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  • The Sotted, Sentimental Swagger of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues

    The list of cultural seats for the Irish-American diaspora usually starts and ends with New York or Boston. Chicago maybe. But Tulsa? Not so much. Yet here is where you’ll find the only scheduled U.S. showing - fresh from its debut in Dublin - of a critically acclaimed exhibit on Shane MacGowan and the Pogues, the Irish hooligans who somehow channeled the fury of late-70s British punk rock through a mesh of Celtic lyricism and the slightly violent joy of communal Irish pub singing. It turns out Tulsa is the perfect home for “They Gave the Walls a Talking: The Extraordinary Story of the Pogues and Shane MacGowan,” according to exhibit curator Niall Stokes, also the founder of the Irish popular music journal Hot Press. The reason is simple, Stokes told me in a brief interview at the exhibit: Tulsa is home to the Bob Dylan Center. “Dylan had a lot of influence on a guy who was influenced by punk rock, but was also looking for a way to connect it to his Irish roots and his Irish identity,” Stokes said. “There is no better home for an exhibit about the work of the Pogues and Shane MacGowan than the Bob Dylan Center.” Dylan and MacGowan, who died late last year, were unapologetic outsiders who followed “The Muse” where she led them – Dylan through his whole career, but especially when he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965; MacGowan and the Pogues when they layered do-it-yourself punk rock swagger over traditional Irish music. One of the more interesting Dylan-MacGowan connections is the late Irish folk balladeer Tommy Makem. He and the Clancy Brothers were close friends and mentors to a young Bob Dylan in the early 1960s in Greenwich Village, where they often shared the stage together in places like Gerde’s Folk City. And it was Makem, only 20 years later, who famously declared the Pogues to be “the greatest disaster ever to hit Irish music.” Not that they cared. The original name of the band, Pogue Mahone, comes from an anglicization by James Joyce of the Irish phrase “pog mo thoin,” which means “kiss my ass.” Stokes’ exhibit, augmented in Oklahoma by items donated by Victoria Mary Clark, MacGowan’s wife, does an excellent job of exploring both MacGowan’s early aspirations at literature and poetry, as well as the band’s brawling appeal. One display case shows MacGowan’s precocious childhood composition books. Another contains the battered drinks tray that Pogues’ tin whistler and ‘percussionist’ Spider Stacy used to bang on his head in time with the music. The DIY ethos embodied by Stacy may have set the Pogues apart from traditional Irish groups. But they fit right in among their heroes, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Indeed, just as Clash bassist Paul Simonon famously learned his instrument to join the band, the Pogues’ James Fearnley was handed an accordion – either in a box or a laundry bag, depending on who’s telling the story - and told to learn it if he wanted to join. Jem Finer told Stokes that the “great liberation” of being in the Pogues was that “you were given permission to play and learn as you went along. You didn’t have to be a musician to get involved and make the noise,” Stokes said. Despite the early criticism from some corners of this “noise,” the Pogues wound up taking well-deserved credit for reviving interest in traditional Irish music, and paving the way for bands like Flogging Molly, the Young Dubliners, and the Dropkick Murphys. And they were eventually embraced enough by the establishment that a joint performance of the “The Irish Rover” with the Dubliners became a hit on the British charts in 1987. Certainly the band’s biggest hit and most memorable song is “Fairytale of New York,” in which MacGowan was joined on vocals by Kristy MacColl. The song was co-written by MacGowan and Finer, and the exhibit contains several loose-leaf pages of hand-written lyrics with chord changes. Just as in the Dylan museum one floor below, artifacts like these are a great reminder that songs like this did not exist in the world until someone thought them up and wrote them down. The exhibit also features an excellent playlist of Pogues performances on video, including of this song. MacColl’s performance is lovely. MacGowan’s, with its gentle slur and almost-on-key swoon – “It was Christmas Eve, babe/In the drunk tank” - is perfect. The exhibit also illuminates one of the most important aspects of MacGowan’s background – that he was an Irishman who grew up in London. His happiest childhood memories were of his grandparents farm in Tipperary, but he was an urban punk. The place where he was raised was not his home. One of my favorite moments in Martin Scorcese’s excellent Dylan documentary “No Direction Home” is Dylan himself talking about this same feeling. “I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be,” Dylan said. “So I’m on my way there.” Irish-born actor Liam Neeson also captured MacGowan’s Dylanesque artistic fearlessness, observing that he “took aspects of the Irish culture and Irish music, kicked it up the arse with a great sense of pride and joy and rebelliousness, and sent it out into the world. And it was feckin’ great.” Unlike the staggeringly prolific Dylan, MacGowan and the Pogues gave us just a handful of albums. But they were great albums, with a singular style. It was worth a trip to Tulsa to remember them. Pro tip: A short walk from the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa is McNellie’s, a fine Irish pub and the perfect spot to raise a glass to Shane and the Pogues.

