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Jenny Lewis - The Beacham, Orlando - May 10, 2015
05/14/15 at 06:57 AM by Gregory Robson

At age 38, Jenny Lewis is sitting pretty. Her latest album, The Voyager, earned rave reviews and made it to several top 10 lists and her North American tour in support of said album has been both a commercial and critical success. If her recent stop at Orlando was any indication, Lewis won’t be slowing down anytime soon. During a 90-minute set, she prowled the stage with a commanding presence, confident and controlled, but always finding time to yield to the fans. Gracious, humble and always ready with a compliment, she was the very epitome of what a live artist should be.

Whereas some artists take swagger to a different level, Lewis was controlled, almost as if her strutting and authoritativeness was an attempt to heighten the crowd’s intensity. If that was indeed the plan, it paid off. The electric atmosphere helped pave the way for awe-inspiring performances, namely a buzzy, bombastic and near eight-minute rendition of “The Next Messiah.” Similar in intensity was the Rilo Kiley song “The Moneymaker,” which preceded “The Next Messiah.” The set reached a fever pitch on the Rilo Kiley ballad “With Arms Outstretched,” which sent the crowd into histrionics. The energy simmered for the next 40 minutes and did not return again until a fiery and frisky rendition of “She’s Not Me,” got the crowd back into overdrive. That sense of excitement continued with a refreshed and invigorating rendition of Rilo Kiley’s “Portion For Foxes.” Performing the song with a reckless abandon, as if was written just months ago, Lewis and her band absolutely hammered home why they just might be one of the best live acts currently touring the country. That point was elucidated most clearly during an epic, jaw-dropping performance of Rilo Kiley’s “A Better Son/Daughter.”

And yet for all the kinetic and guitar-heavy numbers, some of the set’s best moments were the quieter ones. “The Charging Sky,” a song Lewis performed with the Watson Twins in 2006 was poignant, pristine and utterly transcendent. That sense of timelessness was revisited in another Watson Twins effort “You Are What You Love,” which Lewis dedicated to Manny Pacquaio for being a “stand-up human being.” Many of the songs from The Voyager at times blended together, which made the maudlin and meandering “Slippery Slopes” that much more special.

Much of the brilliance of Lewis’ set was the strength of her supporting cast. Singer-songwriter Tristen played keys and sang harmonies while singer-songwriter Megan McCormick was mesmerizing on lead guitar. Every song was performed with clarity, conviction and ruthless energy. That sense of conviction should not be overlooked. In an era when so many artists are content to mail it in, Lewis and her band performed every song with an enveloping and intoxicating glow. Nothing about the set was unfocused, unpolished or blemished. And nowhere was that point more pronounced than on the stripped down “Acid Tongue,” which drew on the harmonies of her five bandmates and Lewis’ crystalline vocals. By the time the set winded to a close, one left the venue feeling like they had just witnessed something truly profound. If only all concerts could carry the same weight.

If only.
Tags: jenny lewis, rilo kiley, orlando, tristen, megan mccormick
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Flagship Romance is Florida's Best Unsigned Band
05/10/15 at 04:23 AM by Gregory Robson

In September of 2013, this very blog championed the talents of Jacksonville folk duo Flagship Romance. At the time, that post called them one of Florida's Top 10 unsigned bands. Fast forward to May of 2015 and one can argue they might just be the best unsigned band in the Sunshine State.

Seen this past weekend at Orlando's The Plaza Live, the newlyweds outshined headliner Lisa Loeb and delivered a set that was in a word: awe-inspiring. Whether it was the driving, highway rocker "A Strange Thing," or the inward and feathery "Where There's Smoke," the duo crafted a myriad of engaging sonic landscapes. Though at times they were too garrulous, their songs were darn near perfect. Set opener "Hit the Ground" was the perfect marriage of Shawn Fisher's hyperkinetics and Jordyn Jackson's stately grace. And therein lies the power of Flagship Romance. For all of Fisher's jittery energy, his wife is a poised and calming yin to his yang. Both also possess top-tier vocals and their harmonizing is both timeless and mesmerizing. Nowhere was that more apparent than on the gorgeous ballad "Amsterdam." By the time, the duo closed out the set with the hushed tones of "Harvest" one got the feeling they were in the midst of something special. A standing ovation from the crowd reiterated that very point.

The duo is currently touring the country in support of last year's brilliant debut Fee-Fih-Foh-Fum and are hard at work on their sophomore follow-up. Perhaps what's most remarkable about the band is that their music goes beyond relating their love story. Fisher and Jackson are both dedicated humanitarians and are founders of the Clean Water Music Fest, a Northeast Florida music festival which donates all of its proceeds to New York City nonprofit charity:water. In an era where narcissism and self-indulgence are the norm in the music business, their presence is both refreshing and much-needed.

