Sunday, June 29, 2014

Peter Rowan: “Dharma Blues” (2014) CD Review

I’ve been enjoying Peter Rowan’s music since I was a teenager when, because of my love for the Grateful Dead, I picked up a copy of Old And In The Way. I listened to that cassette (yes, cassette) over and over, and then kept an ear out for whatever other projects these musicians did. Peter Rowan’s new album, Dharma Blues, is a wonderful group of original songs, all written or co-written by Rowan, and featuring some excellent musicians, including Jack Casady (of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane) on bass, and Gillian Welch on backing vocals.

Peter Rowan begins “River Of Time” a cappella, first solo, then with some gorgeous blending of vocals. It’s a really sweet way of opening the album. Then the song comes on as with a kind of easy country vibe, with touches of gospel in the way the vocals are approached, adding up to a sound that raises your spirits.

Gillian Welch on “Raven”

He follows that with “Raven.” If you’re wondering if a song titled “Raven” is related to the Edgar Allan Poe poem, yes, it is. The fourth line of the song is “Quoth the raven ‘Nevermore!’” This song has a great, kind of slow bluegrass feel to it, with nice work by Jody Stecher on banjo. This is the one song on the album that Peter Rowan co-wrote, with Warren Weldon. Gillian Welch provides some vocals on this track.

Gillian Welch also joins him on vocals on “Restless Grave.” “And my restless grave cannot contain the soul that gave me birth/I’ll search the wide world, round and round/For that jewel of priceless worth.” There is some nice work on bass by Jack Casady on this track. Gillian Welch also provides vocals on the sweet "Snow Country Girl."

“Dharma Blues,” the title track, begins with a dark, bluesy feel and the lines, “Ain’t no God up in heaven/Ain’t no devil down below.” It’s a very cool track, featuring Manose Singh on flute. And check out what Peter Rowan does vocally near the end – like part yodel, part native American chant.

“My Love Will Never Change”

“My Love Will Never Change” is a pretty folk tune, with some of the lyrics delivered almost like spoken word – “And that old drunken moon, he’s gone with the night/But somehow you take me to a place I’ve never been before.” Then by the end of the first stanza he is singing, but that change occurs in a natural, gradual way, like he intended to tell it as a story, but came to find his thoughts and feeling could be better expressed in song. It’s beautiful. This is one of my favorite tracks.

Peter Rowan follows it with another pretty, relaxed folk song, “Wisdom Woman,” featuring Jody Stecher on mandola. I love that these songs are not in any hurry.


Peter Rowan goes back to something of a bluesy feel on “Arise,” which has an interesting groove when the band comes in. This track features Jack Casady on bass, Jody Stecher on mandola and Dave Easley on pedal steel guitar. There is a haunting quality that at times gives way to something sweeter, as when Peter sings, “Let every living, breathing being/Find happiness.”

"Illusion's Fool"

"Illusion's Fool" begins like beautiful, mellow journey, like stepping into a dream, with Jody Stecher on oud and Manose Singh on flute. Peter Rowan gives an interesting vocal delivery here, and the song gains in energy and beauty. The lyrics are fairly simple, almost like a meditation or prayer with a glorious breakthrough at the end.

CD Track List

  1. River Of Time
  2. Raven
  3. Dharma Blues
  4. My Love Will Never Change
  5. Wisdom Woman
  6. Arise
  7. Restless Grave
  8. Vulture Peak
  9. Who Will Live
  10. Snow Country Girl
  11. Illusion’s Fool
  12. A Grain Of Sand


Peter Rowan does the vocals and plays guitar on this album. Joining him are Jack Casady on bass; Dave Easley on pedal steel guitar; Jody Stecher on tamboura, banjo, bass sarod, mandola, and oud; John Chelew on organ and harmonium; Bill Smith on drums; Patrick Korte on drums and marimba; Casey Waits on drums and glockenspiel; Manose Singh on flute; Gillian Welch on vocals; and Glenn Nishida on drum programming.

