Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mary Gauthier: “Live At Blue Rock” (2013) CD Review

Mary Gauthier’s new CD, Live At Blue Rock, is her first live album. It was recorded at Blue Rock Artists Ranch in Wimberly, Texas, and features songs from throughout her ten-year career. Mary Gauthier is an excellent story-teller, and her voice has a certain authority to it – a voice of experience, a voice that pulls you in and holds you. Most of these tracks were written or co-written by Mary (the three exceptions were all written by Fred Eaglesmith). These are fairly serious songs, with lines like “I got a hole in me like I was never born” from “Blood Is Blood.” At times Mary’s vocal delivery and passion remind me of the Indigo Girls.

Joining Mary on this recording are Mike Meadows on percussion and Tania Elizabeth on fiddle, vocals and percussion. Tania Elizabeth does some wonderful stuff with the fiddle, at times creating haunting, gorgeous sounds (like on “Blood Is Blood”). She also provides backing vocals (she and Mary sound excellent together on “Cigarette Machine”).

Live At Blue Rock opens with “Your Sister Cried,” one of the tracks written by Fred Eaglesmith.  There is a wonderful sadness to this song, but then a line like “Why do bridesmaids all have to wear the same dress” has a certain humor to it. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “I turned on my dims and somebody flashed their brights/And I reached over, turned the radio way down low/Your sister cried all the way home.” I absolutely love what Tania does on fiddle. And steady, sparse percussion by Mike Meadows adds to the power and impact of the song.

“You Sister Cried” is a great opening track. Mary included it on her 2005 release, Mercy Now; Fred Eaglesmith included it on Falling Stars And Broken Hearts.

On “Last Of The Hobo Kings” Mary starts with a quiet, nearly spoken word-style delivery of the lyrics, like Steve Werner sometimes does. This song reminds me a lot of Steve Werner, in fact, as its subject seems one close to his heart too. This is a slower tune about the days of hopping trains, and the freedom and excitement that represented. And the song is about how those days are over. The funeral of one hobo marks the end of that way of life. Mary details some of the changes with lines like, “But boxcars have been sealed for years/And trespassers do time/Railroad yards are razor wired/And hoboing’s a crime.” By the way, the song makes the distinction between a hobo and a bum: “A hobo was a pioneer who preferred to work for food.”

“Karla Faye” is an excellent and moving song, telling the story of a drug addict named Karla Faye Tucker arrested for murder and executed in the state of Texas. This one begins, “A little girl lost, her world full of pain/He said it feels good so she gave him her vein/And the dope made her numb, and numb felt like free/Until she came down down down to a new misery.” There is no mercy for her here, so the advice given her is “You better pray, pray pray/You find mercy in the sky.” “Karla Faye” was co-written by Crit Harmon. 

“Sugar Cane,” co-written by Catie Curtis, is a good folk tune about conditions at and around sugar mills, and growing up near them.  Mary Gauthier sings, “Cane smoke ain’t no good for you when you breathe it in every day/Every year at harvest time when the black smoke filled the sky/She’d pick me up, she’d take me home and make me stay inside.”  Mary does some nice work on harmonica on this one. And Tania provides vocals as well as some excellent work on fiddle.

Mary uses a somewhat lighter tone on “Drag Queens In Limousines,” which starts “I hated high school, I prayed it would end/The jocks and their girls, it was their world, I didn’t fit in.” This is a song about trying to make it on one’s own out in the world, and the folks you meet in the city while pursuing dreams.  Tania provides a little musical humor to accompany the line “Charles was a dancer, he loved the ballet.”  The lines “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do/And pray that the people you love will catch up with you” get a big reaction from the audience.

Live At Blue Rock concludes with “Wheel Inside The Wheel,” a groovy, high-energy song with a great instrumental section, featuring Tania on fiddle.