So here's to Flagship Romance, Florida's best unsigned band.
Tags: flagship romance, plaza live, orlando, jacksonville, florida
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Brooklyn's Elliot and the Ghost's New Video
03/30/15 at 04:32 AM by Gregory Robson
One of my favorite Brooklyn indie bands is a quartet that goes by the name Elliot and the Ghost. The band recently released a video for their latest single, "Bad Enough." The band still remains under the proverbial radar, but more songs this good and the band will definitely break through. Check out the video below and leave a comment in the replies.

Tags: elliot and the ghost, brooklyn, indie
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TWLOHA - Orlando - 1.31.15
03/19/15 at 04:39 PM by Gregory Robson
EDITOR'S NOTE: This was supposed to have appeared two months ago but due to circumstances beyond my control is now being posted.

After nearly a decade, Melbourne, FL-based nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms is probably in the midst of its strongest season to date. Last month, the film To Write Love on Her Arms was released nationwide by Sony Pictures and TWLOHA founder Jamie Tworkowski has released his first book If You Feel Too Much. Earlier this year, Tworkowski once again hosted Heavy and Light, banner events for the nonprofit that are held in both Los Angeles and Orlando. This year's guests included Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Dustin Kensrue of Thrice, Nashville crooner Matthew Perryman Jones and spoken word poet Sierra DeMulder.

Opening the show was Perryman Jones whose brief four song set was arguably the strongest of the night. Opening with Patty Griffin's gripping "On Top Of The World" (later made famous by the Dixie Chicks), he eventually pushed on to one of his own, a jangly alt- country offering that has appeared on the ABC show Nashville. Perryman Jones went inward again on the ruminative and sparse "O,Theo," a song written about Vincent Van Gogh. His last song was easily his most accessible and most direct. In just four songs he delivered a master class in performance and musicianship. Everyone who followed had a tough road ahead. God Bless them all for trying.

Easily the weakest set of the night was the sugar-coated, sun-drenched bubblegum pop of The Summer Set. With an affinity for profanity, Usher-esque dance moves and a narcissistic frontman, the set was everything that's wrong with popular music. Sure they can write hooks for days but for crying out loud please be authentic. The Summer Set was neither and how this band has been able
to secure Heavy and Light for two consecutive years is baffling.

Thankfully, rescue was in order.

DeMulder, who hails from Minneapolis, is a refreshing presence, fully comfortable in her own skin and accomplished in her rapid fire delivery. Her everywoman, girl next door vibe more or less fit the ethos of TWLOHA perfectly.

Continuing the trend of verbose introspection, Kensrue took to the stage and rattled off a sterling set of seven well-picked arrangements. Beginning with "Pistol," he set the tone immediately. He was going to deliver and sing the heck out of each song. This was most pronounced on a riveting albeit spartan rendition of "A Song For Milly Michaelson," from Thrice's Alchemy Index. After briefly announcing the release of his latest album, he introduced "I Knew You Before," a brilliant and effortles ballad that makes one anxious for said album. Kensrue then declared an affinity for Lorde's Pure Heroine and absolutely dominated the angsty "Buzzcut Season." Quickly joking that the set was going "down to the depths," he sang new song "There's Something Dark Inside of Me," a chilling and audacious look at frailty in romance.

Fully cognizant that he'd be harassed for playing only one song, he sang "Words in the Water" with a renewed vigor and seemed fully present in both the moment and the event itself. Whereas The Summer Set sang as if the event were just a paycheck, Kensrue sang as if the event itself had some resonance and that kind of attachment was present in "Words in the Water." And yet for all the high points of Kensrue's set none could match the towering heights of his rendition of Tom Waits' "Down There By The Train." Revisiting the same passion that made Thrice one of this site's most beloved bands, Kensrue gave all of himself, leaving the audience stunned in silence. It was in a word: revelatory. Headliner Jon Foreman more than had his work cut out for him.

Focusing mostly on his new venture, a work entitled The Wonderland Project, Foreman sampled four songs from that. The first of the four was "Before Our Time," the set's opener and one of Foreman's stronger solo efforts in recent memory. Drawing on cellist Keith Tutt and drummer Aaron Redfield Foreman upped the sonic ante quickly on a kinetic and sweaty rendition of "Resurrect Me." And then in seconds, the set became more direct, more serious and more focused. Beginning with the hushed ballad "Only Hope," he then moved into new territory with the uneven "Terminal," a song about making the most out of every day. While the song's over- arching theme is solid, the song itself still felt green.

Thankfully, his best was still to come.

