The Show Ponies: Run For Your Life
There’s California sunshine in the music of Los Angeles indie Americana band The Show Ponies, even a hint of that West Coast brand of optimism. Joined by special guest bluegrass banjo master Noam Pikelny, their new EP, Run For Your Life, showcases their driving hooks and good-humored harmonies, even while tackling tough subjects like life in the modern world. The Show Ponies tour hard, play hard, and take the business of their craft seriously. Each of their albums, including their new EP, have been crowd funded from their many fans and supporters, and they frequently tour to rapturous crowds. It helps that they have a fantastically entertaining live show, but what’s surprising is that they’re able to translate the intensity of their stage performances to the recording studio, a traditionally difficult feat. On Run For Your Life, The Show Ponies channel their bluegrass roots into a new kind of indie Americana, flush with racing fiddle lines, barn-burning banjo solos, and the kind of old-school harmonies that are still at the heart of American roots music. But they’re also children of a new century, and their songs are written for their new life on the road; each member of The Show Ponies has now quit their day job and the band is going full bore. This gives new meaning to the title of the EP, Run For Your Life!
Founded by lead singers and songwriters Andi Carder and Clayton Chaney, The Show Ponies includes guitarist and producer Jason Harris, champion fiddler Philip Glenn, and master percussionist Kevin Brown. The music they make now can be described as Bluegrass-Infused Americana, but really they’re just making songs that speak to their lives today. “Honey, Dog and Home” reflects the reality of hard-touring bands, as Carder sings of being 14 days on the road and how hard it is to keep up appearances. The title track, “Run For Your Life,” showcases The Show Ponies tight, complex arrangements and rollicking full band sound, but also speaks to our modern reality of debt-ridden malaise. The only way out is to “run for your life!” Using old-school call-and-response singing, the light-hearted “Stupid,” is a romp of a love song that’s brings in an early 1940s big band jazz sound. “Get Me While I’m Young” chronicles the struggles of translating young love into marriage, while the final track “Some Lonesome Tune” offers a deeply powerful perspective on modern faith.
The Show Ponies’ new EP is the perfect introduction to their music, and they couldn’t have made it without the help of banjo master Noam Pikelny. Noam came onboard to be a part of the EP, joining The Show Ponies on the songs “Honey, Dog and Home” and “Stupid.” Just a few weeks later, Noam was at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards picking up Album of the Year and Banjo Player of the Year!
With Run For Your Life, The Show Ponies are crafting anthems for their generation, fueled by soaring vocals, ultra-tight picking, meticulously arranged instrumental parts, and masterful musicianship. This is a band that wears their hearts on their sleeves and is only looking for room to run.
The Show Ponies: "Honey, Dog and Home, featuring Noam Pikelny"
The Show Ponies: "Run For Your Life"
10/22/2014 | comments (0)
Annie Lou: Tried and True
British Columbian roots songwriter Anne Louie Genest a.k.a. ANNIE LOU has spent years chronicling the rural lifepaths of Canada, writing songs to tell the tales of the hard-hit, hard-won victories of these everymen and women. With her new album, Tried and True, she returns to these backroads again, bringing her knack for storytelling and her keen eye for the small details of Canadiana that give her songs such life. There’s not a song on the album that won’t get your toes tapping, and each is honed with the careful craft of powerful songwriting that has garnered Annie Lou international attention. Annie Lou’s songs move across the range of emotions, looking to touch on something deeper. As Anne Louise says, “This music has an edge to it – in the voices and in the playing is the lament we all carry as people trying to get by”, Genest says. “Joy and grief are two sides of the same coin. The older music expresses that tension so perfectly.”
On Tried and True, Annie Lou is joined by some of the best young roots musicians in the country, from Toronto banjo master Chris Coole to Canadian fiddle wiz Trent Freeman (The Fretless), bassist Max Heineman of The Foggy Hogton Boys, Yukon old-time/bluegrass vocalist Sarah Hamilton and more. Tried and True was produced by Toronto multi-instrumentalist and composer Andrew Collins, who’s long been at the forefront of Canada’s most cutting-edge roots music. The result is an album that moves far beyond Annie Lou’s old-time stringband roots. Tried and True touches on vintage honky-tonk and roots country (check out the pedal steel on “It’s Hard To Tell the Singer from The Song” or the harmonies on “Haunted”), Appalachian roots (the title track), fiddle-driven progressive trad (“In the Country”), old-school folk songwriting (“Roses Blooming”), even bluegrass gospel (“Weary Prodigal”) and old mountain ballads (“My Good Captain”). This wide range of influences wears so well on Annie Lou because she knows these traditions inside and out and is driven to pay homage to them. As she says, “With this album my goal was to explore the songs in a broader musical context, beyond strictly stringband instrumentation, while keeping them rooted in the older traditional music I love so well.”
