The Zombies’ Odyssey 50 Years On

For Rod Argent and The Zombies, deciding to play their final album as a band, the pop psychedelic masterpiece, “Odessey and the Oracle,” live for the first time required more than getting together a group that had not performed in decades.

It required a Victorian-era pump organ.

When Argent and Chris White, the two writers in the short-lived Sixties British band committed to doing the album live, they decided not to compromise. After all, the band never had a chance to play “Odessey and Oracle” following its release in 1967. They broke up before the album was released (delayed in the U.S. until Al Kooper convinced Clive Davis to issue it. More on that later).

So they decided to replicate its 12 tunes note for note. That meant finding a pump organ for “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” a Pink Floyd meets The Beatles deep track about the horrors of war.

Luckily for them, they found one not 15 miles from Argent’s home in Bedfordshire, “one of the very few Victorian pump organs around for sale in the whole country,” Argent says. It had to be stripped of a century of dust, cleaned and put back together.

The organ and the album debuted live during a 2008 London concert. A one-night stand turned into three. “All sorts of people turned up,” Argent says by phone. “Robert Plant. Paul Weller, who was there all three nights. Snow Patrol. I can’t remember everyone who was there. It was hugely successful.”

Now, 50 years after they released the enduring classic, “Odessey and Oracle” (the title was misspelled by the cover artist), they are on a tour of the United States with a sprawling band recreating the album that contains their biggest hit, “Time of the Season.” (Plenty of Americans saw groups named The Zombies playing that tune in 1968, but they were imposters. More on that later).

They come to Virginia Beach’s Sandler Center for Performing Arts on March 21.

The genesis of the tour was a few gigs in 2000 when Argent got together with White. At first, they didn’t play Zombies tunes. “Very, very gradually we started to realize there was a whole bunch of (Zombies) material we’d never played live and we started including it for fun and very gradually became more serious about putting something more prominent together,” he says.

White broached the idea of playing the resurrected classic. “He said do you realize in 40 years we’ve never played “Odessey and Oracle” live on stage in its entirety? Why don’t we do it?” Argent recalls. “I said, ‘How do we do it?’ ”
The answer was to take their current touring band, add the rest of the living members of The Zombies including Colin Blunstone and drummer Hugh Grundy and a secret weapon, Darian Sahanaja, an arranger for Brian Wilson and member of The Wondermints who could play the Mellotron parts. The final piece was Chris White’s wife, Vivian Boucherat, who adds the high harmonies.

“We decided if we were going to do it at all, we were going to do it by reproducing every single note on the original, ” adds Argent, who went on to form the group, Argent, after the Zombies and have hits with “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” “We needed all those musical lines and the extra harmonies we’d overdubbed to really make some of the tracks come alive.”

That the album was made in the first place is another story. By 1967, The Zombies had not had a hit in Great Britain for too long. Live gigs in those days, Argent notes, were paid based on your chart position. They’d scored a hit with “She’s Not There” at home, literally the third song Argent wrote in his life. But that was it.

“In those days, we were very much more based out of the country of origin,” he says. “We had done some States tours, but we were very much based in the UK. We found out later that we usually had a hit somewhere in the world, but we didn’t know this at the time. “

White and Argent, the writers, had a steady stream of income from publishers, but the three other guys in the band were struggling. “We were lucky enough to have very honest publishers. We didn’t have to search around for money. We were pretty well off, actually,” Argent says. “But the rest of the band didn’t have a penny to dress themselves with by the time we broke up.”

They also weren’t happy with the sound of their records. They wanted a fuller sound, no doubt influenced by The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” and the experimentation of The Beatles at the time. Argent’s roots go deep into classical music growing up. Then he discovered rock, especially Elvis Presley, introduced to him by Jim Rodford, a neighbor down the street who would go on to play with The Kinks. Rock and roll got him into R&B and then a long exploration into the jazz of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane. He says he was “very knocked out” when Pat Metheny mentioned his admiration for “She’s Not There.”

With their popularity waning, CBS in the UK offered them only 1,000 pounds to record the album. They walked into Abbey Road Studios just after The Beatles walked out following the recording of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Fresh in Argent’s mind were the bass lines of “Pet Sounds,” and the singles “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “Sgt. Pepper” would not be released until they’d finished.

“Lennon left his Mellotron lying around and we pounced on that,” Argent says. “We had a ball recording that album. We had a very limited budget so over several months it was basically one session of three hours or two sessions of three hours at most to create each track.”

The last song they recorded, their last song in the studio, was “Time of the Season.” Argent got the inspiration for the title because he misheard the lyrics to Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” as “it’s the time of the season to trace the tracks of my tears,” which he blames on scratchy AM radio. Most of the song was written in a day. He finished the final words in the studio as the rest of the band chilled in a pub waiting to record.

