We've got a special guest blog today from travel writer Melissa Rae Cohen, writing all the way from Portland, Maine, about the great roots music in her hometown!
Hearth Music Guest Blog: Roots Music in Portland, ME
by Melissa Rae Cohen
I grew up in a very musical environment. My father and grandfather used to sit at the foot of my bed crooning Tex Ritter’s "Blood on the Saddle" every night. A rather ineffective lullaby, their rendition (which changed the word “saddle” to my name) usually threw me into giggle fits, as opposed to lulling me to sleep. My father was a touring musician and worked as an engineer for some of the coolest acts of the 90s, and my papa would later be inducted into the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame. I was surrounded by my family, their friends, band mates, and fellow artists, and I can barely recall a minute where there wasn’t some kind of music filling the air.
This was my first introduction into the local music scene of Portland, Maine, which was alive and thriving long before I was even a twinkle in my mother’s eye. Naturally, I became involved in music myself. I am happy to report that the scene is still booming in the city today. Some of the most amazing folk, blues, country and bluegrass music I have ever had the privilege of hearing is being made right in my home town. Here are a few of the acts you should check out should you find yourself on the east coast.
Ex-punk rocker turned folkie, Micah Blue Smaldone is nothing short of amazing. I first heard this artist from the seaside town of Kennebunkport about eight years ago when he opened for Texan songstress Jolie Holland on her Escondida tour. He had just released the album Some Sweet Day, a rag-timey masterpiece. His sound has since taken a more mellow turn, reminiscent of the 1960s British folk revival. He is not currently on tour (as far as I know), but keep an eye on his MySpace page, because you won’t want to miss his big return. While you are there, you can listen to a few more of his songs.
Smaldone got his start in The Pinkerton Thugs back in 1994. The band is still together, sans-Micah, for those interested in the punk genre. He went on to form the hardcore band Cops and Robbers before making a drastic change in style with the solo release of Some Sweet Day. He has since released Hither & Thither (2005), Live in Belgium (2007), and most recently, The Red River (2008). You can also hear Micah with Fire on Fire, another local outfit whose records you can pick up from Young God (home to Devendra Banhart and Wooden Wand). No word on when we will be hearing more from him, but I hope it’s soon.
Micah Blue Smaldone: Row Fisherman Row (from The Congos)
One of my all time favorite folk bands, husband and wife team Buck and Shanti Curran have been performing as Arborea since 2005. They have reached considerable success, performing world round with the likes of Meg Baird and Vetiver, and have been featured on the stages of Wales’ ever popular Green Man Festival (alongside Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan, Six Organs of Admittance and Alela Diane, to name a few). Their 2011 album Red Planet was named “Best Under the Radar Album of 2011” by Rolling Stone, and they have also been featured at SXSW. You can stay updated on their whereabouts via their Blogger, but if you visit Portland during the summer, you are almost certain to catch an intimate Arborea performance free of charge. They have quite a few shows in the area during the next couple of months, as well as shows booked in Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Virginia.
Red Planet is definitely their most critically acclaimed and popular recording, but personally, I am rather partial to 2009’s House of Sticks. I also recommend checking out Leaves of Life, a compilation that Buck Curran put together to benefit the World Food Programme.
Arborea: Red Bird
Guaranteed to delight any bluegrass fan, whether their tastes are old timey or modern, the talent behind the Jerks of Grass is undeniable. Performing both classics and originals, this outfit has been gracing the stages of Portland, Maine every Thursday for years, in addition to other regular performances and festival appearances. They are currently spending Thursday evenings at Bayside Bowl, despite their lead singer/guitarist taking off for a few months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. (Follow his adventures online at http://jasonhikes.com). For the full effect, I really recommend planning your travels around Jason’s return. They are marvelous even in his absence, but his guitar skill and speed are unsurpassed.
Though the band was originally formed over a decade ago, they only have one album! 2008’s Come on Home was recorded live and really represents what you can expect to hear from these guys (and girl!) on the stage. So, if you don’t get a chance to catch the Jerks of Grass in the flesh, at the very least do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Come on Home as soon as humanly possible.
The Jerks of Grass on local Portland television program:
Dapper blues man Samuel James has been rocking the socks off of locals for some time, and has blown up internationally, touring the globe and delivering the gift of song far and wide. Rolling Stone France has even labeled him the “guardian of lightning.” Despite his success, James still puts on a hell of a local show on a fairly regular basis. You may be able to catch his act in your home town, but if you can make it to Portland, you will be in for a real treat.
