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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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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Shakey Graves Has Faith in Spooky BS

 

Shakey GravesAlejandro Rose-Garcia
3/13/14
Billy Reid showcase at Weather Up

Shakey Graves — Alejandro Rose-Garcia

Shakey Graves says he’d taken psychedelics plenty before so he’s not sure why that one time in Los Angeles in 2010 was different. But that mushroom trip launched him into another songwriting plane.

The child actor — “Spy Kids,” “Friday Night Lights” — who grew up in Austin as Alejandro Rose-Garcia says up until then, he thought writing songs involved picking up a guitar, thinking a lot about lyrics, and then pulling together a few chords to churn out one of those “I love the girl, but she does not love me” songs.

“There wasn’t a lot of room for interpretation,” he says. “It felt very human and very teenage.”
But after he went on a three-day rant in LA that ended with police admitting him for observation at a mental hospital, everything changed. “It’s a long story, but some crazy shit happened. It kind of opened the door that in some ways I guess has never really shut,” he says one afternoon as he and the band are loading their bus for a tour that brings them to The NorVa on July 27.

“It was basically seeing through the veil,” he adds, on a roll now. “It’s one of those things that when it happened the message to me was no one is going to believe you anyway. No one is going to believe you’ve seen something, now you know there’s mysteries in the universe. congratulations, you get a medal and now you get to learn how to fly and shoot laser beams out of your eyes.”

“It gave me a sort of faith, I suppose, a faith in spooky bullshit,” he adds. “I’m not sure how else to describe it.”

“Why does this all matter in the first place? Is our whole life being afraid of being a dead person? Is that what we’re all doing? Constantly not dying? Is that it? No. There’s something more beautiful that all of this. There’s this miraculous mystery that at my best I try to speak about eloquently.”

He became Shakey Graves not long after that. It was partly a grin. But it’s also dark in a way. “Grim, but also playful,” he says.

He moved back in with his mother in Austin and started playing everywhere he could around town. He says he took lessons early so he wouldn’t hurt himself playing guitar, but he’s largely self-taught. He’ll go up to someone else and say listen to this bizarre thing I found. That’s a diminished chord, is the snarky reply. His songs are filled with odd time changes and chord progressions.

“The way I play is just an extension of my body,” he adds. “I learned how to fingerpick from “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. If you want to learn how to fingerpick get that down and you’re good. “

He says keeping his mind out of it worked best. “In a lot of ways, my body knows what I’m doing much better than I do,” Rose-Garcia explains. “If I keep myself out of it, I usually play better.”

That takes him back to the Los Angeles bender. “There’s a good analogy to the experience we were talking about,” he explains. “I had a Peter Pan moment. I lost my shadow for a long time. I finally stitched it back onto my body. It’s me and the intuitive side of me now. They have communication. That’s a pleasant thing in a lot of performance. Dance. Singing. Most physical arts. You let the spirit flow. “

“Music as an experience can be very cheap and recreational, nothing wrong with that,” Rose-Garcia adds. “But it can also be an intensely profound experience. I try and tow that line. To keep it like a really profound joke.”

His time in Austin was a sort of apprenticeship. He wrote hundreds of songs. He learned how to play for three hours, blasting through songs and figuring out what stuck with listeners. He went through a series of versions of his one-man band, eventually settling on guitar, vocals and keeping rhythm on a foot pedal and a suitcase.

He thought he had something. Then he went to an open mic in New York and got his ass kicked. “It really put me in my place,” he says.

Over time, he created a live show that remains his signature. Eventually, he added Chris Boosahda, his drummer and producer. He became huge on the festival circuit.

His 2011 debut, “Roll the Bones,” was a one-man affair. With “And the War Came” in 2014, he expanded with a full band. For that disc, he worked with Esme Patterson, who had just left the Colorado band, Paper Bird. They created arguably his biggest hit, “Dearly Departed.”

“I was branching into something bigger,” he says. “There’s a lot of human emotion and personal stuff that goes down with sharing the songwriting process. It was way more challenging than I assume. Shit’s weird. You have a life. I have a life. It was unfair to drag you around to play in my show,” he says, talking partly to himself and Patterson, it seems. “There was a lot of reality that I discovered. How delicate a songwriting collaboration can really be.”