When they returned, he wanted Blunstone to sing lead. It took more than a few takes and some verbal sparring before he nailed the phrasing Argent wanted. “I remember saying to Chris White I think this could be a big hit, but no one else shared my feeling,” he recalls.

For the first time on “Odessey,” they used multi-tracking, which allowed for overdubs of piano, Mellotron, guitar or harmonies. “We were very proud of the album when we finished. We thought it was the best thing we could do,” he adds. “It was how we wanted to sound.”

It was released in the UK to an ignoring audience.

Al Kooper, the keyboardist and member of Blood, Sweat and Tears, was a house producer for CBS in America at the time. He heard the album on a trip to Britain and bought 200 copies to take back to New York. Kooper told Davis he had to find out who had the rights, secure them and release the album in the U.S.

The rights weren’t a problem, Davis said. CBS in the U.S. owned them. But he’d already passed on the album. Kooper persisted, the album was released in the U.S. and became a hit — eventually (more on that s

oon). “We certainly keep in touch with Al,” Argent says laughing. “Our gratitude is unbounded.”

The first two singles flopped. Then came “Time of the Season.” “Nobody played it, but one DJ in Boise, Idaho, picked up on it,” he says. Over six months, the song slowly rippled out from there, rising on the charts to become a number one in nearly every country — except the UK, Argent notes.

The Zombies were offered a million dollars to tour. But Argent was moving forward with his own band with White as producer. Blunstone became a solo act. Guitarist Paul Atkinson became an A&R man. Grundy eventually left music all together.

The band that was no more had a hit. Crafty promoters solved that problem, creating fake Zombies who met the demand for “Time of the Season.” Years later, Argent learned one of those groups, born in Texas, featured a couple of guys named Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. They’d later go on to be two-thirds of a little band named ZZ Top.

The album struggled along, not earning many sales or much acclaim until years later when it became a cult disc that’s a staple of record stores, especially on vinyl. “To my complete astonishment, it has had a long life and is sells more every year than when it first came out,” Argent says.

The Zombies are on one last tour, a tour of the U.S. playing “Odessey” based on the success of those UK shows. There was just one problem. The pump organ, that huge pump organ, could not go on the road.

So they went looking for another one, one that was portable. They found a World War I era pump organ that was used to play for the troops, a perfect ending.

“That’s even more appropriate because the song we use it for is Chris White’s “Butcher’s Tale,” based on the world war,” Argent says.

For The Zombies, the odyssey had a happy ending. It just took time.

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One Soulful Assembly: Four Friends on Stage

luther2Luther Dickinson says there’s no telling what will happen on stage with the Southern Soul Assembly, the intimate gang of buddies Anders Osborne, Marc Broussard, JJ Grey and himself.

“The funny thing is, it’s truly an adventure, a gig where you may think you know what you’re going to play but what the cats before you play might completely be a game changer. Sometimes you got to keep the mood. Sometimes you got to break the mood. Sometimes themes develop where we’ll each do a song about our grandmothers or a song about our family or a song about death. It’s really fun. It’s an amazing group of fellows.”

Those fellows first got together in 2014 at the invitation of Grey. For Dickinson, it’s an opportunity he embraces.

He plays plenty of loud rock and roll as a self-professed psychedelic folk rocker and member of The North Mississippi Allstars. He says you can’t expect rock audiences to be quiet. At Southern Soul Assembly shows, that’s just what they do.

“It’s totally a dream come true for me,” he adds during a Friday afternoon call. “I love intimate, seated and acoustic performances. As a songwriter and folk musician, I just love it.”

The four friends bring their show to The Sandler Center for Performing Arts on Wednesday, March 15 as part of a month-long tour. For Dickinson, it’s a rare chance to hang out with other songwriters on the road. “A month in close quarters with three guys with similar experience is really inspiring and educational,” he says. “We talk about strategies and ideas and brainstorm.”

One night, you might hear Osborne debut a new song. You’ll certainly hear a few stories. With Osborne and Broussard you get two different sides of the New Orleans sound, bluesy and soulful. Dickinson brings that broad Memphis influence. And Grey lends his soul, funk, blues amalgam via Jacksonville, Florida.

They rehearse — at sound check. That’s it. “The shows are so unpredictable we usually never play what we rehearse,” he adds.

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The guys don’t just swap songs. They support each other. Grey will play some harmonica. Osborne lends his signature guitar parts. Dickinson might pick up a bass or mandolin.

He also admits that sometimes it’s a little intimidating. “There’s some really strong songwriting going on. Some really strong singing going on,” he says. “Sometimes I just have to resort to playing my guitar.”

Playing guitar is something he’s done since he was a child, first lending his tone playing on The Replacements “Pleased to Meet Me” as a 14-year-old.

