Posts Tagged ‘Kris Kristofferson’

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Boston, MA

June 24, 2014

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

January 15, 2014

Rosanne Cash

river-thread-cd-cover

The River & The Thread

* * * * *

In the decade since Rosanne Cash returned to music following a two-and-a-half year silence caused by a vocal chord polyp, she’s gone inward, looking to her musical and personal legacy for creative inspiration. As a result, Cash has made works that display her spectacular grace and dignity in the face of crippling loss.

This inward exploration reaches a new zenith on The River & The Thread, her first self-penned record since 2006, and a love letter to the southern United States. When Arkansas State University contacted Cash about acquiring her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, she and her husband John Leventhal (who co-wrote, produced, and arranged the record) took many extended trips to the region, visiting historical landmarks, and overseeing the purchase and renovation of her dad’s childhood home.

To raise the funds needed to purchase the property, Cash held a series of concerts in which everyone from George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson performed. Marshall Grant, her father’s bass player in the Tennessee Two and her ‘surrogate dad’, was also scheduled to perform but died of a brain aneurysm following show rehearsals. His death led Cash to write the first song for the project, “Etta’s Tune.” Written for Grant’s widow Etta, the song brings Grant’s voice to life as he pays tribute to the wife he’s leaving behind – “When the phone rang in the dead of night you’d always throw my bail. No you never touched the whisky, you never took the pills. I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” The song is extraordinary because Cash is depicting the beautiful tale of true love though Grant’s own eyes, as a second-generation source, bringing his voice to life with stunning clarity.

Mandolin driven “The Sunken Lands” uses similar techniques to paint the difficult life of her grandmother Carrie, on the terrain where Johnny grew up. The detail Cash provides is heartbreaking – from the endless work in the cotton fields (“the mud and tears melt the cotton balls”), verbal abuse from her husband (“His words are cruel, they sting like fire”), to her crying children. More than a song “The Sunken Lands” plays like a novelette from a legendary American writer. Cash has been known for her prose in recent years, and Black Cadillac played like a musical memoir, so it’s not surprising she brings those sensibilities to The River & The Thread as well.

The album’s title comes from the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” When Cash sings, “You have to learn to love the thread,” she referencing a remark by a dear friend who’s a master seamstress in Florence, Alabama. It’s the most austere of the album’s songs, with a chorus that relies so heavily on metaphor it comes off a tad kooky. A fascination with the famous Tallahatchie Bridge (yes, the one highlighted in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”) inspired the album’s closing track “Money Road,” an eerie ballad about the nearby street where Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was murdered. “Money Road” boasts a great lyric, but the production is too slow and prodding for me to make a full investment in the song.

“The Long Way Home” details Cash’s personal journey, but rests in the spiritual realm on the idea of taking the long way home to ourselves, not necessarily a particular place. At 58 Cash has the life experience for such a sentiment, which only adds to the track’s deeper meaning. Even better is “Tell Heaven,” a meditation on longing and loneliness that frames Cash’s delicate whisper with a gorgeously folksy acoustic guitar. I love the gentle ease Leventhal brings to the arrangement coupled with the overall message – everything in life will be okay if you surrender your burdens to your higher power.

Cash gives a vocal master class on “Night School,” a striking ballad brought to life with the perfect sprinkling of fiddle and acoustic guitar. “50,000 Watts” uses the reach of radio wires to dispense a common prayer of love and devotion set to an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drum heavy arrangement. “Modern Blue” has the album’s most modern sound, with electric guitars and drums creating a loudish sound that wakes up the listener. The chorus feels a little underdeveloped, but the whole song comes together by the end.

The centerpiece of The River & The Thread started as a composition Leventhal and Rodney Crowell were writing for Emmylou Harris, who never ended up recording it. As the story goes, Cash’s song Jake was researching The Civil War for school when she reminded him he had ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Inspired, Cash asked Crowell if she could rework the song (she always loved it) as a Civil War ballad about her relative William Cash, who fought for the North. After much obsession, and loss of sleep, the re-worked “When The Master Calls The Roll” was born.

“When The Master Calls The Roll” is a sweeping epic about William Lee, the love who would wait for him, and his eventual death in battle. Cash, Leventhal, and Crowell infuse the tune with so much detail and phrase each section with such precision the song quickly elevates to the echelon of masterworks. This track is so good the rest of the album, which meets just as high a standard, pales greatly in comparison.

Cash has said if she never cuts another record she’ll be fine, now that she’s made The River & The Thread. It’s easy to see why, as this is an album of a different breed, sown from a rare cloth. It’s atypical, even from singer-songwriters, to see an album this full-formed, possessing so much of the artist who created it. As tired as I am of seeing Cash mine her legacy, she continues to bring new and exciting colors to her exploration of what it means to be Johnny’s daughter. And with those colors, she may have created her best album yet.

