) The Boss made his legion of fans wait five long years between releases before dropping Western Skies in the middle of 2019. The first few times I listened, I didn’t like it at all. The songwriting was good, but the strings were too syrupy and heavy-handed. Even though I couldn’t get into the album, when I saw it on sale online the completist in me pushed the buy button. I don’t know what changed, but something happened when I played it this morning. I heard everything with new ears and finally heard what Springsteen was trying to accomplish with the orchestra. I can’t wait to dig into this one again.

Neville Brothers – Yellow Moon (1989) The highs and lows of this album come in rapid succession at the end of side one. Aaron Neville voice soars cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come.” The civil rights hymn is accented by producer Daniel Lanois’ tremelo guitar and guest Brian Eno’s ethereal keyboards. The civil rights theme takes an uncomfortable turn with the next song, “Sister Rosa,” a well-intentioned by horribly awkward rap tribute. Fortunately the ship is righted with Aaron Neville back in the spotlight with a tender cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” Elsewhere, the album explores cajun and the brothers’ native New Orleans on songs like “Fire and Brimstone” and “Wild Injuns.”

Kelis – Food (2014) Her milkshake brought the boys to the yard, but Food is a full meal of biscuits and gravy, jerk ribs and cobbler. Working with producer Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Kelis’ most recent album to date rejects contemporary production and attempts at Top 40 success. The organic arrangements with live instrumentation make this a Kelis album with the singer in firm control, rather than a vehicle with her voice slotted into other producers’ ideas. The relaxed comfort of the sessions comes through in the songs. “Cobbler” opens with gales of laughter as a slow Afrobeat groove slowly builds. Those same horns also pop up in “Jerk Ribs” and “Friday Fish Fry,” propelling everyone straight to the dance floor. “Bless the Telephone” might be my favorite moment on the album. It’s also one of the most basic –Kelis and Sal Masakela sound so honest and vulnerable singing over a gorgeous acoustic guitar line. Then the party roars back to life.

The Flaming Lips – The Terror (2013) The Terror isn’t my favorite Flaming Lips album by a long shot, but it felt the most appropriate right now. Half the band was in a bad way when this album was being made and it shows. Singer Wayne Coyne’s longtime romantic relationship had ended and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd relapsed into substance abuse. There aren’t any hints of the magic and wonder fans got from the band’s breakthrough albums. Instead there are songs like the seven-plus minute “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die,” which sounds like the dawn of a nightmare in some post-apocalyptic desert. But hey, when you haven’t left the house in more than a week and have just been alerted your entire city is on lockdown for the next 30 days, sometimes even cold comfort is comforting. Happy spring, everybody!

Son Volt – Straightaways (1997)

Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne (1993) The first time I saw Son Volt was in support of Straightaways, when they opened for ZZ Top at Sandstone Amphitheater. The venue was your typical outdoor shed and my friend and I were miles away from the stage, out on the lawn. Frontman Jay Farrar was never known for his onstage energy and the songs sizzled out well before they reached us.

Oh to have seen Farrar just a few years earlier. If I could build a time machine, one of the first places I’d go would be to an Uncle Tupelo concert. Hearing Farrar’s voice pair with Jeff Tweedy’s on the chorus of “Slate,” the first song, always sends me to a happy place. While the sessions for what would be the pair’s final album were acrimonious – at least from Farrar’s viewpoint; Tweedy has said he had no clue of his partner’s hostility and disillusionment – the result is a timeless slab of alt-country goodness.

Bleached – Welcome to the Worms (2016) Centered around sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin, Bleached operates somewhere between Blondie and the Donnas. I first saw the band at the now-shuttered Tank Room on Halloween night with Beach Slang. The sisters, along with bass player Micayla Grace, all performed in costume. These songs were a little more garage-y in concert, but it is still great girl-group rock however you slice it.

