Sunday, August 17, 2014

Seela Misra

Saturday night Amy and I headed over to catch Seela Misra and her band at Strange Brew.  I'd seen Seela perform before, although previously it had been in a solo, singer-songwriter, song swapping format with Little Brave and Daniel Thomas Phipps.
This time she had a formidable band backing her.  Her husband, John Greene, played drums, Chris Vestre played guitar, and I think the bass player was named Tom Pearson.  A talented group of singers called The Candy Hearts sang backing vocals.  Curtis McMurtry, an up-and-coming performer in his own right, joined them on stage as a guest for a few songs.  I've seen Curtis previously at the Saxon Pub, and he's really developed into a talented and interesting performer. (And yup- he's the son of James McMurtry and the grandson of Larry, for those who are wondering.)

(Seela with her band and The Candy Hearts)

Seela and her band played a mix of soulful, folkish pop, slower ballads, and jazz style rock-pop.

The band was fun to listen to.  Vestre and Greene are both very talented.  Vestre is a sort of subdued guitar player with a mellow sound, but thrust into the spotlight during moments demanding solos, his abilities shine through with unusual, melodic parts that tie the songs together rather than simply seeking to show off.  The rest of the time he mostly lends his skills by spicing things up with licks and guitar lines that weave themselves through the main melodies of the songs.
I've heard John Greene play before, and I have a lot of respect for him as a drummer.  Like Vestre, he's sort of a subtle musician- very talented, but content to lay back and simply support a song.  He occasionally shows off his substantial drumming skills by way of fills and flourishes that pass by like snatches of interesting conversations overheard on a crowded street.  Greene utilizes his kit in unusual ways- drumming with his hands, employing shakers and tambourines, and switching between mallets, sticks, and rods- but his techniques all seem to support and add to the songs, building upon the sounds and melodies without ever distracting from them.
Pearson's bass parts were fluid and interesting.  They lent a solid foundation to the songs, while still flowing and moving and adding a little intrigue and color to the music. 

(Seela and her band are joined by Curtis McMurtry
on banjo)

Seela, of course, is great.  She's got a powerful, soulful voice, and she has a range and style that easily fits everything from folk to pop to jazz.  The Candy Hearts added a layer of harmony that really filled out the sound of the band and bolstered Seela's talents without overpowering her sound.  Personally, I think the jazzier songs do the best job of showcasing Seela's skills as a singer, but her pop and folk songs are also excellent, displaying enough simplicity to keep them toe tapping and catchy (or, on the slower ones, mournful and heartbreaking), while containing enough complexity to keep them interesting.  Her lyrics are poetic and intriguing, the kind of lines that make you know what she means even if you don't always understand exactly, in a literal sense, what she's referring to.  Her songs have catchy grooves, but they're not entirely simple.  They have harmonies, and sometimes rhythmic shifts, that keep your attention.  Good stuff.

Seela has been played with a lot of different notable Austin musicians over the years, and seeing her perform on Saturday reinforced the notion that she deserves her place at the table as one of the more well respected Austin musicians of her generation.  Hopefully her star will continue to shine brighter and brighter in the Austin music scene as time goes on.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Austin Civic Orchestra Revisits the '70s

On Friday night Amy and I went to see the Austin Civic Orchestra.  We've been to a number of shows now that have been put on by the ACO.  I have a friend from work, Laura, who plays clarinet in the orchestra, so she's the one who originally told me about it and got us to come out.
We've been to several of their shows now, and we've enjoyed them all.  This is our second annual June ACO concert at Zilker.
The June concert usually features popular music, admission is free, and it's open to the public.
This year's theme was "That '70s Show".  The music included the Star Wars theme, a medley from Jesus Christ Superstar, "Pinball Wizard" by The Who, an Abba medley from Mama Mia, "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas, a Led Zeppelin medley, and some other 70's related stuff. 

(the Austin Civic Orchestra broke out their tie dye for
"That 70's Show")
The Austin Civic Orchestra performances are pretty good.  The concert in the park has its own, unique, laid back feel.  People are stretched out on the lawn in camping chairs and on blankets.  They bring their kids and their dogs and drink wine and eat food. 
This being the second year that I've heard the orchestra play at the Zilker Hillside Theater, it occurred to me that Austin might really benefit from having a permanent band or orchestra shell of some type.  The orchestra sounded good, but the Hillside Theater does not have great acoustics.  It's got a bit of a stage with some scaffolding for lighting, but it's basically just an open area.  Therefore, the sound of the orchestra sort of travels in every direction, and the volume of the orchestra is actually fairly low when you're sitting out on the hillside trying to have a listen.  You can hear the music, obviously, but you lose a lot of clarity and nuance.  It might be nice to have a permanent outdoor venue that was designed with acoustics in mind.  We are, supposedly, the "Live Music Capital of the World", so and having a public structure that helps bounce sound out toward an audience might help underscore the city's commitment to live musical performance.  Plus, people sitting on the hill would like to be able to hear a little better.
But the orchestra's performance was good.  The musicians in the ACO are, obviously, not getting paid, but they're talented folks who perform well together as a group.  There were a few little moments when the orchestra seemed a little off, mostly in terms of timing, when one section wasn't perfectly synced up with another.  I'm guessing that the acoustic issues may not have been limited to the audience.  Spread out up on an outdoor stage in the open air, the musicians probably had a little difficulty hearing one another.  But the music was generally really good, and it was a fun experience.