He’s better known as the singer and guitarist in North Mississippi Allstars who grew up in Memphis and later in the hill country south of town as the son of legendary producer and pianist Jim Dickinson,

He and his brother, drummer Cody Dickinson, are part of North Mississippi Allstars. They grew up in the blues lands of Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. But they also were part of that Memphis rock sound of the 1960s.

Their father, who died in 2009, released solo records and played with bands backing Aretha Franklin, Dion, Sam & Dave, Jerry Jeff Walker and others. He famously played piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and later produced artists as varied as Big Star, Toots and the Maytals, The Replacements, Willy DeVille and others.

Luther says his most recent album, the stripped-down “Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II,” and the fun of their original 2014 tour fed off each other. Since his father died, he notes that his solo career has largely focused on acoustic playing. Indeed, “Blues & Ballads,” one of last year’s best records, opens sounding like a couple of players sitting on a front porch and moves over time into a late-night blues groove. It’s intimate, a record that makes you want to lean in.

“That record and those performances teach me that the more humbly and more honestly things are recorded or presented, the more they move people,” he says. “We’re making roots music of one sort or another. Over production in the recording studio or live can be detrimental to the visceral, emotional response.”

That’s exactly opposite from the way his father made records. “He was an expert at colorful production, heavy-handed. Each song had its own identity,” Dickinson notes.

For Dickinson, things changed thanks to conversations with Buddy Miller, the Nashville songwriter and producer. Miller told him he did not overdub. “Get everybody in the room and record in the moment,” he told Dickinson. “If you need singers, call and wait. Tune up the banjo. Wait for the horns. Get everybody together. For the singer, that’s the commitment.”

He notes that recording budgets today are so tiny, you have to make records fast. “The market demands the records be honest and made quickly and the people who still like records seem to like that kind of recording,” he adds.

Dickinson calls himself a descendant of the second generation of Memphis, the rock and roll Memphis sound. “Rock and roll, that’s where I start,” he says, adding that he grew up on Delta Blues and Chicago blues.

Like his father, Dickinson has played with a wide array of artists including The Black Crowes, John Hiatt and The South Memphis String Band.

He demurs when asked how those experiences have shaped his sound. “The funny thing is I play different with Mavis (Staples who sings on his recent disc) than I play with (Charlie) Musselwhite than I play with Hiatt,” he says. “I’m all about supporting the vocals. I love playing guitar. I love playing rock and roll. You really need a transcendental vocalist to take it to another level. I love working with singers like that.”

Dickinson played with Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead last year and it left a lasting impression, one it sounds like he’ll bring to the Southern Soul Assembly shows.

“He is so in the moment. He just goes right to the vein. I think that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter what song you’re singing or where you are if you can just get inside the moment and ignite that spark, the room feels it. That’s what everybody really wants.”

 

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The Ever-Evolving Lucero Takes Another Turn

lucero2The story about alt country, alt soul, alt punk, alt genre Memphis band, Lucero, is that at the beginning it was the creation of an emo kid and a hardcore kid.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Ben Nichols was the emo kid. Guitarist Brian Venable, who’d barely learned his instrument when the band started, was the hardcore kid.

In the nearly 19 years since, the band has built a following on the backs of its live show and an ever-changing sounds from southern rock to soul to country. They have added keyboards and piano and then horns (“because everything from Stax soul to Rocket from the Crypt that we grew up on had horns”), then stepped away from the horns on their latest album.
They started out as a quartet, grew to nine on stage, and are now back to a band of five who will be at Shaka’s Live with Esme Patterson on Feb. 6.

“We learned that all of our sad bastard country songs when you put horns on them become sad bastard soul songs,” Venable says by phone from home before the band heads out for its first tour after a paternity leave for Nichols. “Johnny Cash turns into Al Green if you put horns on it.”

“That’s the beauty. We can do whatever we want,” he adds. “Whatever we do sounds like Lucero.”

luceroHe grew up that hardcore kid listening to Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys but at some point he started to rediscover other music. Lynyrd Skynyrd was pretty good, a band he overlooked. That sent him towards Jimmie Rodgers and soon he was on to the Carter Family and bluegrass and Townes van Zandt. He and Nichols love The Smithereens, Tom Petty and Huey Lewis and the News. Yes, that 80’s guy. There’s no longer a need for only the cool references for them.

“I love the Pogues. I love The Replacements. In the same breath I can listen to Huey Lewis “Sports” with just as much excitement,” he adds. “But it doesn’t have as many cool points, maybe.”

Last year, he says he spent six months listening only to classical music.

“The fun one (to ponder) is who’s the emo kid and who’s the hardcore kid now,” he says.

Both kids will be back on the road after playing only about 80 dates last year, about a third of the gigs during the band’s most barnstorming days.

Nichols had a child over the summer so they took a break. This winter it was drummer Roy Berry’s turn. Venable was happy for the break with his son, who’s eight. “This has been like a vacation,” he adds, “a well-deserved vacation.”

