Like a Blue Man Out of Fictitious Hell: Fall Tour 2014… Part 2

Photographed in Nashville, 2/3/05

After a fun trip to Chapel Hill to see Tune-Yards, it was on to Spartanburg, South Carolina to see Jason Isbell & John Prine.  An amazing bill.  I’ve never seen John Prine live in person.  I had seen several performances on TV.  I was familiar with his reputation as a performer.  Chatty and charming.  As much of a storyteller with his stage banter between songs as he is through song – I was expecting to see a legend.  Mr. Prine did not disappoint.

The surprise came from the opening act who I was seeing for the 11th or 12th time since 2009 (I’ve lost track).  Sitting three rows from the stage (front row – orchestra right), I was expecting to see Jason Isbell open the show solo with this acoustic guitar.  Much to my surprise, he was accompanied by his full band – The 400 Unit.  Yet, the set Isbell & Co. delivered was far different from the usual guitar-slinging rock and roll show I’ve come to expect.  Instead it was a masterfully restrained set that showcased his strength as a songwriter.  Mostly consisting of songs from Southeastern, other highlights from past albums included “Streetlights,” “Alabama Pines,” and of course the DBT-classic, “Outfit.”  The showstopper of Isbell’s set was his performance of “Cover Me Up.”  It was met with a standing ovation from the sold-out auditorium.  As an opening act, Isbell delivered a performance that was easily one of my three favorite experiences seeing him live.

John Prine and his band took the stage with an unassuming presence, as if they were saying, “Hey guys, don’t mind us.  We’re just gonna play some songs.  You can listen if you want, it would be greatly appreciated.”  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen John Prine perform on television several times (most recently here).  However, John has been through some major procedures due to cancer (one surgery within the last year), and so I wasn’t sure about his most recent condition.  By the first word of “Spanish Pipedream,” my concerns were put to rest.  John has taken criticism in recent years for continuing to tour and play the same old set of songs.  After now seeing him perform live in person, I can forcefully say – who gives a shit?!  I wouldn’t care if a man had only written 10 songs.  If they were as good as anything John Prine has written, that man could tour for 40 years and play those same 10 songs till he died on stage.  It wouldn’t bother me one bit.  So, sure, along with his routine opener, he played 43 year-old songs from his debut – “Sam Stone,” “Six O’Clock News,” “Angel from Montgomery,” and encore closer “Paradise.”  However, I didn’t expect to hear “Donald and Lydia” and it was his performance of “Hello In There” that was the highlight of the entire evening.

After performing “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” John talked about all of the time he spent around his grandfather in his carpentry shop (as the song says).  So much time with him, in fact, that as he grew older (though still a young man) he would always gravitate towards older folks at social gatherings.  He just felt more comfortable around them.  “But, now, I’m one of them,” he said, and that’s when he poetically segued into “Hello In There.”  On his first album, alone, John Prine takes on the voices of many characters – even an old woman.  As a young man, he would perform this song as a character, but now, to the uninitiated, the song could be mistaken for autobiography.  It takes on such a different meaning, and a different feel now that he performs at the age of 68.  That wasn’t lost on a single soul in that auditorium.  It’s been years, maybe never, since I’ve been in a room so entranced by what was happening in that moment.  If Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” was an emotional kick to the gut, Prine had just ripped my heart out of my chest.

 


That night I had the pleasure of being accompanied by my good friend Scott and two members of a band he plays in – Center and Kenny.  Their band is the Kenny George Band – Kenny of course being the principle songwriter/front-man and Center plays lap and pedal steel.  All three guys worship at the very same altar as Prine and Isbell, so it was my pleasure to experience that show with them.  Scott is responsible for introducing me to Jason Isbell.  Before I saw him, I only had one Drive-by Truckers album, and it was after he left the band.  Scott and I shared a common fandom for Ryan Adams that goes back several years.  Back when I was squatting at his residence right after college, we’d make late night trips to the bar with Ryan Adams soundtracking our evening.  One time, in particular, I can remember six dudes piled into an old Jeep or SUV, windows down, belting out “Oh, My Sweet Carolina” at the top of their lungs for all of Rock Hill to hear.

