Rhiannon Giddens Part of a Dynamic Funhouse Lineup

Before Rhiannon Giddens went to New Orleans to work on her stunning second solo disc, the former Carolina Chocolate Drops member visited Sing Sing in upstate New York as part of a program for artists working with prisoners.

“It hit me like a blow. I’ve read all the books, I know the population of prisons, but to walk in there and to see so many black faces — the visceralness of that, the result of centuries of institutionalized discrimination, all of that,” she told NPR’s Terri Gross.

“So all of that was kind of swirling in the air, and I had gone down to Louisiana to start working on this record with my co-producer, Dirk Powell, at his studio … and we were sitting there talking about this and how intense everything is and we just started writing this song, which turned out to be “Better Get It Right.”

The song, one of nine originals among the 12 tunes on “Freedom Highway,” is about black men being shot that features Gidden’s supple, enchanting voice and a rap from her nephew, Justin Harrington.

“We were recently in Dallas with this show and it was just the most unbelievable thing. The exact thing that he raps about happened in Dallas like three or four days before we got there,” Giddens says. “This young man, straight-A student, went to this party with some of his friends and somebody called in underage drinking, so the cops were coming. So he and his friends leave in this car, he’s in the passenger side, and this police officer takes a rifle and shoots after the car and kills this young man, shoots him in the head, and he dies.”

“It’s like, doing that in that city in Dallas, three or four days after that happened and hearing the eeriness of my nephew rapping these words, it just — I don’t even know. I couldn’t even hardly get through the song, I just started crying.”

It’s not a comfortable subject, but then Giddens has been exploring heritage, race and privilege pretty much since she was the child of a white father and a black mother growing up in Greensboro, N.C. in the 1970s.

She’s the Sunday, June 25, headliner of Funhouse Fest, the three-day music extravaganza in Williamsburg curated by Bruce Hornsby. On Friday, Hornsby plays his “hits” before Sheryl Crow, touring behind a new album, closes the show.

On Saturday, there’s something for everyone starting with Kenny Garrett at 4:30 p.m. and moving through the stunning harmonies of the British trio, The Staves, and on to the dance and rock and roll soul of favorites Lake Street Dive before Hornsby closes it out playing songs of his buddy Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

The Sunday show may be the most intriguing for those with big and adventuresome ears. It opens with Hiss Golden Messenger, the folk rock band featuring MC Taylor from Carolina getting strong reviews for their new “Heart Like a Levee,” then features The Staves, Hornsby and the Sonny Emory Duo before closing with Giddens, a singular voice. (She also happens to be a TV star these days with an important role on the prime-time soap, “Nashville,” as the gospel singer with the voice of an angel).

Her new album after one solo disc and a couple for Carolina Chocolate Drops, Grammy winners, moves from Appalachian bluegrass to jazzy phrasing to spare folk songs including the murder ballad, “The Angels Laid Him Away,” that sound like they could be a century old. She makes clear this is not going to be easy listening on the opening cut, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a song she wrote about a mother anguishing over the future of a child, a future she does not control. “You can take my body, you can take my bones,” she sings. “You can take my blood but not my soul.”

That willingness to stare into the pain of history continues on cuts like “Julie,” a Civil War conversation between a slave and her mistress inspired by something Giddens read, and the wistful “We Could Fly” that is a modern spiritual. There’s also the sly, sexy Louisiana romp of “Hey Bebe” and her take on The Staple Singers classic, “Freedom Highway,” as the closer.

“I’m a very spiritual person. I believe we are all put here for a reason. Some of us are lucky to find this early on and some of us are not,” she says. “That’s just the way it is. If you are lucky enough to find what you are put here to do, then you better do it. I feel like that is your responsibility. One of the things I am here to do is to give voice to these stories. I didn’t write any of these songs. These songs were given to me. I am the instrument.”

Giddens has been a musical explorer for all of her career, now stretching more than a decade. That exploration has also introduced her to partners along the way that changed her musical direction like a river switches course. She declined an interview request but she has shared her story with NPR and other publications over the years.

She studied opera at the conservatory of Oberlin College then returned to North Carolina burned out on classical singing. There, she joined a Celtic band (eventually, she would marry an Irishman and split her time between Carolina and Ireland). Later, she competed in Sottish music competitions.
At Oberlin, she’d gone to a contra dance, not understanding what it was (she thought perhaps something out of Jane Austen). She fell in love with the rhythm and beauty.

She began traveling the state calling dances for money and also playing small sets on the banjo. Eventually, she found her way to a festival called the Black Banjo Gathering and her career took its second turn.

