Squeeze Returns Stronger Than Ever

squeeze-2016 Ok, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, the songwriters in the sublime pop/rock band Squeeze, repeatedly were labeled the next Lennon and McCartney during the 1980s.

It was not a publicist’s hype. Their songs were catchy. It seemed like you’d heard them before from the first spin. The melodies wormed into your head and stayed for days and days. The lyrics explored everything from meditations on love to fractured internal monologues. The sophisticated songs shifted from slow burns like “Black Coffee in Bed” to the wacky, pulsing “Pulling Mussels from a Shell” to the Stones-country-era twang of “Labelled with Love.” The Velvet Underground’s John Cale and Elvis Costello produced albums for them.

But they never became superstars. And then it came apart, as it does for so many groups. Difford is sober and has been for years, but in those days he had a rapacious appetite for booze and drugs.

Difford and Tilbrook didn’t speak for nine years. Difford focused on management and writing for others. Tilbrook toured, paying his dues again, solo and with a Squeeze-like group, The Fluffers.

They got together, then broke up. Then tried to write again and failed.

“I thought after that after the last time we split up, I was pretty sure that was it,” Tilbrook says by phone.
It wasn’t. Television — the BBC — brought them together one more time.

When the BBC decided to turn the autobiography of TV reporter, host, and DJ Danny Baker into a comedy series, they approached the duo.

Difford and Tilbrook had not written together since a try at one song in 2004. They gave it one more try and this time, they reconciled. Slowly. “I’d come on as a writer. I respected what Chris had done (since then),” Tilbrook says. “It was important to have that time apart and the experience of learning something new. Still it was hard to get started. It was hard to get properly working in the same room. That took a while.”

Their first song, “Cradle to Grave,” became not only the title to the album first Squeeze album in 17 years, but the title of the series. The producers were thrilled.

So was Tilbrook. “I thought that’s right up there with everything we’ve done,” he says after finishing the tune. “It had a sort of joyfulness to it, a bounce to it, things that are quite important to Squeeze.”

Over about six months, the two wrote about 25 songs, most for the television show, which is based in the 1970s when Barker is going to school as a young boy. The time coincides with the period that when Squeeze was forming after Tilbrook answered an ad that Difford posted on a sweet shop window in southeast London.

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“The BBC series gave us the impetus, A, not only to write, but, B, we created a more nostalgic record than we would have otherwise,” he says. “See, we shared a lot of those experiences. It was fun. Our job was to look back on that time.”
From the bouncy beat of “Cradle” to the keyboard disco opening of “Nirvana” to the soulful story of a wedding in “Open” to the New Wave-y groove of “Honeytrap,” the album sits easily alongside “East Side Story,” “Argybargy,” and “Sweets from a Stranger.”

While the songs were inspired by the script, they also stand as album tracks. In fact, Tilbrook notes that “Open,” about a wedding on the show is really about Difford’s wedding. “I knew what it was when I read it,” he says. “It’s about Chris’s wedding where he and I both disappeared. It’s a very emotionally-charged occasion. To see him settle down with his wife. It was just lovely.”

The two had long promised new material after getting together to play as Squeeze in 2007. “We’ve been back together since then, but the always difficult thing was going to be moving forward,” Tilbrook says. “Up until about four years ago, we were the best Squeeze tribute band playing the songs faithfully.”

He says Brian Wilson does that and does it well. So it wasn’t horrible. “”If you pay attention to detail and also remember it’s got to be fun. It’s not just the thing you do to subsidize your life. It’s got to be with a passion,” he adds. “Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”

But the new record means a future, not just a past for Squeeze. They’ve already recorded one song for a new album and will get together to write a new record next year. “We’re proud of our history,” he says. “We don’t ignore it. But the thing that propels us forward is there’s a current thing (album) that stands up to the rest.”

The set list features a healthy dose of the classics with a few from the new disc thrown in. So far, one of the group’s great almost-lost songs, “Annie Get Your Gun,” has not appeared. It was a casualty of their first breakup. The two had written it and “Action Speaks Faster,” offering the group to choose one. Squeeze chose “Annie,” while “Action” ended up on the Tilbook and Difford duo disc.

When they got to the studio to record “Annie,” the engineer had set up the backing tracks. “I’m very proud of that record,” Tilbrook says. “It was made on a Fairlight (an early computer music synthesizer) and we just sang on top of it (the track),” he says. “So it was a bit like being on The Monkees. Of course, the way it was going, the writing was on the wall.”

They broke up before the Squeeze album with the song was released, then got back together a few years later, lasted for a handful more albums, and then split again in 1999.

Difford and Tilbrook are the only original members in the band, but then Squeeze has always been a revolving-door band. “We’re in such a good place,” he says. “The band is incredible. I think the album reflects that.”

Tilbrook also thinks he brings different things to the band and the writing room. He wrote with Ron Sexsmith, Aimee Mann and others. The split freed him to do more touring solo and with The Fluffers, who are now essentially the rest of Squeeze. “It was really back to basics,” he says. “We were sleeping on people’s couches. I was paying my dues all over again. That’s what I wanted to do. I really wanted to be an accountable musician.”