For this tour, he’s playing with a band of four, including his old LA buddy, Patrick O’Connor, on guitar. They would play awful music and say, man, one day we’ll be in a band back in the day. Now, they are. “We’ve had more than one moment sticking our heads out of the tour bus at 5 in the morning screaming, ‘I can’t believe it,” Rose-Garcia says.

Adding a bass player completed the group. “The band has never sounded better. We really started being a band this year,” he adds. “We’ve all kind of fallen into the pocket finally.”

He says the live show is inspired by The Talking Heads movie, “Stop Making Sense.” “It’s really kind of genius, starting stripped-down and by the end it’s an entire production,” he notes. So at times during the night it’s a one-man band, it’s a duo, a power trio, and a four-person electric or acoustic group. They don’t always start slow, though. “The set list is malleable. Every night is an ordeal. Some nights we’re all hungry so we kick it off with all four,” he says. “Some nights I will go out and play.”

The plan is to go on hiatus next year and perhaps collaborate on a new album. It’s another writing challenge. “It’s still one of those things. I’m not sure how people write together,” he says. “I don’t know the routine. I don’t know how other bands do that. This is the closest I’ve ever gotten to writing as a group. I guess the contact is me. It’s my project. Lyrically and musically I have the final veto. But my goal is to stay out of my fellow musicians’ ways, start with what they hear.”

That sounds about right. Graves may be a singular player, a guy who doesn’t just jump over the boundaries, but never sees them. So collaborating with a band seems like it will be no different than collaborating with psychedelic mushrooms or Boosahda and Patterson.

“We have a ton of unfinished material with great potential,” he adds. “We play these licks over and over again. The baby wants to be born.”

Debut Album: Overman’s Odyssey Calls Him Home

willovermanGrowing up in Virginia Beach, Will Overman picked up the guitar at an early age thanks to his dad. When his father turned 40, they decided to learn an instrument together.

“A big part of our relationship has been music,” he says. “It’s just always been festering throughout my life and has grown to be something I hold very dear.”
Those lessons started Overman on a winding journey both through the geography of the East and the craft of songwriting that led this month to the release of The Will Overman Band’s self-titled debut album.

“I think that once I tasted it and started performing and being able to express myself, I just couldn’t stop,” Overman says from Charlottesville, where he’s a rising senior majoring in sociology (and playing in a traveling band). “I played sports when I was younger. I had other endeavors. I’m a big backpacker. But as I thought about other life paths, nothing ever seemed as fulfilling and satisfying.”

He writes because he has to write, he adds, quoting a Springsteen line about even if he was an electrician or a plumber, he’d still come home to write every night.

Overman’s physical journey on the way to building the band and completing the album began with writing songs at home in Virginia Beach.

“Son,” the first single, began when he was 16. It appeared on his solo EP, but was rerecorded for the album and included at the insistence of the band. Now, it sounds like Springsteen-gone-country on “Tunnel of Love.” Overman’s world-weary vocals are framed by a sighing pedal steel.

“That was the kind of song through high school when we all drank too much, we would pull out the guitar and play it,” he adds. “It was definitive of that era of my life.”

After high school, Overman hiked the Appalachian Trail, then headed off to the University of Vermont. He lasted one semester. He returned to Virginia, went to community college in Charlottesville, and then enrolled at UVA. “I definitely took the scenic route through college,” he cracks.

In Charlottesville, Overman knew he wanted to start a band. So he did what every Internet savvy musician does: he posted an ad on Craigslist.

Guitarist Daniel McCarthy, who is classically trained, joined him first. They played as a duo for a while before the wild card, drummer Chis Helms, was added to the deck. Helms, who is welder a few decades older than Overman, knew the friend of a friend from Virginia Beach. He came, he played, he stayed. A backup singer played a few gigs but couldn’t commit to the group. Then Brittney Wagner came to see them play and ended up joining to sing. That was it. She signed on.

Bass player J Wilkerson didn’t arrive until the winter of 2014. The band went a long time playing without one. In the interim, Overman made it through two rounds of The Voice auditions in Nashville in 2013. He was interviewed by producers, but was not chosen to be on the show.

