Archive for the Concert Category

Sturgill Simpson’s had enough of your crap

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Concert, Review with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by Todd

simpson

Saturday Night Live is in the midst of a comic resurgence, thanks to one of their strongest casts in years and an abundance of surreal political and social material for their writers to draw from. Last weekend, they finally chose a musical guest that matched the best of what the show has always offered — the kind of black wit and ferocious irreverence rarely seen on prime time television, and a working class disgust at the endless parade of hypocrites and charlatans that seem to curry such favor in this country.

The head honchos at SNL took a risk when they chose Sturgill Simpson, a relatively unknown country artist as last week’s musical guest. He responded with a performance that evinced more teeth gnashing anger, energy and full-on foot stomping glee than any rock group, rapper, or R&B warbler I’ve seen on the show in years.

Simpson performed two songs off his latest release, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a concept album dedicated to his young son that offers advice on navigating the trials and temptations of 21st century adolescence and adulthood.

Taking the stage dressed in an expertly tailored black suit, Simpson led off with “Keep it Between the Lines,”  a plea to “stay in school and stay off the hard stuff.” Backed by the horn-driven funk of the Dap Kings, the Kentucky native stalked the mic with tight-eyed intensity, bearing down on key lines like a prize fighter cornering a punch drunk opponent.

If there’s any doubt, then there is no doubt

The gut don’t never lie

And the only word you’ll ever need to know in life is, why”

His follow-up performance of the raging “Call to Arms” put to rest any notion that Simpson is merely a classic country retread. He stomped and raged like the love child of George Jones and Johnny Rotten, riding the roiling groove and locking eyes with his bandmates as the song unspooled  its cold, coiled admonition.

“Well they send their sons and daughters off to die for some war

To control the heroin

Well son I hope you don’t grow up

Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man”

A country act on SNL is rare, but then Sturgill Simpson probably isn’t most people’s idea of what that musical term has come to mean over the last three decades.

Born in Jackson, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia, he was the first male in his mother’s family not to work the coal mines. The son of a state cop, he was busted selling drugs in his senior year of high school and, before graduation, enlisted in the Navy.

“I saw shocking things in the impoverished pockets in Kuantan, Malaysia, that, as a teenager, shook me to my core. My worldview darkened,” he told Rolling Stone magazine recently. “When I got out after three years, I hung around the Seattle area, a lost soul. I seated tables at IHOP. Then I came home to Lexington in 1999 and experienced an epiphany: I was driving my pickup when Bill Monroe’s “Wayfaring Stranger” came on. I was transported to childhood.”

After being reintroduced to the dark, keening sounds of his home state, Simpson formed a bluegrass band and shortly afterward moved to Nashville in an attempt to kickstart a songwriting career.  Instead, he found himself broke and depressed, stuck in a cinder block apartment with no idea how to hustle his music.

By 2006 Simpson was living in Salt Lake City, working for a railroad as an operations manager. But still, there was the music.

Sensing his growing desperation, Simpson’s wife convinced him to give Nashville another try. He followed up an impressive, though fairly conventional debut, High Top Mountain, with a wildly genre defying sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which featured feedback symphonies and lyrics about reptilian space aliens made of light.

With A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and with last weekend’s SNL performance, Simpson has proven himself to be  one of the few country artists with the brains, heart and guts to embody the best of the music’s past while paying absolutely no heed to the genre’s staid conventions.

“Maybe I’ll do a dance record. Or maybe another song cycle, this time a love story from the Old West,” he told Rolling Stone. “Whichever way I go, I’m trying to learn not to second-guess myself.”

Whatever he decides, I’ll be listening.

Drive-By Truckers; True Believers

Posted in Concert, Review with tags , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2009 by Todd

The Drive By Truckers
House of Blues
Myrtle Beach, June 23,2007

True Believers

(but where the *#*$ is Jason Isbell?)

drive-by-truckers

Mike Cooley, Drive-By Truckers

The ducks are gone; the turtles are sluggish; the tigers are caged.

Much like the dead end lives and thwarted ambitions the Drive-By Truckers eulogize, the faces of the shopkeepers along the boardwalk of this thriving beach community betray an all too familiar, hollowed out contempt behind the tourist-friendly smiles.

Mike Lombardi, a retired club-circuit magician from Jersey City, eyes the stragglers who wander through his Magic City store with a mixture of bland acceptance and barely concealed mistrust. The dark, solemn eyes framed behind the less-than-stylish glasses suggest a professor saddled with students unworthy of his hard won knowledge.

In a crowded side-alley, a rare Golden Tabby tiger patiently poses for photos with a pack of under-fed, flip flop shod coeds; the photo strobes sending small shivers of mottled flesh dancing across his thickly muscled spine like a silent plea for mercy.

Years of selling cheap plastic trinkets to the faceless, sun-dazed hordes have worn even the sweet-tempered hippy in the Alligator Shop down to a fine, glazed over nub.

In bold contrast to the scenes of quite desperation on display just outside the night’s venue, the members of the Alabama-bred Truckers have clearly outdistanced even their own childhood dreams of rock-star abandon and alcohol-fueled song craft.

A sense of the sheer joy of musical community and shared experience was evident in the frequent chugs from the ubiquitous Jack Daniels bottle passed from hand to hand, in the loose-limbed body language, raw harmonies and warped, blues-streaked solos traded between guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley like a pack of pornographic playing cards.

The group opened with “Bulldozers and Dirt,” a concert favorite from Pizza Deliverance, and proceeded to ratchet up the intensity level with newer material like “Gravity’s Gone” and Cooley’s solo turn “Sounds Better in the Song,” through a scorching “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” and a near apocalyptic “Lookout Mountain”.

