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.
Last Thursday, the Casbah in Durham continued its songwriters in the round series. The first installment featured Heather McEntire, Hiss Golden Messenger, Amy Ray and Phil Cook. The second installment featured an equally stellar lineup of Christy Smith, Justin Robinson, Shawn Luby and Katharine Whalen.
Kudos to the Casbah for setting up this series which really takes these performers out of their comfort zone while trading stories and debuting new material. I hope it continues.
Christy Smith (Tender Fruit): "Get Out of the Car"
Justin Robinson: "Space is the Deepest Silence You'll Never Hear"
Shawn Luby (Humble Tripe): "Old Time Friend"
Katharine Whalen: "All of Us"
Turning to Jac Cain as The Morning After stepped off stage Friday night at The Pour House, I asked him for his impressions of the group: "You know," said the longtime sound engineer, "on paper it shouldn't work. But the thing is, it does."
On paper, The Morning After has all the traditional elements of a bluegrass band, plus a soul singer and drummer. What The Morning After has created is a good-time, pop-and-soul band backed with the sort of solid instrumentation that allows lead singer Rachel Koontz to let loose vocally.
Below, check two clips from Friday's performance.
"Where We'll Begin"
“I never thought of myself as a country songwriter, really,” Jimmy Webb mused between renditions of “Highwayman”—a chart-topper for Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson—and “Galveston,” one of Glen Campbell’s biggest hits. Ironic timing for such an observation, but it’s true that Webb was never bound to any one genre: Like the 20th-century titans who preceded him, including George Gershwin and Johnny Mercer, his territory has been simply the American popular songbook.
Webb, who performed solo Thursday evening at Whitley Auditorium on the Elon campus in Burlington, is arguably the last of those legends left standing, though it has become less arguable with the recent passing of Hal David (Burt Bacharach’s longtime lyricist) and Jerry Lieber (Mike Stoller’s longtime lyricist). It was David, in fact, who bequeathed to Webb his role as chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame (an organization started by Mercer). Webb’s charge, as he told the Elon crowd, is to work “so that there is a place for songwriters—there is a city on the hill.”
These days, Webb is as much a storyteller onstage as a songwriter. He played for an hour and a half but delivered a mere eight songs, peppering their transitions with detailed reminiscences about colorful characters in his life. Prefacing “Up, Up and Away,” he related how his father allegedly used “a Bible and a .45” to convince an Oklahoma radio station that the song wasn’t about drugs; later, he spoke at length about the recently deceased actor Richard Harris, whose voice immortalized Webb’s oft-maligned grand opus “MacArthur Park” (yes, the “cake in the rain” song).
Along the way, Webb also performed “Wichita Lineman” (probably his most memorable composition), “Oklahoma Nights” (recorded by Arlo Guthrie) and “All I Know” (Art Garfunkel’s first solo hit), frequently pushing their conclusions with extended piano runs that brought them out of the pop archives and into the here and now. In Webb’s deft hands, the songs were malleable: They existed outside the famous recordings—which must be how they've always existed to him, if not to us.
And if we know his songs through the voices of other artists because of his limitations as a singer— "Most of you have realized by now that you're probably not in for a great evening of vocalization,” he joked early in the set—there’s still nothing quite like the drama Webb invests in his own words. When he throws his head back to reach for the high notes in “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” it’s a signature stage move, not unlike a Pete Townshend windmill or a Mick Jagger strut. Nearly half a century after he arrived as a major American composer, Webb still gives himself over to the magic of his songs. He still reaches for that city on the hill.
Stepping through the front door of The Pinhook, Jacco Gardner and company resembled a military battalion marching in lock step. Professional and organized, the group was there to get a job done. As they stepped on the stage Thursday evening, I had been interested to see how their lush soundscape of an album Cabinet of Curiosities would translate in the sometimes unforgiving confines of the Pinhook. What unfolded was a refreshingly delightful psychedelic performance lead by Gardner and accented by a solid crew.
Below are a couple of videos from the evening, including Gardner and openers, Schooner.
Jacco Gardner's "Help Me Out"
Jacco Gardner's "Chameleon"
CAT'S CRADLE, CARRBORO
THURSDAY, MARCH 7, 2013
While waiting for the stagehands at Thursday night’s sold-out Major Lazer concert at Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle, I found myself in a conversation with an attractive, 26-year-old Hare Krishna woman about how people abducted by aliens often see visions of giant owls. Aside from taking orders from Major Lazer hypeman Walshy Fire when he said, “I need everyone in the building to take off their shirts right now,” and participating in a “Harlem Shake” episode with the actual label (Diplo’s Mad Decent) that’s responsible for releasing the song, that was probably the most fun I expected to have Thursday night.