Dharma Blues is scheduled to be released on July 8, 2014 through Omnivore Recordings.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

José Contreras: “José Contreras” (2014) CD Review

José Contreras is known for his work with By Divine Right, a Canadian rock band. He’s a founding member, lead vocalist and guitarist for that band. He is now releasing his first solo album, a self-titled effort featuring material that he’s written or co-written, though all songs on this CD were earlier recorded by By Divine Right. The renditions on this CD have a vulnerable, unpolished sound. This is a quiet album of loneliness, longing, and distance, and it is without artifice. The album is basically José Contreras on lead vocals, guitar and piano, joined only by some other vocalists on a couple of tracks.

The CD opens with “Listen To My Angels,” in which José Contreras sings, “Nothing is the same now” and in the next breath he rethinks that, saying, “Important things don’t change.” He is in such a fragile place, and is trying to work through. That’s the sense you get, because even though he repeats those thoughts, the second time through there is more strength in his voice. This song was originally released on the By Divine Right album Sweet Confusion. The version here is much different in tone, pace and style.

He follows “Listen To My Angels” with “Angels.” The last line of the first song has the word “angels,” and interestingly the second song’s first line, “Hello, angels,” also uses that word. The image of angels is one that José Contreras uses again in “Silver Thread” in the line “Angels whisper in my ear.” Here is a taste of the lyrics of “Angels”: “So lonely without you about/You, I want to be with you/I want to be with you/Keep you in my heart.” Toward the end he repeats, “I got you in my heart,” as if he’s trying to hold on, and can do so only by repeating that he is. “Angels” was originally included on the By Divine Right album Good Morning Beautiful.

“Psychic Radio” begins with the line, “I dream of you, because you’re not there.” It’s another song of absence and longing, but this time with a second set of vocals, off-setting that sense of loneliness. That’s Lee Maslin, who also produced this album, on vocals. This version feels quite different from the version on By Divine Right’s Hybrid TV Genii.

Other vocalists also join him on “Past The Stars,” including Alysha Haugen, who is a current member of By Divine Right. They repeat, “Come back, come back, come back, come back.”  José Contreras reaches back to recreate some of the innocence of childhood, with lines like “Mirror, mirror on the moon/Can you see me in my room/Did I fall asleep too soon.” This one, too, has a very different feel from the original version on the By Divine Right album Organized Accidents. The original has a really good groove on bass.

“She Knows” is kind of a sweeter song, sounding almost like something from Donovan. “But he thinks that it’s luck/And she knows that it’s fate/She knows everything.” The original version can be found on All Hail Discordia. He follows that with another pretty tune, "I Want Light," a song originally on By Divine Right's Bless This Mess.

CD Track List
  1. Listen To My Angels
  2. Angels
  3. Psychic Radio
  4. Silver Thread
  5. Past The Stars
  6. Help Me Find A Place To Land
  7. Twisted Crystalline
  8. She Knows
  9. I Want Light
  10. Kick This Bummer
José Contreras is scheduled to be released on July 8, 2014 on Squirtgun Records.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Kelley Mickwee: “You Used To Live Here” (2014) CD Review

One of the albums on my list of ten favorite CDs of 2012 was The Trishas’ High, Wide & Handsome. Now Trishas member Kelley Mickwee is releasing her debut CD, You Used To Live Here, featuring mostly original tunes. Mickwee co-wrote several of the tracks on that 2012 release, including the beautiful "Strangers" and "One Down," so I was already well aware of her songwriting abilities. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that she picked some excellent folks to co-write her new material, including Kevin Welch (who also co-wrote a song on High, Wide & Handsome). But as good as these new songs are, it's really her vocals that make this album something special.

Kelley Mickwee begins the album with “River Girl,” a cool, soulful tune. Its opening line is “I just want to sleep all day,” something I can relate to these days. The song features gorgeous, heartfelt vocals (which remind me a bit of Patty Griffin’s work on Living With Ghosts). “And I’ve been on my knees/God only knows/So sing one for your river girl.” There is a sweet lead part by Kevin Welch on electric guitar. It’s a beautiful song, co-written by Kelley Mickwee and Kevin Welch.

“Take Me Home” is more of a folk tune, with some country elements and excellent, soaring vocals. But in the section that really wins me over, the vocals are almost more in the pop realm, as she sings, “Sing for me/Quietly/Walk with me/Slowly/Dance with me/Smile for me/Comfort me/Hold me.” There is something catchy about the sound of that section (the way she sings it), that I found myself singing it after only a couple of times of listening to the album. “Take Me Home” was co-written by Kelley Mickwee and Phoebe Hunt.

