Magic Moments: A Decade of House Concerts

It was the nightmare I’d feared for over a decade of hosting 60 house concerts: a rogue storm, threatening almost from the time Tara Nevins and Carol Elizabeth Jones took the stage, finally unleashed a torrent about an hour into the show.

Oh, it had rained before on nights I’d hosted shows at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts, but we always either had rented a tent or put the performers in the spacious wood garage. Hours earlier, my sound man and I, coddled by the clear forecast, had decided to set up outside under blue skies.

By the time the sheet of water descended, we’d covered the stage with one canopy and the sound board with another. People raced to shelter onstage, in the garage, and in the house. “We should go inside and just play acoustic,” Tara said, huddling onstage as people retrieved garbage bags to cover the instruments.

Fans with umbrellas and garbage bags ferried others inside during the deluge. There was food. There was drink. I shared bottles of Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek that I’d stashed away for the after-show. The air conditioning couldn’t keep pace; makeshift fans were fashioned.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth fixed themselves a fresh drink and sat in front of the living room fireplace. Furniture was pushed to the walls and people crowded in, many settling on the floor at their feet, a new fashioned bluegrass sit-in. Others crammed the entryway and the nearby dining room, some talking, others jockeying for a spot closer.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth played, and played, and then, when they wanted to finish, the crowd begged for one more, an old fiddle tune. A couple who attends nearly every show sat cross-legged right in front, fanning them as the music got hotter and hotter. A Donna the Buffalo fan, at his first North Shore Point show, swayed against the rear wall, occasionally singing along, encouraged by the Woodford Reserve and the moment. A daughter, up from Durham with her father, mouthed the lyrics to every song (Here is a link to their review of the evening).

They played everything they knew, outlasting the storm. With every song, every laugh or bit of applause, every shared nod, the evening became symbolic of the magic that’s happened time and again on these nights.

House concerts are many things. They’re about exploration, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new voice worth hearing. They’re about intimacy, a chance to break down the barrier between artist and audience. They’re often the only chance to get a coveted songwriter to play in this town (or many other towns, apparently; we’ve had fans travel from Nashville, Durham, D.C. and other far-flung locales for shows).

They’re about becoming a part of a community, meeting people with a shared interest in music — and maybe beer and wine and conversation. No doubt, dozens of those connections have been made at my house over the past decade. They’re about people like Bill, Mary, Mike, Wendy, Marc, Lou, Minnie, Gail, Sid, Ron, Gayle, Pat, Kelly, Russ, Barry, Charlie, Lisa, Ray, Sound Man Jim, and others who attend show after show, probably almost as much for the community as the music.
To me, house concerts, at least, my house concerts, ultimately are about these shared moments, moments created by the performer, but enabled by the setting and the community.

In the early days, artists and particularly their agents had to be convinced to book a house concert. Because of our attendance — we’ve had up 205 people at a show although a usual crowd is 80 to 100 — I’ve been able to make guarantees that made them easier to convince. Now, there are hundreds of house concert series, large and small, regularly and irregularly scheduled, across the country. They’re a part of the business plan for songwriters new and old. For every show we host, I could book five more.

At our series, all the donations at the door go to the artist. We front the money for sound, lights, chairs, when necessary, and a small stage when necessary. We do shows in three formats, outside, inside our spacious old garage, and in our living room, depending on the season and the demand for seats. Only a couple of times has the door failed to meet my guarantees and the one time the shortfall was serious happened to be the night a couple of regulars decided (not knowing) that they’d make a huge donation to help cover our costs. So, yes, each show is a nervy game of “will I cover the guarantee?,” but as host it’s my job to get the artists a decent payday.

The reward, of course, is being the maestro of those magic moments, so many over roughly 60 shows. We had a successful free trial run with Michael Lille, a superb songwriter native to Nofolk. The first show we booked asking for a donation came six months later and featured Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, a duo I’d heard on NPR. True to the shows that would follow, the informal setting encouraged them to try a song so new that Tracy read the lyrics from a notebook page. What I called the “dark womb” song appeared years later after Dave’s tragically early death on Tracy’s solo album as “Mother, I Climbed,” a haunting meditation on faith.

Indulge me looking back over a decade of the moments since that first show. Garland Jeffreys saying he didn’t need an introduction, then walking among the milling crowd, singing “Moonshine in the Cornfield” a cappella winding his way to the stage. Greg Trooper, master storyteller, mesmerizing on a chilly October night with a tale about a guy in a bar in Oklahoma, who during the break, told him he sounded just like one of his favorite songwriters, Greg Trooper.