Ahmad Jamal – Inspiration (compilation) This 1972 collection finds jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal primarily working in a trio format with bass and drums. The assemblage hops around from the mid-‘50s to the late ‘60s in both studio and club settings. Several of the songs are augmented with a string section, which can be a little jarring, since Jamal isn’t know for orchestral work. Despite the seemingly hodgepodge nature, the four sides make for a generally cohesive play. Jamal made a ton of records and none of them are very expensive. Any good music shop will have at least five or six inches of his platters to choose from in the stacks. This isn’t a bad place to start.

Emmylou Harris – At the Ryman (1992) Emmylou Harris was coming off the worst-performing album of her career to date when she stepped onstage at the storied Ryman Auditorium for three nights in the spring of 1991. Backed by her new bluegrass ensemble the Nash Ramblers (lead by Sam Bush), Harris tackles several hit songs associated with other artists. While her versions of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” or John Fogerty’s “Lodi” won’t make you forget the original performers, Harris puts her own distinctive stamp on them. One of my favorite singers of all time, Harris’ voice is particularly affecting on the a capella “Calling My Children Home” and a medley of Nanci Griffith’s “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”

Middle of the Map 2013

(Above: Roman Numerals fill in for the Guards at the RecordBar on the second night of the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: Sigur Ros pulled me away from covering the first day of MoTM, but I was at the RecordBar on Friday and the outdoor stage on Saturday (with a quick reprise back at the RecordBar).

Friday

In some unfortunate scheduling, Spirit is the Spirit, a Lawrence-based quintet, was forced to compete with Grizzly Bear. It’s too bad fans of laid-back, analog rock were forced to chose, because many Grizzly fans would likely appreciate Austen Malone’s easygoing, reassuring approach.Spirit’s 40-minute set recalled the earthier moments from the Band and the relaxed vibe of “Workingman’s Dead.” The quintet performed several songs from its new EP and was finally able to coax the sparse crowd to dance on the set-closing “Pillows.”

photo (2)
Indie rock supergroup Divine Fits rock the Middle of the Map outdoor stage on Saturday.

Roman Numerals are technically a local band, but Friday’s abbreviated set felt more like a homecoming. The four-piece band was playing with drummer Pete LaPorte for the first time in five years and singer/guitarist William Smith had flown in from his home in New York City.

Stepping in at the last minute for the Guards, who called in sick, the Numerals delivered a gripping 30-minute preview of their set planned for Saturday on the outdoor stage.

The RecordBar crowd swelled considerably for the Numerals, but it didn’t approach feeling full until fans started appearing at the conclusion of Grizzly Bear’s set, in anticipation of Deerhoof.

By the time Deerhoof went onstage at midnight, the RecordBar had a line out the door. A packed house watched the avante-indie quartet make its Kansas City debut (although the band did open for the Flaming Lips mini-residency at Liberty Hall in Lawrence last summer).

Cross Sonic Youth with a Japanese game show and you’re in the ballpark of Deerhoof’s unique sound. The diminuitive Satomi Matsuzaki’s enchanting vocals served as a counterpoint to the chaos, while Greg Saunier’s drumming anchored the seemingly free-form songs.

The biggest responses during the 70-minute set came early for the catchy “Panda Panda Panda” and Flaming Lips’ drummer (and Lawrence resident) Kliph Scurlock’s surprise guest appearance behind the kit.

Saturday

Beautiful Bodies had no problem sustaining the momentum from Roman Numerals’ incredible set-closing cover of Joy Division’s “Transmission.”
Bodies singer Alicia Solombrino spent more time in the crowd than she did onstage. She wasn’t always visible, but it was easy to gauge where she was by the disproportionate amount of hands (and phones) in the air.

Fans further away found plenty to like from the five-piece band’s high energy, half-hour set. The parking lot hosting the outdoor stage was only a third full, but the balcony at nearby Buzzard Beach was packed.

Sandwiched between Beautiful Bodies’ grrl-power pop and Futurebirds’ alt-country, the Soft Reeds were a palate cleanser.

