Tag Archives: bluegrass

RiverRoots 2016 lineup delivers

RiverRoots 2016 is the fourth straight year I’ve attended the festival, and I expect to be back next year. The music lineup is always solid, and there’s nothing like listening to bluegrass, country, soul, folk and more while drinking Indiana craft beer on the beautiful banks of the Ohio River.

Saturday’s lineup was solid. Asleep at the Wheel and Donna the Buffalo rocked like the vets that they are, and acts such as Parker Millsap, Jake Book, Blair Crimmins and the Hookers and Bridge 19 all put on good shows. Billy Strings stole the show, bringing heavy metal-like intensity and speed to their rootsy set.

But for me, it was a quartet of acts on Friday that brought down the house. Battling wet weather and playing to smaller crowds, these four elevated their games and made a fan out of me.

Darlingside – This quartet out of Boston was moved from the main stage to the second stage because of the rain. It turned out fortune was smiling upon them, because the River Stage gave the set an intimacy that wouldn’t have happened on the main stage. The above performance doesn’t quite do them justice, but it’s a pretty good example of what they have to offer. Think if Simon and Garfunkel fronted the Punch Brothers covering Avett Brothers songs.

Sarah Jarosz – In four years, I’ve never seen the River Stage so crowded. It wasn’t just standing room only; there really wasn’t even room left to stand. Her voice is as amazing live as it is on wax.

Lindi Ortega – Ortega’s old-school country sound, her band’s tight groove and her effortless stage presence are a unique combination. I’d like to see her at a smaller, indoor venue, because I think a crowded room might provide more energy for the band to feed off of, elevating the intensity a bit.

Brothers Comatose – I didn’t know they made bluegrass music in San Francisco, at least not after Jerry Garcia died. These fellas blazed out of the gate and never looked back, effortlessly mixing traditional music with moments like their Cake cover. I will see these West Coasters again, hopefully soon.

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Favorite songs of 2015: The mid-point review

Anonymous, Desaparecidos – My favorite lyric of the year: “Freedom’s not free / Neither is apathy.” Payola is one of the better political albums I’ve heard in a few years.

Better Man, Leon Bridges – Cool, smooth, classic-sounding soul music.

Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, Unknown Mortal Orchestra – This disco funk track is addictive, the chorus easily embedded into your head so you’ll be singing it to yourself the rest of the day.

Chalk Snake, No Joy – No Joy turns up the distortion and pays little mind to traditional rock songwriting expectations. Chalk Snake twists and contorts, fading away in a trail of feedback.

Cherry Bomb, Tyler, the Creator – I have yet to be convinced of his ability as a lyricist, but Tyler’s ear for production is unlike anyone anywhere near the mainstream of hip-hop and few are as daring as he is willing to be.

Dirty Harry, Grace – The dragging tempo and the wavy synth sound that appears-disappears-reappears helps make it, but what really is the cherry on top is Grace’s ability to work over the top of the minimal musical backing.

Dreams, Beck – Aah. Now I feel better. Instead of dreary Beck making numbing, down-tempo tunes that don’t compare with similar offerings such as Mutations or Sea Change, we get Beck getting his groove on. The world is right again.

Gwan, The Suffers – Sounds like it could have been a Tina Turner B-side in 1972. The tempo is relentless, and Kim Franklin’s powerful voice drives the band.

Go Head, Awreeoh – I’ve been looking forward to the film Dope. This song, from the soundtrack, only heightens the anticipation.

Handsome, The Vaccines –  Cheeky, fun pop punk. The video captures the spirit of the track.

Hate Street Dialogue, The Avener feat. Rodriguez – The song has a real bounce to it, but the lyrics are much darker than the music backing it would imply.

Holy Ghost, A$AP Rocky feat. Joe Fox – Combination prayer and cry of rage, A$AP attacks the ignorance and corruption he sees everywhere, including those foul acts committed in the name of Jesus.

How Could You Babe, Tobias Jesso Jr. – A simple, gorgeous, heartfelt piano ballad.

I’m Callin’, Tennis – Smooth and low-key, I’m Callin’ works for the party or for the comedown after the party.

Institutionalized, Kendrick Lamar feat. Bilal, Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg – Kendrick drops knowledge about income inequality.

