Stellar followup is no “Fiction” on new Babcock EP

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When I was first introduced to Stephen Babcock through his prior record Said & Done, I could sense his developing potential. The kind of young musician beginning to reach out and establish himself as he found the basis of his sound and where it might possibly stake his career.

Said & Done felt like the initial foundation of that structure, built on charming acoustic-laden fixtures. Now, Babcock’s new release Fiction feels as though the walls of that metaphor are starting to build up and take on a greater shape. Not that it isn’t without its fair share of familiar moments.

The folky Dawes send-up of album opener “Atlanta” and folk-rock of “Seersucker Dress” could certainly slot in easily alongside tracks from Said & Done. I think the major difference for Babcock on this album though, is more experience. As with any talent, getting to constantly learn, hone and repeat your art is always the best medicine. And you hear those results both in the familiar, speedway-chugging, Paul Simon wit of “Atlanta”, as well as the real left turns that start coming in with tracks like “Darlin” and “Good Things”. The first gets off the ground on the wheels of a boisterously racing Hank Williams-style hoedown, while the other is a smoky, organ-accented blues take that rewards Babcock handsomely for reaching outside the box.

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In fact, “Good Things” final, guitar-searing crescendo may be the most head-turning moment of the whole record. Its the kind of hallmark standout that takes a good song and makes it great, while hinting at greater vision along with it.

Closer “5A” settles back into what Babcock does best without ringing of repetition or ground retread. If the first four tracks of Fiction weren’t enough to have you at least humming a chorus or harmony the first listen in, the earworming lines of “5A” will handle the rest.

Now ordinarily this would be the line where I’d riff a closing pun about how Babcock’s talent is no Fiction, but since I already did it in the title suffice it say: put this album in your summer playlist. You’re gonna have fun.

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Find Stephen online at stephenbabcockmusic.com, on Spotify, and where good social media is sold! 

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Bon Iver Weaves Intricate Sonic Tapestry On Dynamic “Million”

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When I first got wind of the band Bon Iver and frontman/figurehead Justin Vernon, it was around the time of the Bon Iver, Bon Iver record and the much-acclaimed solo piano take of Vernon’s spin on Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. It was very much the For Emma, Forever Ago version of Vernon stripped down to the very roots, though I remember being puzzled at the time by this strangely ultra-high falsetto coming out of this… burly Wisconsin woodsman of a guy.

To put a long story short, I really didn’t understand Bon Iver’s rising upswing of appeal amongst the alternatively-minded people in the music community at first. I remember buying Bon Iver, Bon Iver on vinyl while on a vacation because of the rave reviews, the beauty of the cover work done by artist Gregory Euclide, and the need to just want to understand it. And the record did sit unplayed in my collection for a while. I remember looking at the lyric booklet that came with it and enjoying it’s poeticism (once I could understand what Vernon was saying, a problem I still have to this day). But it still hadn’t clicked.

Now I don’t remember the day when all the puzzle pieces finally settled into place, but once they did it was easy to appreciate Vernon’s mystique as well as his ability to say so much behind what was essentially a veil. Puzzling at his falsetto was replaced by the discovery of his early work solo and in DeYarmond Edison, which switched out curiosity for marvel at the vocal range Vernon has employed across his entire time in music. Rarely have I ever heard someone as equally capable of being a baritone as well as an uplifting falsetto.

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But I digress (so much for that long story short thing). I eventually grew to admire Vernon for his sense of that aforementioned veil while still managing to relate. He was an entirely unique character tearing at the heartstrings. Being as brutally broken up as he was on For Emma as he was anthemic with bigger tracks from Bon Iver like “Towers” and opener “Perth”. Whatever he put his touch to just seemed to work.

So when it was announced that Vernon was taking a hiatus from Bon Iver-related projects and was going back into the shadows for a while, I read into it with understanding even if it was a bummer to hear. The more I listen and learn and read into the music business the more I can respect the need to take breaks. As a writer, as much fun as it is to be creative you can never force that process or try to exhaust it for all that it’s worth. That only ends up making a freeing thing that much more like a shackle (which in hearing the backstory for this album seemed to be exactly the problem and stress Vernon was running into personally).

And so that’s where Vernon retreated to for a whole five years. He would appear from time to time with singles or collaborations or an album with side project Volcano Choir, but otherwise no plans seemed on the immediate front.

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Fast forward to this year and the sudden appearance of Bon Iver again along with live sets, new songs, and an album title. 22, A Million. A mysterious album title of mysteriously titled songs that seemed to be buried even deeper beneath…. what exactly? It was hard to say in a release that seemed to be characterized by strange symbols, mythologies, binary and hashtags (yep there’s one in there).

Well, many listens later I can tell you that it all does eventually make sense. This isn’t any season after 3 of the TV show Lost we’re dealing with here (or most any JJ Abrams project after it’s been allowed to spiral out a while). I think taking this extended break of just about five years was one of the finest moves Justin Vernon could have made, along with working at the side of guys like James Blake and Kanye West.

Yes despite the hatred many people have for West, he is regarded the way he is musically for a reason and 22, A Million showcases a lot of influence from that. He and Vernon have been tight for years (right up to JV thanking him in this album’s liner notes), and I don’t think Vernon’s deft sense of sampling, digital orchestration and autotune could have been done quite as well as it is here without that working relationship.

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I know what you’re thinking now that you’ve read the word autotune, and no this isn’t a ridiculous viral Youtube video or pumped out pop song. As much as the use of autotune has been well overcooked since guys like rapper T-Pain emerged with it years ago, it still has a legitimacy when used from the experimental side of the fence.

Tracks like “22 (Over S??N)”, “33 “GOD””, “715 – Creeks” and many more benefit from this, with a blending of digital and organic thoughts that create a deeply gorgeous sense of contrast. At times it feels like songs are on the very verge of slipping away into collapse, or are aging as you listen to their stories. Like an old record being put on that’s just a bit warped and being played a fraction out of tune as the needle slides across it. It’s almost jarring, yet warmly welcoming as untouched banjo, saxophone and piano runs play up against corrosively echoed vocals and the hammer of pulsing bass.

