Roughly two and a half years after Chatham County Line first appeared at Raleigh’s Fletcher Opera Theater to record Sight & Sound—released last year as both a live DVD and CD/LP—the Triangle’s preeminent purveyors of Americana returned to the auditorium last Friday to a sold-out crowd. Much of the set was stacked with the quartet’s best-known newer cuts—singer/guitarist Dave Wilson joked that these are hits as far as the band’s mothers are concerned—to the delight of the appreciative audience. The band did reach back nearly a decade to “WSM (650),” from its self-titled debut. Wilson introduced the early tune by expressing regret that it wasn’t included on Sight.
Set against Chatham County Line’s more polished and adventurous later work, the relatively straightforward bluegrass of “WSM (650)” still holds up well—stellar songwriting and an enduring melody have a way of doing that—while also demonstrating just how far they’ve come in the nearly 10 years since that first record. The intricate arrangements are now as precise as the movements the four members have always made to jockey for position around its signature microphone stand, whether at Sadlack’s, The Pour House or Fletcher. The group’s recent outings at the latter have allowed today’s larger hometown fanbase to experience them in a more subdued, intimate listening room environment (spacious though Fletcher may be) that’s been missing since they outgrew Six String Café so long ago.
The pastoral charm and dulcet male-female harmonies of Virginia’s The Honey Dewdrops won over the audience early in the opening slot. Trading off guitar, mandolin and banjo on acoustic roots reminiscent of like-minded duos Mandolin Orange or Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, the Dewdrops proved they’re worthy of drawing crowds of their own the next time they’re back in town.
When Ryan Gustafson and company stepped on stage Saturday night at the Cat's Cradle, he barely could have had a stronger band behind him. From the allstar back line of James Wallace and Jeff Crawford to Thomas Costello, Thomas Simpson and Mark Simonsen, each member of the group has their hand in several projects. Still, despite the show being booked as The Dead Tongues, it was definitely the Ryan Gustafson party. The band kicked off a nearly hour-long set that reached back to his Donkey LP to reprise "Soul Train." From there, they ran through most of the new Desert with fury and depth.
As the door cost was a mere $5, I would suspect many folks were seeing the group for the first time: They couldn't have stumbled into a better show to sample the deepening pool of musical talent in the Triangle.
Chris Stamey's Lovesick Blues seems to be a breezy album, but keep listening, and notice the layers of depth. Going into Friday's performance at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, I was interested to see how they would pull off those arrangements live. Backed by an 18-piece band, Chris Stamey and company delivered a concert not like one I've seen in recent memory. It was meticulous, an onslaught of meticulousness characteristic of Stamey's high expectations for himself and whatever he presents. The evening began with Skylar Gudasz stretching out on the piano (and joined by Casey Toll) for a strong dose of jazz vocals.
Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013
Airstrip, led by former-Veelee partner Matthew Park, plays hook-laden indie rock with unusual heft. It's a trait that makes sense when you consider the personnel: Bassist Nick Petersen and drummer John Crouch also constitute the rhythm section of the slow-burning Chapel Hill metal troupe Horseback. But as Park will tell you, the aim of the band's aesthetic isn't so much heaviness as intensity. Airstrip's songs resound with strung-out feelings of frustration and isolation, crystallized by oblique observations that seethe with devastating sarcasm. Willing, the band's minimally constructed and sonically huge debut, complements Park's intense emotions with claustrophobic electronics and simple riffs that are distorted and multiplied until they feel inescapable. It's a remarkably well-formed style, one that is both overwhelming and addictive.
Saturday night, Airstrip celebrated the release with a concert at Raleigh's Kings Barcade, and while the band's live show couldn't match the barrage of sound that powers its LP, the players achieved Park's intended intensity with a more minimal approach. Park played keys and guitar, joined by Tre Acklen on guitar and the formidable rhythm section of Petersen and Crouch. The band most often played in unison, beefy bass lines, fuzz-infused riffs and bruising drum fills landing in one powerful burst. Executed with steely concentration, this rock solid foundation allowed the band's fleeting flourishes to stand out: Park's steadily ascending keyboard lines on "Sleepy" became a transfixing force. Crouch's concussive drum hits lent welcome shock waves to the jolt-seeking "Pleasure Center."
