Live & On Tour, Part 1

Apologies for the recent absence, but I’m making up for the gap with something fun! Recently one of the groups I’ve previously reviewed Silver Relics did an international tour, and they wanted to document their journey and some of their experiences. So I was more than happy to play host to it! Enjoy part one of this two-part installment, featuring the duo’s jaunt around Ireland.

Day 1: Drop Dead Twice : Dublin, Ireland : 6.27.19

Today Justin and I are running around city centre looking for a voltage adapter after we absolutely fried the shite out of our rack late last night. Complete with smoke and sparks by the way. 7 shops later, we’re back on track. Also, something we noticed was how helpful every single shop owner/worker was to us. If they didn’t have it then they pointed us to a place they thought might. So we were a little thrown off by that level of kindness. Not exactly something New Yorkers are used to but we but love everything about the welcoming aspects of Dublin. We arrived for our first show at Drop Dead Twice. Here are a couple of shots of Justin and me at the venue:  

We sat around with our new friends from the Dublin quartet Magazines before we went on. These guys have an amazing sound and we can’t wait to see what happens next for them. Overall, the night was fantastic and I really don’t think we could have had a better experience for our first  show.

Our dear friends Dermot Lambert and Craig Kingma at Garageland Ireland set us up at all three venues in Ireland. They’re amazing guys and we can’t thank them enough. Here’s a quote about the show from Derm:

“It can be quite difficult for an artist to win over a new audience, especially in a faraway land which they’ve never been to before, but the room came alive when Silver Relics took the stage in Dublin on that beautiful June evening. Heralded only by some specialised radio play from their tracks Time Bomb (T2), and Generic, the band found themselves in the company of a room full of instant fans, as the smokers came in from the beer garden and the private party-goers came down from the upstairs club to see who was driving the bass and killing the tunes. Justin swaggers and Alex swoons as the whole room became transfixed, hypnotised by proceedings. A set list of 7 songs disappeared all too fast in a haze of blistering anthems and killer hooks, delivered by actual real life rock stars. On this occasion I am happy to report ‘I was there’. ” 

-Dermot Lambert 

 Day 2: The Sound House : Dublin, Ireland : 6.28.19

Today we’re over at the Garageland RTE2XM station for a live broadcast with Dermot, Craig and our producer, Howie Beno. We talked a lot about a little of everything. How the record was made, how we got to where we are and where we want to go. Always a pleasure to sit around with these guys. Here’s a shot of Justin and me in our new Garageland tees.

We got to the venue for soundcheck and right away we knew it was gonna be a good night. The venue overlooks the river and the space itself is gorgeous.

But this wasn’t an easy show. We were the first to go on and there weren’t a lot of people there when we started our set. These things happen from time to time but it never changes how we actually play. So we gave it everything like always and we started to see more and more people pile in by the time we were close to finishing out the set. The other bands were fantastic just like the night  before at Drop Dead Twice. There’s an incredible amount of talent in Dublin. Every single group/artist has something to offer. They play together and you can feel how important it is for all of them to be up there.

Day 2: success.

Day 3: Pharmacia : Limerick, Ireland : 6.29.19 

On the road to Limerick with Derm, Howie and Brandt. Before we even got to the venue we stopped off at Cashel somewhere between Dublin and Limerick. This was an experience along the way that made us realize exactly where we were. This is the type of place that makes you shut the fuck up and appreciate what’s right in front of you. The castle and the landscapes are incredible. We walked away grateful knowing that we had this to remember.   

We didn’t get to see as much of Limerick aside from the ride through the city and the spots surrounding the venue. First thing’s first, Pharmacia is a great spot. It’s quirky and tasteful. The lineup was fantastic thanks to Garageland. The Revolators, In The Black and Norma Manly have amazing energy. They’re bold and it’s evident they felt right at home, which made the night a lot of fun. This was a great show that was worth the midnight journey back to Dublin without an ounce of sleep before we jumped on a flight to Manchester.

Stay with us for Tour Diary Part 2, the UK!

@gargelandireland

@rte2fm

@howie beno

@brandtgassman

@farmadelicasound

@dropdead_twice

@thesoundhousedublin

@pharmaciabar

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Threes Brewing Births New Star To Be In Brooklyn Country

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In my prior post talking about the visit I spent not too long ago listening to more underground music at Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing, I mentioned how much I owed the NYC area for the talent pipeline it’s provided me. Not just in the form of great musicians and potential networking possibilities, but also in some really amazing friends.