The last time I saw Major Lazer at this same location, two years ago, Sleigh Bells and Rusko opened, which was almost the same formula as Thursday’s night show with Dragonette and Gents & Jews—a female-led group and a coveted noisemaking act. At that show, former Major Lazer member Skerrit Boy jumped from the top of a ladder to the stage-floor and landed in a dry-humping position atop of one of Major Lazer dancers. This time, before Major Lazer’s set, I saw someone playing with a ladder behind the large sheet that hid a lighting rig and Diplo’s open-topped DJ bunker. Diplo finally appeared, but the ladder never reappeared.
So, there was no ladder, no Skerrit Boy, no Switch, no daggering; what’s more, the Major Lazer mascot only came on stage for a couple of songs, where he stood around, doing absolutely nothing. Indeed, this was more of a Diplo DJ party, aided by new Major Lazer affiliates, The Jillionaire and Miami-based selector Walshy Fire. When he wasn’t blending his way through any number of trap, dub-step moombahton, or trap-heavy earth-movers, Diplo stepped out of the bunker to hand out vuvuzelas and twenty-dollar bills and to wave Major Lazer’s Free the Universe flag—a gesture, of course, only geared to promote the album, and not geared to make any real socio-musical statement about how Diplo views the world.
Instead, he views it through foggy, tastemaker lenses that allow Beyoncé to jack a Major Lazer beat (“Pon De Floor”) while Usher’s rawr&B gets carte blanche over Diplo’s productions. Later in the night, he would play a remixed version of Snoop Lion’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” where Snoop shouts out Major Lazer in the chorus. The irony was clear—two pop artists high-fiving each other on record, who’ve at one time or another, rebranded themselves by appropriating dancehall or reggae music. The only difference is that Snoop Lion is making a fool out of himself and Jamaican culture, while Diplo is fooling everyone into believing that he’s the most-high advocate for West Indian sounds.
Lower still are guest appearances by Bruno Mars and Tyga on Free the Universe’s “Bubble Butt”—an obvious attempt at club placement that could make any mainstream Black Eyed Peas track sound like the gospel. Diplo debuted that song on Thursday night, around the same time that he threw on Drake’s “Started From the Bottom.” He reacted to his own selection as if he was gracing us with an incredible musical breakthrough.
A day before the show, writer Brandon Soderberg wrote in INDY Week’s pages that Diplo is “now part of the machine, the guy that will nod along to your weird music soon enough.” If Drake is as weird as Diplo can get these days, then maybe it’s time to decommission Major Lazer until Diplo can find a more obscure genre to pilfer. Either that, or maybe he’ll get abducted and sent back to Earth with better ideas.
Saturday night in the small town of Warrenton, N.C., Mandolin Orange returned to the Southeast after several weeks touring in the North. Among those stops, they taught a workshop at the famed Berkelee College of Music (which rejected member Andrew Marlin as an applicant years ago) and the Folk Alliance Conference in Toronto.
Warrenton is the childhood home of Marlin, and many of his family and friends turned out for the performance at Cast Stone Systems, an industrial warehouse outfitted with a stage made from recycled materials. A large crowd with many requests filled the room, and Marlin played with a little more gusto than usual.
Below, Mandolin Orange plays "Cornered," an unreleased number only played by request when Marlin returns to his hometown. This is an interesting song and gives insight into Marlin's early songwriting content before his move to Chapel Hill. Also below is an old-time instrumental number called "The Cherokee Trail".
Last Thursday at the Casbah, Texas singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves returned to the Triangle, accompanied by Scrappy Jud Newcomb. Cleaves has not been in the area in nearly four years, so he brought along a batch of new songs from an upcoming album titled Still Fighting The War. The title track, which you can hear below, surrounds military personnel returning home and dealing with reentry into the civilian world and the consequences of combat. The second song, "Go for the Gold," is a gospel number performed unplugged for the encore. Cleaves seemed pleased both with the sizable crowd and the sound at the venue, so we hope to see him back soon.
"Still Fighting The War"
"Go For the Gold"
The Berkeley Cafe is one of the definitive venues in which to see local legends Southern Culture on the Skids. It could be the intimacy of the place or how the group's sound translates in the awkward room's layout—I'm not certain. What is certain, though, is that the Berk breathes new life into the group's material. When they play the Berkeley Cafe, they bring a little something extra. And at the end of the night, with ears ringing and a variety of drunken people exiting, the lights come up to reveal empty beer bottles everywhere and remnants of fried chicken on the floor, just as it should be.
The Woolly Bushmen from Orlando, an excellent trio of young guys playing early and raw rock n roll, opened.
And here is Southern Culture on the Skids playing a song they haven't done live in recent memory—"Where is the Moon," from Mojo Box.
Friday night at Kings Barcade, the Toddlers released their highly anticipated EP, 19. The evening began, though, with the frantic rock of Black Zinfandel, followed by the catchy and strange instrumentals of the Savage Knights.
After the Toddlers took the stage, it soon became apparent that they are one of the most noteworthy new groups in the area. It seems that, with each show, they become tighter and much more comfortable stretching out with their material. With their EP out and focus forming on a full-length debut, the Toddlers should be on every to-watch list you've got.