The weather was nice.  Everyone seemed to really be enjoying themselves.  The kids in the audience were dancing to the music, and I was impressed to see some of them pull out plastic lightsabers and launch into battle when the Star Wars theme began.

(when you're a Jedi padawan, it's hard to resist the urge to practice your
lightsaber skills during the Star Wars theme)

So, I recommend the Austin Civic Orchestra.  Their performances throughout the rest of the year tend to consist of more classical music (as opposed to the popular program that they put together for this performance), but Amy and I have enjoyed ourselves each of the times that we've seen them.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Matt the Electrician with A.J. Roach and Nuala Kennedy

Hey there! Amy and I went to see Matt the Electrician last night with his guest stars, A.J. Roach and Nuala Kennedy.

As usual at Strange Brew, it was a good show.  Matt Sever's music conveys an interesting combination of vulnerability, strength, curiosity, wit, melancholy, and hope.  His voice is strong, but nuanced.  Emotionally, his music somehow manages to contain themes about broken relationships and sad situations, while simultaneously conveying a sort of calm, "c'est la vie" sort of attitude.  His tunes remain a little bit whimsical and hopeful, even when the subject matter isn't really upbeat.
(Matt the Electrician, Nuala Kennedy, and A.J. Roach- with Fred the bass player) 
I like his music.  He played "It's a Beacon It's a Bell", and it made me want to immediately go listen to it again.  I've always liked that song in a casual way, but hearing him play it live at the show really made me appreciate it on a new level.
Sever's also a really good folk guitarist.  He's great with fingerpicking and rolls and hammer-ons, and he gets a great sound from his acoustic guitar (I'm not sure what's going on, but I noticed that he has two different chords coming out of the same guitar, so I guess he's got two distinct pickups in there).  Really good timbre to the sound.

If I had any complaint at all about Matt's part of the show, it might be that he was a little heavy on the banter between songs.  He seems like a nice guy, and he's pretty funny, but there was enough talking at different points that I started to get impatient about wanting to hear more music.  He also made a sort of mild complaint about the fact that Tony Hawk was kicking off the X-Games on a half pipe somewhere across town during the set, and he sort of wished he was there.  Not terrible, but kinda weird to hear a performer tell you that they have somewhere that they'd rather be when you're there to hear their music.  He gets honesty points, I guess?

(Matt y Nuala)
A.J. Roach was a talented guy.  Nuala Kennedy is his fiance, and I guess they've been living over in Scotland for a while.
They played a number of songs together.  They ranged from very good to sort of middle of the road for me.  In truth, I liked Nuala Kennedy's voice and her flute playing a little better than I liked A.J.'s singing or guitars.  Her voice had a lilting, mournful quality to it, but very pretty.  She also skillfully played a sort of Scottish flute, and it added a whole different, interesting dimension to the songs where it appeared.  Some of her flute melodies occupied the space where I'm used to hearing guitar solos, and the flute was a welcome change.  It had an interesting tone, and it sort of altered the feel of certain songs.  Very cool.
A.J. Roach was a capable singer, and he had written some good songs, but his voice seemed heavily affected.  He tended to change accents and singing styles from one song to the next, and he was sort of quick to throw in vibrato and other flourishes.  His technique wasn't all bad and the guy was in tune, but in the sort of intimate singer-songwriter environment of Strange Brew, the affect seemed a little over-the-top and artificial.
The songs were evened out, though, by the bass, the flute, by Kennedy's backing vocals, and by Roach's capable work on guitar.
Between Kennedy and Roach, they had a few songs that I really liked ("Barrio Moon" comes to mind), but I just wasn't a huge fan of Roach's voice. 