Now, he’s a musician with accountants. The new album is a hit in the UK. “So to be where we are now — this record has done better than any other Squeeze record — is quite amazing. People are going crazy for us like we’re a new band. It’s a strange and humbling experience, but a really beautiful one.”

Squeeze with The English Beat Monday, Oct. 10 at The NorVa.

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Arts Coverage in Hampton Roads: It’s DIY Time

DSC_9209    I went to the discussion on arts coverage at the Wells Theatre last night expecting there to be, well, a discussion about arts coverage in this day when mainstream media like The Virginian-Pilot and The Daily Press are in a deep decline.

    Instead, a good bit of the hour was devoted to things like the “golden price point” for attracting an audience, who to contact and how to get your press release read, and why black audiences, by and large, don’t frequent the arts.


Oh, there was one lone voice literally in the back calling for a regional arts website, mostly to list jobs and auditions. A great start and more on that later.


What’s clear is the dramatic and continued decline in local arts coverage by the big players means arts organizations will have a harder time getting out their message in the old ways. The Virginian-Pilot, slashing costs as it dismantles Pilot Media and tries to sell the paper (or slowly euthanize it), cut loose two longtime arts writers last month. What’s left is a features staff of four that includes a food writer, a music writer (who apparently will be pressed into more general arts coverage), and a couple of others. The Daily Press has gone from seven feature writers to three and it’s Peninsula-centric.


The fact is the local newspapers no longer have the staff or the space to feature much of anything, especially not every worthy arts story. Even the very limited space they do have is sometimes devoted to trivial coverage, hoping to seem relevant to young readers, things like a full page in last week’s Pulse, the increasingly thin entertainment section, about the odd faces made by Haim’s bassist. Sorry Mr. Little Theater of Virginia Beach who complained about not getting ink, The Pilot is desperately trying to attract readers under 65. You’re out of luck.


The other media outlets represented on the panel can’t do much either. AltDaily, which was swallowed by Pilot Media earlier this year, is essentially an unedited volunteer publication where contributors write for free about what interests them. The New Journal and Guide is another publication with a limited audience featuring stories written gratis.
Veer, where I contribute a few music stories for fun, is a monthly so it’s not always easy to be timely. It has tripled in size over five years and is probably the best bet for arts organizations looking for coverage. But it only has so much space.

So what’s the answer?

Content marketing to an online hub, a local arts media cooperative.

It’s up to arts organizations — theaters, music venues, galleries — to create their own content, something newspapers traditionally have done. I’m sorry, but if you don’t do it, no one will.Chryslermuseum

I’m not talking about press releases. With few exceptions, they are a waste of time and energy that will only go into the trash bin. I’m talking about journalism. Stories, question and answer pieces, essays, galleries of photography, videos (or links to videos), previews, reviews. All the cool kids are doing it. The mainstream media gatekeepers are dead (or on their deathbeds).

Create the content and then market your performance, exhibit, etc. through a web site and all the attendant social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. The bonus is marketing your organization in this way also appeals to the younger audience arts groups so desperately need to attract (WHRO’s Bert Schmidt noted last night that he’d never seen such a young audience in the Wells Theatre).

   Technology has opened this window to your audience. Seize it.

  There’s no way around it: this will take money and talent, cooperation and organization.

    Here are a few ideas how to accomplish it.

    — Create an umbrella web site with funding by arts organizations from the seven cities. Hire an editor and probably a social media assistant to assign and edit stories by writers, photographers, and graphic artists who would be paid. Yes, paid. Paying writers is the only way to get attractive, consistent content. Organizations that did not have the money could contribute material they generate, but it would be edited to ensure a good product.

The site could provide material — for a fee — to the media outlets listed above. Ads could be sold although online advertising is notoriously unprofitable. In addition, each organization could use the material on its site. Yes, having the same story on multiple sites could be annoying to some readers, but the benefits of attracting more views outweighs that issue.

The site would be organized by genre — movies, plays, music, art, etc. — so browsers could quickly go to their interests. (It might look something like No Depression, a rowellsots music site with editors and paid and unpaid contributors).
There could be a calendar component, a Wiki which arts organizations would maintain. As Bert Schmidt said last night, having a staffer maintain a calendar is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Yes, arts leaders, we know you rely on volunteers and this would add to your load, but if folks don’t know about your event, your volunteer work is going to waste. The site would also have a component for local artists listing auditions, jobs, open mics, etc. as suggested by the guy in the back last night.

Again, the jobs and calendars components would have to be contributor-driven. Some of these things are being done. Bob Batcher mentioned that Norfolk arts folks get together monthly and go over their schedules. Several musicians maintain a web site and Facebook page about local events, open mics. etc. Tapping into those resources would be key.

If arts organizations each threw in some dollars and arts patrons in the cities added more, the funding might be easier than it seems. Or not. What’s the budget? I don’t know. Creating one would only be worth the time if the organizations were serious about creating content and collaborating.

       — An alternative would be to make Veer the arts publication for the region and support it with grants, ad sales, etc. to increase coverage and circulation. I’m not saying this because I write for Veer. Trust me, Jeff Maisey doesn’t pay me enough to pimp for him. It’s the only print/online alternative that has the space and a crew of professional writers. Maisey and I have not discussed this idea so he may not embrace it.  Veer is a very small operation and may not have the capacity to meet the need.

