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Friday, May 11, 2012

Live: Esperanza Spalding, just enough

Posted by on Fri, May 11, 2012 at 2:31 PM

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Esperanza Spalding
Carolina Theatre, Durham
May 9, 2012

Esperanza Spalding makes an audience genuinely happy. Her music and the spirit of it are infused with a 20-something-year-old’s truth serum, which shows up in the form of between-song monologues about young love in the present day, and tender reconnection with pre-colonial ancestry. “Espey,” as her band mates affectionately call her, is the type of chick every mother wants to bear her grandkids and every bass enthusiast wants to be serenaded by.

At a packed Carolina Theatre peppered with Durham’s multi-aged, -raced, and -gendered jazz and fusion aficionados, the lights opened on a bandstand complete with an over-sized boombox. The controls flashed and cackled as the eight-piece ensemble mimicked the static that is often the most appealing resonance on popular radio. They then launched into a Maceo-esque instrumental before Spalding emerged from the shadows of backstage, a sunburst-colored Fender Jazz bass horizontally strapped across her slight frame. It looked to weigh only a few pick-ups less than she.

The assembly, with Spalding front and center, delved straightaway into “Hold On Me,” a big-band number from Radio Music Society, Spalding’s post-Grammy follow-up to Chamber Music Society. It came splattered by horn blares and expressly punctuated by saxophonist Tia Fuller (most recognized from her stint with Beyonce’s all-female I AM … Sasha Fierce and Beyoncé Experience world tours). Jesse Johnson, original guitarist for Minneapolis funksters The Time, sat on a stool to Spalding's left, as the horn section—whose median age had to be less than 30—stood poised and ready to her right.

Spalding then began shaping the narrative of the evening’s performance with short soliloquies designed to take the listener “on a journey.” Although the effort was as cliché as the phrase it evokes, Spalding came across as prematurely wise, undulating through phases of adolescent adoration, growing up.

Predictably, the highlights of the evening were Spalding’s most familiar tunes: “City of Roses,” a homage to her misty native city of Portland, Ore., and “Black Gold,” an uplifting black conscious clap-along written with the struggles of African-American youth in mind. Toward the more somber closing, the lights fell to spotlight Spalding as she invoked the story of Cornelius Dupree, a prisoner exonerated after 30 years behind bars. Spalding, atop gospel-tinged organ runs, performed the solemn “Land of the Free,” positing age-old questions about imperialism and oppression in the form of a story about a man freed only after, “it cost him his parents, and his wife, his home, his life.”

In full-circle fashion, Spalding concluded with her own version of the Wayne Shorter number, “Endangered Species.” Penned by Spalding over the Shorter instrumental, the lyrics could easily be considered a sophisticated Earth Day jingle with its punchy harmonies (think Birdland) and Mother Earth-affirming flair.

It’s easy to understand why certain critics and audiences alike hail Spalding as a refreshing addition to jazz, a genre seemingly always in need of a pulse check. She’s also in the business of proving her uniquely conservative synthesis of sounds attractive to an audience of her peers. Boasting a resume that already includes sessions with Prince, Stevie Wonder and M. Ward, she plucks the strings of her upright and electric basses with Berklee-trained nimbleness, while orchestrating an evening of pure contentment. In a radio music society, that may be just enough.

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    The Grammy-winning bassist brings her ensemble to Durham.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

With Tutankhamen, 9th Wonder wants you to buy the beats

Posted by on Wed, May 9, 2012 at 1:53 PM

Tight spelling?
  • Tight spelling?

Unless you’re an aspiring emcee looking for some quick beats to rhyme over, it might be hard to wrap your dollar bills around any legitimate hip-hop producer’s instrumental releases. Many of us don’t have any use for background boom-bap without vocals, anyway. But in 9th Wonder’s case—where many of his devoted followers pride themselves on collecting all of 9th’s jams, be they popular, unreleased or leaked—he’s now cashing in on an audience that views his work as classic compositions that mark a prestigious era in post-J. Dilla producer adoration.