  • Eastward to Istanbul, where Europe ends and Asia begins

    A hectic day of travel and a long, stressful night retrieving a lost suitcase had me in a fitful sleep. My mind raced from one thought to the next, none stronger than the caffeine and adrenaline still working its way out of my system. I looked up at the slightly open hotel window and heard something I'd never heard before, though I recognized it instantly. The Adhan is the Muslim call to prayer, sung five times each day from minarets around the world. I was hearing the call for Salat al-fajr - the prayer at dawn. The words were Arabic. The delivery, over loudspeakers, was slightly operatic, with a strong tenor voice and a religious sense of urgency. I found it soothing, and fell asleep, if only for a few hours. Every American who fancies themself a world traveler just because they've been to several European countries – I sheepishly count myself in this group – must visit Istanbul, the largest city in Europe with more than 15 million residents. It was our first visit to a Muslim city, a fact that was driven home when the hotel concierge showed us to our room and concluded with: “We are a dry hotel.” Drinking alcohol is considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam. Most hotels and restaurants serve it, for travelers and non-Muslims. But our hotel, which also restricts the use of the spa to women in the first half of the day, men in the second, did not. I’m somewhat relieved to say that neither Mary nor I found this disappointing after three weeks in France, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy. Perhaps the universe was suggesting we’d had juuuuust enough wine (and Guinness) for now. Not that we were completely dry for our entire stay here. We tried Turkish wine at one restaurant - my glass of cabernet seemed much better than the chardonnay Mary sampled. I even ordered a cocktail before dinner at another spot, which was a mistake. Turkey, like most European countries, is stingy with ice. My Moscow Mule, topped with soggy mint, had none. I took two sips to be polite – people here are very polite – then ordered a beer. Speaking of the people, the overall personality of the Turks we encountered was a departure after two weeks of highly expressive Italians and Portuguese – not to mention the Irish and French before that. The locals in Istanbul seemed more stern. It didn’t help that neither of us speaks Turkish and fewer of them spoke English than in other countries we’d been to. But in direct conversation, a polite friendliness emerged. An example: We’d successfully avoided acquiring too many things on this trip, but we were in the market for a small rug for just inside our front door. Turkey seemed like the place to get it, but it’s also one of the many places where buyers are expected to haggle, and we were nervous. We found a rug in one store, and I asked: “How much?” Before quoting a price of 1,500 Lira – about 80 bucks – he told me it was a “beautiful antique” and a “good choice.” The rug seemed to have some age, but I took this to be part of the haggling, and came back with 1,200. He looked at a hand-written tag on the rug, then consulted a worn-out spiral notebook. He was either checking the price he paid for it, or pretending to check the price he paid for it. I expected a counter-offer. “Yes,” he replied curtly. “I can do that.” Then a man who appeared to be a co-propietor of the shop asked: “Would you like some tea?” I have no idea whether I overpaid. But at about $60, we felt fine about the purchase, and said yes to the tea. Meanwhile, the man we’d bargained with took took the rug down from the wall and examined it closely. “One moment,” he said, holding a finger up. He walked over to a chair, sat down, and began to repair – by hand, with a needle and thread - a minor flaw we hadn’t noticed. The tea emerged and, we sat for 15 minutes, talking about Turkish rugs, and the region where ours came from, while a few more knots were fixed. Then he folded it neatly, placed it in a bag, and we said good bye. Don't even get me started on the very friendly Turkish barman who taught us how to smoke a hookah pipe. Our hotel was in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, the oldest in the city. Its narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets reminded us of the Alfama in Lisbon. There were fewer sidewalk cafes, but most restaurants blended between inside and out. It is also home to two very important buildings – the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque – officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – is the larger and more beautiful of the two. But we chose to visit the Hagia Sophia for its historic significance. Originally built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian Cathedral, it became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1483. It was turned into a museum in 1934. In 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan annulled its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site and turned it back into a mosque. You can still visit, but tourists are shuttled out during prayers, women must wear head scarves, and everyone must remove their shoes. We also waited in quite a long line, presumably because of security concerns over a recent terrorist attack in another part of the city. The first thing you notice about the Hagia Sophia is that is something of an architectural hodgepodge. This is because it was expanded over the years, in particular when it was converted to a mosque and four minarets were added. Inside it has all the grandeur of the great Christian cathedrals, with one major exception – there are almost no pictures or statues. Some Christian frescos that predate 1493 remain, but you can see curtains that allow them to be covered up. Most people know that depictions of the prophet Mohammad are strictly prohibited in Islam. What I didn’t know until my visit was that all pictures and statues of people are also forbidden, to fight the tendency to worship idols. Not that there isn’t beautiful artwork. It simply exists in the form of detailed ornamentation, both on walls and brilliant stained-glass windows, as well as Arabic calligraphy. It’s easy to start to compare this to other religious buildings, especially the cathedrals we'd just visited. But it’s also easy to leave that to the theologians and the art historians. Having just struggled for months to build a wooden shed, I stood in awe that such a grand building was constructed 1,500 years ago. The hills of Istanbul also make for some powerful views of the Bosphorus, the waterway boundary between Europe and Asia, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and the world beyond. At first I thought the dozens of cargo ships anchored near the entrance to the strait might be a consequence of the war in Ukraine, where vital grain shipments have been held up. But our waiter explained that it was a normal day in the “parking lot,” as ships waited their turn to enter the strait one at a time. Sure enough, when I had breakfast the next day, I noticed that the ships closest to the shore were not the same as the day before. We enjoyed several excellent Turkish meals, all of them featuring fresh tomato, green peppers, and red onion, often paired with grilled lamb, beef, or fresh fish. The highlight meal of this stay, however, was Azerbaijani cuisine at Zeferan, in our hotel. The Ajwa Sultanahmet is owned by a businessman from Azerbaijan, and it features the restaurant, as well as beautiful Azerbaijani art. Our meal started with Piti, a soup made with lamb meat, lamb fat, chestnuts, chickpeas, dried plums and saffron. Simply put, it was the best soup I’ve ever tasted – rich broth, and a perfect blend of salty and sweet. Our entrée was a Shah Pilaff, which resembles a layer cake made of baked dough. The dish, which serves two, was cut and opened tableside, revealing a filling of lamb, dried apricot, prunes, raisins, chestnuts, and rice seasoned with saffron and butter. We couldn’t eat it all, but it was delicious, and probably would have been even better as leftovers, if we could have taken it home. It would have been nice to spend more time in Istanbul, and there were more places I would have liked to see, especially the inside of the Blue Mosque. But this was a brief stopover on the way to the “destination” of this journey – India and the wedding of our friend’s daughter. On to Mumbai! Check out our other travel stories here.