Overall, though, a pretty good show.  Matt the Electrician is planning on hosting upcoming Strange Brew shows in future weeks with other performers, including Beaver Nelson, so I might have to go check some of them out.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lisa Tingle

So On Friday night, April 16th, I rode my bike over to Strange Brew to check out some music.  I know that a lot of the reviews on this blog have been coming from Strange Brew, but what can I say?  It's really close to my house, it has great sound (some of the best live sound engineering of any venue in Austin, in my opinion), and it has reasonable prices on a pretty decent beer selection.  I can also ride my bike there, which is really cool.  It's great to have a nice place to see music in the neighborhood.
Anyway, I didn't really know who I was going to see, but it was Friday night at Strange Brew, so I figured there was a pretty good chance that there would be a good show.  As it turned out, I was right.
The act that night was Lisa Tingle and her extremely capable band.  I'd seen Tingle's name pop up in various articles and blurbs about the Austin music scene over the years, so I knew she had some respect on the local music scene, but I didn't know much about her.
I went into the listening room, got in line to buy a beer, and realized I was waiting in line behind Malford Milligan.  It's probably a good sign when you don't know a lot about an artist, but Malford Milligan is spending his Friday night to come out and hear her sing.
So I got a beer, grabbed a seat, and looked Tingle up on my iPhone.  Apparently she's picked up prizes for Best Female Vocalist of the Year, Musician of the Year, and Album of the Year over the last decade at the Austin Music Awards.

Her set was really good.  Her music was sort of funky, bluesy, rock.  It made you want to dance, or at least tap your feet, but it didn't blast out the audience in the little room at Strange Brew.  Tingle has a voice which is, by turns, powerful, soulful, and sometimes delicate.  She sings with passion, unapologetically putting herself into her songs.  You really get the sense that she loves to perform.
Her band was great.  She had Dave Sebree playing guitar for her.  I really enjoyed his style.  He's an extremely talented guitarist in a technical sense, but he didn't just try to constantly overhwelm the audience with flurries of rapid fire notes.  Instead, he played rich, textured melodies and solos.  At times his style reminded me of Andy Summers, employing lush, rhythmic chords and arpeggios as opposed to the guitar pyrotechnics that you get with a lot of rock and blues guitar players.
Yoggie Musgrove played bass.  I've seen Yoggie play before with The Apostles of Manchaca and possibly another band or two, and as usual, he was good.  He just sits back there and lays down a solid bass groove that cements the songs together while keeping them moving.  Every once in a while he'll throw in a little run or lick just to remind people that he's got some serious chops, but most of the time he's more subtle.  Not boring, but subtle.
I don't know how to spell the name of her drummer.  It was pronounced something along the line of Justin Heights(?).  He was good!  He played some interesting parts without making the songs sound cluttered with superfluous drum trickery.  But he was a good drummer.  I hope he pops up again in some other local bands.  Ms. Tingle said he was new to the Austin scene.

So it was a really good show!  This town never fails to amaze me when it comes to music.  Lisa tingle is a pretty amazing talent, and I happened to just stumble upon her show by randomly biking over to Strange Brew on a Friday night.
Love that venue.
Long live South Austin music.  Long live Strange Brew.

Ray Bonneville CD Release Party

On Saturday I went to see Ray Bonneville with Amy and Ryan and Jamie.  Bonneville has a new album out called Easy Gone.  It's really good, and Bonneville tends to be away from Austin and on the road a lot, so I was determined to see him perform live at this Strange Brew show.  I posted about the show on Facebook, and some longtime family friends showed up (Tom, Marlene, Judy, and Don) to enjoy it with us.  It was great to see them!

I've posted about Ray Bonneville before, but I think it bears repeating that in my opinion he's one of the best acts in Austin right now.  I don't say this lightly.  I know there are some really exceptional songwriters and performers in this town.
Bonneville hits the trifecta, though.  He's a really good guitar player, a captivating singer, and a great songwriter.
His guitar playing, typically accompanied by rhythmic foot tapping amplified through an electric footboard, is unusual and really interesting.  It sort of reminds me of an old blues style, strumming and plucking with the the right thumb while fingerpicking and rolling the other notes.  He employs this technique while playing all kinds of different styles of music, though.  He hammers his left hand fingers on and off and bends strings.  He frequently makes his guitar fill more space than you would expect out of a single instrument with minimal effects.
His voice is sort of low- sometimes gravelly and sometimes smooth.  On the warmer songs it can sound comforting and soothing.  On the darker songs it can convey a sort of menace and threat.  And sometimes it just sounds world weary, tired, and a little mournful.  Bonneville is good at that sort of thing.
And I really like his songwriting.  I've seen quite a few songwriters over the last couple of years, and many of them these days seem to feel bound to writing about only their own, direct, personal experiences.  I guess this is meant to legitimize their music, granting it a sense of sincerity and authenticity.  Just as often, though, it sort of ends up making me feel like the performer might be the sort of person who's just a little overly dramatic.  More importantly, I feel that narrowing the songwriter's perspective to strictly personal subject matter limits the available topics of the songs and narrows the worldview of the artist.  I don't need to hear a million songs about the romantic break ups of various musicians or their struggles with their personal demons (usually drugs or alcohol).  Sometimes it's more interesting to hear about an artist's take on larger, or at least different, events that are going on in the world.
Bonneville is good at that.  He's written songs about murderers and ne'er-do-wells, about New Orleans and its struggle with recovery, about love gone horribly wrong, and about varous people just struggling to get through hard times.  I like the fact that Bonneville is willing to compose stories and write songs that reflect his personal perspective without limiting his subject matter to himself.

