Justin Townes Earle – Live at The Factory; April 4, 2012

‘My head feels like a rubber eraser.’

As live gig introductions go, it’s no ‘Hello Cleveland!’ but it was one of the more original.

Then again we’d never expect Justin Townes Earle to be anything less than upfront about where he is at any given time. So to see him performing whilst reeling from jet-lag was just part of the JTE deal.

So what did that mean for the show? I won’t say it wasn’t noticeable. The tempo on some of the songs ebbed and flowed with Justin’s energy levels (particularly on ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’), and the second last song, ‘When You Walk Out On Me’ was just plain out of tune because I don’t think JTE had his earpiece in. Then again, I’ve seen him perform it before and it’s not an easy song to get right at the best of times.

Bottom line is, it didn’t make a pinch of difference to the overall experience. This guy is the real deal, bundling up all his musical influences and ****ed up experiences into a package of raw and powerful songcraft, catching rhythms and a whole bunch of that natural Southern charm.

Justin Townes Earle - Live at the Factory, 2012 -IMAGE

Justin Townes Earle - Live at the Factory, 2012

Working a bit of the geek chic this time, with a slightly oversized plaid jacket, glasses, the hair longer and not slicked back, this was a more vulnerable looking JTE than the last time I saw him at the Basement. And if you’ve listened to the new album Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, that seems entirely appropriate. It’s been reviewed as ‘searingly honest’ and he himself refers to it as being chock full of ‘Mom and Dad issues’. But this is the guy who puts himself out there, as we’ve said.

Whilst he started the set with the upbeat ‘Memphis in the Rain’ and ‘Look the Other Way’ from the latest release, there was no attempt to reproduce the slick Memphis sound which dominates the recording. Considering this tour is centred on Bluesfest, the more pared back support of acoustic lead/mandolin and double-bass was the middle ground between solo and full band and it worked fine for this purpose. Although this may change in the future with Justin stating an intention to tour Australia again soon with said full band.

Still finding his stride, ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’ suffered slightly as I’ve mentioned, but then he gained his footing with ‘Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving’ from The Good Life and the gorgeous ‘Rogers Park’ from Harlem River Blues, arguably his most successful album to date. He swung back to the new album for ‘Maria’, headed to the deep south to fry some Sunday morning chicken with ‘Ain’t Waitin”, then examined some more Dad issues on ‘Am I That Lonely Tonight’ before letting loose with a cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘I Been Burning Bad Gasoline’ which blew the whole bunch of us away. It looks like it’s a favourite of his to perform live and we lapped it up.

By this stage he was back in his solo element and trucking along nicely with ‘South Georgia Sugar Babe’ and ‘They Killed John Henry’ before one of my personal highlights ‘Unfortunately, Anna’ where he lets us in to a sense of helplessness as he pleads “All these years you’ve been waitin’ for the world to change / but unfortunately, Anna / Unfortunately, Anna / it’s you, that needs to change.” You know those moments when the whole crowd is in the song with you? That.

Capitalising on the love, the band jumped back on stage to get into ‘Harlem River Blues’. The ensemble by this stage was much tighter, with JTE’s clawhammer style driving the shuffle beat and kicking the whole room into a new gear.

This would have been the perfect launchpad for the title track of the new album, however it was let down by the double-bass’s dominance which created a buzzing that overpowered the song in parts.

Balance was regained with ‘Christchurch Woman’ before another of my personal favourites: ‘Mama’s Eyes’. “I am my father’s son…but I’ve got my Mama’s eyes.” Clearly I wasn’t alone in my appreciation.

He finished off with ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ and ‘Movin’ On’ before returning for a patchy, but brilliant encore.

I’ve already mentioned ‘When You Walk Out On Me’, the only JTE song in the final three. But wrapped around that were two wonderful performances. He started with (of course) Townes van Zandt’s ‘Rex’s Blues’ and finished with Gram Parsons’ ‘My Uncle’.