They slipped into Sam Phillips Studios in Memphis in January to “see what we got” and maybe record a few songs, probably Nichols’s “Loving” from the movie of the same name directed by his younger brother, Jeff, about the interracial Virginia couple prosecuted for marrying. “It might be an EP. It might just be…We don’t know,” he says. “We’re just knocking the rust off.”

Venable says there’s no telling whether fatherhood will change their songwriter’s writing. Then he pauses and notes that Nichols got married before the last disc and promptly wrote a song about it. “Ben’s always been a pretty literal songwriter,” he adds.

“All A Man Should Do,” their latest, was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with Ted Hutt on the knobs, their third collaboration with him and the studio. Venable remembers walking past the brick building with no windows for four years when he worked in a deli, not realizing its importance. Now, he does. Now, the band embraces being part of the Memphis canon. Jody Stephens of Big Star sang harmonies on the band’s cover of “Fell in Love with the Girl” on the last album.

“The older you get, the more involved you are, the more you meet these people,” he says. “At some point, Memphis defines us. You realize the heritage and want to become a part of it.”

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Scott McCaughey Knows Everybody

scottmccaughy550bIn the early 1980s, Scott McCaughey caught Alejandro Escovedo’s trailblazing cowpunk band, Rank and File, at the Rainbow Tavern in Seattle.

Four years later, his fledgling alt rock band, Young Fresh Fellows, opened for Los Lobos and True Believers, another Alejandro Escovedo project, and then hung out all night with them.

“That’s the way it works out,” McCaughey says in a phone interview. “You start to be friends with people. You love their music. You see each other and gradually you might get a chance to make music together. I don’t know how I fell into it (making music). I could have been sitting around working in a record store buying everybody’s records. Somehow, I got to be on them.”

Rather than buy everybody’s records, it seems McCaughey plays on everybody’s records.

Everybody from REM, where he was a band member for 18 years, to The Minus 5, his project with Peter Buck of REM and members of The Posies, to Baseball Project, his sporty jaunt with Buck and Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate, to Tweedy, where he played with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son. Then there is his work with M Ward, the Venus 3 with Robyn Hitchcock, Tired Pony with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, and Filthy Friends with Buck and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, Bill Rieflin (REM, Swans, King Crimson) and Kurt Bloch, an old Fresh Fellows fellow.

What makes him slip so easily into bands whether as a sideman or a front man? “I just love music and I love being the guy who sings his own songs — or shouts them,” he says. “I love being that guy in a band with Young Fresh Fellows. I love doing my own thing in Minus 5. I love being in other bands and playing great music.”

He runs through a list of performers he admires who are also friends and collaborators from Hitchcock to Tweedy to Buck to Mike Mills, another REM mate. “That’s just a dream come true for a rock and roll geek like I am. It’s never an ego thing with me. I feel so lucky that I have a life where I get to play music.”

One of his latest projects — and with McCaughey there is never just one latest project — brings him to Shaka’s Live in Virginia Beach on Jan. 17 backing Alejandro Escovedo and his new album. “Burn Something Beautiful.”

It promises to be another memorable night following Escovedo’s stunning sold-out house concert in Norfolk last November, his 2013 duo show at the Sandler Performing Arts Center, and his withering band rock show at the old Jewish Mother in Virginia Beach a few years earlier.

McCaughey and Buck will open the night with The Minus 5, then back up Escovedo as his band. That’s not unusual. McCaughey cracks that there have been nights he’s played with three bands, all with the same members, who played three sets of different songs under the names of three different projects.

McCaughey and Escovedo crossed paths notably playing eight shows on a run of the Midwest with Buck a few years ago Escovedo originally was going to play as a duo, but booked rehearsal space before the tour’s opener so both bands could work up a couple of songs for the encore. They ended up working up an entire set. “The very first night Al was like , ‘Why don’t you guys just play the whole set with me?’ “

But then at a sold-out show in Portland, Escovedo had a sort of attack or seizure and couldn’t take the stage. The rest of the tour was canceled — at the insistence of Buck, who had watched REM drummer Bill Berry fall into his arms onstage suffering a stroke — and the performers went on to other projects.

Escovedo recovered and cured the hepatitis C that nearly killed him with the new treatment following his last appearance in Norfolk. “He’s feeling better than he has in 20 years,” McCaughey says, “and he’s out there ready to play.”
On the day we talk, McCaughey is fresh from a taping of Austin City Limits with Escovedo and the band, which also includes Buck, Bloch, and John Moen of The Decemberists on drums.

While they played together, it wasn’t until the last year or so that they sat down to write together. Writing with others is not new for Escovedo. After decades doing little collaboration, he’s worked with partners in the last decade. His two previous albums were collaborations with Chuck Prophet.