And I can think of no better friend to both my music journalism as well as personal life than the other person who was on the bill at the brewery that night, Amanda Neill. Amanda has provided myself as well as this little blog with openings and opportunities beyond which I could have ever potentially imagined on my own. She is one of this world’s great pure spirits, and if you are ever granted the opportunity to get to know her you will find your life made better for having done so.

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But her being one of the nicest people I’ve ever met aside, Amanda is also a musician with an absolutely ridiculous level of pure talent. I first watched her sing alongside Jamey Hamm in a Rockwood Music Hall performance with Barefoot & Bankside, then later did extensive work (including an interview that is a must-read on my blog) with Amanda, Mike Beck and Trisha Ivy regarding their sweet as apple wine country-folk trio Ivy, Beck & Neill. I’ve done pieces for both bands actually, all of which I highly suggest you take a peek at.

But I digress. That night at Threes was an especially momentous occasion, because it represented the first time Neill was going to be playing entirely new songs in a solo setting. Not TECHNICALLY solo as she was backed by Mike Beck and Dylan Sneed on guitars & piano, Rob Ritchie on bass and Jeff Rogers on drums, but solo in the sense that Neill was going to be front and center debuting her own songs under just her name for the very first time. The wheel of the ship was going to be entirely in her hands.

The anticipation buzzing around the room waiting for this moment was palpable, stretching all the way from the BK to Neill’s former home in Nashville. Quite literally thanks to the benefits of modern technology and Facetime.

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And once the set got rolling, that excitement immediately hit crackling electricity level as it took Neill no time at all to absolutely dominate the room like it was her second home. Seeing her onstage has always been a matter of pride watching her confidence and strength of musicality build up with each performance, but with a band at her back and solely her willpower as frontwoman to lead them…. seemed to take things to a whole new astral plane, imparting the group with a personality nearly as big as Neill’s own. Their sense of chemistry and flow was instantaneous, and that vibe made every member on the stage at Threes look like they were all playing the most locked in show of their musical lives.

With Sneed playing ferocious bottleneck blues leads, Beck laying down gorgeous piano lines and Neill dictating exact tempo to Rogers that vibe didn’t seem to be too far from the truth as the band danced like a finely tuned machine through tendrils of blues, folk, gospel and Tennessee roots country that was as much sultry as salt of the earth. Early versions of Neill’s “It Ain’t Easy” and “Good To See You” that I’d heard during our interview session last year emerged with a fresh new magic in their full band form, and meshed seamlessly into songs that were still just emerging fresh from the oven.

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Meanwhile Neill’s vocals were also eager to join the party, matching the band’s energetic intensity with a voice containing all the ragged edge and electricity of a Janis Joplin or Joe Cocker. And while those may seem like very broad strokes of comparison, the more you hear Neill sing the more you’ll hear that same world-weary, raspy husk that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It’s the type of vocal gift that’s always ready to rip up substandard, auto-tuned musical convention and smoke out the metaphorical innards at a moment’s notice.

But that’s just my opinion.

And while that may seem like a bit of grisly-minded comparison, to see Amanda take center stage for the first time was way more about much-deserved glory than guts. More beauty than blood, though when it comes to her songwriting you can sense the blood sweat and tears that get written into every single word.

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It takes pure passion to be that honest. Strength to be so vulnerable. And sheer ability to not just get up on stage, but to hit it like a storm that’s been waiting to strike with the strength of a cobra’s bite.

Neill’s set that night was Joni Mitchell after a lot of nights at the Tom Waits school of late night blues bars. It was the spiritual binding threads of the church of humanity, the equal purity of folk, the essence of country roots, and the joy of Neill’s own performing and songwriting heart (a joy that leapt easily into her band member’s many smiles). In a world of modulating machine beats, perfectly enhanced pitch and dumbed down Top 40 crayon formulas sketched clumsily from A to B, Neill’s solo set was dandelion seedlings amidst a perfect summer breeze. Equally as unafraid to love as to hurt as to bleed as to feel in all their untainted innocence.

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It felt like witnessing a spring bloom turn into the radiant flower it was always meant to be. And if anything, watching Amanda Neill the solo artist finally out on her lonesome put me in mind of two things.

1: That no matter the bands that come and go in New York City, Brooklyn country will always be safe as long as she’s around.

