Posts Tagged ‘Americana’

Live music is better. At its best, in concert, time trips over itself and lands you smack dab in that sweet spot of spacetime where the earth doesn’t whirl, clocks don’t tick, and nothing much matters beyond the rhythms and melodies rolling like the sonic waves they are from stage to shore.

Such was the case, at any rate, when Caroline Spence and her band headlined the Cat’s Cradle back room in Carrboro, N.C., on June 5th – our first time at the legendary club. For those unaware of her, which I suspect is many, she’s a country-tinged singer-songwriter whose music conjures, among others, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.

“The Long Haul,” about what Merle Haggard dubbed “White Line Fever” (aka life on the road), opened her 80-minute (give or take) set in perfect fashion, given that she and her band drove straight from Nashville for the gig (a 7 1/2-hour journey according to Apple Maps): “Town after town and it’s all the same/They say expecting something different’s the definition of insane/But here I go, I follow those highway stripes leading the way/Down that fine line between making a living and digging your grave.” Here’s the studio track:

One highlight was “Wait on the Wine.” Here she is, a few nights earlier, performing it at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, Mass.:

Another highlight: “Sit Here and Love Me”:

The bulk of the set, which was split by a solo-acoustic turn in its center, was drawn from her stellar 2019 release on Rounder Records, Mint Condition, though she worked in quite a few older tunes, too. My favorite moment came with “Who Are You,” which floated through the ether like a long-lost Emmylou Harris & Spyboy track:

Although you can’t see them in the clip, her backing band – Charlie Whitten on guitar, Luke Preston on bass, and drummer Aaron Shafer-Haiss – was phenomenal. Another moment when they shined was  “Slow Dancer,” a track from her 2017 Spades & Roses album. Here’s the studio version:

The night ended with her rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” which she first heard via Mary Chapin Carpenter when she was 6. It quickly became, and still remains, one of her favorite songs.

In short, good times never seemed so good. If Caroline comes to your town, be sure to catch her. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Courtney Marie Andrews’ recent May Your Kindness Remain (Acoustic) EP features acoustic renditions of four songs from last year’s May Your Kindness Remain album. That LP showcased an expansive sound that conjured the Band and Little Feat, among others, and was a dramatic – though not unwelcome – departure from the country-folk flavorings that accented her 2016 set, Honest Life.

Stripped to their essence, the songs – the title track, “Took You Up,” “Rough Around the Edges” and “Border” – lose none of their power. They aren’t revelatory performances, per se, but are revelations all the same. Minus the wheezing organ and gospel flourishes, for example, “May Your Kindness Remain” crests and recedes on Courtney’s crystalline vocal alone.

It’s a close approximation to how she sounded when I first saw her live, in May 2017, backed only by guitarist/consigliere Dillon Warnek. Her voice was clear and strong that night, a thing of true aural beauty – and yet her vocals were no match for the songs themselves. To my ears, they were imbued with the past, present and future of American music.

That’s still the case. “Is it the journey or the destination?” opens “Took You Up,” conjuring a line from a long-ago Stephen Stills song, “Thoroughfare Gap”: “It’s no matter. No distance. It’s the ride.” On album, Dillon’s electric guitar amplifies the emotional underpinning of the lyrics to perfection. Sans those accents and umlauts, however, Courtney’s acoustic delivery is no less wondrous. Likewise “Rough Around the Edges.” On album, piano buttresses the self-aware confessional; on EP, it’s not missed (though, in a sense, it is). “Border,” about measuring those who’ve been down the deepest well, swaps its sinewy rhythm for a “Hollis Brown”-like guitar motif.

Up top, I said these aren’t revelatory performances, per se, but are revelations all the same. That’s because, to slightly tweak that Stephen Stills line, “It’s no matter. No distance. It’s the song.” With songs this strong, delivery matters not; they simply resonate.

Photo by Draven Nicole.