Johnny Delusional, FFS – I’ve never been big on Franz Ferdinand, but the child of the 1980’s hiding deep down inside me loves the new wavieness of this track.

Lawman, Girl Band – I love bands that aren’t afraid to make noise. Lawman is about as good as noise gets. That big, fat, fuzzy, drony bass sound holds it down while everything else swirls around it until the sound explodes all over the place.

Milkman, Bully – This song probably has as much in common with the catalogues of Sebadoh and L7 as it does anything in the modern rock scene.

Paper Girl, July Talk – The bluesy, raw sound of July Talk comes off even better live, as do the antics of Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay.

Pedestrian at Best, Courtney Barnett – There’s just no one quite like Ms. Barnett and her smart, goofy, melancholy, endearing, stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

Rain or Shine, Young Fathers – I’ve fallen in the love with these guys the past few years. They’re most definitely not content to follow the hip-hop crowd. Rain or Shine is just one piece of evidence supporting that claim.

Strange Hellos, Torres – There’s a PJ Harvey-ness to this track that attracts me. I love how Strange Hellos builds and how the song draws its strength from Mackenzie Scott’s growling voice.

This World is Not My Home, Robert Earl Keen – Keen’s voice is perfect for this nugget of bluegrass gospel.

Trustful Hands, The Do – There are three or four tracks off Shake, Shook, Shaken that I could have chosen for this list. There’s just something warm, familiar about this track that gets me every time.

Uptown Funk, Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars – This track would work just as well in 1975 as it does in 2015. Bruno was the perfect choice to sing Uptown Funk, and the horns are spot on.

Honorable mentions: 15 Years, Houndmouth; Awake, Snoop Dogg; Baby Britain, Seth Avett & Jessica Lee Mayfield; Bleeder, Ceremony; Blud, SOAK; Blueberry Island, Julie Ruin; Bunker Buster, Viet Cong; City Boy Blues, Action Bronson; Damn Baby, Alpine; Don’t Wanna Fight, Alabama Shakes; Feel Right, Mark Ronson feat. Mystikal; First Choice, Oddisee; Foreign Object, Mountain Goats; For You, Genevieve; Julie, 100 Watt Horse; Kokaine Karolina, Elle King; Man Up, Nikki Lane; Melt Me, Hanni El-Khatib; Only You (Live), Anderson East; Power Man, Camp Lo; Prince of Slackers, Turn to Crime; Railroad, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn; Roll Up, The Struts; Solid Gold, Turbowolf; Son of God, Will Butler; Too Much, The Steeldrivers; Vital Signs, Gang of Youths

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RiverRoots 2015 festival delivers, again

The Gibson harp guitar. I had the privilige of seeing someone play one of these bad boys at River Roots.

The Gibson harp guitar. I had the privilege of seeing someone play one of these bad boys at River Roots.

* This is my third RiverRoots Festival. Despite the near constant rain Saturday through the early evening hours, me and mine enjoyed the experience again. Saw a lot of good performances from the likes of The Wood Brothers, The Duhks, Haunted Wind Chimes, The Tillers, SHEL, Scythian, Michael Kelsey and Michael Cleveland and the Flamekeeper (more on those last two in a second). And, of course, I enjoyed more than my fair share of Indiana craft beer.

* Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper could have played another set as far as I’m concerned. Seamless, tight bluegrass is going to draw me in every time. Cleveland closed the show by himself, playing a quick fiddle solo. His bow work was flawless, and the song sounded pristine. I’ll be looking to see them again. And since they’re Hoosiers, I’m hoping they’ll be easy to find.

* Imagine Pink Floyd fronted by Ben Folds covering Prince. Kind of sounds like a disaster, right? But when it’s Michael Kelsey on vocals and guitar and his cellist, Tom (never caught the last name; he also played one of the harp guitars shown above), it’s freakin’ magic. Kelsey did all kinds of tricks and nimble fretwork, putting on a guitar clinic, but never got lost in the showiness, making it enjoyable for the audience while integrating his manic skills fully with whatever song he was playing. His cover of When the Doves Cry was both surprising – in that it was really damn good – and bold – that’s not a song you want to do poorly or assholes like me will call you on it. Like I said, this is my third visit to RiverRoots. This is the first time I’ve seen A) a crowd that big both in and around the smaller River Stage tent, and B) actually watched people leave to go grab their friends and drag them back to the tent to bear witness to an electrifying performance. Next time around, we need to see Mr. Kelsey on the big stage, please.