— Finally, arts organizations could go it on their own, creating content for their sites and marketing it online. Some folks in town seem to do this very well. Alchemy NFK comes to mind. But this would not be nearly as effective as a collaborative site. By working together, arts organizations will increase the overall size of the pot and the individual size of their audiences.

     Reading back over this, I’ve definitely been blindly optimistic. I’m sure the idea has more than a few flaws. The scope is so big it will be unwieldy (not to mention there will always be people who think they’re not getting the coverage they deserve).

Can this work? Sure. Initiatives like it have succeeded in other areas, albeit more narrowly-defined regions with a single city center. Will people dig in and make it work? I’ve no idea.

What do you think?

Sons of Bill Arrive with “Love and Logic”

AWP-2014_SonsOfBill-5388James Wilson, one of the three brothers in Charlottesville’s Sons of Bill, thinks the band’s fourth disc, “Love and Logic,” marks their arrival as a group. Wilson, along with brothers Sam and Abe, hooked up with former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer in Nashville as producer for the effort, which is one of the best deep listens of the year, an album that moves easily from acoustic Americana to ’80’s alt rock.

After a decade together, the band, which comes to The Parlor on Granby Street on Dec. 11, has matured and found its footing by being willing to take chances and follow their instincts. While they cross genres, the new record has the feeling of the original alt country bands of the 1990s who were steeped in a roosty foundation, but not constrained by boundaries. As Wilson says, it’s ok to like Merle Haggard and The Cure, John Prine and Pink Floyd. They owe those deep country roots to their father and the band’s namesake, Bill Wilson, a longtime associate professor of philosophical theology at the University of Virginia, who played music in town at clubs and even a local pizza parlor.  James Wilson, one of his three oldest sons who formed the band about a decade ago, recently took time to discuss the album and the group’s trajectory.


This is your fourth record. Was the process different for this one?

It was different. I think when we made (the third record) “Sirens” we were kind of in a weird personal and professional situation. There was just a lot of self-imposed pressure and nervous energy. I’m still proud of the record, but I think you can hear that — or, at least, I can. It sounds like a band a little bit unsure of itself.

The record came out and we parted ways with management and our agency. We were just kind of lone gunmen. We weren’t really sure how we were going to make a record really, whether we were going to be able to do it, who was going to do it. 

Ken (Coomer of Wilco) heard a song on a 45 on vinyl we put out for Record Store Day. He just said come down for a weekend and let’s make a record, let’s see how it feels. We knew the songs were different and we knew we wanted to get do a different place so working with him — you know, Wilco one of these bands that changes a lot record to record, always honing in, trying to explore new influences. We knew we wanted to do that with this record and he really helped us find our path.

How did he come across the 45?

We were talking with folks in Nashville about management and labels. We were free agents with nobody behind us and one of his friends thought he would like it.

We went down and we cut “Brand New Paradigm” from top to bottom on a Saturday. It was a song we’d struggled with. We’d tried to produce it on our own (at a studio) in Richmond, but we kept kind of running into these walls. Band disagreements. We could not get to where we wanted to go. We knew there was one coherent sound. We just needed to start being musical again, to play music again like when nobody ‘s watching, what makes you want to play music in the first place. You always reach the most people when you do it for yourself. Not trying so hard. Not worrying about radio. Not worrying about labels. All that bullshit. We just sat down and made something. We had the songs. We made a record the six of us can be proud of.


What did he bring to the process that was different or new?

The main thing was just the mentality. He’s like don’t worry about your previous records. We have an amazing dedicated fan base, but he was like don’t even think about what they expect from you. When you hit these walls, these exciting walls, it’s a big unknown where this is going so let’s not think about radio, not think about fan bases or labels or the contemporary sound. Let’s get back to the basics. Why do you all want to be in a band in the first place? Let’s get back to that. That’s what we did in Wilco when we did “Summerteeth.” We weren’t think about anything else.

I was thinking that album is analogous to your album in its diversity.

It was definitely that kind of mentality. It’s, ok, you like Merle Haggard and The Cure. Or Pink Floyd and John Prine. Let’s let all these things have life on this record. Let’s just make something beautiful that we love.

Also on a technical level (with Coomer) we got into an old studio and tracked to tape, but we also went from mic to mix on each song before moving on. On “Sirens” we did the more traditional. We trackedAWP-2014_SonsOfBill-5831-cropped all the drums, then we tracked all the bass, then all the guitars which can kind of lead to a more monotonous sound. Whereas on this one we said we’re going to spend the next three days on this song and we’re not going to move on until the song is done which makes you think more creatively. Do you need drums on this song? Can Sam play guitar? Can Sam play piano? Sam played piano on a lot of the record. Abe played guitar on a lot of the record.

You’re worried, then, is the record going to hang together. I think it does. It’s very honestly us the whole way through. There’s bigger productions like “Brand New Paradigm” and then there’s songs like “Fishing Song,” for which Abe and I went into a room, sat across from each other, and sang. That’s one take.