The quintet’s 30 minute set previewed material from an upcoming new album. Bursts of free jazz sax highlighted the opening number, and songs like “Finding Patterns” and “Moving in Time” recalled the nervous energy of the Talking Heads. The band also covered Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain.”

Fans missing Uncle Tupelo will have an instant friend in Futurebirds. The five-piece alt-country band from Athens, Ga. made an impressive KC debut.
Their too-short 50 minute set was grounded in the earthy jangle of three guitars and driven to the stratosphere by the cry of a pedal steel.
A cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” highlighted the band’s strengths, a perfect balance of smooth yet ragged. The one-two of “Wild Heart” and the anthemic “Yur Not Dead” closed the set on the highest moment of the day so far.

photo (1)
The Futurebirds make their Kansas City debut at the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.

Divine Fits had its work cut out following Futurebirds. The supergroup comprised of members of Spoon, Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks proved up to the task. The quartet performed all but one track from their sole LP during the one-hour set, with a new song, “Chained to Love” and a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.”

Both diversions blended well with the group’s sound: driving indie rock built over basic synth patterns. The material blossomed onstage gaining raw energy and losing the sterility of the recorded versions. Frontmen Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner alternated vocal and lead guitar duties. Two of the band’s most neurotic numbers, “What Gets You Alone” and “Shivers” also provided the night’s best moments.

It was hard not to miss the Beaumont Club throughout the weekend, the outdoor stage offered several benefits. Although capacity never rose more than two-thirds full, it offered much greater capacity. It also provided the opportunity to simultaneous enjoy great music and beautiful spring weather.

Tennis
It seemed no one wanted to leave the RecordBar after Making Movies. The venue was one-in, one-out well into Tennis’ set and the room didn’t start to thin until around 1 a.m.

The husband and wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were augmented by a two-piece rhythm section for their 50-minute set. The band’s jangly indie pop and confessional, introspective lyrics made them seem like the cool aunt and uncle to Best Coast. Songs were filled with complex lyrics and romantic devotion typical of a married couple who met in a college philosophy course. The biggest responses went to “Petition” and “Origins.” The response to “Petition” was so great that Moore joked that know she knows how Taylor Swift feels.

The final notes had barely died before the house lights were thrown on and patrons were ordered out. Middle of the Map 2013 was officially over at the RecordBar.

Keep reading:

Review: Kanrocksas (Day 1)

Review: Mission of Burma at MoTM

Review: F*cked Up at MoTM

Review: Social Distortion

(Above: Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness says he’s performed “Story of My Life” so many times it belongs to the fans more than him – but it never gets old to hear.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Bathed in a white spotlight, Social Distortion front man Mike Ness generated a wall of distorted chords with his Les Paul guitar before belting out the lonesome words to “Making Believe,” a song first recorded more than 50 years ago. Ness was joined by the rest of the band on the second verse, adding a punch Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris probably never imagined when they recorded their hit versions of the song. Before the chorus came around again the classic country number had been converted to a punk anthem.

For many of the songs in Social D’s 90-minute set Tuesday night the Beaumont Club the reverse was also true. It isn’t hard to imagine songs like “Bad Luck,” “Bakersfield,” and especially “Prison Bound” as traditional country fare cast in only a slightly different light.

Social Distortion’s presentation recalls Black Flag – full of furious energy and tattoos – but its content – songs of the downtrodden and desolate searching for redemption – could have come from the Acuff-Rose catalog.

The Orange County quartet have been smearing the line between country and punk for more than 30 years now, long before the alt-country era of Uncle Tupelo or even cowpunk contemporaries Jason and the Scorchers.

The sidemen sometimes change, but Ness and company roll into town regularly enough that the singer/ lead guitarist knew where State Line divides the town and that he was firmly planted on the Missouri side. The current lineup includes drummer David Hidalgo Jr., son of the Los Lobos singer and guitarist.

