Concerts at Marsh Woodwinds are too few and far between, given that it’s the best listening room in Raleigh.
You can forgive owner Rodney Marsh for the infrequency: His priority is the instrument sales and repair store downstairs, so the shows in his second-floor space—lovingly decorated with a sensory-overload motif—are a bonus, born of his desire to fill the building with warm and radiant sounds when time and circumstances allow.
The next such occasion arrives Thursday, May 16, when Durham instrumental band The Third Expression sets up for a live recording in the room, sharing the bill with Raleigh jazz group the Bernie Petteway Trio. The show starts at 8 p.m. and costs $10.
The Third Expression’s artistic approach is a perfect fit for Marsh Woodwinds’ eclectic visual setting, in that guitarist Mike Krause and his bandmates may throw most anything into the mix of their music. Within a set, sometimes even within a song, they’ll travel from free-flowing jazz to twang-heavy country to soulful R&B to squalling surf to swaying reggae.
By way of example, check out Krause and his rhythm section of Jane Francis (bass) and Chris Stephenson (drums) riffing on Jimmy Webb’s classic “Wichita Lineman” at Slim’s. They drive the tune far afield from Glen Campbell’s country chart-topping version and toward prog-rock territory.
More recently, The Third Expression has expanded to a quartet with the addition of pedal steel guitarist Nathan Golub. That move promises an even richer sonic palette for Thursday’s live recording, judging from the tunes they played for host Frank Stasio on a recent episode of WUNC-FM’s "The State of Things".
There’s also a plan for some collaborative numbers on Thursday with Petteway, an exquisitely tasteful guitarist who Krause respectfully refers to as his “guitar senior.” The two acts did a few tunes together when they shared a bill at Marsh Woodwinds in the fall of 2011 and “it actually came off like gangbusters,” Krauss reports. “I was personally expecting a borderline train wreck … but when you have such seasoned players who also know how to listen to what’s happening around them, it’s no worries.”
Jack Spicer wrote that a poet is a “counterpunching radio.” He also could have been talking about Madison County ballad singers. Just as poets are speakers through which the broadcast of language flows, so are ballad singers like Donna Ray Norton, who gives a free performance Saturday at the North Carolina Museum of History. They are transmitters of a musical tradition much bigger than any one voice or personality.
Norton herself puts this better: “My mom says that she’s passed the torch on to me. Whenever my time’s done, I’ll pass the torch on to my daughter or my son.”
Ballads aren’t just old songs; they’re historical documents unto themselves, and of the ilk that’s not set down in textbooks. When Norton fetches the soulful voice from deep in her chest to sing “Young Emily,” the first ballad she ever learned, she doesn’t just tell a tragic story; she becomes a surface upon which an otherwise lost slice of everyday life from early America is reanimated.
“I sing that song so much, sometimes I feel like I am Young Emily,” Norton offers. “I can feel her emotions in that song. I can really feel her hurt.”
In the ballad, Emily loves “a driver boy” named Edmund, who “drove in the main for some gold to gain/way down in the lowlands low.” But Edmund is murdered after a night drinking in Emily’s father’s “public house.” She accuses her father of the deed, and he tells her to keep her voice down. The boy’s gold, after all, is now open to be claimed.
These people, places and situations have been largely forgotten by popular culture. But in Madison County, the handing down of these ballads holds cultural homogeneity at bay.
“I sing it a lot, and people ask me to sing it a lot,” Norton recalls, “and it was really hard for me. I couldn’t get the tune of it the right way. I listened to Sheila [Kay Adams, Norton’s second cousin] over and over and over and could not get it to sound like she did it. And this lady named Mary Eagle, who’s a really good friend of my family, she recorded herself singing it for me, and sat with me and taught me how to move my voice. It worked for me.”
In ballad-singing circles, in which everyone can generally recall who taught them each song they know, pedigree is important. Norton’s family goes back eight generations in Madison County—those would be original settlers.
Although Donna didn’t start singing seriously until after high school, her household was always set on musical simmer. Donna’s mother, singer Lena Jean Ray, and second cousin, singer and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams, are still her most present musical influences, passing on the old-time music with subtly new variations.