CD Track List
  1. Your Sister Cried
  2. Last Of The Hobo Kings
  3. Blood Is Blood
  4. Cigarette Machine
  5. Our Lady Of The Shooting Stars
  6. The Rocket
  7. Karla Faye
  8. I Drink
  9. Sugar Cane
  10. Drag Queens In Limousines
  11. Wheel Inside The Wheel
Live At Blue Rock is scheduled to be released on February 5, 2013 on In The Black Records.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Grateful Dead: “Dead Ahead” DVD Review

If asked to pick my favorite song, I’d have to say “Ripple.” It’s from one of the best albums of all time, the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. The year of that album’s release, 1970, the Grateful Dead did a series of concerts with acoustic opening sets. Then a decade later they did it again, performing at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Songs from those sets were released on a double album titled Reckoning (an alternate cover bore the title For The Faithful...). Those sets and that album featured my favorite song, “Ripple.”

The shows at Radio City Music Hall also gave us Dead Ahead, an excellent film capturing the warmth and humor of those acoustic sets, as well as the fantastic energy of the electric sets. Originally released on VHS, and then on DVD in 2005, Dead Ahead is being re-issued by Shout! Factory with Grateful Dead Productions, Inc.

Dead Ahead opens with some photos of the band, poster artwork and album artwork. There is then some joking with Al Franken, Tom Davis and Brent Mydland (Brent had joined the band just the year before). Franken and Davis take the stage, joking that they’re going to do an hour of comedy, that the longer they’re on stage, the less the Dead will play. The audience responds appropriately, and Franken and Davis then introduce the band.

We’re treated to an acoustic rendition of the beautiful “Bird Song.” The footage is wonderful, and the sound is really good.  And man, those extreme close-up shots of Jerry Garcia during the song’s jam are incredible.

Bob Weir says, “Well, we’re really having fun now,” and you can hear and see it in the crowd, as well as on stage – the pure joy of the moment. They go into “On The Road Again,” and it is a fun version. Jerry then slows it down with “To Lay Me Down.” I have a memory of a glider over a show, dipping its wings in time to this song.

And then, yes, we get “Ripple.” The crowd is thrilled. So am I. It’s a truly sweet rendition, and reason enough to want to own this DVD. “Let there be songs to fill the air.” This is what music is all about. This is what keeps us going.

A short comedy break features a cameo by Bill Kreutzmann, and then the band goes electric, with “Me & My Uncle” into “Mexicali Blues,” two songs where the narrator shoots and kills someone. What is Phil Lesh laughing about at the beginning of “Ramble On Rose”? And of course at the line “Just like New York City,” the crowd erupts. That song features more great extreme close-ups of Jerry. Hey, look, Mickey Hart is wearing a Skull & Roses T-shirt with Blues For Allah on the back. Things get bluesy with “Little Red Rooster,” a song that features some cool work by Brent Mydland on keys.

There is a bit more silliness with Franken and Davis, this time joking with Jerry and Phil. And then the band does “Don’t Ease Me In,” with more fun stuff from Brent. During “Lost Sailor,” the audience mishears “Where’s the dog star” as “Where’s the Dark Star” and cheers. “Lost Sailor” goes right into an absolutely fantastic version of “Saint Of Circumstance.” (Both of those songs are from Go To Heaven, which came out earlier that year.)

The band does a groovy version of “Franklin’s Tower,” and it’s during that song that the post-production guys start doing a few trippy things with the footage. And just in time for “Drums/Space” (though this was in that brief period when “Drums” was titled “Rhythm Devils”). The camera crew got some excellent footage of the Drums segment, and it’s not until the later part that the trippy effects come into play again. Mickey stays on stage to join in on “Space,” which of course features more trippy effects.

A somewhat short “Fire On The Mountain” leads into a cool “Not Fade Away,” and then the band concludes with a high-energy version of “Good Lovin.’"

Bonus Material

The DVD features approximately fifty minutes of bonus material, include some great footage of the band goofing before going into a pretty instrumental rendition of “Heaven Help The Fool” (from the acoustic set). There is also a fun “Shakedown Street,” always a good song to dance to, and a really good “Samson And Delilah.”

During “He’s Gone,” does Jerry sing “like a steam locomotion”? It sure sounds like it. Let me know what you think. I always love the end of this song. This version is particularly interesting, for Jerry keeps it going after that really pretty section. He just goes off, and it’s great. That leads into “Truckin,’” which is always a crowd favorite.

