Album Review – Justin Townes Earle’s “Absent Fathers”

020115mBeatsReview_GL_1

If album titles could speak of the wounded heart of an artist, Justin Townes Earle’s latest installment, “Absent Fathers,” would be screaming humbly from a Nashville rooftop. This 10-track album is the companion to Earle’s fifth studio album, “Single Mothers,” which was released last year. Earl recorded all tracks live with his four-piece touring band before settling them into their parental album positions. Taken as a pair, these albums bare the soul of a boy-turned-man and his journey to solid ground.

“Absent Fathers” softly, but unapologetically, reveals a side of Earle that longed for a stable father figure, one who could have saved him from the depths of addiction and heartache and taught him how to be a gentleman. Sadly, most fathers who leave a son at the age of two years are not typically equipped for such a noble post. Such appears the case for Earle’s father, alt-country artist Steve Earle, who has certainly faced demons of his own.

Despite his life’s turmoil, Earle, whose voice finds itself nestled somewhere between the muddied mumble of Dylan and the rocker rasp of Springsteen, has catapulted himself into the Americana spotlight with a blue collar mix of folk, blues and country. Much like his godfather, the late Townes Van Zandt, Earl’s vocal delivery teeters on melodic spoken word, often with an unpredictable cadence.

On “Absent Fathers,” Earle’s style translates as if he were reading straight from his personal journal — raw emotion with very little frill, yet full and layered. So layered in fact that on the opening track, “Farther From Me,” it is unclear whether Earle sings of heartbreak from a young love or from being abandoned by his father. It is one of the album’s strongest tracks, tacked down by loneliness and suffering, but unfastened by a hopeful and simple guitar arrangement.

Earle’s unique vocal pacing is most apparent on “Why” and “Least I Got The Blues,” two short tracks that maintain Earle’s wide-open narrative, but have trouble finding a strong footing when measured against the others. “Call Ya Momma” is a mellow, bluesy, rock tune that tells the tale of quarreling lovers on the brink of a forever farewell.

“Day and Night” opens with the lonely whine of pedal steel accompanied by lovely finger picking. This track displays the beauty of Earle’s songwriting with striking lyrics of the uncertainty the day brings as the night is put to rest. “Round the Bend” picks up the pace as the album’s truck-stop rocker, evoking images of Earle standing on the side of a dusty country road using the last of his pocket change to call to his jilted lover.

“When The One You Love Loses Faith” brings Earle’s blues influence to the forefront. With his head hung low, Earle sings of the familiar woes that come to anyone who has loved and lost. Gears shift back to country on “Slow Monday,” which strangely possesses shades of a Randy Newman animated tune and sums up the commonplace opinion of the most dreaded day of the week. “Someone Will Pay” is an upbeat revengeful track with a punchy guitar solo interlude.

The album’s final track, “Looking For A Place To Land,” is a somber but encouraging tune that chronicles the trials of a man eager to evolve beyond boyhood dreams and a painful past. With delicate guitar picking and heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics, Earle ends the album with a story unto which his listeners will attach their own past memories and future optimisms. It is in this unpolished openness that Earle so easily connects to his listeners. As Earle’s story evolves, he will certainly continue to find stability and safety within the Americana’s halls and heart.

Collectively, “Absent Fathers” tells just one part of Earle’s multifaceted life story. Even with a first listen to the album, it is clear that songwriting from the soul is therapeutic for Earle. He sings of his mistakes to make amends with himself and creates a bond with his audience that is rooted in honest emotion and a desire to do better. The album itself finds perfection is its simplicity, relatability and underproduction, which lends listeners a clean and uncluttered collection of songs from the emotional pages of Earle’s past.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Review

Album Review – Rancid’s “…Honor Is All We Know”

120114mRancid_GL

Nothing exudes the holiday spirit quite like a new Rancid album — this year’s perfect stocking stuffer.

“…Honor Is All We Know” marks the punk rock band’s eighth studio album and its first release since 2009. Punk veteran Tim Armstrong continues to lead Rancid head-on into the fire pit with his unmistakable, gritty vocals and anarchistic, yet upbeat, agenda. Along with longtime bandmate Matt Freeman (bass, vocals), Lars Frederiksen (guitar, vocals) and Branden Steineckert (drums), Armstrong finds a sweet spot between staying true to his punk roots while pushing the tight-fisted genre into the future.