The power of Airstrip's live show shined brightest on "Bitching Hour." The recorded version benefits from a bass line that's magnified into an ominous cloud and a vocal that's refracted and distorted until it becomes an extension of the madness inherent in Park's narrative. Live, the band countered its limitations with crisper contrasts. Petersen and Crouch opened with sludgy power, bolstered by abrasive noise courtesy of Acklen. Park diffused the tension with prickling fills, sometimes supported by Acklen. This heady mix of brute force and finesse is the true boon of Airstrip's live presentation. Their songs achieve the mass of metallic psych-rock, but they're lifted by cunning hooks and economical electronics. The result is catch-all for anyone who likes their pop a little on the darker side.
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013
If rock ‘n’ roll has ceded its commercial and cultural dominance, you wouldn’t have known it Wednesday night, when Ty Segall stirred a large, and largely underage, crowd into a screaming mass. This was Segall’s fourth Triangle visit since 2011, his third at the 250-capacity Kings Barcade in downtown Raleigh, and the first to sell out in advance.
Segall’s growing local fanbase reflects the sharp ascent in national prominence that has followed Segall’s 2011 signing with the label Drag City. Since then, the 25-year-old garage rock prodigy has released three full-length albums for that imprint (2011’s Goodbye Bread, last year’s White Fence collaboration Hair and Segall’s most recent and most well-received solo album Twins), plus one credited to the Ty Segall Band on In The Red and a singles collection on Goner. In the promotion cycle for Twins, Segall made his late-night television debut on Conan and played for a visibly befuddled David Letterman a month later.
The ascendant California rocker and rockist has used his spotlight to proclaim the self-evident goodness of rock ‘n’ roll. In a Pitchfork story, he challenged Skrillex and the EDM superstar’s fanbase: "What are those kids gonna think when they hear rock 'n' roll?" he begged. On stage in Raleigh, Segall offered a sarcastic “defense” of Beyoncé’s alleged Inauguration Day lip-syncing. “She’s—just—such a good dancer,” he jeered.
With this rock-purist tunnel vision, Segall preaches to his choir. He becomes a living defense of rockism, or, more generously, an unapologetic evangelist for loud guitars and unvarnished live performances. The audience for this sort of thing might have little representation on commercial airwaves, but on the Internet, it’s a vocal faction of music fandom. The astute critic Nitsuh Abebe summarized the comment-board polemicists’ philosophy, writing, “The one fact about music these types had firmly lodged in their minds was that the person who sang Britney Spears songs was not the same person who wrote them, and that this was one of the top 10 worst things that had ever happened on the North American continent. Pop was a glitzy con; rap wasn't even music; nobody played ’real’ instruments; everything had been all downhill since Zeppelin, or the Sex Pistols, or Nirvana.”
From his first efforts as a scrappy and primitive-sounding one-man garage blitz, Ty Segall has been compared to rock martyrs. Initially, his fuzz-frenzied punk earned him comparisons to the late Jay Reatard, revered among garage-rock diehards for his anxious and infectious sprees of caterwauling pop. But Segall’s music has shed punk’s amateur allure, instead adopting prominent classic rock and psychedelic influences. Marrying punk’s volume and urgency with the melody and groove of ‘70s hard rock, Segall more closely recall’s rock’s Last Great Martyr, Kurt Cobain. (That he could be spotted with a shaggy blond mane, a Fender Mustang and thrift-store cardigans in Raleigh doesn’t hurt.)
Unlike Cobain, though, Segall seems to be embracing his role as Rock Star. His newfound fanbase is fervent, and on Wednesday, they vaunted the roar of Segall’s guitar with high-fives and hollers, stage-diving and reckless dancing. “This is my fuckin’ favorite song,” one enthusiastic young fan shouted after only a few bars of “You’re The Doctor.” “My ears are bleeding!” rejoiced another.