Both Adams and Ray have enjoyed long recording and performing careers, and were recognized with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award in 1997 and 1999, respectively, a family tradition Donna seems destined for after receiving the Lunsford Youth Award in 2005. As Donna sings, she hears the voices of Adams and Ray in her head, so she just follows along.
Norton’s extended family tree reads like a musical heritage listing for the state. One of her grandfathers was legendary fiddler Byard (pronounced “Bard”) Ray, who started out like most traditional musicians did—sneaking off into the Sodom Laurel hills as a kid with his parents’ instruments until he could get a good noise out of them. He found his way into a pretty conventional musical career during the folk revival in the 1950s. Ray cut records with his cousin Obray Ramsey (a banjo legend in his own right) and the Laurel Mountain Boys, took mountain music on a European tour and even played for television commercials before settling in to teach at Warren Wilson and Berea colleges.
Donna was so young when Byard passed away that she doesn’t remember it, but she’s gotten to know him over the years. Byard died on Donna’s birthday, which she shares with her mother. She didn’t know him well enough to know the famous "nod" he gave. But her mother remembers it as a reassurance, a quiet approval of what he was hearing.
“A lot of times I feel like he’s with me,” she says.” You know, I dream about him a lot. He’s at my shows, just kind of standing off to the side. He’ll give me ‘the nod,’ the go-ahead. ‘It’s okay. You got this.’”
It’s the kind of haunting that ballad singers are used to.
Singing this style of a cappella requires an unornamented evenness, but Ray allows an airiness into her voice like that of more widely popular folk singers of the 1960s. It takes some of the burn out of the moonshine. While Norton sings “Young Emily” straight as a rail, she doesn’t treat every song with such matter-of-factness. She positively belts out “Single Girl,” a woman’s lament about easier and more fun times before the drudgery of marriage. The delivery adds an irreverence that’s equal parts sass and exasperation. In Norton’s voice, the song sounds like it could have been written last year as easily as last century.
“I learned ‘Single Girl’ from Mary Jane Queen,” Norton says. “She was a really well known singer from Jackson County. I’m a funny girl. I love comedy, and a lot of times, the funnier ballads are so me. ‘Single Girl’ just sounds like something my grandmother, or the ladies from Sodom, would say. If you could just hear the women talk over there, it’s just right on.”
These songs need no accompaniment because voices from generations past sing in the mind of the lone singer onstage. The music is a living history that flares into the present when performers like Donna Ray Norton open their mouths. That’s when those voices come out.
Donna Ray Norton performs at the Music of the Carolinas series at the North Carolina Museum of History Sunday, April 14 at 3 p.m. The show is free.
Chico Scott doesn't remember the exact date, but sometime back in the early '90s, his then-girlfriend returned from an errand at a nearby Eckerd photo lab with some developed prints and a guy named Shaun.
"I don't know why," says Scott of the invitation. "I guess to smoke some pot or something. He probably gave her some free prints. I didn't like it at all. And the top of his hair was blonde, so he looked like a freak. Then he started talking about how he loved the Spice Girls, and I was like, ‘Oh hell no, this dude is a fuckin' clown.' But then we became best friends."
Aside from his affection for British pop, Shaun Smith—commonly known among Raleigh nightlifers as DJ Castro—and his new friend Scott, or DJ Madcow, eventually discovered a shared and profound love for underground, house-oriented dance music—especially the mid-to-uptempo electronic stuff that local jockeys were playing at the time on 88.1 WKNC's late-night programs.
"They were playing stuff like Thievery Corporation, Cinematic Orchestra, Zero7, Groove Armada, the Verve remixes," says Scott. "They were playing all of this hot shit, and I'd never heard this stuff before, so I'm getting turned on."
At the same time, Scott—a fourth-generation Raleigh native—noticed that none of this music was being played in downtown Raleigh's clubs and bars, like the now-closed Stingray Lounge.