She met an octogenarian fiddler named Joe Thompson who introduced her to Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. Later, she met Sule Greg Wilson. Together with Flemons, they started playing as a postmodern string band, Sankofa Strings. Eventually, that band became the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

For Giddens, it was a chance to explore musical heritage. “When I first heard the minstrel banjo — I played a gourd first — I almost lost my mind,” she says. “I was like, Oh, my god. And then I went to Africa, to the Gambia, and studied the akonting, which is an ancestor of the banjo, and just that connection to me was just immense … the connection of that to the minstrel banjo, minstrelsy being the first American cultural export to the world. So this sound, that deepness, that quality is what people associated with American music.

“Whenever I play it, people are like, “What is that?” I’m like, “This is America, dude.” This instrument right here, born in Africa, but then made in America and then altered by white America, that’s the story of so much of our music,” she adds. “And it starts here — it’s the first thing that people heard.”

Giddens’s career took another bend when she met producer T-Bone Burnett while in New York for a show. He suggested she do a solo record — he produced her debut — and also featured her on the

Wrote Jon Pareles, the long-time music critic for The New York Times: “The concert’s real head turner was Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She turned to the folk revival repertory of Odetta for the enigmatic “Water Boy,” singing it with the fervor of a spiritual, the yips of a field holler and the sultry insinuation of the blues. And she followed it with a pair of songs in Gaelic, making them peal and dance. These weren’t her local folklore; they were learned, and the performances were splendidly polished.”

Finding the common ground in a song, that place where the singer and the song’s history meet, is something Giddens has pondered, something she does so well.

“When you’re singing a song, you should have that common ground. You have to have common ground with it. I’ve been asked by white artists or students — because I do teach in workshops — and they go, “How do I approach this work song or this spiritual? Can I sing this?”

And I say, “Of course you can sing it. Should you sing it like an eighty-five-year-old woman from Alabama? No. You shouldn’t try to sing it like that. I can’t sing it like that because I’m not an eighty-five-year-old woman from Alabama. You have to find the core within the song that speaks to your core.”

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Super Doppler Hones Their Craft on New Disc

“It started as a half joke,” Neal Friedman says.

Super Doppler, the Norfolk-based band of high school buddies formerly Major and the Monbacks, were starting to think about recording their second album.

They were listening to an album by Virginia Beach’s Natalie Prass produced by Matthew E. White in Richmond

“We just kind of started talking about him for the next album,” recalls Harry Slater, a guitarist and songwriter.
“He was from Virginia and he was doing all this crazy arrangements,” says Cole Friedman, the band’s bassist.
But they had no reason to think he’d work with them and they had no contact information.

Cole, who handled management and booking in those days, texted people he knew in Richmond. Nothing. Eventually, he got a phone number from the guy who does a concert series on Browns Island.
That led to a conversation with White and eventually a meeting with the band on their way home, cold and dirty, from a festival in Roanoke.

More importantly, it led to a cascade of events that landed Super Doppler with a booking agency, New Frontier Touring, whose extensive roster includes The Avett Brothers, Seth Walker and The Band of Heathens.

 


They celebrate the release of their superb second album, “Moonlight Anthems,” with a block party at Bold Mariner Brewing Co. in Norfolk on Saturday, June 17, part of a national tour hitting big cities.

They’ve already released singles from the album, “We Are Doing Fine” and “Moonlight Anthems,” songs destined to be on the playlist for the summer of ’17 with their echoes of the Fab Four and The Zombies. But the album taps other musical touchstones including Americana roots rock, old R&B and the intricate arrangements and harmonies of the great Sixties bands.

Neal Friedman says it’s a move away from the blue-eyed retro soul of their first disc. Part of that is the band no longer touring with a horn section. That came about by accident when the group went on a road trip without horns, playing Firefly and other festivals. They were already writing songs without horns. Playing live without them, percussionist Tyler West says, “gave us a little more space, more room for creativity.”

“We were almost afraid of space,” adds Cole. “There’s always so much going on. We wanted to give the songs some space.”

There are horns on a few cuts on the album, but often White suggested they excise them or play them down. “He was like you don’t need the horns for the songs to be good,” Cole says. “We never would have done that unless we had someone pushing us to try it.”

“The recordings are so very busy with things other than horns, adds Slater. “There’s always a lot going on. We made a point on this album where in the past we’d default to horns on this section let’s try out something else, something crazy.”

From the start, White played mentor to the band. When they met at his studio in suburban Richmond in the late summer of 2015, he asked what they were thinking about as musical styles for the album. “Everyone started naming their favorite acts,” Cole says. “You could just see him get a smile on his face. He said that sounds so up my alley.”

