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’s “Rockwood” Burns Bright as Powerhouse of Brooklyn Country

Live At Rockwood Music Hall

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/

2012 ARCHIVE: Artist Spotlight 1: Singer/Songwriter Jessica Allyn

This is an older piece that I did in September of 2012, which is part one of two excellent indie music collaborations that I did around this time. The first was with an NYC musician named Jessica Allyn and her latest “trip-hop” oriented EP that was due to be coming out then. But I’ll leave the rest to this article, which I think not only shows my creative skills but some pretty cool interview stuff for someone who was new to doing such a thing!

So if you’ve been roaming around my music blog here recently, you may have come across the last cluster of videos that I uploaded to my Youtube page(http://www.youtube.com/user/ThisDogAteMyVlogs?feature=mhee). Whether or not you caught up on those or were hopefully introduced to what I do, the highlight of the whole bunch in my opinion was doing my first ever artist promo video.

In this case I featured a lovely New York City area artist by the name of Jessica Allyn, whom I’ve had the pleasure to follow off and on since somewhere in the period of 2009/2010. Since early 2009 she’s released a stellar debut EP called “I Am A Camera”, a highly underrated full length entitled “Delusions of Grandeur”, a series of demo songs called “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable”, and is currently working on more material for future release. Allyn is certainly well traveled within the local NYC music scene, having played alongside a variety of bands as well as providing backing vocals with several others, and she only seems poised to go upwards from here.

At the moment she has a single from her latest effort that was released back in February of 2012 called “2046”(available to buy or listen to here:http://jessicaallyn.bandcamp.com/album/2046), and it’s a promising one indeed. Described over on her Bandcamp as “a culmination of Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, Party Drugs, and the obsessive watching of John Hughes movies” and “an experimentation of equilibrium and sound”, “2046” is a tightly woven bit of trip-hop that seamlessly blends into the murky dreamscape of ominously lurking thought and mind. A little snatch of Allyn’s own personal Twilight Zone if you will.

Lucky for me when I passed on my promo video to Ms Allyn she was quite pleased and was also interested in having me do another video for “2046”(which you can see here:  http://youtu.be/bzcIW8fpEmA, or in the links below). On top of all that she also threw out the idea of doing an interview, so I eagerly assembled some questions to talk more about “2046”, her musical process and where she sees her sound going further down the road. It was a lot of fun and very gracious of her to take the time!

1. With both “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” and “2046” you mention experimenting with poetry in your music as opposed to traditional lyrics. What was the driving factor that truly brought on this phase of experimentation, and given your success with it do you see it continuing to have a major impact in your work?

I’ve been a huge fan of poetry my whole life, and I had been reading a hefty amount of Sylvia Plath, Michelle Tea, and Eileen Myles at the time. I was profoundly affected by their honesty. It’s something I always felt I bestowed upon my own music. So there was that connection. But mostly it came from just jotting down little blurbs or thoughts I had at any time of day, and seeing what worked together. I definitely want to continue this approach.

2. Also as a followup, as your forthcoming album takes shape will we see the demos from “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” fleshed out to accompany “2046” in this new direction you’re taking? Given that they seem to come from a similar lyrical mindset it feels as though they’re connected on the same sort of path. 

I haven’t fully decided if I’m going to revisit EPI (The Exploding Plastic Inevitable), because of what it was. An experiment. I enjoy it’s rawness, and it’s a very sacred project to me. With all that being said, the original goal with this new EP was to finish EPI and really go in the direction of sound that I wanted. If I do revisit it at all, it will likely be a last minute add on/bonus track. I have a tendency (and it’s happened on every album) to write a new song, or add a song to the track list down to the wire. So, you never know what I might pop on there. And who doesn’t love the element of a good surprise?!

3. And again in regard to your writing do you often find that your words usually originate from your own personal experiences? I know that songwriting and preparation comes from a different place depending on the musician, and what you had said about “2046” being about “growing up, letting go of the past, and nostalgia at the same time” made me curious about your process.

Yes, I absolutely write from personal experience. I have been given the gift of being a wallflower. So I observe. Then I write. I have moments where I cannot verbally express myself, maybe I want to say “Fuck you!” But, I just can’t because of circumstance. (We’ve all been there.) Instead I jot down a line or two in an more allegoric, intellectual way, and go back to it later to finalize. Every song I’ve ever written has been based off of real life experiences, philosophies, ideas, etc. The only truth I know or see left in this world is through honesty in music. If that dies, so does music. And I see people slipping away from the main idea and it’s happening more and more often. That worries me to the core.

