One of the better records to come across this writer’s desk the past few weeks is For Life, the debut LP from California synth-pop quartet Phases. Ostensibly a supergroup, Phases comprises Alex Greenwald (Phantom Planet), Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley, Conor Oberst), singer-songwriter Michael Runion and Z Berg (The Like).
Seen last week at Orlando’s House of Blues their six song set was magnetic, polished and deeply entertaining. Vocalist Berg is a natural frontwoman and her ability to play off her bandmates allows the songs to glide and swerve in a way they can’t on record. Highlights from the set included the doe-eyed and supple “Spark,” the sugary and sunny “Betty Blue” and the buoyant “Cooler.” The latter two have a radiance that seems ripe for terrestrial radio and ample TV placement. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but if their brief set in Orlando last week was any indication, Phases are destined for big things in 2016 and beyond.
Headlining last week’s show was Canadian chanteuse Lights whose 16-song set was in a word: brilliant. Featuring stadium-quality lighting effects and a set that was both intimate and electric, she more than proved she’s far better than the synthetic and sometimes shallow nature of her studio albums. Whether it was the kinesis of 2011 single “Toes” or the titanic heights of “Running With The Boys,” Lights left an indelible mark on the evening. Easily the high point of the set was the three-song acoustic set, which gave the evening both restraint and accessibility. Songs like “Meteorites,” “Peace Sign” and “Second-Go” had an emotional depth and vulnerability that cannot be felt on her albums. In many ways, that same sense of accessibility carried over into the swirly and cylindrical “Timing is Everything” and the full-bodied, stadium-ready “The Last Thing on Your Mind.”
Lights’ set proved to be a co-bill with California collective The Mowgli’s but little about their set proved they are ready for primetime. From start to finish, their 16-song set was cluttered, hurried and unfocused. Never once did the band try a cover, nor a ballad, nor a chance to let vocalist Katie Jayne Earl take center stage. Whereas Lights’ set was polished, pristine and bound for bigger stages, The Mowgli’s proved they have lots more left to do. Here’s hoping exactly that happens. For now, they’re a derivative throwaway that isn’t worth the time or money. Lights and Phases on the other hand absolutely are. So here’s to the both of them for knowing exactly how to make a concert night truly memorable.
Those of you looking for a new bluegrass band to enjoy should look no further than Nashville’s ChessBoxer. The trio is currently serving as Warren Haynes’ backing band on his Ashes & Dust Tour, as well as the evening’s opener. Seen this past weekend at Orlando’s Plaza Live, the band was virtuosic, revelatory and utterly awe-inspiring.
Though it’s never fun to set one musician apart from the others, the band’s anchor is easily fiddle player Ross Holmes. Under his dutiful playing, the band’s set moved from lilting elegies to rousing, Appalachian knee-slappers. Of the six songs played, half of them were instrumentals but all three instrumentals were meticulous in their arrangements, none more so than lead single “Calon Lan,” a Celtic-inspired reel that would make the likes of Bill Monroe quite proud.
Crediting just Holmes though for the band’s success would do ChessBoxer quite a disservice. Banjo player Matt Menefee’s playing went from muted and restrained to vibrant and vernal while upright bass player Royal Masat went from thumping and thunderous to woozy and sweetly affecting. All in all, the 30-minute set was a master class in old-school bluegrass. As ageless as ever, the band is a strong entrant into the bluegrass and American arenas. The band’s debut EP Apollo was produced by Charlie Peacock and a full length is due in early 2016. Though prognosticating is never easy, one has to think this band has a few IBMA Awards in their future.
The always controversial Kid Rock brought his First Kiss: Cheap Date tour to West Palm Beach's Coral Sky Amphitheater this past week. Performing a set that focused mostly on his new material, the 90-minute performance was controlled, mild-mannered and most importantly, humble. Now 44 and a grandfather, Kid Rock has seemed to settle himself into the pocket. His last two albums have veered heavily towards country and Southern rock and the profanity-laced material seem few and far between. Though he did dive into much of Devil Without a Cause and Cocky, few of those songs were played from start to finish.
In fact, a large portion of the set was compiled of Kid Rock singing a few bars of much of his material before segueing into something else. Arguably the set's most inspired moment came early in the set during the rafter-shaking "You Never Met a Mother$#%@!$% Quite Like Me," which found the Detroit native vaulting into the air on more than one occasion. The youthful exuberance was something that stayed tangible for much of the set. But never once did he push that exuberance farther than he should have. That sense of restraint is what helped make the set that much more enjoyable.