Last weekend, I whiled away part of Sunday afternoon on PledgeMusic and Kickstarter, where many music artists caught my eye. Only one, however, caught my ear: Tulsa-based singer-songwriter Erin O’Dowd.

 

In her introductory paragraph, she shares a “lo-fi” video for her song “Old Town,” which I’ve embedded above. While it may be lo-fi, her soul comes through at the highest of bit-rates. Curious and wanting to hear more, I turned to the Internet’s oracle for such things – YouTube.

Check out her song “Robin’s Egg Blue”:

And here she is with the honky-tonkin’ “Trick Pony”:

And, last, here’s her emotive cover of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”:

She’s someone whose album I’d buy tomorrow and likely obsess over, as I’m apt to do, and someone I’d head down to Philly to see in concert without a second’s thought. Travis Linville, the guitarist in Hayes Carll’s band, has committed to producing her debut album – and, hopefully, their $10K goal is met so that whatever they need, they get.

I asked if she’d be willing to answer a few questions via email, and she agreed.

Photo: Draven Nicole.

When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

Since I was just a little kid. I was always singing and making up songs. I did my first talent show when I was 2 or 3. I sang “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.

When did you take up guitar?

I took up guitar when I was 15. My older brother played and that turned me onto it. I grew up playing piano and that was my first instrument.

Who are your influences? Do you have a favorite songwriter?

My top influences are Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Loretta Lynn, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, the Band, Ryan Adams, gosh I could go on forever.

What was the first album/CD/download you purchased?

It was definitely a Christian CD – I grew up pretty sheltered and a pastor’s kid. I believe the singer’s name was Jaqui Velasquez, but I don’t remember the title! Really beautiful stuff.

And, on the flip side, what was the last album you picked up (or added to your library, if you stream via Spotify or Apple Music)?

The last full album I listened to was John Moreland’s latest release, Big Bad Luv. It’s fantastic!

On my blog, I sometimes spotlight albums I deem “essential” – things everyone should hear, at least once, in my opinion. What are a few of yours? What is it about them that draw you back, time and again?

Oh, wow – well, for me, definitely Dylan’s first several hits: Freewheelin’, Nashville Skyline, and Bringing It All Back Home. Blonde on Blonde. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite among those. The songs are all equally poignant and inspirational. There’s something about the train of inspiration he hit after his first two that just struck gold and it didn’t stop. It still hasn’t stopped for him. There’s a soulfulness, playful creativity, and an honesty to those songs that never looses its luster to me.

Are you into vinyl? Prefer downloads?

I’m totally into vinyl. I had a massive collection that I lost to a mold problem in some places I lived in. It was totally devastating. So right now I’m into streaming, but only because that’s what I can afford.

Photo: Tony Shanks

On your Kickstarter page, you mention that Tampa is your other hometown. What led you to move to Tulsa?

I moved to Tulsa when I was 11 years old with my family. My Dad took up a new church here, and so here we came. I was actually born in Mississippi while he was in school there, but I don’t remember it at all.

How did you connect with Travis Linville?

Travis is an Okie guy with a huge talent for songwriting, performing (multiple instruments), and production. I first met him seven years ago or so at a show of his in Tulsa. It was the first time I had seen him and I was blown away. I actually didn’t know he did production until a few years later. I was struggling to find the right producer/engineer to work with and a few friends threw his name out. I decided, what the hell, I might as well ask him. Happily, he was into the idea!

You mentioned that you had concerts lined up in NYC and Canada for April. How did they go?

I had a great little tour of the Northeast in April. I started in Brooklyn, did one in NYC, one in Toronto, and one in Ottawa. I picked up a couple extra in Brooklyn and Toronto along the way. It was a super fun time, full of wonderful memories. I had some amazing musical experiences jamming with fellow buskers in the subway, with new best friends in Toronto, and with a friend from Folk Alliance in Ottawa. I made some really great connections and I can’t wait to go back along that route.