Both were played with the respect Justin affords all of his heroes and the humility to resist fiddling with the formula too much. And both were just superb – especially the deep sadness and underlying determination of the young man wanting to avoid the Vietnam draft in ‘My Uncle’. It’s such a sweet, sad song, the kind at which Parsons was expert, and Justin channelled just enough of that sweetness to leave me, at least, spellbound.

So as you imagine me shuffling amongst happy hipsters towards the Factory door, here’s a clip of Justin doing the Lightnin’ Hopkins song. It gives a good sense of his stage presence, his wit and also his raw playing talent.

Justin Townes Earle singing Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘I Been Burning Bad Gasoline’ live:

And if anyone had issues with the jet lag, Justin did mention you should Google ‘Justin Townes Earle live at KEXP’ to get a sense of perspective…hi-jinx warning…

Meanwhile – I’m heading out in about an hour to see his Dad.

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Lucinda Williams – Live at the State Theatre; April 3, 2012

This show has made me run the gamut of emotions.

I started with being miffed, uncomfortable and annoyed.

This had nothing to do with Williams and everything to do with the first support. I get that Daniel Champagne is a hit in the Spiegeltent and at festivals everywhere. I hear he’s the future of music. I get that, technically, he is astonishing. He manages to make noises with a guitar that are really quite extraordinary using the body, the neck and even the tuning keys to change key and change direction. At 21, he’s a prodigious talent and he’s more than welcome to divert my attention for 1 or 2 minutes in Pitt Street Mall.

It’s not that he’s not good, it’s just that I found what he does to be totally alienating. He did three songs that went for about 7 minutes each. All instrumental trickery, wandering in and out of the spot, singing unmiked, then back to the mike and stopping for elongated pauses that had the crowd applauding – half because they thought he’d finished, and the other half seemingly to encourage him to.

I have since asked myself what I reacted against. A couple of factors are at play. Firstly, he’s not the first person to use a guitar for percussion and other effects. It’s been done before. He certainly does it very well, but it’s just not new or interesting. Certainly not to me. Secondly instrumentals, like any music, require structures that people can easily grasp. Dramatic shifts from almost rock licks to delta blues and then long passages of showing off – all in the one song – just didn’t seem to hang together in any kind of musical or stylistic narrative. Thirdly, those long pauses are a luxury a new artist simply can’t afford. If we don’t know you, we’re not going to be that into you, so what you consider dramatic is in danger of being interpreted as self-involved by the outsider. Pick your audience, make it sharp and bring us along. We’re not hanging on your every note. We’re waiting for Lucinda. Maybe it was the crowd on the night. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood. But I wasn’t the only one. Overheard snippets were as bemused and largely disengaged as I was.

To mess with my emotions even more, we were then introduced to the wonderful Eilen Jewell. I didn’t know I knew any of her songs until she played the excellent ‘High Shelf Booze’ which local radio in Sydney had picked up over Christmas. Idaho-born and now living in Cambridge Massachusetts, Jewell has a fresh and sweet style that belies her mischievous sense of humour (in ‘Bang Bang Bang’, Cupid is a six-shooting two-year-old with bad aim) and her often dark and gritty lyrics (‘Santa Fe’, ‘Queen of the Minor Key’).

Voice-wise, those who know Lanie Lane would recognise some of the fifties-style sound, but Jewell’s influences are much broader encompassing gospel, honky tonk and rockabilly. So when she kicks into these modes, she and the band really kick. Jewell has a number of releases but concentrated on two in this set: Sea of Tears and Queen of The Minor Key. Highlights for me were the aforementioned ‘Santa Fe’ and the title track from Sea of Tears, as well as ‘Heartache Boulevard’. It was also a stroke of genius to cover Normie Rowe’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’ as the final song, totally winning over a crowd left somewhat disgruntled by Champagne. She already had us, but her take on this classic was the clincher.

And now to Lucinda Williams. Fully engaged after Jewell, out comes the legend lady herself and I had a couple of moments. First was the totally human reaction when you realise 1) that the last time you saw her was in 1991 2) that that was 21 years ago and 3) that, in that time, you both got older. No-one likes that moment.