The album opens with a familiar frenzied pace on “Back Where I Belong,” marking the band’s valiant return after five years between recordings. This is a no-frills announcement and a reason for listeners to perk up and pay attention. “Raise Your Fist” follows in all of its anti-authority glory. Chock-full of enough “Oi Oi Oi” chants to rally the masses, this 3-minute track is quintessential Rancid retaliation.

With reminiscing lyrics and a familiar Armstrong tempo, “Collision Course” harkens back to Rancid’s “…And Out Come the Wolves” days, when American punk rock found itself on mainstream music’s frontline. “Evil’s My Friend” brings in that reggae-ska flavor that has peppered Rancid’s sound over the decades, making for a perfect skanking song.

On the title track, Frederiksen and Freeman join Armstrong on lead vocal. This is initially distracting, but speaks volumes of the band’s message of brotherhood and unity. “A Power Inside” is the perfect follow-up to the title track, continuing the positivity of union and inner-strength no matter the cards life has dealt.

“In The Streets” is a punk rock “Freaks Come Out at Night,” chronicling the happenings of late-night street corner huggers. On “Face Up,” Armstrong gives thanks to another day in the struggle after surviving a bar fight. Though tapping out after just 1:35 minutes, this short track still manages to translate vivid imagery and gratefulness to the listener.

The drum-heavy “Already Dead” is a hell-raiser, made for flashes of leather and spikes in a mosh pit full of fast flying elbows and bloody noses. The devilish “Diabolical” speaks to the evil tug-of-war that violence pulls out of the human race. On “Malfunction,” Armstrong and Frederiksen trade off verses smoothly. While the track stays in line lyrically, the drum and guitar arrangement feels almost like a Rolling Stones tune—a little more rock than punk, but a well-received deviation from the norm.

“Now We’re Through With You” calls out the disloyal and maintains the band’s focus on doing right by each other because forgiveness is not an option. “Everybody’s Sufferin’” brings in more surfer-ska and stands out among the other tracks with organ-tones and a slower pace. The album closes with a similar vengeance and fever as it opened on “Grave Digger.” Another track shared by Armstrong and Frederiksen, “Grave Digger” keeps fans in a bit of a purgatory, greedily wanting more. Fortunately for fans, there is a deluxe iTunes version of the album that features an additional three songs.

Collectively, “…Honor Is All We Know” falls in line with typical punk rock albums in that it clocks in at just under 33 minutes. For those who lack the attention span to listen much longer, it is a perfect departure from the real world in about the time it may take to drive to work.

While lyrical intricacies have never been Rancid’s strong suit, the simplicity in message and arrangement continue to serve as a solid backbone on which to build. Despite the fact that Rancid peaked in the mid-90s, the band continues to deliver music with a fresh sound that appeals to the old underground fans as well as young punk rockers who are just discovering the boisterous genre.

As long as Armstrong is at the mic, punk rock will have a distinct voice that will perpetuate a message of unity amidst the defiance. “…Honor Is All We Know” succeeds in this light, and proves that Armstrong and his crew show no signs of backing down from what they came to do—speak loud and proud with a fist in the air and a fight in their hearts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Review

Technology’s Impact on the Music Industry

cellphones

In the 80s, video killed the radio star and music lovers became glued to MTV around the clock. Cable TV and the music video revolutionized how music reached people. Music fans were excited and satisfied, completely naïve to the impact that technology would have on the creation, delivery and live experience of music in the future.

More than three decades later, technology has exploded and changed the face of the music industry on all fronts. Musicians no longer need big record labels to reach the masses — they have social media and YouTube for that. Getting “discovered” can literally happen overnight with viral videos that spread like wildfire across the globe. As Dylan sang, “the times, they are a-changing’.”

Today, fans are bombarded by musical options — band status updates, tweets, live-streaming concerts, crowdfunding campaigns, Instagram concert photos, digital downloads, satellite radio, music apps, wireless headphones and more. The opportunities to connect to music seem endless and ever expanding, which allows fans to pick their poison, but also leaves plenty of room for overload and pitfalls.

The ability to record and mix an album no longer sits in the hands of big name studios as it once did. Home recording studios have popped up across the states as artists gain access to affordable digital audio workstation programs like Avid Pro Tools and Apple GarageBand or Logic Pro X. While engineering an album still requires a trained ear, these tools have opened doors to musicians who may have never dreamed of the chance to lay down tracks.