Switchfoot's ubiquitous "Dare You to Move" followed and was everything one might expect for an event about hope and solace. Foreman clearly could have mailed it in but realizing the importance of the event, he sang the heck out of it. Penultimate new song "Inheritance," much like "Before Our Time" was potent from the very first note and of all the four new songs had the most lasting power. Building off of Kensrue's Lorde cover, Foreman revisited last year's rendition of "Royals" with Summer Set frontman Brian Dales and the tandem once again offered a faithful, if not, refreshing cover. For those who did not attend last year's Heavy and Light, the song choice was probably a welcome addition but frankly, it could have been left out. Contrary to that, the evening's final Wonderland Project song was "You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are," a sweetly affecting valentine that hits at the very heart of TWLOHA and its mission. Though he had other plans for a set closer, Foreman kindly obliged a fan and finished the evening with the evangelical ballad "Your Love is Strong."

Returning to the stage for an encore, Foreman was joined by The Summer Set, Perryman Jones and Kensrue for Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" and Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly." While the former was executed with aplomb, "Learning to Fly" began rather clumsily. Foreman, who clearly had no idea how to play it, looked to Perryman Jones for direction and instead asked him to start the song. Only a few chords in, Foreman jumped in and each of the vocalists alternated verses. By song's end, all were smiling and the entire room was vibrant with levity and laughter. For an event that focused on the dark, uncomfortable moments of life, levity and laughter was exactly how the night should have ended. Tworkowski probably couldn't have written a better script if he tried.

Tags: twloha, matthew perryman jones, jon foreman, dustin kensrue
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Jackson Browne - Feb. 24, 2015 - Bob Carr Theater, Orlando, FL
03/01/15 at 05:13 AM by Gregory Robson

More than 40 years removed from his self-titled debut, Jackson Browne still remains the pinnacle of singer-songwriters. That much was certain during his 2.5 hour set week at Orlando’s Bob Carr Theater. Deftly vacillating between classic hits and a large chunk of last year’s fantastic Standing In the Breach album, Browne was at his very best. His stop at Bob Carr was the last of a six-date Florida February tour, his final domestic stop of the Standing in the Breach tour before embarking on an Asia and European tour.

Opening the set with “Barricades of Heaven,” the band was in strong form from the opening note. Though the song was a bit too sedate for an opener, it was performed exquisitely and it set the tone for what would be a most memorable night. Choosing to divide the performance into two sets, the first set featured a stirring and stripped down version of “Looking Into You,” a rollicking and expertly crafted rendition of “Shaky Town,” and an ageless rendition of “Fountain of Sorrow.”

But the first set’s most inspired moments came via request. The first of the requests was by an eight-year-old boy who attended the show with his mother and anxiously shouted for “Yeah, Yeah,” a cut from Standing In the Breach. Taken back by the entire charade, Browne quickly gave in. “I guess we have to play it now,” and took to the piano before realizing he and the band had not rehearsed it. “I honestly forgot how this one starts.” After taking some cues from pedal steel player Greg Leisz, guitar player Val McCallum and drummer Mauricio Fritz, Browne paused yet again before addressing the crowd, “There we go.” And off it went. Effortless. Artful. Nary a flaw. Having already honored the “Yeah Yeah” request, Browne caved once again and confidently dove into “Call it a Loan.” In doing so, the song received arguably the largest ovation of the first set and kept fans anxious heading into the 30-minute intermission.

To start the second set, arguably the stronger of the two, Browne and Co. offered up “Your Bright Baby Blues,” which led to a raucous reception from the crowd. Much of the evening was a note-perfect melange of keys, organ, pedal steel and inspired lead guitar and nowhere was that more pronounced than on “Your Bright Baby Blues.” For a set that often times dipped too deep into melancholic mid-tempo fare, an uptempo number like “Rock Me On The Water,” was a welcome addition to the set and if the evening had any flaws it was that the more upbeat fare (“Somebody’s Baby”, etc) was left off the list.

Having already showcased some of Standing in The Breach in the first set, Browne rattled off three straight Breach songs, all of which were apex moments. The first of the three was the direct and immediate “If I Could Be Anywhere,” an ocean conservation rocker with shimmering verses and a tepid chorus. Inspired by a Galapagos TED Talk, the song at times felt too self-indulgent but definitely tackled some weighty subject matter.

On the heels of “Anywhere,” came the bristling blues cut “Which Side?,” a pointed political diatribe that was sinewy and serpentine and drew on Jeffrey Young’s haunting organ fills. Easily the best of the new songs was the gorgeous and ageless piano ballad “Standing In the Breach,” a song written after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. For some reason, Browne has always had an uncanny knack for tapping into the emotional well of humans from all walks of life and the tender and poignant verses of “Standing in the Breach” proved exactly that.