Although the band released its first album in seven years in January, most of the night was dedicated to fan favorites and fevered sing-alongs. “Bad Luck,” “Sick Boys” and “Ball and Chain” drew especially hearty responses. On the rare occasion when the fans didn’t know the words, as on the new song “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown,” they participated by crowd surfing and jumping around.

Hard-driving instrumental “Road Zombie” took off like a brick dropped on the accelerator. The band barreled through half of their main setlist in about 30 minutes, before Ness paused to talk and slow things down.

Near the end of the first set, Ness introduced the fiddle player from  Chuck Regan’s band, who opened, and invited him to sit in with the band. Second guitarist Jonny Wickersham strapped on an acoustic guitar and an accordion player joined the ensemble for a pair of stripped-down songs. The resulting performances of “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” and “Reach for the Sky” proved even unamplified Social D was still electric.

Ness is clearly proud of his band’s legacy. Before one number he stopped to chat with a young girl who named Social Distortion her favorite band. She wasn’t the only pre-adolescent fan in the crowd. As Ness said before “Story of My Life,” these songs have been around so long they’re not really about him anymore. They belong to everyone who grew up with the band or is just discovering his music. Shows like this will ensure that circle remains unbroken.

Setlist: Road Zombie > So Far Away; King of Fools; Bad Luck; Mommy’s Little Monster; Sick Boys; Machine Gun Blues; Ball and Chain; Down on the World Again; Bakersfield; Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown; Down Here (With the Rest of Us); Reach for the Sky; Making Believe (Jimmy Work cover). Encore: Prison Bound; Story of My Life; Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover).

Keep reading:

Review: Old 97s, Lucero

Review: Son Volt with the North Mississippi All-Stars and Split Lip Rayfield

Happy Clash-mas Eve

Farewell, Charlie Louvin

 (Above: Charlie Louvin sings of the “Great Atomic Power” at a February, 2009, performance in Raleigh, N.C.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

My first exposure to the Louvin Brothers was on one of those “worst album covers of all time” Web sites. Standing in front of what appears to be a backyard BBQ gone horribly wrong, two Bing Crosby wannabes in matching white suits raise their arms in welcome. Above them, the title proclaims “Satan is Real.” Behind them, the most ridiculously fake, wooden Mephistopheles looms like failed a junior high shop class project.

A few years later, while visiting home during college, I decided this cover would be a perfect piece of art in my dorm room and went to the Music Exchange in search of a copy. I asked the man behind the counter (it wasn’t Ron Rook) if they had any albums by the “Lovin’ Brothers.”

“Do you mean the Loooovin Brothers,” he asked, making a point of drawing out the long “o” and informing the store of my ignorance.

“Um, yeah, whatever,” I stammered. They were out.

Sometime after that, I happened upon a CD of “Satan Is Real” at the Kansas City Public Library. After mocking its cover for so long, I had to hear what the actual music sounded like. Pretty freaking good, it turned out.

Charlie and Ira Louvin’s music wasn’t the kind I wanted to listen to that often, but when the mood hit it landed deep and only the Louvins would do. As if by magic, their names started appearing in the album credits of my favorite musicians – the Byrds and Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Buddy Miller, Uncle Tupelo. Far from a novelty act or wacky cover, the brothers’ influence was everywhere.

A couple years ago, a friend lent me his copy of the Louvin Brothers Bear Family box set. At eight discs it was way more than I’d ever need, but he swore it was the best stuff ever recorded. I respected his deep and diverse tasted and promised to dive in. I’ll now confess that I only just scratched the surface. A little country gospel still goes a long way for me.

This same friend also told me about the time he saw Charlie played the Grand Emporium. Only a few people bothered to show up for the full set peppered with stories and a fond remembrance of Ira, who died in a car crash near Jefferson City, Mo. in 1965. Afterward, Charlie hung out, reveling in conversation with his fans.

I made a mental note to see Charlie the next time he came through town. His next appearance was opening for Lucinda Williams. It was a dream ticket, but I had other obligations that night. Then were appearances booked at Knuckleheads and Davey’s Uptown. Just before the show, however, the performance would be cancelled. Then, miraculously, another date would be booked several months out.