By the way, the liner notes have some good photos of the band.

Dead Ahead is scheduled to be released on February 12, 2013.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Highballers: “Soft Music And Hard Liquor” (2013) CD Review

In “Doing Time In Pennsylvania,” Kendall Jackson sings, “I was made for raising hell.” That’s a good indication of the kind of straight-forward, foot-stomping country rock you’ll find on Soft Music And Hard Liquor, the first album by The Highballers. This is exactly the band you hope to stumble upon in some dive bar along the highways in the south. Except these guys are actually based in the nation’s capital.

It’s funny – I don’t often think about there being any music at all in Washington D.C. I think of music as being honest, as a way of communicating truth about the human condition, and so on. And politicians are the opposite of music.  It seems like they wouldn’t appreciate a good rhythm or lyric, and it’s hard to imagine those sad bastards cutting it loose on the dance floor, or even giving an honest smile. So I’m glad to learn there is some country in the country’s capital. Maybe there’s hope after all.

Though I suppose even politicians can relate to lyrics like, “It’s bound to get ugly/It’s bound to get loud/Because I take pride in my drinkin’” (as Kendall Jackson warns on one of this album’s tracks).

Not that all these tunes are boot-stomping drinking songs. There are some slower tunes, like the wonderful “Live To Let You Down,” with the lines “How I hoped and I prayed our love would turn around/But I live to let you down.” And there are even some sweeter moments on this album, like the song “Better Man,” an ode to a special woman. Check out these lyrics from that song: “She deserves much better than what I have given her/But still she smiles at me even when I’m wrong/So I sing about her/I can’t live without her/Try to fit her life into the words of a song/She ain’t perfect, but she’d like to be/She cusses like a sailor, wears her emotions on her sleeve/And she makes a better man of me.”

One thing I really appreciate about this band is the presence of both male and female vocals, especially on a song like “Virginia.” Kendall Jackson and Victoria Patchen sound great together. All of the tracks on this album were written by Kendall Jackson (with the exception of "Virginia," which was written by Kendall Jackson and Kimberly Halkett).

Soft Music And Hard Liquor opens with “Juneen,” a really good country rock tune with a nice, steady rhythm. Both male and female vocals tell the story of an interesting relationship, with lines like, “I keep you locked inside my home to keep temptations away/Well, I know one day you will understand all the rules you must obey.” And then: “I think anyone can see that you’re so damn crazy for me.” Though later the song presents a question we all must ask ourselves at times: “How can I have been so damn wrong?” “Juneen” features some nice work on lead guitar by Sean Lally.

There is more good country rock with “Doing Time In Pennsylvania,” a fun tune that has the required elements: fighting, drinking, jail time, and a twisted dash of optimism. “Tomorrow’s another life, lord/But I’m living for today/And the next thirty Sundays/Well, I found a place to stay/And that’s doing time in Pennsylvania.” Certain drinkers will relate to this line: “The whiskey was the only friend that never lied to me.” Yet this is a song to get folks up on the dance floor.  I particularly like the way the male and female vocals sound together on the title line, “Doing time in Pennsylvania.” 

Everybody loves a bit of cross-dressing, even tough cowboys, as you’ll learn in “A Cowgirl Who Understands.” (Someday I’m going to put together a cross-dressing mix CD, and try to cover the spectrum as far as different professions, different social strata, etc.) The album’s title comes from the opening lines of this song: “Soft music and hard liquor/Short leather skirts and high heeled shit kickers/Little things that help a cowboy look like a girl.” There is, of course, something delightful in a country song about cross-dressing. This is a sort of love song, about a man and his passion for shoes, and is also a song of longing. The song makes a point of indicating that the man in question is straight: “Don’t go looking for a rainbow sticker on this truck/You won’t find one, he ain’t that kind of guy.”

“The Price You Pay” is a very cool country tune about taking someone’s life. “He just whispered, why/I’d have given you all I had/Why do I have to die.” Though “I Didn’t Mean To Get Drunk” feels a bit like more standard country rock fare. That one is not as interesting, but is still a song a drunk country crowd will likely enjoy.

