Ron Davies was a songwriter’s songwriter. The kind of artist who wasn’t as well known to the public as he was to his fellow artists. His songs were covered by others like Nanci Griffith, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Maria Muldaur, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many more. But he’s best known for his song, “It Ain’t Easy”, an edgy blues number that was famously recorded by David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust album. In fact, “It Ain’t Easy”, was one of the better cuts on this seminal album. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to Davies’ songwriting, or Bowie’s taste, or a bit of both. Soul singer Bettye Lavette also cut a powerful cover of “It Ain’t Easy” on her debut album. In the 1970s, Davies was signed to A&M Records, so his music got pretty broad exposure at the time. In the 1980s, Davies moved to Nashville to work as a songwriter. In 2003, he passed away from a heart attack. It seems that his solo career never reached the same heights that his songs did. And its through the songs that most people remember Davies. That’s nowhere more evident than on the lovely new album, The Mystery of Ron Davies: A Pacific Northwest Tribute.
The Raconteurs cover It Ain't Easy at Lollapalooza
David Bowie's original cover of It Ain't Easy
Though he was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Davies grew up and worked in the Pacific Northwest before moving to Nashville, so it’s fitting that most of the artists on this tribute album are drawn from the ranks of Northwest songwriters. Compiled by longtime NW veteran Eric Apoe, a wide range of singers and artists is presented, each interpreting a different song from Davies canon. Honestly, I didn’t know Davies music at all before hearing about this tribute album, but the performers were kind enough to sit back and let his songs shine through throughout. So you could say that this tribute album has made a believer out of me!
A few highlights from the album:
-Iconoclastic genius Baby Gramps ROCKS a cover of “It Ain’t Easy”. Definitely the highlight of the album.
Baby Gramps: It Ain’t Easy
-Album compiler Eric Apoe, a personal friend of Ron Davies for many years, contributes a softly-understated, beautiful cover of Davies’ song “Carolyn”. It’s a song that really shows off Davies abilites as a storytelling songwriter, and Apoe does it quiet justice.
Eric Apoe With Saar Liven: Carolyn
-Pike Place busker savant Tommy Dean brings in a cover of the politically tinged “Please Prez”. Dean’s a mad genius of street performing, but doesn’t record much, so this is a real treat. Also, it’s kind of depressing how easily this song, clearly written in the 70s, translates to today’s politics.
Tommy Dean: Please Prez
I recommend this album for anyone interested in the art of songwriting. Hearing these beautiful songs through so many filters actually brings your attention to the songs themselves, and really shows what a great songwriter can do.
Learn more about Eric Apoe and Ron Davies in this excellent podcast from KUOW
Ron Davies' original version of "It Ain't Easy"
Ron Davies' last Seattle performance (trad. song The Blind Fiddler)
06/26/2011 | comments (0)
Friday, June 24
The Fremont Abbey, Seattle
Tickets $10 door/Show at 9pm
I've been on a whole Kentucky tear recently, prepping for an article I'm writing for Cowbell Magazine. There's a new folk music renaissance at foot in Kentucky right now, drawing inspiration from the natural environment of the Appalachian mountains, but incorporating sounds from nearby urban centers as well. Some of these artists live and work in Kentucky, building local networks and communities, and involving each other in their art. Cheyenne Marie Mize, opening for Vandaveer in this Hearth Recommended show at Fremont Abbey, is a key part of this scene. She's appeared on albums from Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee, both leading figures of this new Kentucky scene, and her new album is a joint affair with Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy), one of the most visible Kentucky artists working in today's indie scene. Her voice is soft and sweet, with an ever-so-slight edge and a lovely accent.
Vandaveer is another group out of Kentucky's new-folk renaissance. Lead singer Mark Charles Heidinger grew up in Kentucky, but currently lives in Washington DC. He founded Vandaveer there from a collective of like-minded neo folkies. Now he's touring with harmony singer Rose Guerin in support of Vandaveer's beautiful new album. His voice dips and soars and intertwies with Guerin's beautiful harmonies to make a surprisingly soulful music. I highly recommend checking this band out. They remind me a lot of The Head and the Heart, Seattle's indie roots darlings, through their gorgeous vocal harmonies, hopeful lyrics, and cheerful strumming and handclapping. His lyrics are thoughtful, even intriguing, and the band's got a great sound, as full as a church full of Southern gospel singers at times, and as sparse as a lonely patch of Kentucky woods at other times.