Jeff Black bringing men to tears closing his first set with “Sunday Best” and “Gold Heart Locket. ” Jim Lauderdale saying the house had a “great vibe,” writing a song between sound check and the show, and then enduring an evening during which the electricity flickered during the first set until we realized the line into the house was literally burning out and ran extension cords to the side with good juice. Eliza Gilkyson‘s delight at returning — and then returning again. Kim Richey enchanted by her first house concert such that she sang until her voice surrendered (and then enchanted my children the next morning). She wasn’t the only first-timer. Garland Jeffreys, Dave Alvin, Steve Forbert, Marshall Crenshaw, Tom Russell, Tara Nevins, and others were house concert virgins who left converts.

There was Jason Ringenberg swinging his guitar and narrowly missing decapitating a front row fan and stomping the hardwood so hard with his boot heel that people checked for dents during halftime. Jimmy LaFave and band (a rare band show) coming into the garage on a threatening night and openly wondering if it could hold 90 people (including some outside space) and whether it was a good idea, then blowing the roof off during a summer shower and raving about the vibe and the community after the show. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell and band hitting on all cylinders on a raucous and sweltering night. Don Dixon and Marti Jones, together again, leading the audience singing “Praying Mantis” as a round. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s very young daughter singing on stage for the first time. Sam Baker showing up with John Fullbright and Natalia Zukerman, two artists I didn’t know well, and deciding it would be cool to sit in the round with Kevin Welch and play songs all night, which the four of them made memorable. Amy Rigby making some of the men in attendance noticeably uncomfortable with songs like “Balls,” “Cynically Yours,” and “Beer and Kisses.”

The guys in Jimmy LaFave’s band lingered after the show to talk with fans. “You’ve got a special thing going on here,” one veteran of the road said. We hear that a lot, and, like hearing a regular has discovered a new favorite artist, it never gets old.

There are the before show dinners, at their best a respite for good food and conversation (at their worst, when musicians are late, a rushed feast as fans file in). Peter Case remembered the seared salmon with champagne vinegar potato sauce and requested it the next time. Mary Gauthier, once a chef, offered a bow to the honey gingered pork tenderloin. Eliza Gilkyson gobbled up the black bean and rice salad. Madison Violet squirreled away the leftovers for the long, after-show road trip to Toronto.

After the show, there’s often bourbon and BS. Welch, Baker, and Fullbright sipping bourbon and discussing an artist’s responsibility to his audience. David Olney debating racism in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” firing bourbon-laced ice at his antagonist. Trooper telling tales about Dan Penn, finishing songs for Aretha by writing in a studio closet. Martin Stephenson and his dobro player sitting out back, joining with a few regulars with guitar to play until 3 a.m. 

Performers often suggest artists to book. Welch and Richey recommended David Olney, a songwriter I didn’t know Months later at the show, a regular sitting in the back stopped me to whisper: “This guy is **&^* incredible. Where did you find him?”

Those moments are why I’m still excited before every show, why I’ve already booked shows into 2012 with artists like Steve Forbert, Garland Jeffreys, Kim Richey who’ve been here before, and artists new to North Shore like Nora Jane Struthers, Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace and the legendary folk/blues master, Eric Andersen.

So I’m pouring two fingers of Knob Creek and raising a toast, not to the past,  but to the future and another decade of magic moments.

My Favorite Music of 2010

Here are the discs that were most memorable for me in 2010. If you like this kind of music, please check out my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, and get on the email list for 2011 shows.

Kevin Welch “A Patch of Blue Sky” (Music Road)

That Kevin Welch isn’t a household name is a crime for fans of finely wrought, soul-searching, and soul-touching songs. Welch has been writing for more than three decades and he’s a master songwriter, a son of Oklahoma (like Woody) who recently moved from Nashville to the hill country of Texas. “Blue Sky” is his first solo record in eight years (although he’s released a couple of must-have discs with buddies Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin during that time). It’s ten songs framed by his rich, expressive voice (listen to him take that breath at just the right time on “Answer Me That”) and tasteful Americana instrumentation (hey, he’s credited with inventing the genre).

Every cut is a highlight from the opener, “Come a Rain,” a litany of simple character statements – “Jesus was a pagan, Woody was a punk” – on through the soulful, gospel sounding title track that’s both hopeful and defiant and blessed with soaring harmonies by the Trishas, which include his daughter, Savannah. Dustin, his son, lends a major hand, helping with the writing and playing guitar. Welch has never shied from the tough questions, the broken hearts and broken dreams. Welch’s heartfelt writing is only part of what makes “Blue Sky” so compelling. His voice has gotten better, more emotional, over the years. He may have been through some rough times, but he can see the clouds parting on [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOXPovb8Yew]”A Patch of Blue Sky:”

Peter Wolf “Midnight Souvenirs” (Verve).