  • The Rocking Chair

    A writer's attachment to an heirloom in his family's Narragansett Beach Cottage stirs up fond memories and a connection to Civil War history. (Note: This essay was published in the November, 2023 issue of Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.) I am sitting in a rocking chair that I’ve sat in every summer of my life, starting in August of 1962. (That was a few weeks after I was born, so I was sitting on someone’s lap.) The chair is in the living room of the small Rhode Island cottage that was built in 1939 by my great-grandparents, John and Harriet Carpenter. They put it on high ground overlooking Point Judith Pond in Narragansett, after their previous summer “camp,” which sat closer to the ocean near what is now Roger Wheeler State Beach, was swept away in the Great Hurricane of 1938. I am now one-sixth owner of both this cottage and, I suppose, this rocking chair, an inheritance that is bittersweet coming after the deaths of my mother last year and father the year before. My sister and I are part of the fourth generation to own it, sharing the title with two of our cousins and our Aunt Anne. Owning a family cottage with an expanding group of people can be tricky, and we’ve had challenges. But it remains a happy place, and there is something very comforting about sitting here. It is one part vacation home and one part family museum. Like so many multigenerational cottages in Rhode Island and elsewhere, it is a living time capsule. I take my new role as part owner seriously and find myself more worried about things like fire hazards and winterizing plumbing. A beautiful but modest structure, it has three bedrooms downstairs — two of them in a converted garage — and two upstairs. There is one bathroom, with a tub inside that’s mostly used for washing small children and dogs. The only shower is outside, off the back of the house, where we wash off the sand and salt from the beach. The chair I’m in is a simple wooden rocker with a caned seat and back. A blue cushion offers extra padding. The armrests are flat wood, but one is marked with hundreds of small, deeply worn notches. The chair belonged to James Carpenter, John’s father and my great-great-grandfather, who was a luthier by trade. He used to sit in the chair to cut his violin strings — hence the notches. I know thisbecause I was told so as a child by my father, who was told so as a child by his father. I, of course, have told it to my own children. James Carpenter was a Civil War veteran who tried to enlist in the Union army at seventeen. His parents withheld their permission, and he contented himself with marching around the county with a small musical band, drumming up recruits until he turned eighteen. Then it was off to war with the 7th Rhode Island Infantry Regiment. He started out as a fifer, but eventually became principal musician. We have a fife that was presented to him at the Battle of Fredricksburg. Musicians were an important part of military life in the Civil War, both for keeping up morale and communicating crucial orders in the thundering mayhem of battle. James Carpenter and his fellow Rhode Islanders were present at some of the biggest battles of the Civil War, suffering an 80 percent casualty rate. About 1,000 left in 1862. A few hundred came back unhurt, at least physically. Earlier this year I stood on the ground at Marye’s Heights, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A few feet from me was the stone wall that protected thousands of Confederate soldiers as they raked the Union troops for hours in one of the bloodiest massacres in U.S. military history. James Carpenter was among those troops. According to an excellent history of the regiment I found among my father’s books, the men of the 7th Rhode Island fired until they ran out of ammunition, then collected cartridges from the dead and wounded around them and fired some more. When the ammunition was gone, they “deliberately and with rousing cheers fixed bayonets,” preparing to charge the wall and fight hand to hand. Instead, they were ordered off the field as darkness fell, “being the first brigade to reach it and the last to leave it.” After visiting the battlefield, I walked quietly among the sprawling federal cemetery nearby. After the war, young James settled back into his hometown of Peace Dale, in the far southern tip of Rhode Island. He married Mary Hill and they had two children, adapting to a long, quiet life. He directed a popular community band. He played music at the Peace Dale Congregational Church. And he made violins until he died in 1918. I love this rocking chair because it reminds me of movie nights and sing-alongs and lively political debates among my, ahem, enthusiastically bipartisan extended family. I remember my grandmother in this chair, here, sitting quietly while the family buzzed around her, or singing softly in her beautiful soprano if someone was playing the piano. I remember my father in this chair, smoking a pipe and reading the paper, or perhaps leading us all in the singing of random college fight songs and Irish ballads. I remember my mother in this chair,asking her grandchildren if they wanted any more to eat, or reminding us all — with pride and not for the first time — that great-grandmother Harriett was “an honest-to-goodness socialist.” I remember my wife in this chair, reading a book or rocking one of our children to sleep. A few years ago, I wandered out to the lawn for happy hour, another camp tradition — never a drop before 5 p.m., full steam ahead after that. As I sat down in the late afternoon sun, I looked up at the small patch of roof that extends over our kitchen. You can climb onto it from a wooden fire-escape ladder, which my daughter had just done. “Sally,” I said to her, “I’d tell you to get down, but I used to love to climb up there as a kid.” Almost on cue, my eighty-six-year-old father emerged from the house and joined me. He handed me his gin and tonic while he carefully lowered his frame into the Adirondack chair, then he settled back and looked up. “Sally,” he said, “I’d tell you to get down, but I used to love to climb up there as a kid.” That is this cottage in a nutshell — simultaneously frozen in time and lumbering forward, summer by summer, accumulating both new and repeated memories. Now I sit in this rocking chair and remember the Fredericksburg cemetery. I remember thinking then that I wouldn’t exist if James Carpenter was buried there. None of us would, from my great-grandfather down through my cousins and our children. None of this would. No bocce games on the lawn. No cocktails in the setting sun or friendly stop-and-chats from dog-walking neighbors. No games with cousins, or jokes from uncles. No solemn assurances to Grandma that wiffle balls can’t possibly break windows. No toddlers splashing in wading pools. No lobster dinners in the too-small kitchen or morning coffee on the breezy porch. Time for our family could have stopped on that battlefield. It’s easy to buy “souvenirs” near Civil War battlefields, among them actual bullets and musket balls that were left behind. Millions of them were fired in the war, so they were everywhere when it ended. “This was a rebel bullet?” I asked the old man at the shop in Fredericksburg. “Yes,” he said. “That’s from a British-made Enfield rifle.” “Why is it white?” “That’s what lead does when it sits in the ground. That’s how we know it’s authentic.” I bought it for three bucks and carry it in my pocket, amusing myself with the notion that it was one of the many that whizzed by the head of a young man from RhodeIsland that day. James Carpenter was lucky. So am I.