Vandaveer: Dig Down Deep
Vandaveer: Spite (feat. Ben Sollee)
06/24/2011 | comments (0)
Kíla's the kind of band that's lived on the edge of musical scenes their whole lives. They're Irish and they can play the hell out of Irish trad music, but their albums have spun off into Afro-pop explorations, or Chinese literature inspirations, or world-beat ministrations, or compositional meditations. To call their music experimental might be going a bit far, though some of their more eclectic compositions push far enough beyond the boundaries of what we'd come to expect from the band that they could be termed experiments. Really, it seems that Kíla simply has a roving mind. Their minds rove as they travel and as they experience and are influenced by sounds and ideas from around the globe. They're a truly global Irish band, at once rooted in their traditions, composing in Gaelic and involving traditional instruments like the uilleann pipes, but looking forward to collaborations with other global musicians of like minds.
Kíla: Leath Ina Dhiaidh A Hocht (from Gambler's Ballet)
Lead singer and Irish poet Rónán Ó Snodaigh may be responsible for much of Kíla's roving. He writes the band's songs, for the most part holding to his upbringing in the Irish language. His poetry is informed by his background as a renowned percussionist on the Irish bódhran, a much-maligned frame drum that has since spread to the US and across the world. His poetry is also informed by the inherent rhythms of Irish Gaelic, a language that rolls off the tongue and bubbles around the inside of your mouth like a broiling creek. It's a language with dance meter and cadences built right in, and coupled with the Irish penchant for verbal dexterity, it's clearly a language of poets. Ó Snodaigh's songs tumble along with the Irish instruments of the band and form the unmistakeable folk-rap that is Kíla's trademark sound. I wanted to ask Rónán the obvious question of whether the rhythms of hip-hop had also worked their way into his songwriting. Writing over email from his home in the picturesque Dingle Peninsula in Western Ireland, he replies "Yes I think we have all been influenced by hip hop at this stage of the worlds development, but I was also impressed by the early Jamaican dance hall ragga muffin kinda stuff and poets and Lynton crazy johnston. A lot of my musical life I have been surrounded by absolutely amazing singers with beautiful voices. I am not sure how beautiful my voice is for holding long notes, so i play to my strengths. I'm a good percussionist and as with most percussionists I know I can sing to the beats that I play." Ó Snodaigh also clearly doesn't hold much for the strict lines between musical genres, and has a broader conception of what Irish music is than you'd expect from a band that's made their name on the Irish language and its traditions. "It doesn't have to be obviously Irish music to be Irish music as well," he writes. "Like it is sometimes not obvious that Glen's [Hansard of the Swell Season] guitar playing is very Irish but that mightn't be noticed as that, or even U2's the Edge." U2 have paid their due respects to Kíla; Bono himself has called them 'extraordinary,' so perhaps the lines are blurring in today's world of Irish music.
Kila: Seo Mo Leaba (from Gambler's Ballet)
Ó Snodaigh, with his brothers and bandmates Colm and Rossa Ó Snodaigh, grew up in Dublin in an Irish speaking family. He started learning English when he was five, "something I am still at!" he writes. Having visited Ireland myself, I was surprised to hear that an urban Dublin family would speak Irish primarily. Usually I think of Irish as being speaken most organically in gaeltachts, isolated parts of Ireland set aside as language reservations. But Rónán says, "Its not that uncommon to find families raised in Irish in major urban centres, as we were. It's a growing phenomenon. It's a lovely sound to listen to; a household speaking Irish." Speaking Irish as a first language and growing up in an urban metropolis like Dublin exposed Ó Snodaigh both to his roots and to his influences. But he's clearly his own man, and since founding Kíla has embarked on a number of solo albums and solo tours. His latest album, Water Off A Duck's Back, shows off not only his English writing skills, but also his quirky sense of humor. Myles O Reilly, of Dublin folk-pop band Juno Falls, produced the album, and artist friends of Ó Snodaigh, like Liam Ó Maonlaí of the Hothouse Flowers guest as well. It's a fun album, though parts of it do hint at more serious Nick-Drake-sounds, something to be enjoyed rather than analyzed. When asked about the inspiration behind the album, Ó Snodaigh replies "Fun was an inspiration, and the total abyss under our feet and the absence of it." It's a typically enigmatic response from someone who delights in twisted wordplay.