But then Escovedo always has been something of a musical chameleon, successfully modeling one new skin after another. In liner notes to his 1993 album, “Gravity,” Joe Nick Patoski described him as cast in a number of roles: “wayward son of America’s first family of rhythm, nihilist San Francisco neo-bohemian, leather-clad New York punk rocker, denim-clad L.A. neo-cowboy, tough but sensitive captain of a guitar army from Texas, and, most recently, conductor of an ensemble large enough, eclectic enough, and professional enough to call itself an orchestra.”

When Buck, Escovedo, and McCaughey first got together to write, McCaughey wondered if it would work because he often writes alone. “I’m not really at that (writing together),” he says. “But I’m certainly willing to give it a try. I’m more of the guy who sits in the basement and comes up with depressing songs. I kind of clam up around other people in the creative process, but he really wanted to do it, so I said, ok, I’ll give it a try.”

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They did the lion’s work of the writing in Buck’s basement on the dozen cuts for the disc. “Every song was a little different,” McCaughey says. “There were some that just came out of nowhere. Al started playing a riff. Peter and I have notebooks lying around and we start singing something. There were some Al had completely shaped and we sort of helped tweak. And on a few songs Peter or I had something going already. All were in various shapes of creation or dishevelment. Some we each brought to the table. Others we created out of thin air. “

One song, originally titled “Who Am I” started with a riff and a few words from Escovedo before Buck and McCaughey added lines, a new verse and different chords. When Escovedo mentioned the line “suit of lights,” McCaughey said they had to get it on the song and the song took another turn. They continued writing right up until the recording when Hogan stepped in to sing the second verse for what became “Suit of Lights” on “Burn Something Beautiful.”
“I felt it was a real great three-way collaboration,” McCaughey says, “one of the first ones.”

A Buck tune, “I Don’t Ever Want to Play Guitar Again” had the music changed and lyrics added by McCaughey and Escovedo. “Redemption Blues” was something Escovedo had worked up in McCaughey’s basement. They wanted Mavis Staples to sing on it, but there wasn’t time.

“I think we got a good variety of sounds and types of songs on the record,” McCaughey says. “At first, I thought it was going to be a blazing rock album. It is to a degree, but a few more ballad-y type songs round it out pretty well.”
They booked studio time for ten days in April at Type Foundry, the Portland studio that McCaughey uses for band work. Moen joined them.

Hogan had been on tour with The Decemberists in Australia and heard about the project. “I love Al,” she told Moen. “If you need anybody to do vocals I’ll come on my own time.” They thought she’d be great on two or three songs. She sang on ten.

Tucker stopped by to play on a few songs. And Steve Berlin of Los Lobos scratched out time from his busy schedule to contribute to a couple. The guys who hung out together back that night in the mid-80s when Fresh Fellows played with True Believers and Los Lobos were making music together in the studio three decades later. As McCaughey says, you start a fan, become friends, and maybe one day make music together.

After his three-week run of dates with Escovedo, McCaughey will go on to play more shows with friends. He’ll join Buck, Wynn, and Wynn’s wife, Linda Pitmon, the drummer, in Japan for shows with the Baseball Project, the Minus 5 and with Buck and Mike Mills. Then it’s on to Norway. “We’re really lucky to have this whole community of people. We’re all best friends. It’s an amazing thing,” he says. “There’s never a shortage of ideas and projects we want to do next.”
When he writes, obviously the Baseball Project songs center around one subject. But what about the others? Does he begin with a band or collaborators in mind?

“Sometimes I do. For some, I know this is a Fellows song,” he says. “But lots of time I just write songs, a whole bunch of them.”

He pauses. Depending on the next project, he says he may steer some tunes to one group or another. The Minus 5 tends to get the rockers. The slow, dismal psychedelic folk songs find other homes. “Only one one every (Minus 5) record,” he says. “We like to rock.”

“The short answer,” he concludes, “is I write them and I don’t know where they’re going to to until I figure it out later.”
He confesses to being thrilled one of his co-writes, “Taste the Ceiling,” ended up on Wilco’s “Star Wars” disc. “Jeff (Tweedy) is one of my favorite people, one of my best friends. I’m a huge fan of his music as well. I love hanging out with Jeff and spending time in The Loft (Tweedy’s Chicago base). There’s everything there a guy like me could want. A recording studio. Every kind of guitar you could want. Every kind of keyboard. Cool books. It’s just such a fun place.”
He recalls playing in the area, but says it’s been a long time. “I played in Norfolk. I’ve been there a few times with the Fellows. I think we played…is it the Kings Head?”

He’s told the legendary club is long gone. But the memory remains, static in a concert shot he covets.

“I’ve got a poster we made,” he says, “a live shot of us playing at the Kings Head.”


