Shows I’ve Seen: American Acoustic Festival, Part I

This festival took place the weekend of June 24th, and it’s taken me till July 20th to review it. Total fail, though really this series of shows was so memorable that I could probably write this a year from now and still remember every detail.

To be fair, the week after the festival was spent moving my insane amount of crap out of my apartment in Baltimore and into a storage unit…

The next week I was sick with a crazy fever + puking… (I did NOT get the job I interviewed for while running a fever, but it’s fun wondering what kooky things I may have told the interviewer over the phone while my temperature was 102.)

The next week was an existential crisis over the fact that I’m basically George Costanza right now, unemployed and living with my parents. I am not, however, anywhere near bald. Trying to look on the bright side, here 😉

So I guess this is the week I’ll be updating my blog that nobody reads! (Hey, not that I blame you.. I mean, why read George’s blog when you could read Jerry’s?)

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American Acoustic @ The Kennedy Center – Washington, DC on 6/24/16

Evening show ft. Chris Thile & the Punch Brothers, Edgar Meyer & Bela Fleck, and I’m With Her (Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O’Donovan)

Wow. My mind couldn’t wrap myself around this lineup. My mother reared me on all kinds of music, but what resonated with me the most were the classical/Americana/bluegrass-fusion albums recorded by Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, and Mark O’Connor as a trio. This genre-mesh continues to fascinate me, and has only evolved since these albums were released in the mid-90’s. Chris Thile has been recording with Edgar Meyer in recent years, and joined him and Yo-Yo Ma with the addition of Stuart Duncan on 2011’s “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.” Mom and I saw Edgar Meyer in concert several years back, and also enjoyed hearing him with Bela Fleck on “Music For Two” and “Uncommon Ritual.” These guys are true masters of their craft, using incredible musicianship to mix genres in a modern way while still paying homage to old traditions. Needless to say, Mom was the perfect date for this show.

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During the first half of the evening, each of the three groups performed some of their own material. For the second half, they all sat in a semi-circle and took turns joining each other in the middle of the stage for some truly amazing collaborations.

I’ve been dying to see the Punch Brothers live for awhile now, and they did not disappoint in the slightest. Thile leads the band with his own quirky sort of hip geekiness, but the guys play as a true unit. No detail is left unaccounted for – dynamics, technical proficiency, rhythm, or emotion. I could do an entire post on my love of all things Chris Thile, but I’ll try to contain myself in this one and save that for another time. Prepare yourselves.

If the Meyer/Ma/O’Connor albums adapt bluegrass and Americana to a classical idiom, the Punch Brothers build on this by doing the opposite. They take pop-oriented songs and play them on traditional bluegrass instruments, but treat them like classical pieces. When I first heard Thile sing, I thought he sounded eerily similar to a Backstreet Boy. Nowadays, I appreciate the way his voice weaves in and out of this crazy tapestry of instrumental layers, wailing pop metaphors while he and the band play meticulous melodies that spur and slow in the vein of a dynamically-charged classical piece. Don’t believe me? Check out his 40-minute classical suite for bluegrass instruments featured on the first Punch Brothers album.

Edgar Meyer & Bela Fleck’s set featured some of the beautiful music on the aforementioned “Music for Two” album. Mom and I watched the album’s making-of bonus DVD back when I was in high school, and laughed ourselves silly when Bela Fleck freaked out over the piece Edgar wrote in 15/8. I love Edgar Meyer, but he goes way over my head… and even over Bela Fleck’s head, it seems. That’s saying a lot, since Bela is one of the greatest banjo players in the world. The music they play together continues the theme of classical bluegrass seen on the “Uncommon Ritual” album,  but with only two layers. The beauty of the duet lineup is that that you can clearly hear the way Bela’s haunting banjo melodies compliment the low, resonant dance of Edgar’s bass.

I was insanely excited to hear I’m With Her, a band comprised of three women with stellar careers in their own rights. Sara Watkins blew me away when I saw her live for the first time in March, and Sara Jarosz… Well, read my review of her new album to get the gist on why I love her. The member I knew the least about was Aoife O’Donovan, but that changed REALLY fast after I saw her sing live, and I’ve been blasting Crooked Still albums for weeks.