Ken had the mentality that you guys are a career band. You’re kind of misfits in the Americana world and that’s ok. You don’t need to sound like The Avett Bros. You don’t need to sound like fucking Lumineers. So be true to yourself record after record and it’s going to work out. What he’s saying proved to be true the last three months. The record is reaching people it needs to reach.

How does the writing work? Do you each write and bring songs to the band?

On this record, we did more co-writing than ever. In the past, the records were predominantly my songs, but this one is all over the place. The brothers share writing pretty much equally. We just trusted each other to write together, just taking the songs and seeing where we could go with it, taking a lot of time with the writing. We sat on “Brand New Paradigm” and “Lost in the Cosmos” for a long time. We really paid a lot of attention to the lyrics. It felt like by far the most cohesive.

Which is why we didn’t want other players. We were in Nashville. We could have brought in other players. It was like, no, I’d rather have Sam play the piano and pedal steel and Abe play guitar.

It’s a rock and roll cliché, but it (“Love and Logic”) really does feel like an arrival point. It really does. As one writer put it: with “Sirens” we were saying here we are, look at us. With “Love and Logic” it’s quietly saying this is really what we want to say.


Three brothers in a band that’s been going on for a while now. Any sibling rivalries?

My brothers are my best friends. I’m in a band with them because I respect them so much musically.

When bands are getting ripped apart, brother bands, that only happens when the music isn’t your primary focus, when other things start to matter more. If it’s more about partying or money. We just want it to sound great at the end of the day. Abe wrote “Lost in the Cosmos” and he let met sing it because he cared about the music being as good as it can be. That’s something that takes a lot of trust and you have to have guys on the same page.

It’s also me saying maybe I’m not just the front man in the band and me letting my brothers take more of a role and seeing how great they are at it. I’m proud to be in a band like that. I wouldn’t want it to change. We do get along remarkably well, considering the potential for some kind of Credence Clearwater experience.

What about Nashville vs. Charlottesville?

I’m splitting time there. I like it that way. Nashville is a great city, but it’s also a very industry-focused city. It’s good to have an escape valve in both ways. I love my hometown. I love Charlottesville. We’re a Virginia band. You can hear it. You can see it. We always will be. But it’s also good to spend time in Nashville. And bring in a new sound. We’re not writing songs the way they’re writing songs in Nashville, certainly not in the country world or the rock and indie worlds as well. We have our own sound. I like being a Virginian in Nashville.

Tell me about some of the songs on the album: “Brand New Paradigm.”

Abe wrote it. I really admire Abe as a writer. Half the time I don’t know what he’s talking about so I don’t ask him. His songs really affect me emotionally. I think he’s a real poet. That is a song he wrote on piano. It kind of has a Bealtes-y/Pink Floyd piano ballad feel. I just thought it was beautiful. Abe is always one of those guys who operates on instinct. I think the song is about letting go in some broad way, letting yourself go to the forces at work in the universe instead of spending every breath fighting the tide. It is a song that might not make sense on a previous Sons of Bill record, but I think it makes sense on this record. It’s certainly one of my favorite songs on the album. When I asked him what it was about, he said it was about drugs and I said ok.

“Bad Dancer” opens with a banjo line and then becomes a rock song.

That was Ken just going crazy. He was like, man, you guys are from Virginia. Anyone play the banjo? Let’s put a banjo on this song. We love bluegrass and we love New Wave. Why not? It’s a song. It was that kind of mentality that we did the whole record with.

“Lost in the Cosmos” makes a reference to a Chris Bell solo disc from way back.

Big Star, one of those bands from the South. We kind of discovered them through the back end, through REM and The Replacements. Abe and I were just really struck by Chris Bell’s story. As much as the song is about Chris Bell, I think it could really be about any artist that is struggling to find his place in the world or any artist who is maybe too sensitive to handle reality.
What Abe always says is Alex Chilton got his song (The Replacement’s “Alex Chilton”). Why not write a song for Chris Bell? “Number One Record,” that first Big Star record, is really Chris Bell’s record.

Some of those songs on the Eye of the Cosmos record are beautiful. “Better Save Yourself” is horrifying beautiful. It sounds like southern Alice in Chains. Where is this guy coming from? It’s so haunting, the chord changes, the melody. It’s a beautiful album that not enough people know. But obviously the fire burned too hot.

SoB-9-24-10-@-Jefferson-16The obligatory background question. Tell me how the band got together.

We were all in different bands in different parts of the country. We’d never been in a band together. We grew up singing in church. My dad played bluegrass and country and we took classical piano lessons. Sam was playing jazz in New York. I was out West doing my country folkie writing. Abe was outside of D.C. in a couple of rock bands, but also working on an architecture degree.

We all found ourselves coming back to Virginia. Sam and I were both kind of disillusioned with the groups we were in and the music we were playing. We kind of got back to what made us want to make music in the first place. There’s so much posturing in rock and roll, especially now in this Spotify world where the industry is scared. It’s a broken model. It’s such an easy time to give in to those trends and the posturing. This band has always been about not losing what made us want to do it when we were kids. That’s the story behind the name. It felt right. It’s grown and changed but that was the original impetus.