His performances are unique in that he is seldom backed by a band, but still manages to make a big sound. Acoustic, electric and steel guitars are accompanied by the tap-tapping of hard soled shoes, the harmonica, and a voice well beyond the years of the body it emanates from. One of my favorite things about Samuel James is that he is a storyteller. Not since the singer/songwriters of the sixties and seventies have we been privy to such tales spun into song. This is not your run of the mill “blues rock” artist. James is a true blues man through and through, and his sound will appeal to aficionados young and old.
Not only is Samuel James an impressive performer, he is also a heck of a nice guy, so don’t be shy if you want to shake the man’s hand after a show.
Here he is performing Blind Boy Fuller’s Stranger Blues at one of my favorite Portland venues, One Longefellow Square.
Just for fun, check out Samuel James' fascinating blues cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean":
I could go on and on forever about all of the great acts that Portland, Maine has to offer, but you really just have to come and see (or hear, rather) for yourself.
Bio: Melissa Rae Cohen is a music obsessed travel writer from Portland. She works with Excellent Hotels in Maine, helping people explore her native state.
05/16/2012 | comments (0)
At HearthPR, in the temperamental climate of the Seattle, we've been having 80º -pool-party-with-palm-trees-and-cocktails kind of days here in our office, thanks to The Two Man Gentlemen Band's newest album Two at a Time. Channeling the mod, swinging lifestyle of 1950s Southern California, tenor guitarist Andy Bean and string bassist Fuller Condon are irreverent songwriters, expert instrumentalists, former street-performers, and consummate showmen.
A duo in the tradition of the great Slim & Slam, The Two Man Gentlemen Band have an obvious affection for American roots music; everything from pre-war jazz to back-alley hokum, jazz guitar pickin’ like Charlie Christian, Louis Jordan’s jump blues, plus countless other influences, find their way into the Gentlemen’s music. But they’re no period piece. The decidedly contemporary feel of their lyrics and the hilarious, often ridiculous, improvised banter that peppers their live shows combine with the music for a thoroughly modern ruckus. “It’s as if,” one reviewer commented, “The Smothers Brothers were young today, wore better suits, and wrote hot jazz songs about drinking.” To the Gentlemen, that sounds about right.
To make their latest album, Two at a Time, The Two Man Gentlemen Band employed an extreme contrast of modern and old-fashioned techniques. They funded the project with an online fan-fundraising campaign via Kickstarter. But, once the budget was in place they switched their computers off for good and proceeded to record, design, and package the album without the use of any digital technology. They recorded live to monophonic analog tape using exclusively 1940s/50s microphones and equipment. To package the album, the Gentlemen turned to Stumptown Printers in Portland, OR. Using hand-set lettering, a refrigerator sized linotype machine (one of the few in the country still in operation), darkroom film prints, and an offset printing press, the folks at Stumptown created a one-of-a-kind package untouched by the graphic design software responsible for nearly every bit of printed matter one sees today. If someone goes to the trouble of purchasing a physical CD or LP, the Gentlemen believe, it ought to come in a container worth holding on to.
The music on the album is mostly original, penned by singer Andy Bean, who’s developed a knack for writing “smart, funny, sharp-rhyming songs that put them in the company of classics like Louis Jordon and Louis Prima.” (Boston Phoenix) Songs that cleverly blend cuisine and love figure prominently, like “Pork Chops” or “Tikka Masala,” and songs about well-mixed drinks are always favorites with The Two Man Gentlemen Band. As for the song “Pool Party”… well, who doesn’t like a pool party? Acknowledging their increasing debt to early jazz and western swing, two obscure tunes learned from Lil Hardin Armstrong and Jack Guthrie round out the record. Throughout, The Gents limit themselves to two instruments: Bean’s 4-string electric tenor guitar, played through a vintage 1937 Gibson amplifier, and Fuller Condon’s upright bass. Audiences are consistently amazed that the Gentlemen can raise such a ruckus as a duo. Two at a Time is the first of their albums to accurately capture that experience. Clever arrangements, “keen vocal harmonies” (The New Yorker), and “virtuosic playing” (The Herald – Glasgow, UK) that hasn’t lost the ramshackle edge of their street-performing years make up for what the band lacks in size.
The Two Man Gentlemen Band: Pork Chops
And help yourself to a free download at: twogentlemen.bandcamp.com/track/pork-chops
The Two Man Gentlemen Band: Please Don't Water it Down
05/15/2012 | comments (0)
There’s something deeply triumphant about the new album from veteran country blues singer Rory Block, and what’s strange is that I’m not sure why this is. I Belong to the Band, released May 29 on Stony Plain Records, should be a simple album of covers of Reverend Gary Davis, the fabled blues/gospel shouter made famous in the 60s/70s folk revival. But there’s something deeper at work here. I think it’s love. In the liner notes, Block talks about visiting Davis with guitar master Stefan Grossman, and how Davis’ kind but stern, and thoroughly imposing, demeanor greatly impressed her. She soaked up the music, though it seems she didn’t actively take lessons from Davis, but more than that she connected to both Davis and Grossman as friends and reflects on that time with the slightly sorrowful memory that comes in later life. In creating an album of Davis covers, she’s both drawing forth these memories and also tying them to the memories of her life. Somehow she touches something deeper by doing this.
