Though storytelling is one of the most fundamental human activities, it's surprising how rarely you find recordings of storytellers these days. It's such a primal art, and so viscerally engaging, that you'd think there'd be more recordings available, especially in the world of folk and traditional music. Whatever the reason, it's always a joy to discover an album with great storytelling. Veteran blues songwriter Guy Davis delivers on this and more with his new album, The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues. It's a loving, often-humorous look at the roots of blues culture in the South that also turns an unflinching eye to the horrific life conditions that birthed the blues. The album is chock-full of stories and blues songs, all delivered effortlessly from an artist who knows and respects the culture. The album comes from Davis' work in the theater and is based on Davis' play of the same name, and the influence of the stage shows throughout. Incorporating sound design to fill out the stories, at times the listener feels like they're in a quiet theater watching the play unfold. It's a neat trick to combine theater, storytelling, African-American folk traditions and country blues into one package. And maybe that's why it's a full 2 CDs in length! But the listener doesn't tire, and I moved into the second disc with just as much enjoyment as the first disc.
The album revolves loosely around the narrative of Fishy Waters' journeys through the South. A traveling hobo/bluesman, Fishy encounters all manner of characters and recounts his many stories as he travels and plays his music. The opening track, "Ramblin' All Over" introduces Fishy's travels in a prototypical country blues style. Original songs that sound like old country blues numbers mix with traditional stories given just enough of a new twist to make them sound fresh. Later tracks delve more deeply into Fishy's character and origins, and just as some of the stories are patterned on old folk tales you might have heard around hobo campfires in the South, other stories seem to come from a more personal level, recounting the many levels of poverty that Fishy encounters, along with powerful characters and friendships. Davis is weaving a lifetime of influences in traditional blues to tell a tale that sounds at first almost stereotypical, but quickly evolves into a fully-fleshed out character. By melding theater, music, and stories, Davis pillages the best of each of these idioms to make a beautiful statement about Southern blues and culture. This is a masterful album that's also a helluva lot of fun to listen to. This is a full immersion experience in the country blues.
Guy Davis: Ramblin' All Over
Guy Davis: Fly Took Stockings (story)
04/02/2012 | comments (0)
One of our favorite albums of 2011 was The Holy Coming of the Storm, by Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. We were proud to help run publicity on it because we believe then (and now) that their music was a game changer. Cahalen and Eli's songs were so tight, so perfectly written, and their arrangements so angular and powerful. We just loved the album. And so did lots of other people. We've been hoping for a chance to get Cahalen to talk about some of his songwriting process and to go over a few of the more beautiful songs from the album to add background. Now here we are! Here's what Cahalen had to say about three of the key songs from his album with Eli West.
Inside the Songs with Cahalen Morrison
"My Lover, Adorned" (written w/and sung by Eli West)
"For me, few novels have such strong imagery like any of those by Cormac McCarthy. The sparse quality of McCarthy's writing allows the reader to do much of the work themselves. The kind of writing I enjoy most, and the kind that comes across in the most powerful way, is the style that McCarthy uses. Four lines of sparse (maybe even dry) prose, followed by a line of poetry that knocks you out of your rhythm. So, you stop, and read it again, letting the subtlety sink in. The whole book [McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses] flows in this way, to me. I was struck by so many one-liners in the book, that I wound up with a sheet of paper, stuck in the back cover, covered in lines and page numbers. A few months after I had finished the book, I went back through, and reread the lines that had stuck out to me before. One passage had especially beautiful imagery, so I decided to expand on it, using one line. 'John Grady stood his saddle upright to the fire and walked out on the prairie and stood listening. He could see the Pumpville watertank against the purple sky. And beside it the horned moon. He could hear the horses cropping grass a hundred yards away. The prairie otherwise lay blue and silent all about.' (p. 42) I used the line in a slightly different context, but still in line with the story, the song ends up being more of a parallel, than being completely true to the story, being that I was also drawing from personal experiences, and weaving the two together."
"I spent a month in Boston, visiting a friend a few years ago, and ended up with a woman on my mind that was out west. This being my first time enduring an east coast, maritime winter, I was quite taken by the complete and utter dreadfulness of the sleet, snow, and wind. And, as it would seem, the combination of longing for love and terrible weather make a good mindset for songwriting. The song ended up being situated upon mother nature keeping this woman away from me, at any expense. This is another song that I borrowed one of my favorite lines for. But, this line came from one of my favorite Tom Waits songs, 'All The World Was Green,' which I used as a whole, unashamedly. I hope he won't mind."