Having already honored two requests earlier in the night, Browne once again indulged another fan and performed a masterful rendition of Warren Zevon’s oft-covered “Carmelita.” With all the requests now behind him, Browne closed out the new material with “The Birds of St. Marks,” a song he introduced as “probably the oldest song I have.” Jangly, amiable and Byrdsian in every sense of the word, “St. Marks” is a reminder that even in his 60s, Browne can still craft a song stronger than just about anybody.

The set’s final four songs began with the timeless ballad “In the Shape of a Heart,” which received arguably the longest ovation of the night. From there, the band rattled off the bouncy and buoyant “Doctor My Eyes,” a defiant “The Pretender” and a very energetic “Running on Empty.” Next to “Shape of a Heart,” the strongest of the four was “Doctor My Eyes,” which had a vigor and vibrancy that never once felt like the song was 40-plus years old.

That very fact is what made the tepid version of “Take It Easy” during the encore so disappointing. Thankfully, a deeply resonant and melancholic “Our Lady of the Well” closed the night in fine form. Quick to give the band all the credit, Browne allowed each member a 40-second solo before pausing to thank the crowd and exiting the stage.

From the eight-year-old requesting “Yeah Yeah” to the octogenarian sitting with her 45-year-old daughter, there were few, if any, who left the theater disappointed. In the end, that’s about all you can ask for in a performer. Here’s to hoping Browne returns to Florida for the next album cycle.
Tags: jackson browne, orlando, live, concert, review
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Gill Landry - Pugh Theater, Orlando, FL - Feb. 17, 2015
02/20/15 at 05:56 AM by Gregory Robson

Touring in support of his new self-titled album (out March 3 on ATO Records), Old Crow Medicine Show multi-instrumentalist Gill Landry performed a sterling set of a dozen Americana gems at Orlando’s intimate Pugh Theater earlier this week. Opening the set with the ageless “Piety and Desire,” Landry commanded attention from the very first note. Quick to poke fun at himself and never one to be larger than the moment, Landry ushered in new material with the two-minute elegy “Funeral In My Heart,” an exquisite breakup ballad whose only shortcoming is its brevity.

That song as well as the ruminative “Emily,” both of which appear on the upcoming self-titled revealed a singer-songwriter completely in step with his talents and abilities. Never once did he oversing, never once did he push too hard, everything about his set was effortless, innate and well, quite refreshing. Arguably the strongest moments of the set were songs that were not his own. An unnamed Leo Kottke cover was deft, precise and without flaw, while Tom Rush’s “Casey Jones” would have done the folk legend quite proud. Landry is a gifted storyteller and nowhere was that more apparent than on the post-romance ballad “Just Like You.” Landry is on a string of dates with Americana titan Justin Townes Earle but more sets as strong as his set this past Tuesday and Landry might be the one destined for headliner status.
Tags: gill landry, old crow medicine show, justin townes earle, orlando
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Carbon Leaf - 1.23.15, The Social, Orlando, FL
01/25/15 at 12:18 PM by Gregory Robson

Ten years after the height of their success, Virginia’s Carbon Leaf are still releasing albums and consequently still touring the country. To their credit, the band is getting stronger with time. During a headlining set at Orlando’s The Social, frontman Barry Privett even alluded to such a thought. While joking with the crowd about re-releasing 2004’s Indian Summer he made a point to note, “Its a good thing if we continue to re-record all of our old albums, because we’ve gotten a lot better than we used to be.” For most musicians, such a brag would come off boastful or ostentatious but nothing about the band’s 90-minute was any of that sort. Quite the contrary in fact. From start to finish, Privett and his bandmates were grateful, humble and fully locked in. Choosing to open the set with “Life Less Ordinary,” easily their most well-known and commercially successful song was a bit of an odd start, but from there the set opened up nicely.

Divided into triads, the first third of the set was the band’s Americana fare and the immediate highlight was the heartland ballad “One Prairie Outpost,” which featured lilting slide guitar work from multi-instrumentalist Carter Gravatt. A four-part harmony opened up an inspired rendition of “Torn to Tattered,” one of the band’s oldest songs and surprisingly one of the night’s most effortless and confident moments. Quickly though the band left the heartland charm behind and segued into darker, guitar-driven material. Easily the best of the lot was the pulsing rocker “Lake of Silver Bells” and the night’s undeniable apex moment: a spine-tingling, near eight-minute version of the patriotic “The War Was in Color.” The set’s final third was preceded by two songs performed acoustic and in the round. Though the two songs lasted all of eight minutes, the near-perfect “Two Aging Truckers” was an apex moment and proved that as much as they might love being raucous, their strength is in songs as fragile and brilliant as “Two Aging Truckers.”