Annie Lou carries the spirit of an old storyteller, creating songs steeped in old-time mountain, Appalachian, and traditional country and bluegrass music.
Annie Lou: "Tried and True"
Annie Lou: "It's Hard To Tell The Singer From the Song"
10/22/2014 | comments (0)
Lac La Belle: A Friend Too Long
Set in Detroit, Michigan in the midst of a wild snowstorm, the new album, A Friend Too Long, from Michigan indie roots band Lac La Belle finds a heart of warmth in the midst of a cold city. Made up of multi-instrumentalists and songwriters Jennie Knaggs & Nick Schillace, Lac La Belle have taken this duo’s combined experiences in American roots music and set the new album in a contemporary context framed by life in Detroit. “Detroit represents our modern time in all its beautiful, ugly, and naked realities,” says Schillace. “There is a spectrum of struggles here…and an equal opportunity to find material that is both universal and personal with a timelessness that helps connect us to a continuity of human experience.” That timelessness has always been at the heart of Lac La Belle, and is tied to the duo’s joint love of American roots music.
Knaggs grew up playing folk music in coffeeshops, singing in choirs, and was once the hollerin’ champion of Wise County, VA (she was also the lead vocalist in Matthew Barney’s recent film River of Fundament). Schillace learned traditional guitar and banjo styles after trips to Southern heritage workshops as a young teen, and wrote the first major academic work on John Fahey, analyzing Fahey’s approach to assimilating influences into an original style, a lesson Schillace thoroughly absorbed. While their previous two albums focused on rather personal folk and Americana songwriting, A Friend Too Long marks a shift in their music. The songs here are more story-oriented, animating the lives of fictional characters grappling with the tensions between the urban and the rural, the individual and the community, economic decay and the land of plenty.
A Friend Too Long was recorded in their Detroit home, when Knaggs & Schillace found themselves snowed in for two weeks in January 2014 just as the polar vortex hit, leaving Michigan with the greatest recorded snowfall in its history. Despite this isolation, Lac La Belle’s new music broadens the sparse instrumentation and dusty production found on their previous albums, ushering in an abundance of musicians and instrumental choices. For recording and mixing, they flew in Philadelphia-based engineer and musician, Eric Carbonara. Serge van der Voo’s (Chris Bathgate) upright bass gives an added grounding to Knaggs’ and Schillace’s vocals, guitars, accordion, and banjo. The songs are filled out by Abby Alwin (K.C. Groves) on strings, Robert Avsharian (Robert Gomez) on percussion, and Clem Fortuna on piano. The guest artists traveled through blizzard conditions to record for the album, and the result is a full band sound that’s new to Lac La Belle, but wears remarkably well with their new songs. Tucked into an old 1920s house in snowy Detroit, this is the sound of community; it’s the sound of friends coming together to realize a musical vision that resonates with our modern times.
Perhaps one could say that Detroit is a contemporary flagship American city, a pressure-cooker of sorts. It signifies economic collapse and decay giving birth to a new artistic renaissance. It also points to the community that can be found through isolation, both figuratively and literally (being snowed in for two weeks). With A Friend Too Long, Detroit’s Lac La Belle sets American roots music, old-fashioned storytelling, and individual and collective experience around a space heater in the dead of winter. What has emerged is a beautiful musical vision of rebirth.
Lac La Belle's "The Border":
Lac La Belle's "Passing Arizona":
10/09/2014 | comments (0)
Billy Strings & Don Julin: Fiddle Tune X
Incendiary American roots duo Billy Strings & Don Julin tap into the vein of the earliest bluegrass music on their new album Fiddle Tune X, back when bluegrass was a rough-and-tumble art form pouring out of the Appalachian mountains, made with great virtuosity and huge attitude. With just two instruments (guitar and mandolin) and two voices, this duo has been tearing up stages across America and generating huge buzz based on their intense live shows. Drenched in sweat, grimacing like a banshee, howling like a bluegrass berserker, and picking with such ferocity that he’s been known to break three strings in one song, 22-year-old guitarist and singer Billy Strings could have tumbled out of coal country in the old mountains, tattoos and all, but actually hails from Michigan, where he met mandolinist Don Julin. Older in years and experience, Strings’ musical partner Julin has carved out a lengthy career at the forefront of acoustic mandolin music, known for his wide versatility, powerful picking technique, and remarkable creativity on this humble instrument. On stage, the two egg each other on to more and more intense riffs and improvised breaks, pushing harder and harder on their own abilities to try to break through to new levels of musicianship. There’s a reason that they were called “the unholy child of Pantera and Tony Rice” by The Bluegrass Situation, and they show this intensity on their new album, Fiddle Tune X.