Your dad played bluegrass and country. Was there a lot of music played in the house?

We all got into rock and roll very early. A lot of bands were influenced by the rock their parents had. That wasn’t the case with us. My dad had like two boxed CDs, a Gregorian chant CD and then he played the country music he loved. We were introduced to songs through my dad more than anything. I didn’t know who wrote “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” (by Merle Haggard), but I knew all the words to it in fourth grade. It was what my dad thought was beautiful and tragic and worth singing. Those are the kinds of songs worth building on. “Hobo’s Lullaby” or “Long Black Veil.” My brothers and I are very different. We like a lot of very different music. But my dad sort of showed us what makes a song timeless and worth singing and standing alone as a beautiful American artifact, something that’s stuck with us.”

You have a new agent and the album is on a new label, Thirty Tigers.

We’ve got a new manager now and people who really believe in this record. It’s all part of the family now. We’re touring Europe. The record comes out there. That looks like it’s going to be great. It’s been really good. We’re just finally comfortable in our own skin, professionally and artistically. We don’t need to be any other band or what anybody else or what radio wants to play. It just feels so good to be ourselves. We’re nerdy guys from the South who love rock and roll. That’s ok. It doesn’t need to make any marketable sense. I’d rather be in that band than try to be somebody else, no matter what happens.

Life isn’t going to work out. It’s going to end one way. So how you spend your life and what you have to say while you’re here — you’ve got to be honest with yourself and the people you’re singing for instead of chasing some white whale and ending up at the fucking bottom of the ocean.

Sons of Bill with the Will Overman Band at The Parlor on Granby, Thursday, Dec. 11. Tickets are $10 in advance. http://www.theparlorongranby.com/

Appreciating Chris Smither at 70

DSC_9209An old college friend introduced me to Chris Smither more than two decades ago. At first, I thought he was mostly a fine interpreter, a unique fingerpicker, and a compelling performer.

Sometimes, that first impression sticks with you for a long time, too long.

Over the years, I bought every Smither recording and hosted him twice at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts. He’s about as genuine and unassuming a guy as you’d find, especially given his considerable career.

But I confess it wasn’t until his third appearance at the series this summer that I fully realized the genius of his writing. I was standing in the back, working the camera as I always do, and it struck me. He’s smartly philosophical. He’s emotional. He’s funny, and self deprecating. These songs stick longer after his fingers stop picking, his feet stop tapping the groove, and his voice fades away.

In the last decade and a half, he’s been prolific, releasing one fine album after another. I’m convinced many of his songs will endure as classics. He deserves to be in the same conversation as our finest writers, artists like John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, David Olney,and maybe even the great Randy Newman (and just a notch below Springsteen and Dylan).

“Lyrics are the part I work the hardest on, and that love of language and poetry came naturally,” Smither says. “I grew up with language professor parents and I can’t begin to tell you how many times around the dinner table discussion I would be sent to grab a dictionary or a thesaurus to check something. The fact is most people take language for granted and some of us have an obsession with it. I do.”

Smither is thoughtful, insightful, tackling the mystical. He’s particularly poignant about the passage of time.

Take “Leave the Light On:”
If I were young again, I’d pay attention – To that
little-known dimension
A taste of endless time
It’s just like water – it runs right through our fingers
But the flavor of it lingers – Like a rich, red wine
In those days we were single – we lived them one by one
Now we hardly see ‘em – they don’t walk – they run
But I’ve got plenty left I’ve set my sight on
Don’t wait up – Leave the light on – I’ll be – home – soon

DSC_9218Or “Link of Chain,” another favorite:

Can’t you see…I can’t explain.
I’m a little like a link of chain
Just a ring around another.
Runnin’ in and out again.

And then there’s “Small Revelations:

Simple to see where we come from
Harder is where we are
That’s the core of the treason
The promise is never the answer
Well, why do you need to know?
There ain’t a rhyme or a reason
Try to stay in the season.

Passion is feeling in motion
Compassion is standing still
This isn’t just a vocation
Hearing is letting it happen
But to listen’s a work of will
Beware of cheap imitations
Thankful for small revelations.

He’s also funny and self deprecating. As in “Lola:”

Lookin’ for my Lola, she’s drinkin’ rum and Coca Cola,
Smokes big cigars,
she drives big cars around.
Folks say she’s gonna reach the top,
but she says that’s just her first stop.

DSC_9198And then there’s Smither on relationships in “Winsome Smile:”

Well it’s hard to believe
But I’m telling you your heart would soon recover
But you don’t want it to, you love this aching agony
‘Cause it’s noble, but it’s true
You won’t forsake this pain for other lovers
Happiness would fill your mind with misery
Time will wound all heels, and it ain’t pretty
With any luck at all, she’ll find some dope that you can pity
Your loss is measured in illusions
And your gain is all in bittersweet intelligence
And your winsome smile will lose some of its innocence
Your winsome smile
Your winsome smile will lose some of its innocence.

Finally, there’s his classic “Love You Like a Man:”

All these men I’ve been seein’ they’ve got their balls up on the shelf
You know they could never love you baby, They can’t even love themselves.
You know if you need someone who can. Well, I could be, you know, I could be your lover man.
You better believe me when I tell you I could love you like a man.