Ask independent touring musicians about income and they will likely tell you they are broke — this is no lie. After gas, hotels, meals, and bills, there is little left for recording costs. Without backing from a label, recording an album in today’s climate often requires the support of fans. This is where crowdfunding comes in handy. Online platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and PledgeMusic have changed the way musicians raise money to support their craft. Successful campaigns from artists like Langhorne Slim, Joe Fletcher and Holy Ghost Tent Revival have turned out solid albums that may have otherwise never been created. This virtual tip jar allows fans to be a part of the process, and in return receive “prizes” that are often handmade by the artists themselves.

For some, smartphone technology has ruined the live music experience. Watching an entire concert through the bright screen of someone’s iPhone or tablet is certainly not ideal and can create frustration among concert-goers. This frustration can also be felt by the musician, who can look out into a sea of phones, rather than faces, often creating a disconnect.

On the flip side, jam band Umphrey’s McGee has chosen a different approach to use technology to increase engagement and unity among its fans. At selective shows, including the band’s annual UMBowl, fans are asked to live tweet song requests and improv ideas to the band or vote for specific songs to guide the set list.

“It’s really fun and the fans just went nuts for it,” band member Joel Cummins said. “It’s a really great experience to be creative with the fan base and come up with new things … it turns improv on its head and treats it like composition. Over the course of three years, we’ve come up with nine to 10 new songs from it.”

Surprisingly, Cummins and the band have found that the live tweeting and voting have not distracted from the show itself.

“I don’t see (overuse of phones) as much of a problem at our shows,” Cummins said. “We aren’t big stars. (The fans) are there in the moment, for the music. People aren’t into us as people. They are more into us as a group, so if they want to take a picture that is fine with me. You really have to pay attention (at our shows). It’s not going to be the same thing every night.”

Umphrey’s McGee also offers a selective number of wireless headphone packs at most shows, allowing fans to experience the concert through the soundboard, just as the band does through ear monitors. Currently they have 40-50 packs that fans can rent for $40, which also includes a digital download of the evening’s performance. What started as an idea to bring fans a unique listening experience, has grown into more than the band could have ever expected — spawning new friendships and headphone sharing.

“Our biggest fear was that it would create a strange social stigma at shows, but the opposite has happened,” Cummins said. “It brings out people’s curiosity and most of our fans are nice, intelligent people. They want to accommodate and spread the word about the goodness of this. We’ve had about five to 10 negative comments and 500 positive comments — that it is a game changer.”

Social media has done wonders for the independent musician, not only through spreading information and new music, but also through networking and tour planning. Many smaller music venues now handle booking through Facebook, and keep patrons informed by creating event pages. Websites like Bandsintown and Artistdata can be linked to Facebook and Twitter by musicians, keeping fans informed of nearby shows.

However, the amount of accessible music may be nearing a threshold. Wood Robinson, bassist for the Chapel Hill-based group Mipso, has observed a shift in music accessibility on the internet and thinks that musicians need to use these resources wisely in order to be successful.

“The webs are all but saturated with music of all kinds and of all aesthetics and all abilities,” Robinson said. “It gives a little more of an even platform for everyone, but it also means that the listener has to plow through a lot to find that yet-to-be-discovered group that they’re going to fall in love with. It’s like taking all the fruit trees in the world and putting them in one grove. All those fruits are a lot more reachable, but so are the fruits that you don’t want to eat.

“I think that the biggest thing for artists is to figure out how to use that accessibility to their advantage. The constant connectivity is great but not if used poorly. Reverbnation has a lot of great tools for unsigned artists, but a ‘like’ doesn’t necessarily translate to a butt in a seat at a concert. It can be a good proxy for estimating growth, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all for measuring success.”

Music delivery through websites like Pandora and Spotify has also drastically increased mobile accessibility to music, while also somewhat stealing from the mouths of artists. This conundrum equates to the proverbial double-edged sword. While fans can listen to any type of music they want for free or a small monthly fee and it gives the artist exposure, in the end most artists literally earn pennies for the web-play their songs receive.

This drastic decrease in pay-out is also evident when fans choose to purchase a digital download over a physical copy of an album. Local musician Rebekah Todd has concerns about the impact technology has on not only the livelihood of the artist, but also how people are connecting to music today.

“Things have changed dramatically with the digital age and the introduction of things like Rhapsody, Spotify, iTunes, Amazon and so many more,” Todd said. “The act of obtaining music has been cheapened. Thirty years ago, you had to walk into a record store and thumb through physical copies of albums. You picked the album up and you examined its artwork. You might have even read about who played on the album and where it was recorded. Today, we don’t have to have any physical contact to have a song delivered to us immediately.