And then almost expectedly, the band performed four songs that illustrated the band’s now trademark penchant for Celtic fare. Beginning with “American Tale,” they roared through hip-shaking, beer-swigging favorites “She’s Gone,” “The Donnybrook Affair” and ultimately ending in “The Boxer.” For as much as the band might have enjoyed giving “The Boxer,” a denser, more guitar-driven vibe, the end result was awkward and clumsy and was one of a select few down moments of the set. Frontman Barry Privett’s frequent use of the penny whistle was also a joy but hearing it on searing blues-tinged cuts like “Desperation Song” and “Paloma” felt somewhat forced. All of those gripes were easily erased during the band’s encore, a nine-minute version of “Let Your Troubles Roll By” that was rousing, hopeful and undeniably joyous.

Whether Carbon Leaf continues to release albums and tour the country with the same frequency they have in the last two decades remains to be seen. It is for that very reason that Friday night’s pre-Rock Boat tour stop in Orlando was all the more special. While they are far removed from their glory years, they are actually as strong a touring entity as they have ever been.

Here’s to twenty more years of a life less ordinary.
Tags: carbon leaf, the social, orlando, americana
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Revisiting Stephen Hunley's The Other Side of Never
01/21/15 at 06:33 AM by Gregory Robson
Stephen Hunley's The Other Side of Never came out in October and yet this disc will not leave my speakers. Here's a review I wrote back in the fall but it never went live.

Sometime surprises come from unlikely places. Stephen Hunley is a veritable unknown from Knoxville, TN, who released one of 2014’s most engaging releases. The Other Side of Never is an amalgamation of blue-eyed soul, jazz, blues, gospel and naturally singer-songwriter fare. Armed with a burly and diverse vocal range, he coasts over each of these songs with effortlessness, charisma and aplomb.

The album opens awkwardly with the string-backed ballad “Oklahoma.” Seen as an entity all itself, “Oklahoma” is a delight but an an opening statement it is somewhat awkward. Of the dozen songs on The Other Side of Never, few if any, sound like “Oklahoma.” On the contrary, the title track is a frolicking bounce replete with breezy horns and serves as a better introduction to the sound that frames much of The Other Side of Never. “Come Back Home” is a soul-infused power ballad with a gospel touch while “Elizabeth” is playful and fun and builds on the efforts of the acoustic and winsome “Love You in the Dark” but goes much deeper. Few are better than the organ-drenched hymn “Something’s Wrong,” a 21st century take on Elvis’ famed “In the Ghetto.”

The back half of the disc roars with the brassy “Speakeasy,” and never stops from there. "I'm Not Who You Think I Am" is defiant and damn near perfect while "Pictures in Her Mind" is poignant and deeply affecting. From front to back, The Other Side of Never is a true delight. It is rare that an artist with so little fanfare can craft such an affecting album but that is exactly what Hunley has done. Citing a love of Otis Redding and Elton John, Hunley channels each of those on this absolutely absorbing and deft miracle of an album.
Tags: stephen hunley, nashville, gospel, blues, soul, americana, singer-songwriter
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Whitey Morgan: Live, Born and Raised From Flint - review
01/02/15 at 05:19 AM by Gregory Robson

If you like your country music brawny, boozy and bawdy, you’ll probably enjoy all 60 minutes of Whitey Morgan’s latest album Born, Raised and Live From Flint. From start to finish, Morgan makes no apologies for who he is. Whether he’s celebrating cheating, reveling in a cocaine habit or delighting in the wonders of alcohol. Much of the disc bleeds together and few songs stand out from the rest. Those that do are mostly due to a first-rate live band, including keys/organ player Mike Lynch and sensational pedal steel player Brett Robinson. Organ player Lynch is most felt on “Cheatin’ Again” and “Another Round.” Similarly, pedal steel player Robinson is most pronounced on “Turn Up the Bottle” and “I Ain’t Drunk.”

Truthfully, pedal steel player absolutely shines and is the real goldmine of Live From Flint. That’s not to take anything away from Morgan. HIs best songs are opener “Buick City” and the aforementioned “Cocaine Train,” a Johnny Paycheck cover. Not surprisingly, Morgan tackles a few covers, Johnny Cashs “Bad News,” a honky-tonk clunker of Springsteen’s iconic “I’m on Fire,” Hank Williams’ “Mind Your Own Business” and a sterling version of Dale Watson’s “Where Do You Want It?” And it is on “Where Do You Want It?” that Morgan absolutely charms from the opening notes. Granted, Live From Flint is uneven and uninspiring at times, but there’s to champion for an artist who sings country music much like it was sung in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And for that and that alone, Morgan should be rewarded.
Tags: whitey morgan, country, springsteen, johnny cash, hank williams, dale watson, flint
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All Hail Buffalo Killers
12/24/14 at 06:03 AM by Gregory Robson
Regardless of your feelings on the garage-blues duo The Black Keys, there is no denying the band’s influence in popular music over the last half-decade. Which is why when the duo provides a positive recommendation for a veritable unknown band, in this case Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers, one can’t help but take a flyer and dive right in. Heck, Black Keys vocalist Dan Auerbach is such a fan of Buffalo Killers he produced their sophomore album Let it Ride in 2012. The quartet has also caught the attention of Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, who invited the band to open for them in 2007.