Ray Bonneville was joined by Gurf Morlix on bass and Richie Lawrence on keyboard.  They were both really good.  Richie Lawrence played a sort of Wurlitzer piano, and he had some really cool piano parts and solos.  Such a cool instrument, and Lawrence played it very well.  Gurf Morlix did a solid job of holding down the bass lines, and added some nice backing vocals that lent some songs a sort of haunted, country vibe.

It was a really good show.  Whenever I hear Bonneville I'm always surprised that he's not playing at ACL Live or other much larger venues.  It's sort of selfish on my part, but, of course, part of is sort of glad.  I mean, I want success for the guy, but it's really cool to hear someone with so much obvious talent play to a smaller venue.  I hope he makes it really big, but maybe not until I get to hear him in these smaller clubs a couple more times... 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Patricia Vonne

Last Saturday night I went to see Patricia Vonne with Amy over at Strange Brew.  Vonne is from San Antonio, and I still tend to associate her with that city, although she's recently been doing an awful lot of performing (and might even be living) here in Austin.
Patricia Vonne has been on the scene for a while now.  Her newest album, Rattle My Cage, was her fifth full length album, and she cites her music career as beginning while she was living in New York sometime between 1990 and 2000.
Her songs have sort of a traditional sound, but vary across a number of styles, including some barroom rock and folk, as well as some Spanish ballads and folk songs.
It's probably no coincidence that her performances often remind me of the four years that I spent in San Antonio during college.  As with many aspects of San Antonio's culture, Vonne seems to easily blend mainstream American pop culture with Mexican and Latin artistic styles.  She effortlessly switches between classic American rock and Mexican/Spanish tunes that contain elements of flamenco, folk, and mariachi.    
Vonne's stage presence is charming and warm.  She dances, sings, and plays the castanets with the energy and confidence of someone who relishes the opportunity to entertain. 
The lyrics to her songs (at least the ones in English that I can understand) are pretty straightforward.  She doesn't hide mean behind layers of cryptic symbolism or overwrought metaphor.  She's a poet, but she typically wears her heart on her shirtsleeve, pouring herself into her music.
It's kind of refreshing to watch someone who's putting some personal emotion into their music, but who also seems to understand that ultimately, for the audience, the music is mostly about entertainment, regardless of how personal the subject might be for the artist.  Vonne might be there to share a bit of herself, but first and foremost, she's there to put on a show.  She's not afraid to let you know that she wants to win you over.  She works hard at it.
I'm a fan.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

SXSW 2014

Okay, so I went to SXSW this year.  I didn't have a wristband or a badge or anything, but I went to some shows to see some bands and drink a beer or two with my friends.  I had a lot of fun.  For the most part, we had nice weather and the folks were friendly and having a good time.
I saw a number of bands, and I think that every single act that I saw was new to me.  Most of them I had never heard at all, either recorded or live.
I saw a bunch of different acts, but, in keeping with the spirit of this blog, I'll just sort of highlight the ones here that were actually from the Austin area.

(The Rocketboys)
I started out on Wednesday afternoon seeing a band called The Rocketboys at Javelina Bar over on Rainey Street.  The Rocketboys were pretty good.  A friend of mine, Josh, was friends with some of the guys since college, so he turned me on to their show.  We wandered around for most of the afternoon listening to music.  The Rocketboys played what I would describe as a sort of very listenable power pop.  Their music had lots of layering and effects.  It was very accessible, had a quick enough tempo to keep your foot tapping, and seemed pretty tight.  The Rocketboys were pretty good.

Later on Wednesday I saw The Loblolly Boy and Good Field at Up Collective on Cesar Chavez. 

In fairness, I only saw part of The Loblolly Boy.  Apparently normally they have more members, but on Wednesday they were playing as a sort of singer-songwriter two piece. An acoustic guitar and two singers, a man and a woman.  They had nice melodies and good voices.  They were pretty mellow,and I only caught about three songs, but I liked what I heard.

(Good Field)
Good Field came next.  My friend, Josh, was also friends with guys in this band, and I met Dan, their guitar player and hung out with him a bit before the show.  Good Field is also from Austin, and I guess I would describe their music as sort of pop/alternative.  Their lead singer had a good voice, their music was easy to listen to, and they had pleasant melodies.