CD Track List

  1. Juneen 
  2. Doing Time In Pennsylvania
  3. A Cowgirl Who Understands
  4. Live To Let You Down
  5. The Price You Pay
  6. I Didn’t Mean To Get Drunk
  7. Virginia
  8. She Ain’t No Stranger
  9. Better Man
  10. Close To The Line
  11. I Take Pride In My Drinkin’


The Highballers are Kendall Jackson on vocals and guitar, Victoria Patchen on vocals, Sean Lally on lead guitar, Michael Barrientos on bass, and Drake Sorey on drums.

Soft Music And Hard Liquor was released on January 15, 2013 on Woodshed Records.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Pogues: “The Very Best Of” (2013) CD Review

Back in the late 1980s my friend Dan Ryan and I would listen to a lot of music, talk about music, and even make some of our own (him on bass, me on drums). One band that came up over and over was The Pogues. We loved Irish folk music, and were excited by punk bands like The Buzzcocks and The Modern Lovers. The Pogues combined all of that to create a sound that was all their own. And sure, part of the fun was trying to discern the lyrics when Shane seemed to mumble.

The Very Best Of is of course not the first collection of Pogues songs to be released. I picked up Essential a couple of decades ago when it came out, but that album only included Island releases and so didn’t have any tracks from Rum Sodomy & The Lash, which is perhaps the band’s best album (certainly one of the best titles of any album anywhere ever). This new collection, The Very Best Of, has a good number of tracks from that album, including “Sally MacLennane,” “The Sickbed Of Cuchulainn” and “A Pair Of Brown Eyes” (all of which are fantastic songs).

This collection features more than an hour of music, and has liner notes by Spider Stacy (according to the notes, “Streams Of Whiskey” was the first song they ever performed live). The songs are full of great characters and wonderful stories. Plus, they’re fun, and most will get you dancing. Try to stay in your seat during “Body Of An American” or “Sally MacLennane.”

This CD opens with “Dirty Old Town,” an Irish song that every single band will play on St. Paddy’s Day. And for good reason – it is a damned good song.  “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” is a favorite of mine. I used to listen to it a lot back in high school. Turn it up, and dance around.

This collection also includes “The Irish Rover,” and yes, it’s that great recording with The Dubliners. Just fantastic. Quick, name as many Irish songs with the word “rover” in the title as you can.

“A Pair Of Brown Eyes” in an incredible tune with some excellent lyrics. Check these out: “I lay down on the ground/And the arms and legs of other men/Were scattered all around/Some cursed some prayed, some prayed then cursed/Then prayed then bled some more/And the only thing that I could see/Was a pair of brown eyes that was looking at me.”

“Fairytale Of New York” is, without a doubt, the best Christmas song ever written. Nothing else comes close. What other song can make you laugh out loud on one line, then move you to tears on another? It’s a sweet love song (a duet with Kirsty MacColl), yet also has the line “Happy Christmas your arse, I pray god it’s our last.” This is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and is the only Christmas song I can listen to all year long. If somehow you’ve managed to get this far in life without having heard it, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen.

“Sally MacLennane” is one of my favorite Irish songs. Actually, it’s one of my favorite songs over all. It’s so much fun. And I can’t help but shout “In the rain,” “On the train” and “Far away” whenever I listen to it (sorry, neighbors). This also has that great line, “Some people left for heaven without warning.”

“Rainy Night In Soho” is another beautiful love song. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “We watched our friends grow up together/And we saw them as they fell/Some of them fell into heaven/Some of them fell into hell.” And then: “And I stepped into your arms/On a rainy night in Soho.”

