Phil Cook and the Guitarheels
Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw
Friday, May 10, 2013
When it was released in 1972, Boomer's Story felt original, even though it contained no original material. As with much of Ry Cooder's work at the time, the influential LP features his versions of traditional folk numbers and blues favorites, soul songs and diverse instrumentals. The sounds are cobbled together from all over the spectrum of Americana, lush Latin melodies sharing space with rowdy Band-style folk-rock. With Boomer's Story, the songs aren't nearly as fascinating as the way they're put together, fashioned with a free will, placing various strains of roots music on equal footing and allowing them to combine in whatever way feels most natural.
To pay tribute to such a record — as Phil Cook and his Guitarheels did Friday night — one need not replicate it note for note. That would miss the point. The Megafaun member and his cast of talented local musicians took to the gorgeous Haw River Ballroom with their own rowdy and redemptive versions. Taking up the songs that had inspired Cooder's imagination, they did them their own way, paying homage to Cooder's ingenuity and exuberance rather than settling for a simple recreation of one of his greatest achievements.
"We made some things our own," Cook told the packed house near the beginning of the set, "and kept some things the way they damn well were."
“We’re The Darkness from the United Kingdom, and we’re here on business!” By the time frontman Justin Hawkins made that introduction early in Friday night’s set, it was unnecessary: The nearly full Lincoln Theatre was clearly familiar with the British quartet, and the band was giving the crowd exactly what they came to see. While opening with the crude, autobiographical “Every Inch of You” from last year’s comeback record Hot Cakes, The Darkness eventually played through almost all of its breakthrough debut Permission to Land, only leaving off album closer “Holding My Own” from an album stuffed with more legitimate hits than a Time Life compilation.
Wisely avoiding nearly all of its disappointing sophomore effort (save the cowbell-heavy title track, which was one of the evening’s biggest shout-alongs), the group sprinkled in a couple Permission-era B-sides, along with just a few cuts from its newest album, highlighted by lead single “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us.” The song finds The Darkness doing its best impression of Queen’s operatic acrobatics, while elsewhere finding as much influence from Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest and Aerosmith. With anthemic choruses led by Hawkins’ trademark falsetto, the band’s glam-meets-metal brand of hard rock was definitely derivative and undeniably catchy—an especially fun mix live.
The night had all the hallmarks of the archetypal rock show: lighters swayed in the air, hands clapped overhead, women perched on mens’ shoulders, tons of metal horns. The four-piece looked the part, too, with its smattering of bad hair, thick eyeliner and garish outfits. In a black-and-white striped leotard that was almost too revealing, Hawkins provided a theatric array of handstands, toe-touches, gyrations, pelvic thrusts and high kicks. Though the show predictably peaked with the set-closing megahit “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” even the ham-fisted cover of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” sounded far better in the encore than on Hot Cakes, its verses chugging along to a metallic gallop while the huge, climatic chorus soared.
It was a fitting metaphor for the evening, as The Darkness certainly will never parallel its innovative British brethren in Radiohead. That knowledge—shared by band and fans alike—hardly keeps them from celebrating their status as unapologetic rock stars.
The 26th annual MerleFest returned to the campus of Wilkes Community College last weekend. One major figure was missing, of course: This year's Merlefest somberly marked the first without the festival's patriarch, Doc Watson, who passed away in May 2012.
Many asked if, after the passing of Watson, his beloved gathering in western North Carolina would change. “This year we thought it was important to celebrate the life and music of our dear friend Doc Watson,” answered Ted Hagaman, director of the festival. “For the past 25 years, he has been the artistic center of MerleFest, so everyone—musicians and fans—came together as a family to pay special tribute to the man and the musician who meant so much to us all.”
Indeed, throughout the weekend, Watson's name rang out from both those on the stage and in front of it. And while many remembered Watson with a somber tone, others celebrated having seen him at all. They were thankful for the memories.