Smither turns 70 today, though he looks and acts far younger. He’s still out there on the road alone, driving to one gig after another. Each night, his words resonate long after his departure.

 

Southern Culture at the Chelsea West Fest Saturday

IMG_7393Chelsea West Fest is this Saturday in what us long-toothers call West Ghent. The fun begins at noon at the corner of Orapax Street and Raleigh Avenue with food trucks and music, lots of music. And beer, of course. Smartmouth and The Birch are just around the corner.

Our friends, The Esoteric Ramblers open with a set of their beer songs at 1 p.m. followed by The Wet Boys, The Lonely Tear Drops, Gina Dalmas and the Cow Tippin’ Playboys, Mudd Helmet and the headliner, Southern Culture on the Skids at 8:30.

The festival benefits a great cause, Hope House. Get tickets at Chelsea West Fest. They’re only $10.

Here is my preview interview with Southern Culture on the Skids.

      An opinion piece in a major newspaper complains “When Did White Trash Become Normal?” and sees it as symbolic of a “disintegrating society.” (Ok, it was in The New York Post by an author at one of those right wing publishing houses so you can’t take it too seriously). A series of white trash zombie novels finds an adoring audience. There’s a blog titled “White Trash Buddhist,” which is all you need to know.


And, in a clear sign we are descending into the bowels of hell and damnation, the country-fried rock group, Southern Culture on the Skids, was the subject this summer of a retrospective exhibit on the august campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lard have mercy.


Guitarist and songwriter Rick Miller says he certainly wasn’t expecting to be exhibited as part of southern folklife series, but it fits


“They re’ obsessed with cultural phenomenon. That’s sort of what we were,” he adds. “We were kind of surprised, of course. That would be the last thing we kind of thought about.”


The exhibit featured instruments, gig posters. photos and, of course, the pinstriped La-Z Boy recliner on the cover of “Plastic Seat Sweat,” the group’s last major-label album. This, after all, is a band that refers to itself as “the legendary bards of downward mobility.”


“The curator came out and saw all the stuff we have. Fans send us stuff, everything from needlepoint to neon signs with our names covered with barbed wire,” Miller says. “And it was the heyday of the rock ‘n roll poster. The scene was different then. It’s just old enough where it’s become of interest to a different generation of people who started looking at it as collectible or cultural, if that’s what it is.”


When Miller started the band at UNC, he says he figured it would just be something to do while in school. “But it just kind of clicked. We went through a couple of changes early and we found ourselves in the right place at the right time to kind of develop as a band, ” he says. “We were able to hit the road. Nobody had any obligations whatsoever.”


Rather than try to label their strange brew of country, rockabilly, swamp soul, punk and surf guitar, let’s just say the band plays with attitude. Food, cars, booze, and sex (for which food is a metaphor, of course) play major roles in their songs.
Expect fried chicken to be a part of the show at the Chelsea West Fest on Oct 4 when the band anchors a day of music with an 8:30 show following a number of local acts including the Esoteric Ramblers, Gina Dalmas, and Mudd Helmet.
Told there will be plenty of locally-brewed suds on hand, Miller doesn’t miss a beat. “We go good with beer,” he says.


Yes, they do.


This is a band whose song titles include “”Fried Chicken and Gasoline,” “Eight Piece Box,” “Camel Walk,” “Dirt Track Date,” ” Daddy Was a Preacher But Mama Was a Go Go Girl” and “My House Has Wheels.”


When it comes to that white trash material, Miller says simply, “It’s where we’re from.”


“The beauty of it is I think I could go out and drive around for an hour or two in my car and find enough interesting subjects for songs. Most of them are about where we’re from and that kind of defines who you are. We do it with a sense of humor and a sense of entertainment. The thing about the South is it’s got so many cultural identifiers. Its own cooking. It’s all such a rich heritage. Like the food, it will kill you if you’re not careful.”


So there’s a deep vein of material every time Miller sits down to write.


“Some songs come to you like overnight. Some songs take a while,” he says. “A lot of times I get a guitar riff or some with catchy phrase and just kind of go from there. I’ve always felt writing songs is like making a B movie. If you come up with a good title and a good poster, that’s it. You just come up with a good chorus or hook or catchy phrase and work from there.”
The band’s “My Neighbor Burns Trash” came from Miller’s neighbor burning her trash. “She was mad at me that we didn’t join her church so she burned almost every night,” he adds.


The band formed in Chapel Hill in 1983 and went through a few changes before finding its sound, a sound that saw it appear on MTV and the occasional late night show. The current lineup of Miller, bassist Mary Huff (she of the stunning blonde bouffant), and drummer Dave Hartman coalesced in 1988 and quit their day jobs to do the band fulltime in 1991, a red letter (or in-the-black letter) day for Miller.


scots2That year the band released its classic “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork,” a follow to the EP “Voodoo Beach Party.” A year later, they issued “For Lovers Only” and then a fwe more EPs before “Ditch Diggin,” which they recently re-recorded as “Dig This” as a means to get back their publishing rights (and feed a few mouths).