Earlier this week, 9th released his 40-track beat tape, Tutankhamen, which features several of his classic soul-sampled beats as well as previously unheard ones. The tracklisting reads like a computer-generated printout of generic titles, or a compilation of Twitter hashtags—“HoneyBeeChopSoul,” “JoyJoyJoy,” and “AscensionHaSoul." That could be 9th’s way of encouraging rappers to re-title the jams should they choose to use the beats for their own songs.

You might notice, however, that unlike most of the material that Jamla has released over the years, Tutankhamen isn't free. It comes with a price tag of $9.99. Free doesn’t last forever, and now Jamla Records has shifted its focus from gratis .zip files to a record label with a business model and the potential for its artists to earn a cool penny. Previous instrumental albums from 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records production team, The Soul Council, include Eric G’s Stars & Lights, Ka$h’s The Jamla Files and Khrysis’ more recent, Funkwhatuheard LP.

Between these four beat adventures, there’s a couple of hours of heavy warm-up listening until May 29 , when Jamla emcee Big Remo throws his street-friendly conversation on top of The Soul Council’s newer creations for his sophomore album, Sleepwalkers. If Jamla Records can stay in full-stride, then it’s quite possible that 9th Wonder—as NC’s hip-hop King Tut—can help everyone on his team gild their bottom lines.

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    The producer's latest tape includes 40 beats, but it certainly isn't free.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

'Baudelaire in a Box' comes to the Triangle

Posted by on Tue, May 8, 2012 at 12:30 PM

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In the spring of 2010, Chicago-based artist and theater wiz Dave Buchen executed the first edition of Baudelaire in a Box. He and his songwriter friend Chris Schoen adapted some of the notable wine poems of famously macabre 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire, setting them to music and illustrating them with scrolling images that played within a series of boxes. The performance was so successful that Buchen, a founding member of Chicago's Theater Ooblek, decided to expand the project. The plan now is to adapt the entirety of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal by 2017, the 150th anniversary of Baudelaire's death.

Producing a new show every few months, Buchen has made his way through New York, Chicago and Puerto Rico, incorporating new musicians along the way. On Memorial Day weekend, Baudelaire in a Box makes its way to the Triangle where a team of local musicians will put their own spin on Bauedelaire's cherished words. Dexter Romweber, JKutchma, Curtis Eller and New Town Drunks will provide original music for a new batch of Baudelaire's poetry in a show entitled "Bad Luck." The group of musicians will play along as Buchen spins his art at Carrboro's ArtsCenter (May 25), Durham's Pinhook (May 26) and Raleigh's Pour House (May 27).

For an early listen as to what these shows will entail, you can check out a rough cut of New Town Drunks' "Ill Starred," one of their Parisian-flavored contributions to the show, streaming below.

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    Local musicians and Dave Buchen collaborate on live Baudelaire in a Box

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Waiting for the Pirate Party while Bob Mould, David Cross help raise $18,000 for Coalition to Protect NC Families

Posted by on Tue, May 8, 2012 at 9:39 AM

Mac McCaughan and Jim Wilbur at the Haw River Ballroom
When I arrived at the Haw River Ballroom Sunday night for a concert benefit to fight Amendment 1, all that remained of Saturday's river celebration, the annual Haw River Festival, was a collection of multicolored fabric streamers that hung, Christo-like, from the bridge that crosses the river just upstream of the mill.

The light shed by the setting sun was very pretty. I talked to a lad in a striped shirt who was tossing a fish he'd caught back into the water. The bass, alas, looked rather the worse for wear as it floated belly-up down the muddy river.

Presented by Merge Records and the Coalition to Protect NC Families, the bill featured Bob Mould, David Cross, Stu McLamb, Tig Notaro, acoustic Superchunk and poet-actress Amber Tamblyn.

With an hour to go before the concert, I walked back up to the buildings that comprise the Saxapahaw Rivermill, including the Saxapahaw General Store, which operates what is surely the state's fanciest short-order grill ("your local five-star gas station") while doing a retail business in local meat and produce, including organic, pastured raised chickens and pigs who had been fed organic, locally milled feed.