“Not only have digital sites stolen the personal act of buying music from us, it has stolen a large portion of how musicians make their living. What people don’t realize is that musicians make a fraction of a penny for every time that their song is listened to, digitally, as opposed to the days when people had to spend at least an entire dollar on a song that a musician poured their soul into for months on end.

“I believe that music is not something you hear. It is something that you feel. If you aren’t feeling music, you might as well stop listening. To fully experience music, you have to stand in a room with someone who has written a song about the highest and lowest points of their life and you have to meet that person in their song — in their experience. That is where the connection is made. It isn’t made on an iPod. It isn’t made on XM radio. It is made at the live performance. I fear that a large percentage of the kids being raised today have never even been to a live show. They have never felt the bass pumping so loudly that they can feel it in their chest. They’ve never seen someone pour out all of their emotion with every bead of sweat that lands on the stage.”

Over the past decade, vinyl has made a significant comeback, giving listeners a higher quality recording when compared to a digital MP3 file. According to Pitchfork, 2013 vinyl sales topped out at 6.1 million units in the US alone. While this still only accounts for two percent of all album sales, it represents a 33% increase in vinyl sales from 2012.

To stay up with the times, most newly-pressed vinyl comes with a digital download code for those who want the experience of spinning a record, while also being able to take the music on the go. For audiophiles this is the best of both worlds.

Independent record stores, like Greenville’s East Coast Music and Video, have had to adapt to the digital world in order to survive. Store owner, Jon Hughes’ has gladly embraced the new demand for vinyl by stocking his store with new and used records, in addition to CDs, offering music lovers a wide array of options while trying to stay current.

“I think the resurgence in vinyl interest is awesome,” Hughes said. “The fact that vinyl sales are up throughout the world’s retail markets is evidence that people are starting to come full circle when it comes to listening and buying music. A lot of people have become slaves to their gadgets over the years and they have lost touch with the pure enjoyment of owning and collecting physical pieces of music. Many folks in the younger generations do not know what it’s like to really want their favorite band’s new album and having to wait for it to come out. They’ve never experienced the genuine excitement of going to their local record store and finally getting their hands on it for the first time.

“Opening up the record, admiring the artwork and photographs, reading the liner notes and song lyrics while listening to a beautiful piece of vinyl can be a surreal experience on many levels. A band’s music should be more than just background noise to fill the room while you’re scanning the internet. Let’s face it, music is art and it should be enjoyed that way. MP3s are flat pieces of digital noise but, vinyl records have warmth, depth, texture and soul. Nothing sounds better than analog and I believe more people are reconnecting with that fact.”

The increase in demand for current bands to release vinyl versions of albums comes with a disclaimer — fans must be patient. Currently, there are only about a dozen pressing plants in the US, which means turnaround time has gone from about four weeks to three months. Perhaps vinyl’s comeback will offset the need for instant gratification that comes with immediate downloads or streaming, and bring music lovers back to a time when great music was worth the wait.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Live Shows, Music

Album Review – Big Daddy Love’s “This Time Around”

110114mBDLoveAlbum_GL

For Winston-Salem-based Appalachian-rock band Big Daddy Love, making an album that represents a new line-up and fresh talent meant trekking up to the magical land of Woodstock, N.Y.—a place so rich with musical history that inspiration runs in the streams and lives in the mountains.

Big Daddy Love — currently comprised of Scott Moss (vocals, guitar), Joseph Recchio (guitar, vocals), Brian Swenk (banjo), Ashley Sutton (bass, vocals), and Scotty Lewis (drums) — laid the tracks for its latest album “This Time Around” at Woodstock’s Applehead Studios earlier this year. The result is a dozen carefully crafted songs that find cohesion in hometown themes, unique and often intricate arrangements, and a keen balance across track tempo.

With Moss and Recchio as lyrical masterminds, “This Time Around” finds its niche quickly and settles in without pause. There is no time to waste, as the majority of tracks keep a high-energy pace matched by the intertwining of guitar and banjo that lend a special ferocity and fire to the album as a whole.

The album opens with “Nashville Flood,” an instant rocker with brassy horns and gospel undertones. The track swells into an ominous prediction of what happens when false dreams come crashing down. “The Colour” follows with a blues guitar intro that blends seamlessly into bluegrass banjo rolls and feels like an outlaw road trip across county lines.