* My lone criticism … the RiverRoots website takes a humorous tone about the weather, noting that it’s always sunny and dry but it never hurts to be prepared for rain. And yet festival organizers somehow doesn’t think this preparation applies to the main stage. This is the second time in three years the main stage has had to stop because there’s nothing covering the performers in case of rain. This year, I was looking forward most to seeing folk singer Willie Watson, who was supposed to play on the main stage. When the rain came, the main stage was shut down, and Watson was moved to the second stage … which I found out about an hour after he finished. I never heard any announcement from the RiverRoots organizers – whether over the PA or via Twitter, which I monitored – instead being informed second-hand from someone else who had also missed Watson. However, if you just put up an awning or something, this interruption and confusion doesn’t have to happen. As my friend John noted, there’s probably 50 good old boys in the crowd who had the equipment with them to rig something up in half an hour and keep the show going. Hell, I’m not a good old boy or very handy, but I had a green plastic tarp with me that we could have added to the front of the stage to keep the music flowing. Time to take your own advice, RiverRoots: Hope for sun, and be ready for the rain.

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The Avett Brothers: 04/17/15 at Elliott Music Hall

Thou shalt not doubt the Avett Brothers. And yet I did.

This was the fifth time my wife and I had seen the Avetts live. Last time we saw them, summer of 2014 at the Lawn at White River State Park in Indianapolis, was the first time I wasn’t absolutely blown away by them. It was the first time we’d seen them with a full band, and it didn’t seem as if they were as tight as usual. Plus, one of my favorite things about these guys is when it’s just Seth, Scott and “the third Avett brother,” bassist Bob Crawford. The trio did some stuff by itself, but the new, full band was clearly the focus of the performance. Also, the crowd was easily 500 people or more larger than the previous two times we’d seen them at the same venue. The place was elbow-to-elbow, and, in an odd turn, a lot of people were there with very young children. The energy we were accustomed to was sucked out of the venue, added to that an element of claustrophobia. It wasn’t as much fun as out previous Avett experiences, and I was left with doubts.

Doubts effectively shattered and discarded. The Avetts I saw at Purdue University were tight, having fun, belting it out for the cheap seats. The new band members are now much more effectively part of the show. When Scott, Bob and cellist Joe Kwon jammed, it was more classical trio than bluegrass stomp. Violinist Tania Elizabeth soloed and sang, a standout performance on the night. The full band allowed the Avetts to take on some blues and more straight-ahead rock, something absent from previous outings. And the original three spent more time alone on stage, including a soul-stirring rendition of one of my favorite hymns, Alone in the Garden. Had they ended the show with their cover of the Grateful Dead’s The Race Is On, it would have been the perfect Avett performance.

But if I can’t have it all, that was more than good enough. Can’t wait to see the Avetts again, where ever my wife and I may find them.

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10/24/2014: Whiskey Bent Valley Boys and The Stampede String Band

So I went to see a show at the Hi-Fi in Fountain Square, a neighborhood making a comeback on the east side of Indianapolis. And wouldn’t you know it, a hoedown broke out?

Indiana’s own Stampede String Band opened and represented the Hoosier State well. Turns out, Moonsville – the title of their debut album and a small burg near Alexandria – is just down the road from Muncie, my hometown. John Bahler’s work on the mandolin was a pleasure to listen to, and the combo was tight. I’m hoping to catch them again, soon. (But you can dump the Royals cover, fellas. It’s the most overrated song of the last decade, and even Lorde’s mom is tired of hearing it.)

Then the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys stepped on stage and showed why they were the headliners. Two hours of non-stop bluegrass, a full house dancing and spilling beer, lots of hooting and requests shouted out periodically. I don’t know that I’d say it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever been to, but I’ve never seen a tighter relationship between a crowd and a band in a live setting. It was clear the Whiskey Bent crew was feeding off the energy of the crowd, and vice versa. If you’re a fan of that traditional mountain music sound – and even you newgrass backers – these guys are a must-see.

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