Scott has had a number of musical ventures over the years.  A short-lived pop rock band that was formed at Winthrop, many musical duos, and many more solo performances at “Irish pubs” all over South Carolina.  He wasn’t alone back in the late 90s, staying up late playing Dave Matthews tunes.  There were many others back then.  There still are today.  However, I always enjoyed when my friends would just pull out the guitar at a party or in someone’s living room or at the events we used to attend as Episcopalian youth.  One night in particular back in the late 90s, I remember Scott asking me if I’d heard of John Prine.  That was the first time he’d ever mentioned anyone that we had in common who wasn’t on modern-day radio.  Then, he played “Angel from Montgomery” because it was one of the many tunes he picked up from his Uncle Leo.  Then we would return to conversations on Dave Matthews.  Over the years, random mentions of The Replacements would take place.  Then came Ryan Adams… and I have to admit it was when Scott fell for Ryan Adams, that he and I really made a true musical connection.

That’s why it’s been great seeing Scott play with the Kenny George Band.  I’ve seen them play twice as a full band now (most recently this past Saturday).  You can really tell that Scott is having a blast.  Scott has an incredible knack for singing harmonies.  He and Kenny sound excellent together.  They are a talented group of guys.  Kenny is a very promising young songwriter.  Don’t get me wrong, his existing output is already quality stuff, but the newer songs get better and better.  There’s a natural artistic progression happening there.  I’ve written about my college days, and how I was obsessed with Americana/Alt-Country-Whatever-That-Is music.  In recent years, it’s slowly made a comeback and almost dominates my music listening time.  That’s why the timing of Scott playing in this band couldn’t be more perfect.

I’ve said before (and it won’t be the last time), that this blog is about sharing.  I’ve created several playlists that anybody is welcome to download, and a couple of folks have.  Today, I’m going to ask you to purchase the first EP by this band.  It’s called Gunshy, and it’s available on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.  If you write the band, maybe they will mail you a physical copy (featuring album art by yours truly).  The Kenny George Band is a band that I truly believe in.  I don’t blow smoke up anybody’s ass when it comes to music, and I can truly say I’m a fan of this band – no matter who plays in it.  When I saw them open for American Aquarium in Augusta, I was standing in the crowd beside one of Scott’s old friends – Brian.  Brian is a solid music fan, and has pretty damn good taste in music.  At one point, he turned to me and said, “I’ve seen every band that Scott has played in.  This is by far the best one.”  You said it, Brian.  You said it.

 

Like a Turtle Out of Hell: Fall Tour 2014… Part 1

tuneyards

I love going to see live music.  Every year, I try to see as many shows as I can.  Over the years, I have had to travel two hours or more to see a lot of the bands I really want to see.  Don’t get me wrong, Charlotte has a few decent small venues – The Visulite, The Neighborhood Theatre, The Chop Shop…  However, most of the club shows that take place in Charlotte are of the contemporary folk/bluegrass or jam-band variety.  For a steady stream of modern (“indie”) pop/rock, you really have to look to The Orange Peel in Asheville or a few different venues in The Triangle.

So, due to recently getting married and taking on a mortgage, it’s been more difficult to get out to as many shows in 2013 and 2014.  I really wanted to get a nice Fall Tour in this year.  You know, line up at least four shows in October and November that I really wanted to attend.  It has turned out to be a pretty fun fall.  Fall Tour is always a great excuse to get out of town with the wifey and/or catch up with some good friends.  This fall, it was especially a blast to get up with one friend that I haven’t seen in at least five years…

My buddy Mike texted me one day in October to see if I wanted to go see tUnE-yArDs at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro (Chapel Hill).  Mike recently joined the rest of humanity on Facebook, and trust me, humanity is better off for it.  Much to my delight (and to the delight of all his friends), he has been posting inspirational videos that help us all get up off the mat to take on life’s greatest challenges.  You can watch some of those videos here.