White was big into The Band’s album, “The Last Waltz,” at that time. The guys in the band were listening to Paul McCartney’s “Ram,” The Zombies “Odessey and Oracle” and Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights.” Listen and all those influences come through over the course of its 12 tracks. So do The Beatles, an obvious influence. “This is our “Revolver,” Neal jokes.

In the studio, White liked to use album references as a sort of language for what they were looking for in a song.

The title track has a decided Levon Helm/The Band feel. “We Are Doing Fine,” which is simply irresistible, marries The Beatles and The Zombies, Lennon and Argent.

Like the Fab Four, The Zombies and The Band, Super Doppler collaborates on the writing although different members take the lead. On “Moonlight Anthems,” Neal Friedman, guitarist Michael Adkins and Slater took turns are the primary songwriters. But the group is a small democracy. All the tracks are credited to the band and they often benefit from input from the entire group. The same goes for performing. There is no one frontman. About half the songs on the album had been around for a few years. The others are relatively new.

“Some of these songs we’d been playing on the road for a year and we really wanted to capture that live energy,” Cole says, “but we also wanted to experiment and overdub. We’d manipulate the tape and mess around with the analog outboard gear, and a lot of those subtleties are really important to the sound.”
They recorded the disc a year ago over 12 days, paying for it with money saved from touring.

The band formed originally with four friends from Maury High School and Norfolk Collegiate evolving from a loose garage band into something more, a rollicking good-time group with originals sprinkled in among the soulful covers. Slater started out as a roadie, but eventually became a guitarist and songwriter. Bryan Adkins, Michael’s brother, is the latest permanent member to join as the group’s drummer.

In the fall of 2012, the group started venturing out every other weekend to play fraternities. They were still a garage band, but the money was good. They began to think this was something more than an occasional lark. Over the next few years, they toured hard, sometimes playing more than 150 dates and wearing out a van.

Everybody in the band still has a side job. They’ve been off the road for much of 2017 so it’s necessary. But the road beckons again, this time with a new album already earning raves from publications like American Songwriter and Paste. Before they play their block party, they’ll hit Richmond, Raleigh, Atlanta, Charlotte and Charleston and after they head far and wide to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver among the stops.

No doubt, they’ll be back for some hometown shows at some point.

 

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One Man’s Junk Is Matt Lorenz’s Music

Matt Lorenz is The Suitcase Junket, a one-man-band who does it the old-fashioned way. No tape loops. No digital tricks. Just a bunch of junk — literally — on stage with him making noise.

Lorenz is touring behind “Pile Driver,” his fourth album showcasing that he’s got songwriting chops equal to his odd creative vision.

He’s the headliner on Sunday, May 28, at Work/Release for the conclusion of the Virginia Arts Festival’s Norfolk Fringe Fest that also features harp virtuoso Deborah Henson-Conant on May 26 at The Robin Hixon Theater, the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the Wells Theatre May 26-28 and the Joey Alexander Trio at TCC’s Roper Performing Arts Center on May 27.

Lorenz handled an interview smoothly while driving through upstate New York on his way to a Friday gig in Albany.

Tell me about the genesis of The Suitcase Junket and the one-man band approach.

It sort of spun out of a band I was in with my sister and another fellow. I found this guitar. I pulled it out of a dumpster and strung it up and fixed it up. It was a real beater, only sounded good in open tuning. I started pulling all these songs out of it that didn’t fit that other band.
I’d started drumming with my feet a little bit already, sitting on a box. I started building more foot drums to fill out the sound. The idea was if I’m moving my body, I might as well be getting sound out of it.

One thing led to another. I’m a tinkerer. I enjoy doing projects with my hands. It was a natural progression of what else can I do? How much sound can I make without going into the looping world?

What’s the oddest instrument you found in the garbage?

A lot of what I build instruments out of are old chairs. What else? A gas can. A cook pot. The oddest is I have a circular saw blade. It sort of sounds like boxing bell. Probably the weirdest little pile of things is I’ve got this little old wooden cheese box and I’ve got it hooked up on a high hat stand so that the box is a bottom cymbal. The top cymbal is an 8mm film reel with bones and silverware hanging off of it. You push the high hat pedal and all the bones and silverware will drop into the box with a crunching kind of rattle. People will sometimes contribute to the box. I get some pretty odd items.

You grew up in New England, right?

I grew up in Vermont. I’ve been in Massachusetts for a while now. My parents were very encouraging. Neither of them really played, but the house was always full of music. When the town library was getting rid of a piano, my parents got it. My sister started taking lessons. Then I was just like off on music. They helped encourage that, got me lessons.

Was there a high school band we should know about?

There was Red Flannel Hash. I played keyboards and sang a little bit. It was mostly a rock and roll cover band.

