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.