These ladies’ voices blend together in a way I never really knew was possible. Sometimes they sound as though they’re one voice, and sometimes the harmony is so sweet you can’t imagine that even heaven could sound that good (Thile said something along those lines during the show). These women do with their voices what the Punch Brothers do with their instruments, using the subtleties of dynamic, rhythm, melody, and harmony in such a way that the result is overwhelming and achingly beautiful to the ear. Sara Watkins’ sweet voice, jumping easily between a high falsetto and a pure lead, blends perfectly with Aoife O’Donovan’s crystal-clear, airy counterpart, while Jarosz’s low, sometimes husky croon holds down the bass for the trio. I can’t figure out if these ladies are greater than the sum of their parts or not. I love them together just as much as I do apart.

The collaboration between members of the three groups is where things got really interesting. I’m With Her sang a beautiful song with Edgar Meyer backing them on bass. One of the great thing about Meyer is that he knows when pull out all the stops and when to hold back. He can be flashy, or he can compliment another group perfectly by stepping back and using simple lines that bring them together as a whole.

Jarosz sang a song with the Punch Brothers that left me spellbound, and it took me the longest time to figure out if it was a Punch Brothers song or a Jarosz song. Turns out it was neither and both. It was a cover of Radiohead’s “The Tourist,” a track which Jarosz released on her second album, backed by Punch Brothers.

My favorite performance of the evening was a haunting rendition of “Here and Now” from the aforementioned album, “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.” This song featured the Punch Brothers + Meyer on bass + Aoife O’Donovan on lead vocals. I could feel the chills the minute O’Donovan and Thile started to sing together. The harmony is perfect, driving, and intense. These two are pure magic together.

This amazing group of musicians continued to impress throughout the evening as they paired up, paired down, and even played all together. I couldn’t imagine a better show, and I was in awe by the end of the evening. That night, I saw what they could do, but the next day I was able to get a good look into how they do it through two FREE workshops.

Stay tuned for Part II, and be prepared for some major fangirlisms 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shows I’ve Seen: Jason Isbell & Chris Stapleton

Whew, it’s been awhile. I’ve had so many post ideas, but not enough head space to take them on. The past two months have been complicated and a little up in the air, to put it lightly.

Anyhow, Ani DiFranco, Part II will be posted eventually. I had the pleasure of seeing The Lone Bellow play with the Baltimore Symphony a couple of months ago, which was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime show. Sarah Jarosz released a new album on Friday, which I’m itching to review. Robert Ellis, Lera Lynn, and Margaret Glaspy have also released new material I’ll be circling back to in the coming weeks/months/years – You know, however long it takes me to get my life straightened out. *insert begrudged emoji here*

In the meantime… Here is my review of a dual-headliner show that made me melt the minute it was announced.

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Jason Isbell & Chris Stapleton @ Merriweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD on 6/18/16

Act I: Jason

Jason. Freakin. Isbell. I saw you play in 2009, I believe it was, opening for Gov’t Mule. I bought your album and freaked out (in a good way) over how gritty, honest, and angst-ridden it was. Four years later, I rediscovered your music when I heard Southeastern, one of my favorite albums of all time. Several summers ago, I listened to this album for about 3 weeks straight during a particularly self-indulgent bout of existential angst. I used to say it made me want to wrap myself in an American flag and roll down a hill into a pyramid of empty PBR cans.

I guess that’s my version of gritty.

I’ve always thought of your songs as being more story-like than other artists. They’re so full of imagery, wit, and insight that sometimes I feel like I’m listening to Southern Gothic poetry set to music as opposed to country songs. Seeing you live, belting out these stories about who you are and where you came from, really brought that into perspective for me. And oh my, those slide solos! Nothing brings out the ache in a tale like a dueling slide outro.

The great thing about you, Jason is that you manage to take these archetypes of country – booze, women, the workin’ man – and turn them into something smarter and more poignant than a drunken tale of chugging too many Buds and getting in a brawl (although you do this very well in the song “Super 8.)

One minute, you’re singing the plight of the working man:

“When I get my reward, my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son
No more holes to fill. And no more rocks to break
And no more loading boxes onto trucks for someone else’s sake”

The next minute, you’re singing the achingly beautiful song, “Cover Me Up,” about how your wife, fiddle player and renowned musician Amanda Shires, rescued you from your spiraling alcoholism by sending your drunk ass to rehab.