If you only know Peter Wolf from the late-era J. Geils Band hits, then you’re missing something, maybe everything. On “Midnight Souvenirs,” his first solo disc in eight years, he’s the master of ceremonies for a house rockin’ night of R&B (real, soulful analog R&B). Just try to stay in your seat. Wolf, the night owl, leads you through a long night into day of hip-shaking, love making (and breaking), and soul depraving time. Wolf chooses his dance partners well.

A duet with Nashville bad girl Shelby Lynne on“Tragedy” is a perfect marriage. The cut opens the album and announces we’re going to party over the sadness.  A mid-album folk rock turn by Neko Case on the fiddle-driven “The Green Fields of Summer” provides a welcome breather. And Merle Haggard indulges Wolf’s twang inclinations with the closing “It’s Too Late for Me.” (Wolf started his career as a DJ and I wonder if “Green Fields” pays homage to the folk classic while “Watch Her Move,” a rollicking piece of R&B makes a nod to Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “She Moves Me”).

Bruce Springsteen “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” (Columbia).

The deluxe boxed set is a revelation in several ways. First, there’s the newly released material, two discs of buoyant pop rock that ranges from the smolder or “Fire” (yes, written for Elvis who died during these sessions) to the rocking “Because the Night” to the Buddy Holly beat of “Outside Looking In.” The songs are so filled with pop overdubs and instrumentation that they’re jarring at first in contrast to the beautifully remastered disc of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Springsteen’s best album. In the accompanying notebook, there’s a song list suggesting Springsteen was listening to Elvis, Buddy Holly, Percy Sledge, Phil Spector’s girl groups, and the Animals during this period and the songs show those influences, sometimes on their sleeves. In a way, they’re the missing link between “Darkness” and “Born in the USA.”

The DVDs are excellent, especially the documentary on the making of the album, the live show from Houston in 1978 and other goodies, notably a searing version of “Badlands” live from Phoenix, 1978. The reproduced notebook with revision after revision of lyrics and song choices is an enlightening glimpse into Springsteen’s work ethic. More than anything, the set shows Springsteen’s inner editor and discipline. “Darkness” would have been a weaker album with any of the discarded cuts, including “Because the Night,” even though they’re superb songs. In the documentary, Springsteen says “Because” would not have fit as a love song and he didn’t feel he had the perspective and time to judge whether it was a good song or not. That’s the kind of internal discipline and focus that makes an artist great.

Darrell Scott “A Crooked Road” (Full Light).

I’ve been a fan of Scott’s since his “Aloha from Nashville,” but “Crooked Road” may be a career best and that’s saying something for the guy who spent part of this year playing in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy (after touring with Steve Earle last year). This two-disc set turns deeply inward for a mid-life meditation on family, love, longing, and where he’s headed. It’s a mile wide and a mile deep with plenty to ponder even as you tap your toe along with Scott’s fluid melodies and voice, which can range from comforting to ragged and raw (notably on the bluesy “Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.”)

Scott plays every instrument and sings layers of vocals on every cut. And he doesn’t just contribute the strings he’s famous for, but cello, piano, organ, accordion, bass, drum, and percussion. the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and others have made his songs hits but it’s clear from “The Crooked Road” that the best interpreter of Darrell Scott tunes is Darrell Scott.

Tift Merritt “See You on the Moon” (Fantasy).

Tift Merritt’s latest meditation opens with “Mixtape,” a catchy pop song driven by hand claps and framed by strings about making a mixtape for a potential lover, the narrator seeing herself “like a rare B-side.” It’s utterly captivating and it’s also utterly unlike anything else on the album.

Few artists have made an many stylistic turns in as few albums at Merritt, who debuted as an alt country chanteuse on “Bramble Rose,” then moved into mainstream blue-eyed rock and soul on the Grammy-nominated “Tambourine” before the quiet “Another Country.” “See You on the Moon” is an often revelatory album that walks the line between the best of her last two efforts.”Engine to Turn” and the Byrdsy “Six More Days of Rain” reach the edge of the catchiness found on “Tambourine.” “Never Talk About It,” guided by a strummed acoustic guitar, and “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight,” are spare, elegant, and beautiful. Merritt’s voice has grown quieter, more emotionally fragile over time. If “Tambourine” grabbed you and demanded attention, “Moon” sits back and beckons.

Tim O’Brien “Chicken & Egg” (Howdy Skies Records).