CD Track List

  1. Dirty Old Town
  2. The Sunnyside Of The Street
  3. If I Should Fall From Grace With God
  4. The Irish Rover
  5. Rain Street
  6. A Pair Of Brown Eyes
  7. Boys From The County Hell
  8. Fairytale Of New York
  9. Body Of An American
  10. Thousands Are Sailing
  11. Sally MacLennane
  12. Misty Morning, Albert Bridge
  13. Tuesday Morning
  14. Rainy Night In Soho
  15. Streams Of Whiskey
  16. The Sickbed Of Cuchulainn
  17. Young Ned Of The Hill
  18. Love You ‘Till The End

The Very Best Of The Pogues was released on January 22, 2013 through Shout! Factory.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Samantha Crain: “Kid Face” (2013) CD Review

Every once in a while there is an artist that grabs me from the opening notes of the first song I hear. It happened with Josh Lederman Y Los Diablos. It happened with Holly Golightly And The Brokeoffs. And it happened with Samantha Crain when I popped in her new CD, Kid Face.  

The opening song, “Never Going Back,” starts with nice work on acoustic guitar, and then adds violin – and I’m totally on board. And then Samantha Crain begins to sing, and that’s when I know this album is something special. I immediately love her voice. The first lines are, “This horse that kicked me in the heart/Then asked me if I want another start or ride/He leaves me thirsty, leaves me dim/I’m lookin’ at a picture of him and his bride/Oh, I’m never going back.” This song has a great happy feel.

There is something interesting in the way she delivers a line, particularly on a tune like “Taught To Lie,” with its slower groove. It’s part earthly, rooted deep in our world, and part angelic, coming from some other land.  It’s a magical combination, a voice I’m eager to follow.  She sings, “I’ve learned to tell the truth sometimes.” Everything I hear from her sounds like truth to me.

Even more than the two previous tracks, her vocals drive “Paint,” especially at the beginning, before the piano comes in. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “I don’t want to be a cynic/It’s much too soon for that/Still it feels like something’s missing/And that’s a real drawback.” This song features a nice guitar part, and then the violin comes in like another voice, like a backing vocalist. I appreciate the way Samantha uses instruments in her songs, each doing only what is needed, nothing more – it’s not like she’s trying to fill a space.

On “The Pattern Has Changed” her voice is weary and vulnerable, beautiful. She sings, “Changing my clothes though they’re the only thing I own now/Coming off the road though it’s the only way I know how/The pattern has changed, not over time but a shift in the ground/What is spare time? I spend all of mine trying to figure this out.” At moments the piano is silent, letting her voice speak right to us, close to us.

And in “Kid Face,” the album’s title track, her voice has a strength, a resilience, like the voice of a survivor. “Oh I still got a lot of fight before I settle down/Looking for standards in a country of cancers/Oh the land of my fathers where everything dies.”

“Somewhere All The Time” is a happier country-folk tune that immediately makes me smile. It’s a really good traveling song, and makes me itch to get on the road. I love the vocal line of this song. And then near the end there are some backing vocals, and yes, this does seem like a sing-along. I wish it went on a little longer in that vein.

In “Sand Paintings,” her voice is almost a whisper at times. It then rises and builds on “And I know it looks like rain” and then dips immediately on “but nothing’s going to change.” This song has a cool groove that pulls you in right away, and then later features some interesting and surprising use of electric guitar, and a wild ending over a strong pulse. “I won’t be hard on myself if you’ll be kind to you.”

All songs on this album were written by Samantha Crain. This is an album I’m going to be listening to a lot.

CD Track List

  1. Never Going Back
  2. Taught To Lie
  3. Paint
  4. For The Miner
  5. The Pattern Has Changed
  6. Churchill
  7. Kid Face
  8. Somewhere All The Time
  9. Ax
  10. Sand Paintings
  11. We’ve Been Found 


Musicians appearing on this release include Samantha Crain on vocals, acoustic guitars and percussion; Anne Lillis on drums, percussion and backing vocals; Brine Webb on bass guitar and backing vocals; John Calvin Abney on piano, synthesizer and banjo; Daniel Foulks on violin and backing vocals; Kyle Reid on lap steel, cigar box guitar and electric guitar; and Anna Ash on backing vocals.

Kid Face is scheduled to be released on February 19, 2013 on Ramseur Records. This is her third full-length album. She has also released Songs In The Night (2009) You (Understood) (2010), as well as an EP titled The Confiscation: A Musical Novella (2007).