In the end, I guess I felt like both Rocket Boys and Good Field were pretty good bands, each one easy to listen to, but from the limited amount that I heard, they didn't really stand out a whole lot.  I feel kind of weird being a little critical of bands where I'm sort of a friend of a friend of the members, but I'm writing a music blog here.  Also, this is only my opinion, and it's not as if I've never gotten any criticism of my own band from friends and family.  You gotta have a bit of a thick skin if you wanna make music.
Neither band was bad!  It's just that when you're seeing shows at SXSW, you're typically seeing a lot of music in a week.  If a band is just pretty good, but sounds a whole lot like a bunch of other pop bands without anything especially distinctive about it to make it stand out, you sort of realize that the band has a pretty good chance of getting lost amongst the huge number of other bands that are out there.  Of course, I'd never heard either band before, and I was listening to both The Rocket Boys and Good Field in outdoor venues where the acoustics weren't perfect.  I couldn't really make out many lyrics, so maybe that was part of the problem.  Each band, though, seemed to be heavily invested in accessible melodies, guitar and keyboard effects, and mildly catchy tunes.  In short, both bands seemed to be focused on remaining tasteful, inoffensive, and enjoyable.  All of that is fine, but ultimately, I didn't find the tunes or rhythms to be attention-grabbing or the musicianship to be exceptional.  There wasn't anything in these bands to hate, but I was having a hard time finding something to love.

After Good Fields I got on my bike and pedaled my way back across town through the gridlock of SXSW traffic (easier to navigate on a bike!) to Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop where I met up with Amy.  I met up with her to see Rhettt Miller, the lead singer of the Old 97's, who played an acoustic set at the KEXP showcase.  The Old 97's are technically a Dallas band, but Miller is originally from Austin, and he was playing by himself, so I guess that's good enough to qualify him for this blog!
Miller's set was good.  He played mostly all Old 97's songs, including some new tunes as well as old favorites.  Miller isn't the most amazing guitar player (he doesn't play a lot of solos or tricky guitar licks or anything), but his performances are fast, intense, and full of energy.  I like his voice, and his lyrics are just about perfect for the sort of modern country dance hall rock that he plays.  It was a fun set.

On Thursday I took some time off work in the afternoon and met up with Josh.  We wandered over to the roof at Whole Foods and saw some music.  We saw Los Lonely Boys.  Technically I guess Los Lonely Boys are from San Angelo, but they've placed in Austin enough to have a semi-local feel, so, once again, I'm deeming them eligible for mention.
Los Lonely Boys were really good.  They've been getting radio play for years, so it might be redundant to describe their sound, but for those who haven't heard them, they have a style that combines sort of classic blues guitar rock with some Latin beats and soulful harmonies.  They were a really fun band to listen to.  Henry Garza is a really strong guitar player, with some catchy rhythm parts and some smooth, melodic solos.  Los Lonely Boys aren't terribly original, but they write some music that makes you feel good, and they support it with talent.

I think Josh took off sometime during Los Lonely Boys, but my friend and fellow bandmate, Reed, showed up in time to see SPEAK, another local Austin band.  SPEAK were pretty good.  They were a really tight band.  They had not only a strong lead singer, but good backing vocals.  They had a sound which once again sounded a bit like guitar and keyboard driven pop, but their guitar, rhythm and vocal parts seemed a little more complex and interesting than some of the other stuff I had heard.  I have to admit that it took me a moment to get into them because they were sort of decked out in semi flashy hipster outfits, but when I actually tuned in more carefully to the music, I realized that they were actually playing some fairly intricate stuff and performing it well.  Both Reed and I were grudgingly admitting by the end of their set that they were (despite the white leather shoes, coiffed hair, and skinny jeans) actually a good group.

(East Cameron Folkcore)
Probably the last local act that I saw was East Cameron Folkcore.  They're a band with like eight or more members, including trombone, cello, mandolin, guitar, bass, drums, multiple backup singers, etc., from Austin, Texas.  I really liked them.  There were quite a few larger bands this year at SXSW.  It seems to be the new trend, following the success of other large acts like Arcade Fire, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and others.  East Cameron Folklore stood out, though.  They had a lot of energy, a lot of attitude, and an interesting sound.  There was a bit of country-ish wailing in their vocals and harmonies, but at the same time, I felt like their attitude almost bordered on punk (the musicianship was better than in a punk band- I'm just talking attitude).  East Cameron Folklore gave off the vibe of a small backwoods clan who had wandered onto a stage together looking to start a bar fight.  They were cool.  If they reminded me of Arcade Fire a bit, they would be Arcade Fire with a few members of The Pogues thrown in for good measure.
I would definitely check out East Cameron Folkcore again, and I plan on doing so if I get the chance.

So that was SXSW from a local perspective for me.  I saw other acts, but not local ones.  Our local bands did us proud!  I didn't see any Austin acts that I thought were bad.  SPEAK and East Cameron Folkcore, in particular, both stacked up their pretty well against most of the national and international acts that I saw from around the country.