“Chicken & Egg” floats by so easily and tastefully, it’s tempting to underestimate the craft in Tim O’Brien’s playing and singing. Best known for his bluegrass playing in Hot Rize and other ensembles, O’Brien’s 13th album covers plenty of ground from the amusing title cut to remembrances of his mother and father, both of whom have died in recent years, to a serious hymn about sinners. “Not Afraid of Dyin’ ” is a moving collection of things O’Brien’s father said. The music meanders easily from swing to gentle rockabilly. There are well chosen covers and a typically hilarious “The Sun Jumped Up” with lyrics from Woody Guthrie set to O’Brien’s music.

Blue Rodeo “The Things We Left Behind” (TeleSoul)

It says something about Blue Rodeo’s Lower 48 profile that this fine double disc was released in their native Canada last November, but not in the States until a couple of months later. Why the group never rode the alt country wave of the 1990s that saw Wilco, The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and others emerge isn’t clear. Blue Rodeo has sold millions of albums up north, won a ton of Juno awards and regularly sells out arenas. Not so much here and that’s a shame. Especially because after a couple of treading-water releases, the band is back in excellent form this time out, moving easily from rockers to ballads to a couple of stretched-out jams on an ambitious double disc that clocks in at 80 minutes (two easily digestible albums).

Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, the songwriters and co-lead singers, have been penning great tunes for nearly 30 years. On The Things We Left Behind” there’s a sampling of roots styles here, from rockers to ballads and they all work. They explore influences ranging from The Beatles  — several cuts feature “Abbey Road”-era harmonies and guitar work — to the early Eagles/California sound of “Arizona Dust” to rockers like “Never Look Back” and “Candice,” which opens with a piano riff that instantly brings The Band to mind. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say these guys are direct descendants of The Band. Their writing has been consistently superb over a long period and now, as they look back on a life lived, it’s grown only deeper. “It’s such a small place you came from; it’s so far the other way that you’ve gone,” they sing on “Million Miles.”    Along with “Diamond Mine,” “Five Days in July” and “Lost Together,” “The Things We Left Behind” is essential, a return to form that shows the band still has plenty left.

Graham Parker “Imaginary Television” (Bloodshot).

The conceit behind this album, if you believe the press release (and I don’t), is that Graham Parker was asked to create a theme song for a television show. His offering was summarily rejected and that sent him off penning an album of tunes for non-existent shows, shows he’s outlined in the liner notes. To me, that sounds like the wiseass Parker just having one more laugh. The premises are amusing. Parker claims “Weather Report,” the disc’s rocking opener, is about a television series centered on an agoraphobic who’s obsessed with the Weather Channel. But his lyrics portray a man on the outside trying to figure it all out.

Whatever the motivation and creative juice, “Imaginary Television” is one damn fine, if often mellow, rock and roll record with Parker’s typically sneering wit looking at life after mid-life. Close listens — and this disc only gets better with each listen — reveals “Imaginary Television” is a song cycle about a man taking stock of who he is and where he fits as an artist, pamphleteer, and a husband and father. “I don’t feel comfortable inside my own skin,” he sings. “It doesn’t keep things in.”

Kim Richey “Wreck Your Wheels” (Thirty Tigers).

Kim Richey burst onto the scene 15 years ago as the next big thing in country music. But country music abandoned her (and country music) for arena rock retreads and, on her last few albums, Richey has abandoned country music, even alt country, for a quirky, introspective pop style the defies boundaries. Just listen to the opening title cut,  a slow-burning lament.

Richey spends a lot of time in London these days and “Wreck Your Wheels” has a post-Beatles feel to the instrumentation, which is colored at times by cello, flugelhorn, glockenwhatsit, and vibes. Recorded in Nashville with the band in one room, there is a compelling intimacy throughout. Her voice may be more beautiful and quietly captivating than ever, variously sexy and wise. The songs confront romantic heartache, a longtime Richey staple, but also explore maturity. All are co-writes with some of Nashville’s best, including Will Kimbrough, Mark Olson, Pat McLaughlin and Britain’s Boo Hewerdine. (Pay attention to the video. That’s my kids with the word “wouldn’t” at the 1:32 mark).

Megan McCormick “Honest Words” (Ryko).

Megan McCormick’s debut album opens with one of the best guitar riffs of the year, a brooding intro to the rockhouse raw”Shiver,” a tune Stevie Ray Vaughan would have been proud to play. McCormick,  a 24-year-old Nashville songwriter who grew up in Idaho and Alaska and studied bluegrass in college, has made a good, old fashioned electic rock record with touches of juke joint rock blues, k.d. lang’s atmosphere, and Bonnie Raitt’s heartfelt rock. Why it went largely unnoticed is baffling.