The sampling is brilliant as well, with nods across the record to the likes of Stevie Nicks, Paolo Nutini, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Graham, and my personal favorite Irish folk singer Fionn Regan. To my knowledge it’s a very rare thing to even hear Regan’s name mentioned on this side of the pond despite “The End of History” being one of the most underrated folk albums of all time (seriously, look into it if you haven’t). Yet here’s Vernon sampling a line from Regan’s song “Abacus” on closing track “00000 Million”, and doing it in the most hair-raisingly perfect way to boot.

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The song continuously gives me goosebumps every time I play it.

For some Bon Iver fans (especially those who desire another For Emma) some of these effects might prove a bit too much to bear, but that’s the thing about 22, A Million: it automatically requires patience.  Much like Wilco’s return to form on last year’s Star Wars, this isn’t an album made for digesting on the first try or song by song. It’s a complete composition unto itself, and I hope that Vernon will treat his as Wilco treated theirs and play it front to back onstage. It just doesn’t make as much sense any other way, especially with the knack many of these tracks have for slipping into and out of one another.

And it will still reward most any fans if they stick around long enough. Vernon’s folk-embracing side hasn’t disappeared from his work within Bon Iver; rather it’s become more of a cog in the machine of a greater tapestry of creative energy that’s at work here.

And wouldn’t you prefer that over just trying to pave over the dirt roads you came down in the first place? From the indication of things Vernon was not only frustrated with his sound but also his own image, so it’s a relief to hear him sounding as fresh as the time these five years have given him.

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I could go for paragraphs and paragraphs about what I hear out of this release every time I listen to it, but now you simply need to go listen. You’ll receive no better education than what your ears will tell you, and there’s a lot to learn on 22, A Million. Some may not be able to stick out the ride and that’s okay, but for those who can…. you’ll be in the midst of what may be the year’s best album.

Barham Brings Southern Gothic Americana To Solo Standout “Rockingham”

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The phrase “Southern Gothic Americana” may be the widest set of metaphorical body parts I’ve ever dug up and Frankenstein’d together in attempting to describe one album’s genre of music. It also may be one of the more unusual terms I’ve ever put in print here on OTBEOTB, but I promise it’ll all make sense in just a matter of a few paragraphs.

When I think of a phrase like this and attempt to paint a picture of it…. the first word I think of is stark. Plain grass and backwoods framed houses in towns whose names are just as quickly noted as they are forgotten by travelers passing those familiar green road signs dotting the rustic landscape. Unassuming places to the casual observer, but beneath the surface lingers a thousand stories of tragedy, heartbreak, birth, death, pride and a blue collar struggle that’s run on longer than the roads can ever hope to stretch.

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The closest musical elder to that portrait is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, an album originally intended for Springsteen and his E Street Band but eventually reimagined as the stripped down lo-fi cast of working class lovers and losers it began as in the demo phase. Nebraska illuminated Springsteen’s still growing songwriting during one of his most prolific periods of musical history by not illuminating him at all. The words and stories remained, but gone were the layers of chunky guitars, Roy Bittan’s airy flow of piano, and most any traces of that trademark Asbury Park anthem-seeking. Instead, the album was a densely knit fog of shattered souls, uncertain futures and depressions laid bare to the world beneath a set of window panes as dingy as the album’s cover.

It’s a dark listen that remains one of Springsteen’s most underrated, yet certainly is one of the heaviest to emotionally journey through.

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I found myself having many of these Nebraska reflections while listening to BJ Barham’s similarly toned upcoming August 19th solo release Rockingham. The Pledgemusic-funded project also finds Barham (like Springsteen) momentarily breaking away from his band American Aquarium in order to release a small set of songs that made the most sense stripped right down to the bones.

The end result is a cross somewhere between Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson. Barham is the essential “pearl snap poet with bad tattoos” (as he once coined himself in the AA song “St. Mary’s”) who’s gruff, ragged around the edges vocals hold inside them one of the more underrated storytellers of this generation.

Barham is very Guthrie-like in the way he can embody the Dust Bowl farmer with no way out on the dirge-like “Water In The Well”, the real life story of his grandfather on “American Tobacco Company”, or the Bonnie & Clyde pushed to the brink in “O’ Lover”. It’s not just that he can tell the story of the common man, he can make you feel every breath of his characters. Whether their stories happen to be real, or just well-crafted fiction.

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Regardless you grasp every straw of that emotion in the desperate sadness of a husband meeting/losing his wife in “Unfortunate Kind”, the father entrusting his every bit of wisdom on an often troubled world to a newly born daughter on “Madeline”, or in the embodiment of simple Southern life on the rootsy title track. Barham expresses a tender respect for his North Carolinian background all across this record actually, but never resorts to the kind of chest-thumping, overcompensating, flag waving, tractor driving stereotypes that modern mainstream country music has bogarted the hell out of in recent years.

Instead, he paints us a bit of that image I attempted to sketch for you earlier. Like every note was carefully built with his own two hands. Not by using the idea of women in tight jeans or Red Solo Cups as a centerpiece (I’ve got my eye on you Toby Keith), but by just relaying to the listener the often harsh or dirt poor realities of life in the small town South. And just like any average life, it’s a rollercoaster. Many of the endings might not be happy, but in the end you might still just come away proud of where you’re from simply by surviving.

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Rockingham shows off an all-too-brief but strongly knit nucleus of songs for Barham. Rarely do they need more than just his voice, spare acoustic guitar strums and fills here and there of instruments like piano, percussion, banjo and harmonica. And while his work can be just as soulfully raw with AA, it’s nice to see Barham step to the side for just a moment to show off how strong his solo skills are as well.

In either formation he proves extremely captivating, and when paired with a novelist’s sense for lyricisms it’s impossible to not be stopped by just the simple need to listen. And while I may throw out plenty of comparisons to other musicians, at the end of the day Barham is an artist unique unto himself.

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For everything Ryan Adams has almost hatefully thrown away about his Southern heritage, BJ Barham has embraced with a full-throated authenticity that few others are so gracefully capable of. And it’s not because they can’t write it.

Barham just sings it with a singular, steely-eyed conviction that makes me believe every word of every note, each and every time I hear it. And Rockingham is yet another perfect echo of all that Southern Gothic Americana sweat and blood.

See? Told you it would make sense.