And 2: This was a night of an everlasting pandemonium of musical honesty that not only reverberated on that night, but has continued to for many nights ever since.

I still considered myself rocked.

BK’s Threes Brewing Offers More of NYC’s Best & Brightest

13336042_1048309841871947_5588201981099957425_nSo stop me if I’m getting too far ahead of myself, but much like the musicians who owe their success to certain defining moments, genres or locations, as a freelance music journalist for hire…. I have to give it up to NYC.

High fives and fist bumps all around you guys. And that is by no means any offense to areas like Ohio or St Louis who have been extremely generous to me as well, but my first real underground music talent pipeline has come up through these city boroughs. Think of an explosion equivalent to some of those opened up Brooklyn fire hydrants on a hot summer day circa twenty years ago, and you’re starting to get close to the experience.

Point is, I owe a lot to these bands and artists, and I continued that due diligence last week during my regular NYC visit with a stop to Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing to see the Roots Music Gang. Call it a chance to… experience even more of the local flavor if you will.

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Take the band Von Kraut for instance. Brooklyn based (as you might have expected) and stripped to essentially the bare acoustics, this trio of Jason on guitar, Keira on cello and Rorie on backing vocals was essentially just… what you see is what you get. There isn’t nearly the layering that appears on their music, replaced instead by a few spare guitar loops, delicate cello plucks, and the interplay of the two vocalists strongly complementing one another on the harmonies.

Jason and Rorie’s vocal styles actually might initially seem like strange bedfellows, as his is more of a whisper thin height while hers resembles more of a low set willowy blues. Jason in fact reminds me a bit of a combo of the falsetto of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and the gossamer strand spiderweb murmurs of Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous. Nevertheless, the two fell in rise and fall with a vocal chemistry that kept me glued throughout the set.

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And speaking of spiderweb strands, I felt that Jason’s songwriting strongly echoed the feelings deeply embedded into his falsetto. The subjects were both light yet tenderly ethereal, laden with the severed heartstrings of breakups and breakdowns that came across as delicate as the cello sitting just to his right onstage. And even when the tempo would pick up into John Mayer-like acoustic blues hopping plucks, the feeling behind it was still that of so many threads of emotion adrift in the world’s sea.

Just… looking for their way home.

And that restlessness was no better exemplified than in the band’s closing cut, a cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry”. Accompanied only by himself on guitar, Jason took a no-nonsense, rock riffing 80’s anthem and beautifully translated it into a winter worn Elliott Smith narrative of ache and meanderings just simply wondering…. what if?

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I love a good song cover, but I particularly love when an artist takes it and sees a part of themselves in the song that they identify with. They don’t desire to just play it note for note, they desire to completely REARRANGE the notes and show the listener through telescopic interpretation just what they see. Just what they feel.

That’s truly honest music. And it made for a beautiful way to close the moment.

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But while Von Kraut may have made the most out of beautifying the quiet moments that night, solo artist Dylan Sneed took them by the horns of his amplifier, cranked them up “This Is Spinal Tap”-style to 11, and made them stand up straight with their best posture and pay attention.

Sneed has been a sideman, frontman and jack of all trades around the BK scene much longer than I’ve been traveling these alleyways and backstreets, and rarely will you encounter such a sweet and easily affable personality offstage. However when the chips are down and it’s time for the music to be played, Sneed unleashes a force of sheer iron-willed presence that will make you take a step back (even while sitting down).

Accompanied by a pedal steel player, a drummer and a bassist, Sneed ripped through his set with the frenzy and precise passion of a man possessed. One moment he was BB King sliding along the watermarked glass of a Nashville tearjerker, and in the next he and his band were a mental mind fury of jangling frets combined with the eerie psychedelic disillusionment of Carl Perkins on a prod rock acid trip.

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To me, Sneed is the type of guitarist and songwriter who warrants such tangled descriptions as he easily chameleons in and out of country gold, blues, stomp ‘n’ holler rock and roll, and riffs worthy of the Roadrunner himself Chuck Berry. In fact, his easy virtuosity often reminded me of Blake Mills, who has also played sideman and jack of all trades as well as capable songwriter with a couple of great solo records under his belt over the years. Though in either man’s case, despite these many capable skills it’s still the strength of the instrumentation that speaks the loudest.

Songs like the unreleased track “War Song” and “Oxford Town” rocketed back and forth between the anguish of mental push and pull, and the pure fury of Texas roadhouse barn burning rock driven to the peak of it’s finest.