However that was followed closely by the memory of the sublime 1991 performance at the Enmore Theatre where Lucinda, Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter performed their ‘three chicks with three guitars’ (as Cash later called it) show, and which Kasey Chambers credits with inspiring her decision to perform professionally. Certainly it inspired in me an enduring love of all three artists.

So Lucinda launched straight into ‘Can’t Let Go’ from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her Grammy-award-winning and most commercially successful album to date. The band seemed tight and her voice was clear and strong. Had she not said anything we would have been none the wiser. It was a great start. However it turned out that, for some reason, she had missed sound check (reasons for which I am unaware) and she was not getting any feedback in her earpiece. This created some discomfort for Williams as negotiations with roadies and sound guys were had at the drum kit. Nonetheless, between conversations she powered on through ‘Pineola’, ‘Everybody’s Happy’, ‘Drunken Angel’ and  ‘Well Well Well’, all of which sounded fine but which Williams admitted made her totally paranoid about what we were getting.

However, I think what followed gives us the measure of Williams and her fans.

She was uncomfortable and annoyed. She came to the mike and told us she wanted it to be great and that she was frustrated it wasn’t. For a lesser artist, it might have been a deal breaker, but it seemed every single person in that room just loved her all the more, willing her along and letting her know it was all good. And that’s the thing about Lucinda. The reason she is so loved and respected is her warts and all honesty. The fact that all the raw nerves in her life are exposed and hit hard by her cathartic processing of them into songs. So to not accept something of that rawness in live performance would be folly.

I’ve also since learned this sort of thing is not unusual. I’ve heard and read that even small things can seem to put her out, and one can only surmise it’s because she’s so invested in the success of her shows. But far from seeming precocious, this merely serves to bring her even closer to her audience. And so, problems sorted, Lucinda kicked on.

My personal favourites were ‘Over Time’ (which Willie Nelson has covered), ‘Fruits of Our Labour’, ‘Side of the Road’, ‘I Lost It’ and ‘Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings’.

I also loved ‘Joy’ in which she found her full voice and let fly with some funky anger. Brilliant.

However the unquestionable highlight was her performance of ‘Unsuffer Me’, from the West album. The darkness and desperation of the lyrics almost snarled out of her, carried on that crackling and grated voice as she pleads: “…Come in to my world / of loneliness / and wickedness / and bitterness / Anoint my head / With your sweet kiss / My joy is dead / I long for bliss.”. I defy any spines in that audience to have remained unshivered.

Of course no set would have been complete without ‘Passionate Kisses’ which was the first song of the encore. Whenever Williams performs it, you get the sense you’re sitting at her kitchen table as the ink dries on the last verse. It has nothing of the polish which Mary Chapin Carpenter brings to it, and you feel like you’re getting it fresh and ‘just as the maker intended it’. Don’t get me wrong, Carpenter’s version is wonderful. But this was just a lovely moment for one of my all-time favourite songs.

The gorgeous ‘Kiss Like Your Kiss’ from Blessed allowed the transition to the full band and added Jewell on backing vocals for the finale: a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What it’s Worth’ and Williams’ bluesy ‘Get Right With God’ from Essence. By now parts of the crowd were up and dancing and all of us were left with the experience we had hoped for.

We wanted Lucinda and that’s exactly who we got.

So it was a roller coaster of emotions starting with the dip of Champagne, the sweet lift provided by Jewell, the uncertainty of Williams’ beginning, then the emotional highs and lows of Williams’ own songs and experiences.

Like a kid at the Easter Show, I want another go.

Here’s a bad shot I managed to squeeze in before the photo police bore down (I promise to buy a better camera soon and stop using my phone):

Lucinda Williams IMAGE

Lucinda Williams Live at the State Theatre, April 2012

Bonnie Prince Billy Live: Sydney Opera House; 5 March, 2012

Some experiences should not be over-thought.

They need to be left alone to be what they were and remain in memory forever.

So this isn’t a review. It’s just a note. Something to mark the fact that I was there at a performance that I will not soon forget.

Bonnie Prince BillyWill Oldham – has been described by one reviewer as your mad uncle. He’s an enigmatic bundle of seriousness, beautiful melodies, dark lyrics and a physical stage presence which my companion for the evening called ‘mesmerising’. It certainly is that.