"I had a general social dissatisfaction going on with my city," he says. "I had issues with the music. I don't know if it was because I'm from Raleigh or if it's because I'm a black man. It's just that I noticed that there was very little funk, very little soul. I'd have a good time, but it was all generic background rock 'n' roll."
Three years before Kings Barcade settled in its current location on West Martin Street, the Raleigh music venue sat just a few blocks away on South McDowell Street, next to Poole's Diner. Every Sunday night, Scott worked as the bartender at Kings. He approached the owners about possibly bringing a bunch of his trip-hop CDs and DJ equipment with him to work: "How about if I bring my gear down here, put it on the bar, I'll bartend, do it for free, and we'll see what happens?" he asked.
Scott's home had just been burglarized, and his new friend, DJ Castro, strongly urged him to use the insurance money to buy a DJing setup—specifically, a pair of Pioneer CDJ 700S CD turntables and a Pioneer DJM 500 mixer. He had new gear, and now, he had his own night—Neu Romance, he called it.
But that first night went much differently than Scott planned. "I had the CD players facing into the bar and I was DJing and bartending," says Scott. "I was playing that trip-hop shit and Drew Davidson said, ‘Man, I love this music, but you don't wanna put these people to sleep. It's Sunday night. You gotta turn it up a little bit.' So, it went from a down-tempo vibe to a house party. We were playing house music."
The night took off: "Next thing you know, everybody is coming out, and we're playing all this music: drum-and-bass, house, old school hip-hop and jazz. Todd Morman from Monkeytime was down there playing Nina Simone and fuckin' melting brie and walking around with a tray of brie cheese," Scott recalls. "Back in the day we'd go and we'd spend 15 or 20 bucks on strawberries, grapes, cheese and stone-ground wheat thins. We put all this stuff on the bar and that was one of our mottos—‘You know who loves you by who feeds you.'"
In 2006, Scott took a trip to New York for the 10-year reunion of the famed dance party Body & Soul. He called Smith three times during that trip because, according to Scott, "They were playing our shit—the shit that we were playing in raggedy-ass Kings in raggedy-ass Raleigh."
That's where DJ Castro butts in. "Correction: the shit that I was playing," he explains. "I grew up with disco, and I was lucky enough to find a bunch of disco 12"s for cheap before disco was trendy and the Brooklyn people were up on it. People around here were playing some house, but they weren't really playing disco."
Both DJ Castro and DJ Madcow's high-brow taste for classic disco and house music by artists including Nuyorican Soul, The Bucketheads, Ian Pooley and Jazzanova became to be a defining characteristic of Neu Romance's appeal.
"We were trying to do something that everybody was ambivalent toward and opposed to," says Scott. "The rock 'n' roll crowd was opposed to dancing. When we first started, the rock 'n' roll cats hated the DJs, and the DJs hated them. But they're both valuable, and we like to take the credit for bridging that gap, at least at Kings."
Six months before the original Kings closed, Neu Romance took its "culture war" to a different front-line location—Five Star Restaurant in Raleigh's Warehouse District. After a decade of weekly dance parties and guest acts such as Maceo Parker, Sharon Jones and DJ Rasoul, Neu Romance is ending its 10-year relationship with the city.
Scott's involvement with Neu Romance ended two years ago when he got married and had a baby. He's not necessarily satisfied with the way Neu Romance has developed since his departure. "Integrating into the community was an important part of Neu Romance, which is one of the reasons why it's ending. As much as I love these fellas, these fellas have not done that," he explains. "They haven't done anything but DJ. They just show up and play records. That's not how a show happens. A show happens by creating events, promoting those events, engaging with other people and piggybacking on other issues."
DJ Castro agrees: "Yeah, we did drop the ball a little bit," he says. "But not on the music."
The two also concur that, while this might be the last Neu Romance party, there are now other Neu Romance-affiliated DJs and music options for Triangle groove junkies. Mosaic's Steve Feinberg and Keith Ward, DJ FM of Raleigh Revolution, and Discovery's Nixxxed are just a few of the new leaders of Raleigh's unheralded board of dance arbiters, DJs and tastemakers. That didn't exist when Neu Romance started.