"On God's Rocky Shore"
"For this song, I stuck with the fairly basic model using imagery, song structure and harmonic devices that run deep and common in Old-Time music. There is not necessarily too much glue that holds the verses together, and not really a storyline that the song follows, as each verse is stand-alone, and only ties in subtly to the rest. The title of the record, The Holy Coming of the Storm, comes from the last line of this song. I grew up in Northern New Mexico, and am always in awe of the severity and intensity of what nature does in the desert. This line, 'The creek is rising, on up to the shower, the holy coming of the storm,' is referring to flash floods in the summer, when there is not a cloud in the sky, but all of a sudden, there is a wall of velvety, brown water tearing down the arroyos, wiping out anything in its path. And the storm may or may not show its face in whatever particular canyon you are in. It all seems so counter-intuitive, and definitely speaks to something that is part of the bigger picture. "
NW Friends: Cahalen Morrison will be sharing the stage with Kelly Joe Phelps (another favorite songwriter of ours) this Sunday, March 25, at the Tractor Tavern. Dang! Don't miss it! He's playing Bellingham on Saturday, and Portland next Thursday. WWW.CAHALEN.COM
03/25/2012 | comments (0)
I've been sleeping on The Washover Fans for a long time now, ignoring their charming emails and their catchy posters (usually just huge font renditions of their name which work because these guys have excellent taste in fonts), and missing all their shows in Seattle. Well, that shit stops NOW. Their new album, Live at Empty Sea (drops tomorrow!), is absolutely stunning, all the more so for being a live album that sounds like it was made in an expensive studio. This isn't easy to pull off, in fact most live albums are hampered both by performances noticeably rougher than a polished studio take w/edits, and sub-par sound and mixing. It's not easy to make a live album, believe me, I know. Huge kudos goes here to Empty Sea Studios, where the live recording was made. We've been writing about them a lot recently, but clearly with good reason.
On Live at Empty Sea Studios, The Washover Fans revel in the simple beauty of acoustic harmonies. Their voices mesh effortlessly, and their instruments are tight accompanists to the songs (with some particularly delicious mandolin and steel guitar lines), which have quite catchy melodies. It's folk music done right; nothing fancy, but "tous qu'il faut" as the French say (which means "everything you'd need"). The songs are deceptively simple odes to love and love lost, nothing necessarily new here, but this is a large cut above the many singer-songwriter CDs I've been listening to recently. Really, this kind of folk music comes down to the lyrics and the deftness of the music, and here's where The Washover Fans really stick out. Their words are subtle, thoughtful, and bring new light to old ideas. They're bringing a much needed creativity to folk music, and when they drop covers on the new album (like Patti Griffin's "Rain", or "These Days" from Jackson Browne), they're chosen with care and given a sweet, sorrowful sound.
The Washover Fans: The Next One
So, March 24 is their CD Release Party at Columbia City Theater. We've raved about this venue plenty of times on the Hearth Music blog, so suffice it to say that we've loved every show we've seen at that Theater.
Also appearing with The Washover Fans will be The Loom, an excellent buzz-worthy indie-roots band based out of New York. They first came to our attention via Crossbill Records, a Davis, CA-based record label led by Michael Leahy, an amazing tastemaker whose work has been a continual inspiration to us. Labelmates for the Loom include Matt Bauer and Dana Falconberry.
The Loom's new album, Teeth, is a great bit of chamber-folk, showcasing the larger arrangements of the band, and their dark vision of backwoods Americana. There are some very special moments on their album, like the heart-breaking trumpet line that leads the opening track "With Legs", or the haunting, eerie orchestration of my favorite cut on the album, "For the hooves that gallop, and the heels that march" They're exactly the kind of band you want to see live; it would be fun to see how all the musicians in the band interact and their ambitious group arrangements are gonna be a feat of choreography to pull off.
The Loom: With Legs
NOTE: Check out The Loom's Daytrotter Session and support one of our favorite online music sources!