Elsewhere on the festival grounds, things carried on just as Watson might have wanted. The grounds teemed with life on Saturday; despite a forecast of rain, the crowds came to 14 stages, each providing opportunities to enjoy "traditional-plus" music, a phrase coined by Watson himself. Indeed, bluegrass, old-time, rock ’n’ roll, Western swing, blues, pop and Americana found the spotlight among the 90 groups participating. Some of the acts made some (namely, me) scratch their head about the festival’s direction, but MerleFest provides a wide umbrella of music that has caused attendance to steadily grow since 1988.
While Doc and his wife, Rosa Lee, both passed away in the past year, their seats on the side of the Watson stage remained reserved. They gave so much to entertaining throughout their lives; that gesture was a humble reminder of their influence and legacy.
Below are a few video clips from the festival: Chatham County Line pays tribute to Doc Watson, while The South Carolina Broadcasters pay tribute to George Jones, who passed away the day before. Meanwhile, Kickin' Grass performed on the Americana stage.
Chatham County Line, “Train That Carried My Girl From Town”
South Carolina Broadcasters, “I'll Have A New Body (I'll Have A New Life)”
Kickin Grass, “Sparrow”
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
Friday, April 12, 2013
It should be mentioned that this wasn't the first time that Mount Moriah took over the Cat’s Cradle for a release party. Almost exactly two years prior, the local folk rock favorites played the legendary Carrboro club to celebrate the CD version of its self-titled debut. Admittedly, that free show wasn't as full as Friday’s packed house, and at the time, the Cradle couldn't hold as many people. But the point remains that Mount Moriah won over Triangle audiences long before signing to Durham-based indie heavyweight Merge Records and the March release of Miracle Temple, its beautiful sophomore effort. Thus, the band’s powerful and passionate performance wasn't so much a victory lap as a thank you, a loving embrace of the community that helped nurture what has become one of the more exciting bands in the South.
The core trio of Mount Moriah — singer Heather McEntire, guitarist Jenks Miller and bassist Casey Toll — have been touring hard of late, aided by Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund. Their sets as a quartet — such as their triumphant contribution to last weekend’s Phuzz Phest in Winston-Salem — have become both delicate and muscular, airy melodies solidifying into tenacious grooves that are then split wide by Miller’s solos, fiery displays that are as electrifying as they are efficient.
It would have been easy enough for Mount Moriah to trot out its road-ready configuration and leave it at that, but the band rewarded the hometown crowd with an expanded lineup more capable of recreating Miracle Temple’s lush aesthetic. James Wallace, who frequently drums with Mount Moriah and was integral in recording the new album, played keys and contributed backing vocals, reminding the crowd that no one harmonizes with McEntire quite so naturally as he can. There was also an additional female vocalist (Amelia Meath) and pedal steel (Allyn Love), filling out the sound and allowing the group to switch things up.
Nashville's William Tyler wants his instrumental songs to tell a story or, at the very least, to express some theme or concept that's been weighing on his mind. This is especially true on Impossible Truth, his recently released third LP and his debut for Durham's Merge Records.
Much of the album was inspired by Tyler's reading. While driving across the country in support of his 2010 solo effort, Behold the Spirit, he made his way through Cadillac Desert and The Geography of Nowhere, two volumes that focus on ecological woes. The first analyzes the crisis of diminishing fresh water supplies on the West Coast; the second takes a hard look at Los Angeles' unchecked urban sprawl. At the same time, he was reading Hotel California, a detailed account of the rise and fall of L.A.'s famed '70s music scene. He saw a connection between blindly warm feelings for that unsustainable era of popular sound and the environmental problems being ignored in the same part of the country. Impossible Truth strives to explore the different ways that nostalgia can distract us from obvious truths.
The problem with such concepts is they often don't communicate without explicit explanations. Luckily, Tyler offered plenty during his appearance at The Pinhook Thursday night, interspersing his stunning renditions with self-effacing jokes and detailed accounts of the experiences that shaped his songs, enhancing their already tremendous power.