Each time a show was cancelled I feared that I’d missed my chance. Wednesday my worries were confirmed: Charlie Louvin died from complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

My in-person opportunity may have vanished, but I have hours of his music to relish. As I think of Charlie reuniting with Ira at long last, a song by Gram Parsons, one of the brothers’ greatest disciples – in style, if not message – springs to mind: “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.”

Keep reading:

Review: Chris Hillman thumbs through his back pages

Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

 

 

 

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

Jay Bennett, Always In Love

(Above: Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy perform the unreleased Wilco song “Cars Can’t Escape.”)

By Joel Francis

When I first heard Jay Bennett had been fired from Wilco back in 2001, I was worried the band had just lost their secret weapon. Jeff Tweedy may have been the wordsmith and idea man, but Bennett was the artist who polished those ideas to perfection.

Bennett died in his sleep May 24. He was 45 years old.

Bennett’s presence was felt from the moment he joined Wilco in 1995. Tweedy was still trying to crawl out from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and establish his identity independent of his Tupelo cohort (and rival) Jay Farrar. Bennett’s presence on the band’s second album, “Being There,” added a new dimension to the arrangements and production.

“Summerteeth” is arguable Wilco’s finest hour and definitely the perfect product of the Tweedy/Bennett vision. For each of Tweedy’s dark moments, like “She’s A Jar” or “Via Chicago,” there are the sun-drenched pop anthems of “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” and “I’m Always in Love.” Wilco’s music has never been happier and more optimistic than it is on “Summerteeth.” For proof, check out the opening riff in the title song. “Summerteeth” the song is the musical equivalent of a gentle breeze caressing the backyard hammock, or those Corona beach commercials.

Bookending the recording of “Summerteeth” are two albums using unused Woody Guthrie lyrics recorded with British folker Billy Bragg. Bennett’s touch is felt across both volumes of the “Mermaid Avenue” material; “Secrets of the Sea” and “Hoodoo Voodoo” continue that “Summerteeth” vibe.

Wilco’s next album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” famously found the band in transition and butting heads. But if “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” point to the band’s future without Bennett, “Jesus, etc.” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” still held plenty of Bennett’s sunny, radio-friendly magic.

Although Tweedy continued building critical acclaim and growing his fan base after “Foxtrot,” Bennett was not as successful on his own. That Bennett was working as a VCR repairman prior to joining Wilco says a lot about his craft. Bennett was a tinkerer, one who was best improving and polishing other’s creations. Left to both build and execute, he struggled.

Despite this, Bennett’s four solo albums still have merit. His first post-Wilco release, a collaboration with Edward Burch called “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” has a remake of the “Summerteeth” track “My Darling” that may top the original. This album and the two that follow it have more unused Guthrie material which makes for a nice “Mermaid Avenue” post script. (The post script continued this year with Wilco’s release of Guthrie’s “Jolly Banker.” Hopefully a “Volume Three” will appear sometime.) Bennett’s limited singing ability can grows wearisome across these releases, his production never does.

Bennett’s most complete solo statement was his second-to-last album, 2006’s “The Magnificent Defeat.” The second word in the title should be given more emphasis than the third. Bennett’s lyrics and delivery have a bit of Elvis Costello anger to them, but the fun he had putting the album together jumps out the speakers and makes for an infectious listen.

Today, Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt are all that remain of the Wilco lineup that brought us “Summerteeth” and “Being There.” But every time the band launches into “She’s A Jar” or “ELT” – as they frequently do – a little bit of Jay Bennett will be smiling on the audience. And they’ll be smiling back.

Keep reading:

Wilco Wows At Crossroads KC

Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Holiday Marketing Can Reveal Bands’ Inner Grinch

Mongol Beach Party will get its groove on with a weekend reunion

mbp
By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

The Mongol Beach Party reunion was already booked when Mark Southerland found out about it.