Rónán Ó Snodaigh: Water Off a Duck's Back
Rónán Ó Snodaigh is a remarkably busy man these days. Aside from his solo album, Kíla has just released an all-instrumental album, Soisín, and was featured in the soundtrack of the Academy-Award nominated animated film The Secret of Kells. Invited by master French film composer Bruno Coulais to record in Sligo, Kíla contributed two tracks to the film's soundtrack. He's also been touring with his old friend Glen Hansard of The Swell Season. I asked Rónán to tell me more about that experience: "After winning the Oscar, the Swell Season were to do a big tour in America. Glen (who is an old friend) rang me and asked me to join them on tour hoping that I could help recreate some of the atmosphere we used to have when we were busking on Grafton Street, all those years ago. Where we learnt our chops all those years ago."
It seems that Ó Snodaigh takes on musical projects as they inspire him, throwing himself into the work with an infectious passion. Recently, he composed the music for two BBC nature documentaries. Having spoken out many times before on environmental causes, it was an easy connection for him to make. "I made a collection of music for the Wild Journey's program in which I built a track for each creature featured and I spent time researching the animals, observing their movements and tried to mimic some of those in each tune. For example when I wrote the butterfly piece i had my eyes closed and I imagined I was a butterfly the whole time. As I played I was flapping my imaginary wings, floating above gardens and feeling the breeze. Or when I did the shearwater I was floating across oceans and I could hear the sound I made in the wind around me. One of my favorites was the blue whale, I imagined I was a real cheeky Blue Whale swaggering into underwater town on a blues riff ready to eat any other fish that moved." This kind of almost spiritual connection to the natural world is an undercurrent in Ó Snodaigh's work. I've been watching this video over and over of him walking a puppet through his garden, accompanied by the beautiful track "When in Rome" from his 2001 solo album. It's so simple, but so heartfelt and powerful at the same time.
It's a look at Ó Snodaigh's softer side, and his keen eye for combining the small details of nature with the big details of human life. Ó Snodaigh's a published poet, both in English and in Irish, and his 2007 book of English poetry, Garden Wars, has some brilliant passages about natural life as a reflection of our own. And that's where we'll leave him for now, at home in his garden in the West of Ireland, humming a tune to himself as he cooks dinner. For a man whose mind roves constantly across the globe, he's remarkably down-to-earth.
The Garden Escapees
Out the gate
Down the road
Through the fence
Over the wall
On bicycle wheels
On the backs of bees
In birds beaks
Or under our feet
Any which way they could and they would and they will and they did
And they do
They went with the wind
And soaked up the sun
Drank down the rain
And ate what they could from the mud
Ye have to fight hard for a foothold this side of the garden walls
And twice as hard to keep it
(It’s not easy but it’s freedom)
On the side of roads
In under the stones
Down in the ditches
They’ll find, build and make a home
And defend it on their own
No one to water their roots during the dry spell
No one to watch over them and keep them well
No one to preen and prune them and make their bed
No not these flowers They are free Not wild, but free
No one picking at their petals
Breaking off their blossoms
Or dictating the shape of their shoots
No thank you These are the garden escapees
And the difference is They know they are free
Copyright - Rónán Ó Snodaigh – Musician, Gardener & Poet
06/18/2011 | comments (1)
James Vincent McMorrow. Early in the Morning.
2011. Vagrant Records.
Whisper-folk singer James Vincent McMorrow has produced not only one of the sweetest albums of 2011, but also one of the more intriguing. The Dublin-born songwriter holed up in a beach house on the Irish coast for five months to create this album, in which he writes all the songs, plays all the instruments and sings all the harmonies. If you didn’t know all that, you’d swear he had a full band touring with him and recording on the album. He plays everything from banjo to drums, slide guitar to electric guitar, and multi-tracks glorious harmonies with himself.