On stage, Segall and his faithful band—guitarist Charles Moothart, bassist Mikal Cronin and drummer Emily Rose Epstein—displayed a casual poise, smiling to each other between songs and playing with obvious chemistry. Tight harmonies between Moothart and Segall on guitars or Cronin and Segall on vocals offset the crush of overdriven Fenders. The band stretched its songs to embrace punk’s sinuous squall, but never lost its firm foundation in structured pop; they used their volume to exhilarate, not to challenge, and the audience responded in kind.
In its own terms, it rocked.
As a veteran of the Triangle music scene, Brian Buzby has faced his share of low turnouts. But when he and his Buzztown Band took to the Broad Street Cafe stage two weeks ago, it was, as he happily proclaimed before kicking off the first number, the largest gathering he had ever played for.
But there was a key difference between this gig and his previous ones: The average age of Sunday’s crowd could be counted on one hand. Indeed, some were so small they had to be held.
The Buzztown Band formed when Buzby found himself feeling, well, his age. After a lengthy tenure as director for the N.C. Conservation Network—not to mention the additional responsibilities of being a dad to three kids, including twins—he’d earned a sabbatical. But Buzby didn’t want to spend his time contemplating the music of the spheres. Instead, he decided to put both his experience leading Triangle band Saunter and his dad-hood to good use.
Buzby wrote an album of kids’ music—not the cloying Raffi kind, but more like the laid-back rockin’ of post-Modern Lovers Jonathan Richman, with a backbeat and a good smattering of shoo-bee-doo-wop. He understood he had to write music that parents could stand to listen to, while keeping the subject matter aimed squarely at the juice-box set. The result is Time Off For Good Behavior, whose CD release party packed the kid-friendly café.
In keeping with the age-old entertainment-industry axiom of knowing your audience, the set kicked off with a train song. Its cheeky title, “Check the Train Song Box,” is a knowing nod to the trope’s ubiquity. It and the numbers that followed achieved the essential aim of any successful kids’ song—that is, they can sing along on first hearing. Sure enough, by verse 3 of “Train Song,” the shoulder-born towhead behind me at the bar was joining in on the “choo-choo!” chorus.
Small children are motivated by egocentrism, and Buzby knows this. His songs focus on kids’ favorite subject: themselves. “Durham Kid” spoke of the delights of the Bull City from a kid’s-eye view, while “I Wanna Soccer Practice” matched a rainy-day scenario with the uplift of an “Ooh Child”-like chord progression. During this tune, one goateed dad, swaying gently, balanced a Rogue’s Dead Guy in the crook of one arm and a Cheerios-munching moppet in the other.
Buzby also knows the value of a good cover. The band’s nimble, jam-band-style take on the eccentric Sesame Street classic “Mahna Mahna” (recorded by Giorgio Moroder, Cake and the Boston Pops, among others) acknowledging a timeless kids nugget that has avoided becoming a cliché. Despite a paucity of rehearsal time, the six-piece band acquitted itself admirably throughout, maneuvering through the disco groove of “Robot Dance” and the hoedown-tempo take on the ABC song, “ABC Billy,” with aplomb. There was even a shout-out to Eli, “who’s turning 3 today,” followed by a spirited take on the Patty and Mildred Hill chestnut “Happy Birthday,” which morphed into the Beatles song “Birthday.”
Yes, there was a tantrum or two, and the aberrant lemonade spill. One kid with light-up shoes came tearing through the crowd with his dad in hot pursuit, and one free-styled a bit too emphatically at his side table and had to be gently restrained my his mom. But the audience was by and large extremely well behaved, and the show went off without a hitch.
Post-gig, with a moment to assess, Buzby was all smiles. “I had this inspiration in late 2010 and thought it would be a miracle if I got awarded a sabbatical, wrote decent tunes, got a band together, recorded an album and then, after all that, somehow pull off a gig.”