Looking forward to next year!!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Map Jam

So this past weekend I went to Map Jam with Amy.  We didn't make it to all of the shows, but we really enjoyed the shows that we saw.
Map Jam is a local music festival that's sponsored by local public radio station KUTX.  It takes place at several different venues over in East Austin, and it involves walking, biking, or driving (which is probably the least plausible option because of parking issues) between various businesses and parks which are set up as medium sized music venues for the event.

The first show that we saw was The Carper Family at Hops and Grain Brewery.  The Carper Family is a sort of country/bluegrass/folk trio made up of three women:  Melissa Carper (bass), Beth Chrisman (fiddle), and Jenn Miori (guitar). 
Hops and Grain made for a sort of cool venue in terms of novelty and neighborhood vibe, but there were a few sound problems.  The vocals, in particular, were too quiet, which was a shame, given the fact that the band's harmonies were excellent in the moments when you could hear them clearly.    Anyway, I liked The Carper Family, and I want to see them again.  The women were good at their instruments, and the songs were cool.  I just need to see them again in a venue where the sound system can do a little bit better job in terms of overcoming the crowd noise.
(The Carper Family at Hops an Grain Brewery)
(happy Amy with music and sunshine)
The second act that we saw was Latasha Lee & The Black Ties.  They were a fairly straightforward R&B/soul group that featured a fairly large number of background singers and musicians.  Latasha Lee is a strong singer and a compelling personality on stage.  She proved a confident, capable leader for a large band that included horns, keyboards, a saxophone, guitars, bass, drums, and a number of background singers.  Their music was really fun and easy to listen to.  I would definitely check them out again.  The venue where they performed consisted of a stage that was set up in the back portion of a nursery located near Tillery Park.  It was a little crowded, but the sound was much better than it had been during The Carper Family.

(Latasha Lee & The Black Ties playing in a nursery
near Tillery Park)
We skipped the next band, Growl, in order to go relax for a bit and have some food and beer with some friends at Gourmands. 
After we'd regained our strength we headed over to Pan Am Park to see Hard Proof.  Hard Proof describe themselves as Afrobeat funk, and I'd say that's a pretty good description.  They had lots of percussion and creating some long, rolling, danceable jams that got people up off their butts to dance in the late afternoon sun.  Their music blended a world beat rhythm and sound with bits of jazz and funk influences.  They did a pretty good of creating some hypnotic grooves without falling into the trap of becoming too repetitive or uninspired.  Once again, a small taste of another band that I would be happy to hear more of. 

(Hard Proof at Pan Am Park)
And that was about it.  We took off after three bands because we had other obligations.  But we had a great time!  The weather was beautiful, and the second year of Map Jam was a big success.  It felt like a uniquely Austin event.  Not only was it great to hear so many talented, cool, up-and-coming local acts, but it was really fun to just sort of wander around the east side of Austin with fellow music fans on a beautiful day.  I'm already looking forward to next year!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Daniel Thomas Phipps, Ali Holder, Jon Napier, and Jacob Jaeger

So on this past Sunday afternoon I headed over to Strange Brew to check out the Sunday Bedlam.  The musicians hosting the event were Daniel Thomas Phipps and Ali Holder, and they were joined by Jon Napier and Jacob Jaeger. 
I got to the show a little late.  The crowd was fairly small, and the venue sort of quiet. 
The music was good, but the atmosphere was a little subdued.  I think that there was probably a little bit of diappointment on the part of the musicians.  Their audience was pretty much made up of a few friends, Strange Brew employees, and me (I was probably the only guy in the room who didn't know anyone else).
The music was really good, though.
As usual, the sound guy at Strange Brew did a great job, and the vocals and guitars sounded clear and balanced with just a touch of reverb.
Daniel Thomas Phipps and Ali Holder are apparently used to playing together, and they did a good job backing one another up when either took a turn playing a song.  Phipps has a good voice and is a pretty skilled player on the acoustic guitar.
Ali Holder was sort of chatty and funny between songs.  She has a strong, clear singing voice with a bit of a sad, southern twinge to it.  Her songs are mournful and pretty.  She sounds like she could be fronting a country band or singing vocals in a smokey lounge somewhere.  Her sunny disposition at the show, greeting friends and making jokes, stood in contrast to the forlorn sound of her music.  It was sort of hard to reconcile her personality with the sound of her voice.  But I enjoyed her songs.

I had never seen Jon Napier before.  He had a sort of gentle touch on the guitar and a sort of quiet, introspective quality to his performance.  I enjoyed him.  Whereas many of the singer-songwriters that I've seen recently seem almost eager to pour their hearts out and forcefully sing you their thoughts, Napier seemed a little more hesitant and almost reluctant.  Maybe it was his personality shining through or just his level or comfort with the setting on Sunday afternoon, but I found that the slightly more subdued nature of his performance lent it some of the earnestness and credibility that singer-songwriters so frequently try to convey.  His voice, like the guitar, was a little more soft and subtle than some others, but I liked it.