“Beautiful Accidents” is a duet, with female and male vocals together throughout the song rather than each taking a section or certain lines. It’s an interesting way of doing it, particularly as this love song is at first not told from the first person perspective: “She had the smell of magnolia on her hair/And a southern drawl that stretched from here to there/They didn’t know what they were doing/But they knew it felt good.” Then it turns to first person, so it’s like when they look back at the beginning, they’re looking at other people. The changing in viewpoints reminds me of some of Bob Dylan’s work. And by singing the lines together, it’s like their perspectives on the story are the same. It’s less a conversation, and more of shared thought. Their experience of their love is the same. The male vocals are provided by Owen Temple, who also co-wrote this track with Kelley Mickwee.

“You Used To Live Here,” the album’s title track, begins with a good groove. There is a sad beauty in the repetition of the title line, “You used to live here,” followed by the simple statement, “And I still do.” That delivery makes that line all the more heartbreaking. It’s such a nice moment. This track was written by Kelley Mickwee and Jimmy Davis.

“Blameless” begins beautifully with acoustic guitar and vocals: “Finish the work that you started/Don’t leave me some half-painted dream.” The rest of the band comes in, including pedal steel, providing that delicious tone. I like the lyrics to this song, though the line “Trade my tomorrows to borrow an hour of yesterday” reminds me of the line “And I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday” from Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee.” This is one of the album’s two covers, written by John Fullbright.

“Hotel Jackson” begins with a good bluesy vibe, and Kelley’s vocals have a sexy tone to match. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “You might be something I’d like to use/You talk with lips I want to kiss/You think it’s okay I’m saying all this/You look like something I want to eat/You look like something puts off some heat.” Nice, right? This is one of my favorite tracks, even with its cliché, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” “Hotel Jackson” was co-written by Kelly Mickwee and Jonny Burke.

The album concludes with its second cover, “Dark Side Of Town,” which was written by Eliza Gilkyson and Nancy Gilkyson. This one too has a very cool vibe. “If the backbeat’s born in hell, then that’s the place I want to be.”  Amen. Kelley Mickwee does a great job with this song. Brandy Zdan plays lap steel on this track.

CD Track List

  1. River Girl
  2. Take Me Home
  3. Beautiful Accidents
  4. You Used To Live Here
  5. Blameless
  6. Hotel Jackson
  7. Dark Side Of Town 

You Used To Live Here is scheduled to be released on July 22, 2014.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Peter Himmelman: “The Boat That Carries Us” (2014) CD Review

Peter Himmelman’s new album, The Boat That Carries Us, features an excellent group of original songs. Peter Himmelman is such a talented songwriter. Check out these lyrics from “Tuck It Away”: “Baby, don’t you open your heart now/Don’t want to know about the things you’ve done/The secrets you’re concealing/Have got the power of a loaded gun.” He has some likewise talented musicians backing him on this CD, including Lee Sklar on bass and Jim Keltner on drums. Both are fantastic studio musicians – Sklar has played with Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor; Keltner has played with John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson. You really can't go wrong with those guys. But for me it's the songwriting that makes this CD one of the best of the year.

The Boat That Carries Us opens with its title track – a soft, thoughtful acoustic tune. This is a deliciously mellow folk song with a positive feel, with lines like: “Though the current’s strong, it can’t break our will/Tossed about, we lose no hope/Held fast above by heaven’s rope.” His delivery has a sweet, personal tone. And I love this line: “The darkest sky gives way to dawn.” This feels like a song that could someday be thought of as “traditional.” It fits well into that realm. I could see this song being played around camp fires, as well as sung to loved ones.

He follows that with “Afraid To Lose,” a full band tune in the same realm as the best of what Bruce Springsteen recorded in the 1970s, with that kind of urgency and energy, and vibrant descriptions. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Fighting back the pain that comes in the final mile/Can you recognize us – we’re the ones pulling out ahead/Passing time, making plans, and warding off the dread.” And the line “So afraid to lose what we were each too afraid to win” helps make this track one of my favorites.