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My Favorite Music of 2016

This was a terrible year for music with the deaths of so many icons. But the material coming out of studios was the best it’s been in years. My list of favorites is as varied as I can remember.

Here are the albums that enchanted me the most this year, a list longer than usual because so many were worthy.

“American Band” — Drive-by Truckers.
I was a little late to embrace this band, but I’ve gone back and rectified that. This outspoken political statement is my favorite work of these sons of the South. “What It Means” is the song of the year. The album brilliantly explores the rural/urban divide in America. It features one lyrical op-ed after another from “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” through “Guns of Umpqua” and on to “Kinky Hypocrite.” An important album that will endure, especially over the next four years.

 

“Blues and Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook)” — Luther Dickinson.
Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi All-Stars, steps out with his second solo disc that sounds like a long night on a wrap-around porch. It opens with a series of catchy folks songs then shifts midway through with the Mavis Staples duet, “Ain’t No Grave,” into after-a-few bourbon down and dirty blues.

 

“Undercurrent” — Sarah Jarosz.

Jarosz is a prodigy, a superb player whose songwriting seemed on the cusp with her first two releases. This, her third, is a breakthrough. Her writing finally matches her incredible playing and singing.

 

“Dori Freeman” — Dori Freeman.

This is the aching, seep-into-your soul stirrings of a daughter of Galax and Appalachia. Her story — sending a song to Teddy Thompson and him offering to produce this record — is a fairytale. The songs manage to be both vulnerable and strong. And that voice, oh, that voice.

 

“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” — Margo Price.

What a disc. Passionate, smart, and traditional yet somehow modern. The writing is smart, observant and topped only by her singing. She’s Patsy Cline and Lucinda Williams and every great country singer in between. She’s a fine storyteller. Listen to “Hands of Time,” “Four Years of Chances,” and “Since You Put Me Down.” In the latter, she writes “I killed the angle on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams when I found out you were never coming home.”

 

“My Woman” — Angel Olsen.
That voice. It whispers, wavers, cracks, howls and is unapologetically provocative. It’s Patti Smith, Nico, and Chrissie Hynde for a new day. “At your worst I still believe it’s worth the fight,” she sings on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the album’s catchiest declaration.

 

“Cradle to the Grave” — Squeeze.
What a surprise. Tilbrook and Difford back together after so many years and as good as ever. From the title track on through these come close to the band at its ’80s best.

 

“Paging Mr. Proust” — The Jayhawks.
Speaking of bands returning to form with an altered lineup, “Paging Mr. Proust” both looks back to the best of The Jayhawks, but also pushes into new territory. “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces,” with those marvelous harmonies, and “Lies in Back and White” could slide easily into any of their classic discs while the psychedelic groove of “Ace” is a different direction.

 

“This Is Where I Live” — William Bell.

William Bell was a supporting player in the Stax cast (“Never Like This Before” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which he wrote). Now, he returns at 77 with a classic soul album produced by John Leventhal, aka Mr. Rosanne Cash. From the opening “The Three of Me” on through “Walking on a Tightrope” to the Curtis Mayfield-inspired “People Want to Go Home” this is sweet soul music.

 

“Sea of Noise” — St. Paul and the Broken Bones

The lyrics take a serious turn, but the band’s playing is as tight and rambunctious as ever. Moreover, the disc moves them past the revivalist stage into new territory, both catchy and challenging.

 

“case, lang, veirs” — case, lang, veirs.
This super-group album of Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs is a mesmerizing mix of incredible harmonies (natch) and enchanting songwriting. It’s pretty, but also profound. There is not one standout track you think has to be on a mixtape, but the entire gentle experience is one where by album’s end you wonder where the time went.

 

“No Burden” — Lucy Dacus.
Her world-weary voice and insistent guitar strumming seep into your head listen after listen. In some cases, this reminds me of the best of ’90s indie rock (Liz Phair). But it’s her voice that carries the day, supple and engaging.

 

“Upland Stories” — Robbie Fulks.

With a couple of Grammy nominations for this record, Fulks, who has played North Shore Point House Concerts twice, finally gets well-deserved mainstream recognition. The album makes a hard nod to Appalachia. It’s full of great stories (no surprise there) like “Needed,” the teen love story turned serious, and “South Bend Soldiers On,” the reflections of an old man on loss and time. There’s a deeply rootsy production with tasty fiddle, banjo, and, of course, the superb guitar stylings of Robbie Gjersoe, Fulks’s longtime playing partner. Fulks has written lots of songs filled with yucks. These are filled with lumps in the throat and deep reflections. It may be the best of his superb catalog.

“Real Midnight” — Birds of Chicago.

This is one of those albums that ends up in a player and just stays there, thanks to partners Allison Russell (formerly of Po’ Girl), who does most of the singing, and her husband, J.T. Nero, who does most of the writing. The great Joe Henry produced and he highlights simple playing and Russell’s supple, emotional voice. While it’s a great surface listen, repeated plays reveal the existential depth of the disc. Go on, dive in.