  • Elvis Costello Still Knows How to Piss People Off

    Okay, maybe not piss off exactly. It takes an artist of a certain stature and temperament to make 2,300 fans wait through two-plus hours of lovely but “not what we were here for” songs before throwing down even a smattering of the stuff that put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it also takes an artist with a certain passion and generosity to make you realize that maybe you should calm the fuck down and listen to some good stuff you haven't heard or don't remember before mainlining the soundtrack of your late teens. Elvis pulled off an interesting trick at the Ryman Auditorium Monday night. He did a show that at first seemed to drag too long - the 29-song set included two Cold War-era novelty songs and a "little tango" he "picked up on a trip to Finland" - then somehow left us wanting more. Music bios are notorious for grandiose bullshit. But when Costello's tells us that his first three albums - 1977's "My Aim is True," 1978's "This Year's Model" and 1979's "Armed Forces" - "helped define the New Wave genre," it's not puffery. Elvis dressed up the anger of punk rock with a retro Buddy Holly look, deceptively well-crafted songs, and a tight band. And he, along with Talking Heads, the Clash, the Police, Blondie, the B52s, and others, created a new category of music. I don't know who the really cool kids are listening to right now, but they were listening to Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1978. (Full Disclosure: I was mostly still slamming Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull tapes into the glove-box-mounted 8-track of my 1973 Mazda RX-4 in 1978, though I do remember being in the "that was awesome" camp rather than the "did you see that weird group" camp when the B-52s appeared on SNL in the middle of my senior year.) But after several years of riding high atop the new mainstream, Elvis showed his true colors by spending the creative capital he'd earned to follow his muse rather than chase more hits. He produced wide variety of albums that revealed, among other things, a deep love for the beautifully crafted popular song. I can't say I liked or listened to all of them. But "For the Stars," his collaboration with Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, is a beautiful album I still enjoy. We probably should have seen it coming with "Allison," a sweet love song on an allegedly punk rock debut album. And we definitely should have seen it coming with "Almost Blue," a torch song he wrote in 1981 that sounds like it was penned for Frank Sinatra in 1941. Bob Dylan hit the nail on the head in his enigmatic "Philosophy of Modern Song," which takes on Costello's high-speed early hit, "Pump It Up." That song, Dylan wrote, gave Costello "the license" to be true to his "gigantic musical soul." "He (Costello) went all over the place and it was hard for an audience to get a fix on him," Dylan wrote. "From here he went on to play chamber music, write songs with Burt Bacharach, do country records, cover records, soul records, ballet and orchestral music. When you are writing songs with Burt Bacharach, you obviously don't give a fuck what people think." That was Monday's Ryman show in a nutshell. Costello, perhaps inspired by the historic venue, played the songs he wanted to hear. As lovely as they were, I saw a few people leaving about 12 songs in. Others were lingering longer than normal in the lobby during bathroom or cocktail breaks, waiting - I guessed - for something they recognized. He teased us with a jammy, ska version of "Watching the Detectives," as well as a sort of jazz combo take on "Clubland," with him leading on acoustic guitar. But it was hard not to feel disappointed more than once when, hoping for the familiar - the explosive drum attack on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" maybe - he played something I didn't know. But he sang with passion, like a singer who wanted you to feel what he was feeling. At one point Costello noted that he has two teenage sons, and he doesn't know what to say to them about the state of the world. He mused about turning to great thinkers like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle .... and blues and jazz legend Mose Allison. Then he sang Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy," which was both beautiful and on point. "I can't believe the things I'm seeing I wonder 'bout some things I've heard Everybody's crying mercy When they don't know the meaning of the word A bad enough situation It's sure enough getting worse Everybody's crying justice Just as long as it's business first." A highlight was a three-song guest appearance by Larkin Poe, a sister act that is Rebecca and Megan Lovell. They sang two songs with Costello, then stepped back and let Megan take the lead vocal on "Burn the Paper Down to Ash." The Imposters, as Elvis has called his band for years now, was solid, anchored by guest guitar player Charlie Sexton and original Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve. A guest horn section was added for the Ryman show, including trumpet player and arranger Michael Leonhart, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trombonist and Nashville resident Raymond Mason. Most of the crowd stuck it out to the end, and we were rewarded with an achingly slow and emotional version of "Almost Blue," followed by a muscular combination of early rockers, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," "High Fidelity," and "Pump it Up." Then came one more downshift "Allison," which provided a nice Ryman moment as he stepped back from the microphone and let as all sing the last line: "My aim is true ..." The show ended with a punch on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding." Costello threw in a nice Ryman touch several times. After some acoustic songs he turned his guitar over and showed the audience the back of the body, a nod to the great Jimmie Rodgers - the "Father of Country Music" - who had the word "Thanks" on the back of his custom Martin guitar, which he would show to the audience. Some links: Here is a link to the Nashville Scene review of Monday's show. Costello's father was a singer in a jazz big band in the 1950s and 60s London. Watch this video if you want to smile at a guy who somehow predicted both his son and Austin Powers. Here is an interview I did with Costello for the Chicago Tribune in 2015, after the release of his memoir, "Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink." Here is a link to Elvis famous first appearance on Saturday Night Live, which he stopped the song he agreed to play and launched into the newer "Radio, Radio." He was banned from SNL for several years.

  • The Milk Carton Kids Were Made for the Ryman Auditorium

    You know you’re going to hear beautiful music at a Milk Carton Kids show. But there is trepidation when they are the headliner. A small dose is breathtaking. But a two-hour show of just two guys and their acoustic guitars singing plaintive harmonies? (Nervous smile emoji.) They pulled it off at the Ryman Auditorium with a combination of musical guests, their trademark dry humor, and the fact that when they sing, everything stops. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale are most often compared to Simon and Garfunkel. But I’d throw in the Everly Brothers as well, with at least a helping of Tommy and Dick Smothers. They are musical purists, with a sound and style that seems made for the Ryman’s long history and rich acoustics. Look up pictures from the Ryman’s days hosting the Grand Ole Opry, and you’ll see the likes of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson singing in front of the single WSM microphone, like the Milk Carton Kids. That Ryan and Pattengale play acoustic instruments is not unusual. But most modern acoustic performers plug their instruments to an amplifier in rooms of any size. There’s only one wire on the stage at a Milk Carton Kids concert – a single cable attached to an old-fashioned looking microphone. (It’s actually an Ear Trumpet Labs Edwina Condenser mic.) It means they have to stand in close to sing and play together, and the result is a clean sound that emerges all together rather than relying on someone getting the various levels right. They are also known for playing vintage guitars - Ryan plays a 1951 Gibson J-45, and Pattengale plays a 1954 Marton 0-15. (I was curious about Pattengale's handkerchief on the neck, so I looked it up. He ties it above the capo to avoid fret buzz.) Their between-song banter is an essential part of the show, with Ryan leading the way. At the Ryman he noted that the band was nominated for a Grammy this year, which drew applause. Then he noted that it was their third nomination, and that this year they likely will get even better at saying: "It's an honor just to be nominated." This drew a laugh, whereupon Ryan noted that something new this year was they had "the opportunity to lose to Joni Mitchell, which is something." You get the idea. Our favorite Milk Carton Kids song is “Michigan,” which is also probably the closest thing they have to a hit. It’s a painful look back at a relationship. “Michigan's in the rearview now Keep your hands where I can see them You took the words right out of my mouth When you knew that I would need them What am I supposed to do now Without you Without you” Another highlight of the show was when they brought out Alix Page, one of their warm-up acts and a young singer who seems to have a bright future. “It seems only fitting at the Ryman to sing a John Prine song,” Ryan said as she walked on. Any mention of Prine gets applause in Nashville. And it struck a particular chord with us, since we last saw them in Chicago in 2018, opening for him. It was the last time we saw Prine, who died of Covid in 2020, and I didn’t know what to expect from him. He had been battling cancer in his throat for years, and I also hadn’t heard his new album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.” That night was one of the best concerts I have ever seen. (Of course YouTube has a video from it - Prine's "Paradise," his trademark show-ender. Ryan and Pattengale join him onstage.) At our show, they sang harmony while Page took the lead on Prine's “Summer’s End.” Another highlight was a guest appearance by Grammy winner Joy Williams. They sang one of her new songs, "The Trouble with Wanting." Both Ryan and Pattengale made it clear that playing at the Ryman as a headliner was the high point of their career. It was also the end of their current tour, and the show had the feel of a culmination. Pattengale gave a long introduction to the last song of the show, which is also the last song on their newest album, “I Only See the Moon.” The band has been playing together since 2011, and he described their career arc like that of a couple's relationship, with its ups and downs. The last album was hard work, and felt unfinished even though they had none songs. That's when Ryan wrote "Will You Remember Me," which Pattengale described as "perfect." Before he began the song, Ryan stepped up and talked seriously about the difficulty of leaving a family behind for life on the road. He dedicated the song to his wife, who was in the audience, and choked up before the first verse ended, asking to start again. With the trademark Joey Ryan humor, he then rededicated the song “to wives everywhere,” as if that might help him get through it without a tear. “You kissed my hand, leaned over, said let's call it a night Twice a day even a broken clock's bound to be right I followed you inside, watched as you turned out the light I'd never loved anyone so bad I'd put up a fight You're always forgetting everything you've done in your life You say I won't remember this morning by tonight But I remember you smiled at me one time in the rising moonlight I never saw anything wider, or shining so bright Will you remember me? When we were young? When we had nothing? When we had nowhere to be? Will you remember me?” They walked off the stage like a band that was ready for a rest - good friends who maybe needed a little time apart. "I wonder," I said to Mary, "if we saw the last Milk Carton Kids show." Let's hope not.