The music itself is beautiful. The lyrical darkness and complexity is overlaid with disarmingly lovely melodies carried in three-part harmonies that filled the Concert Hall and held us in thrall.

Oldham was supported by the Cairo Gang comprising Van Campbell on drums, Emmett Kelly on acoustic and electric guitar and vocals, and the glorious Angel Olsen on vocals. Kelly’s light, yet beautiful voice was a delicate compliment to the clarity and power of Oldham and the resonance of Olsen. The three of them blended superbly. Olsen was also something of a revelation: when backing, she chooses forms and directions not unlike Emmylou Harris, but when on her own, I heard traces of Kelly Willis‘ depth and even a touch of her lilt and twang. She’s wonderful.

The three of them also managed to carry off a finale which stunned us all – Oldham laid down a challenge to the acoustics of the Concert Hall. Stepping away from the mikes and out of the lights, with only Kelly on guitar, the three of them sang the traditional “I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me”. I’ve been critical of the Concert Hall’s acoustics before, but on this occasion, I can honestly say it felt like the Hall was holding their voices in the palms of its hands.

I can’t add anything more.

To understand the beauty (and the stage presence) of Bonnie Prince Billy – this YouTube clip of “With Cornstalks or Among Them/The Sounds Are Always Begging” is a great start:

I think this review captures the entire experience as well as providing a set list which will allow you to explore on your own:

http://oceansneverlisten.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/bonnie-prince-billy-sydney-opera-house.html

And here’s the MySpace page:

http://www.myspace.com/princebonniebilly

Vanguard Roulette Part 3 – Skipping Girl Vinegar and Myles Mayo – October 21, 2011

In Part 3 of my game of Vanguard Roulette, I discovered I may be the only person in the universe who hasn’t heard of Skipping Girl Vinegar before booking tix to see them. OK, I may be referring to the Triple J listening universe. But that’s still a large sample.

And in related news: I hadn’t heard of Myles Mayo either.

I am now very glad I have.

I have to say this game of roulette has been fun and, whilst not all transcendental experiences, it’s definitely been worthwhile and uncovered a couple of gems for me.

Starting with Myles Mayo (rubbish iPhone picture below). Bottom line with this guy is that I’m an instant fan. He appeals to me on so many levels. First, he’s got the look happening. I can’t and won’t analyse beyond that. Even the ubiquitous fedora didn’t put me off. He has a great presence on stage – warm, friendly, open and confident.

Myles Mayo Image

Myles Mayo at the Vanguard

And I just loved his music. Instantly. Every song. What I heard was very country and folk-based and so I had him pegged as sitting squarely in the alt space. In terms of getting my attention, starting from those two genres is a lay down misere. But there’s also a lot in the performance which drew me in. He and his band are very clearly having a good time and that connection really translates into my audience experience. There’s also an ease about him that just makes you like him.

However I have to say that I am listening to some of the tracks on his MySpace page and I’m having a totally different experience again in terms of genre. What I’m getting from the recordings is late 90s pop rock: ‘How You Done Me Wrong’ is not a million miles away from 90s US band the New Radicals. But the production approach on some of the other tracks reminds me of Fleet Foxes (lots of stadium-style echo and space). The song that comes closest to what I felt I experienced live is ‘I Slept the Winter Underground’ so do check it out here.

Regardless of classification, he’s definitely on the playlist.

Skipping Girl Vinegar Image 1

Skipping Girl Vinegar live

Skipping Girl Vinegar’s debut single ‘One Chance’ was apparently an iTunes hit, and got them noticed by Triple J radio and others. Since then, they’ve become stars on the indie scene, festival regulars and basically all-round winners.

And I get it. Underpinned by solid acoustic guitar, there’s bass and two sets of keyboards, but also fiddle and occasional mandolin. Their roots are showing and it’s a great sound. They’ve been called old-world alt-acoustic and they have woven that into a pop fabric which is almost irresistable. The tunes carry and bounce you along. ‘Chase the Sun’ is a great example, as is ‘Here She Comes’.