On their latest six song EP, Fireball of Sulk, the quartet makes arguably their strongest statement to date. Ostensibly a guitar-driven grunge effort, Fireball of Sulk is a howling, ass-kicker of a record that absolutely deserves more listens. Produced by Jim Wirt (Incubus, Fiona Apple, Jack’s Mannequin) it is an album that hits in all the right places and never once yields to filler or placidity.

Whether it’s the stoner, late 90s grunge vibe of opener “Blankets on the Sun” or the hard-hitting and concussive “Weird One,” the disc opens with a roar and never once relents. Easily the apex of the album is "Marshmallow Mouth," which features a smoldering guitar solo and outro that would make the likes of Steve Vai quite proud. By the time, you get to final track “Something Else” it is readily apparent that when it comes to guitar-driven garage-blues Buffalo Killers are a band worthy of Auerbach's admiration.
Tags: black keys, jim wirt, buffalo killers, cincinnati, garage blues
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20 Years of Sister Hazel...on CD
12/14/14 at 05:10 PM by Gregory Robson
Twenty years ago, an unassuming Gainesville quintet splashed onto the national scene with “All For You,” a happy-go-lucky acoustic anthem that stayed atop the charts for years. Successive hits would follow but nothing could ever topple the prowess of “All For You.” Nearly two decades removed from the ubiquitous heyday of “All For You,” Sister Hazel are still releasing albums and still touring to hordes of adoring fans. If you question that notion, just a few listens to the band’s new album 20 Stages (Rock Ridge Music, Oct. 4, 2014) will put any doubt to rest.

Recorded at various concert venues throughout the years, the two-disc 20 Stages is an engaging look at a band still reveling in their opportunity to live out with their dream. Disc One opens with “Shame,” a guitar-driven slice of Southern rock that reiterates what a cohesive live unit Sister Hazel truly is. The song also serves as a reminder that Ryan Newell is a first-rate lead guitarist and much of the band’s strengths rest in his deft command of his guitar.

Proving that they are still tied to their roots, the quartet dives into the sun-splashed acoustic pop of “Starfish,” before segueing into the splendid “Mandolin Moon,” arguably one of the strongest efforts of Disc One. From there, the disc vacillates between memorable numbers and forgettable filler. Highlights include an acoustic version of minor hit “One Love,” the moving piano ballad “World Inside My Head” and the romantic valentine “Everything Else Disappears.”

Disc Two kickstarts with the uplifting and confident “Change Your Mind,” the terrific ballad “Concede” the glorious singalong “Champagne High” and the punchy “Swan Dive.” Easily one of the more memorable efforts of disc two is “This Kind of Love,” a Drew Copeland-led slow-dance that features the backing of the Wilmington (NC) Symphony.

All over 20 Stages, songs are sprinkled with banjos, mandolins, keyboards and even a sax, providing a layer of versatility that very much bucks the band’s acoustic rock categorization. Though the two-disc effort will probably not win over many, if any, new fans, there’s enough robust material here to satiate old fans, entice casual fans and satisfy anyone who enjoys hearing a band in a live concert setting. While 20 Stages is not the band’s first live effort and at times is far from their best, the winning moments are well worth revisiting. In the end, 20 Stages very much proves that 20 years into a career they stumbled into accidentally, Sister Hazel shows little signs of slowing down.
Tags: sister hazel, gainesville, 20 stages, live
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The Big Orlando - Dec. 7, 2014 - Orlando, FL
12/10/14 at 05:47 AM by Gregory Robson
Having always been a champion for under-the-radar talent, the forces that be placed me at The Big Orlando radio festival this past weekend. Headliners included Weezer and Fall Out Boy, but none of those names will be mentioned in said column.

No, this column is here to focus more on the lesser names who arguably deserve just as much press time as those big two.

Arkansas' Knox Hamilton performed a polished and self-assured set of eight bright indie-pop gems. Opening with the breezy singalong “Take a Walk,” the group planted a seed rather early that their set was going to advocate hip-shaking and beer-swilling and that’s a tone that never wavered throughout the duration of their set. Using dual vocalists the band coasted through their set. Whether it was the groove-based ballad “Barely Missed You” or the punchy “Right From the Start.” Easily the strongest song of their set was “Work It Out,” a song which catapulted the band from obscurity to #1 on Sirius XM’s AltNation. Though the band did lack charisma, they more than made up for it with their songs.