The 2012 CMA Nominations: The year that, well, just couldn’t

September 5, 2012

Such as they are, here’s the CMA nominees list for 2012 with my comments and Will Win / Should Win picks:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift

The usual solid, yet unspectacular group. The lack of Carrie Underwood will have all her fans fuming as usual and everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility.

Will Win: Taylor Swift – I’m betting on the safest choice this time around. She’s the most likely to pull off a win, her third. Chesney may’ve had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

Should Win: Luke Bryan, but he wasn’t nominated. As an all around entertainer, he’s so much better than Aldean, the only one who stands to keep the award out of Swift’s hands.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? I adore her but she hasn’t fully embraced a career in country music…yet. But she did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally justified. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14 consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral.

See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Will Win: Lambert – she’s at the top of the heap and the countriest of the big 3

Should Win: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson, she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s it. I’ll say Lambert because of her intuition with Pistol Annies

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of the red hot Dierks Bentley. His exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should’ve joined Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Will Win: Shelton – there’s seemingly no stopping him right now despite one mediocre single after another.

Should Win: Bryan. While I love Church, Bryan is the most exciting male vocalist to come along in years and a personal favorite of mine.

Vocal Group of the Year

The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Lady Antebellum
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band

On chart hits alone, all five deserve to be here this time around. It’s nice to see the exclusion of Rascal Flatts as their already bland material has only gotten worse in recent years.

Will Win: Lady Antebellum – is there any reason to bet against them?

Should Win: Little Big Town – Their latest single “Pontoon” isn’t just their biggest single, but its country music’s song of the summer. Zac Brown Band has also yet to score a deserving win, but LBT has been waiting for their time in the spotlight for far too long.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Big & Rich
Love and Theft
Sugarland
The Civil Wars
Thompson Square

Another interesting list. Sugarland shot themselves in the foot with Incredible Machine and thus are the least likely to repeat in this category. Love and Theft just scored their first #1, and Thompson Square have the ACM momentum.

Will Win: Thompson Square – they’ve yet to repeat the monster success of “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” in their last two tries, but they’re far from one hit wonders. Shawna may not be the most flashy female vocalist, but she’s the most akin to the genre’s traditions.

Should Win: The Civil Wars – there isn’t a more ear catching duo in country music right now

New Artist of the Year

Lee Brice
Brantley Gilbert
Hunter Hayes
Love and Theft
Thompson Square

If we ever needed proof country music is in a rut, this is it. No one on this list has proven truly outstanding in anything they’ve done to date, and none have displayed the integrity to correctly push the genre forward.

Will Win: Brice, Gilbert, and Hayes are so even I can’t predict between the three. That may give Thompson Square the edge.

Should Win: Thompson Square – of this group, they’re the best of the bunch

Album of the Year

Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
Eric Church, Chief
Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
Dierks Bentley, Home
Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

The significance of this category is huge. For the first time since his MCA debut When I Call Your Name, Vince Gill isn’t nominated. Guitar Slinger was one of the best country records of 2011 and deserved to be on this list. Also missing are George Strait’s Here For A Good Time, despite the fact his last two albums won, and Pistol Annies for their excellent Hell on Heels.

But rest assured, we get Own The Night. The category wouldn’t be complete without it now would it?

Will Win: Own The Night - if its good enough to get a Best Country Album Grammy, than it can’t loose here, right?!

Should Win: Chief – The Church album is the best of this list and the most original commercial country album of 2011. Four The Record was good, but nowhere near the caliber of Chief.

Song of the Year (Award goes to songwriters)

“Even if It Breaks Your Heart” – written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
“God Gave Me You” – written by Dave Barnes
“Home” – written by Dierks Bentley and Jon Randall Stewart
“Over You” – written by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
“Springsteen” – written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell

Another boring list. The exclusion of “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” is a travesty, and George Strait should’ve been honored for his songwriting contributions to Here For A Good Time. But the inclusion of “Springsteen” is all that matters to me.

Will Win: “Over You” – I can already see Lambert and Shelton accepting this together and I’m very happy about it

Should Win: “Springsteen” – its the best song of this bunch hands down

Single of the Year (Award goes to artist and producer)

Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
Dierks Bentley, “Home”
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Eric Church, “Springsteen”

Aren’t the nominations for Aldean’s awful rap over? Shelton, meanwhile, has been nominated for one of his grossest productions ever. Bentley’s patriotic anthem is wonderful, and Church’s ode is his best single yet.

