Posts Tagged ‘Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’

EP Review: J.P. Harris (with Nikki Lane, Kristina Murray, Kelsey Waldon and Leigh Nash) – ‘Why Don’t We Duet In The Road’

March 7, 2017

J.P. Harris

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Why Don’t We Duet In The Road

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J.P. Harris, whose sound is described as ‘booming hippie-friendly honky-tonk,’ found the inspiration for Why Don’t We Duet In The Road in the collaborative spirit of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The EP finds Harris covering iconic duets with some of Nashville’s most innovate female singer/songwriters, in an effort to bottle his experiences in Music City with a record aimed at prosperity over commercial viability.

Harris hunkered down in Ronnie Milsap’s former studio to record the four-track album, which he self-produced in a single six-hour session. What resulted is rough around the edges, fueled by twangy guitars and a gorgeous interpretation of outlaw country.

No one better exemplifies the modern outlaw spirit than Nikki Lane, who burst onto the scene in 2011 blending rockabilly and honky-tonk. She teams with Harris on “You’re The Reason Our Kids are Ugly,” which finds the pair embodying the spirit of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s 1978 original. Harris’ choice of Lane to accompany him is a smart one. You can hear her ballsy grit as she uses her smoky alto to channel Lynn’s feisty spirit without sacrificing her distinct personality.

The least familiar of Harris’ collaborators is likely Americana darling Kristina Murray, who joins him for an excellent reading of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring.” The pair is brilliant together, with Murray emerging as a revelation with her effortless mix of ease and approachability. I quite enjoyed the arrangement, too, which has the perfectly imperfect feel of a band completely in sync with one another.

Harris is the star on “If I Was A Carpenter,” which finds him with the criminally underrated Kelsey Waldon. Her quiet assertiveness, which could’ve used a touch more bravado, is, unfortunately, no match for his buttery vocal. Waldon’s contributions are by no means slight; he’s just magnetic.

The final selection, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s “Better Move It On Home,” finds Harris with the most recognizable vocalist of the bunch, Leigh Nash. She’s best known as the lead singer of Sixpence None The Richer, the band that hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the iconic “Kiss Me” in 1998. She’s since gone on to a solo career, which includes a country album released in September 2015. She taps into that grit here, and erases any notion of her pop sensibilities, but proves she doesn’t quite measure up to Parton on the 1971 original. The pair had an uphill battle ahead of them from the onset and they didn’t quite deliver.

That being said Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is a fantastic extended play highlighting five uniquely talented vocalists. If country artists continue to churn out releases of this high a quality than 2017 is going to be a very good year, indeed.

Grade: A 

NOTE: Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is offered as a random colored double 7” limited to 500 copies, which as of press time are about halfway to sold out. Rolling Stone Country also has the tracks accessible for streaming, which I highly recommend. The EP is also available on iTunes as of January 6.

Album Review: Miranda Lambert: “Platinum”

June 12, 2014

Miranda Lambert

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Platinum

* * * * 1/2

Midway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came Fromnine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, butPlatinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Concert Review – Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples at the Cape Cod Melody Tent

July 1, 2012

On a crisp and breezy summer night in late June, Bonnie Raitt, still a fine singer at 62, closed the current leg of her tour  in Hyannis, MA at the Cape Cod Melody Tent. Throughout the excellent show, Raitt spent ample time slinking her way through songs both old and new, recognizable hits and ones that should be from her excellent new CD Slipstream.

She kicked off the evening working the crowd in to the feel good groove of “Used To Rule The World,” the opening cut on the new album, before launching into the reggae mood of “Right Down The Line,” her excellent cover of the Gerry Rafferty song.

The night quickly became a showcase for the new music, some of the blueiest of Raitt’s career, and her first new music in seven years. In addition to the opening numbers, Raitt performed a beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles,” Joe Henry’s “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” and “Marriage Made In Hollywood,” co-written by her ex-husband Michael O’Keefe.