“Look Park” — Look Park.
After years away, former Fountains of Wayne main man Chris Collingwood returns with the pop rock record of the year. That doesn’t mean it’s a lightweight offering. He’s tired of the jokes and it shows in the smart, thoughtful lyrics, including “Shout,” his brilliant attempt at a sort of new national anthem.

“The Very Last Day” — Parker Millsap.
Millsap released a fine debut disc a couple of years ago, but he steps it up with his sophomore outing, a harder-rocking, deeper probing effort. This one opens with “Hades Pleads,” a rollicking blues number fueled by slide and fiddles and then shifts into the acoustic catchiness of “Pining” before slipping to the slow, soulful “Morning Blues.” You get the idea. Millsap’s vocals, front and center, simply won’t let you do anything less than pay close attention.

Best Live Shows of 2016

1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater
2. Squeeze at The NorVa
3. Gary Louris at North Shore Point House Concerts
4. Jason Isbell with Frank Turner at Chrysler Hall
5. The Mavericks at The Sandler Center

 

The Mavericks Create a Second Act

mavericks_vipteaser2-438x438Eddie Perez was just a couple of years into his tenure with The Mavericks when the band shattered, fragile glass hitting a tile floor and exploding into jagged pieces. Those years before their 2004 breakup, he concedes now, weren’t much fun.
Perez is a veteran rock guitarist who has played with Dwight Yoakam, Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack and others. But when the group first assembled back in the studio four years ago, he was uneasy.

“After doing music all these years with so many artists,” he says, “I can tell you it’s rare for me to get nervous or apprehensive, very rare. But the first time we came together after many years apart in the studio making “In Time,” I was nervous. “

“But once we put the headphones on and Raul (Malo) said it goes like this and here’s the song, from that moment, it was like no time had gone by at all. It was quite bizarre to tell you the truth.”

They did “Back in Your Arms,” that first song, in one take, the first time they played it as a band.

“That was an amazing feeling,” Perez adds. “We’re talking about a nine-year break. We didn’t see each other in the same room for that many years. To come together in a studio setting it was as if no time had gone by. We went from elation to wow, this is a chance to do this thing right again.”

The Mavericks were back, better than ever. “In Time” earned plaudits. The eclectic follow-up, “Mono,” drew universal raves and led to their recent live album, “All Night Live Vol. 1.”

“We started instantly realizing how good we play together,” he adds.

Everybody was, uh, more mature, Perez notes. They’d meandered through life’s experiences, had kids, and played with other artists. Malo had gone off and done solo discs, experimenting with different genres. “Lucky for us he brings his experiences to what we’re doing now and it’s been a completely brand new day for us,” he adds. “It really is a celebration. To be able to come back and have a second act like this is pretty much unheard of.”

The band appears at The Sandler Center in Virginia Beach on Dec. 7.

The Mavericks of 2016 are a dramatically different band than the one that burst on the scene in 1991 and landed 14 singles on the Billboard country charts over the next 12 years. Oh, they can honky tonk like they did on “What a Crying Shame.” They can blend in Latin music to make you shake and bake. They can swing like an old big band. They can get down and dirty with the blues. They can shape a ballad like few other bands.

Malo’s love for Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Elvis Presley and George Jones still shines through his vocals. The man may be the finest crooner today.

“His voice is one of a kind that doesn’t come along often,” Perez says. “And he sounds that good at 7 o’clock in the morning on some TV show after a night of martinis and cigars. It blows us away. I think if anything his voice has gotten better.”
The recent albums have taken the band into ever more varied terrain with songs that would not be out of place on albums by the The Specials, Buena Vista Social Club or a Latin dance disc.

“It is such a luxury to be a musician in a band like this that gets to explore without being confined. We explore all the musical genres that have turned us on and that we have been students of ourselves,” he says. “We all great up on the American songbook. We were inspired by all that, but we’re also complete audiophiles. We collect records. We still shop at record stores looking for records we don’t have. I’m big into jazz. There are a lot of influences there.”

“We just try to make the best, most honest fun feeling music that we can.”

In short, The Mavericks have become their own genre, labels be damned.

“When we’re making this music and writing this stuff, we’re not really conscious and aware of the specific style of song or style of guitar playing,” he adds. “We get in there and let it happen on its own, let it see where it takes us.”

He acknowledges that when he goes back and listens to the early records, it’s easy to hear the dramatic evolution.
They are also now on their own label with the live album their first offering. Perez says it’s a natural evolution. “We’re very hands on everything that has to do with this business from the music and the writing to playing together in the studio and going out and touring,” he says. “It seemed like a natural progression.”