“Gonna sell my soul to the rock and roll” she sings on “Do Right,” a loping rock cut that, like so much of the album, insinuates itself effortlessly so you’re unconsciously tapping along. “Addiction” barrels along like a cut from an early Heart album. But there are also beautifully introspective numbers like “Wreck” and “Lonely Tonight,” a lush torch song. Throughout, McCormick’s guitar playing, rich and deep, highlights tune after tune. There’s nothing “alt” about McCormick’s disc, which may explain the lack of attention. But it’s a superb, promising debut.

Eric Brace and Peter Cooper “Master Sessions” (Red Beet Records).

“Master Sessions” is testimony to the magic that happens when you put two up and coming singer/songwriters and a small group of brilliant Nashville players and hit record. Brace, the creative force behind Last Train Home, and Cooper, an emerging solo artist, combine for more than the sum of their past.  The harmonies are unforgettable, classic, and touching. The covers are perfect from the opening version of a Seldom Scene favorite to Tom T. Hall’s “I Flew Over Our House Last Night.” The originals, including Cooper’s co-write with Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”) and the duo’s “Circus” fit with the classics. And the side players — the boys’ heroes — Lloyd Green (the Byrds, numerous others) on pedal steel and Mike Auldridge (Seldom Scene) on dobro. Nashville veterans Pat McInerney, Dave Roe (Johnny Cash) and Jen Gunderman (Jayhawks) help make this one of the irresistible surprises of the year.

Justin Townes Earle “Harlem River Blues” (Bloodshot).

This album is so unpretentious yet so sweeping in its view of America and its musical touchstones. From workers on the MTA to lovers on the wane, from Harlem to the mines of West Virginia, from The Replacements to rockabilly, from Woody folk to slow-burning soul, this disc shows the breadth of Earle’s interests. Earle seems to have taken all he’s digested and the experience of his previous albums and distilled it into this gem. And it needs to be said: “Workin’ for the MTA” is an instant classic.

His recent move to New York has only widened his wandering eye. Earle has a keen sense of character and a willingness to step out from under his famous father’s shadow. If he can keep the demons at bay, he has the potential to become the next great chronicler of the American experience.

The Record Road Test

There’s a ritual to road trips, whether for work or play. In the days or week before, I run through longtime favorites as well as the current playlist and decide what albums to bring along. I also usually burn a few mixtapes or grab a classic road mixtape or two, discs with titles like “Goofy Sing-Along 2” (yes, there was a 1, and a 3 and a 4) for a long family trip out West, or “Road Tunes 2003,” a classic that features Velocity Girl, Syd Straw, Josh Ritter, Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams, Peter Wolf, Dave Alvin and others.

This will be the first of an occasional road-test report of what worked and what didn’t out there on that ribbon of highway, endless skyway.

My road trip last week was an 800-mile, two-day romp along the Blue Ridge Parkway for an assignment. With all that time in the driver’s seat, I needed a stack of discs, some old, some new, taller than the late-summer corn.

After three hours, I turned on to the parkway just as the new one from The Weepies, “Be My Thrill,” was ending, and popped in Darrell Scott’s “A Crooked Road.” I’ve been a fan of Scott’s since his “Aloha from Nashville,” but I’d just gotten “Crooked Road” and I hadn’t heard it. From the first song, the title cut, I was hooked. Not only is it an excellent disc, moving from sparsely instrumented folk to growling rock, but it’s a great road disc. Scott recorded the two-disc set at home and played all the instruments.

In the first verse, he sings:
I walk a crooked road to get where I am going
To get where I am going I must walk a crooked road
And only when I’m looking back I see the straight and narrow
I see the straight and narrow when I walk a crooked road

The Blue Ridge Parkway, of course, is the ultimate crooked road so it was a perfect opener.

When he sang about hikes on the Blue Ridge on the second cut, the wistful “”The Day Before Thanksgiving,” I was hooked. “A Crooked Road” became my companion for much of my undulating ride a while, stop a while tour of the parkway. The disc is a mid-life meditation on family, love, and being on the road. It’s a mile wide and a mile deep with plenty to ponder even as you tap your toe along with Scott’s fluid melodies and voice, which can range from comforting to ragged and raw (notably on the bluesy “Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.”

Scott’s disc was the highlight, but not the only pleasure of the trip. David Olney’s latest, “Dutchman’s Curve,” opens with “Train Wreck,” another of his brilliant story songs and moves through his usual folk, blues, and rock even dipping into a little doo wop.  He’s at my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, later this month.