Shaking The Dust Off My Interview Feathers With Pinkwing’s Joanna Levine

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Spring transitioning into summer is usually one of those times where people dread spiraling weather patterns, dodge rain like someone unknowingly moved them into the heart of downtown Seattle, and start to gradually plan out fireworks, yearly beach trips and a surprising amount of egg salad they plan to prepare.

However in the case of yours truly, while I do enjoy a few of those aforementioned items I tend to focus on the coming year of music. And while we’ve already had a few records more than worth mentioning, this point of time starts to be the transition where tours really start to heat up, releases drop like flies every few weeks, and musicians start making their respective moves (earlier than noon one would hope, though I can’t vouch for that since I’m usually asleep).

Regardless, it’s a fun time and it’s especially fun when you’re a music journalist that’s really started to make connections with the underground talent still paying it’s dues. As someone still gladly working hard to pay my own dues each and every single day, I identify with these wonderful folks much more closely than those artists who have major record deals or a top single on the iTunes charts.

No offense to them, but I understand the fight to succeed in your niche with much greater sharpness of clarity at this point in my life. And anytime I get to connect or talk to someone else fighting that same battle, I feel like it not only brings those of you reading this greater content, but also brings that community of us just a little bit closer together.

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So on that note, after a bit of an OTBEOTB hiatus I’m glad to return with an interview I conducted recently with the wonderful Joanna Levine, AKA the frontwoman of the Brooklyn bands Pinkwing and Joannas ‘n Bananas. Among other things we get to talk about those bands, her last Pinkwing EP Honey & Salt, a bit of musical background, and much much more. Enjoy!

1. So leading off, I like to start with the nuts and bolts and get straight into the basics. How did you end up getting into music as a career path, and what influenced you into making the jump from playing/learning in private to wanting to take that to stages to share with people? I know you describe the band’s influences as “times, places, people, stories, love, lust, confusion, heartbreak, and pancakes”, and since that piques my interest quite a bit more than the usual list of bands or artists musicians usually cite, I’m highly intrigued by that creative… vortex of thought there.

(JL): I got started, I think, by writing poetry in high school. I also quit piano lessons and was originally forced to pick up guitar by my mom, who wanted me to continue with any instrument. I was 12- I ended up quitting then too- but picked it up again around age 14 when I realized I wanted to accompany myself singing. Started out just learning open chords. I think I wrote my first song when I was 17. and my second when I was 20 or so. My guitar playing and songwriting career has been a series of starts and stops. But I did start playing open mics when I was at school for theatre studies at York University in Toronto. I remember being so nervous and my hands shaking so bad I could barely get through all the way through a song. I think I always wanted to perform, despite growing up as a somewhat introverted/shy kid.

My first actual band was with my friend Alana Livesey when we were living in Beijing, China. We played a few gigs and recorded a few covers and the first original songs I ever wrote.

Then I moved to NY in the late summer of 2006 for design school and started dating a trumpet player (Justin Davis) who introduced me to more musicians and encouraged me to start pursuing music more seriously. New York is pretty amazing like that. It gave me permission to pursue ambitions that I never allowed myself to indulge before- because of upbringing or preconceived notions of what’s realistic. I met a lot of people who were playing out and quickly realized how badly I wanted to as well. I kept asking people to join my band and they usually said yes. By the time I finished school I had no intention of following the path I had moved to NY pursue and started trying to figure out how to play and write as much music as possible.

The influences I sited are part joke part truth. The past 10ish years in NYC have felt like several lifetimes- multiple relationships, apartments, career-paths, friend circles. It’s so transient. It makes me feel like a survivor just to have stayed for so long. Most of the friends I made in my first 5 years have left. I don’t eat as many pancakes as I used to, I’m both happy and sad to report *laughs*. 

2. And as a bit of an add on to that question, was it playing an instrument that led you into writing songs? Or were you writing first and playing an instrument just came after that?

(JL): I played guitar and wrote poetry separately (to deal with teen angst!). It felt funny- kind of just an experiment when I wrote my first few songs. I didn’t realize it would become a lifetime fascination. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just fucking around. honestly I’m still just fucking around. I have pretty limited music theory knowledge, I’m told it’s not necessarily an impediment- I’ve been told that too much theory in your head can really create a block too. At first I was frustrated by my limitations, but then I started embracing the simplicity- I love country and blues and roots music. That stuff isn’t complicated. So now I just try to shut up my inner critic and try to get back in touch with the ‘just messing around’ mentality.

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3. What led to the formation of Pinkwing itself? I know in your bio you state that you’re mostly a duo in more intimate venues and a quartet for the “rowdier stages”. How did that all come together, and is there a story behind the name Pinkwing itself? I’m always curious about unusual or interesting band names and how they came to be chosen.

(JL): I released my first Pinkwing EP before I met Rob (Pawlings). With some friends in Toronto backing me up. My former band, the Collectors felt like it was falling apart and I, for some reason, I felt the need to move home to Toronto for a bit- it didn’t stick- I moved back after 5 months. But I recorded the Restless EP there. I tried to bring on other band mates when I moved back but i was just floating, nothing stuck. Until I met Rob. We starting playing together shortly after we starting dating, joined by a few of his friends- Paul Madison and Kenny Shaw, great guitarist and drummer, respectively. Rob has a really wonderful and talented circle of musician friends I feel very lucky to have met. We got married 2 years ago so now he is my bass player and co-creator for life *laughs*.

Our friends Vinnie Presite and Andrew Rosario started joining us regularly last year and it’s a warm fuzzy harmonious line-up. I love those guys- Vinnie is an old friend of Rob’s from Utica and Andrew is an old friend of Vinnie’s from playing on cruise ships and is also from Toronto. I’m pretty stoked have those guys as they’re just great dudes and great musicians.

The name Pinkwing comes from a symbol I’ve loved for a long time- a flying pig that John Steinbeck used to stamp on his essays and letters with the latin phrase ‘ad astra per alia porci’ which means ‘to the stars on the wings of a pig’. He described himself as ‘a lumbering soul trying to fly’, I guess I identify with it. I liked it so much I got it tattooed on my back (just the pig).

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4. Now being that you’re in a band, what is that collaborative environment like amongst your bandmates? Are you more of the solo artist and the band just sorta follows along with the vision you’ve got for your music, or is that an equal opportunity environment? And how would you say that influences the multiple genres you touch on within EP’s like your newest “Honey & Salt”?