As I nursed my beer and nachos in The Eddy Pub, I read my print copy of the Sunday New York Times opinion section. I only mention this because there was an essay about the Pirate Party, an emerging political movement that was founded in Sweden in 2006 and is gaining traction elsewhere in Europe, especially Germany. The party arose from a fairly narrow preoccupation with Internet neutrality and copyright laws, but it has grown into a broader coalition of libertarians, anarchists and points in between (including a few neo-Nazis, evidently). In Germany, the Pirate Party is poised to surpass the Greens as the third-largest political party. Here, of course, the title of "third-largest" political party is a non-existent one. And the idea of a fourth party overtaking a third party is crazy talk.

Also on Sunday, but reported in a different newspaper, there was a story about Occupy Raleigh breaking camp. Whatever Occupy Raleigh did, it didn't move the goalposts to the left; meanwhile, Republican redistricting ended the careers of several notable Tar Heel left-liberals. It's little wonder that Amendment 1 has dominated discussion of the May 8 election: Give or take a county commissioners' race or a state senator or two, it's a pretty weak slate of conservative Democrats who are queuing up for the opportunity to strengthen incoming Republican governor Pat McCrory's grip on the state government.

Another thing that happened Sunday: Vice President Joe Biden declared support for same-sex marriage on a Sunday morning talk show. A day-long controversy ensued, with the inevitable back-and-forths. The upshot was that the White House declared that Biden's comments did not reflect a shift in policy. But wait a second: I thought we were being told that Obama had our back.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Proud to call him Lumbee: Willie French Lowery, 1944-2012

Posted by on Mon, May 7, 2012 at 2:53 PM

Community man Willie French Lowery
  • Community man Willie French Lowery

Lauded Lumbee songwriter, artist, husband and father Willie French Lowery passed away May 3 at the age of 68. Lowery’s legacy includes more than 40 years worth of music, shaped by Indian, African, and European American traditions alike. His prolific career spanned psychedelic rock and children’s music, painting and stagecraft. Arguably, his most important career role, though, was as a cultural figurehead in the Lumbee tribe. An assistant curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and member of the Lumbee community, Jefferson Currie III calls Lowery a hero: “His entire career makes [us] proud. In some ways, he helped to nurture a stronger identity and sense of being among Lumbees. I think his legacy will continue for a long time.”

For some time now, Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter of the Paradise of Bachelors label have been trying to ensure exactly that. Working with Lowery and his wife, Malinda Maynor Lowery, the label has pursued reissues of his older releases. Their first is the eponymous record by Plant and See, Lowery’s short-lived ‘70s psych rock band; it will be released this July. “What’s really fascinating about him,” says Greaves, “is that he put out these two LPs that are classic to the canon of psychedelic music, if little known beyond that, but then turned his career into a vehicle for articulating American Indian identity and politics."

Born in 1944 in Robeson County, N.C., Lowery took a unique path. As a young man, he played in a traveling carnival, served as the bandleader for former Drifter Clyde McPhatter, wrote commercial jingles, and fronted both Plant and See and Lumbee. In those psychedelic rock bands, Lowery honed a southern swamp-psych sound. The latter group’s only recording, Overdose, drew the attention of The Allman Bros, who took the group on the road as an opening act. Though Lumbee swiftly disbanded, their recording has since become a highly collectible psychedelic classic.

After brushes with success, Lowery decided to trade the prospect of rock ’n’ roll fame for more community-focused work. He spent much of the rest of his career making music and art that exalted the traditions of Lumbee culture. With an acoustic guitar and a gritty tenor, Lowery wrote more than 500 songs that range from blues to country to gospel. Notably, in 1976, he recorded a children’s folk album, Proud to be a Lumbee, which solidified his place as an icon in the Lumbee tribe. He also penned Strike at the Wind!, a popular, long-running outdoor drama about his ancestor, Henry Berry Lowery, a Robin Hood figure within the Lumbee community.

“He was an exceptionally gifted guitar player and singer. His music is an anthem for the Lumbee people,” says Dr. William Ferris, the Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South. He often featured Lowery as a guest lecturer in his course on Southern Music. "He and his ancestors are forever associated with their voice in North Carolina.”

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    The Lumbee songwriter and advocate died last week.