You’ve been sober ever since, and I appreciate the sentiment you expressed on stage as Amanda stood beside you, a twinkle in her eye and a fiddle in her hand.  You said “This is a song about my wife. She’s here tonight, but I play it for her at every show, even if she’s not there.”

“But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone.”

Okay, I might have cried a little. To the total of two people probably reading this blog: Try watching this, and see if you don’t join me in this tear-fest.

“But home was a dream, one I’d never seen ’till you came along.”

Jason, you were perfect. I’m going to stop writing this like I’m talking to you, and instead try and narrate this experience like a normal person.

My one problem with this double Isbell-Stapleton bill? The venture into the Cult of Bro.

Act II: Stapleton:

Stapleton started packing major bro-cred ever since his duet with Justin Timberlake at the CMA’s went viral last year. Don’t get me wrong – this is GREAT for him. He’s been hanging in the Nashville scene for years, writing killer songs for other people and getting himself nominated for Grammys with my favorite bluegrass band, The Steeldrivers. “Traveller,” his first solo endeavor, is a phenomenal album full of great songs made even greater by his whiskey-tinged blues voice and haunting harmonies provided by his wife, Morgane. When they launched into their prolific version of “You Are My Sunshine,” the chills were real, and they were frigid.

I saw Chris live at the American Roots Festival in Raleigh, NC this past October, right before he blew up the charts. He was known more as a musician’s musician rather than a household name, and played during a crappy early afternoon time slot. Hardly anyone was in the audience except for crazy Stapleton-hipsters like myself. Let’s be real, y’all, “I liked him before he was cool.” I hate myself for saying that, and I hate myself even more for saying what I’m about to say, which is that I said that ironically. I’ve become such a dirty ole hipster that it’ll take slugging copious amounts of Bud with the fratbros to knock myself out of it.

Anyhow, turning the clock back to this show at Merriweather, the fratbros were clearly there for Stapleton. The Isbell-diehards were all in the seated section, tears streaming down their faces for all to see on the jumbotron. I hate myself once again for sounding like a snob, but the fratbros do not understand the genius that is Isbell. They don’t hear the prose and subtle wit that make up each masterpiece of a song. They like Stapleton because he sings about whiskey (God love him). I saw so many Bud-slugging, wifebeater-wearing, girlfriend’s ass-slapping good ‘ole bros that I thought I was at a Florida Georgia Line show. They knew every single line to those songs on “Traveller” and hollered harder with each subsequent reference to whiskey. I was very impressed by Stapleton’s rollicking electric versions of Steeldrivers songs. The fratbros did not know any of the words to these oldies, despite the ever-present whiskey references.

Okay, I’m done being a self-loathing snobby hipster. I’m going to actually talk about the music instead of the fans.

What impressed me the most about Stapleton is that he essentially performed as a country/blues/rock power-trio, plus his wife on harmony vocals. I never thought of him as a guitar player as much as I did a powerhouse singer and songwriter. The man can freakin’ PLAY, and he holds his own without a rhythm guitarist or keys player to back him up. The muscle lies in his skill as a guitarist just as much as it does in his voice or his songs. That man is a force to be reckoned with.

Verdict:

Show: A++++++ (Ralphie, go get yourself a Red Rider BB gun)

Fans: C (I had to wash my hair three times to get the Bud smell out of it)

Oh, oh, oh. After that bout of judgemental hipsterness I just spewed onto you, my two readers, I will now proceed to mount my feminist high-horse (though I won’t apologize for that!)

One of the things I love about the alt-country genre is the idea that you can mix the great parts of the past with the changing ideals and values of the future. We can love whoever we want and treat people with respect while still singing in the style (but not mindset) of people who may think otherwise.

Thank you, Jason and Chris, for your obvious respect, love, and appreciation for these strong, talented women that sing beside you. Both men made a point of expressing gratitude towards their partner during the show, and have spoken fervently in interviews about their strength and talent.

Partnership > Patriarchy.

P.S – Jason and Chris, will you please run on a Presidental ticket with the slogan “Make Country Music Great Again? Or better yet, Amanda and Morgane could run. Please and thank you.

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That’s all, folks! Stay tuned this week for my review of the new Sarah Jarosz album, Undercurrent,” and my experience at the upcoming American Acoustic Festival ft. Chris Thile!