(JL): Well… I’m definitely the songwriter- all the songs I play with the guys are songs I wrote before I met them. Most of them were recorded before we started playing with Vinnie and Andrew- so I guess they play go for the vibe that is on the recordings to a degree but they are all experts at their instruments- so they definitely add their own tone to the songs- then songs that haven’t been recorded they definitely arrange their own parts. We just started working on a new song that I hadn’t played with a band before- so it’s the first time that we’re working out the arrangement as a totally collaborative process. It’s been really fun- I’m excited to write a bunch more new songs in the next year to work out together.

5. Now speaking of your latest EP (which is on pretty constant rotation here at OTBEOTB), what’s the story behind your lead song “The Reverend Robert Pawlings”? Because judging by the song he sounds like a pretty resourceful guy, and I notice he also happens to play bass in Pinkwing. Now is Robert a real Reverend (in addition to his many other alleged skills), or is there some deeper story to that?

(JL): The Reverend Robert Pawlings, as you may have guessed by now, is tribute to my husband of the same name. Yes he is an ordained internet Reverend *laughs*. He’s married several of his friends. The song was my wedding gift to him, which I recorded on the sly with our friend Jon Jetter at his Right Angle Studios in NYC, and enlisted the help of all Rob’s friends to sing/play for him at our wedding. Rob is a really special person. He has more energy and a bigger heart than anyone I have ever met. He keeps me grounded.

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6. I know we’re a little behind the ball in talking about your latest music (“Honey & Salt” dropped back in August of 2015). But if anything, I think it provides an interesting window into how the music matures over time. I find that to be one of the hardest parts of reviewing new music on a release day unless I’ve had a few weeks to study it, because it’s just too fresh to settle into where it should ultimately be right at that moment. How do you feel looking back at this latest EP compared to when you started making music? How do you feel it’s evolved, how do you feel you’ve evolved, and how do you feel like this music is “settling” so to speak looking back at it now?

(JL): The Honey & Salt EP is kind of a patchwork. it was recorded/mixed in 3 different studios. I think I learn something every time I release something. I love each of the songs on this album and I loved collaborating with the people who helped us put it together. I think my sensibilities have started to settle in… the musical direction I want to continue to pursue is there… I love blues rock. I want the next album we release to be a full length album- and I want it to be fucking gritty. I wrote SO many sad, folky songs for so long. I’m pretty sick of them. I want to write and record a roots and blues rock album next. It’ll still have a little bit of folk and country feel, But I’m really trying to move away from that and into more up-tempo blues rock.

7. You’re the first musician I’ve ever had the privilege to metaphorically sit down and interview who happens to have an additional children’s music side project band called Joannas ’n Bananas. After listening to and loving your cover of Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” (complete with bubbles and kazoo solo), how do you end up having a children’s music side project band in the first place? Especially balanced against a pretty serious minded Americana-blues band in Pinkwing? I think it’s a really interesting contrast and I’d love to hear the backstory.

(JL): After abandoning the fashion industry and getting fired from several serving jobs, I started working as a nanny. Shortly thereafter I began teaching an early childhood music program called ‘music together’ . Eventually I began offering my own kids’ sing-alongs, occasionally joined by Rob and hence Joannas ‘n Bananas was born (Bananas is one of Rob’s many nicknames- Bobby Bananas). Teaching kids classes is still my bread and butter. I do it more and more- actually in the process of developing a new program I’ll be offering in Westchester starting this spring called Monkey Music ‘n Play. It takes up a lot of my time! It’s kind of a struggle to balance the two… I have a hard time deciding what I should be working on- the kids stuff is a lot more profitable- It’s hard to make a living playing the Pinkwing tunes- and I like teaching. It’s just a constant balancing act. I love Joannas ‘n Bananas but I wish I had more time to give to Pinkwing development too.

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8. Also I have to ask, who’s a better audience, the adults or playing for the kids?

(JL): Kids, if you can get and hold their attention, are a magical audience. They will straight up stand half a foot from your face and stare at you for an entire song. There is no filter and no sense of social convention. I love little kids.

9. Getting back into Pinkwing again, how does the creative process for new songs work for you exactly? Going back to question two for a moment, is it a matter of music coming before words, or do words develop that need to be set into music in your mind? I’m always very curious about that because I find that the question is very different for everyone I’ve asked, especially for people in a band.

(JL): I think I usually play around with chord progressions and then add lyrics. These days- I usually set out to write something specific. I like sitting down with a thematic goal in mind. To be totally honest I have written more kids songs than adult songs in the last year. Which is really fun and kind of freeing- I’m not really worried about a kids’ song being too simple. The simpler the better. But I really really want to get back to writing more Pinkwing tunes. The older I get the more conscious I need to get about how I spend my time. I think the only way I will sit down and carve out that time to write is if I spend money on a rehearsal space or make a song-writing date with a friend. It’s really something that’s at the forefront of my mind lately. Because I refuse to accept the notion that my most prolific period might be behind me. Fuck that. I just need to figure out a better system to get around to writing.

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10. And lastly, I know it’s only been about six months since your last EP, but are you already looking at future plans and songs for the next record? And what gigs and live stuff can people look forward to seeing you play at next if they like the record and want to see the music up close and in person?

(JL): We just moved into a house in Westchester with a great basement with a built-in vintage bar that We are slowly turning into a studio- I would love to release at least a single by the fall. and hopefully another album within the next year. Like i said, I need to write a bunch more new tunes. It’s happening. I’m excited to get set-up in the basement and record a whole album in one location.

We are playing quite a bit over the spring and summer- next up: brooklyn may 27, pete’s candy store, brooklyn june 3, rockwood music hall, NYC june 10, the back door, old forge, ny july 16th, the grape room, phillidelphia, pa

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Humongous, BIGGEST of BIG thanks to Joanna Levine of Pinkwing and Joannas ‘n Bananas for sitting down to interview with me! I love the content of doing this stuff as well as getting to know the artist, and I hope that you do too!

For more on Joanna, you can look up (and like!) either of her bands on Facebook, and by all means go and purchase the lovely Honey & Salt Pinkwing EP over on their Bandcamp page! If you do, not only are you doing the awesome thing of supporting independent artistry, but you might also get something as cool as this for buying the physical CD!