I love the lyrics to “Green Mexican Dreams.” It features lines like, “There’s a nylon-string guitar ringing out in pain” and “Every star is a talon, every planet is a claw,” and phrases like “restless poems,” “not a whisper on its surface” and “moon is despotic.” Plus, this song has a darker tone that I love. It creates a compelling atmosphere, and there is a sense of urgency as well. Basically, it’s an excellent song. The first time I put on this disc, this is the song that made me start thinking of my list of the best albums of 2014.

“For Wednesday At 7 PM (I Apologize)” is a fun song with a good groove and nice work on keys. The song is a series of apologies, which seem to come from a man to a woman (“for singing too loud, for being indiscreet”). But then at times it strikes me as coming from a god to humanity, and I love the thought of a god apologizing – with lines like “I apologize for the tidal wave/And for the heart of man that could never be brave/And for every patient that the doctors couldn’t save.” Then lines like “I apologize for talking too much/For saying too little, for being out of touch/For letting you down in the clutch” could go either way.

“Mercy On The Desolate Road” begins like an earnest prayer, with lines like “Lord, bless the least of us/Overlook the beast in us” and “Lord, fill the need in us/Overlook the greed in us/Give us twenty times more than we are owed.” This is a wonderful and very human song that feels both personal and universal. He then brings it all down to a road, which works as metaphor for the idea of life’s journey, but also feels like a specific and real place. And his late-night travels along this road are what bring to mind these thoughts and prayers. It’s a song of weaknesses and strengths, and of hope.

“Double Time Sugar Pain” is a pretty song, mostly piano and vocals, and reminds me a bit of Randy Newman, back when Newman was cool, before Disney bought his soul. “I had a reason/Yes, I had a reason.” This song features a string arrangement by Eric Gorfain. “I’m on knees over you.”

Peter Himmelman then picks up the energy and pace with the rockin’ “Angels Die,” with a great rhythm on drums. That doesn’t mean he’s neglecting the lyrics, of course. “Say you’ve got an answer, lie if you must/All we got is a stalemate and a river of rust.”

The Boat That Carries Us concludes with “Hotter Brighter Sun,” a cool folk tune with a positive, uplifting energy, and with hints of gospel, particularly in the song’s title line. As the album began, it ends with a song that could be one day in that realm of traditional tunes. “Up where lovers’ voices carry/There burns a hotter brighter sun/Ever toward that light every limb does grow.”

CD Track List

  1. The Boat That Carries Us
  2. Afraid To Lose
  3. Green Mexican Dreams
  4. For Wednesday At 7 PM (I Apologize)
  5. 33K Feet
  6. Never Got Left Behind
  7. Mercy On The Desolate Road
  8. In The Hour Of Ebbing Light
  9. Double Time Sugar Pain
  10. Angels Die
  11. Tuck It Away
  12. That’s What It Looks Like To Me
  13. Hotter Brighter Sun 


Peter Himmelman performs the vocals, as well as plays guitar and piano. Joining him on this album are Jim Keltner on drums, Lee Sklar on bass, David Steele on guitar, and Will Gramling on keys.
The Boat That Carries Us is scheduled to be released on July 15, 2014.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Defibulators at The Echo, 6-20-14: Photos

Last night I went to see Jimbo Mathus And The Tri-State Coalition perform at The Echo in Echo Park. I then stuck around to catch The Defibulators, a band I'd never seen before. I had watched a bit of live footage online, and so was familiar with some of their material (songs like "Holy Roller" and "Working Class"). They did a good set, and I'm glad I got the chance to see them perform. Here are a few photos:

The Defibulators performing "Holy Roller"
"Holy Roller"
"Get Yer Papers"

Jimbo Mathus And The Tri-State Coalition at The Echo, 6-20-14 Concert Review

Jimbo Mathus performing "Take A Ride"
In the mid-1990s I was a DJ at KWVA in Eugene, Oregon. I created and co-hosted a folk and acoustic radio program, and through my involvement with the radio station, I was turned on to a lot of great music I might not have otherwise heard. It was a wonderful time, and I caught a lot of shows. One of the bands that I fell in love with during that time was The Squirrel Nut Zippers. I saw them perform once at a place called La Luna in Portland (a venue that, unfortunately, is long gone now), and they were fantastic. I kept up with them for a while, and then, as happens, I lost touch, and they disbanded.