After the rumbling roots-rock effort "Johnny Cash," Rock and band zipped through seven songs in about sixteen minutes. At various intervals, Rock would stop to schmooze, mostly enticing the crowd. The set slowed down again on the breezy "All Summer Long," which fed into a near-perfect rendition of "Picture." In the place of Sheryl Crow was strong-lunged vocalist Jessica Cowan-Wagner, More than a suitable replacement, Cowan-Wagner is just one of many in Rock's 11-person backing band Twisted Brown Trucker. Though the lineup has changed through the years, this 2015 version might be the strongest incarnation yet. Saxophonist David McMurray contributed an inspired and lilting sax solo in the latter stages of "Picture," giving the song a certain panache not heard on the ubiquitous radio version.
Turntablist/programmer Paradime even gave up his perch during an instrumental jam inspired that fed out of "Kid Rock aka DJ Bobby Shazam." That moment of improvisation found Rock behind the drums for a sizzling take on Ted Nugent's inspired "Cat Scratch Fever."
Rock behind the drums was just one of four instruments played by Rock during the 90 minutes. Of the four none was more surprising than the extended piano intro that preceded "Born Free." Said song was also preceded by a three-minute clip that paid homage to America's blue-collar community, military both past and present as well as first responders. In true Kid Rock fashion, the video ended with the line, "And always remember that we live in the greatest mother$@%! country in the world," a sentiment that sent the crowd into a tizzy. The near eight-minute version of "Born Free" was an appropriate pinnacle for a night that had many winning moments.
And yet none could match the sheer ferocity and reckless abandon that encapsulated the "Bawitdaba" encore. Guitarists Marlon Young and Jason Krause both took turns proving their mettle while Rock bounced across the stage as if this night was the last concert of his life. The same youthful vigor from "You Never Met a Mother$!%$@ Quite Like Me" was once again on display.
Opening the show was Georgia bluegrass quintet Packway Handle Band and legendary hard-rockers Foreigner. Packway Handle performed a masterful set of six Appalachian-tinged charmers. Dripping with harmonies, hook-heavy choruses and first-rate picking, the group never let the amphitheater swallow them whole. In fact, just the opposite happened. The upright bass, fiddle and banjo flooded the South Florida night with a warmness that needed to heard to be fully understood.
That same sense of transcendence was repeated in the 60-minute set by hard-rockers Foreigner. With Mick Jones on stage for the entire set, the band tore through some of their most ubiquitous hits. Opening with "Double Vision" they barreled through. An inspired sax solo on "Urgent" and numerous snarling leads from Jones helped pave the way for what quickly became a memorable night. And yet as much credit as Jones deserves, the true hero of the Foreigner set is frontman Kelly Hansen. Now ten years into fronting Foreigner, he seems like a natural fit, one that has taken his role seriously and never once taken it for granted. A consummate entertainer, he was incessantly barking at the crowd, imploring them to shake their coiled reserve and give in to the many charms of Foreigner. Nowhere was that more present than on a rousing, 16-minute performance of the seminal "Juke Box Hero" and the near 10-minute "Hot Blooded." Now nearing their 40th year as a band, Foreigner continues to electrify crowds and their thunderous response from the Coral Sky crowd solidified that point emphatically.
Perhaps in twenty years time, Kid Rock will be just as lucky.
Singer-songwriter Jon McLaughlin is one of the nation’s most unrecognized talents. Despite having an Oscar-nomination in his back pocket, the mainstream has always eluded the Nashville-based piano-popper. Perhaps his latest single will change things. “Before You” is a first-rate ballad with emotion, affection and enough open-hearted charisma to charm pretty much anyone. Though the song borders on syrupy, it has the same kind of magnetism that has taken folks like Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles and Gavin DeGraw to the top of the charts. Here’s hoping “Before You” is the song to take McLaughlin to the highest of heights. He more than deserves it.
In only six years, Utah quartet Neon Trees have made quite an impression on the modern pop landscape. Three titanic singles, a kinetic live set and hordes of fans have kept the band in constant motion, touring incessantly from year to year. Their latest tour, An Intimate Night Out With Neon Trees, kicked off two weeks ago with support from Utah’s Fictionist and Nashville’s Coin. Seen recently at downtown Orlando’s Beacham Theatre, the band was in fine form.
Opening with the unreleased gem “Songs I Can’t Listen To,” the quartet set the stage from the very first seconds: this night was going to be loud, energetic and full of flair. Through fourteen songs, Tyler Glenn and Co. absolutely owned the stage and made their mark as one of the nation’s more compelling live acts. Roaming around the stage with reckless abandon, one minute emulating a whirling dervish, the next a Radio City Rockette, Tyler Glenn was half-Bowie, half-ballerina and his band followed him every step of the way. “Sins of My Youth” was punchy, immediate and downright invigorating, while “In The Next Room” was howling, histrionic and enveloping.