  • Potter Rocks the Ryman all the Way Down the 'Mother Road'

    A real rock and roll show broke out at the Ryman Auditorium the other day. And we were lucky to be there with pretty good seats. Grace Potter may have gotten her first big break singing with Kenny Chesney on “You and Tequila” in 2011, but her musical style has more in common with the big 70s blues jams than Top 40 country. And her mixture of showmanship, authenticity, and ripping guitar riffs had the Ryman crowd on its feet for most of the show. The theme was “Mother Road”, the name of her excellent new album and the overall vibe of a woman at mid-life who has seen a lot and is still happily searching. The backstory of the album is that she found herself in a Covid funk after relocating to her native Vermont with her family during the shutdown. An old-fashioned western road trip got the creative juices flowing, and the album was the result. “Down mother road Once again I turn to you Cause you know how I feel, mama You've been run over too Can I lean on your shoulder? 'Til my feet find the ground, yeah Wherever I'm headed Mama, don't let it be down” That’s from the title track of the new album, which she featured heavily. Early in the show she acknowledged that her songs and style may be a bit spicy for the Mother Church of Country Music. I wonder if this is why she didn’t play “Masterpiece,” which is a great culmination to the new album, and which pulls no punches when recalling youthful bad behavior. She also didn’t play “All My Ghosts,” another racy youth confessional which I would have liked to hear. Those were the only complaints, though. Potter began the show in a fringe leather jacket, which she replaced with various other glittery fashion choices as the show progressed. But she did it all with a wink and a smile, leading to a moment about half way through the two-plus hour set when she sat down on the drum riser and took off her high-heeled go-go boots, performing the rest of the evening in an unlikely combination of a sparkly checkerboard mini-skirt and two layers of ski socks. The highlight of the show for us was a rocking new song called "Ready, Set, Go" - played mid-way through the set but destined, in our opinion, to become encore material. The last few lines sum up the sentiment of the song, and "Mother Road" album overall: "As I wind down my proclamation I can promise you my friend There's magic hiding everywhere if you just let it in (ready, set, go) There's a moral to my madness in this story here, I guess Is that there's nothing wrong with saying "no" but Try a little bit of "yes""

  • Old Friends and Rising Stars at Florida's 30A Songwriter's Fest

    I generally think of music festivals as minimally clad young people writhing in blazing heat taking duck-lip selfies amid a greater variety of substances than creature comforts. So it’s been easy to stay away for the last 30 years. But there’s a whole festival scene that runs on a smaller scale and, we now know, seems just about right for, ahem, our demographic. This year’s 30A Songwriter’s Festival along Florida’s “Emerald Coast” served up a pleasant mix of established artists and up-and-comers. It’s heavy on guitar strummers, as one might expect. But there is enough variety that we rarely felt less than interested in what we were hearing. Chuck Prophet and Abe Perlman Tickets weren’t cheap - $350 for two full days and nights of music. But mid-January is off season in Florida. Accommodations were reasonable, and we ate well. Mary and I started dating in the early 90s in Chicago, when the music scene was white hot. Weekends usually meant shows at Cabaret Metro, Lounge Ax, the Cubby Bear, or Schuba's. One of the nice things we're re-discovered is that we still like being in the same room with good musicians making sounds. And Nashville has renewed our interest in songwriters and songwriting. This event seemed like just the thing. The crowd skews to the empty nest set and older - folks with the time to come to something like this. And there's a silly tendency to look around and "feel old." But I just told myself I might have traded elbows with a few of these people at that Husker Du show back in 1984. There's a fellowship of shared passion that feels comfortable. The 30A Songwriter's Festival is spread out over several venues in the Florida panhandle east of Destin. It’s a beautiful stretch of white sand beaches and pleasant little towns. And The whole place works on a more human scale than the big party spots elsewhere along this coast. The hit of our two days was Grace Potter, and it wasn’t even close. Elvis Costello and Grace Potter. (Photo courtesy of Grace Potter Instagram) The Vermont-born artist has had success on the country charts, mostly notably with her collaborations with Kenny Chesney. But her new solo album, “Mother Road,” rocks pretty hard and seems headed for more mainstream play. She opened the set with a white-hot song from the new album -"Ready, Set, Go". As of today, it only has 166,329 plays on Spotify. That will change. She drew heavily from the new album, and – in the spirit of the festival - went into detail about the origins of several songs. My favorite of the show was “All My Ghosts,” which seems to describe someone who is behaving better than they used to, while keeping memories of less-than-ideal decision making close at hand. “All my ghosts are out on the porch. Smoking reefer and holding court. I go outside and tell them to go away. They let themselves in and say "Hey, lady". And now they're calling up all their friends” Ultimately, Potter sings, it isn’t the ghosts she is afraid of: The thing that scares me the most is me” We missed an Elvis Costello appearance in Nashville about a year back. But friends who went were less than impressed, so I was ready to be disappointed. But Elvis was in good form and good voice, backed by a band that included Bob Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton, and original Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve – always a big part of Elvis’ early sound. A highlight was some background on the song “Radio Radio,” which he said was a reaction to the BBC’s decision not to air Sex Pistols songs. It was also the song that famously got Costello banned for several years by SNL, after he stopped the song he’d agreed to play - "Less Than Zero" - and launched into it. Legend has it that Lorne Michaels was flipping him the bird off screen through the entire song. While Costello and Potter played on the main festival stage, other acts were spread over several smaller venues. David Lowery – founding member of both Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker – appeared on his own at Central Square Records in Seaside. His set was an example of what we like about these festivals, and was nearly as much storytelling as it was songs. Lowery is known as an artist who doesn’t take shit from either record labels or streaming companies. And one of his new songs, “It Don’t Last Long,” is a wistful look back at Cracker’s music experience.  We also smiled at “Disney Jail,” a brief memoir of sketchy amusement park decisions. One highlight for Mary was Jeff Tweedy’s solo acoustic set. She’s gotten a lot out of his songwriting book, “How to Write One Song,” and was listening like a student. I could have used a little more conversation about the craft from the Wilco frontman. Chuck Prophet has been on my bucket list for a long time. And though I still look forward to catching him with his band, his solo appearance trading songs with Abe Partridge was a treat. A preacher turned air force flyer turned songwriter, Partridge combines a sling-blade delivery with a sneaky good guitar style. We’ll listen for more. Another discovery for us was Florence Dore , who is one part rock singer and one part English professor at the University of North Carolina. Not only did we like her sound, but we picked up her book. Florence Dore There were way more bands and artists we would have liked to see, but couldn’t squeeze in. Among these were Matthew Sweet, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Steve Earle, John Oates, and a host of up-and comers we’ve heard of but never heard yet. We made one musical discovery in our hotel elevator, when I asked a couple and their teenage son if they were here for the festival. "He's playing in it," the dad said, introducing us to Jack Barksdale. He's a 17-year-old Texas-based Americana artist with a mesmerizing sound. And we tried to make it to his second festival gig, but couldn't. We've since listened to his songs on Spotify - a sound that is at once fresh and timeless - and we'll be sure to see him next time we have the opportunity. Which leads me to the first piece of advice for attending festivals like this: Take some time to plan. Although the main-stage headliners run in succession, with three big shows each day, the smaller venues are running simultaneously. You can't possibly see every artist on the bill. The time you take looking at the schedule and planning your days will be worth it. The other advice is to not merely seek out artists you know. It's great to see "old friends" in intimate venues. But it's just as good to hear new artists that make you realize songwriting is alive and well in 2024. (Editor's note about the variable quality of our pictures: We try to take decent photos at the events we attend. But we don't want to be "those people" who are constantly holding up their phones at shows. We snap one or two, then put away the device so we can more fully enjoy the moment.)