With said gig pulled off well, Buzby is ready to envision future performances, perhaps even recording some of the songs that didn’t make it onto the first release. Like him, his band members are busy with work and parenthood. But after playing together in a live setting, they are up for more.
“I figure we’ve got a few more years of this being fun to our kids,” Buzby says, “So why not extend the jam?”
Friday at Local 506, The Toddlers hosted a private concert to reward their Kickstarter contributors. Opening the evening was Ari Picker & friends, running through a brief set of cover songs. The Lost in the Trees frontman also mentioned a solo project he will be releasing in the future.
The Toddlers subsequently took the stage, unleashing their brand of spacey melodies that include menacing and, at times, frantic tones. They offered a number of new tunes from the EP and a few others previously released on 7" singles. Finally hearing "Starlight" as it should be played to an attentive audience was a pleasure. It's a simple tune, but delivered with Nathan Toben's eerie vocals, it conveys an impending sense of doom conveyed with nearly a whisper. As the evening continued, the group worked through a number of new songs, with Ellis Anderson and Noah Dehmer locking in the drums and bass while Missy Thangs added keys while dancing in near darkness. The group provided a large spread of BBQ from The Pit and also gave out download cards for their EP, 19, to be released at Kings Barcade February 22.
This was quite the return on a Kickstarter investment. Above and below are two songs from 19, "Hold On" and "Independence Day."
Lost in the Trees with New Music Raleigh
Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke Campus, Durham
Friday, Dec. 7, 2012
With Lost in the Trees, the focal point will always be Ari Picker. The singer and leader of the string-abetted art rock ensemble is a transfixing presence on stage. This isn't just because of the subjects he sings about, though his tales of familial dysfunction and tributes to his late mother are certainly filled with overwhelming emotions. Picker genuinely seems to be baring his soul every night, not just singing his songs, but reliving the stories within, his voice rising from a fractured whisper to a cathartic shout when the narratives reach their climax.
Friday's Duke Performances concert emphasized another aspect of Picker's talents. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music with a symphony under his belt, his songs are infused with the complexities of modern classical music, strings implemented in a way that complicates arrangements instead of just making them bigger. Joined by the 16-piece New Music Raleigh chamber orchestra, the band emphasized its melodic intricacies — sometimes at the detriment of its emotional resonance.
The mix seemed off early in the performance, blunting the rhythm section and burying Picker's vocals during versions of "Neither Here Nor There" and "Tall Ceilings," both off of this year's A Church That Fits Our Needs. The sound improved as the evening went on, allowing the ensemble to show off impressive new arrangements. String swells and harp combined beautifully during "Red," swirling in bright counterpoint to the song's aggressive main riff. In the opening to "Garden," blasts of bass, tuba and cello clashed colorfully with gauzy gusts of violin, becoming even more dramatic than the beautiful album version.
But all this additional instrumentation distracted from Picker's performance, diminishing the group's reliably overwhelming emotions. This drawback was thrown into sharp relief during the evening's version of "This Dead Bird Is Beautiful." The Church standout gave Picker the opportunity to start things off, patiently strumming a guitar and singing with a delicate but piercing croon. The other players entered gradually, strings, piano and the operatic voice of Emma Nadeau building to a dark crescendo as Picker cried out, "Hell won't come into my house, not while you're around."
Renditions of "All Alone In An Empty House" and "Walk Around the Lake" found a similar balance during the encore, suggesting that the ensemble may have just needed time to feel out each other and the room. But while the evening's highlights were lush in a way Lost in the Trees' ordinary concerts can't match, it mainly served as a reminder of how good the outfit has become at performing Picker's powerful odes. The band was bigger, but the emotions often felt smaller, making for an intriguing performance that couldn't match the intensity of the band's regular performances.