While I was expecting either iconoclastic covers of Davis, re-envisioning his music via her own lens, or pitch-perfect recreations, this album actually has neither. She just plays the music hard, beautifully hard. Her voice is as powerful as Davis and her picking gets the job done right. Despite the rather straight-ahead renditions, there’s a sense of triumph underneath, a sense of barely suppressed joy in the music. As the baby boomers move into late life, the music they once imitated has now become the music of their own lifetimes. In the liner notes, Block laments the loss of old-time tradition bearers like Davis, but doesn’t reflect that perhaps she might be bearing traditions of her own. Why did people fall in love with Davis’ music if not for the fact that he brought a lifetime of love to it? And that’s why I’m falling in love with this album from Rory Block: it reflects her own lifetime of loving the blues.
Rory Block: Twelve Gates to the City
05/09/2012 | comments (0)
I get so focused on my own version of folk music (fiddles, banjos, and songs written centuries ago by nameless poets), that I tend to forget that folk music for most people actually refers to a more modern vision of acoustic troubadours. So in honor of this world of folk, here are three artists that have been catching our ears recently.
Reed Foehl: Once an Ocean
2011 re-release. Neverfoehl Records.
Despite being released in 2009 originally, Colorado singer-songwriter Reed Foehl's album, Once an Ocean, sounds as fresh as if it had been released yesterday. Foehl's an obviously gifted songwriter, with a quick ear for the humbly inspiring stories of everyday folks. The album's being re-released in anticipation of Foehl's upcoming full-length, and it's an indicator that Foehl will be a powerful force in the roots music world. The title track is stunningly beautiful and has been on constant repeat at HearthHQ. It weaves an innovative finger-picked guitar melody line with Reed's crystal-clear vocals. I'm a sucker for gently finger-picked guitar songs, but this song takes that archetype a step further with its intricately crafted guitar melody. Nicely done, sir!! Though Reed leads the album, he does bring some friends along to add beautiful touches to the music. Be Good Tanyas members Trish Klein and Frazey Ford are especially welcome, adding delicious harmony vocals and picking. Young indie folk artist Jefferson Hamer co-produces the album, brings a gorgeous song of his own ("Wolves"), and adds some beautiful guitar work to the mix. He's a talent to watch out for too! I'm not familiar with the other guests, but the album feels more like an ensemble album than a solo singer-songwriter leading a band, a welcome change from many of the albums I hear these days. I can't wait for Foehl's upcoming full-length! PS: You can check out an interview with Reed Foehl on No Depression from 2009 here.
Reed Foehl: Once an Ocean
David Newberry: No One Will Remember You
2012. Northern Electric Records.
While other singer-songwriters talk about their storytelling skills and their ability to draw you into a song, Canadian singer David Newberry DELIVERS! His new album, No One Will Remember You, is packed with beautifully crafted songs, the kind of music that has to be made by hand with great care. Coupled with his beautiful voice, and you have quite the package! On the other hand, the songs are frequently overpowered by excessive, and at times needless, production (90s-era drums, screaming guitars, walls of sound), but he's so good that his songwriting and vocals cut through everything. His songs are gently sad, almost wistful, possibly exhausted, really the only emotions we have anymore in a world on the brink. On the title track, he sings "We cut the trees to make the paper / Turn the world inside out, and put it through a press / To teach ourselves that telling stories / Is just the same as getting out there and doing it yourself." Most singer-songwriters would like to shout their views from the mountaintop, but Newberry seems content just to talk about his life and his perspective. It's a refreshingly ego-less perspective that's unfortunately very rare. For the next album, let's just give him an acoustic guitar and set him loose on the road so real people can find his music. David Newberry deserves to be heard!
David Newberry: All of the Apples in the Basket
Anna Coogan: The Wasted Ocean
Seattle singer-songwriter Anna Coogan has a chameleon-like knack for molding her music to a specific genre's sound, and then for transcending that sound. She did this with her earlier album, Glory, in which she blew open the roots-based world of Americana with a sound that felt entirely new. Partly it's her vocals, which have such a sweet ache to them that they fit into most genres easily. But she's also an excellent song crafter, able to build compelling melodies and arrangements that draw you in. For her newest album, The Wasted Ocean, she looks to her East Coast upbringing and the maritime sea shanties she used to hear growing up. Her songs this time around are rife with imagery of the sea, sailors, and the "whalefish." It's not corny at all, and Coogan infuses these old themes with a new life. My only complaint is that her voice is mixed strangely on the album, somehow sounding a bit garbled or muffled. Other than that, this album is a great example of a multi-faceted singer-songwriter able to plumb her own depths to come up with new sounds.