03/22/2012 | comments (0)
I grew up in Grass Valley and Nevada City, two conjoined towns in the foothills of Northern California's Sierra Nevada mountains. This was the heart of Gold Rush country, and Nevada City is home to a historic gold mine (the oldest and the largest, in fact), Empire Mine. I grew up far out in the woods, and could hike to a small stream near our home and an abandoned mine, where I used to play as a kid (real safe, right?). Besides old bottles and cans littered around the mine, there was a line of miner's boots tied to a tree outside the shaft and an old rusted mine car across the stream in the bushes. So even though mining was pretty much done out there, Grass Valley and Nevada City still have a lot of roots in mining culture, and one of these main roots was Cornish. Brought to the region in the 1870s for their mining expertise, Cornish immigrants brought a distinct culture to Northern California. Today you can still buy Cornish pasties (delicious pastries that are kind of a cross between a calzone and a pot pie) at Marshall's Pasties downtown, and every year Grass Valley hosts a Cornish Christmas celebration. Musically, though, there isn't too much left.
Cornwall is a Celtic region in Britain, with a language similar to Welsh or French Breton, but the music of the Cornish miners in the States was primarily vocal music, performed in large men's choirs. They also loved brass bands as well, and some still survive in the surrounding area.
I'd always wondered about the musical roots of the region, so I was very excited when I heard recently that renowned California songwriter Rita Hosking actually came from Cornish family roots and had been looking into the music. So in honor of her upcoming visit to the Northwest, I decided to go "inside the songs" with her.
"Only my grandparents/great-grandparents lived in Grass Valley--My great-grandpa, Tom Hosking, worked at Empire Mines. He and his wife Ida (my nana) grew up in Cornwall in mining families, were married there, then emigrated to the U.S. Before Grass Valley, they had lived in northern Michigan and then Butte, Montana, like many Cornish miners did. In Grass Valley they lived on 123 Empire Street (a short walk down from the mine.) Tom was one of the last to emerge from the mine when it closed in 1956, because he was turning off the pumps. (He had become chief mine mechanic.) He understood the history that was being flooded and grabbed a few items like level signs, etc., some of which we still have.
The Cornish have a strong singing tradition, and Tom sang in the Cornish Carol Choir, the Grass Valley Carol Choir, Cornish Glee Club, The California Cornish Gold Mining Singers, and any sort of singing club he and his peers came up with (as did their sons.) Cornish miners have a reputation for singing underground, though I've read that it subsided with the introduction of different ethnic groups into the mines--they become self-conscious around others. However, I think it was still pretty strong in Grass Valley, and at Christmas in 1940 he and many other miners were broadcast singing live from underground in the Idaho/Maryland Mine [in Grass Valley] on NBC. Pretty amazing. They say the response from around the country was huge--people were very moved by hearing these miners singing from underground and their special Cornish carols. I've also read that NBC might have arranged this because the govt. was keen to find broadcasts to help spread awareness and comradery with the English, who were of course targets of the Nazis at that time.
We heard stories of the miners from my grandfathers, recordings of the singing, and photographs. When Christmas came around, my sister and I were told to shut up and sit down, and my father would put on the old records. He and his father would stand and sing or hum to the music, tears in their eyes. As I say in one of my bios, I grew up with a strong respect for the power of the voice--this is what I'm talking about. I could pick out my great grandfather's voice too, even though I'd never heard him sing in real life--I knew his voice. It was a soaring tenor. If you are interested in reading about these folks, there's a fabulous book called When Miners Sang, the Grass Valley Carol Choir, by Gage McKinney. It can be ordered with CD's too, which I must say are easier to play than my parents old 78's. There are several pictures with my great grandpa in them, and a little paragraph about him, too. I named a song on my most recent record, Burn, after the book, whose title I love--When Miners Sang, with the author's permission.
Rita Hosking: When Miners Sang
"My heart is stirring with a noble song" [Psalms 45]
Of a young girl who loved plants and the sky
Of her father who mined in the dark all day long
She gave to him gifts to remember her by
Daddy please take this dandelion
You can take it below, hold up and blow
Watch all the seeds scatter and fly
You say they can't grow, but maybe they'll try
She placed in his pail a lilac flower
He found it at noon, its fragrance so true
All the men marveled at the beauty and power
In the light of the lamps, little lilac flower
Oh Daddy please take this pretty love song
You can sing it below, then I will know
When you are lonely, or need to feel strong
He began with it softly, the men sang along
Oh sweetheart what have I to give to you?