All in all, it made for a perfect way to jettison the night off into the stars.

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Check out Dylan Sneed and Von Kraut through their Bandcamp albums, on social media, and much more! 

Sharing The Passenger Side With Webster Hall & Hugh Masterson

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I don’t often dwell on past accomplishments or significant periods of time in my life. Usually that takes the better part of years or severe emotional embarrassment to do, but luckily this living, breathing entity called music exists that tends to cut that time waiting on significance in half. Or more specifically, it cuts it down to the monster of a week I just finished experiencing.

You see, this aspiring writer may have started last Monday thinking about the occupational hazard of radio station jargon, but by Thursday and Friday he took it up a notch. Make that a notch that was smack dab in the midst of Manhattan, just down the road from Union Square and through the doors of Webster Hall to see the triple billing of The Lone Bellow, Anderson East, and Hugh Masterson.

And while I could certainly spare plenty of opinion about each individually (and a ton altogether), I’d like to take the biggest focus of the spotlight and shine it down on the heartrendingly sparse acoustic storytelling of Masterson.

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Going in to the shows at Webster Hall, I already knew enough about The Lone Bellow to stretch from here to several of our most common planetary structures. And when it came to Anderson East, the moment I first heard him sing “The Devil In Me” on a Daytrotter session was the moment I knew there were big things looming in his future. But Masterson came as the completely unknown wildcard as the first act on both nights, and what I came to witness as a result has left an unmistakable imprint upon me nearly a week later.

Armed with only an acoustic guitar (and later surrounding help from The Lone Bellow’s Brian Elmquist and  Anderson East Band), the Wisconsin-bred Masterson got up and just….sang with an essence of stinging honesty and conviction stretching from the backwoods of his hometown of Butternut all the way to the bright lights of NYC. Looking back on it later, I felt like Mark Ruffalo’s record executive character from Begin Again as he watches Keira Knightley’s musician Gretta sing for the first time.

She goes virtually unknown and unnoticed in a crowded bar as she strums away on a lone guitar, but he can’t keep his eyes off of her as he imagines her song blooming and the instruments (literally) sprouting to life around the talent he sees. It’s one of the more powerfully inspiring scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a music film, and as I watched Masterson’s set I could sense that same spark of potential burning from the rasp in his voice down to the path left by the tracings of his lone guitar lines.

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Up until now Masterson had been mostly known as the lead name in Hugh Bob and The Hustle, but with that band apparently in the rearview mirror it was refreshing to hear him not only play new songs, but present songs from the Hustle’s self-titled debut stripped right down to the nuts and bolts. Not that there’s anything wrong with the original record (it’s a strong slice of alt-country/rock), but the songs that were translated to Webster Hall benefitted greatly from a little less polish and a little more dirt under their metaphorical fingernails.

Tracks like “Passenger Side” and “Ashland County” carried a greater weight of poignancy without additional instrument arrangements, and made Masterson’s already eloquent songwriting stand out as strong as his vocals as they rang out into the depths of that concert hall. It was almost as though he was preparing to give everyone attending something as gloriously dingy and close to the soul as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (just soaked with a few more beers first).

It reminded me of seeing Butch Walker open for Ryan Adams at Carnegie Hall a year ago during two special nights of acoustic shows. Walker had primarily been known as a pop/rock-leaning musician and a skilled producer, but on that night I was hypnotized by his solo acoustic set of songs that would later become the Adams-produced tearjerker Afraid of Ghosts. It was fragile and more creaky than polished perhaps, but it was also cathartic and real and unafraid to risk anything in order to say everything.

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I got those same rush of emotions watching Hugh Masterson step out on that Webster Hall stage last week. And without even knowing a great deal of his work or music, I couldn’t help but be more and more proud of him for taking that risk. It takes strength to define yourself as one person outside of a band you’ve known a long time, and even more of it to open for two other groups in front of crowds that could very well be completely unaware of what you do and the art that you make.

Kudos to Masterson for owning every minute of it while simultaneously being one of the friendliest, most down to earth and humble individuals I’ve ever had the great pleasure of meeting. I came away with more meaningful anecdotes in a five minute conversation with him after the show than I have in any conversation I’ve had in a very long time.