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EP Release Day Chatter With David Rothschild

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It’s almost the middle of February now as I write to all of you from this metaphorical foxhole in this ever-expansive musical battlefield. And, much like the weather outside this time of year is known for being almost as barren in activity as the leafless trees standing guard outside my window. The animals and insects have disappeared, the sun has gone behind the clouds to converse in silence with itself, and I’m left to piece away at time and daydream of warmth and the comfort of hammocks yet to be.

Thankfully, in an effort to perhaps snap me out of such monotone poeticisms, the musical community has once again chosen to send me a heat wave. Some lightning in a well-spun singer-songwriter’s bottle if you will. And that lightning comes in the form of none other than a New York musician by the name of David Rothschild. He and his band The Downtown Local are new on the scene (having only just formed in 2014), but they already have two EP’s under their belt and are just releasing their 2nd (entitled Carolina Seems So Long Ago) on this very day.

Carolina will be hitting the digital shelves of their Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon as well as being available to stream over on Spotify, plus the band has an EP release show planned for tonight in New York City over at The Studio At Webster Hall. Thankfully, I was able to catch up with David beforehand and get a few minutes of his time to discuss the new record, get a bit more info on he and his band’s background, talk about the lyrical/creative process and discuss what lies ahead!

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1. Now I know you formed your band The Downtown Local in 2014, and released your first EP (called Simple Changes) not long after in February of 2015. What was the origin of your band and what brought it all together? Did you have a batch of songs ready that you needed to build a band around, or was it just something that happened to come together with friends/fellow musicians in the creation process?

(DR): Forming the band and watching the band grow has definitely been the most rewarding part of this whole process. It all started with a few guys jamming at my friend’s apartment, at first just two guitars and a pianist, then I invited my buddy who played bass, and another friend who liked to sing showed up, and it was very informal. We’d hang out and play a bunch of jazz standards from a Real Book or pull up some other covers that we all liked, but eventually after a few months of sporadic jams, I sort of went out on a limb and asked, “hey would you guys wanna try one of my songs?”

I had always written songs, but never really put them out there — but I’d been writing a lot of late and had this batch I was really proud of, so I went for it. I kind of “proclaimed” I was going to start trying to take this music thing seriously, and pretty quickly over the course of a couple months we went from jamming in the apartment, to a trio of us playing cafes, to booking consistent gigs as a 6-piece band.

The interesting thing, though, was that I started recording “Simple Changes” sort of as the band was still coalescing, so there are a bunch of session musicians on the album. And so what makes this new record, “Carolina”, so special, is that after these sessions there was a moment where we all looked at each other and felt, “wow, we’ve officially found our sound.” But long story short, we were a bunch of friends who like playing music, and I’m really lucky to have friends who supported me and bought into what I was doing…and who also happen to be incredibly talented.

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2. I know it can be thought of as kind of a tired question, but I’m always fascinated by musical influences. Not only in how they bring an artist into music in the first place, but how that dynamic works within the committee of a band. What were those deciding factors for you, and how did that change or evolve as you got older/worked with other musicians? 

(DR): So this is something I actually find really important to our sound: we all have pretty unique influences, and are very much our own circle in the venn diagram, but each member overlaps with the others in their own unique way — so one of the things I love is hearing how everyone brings their own thing to the songs, most of which are not from influences I originally shared. It’s funny because I think the big unifying overlaps for all of us is a love of jazz and soul — which is not really the music we play at all.

I came from this country/folk place, Alex, our bass player, is more a funk kinda guy, Tim on drums loves to joke about bringing out his double kick pedal and metal-ing up the tunes, and the influences I share with James on guitar are very different from what James shares with Alex or James shares with Christian on keys. And still we’ve all found this great common ground that takes what could easily be described as musically un-interesting — I’m a folk fan through and through, but it’s not always the most musically complex of genres — and brought some cool flavors to it. I think we’re listening to a whole lot of everything, so it’s been great to feel out all those commonalities and take advantage of the differences.