Jacob Jaeger, by contrast, was a more confident, forceful performer.  I found him interesting as well.  He played guitar with a sort of flamenco style of strumming pattern.  He played a number of different styles, from a song in Spanish with lyrics written by his grandfather, to a bluegrass style folk song.  He played harmonica as well, and did a good job using it to accompany the guitar.  Good voice.  Full and strong.

A woman named Amy Sue Berlin, an audience member who is also a musician, appeared onstage and sang a song upon Ali Holder's request.  I found her fun and interesting.  She only played one song, but she had an interesting voice, and witty, intelligent lyrics.  Although I think she was just singing with her normal voice and not putting on an affect, her singing quality had an almost child-like quality to it.  Probably bound to be a little divisive (you're either going to find enjoy her voice or you won't), but I liked her.  I found her fun and funny.

I enjoyed the show.  More people should come out to the sunday afternoon shows at Strange Brew, especially the Sunday Bedlam stuff.  The shows are free, and there are some great people over there playing some really great music in a venue with superb sound quality.  I'm always shocked that the place isn't more crowded for those shows.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ray Bonneville

So this past Sunday afternoon I went to see Ray Bonneville at The Saxon Pub.  I had heard one of his songs on KUTX quite a while back, and thought it was pretty good, so maybe a year ago or more I downloaded his most recent album, Bad Man's Blood.  I liked it.  Really liked it.  It was one of those albums that was so good that you end up asking yourself, "Where did this guy come from, and how come I haven't heard of him before?"  They said on the radio that he lived in Austin, but he had just never been on my radar.
Well, it turns out that the guy grew up in Canada and has lived pretty much all over the place.  He's lived in Boston, New Orleans, and, I believe, Nashville, among other places.  I think he mentioned at his gig that he owned a home in Arkansas, as well.
I looked him up at the time after downloading his record, but all of his upcoming tour dates were in other countries.  I can't remember exactly where he was touring, but his upcoming shows were in places like Japan or Australia or something for all of his upcoming dates.  It sounds like Ray has spent a lot of time on the road.
Annnyway, I'd listened to Bad Man's Blood and really enjoyed it and put the idea of seeing Bonneville live on the back burner.

So I was excited to see him pop up on the lineup at Saxon on a Sunday afternoon.  I like afternoon gigs on the weekends, anyway, because they tend to be smaller and more intimate, with more serious fans in attendance (at night time shows you get people who are just "going out" and will talk all the way through a set, but in the afternoon it's mostly just music lovin' folks).

I'm glad to say that the show was really great.  Bonneville played guitar and some sort of amplified stompbox foot percussion thing to hold down a simple beat.  He had his friend Jeff Arsenault sitting in with him on drums.
Bonneville's guitar playing is really interesting and a little unique.  He's a finger picker, and he sort of holds down a strong walking bass line with his thumb while strumming, rolling, and playing accent notes with his fingers.  He generally has a pretty mellow tone, but the upper notes are clear enough to ring out and sound distinct.  Altogether, given the guitar technique, vocals, and foot percussion, Bonneville, all by himself, sounds almost like a full band. 
I'd never heard Jeff Arsenault before, but he was a really good drummer.  Rock solid, creative, subtle, and, perhaps most importantly, keenly aware of how to make his drum parts fit into the mood and melody of the songs.  He played on a small, simple, kit, but his ability to do things like roll with one hand while playing accents and fills with the other really made him sound, at times, like he was playing on a much larger set.  I was impressed.
Ray Bonneville has a deep, smokey kind of voice.  In a way, it sort of conjures up a bit of Leonard Cohen mixed with Bob Dylan.  Except maybe a little more in tune.
Many of his songs have a somewhat slower, but travelling quality.
His lyrics tell tales and paint images.  Bonneville comes from a school of song crafting that doesn't shy away from telling fictional stories or parables.  He tells stories with a purpose, though- accounts of imagined people and events that ring with the emotional truths of his own life.  Before playing "Cemetery Road", Bonneville gave some insights into his writing process.  He spoke of how, although he had written the song as a fictional work about a woman in a cemtery, the song, in truth, dealt with feelings that Bonneville had experienced following the death of his own father- a man with whom he had never really gotten along.
So Bonneville breaks a little  with the recent trend amongst singer songwriters in which they pride themselves on boldly putting their lives on display, earnestly throwing themselves out there without much obfuscation or pretense.  But Bonneville's tradition, a tradition that involves metaphor and allegory, might in some ways seem slightly more poetic.  The specific of the personal, after all, can distract from the universal relatability of archetypal symbols.  By writing metaphor and fiction, Bonneville might not be writing songs in which he puts his own life transparently on display, but he might be writing songs that his listeners can more easily relate to their own experiences.