Their strong touring attracted Geffen Records, which signed the group in 1995 and released “Dirt Track Date,” a collection of new and re-recorded tunes that sold more than 250,000 copies. “Plastic Seat Sweat” followed and was their last release on Geffen before a string of albums for Yep Roc and, eventually, their own label, Kudzu Records.


“We kinda got lucky there with what we thought was a total filler of a song — “Camel Walk” — and got hooked up on the radio and things just kind of took off for us,” he says. “All of a sudden it exploded. We’d been around long enough that we figured if we kept maybe 20 percent of the people we could sustain a career. “


He took some of that money and built a studio so they wouldn’t need a record label advance to put out albums. “All those kinds of things have kept us going,” he says. “We had a concept musically, but we also took care of things on the business side. All those things and us being able to make our own decisions through those 30 years is what’s kept us together.”


The group put out a Halloween collaboration with Los Straitjackets and the Fleshtones last year. An EP collaborating with Fred Schneider of the B-52s is due in early 2015 as well as a dance remix of some tunes. They’re also working on a new record, material to be determined. Miller notes they used to open for themselves as a sort of folkie acoustic group with harmonies called the Pinecones and he’s thought about going in the direction. “But you never know what happens when you get going and you want to turn the amps up,” he adds.


The group earned its first mention in Rolling Stone in years thanks to a fan, Weird Al Yankovic, who was “inspired” by “Camel Walk” and used the riff for his “Lame Claim to Fame” off his chart-topping “Mandatory Fun” album. In the video, an animated guy wearing a trucker hat brags about serving jury duty with Art Garfunkel and sharing an elevator with Christian Slater. “My best friend’s brother was an extra in Wayne’s World 2,” Yankovic sings. “I got me an email from the prince of Nigeria… well, he sure sounded legit.”


Miller has never met Weird Al, but knows he’s a fan. Al worked up a concept for a video for the group’s “House of Bamboo” when they were on Geffen that never got made. “He changed it enough so he doesn’t have to pay us any royalties. He’s a smart guy,” Miller adds. “Now I have my own lame claim to fame, what can I say?”


The band doesn’t tour the hundreds of dates per year of the past. There are families, now. But Miller says it will be good to get back to Norfolk, where they used to play a seafood restaurant on Colley Avenue. “We had the best time,” he says. “It was one of those places where you could get fried flounder. There were always some older couples eating when we were loading in. Those blue haired ladies would be coming out as the punk rock blue hairs would be coming in. They’d pass each other and give a nod to the hair color.”


Those days didn’t give rise to a song, but a night playing a joint in Harrisonburg where the three or four patrons weren’t listening did incubate one. They’d bought a bucket of chicken for dinner, but were running late so they hadn’t had a chance to nosh. In the middle of a set, Miller looked over and saw a homeless guy digging in. “If you’re going to eat our chicken, come on up and dance with us,” Miller told him. ‘He got up and did the homeless shuffle while eating a piece of chicken and the whole bar went nuts, all four people. So we thought this might work wtih some good-looking women if it worked that well with a homeless guy.”


It became a part of the act most nights. But it’s not the reason the band’s contract rider calls for fried chicken with the admonishment that there will be no show without it.


That started after a night in Mobile, Ala. when the band went out to a sketchy neighborhood to get the chicken for the song, “Eight Piece Box.” While they were in scoring the good, their sound man was held up at gunpoint in the van outside.    “We figured we don’t want to die getting chicken for this song,” he adds. “Let’s let the promoter get it.”

     That’s Southern Culture on the Skids. White trash, but smart white trash.

Steady On: Shawn Colvin Comes Full Circle

shawnShawn Colvin headlines this year’s Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival in Norfolk at The Naro Expanded Cinema on April 10. Here is my preview.

      Shawn Colvin has created one memorable song after another over three decades, had a mega-hit album, and won a pair of Grammy Awards. But writing hasn’t gotten any easier.
“It’s still hard,” she says by phone on a rare off day. “It always will be for me. I’ve had moments of easy, but that’s not normally the case.”


The difference these days is she’s developed ways to get beyond that initial reluctance. ‘I trust myself more,” she adds. “I have go-to techniques and tricks that help me find what I think is the heart of the song. It’s not quite as mystifying though for me it’s still mystifying, believe me.”

The release of her latest, 2012’s “All Fall Down,” coincided with the publication of her frank memoir, “Diamond in the Rough.”

Colvin, who appears in a rare up-close performance at The Naro Expanded Cinema on April 10 headlining the Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival to benefit Tidewater Arts Outreach, says the only thing writing a book taught her was that she could write a book. But the process did influence the songs on “All Fall Down,” cut with longtime buddy Buddy Miller as producer.

“The way the book informed the record was simply that it made me somewhat nostalgic,” she says. “I picked some older songs because I was reminded of them.”

She reached back to “On My Own,” a country-inflected B.W. Stevenson song she first covered living in Austin in the 1970s. She plucked a 1980s song written with Kenny White, “Fall of Rome. “ She reached into the archives of songs with her longtime collaborator, John Leventhal, for “Knowing What I Know Now.” Leventhal also collaborated on the title track. Colvin called in Jakob Dylan to co-write “Seven Times the Charm.” Patty Griffin lent a hand with “Change Is On the Way.” She asked the guys in the band Miller assembled if they had any music which needed lyrics, resulting in collaborations with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Viktor Krauss.