You went to college. When did you think music might be something you would do for a living?

I went to a weird hippie school where you design your own major (Hampshire College). No grades. All written evaluations. I was sort of interested in natural science and art and music. I remember a turning point where I decided I had these natural proclivities with music and I figured just go with that, you’re already pretty good at it. Then after college it took a while to figure out how to make a living from it. It took a little while working, fixing houses and working on farms and doing jobs where I didn’t have to think that hard so I could daydream.

You seem to stretch on the new album, “Pile Driver.” There’s a big range going from “Seed Your Dreams” to “Beta Star.” Was that the intention?

Definitely. Ideally that is where I want to be when I make a new album, right at the edge of my abilities. The most exciting stuff happens when you mess up. That’s where all the new ideas come from. I added a keyboard in there. It adds a whole other ingredient. That’s been a fun part of these live shows. Also pushing out a little more stylistically into the pop sensibility and then into the swampy sound.
It keeps me interested. One of pitfalls of being a one-man band is often they start sounding the same. I want to stay away from that for listeners and for myself.

Was there someplace you messed up that lead to a song?

I think the first track was one that was not really written when I went in but I knew I wanted to have this combination of keyboard sound and singing to guitar. I had lyrics to a pretty simple song. There were seven or eight takes of that altogether and not one of them sounded like the other. It was completely seat of the pants. Almost every part of that song was a surprise that came out of me just barely able to get my hands where they needed to be.

Where did the album title come from?

I’ve been considering myself as a pile driver because I drive my pile around. Then when I’m playing I feel like I’m driving a pile. Also it’s a wrestling move, which I thought was kind of funny, so be looking out for some wrestling video.

Swamp Yankee pile driver was the working title for the album for a while. Swamp Yankee is what I consider my genre now.

I was getting to that. Explain it. Remember, I’m from the North, but you’ll be appearing in the South.

The term got coined when I was playing a show in West Virginia and a guy came up to me after the set and said you remember that song where you ate a muskrat. I was impressed that he noticed a mention halfway through the first verse of a tune. He said are you a swamp Yankee? I was like, yeah, I hope so. First of all, I was thinking a Swamp Yankee sounds like a good thing to be. Also to my ears being a Yankee in the South of all the kinds of Yankees to be called, Swamp Yankee has to be the best kind.

Ever since then, when people ask what kind of music I play, I tell them Swamp Yankee music as though it’s a very well-agreed-upon genre. It’s evocative enough that people look at you funny, their head with a sideways tilt and say, I never heard of that, but I think I get it.

I hear a lot of old blues and old folk in your music. That may be my bias, but I wondered if that was something you were into growing up.

Definitely. I grew up listening to my parents’ record collection. Hendrix. The Who. The Rolling Stones. The Beatles. The Band and all that. The Stones were basically a blues band and I started listening to what they were listening to — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, that sort of thing. I put electric blues away for a long time. I was really just digging into that acoustic stuff. The Alan Lomax collection. I got kind of obsessed with the field recordings, that raw pure, honest music you play when nobody is listening. That really got to me.

You do some throat singing on this album. How did that come about?

That was kind of by accident. I took a South Indian cooking class in college. I learned words that have retroflex R’s where you touch the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth. It’s a new mouth shape I was driving around trying out. I heard this really quiet overtone and basically shaped it in the car over five years. I sounded really bad for a really long time. I did not share that with other people. I tried working it into music for a while, but it wasn’t until I found that shitty old guitar that I was able to hide the weird singing with the weird guitar and they sort of had this marriage of oddities. They sounded well together. I spend a lot of time in the car practicing. That’s my main location for that.

In my research, I found you were once featured in a publication titled How to Grow a Mustache. Is that a hipster dream come true?

I don’t know. I’ve always wanted a mustache. There are pictures of me as a little kid and I’ve always got burned-cork facial hair. But I could not grow one (for a long time). I had a Charlie Chaplin, which is also a Hitler. That does not fly. So the first 27 years of my years of my life, did I have one? Nope. Once I could grow one, I haven’t trimmed it since.

So it grows the same way the instruments grow, organically?

Exactly. You just got to let it happen.

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Mark Rogers Finds the One Who Got Away

Mark Rogers spent a long time in suburban Washington, D.C. with his music on the back burner until a divorce in 2006 sent him in the direction of reconnecting with a long-gone love. They got together three years later, a romance that led to his migration from the suburban rat race to southeastern Virginia and set him in a path to recording his first album, “Rearranged.”
He recently released the disc, which features some of the area’s best veteran players, and agreed to talk about his journey.