There were a couple of old favorites that reasserted themselves. Lucinda Williams’s Rough Trade debut, “Lucinda Williams,” remains a favorite. I fell easily into what I think is her best songwriting including “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” “Passionate Kisses,” “Big Red Sun Blues,” and “Changed the Locks.” I hadn’t listened to “Lost in the Lonesome Pines” by Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in years, but it was a perfect fit for the trip. How can you go wrong with Robert Hunter’s lyrics and Lauderdale and Stanley harmonizing?

A pleasant surprise was Ben Sollee’s 2008 disc, “Learning to Bend,” which I’d gotten just before the trip. Sollee is an Appalachian Andrew Bird, an occasionally polemical wit. “A Few Honest Words” is a worthy meditation on democracy and “Bury Me With My Car,” an amusing commentary on American life. “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain” is a keeper for rural road trips. Sollee is classically trained so the instrumentation includes cello, upright bass, and vibes.

I’d had Elizabeth Cook’s “Welder” for some time and, after a few listens, thought she might be a little too sweet-voiced country for me although her lyrics are anything but saccharine. But a few spins on rides through the valley on the southern part of the parkway won me over to her wit, humor and her occasional foray into rock soundscapes.  It’s a very good record (I love the cover of Hem’s “Not California”).

Jackie Greene’s latest, “Till The Light Comes” was a constant companion on my trip through Arkansas in early August and it returned for an encore. It’s an old fashioned ’70s rock and roll record with great harmonies backed by searing guitar work and tasty Hammond organ.  I’d say it’s headed for my Best of 2010 list.

Finally, The Weepies‘ “Be My Thrill” is as catchy a pop record as you’ll find this year. Great harmonies, fine melodies, and solid songwriting although I’m not convinced it’s the right record for a rural road trip.

The mixtapes for the trip didn’t get as much play as usual, but “House Concert 2011,” featured a wish list of folks I’d like to host including Greene, Kevin Welch, Tift Merritt, Graham Parker, Steve Forbert, and Madison Violet (who are booked for May 2011. The other is a regular road trip rotation disc, “Summer Soul 1,” the thing you pop in when you’re flagging. It opens with Billy Price’s version of Graham Parker’s “Hold Back the Night,” segues into Aretha’s “Respect” and then Sam & Dave’s “Hold On! I’m Comin’ ” and does not stop until 24 tracks later with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters” “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go.”

Summer Albums, Part 2, (the guys)

It’s past the half way point of 2010 so it’s about time I review four of my favorite albums of the past six months. Some were released recently, some in the spring. They’re all good for summer listening.

Kevin Welch “A Patch of Blue Sky” (Music Road)

That Kevin Welch isn’t a household name is a crime for fans of finely wrought, soul-searching, and soul-touching songs. Welch has been writing for more than three decades and he’s a master songwriter, a son of Oklahoma (like Woody) who recently moved from Nashville to the hill country of Texas. “Blue Sky” is his first solo record in eight years (although he’s released a couple of must-have discs with buddies Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin during that time) and it’s one of the year’s best, ten songs framed by his rich, expressive voice (listen to him take that breath at just the right time on “Answer Me That”) and tasteful Americana instrumentation (hey, he’s credited with inventing the genre).

Every cut is a highlight from the opener, “Come a Rain,” a litany of simple character statements – “Jesus was a pagan, Woody was a punk” – on through the soulful, gospel sounding title track that’s both hopeful and defiant and blessed with soaring harmonies by the Trishas, which include his daughter, Savannah. Dustin, his son, lends a major hand, helping with the writing and playing guitar. He prodded his father into finishing a poem, “A New Widow,” which is one of the album’s highlights. Welch has never shied from the tough questions, the broken hearts and broken dreams. On “Answer Me That,” he writes:

If love is the answer, what is the question
I still can’t get it right somehow
Where does it come from
What could it become
How can I find some right now
Answer me that

“Long Gone Dream” pines for a lost love. “Marysville” is about a town blown away by the fires of heaven. “The Andaman Sea,” perhaps the disc’s most beautiful cut thanks to Brian Standefer’s cello playing, looks out on that Thai sea and back on a relationship. On “The Great Emancipation,” he notes “blood runs deep, souls run deeper.” Welch’s heartfelt writing is only part of what makes “Blue Sky” so compelling. His voice has gotten better, more emotional, over the years. He may have been through some rough times, but he can see the clouds parting on “A Patch of Blue Sky:”

This is gonna pass me by
That’s all I know
Honey this ain’t my
First rodeo
Been a month of Sundays
Since you said goodbye
All I’m waitin’ on now
Is a patch of blue sky

Peter Wolf “MIdnight Souvenirs” (Verve).