When Mike and I met years ago, he was pretty much breathing, eating, smoking, and bathing in bluegrass music.  I had a steady diet of Americana and “alt-country” music, so I could meet him halfway there.  I can’t remember on which musical artist we found common ground (maybe Gillian Welch?), but I know that I’m eternally grateful to Mike for one thing...  He introduced me to the world of John Hartford.  Mike is a musician, and a fine one at that.  An excellent flat-picker who also has an affinity for a good sing-song.  Every once in awhile he’d bust out a version of “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” and I was hooked.  Mike is the perfect person to play a John Hartford tune, because just like Hartford, Mike has an ingenious sense of humor.  As the old adage goes, “it takes one to know one.”

As a musician, Mike has an appreciation for the craft, and therefore an appreciation for the unique talents of the world.  So, it was no surprise to me (maybe a little at first), that Mike would tell me he loved tUnE-yArDs.  See, when it comes to unique talents, Merrill Garbus is easily one of the top five all-around talents in music today.  Not just “indie” music – all music.

I met Mike and his girlfriend, Logan, up in Lexington.  I’ve never been to Lexington.  I’ve heard more than my fair share about Lexington barbecue, so it made perfect sense that we would eat Mexican food before hitting the road.  On the road, the three of us did what I have always done around Mike – we talked about music.  Random things, like the first album we ever bought, how much I love pedal steel, concerts we had been to recently, and our shared love of Fine Young Cannibals.

It had only been a year since I was last in Carrboro, but I couldn’t even recognize the area surrounding Cat’s Cradle.  It was strange.  I’ve been to Cat’s Cradle close to 15 times to see shows.   My first trip up was in 2002 to see Spoon.  Carrboro has more or less maintained the same feel over the last 12 years, but this most recent visit revealed that some changes are definitely in store.  Cat’s Cradle as a venue has gone through some extreme changes over the last couple of years.  Taylor and I saw Sharon Van Etten there two years ago, and the venue had been opened up revealing more of the original structure and allowing space for at least 250 more people.  It’s opened up even more since then by relocating the bar.  Sometimes I miss the old Cat’s Cradle with the low ceiling and cramped floor.  There’s been a solid reduction in the level of intimacy, but the room definitely sounds better.

The opening act for the evening was a squirrel that did tricks.  It was an astounding sight.  I’ve never seen a woodland creature have such command over the stage.  He seamlessly made his way through a maze of obstacles, did countless card tricks, and finished up his set with a juggling act.  He juggled twelve walnuts in perfect choreography to the closing medley on Abbey Road, making this guy look like a complete amateur.*

I don’t know how tUnE-yArDs expected to follow that act, but they put on an amazing show.  It’s nothing short of a privilege to see Merrill and her band perform their extravagant compositions.  Five people create the sound one would think an army was necessary for.  Their stage presence was gloriously eccentric, just as I had hoped.  It only adds to the otherworldliness of Merrill’s talent.  Crowd favorites were obviously the recent Nikki Nack track “Water Fountain” and Whokill tracks “Gangsta” and “Bizness.”  My favorite moment of the evening, however, was the majestic performance of “Time of Dark.”  It was truly larger than life and completely caught me by surprise, because it was not one of the songs I was expecting to stand out.  

It was an absolutely amazing show.  The performance was spot on, the room was perfect, and the crowd was pretty great.  Aside from being a victim of what I hope was accidental grinding, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.  It was great seeing live music with Mike again.  Nothing beats going to shows with people who really appreciate them on the same level that you do.  It was a successful adventure for the three of us.

We were all pretty beat heading back to Lexington.  I was trying not to doze off, but I felt like I had been up for 48 hours.  Truthfully, I still might have been slightly hungover from a trip to the bar two nights prior.  After a long ride back to Lexington, and now facing the long drive back to Charlotte… I found myself in the middle of a staring contest with my own mortality.  I’m old.  I can’t do this stuff like I used to, but I’ll be damned if I won’t keep on trying.

*This may or may not have actually happened. 

Islands in the Stream

Spotify-WEB

A quick update.  I’ve created an account for this blog on Spotify – digitalgramophone33.  All volumes of my playlist series, “33,” are available there.  I have no guilt about it, because I have purchased all the music that I’m sharing.  Some of the songs in the playlists are missing because they aren’t available on Spotify.  But, just a few…

Here are the links…

33 Vol. 1

33 Vol. 2

33 Vol. 3

So, yeah, follow me on Spotify if you prefer to stream your playlists as opposed to downloading them.