Will Win: I’m leading towards, “Home” but could also see “Springsteen” sneak in a win. But as far as singles of the year go, “Pontoon” is about as big as it gets

Should Win: “Pontoon” – sure its frivolous, but unlike the Aldean hit its harmless fun, and LBT deserve anything the CMA decide to throw their way

Musical Event of the Year

“Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
“Feel Like a Rock Star,” Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson
“Safe and Sound,” Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars
“Stuck on You,” Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

The most thought out and interesting list, by a wide margin. The Jackson duet is his most exciting song from Thirty Miles West, the Swift duet is the most compelling single of her career, and the Nelson song is an hilarious classic in the making. The reworking of Richie’s classic suits him and Rucker well while the only clunker is the awful excuse for Chesney and McGraw to sing together on stage this past summer.

Will Win: “Feel Like A Rockstar” – the CMA can’t resist when two genre superstars team up

Should Win: “Safe and Sound” – putting Swift aside, its the most compelling track and another reason why The Civil Wars are currently the genre’s best duo.

Music Video of the Year

Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Of these, Church has the best video, followed by LBT. What’s so remarkable about the whole “Pontoon” thing is LBT haven’t caved into any pressure to act like 20 year olds. They’re being completely themselves all the while making millions.

Of the others, The Keith video is stupid fun, Chesney is all sex and no substance, and Lambert is as boring and depressing as the song.

Will Win: “Red Solo Cup” – as stupid as the song, but captures it perfectly

Should Win: “Pontoon” – lets have fun with this one, and this video is pure fun in the sun. But if Church only ones award, it’ll likely  be this one

Musician of the Year
Sam Bush
Paul Franklin
Dann Huff
Brent Mason
Mac McAnally

The award I know the least about, but all talented musicians. Can’t go wrong with any of them.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – too strong to bet against

Should Win: Sam Bush – for some variety

 

Album Review: Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell: “Kin – Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell”

June 8, 2012

Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell 

* * * * 1/2

The relationship between Mary Karr, a New York Times bestselling author, and Rodney Crowell began in 2003 when Crowell mentioned the author in “Earthbound” a track from Fate’s Right Hand. He’d just finished her book The Liar’s Club and had suspicions, based on her background in poetry, she could write songs.

Flash forward nine years and they’ve acted on that premonition with Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, an album for wordsmiths and musical connoisseurs alike. With an all-star cast of heavyweights (Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson) and fringe artists (Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams) lending their talents, the appreciation is only deepened by results worthy of their talents.

Kin shows its brilliance by presenting each artist in a new light, by giving the listener an unexpected treat with each composition. Producer Joe Henry pushes everyone out of their musical comfort zones with delightful arrangements that deepen their artistic integrity while allowing for substantial growth. Without the need to tread in the stagnant waters of mainstream Nashville, the artists have a chance to explore each song without fear of displeasing younger listeners, a constituency who wouldn’t be drawn to Kin in the first place.

Sonically, Kin is a slice of ear candy, an observation enhanced by the mix of steel, fiddle, upright bass, and acoustic guitar that drench each song. Womack exemplifies this perfectly, turning in her best song in over half a decade with “Mama’s On A Roll.” Soaked in dobro and acoustic guitar, she infuses the song with the slow-burn felt after downing a sift drink at a bar. Equally appealing is Jones, who infuses her trademark smoky warmth into the ear-catching “If The Law Don’t Want You.” By interjecting her performance with her Little Willies playfulness, she proves how compelling she is at singing country music and seduces the listener into hoping she’ll dabble in it with more frequency.

Another standout is the impressive Gill, who turns up the twang with “Just Pleasing You,” a steel and fiddle led number proving him correct in thinking his best days musically lie ahead. “Sister oh Sister,” sung by Cash, is like a visit from an old friend and fits her like a glove. While I would’ve liked to hear Cash sing something a little more energetic, you can’t fault her expressive tone on the somber tune about the relationship between close siblings.

Along the same lines is the sleepy “Long Time Girl Gone By” which finds a wispy Harris running the gamut from soft to strikingly compelling. More folk than country, it needed just a slight pick me up to hold my attention, but there isn’t any denying her artistry. Same goes for Williams who infuses “God I’m Missing You” with her usual tipsy delivery.

Crowell, not to be out done by the guest vocalists, turns in four songs of his own, his first since 2008’s Sex and Gasoline. The Dylan-like “Anything But Tame” rolls along with an acoustic guitar led arrangement, “I’m A Mess” recalls a Steve Earle-like sensibility, and “Hungry For Home” is straight-up folk. But the most appealing is “My Father’s Advice,” a duel role duet with Crowell as the son and Kristofferson as the advice-lending dad. The most country of Crowell’s vocal contributions to Kin, it offers flourishes of fiddle and harmonica that helps move the story along at a nice even pace.

As a whole, Kin is a patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments, led by Karr and Crowell’s simple yet evocative lyrics and brought to life by the stellar cast who gathered to record them. It’s a not-to-be-missed collaboration and one of the most original country albums of 2012.