“Eunice and the Bear” is a stomp clapper jam that shows the band’s storytelling side. It chronicles the life of a rambling man, his wife Eunice, and a stuffed bear head on their cabin’s wall. Lyrics paint a vivid picture of just how big a bear story can grow after years of marriage. It is a sweet and fun track with a backwoods twist.

One of the album’s longer tracks, “Kerosene,” feels like a blend of John Mellencamp and The Black Crows, low and slow blues peppered with the electric energy of guitar and a soulful church choir. Big Daddy Love steps up the backyard bonfire country vibe on “Last Night’s Dress,” a small-town boy meets girl tune that reminds listeners of the beauty and freedom of young, carefree love.

“Smoke Under the Water” is as bluegrass jam band as it gets, melding down and dirty guitar riffs with rolling, bouncy banjo and smack-you-in-the-face bass lines. There is no way to sit still during this instrumental track. “Home No More” brings in an eerie reggae-rock vibe mixed with laid back blues lyrics about being down on luck, while “Star Spangled Blues” taps into southern rock patriotism with steam engine momentum and an electric guitar solo that whines with American, feverish pride.

“Susan” downshifts to a heartfelt ballad filled with regret and unfulfilled dreams of a long lost love and untapped potential. Just when you think the pity party is going to dig deeper, “Every Other Day” slowly picks up the pieces and pace, grows a backbone and flashes its teeth. There is a revengeful quality in the supporting guitar arrangement and cool and calm, yet strong vocals.

“Silver and Pearls” is the album’s best representation of bluegrass mountain music, highlighting the speed, precision, and punch that a banjo brings to a song. The title track, “This Time Around,” brings the album to a close with beautiful acoustic instrumentation and reflective lyrics. Stripping the song down to bare bones reveals the true talent of a band that can step away from busy and thematic arrangements to successfully deliver a simple message to the listener with humility and thoughtfulness.

The melding of rock and blues throughout the album gives it a throwback quality that speaks to the band’s elevated musicianship, while still feeling fresh and current. The banjo plays an important and consistent role across the tracks, but never seems to shine in quite the same glory as the electric guitar. Though the Appalachian roots are present, the grit of good ol’ southern rock and belly fire of the blues reign supreme on “This Time Around.”

To check out “This Time Around” and keep up with Big Daddy Love’s non-stop tour schedule, visit the band’s website at bigdaddylove.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Review

Review – Farm Aid 2014

15050963817_635128c667_o

Since 1985, Farm Aid has been working to raise awareness about the hardships that accompany family farming in the US. Though efforts are year-round, the annual Farm Aid Concert marks the culmination of hard work, dedication, and commitment from non-profit organizers, farmers, musicians, volunteers and more. This star-studded event is not only a celebration of music, but more importantly a grassroots movement for those in attendance to get involved in the cause.

Now in its 29th year, Farm Aid continues to work toward its mission by promoting food from family farms, growing the Good Food movement, helping farmers thrive, and taking local, regional and national action to promote fair policies. To date, Farm Aid has raised over $45 million to support a strong family farm system of agriculture that is built to withstand the test of time and challenge the heavy-hand of government and corporate power that limits so many small family farmers.

This year, Farm Aid chose to focus the attention on the unique struggles of North Carolina farmers. Organizers spent months gathering the facts and stories from family farmers like Kay Doby and Craig Watts who face the hardships of contract poultry, NC’s only African-American dairy farmers Dorthay and Phillip Barker who have experienced blatant discrimination, and The Vollmer family who bravely moved away from traditional tobacco farming to organic production. While these are just a few of the countless stories from across the state, they represent a nationwide struggle that Farm Aid has been trying to dissolve for nearly three decades.

Farm Aid’s board of directors—Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Dave Matthews—serve not only as the musical voices behind the cause, but also work to educate their fans year after year at the Farm Aid Concerts. Last month, Nelson, Mellencamp, Young, and Matthews took to Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheater stage, along with acts like Jack White, Gary Clark Jr., Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jamey Johnson, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, and Durham-based Delta Rae, to share their talents and thoughts with a sold-out crowd.

Though scattered thunderstorms threatened the event throughout the day, the late summer weather managed to cooperate for organizers and concert-goers alike. When the gates opened at noon, fans, farmers and supporters found themselves at a venue that had been transformed into an interactive, family-friendly “Homegrown Village,” offering local fare, agricultural workshops, panel discussions, and educational exhibits from more than 35 local and national food and farm groups.