  • Foot Stomping Ryman New Year's Eve with Old Crow Medicine Show

    Always good to start the year with a 2,300-person sing-along. (And I’m not talking about “Auld Lang Syne,” a song I never really understood.) We rang in 2024 at the Ryman Auditorium with the Old Crow Medicine Show, crooning “Wagon Wheel” like we were sitting around a campfire with friends. It was our first Old Crow show, and won’t be our last. If you don’t know this band, think old timey string band with amps and occasional horns, lead by a banjo picking, fiddle scratching, harmonica slinging carnival barker – Ketch Secor. There were lots of special guests, including bluegrass guitar shredder Molly Tuttle, who the internet tells me may be romantically linked with Secor. And, in a twist that got the show off to a ripping start, they all took the stage for the first number, “Cocaine Habit.” Like many Old Crow songs, it’s a reworking of an old blues song, performed at a tempo evocative of the title. Old Crow is all about high energy and musical chops, wandering among genres with at least one toe clinging to the old American songbook. Not many bands go from Tom Petty’s “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” to “Sweet Amarillo,” a lovely old Texas waltz. The story of “Wagon Wheel” says something about the arc of the band. Secor heard the chorus on an old Bob Dylan bootleg, then wrote the verses himself. When he researched the copyright, he discovered that Dylan had written the chorus riffing off a phrase he’d heard in the song “Rock Me Mama” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Secor and Dylan share the songwriting credit for “Wagon Wheel,” which was a hit both for Old Crow and, even more so, Darius Rucker. The New Year’s Eve show featured a nice interlude in which all the members of the band remembered artists who were lost in 2023, including Sinead O’Connor, Jimmy Buffett, and Robbie Robertson. (Shane Macgowan was an unfortunate omission as well as a missed opportunity for Secor and Tuttle to sing “Fairytale of New York".) The highlight of the show came in the encore, when band and guests – as well as just about everyone at the Ryman - sang The Band’s “The Weight.” One can see why the folks at the Ryman have turned over New Year’s Eve to the Old Crow Medicine Show for the last 14 years.