With pain in his heart and love in his eyes
I am a poor miner, what worth have I?
You deserve all the riches money can buy
Oh Daddy, you pay for our food on our table
And you play with me when you are able
I know what you and the others are makin'
It's gold for the ladies and sad, sad singin'
It's gold for the ladies and sad, pretty singin'
"My father remembers the performances they did outside the mine, in halls and such. He remembers one performance at the state fair when he was a child. His grandpa and friends were dressed in their work clothes, even with the helmets, lunch pails, some tools and such. They sang to the rhythm of a hammer hitting steel -- we have a photo of his grandpa holding such a hammer on a stage, dressed out as my dad describes them. I've got a quote and photo inside my Silver Stream album. I don't perform any distinctly Cornish music, however the song I wrote called When Miners Sang was intentionally influenced by Celtic sounds, which I think you'll hear. I wrote it special for the underground recording, but liked it a lot so took it to the studio album as well."
[Rita's speaking here about the fascinating EP she recorded in 2010, Live in the 16 to 1 Mine. Joined by her daughter and husband, and gathered around a single microphone, the trio of musicians recorded a handful of songs about mining, some sourced from Utah Philips, some from Rita's pen, and some traditional, in the depths of an actual working gold mine.] Here's a track from that album:
Rita Hosking: Bright Morning Stars
"I've had the great honor of touring in the UK twice now, and plan to go back in a year's time. Both times I made sure to visit Cornwall (or Kernow, as the locals say) and already have some lovely friends there, in addition to many folks I've met simply because Hosking is such a commonly Cornish name, and they are curious. I'd love to return sometime when I'm not in a rush/tour. Brought our kids on the first trip, and properly indoctrinated them in the pleasures of Cornish pumps, steam engines, etc..."
Rita's newest album, Burn, is a wonderful pastiche of Northern California life, drawing both from her family's roots in Grass Valley's Cornish culture, and from her own childhood growing up outside of Mount Shasta, about three and a half hours Northwest of Grass Valley, into the middle of the state. The larger-than-life country characters she grew up around peek into her songs and inform her hard-scrabble, earthy songwriting. Sometimes these influences are subtle, only to be understood by those who come from the region. I loved her song "My Demolition Man," having grown up around Demolition Derby drivers in California, where the sport is quite popular in rural areas. Her music is clearly rooted in Northern California, but her songwriting touches something much deeper than the simple culture of home. She's writing about the deeper parts that fuel us and help us drive our lives.
Rita Hosking: My Demolition Man
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03/16/2012 | comments (2)
Here at HearthPR we love great fiddling. If we had our way, we'd work with fiddlers all the time! So we're very happy to be promoting the new album from young Boston fiddler Mariel Vandersteel. She's found a fascinating common ground between the fiddle traditions of Scandinavia (Norway) and Southern old-time music. Her album, Hickory, effortlessly blends the two, along with tunes she's composed herself or learned from friends in the Boston trad music scene. This album is a wonderful testament to the kind of music a masterful artist can make when they truly love the roots of the music.
For roots music to work, it needs to well up from a deep sense of love for the tradition. On the debut album, Hickory, from Boston fiddler Mariel Vandersteel, you can sense this love of the music in every beat. Each tune, drawn from old-time and Norwegian fiddle styles, has the mark of a musical memory. Perhaps a night of music among friends, or a fiddle lesson in Norway, or even a moment alone under a pine tree with her fiddle. You can hear the joy she takes in her music, and it helps that she’s a deft and subtle fiddler, able to draw the kind of emotion out of instrumental music that you’d expect from a song. She’s also a master at finding common ground between two traditions. Inspired by the beautiful harmonies of the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, she found a connection to the drone-heavy syncopations of Southern old-time fiddling. On Hickory, she effortlessly blends the two traditions together, reveling in the rich, acoustic tones of true folk music. Her fiddling lies somewhere between the old fjords of Norway and the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hickory is a product of Boston’s vibrant roots music scene, and it shows both in the music and in the friends that Mariel brings along with her. Respected guitarist Jordan Tice anchors the accompaniment on the album, while noted instrumentalists like Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist, mandolinist Dominick Leslie and bassist Sam Grisman of the Deadly Gentlemen, fiddler Tristan Clarridge of the Bee Eaters and Crooked Still, and guest fiddler Duncan Wickel contribute to the lush arrangements of the album. Throughout, Mariel’s fiddling shines like a polished gem, at turns racing through an old-time tune like the title track “Hickory,” or spinning gently along, as in the tune she wrote called “Sitting on the Ridge.” Mysterious old Norwegian tunes rub shoulders here with new compositions from Keith Murphy and Dirk Powell, compositions from Mariel herself, and old-time tunes inspired by sources like John Hartford and Foghorn Stringband.