If you only know Peter Wolf from the late-era J. Geils Band hits, then you’re missing something, maybe everything. On “Midnight Souvenirs,” his first solo disc in eight years, he’s the master of ceremonies for a house rockin’ night of R&B (real, soulful analog R&B). Just try to stay in your seat. Wolf, the night owl, leads you through a long night into day of hip-shaking, love making (and breaking), and soul depraving time. Sit back and let Wolf spin you a tale on the mostly spoken word yucks of “Overnight Lows.”

The guy has great taste and it shows although “Midnight” isn’t just an R&B homage. There’s plenty of cutting licks by guests Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Otis Rush) and Larry Campbell (Dylan, others). Sax and strings enter at just the right time on cuts like “The Night Comes Down” and “The Green Fields of Summer.” The lyrics are confessional, descriptive, and occasionally funny.

Wolf chooses his dance partners well. A duet with Nashville bad girl Shelby Lynne on “Tragedy” is a perfect marriage. The cut opens the album and announces we’re going to party over the sadness. Wolf pleads, but Lynne, as soulful as ever, is defiant; she’s not coming back. Cue the horns, guitars that would make Steve Cropper proud, and the late B-3 entry. A mid-album folk rock turn by Neko Case on the fiddle-driven “The Green Fields of Summer” provides a welcome breather. And Merle Haggard indulges Wolf’s twang inclinations with the closing “It’s Too Late for Me.” (Wolf started his career as a DJ and I wonder if “Green Fields” pays homage to the folk classic while “Watch Her Move,” a rollicking piece of R&B makes a nod to Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “She Moves Me”).

Wolf touches down on blues, gospel, country (listen Kris Delmhorst’s backing vocals and Campbell’s sighing guitar on “Then It Leaves Us All Behind)”, and rock. But everything moves you, including the lone cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do (Gonna be Funky).”. This is one to put on repeat and play all night long.

Blue Rodeo “The Things We Left Behind” (TeleSoul)

It says something aboutBlue Rodeo’s Lower 48 profile that this fine double disc was released in their native Canada last November, but not in the States until a couple of months later. Why the group never rode the alt country wave of the 1990s that saw Wilco, The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and others emerge isn’t clear. Blue Rodeo has sold millions of albums up north, won a ton of Juno awards and regularly sells out arenas. Not so much here and that’s a shame. Especially because after a couple of treading-water releases, the band is back in excellent form this time out, moving easily from rockers to ballads to a couple of stretched-out jams on an ambitious double disc that clocks in at 80 minutes (two easily digestible albums).

Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, the songwriters and co-lead singers, have been penning great tunes for nearly 30 years. On “The Things We Left Behind” they trade lead vocals from song to song with each disc coming in at about 40 minutes. There’s a sampling of roots styles here, from rockers to ballads and they all work. They explore influences ranging from The Beatles — several cuts feature “Abbey Road”-era harmonies and guitar work — to the early Eagles/California sound of “Arizona Dust” to rockers like “Never Look Back” and “Candice,” which opens with a piano riff that instantly brings The Band to mind.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say these guys are direct descendants of The Band. Their writing has been consistently superb over a long period and now, as they look back on a life lived, it’s grown only deeper. “It’s such a small place you came from; it’s so far the other way that you’ve gone,” they sing on “Million Miles.”

“We thought we had two records, one that could be like a ‘daytime’ record, and one that could be ‘night time’ with more moody pieces on it, or would be a bit more jammy. By the time we laid the songs out it seemed that idea would do a disservice to them, so we finally had to commit to doing a double record, with each disc being the traditional length of an album, 40 or 45 minutes,” Cuddy said of the album. “While we were at the point of deciding all of this, Thom Yorke made his big pronouncement that the album was dead, albums are boring, we’ll never participate in that again, and we’ll only be doing singles. That made us think there couldn’t be a better time then to make a double album. If Thom Yorke said that, then we’ve gotta do the opposite.”

Along with “Diamond Mine,” “Five Days in July” and “Lost Together,” “The Things We Left Behind” is essential, a return to form that shows the band still has plenty left.

Graham Parker “Imaginary Television” (Bloodshot).

The conceit behind this album, if you believe the press release (and I don’t), is that Graham Parker was asked to create a theme song for a television show. His offering was summarily rejected and that sent him off penning an album of tunes for non-existent shows, shows he’s outlined in the liner notes. To me, that sounds like the wise ass Parker just having one more laugh. The premises are amusing. Parker claims “Weather Report,” the disc’s rocking opener, is about a television series centered on an agoraphobic who’s obsessed with the Weather Channel. But his lyrics portray a man on the outside trying to figure it all out.