Personally, I grew up on a mix of singer-songwriters — my parents were big James Taylor, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell types — with a lot of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye thrown in, but I also grew up playing saxophone, so everyone loved to buy me jazz albums when I was a kid before I could even appreciate them. I was all over the place, but I think I really began to find my voice as a songwriter when I stopped worrying so much about writing fancy guitar parts, or out-there chord changes, and started focusing on the storytelling.
I called that first EP “Simple Changes” because pretty much all of them were straight-ahead, four-chord songs. As I began to work with other musicians I learned that I didn’t need to supply all this complexity, but that I could allow my bandmates to create it naturally by bringing their own style to what I had written. 
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3. And speaking of influential music, what led to Paul Simon’s song “Graceland” being included on your soon to be released EP Carolina Seems So Long Ago? It’s probably one of my most favorite songs (as well as records) from Simon’s solo catalogue, and I love what you guys do with it on the record as sort of a building uptempo jam. 
(DR): I will actually give all of the credit to (our guitarist) James on this one, he suggested we do some Paul Simon. We’re all big fans of his, of course because he’s got this incredibly diverse discography, from the very folky stuff to the Afro-Carribbean and everywhere in between. So when James suggested we play a Paul Simon song, it clicked pretty quickly that we should do “Graceland,” because it was written like a song straight out of the American Roots catalogue, but it was played by South African musicians who brought their very unique interpretation to it.
I write a lot of songs that are meant to sound like country western tunes straight out of the American Songbook, and the band ends up interpreting them uniquely — it was an easy fit. We started playing it like a rockabilly Elvis tune, and of course all those other sounds just naturally came out.
4. Now I love your lyrical work on this EP. And I could make comparisons to Dylan and any other folk singer from the last 50 years (though I am sensing some early Bruce Springsteen vibes, which I really dig). I won’t slap on those labels though, because the point is, I really like how you approach YOUR songs as such a storyteller. From “Caleb” to the title track (which might be my favorite on the record) your stuff is very cinematic. Tell me, does a lot of that come from true experiences, or are you able to place yourself in a position where you can create characters and scenarios and your own stories?
(DR): Always appreciate when people say they hear early Springsteen. I am in absolutely no place to be compared to that, but I do listen to a whole hell of a lot of him. If vinyl was still a thing, his first three albums would be my most worn down for sure (Editor’s Note: Someone send David some Bruce vinyl and a turntable stat, it’s still a thing!).
“Caleb” is probably the exception that proves the rule, in that it’s one of the only songs I’ve written that doesn’t come from a very personal experience. It happens to be one of the songs I’m most proud of, but I’m not sure if that means anything. It also started as a lyric from something I’d jotted down a really long time ago… well, before I wrote the rest of the songs we play. I finished it later on, but that idea was first written down when I was a freshman in college. I guess I could give credit to the fact that I was an English major, and that jackass who thought he was going to write the Great American Novel.
But again, I think I started to find myself as a songwriter when I just broke things down to simple images and straightforward stories. Of course, if you get too straightforward, you get boring — but even a song like “Solitary Serenade” that doesn’t really have “characters” like most of the other songs, is still built around something concrete and has it’s own kind of “plot.” The first rule of writing is show, don’t tell, so I just think it’s more interesting to express myself through a story than through a soliloquy.
Nobody wants to hear me explicitly sing about my problems because, even if they’re relatable, it can come off as self-indulgent; I think it’s much better if you just lay out a story and let people take from it what they will. For the most part, yes, they’re all some version of my own experiences, or at least a thinly-veiled roman-a-clef…so I guess let’s all just be thankful that they’re not all about an ex-girlfriend anymore.
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5. And as far as the lyrical process goes, is that a journey you embark on alone and bring it in to form and shape into a finished product with the band? Or is that a process where someone suggests a part or a line or different melody and a song you thought was going in one direction initially becomes something else?
(DR): For the most part I write lyrics by myself, just because that’s the only way I’ve known how to do it. A lot of them are very personal, but I’ve gotten better at letting people into that process, which has been really nice. Typically, I will write a song on my own, bring it to the band with a good idea of how I hear it in my head, and then let them go wild with what they want to bring to it.
I’ll suggest something here and there, or try to give some shape or direction, but the challenging — and also fun — part is translating what I hear in my head into how the band wants to attack it. Lyrics though are just something I do alone pacing around a room over the course of several days, mostly just by hearing things in my head. It’s just hard for me to bring someone else into that, as much as I’d like to. I simply don’t know how yet.
But what’s been amazing is, as we’ve grown as a band, the other guys will bring songs to the group — either lyrics that I’ll help put to a melody, or a progression that I’ll help put lyrics/a melody on — and we’ve now begun to collaborate even more. I’ve always considered the band to be a big part of the songwriting process, just not necessarily at the stage of lyric writing — now we’re starting to figure out how to really write things together.
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6. And when it comes to the music as it blends to the lyrics, is there a singular process where the music comes first and the words shape themselves out of it? Vice versa? Or is it sometimes just a mix of the two as it grows in the studio? And also, what is the process like recording live in the studio compared to other methods? I know you do that on this latest EP, and you can really tell with how full the sound of the songs are. 
(DR): It can go either way — it used to be that I’d write up a guitar part or a progression first and then try to hear a melody or a hook out of that, but these days more often I just hear a hook in my head with some sort of words on it, and then can naturally build the progression out of that. It’s not very common, though, that I just have words without an idea of how they sound — if the words come before the progression, they typically come with a melody line that naturally has its own changes. There is definitely always a moment, though, usually after a verse and chorus are written, when I know, “okay, this is how this song goes.”
As far as recording live, this was just a very different experience from the first record because, as I mentioned, this was the first time we really recorded songs that we had built together in full. The first set of songs we kind of built and arranged as we recorded them, piece by piece, but these four were songs that we’d been playing for a little while. There’s always something nice about having multi-track recording and being able to overdub here and there, but it was really cool to go into the studio and just play through the songs a bunch of times until we felt like we’d nailed it. A lot more instant gratification that way as well. 
7. When it comes to making music, whether it’s creating the instrumental side, the lyrics, the collaborating as songs grow in the studio…. what is that music to you? Does it represent a catharsis and a way to really unload an emotional weight, or is just that you have these stories in mind that just need to be told? What keeps the spark going in you that keeps that creating fresh and inspiring?
(DR): Again, I think a little bit of both. At different times in my life there have been very specific things that I needed to get out: “Carolina,” the title track, for instance, was written very much at that quarter-life crisis stage of my life when I was trying to figure out where the hell I belonged and what the hell I was doing, so I wound up writing a very nostalgic song about simpler times. A song like, Caleb, though, just kind of came out of the aether — I heard it, got an idea of what it was, and just ran with it.
In any case, though, it is very much a catharsis just to finish a song. Whether I’m writing something deeply personal or just a fun rocker, I can sort of get lost in the process and then feel really refreshed when I come out on the other side. Sometimes it’s a real grind, and I’ll drive myself (and my roommates) insane just pacing around trying to figure out that next lyric, but I’m really fortunate to have found an outlet that I sort of know how to use.
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8. And finally, I know you’re just getting starting with the release of EP number two and getting that out into the world. But, do you see any future plans on the horizon for doing a full LP at some point? And do you have more songs waiting to go in the pipeline regardless of the type of record you want to make next?
(DR): We’ve definitely got more in the pipeline! Not to plug to shamelessly, but we’re finishing new songs pretty regularly, so odds are if you catch a show, we’ll be playing some pretty fresh stuff mixed in. No real plans for an LP at this point, but in this day and age of music consumption, the medium of the album itself doesn’t mean too much to me. Whether it’s four songs or six songs or twelve songs is really only a matter of how many songs are ready to be recorded.
These two albums felt very much like their own batches of songs that easily fit together — it wasn’t like we specifically wrote the songs for these releases, but just came to a point where we just organically felt, “these 4 songs fit together.” I’ve already got a bit of a sense of a next batch, songs we’ve been playing live for the last little bit that represent a unique stage of the band, but I imagine when the time comes, we’ll know what we have.
A big BIG thanks goes out to David Rothschild for doing this interview with me! As I said before, his new EP Carolina Seems So Long Ago is due out today, so get out there and buy it up on Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon, stream it on Spotify, and be sure if you’re in New York City to go see David and The Downtown Local play their EP release show TONIGHT at The Studio at Webster Hall!
And be sure to check out my review of Carolina in the post up above!
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Photos are courtesy of the band’s Bandcamp and Facebook page. 