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Foreign exchange: UNC Beat Lab curriculum to be taught in Goma, DRC

Posted by on Mon, May 7, 2012 at 11:11 AM

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May 13th is UNC's graduation date, which makes it an appropriate day for the UNC Beat Making Lab to release its free compilation. These 13 tracks—which draw samples from a wide variety of North Carolina acts—represent the final project from a course on beat-making taught by The Beast emcee Pierce Freelon and Chapel Hill producer extraordinaire Stephen Levitin— better-known in music circles as the Apple Juice Kid. While the compilation will be free, there's currently an Indiegogo campaign set up to send Freelon and Apple Juice to Goma, DR Congo, this summer, where they'll teach the same course at the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival (SKIFF). They will also build and leave a beat studio. This fits within the mission of ARTVSM, a socially conscious art-and-activism company run by the two.

After the jump, read our conversation with Freelon and Apple Juice about the UNC Beat Making Lab and their international aspirations. And while you're here, you may as well hit play on Sup Doodle's "It Doesn't Hurt a Bit," a track from the upcoming compilation.

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    The Apple Juice Kid and Pierce Freelon talk about their new nexus of local music, academia and hip-hop.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Live: Nick Lowe fits them in

Posted by on Thu, May 3, 2012 at 4:15 PM

Cool and calm, always: Nick Lowe
  • Cool and calm, always: Nick Lowe

"I'm bound to wind up one lonely, lonely twisted old man," Nick Lowe sang midway through his set Wednesday evening at Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh. The lyric—from "I Trained Her To Love Me," a song on Lowe's 2006 album, At My Age—partly portrays how Lowe has painted himself in his autumn years: an ultra-cool crooner of songs about hard knocks in life and love.

And yet there's something inherently and utterly charming, even jovial, about Lowe's latter-day disposition. He may be down and out as he confides in us about how "Lately I've Let Things Slide" and details the effects of "What Lack of Love Has Done," but he delivers his blues with the spirit of a survivor. Sorrow comes tempered with equanimity, and a dash of bittersweet humor: When a lover has "left me high and dry in a loveless land" and friends ask "how I've stopped contemplating what I now have not," the answer is classic Lowe: "I Read a Lot."

It helps, too, that, to paraphrase his set-closing number, he still knows the groom who used to rock 'n' roll. Backed by a terrific band featuring keyboardist Geraint Watkins, guitarist Johnny Scott, bassist Matt Radford and drummer Bobby Irwin, Lowe frequently kicked things up a notch during a set that might have seemed a tad short (a little more than an hour, followed by 20 minutes of encore) but covered quite a bit of ground. He went back to his Rockpile days with "Heart" and "When I Write the Book," delivered a terrific upbeat take of his early solo hit "Cruel to Be Kind," touched upon his mid-'90s comeback years with "I Live on a Battlefield" (slyly noting that Diana Ross covered it but that it was "not her finest hour"), and brought us up-to-date with a handful of songs from his more recent albums on the Traingle-based label Yep Roc, highlighted by "House for Sale" from last year's The Old Magic.

That the set list ultimately stretched to 22 songs despite running just under 90 minutes speaks to a hallmark of Lowe's songwriting: He's not one for wasted words and spaces. If it can't be said in less than four minutes—and often less than three—Lowe generally won't bother. His backing crew was similarly economical; solos were never for show, but always tasteful, to the point, and in service of the song.

For all of Lowe's reputation as a songwriter—capped by "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," delivered beautifully in the encore with help from opening act Tift Merritt and her pedal steel player Eric Heywood—two of last night's best moments came when Lowe tackled other artists' songs. Near the end of the set, he and the band hit their most fevered pitch of the night on the 1961 Gene McDaniels tune "Tower of Strength," a brilliant resurrection of a too-little-known gem. And Lowe closed the night onstage by himself for a heartbreaking verson of Elvis Costello's "Alison," a fitting finale given that Lowe was in the producer's chair when Costello recorded it 35 years ago.

Merritt's opening set was quite well received, not surprisingly given that Raleigh remains her hometown audience despite her relocation to New York many years ago. She mixed a couple of new tunes in with selections from her 2010 album See You on the Moon and her 2008 radio hit "Broken." She noted with wonder that her debut album, Bramble Rose, is now 10 years in her rearview mirror. Then she sang its title track as a poignant memory of those coming-of-age days in North Carolina.