You put your guitar away for a while to raise a family. What brought you back to playing and songwriting?

Actually, it never left, it was just relegated to hobby status in the 90s and 00s as I focused on my kids and career. When the music bug gets ahold of you, it’s hard to shake it. In 2006, I got divorced. And then reconnected with the “one who got away” in 2009 (whom I had met 22 years prior). That opened up everything for me and my music eventually started coming back. I wrote my first song in something like 20 years in 2012 and kept going from there. Last summer the gates opened up completely and I wrote most of the “Rearranged” EP in the span of about three months.

You spent some time playing in LA. There’s that sort of Eagles/Jackson Browne/Zevon feel to this disc.

In the early 80s, after college, I drove from D.C to L.A. by myself in a car that didn’t have a radio. I was chasing the illusion of Laurel Canyon — The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, CSN&Y, The Eagles, Jackson, J.D. Souther, Zevon and all my other high school heroes. I got a band going and we played Club 88, Madam Wong’s and a few other LA musical haunts, made a bunch of demos, shopped them to record companies. We might have been a bit out of time. We were trying to play Gram Parsons country in a Duran Duran Los Angeles. There was, however, a scene there that included The Long Ryders, Rain Parade, The 3 O’clock, Rank and File. Bands that were bucking the synth pop trends. I just ran out of money, and felt guilty for not following up on the education my parents had paid for. So, I eventually moved back to DC. The California singer/songwriter vibe you may get from my EP is a natural outgrowth of my musical heritage and that time in particular.

 

Was there a song, either one on the EP or one that didn’t make it, that made you realize you were back into the mystic of the music?

The first of many songs that sprung up last summer was “I Can’t Say Why.” I remember telling an old friend that I’ve written “my masterpiece”. Then several more, that were actually better than that one, presented themselves. There is one song, however, called “Blue Enough” that didn’t make the cut on the EP, because it didn’t work as well in a band setting, that I think is my best writing so far. I now do that song with just an acoustic guitar, and it works better with that simplicity. The primary reason for recording the EP in the first place, was to capture the creative surge that happened to me last summer. I think we effectively did that.

What brought you to the area from D.C.?

When I reconnected with “the one who got away” 22 years earlier, it didn’t take long before we both knew that we’d better take advantage of this “last chance” sooner rather than later. I was looking to get out of DC and she and her family run a business in Williamsburg. It wasn’t a hard decision for either of us. I love this area and truly believe it’s added years to my life.

You often play in the area and, I think, play open mics. Were those nights useful as you moved towards recording this album?

I met Vaughn Deel and Sueanne Doyer at a Peter Case show (with North Shore Point House Concerts) at Norfolk School of Rock about a year ago. They described the open mics that they run at Cozzy’s (in Newport News) and Victoria Station (The Big Pink in Hampton) and invited me out to do one. I was a bit timid having not played in public for a couple of decades, but it didn’t take long until I was attending two open mics a week for several months there. That coupled with a Dylan 75th Birthday tribute show that my wife and I saw in Williamsburg around the same time. This band called Exit 231 played a set at that show that just knocked us out. I thought “I can do that.” And then thought “I WANT to do that”. Those two events were all I needed. Now I’m unstoppable.

You have a great roster of area stars assisting on the album — Larry Berwald, Dave Hufstedler, others. How did that happen?

When I figured I had a half dozen or so songs that I wanted to record, I asked Dustin Furlow who he used to record his fine record. He introduced me to Rob Ulsh at Master Sound in Virginia Beach. After doing some scratch tracks, Rob suggested that Larry Berwald be brought in to help tweak some arrangements and play guitar. Both Larry and Rob really took an interest and were fantastic to work with.
Larry rather diplomatically made some necessary arrangement suggestions to a few of my songs and then brought in Dave Hufstedler (bass) and Powell Randolph (drums) to record them. We also got Jamie Lewis on the Hammond B3 and piano. I was over the moon with how well the sessions turned out.

Those guys were amazing. I hope to work with them again.

Jason Isbell: Stories for Listeners

jasonisbell4 I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink


I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams

— Jason Isbell, “Hope the High Road”

On the day after the 2016 election, Jason Isbell was at home outside Nashville caring for his baby daughter, Mercy Rose, then a few months past her first birthday. His wife, Amanda Shires, was on tour in Salt Lake City that night behind her album, “My Piece of Land.”

The presidential election results, he admits, blindsided him. He knew the choices were tough, especially for the working class folks he grew up with in rural Alabama.

So he did what he does. He wrote. He wrote to unpack his feelings, to confront and explain those things that seem unexplainable or intolerable. He thought he knew America. On Nov. 8, he realized he did not.