Recorded live, Fiddle Tune X reflects the hard-traveling life of Billy Strings and Don Julin. These tracks were recorded in a snowed-in cabin in Bliss, Michigan, a bar in Ludington, MI, a packed house concert in New York, a church in Lake Ann, MI, an Elks Club in Cadillac, MI, and the last song was cut in the Third Man Records’ recording booth in Nashville. Each song was recorded around one microphone, with either Don or Billy moving in and out of range to take the lead. It’s a tricky recording technique (and also a hallmark of traditional bluegrass performance) that accounts for how vibrant these recordings sound. Since it’s live, you can hear a bit more than just the music, which was the plan. As Don, who engineered the recording, explains, “Upon careful listening, you will hear a variety of distortions and noises, ranging from mechanical and electronic noises to audience comments and traffic sounds, and we feel that all of this adds to the realness of the recording.” This open-minded approach to music is also reflected in the diversity of the tracks on the album. There’s plenty of fire-breathing bluegrass here (check out the six minute tour de force on “Little Maggie”) but there are also moments of surprising subtlety, like the slow-rolling Doc Watson-inspired “Walk On Boy,” or the soft beauty of Julin’s mandolin on Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.” Throughout the album, however, there’s no doubt that Strings and Julin are out to explode this art form, not only through the passion of their performance, but also through the cutting-edge instrumental twists and turns they take on each song.
Listen to Billy Strings & Don Julin’s cover of “Poor Ellen Smith” on Fiddle Tune X and you can hear that backwoods howl that first electrified a nation through the early music of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Mountain music was never made to be safe; this was music born out of hard-working, hard-hit lives, from people whose voice was systematically suppressed by the mainstream. Bluegrass started off with a howl to be heard, and this same spirit is alive and well today in Billy Strings & Don Julin.
Billy Strings & Don Julin: "Walk On Boy"
Billy Strings & Don Julin: "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz"
09/29/2014 | comments (0)
The beautiful mountain Knocknarea in Ireland’s County Sligo is said to be the final resting place of the ancient Irish warrior-queen Maeve. The ‘Alt’ is a storied glen on the side of Knocknarea, and it was in the shadow of this glen in the little village of Coolaney that the three master Irish traditional musicians in The Alt–John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy, and Eamon O’Leary–first gathered to rehearse. The old ballads, winding tunes, and freshly discovered songs that each artist brought to the table reflect the pure love of the song that has made Irish music so beautiful and compelling over thousands of years. It’s this same love of the song that the Irish brought to America, nestling into their new homes in Appalachia and forming the bedrock that would bring us American country, bluegrass, and old-time music. The Alt are fully aware of this history, and in fact chose to record their debut album in the quiet isolation of a small cabin in North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains. Alone with just the scurrying sounds of little mice accompanying them, each of these master musicians was able to use their partnership to touch at something deeper in the music, something swift and beautiful and magical that has always run beneath these songs.
Each player in The Alt is a leading light of today’s folk scene and though this could be easily called a supergroup, at its heart The Alt is really a celebration of friendship and song. Guitarist and singer John Doyle, whose family hails from around Knocknarea, was born and raised in Dublin, lives in Asheville, NC, and is one of the pre-eminent guitarists and vocalists of his generation. His ground-breaking work with Irish band Solas and with Karen Casey has influenced many other artists and his style of guitar accompaniment is iconic in Irish music. He met flutist and singer Nuala Kennedy at Celtic Colors and while touring in Europe and the two hit it off while exploring songs and tunes in common. Nuala is herself a singer and songwriter well known internationally for her beautiful vocals and her unusual arrangements of traditional songs as showcased on multiple solo albums for Compass Records. Looking to add a third voice to the band, John suggested his long-time friend and fellow Dubliner Eamon O’Leary, who also plays guitar and bouzouki. O’Leary is one of the most in-demand Irish vocalists and guitarists in the US today thanks to his subtle and beautiful work with Jefferson Hamer in The Murphy Beds. Each artist in The Alt delved into their own pasts to draw forth the songs on their debut album. Though each member is a fine songwriter in their own right, for this first album The Alt give their attention to traditional Irish songs. Some of the songs they grew up hearing and others they have collected along the road, from friends and mentors, from archival recordings and written collections.