"We refacilitated being ambassadors for downtown," Scott says on the crowded back porch area of Raleigh's Landmark Tavern. "Even though we're not musicians, DJs do more than just play records. We're amateur psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists."
Moments later, a slender, clean-cut white guy in his mid-30s, dressed in loafers, shorts and a soccer jersey, walks by and asks Scott, "Can you get in there and get a handle on the sound system?"
"What you wanna hear?" replies Scott. He answers Teddy Pendergrass, and Scott allows a smile of approval. "I can do that for you."
The Southern Folklife Collection puts on a lot of cool events at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill every year, each surveying various aspects of traditional music. Few seem more perfectly suited to its mission, though, than Friday's free program, "The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax."
That's also the name of a book published last year by W. W. Norton & Company. The 136 pages document the legendary folklorist's 1959-60 journey through the backcountry of Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee. Along the way, Lomax captured a wide swath of Southern musicians with photographs and audio recordings. Friday's program features a discussion between Lomax's daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, and Grammy-honored writer Tom Piazza, who penned an essay accompanying the book's photos. Also on hand will be UNC professor William Ferris, who wrote the book's introduction; Columbia University professor John Szwed, author of Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World; and Alan Lomax Archive curator Nathan Salsburg.
You can't hardly put on a shindig like this without live music, and so the SFC has also invited the acclaimed North Carolina fiddler Rayna Gellert (whose credits include tenures with Toubab Krewe and Uncle Earl) to perform. A last-minute addition is a 5 p.m. pre-event screening of the short film Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass, which features a half-hour of footage from a late-night gathering at Lomax's apartment in Greenwich Village in 1961 with Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the New Lost City Ramblers and more.
The proper program begins after the film at 5:30 p.m.; everything takes place in the Wilson Special Collections Library at 201 South Road on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill. For further details, visit UNC's website.
"The keyboard was appealing to me for this time, the picture was appealing to me. And the title, I just like it," says Harrison (the cover art is from the wedding of local musicians Ginger Wagg and Laura King). "It kind of reminds me of when you're in physical science class in the 6th grade. It's like, one of those questions where, 'What are the three types of clouds?'"
One thing Harrison wanted to explore in Know Your Clouds, he says, is differences in active and passive listening, which led him to insert long zone-outs in the middle of otherwise direct pop songs. Some of these are simple, loop-like repetitions, while others lead into discord and guitar noise. And the quick, though incredibly rewarding, "Wolf in my Pocket" follows almost the opposite principle, with its delicate, piano-driven lament laced with jarring election season TV news samples.
"A couple of things could happen," he explains, "to a listener where it's like, 'Oh, here's this song. It's kind of catchy. I like it,' and then they're washing dishes, and five minutes later, 'Is that the same song?'"
There's also a simpler motivation behind much that he writes: He loves his guitar. "When I can build spots to just play music," he says, "I kind of am preferring that."
In many ways, Terry Riley’s 1964 composition In C set the bar for musical minimalism. The single-page score collects 53 short melodic motifs, to be played in sequence, though not necessarily simultaneously, by any number of musicians with any variety of instruments. It is, in essence, a series of contradictions subject to the chemistry of whichever ensemble is performing it. “Minimalism began with this apotheosis. You couldn’t come up with something at once simpler and more sparkling than In C, or more relentlessly chugging yet so infinitely slow,” New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson wrote in 2009. “The piece should have led into an aesthetic cul-de-sac; instead it launched a movement.”
Davidson wrote to preview a Carnegie Hall performance of the piece by an ensemble led by Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington. The piece has also been performed by acts as disparate as the eclectic New York classical music troupe Bang On A Can and Japanese psych-rockers Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. The electronic music imprint Ghostly International released a recorded performance of In C in 2009, settling next to Com Truise and Matthew Dear in the label’s catalog.
Part of In C’s enduring appeal is, undoubtedly, its necessary spontaneity. Its open-ended instructions demand new treatments. “One of the joys of In C,” Riley wrote in his score, “is the interaction of the players in polyrhythmic combinations that spontaneously arise between patterns. Some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate as the group moves through the piece when it is properly played.”