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    Nick Lowe and Tift Merritt play Raleigh.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Covered with intensity, Xiu Xiu rocks Kings

Posted by on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 11:50 AM

Striking and intense, Xiu Xiu at Kings

Xiu Xiu, Oulipo
Kings Barcade
May 1, 2012

At this point, Xiu Xiu’s knack for darkly twisted cover songs is semi-legendary. The electro-flavored avant-pop outfit makes a habit of subverting well-known tunes to fit the bleak and frenzied aesthetic that leader Jamie Stewart has refined during a decade under the moniker. This summer, Stewart will depart from Durham, his home for the past four years, after a fraught and frustrating stint in the area. But on Tuesday night at Raleigh’s Kings Barcade, he gave the Triangle one last parting gift: a cover for the ages.

After an exhausting and exhilarating hour-long set that saw a duo version of Xiu Xiu wrangle cacophonous blasts of distorted noise into a rush of unstoppable angst, the band returned for an encore. Stewart cast off his guitar and grabbed the mic as a simplistic and grimy beat blasted from the drum machine. The song was “Frankie Teardrop,” the 10-minute murder epic from synth-punk pioneers Suicide. In every way, Xiu Xiu’s cover lived up to the original. The beat was more insistent, set into hyperdrive by dance-inspired syncopation and shot through by grungy distortion. As Angela Seo held down the keys, Stewart ranted through the harrowing narrative. Becoming more and more unhinged as the song wore on, he mimicked strangulation with his microphone cord and spun about with crazed intensity. It was brutal, challenging and ultimately transcendent, an appropriately powerful punctuation to the band’s unflinching performance.

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    Xiu Xiu launches a national tour in Raleigh.

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In Memory of Matt Brown: John Howie Jr., Mike Nicholson and Brian Hill remember their friend and drummer

Posted by on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 11:12 AM

[Editor’s note: Matt Brown—a drummer with John Howie Jr. & the Rosewood Bluff, Stratocruiser, the Venables, Penny Prophets and many other local bands over the years—died of a heart attack last Wednesday afternoon. He was 42. Below, we have collected three remembrances from friends and bandmates of Brown. These entries have been edited by Grayson Currin and Peter Blackstock with permission. Howie originally posted his text in a different form on his Facebook account.]

At center, John Howie Jr; at right, Matt Brown

By John Howie Jr.

As I was putting my son to bed this past Wednesday, a few hours after receiving the unbearably painful news about the passing of Matt Brown—my beloved friend and musical partner of almost 10 years—I received an e-mail from my buddy Jeff Hart reminding me of an incident a few years back.

My girlfriend Billie, my then-3-year-old son Dario and I were eating at Taco Bell. If you’ve never been to a restaurant with a 3-year-old, you might not understand what an undertaking it can be. All eyes were on Dario, all hands at the ready, when suddenly he started frantically trying to get down from his seat. Upon doing so, much to our horror, he began running across the restaurant, more excited than I think I have ever seen him. It was only when he began happily screaming, “IT’S MATT! IT’S MATT!” and jumping up and down and banging on the window that I realized what was happening: Matt Brown was going through the drive-through, and my son—like all of us—wanted to be near him.

I certainly couldn’t blame Dario for reacting the way he did. I wanted to do the same thing every time I saw Matt. Hell, I think Billie started banging on that window, too. Dario had been around Matt quite a bit. The Browns—Matt, his wonderful wife, Laura, and his beautiful daughters, Ella and Lila—had been kind enough to have Dario over for a few sleepovers, and Dario was clearly smitten with Matt.

Of course, Dario’s father was also smitten with Matt, and had been since the first time we had played music together at Neal Spaulding’s house in 2002, after being introduced by my friend Phil Venable. I’ll never forget breaking out a then-brand-new song and realizing, once Matt started playing along, that I had finally found the drummer I’d been searching for. I had played with some outstanding drummers, but Matt was different; Matt was a lifer. I immediately knew he was the only drummer I’d want to play with from then on out.

Over time, I would realize that aside from being the most gifted musician I’d ever met, Matt had also found time to be a wonderful husband, and a shining example of fatherhood from whom I learned an inestimable amount about parenting. He also became one of the best friends I’d ever had, never wavering in his support and innate understanding of my music and me as a person.