While their most recent albums have introduced a sleeker more sophisticated approach, there were no signs of encroaching lite-rock cynicism or stifling solemnity on display, especially notable for a band with as many years, road miles and near misses behind them as the Truckers.

In fact, the only sore spot for this reviewer was the absence of Jason Isbell, one of the finest young songwriters in the country and a perfect foil to Cooley and Hood’s more raucous approach. Isbell, who left the group in April, has contributed to the last three albums a clutch of songs which are among the most accomplished of the band’s career, songs which offer a distinctly southern yet deeply personal take on the art of country informed rock and soul. His presence was missed.

Multi-instrumentalist John Neff, who’s played on several Truckers albums and is a recent addition to the touring line up, performed ably on pedal steel and guitar, adding haunting atmospherics to “Tornadoes” and a scorched earth, Chuck Berry on speed solo to “Shut Up and Get On the Plane”.

Drummer Brad Morgan, sporting an old testament prophet demeanor and Levon Helm-like appearance, nailed down a tight yet impressively swinging bottom end with bassist Shonna Turner, a Muscle Shoals native who more than held her own in the whiskey swilling and stage charisma departments.

The night’s spotlight, of course, was divided fairly evenly between Hood and Cooley. The pair provide quite a contrast in character and stagecraft, with Cooley’s (alarmingly) bone thin Keith Richards guitar slouch playing off Hood’s wild boy/whiskey-damaged poet persona.

After a particularly inspired segue of “Buttholeville” into Springsteen’s “State Trooper,” Hood regaled the crowd with a tale of growing up in the somewhat culturally deprived environs of rural Alabama. “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I saw Kansas seven times. Even at that age I knew that “Dust in the Wind”   sucked,” he rasped with his trademark half-drunken, half-playful grin, as the band roared into liftoff with a version of “Let There Be Rock” that left the crowd chanting for an encore before the five sweat-soaked members had made their way off stage.

The band returned, acoustic guitars at the ready, for an encore that would have made for a more -than-worthy full on set by most groups standards.

Delving into a collection of quieter, more introspective material –”Heathens” being particularly well received — seemed a brave, even risky venture given the hour and level of alcohol intake amongst the night’s revelers, but the Truckers kept their foreword momentum through sheer stage presence and hard fought good will.

The acoustic interlude came to an appropriately abrupt end as the band plugged in, passed the bottle and headed for home with a fierce, speaking in tongues grind through “Birmingham” and a somehow celebratory “Dead, Drunk and Naked”.

The set ended with Hood rolling on stage, eyes closed, hands clasped with members of the audience as they shouted in unison the chorus to the Jim Carroll classic “People Who Died,” a fitting encore for a band more than willing to tip their hats to lost comrades and fallen stars, and a timely reminder of the real life perils waiting just beneath the rock star dream and just outside the venues doors.

Dr. Stanley has the ‘cure’

Posted in Concert, Review with tags , , , , , , on July 13, 2009 by Todd

Ralph Stanley

For an entertainer best known for a song detailing the harsh physical deterioration of approaching death, a cheerful Dr. Ralph Stanley seemed very much alive and kicking as he took the stage at The Roanoke Rapids Theatre Friday night.

Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, the 81-year-old bluegrass legend led his six-piece band through a set of hot-picking and high, lonesome harmonies as they performed songs from the Virginia native’s six decades at the forefront of traditional bluegrass artistry.

Before kicking off the show with a tuneful romp through the bluegrass chestnut “Sitting on Top of the World,” Stanley encouraged the crowd to show their appreciation for the band by telling one of the many jokes he peppered the audience with between musical numbers. “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard,” he quipped in his slow mountain drawl, as the small but vocal crowd roared its approval.

Since forming the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother Carter in 1946, Stanley has gained a reputation as a master showman who performs with some of the finest musicians ever to grace a stage.

Friday night proved that legacy was well deserved as the band, which included Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, tore through classics such as “Little Maggie,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “A Robin Built a Nest for Daddies Grave” with a mix of practiced showmanship and seemingly effortless skill.

As entertaining as the band may have been, however, there was never any doubt as to the star of the evening’s show. From the moment he ambled into the spotlight, the smallest figure on the stage commanded attention by his mere presence and the weight of musical history resting on his frail shoulders.

Although the march of time has slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”

One of the evening highlights, as at any Ralph Stanley show, was his a cappella reading of the chilling dirge “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor, entering his eighth decade, would be with us to share his remarkable talents.

Yet not unlike the best blues performances, which somehow seem to bring a smile to your face while detailing life’s more depressing aspects, the crowd’s festive mood only seemed strengthened by the song’s honesty. Stanley clearly feed off their enthusiasm, calling out for requests as a wide grin played across his still boyish face.

After making a joke about his failing memory, he grabbed a sheet of handwritten lyrics and led the band through his self-penned number “I’ll Answer the Call” before turning them loose on several instrumental numbers showcasing each musicians considerable talents. After disappearing from the stage for several minutes, Stanley returned with a chair and proceeded to sit behind his band, listening and nodding in approval.

He wasn’t down for long, however, as he rose, took off his jacket, strapped on his banjo and showed why he has long been considered an innovator on the instrument, having pioneered a technique still referred to as “Stanley style.”

Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and “Angle Band” and closing the night with a sped up, punk-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left several of the audiences younger members nodding in appreciation.

As the lyrics to “I’ll Answer the Call” state:

“I cannot sing like an angel,

I cannot preach like Paul,

But Lord when you get ready,

I’ll try to answer the call.”

Judging from the applause of the audience and the smiles on the faces making their way into the warm spring night outside the theater, Dr. Ralph Stanley continues to answer the call of bluegrass fans the world over each and every time he steps out onto a stage.

Having promised to make his way back to Eastern North Carolina on future tours, one can only hope he continues to answer that call for years to come.