  • Liz Phair, 'Guyville,' and Happy, Hazy Memories of Early '90s Chicago

    The shifting ground between youth and adulthood in my post-college years was an awesome time, at least as far as I can remember. It was a while ago. Life in my 20s was divided between a job I loved that was maybe starting to pay off, and the stumbling mating ritual of a Chicago social scene that swirled between after-work beers, play-for-the-table pool, cheap Thai food, and loud bands in small rooms. Somewhere toward the end of this period, Liz Phair seized the mantle of Chicago’s punk rock poet with “Exile in Guyville,” a critically acclaimed, unpolished, 18-song ode to this weirdly wonderful time of life. Now touring around the 30th anniversary of the album, which she played all the way through for us at the Ryman Auditorium, it’s clear Phair knows she tapped into something in 1993. "Guyville" is a collage of unfiltered vignettes from the life of a 20-something woman, when the world seemed to revolve around either the pursuit of, or the complicated ramifications from, sex. “Never Said,” was the album's biggest hit. It's a hard rocking, slightly grinning, slyly accusatory declaration that the singer wasn't the one who spilled the beans about a clandestine hook-up. “Don’t know where you heard it,” Phair sings over a churning Stratocaster in the low-register, deadpan that made the album sound raw and honest. “Don’t know who’s spreading it around All I know is I’m clean as a whistle, baby I didn’t utter a sound I-I-I never said nothing.” Phair has said that “Guyville” refers to a Chicago scene that was replete with carefully unkempt, flannel-shirted young men who were serious about their music and who rarely failed to point out that the Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street” was the greatest album ever made. She famously claimed that her album was a song-for-song response to the Stones’ “Exile,” a statement that was enough to get me to buy her album. (Wait. Are you suggesting that I was one of those guys? Are you kidding? Also, did you know that the Stones recorded that album in a basement of a mansion in France?!) Back then I caught a show at Cabaret Metro it seemed like once a week, but somehow missed Phair’s debut there in September of 1993. It's a show that quickly became the stuff of legend and the talk of the music scene when “the talk of” actually meant people talking to each other. The early 90s in and around Wicker Park was an exciting time. Bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Material Issue and Veruca Salt were making a mark. And bars like the Empty Bottle and the Rainbo Club – both walking distance from my apartment at the time – were part of a real scene. On any given day at the Rainbo Club, you might see Eleventh Dream Day setting up for an on-demand gig for record executives in from L.A., while conspicuously paint-splattered artists argued in the corner - over single-malt whiskeys - about the latest comrade to "sell-out." It was in a Rainbo Club photo booth that the “Exile in Guyville” cover photo was taken. Although now a gentrified scattering of $2 million houses and couture fashion, the neighborhood was once a place artists and humble newspaper scribes could afford. I took over a $420-per-month, 3-bedroom apartment from two reporter friends who were able to buy their starter home on the same block for less than $200,000. If any reporters live in that neighborhood now, they've either been there for 30 years or have more gainfully employed spouses. Back then you could still see remnants of Wicker Park's heritage as the heart of Chicago’s Polish triangle. The ubiquitous "Old Style" signs over tavern doors that advertised "cold beer" elsewhere in the city, touted "Zimne Piwo" - Polish for cold beer - in the taprooms around Damen and Division. The Busy Bee, my go-to breakfast place under the El tracks at Damen and Milwaukee, had a picture of Pope John Paul II over the coffee maker. Once, when my parents came to visit, I hastily took note of the Mass schedule in front of the nearest Catholic Church and confidently suggested we "go to the 10:30," which turned out to be the Polish-language Mass. “I guess you don’t get to the 10:30 often,” my father said with a nudge and a smile. I miss my father. And Chicago. But I digress. What made Liz Phair’s debut special was that it was so honest. Like many feminist writers before and after, she shocked sensibilities by actually speaking in plain terms about female desires and sexuality. “You got up out of bed You said you had a lot of work to do But I heard the rest in your head And almost immediately I felt sorry 'Cause I didn't think this would happen again No matter what I could do or say Just that I didn't think this would happen again With or without my best intentions And I want a boyfriend I want a boyfriend I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas Letters and sodas I can feel it in my bones I'm gonna spend another year alone It's fuck and run, fuck and run Even when I was seventeen Fuck and run, fuck and run” There was no satellite radio or music streaming back then, so FCC rules meant you only heard this song if you bought the album. “Never Said,” on the other hand, was all over the more progressive airwaves. "Exile in Guyville" sounds like an an excellent young writer's first attempt at creating songs, propelled by an ear for pop music hooks and an electric guitar she was confidently learning to play. It connected strongly with young women, establishing a bond still in evidence at our Ryman show. Phair’s encore was a smattering of other hits, including the catchy “Polyester Bride,” from "Whitchocolatespaceegg," her third album. "Do you want to be a polyester bride? Or do you want to hang your head and die? Do you want to find alligator cowboy boots they just put on sale? Do you want to flap your wings and fly away from here?" It’s a cool, breezy song that I recognized right away and enjoyed. But a few sections over from us in the Ryman balcony pews I saw a 50-something woman singing along. I recognized the pose from the Taylor Swift movie we just watched: head back, eyes closed, hands in the air, singing every word as if it was Absolutely. Positively. 100-percent. About ME. "It's kind of embarrassing," Mary said later. But I thought it said something what music can mean to people. I'm glad to have songs I connect with like that. It's worth noting that the live show sounded better than the original album. Not only did Phair have a strong band featuring her guitar as well as two others, she seemed freer with her voice. Who knew that her trademark deadpan delivery masked a lovely and very capable natural style? I'd read about some of Phair's stage banter on this tour from a review of an earlier show. So I was ready with my voice recorder each time she started to talk about the days when she was chasing her dream. "It's a strange period where you work in uncertainty and darkness and rejection. And you go out every night and you do crazy shit looking for love," she said. "You live and die by the social scene. And all you really have at that point is each other. And then you grow beyond that and you find that security and you find that acceptance. And you get there and you realize that that crazy fucked up time was actually a magical place. It was kind of liminal space between youth and adulthood, and some of the best times of your life." Seems about right. Date: Nov. 27, 2023 Artist: Liz Phair Venue: The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville ENQ Mini-review: A strong show worthy of the original "Exile in Guyville." (Editor's note about the variable quality of our pictures: We try to take decent photos at the events we attend. But we don't want to be "those people" who are constantly holding up their phones at shows. We snap one or two, then put away the device so we can more fully enjoy the moment.)

  • "The Last Waltz" Plays On In Nashville Thanksgiving Tradition

    Thanksgiving is upon us, and that means Last Waltz season for fans of the greatest concert movie ever made. (Sorry/not sorry to fans of the excellent “Stop Making Sense.”) But why simply rewatch the Martin Scorcese classic when you can catch a great group of Nashville musicians running through the songs live? That’s how we found ourselves at the Basement East Saturday night, singing along to one great piece of music after another and raising money for a very good cause. The show was anchored by a typical assembly of Nashville session pros and side players, among them Bob Dylan’s touring guitar player John Jackson (seen above), and Sheryl Crow keyboardist Jen Gunderman. An excellent guest list was anchored by Aaron Lee Tasjan, Joshua Hedley, Alicia Blue and many others. We also may have seen the future of heavy blues guitar music - a cherubic 17-year-old cross between Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Ray Vaughan named Grace Bowers (also shown above), who lit up the stage for several numbers. Last Waltz tribute shows have been a staple of local music scenes for years. And though I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count, this was my first live show. I’m not sure why I expected the concert to follow the playlist of the film, but I did. So I wasn’t surprised when a string quartet started things off with the “Theme From the Last Waltz,” a lovely classical piece penned by the late Robbie Robertson himself. The playlist wandered after that, however, which was just fine. It also included several songs that were part of the original concert but didn’t make the movie. I should pause for a moment to catch up any who may be new to the movie or the music. The Band was Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. Although they sharpened their considerable skills for years as The Hawks, backing band for barroom legend Ronnie Hawkins, they gained fame as backing players for Bob Dylan in the late 1960s. Their first two albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band,” shook the music establishment with rootsy southern flavors that mixed blues, country, bluegrass and soul. This was odd, since four of the five members of the group - including Robertson, the main songwriter – were Canadian. But they had three A+-level lead singers in Helm, Danko, and Manuel, a brilliant songwriter and lead guitar player in Robertson, and a classically-trained keyboard genius in Hudson. They’d decided to hang it up in 1976 after 16 years on the road, and they held a farewell show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, inviting many of their friends and musical influences. Young filmmaker Martin Scorsese signed on to film the moment. The Last Waltz is beloved for the many guest appearances from artists like Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, the Staples Singers, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, and more. But The Band is the core, and it is impossible to watch and not be impressed by their virtuosity and power. This makes trying to recreate the concert in a live setting a challenge. But the Nashville music community came through with flying colors, as it is wont to do. Although King Corduroy and company did an excellent job to start things off with a strong first set, an all-star band assembled by Jackson anchored the show. Highlights included Aaron Lee Tasjen’s beautiful rendition of the Band’s “She Receives.” That song featured Gunderman on keyboards, channeling Hudson himself with swirling, soaring accompaniment. Matthew Houck , who performs as Phosphorescent, stepped into the role of Bob Dylan with a great version of “Forever Young,” joined by just about everyone at the Basement East on backing vocals. Kudos to Alicia Blue for raising her hand to ably play Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” a tricky song and another highlight of the movie. And Joshua Hedley fiddled and sang his way through “Rag Mama Rag,” a classic Band foot-stomper. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for some. It’s a beautiful song, but when Levon sings: “Like my brother before me/I took a rebel stand,” it’s hard to ignore that the rebels were fighting to preserve slavery. At the end, however, it really is a song about the victims of war, rather than the masters. And Jamie Wyatt highlighted this, dedicating her performance to “all people affected by war,” and saying she was singing it as a “meditation on peace.” Her performance was another highlight. But the person Mary and I are still talking about was young Grace Bowers. The 17-year-old California native now living in Nashville turned heads earlier this year at the Newport Folk Festival, which caused Rolling Stone to gush that her “twenty-minute performance gave the distinct sense that everyone lucky enough to have attended was witnessing a star in the making." She had the same effect at the Basement East, and had not only the audience, but the veteran players on stage shaking their heads in admiration. She has the amazing physical dexterity of a Clapton-esque blues shredder. But she also seems to know when to swing with the band. We all will certainly hear more from her. The entire evening was held to raise money for Out of the Woods, a foundation created by Nashville musician Shelly Colvin and her husband Jeff to support the recovery of children who suffer brain and spinal cord injuries. Their 3-year-old son Judge was severely injured in 2020 when a sudden storm caused a tree to fall on him and his father while they were hiking. Both son and father have recovered, but the family relied on help from friends, including the Nashville music community, for financial support during the long rehab period. The foundation hopes to help others who find themselves in the same situation in the future. You can read more about their story, and support the foundation here. A side note: We did not walk away from this show empty handed. Inspired by the Out of the Woods Foundation mission, and looking to keep the momentum going in Mary's song-writing efforts, I was the high bidder on an honest-to-goodness Fender Stratocaster! Date: Nov. 18, 2023 Artists: An anniversary tribute to "The Last Waltz" featuring a variety of artists. Venue: Basement East, Nashville ENQ Mini-review: A great show for a great cause. Always fun to see top-notch players handling great material. We'll be back next year! Here is a video of the first set of the show. Here is the second set. (Editor's note about the variable quality of our pictures: We try to take decent photos at the events we attend. But we don't want to be "those people" who are constantly holding up their phones at shows. We snap one or two, then put away the device so we can more fully enjoy the moment.)