Hickory is an inspiring testament to the power of the old tunes, and the new tunes that we continue to write. This is proof positive that traditional fiddling holds the same power today that it did hundreds of years ago. Hickory is an album of music with its roots deep in the past and its branches reaching into a new century.
Mariel Vandersteel: Sitting on the Ridge
Mariel Vandersteel: Norafjølls
Coming soon for purchase...
03/14/2012 | comments (0)
This is a pretty cool development! Michael Connolly at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle (www.emptysea.com) has developed a live webcast program for some of their upcoming folk/roots/acoustic concerts. It's a great way to see a show you might otherwise miss because you don't live in Seattle, and it's a really cool idea for artists and venues. I think the Freight & Salvage does this too, but Michael's got multiple cameras and camera angles running, plus HD video. He debuted the series with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, which was really successful. The "chat interface" which let internet audience members "talk" during the concert is a totally fascinating idea.
As Michael explains: "Having spent a good part of 2010 and 2011 touring on the road with Coyote Grace, I strongly believe that live webcasting of concerts, if done well and priced fairly, will go a long way towards creating sustainable careers for professional musicians. We've got new webcasts being confirmed on a near-daily basis, and in the future we’re planning on offering workshops and masterclasses as well."
Check out this wonderful song, "Monster," from Portland, ME folk singer Connor Garvey, which showcases the video capabilities of Empty Sea Studios.
Anyone else doing webcasts like this? It seems like a wonderful new business opportunity for venues (though also a lot of work!).
Here's a list of upcoming Empty Sea Studios concerts that will be webcast:
March 17th: Brittany Haas & Lauren Rioux
March 18th: Rita Hosking & Cousin Jack
April 14th: Eli Rosenblatt & Correo Aereo
April 27th: Julia Massey
Seattle's Empty Sea Studios Delivers Live Concerts To Your Home Via the Web
Though one of Seattle's smallest music venues, Empty Sea Studios has built an unmatched reputation in the past three years for uncompromising sound, a lineup of national and international artists, and a music-focused experience. It's no wonder that most shows sell out the venue's 40-seat capacity. Over the past few years, the studio has attracted artists from a number of different genres including Kelly Joe Phelps, Mirah, John Doyle (Solas), and multiple Grammy winners such as Mike Compton, David Grier, and the Indigo Girl's Amy Ray.
Now, Empty Sea's unique concert experience is accessible to a much larger audience. Starting March 10th, the studio will webcast the majority of its concerts live in multi-camera HD video and CD quality audio. Anyone with a computer and a broadband connection will be able to tune in from around the world, enjoying the venue's concert programming either live or on-demand.
"To my knowledge, we are the nation's third music venue to offering regular webcasts which are multi-camera (a key element for retaining viewer interest) and with a dedicated sound engineer," says studio owner Michael Connolly. The first two were the Met in New York and the new 2,500 seat home of Austin City
"My goal is for our broadcasts to 'over-deliver' when it comes to video and audio quality," reports studio owner Michael Connolly. "That's what we've done with our in-person concert experience, and it's earned us a serious reputation with artists and listeners. We've hired a seasoned video crew with years of live broadcast television experience to create the equivalent of a concert film in real-time."
"High-quality webcasting for concerts isn't just about increasing our venue's capacity," says Connolly. "There's a huge potential for working musicians to reach a much broader audience than they could on the road. I believe the 120 online viewers we saw for our pilot show is just the tip of the iceberg. It's not difficult to imagine exposing some of our wonderful artists to a global audience in the thousands per show, if not more. That represents a major shift in the opportunities available to an independent artist."
For $4.99, web viewers can purchase access to a single two-hour concert,
either live or on-demand for viewing at their convenience. An $8.99 monthly
subscription gains access to all scheduled live shows, plus a growing archive
of on-demand content.
Click HERE to sign up or learn more: