Tag Archives: roots music
November 2, 2012
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals played to a packed Wiltern in the midst of her Fall “all request” tour. The generous set was in the audience’s sweet spot with many sing-alongs that had GP working the front of the pit to connect with as many fans as she could. Potter and the Nocturnals are a force of nature and few artists can pivot as effortlessly between stripped down ballads and blustery blues jams. Extended excursions on rugged hooks underscored why Potter and the band are such great draws in the jam band scene and the festival circuit. Potter herself has a totally magnetic stage presence to go with killer chops, and when she takes center stage playing a Flying V, it’s impossible to look away.
The band had an electric rapport, with guitarists Benny Yurco and Scott Tournet trading and sharing solos like punches – punctuated by Tournet’s gritty dustbowl Telecaster tone. With “2:22” from 2006’s Nothing But Water, Potter prowled her way along the floor to the top of the mic stand and let loose from the top of her pipes – a bluesy chanteuse in full roar. When Potter proclaimed “tonight you’re sleeping next to me” in Stop the Bus (from 2007’s “This Is Somewhere”), there was little doubt who the star of this show was. Lighting and staging we’re top notch, and played well with the gorgeous historic Wiltern space.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers from the Bay Area opened and were well matched for the task, delivering rootsy bluesy material to a receptive and supportive crowd. While this is the first I’ve heard of them, I met a couple who have been fans for years. It won’t be too long before we’re saying that, too.
March 17, 2012
“Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future”. Turns out every Villain has a story, too. The “19-piece 1930s New Orleans Cabaret and Orchestra show” that goes by Vaud & the Villains seems to have stepped out of time to deliver us from ourselves. With the likes of The Animal, Big Daddy, Honeychild, Silky, Preacher, Babyface, Peaches Mahoney, Shady Sadie, Low Down Kate and a seeming cast of thousands under the watchful eye of one Vaud Overstreet, these Villains transport all who enter to an age when liquor only flowed through speakeasys, gals were skilled at financially relocating men’s wallets, and hard luck was religion. Yeah it’s 2012, and they time-travel seamlessly.
Part revival, part burlesque and all in, Vaud & the Villains dig deep into gospel, rhythm and soul, blues, New Orleans brass and Americana, to create a performance that resonates, entertains and seduces. This is a committed bunch – to the music, to the presentation and to the enjoyment of the audience. They have to be. Travelling from gig-to-gig with at least 4 horns, 3 singers, 2 dancers, fiddle, banjo, drums, upright bass, sousaphone, acoustic guitar and “one-string” guitar (as was the configuration at The Mint) is labor intensive as it is, let alone delivering over two dozen tunes in period dress with enough strategic wardrobe changes to give Cher a run for her money.
The arc to most Vaud shows unwraps like an Elmore Leonard novel. Beginning with Vaud Overstreet (Andy Comeau) taking center stage – part carny barker/part fire and brimstone, regaling the audience with tales of lust, grifting and generally bad deeds. Vaud sets the table for the respective Villains to share their backstory throughout the performance, stepping back into the shadows, as the Villains take over, re-emerging to pick up the story and receding again. You can’t help but buy in.
What is special about V + V is the attention to traditional musical roots, while making sure that everyone has a damn good time. Not a lot of acts can pull off a Depression era heavy repertoire and sell it to a predominantly younger crowd. It is a high compliment that a good chunk of the Mint show included many songs that reached a fresh audience with Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions project, and that Vaud and co. keep that flame very much alive. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have two rather sexy and talented dancers add a little visual uplift to the whole affair. When these gals take their spots, heads turn, dates smile and the whole thing goes up a notch.
I first caught up with Vaud & the Villains in 2009, where they provided some after party entertainment to Cirque Bezerk, a locally infused brew of Burning Man meets Cirque Du Soleil for the loft district demo. In the past few years, they have taken up an irregular residency at Club Fais Do-Do. A former movie theater along a questionable stretch of Adams Boulevard, it’s a perfect room for this particular spectacle – an old warehouse feel of a place with an exposed barrel truss ceiling, plenty of couches and tables scattered throughout, and lots of room for audience and performers alike. V + V first played the Mint opening for the New Orleans Bingo Show (yes, that was a night) in 2010 and have been back a few times since. The room is almost too intimate to contain the show. It’s tight, but they make it work somehow. A rainy St. Paddy’s night was the perfect backdrop for their latest Mint return.
Opening with an old timey “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” and the St. James Infirmary-ish treatment of “Eyes on the Prize”, V + V moved deftly through a first set with an old as the hills throwdown of “O Mary Don’t You Weep”, a blues ‘bone flavor to “Play Your Hall Tonight” (with an “Old Time Religion” teaser for effect), and Dr. John’s “Marie Laveau”. “Jacob’s Ladder” brought some big tent spirit to the small room and fiddler Big Daddy scatted his way through “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”. “St. James Infirmary” almost had a samba like twist to it. That’s new and different.
The second set went 16+ songs deep beginning with an operatic entrance by the Animal (Antoine Reynaldo Diel) belting the refrain of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. The Celtic abandon of “Americanland” was perfect for the occasion, “Rag Doll” had both dancers effectively channeling their inner burlesque and Honeychild (Jessica Childress) somehow turned “Que Sera Sera” into a soulful RnB tune. The Villain horns became one with the floor for a “John Henry” hoedown. Peaches Mahoney (Dawn Lewis) was in full chanteuse mode for “Slap and Tickle”. “Animal’s Testament” brought Sunday church to the bar with some nice NOLA swing from the brass. A personal favorite, “Samson and Delilah” bears no resemblance to the Dead’s interpretation. The Villains’ read is dark, brooding and elemental. The heartbreak of “Thanks a Lot” had Preacher twanging through a song that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1960s’ Bakersfield. Honeychild and newcomer Roxie pumped “Sister Got It Bad” with the appropriate bluesy bluster. As if “Iko Iko” is not enough of a crowd pleaser (in a good way), the Villains segued into “I Want You Back” (yes, Michael Jackson). Then, whiplashed back to the 20’s for Sidney Bechet’s saloon friendly “Viper Mad”, featuring the dueling banjos of Low Down Kate and Babyface (Adam Grimes). That’s right, Michael Jackson and Sidney Bechet in the same breath (don’t try this at home). “Night Time” (is the right time, for sure), a bittersweet “This Train” (with a taste of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”) and a foot stomping “This Little Light of Mine” closed out a very generous pre-encore set. More revival, less baggage.
V + V are a Los Angeles treasure with NOLA blood in the veins. They invite all to lose their abandon, shake it a bit, and forget their troubles. But there is something deeper, too. Traditional songs having a resurgence almost a century later. Look no further than Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s upcoming “Americana” with the infamous noise monsters covering familiar 19th century folk songs – another example of traditional material reinvigorated by one of the more influential musicians of our time. These songs are still who we are. With Vaud & the Villains we get the show, too. And any more fun would be illegal. Seriously.
At the end of the Mint gig, Vaud announced to the crowd they were officially “Villainized”. That’s a good thing. Be you sinner or saint, you can’t leave a Vaud & the Villains show half empty. Spread the word. These guys deliver big time. Life is better when you’ve been “villainized”.
Keep current with Vaud & the Villains at www.vaudandthevillains.com. While they have a few mid-western and New England dates on the books for this summer (getting 15-19 pieces on the road can’t be easy), you can catch them in town March 31st at Club Fais Do-Do.
September 19, 2011
A friend asked me to describe Ben Harper’s sound and the best I could come up with was world-infused, surf-influenced, rhythm, roots and soul. Harper is a singer/songwriter/guitarist who defies description and has a relentless following (pun intended). I’ve seen Ben Harper a few times – almost two decades ago in The Mint, when it was half the size and maybe 150 people squeezed in, and then in 2009 before 50,000 some odd headlining the Acura Stage at Jazzfest. I am a fan, but more from afar, not knowing his deeper catalogue. That same friend mentioned how influential Ben Harper’s music had been on her high school years, and I felt old, as the rise of this musician from the IE with the Weissenborn guitar that created such a stir is still freshly emblazoned in my musical memory. Reflecting on the Mint show of the early 90s, I thought the cat who sang “Momma’s Got a Girlfriend Now” (from 1994’s Welcome to the Cruel World) with seemingly straight up truth, then busting out some wicked slide on a lap guitar that looked closer to a dulcimer, was pretty damn cool. No airs, this one. That stayed with me.
Not long after, the world took notice and Ben Harper was the man. When I last caught him at the 2009 Jazzfest (with the Relentless 7), he took the stage as an internationally known, two-time Grammy winning, politically inspired headliner and had a huge crowd right there with him. His contributions to benefit projects and causes reads like a classic moveon.org resume, and that’s not a bad thing – he embodies the social power of music. And he’s fearless with killer chops, great combo. Case in point – few could stand shoulder to shoulder with Eddie Vedder covering the Freddie Mercury parts of the classic Queen/Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure”, as Harper did at last year’s Hard Rock Calling Fest in Hyde Park.
True to form, Harper made a very rare club appearance at The Mint, a room he knows very well, to raise money for Babette Ho, the wife of close friend and master surfboard designer Jeff Ho, who is ailing from cancer. I relished the opportunity to see Harper again in such an intimate setting, coming full circle to the earliest parts of his career.
There was a knowing vibe that portended a special night. It was no secret by the time doors opened that Jackson Browne would be doing a set before the headliner. After the Ooks of Hazard (4 ukes + percussion = chimey melodies) warmed the crowd, Ben Harper introduced Tal Wilkenfeld and Jackson Browne to the stage. Yes, Ms. Wilkenfeld first. For those who did not catch this monstrously talented bassist touring with Jeff Beck at the tender age of 21 (and projects/appearances with the likes of Chick Corea, the Allman brothers, Prince, Rod Stewart), suffice it to say that Jackson Browne had the low end covered when the two took the stage a little after 10. Hearing JB play his signature tunes in such a relaxed and intimate setting had many reliving the best of their high school days, they were that much of a soundtrack. “Doctor My Eyes” (from his self titled debut), a song older than most in the room, never loses its world weary wisdom and showcased Ms. Wilkenfeld with some elegantly creative soloing. Browne’s “Alive in the World’ (from 1996’s Looking East) soon followed.
JB expressed a lot of love for Los Angeles and his roots throughout his set, reflecting that “The Pretender” was written in his Echo Park days – a song that retains poignancy, perhaps even more so in an economy and culture that seem to have completely lost their footing. This was living room familiarity as demonstrated when JB briefly served as his own keyboard tech by the light of a borrowed Blackberry. Not your average Hall of Famer. He then proceeded to cover Leonard Cohen’s “1,000 Kisses Deep” before Ben Harper joined him for Harper’s “Steal My Kisses” (released as a single in 2000), the audience right there with the feel good chorus.
Around 11, Harper and his crew started their set, but not before an expression of thanks for coming together to help Babette and Jeff Ho, and their family and friends. PLUG: If you surf (which I don’t), buy a Jeff Ho board. Buy more than one, tell your friends. It will change your life. PLUG OVER.
So, here’s a disclaimer. I wasn’t expecting more than a satisfying night of solid sincere music. I did not expect to get religion.
Harper launched into a tender take on Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” with guest Joan Osborne and I was already smitten. These two brought new/old soul and earth to this classic Morrison tune. Harper stayed in the same lower key by following with a cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”. Then the set exploded with intensity probably familiar to many Harper fans, moving from almost ska-like grooves baked in southern blues to sick Hendrix like runs from his Asher lap steel guitar. As one fascinated by traditional instrumentation voiced in unique ways, whether it’s Robert Randolph’s sacred steel or even going back to the late Jeff Healey, Harper’s intensity and punch at The Mint was a knockout. “Diamonds on the Inside” sparkled, indeed. I love this tune. Harper followed with a new song “Masterpiece” inspired by Jeff and Babette, slow and touching with the refrain of “loving you is my masterpiece”. Jackson Browne returned to join Harper again for “Pray that Our Love Sees the Dawn” (from 2011’s appropriately titled, Give Til Its Gone), which they had only played once before on the Letterman show.