The album brought her full circle in a way, back to her early days in Texas, where she met Miller, and then the 1980s in the East Village, playing with Miller and Leventhal, who has been a constant in Colvin’s creative life.

She was born in South Dakota, but spent her youth in London, Ontario, and then Carbondale, Illinois. She met     Miller in Austin where she played in a swing band called the Dixie Diesels. In 1980, he asked her to join his band in New York. Miller left that band and the guy who filled in on guitar was John Leventhal.

Over the next decade, Colvin became a part of the folk revival in Greenwich Village that included Suzanne Vega, Lucinda Williams, John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky and Greg Trooper.

In those days, Colvin performed covers. She’d written as a teen, but then stopped.

Finally, after years of playing with Leventhal, he gave her a track of music and, instead of just adding words, Colvin transposed it to the guitar suitable for solo performance, decided to dig deep into her personal experiences and wrote “Diamond in the Rough,” one of the stellar cuts off her fine debut disc.

shawn2    “That was the perfect storm of realization. I had something to say,” she explains. “I felt I understood what it was I wanted to say. Before, I was trying to write decent pop songs and then I realized that I really needed to go more personally, that’s what I really raised myself on.”

Asked if there was ever a time she thought she would not be able to write, Colvin laughs and says, “Oh, most of the time”
But she considers all those years singing covers to be the necessary apprenticeship to becoming a songwriter. “It took everything up to that, to get me there,” she says. “I was a longtime student. I think I learned from great songwriters by playing and playing and playing other people’s songs.”

She learned well enough to have a long ride at Columbia Records releasing “Steady On,” “Fat City,” “Cover Girl,” “A Few Small Repairs,” and “A Whole New You.”

“A Few Small Repairs” with the breakout, “Sunny Came Home” made her a star and went platinum. The album won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

She moved to Nonesuch Records for her last two albums, leaving behind the major label. “I’n just glad I can continue to make records,” she says.

For “All Fall Down” she called Miller. They’d stayed in touch over the years as Miller moved to California and then to Nashville, where he has settled in as the band leader and producer of all things Americana. She played with him in Three Girls and Their Buddy, a touring collaboration with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Colvin and Miller. So why did it take so long to get into the studio on the main floor of his Nashville house? “It kind of mystifies me why it hadn’t happened before,” Colvin says. Buddy is one of the tremendous players and producers out there and I love him so I said, let’s go.”

The album features some muscular guitar work, notably on the irresistible title track. Much of it was cut live and unrehearsed. That worked because she felt confident about the songs they were recording. Indeed, the album ranks with her strongest work. “With my songs, the question is always, ‘Can you pull it off live, alone on just an acoustic guitar?” 

     That’s the litmus test,” Colvin says. “If I can, then it’s a song I ought to record. If I can’t, it’s probably not good enough.”

For the Naro show, she will be playing solo acoustic, something she has been doing lately. She was on tour with Mary Chapin Carpenter last fall and will be on tour with Steve Earle this spring.

“It’s an immensely popular way to tour,” she says. “People love it and I can see why. It’s an intimate setting, very genuine. We’re talking to one another. It just works. I love it. I love being a backup musician and having someone to talk to and play off.”

Shawn Colvin
April 10 at The Naro Expanded Cinema
For tickets, go to http://www.tidewaterartsoutreach.org/sea-level-singer-songwriter-festival/

Gretchen Peters House Concert, April 27

Eliza Gilkyson, Tara Nevins (of Donna the Buffalo), and Kim Richey each put on one of the best shows over the years peters_hcw_02at my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts.

This weekend’s show features Gretchen Peters, another songwriter who promises to make an equally memorable impression stops by the backyard for an evening of community and song (and a little food and drink).

Her songs have been turned into country hits by artsts like Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Nanci Griffith, Trisha Yearwood and Rodney Crowell, but Peters is more of a folkie in the Joni Mitchell mode, albeit one for a newer generation of strong women.

She started performing in the Boulder, Colorado folk circuit as a teenager. Inspired by Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and a new generation of songwriters rising out of Nashville that included Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Rodney Crowell, Peters relocated to Music City in the late 1980s.

Martina McBride’s 1995 recording of Peters’ “Independence Day,” the gritty story of an abused woman’s revenge, made her a songwriting sensation. The performance received a “Best Country Song” Grammy nomination and won the Country Music Association’s “Song of the Year” title. After that a string of great vocalists – Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Neil Diamond, George Strait, Etta James – began to record Peters’ songs. Peters also signed her own record deal, yielding her 1996 debut album The Secret of Life. The title track was cut by Faith Hill in 1999 and hit number five on the country charts.

Her most recent album, “Hello Cruel World” made any number of Top 10 lists. Miley Cyrus created a sensation when she tweeted that “The Matador,” a song off the album, was something she was listening to again and again.

If you want seats to the show, which is be outside under a big tent, email jim@northshorepoint.com.

Check out some videos from Gretchen at

“Independence Day”

“The Matador”

“On a Bus to St. Cloud”