4. Do you see this new sonic direction you’re headed in(incorporating your old influences and a new “Portishead meets Cat Power” style as you dubbed it) as being a turning point in your musical career to this point? Is this the consistent next wave of what your sound is evolving into going forward?

Oh it’s a turn, alright… In the direction I always wanted to go but never could. I got lucky enough to have amazing boyfriend and producer (John Cruess, of The Involvement & The Conformed) who has introduced me to a world I never thought was attainable. I am riding this wave for a while, I want to grow with it, and see where it takes me. 

5. You mention learning a lot about what goes into a studio album as you created “2046” and what will be the rest of your forthcoming work. What have you taken away from that experience going forward as opposed to prior efforts, and how does it compare(if at all) to the craftsmanship that’s involved being live on stage? 

Studio and stage are two very different things. As for prior efforts (ie; past studio recordings,) we had no budget, and it was what it was. But, getting to see how everything works down to a science, the knobs turning, pushing of the buttons plus getting to use all the other amazing toys that come along with it, has been a fucking dream. I like being hands on, I believe it’s the best way to learn. Just dive right in head first and do it. 

The stage was easy for me. It was like doing a cabaret show every night to a punk crowd. I come from a theatre background so it was just fun to be up there every night. It felt like home. 

6. Also speaking of being on stage, with what you’re doing right now in this new genre and with the new territory you’re exploring would this be the kind of material you could see playing live at some point? I know you’re well acquainted with the standard backing of stringed instruments and percussion, but would you put that aside or try to incorporate it and push the envelope live with this new sound? Or are you content to work just within the studio at this point?

I want to bring this album to life, in the stage sense. But it’s not an easy process to do alone. So I’d have to bring in some more people on the project before I take it to the stage. I’ve seen a lot of shows this summer that incorporate the style I’ve been heading toward and definitely picked up on tips. But I want to get this album right, and stay in the studio until I get everything where it should be. But, man, I miss the stage! 

7. Lastly(to touch on a more broad topic here), what are your thoughts on the current state of the music industry? I know that you along with a lot of other artists use Bandcamp now, and Amanda Palmer recently had a major breakthrough with her smash hit Kickstarter campaign. With iTunes and the digital age being in full swing right now, what do you feel the positive and negatives of this have been? And as a sidetone do you listen to a lot of digital or are you a fan of physical media like CD’s and such? And have any other artists really been sticking out to you lately or played an influence on what you’ve done in your work? 

I believe in the grassroots approach. And I’m not afraid to ask for a dollar. However, I have always given away my music at the fan’s choice. Money or not. The goal is to be heard. As for recent controversies on Kickstarter projects, playing for free, etc. I have played for free, and I have also played shows where I made money at the door and took the loss to pay the other musicians and bands I played with. And I don’t bite the hand that feeds. I’m 100% disappointed with the industry right now, and I fear the death of music is around the corner. Creativity and revolutionaries are rare and we are surrounded by the lazy. It’s why I praise nostalgia so much. I want to go back to a place where music meant something, and wasn’t just a ploy or way to make a buck. Where people had something to say and people stopped to listen. I want impact. But I don’t like glorifying artists and I don’t like the way egos are fed.  It’s killed the spirit of what it’s all about. 

I read blogs to find new music, I listen to Spotify, and I go to a lot of shows. But my main influences will always be on vinyl and tape. I’ve seen some great bands lately that have definitely helped in inspiring me like Lemonade, Craftspells, Chairlift and Grouplove. Also St. Vincent, Fiona Apple, and Cat Power’s new albums are huge! And Portishead is my backbone reference on this album. Their brilliance exceeds anything I could ever think up, but the way they make music is so scientific and inspiring that I have to try.

Again if you want to check out Jessica and her music go over to her Bandcamp(which you can find in the links below), along with her Facebook and Twitter pages as well as the video I did for “2046”. It was an honor to work with her on this project as well doing some excellent video analysis, and I look forward to collaborating again in the future!

Bandcamp: http://jessicaallyn.bandcamp.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jessicaallynmusic

Twitter: https://twitter.com/_JessicaAllyn

“2046” Video: http://youtu.be/bzcIW8fpEmA

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