Indeed, the piece can adapt a wide range of character. A performance last year at Central European University in Budapest adopts the symphonic grandeur of a John Williams score caught in a whirlwind. Bang On A Can’s sparser interpretation mutates the piece into a chain of nervous tension. There’s no telling how the landmark work of early minimalism will appear Thursday night when Will Robin & The Hep-Cats—an ensemble of 10—15 area musicians led by Robin, David Menestres and Shawn Galvin—tackle the piece at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Menestres’ improvisational combo Polyorchard perform first.
Doors open at 9 p.m. with a $5 admission.
The Fiddle, a production of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Southern Folklife Collection, happens Friday and Saturday on campus. Friday evening at Memorial Hall begins with three performers, each with intriguing backgrounds. Emily Schaad holds a masters degree in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State; she also studied with late Piedmont legend Joe Thompson and has taken first prize in numerous fiddle and stringband competitions. Matt Glaser was the chairman of the String Department at the famed Berklee College of Music for 28 years. His styles range from jazz to bluegrass—the Boston Herald once called him "possibly America's most versatile fiddler." He also served on the board of advisers for Ken Burns' documentary, Jazz. Today, he works as the Artistic Director of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee.
The final individual performer is Byron Berline, a fiddler with a stunning list of career credits. He joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1967 and continued as a sought-after session player in Nashville. He sat in on both of Gram Parsons' solo releases and The Band's "Acadian Driftwood," "Country Honk" by The Rolling Stones, and Stephen Stills' Manassas. It seems that Berline's heart has always stayed with bluegrass music, though: Besides sitting in with North Carolina legends Merle and Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, he has released a string of records with Sugar Hill during the last 30 years. Today he's settled in Guthrie, Okla., where he runs Byron's Double Stop Fiddle Shop. Two-time Grammy winners Nashville Bluegrass Band end the evening.
Saturday at the Wilson Library, The Fiddle offers a four-part symposium, with speakers covering a range of topics related to the roots of the instrument. The talks include "A Survery of American Traditions," "Examining The Irish Connection In The Southern American Fiddle Repertoire," and "Recording Regional Fiddle Music In The Late Twentieth Century." It all ends with a panel discussion led by Matt Glaser, with fiddlers Emily Schaad and Byron Berline.
The wonderful program by the Southern Folklife Collection is free and open to the public. Tickets are required to the Friday performance but can be picked up at the Memorial Hall box office. For more information, please call 919-843-3333 or visit the venue's website. For more information on performers, set times, and the symposium location, please visit the Southern Folklife at UNC.
Fans of Frank Fairfield, rejoice! Frank has added a last-minute show this Saturday evening at Cup 22 at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. So if you can't make his performance tonight at The Pinhook in Durham with Deep Chatham, you'll have another chance.
If you are not familiar with Frank Fairfield, he is a phenomenal old-time player. He utilizes fiddle, banjo and guitar in a rough-and-tumble style that harkens back to a more authentic presentation of how these old-timey songs were performed many years ago.
See Frank tonight at The Pinhook in Durham with Deep Chatham. Tickets are $8 and the show starts at 9 p.m. And Frank's show just added will be at Cup 22 at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. This show will start at 8 p.m., and donations are encouraged.
Below is a clip of Frank Fairfield playing "When the Roses Bloom Again" from earlier this year in Saxapahaw.
Friday sees five predominately female acts take the stage at Chapel Hill Underground to benefit the Compass Center for Women and Families. This organization was formed from a merger of the Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County and The Women's Center with the goal of preventing domestic violence and helping its victims.
No services were dropped in the merger, reads a statement from Women's Center Development Director Marya McNeish. Rather, clients now have access to both organizations' resources and no longer have to tell their stories twice. The bands and DJ on this bill play to raise both funds and awareness as part of Compass Center's Domestic Violence Awareness Month events.