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Now, if we could just get Hugh in touch with Ryan Adams to do some producing…

You can find Hugh Masterson on Facebook and Twitter, and you can buy his Hugh Bob and The Hustle LP on iTunes or Bandcamp (or listen to it over on Spotify). 

Credit for the first three (and by the far the best) photos in this piece are courtesy of Mara S. May she always be able to illustrate the best words I can sing from my mouth and out upon these digital pages.

Ivy Beck & Neill Prepared To Wow; Break Hearts at Weekend Release Show

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As some of you who’ve read this blog in the past may know, I have a great deal of affection for the sights, sounds, and beautiful experiences that have been my adventures into the land of Brooklyn underground music.

There’ve been the eye-opening discoveries, the intimate venues, the music that’s stirred my soul, and the wonderful friends that have come out of having all three. This weekend’s event is certainly no exception to those rules, and happens to feature my latest loves Ivy Beck & Neill.

Earlier this month I first had the pleasure of seeing the country/folk power trio play a brief set in support of their upcoming release Live at Rockwood Music Hall. Now you’ve likely already read my lavish praise on the musical talents of one of IB&N’s lead vocalists Amanda Simpson Neill. Neill also plays in an edgier folk/rock band called Barefoot & Bankside, and her gravelly, Janis J meets Melissa Ethridge croon played a prominent part in my review piece a couple of months ago raving about their respective set at Rockwood.

However when I saw IB&N in August, those edges were softened a bit as Neill instead paired up on three part folk harmonies with Trisha Ivy and Mike Beck. And while Neill still brings that bluesy growl, Ivy complements it with something that I can only begin to describe as…. blissfully angelic. A voice that can soothe you to daydream then tear apart your emotions with it’s power by the next line in the verse.

The two together (with Beck being the glue that holds it all in place) are like fire and ice. Thunder and lightning. Elements that begin and end each other like that’s what they were meant to do since time began. Voices so strong and so filled with purpose that even the noisiest room would sound like a pin was dropping just to clear the way for it.

And when all three get to harmonizing (as with the unbearably gorgeous “When The Willow Stops Weeping”), the windows and walls of your emotional center will be blown open with a rocket launcher. Apart the three are talented, but together…. they make me glad that music is a thing that’s still as alive and well in this world as it’s ever been.

Go and check out Ivy Beck & Neill at their Live at Rockwood Music Hall joint record release show with the Alex Mallett Band in Brooklyn this weekend. They’ll be playing at 7:30 PM Saturday at the Jalopy Theatre. You’ll be sad if you miss out!

 

 

 

Music of the Day….

So for 2015, I figured I should get my WordPress page out of mothballs and do something a bit more regular musically to possibly draw in some traffic. So I thought, why not post a little bit each day or every other about a music moment that was so good, I just had to pass it on?

For today that choice comes in the form of jack of all trades Butch Walker and his stop into the Relix Magazine offices from December 31st. Walker has done a lot in his career, from producing the likes of Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne to being a productive singer-songwriter/musician since the late 80’s, but it’s his latest solo album “Afraid of Ghosts” that might just draw Butch’s greatest acclaim to date.

With prolific musician Ryan Adams at the helm to produce, the two mesh style and substance beautifully into a rustically moody, Nebraska-inflected veneer. Take that even further by stripping these two songs down to their acoustic roots, and the vulnerable bare bones of Walker’s brilliant songwriting become even more visible. So sit back for a bit, and enjoy the following:

Butch Walker “Chrissie Hynde” and “Father’s Day”

To Brooklyn, With Love: A Year’s Retrospective

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A lot can happen in a year. I like to think that in 24 of them perhaps I’ve begun to peck at the grains of sand on this eternal beach; maybe taken something back with me that’s going to last. Though more often than not when I think of the years I’ve had, I come to the conclusion that I’ve been asleep until this last one. That the womb isn’t just nine months, but a gestation of years to not only stand on my own two feet, but to feel the dunes etched beneath them when the moments become mine. When these months became mine.

And if I were to confide that in a postcard and take the time to send it anywhere, I would send it with my thanks to music. I would send it with white roses care of love. And I would send it to Brooklyn, where the brightest stars that could ever hope to burn in my night sky began where music and love met with you.