Duke Coffeehouse, Durham
Friday, Nov. 30, 2012
James Jackson Toth’s set at the Duke Coffeehouse Friday night provided stirring testimony to the enduring power of one person playing a guitar and singing words that matter. Introducing himself by his nom de rock, Wooden Wand, and singing songs from Blood Oaths of the New Blues, his forthcoming release on the venerable London label Fire Records, along with older works, Toth balanced his natural geniality with the serious intent of a musical lifer.
When I chatted with him briefly before the show, Toth was in good spirits, having driven to Durham that day listening to a colossal mix of live Grateful Dead jams. In addition to amassing an impressive body of work under a variety of names and with a sprawling mix of collaborators, Toth is also a sharp-eyed and well-versed music writer. Discussing the challenges of bringing a fresh perspective to writing about music, Toth cringed at the prospect of disseminating the well-worn tropes, rock-speak phrases like “the penultimate track.” I promised him I would not use that term in my write-up.
Toth is just as committed to avoiding cliché in his music, even in the familiar blues-folk-country-Americana genre that is his chosen milieu. His set at Duke Coffeehouse showcased his knack for writing memorable and sometimes surrealistic narratives that don’t reach too hard for profundity but are marked by a depth that won’t be fully fathomed after one listen. These are songs to ponder and linger over. Throughout the set, lyrics would emerge that were worthy of contemplation, like “the monotony of pleasure,” or “Sometimes nowhere seems the only place to go.” Some lyrics seem to have been birthed in that mythic old weird America, such as on “Wand America,” when Toth sings about people who’ll “tell a lie on credit when the truth costs just a dime.” It sounds like a line from Dylan, and the comparison is an apt one. Midway through the set Toth covered “Is Your Love in Vain?,” from Dylan’s not well-loved Street Legal, which he dedicated to anyone in the audience on a first date.
The dirge-like nature of several numbers recalled the “cast-iron songs and torch ballads” vibe of Dylan and the Band’s Planet Waves. There were no shuffles and no sing-alongs in this roughly 10-song set. The pace was deliberate, the strumming passionate. Every word counted.
Memorial Hall, Chapel Hil
Tuesday, Nov. 27
Looking relaxed in a turtleneck with its long sleeves pushed up and a Kangol cap worn in B-boy style, 71-year-old pianist Chucho Valdés revealed himself to be at the height of his powers Tuesday night in Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall. He led a young, percussion-heavy quintet that represents the cream of Cuba’s next-generation sidemen. All of the backing musicians reside in Cuba and perform and record regularly with the island’s premiere artists, such as top arranger and flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle, Buena Vista Social Club diva Omara Portuondo, and dance band-of-the-moment Havana D’Primera. Valdés moved from Cuba to Spain two years ago to be near his father, another legend of Cuban piano, Bebo Valdés.
Affording a welcome break from the usual Latin jazz blowing sessions, there were no horns in this all-rhythm lineup, which consisted of Yaroldy Abreu Robles on congas, Rodney Barreto on drumset, Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé on batá drums/vocals, and Gaston Joya on electric and upright bass. (If it’s horns you’re after, look to Valdés’ other ensemble: the Art Blakey-styled Afro-Cuban Messengers.)
To a pianist, the appeal of playing orchestra to your very own rhythm section seems obvious, yet I had to ask, at a post-concert meet and greet: Why use this format over any other?
“Africano,” came Valdés’ cogent reply. Not Afro-Cuban, mind you, although the evening was rife with references to music of the Antilles, as well as Europe and North America. Nope, this was Africa in the New World talking.
Indeed, the evening’s rhythm-based experiments never abandoned a steady groove once it had been established, although the ensemble might blindfold it and spin it around in dizzying fashion. Rather than abruptly changing meters, the band played games of ellipses, then recaptured the rhythmic drive forward. In this manner, drummer Rodney Barreto could take even a 4/4 rock beat—pretty simple stuff compared to Cuban rhythms—and create a rambunctiously witty solo by dropping in and out, leaving whole bars empty between his attacks. In this way, the quintet showed the audience how Cuban musicians hear rhythm: always pulsing, even in the silence.