Album Review – The Little Willies – “For The Good Times”

January 15, 2012

The Little Willies

For The Good Times

**** 1/2

Isn’t it refreshing? The first new country album of 2012 also marks the year’s first great one. A sequel of sorts to the one-off side project from Jazz/pop vocalist Norah Jones and vocalist Richard Julian (among others), For The Good Times features a smart mix of tunes originally written and sung by the likes of Dolly Parton, Ralf Stanley, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Lefty Frizzell, and band namesake Willie Nelson.

Like their 2006 debut, For The Good Times consists mainly of cover songs but this is hardly another in the “covers album” sub-genre. Instead they leave their own mark on each recording, making it sound like their own. I’ve been really digging the retro sound the band has cultivated making For The Good Times feel like a long lost album from the 1960s and not a new project from 2012.

The record opens with their take on Stanley’s “I Worship You,” an acquired taste for country fans, like myself, who haven’t grown up listening to songs with distinct changes in tempo. The slow burning chorus, complete with the crescendoing drums and guitars, is the perfect compliment to the heavy twang from Jones and Julian, but the song truly shines when it picks up steam and becomes a rockabilly stomp. I only wish “I Worship You” didn’t keep the back-and-fourth in tempo, it feels quite awkward to me when it changes from fast to slow and the heavy twang on the chorus becomes grating as the song progresses.

While “I Worship You” may not have been a slam dunk, the other places The Little Willies experimented with sound and texture come off much better. I’m in love with Cal Martin’s “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” which features a gorgeous almost snake-like guitar riff and the magical combination of Jones and Julian, who work extremely well together when they use the contrast of their voices on different parts of a song.

Throughout the album he sounds a lot like Lyle Lovett while she comes like a gypsy woman plucked from another era. The conviction in their vocals helps to enhance the overall mood of the record and they don’t just play their parts perfectly, they sound like they’ve been making this music all their lives. I’m always amazed when a singer, such as Jones, can exist in multiple musical landscapes seemingly without transition.

I was never one to consider her as serious country vocalist but her take on Lynn’s iconic “Fist City” easily rivals the original. It’s always tricky when a vocalist tries to take on one of Lynn’s classics since you need the right amount of ferocity in your delivery to pull it off without sounding like a cheap imitation, or worse, a singer simply trying to show they have country cred. Jones aces the exam and the arrangement of drums, guitar, and piano give her the perfect backdrop to let loose and tap into the growl in her voice. This is my first favorite song of 2012 because Jones and company pull off what could’ve been an epic mess by lesser musicians.

Another such slam dunk is their smoky and bluesy take on Williams’s “Lovesick Blues.” For a song with such honky-tonk beginnings it’s quite alarming to hear it given a jazzy club treatment but it works. In their attempt to honor opposed to discriminate against, they’ve given the song a new lease on life. Given that this isn’t the first time Jones has covered Williams, “Cold, Cold Heart” appeared on Come Away With Me, she knows how to handle the material quite well.

The same though can’t be said for their take on Parton’s “Jolene.” I was slightly disappointed in how they turned it into a ballad given that it was done before by Mindy Smith on Just Because I’m A Woman – The Songs of Dolly Parton in 2003. But while they failed to bring anything new to the song, there’s nothing wrong with how they interpreted it, just that it had been done before. Given how they took on “Fist City” and “Lovesick Blues” with such attack, I was hoping for more from this one.

But the slight disappointment in “Jolene” is easily forgotten on tracks like Cash’s “Wide Open Road” and Frizzell’s “If You Got The Money (I Got The Time).” Prior to this album I wasn’t familiar with “Road,” but their fast paced take on the song makes me wonder how it slipped under my radar. Julian takes on the bulk of the work here and pulls it off wonderfully. But more than his vocal, I’m really enjoying the arraingment what at first, when the guitars some screeching in on the opening chords, can sound a little loud turns out to be quite delightful. The fast-paced drum throughout may just be one of my favorite production choices on the whole project. Sonically, it doesn’t get much better this for country music in any era let alone in 2012.

“If You Got the Money” benefits from a very similar arrangement and works equally as well. The blending of both Jones and Julian’s voices here works pretty well although she does tend to overpower him. While that could’ve been purposefully done, it would’ve been just as effective to hear both vocalists on a more even playing field. But, no matter what, I’ll prefer this pair to the likes of Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley any day.

Given that they’re known as The Little Willies, leaving out a homage to their namesake would make an album of theirs seem incomplete. Here they cover his “Permanently Lonely,” Scotty Wiseman’s “Remember Me” which he covered last November on his Remember Me, Vol. 1, and of course, “If You Got the Money.” The aforementioned “Money” is the lone uptempo number of the group. Both “Lonely” and “Remember Me” are gorgeous ballads showcasing the best of what Jones and Julian have to offer.