“I think what happened was (drummer) Bill (Belzer) booked the show, called (guitarist) Jeff (Freeling), and everyone else found out through third parties,” said Southerland, who plays saxophone in the band.

Although the idea had been floated casually in conversation before, this time no one said no. Seventeen years apart seemed like the right time to hook back up.

“When we started this band, none of us had been in bands before,” singer Christian Hankel said. “Now we’ve spent our lives since then in bands and music.”

Today Hankel and trombonist Kyle Dahlquist are part of Alacartoona; Belzer is in the New Amsterdams with Get Up Kid Matt Pryor; and Southerland is involved in several projects, including the Malachy Papers and Snuff Jazz. Bass player Scott Easterday fronts the reconvened Expassionates; and Freeling, the lone Mongol based outside of Kansas City, plays guitar with Chicago’s Blue Man Group.

“The fact that we’ve all continued on as musicians and none of us have set down our instruments has helped us reapproach the Mongol songs again,” Freeling said. “It’s not as if we’re reliving our glory days.”

Fans who show up at the RecordBar Friday and Saturday are guaranteed the same good-time, quirky dance-rock songs they heard nearly 20 years ago at the Shadow, Harling’s Upstairs and the Hurricane.

“I get the big sense that this isn’t just our reunion,” Hankel said. “People are using us as a way of getting together with their circle of friends from that time.”

Kansas City in the late ’80s was a different scene. There were fewer places to play, fewer outlets for exposure and fewer bands.

“Back then if you wanted to be known it was expensive and difficult,” Hankel said. “You couldn’t set up a MySpace page or Web site because those didn’t exist. You could make a CD, but that was worthless unless you could get somebody to play it.”

Instead the Mongols took whatever gigs they could get, even when it meant they were packaged with completely different bands like the Sin City Disciples.

“Bands were country or blues or whatever and had their own music scene that would go with them,” Easterday said. “We were different because we cut across the sub-scenes.”

Record producer Tom Mardikes was introduced to Mongols by his aerobics instructor, Freeling’s mother.

“Tom believed in a ‘Kansas City sound’ unique to our town,” Hankel said. “He took us to City Spark Studios, offered us unfettered access to the studio to record a full CD and promotion to college radio.”

“Toast,” the Mongols’ only album, was recorded in 1991. Long out of print, it was remastered and reissued this month.

“We included a few new additions to this version,” Easterday said. “There are our three demos cut at City Spark and a couple songs from a limited-edition cassette we made.”

Mongol Beach Party formed out of the Rockhurst High School friendships of Belzer, Freeling and Hankel and the musical partnerships forged at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. After five years of living together in a house at 43rd and Harrison, and a single-minded focus on the band, the group unraveled when Belzer joined Uncle Tupelo.

“Jeff Tweedy would come drunkenly into Cicero’s (a St. Louis club the Mongols sometimes played),” Belzer said. “I loved his band, and when I was talking to him one time the idea came up for me to tour Europe with them.”

Belzer couldn’t be blamed for taking advantage of the opportunity to play for bigger crowds and share the bill with Bob Mould, Michelle Shocked and bluesman Taj Mahal. He wasn’t the only Mongol looking to expand his horizons.

“Bill did not break up the band,” Hankel said. “Because we were so close emotionally, but starting to branch out artistically, there was enormous pressure within the group. Side projects were not part of the culture at that time.”

Today the only musical trend hipper than a side project is a full-blown reunion.

“I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to the rehearsals more than the shows,” Hankel said last week. “Jeff and I were best friends before Mongol Beach Party, and we lost touch for a long time. I’m excited about reconnecting with these guys.”


mongol farewells
The Mongol Beach Party shows are Friday and Saturday at the RecordBar. The Friday show starts at 9 p.m. with opening act the Afterparty. The Saturday show starts at 9 p.m. with the Last Call Girls. Tickets for either show cost $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the RecordBar or through groovetickets.com.