  • A Lively Musical Conversation - Rachael Davis, Valerie June, Yasmin Williams, and Thao

    As we walked in the door of the CMA Theatre in downtown Nashville, we could hear the crowds screaming about a block away. The big stars were arriving on the red carpet in front of the Bridgestone Arena, where the Country Music Awards were being held. Our show was a lot less sparkly, which was fine with us. To locals it looked like another songwriter’s “in the row” event, with chairs and microphones set up for the four pros to go down the line, each sharing songs they’d written for other artists – like the people across the street at the CMA awards. But Valerie June, Rachael Davis, Thao, and Yasmin Williams are established - if less-known - recording artists with powerful voices of their own. They met when they performed together at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last year. And Davis said the combination of the audience response and the fun they had playing together, along with the enthusiasm of a promoter, lead them to take the show on the road. The result was breathtaking array of song-styles and talent, laid on a foundation of instrumental virtuosity and passionate singing. Rachael Davis is the most traditional player on the bill, offering old-timey, folksy songs on the banjo. I associate songs like hers with the thin, reedy tones of most Appalachian singers. Davis has a hint of that quality, but with an extra dose of power in her voice. The result is simple songs that occasionally soar. Valerie June is a Grammy-nominated artist from Tennessee, with a Minnie Pearl-meets-Rita Marley stage presence. The juxtaposition between her soft, gentle, pre-song banter and her sharp, bluesy style, give the songs a jolt. She makes you want to hear more. Yasmin Williams first threw us a curveball when she talked about learning her percussive guitar style when she was 12-years old and mastering the Guitar Hero video game. Her lively instrumentals, on both banjo and guitar, reveal a talent that’s gone far beyond the toy. She uses a number of techniques, from alternative tuning to lap tapping to percussive hits, to create a fresh, exciting sound. Thao – her given name is Th o Nguy n – is the most seasoned performer on the bill, having been a touring musician for many years. Her searing rendition of “The Temple” took our collective breath away. Her mother was a refugee from the Vietnam War, and the song tells the story of revisiting the country years after the war ended. Nashville usually turns out for top-notch musical talent. But this show was unfortunately up against the CMA Awards, which were so close that the streets in front of the theatre were literally closed to traffic. Our crowd was small but very enthusiastic. Here’s hoping the crowds are bigger in upcoming cities on the tour, including Chicago. Date: Nov. 8, 2023 Artists: Valerie June, Rachael Davis, Thao, and Yasmin Williams Venue: CMA Theatre, Nashville ENQ Mini-review: We wish we'd known about these women sooner, and will seek them out in the future. Unique and powerful voices. (Editor's note about the variable quality of our pictures: We try to take decent photos at the events we attend. But we don't want to be "those people" who are constantly holding up their phones at shows. We snap one or two, then put away the device so we can more fully enjoy the moment.)

  • Here Come the Mummies! And They Brought the Funk

    One thing we’ve learned about the Nashville music scene is to be on the look-out for any show that suggests the presence of “session pros.” That’s how we found ourselves at Brooklyn Bowl Halloween night for Here Come the Mummies!, maybe the ultimate Nashville session pro pick-up band. It seems odd to call them a pick-up band at this point, given a career that spans more than 20 years with gigs opening for the likes of Al Green and regular appearances on the Bob and Tom radio show. But more than 50 musicians have played in the group at one time or another. So, yeah, it’s a pick-up band. Their own website describes Here Come the Mummies! as “an eight-piece funk-rock band of 5000 year-old Egyptian mummies with a one-track mind.” Buried in the schtick is a hint at the real story. “Some say they were cursed after deflowering a great Pharoah’s daughter,” the online bio says. “Others claim they are reincarnated Grammy-winning studio musicians.” The legend is that they had to hide their identities because some or all of them were under contract to various record labels. But the costumes also made it easier to rotate in musicians at will. (Session musicians often do long stints on the road backing the big stars.) If you haven’t seen them, think P-Funk meets K.C. and the Sunshine Band meets Earth Wind and Fire meets a bunch of zombies from a Scooby Doo cartoon, creating the best party band you’ve ever seen. What sets them apart other than their musical talent is the fact that they play all original songs. Given that they are a funk band, and that most funk music is about sex in all its funky glory, it’s not surprising that this is the thread that runs through the Mummies music, whether openly or in double entendre. One fan favorite describes a suitors excitement over the fact that he will soon be arriving at his lover's house in his finest clothes. "I'm coming in my pants, my shirt It's my best suit baby" So, uh, yeah. Deep poetry it ain't. But they are fully committed to the schtick, starting with their marching band entrance. While rock and roll can handle a little sloppiness, funk music is all about sounding loose by playing tight. That’s where the musical chops of HCTM shine. They look like a ragtag bunch. But there isn't a note out of place. When the horns attack, they hit hard. It’s the difference between a party band that gets everyone on the dance floor with groovy songs, and a party band that seems to lift you off your feet. Go see these guys if you can.

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