Do you get a chance to attend concerts, or are you too busy playing out? What are some of the more memorable ones you’ve seen?

I am pretty dang busy playing out – up to five or six engagements a week, usually, but I make it out to see other folks as much as I can. That’s what keeps me going! We have such an incredible music community in Tulsa. Within our local music scene live some of my favorite artists, including Jared Tyler, Linville and Chloe Johns. I could go on forever, but I’ll stop there. The most recent bigger shows I got to see were Sondre Lerche (in Toronto) and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes). Two of my all time faves, as well. I have a lot of favorites. I guess I’m kind of a music nerd.

To learn more about Erin, visit her website and her Kickstarter page.

Neil_Americana

In 1985, after two years of commuter college life at Penn State’s Abington campus, I headed to the Motherland – University Park in State College – to finish my studies. Among the first things I did: sign up to deejay on the student-run college radio station, which at the time was WPSU-FM. The slots for the shows that most interested me (rock and oldies) were already filled by returning talent, so I took what I could get: the Folk Show, which aired from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. The hours were broken into shifts – 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. or 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. – and the music …

It’s not that I didn’t like folk music. I was ignorant about it. Though I’d seen (and briefly met) Peter, Paul & Mary at a Walter Mondale rally the year before, my notion of the form basically began with Bob Dylan and the folk-rock boom of the 1960s and ended with the singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s, many of whom got their start on the coffeehouse/folk-club circuit. So I learned as I went, immersing myself in the various folk styles, from the expected (Woody Guthrie) to the urban (Suzanne Vega) to bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, Appalachian and more. Of course, I also played folk-rock past (Buffalo Springfield) and present (Long Ryders), and threw in esoteric non-folk fare that, at least to my ears, fit with the proceedings – Elvis Costello’s rendition of “ A Good Year for the Roses” and Neil Young’s take on “Home on the Range” are two examples.

I also made my share of gaffes and mistakes. The funniest: I introduced Dylan’s “Lay, Lady Lay” from his 1976 Hard Rain live album, left the studio for a bathroom break only to return to find the song skipping at what must have been the 50-second mark: “Lay, lady…” SKIP … “Lay, lady…” SKIP. I grabbed the next LP from the stack, plopped it on the second turntable and dropped the needle, not even looking at the song – and Pete Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” kicked in!

Talk about your serendipitous moments.

I thought of those years this past week while enjoying Americana, the first Neil Young and Crazy Horse album since 2003. At first glance, the concept seems somewhat bizarre – nine time-worn folk songs, plus the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” and the traditional “God Save the Queen” redone in the classic Crazy Horse style. That means, on some songs, heavy bass and drums laying down thud-thick grooves while Young’s guitar jukes and jabs, the collective stretching the melodies until they’re about to break then snapping them back into place. “Oh Susannah” and “Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain)” are good examples of that. I would have played the songs on my show without a second thought.

But how would the listeners react? I wasn’t playing music into a void, after all. On the early shift, which I generally worked, they were a mix of Deadheads who’d yet to turn in from the night before, actual non-student adults easing into their day and, by about 8:30 a.m., hardcore folkies who – laidback stereotype aside – could be rather mean. Once, a woman called to complain (in rather uncivil language) about the Joni Mitchell song I’d just introduced. I placated her with “It Could Have Been Me” by Holly Near, which was next on my pre-planned playlist, anyway. But for every one like her, there were two or three who requested songs I’d played the last time I was on. (Not that the phone rang off the hook – it was more like one call an hour, and more often than not from one of the aforementioned Deadheads who wanted to hear a tune from Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty.)

As a result, I’m fairly certain the Deadheads and non-student adults would have embraced the songs with open ears, if not open hearts. As for the folk aficionados? Some would undoubtedly have been turned off by the ominous rumblings that underscore much of the music while others would appreciate the way Young and the Horse inject new life into the moribund songs many of us sang in kindergarten and camp. It’s for the latter reason, in fact, that I heartily recommend it to one and all.