Nothing Can Hurt Me, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori's documentary about the ill-fated Memphis pop band Big Star, would’ve made a fine endpoint for this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, even without the movie's local connections. As it was, however, the choice struck a nearly perfect note, thanks to its opening act.
Chapel Hill musician Chris Stamey—one of the film's primary interview sources—gathered nine fellow musicians in the collective known as the Fellow Travellers to perform 10 Big Star songs on the Carolina Theatre stage before the film screened. It was an abbreviated version of the Big Star tribute project that Stamey has brought to stages in New York, Austin, London and Barcelona over the past couple of years; footage from those shows was included in the film.
This set was looser than those more formal performances, but it was no less valuable for bringing to life the music of the film. A rotating cast of singers—Brett Harris, Matt McMichaels, Django Haskins, Skylar Gudasz and Stamey himself—took lead-vocal turns in reaching for the high notes of the late Big Star leaders Chris Bell (who was killed in a car crash in 1978 at age 27) and Alex Chilton (who died of a heart attack three years ago at age 59), accompanied by acoustic guitars, upright bass, flute and a four-piece string section.
The performances were a bit uneven—fitting, perhaps, given Big Star's reputation for teetering on the brink between beauty and damage. Still, the high points were transcendent: Harris' soaring vocal set the bar high on the opening "You And Your Sister," a Bell song first issued by Stamey in 1978 as the B-side of a single on his tiny independent label Car Records. Gudasz reached even deeper into Big Star's soul with her beautifully fragile delivery of Chilton's classic "Thirteen." (For a general idea, check out this rendition from last May in London, though Sunday night's version was even more poignant.) And McMichaels' rousing lead on "September Gurls," with Superchunk's Jon Wurster joining the ensemble on tambourine, proved a perfect closer.
“I didn’t really set up a record release show,” admitted Taylor, sitting in the chair he’d toted from his nearby home, “because I kind of don’t like those.”
But in the last few weeks, the excitement for Haw—the album that Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger released just yesterday on the label Paradise of Bachelors—has spread in these parts and elsewhere with contagion speed. It seems that most every time I browse social media of late, someone else has fallen in love with the record’s lovingly warped folk-rock firmament. And for good reason: Taylor writes about life with the assurance of a guy who’s lived it hard, and he builds those songs with the enthusiasm of a lifelong music obsessive.
So Taylor did play a record release show Tuesday—a free one, in his adopted hometown, with a whip-smart crew of friends recruited for assistance. Megafaun’s Phil Cook trailed on keys, while his brother, Bradley Cook, joined terrific drummer Terry Lonergan to dig deep into the rhythm. At times, Taylor invited various family members—his brother, Graham, on trumpet; Graham's wife, Alison, on French horn; his 4-year-old son, Elijah, on unamplified but rigorously tuned second and small guitar—to give many of Haw’s songs the same flesh and vigor they sported in the studio.
By the time Taylor confessed that such shows weren’t his priority, then, he’d already delivered a mighty righteous set for a crowd that flowed far from the little shop’s doors. After nine songs, he said thank you, strode into the gentle giddy-up of Haw closer "What Shall Be (Shall Be Enough)," and rose from his chair.
It was, all told, very likable.
Friday night at the Casbah in Durham, the underground heroes of the Dex Romweber Duo took the stage. Running through a blistering set, the Duo showed no signs of rust, despite having not performed in some time. Romweber dipped into his extensive catalog of solo records, duo releases and Flat Duo Jets material.
Summoning a spectrum of rock ’n’ roll, surf rock and crooning county, they covered all the bases. Despite Duke playing in the NCAA tournament during set time, there was a sizable crowd for the Duo. They played only an hour, leaving the crowd waiting for the next round as they filed out of the Casbah just after midnight.