Then a couple of years ago I was sent an EP by Jimbo Mathus, who had been a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. And immediately my love was rekindled. Titled Blue Light, this EP has some very cool tunes. Earlier this year I reviewed Jimbo Mathus’ new CD, Dark Night Of The Soul, an album I really dig. And then finally last night I got the chance to see him perform live. My expectations were understandably high as I entered The Echo in Echo Park, a section of Los Angeles.

Another band started the night – 8 Track Cadillac – going on at 9:20 p.m., and starting with a heavy Bo Diddley beat. A good, loud bar band, a little bit country, a tiny bit blues, and a whole lot of rock and roll. Just before they played “Summertime Blues,” some guy in a very shiny outfit came in. Think C-3PO if he were performing at the Grand Ole Opry. It was a good version of “Summertime Blues,” by the way, and I liked that they weren’t trying to do the Blue Cheer version. They later did a cool rendition of “You Never Can Tell,” a Chuck Berry tune that’s often mistitled as “C’est La Vie.” C-3PO seemed to be digging it as well, as he was doing a dance like directing forklifts where to put a stack of crates.

Throughout their set, folks kept coming in, so there was a decent crowd by the time Jimbo Mathus And The Tri-State Coalition took the stage at 10:15 p.m. While Jimbo was setting up, I asked him if there was a chance of hearing “Writing Spider,” one of my favorites from the new album. “There’s a chance,” he said, but clearly it wasn’t on the planned set list for the evening. I didn’t want to throw a wrench into the works, but it’s such a damn good song, you understand.

The band kicked off their set with a few songs from their 2012 full-length CD, White Buffalo. Jimbo Mathus played mandolin on “In The Garden,” then quickly switched to guitar for “(I Wanna Be Your) Satellite.” And then on “Tennessee Walker Mare” I loved the way the two guitars worked together during the instrumental section – totally delicious.

They got things rocking with “Fake Hex,” then followed it with the fun “Dirty Hustlin',” which featured some nice work on keys. There was also a very cool lead guitar section to that song. During “Take A Ride,” the drummer hit the floor tom with a tambourine rather than a stick. That song had a good groove.

For “Tallahatchie,” a song off of the new CD, Jimbo Mathus invited a couple of special guests up to the stage – Jamison Hollister on fiddle and Claire Holley on backing vocals. This was a really good rendition, and one of the set’s highlights for me. They both played on the next couple of tunes, as well, with Hollister switching to pedal steel for “Fire In The Canebrake” and “White Angel.” “White Angel” included a great scream by Jimbo Mathus. Both of those are also from the new album.

Claire Holley left the stage after “White Angel,” but Hollister finished out the set with the band. They played a few more from the new CD – “Dark Night Of The Soul,” “Casey Caught The Cannonball” and “Shine Like A Diamond.” No “Writing Spider,” but that’s okay. I was glad to hear “Shine Like A Diamond,” another favorite from the new album.

Hollister switched back to fiddle for the final song of the night, “Who’ll Sop My Gravy.” There was some nice play between the lead guitar and fiddle near the end of the tune. Time constraints kept them from being able to play longer, but folks were calling out for more at the end of their set.

Set List

  1. In The Garden
  2. (I Wanna Be Your) Satellite
  3. Tennessee Walker Mare
  4. Fake Hex
  5. Dirty Hustlin’
  6. Take A Ride
  7. Tallahatchie
  8. Fire In The Canebrake
  9. White Angel
  10. Dark Night Of The Soul
  11. Casey Caught The Cannonball
  12. Shine Like A Diamond
  13. Who’ll Sop My Gravy 
The Defibulators then took the stage after Jimbo Mathus And The Tri-State Coalition were done.

Here are a few photos from Jimbo Mathus And The Tri-State Coalition's set:

"In The Garden"
"(I Wanna Be Your) Satellite"
"Fake Hex"
"Fire In The Canebrake"
"Fire In The Canebrake"
"Dark Night Of The Soul"
"Who'll Sop My Gravy"