New York City’s Bear Hands offered up a dizzying cocktail of garage pop that was eye-opening for its proficiency and precision. With nary a flaw in the entire nine song set they made a pronounced statement and more than proved their worth. Cohesiveness as a functioning unit is ideally the end result for any touring band but what Bear Hands did in just 40 minutes was nothing short of stunning. Highlights from the Bear Hands set included art-pop opener “Peacekeeper,” profane ass-kicker “Bone Digger,” keys-tinged “Moment of Silence” and fast-rising single “Giants.”

Similarly, New York City’s Big Data dove headfirst into a hook-heavy dose of synth pop. Be it their novel take on Hall and Oates’ “Dangerous Eyes” or their Facebook diatribe “The Business of Emotion,” the set was a top-flight mix of technology and melody and vault them to the top as one of synth-pop’s strongest live bands. Word to the wise for young electro-pop bands out there: if you want to learn how to do it well, take notes from Big Data.

Kentucky's Sleeper Agent, who were one of Warped Tour 2014's many highlights, continued to further that argument with an absolutely frenetic and sweaty set of eight humdingers. The epicenter of Sleeper Agent is frontwoman Alex Kandel, who twirls about the stage like a whirling dervish and sings with a conviction as if these songs were her last will and testament. The sextet who have been on tour virtually nonstop for the better part of two years in support of their sophomore effort About Last Night, one of 2014’s most underrated pop albums.

Southern California’s Dirty Heads was the night’s biggest anomaly: a hip-hop-reggae hybrid effort at a mostly rock-driven music festival. But what they lacked in conformity they made up for with a set that was polished, whip-smart and worth the 50 minutes. Though at times the set drifted towards braggadocio and imitation, their winning moments (“Cabin By The Sea,” “Medusa” “Lay Me Down” and “My Sweet Summer”) more than made up for the set’s weaker moments.

Virginia’s J. Roddy Waltson and the Business made arguably the strongest statement of the entire night with a howling tour-de-force of seven Southern rock anthems. Anchored by searing guitar solos and Waltson’s Leon Russell-esque piano playing, the entire set was a marvel from start to finish. Scruffy opener “Sweat Shock” yielded to “Full Growing Man” which yielded to singles “Take It As it Comes” and “Don’t Break the Needle.” But alas, the band was not done just yet. Set closer “Heavy Bells” was a masterclass in what exactly a set closer should be. Like distant kin of My Morning Jacket or The Black Keys, the blues-tinged stomper was an absolute delight from a band more people should be talking about.

Performing in support of January’s ho-hum Mind Over Matter, California’s Young the Giant more than made up for that album’s mediocrity with a smart and snappy 50-minute set. Most of the set’s highlights were all songs from Mind Over Matter, proving that perhaps the songs were written more for the stage than studio. With the exception of both “Anagram” and “it’s About Time,” which were both clumsy and self-indulgent, the rest of the Mind Over Matter songs were first-rate. Whether it was the romantic ballad “Crystallized” or the nostalgia-laden “Teachers,” Young the Giant proved that they were ready for the limelight and then some. Though frontman Sameer Gadhia had a Jim Morrisson-esque complex at times, his far more humble bandmates did much of the heavy lifting for him anyways. In the end, a band this writer had written off as a lukewarm live band proved to be anything but and proved that despite its flirtations with pretentiousness the Mind Over Matter material is tailor-made for a big stage.

Though the turnout was low, one can only hope that The Big Orlando returns to The City Beautiful for 2015. Here’s to hoping.
Tags: bear hands, big data, knox hamilton, dirty heads, j. roddy walston, sleeper agent,
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In praise of Los Angeles' TeamMate
12/09/14 at 05:46 AM by Gregory Robson
Few pop bands have captured my attention quite like Los Angeles duo TeamMate. Comprised of two West Virginia transplants, the duo makes some of the hookiest songs you're likely to hear for months.

Their latest single "Until You Find Me" is an atmospheric jam of crashing drums, creaking synths and Scott Simons' reedy vocals. Vacillating somewhere close to Passion Pit and that ilk, "Until You Find Me" is just the latest in a long line of earworms from a duo that absolutely deserves widespread appeal.