Gathered in the mountains of North Carolina, The Alt recorded their debut album in just three days, a testament to the ease each member feels with their native music. The singular sound of The Alt that came from this recording session is greater than the sum of its parts; at once delicate, deliberate and always in deference to the song at its core.
The Alt: Lovely Nancy
The Alt: What Put The Blood
09/08/2014 | comments (0)
Front Country: Sake of the Sound
From the first notes of “Gospel Train,” as Melody Walker’s soaring voice entwines around the phrase “I woke up with heaven on my mind,” you’ll hear that Front Country isn’t your usual bluegrass band. When the fiddle and distorted acoustic guitar come crashing into the song like roaring waves, rushing back and forth with swelling ferocity, you’ll know that this is bluegrass unleashed, American roots music that refuses to be constrained. Each song on the album points to traditional influences, but it’s clear that Front Country views these traditions as a launching pad for grander explorations. On their highly anticipated debut full-length album, Sake of the Sound, Front Country blend everything from high-lonesome mountain music to new-wave power pop, newgrass picking, oldgrass harmonies, and just plain glorious musicality. This is Americana at its best: music with deep roots and wide-ranging vision.
Coming out of the California Bay Area’s red-hot roots music scene, Front Country first made waves with a rare double band competition win at both the Telluride and Rockygrass music festivals. Following national tours and invites to prestigious events like Wintergrass and IBMA, anticipation has been mounting for their debut full-length album. Wanting to create something that pushed their sound even further, Front Country recruited renowned instrumentalist, composer, and songwriter Kai Welch (Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck) to produce Sake of the Sound. With Welch at the helm, Front Country were able to unite their many far-reaching musical influences and inspirations and do credit to their electrifying live show. The songs on the new album are sourced from all across the Americana spectrum (Utah Philips, Bob Dylan, Kate Wolf), but each cover brings a fresh, new perspective. New songwriters like Nashville scribe Sarah Siskind or Laura Wortman of The Honey Dewdrops bring powerful songs as well, but Front Country truly shines when the original songs of lead singer Melody Walker give them room to flex. “Colorado” is a gorgeously crafted showcase to both Walker’s voice and the understated power of each instrumentalist in Front Country. Melody’s songs draw out Front Country’s furthest reaching interests in music. Her title song “Sake of the Sound,” a rapturous musical ode set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, references Paul Simon’s “Graceland” or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as easily as new-wave progressive bluegrass bands like Crooked Still or The Punch Brothers, and even dips into Melody and Jacob’s interests in ethnomusicology and Afro Pop. With a global span of interests and world-class talent, it’s no wonder Front Country’s bluegrass sounds like it was born in a new century.
Front Country formed in 2011 from a monthly gig with friends in San Francisco’s Mission District. They quickly found a musical rapport that was open to challenging arrangements, unique covers and original songwriting. Melody Walker brought her award-winning songwriting to the table and her hall-shaking voice, which sounds like a mix between Bonnie Raitt and Natalie Maines. Mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz was nominated for a Grammy in 2013 for his work with the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and is a composer of new acoustic instrumental music. The offspring of a concert violinist and a geology professor, fiddler Leif Karlstrom is an explosive mix of talent and precision, erupting like a bluegrass volcano. Banjo player Jordan Klein has been an asset to the Bay Area bluegrass scene for over ten years and can be found picking in the campground of many a festival till the wee hours. Starting out on electric bass in funk bands, Zach Sharpe plays upright bass on-stage, and picks a mean banjo off-stage. Jacob Groopman is the hardest working man in Front Country, acting as both lead guitarist and head cat-wrangler, while supplying sweet harmony vocals and spiritual guidance for a crew of six.
Six powerhouse roots musicians at the top of their game may be a lot to wrangle, but Front Country has pulled off an album that not only showcases each artist, but also has something new to say about what American roots music can mean today. It’s no small feat, but they do it for the sake of the sound.
Front Country: "Sake of the Sound"
Front Country: "Colorado"