Enter Brooklyn’s Bandshell in the summer of 2013, when the tail of my comet was just arching across that orange sky with yours. Between the sting of the heavy raindrops that day we crossed paths with a young debuting Brooklyn band called The Lone Bellow, and out under that lit up night sky we were forever changed by Zach, Kanene and Brian’s music. “Watch Over Us” hung like a prayer left wondering, their unexpected take on “Angel From Montgomery” dazzled with raw power, and the trio moved like a wrecking ball of intimate catharsis and razor wired passion. I had never felt more alive seeing three people leave every ounce of themselves bleeding out and spent on a stage before. It would never have meant as much as it has to my life since though, were it not for you.

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The Lone Bellow became our music, our discovery so special that it’s become worthy of a movie like “Almost Famous”. Which is ironic considering that several months after the Bandshell came that hometown show for the trio at NYC’s Carnegie Hall, in which getting second row tickets (on that tip from Zach himself) landed us smack dab in the middle of a family reunion. Thanks to that one little conversation with him at the Bandshell, we went from what were simply good seats to a backstage meeting arranged by his mother and the six best words every obsessed music fan wants to hear, “don’t worry…. you’re with the mom”. It was in the span of this night that I think we actually lived a part of “Almost Famous”, and from then on… well, we’re gonna be forever tied to one of our favorite bands of all time.

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And of course there was your fan request in Geneva’s Smith Opera House this year for new song “Diners”, talking casually outside the Smith with Kanene who REMEMBERED us (which will never cease to blow my mind), crazy speculating on their next album (followed by many continued plays of that homemade “Then Came The Morning” bootleg), and watching the band come home again to Lincoln Center just a month ago to play alongside the likes of the famed Roseanne Cash. I could recount to you a mountain of these memories (and the greatest crowd rebellion known to music at that very Lincoln Center show) and I still don’t think it could begin to be a ripple on the surface of that pond. Every note, every bend, every cue and every Zach as Tarzan chest pound…. is like standing in the echo chamber and behind the wizard’s curtain of music and it’s beating heart. And that’s less of a postcard and more of a love letter when it gets right down to it.

I suppose that’s what this is too. I started to write these recollections imagining them for the consumption of a faceless somebody, but instead that face became etched with so many things so personal to me. This band. This year. You. Getting to write the most meaningful musical words I can think of that I didn’t wanna share with just a somebody, but the ones I wanted to share with MY somebody. Even if we’ve already taken the steps in this dance together and know it’s rhythm, it was this beat I’d been waiting for longer than I ever could have guessed in all these years.

As Zach says in “Two Sides of Lonely”, we were alone together in Brooklyn. Little did I know that was the best place to start, pinkies entwined.

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Spoon Scoops Out Sweet, Alt-Rock Savagery At Ithaca’s State Theatre

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Ah, the start of the fall season. It’s that magical period of time when the leaves erupt from their traditional greens into bursts of mottled reds and golds, the apples burst forth in full fruit from their orchards, and tourists suddenly receive the instinctive call to migrate north and sample the latest seasonal Starbucks pumpkin latte. Brings a tear to the eye really.

But for local Ithaca NY residents and music fans in the area surrounding, it means another jam-packed fall roster of Dan Smalls Presents-curated concerts taking center stage in 2014. And luckily enough for yours truly, I managed to score superb seats this past week for the inaugural show at Ithaca’s State Theatre with Austin TX’s own indie rockers Spoon. They’ve been hot off the early August release of album “They Want My Soul” (their first since 2010’s “Transference”), and my anticipation for one hell of a live set was fairly high. Little did I know what was to come….

Though first up was a special treat in the form of Spoon’s own Eric Harvey acting as the opener for the night. While Harvey has opened for the band before, it was apparently a rarity for him to actually appear with a full group of musicians at his back. Gathered from local contacts around the area (who aided in the recording Harvey did in Ithaca for his 2012 solo record “Lake Disappointment”), the added composition of cello, bass, electric guitar, drums, and backing vocals provided added pastels of flavor to the plaintive heart of Harvey’s guitar-plucked singer-songwriter persona. In fact it led to an on-stage versatility I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing many bands do in which the varied players kept cycling on and off in the background.

At one moment Harvey would be alone on stage, then the next two songs would offer entirely separate arrangements until one guy with a voice and a tune on his strings would become a band in full throat…. only to shift right back again. The night would take a much different tempo before it was complete, but Harvey’s easy swing of mostly originals (diverging only on a loving take of Jackson Browne’s “These Days”) provided a heavily folk-inflected coffeehouse swoon that was a welcoming warmth to settle in with. And given Eric Harvey’s extensive ties to Upstate NY, his set seemed like an appropriately brilliant homecoming.