“I learned that I really wanted to make music and build what it stood for organically,” he says. “That almost seems antiquated in the current music climate. But I really think there is a lot of value in a band scraping their way through, earning their fans one at a time. The music I want to write and I want to create is made for that process. “

The band created a Kickstarter campaign with a $10,000 goal. They surpassed that quickly, reaching $12,000 to record and release the album on CD and download. “We luckily have a pretty devout following for how long we’ve been around,” Overman says.

He says The Beatles made him a music fan, but he’s loved The Avett Brothers since childhood. “My number one influence,” he adds. “They still are. Loved their raw energy. Seeing them live made me love that band. Their live influence is more so than the writing. I try to take that raw live performance and apply it to our shows.”

He ticks off a list of top shelf songwriters as influences. Ryan Adams, Guy Clark, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Josh Ritter and The Woods Brothers.

He likes to stay up late, writing when the birds stop singing and everyone is asleep. “I can think and be critical, write my better songs,” Overman says.

The songs for the album were road tested, ridden long and hard on trips down to Nashville and up to New York and Philadelphia as well as bars and festivals that should not have been called festivals, he jokes. “Anything to get our name out there,” he adds. Overman scheduled his classes Monday through Thursday so the band could hit the road for long weekends. He also worked a part-time job, but confesses he’s since been fired for missing work.

The sound fits his influences with the foot-stomping folk-rock energy of the Avetts on a cut like “All I Say,” but the introspection and craft of a Guy Clark on a cut like “The Gravedigger.” It’s an effort that from beginning to end makes you want to hit replay as soon as the final notes of the last cut, “Pilot Mountain,” fade. The disc is not just a promising band debut; it’s a catchy, accomplished album.

They recorded at Monkeyclaus in Roseland beginning in February and adding the final touches in May. Throughout, there’s a Virginia vein in songs like “Assateague Island,” “Ode to Virginia” and “Pilot Mountain.”

“Pilot Mountain” was born on a road trip as the band drove back through North Carolina and saw it in the distance. They hopped off the Interstate and onto backroads, a decision that featured watching a mama bear and her cubs and a jump into the New River.

“It was revitalizing. It got us ready for our next gig, which just happened to be in an empty room with just bartenders,” he says. “That song means a lot to every person in the band.”

Jason Isbell Savors the Time to Dig Deep

isbell-something-more-than-free ‘Cause a hammer needs a nail
And the poor man’s up for sale
Guess I’m doin’ what I’m on this earth to do

And I don’t think on why I’m here where it hurts
I’m just lucky to have the work
And every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt
But I thank God for the work

 

Don’t worry about Jason Isbell feeling the pressure after releasing two solo albums as good as any created in the past decade.

“I signed up for it,” he says by phone one Saturday afternoon. “I’m not going to sit around now and say people giving a shit makes it harder to keep doing. I’ll fight that urge. That’s a battle I’ll win. This is what I wanted. I’m not going to let it get ruined by any bullshit pressure that I might put on myself. “

This is what it’s like talking to Jason Isbell. Forthright. Reflective. Honest. This is the guy who topped Billboard’s Rock, Folk, and Country album charts when his latest, “Something More Than Free” was released last year.

Great artists have that rush of creativity at the highest level. Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime sideman, likes to talk about 100 songs. Dylan, Springsteen, The Stones, Zeppelin, Paul Simon, Lucinda Williams. All had that string of consistently stellar output.
Isbell seems on his run now with 2013’s “Southeastern,” the Grammy winner for best Americana album, and last year’s “Something More…,” which featured a move into rocking territory with “24 Frames,” the first single.

Does Isbell think he’s found something that’s raised his art to another level?

“I have more time. I think that’s what happens when you’re sober,” he says. “You realize you have as much time in the day as anybody who’s ever done anything. Before that, I spent many, many hours out of every day either recovering from the night before or getting drunk again.”

Isbell, who plays Chrysler Hall on June 22, famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Amanda Shires (now his wife and the mother of his daughter) and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life.

“The songs that came easily and quickly would be just as good as the ones that come easily now,” he adds of those days. “But the ones I had to spend time working on and actually edit and really bear down on that (are the ones) I became a lot more capable when I sobered up. I had more time to work on them.”