"Goldmine," is a sun-drenched singalong that is as lush as it is lingering, whereas "Don't Count Me Out" is a surefire radio single that to this day has yet to see the circulation it deserves. Ditto for "Love is Love," a slinky paean to equal rights/

The band's progression as artists in just a matter of months is probably the biggest takeaway from TeamMate's slow-moving ascension to ubiquity. Last year's Sequel EP, which at the time was hooky and captivating sounds almost pale compared to the layered, atmospheric approach of "Until You Find Me," "Goldmine" and "Love is Love"

That kind of progression is no surprise however. Frontman Scott Simons is an in-demand songwriter/producer who has written songs for film and television and is an in-demand studio keys player. Ten years ago his power-pop quintet The Argument wee a consistent draw all across the eastern seaboard.

For now, TeamMate remains LA's best kept secret but having shared the stage with the likes of OneRepublic, Skylar Grey and Bleachers, one has to think their time in the limelight is only weeks away.
Tags: teammate, passion pit, the argument
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Book Review: Who Killed Mister Moonlight by David J. Haskins
11/29/14 at 12:43 PM by Gregory Robson
“There is something about a gig after everyone has gone. A palpable atmospheric charge that hangs in the thick air above all the detritus on the floor. The roadies start to haul out the cases, and that energy slowly dissipates, as the real hard work begins. That night it stayed a little longer and was tinged with blue.”

Let’s be honest: there is a dizzying array of musician biographies to choose from these days. Whether it’s Neil Young’s latest Special Deluxe, 2010’s Life by Keith Richards or Willie Nelson’s Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, there’s no shortage of rock biographies to comb through. Add another one to the lot: David J. Haskins’ masterful Who Killed Mister Moonlight?: Bauhaus, Black Magic and Benediction.

David Who, you might say?

For those unfamiliar Haskins, who performs under the name David J. was bassist for Bauhaus, the English post-punkers whose love of doom and gloom made them the world’s first gothic rock group. The band’s short five year run from 1978-1983 would eventually propel David J to American fame with Love and Rockets before reuniting as Bauhaus in 1998 and from 2005-2008. All of those details are documented in Who Killed Mister Moonlight, including the band’s humble beginnings in Northampton and the band’s formative years in and around the British club scene. For those who enjoy biographies such as that, they might read this book and be somewhat disappointed.

Oh sure, there’s plenty of those details in here, but in many ways, the book is a ruminative reflection on Haskins’ life and its many strange twists. A gifted writer who possesses both clarity and candor, Who Killed Mister Moonlight? moves swiftly and from the very first pages is wholly absorbing. Whether it is Haskins admission that seeing The Birthday Party live forced the band to work harder, that “Who Killed Mister Moonlight?” was written about John Lennon’s murder or his ambivalent passages about Bauhaus vocalist Peter Murphy’s repeated paranoid episodes, there’s something refreshing and honest about Haskins’ book.

Who Killed Mister Moonlight? goes beyond rock music biography as it delves deep into Haskins’ interest in black magic and the occult. In those passages, Haskins digs deeper and becomes more naked and revealing. Whether it is one of his adventures with William S. Burroughs, Alan Moore, Genesis P. Orridge or Rick Rubin, there is always something revealing, open and provocative at work in these vignettes. Whether he’s documenting the traumatic fire of 1996 that threatened to stall the making of the Love and Rockets album Sweet FA or his brief involvement with the Self-Realization Fellowship, Haskins has a way of tapping into memories that makes the book a pleasing page-turner.

If everything Haskins writes is this profound, one can only hope another book is released soon.
Tags: david j., bauhaus, memoir
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Amanda Kravat's AK
11/26/14 at 06:14 AM by Gregory Robson
Everyone loves an overcomer, an artist who fights tooth and nail for what they believe. New York City-based singer-songwriter Amanda Kravat is such an artist. Her four song EP AK is a DIY effort that vacillates between late 90s alt-rock (think Alanis Morrisette) and plaintive piano balladry (think Carole King). Written as a result to a series of panic attacks she was suffering, AK is a deeply personal and powerful work that charms and delights.

The EP opens with “Not Myself Today,” an angsty almost yelpy effort that suffers from being overly ambitious. Sonically the song is all over the place and is too cluttered for its own good. It is plainly clear to hear what Kravat is trying to achieve. Unfortunately the song suffers from shoddy production and just never reaches the song’s lofty goals. On the contrary, the placid piano ballad “I Could Tell You I Don’t Love You” is heartfelt and tender and proves Kravat’s limitless potential. Penultimate effort “Would’t Be This” has a definitive Sheryl Crow vibe and meanders along through a mid-tempo melancholy that has a pronounced sense of gravity.

The EP closes with “Somebody Else is Driving,” a big-hearted slice of alt folk-rock with a towering chorus and the most promise of any of AK’s songs. It is here and on “Not Myself Today” that AK resonates, smolders and simmers. Whether AK launches Kravat out of the ever-crowded Manhattan singer-songwriter scene remains to be seen. For now, it’s a welcome tonic to the onset of winter.
Tags: amanda kravat
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