But then it was time for Spoon to hit the stage, and amidst a backdrop of glowing grey screens and a futuristic disco ball of sorts the quintet shake rattled and rolled the State Theatre right down to the screws of it’s foundations. Opening with the title cut off of “They Want My Soul” before shifting into “Rent I Pay” and older tracks “Don’t You Evah”, “Small Stakes”, and “Who Makes Your Money”, the band kept up a rhythmic barrage that barely paused for either breath or banter. Lead man Britt Daniel was a gritty, growling force of Telecaster-contorting energy who could only be matched by the multi-instrumental tornado that was Alex Fishel, though as a whole Spoon was seamless no matter what direction they chose to weave through their catalogue.

I mean one of the greatest pluses of the band’s new album is how reinvigorated they sound as a group following a four year period of downtime, and that easily carries over into their performance and just how connected these five guys seem. Through a set of 20+ songs they made nearly two hours feel like ten minutes, they got a theatre seated crowd to stand, dance and move from beginning to end, and they converted me from a casual fan into one who’ll be regularly inserting Spoon songs into my playlists for a long time to come.

I don’t think I could have thought of a better way to kick off musical festivities in Ithaca, and you can put THAT into your latte fall fans.

Folk Duo Shines In Understated 9th Ward Debut

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Intimacy at a musical event can be a funny and altogether fickle creature. Over the past several years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing 50-60 shows in areas that are the closest place to home all the way into the deeper heart of New York City, and performances have ranged from the tiniest clubs to outdoor stages and everything in between. The funny part about it is once I’ve had the debate over which setting is better (hole in the wall kinda runs away with that race) I then start to wonder, is there such a thing as too much intimacy?

That question raised it’s hand to me once again this past weekend going to see well-traveled country-folk couple Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion play Buffalo NY’s The 9th Ward. The twosome (who are in their 14th year of music together) were making their debut at Asbury Hall’s underground club, and as a first-timer myself I admittedly came away impressed. While it is a smaller venue that will unmistakably be limited to the “underground” or lesser known acts that come to town, the Ward clearly benefits from being little more than half a decade old. Surfaces are kept up, the bar is tended neatly, and while comparable venues with more of a history of character are always appreciated, it’s nice to see a spot with the same intended visual appeal that Asbury Hall has up above. On a simpler scale, of course.

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But after my excessive ogling of the scenery it was time for the show, to which only a few dozen people had shown up to see. A few dozen might even be too kind of an estimation, which is special as an attendee but disheartening to witness from the perspective of wanting to see such obvious musical talent getting justified recognition. I’d had the same wincingly unfortunate realization when I saw James Taylor’s son Ben play The Haunt in Ithaca last year to a crowd of 10 or 20, and sadly that question of intimacy debate arose all over again last Saturday at The 9th Ward. Promotion is not exactly a manner of rocket science, and more effort would have been welcomed in order to ensure that musical acts of this caliber continue to make stops in Western NY.

Because you see, for anyone who still enjoys the stirring lilt of classic harmony-drenched folk, the history of singers gone and those who grace us still, and the stripped down sweetness of two musicians working within six strings of a rhythm all their own…. well, you really did end up missing out. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion are much like two sides of a complementary coin to each other; while Irion might play lead fiddle to Guthrie one moment the next would seamlessly transition to Guthrie adding backing vocals or percussion to Irion occasionally going “off-script”. Improv aside though, their set wound through children’s songs they’d written (“Go Wagaloo”), tracks from 2013’s superb “Wassaic Way” (“Chairman Meow”, “Lowest Ebb”, “Hurricane Window”), covers (“And I Love Her”, “Runaway”), and everything in between (the nod to Sarah Lee’s grandfather Woody with the murder ballad “Tom Joad” felt especially appropriate). But truly the best moments were when the two would be in tandem, whether it was harmonizing, storytelling, or layering guitar against guitar.

The duo closed their set with a quaint off-PA version of “When The Lilacs Are In Bloom” that took them directly into the crowd, and if anything could make that small gathering of people feel appropriate, this moment was it. Because despite how disappointing it was to see Sarah Lee & Johnny treated to such a minimal gathering, there was such power in that too. Like a group of friends swapping songs and stories around the campfire, this was sharing and imparting the power of music at it’s simplest roots. And that, is truly when intimacy shines the brightest.

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