The entire R7 had come out of the gate red-hot and that intensity was reflected especially well with muscular turns by Jessie Ingalls on bass and Jason Mozersky’s sharp and twistedly sonic playing throughout the night. You know it’s a good night when the audience is at complete attention for the drum solo, especially when in the hands of Jordan Richardson.
“I Shall Not Walk Alone” (from 1997’s “Will to Live”) was full of the burden and beauty imparted by the lyrics. Well past midnight, Harper then sat alone center stage with his Weissenborn and introduced a song by Neil Young. His solo take on Ohio was shiver inducing and uniquely Ben’s, some 40 years after Young first wrote it. “Don’t Give Up on Me Now” (also from Give Til Its Gone) featured more soaring finger work by Mozersky. As the set moved past 1 AM on a Tuesday morning, Harper had one other guest to bring out. Tom Morello, in full Nightwatchman mode, and Harper, could not be better suited for each other on Morello’s “Save the Hammer for the Man”. With that, the house lights went up, but the glow remained.
The evening would not have been possible without the good folks at The Mint and at Red Light Productions, who ensured that everything ran smoothly and the performers could give it their all without too many distractions. Much love for The Mint was expressed, especially from both Browne and Harper, and for Harper it is a rousing homecoming from playing Monday nights almost two decades ago.
Earlier in the evening I asked a Claremont local (Harper’s hometown) by way of Kentucky to describe the pull of Ben Harper’s music. “He writes his emotions, it’s all real.” After experiencing this set, with its fiery peaks and introspective reflection from beginning to end, I could not agree with her more. Music matters, life matters, Ben Harper is its witness. Amen.
June 26, 2011
Honey Island Swamp Band swung into the Westside on Saturday, another NOLA nugget appearing at the Mint. This is a New Orleans band that reflects its Katrina Diaspora-Bay Area birth with chunky and soulful jams, tight arrangements and great material. If you are expecting ballads, standards, and second lines, this ain’t that NOLA band. Whether moving easily from moments Dead infused or Dr. John influenced, their self-described Bayou Americana sound never loses sight of its swampy swagger or solo driven joy. The band has kicked ass at Jazzfest the past few years, so a chance to enjoy them here in the Southland was indeed a treat, and to my knowledge, The Mint gig is their first Los Angeles show.
At Fest performances and in the studio, HISB often fattens their arrangements with horns, and Saturday had that taste with Karl Denson sitting in for both sets contributing frequent solos and locking into some killer grooves with Trevor Brooks on keys and Chris Mule’s SG/Strat driven leads. When not providing the good time feel of a summer day front porch harp, Aaron Wilkinson switched between mandolin and his hollow-body Tele, taking the bluegrass string thing into Hendrix/Page territory, while the rhythm section of Sam Price and Garland Paul just kept having too much fun and pushing the band ahead. HISB can swing easily from romps like “Natural Born Fool”, and the Anders Osborne reminiscent “Till the Money’s Gone,” to there and back deep intense jams like “Wishing Well”. While the material is straight ahead, HISB is not shy about stretching out live.
The mixed crowd ranged from music savvy date night couples, thrilled to have the tables gone and the dance floor open for the second set, to the usual NOLA diehards that wouldn’t miss it. The vibe was relaxed and up.
This summer tour behind the their recent Threadhead Records release, “Good to You”, takes HISB from the where it all began of San Francisco’s Boom-Boom Room, to the where it was always meant to be at Tipitina’s in NOLA. I suspect they will be back in the SoCal soon, and playing bigger places. Catch them while you can.