For reasons unknown and undiscussed, Glenn then halted the show and asked his band to follow him to the back of the stage. The unusual event did little to disturb the set but did remind all in attendance (including the band) who exactly was in charge of the night. Not long after the aforementioned set break, Utah’s gnarliest Mormons dove headfirst into their now ubiquitous single “Animal,” and it was every bit as bombastic and brilliant as one would expect. Though The Beacham was only three-quarters fill they did everything they could to fill the room with volume, glee and squeals. Fresh on the heels of “Animal,” Glenn and Co. made one of their strongest statements of the night with a controlled, serpentine performance of “Moving in the Dark.” The heights of the song were not lost on Glenn as he collapsed onto the stage and remained there until the song finished.
The set’s finest moment was the reaching, stadium-sized cut “Still Young,” which found Glenn’s vocals at their peak and the band in similar form. Always quick to thank the crowd, he took a few minutes towards the latter stages of the set to profusely thank the crowd for coming out to the show and more importantly for singing along to the album tracks just as energetically as the radio singles. That moment of candor dovetailed immediately into “First Things First,” a beat-driven mission statement that in many ways serves as Glenn’s personal anthem. For all the many charms of Neon Trees (and there are many) few are as indelible as Glenn’s devotion to being an entertainer. Never once during the 80-minute set did he appear placid, bored or disinterested. That kind of resolve is exactly why the band continues to garner new fans every day.
Preceding Neon Trees was Nashville quartet Coin. Their 40-minute set of seven synth-drenched pop cuts was as compelling as the headliner. From start to finish, the band was polished, focused and fully locked in. Performing with the kind of conviction one usually sees at industry showcases, they were as impressive a live act as this writer has seen all year. From the very onset, it was evident that the band is destined for larger stages and has venues like Wembley Stadium in their crosshairs. And yet for all the awe-inspiring moments, it could be argued the band might have taken themselves too seriously. Very little about the set seemed relaxed, loose or inviting. In fact, it could be argued the band was smug, cocky and without charm.
On the contrary, Utah’s Fictionist was warm, endearing and instantly likable. Not afraid to poke fun at themselves, the quartet displayed a keen sense of self-awareness, humility and most importantly, technical precision. Anchored by an air-tight rhythm section, their eclectic set vacillated between fuzzy garage-pop and lush dream-pop. Vocalist/bassist Stuart Maxfield and vocalist/guitarist Robbie Connolly both took turns at the mic over the course of six songs. Highlights from the set included the vibey “Not Over You” and the hook-heavy “Free Spirit.” By the time they walked off the stage, there was an immediate need to want to hear more. In the end, isn’t that why we attend concerts in the first place?
Ever since Matchbox Twenty’s major label debut Yourself or Someone Like You, I’ve always been a fan of Rob Thomas and that ubiquitous voice. Through the course of two solo albums and four Matchbox albums, he’s managed to hold my attention.
“Trust You” is the lead single from his latest album The Great Unknown and it is an absolute train wreck. There is little redeeming value and even less to keep me listening. I actually turned it off hallway through. Some may say its catchy or hooky and that Thomas’ inimitable voice is still very much the focus, but let’s call a spade a spade. The song is a hulking piece of crap.
“Hold On Forever,” another single is a stronger return to form but is not exactly all that fantastic. Dare to say, this album might be one giant bonfire of wasted talent.
Anyone else find these songs absolutely cringeworthy? Is it just me?
Roughly eight months ago, my shopping life changed forever. A Facebook ad introduced me to Chicago male outfitters Trunk Club. Since that day, my shopping life has never been the same. This online clothing retailer is everything you need to look good while not spending a fortune doing so. Customers are asked to fill out a profile, including shirt, pant and shoe measurements as well as the style and color of clothes you prefer. From there, Trunk Club partners you with a stylist. The stylist will periodically put together a trunk for you and ask you to review their suggestions.
You choose what you want sent to you and then Trunk Club mails you the clothes. You'll receive an order in less than five business days and anything you don't like, you can send back, no questions asked. Perhaps most important, Trunk Club is able to work with your budget and should you not like something your stylist selects, just deselect it and choose only what you prefer.
To date, I've already ordered four trunks (one for fall, one for winter, one for spring and one for summer) and have already received numerous compliments on the quality of my clothes and how sharp I look. In short, I cannot endorse Trunk Club enough. Should you choose to embark on this sartorial adventure, be sure to ask for for stylist Jenna Gallo. She's as good as they come and she will not steer you wrong.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.