He was thinking about family, about what the election of a bigot and a misogynist meant for his far-away wife and his so-near daughter.

“As hard as it was for me to see those results,” he says, “I could only imagine what it was like for a wife and later on a daughter to have to explain.”
Out of that came “Hope the High Road,” the first single off his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound.”

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

“After growing up in rural Alabama in a town without a red light or a post office and traveling the word for 17 years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on America,” he says. “It turned out I was not right at all.”

 

His father works maintenance in a hospital. His mom has an office job. “My parents still work hard every day,” he says. “I’ve not made enough money to tell them they can retire. Hopefully, we’ll have some huge hits and everybody can move on up sometime soon.”

His father, he says, stood in line to vote torn by his decision. He’s been paying way too much from health care since the Affordable Care Act was passed. But he also didn’t believe he could vote for somebody like Trump, Isbell says.

 

“I hear both sides of the story,” he says. “My main concern was I feel like a lot of people who have been under represented had to ignore a lot of shitty things in order to vote in what they felt might be their own best interest. That’s what really bothers me. I can see middle class or poor working class Americans wanting somebody who is not a career politician. I can see them wanting somebody who speaks plainly and in a way that’s not coded the way political language often is. But I can’t really understand overlooking the bigotry and the misogyny.”

“So I felt like after all that went down,” he adds, “I didn

jasonisbell7

‘t know people as well as I thought I did. That was a big awakening for me.”

Isbell, who opens the season at the Portsmouth Pavilion on April 26, understands what he calls the “Springsteen conundrum:” “How do you sing about working class people when it’s obvious what kind of money you’re making?”

He’s not near that level. He doesn’t think he’s all that far removed from his roots. He lives outside Nashville, about 80 miles from his hometown of Green Hills. “The differences between how I grew up and how I live now and the similarities between those two are of great interest to me,” he says.

Isbell famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Shires and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life. He’s sober — a battle he talks about freely — and out in the country now, surrounded by a few musicians and a lot of working class folks, similar to the ones of his childhood and his days in school.

“So I have a lot of concern for the issues of working class people,” he says. “I think you can empathy without living like that. To deny a successful songwriter the option of writing about people who are not having success is really to deny that empathy works as a concept.”

I ask him about the line, “I used to want to be a real man; I don’t know what that even means.”

“As I got older, I stopped using phrases like “I want to be a man” or “Man up.” Look at what you’re saying. It’s pretty insulting to women,” he says. “I just started saying, ‘Try to be grown. Try to be an adult.’ Insulting to children,” he adds, laughing.

He explores working class characters and their stories on his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound” that gives co-credit for the first time in years to his band, The 400 Unit. Shires adds fiddle and vocals. Dave Cobb is once again handling the knobs as producer.

It’s the third in a line of stellar albums from Isbell, after 2013’s “Southeastern,” the 2014 Grammy winner for best Americana album, and 2015’s “Something More than Free,” the 2016 Grammy winner for best Americana album.

In a suite of songs on “The Nashville Sound:” “Cumberland Gap,” a rocker, “Tupelo,” a mellow reflection, and “White Man’s World,” he explores the walls closing in on working class men.

I thought about moving away, but what would my momma say?
I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day.
Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge.
If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.
– “Cumberland Gap”

“Cumberland Gap” is one of Isbell’s many short stories in song. “You start building a character,” he says, “and that’s how the characters behave naturally. There are people I know who have had very similar experiences and they wound up being the primary inspiration. I take three or four people I know and try to build a character. It’s not different than going about writing a novel or a short story.”

That begs the question of what Isbell was reading while writing the album. He finished in January, writing the dark “If We Were Vampires,” days before entering Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio B, the birthplace of albums by Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Gillian Welch, among others.

He says he read an advance copy of George Saunders “Lincoln in the Bardo” and others. He’s been a passionate about reading since sobering up, dipping into everything from Gabriel García Márquez’s “100 Years of Solitude,” Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”

“It’s difficult,” he says. “I try not to show my influences too obviously. I don’t want to let those find their way into too much of my material.”

Isbell named the album, “The Nashville Sound,” partly as an homage to the studio, managed for so many years by Chet Atkins, and as a way to stake his claim to the type of music made there.

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Our talk is on the day after The Academy of Country Music Awards. Isbell has no tolerance for the music showcased there. “It’s obvious from last night’s awards show how much out of touch the pop country music world is,” he says.

“The Nashville Sound” reflects the kind of music still made in Nashville. While there are a few more rockers on this disc, Isbell says he never sets out to make one kind of record or another.

“Really the only thing that matters to me outside of documenting a point in time is trying to get the best songs I possibly can. That’s my guiding light.”