On his last two albums, he says the high points aren’t much higher than on his three previous discs. “But the songs in between are a helluva lot stronger,” he says.

In an industry that rewards throw-away pleasures like the drivel from Florida Georgia Line or the latest one-hit, auto-tuned pop confection, Isbell makes no apologies for writing songs that cause listeners to pause and think.

Is he ever intimidated sitting down to write?

“Oh yeah. Some projects are terrifying. Sometimes you have something you want to say that’s very complex, a story you want to tell that has a lot of angles to it,” he says. “I think if you don’t feel that way every once in a while, then you’re not challenging yourself.”

In “Elephant,” he wrote about a woman dealing with cancer. In “Dress Blues,” he told the story of a high school friend, Marine Cpl. Matthew Conley, who was killed in Iraq by an explosive device in 2006. In “24 Frames,” he reflects on how quickly things can change. “You thought God was an architect, now you know,” he sings. “He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

He talks about being able to access “those parts of yourself that sometimes you keep hidden.”

“Once you go through the arduous process of confronting your own fears and learning how to communicate with yourself and other people, it can’t help but inform the work,” he adds.

Becoming sober made that easier.

He writes year round, not just for an album. He writes, he says, to explore things that seem intolerable, to unpack them, and explain them to himself.

“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 says. “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 any more.”

 

 

A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun you can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more tried to shoot out the sun
Days when we raged, we flew off the page such damage was done
But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone
So girl, leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room
Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good

Isbell is a family man. He and Shires, who has her own solo career, but also plays in his band, recently purchased a place 45 minutes out of Nashville. They have a daughter less than a year old.

He says he gets more excited by things like looking to buy a tractor these days. He grew up in Greenville, Alabama, to parents who were not well educated on paper. But they could carry on a conversation with anyone. He started reading early on and still does, judging by his social media feeds and his list of favorite writers. Jennifer Egan, Peter Matthiessen, Adam Johnson, and Dennis Johnson are among the names he mentions.

His daughter is an easy baby so far.

“Will Johnson, a good friend and a great songwriter, said it’s really a psychedelic experience (having a child). It’s a lot like being on LSD and staring at your face in the mirror,” Isbell says. “That has made sense in a whole lot of ways.”
He says he watches her pick up a toy and figure out not only that it’s a toy, but also something not attached to her hand. She starts from scratch with every experience.

“It’s changed my whole way of seeing the world. It changes everything,” he adds about his daughter. “It’s supposed to.”

Are you living the life you chose
Are you living the life that chose you
Are you taking a grown up dose
Do you live with a man who knows you
Like I thought I did back then
But I guess I never did
Did I kid?

He says he likes being big enough to play arenas in some areas, but prefers to play multiple nights in a theater. “Some of the best nights I’ve ever had as a musician happened in rooms where nobody could hear a single word I’m saying,” he says.

Having his own sound crew and equipment so it sounds great night after night, “means the world to me.”

Isbell compares Americana today with the punk of yesterday because fans demand legitimacy. “You get the sense the number one thing for most fans is for it to be legitimate, to honor the roots, and not give a shit about anything else,” he adds.

Isbell is all over social media. Check out his Twitter and Facebook feeds. He pimps songwriters he likes including WIlliam Tyler, Courtney Barnett, and Hayes Carll. He mentions Monk and pal Sturgill Simpson in the same breath. He trades bus nacho recipes with Rosanne Barr. He cracks Game of Thrones jokes.

“That’s another one of those things being sober really comes in handy,” he says. “It’s a dangerous world out there for people who drink, especially on social media. That’s like driving. There was a time when I just couldn’t do it after dark. Now. I like it a lot.

“I have a lot of time to sit and think. Not everything strikes me as inspiration for a song. Sometimes, I just want to get it out. I think with the kind of music I’m making, the kind of career that I have, the more people know about me personally, the more they wind up rooting for me.”

He also thinks he’s showing another side of him, one not heard in his songs. “My personality is very different on a day-to-day basis from what people hear in song,” Isbell adds. “If they only hear the songs, they might think I’m a sad sonofabitch. That’s not the case at all.

“Most of the time, it’s all a comedy to me. I put songs out there when I’m focusing and trying to explain things. It gets very heady and very serious, but the rest of the day, I’m pretty much a jackass. “

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