"I always felt that the community at large was not aware of the center's offerings or their mission to be an anchor for local women in need," says event organizer Angela Nguyen, who can speak for the new organization's strengths as a former client of the Women's Center herself. She says old friend, Chapel Hill Underground co-owner, and longtime Chapel Hill music mainstay Eddie Sanchez, was happy to hold the benefit at his bar and help organize.
"One of the concepts of the Underground, upon opening, was to be a community-based establishment more than just another bar," says Nguyen. "While its location is smack in the middle of the undergraduates' heavy traffic, [the owners] wanted the Underground to be anything but another undergrad bar."
This focus on local talent brings gleefully minimalist trio Boykiller, reckless Raleigh punks Lazy Janes, and solo Durham electro dance-punk act Lam! Lam!—Pink Flag's Betsy Shane—to this bill. The Purchase, a potentially intriguing new outfit featuring members of Caltrop, Bellafea and Fin Fang Foom, also plays. And DJ Fifi-Hifi will spin between sets. Proceeds go to help an organization that relies on state funding ("if there is any," says Nguyen) remain solvent and gain visibility.
"The community needs to know what they do, what they stand for and that Chapel Hill has such services available to women and families in need," says Nguyen. "Their work deserves a reward such as this, a benefit in their honor to help keep their program thriving."
The music starts at 8:30, with a $10 cover at the door.
The temptation is to throw your hands in the air and cry that Rick Rubin has done it again. But while the famed producer has indeed helmed another solid-to-strong return by an out-of-fashion act with ZZ Top’s La Futura, it’s not quite that simple. Beyond quibbles over just how outré a four-decade-old blues band from Texas will ever be, there’s some question about what Rubin added—or didn’t add, actually. It may just be that, after producing all their albums, Billy Gibbons needed a nudge from someone he trusted.
However the credit should be apportioned, the Houston trio sounds refreshed; after all, their ’80s drum machine look was wearing like faux wood basement paneling, unchanged a quarter-century later. There was no choice but to tear that shit out and return to the ’70s boogie of “Just Got Paid” and “La Grange.”
ZZ Top’s gritty, dusty and bedraggled prairie blues sounds as good as ever here. You do wonder how much Rubin talked to them about songs, though. The record feels a tad formless. Part of that might be sequencing, as the album doesn’t generate the kind of momentum it could or should; individually, the songs tend to flatten out and wander off anticlimactically. Most of them could end about 30 seconds earlier. All these symptoms create a problem over the course of an entire LP. Rubin should’ve taken a stronger hand.
Instead of lamenting how it might’ve been better, we can rhapsodize how nice it is to hear Billy, Dusty and Frank do what they do so well with more sympathetic production. Rubin wrings a lot from Gibbons withered growl. The 62-year old guitarist also steps up with some pretty well-written songs, from the locked groove of “Consumption” o the harrowing ode to addiction “It’s Too Easy Mañana,” with its dark expressionistic guitar break.
Rubin’s biggest contribution is at least an interesting one: Opener “I Gotsta Get Paid” is one of the producer’s famed genre cross-pollinations, as it covers the track “25 Lighters” by Houston’s DJ DMD. Gibbons does his best, but he can’t pull off the gangsta swag. He sounds like Andy Rooney ranting about his dresser-top BIC collection. The song’s accompanied by electronic tomfoolery that succeeds more in attracting attention than serving the song. Without all the dressing oe Gibbons’ whack “rap”, it would be quite a jam thanks to an absolutely sweltering lead over nice Delta drone.
In truth, this mix of tracks feels, for better and worse, like a retrospective. You have the “Tube Snake Boogie” of “Chartreuse” and “Flyin’ High,” whose clean, high and tight production is an obvious nod to Eliminator-era arena rock. There’s even a lovelorn blues waltz, “Over You,” where Gibbons’ vocal limp adds character to his aching desire to “get up and get over you.”
In turn, it’s a very good album with a few glaring flaws. Rubin definitely captured top-shelf performances, and on La Futura, Gibbons has written some of his best songs in years. Failure, at least, avoided.
ZZ Top plays Durham Performing Arts Center tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50—$120.