“Hey, can you tell me where everybody’s going to,” he sings on “Weather Report.” “They’re out there on the street. They must be elite. They got shoes I can’t afford on their quick fast feet. They have modified irises behind opaque lenses. They’re hiding equipment behind barbed wire fences. They’ve got this high end electronic stuff I wouldn’t know how to work…I’m sitting there on my couch, my enthusiasm sinking. Don’t know where everybody’s going; don’t know what they’re thinking. There seems to be some secret everybody’s on to, but I just don’t seem to get it, man, not even if I want to.”

Whatever the motivation and creative juice, “Imaginary Television” is one damn fine, if often mellow, rock and roll record with Parker’s typically sneering wit looking at life after mid-life. The arrangements are simple, emphasizing Parker’s words and melodies. And while the tone strikes you at first as light, there’s a dark underbelly. What else would you expect?

Close listens — and this disc only gets better with each listen — reveals “Imaginary Television” is a song cycle about a man taking stock of who he is and where he fits as an artist, pamphleteer (read Parker’s fiction and blogs for grins as well as The Graham Parker Show) and a husband and father. Just listen to him: “I don’t feel comfortable inside my own skin,” he sings. “It doesn’t keep things in.”

Over the loping reggae beat of “See Things My Way,” he acknowledges “There is more than one of me” before assuring his wife that “I’ll be there for you and you know that’s true. I just can’t guarantee which one of me that will be so see things my way.”

On the sardonic “Bring Me a Heart Again,” he sings, “I got some courage and I got a brain, straw man though I may be. But long ago I felt my empathy wane. Bring me a heart again. ”

On “Always Greener,” he tells the tale of a man with “something lacking in his life, but he can’t define it. Three kids, two cars, a house, a wife. I guess that defines me. The grass is always greener. On “It’s My Party (But I Won’t Cry,” a riff on the Lesley Gore song, he is again on the outs, left only “chocolate and warm beer. ”
Even the lone cover of Johnny Nash’s “More Questions Than Answers” fits: “The more I find out, the less I know” is the key line.

Throughout the melodies are simple and catchy and, as always, Parker dips into a variety of genres to color his works.

Behind every wise guy, of course, is a sentimentalist. And Parker closes with a pledge to his son on “1st Responder.” “I’ll turn up in a hybrid or a Hummer or a Honda,” he promises. ” I’ll be your first responder. A wicked Maserati, a Kia or Hyunda. I’ll be your first responder.”

Parker made a lot of noise in the ’70s and ’80s, but never made the breakthrough. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to put pen to paper, even as his subjects and his perspective changes.

Jimmy LaFave at North Shore Point House Concerts

My house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts in Norfolk, will be hosting Jimmy LaFave on August 1.

I’ve wanted to book Jimmy for a long time. He’s the real deal, a Texas songwriter and one of the most soulful singers around. Listen to his “Rain Falling Down.”

His  “River Road”  is another beautiful cut.

He is also the driving force behind the Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway show that brings Woody Guthrie’s music and words to stages.

For more information, go to the house concert web site or email jim@northshorepoint.com.

Like last month’s show with Kevin Welch, Sam Baker, Natalia Zukerman, and John Fullbright, this one isn’t to be missed.

North Shore Point House Concerts: Kevin Welch and Sam Baker on Saturday

The forecast is for good weather for the next show at North Shore Point House Concerts on Saturday, June 26 at 8 p.m. with Kevin Welch (www.kevinwelch.com) and Sam Baker (www.sambakermusic.com) with Natalia Zukerman and John Fullbright supporting.

This is basically a four-for-one show. Each of these artists could headline a house concert alone.

Send an email to jim@northshorepoint.com, sign your full name, and let us know how many seats you’d like. You’re free to bring friends, lots of them.

The donation is $20. (although you can pitch in more — all the money goes to the artists). As always, you may arrive early and picnic, converse, and otherwise enjoy the company.

Kevin’s new album, “A Patch of Blue Sky,” his first solo release in eight years, will be debuted at the show. He’s merely one of the guys who started the Americana movement, not to mention being one of the first songwriters to start a label. He’s one of the great American songwriters with a rich expressive, voice.

If you need any further convincing, here are videos from them.

Kevin doing his new one, “Answer Me That:”

Sam doing “Sweetly Undone” with Gurf Morlix:

Natalia doing “Brand New Frame” with Willy Porter:

We hope to see you as part of the house concert community on Saturday night.