“Remember Me” is given a straightforward piano-driven arrangement not unlike Jones’s solo work and the best indicator for her jazz/pop fans that she isn’t turning completely away from the singer they love (which is a farce in and of itself – a new solo album from her is expected this summer). But no matter what the style, she pulls it off with the brilliance she’s mastered during her years in the big leagues. Plus, it isn’t jazzy at all bur rather the best in 1970s honky-tonk ballad tradition.

Along the same lines, Julian takes “Permanently Lonely” to much the same places. It’s another I hadn’t known previously and he digs deep into the lyric and pulls out a stunning emotional conviction that’s only heightened by the slow and brooding piano-led arraignment.

Another of my favorite tracks, “For The Good Times” has an arrangement that would make Charlie Rich smile. When Jones comes in on the opening line, “Don’t look so sad/I know it’s over” I instantly have a smile on my face. No matter the subject matter, there is something inherently comfortable in everything Kris Kristofferson writes and I feel like I’m being visited by a friend. I have to give Jones credit here for handling the song with tender care and pulling off another stunning achievement.

For The Good Times is the year’s first great country album because it displays a level of appreciation for the material being covered lacking in almost any covers project coming out of Nashville today. Instead of trying to make these songs fit within today’s market, the band uses a retro sound to transport the listener back to when these songs were commonplace on the radio. In addition, the combination of Julian and Jones on vocals only heightens that feel as Jones is able to tap into not only her gravel but her twang. She isn’t a jazz/pop singer doing country songs but rather a full-fledged country singer. In the era of imitation, that is nearly impossible to achieve.

Top 40 Worst Country Singles of 2011

December 21, 2011

Here you go. My least favorite country singles of 2011. You’ll see some huge hits here. But remember it isn’t about chart performance, but rather about quality:

40. Ronnie Dunn – “Bleed Red”

On his solo debut Dunn could’ve worn any hat. But he choose to go down the route of being over-produced and turned into a pop balladeer. And “We all bleed red” is such a statement of the obvious, it hardly bares drugging up in a song.

39. Jason Michael Carroll – “Numbers”

This is exactly why people hate country music. A laundry list of numerical symbols? Seriously, just how lazy can songwriting get?

38. Keith Urban – “You Gonna Fly”

On its own this isn’t a bad song. But I’m including it here for the simple fact it showcases an artist continuing to coast on their merits with yet another sound alike rocker that has become the norm. Urban will always be hailed for his guitar playing and entertaining abilities but not for his diversity in song selection. He just isn’t exciting anymore.

37. Luke Bryan – “I Don’t Want This Night To End”

A guy and a girl are rockin’ in a truck as if no other modes of transportation exist. Of course, she’s “so damn hot” he can’t stand it. He may not want this night to end, but this song surely can.

36. Jake Owen – “Barefoot Blue Jean Night”

A marriage of 80s rock with banjos coupled with a disposable tale of having fun with not only your buddies but the requisite hot babe, too. I Don’t Wanna Grow Up may be the smartest line in a country song all year.

(more…)

Concert Review – Sara Evans at the Cape Cod Melody Tent

August 27, 2011

Not since Jennifer Nettles brought her lead-with-passion approach to modern country has a singer enthralled me like Sara Evans did last night at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis, MA. She left her blood and guts on the stage as she powered through massive hit single after massive hit single. Sounding even better live than she could ever come across on record, Evans had me in a trance and didn’t let go until the show ended.

Her ability to gracefully overcome her inability to arrive at the venue on time (her private plane was grounded for two hours in Birmingham, Ala, where she lives) had an impatient audience ready and willing to forgive her and just get on with the show. With her raven locks in a tight pony-tail (the result of not having enough time for hair and makeup), she playfully engaged the crowd and exuded likeability rare among entertainers of her stature.

When the band launched into her opening number, a peculiar thing happened to me. I didn’t recognize the song or even the opening verse as she started singing, yet I knew every word, and obviously knew the song. For some unknown reason, I just couldn’t place it. The song was in fact “As If” the only hit single to stem from her 2007 Greatest Hits package. She followed it up with her top 5 hit “Perfect” and then launched into her signature song “Born to Fly,” which I fully expected her to leave until the encore.

On “Cheatin’” Evans brought the already biting lyrics to new heights. When singing the opening, “you say you’re everyday/is a bad dream that keeps repeating,” she slowed it down even further than on the album track and dug twice as deep with her twang, revealing nuances in her vocal ability I hadn’t heard before. Her band smartly gave her room to breathe during the opening and hinder the audience’s enjoyment of her vocal.

Evans than span her entire career with renditions of “I Keep Looking,” which she dedicated to all the women in the audience, and “Coalmine” which she dedicated to all the men. The country/bluegrass shuffle of “Coalmine” was a welcomed surprise although a tad puzzling. Only a minor hit when released as a single in 2006, it’s easily one of her lesser known songs to anyone who isn’t a diehard fan so I was left wondering about its inclusion in her set, although it made for a very entertaining moment and allowed Evans room to act playful with her band.