Review: Old 97s


Above: Of course they played “Roller Skate Skinny.”

By Joel Francis

There is something to be said for a band who can play an entire set without changing instruments.

The Old 97s are not quite that band – lead singer/songwriter/heartthrob Rhett Miller swapped his electric axe for an acoustic one a few times – but they are as close as we’re going to get. For almost two hours they entertained a nearly full Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan. with little more than the instruments and songs on their backs.

The setlist encompassed more than two dozen songs, from radio favorites like “New Kid” to fan favorites like “Jagged” and new songs like “No Baby I.” When the band played “Question,” a recount of Miller’s wedding proposal, all the women pulled their men close and sang softly in their ears. “Barrier Reef” erupted into a raucous sing-along.

In a rare moment of between-song banter, Miller recalled the band’s first show in Lawrence at the Replay Lounge where they performed for a night of unlimited, free video games. A few songs later, those days were celebrated in “Niteclub.”

Miller may have the easiest job in showbiz. Offstage, all he has to do is write songs that combine the alt-country terrain plowed by Uncle Tupelo with the pop sensibility of Paul McCartney. Onstage, he just makes love with his eyes to all the doe-eyed women pressed against the stage and occasionally shake his ass while Ken Bethea takes a guitar solo.

Bethea plays lead guitar via chainsaw. Standing on the edge of the stage with his headstock hanging over the crowd, he rips through songs with a Chet Atkins-meets-Dick Dale style. On the other extreme of the stage, modest Murry Hammond cradles his bass like a baby and tosses out the harmony (and intermittent lead) vocals that push the songs from good to great.

Late-tour shows can be a mixed bag. When Wilco played the Uptown Theater in 2006 at the end of the Kicking Television tour they were tired of both the road and their material. But with only a couple dates left on their current tour the Old 97s played with the perfect mix of familiarity and abandon. “Doreen,” one of their hardest-rocking numbers, positively smoked.

The evening ended with the encore haymaker punches of “Murder (Or a Heart Attack),” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Dance with Me” and, of course, “Timebomb.” When it was over, everyone left a little drunker and a lot happier.

Review: Son Volt with the North Mississippi All-Stars and Split Lip Rayfield

Oct. 8 in Westport

Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

Four months ago, Son Volt took the main stage at the Wakarusa Music Festival at Clinton Lake early on Friday afternoon. The sun was hot and the oversized crowd seemed more interested in talking to each other than paying attention to the music.
Saturday night’s show in the parking lot across the street from the Beaumont Club in Westport couldn’t have been more different. The sun was down and the temperature hovered around 40 degrees. The crowd of more than 1,500 people hung on every word of lead singer and songwriter Jay Farrar.
The Wakarusa show was one of the revamped Son Volt’s first shows together (only Farrar remains from the band’s original ’90s incarnation).
The band’s album “Okemah and the Melody of Riot” has also been on store shelves for a couple months now, giving the fans a chance to become familiar with the new material. Some in the crowd were even requesting the newer songs, which is always a good sign.
Farrar and his four-piece band played 10 of the album’s 12 songs, half of those coming as the show’s opening five numbers. But after that fifth song, Farrar announced “something from a long time ago.” The band launched into “Medicine Hat,” knowingly nodding at the material the most people came to hear. From there it was a sprinkling of more “Okemah” material alongside classic Son Volt songs from “Trace,” “Straightaways” and “Wide Swing Tremolo.”
If “Medicine Hat” hinted at the band’s best era, the new song “Medication” was the fulcrum on which the show’s momentum rest.
“Medication,” a Indian-influenced drone and one of “Okemah”’s stand-out cuts, ended with Farrar ferociously banging his fists against the body of his guitar as the rest of the band jammed. The song abruptly collided with “Route” from “Trace” and was the best one-two punch of the 90 minute set.
The steadily dropping temperature thinned the crowd considerably as the evening progressed. By the end of the night, the crowd’s brave remainders were either toasted or frosty, but all were rewarded.