In the Skills Tent, participants learned how to make flower crowns and the best way to save seeds from their backyard harvest. On the Farm Yard Stage, farmers and musicians paired up to discuss important issues like farmer’s market dynamics, concentrated animal feeding operations, and the threat of international fish imports on local fishers. Hands-on demonstrations gave non-farmers opportunities to roll up their sleeves and learn more about the trade.

Farm Aid is likely the only concert where farmers are treated like VIPs. Farmers who registered were invited to pre-concert events, granted early-entry, and given special placards to wear while on-site. The farmers were not only drawn to the event to enjoy the music, but also to network, share ideas, and work toward finding viable solutions to support the family farmer.

Each year Farm Aid stacks the line-up with some of the top names in the music industry. Raleigh’s Farm Aid was no different. Performances that led up to the headliners proved entertaining, but the crowd’s energy really started picking up momentum when Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson took the stage, and it continued to mount until Willie himself closed out the evening with a stage full of friends.

In between Nelsons, Austin-based rocker Gary Clark Jr. drew standing ovations with an impressive 7-song set which included his hit “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round.” The Nashville-by-way-of-Detroit enigma Jack White followed and the crowd collectively went insane the moment he stepped on stage. Donning a new, slicked-back coif and long jaw-line sideburns, White rocked out a 10-song set with favorites like “Lazzaretto,” “We’re Going to Be Friends,” and “Seven Nation Army.” White and his band matched the static electric energy that was projected on the big screen behind them, and were clearly one of the evening’s crowd-favorites.

Matthews, along with longtime musical partner and guitar extraordinaire Tim Reynolds, played a more subdued acoustic set that kept the crowd standing, swaying and smiling, as if transported back to more carefree times. Matthews and Reynolds performed classic ballads like “Crush,” “Oh,” and “Dancing Nancies,” along with more message-driven anthems like “Don’t Drink the Water” “Bartender,” and “Ants Marching.”

Mellencamp kept the crowd happy with popular hits that date back before the beginning of Farm Aid. The engaged audience sang along to songs like “Jack and Diane,” “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” and “Crumblin’ Down.” Mellencamp shared stories between songs, adding in a layer of self-deprecating humor that softened his admitted rough edges.

Young found his way to the stage just after 9 p.m. Staying true to form, he filled the space between songs with sermon, calling out N.C. Senator Richard Burr for his anti-farming voting record and educating the audience about better food choices. His song choices were obvious and deliberate with hits like “Heart of Gold,” “Pocahontas,” “Mother Earth,” and “Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth.” After being joined on stage by Lukas and Micah Nelson, Young closed with a rowdy “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

It only seemed fitting that Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson, who opened the day-long event, would also close out his 29th Farm Aid Concert. Sporting his trademark, tattered and torn Martin N-20 guitar Trigger and long braids, Nelson performed originals and covers while surrounded by his band, family and special guests. Just over 80 years-old, Nelson continued to delight fans with favorites like “On the Road Again” and country classics like “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” His performance solidified the fact that his gift lies not in the smoothness of voice or nimble finger-picking, but in his down-home charm and ability to connect with everyday people.

This year’s Farm Aid delivered not only an amazing musical experience to fans, but it also gave North Carolina farmers a stronger voice. Concert goers of all ages were called to act in the best interest of the family farmer, both at the dinner table and in the voting booth. While Farm Aid founders and organizers openly wish they did not have to plan this event year after year, their vision remains steady and focused on changing the structure that currently drives agricultural policy in the U.S.

Young may have described the current situation best when he stated, “We love Farm Aid, but we don’t love that we are doing Farm Aid. It’s not a celebration. It’s a mission to change what’s going on.” As Farm Aid organizers move on to begin planning next year’s event, farmers and their supporters will continue to work so that family farms are better equipped to survive and thrive well into the future.

View photos from Farm Aid 2014 here

Leave a comment

Filed under Festivals, Live Shows, Music

Album Review – Shovels & Rope’s “Swimmin’ Time”

090114mBeatsReview2_GL

The music world has known its fair share of unforgettable husband-wife duos, from Johnny and June to Jack and Meg. Two years ago, the Charleston-based married duo Shovels & Rope — consisting of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst — exploded onto the festival scene with an unharnessed charisma and on-stage animalistic magnetism that left audiences floored. With non-stop touring and sweat-drenched performances, Trent and Hearst continue to prove that they belong among the ranks of great married musical duos.