Midway though she explained her reasons for retreating from recording over the last few years, her now three-year marriage to football player Jay Barker, and the blending of their families, which together, makes up seven children. She joked that once the reality set in, she booked five years of non-stop touring. This led to the only talk of her new album Stronger and an explanation of her new single, a cover of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” a song she always loved, and wanted to turn into a country hit. Singing the fire out of it, it was difficult to see where the negative single reviews stemmed from. I happen to love this cover of the song, and really dig the vibe she was going for. Hearing the song live was the difference; the album track pails greatly in comparison.

Evans followed-up “My Heart Can’t Tell You No” with her most-recent #1 “A Little Bit Stronger,” a song she found at the end of the recording sessions for Stronger and new she just had to record. It easily got the biggest rise out of the audience and it was clear to me, judging from crowd reaction, why the song became such an anthem.

Following the only talk of her most recent album, Evans told a story about growing up on a working farm in Missouri. She talked about the culture of where she came from, where you’d date boys in pick-up trucks and if the parents disapproved, it only made you love them more. I knew instantly where she was going with this, and I was right. It all led to “Suds In The Bucket,” her 2004 #1 smash.

Songs like “Bucket” and “Coalmine” were moments where Evans and her band could interact playfully. With “Bucket,” each member of her band raised a foot in the air, to signal the whole barefoot aspect of the song. Being at a venue that intimate and sitting so close to the stage, you’re able to enjoy little moments that get lost when an artist is playing for huge crowds.

Just when I thought there wasn’t anything else left to sing, they launched into another #1, “Real Fine Place To Start.” At the beginning of that song, it hit me just how many hit singles she’s had. She’d been on hiatus so long, I’d forgotten about all the great music she’s released over the years.

After “Start” Evans proved a slight benefit to having private plane issues. Instead of leaving the stage and coming back for an encore, she had the audience ask her for one without loosing anymore time. The funny thing is, it was during the “encore” where the night got most interesting.

Evans talked about how she’s always loved Tammy Wynette and when thinking about what classic song to put into her show only one came to mind. I fully expected her to sing “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” a track she contributed to the tribute album to Wynette in 1998. Instead she launched into a perfect cover of “Stand By Your Man.” I loved the classic country vibe and as usual, she sang the fire out of it. Only problem is, I couldn’t get Hillary Clinton’s comment from 60 Minutes out of my head. But of course, that didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the song.

Her second “encore” song was a bluegrass-y cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me.” I love how she made such an recognizable song country. In thinking back, it reminds of something Evans said when Bill Anderson interviewed her on the TNN show Opry Backstage in 1998 – no matter what, everything she sings is going to come out country. In the case, that proved very true.

As a diehard country fan, and a lover of Evans’s music, I had a hard time believing “I Want You To Want Me” was the end of the show. She left the stage, and I fully expected her to come back for one final encore. I didn’t believe the show was over until the lights came on and everyone filed out of the venue. I wanted her to come back because of one thing – Evans didn’t sing her breakthrough hit “No Place That Far!” I couldn’t understand why of all the songs in her catalog she would exclude her first #1, yet she sang a Cheap Trick cover and “Coalmine,” which bombed when it was released to radio.

But that oversight didn’t dampen my experience in the least. I came away from the show in love with Evans all over again. I still can’t believe she hasn’t won a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award yet. The ACM were smart enough to recognize her in 2004, but it’s about time the CMA follow suit. And she’s so much better live than she’ll ever be able to come off on record. If you haven’t seen her, and get a chance to, go. You will not be disappointed.

Her humor, which became overkill at times, was the biggest surprise for me. I’ve said it before in this review, but she really is playful and flirty on stage. I loved how loose she was. The great benefit of a concert at The Melody Tent was how the stage, like sister venue The South Shore Music Circus, spins. Evans made a joke that she had to stay inside the stage in order to keep spinning. Since if you don’t, you end up playing to one section of the audience too much.

Which wasn’t an issue for opening act Jake Hill, a local musician who’s recently gotten exposure from Almost Famous, a new local music show on 95.9 WATD, the radio station I intern at. He was able to play the stage and the crowd. This was my second time to see him perform in this setting, he opened for Huey Lewis and The News last summer.

While he performed a solid set, I wasn’t blown over by his music because it isn’t my style. He isn’t a country singer, but that doesn’t matter. He just isn’t the type of singer I like for long periods of time. But that’s me and no reflection on his set, which was very good.

In a lot of ways he reminded me of both a singer-songwriter  from Texas and Delbert McClinton. That’s the best way I can describe him. Hill’s best song came at the end ofhis set when he covered Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbi McGee.” He did such a great job and even had Kistofferson’s almost-drunken wayward singing abilities down. It was the highlight of his set and a great kickoff to a memorable evening.