Below are two clips from the evening: The Flat Duo Jets' "Go Go Harlem Baby" and the Dex Romweber Duo number, "Is It Too Late?"
"Go Go Harlem Baby"
"Is It Too Late?"
The Pinhook, Durham
Friday, March 22, 2013
For me, it's standard procedure to listen to a band's albums while you write a review of their live show. The recorded output serves as a refresher for the group's sound, kick-starting your memories and giving you an easy point of comparison. In the case of Raleigh's Lollipops, this procedure is more confusing than helpful. Of all the intriguing young outfits making waves in the Triangle right now, the powerfully fetching psych-pop group boasts the biggest disparity between their recorded output and live show. This isn't to say that one is bad and the other good, though the talents of singer Iggy Cosky have clearly improved since he began releasing shambling, lo-fi nuggets last year. The Lollipops' recordings are distorted but delicate, Cosky's irrepressible charms thinned by production that conflates messiness with mystery. But live and backed by a full-fledged rock band, his cutting choruses are met with meaty bass lines and fuzz that's more commanding than careless.
Cosky's songs juxtapose buoyant melodies with crushing depression, a contrast embodied by his references to drug highs and come-downs—"We'll shoot some heroin/ And take to the skies," he offers on "Black Tar Carpet Ride," just seconds after after telling his lady that he's sorry "about the times, we almost died."
At The Pinhook on Friday, the band lent power to this polarity: "Take This Knife," a highlight from last year's Pop Narcotics cassette, surged with a driving bass line and enormous synthesizers, borrowing Passion Pit-level drama in service of a hook that truly deserves it. "I Love You," a static-beguiled mess from the digital-only collection Your Royal Masochist & The Love Crusades, was suave and swaggering, its comfortably swaying keyboard lines and impassioned vocal lending purpose to Cosky's professions. The Lollipops' recordings are solid, but their live show achieves a feisty confidence that those slapdash creations can't touch. Here's hoping a full-band album comes down the pipe soon.
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Berkeley Cafe, Raleigh
Monday, March 25
Give them what they want, and give it to them again right before you sell them something: Ray Wylie Hubbard began and ended his Monday night set in Raleigh by offering the sizable audience “Snake Farm,” a tune even David Letterman had to request recently.
Between playing the song and its reprise, Hubbard reached back to sample songs from his deep catalog and tell a few tales, too. Talking about co-writing with Hayes Carll, he smiled widely and said, “It’s really great to see a young writer who is pretty much already burned out and fried.” When talking about writing “Name Dropping,” he referred to those using the all-too-common practice as “leaning on the wall of illusion and broken dreams.” Three of the four folks he praises in the song have played the Berkeley Café over the last few years—John Dee Graham, Scrappy Judd (with Ian McLagan) and Mary Gauthier.
Hubbard didn’t only preach about the music industry. He talked about passing a dying man a bad check in exchange for his guitar (his grandfather) and an angry wife threatening to melt down her wedding ring into a bullet to settle a score.
In his song “Mother Blues,” Hubbard tells tales of Lightning Hopkins and the religion that is the Blues. Hubbard carries on that religion by presenting a version of the Blues that has the deepest of grooves, making a believer out of anyone.
When Hubbard stepped back on stage for the encore, he froze the crowd with a stunning version of the gypsy tale, “The Messenger.” And with a nod that would make his gypsy forefathers smile, he jumped into a reprise of “Snake Farm.” That was after, of course, he reminded them that he’d have swag for sale after the show.
Ray Wylie Hubbard does not allow the recording of his performances for noncommercial purposes. I’m an avid believer of documenting the musical treasures that pass through this area. Knowing that Monday’s performance at the Berkeley Café has been lost was a tough loss. As Hubbard himself reflects on his memories of seeing Lightning Hopkins at the Mother Blues in Dallas many years ago, I imagine today he’d cherish a tape of those performances.