McMorrow has drawn comparisons to Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver from various music critics, and while these may be accurate, I’d say that he sounds most like The Be Good Tanyas. This pioneering indie-folk band out of Vancouver, BC, started the muffled-folk sound that McMorrow taps into. Like Be Good Tanyas’ lead singer Frazey Ford (who debuted her solo album last year), McMorrow’s voice is so soft and muffly that you can only catch every other word of the lyrics. But then at times, the poppier, full-band sound of the album almost reminds me of Coldplay, in their early days of light-filled, soaring pop.
McMorrow’s music is like the Irish wool sweater of indie-folk. Warm and cozy, a little bit scratchy at times, and a throwback to an earlier time, McMorrow channels the isolation of the Irish Sea into a well-worn debut album that deserves the hype.
James Vincent McMorrow: If I Had A Boat
BUY THE ALBUM ON AMAZON
James Vincent McMorrow is playing The Triple Door, opening for The Civil Wars this Wednesday, June 22! It's almost sold out, so hurry up and get your tickets!
06/17/2011 | comments (3)
Holy cow, is our town chocked chock-full of music in a week or what? We're glad we started the 'Hearth Recommends' blogs, since it gives us a nice excuse to check out new local artists and to help spread the word about all the great shows we have to offer around Seattle. Our apologies if you don't live in Seattle, but we think you'll like this music anyway. PS: Just FYI that Devon Leger writes these recommended posts. In case you were wondering.
Friday, June 17
High Dive in Fremont
Tickets $7 (free CD from Mr. Giant!), Show at 9pm
Joseph Giant must be a nice guy. His posts and tweets seem so friendly, and he's got such a sweet laid back vibe on his debut album. Now don't get all mad here, but he kinda reminds me of Jack Johnson. I know Johnson's become the Dane Cook of the music world, but people, he's such a nice guy! He wears flip-flops, loves the environment, goes surfing all the time, puts on cool festivals, makes nice music, has a happy family, jeez! If we could put aside the hipster irony for a second, let's just get back to enjoying music and life and good sunshine-y days! Joseph Giant's shimmery Beatles-esque voice, happily strummed guitars, and hopeful-in-the-face-of-everyday-adversity lyrics will help us remember the important things in life.
To support my Joseph Giant-as-nice-guy theory, he's giving away his album all day tomorrow on Bandcamp and it sounds like he's giving away physical copies at the High Dive during the show. Nice!
LISTEN to Joseph Giant Bandcamp
The Sumner Brothers keep tricking me into thinking they're another vintage, old-timey outfit. It's because they always use an old, sepia-toned photo of a slick-backed-hair guitar player from the 1920s in their publicity. But when I finally got the chance to sit down and LISTEN to their music, well, wow, they're a lot more hardcore than I thought. I haven't heard their new album, but the opening track on their 2008 album, "Both Back," has all the helpless anger and rage that drove rock 'n roll, but that most Americana bands have forgotten about. Sometimes you just gotta rip it up and damn the consequences. The Sumner Bros haven't forgotten this. I actually also really like their third track "Yeah Blue", which sounds like Johnny Cash. But not the over-used country-punk side of Cash, but his longer, edgier, slightly-sad poem songs, sometimes drawn from Shel Silverstein's writing. Maybe you could say Cash done right... Also, may I say that I think this is a band that will kick ass live. Smart money says you're not gonna want to miss this show!
The Sumner Brothers: Yeah Blue
06/16/2011 | comments (0)
We've become completely enchanted by indie-folk songwriter Matt Bauer's new album, The Jessamine County Book of Living. His cracked voice and deeply eclectic banjo playing were familiar to us from his previous releases and collaborations with other indie folk artists like Alela Diane and Mariee Sioux, but the second the chamber strings came into his opening track, "Useless is Your Armor," and ripped apart the simple folk melody, we knew this was an amazing album. The music on Bauer's new album is best described as unsettling. It unsettles our familiarity with roots music, and in some cases it almost scares us. This is music you MUST listen to.
Matt Bauer: Useless is Your Armor
Wed, June 15
An Indie Folk Evening with:
Ghosts I've Met
The Tractor Tavern
Seattle's Ballard Neighborhood
Show at 9pm
Check out the first video from Matt's new album, "Blacklight Horses." It's a softly beautiful duet with indie folk singer Jolie Holland.
Matt Bauer w/Jolie Holland: Blacklight Horses