Concert Review – Martina McBride at the South Shore Music Circus

August 25, 2011

For the first time in eleven years, Martina McBride held residence at the South Shore Music Circus, an in-the-round concert tent complete with a rotating stage, for two shows Aug 6-7. Judging by the sold out crowd, the fans were as happy to see McBride as she was to be back in Cohasset, Ma. This show marked my annual trip back to the venue (a mere fifteen minutes from my house), and my first time seeing her from front-row seats.

During the set she ran through most of her beloved hits. Sitting so close to the stage, I was privy to her set list, so I knew what she was going to sing before she walked on stage. Neither good nor bad, it took away that element of surprise I often look forward to at a concert. It kind of ruins it for me to know what’s going to be sung in advance, but it didn’t dampen my appreciation for the night.

She opened with a brand-new song, “One Night” which will appear on her upcoming album Eleven. An up-tempo tune, it continued down the path set by “Teenage Daughters” of showing off a fun more relaxed side of the singer. Without skipping a beat she ran through other up-tempo hits including “My Baby Loves Me,” “Wild Angles,” and “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues.” It was nice to see her spanning her whole career and not just her hits post-millennium.

The night’s first ballad was the recently-debated “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” a story about a woman battling cancer. I was most anticipating this song because I wanted to hear for myself if it really was as prodding and lifetime movie-esque as people have made it out to be. Hearing her talk about she knew she had to record the song the moment she heard it, put it in a new light for me. It’ll never be among my favorite of her singles, but it isn’t as god-awful as everyone makes it out to be. As always, she gave it a very passionate performance.

For the remainder of the evening she mixed her biggest hits with well-chosen covers. What struck me about the set was the balance of up-tempos and power ballads. I really enjoyed how she didn’t lean too heavy on one area of her catalog but covered all her bases. Of course, though, it was the ballads that got the strongest reaction from the crowd. She received long standing ovations after performing “Anyway,” “Where Would You Be,” and “A Broken Wing,” which she sang with all the gusto in her body. I enjoyed how she would give the crowd time to applaud before signaling to her band to launch into the next song. Being so close to the stage, you’re able to see, and appreciate, all the little nuances of the performance.

But the highlight of her set was her cover of Kris Kirstofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” She quieted down the arrangement and let the steel guitar player do his magic. As with her studio recording from Timeless, she uses this song as an exercise in restraint, rarely singing above a whisper. I loved hearing how simple the song came off. In giving the song room to breathe, she let the quiet moments shine through.

The other cover, Bill Wither’s 70s classic “Lean On Me” was well-sung and had the crowd singing along, but seemed an odd choice. I loved her take on the song and enjoyed the opening bluesy steel riff. Her steel guitar player seemed to play on and on for well over a minute and a half, whipping the audience into a tizzy.

I love how McBride relinquished the opening verse of the song to her younger brother who’s the lead guitar player in her band. It added another dimension to the night. Of all the songs, “Lean On Me” was easily the one sung along to the most. Everyone knows it from either hearing it on the radio or from their childhoods. I loved she chose to cover the tune, but wondered, if she hadn’t, which of her own hits she would’ve sung instead.

The biggest surprise of the night was the medley of “Love’s The Only House” and “Blessed.” In a reflective sense, those two songs go together really well. You have the social commentary of “House” mixed with the I’m doing alright nature of “Blessed.” Almost like, there’s a lot of downtrodden people in the world but my life is pretty well on track. McBride nicely opened the medley by playing the harmonica bit herself.

Following “House/Blessed” she went on to close the show with “This One’s For The Girls” and “Independence Day.” She sang “Over The Rainbow” as the encore, a cover I’d first heard her sing at the same venue eleven years earlier. It really is true, you can never grow tired of hearing that one.

In the end, it was an excellent show that brought up my appreciation of McBride and her music. I’ve been thinking a lot about her since and am really looking forward to the new album in October. I only wish the acoustics weren’t so loud, but it didn’t dampen my experience in the least.

Following the show, McBride sent out this Tweet: “Tonite’s show in Cohasset was amazing!U guys rocked! Loved it! Now on the bus.Have John and all 3 girls w/me. #3dayvacationofficiallystarted.” I LOVE modern technology!

The biggest surprise of the night was the opening act, Blaine Larsen.

Discovered by Joey + Rory’s Rory Lee Feek when he was just a young teenager, he’s 25 now, Larsen used just a guitar and a stool to  come off extremely likable, and inject more personality into his performance than any other opening act I’ve seen in recent memory.

And while his style is very similar to that of Chris Young, Scotty McCreery, and any other deep voiced male country singer, he was able to distinguish himself from that pack with his mix of both serious and playful songs.