Paul Westerberg once sang, “It’s hard to say goodbye, so I’ll say … so long,” but I was never very good at saying either to Matt, and I only really tried once. When the Two Dollar Pistols were making what would be our last album, 2007’s Here Tomorrow Gone Today, things in our collective world got confusing. Looking back, I think it’s become clear to all of us that it was time to break up the band, but at the time it just seemed like confusion reigned. Nothing was working right, and surely someone must be to blame? For some reason, Matt took the brunt of that, and I asked him to part ways with the group.

I cried every day after we had that conversation, but Matt continued to send all of us goofy e-mails, like nothing had happened. We played with another drummer, a very wonderful local drummer, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I knew after about five seconds that I was lost without Matt. When I called him asking if we could meet at Armadillo Grill to discuss things, he agreed. I begged him to rejoin the group, and though plenty of lesser men—perhaps myself included—probably would have held that incident over someone’s head, Matt never did. I spent the rest of our time together telling him how much I appreciated his presence.

Later this year, Matt and I would have celebrated 10 glorious years together, what I’d hoped would be merely the beginning of a decades-long musical journey with my beautiful friend, the amazing drummer who never gave up on me or my songs. A second album with my current band, the Rosewood Bluff, was being planned when we met for practice this past Monday. I thought we’d be like Johnny Cash and his drummer W.S. Holland, ringing in our 40th anniversary of friendship and music as old men. Tragically, this was not to be.

“It’s hard to say goodbye, so I’ll say… so long”? I’m afraid I’m still not strong enough to do it. Instead, I’ll leave the last words for now in the hands of 5-year-old Dario Ingram Howie, who asked me yesterday when I was dropping him off at school if I was crying— something I’ve been doing virtually nonstop since Wednesday— because I missed Matt. When I replied that I was, Dario simply said, “It’s OK, Daddy, I miss Matt, too. Everybody misses Matt. Everybody loves Matt.”

Drummer Matt Brown with his family
  • Image courtesy of Brian Hill
  • Drummer Matt Brown with his family

By Mike Nicholson

In late 2004, my rock band Stratocruiser suddenly needed a drummer. Not looking forward to another audition process, Matt Brown came to us through a recommendation from our bassist. We hit the ground running. He not only drummed in that band but he also became the go-to session player for my recording studio, Vista Point in Pittsboro. Matt played on our CDs and a lot of other songs on a lot of other releases. His session prowess was unmatched: He could handle virtually any style and get his parts together and recorded with efficiency. From smooth urban pop to gutbucket metal, Matt could play it all. He elevated my music to heights I could not have reached on my own.

In addition to his studio chops, Matt was an inventive, creative, and rock-solid live drummer. I played with Matt on the road not only with Stratocruiser but on tour as part of Grant Hart's band and in support act The Venables early last year. We also played together in The Kinksmen, The Banana Seats and Meltzer-Hart.
Matt's presence in the van made some grueling East Coast road trips for Stratocruiser bearable. Matt's joie d' vivre amused and entertained us on those journeys. A natural prankster with boundless energy, Matt's road tales could fill a book of their own.

But Matt was not a juvenile goofball in the Keith Moon mold. Smart, musically gifted and virtually without the self-centered egomania that plagues many musicians, Matt's humility kept us grounded and focused. He was a devoted family man with two young daughters and a supportive, understanding wife. Matt juggled playing simultaneously in maybe 10 active bands at any given time.

Matt Brown lived to play. Sometimes he would make good money with bands like Two Dollar Pistols; other times, he'd be lucky to bring home five bucks from a bar gig in Greensboro that went until 4 a.m. None of this mattered; playing drums (or bass or, heck, washboard or maracas) was enough for Matt.

On April 25th, we lost Matt suddenly and unexpectedly. He poured absolutely everything he had into his 42 years, 10 months and 26 days. It's hard to believe that he will not be behind me, pounding his kit to splinters at some seedy rock dive before stopping somewhere together for a soda on the way home to our sleeping families.

Great musical comrades are hard to find, but good friends are harder to find. Matt was both and more. He was family. Rest in peace, brother.

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