Anna Coogan: Blood on the Sails
05/06/2012 | comments (0)
Over at HearthPR headquarters, we're very excited to be promoting the new EP from roots musician Woody Pines. We've been watching Woody since he was in the Kitchen Syncopators, a legendary busking street jugband from Eugene, OR, that were the shining lights of the West Coast folk scene. They broke up some years ago, and Woody Pines went off to a great solo career interpreting his vision of American roots music: all full of stomp and swing, jump and jive, the kind of music that leaves us tapping our feet, bouncing around in our office chairs, and grinning all the while. It's old-time feel-good music done by a young master who clearly understands that this kind of music was always about having a great time. Enjoy!
Woody Pines: You Gotta Roll EP
You know it when you hear the name: Woody Pines is a roots musician who taps into the rural backwoods of Americana. On his new EP, You Gotta Roll, you’ll hear backroads folk music of the very best kind, inspired by rough street jugbands, neighborhood BBQs, lost 78’s of old blues singers, dusty 45’s of forgotten rockabilly singles, a faint radio signal you can’t trace and can’t stop listening to; the kind of music you have to travel deep into the country to find. Woody’s been playing this music for years, first cutting his teeth with the fabled Kitchen Syncopators, a street-performance jugband from Eugene, Oregon that also included Gill Landry of Old Crow Medicine Show. This beloved crew traveled up and down the West Coast, laying the seeds for a new generation to take on traditional music. Going solo in 2002, Woody released the acclaimed 2009 album, Counting Alligators, and has been enjoying touring in the US and the UK. Now Woody’s back and preparing to drop a full-length album in late summer 2012. You Gotta Roll is an EP teaser designed to showcase new songs and a new sound born of his hot touring band.
He may have gotten his start busking as a jugband on the streets of New Orleans and the Pacific Northwest, but years of hard-traveling and touring, plus guest spots with powerful artists like David Rawling, The Felice Brothers, Justin Townes Earle, and more have honed Woody’s music to a razor’s edge. On You Gotta Roll, Woody and his band rip through five traditional songs from diverse sources. The Dock Boggs classic “Red Rockin’ Chair” gets a somber makeover with acoustic banjo, Leadbelly’s “Ham & Eggs” gets a smooth rockabilly beat, and Hank Williams “Can’t Keep You Off My Mind” and “Treat You Right” from Washington Phillips/Casey Jones both keep the kind of harmonica-fueled swing that made Woody’s name as a street performer. The Woody Pines band includes Zack Pozebanchuck on Upright Bass, Lyon Graulty on Clarinet, Lead Guitar and Vocal Harmonies, Mike Gray on Drums, and Woody on Guitar, Harmonica and Vocals. Throughout, Woody’s vintage vocals lead the band’s hot accompaniment, sounding at times like a reborn Bill Haley. This is roots music done hard and fast, with a jump and jive sound you might have heard in the earliest days of rock ‘n roll. It’s music that hasn’t forgotten its old dancehall roots; the kind of music you’d hear at a crowded rent party, as sweaty dancers crashed about a tiny room. On You Gotta Roll, Woody Pines has taken the music that inspired his wanderlust youth and turned it into a living vision of American roots music today.
Woody Pines: Long Gone Lost John
Woody Pines: Ham & Eggs
05/05/2012 | comments (0)
On their new album, Barn Dance, California roots trio Little Black Train are happy to chug along through the verdant pastures of American roots music. They stop at various way stations to explore songs like hokum number "Old Black Dog", the gospel shouter "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down", and Western ode "The Bravest Cowboy". Throughout they pick hard and hot, leading off with Kenny Blackwell's crisp, delicious mandolin playing and John Weed's remarkably deft fiddling, with guitarist Stuart Mason laying down rail with his rock-solid accompaniment and driving the train with his vocals. This album's a helluva lot of fun, but what sets it apart is their obvious love of traditional music and their ability to find the long-lost old railway tracks that connect the traditions. Bringing in a funky set of old barndances from Northern Ireland is an especially inspired touch, as it shows a kinship between the melodies of Irish and American music that's all too often overlooked in favor of the songs. Yep, these boys can play and they know their stuff. Slap it on the old Victrola tonight and dance around your living room, this is my kind of music!
Little Black Train: Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down