“The way I’ve gotten through the world and made myself happy and gotten more than I could have ever asked is early on I found something I wanted to do when I didn’t have to do anything else,” he adds. “It’s still that way. I’m very lucky.”

He’s worked at Wal Mart, in a fireworks warehouse and waiting tables. But since he started performing professionally he hasn’t had to do anything else other than play and write songs.

Among those songs are “Anxiety,” a dark tune about dealing with that fear written with Shires, and “If We Were Vampires,” a serious song with a funny title about mortality. “Maybe time running out is a gift,” he sings. “I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift. Give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”

“That one caught me by surprise,” he says. “I wrote that the last day before we went into the studio. I was really proud of it. It’s really heavy and it took me a while to get through and be able to sing it without emotion.”jason77

“When you’re a kid you think something’s in the closet until you work up the courage to get out of bed and look for yourself,” Isbell told me in another interview last year. “You can spend a lot of years hollering for your dad to come do it or you can get out of bed at five years old, open the door, and when there’s nothing in there, go to sleep.

“That’s really the reason I started to write songs, to confront those things,” he adds.

“Things about my upbringing or the places that I’m from. About society in general. About personal relations. Things that were very terrifying to me until I looked them in the face and explained them to myself. They don’t scare me so much anymore.”

That’s not surprising. Jason Isbell albums are therapy, time to sit and think and ponder the big questions. He understands no radio station today is going to play songs like “If We Were Vampires” or “Anxiety” and he’s just fine with that.

“I’ve just always been somebody who listened to music directly. It wasn’t’ really a background thing. That’s what my whole life has been based on. I know a lot of people who aren’t musicians who are that way. They don’t just have music playing while they’re having a party or washing dishes or something.

“I think I kind of write songs for those people, people who like to sit down and listen to songs.”
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Singalong: Sea Level Festival Showcases First Families of Tune

Is musical talent hereditary?

The Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival this year is proof — proof, I tell you – there is a music gene somewhere in the recesses of our DNA. Consider the evidence for yourself when the first families of music in the area perform over two nights to benefit the Tidewater Arts Outreach.

TAO is evidence of the healing powers of music, probably something also deep in those ancestral strands. The nonprofit arranges for local artists to perform at assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities, residential programs, homeless shelters and other organizations – more than 250 artists for more than 5,000 people in 2015.

Those performances are a balm to residents. Research increasingly shows the benefits to mental as well as physical health for those sitting and listening or clapping and singing along.

It Runs in the Family starts with a free show at Norfolk’s O’Connor Brewing Company at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 31. Skye Zentz and her father, folk legend, Bob Zentz and his wife, Jeanne McDougall, join Zach and Megan Moats of Dharma Initiative and their father, Roy.

On Saturday, hear how far afield that gene ranges, from the blues to folk to bluegrass, at The Attucks Theatre. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance (it’s $4.50 more with Ticketmaster fees online) and $28.50 at the door.

The Saturday lineup is:

Bill and Pam Gurley with daughter, Macon, and guest bassist Jimmy Masters.

Bobby and Joy “Blackhat” Walters with their children, Akeylah, Maya, Shayna and possibly Ellie with special guest guitarist Tom Euler.

Lewis McGehee with his daughter, Kayce

Keith Stainback with his son, Seth, joined by Larry Berwald and Stephen Lazar.

I asked them four questions about their first performance together, about their favorite song written by the other, about their memories of singing together for the first time and a song the other likes they don’t need to ever hear again.



   Skye Zentz says she doesn’t recall the first song she heard her father, a longtime legendary folk singer, but there was a constant stream of sounds and songs from her earliest days. “There’s a very early memory I have of my Dad carrying me around on his shoulders singing the Woody Woodpecker theme song,” she says. She has old cassettes of the two of them on the front porch, singing together, making up lyrics when she was a four-year-old while he played the accordion. “Those early tapes taught me a lot about being a mindful accompanist,” she says. “It takes a lot of attention and rhythm to back up a spontaneous toddler.”

She is fond of her dad’s “He Was Just Some Old Jukebox.” “He wrote those words about Ramblin’ Conrad, but they also remind me of my Dad, himself- he knows so many songs,” she adds. She does not admit to disliking any of his tunes, but jokes that the drone from him tuning his hurdy gurdy haunts her in her sleep.


On Saturday, the Bobby “Blackhat” Walters clan takes the stage at the Attucks. The first performance by the kids, then ages 7 to 13, came at a school talent show when they sang “Lean on Me” acapella, creating rhythms with hand clapping, knee slapping and stomping. As kids they sang and acted out musicals including Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pocahontas,” “Aladdin”, and the High School Musicals. The family sang together from the time the kids were babies and then at religious ceremonies. The children have played various musical instruments including piano, guitar, drums, bass, ukulele, saxophone, bongos, clarinet, flute, mandolin, recorder, and violin.  Bobby is the only harp player.