So here are a few videos that I shot. 

I think this song was called "Mile Marker 41"

"Bad Man's Blood"

Shooting these video clips was a new thing for me.  I'm not sure it's a good idea.  The little microphone on my iPhone definitely doesn't do justice to the quality of the sound.  On the other hand, it sort of illustrates some of the things that I've been talking about.  I'm not sure yet.  Maybe I'll go back to just shooting pictures.

Anyway, I really, really enjoyed Bonneville's set.  He played a song called "I Am The Big Easy" which was about post-Katrina New Orleans.  Tremendously good song.  I read up about it after the set and found out that it won a 2009 award from Folk alliance International as their song of the year.  Very moving, I thought.

So....  GO SEE RAY BONNEVILLE!!!!  He's really good.  It sounds like he's sort of a rolling stone, but we're fortunate to have him living in our town and playing some shows.  He's got a new album coming out, I think in April or sometime thereabouts, so hopefully he'll be brushing up on some material around town before hitting the road to support the album.  Check him out!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Dime Store Poets

So on Saturday night Amy and I went to go see a band called The Dime Store Poets.  We went to see them at our favorite South Austin musical haunt, Strange Brew, and I believe that it was the band's first time to play there.  We didn't really know anything about the band before going to the show, except to take a peek at their web site.

Their show was good.  Billy Mutschler, their lead singer and sole guitar player for the evening, was beset by technical difficulties.  His sound kept cutting in and out on his guitar, and it took a while to get it sorted out.  Having played in bands myself, I felt bad for him.  Nothing worse than an equipment fail- especially when you're the only one really holding down the melodies and playing leads.

Anyway, they got through their equipment issues, and the Strange Brew audience handled them with good humor.

The Dime Store Poets are an interesting band.  They had three strong vocalists, with interesting harmonies and cool backing vocals.  It was kind of different to see a band with three talented singers, but only one guitar, a bass, and drums.  Good singers being hard to come by, it seems like you more frequently see instrumentalists outnumbering vocalists.
You often hear artists describing themselves as embracing a range of musical styles, but in practice, it's sometimes hard to hear the purported range of styles.  Not so with The Dime Store Poets.  Their music shifted from song to song- and sometimes within song- from styles ranging from pop to Texas swing to country to a bit of jazz.
It seems that lead singer Billy Mutschler is the chief songwriter for the band.  He described a collaborative process in which he brings material to the other members, and they help him sort through it and shape it into final arrangements.  Larisa Montanaro sang backing vocals, taking her turn at lead on a few songs.  They both had really good voices. 
I hate to admit that there was a third vocalist who's name I wasn't able to catch.  I think he must be newer to the band.  He seemed to be really strong on some songs (including singing lead a couple of times), but on others Mutschler told him to just "try to find a place to fit in", and he mostly laid out.  When he sang, though, he did a good job.  Nice sense of harmony.

I liked the band.  They had intelligent, engaging lyrics that were well sung, and the music was interesting.  Each of the singers and musicians on stage were very good at their respective instruments and/or vocals.
One thing that I noticed, and maybe I was just imagining this, is that the band didn't seem super confident or comfortable playing together as a unit.  They weren't bad by any means.  There were just a few stutters and false starts as people were trying to figure out where to some in during certain sections, and the band didn't always seem as though they were really comfortable just settling into a groove.  It's just one of those intanglibles, I guess, because, as I said, you could tell that all of the people in the group were very talented in their own right.  They just weren't quite as tight as some other groups.  Still, I mentioned this observation to Amy after the show, and she hadn't noticed it at all, so maybe I was just imagining things (or maybe they had a hard time settling down after the equipment issues).
The only other mild criticism that I might have would be that I thought that the band would have benefitted from having a second guitarist or some other secondary melodic instrumentalist.  Mutschler is a good guitar player, but it might have been nice to have another instrument taking turns on leads or holding down the rhythm while Mutschler played solos.  The band sounded good, and I'm not complaining about the musicianship at all, but it might have sounded a little bit more fleshed out with one more instrument.
In the end, though, their music sounded both interesting and smart without being difficult to listen to.  Their lyrics were clever without being pretentious.  The harmonies were great, and the songwriting was top notch.  The drumming and bass playing were both solid and energetic.

We had a really nice time at the show.  I hope that Strange Brew continues to bring the band back.  They sounded good.  Like I said, they had a few equipment issues on the night when we saw them, and it was their first time at Strange Brew.  I'd love to see them on another night when they're a little more familiar with their environment and, hopefully, glitch free on the technical end.

Here's a You Tube video featuring the band.  It's not the same show we saw, and not even the same lineup, but they played this song, and I like it.  Great example of their songwriting.