He ran through a few of his singles including “I Don’t Know What She Said” and “Chillin.”  He left not a dry eye in the room with his only top 20 hit “How Do You Get That Lonely,” and played the “songwriter’s version” of George Strait’s “I Gotta Get To You” which he co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale and Jimmy Richie. But it was his excellent cover of Merle Haggard’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” that proved his talent. Anyone who can come up to snuff with a Haggard cover, is worth a lot in my book.

And even though I’m not to familiar with it, I would’ve liked him to sing his debut single, “Back In My High School,” only because it was the song that first got the attention of the industry and allowed “Lonely” to go top 20. But nonetheless, he should be a big star, but given that there’s much competition from others who sing just like him, and the fact he didn’t have American Idol or Nashville Star to gain exposure, that seems unlikely. But that doesn’t diminish his talent.

Hits not withstanding, and if his songwriting career keeps picking up, Larsen proved in one 30 minute set, that he really is going places.

Album Review: The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings Volume 1

April 17, 2011

Various Artists

The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings 

* * *  

In the liner notes for the album, and in form of a letter to her late husband, Jessi Colter writes: “I think you’d say, “you done good hoss!” and to the artists “It’s supposed to be this way.” And rightfully so because Jennings would be more than proud with the execution of volume one in this three part celebration of his music and legacy, coming nine years after his death. It gathers the best of the new (Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Sunny Sweeney, James Otto) and old (Kris Kristofferson, Alabama, John Hiatt, Patty Griffin) to pay tribute to one of country music’s original outlaws.

It’s fitting that the record would begin with a cut by Johnson – the best voyeur into Jennings’s legacy in modern country. On That Lonesome Song he paid tribute by cutting “Dreaming My Dreams” and “The Door Is Always Open” and perfectly captured Jennings’s energy and charm on the album’s title song. Here, he wraps his distinctive baritone around “This Time,” Jennings’s first number one hit from 1974. While it lacks the punch of his other tributes to the outlaw, it’s well sung and smartly executed. There is little doubt that Johnson has found his lane, if anyone was meant to sing classic country music it’s him.

As much as Johnson is celebrated for his associations with Jennings’s music, The Music Inside gained attention for another track – “Are You Sure Hank Done It That Way” which preceded the project as the first single. The track reunites the members of Alabama and marks the first time they’ve recorded together in nine years. Radio largely ignored the tune, which is a shame because it’s message, that Hank Williams Sr wouldn’t make country music the way it’s made in modern times, is as relevant today as it was when the song first charted in 1975. While they do a competent job with the song, it lacks the punch of their esteemed recordings. It’s softer and doesn’t hit as hard as their classic songs from the 80s and 90s, which could be do to their advancing age. Randy, Teddy, and Jeff are looking very worn these days. But in any event, it’s great to hear them again, if only on one song on a tribute album.

But the whole album isn’t artists that could’ve punched harder. When women come to play, they add the spunk needed to elevate the mostly even tempo set. Proving she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite female singers on the charts today, Sweeney adds a fire to her duet of “Good Hearted Woman” with Colter. I had reservations about two women taking on the Willie and Waylon classic, but they pulled it off brilliantly. If you’re going to purchase the album for only one track let it be this one – it’s well worth it. With her solo hits “From a Table Away” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” and this duet, Sweeney is establishing herself as a force in modern country to be reckoned with. She’s more than a fine vocalist who’s pioneering a new neo traditionalist meets modernism sound.

Griffin is the other welcomed female singer on this album. She has the catch-22 of being paired with Kristofferson, country’s legendarily poor vocalist. She shines next to him, which isn’t exactly hard, but also has to hold up the song on her own since he fails to do so himself. But she’s also the record’s biggest surprise. I know her more for her songwriting contributions to Dixie Chicks’ Fly and Home albums and have never listened to her sing before. Griffin is a fine vocalist in her own right and more than commands the spotlight.

Another artist with the vocal ability to bridge the gap between tradition and modernism is Houser. His stripped down country/blues rendering of “I’m A Ramblin’ Man” is far and away the best vocal on the whole album. I’m wondering if Houser knows the excellence he implements here. His is a voice suited for these kinds of songs and not the southern rock he often releases to country radio. When he gets the vocal and production right, it can be so powerful that it takes me aback. He may be the finest male vocalist in the genre today and this is another step in his acceleration to greatness.

Overall The Music Inside is a fine surprise. I wasn’t expecting it to be nearly good as I found it to be. Every cut is a stellar tribute to one of the most influential men in country music history. Colter has done a great job at honoring her late husband’s legacy while giving fans a worthwhile and enjoyable listen filled with a few gems. Volumes 2 and 3 are coming later in the year, and if they hold up to this initial offering, than this could be an essential listen and a look inside a man worth remembering, and celebrating for decades to come.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.