Talay Shows Folk-Pop “Underside” On Brilliant “Piece By Piece” Debut

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It’s now the first week or two of autumn as I write this, and the changing of the seasons always manages to put me into a contemplative frame of mind. The leaves haven’t quite started to fall completely yet, but the nights are colder, the sunlight doesn’t last as long, and the world here gradually starts to burrow itself away piece by piece in preparation for what’s to come.

As I find myself starting to burrow with it, I think it’s appropriate that Megan Talay’s EP Piece By Piece should land in my lap as the soundtrack to accompany the changes. Talay is another New York City-area songwriter, but unlike the country/folk blending of my prior NYC subjects Ivy, Beck and Neill, she takes that folk and puts it through a blender of sweetly blissful pop, delicately intricate acoustic guitar, and a hook-laden feast of songwriting craftsmanship.

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Piece By Piece is an often laid back slice of an EP, yet still doesn’t waste a moment snagging attention starting with lead single “Underside” and it’s driving foot-tap of a rhythm. Talay is a versatile mix of Ani DeFranco and Brandi Carlile on the track, nimbly thumbing through a list of concealed emotional turmoils before raising a fist and letting a wave of catharsis wash over as a tide of frustration made fury. It’s an immediately relatable moment to anyone who’s ever been an expert at the art of bottling up the world, and Talay’s voice rings true in your ear as someone saying it’s okay…. I’ve been there too.

It’s in that role of relatable narrator and lyricist that Talay finds her greatest footing on this record, whether it’s in the role of a person overcoming the uncertainties of love and life on “Light The Way” and the cinematically-tinged title track, or holding up lighthearted like flowers toward the sunshine on optimistic closing song “Just Fine”. Piece by Piece is an EP that’s like looking through the contents of someone’s cracked and peeling moving boxes shoved behind the boiler in a basement. A few of those memories may be buried back there for a reason, but the years have finally said it’s time for them to breathe and be set free.

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Those years seem to fly by in the span of these mere minutes, and close with a brightly harmonious beauty for having shared them. Piece by Piece makes yet another case for records that speak as complete stories instead of just in fragmented singles that can be bought for $0.99 on iTunes. You may appreciate the radio-friendly lift of the chorus on “Light The Way” or the infectious six string melody of “Forever In My Hand”, but when albums or EP’s speak like this, I feel as though they speak closest to their heart… when they speak together.

Don’t just listen to one part of what Megan Talay has to offer. Go “piece by piece, inch by inch”. Let her mixture of folk/pop and lovely lyricisms get under your skin.

I promise that it’s worth the journey.

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As you can see, Megan’s EP is coming out this week! You can go pick it up on her Bandcamp, and go check out her Facebook page Talay for much information about shows as well as this release! 

Ivy, Beck & Neill’s “Rockwood” Burns Bright as Powerhouse of Brooklyn Country

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Brooklyn country music. It’s a genre phrase I was entirely unaware of up until a couple of years ago when I first started visiting this vast borough of New York City. The term began with some of my first musical learning experiences down there (as oh so many things have for me), and only grew in it’s shape and scope as I peeled down through the layers.

It’s been a fascinating study ever since, and one of the sweetest fruits to come out of this gradual enlightenment has been none other than the band Ivy, Beck & Neill. In fact since I first saw them perform down at Rockwood Music Hall back in August, the days and weeks since have simply been a (less than patient) exercise in waiting for their debut release Live at Rockwood Music Hall. 

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Thankfully that waiting came to an end on August 29th, and was well worth each second. The record finds the power trio of Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Simpson Neill tuned up and in top form for this release; filling out their largely low key lineup with bassist Zach Lober, drummer Mason Ingram and outstanding pedal steel work from Gerald Menke. This gives IB&N even more room to stretch their wings musically, and as a result these nine tracks pop off the speakers with an even deeper and more well-honed significance.

Whether it’s Lober’s bass work giving “5-Foot Chain” an extra drag from a slinky jazz hall cigarette, Menke’s pedal steel shedding unbreakable tears on an unhealthy love gone cold on “Blame It On The Whiskey”, or Ingram’s percussion skillfully leading the band across the triumphant tapestry of  “All The Way Across Texas”, it’s a joy just to listen to every line of the journey that makes these songs whole. Every tire and emotion tread is a chemistry…. an energy… a force that will fill you with nothing more than belief. Belief in sadness, belief in joy, belief in your soul, belief that there is good and bad and that there may be darkness in every light.

There’s a Warren Zevon song called “Desperados Under The Eaves” that says but except in dreams, you’re never really free. Yet when I listen to a song like “Texas”…. I believe I’ve already made it there.

And that’s the magic of a release like Rockwood. While every ounce of Mike Beck’s superb production places you next to the bar lights, the hardwood floors and the intimacy of one small room in one big bustling city, it’s the songs that take you out of it.

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“Buckshot” is bullet-riddled murder balladry at it’s classic country finest, while “One Day at a Time” is a yearning Kris Kristofferson-esque phone call hoping for a shot at redemption. Both tracks are buoyed by the sheer vocal presence of Trisha Ivy, whose versatile croon is somewhere between the beauty of a Skeeter Davis and the snark of a Natalie Maines. And just like those classic voices, Ivy’s power resides in how she can make your heart feel every note of her musical emotion. Whether it’s in the whisper of a wry smile or a voice made heavy by a sobriety of sadness, she paints a palette that holds your hand down every road she’s taken and all the feelings experienced on the way back again.

And the same proves true for Amanda Simpson Neill, who plays the bluesy soul-assassin murmuring regrets and confessions into the darkness of “Whiskey” in one moment, and the girl with her arm out the car window triumphantly blasting Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” in the next on “Texas”. And while Mike Beck may not jump on lead vocals very much, his Johnny Cash-ish saloon ball swagger on closer “Strong Place Brawl” with Ivy and Neill acting as his June Carters may be one of my favorite moments of the whole record.

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But ultimately, whether apart or together on moments like “If You Ever Leave Me” or the insanely infectious “Play Me a Record”, listening to IB&N and Rockwood is just simply about listening to the stories. Listening to the heart. I’ve heard major rock bands play sports arenas who could never pray or dream to have as much soul in the tips of their guitar fretting fingers as this band has altogether.