Last month, Shovels & Rope offered up more of their soulful, folk-country flair with the duo’s new album, “Swimmin’ Time,” a nautical narrative of love and loss, drenched in haunting harmonies and stripped-down, simple arrangements. On “Swimmin’ Time,” Trent and Hearst dive deep into the abyss of emotion to give listeners a glimpse into their passionate, personal voyage.

The album opens with “The Devil Is All Around,” a vivid gospel-rock love song. With eyes closed, lyrics come to life and the listener can envision Trent and Hearst fighting through life’s obstacles together — ‘til death does part them. “Bridge On Fire” feels like a 50s throwback with a drum-rich tempo and deliberate harmonious crescendos, leaving a trail of burnt hopes and dreams in its ashy wake.

“Evil” turns up the rock ‘n’ roll and perpetuates the album’s devilish theme, with confessions of violent and ugly sins that drip with an honesty strong enough to tear down facades. “After The Storm” starts to pick up the wreckage from the first three tracks and highlights the power of Shovels & Rope’s magically interwoven vocals. Though the bulk of the track stays low and slow, it truly shines in the chorus’ momentous waves and surges of beautiful, yet guttural cries.

“Fish Assassin” is a playful but quick stomp-clapper that brings listeners to the muddy banks of intercostal waterways. “Coping Mechanism” gives listeners a current spin on a 50s rock ‘n’ roll standard, with bouncy background keys and delta blues overtones. “Pinned” leans on Shovels & Rope’s country-folk foundations and translates as a timeless duet about broken promises, cheating and unsolicited advice.

The title track, “Swimmin’ Time” buoys to the surface with church choir intensity and ghostly sink-or-swim premonitions, conjuring up buried thoughts of an apocalyptic flood. In line with the aquatic theme, “Stono River Blues” pays tribute to the waterway that flows near the duo’s home, and evokes images of Trent and Hearst exploring the tidal channel’s nooks and crannies. While the track can certainly be taken literally, metaphors are strategically anchored throughout, giving it a depth that is commonly found in Shovels & Rope songwriting.

“Ohio” takes listeners on a trip down to the murky waters of Louisiana with blazing horns and a gritty outlaw story. The brassy sway of “Ohio” adds another layer of sound to the album, giving it an even more interesting acoustic texture. “Mary Ann & One Eyed Dan” is a playful, diner love story filled with faith and potential. “Save The World” follows suit with a positivity and sweetness that permeates the energy and love often seen on stage between Trent and Hearst.

The album comes to a close with “Thresher,” a homage to the USS Thresher (SSN-593), a nuclear-powered attack submarine that was lost at sea off the coast of Cape Cod in 1963. The track chronicles the last minutes for the 129 submariners upon the vessel. With moments of faint, garbled communications and fading sonar pings to carry out the track, Shovels & Rope recreates the sinking with an eerie authenticity. Ending the album with “Thresher” leaves listeners mournful and uneasy, but also forces introspective and empathetic thought. It represents the duo’s intention and intensity like no other song on the album.

“Swimmin’ Time” may just be one of this year’s best albums. In an age when listeners can pick and choose tracks from any album, track order and album themes seem to get lost in the iTunes shuffle. However, “Swimmin’ Time” is an album that needs to be listened to from start to finish, in order. Trent and Hearst have created an emblematic masterpiece that is greater than the sum of its parts. Collectively, the album floats above the rest while maintaining a depth of soul and spirit that can shine through the thickest, foggy night. “Swimmin’ Time” sails effortlessly across the most critical of ears and marks another success in Shovels & Rope’s musical passage.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Review

Mipso in Japan – A Documentary

The Chapel Hill-based bluegrass band Mipso spent some quality time last Summer touring through Japan, getting immersed in the Japanese culture and growing bluegrass movement. University of North Carolina alum and award-winning film maker Jon Kasbe traveled to Japan with the trio to capture their experience and share it with the world. The result below is a strikingly beautiful documentary that highlights the unharnessed power of the universal language of music. 

“On a journey that blurs the cultural divide between East and West, three young musicians travel across the world to discover that the twang of the banjo needs no translation. While performing at a bluegrass festival, jamming with fiddle virtuosos, and touring by bullet train, the band finds that the traditions rooted in their home state have far-reaching branches.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Fans, Live Shows