The live show — they’ve played about 120 dates a year since getting back together — is the core of The Mavericks. “Our shows are pretty much parties every night,” he adds. “On the bus, grooving, getting into that head space. When we hit the stage it’s a party and afterwards it’s a party. We all missed playing music together.”

Perez says the band’s renewed passion shows on the disc. “I can attest to how much fun we’re all having right now,” he says.

“I can’t say that was always the case,” he adds, laughing.

 

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Chris Collingwood Moves On

chriscollingwoodmain Chris Collingwood outgrew Fountains of Wayne, simple as that.

Out of that metamorphosis sprouted Look Park, a quieter, reflective solo project that veers in a new direction, but not one severe enough to snap your head back.

“I definitely wanted to start recording songs that weren’t as funny,” he says. “It’s a side of me that I don’t think is really there anymore. I wrote goofy songs in the beginning of Fountains of Wayne and less so over the course of our career. It was just a thing I didn’t want to do anymore.”

“That’s really not my personality anymore,” he adds. “I don’t drink any more. Mostly when I’m home I’m reading nonfiction sitting around complaining about politics. I’m not a drunken young person anymore.”

He particularly tired of playing that big, old goofy song that’s become a punchline, “Stacy’s Mom,” night after night. “It’s like a comedian telling the same joke without ever updating the material,” he says. “It was something I wanted to move past.”

Collingwood is in San Diego after a seven-hour drive along the Mexican border from Phoenix, a trip he describes as beautiful. He’s out on a tour that brings him to the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club on Oct. 27.

For the first time in his life, he’s touring in a van without a tour manager. “I don’t know what I’m doing and it’s painfully obvious to everyone,” he cracks.

He will bring his van and his trio to the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club on Oct. 27 for a show open to members and their friends. Want a ticket? Ask somebody who belongs.

For the Look Park album, Collingwood worked with longtime producer and Grammy nominee Mitchell Froom, who has produced records by Peter Case, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, Los Lobos, Indigo Girls and numerous others. At times, Look Park sounds a bit like stripped-down offerings from one of Froom’s past production par

lookpark2

tners, Crowded House. The disc features catchy pop like “Stars of New York,” the reflective “Minor is the Lonely Key,” the soulful “Breezy” and the wordy, quietly anthemic opener “Shout Part 1.”

“I was trying to write a national anthem” he says about “Shout.” “The words f

or that are way longer than the actual song. There are a lot of words.”

There are 243 words in the liner notes for “Shout.”

You got your freedom
And it weren’t for nothing
If you can hold down the note and sing it out
Remember you were born to the whispering world
With a shou
t

Collingwood writes using Evernote, a database program used by a lot of journalists (including me) and he says song files often end up with tons of discarded lyrics at the end.

“I try to edit a lot more now,” he adds. “I revisit stuff. Something that sounds right to me one day doesn’t feel right to me another day. That’s definitely true of “Shout”.”

There’s a lot of Mellotron, the Sixties instrument favored by The Beatles sprinkled throughout the album as well as piano that gives it an open, enticing feel.

Collingwood makes it clear he’s done with Fountains of Wayne and snarky power pop in general. He says during the making of the last FOW disc in 2011 it was clear he and co-founder Adam Schlesinger were splitting. They even went to a sort of couples’ therapy without luck.

“Adam and I just fought constantly making that record,” he says. “We stopped making that record in the middle of making that record to try to work out a whole bunch of things that were going on between us. We saw a psychiatrist and tried to work things out. “

In the end, they reached an agreement to finish the album, tour a bit behind it, and then go their ways.
“In the middle of recording that record, I knew I was going to go and make my own record,” Collingwood adds.

He wrote at home in Northampton, Massachusetts, and had the better part of 20 songs ready for Froom. Some were written during the last Fountains of Wayne tour. They recorded “Look Park” in two sessions in Los Angeles.

The songs come when they come. There’s no routine.

“I really wish I had a process,” he says. “Adam is that kind of writer. He sits down every single day and works on something. I’m not like that. I can’t focus most of the time. I have these fleeting ideas. I recombine and paste. Sometimes the whole thing will come out at once. Sometimes, it’s a labor that takes me months.”

lookparkThe good news is he has plenty of songs in reserve and is considering popping into a studio to record a second Look Park disc.

Collingwood stopped drinking in 2006 after alcohol interfered with his work recording a FOW album. For a while after he left the hospital, he took anti-psychotics. He says he doesn’t think about drinking.

“It’s behind me,” he adds. “I’m not speaking the language of recovery. I have great respect for people for whom it’s a struggle. I hit rock bottom so hard it was never an issue about going back. I don’t struggle with it.”

He does struggle with winter, suffering from seasonal affective disorder, sleeping a lot.

“It’s beautiful here in California,” he cracks. “I think I want to move out here. I could see myself getting a lot of work done in California.”

 

 

 

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