SGV also has a dark side which (I now know, having done some research) they have explored more on their second album, and this was clear on the night. Some really nice emotion was generated by songs like ‘You Can’ which the crowd definitely responded to. You don’t always get that at the Vanguard – some poor artist is bleeding through their vocal chords but the crowd is too busy confusing a music venue for a cattle sale. Or the stock exchange. (Or insert your own more appropriate metaphor here).

I really like lead singer Mark Lang. Affable, charming, a true frontman with lots of chutzpah and a tiny touch of the good kind of attitude. However, I do feel for him, because it seemed he really had to work hard to carry the energy. I mean, given their quirky stage set-up (see another bad iPhone pic below) and the fact that they’ve been trying recently to launch a monkey called Baker into space, you get the feeling that these guys have a real sense of fun. But it’s a little hard to tell when watching them live. A couple of them just needed to lighten up and stop taking themselves too seriously.

Skipping Girl Vinegar set image

Skipping Girl Vinegar set

That said, all in all, I’m loving the way acts like SGV and Myles Mayo are taking roots and folk and country and blues and extending these traditions in a way that shows a lot of respect to the originals whilst exploring sounds from other genres and eras. As an example, I don’t think it’s out of place to say SGV’s ‘Here She Comes’ put me in mind of the likes of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It’s something to do with the group refrains.

Whatever – Skipping Girl Vinegar is now on the playlist – just after Myles…

Discovering Chinagrass

A friend in the UK recently mentioned an artist who has been around for a couple of years now, but of whom I’d not heard – a guy called Mamer. My friend called his music Chinagrass.

The bluegrass part of that term conjures flatpicking, fiddle, mandolin associations; voices at higher, more nasal, registers; Monroe, Scruggs, Rice and Rowan or Alison Krauss. Maybe the occasional jug band or jew’s harp. For want of a better description, that Appalachian mountain music which, by definition evokes an indelible sense of place.

I gave up trying to mentally reconcile those associations with what little I know of Chinese music and instead just dived in. What I got was something not a million miles away – but somehow entirely original.

Mamer is a young, 30-something who has become a cult figure in the underground music scene in Beijing. I’m no authority, so I’ve done some digging and have some seemingly intelligent and informed links at the end of this post which you can look into. Of note is that he grew up in Xinjiang province (northwestern China) listening to traditional Chinese and Kazakh folk music, but his life since then has been thoroughly modern – dropping out of music college to become a voice over artist (thanks to a beautifully resonant voice which had him overdubbing all the baddies in TV shows) and also singing in an 80s covers band doing Michael Jackson, the Police and Metallica. His influences throughout this time ranged from Yes to Pink Floyd, the Doors, King Crimson and Television.

However it appears he’s not lost sight of his past, and his album, Eagle, encapsulates both his modern and traditional sensibilities. The result is what I can only call an intoxicating sound. I’m getting the bluegrass elements: the stringed instruments (traditional dobra and guitar), the jew’s harp, the song structures. But there are so many other elements – middle eastern and sub-continental rhythms, dub, electric guitar looping through and all overlaid with a rich, low voice that puts me in mind of Tuvan throat singers.

Others have heard everyone from Woody Guthrie to Velvet Underground in what this guy is doing.

The sources I’ve looked at talk about how the open grasslands of his childhood are evoked by this music. I get that. Maybe because I grew up on wide open grazing plains in the Riverina. I admit grass was often a luxury where I’m from – but that sense of openness definitely speaks to me (undoubtedly brought into sharp relief by some level of nostalgia after many years of urban living).

I can only suggest you have a listen for yourself.

You can go to his My Space page here and listen to 4 or 5 tracks from the album.

But I think this You Tube video gives you a great summary sense of who he is, his music and some of his influences.

Chinagrass performers are not unknown to Australia. Sydney Festival in 2011 brought out another group of performers which has been added to the Chinagrass genre called Hanggai. From what I’ve seen, I’d class them as more world or folk music than Mamer. Then again – I have a lot more listening to do…

Enjoy.

Links on Mamer

Scarborough Evening News (UK) Review

Read about and listen to Mamer via Real World Records