The kids remember mom singing “All Night All Day” at bedtime and dad singing “Let My People Go” at the top of his lungs “for god knows why.”

Ellie also remembers her dad’s worst moment. “Most annoying song is “Too Legit To Quit” by MC Hammer,” Ellie says. “The only time I think I was embarrassed by my dad was him singing that dang song in his parachute pants walking through the mall torturing me at 15.”

On the flip side, “Help Me” is her favorite song sung by Bobby. “I got to see that wonderful in love look between my parents that I saw since I was a kid. That flirty big eye attitude lovey look that my mom has only for my daddy when he would sing it on stage,” she says.

For Maya, it’s “Honey Biscuit,” “the sweetest, most precious love song ever written (by my dad).”


Kayce McGehee, who performs under the name Kayce Laine, now lives in Nashville, where she is building a solo career playing indie electro pop music.  Her father is one of the deans of local acoustic players.

She remembers her father recording “Distant Voices” just after she was born in 1988. “A lot of the tracking was done at our home studio so some of my earliest memories of life are of him singing and playing those songs. “Looking at the Headlights,” “Walking Away”….all of the songs on that record bring me back,” she says. He remembers her singing Disney tunes and realizing she had talent.

Let Kayce explain the favorite that her father penned: “I would probably have to say “Growing of Grass” for a number of reasons: 1. I think the song itself is brilliant from the lyrics to the chord changes 2. It’s a song that I have performed with him and also covered of his for over a decade now 3. All of my sisters have, at one point, wanted to get the lyrics tattooed on our bodies (none of us have actually done this…yet!) and 4. We just got done recording it in Nashville a few weeks ago and will finally have an incredible version to share with everyone in just a few more weeks.”


   For Lewis, his favorite Kayce song is “5 AM Light,” a synth-heavy electronic pop song from her debut EP, “Lucid.” “I think it showcases her multiple talents of songwriting, singing, piano playing and production,” he says.

Their first public performance together, Kayce says, was when she was still a child. “The first gig we did together was me singing an Alabama song, “Angels Among Us,” with him for some sort of convention or fundraiser when I was 7 or 8. For whatever reason, I didn’t like the spotlight when I was young so I usually got ice cream or some sort of treat for getting up and singing with him. Now I ask for money :),” she recalls.

Lewis remembers that day. “Kayce was singing it around the house and I thought “She sounds waaay better than me doing this” so I drafted her to join me.”

There is one song her father favors that Kayce has heard enough. “Dad has taught every single guitar student “Good Riddance” by Green Day since it came out in 1997 so I’ve probably heard him play and sing that song thousands of times,” she says. “Now, I definitely wouldn’t say that he loves this song, but he loves TEACHING this song and I can safely say, I would be totally fine if I never heard it again.”


Keith Stainback, the father of blues rocker Seth Stainback of Roosterfoot, remembers his son singing around the house and at church from the time he was a toddler. But one day stands out. “I don’t remember the first song I heard Seth sing, there were so many. He would sing around the house from the time was a toddler. Mostly songs from church, or songs he’d hear his mom sing,” he says. “I do remember one day I was sitting on the deck when we lived in South Carolina. Seth was around 16 years old. He walked up with his guitar and said he had just finished writing a song and would I like to hear it. Now I knew that he could sing and was already a good guitarist, but after he played me the new song, I realized he also had a gift for songwriting.”

His favorite is “Earth & Worm,” the title cut off the band’s full-length album. “I’ve always loved “Earth & Worm.” It’s a great song and it’s about family,” he adds. “Now, the song “Reckless” off the new Roosterfoot EP gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Again, there are so many good ones, it’s hard to choose a favorite.”

They started playing together down below and eventually made it to higher ground. “Seth and I spent many, many hours jamming in the basement at home,” Keith says. “I’m pretty sure the first time we played in public together would have been with the band at church. We played a show together at his high school, which would have also been one of the first public times.”

While their tastes are the same, Keith admits that those prog rock days are probably not his son’s favorite.

“Seth probably has a few songs he doesn’t want to hear again. Songs that I would get him listen to when he was younger. Mostly progressive rock from bands like Yes, early Genesis, stuff like that. Even though recently he has shown an interest in experimenting with time signatures other than basic 4/4 and 6/8. I like to think that old stuff I made him listen to just might be coming out,” Keith says. “We will see.”

 

 

–end—-

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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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