The highlight of the new music was “Not Cause I Wanted To,” co-wrriten by country songwriter Al Anderson. A pensive ballad, the crowd became transfixed on Raitt’s emotive vocal. The tasteful and quiet arrangement helped too, as it gave the song appropriate room to breathe. A classic in the making, it was a show-stopping moment, and proof there are artists out there still willing to bring quality songs to their fans.

Raitt also turned back the clock to her iconic classics, turning in fine versions of “Something To Talk About,” “Love’s Sneaking Up On You,” and John Hiatt’s  “Thing Called Love,” complete with her usual energy and gusto. And with the mark of an acute songstress, they all sounded as good as they did more than twenty years ago, if not better. (The only hit she didn’t sing was “Nick of Time”).

Having never seen Raitt live before, I was unaware of her easy going nature and sense of humor. Between songs she spoke lovingly of the memories she has of being a little girl, peaking down the aisles of the very tent she was performing in (although, as she noted, it’s been moved just slightly from its original location).

Raitt came of age in Massachusetts, getting her start as a musician in Cambridge, the city bordering Boston. She didn’t talk about her Cambridge connection, but through memories with her father, her love of Massachusetts became very clear. She was even able to visit Martha’s Vineyard  during this brief stay.

She also made sure to interact with the audience, even remarking at a fan’s sign requesting a couple of songs. She was amazed at this person’s level of Raitt knowledge, requesting two songs she deemed “obscure” (she never said what they were), quipping that she wished she still knew them.

At another point, during the encore, Raitt became somewhat political, taking a stance against the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant (in nearby Plymouth, MA), advocating for it’s permanent closer. A very hot-button issue (the workers have recently been on strike), it got the crowd going and forced security to evict someone. This semi-rant led into her Nick of Time hit “Have A Heart,” and was supposed to infuse the song with added power.

I’m not one for artists using their platform to spiel political discourse, and in the post-Maines era, it’s proven not to be a smart move. But it hardly took away from the  music-centric evening. Raitt often proved a mutual admiration society with her band, some of whom had been with her for more than 20 years.

One of the newest additions is noted keyboardist Mike Finnigan, known for his work with Jimi Hendrix, Manhattan Transfer, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Raitt paused long enough to give Finnigan a solo number, the deepest slice of authentic blues heard all evening.

Moments like this gave Raitt a chance to display her guitar prowess, an underrated talent in the music world. Throughout the evening she switched between many guitars, both acoustic and electric. Her playing abilities were as intoxicating as her singing, and together proved an ultimate package.

The aforementioned encore proved another highlight as Raitt brought out her secret weapon (and only guitar-less number), “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” A song deeply engrained within us, Raitt infused it with new meaning by slowing it down even further, thus letting the emotion sink in. She closed with a spirited Elvis Presley cover.

Staples, the opening act, got the party rolling with her throaty mix of Gospel and southern preaching. Like a female God, she emoted from the deepest fibers of her soul when talking about the Civil Rights Movement and marches from Montgomery to Selma through chants of “I will not turn around!”

Her somewhat lengthy (for this venue, which has a noise curfew) hour long set also included a lovely tribute to Levon Helm and a showcase of her siblings, the Staples Singers (Cleeotha, Pervis, and Yvonne). While not as famous, they proved just as good  and accompanied Mavis all evening.

But the highlight of her set came when Raitt made a surprise appearance, joining Staples on stage for a cover I wasn’t expecting to hear – The Carter Family / Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classic “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Unaware of its connection to the Staples Singers, this came as a shock out of nowhere, yet was one of the night’s most enjoyable moments.

Overall, it was fabulous night of entertainment from two extremely classy individuals who seem better with age.  It also didn’t hurt that the sold out show was filled with music lovers (mostly the Baby Boomer generation), not young adults looking to drink beer and raise a Red Solo Cup. Being surrounded by people who not only appreciated but understood good music turned an ordinary evening into something very special.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – it’s often a curse, growing up with two in the round theaters practically in your backyard. The intimacy of the performances is easily unmatched when placed on bigger stages in the Boston. The closeness between singer and fan can’t be found most other places, and I’m grateful to have grown up with The Cape Cod Melody Tent and South Shore Music Circus playing a critical role in my musical education. And, of course, for making nights like this a reality.