So listen, and behold. Because this is the essence of Brooklyn country music, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

You can buy Ivy, Beck & Neill’s album Live at Rockwood at their Bandcamp link below:

http://ivybeckandneill.bandcamp.com/

Brooklyn Band Has “Nothing Left To Lose” On Brilliant “Rockwood Live” Debut

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It seems like almost every time I travel to Brooklyn, I discover something new to add to the realm of my musical depth. And more often than not, it seems to be the borough’s knack for so-called “Brooklyn country music”.

First it was The Lone Bellow back in 2013 (as I wrote about on this blog), then back in March of this year it was the discovery of up and coming talent Lindsey Luff during a night at Rockwood Music Hall. And while I spoke quite fondly of Luff and her EP Real Gone for a video on Youtube, that wasn’t the only group I witnessed that night that happened to leave one hell of an impression behind.

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Enter Barefoot & Bankside. Led by the heavenly serpentine twine of vocalists Amanda Simpson Neill and Jamey Hamm as well as the laser sharp orchestration of guitarist Dylan Sneed, the BK-based sextet rattled Rockwood down to the stones and plaster with a beautifully wearied blend of alt-rock, country, gospel and folk-based jams. Every note seemed to electrify the confines of that little room, and the effect was only buoyed by the intensity of both Neill’s blissful croon and Hamm’s jagged growl.

Luckily B&B happened to be recording that night’s standout set for the purpose of releasing a live EP, and as a result here we now have their debut recording. AKA, Rockwood Live.  

Now I’ve already mentioned the band’s blending of influences, but it takes sitting down and carefully listening to these performances to truly understand just how deftly crafted they are. Where at one moment you might expect a folk/bluegrass band with banjo in hand comes the roughshod rock of opening track “Fall In Line”, a toe-tapping shot of lovingly bitter “Kerosene”, and the smoldering burn of the passionate “War For Your Soul”.10928204_431622000335157_7404922844955774366_nLyrically the band embraces their country notes with Gram Parsons-esque odes to lost love (“Nothin’ Left To Lose”), gospel overtones as buried in the blues as Robert Johnson running from the hellhound (“Pocket Change”), and the pure essence of love buried in human nature (“Hold On Love”). Add songs that are as captivating as they are earwormingly catchy to Neill’s musical chemistry with Hamm and Sneed, and you have a dance worthy of Gram and Emmylou themselves. Or at the very least somewhere at the crossroads of Melissa Ethridge and American Aquarium’s BJ Barham.

Either way, Rockwood Live ranks quite easily as one of the best pieces of music from an up and coming band that I’ve heard in quite some time. “Brooklyn country music” or otherwise. And while it is a debut only promising a hint of what Barefoot & Bankside has to offer, you need to go immediately and see them live if you happen to be in the same neck of the woods.

Just to say, “I saw them when”. This recording will be sure to convince you of that fact.

(Rockwood Live is available on bandcamp.com. Just search Barefoot & Bankside and download the fun that awaits!)

Iron & Wine Goes Down Smooth And Sweet At The Smith

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Ahhh, another evening spent buried in the music at Geneva NY’s Smith Opera House. After my freshman encounter with the 120-year old historical theatre building back in 2011, the Smith has(dare I say it) started to feel like home returning just two weeks after seeing the stick of country-folk dynamite that was The Lone Bellow. This time around Geneva had the pleasure of hosting the masterfully versatile band Iron & Wine with opening act The Secret Sisters, which was a treat not only given their respective accolades but because it was an evening truly fit for feeling like you were out beneath the stars.

That little architectural slight-of-hand aside, the Smith Opera House once again proved it’s strength as an eclectic venue stop last Saturday night. Acoustics rang with an undeniable sheen out into the expanse of high ceilings, deep balconies and the rich smell of so many histories come and gone within walls like those. So beautifully sprung, yet so quickly evaporated before so many hungry eyes. Environment is everything as I see it, and a theatre like the Smith adds weight to every word, gravity to the melody, and beauty well-worn into the palm of each beat.

That steadying presence was put to good use as the evening led off with The Secret Sisters, AKA Alabama’s latest answer to those deceptively upbeat and charismatic singing duos first truly popularized in the 50’s and 60’s. Real-life sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers brought a comfortably harmonized yet effusive blend of country, gospel, blues-rock and swampy Southern charm to their opening set. Backed by a full supporting cast, the two wove cheerily between lyrical heartaches, jailbreaks, murder ballads and an overall sense of optimism that was one bridge away from a shot of whiskey followed by a lithium chaser. All in all, quite a way to have 40 minutes pass through the mirror.

By comparison I’m not quite sure what Iron & Wine was supposed to live up to exactly, but as he has since the band’s inception in 2002, lead man Sam Beam makes up the length and breadth of his own expectations. Accompanied by a versatile backing of guitars, banjo, keyboards, accordion, harmonica and electric ukelele, Beam wove well beyond the origin of his lo-fi folk roots into soul, R&B, pop, jazz and a wealth of catalogue-brightening orchestration. Though often his best moments were still the quietest as the band took a break mid-set and Beam stood alone, capo in hand to field a bevy of(suddenly) enthusiastic song requests. And while he did stumble once or twice with older material, songs like “Such Great Heights” and “Naked As We Came” poured outward with a haunting bliss packed so neatly inside pretty guitar lines and Beam’s hushed and yearning vocals.

And although he seemed nervous at times digging through so many of his own songs, Beam was the composite free and easy storyteller both in banter and in lyricisms throughout the night. In a fraction of a moment he’d loosely tease or joke around about how “weird” this was going to get, and in the next he’d fixate the crowd within the capturing rhythms of “Boy With A Coin” and “one for the chair-dancers” with “Grace For Saints and Ramblers”. And while I would have much preferred a crowd that felt a BIT less content to move to the music from their seats, the mood was vibrant, lush, and fun to keep the toes actively in rhythm to.

So while I wasn’t exactly what you’d call an avid Iron & Wine listener going into last Saturday’s evening at the Smith Opera House, their headlining set alongside The Secret Sisters made for one of the top live events I’ve seen so far in 2014. The historical ambiance, casual atmosphere and mellowing sounds made for a night so pleasant that knowing all the words, was certainly no requirement.

 

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