Tag Archives: folk

Looking for Natalie Merchant

NatalieMerchant_PortraitNatalie Merchant, the American singer/songwriter originally known for her work with the band 10,000 Maniacs, has enjoyed a long and successful solo career. In the coming months, she is releasing a new album of original compositions, Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings, which will harken back to her first solo release, Tigerlily (1995). That first solo album, along with her second release, Ophelia (1998) feature her warm, resonant vocals and lovely poetry set to mostly down-tempo, dreamy electric and acoustic instrumentation. After her third release in this style Motherland (2001), she expanded her pallet with two compelling explorations into historical music and literature, introducing listeners to a series of oft forgotten artists of the past. These were The House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003) and Leave Your Sleep (2010).

NatalieMerchant_HouseThe House Carpenter’s Daughter found Natalie playing musical anthropologist, taking listeners on a journey through a collection of primarily American folk music from traditional to contemporary ballads, hymns, and protest songs. Before the studio album was even recorded, I was able to catch her on a tour that showcased these songs and it is still the best performance I’ve seen from this artist. She was visibly happy, telling stories about each piece, and connecting the audience to their shared history, via a well-chosen set of rescued folk classics. During one of the songs from that evening, an old children’s ditty from the Deep South, “Soldier, Soldier” she skipped rope, as the song was originally intended to accompany that diversion.

NatalieMerchant_LoseCoverSimilarly, her next album Leave Your Sleep presented a collection of poetry for children put to music. The tracks were a result of six years conversations with her daughter about poems, stories and songs she found to, as she says, “delight and teach her.” What she discovered is a wonderful selection of prose from British and American poets clearly inspiring her to pen and record a very remarkable set of songs to match. She spent over five years researching and writing the “poem-songs,” finally whittling what ended up being 50 songs down to 26 for the release. The 2 CD package came with a picture book based on the album, for which Natalie collaborated with award-winning children’s book illustrator Barbara McClintock. The introductory prose by Mother Goose says it all:

Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street

I was able to catch the supporting tour for this unique recording at the Fox Theater in Oakland.  The show was filled with a series of sweet, poignant revelations from this artist as she shared family anecdotes and her love of poetry with the enthusiastic audience.  She projected a few slides for each song, showing a photo of the poet and accompanying artwork along with a story, a bit of the author’s history and why she chose it.

On record, I found it took several spins to begin to appreciate the diverse all-acoustic set, played in varying traditional styles, at mostly slow tempos. But as performed in concert the music and imaginative arrangements came to life.  The first set was all from Leave Your Sleep, after which Natalie returned for a collection of standards from her back catalog, including several tracks from her days with 10,000 Maniacs going back to their seminal release In My Tribe. In short it was a beautiful performance.

NatalieMerchant_CoverLast year Natalie released her sixth studio record simply titled Natalie Merchant, her first album of all original material since Motherland. I completely missed this one, only learning about it while preparing this article. It’s a shame, as the album continues where she left off in 2001, enriched by scores of musicians including strings and woodwinds players, and supported by a tour with some dates including a full symphony orchestra.

In her liner notes to The House Carpenter’s Daughter, Natalie Merchant, opining on the great tradition of folk music writes, “…a song that is universally loved and understood will endure the test of time and become folk music because it has made itself useful to so many of us.” To her fans, this applies to her music, meaningful poetry, and compelling live performances. Looking back over her career, seven albums in 20 years might not be prolific, but each is a quality work of art. We are now eagerly awaiting the next showing.

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Steeleye Spans Time

Steeleye Span Historical 72dpi
Steeleye Span’s Earlier Years

Steeleye Span played the Great American Music Hall July 16th, 2015. They are one of those bands that never made it into my collection, though I have friends that are fans, and have heard some of their influential British folk and roots music over the last 45 years. In fact Steeleye Span has been held in high regard internationally for decades, beginning with their debut album in 1970, and they have a couple of hit singles and three Top 40 albums to show for it. I’ve always been a bit more attracted by the renaissance era and progressive influences found in groups like Gryphon, but am learning to appreciate folk and roots music as time passes. What we discovered at the show last week was a band that’s held up exceptionally well, as the current lineup is able to put across their brand of folk-rock with an uplifting and engaging show.

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Steeleye Span Maddy 72dpiLong time founding member Maddy Prior led the procession with a voice that is undiminished by time. She shared stories and historical perspective between the tracks, most of which were traditional songs and ballads. The band opened with “Blackleg Miner,” a track originating from Northumberland that enjoyed a brief revival in 1986 after a miner’s strike in the region. Of this song and it’s meaning, Maddy added “If you don’t pay your workers they will turn around and bite you in the bum!” Later in the first half of the set, “I Live Not Where I Love” showed off Maddy’s still pliant clear tones. Introducing the piece, she added, “This song is about true and abiding love, very deep and all-consuming love, and it disappoints me that I’ve sung this to two or three people in my head.” Other fan favorites included the hit “All Around My Hat” which led to an audience sing-along and ended the first of two sets. The encore was an “a capella” version of “Somewhere Along The Road.”

Steeleye Span Jessie 72dpiThe band’s lineup has changed frequently over the years, and Maddy was the only founding member on board for this latest tour. The rest of the group consisted of Julian Littman (guitars, vocals), Liam Genockey (drums) and amazing violinist Jessie May Smart, who played beautifully and added vocal harmonies throughout. Alex Kemp, Maddy’s son was intended to play bass instead of his father Rick Kemp, but lacked the paperwork to make it past border control for their US dates and was replaced by stand in. The band was tight, and focused on playing in unison behind their multi-part vocal harmonies, so key to the performance this traditional music. While Julian stepped up a few times to play some lead solos, it was Jessie who remained the focus instrumentally, with her virtuosic playing on full display.

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This was a pleasant evening of traditional music from Britain and beyond, and a feast for fans of the band that welcomed Maddy and the group with rapturous applause and undivided attention. The tour continues in the U.S. into July, then returns to Europe and the U.K. into mid-December, for all those inclined to celebrate the band and this rich musical heritage.

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Gryphon Take Flight

GryphonGIG_AdThis week we witnessed the first of six concerts from the 1970’s progressive folk/rock band Gryphon. Opening night took place at The Robin, a small club in Wolverhampton, on 12 May, 2015. The show was absolutely fantastic! There are more gigs planned through May, all taking place in England. If you can get to one it’s highly recommended!

Gryphon recorded 5 albums from 1971-1977, each with a slightly different contemporary take on traditional English folk music including medieval and Renaissance era sounds, and original compositions, which blended instruments like bassoon, crumhorn, recorders and mandolin, with modern electric bass, guitar, and keyboards. Their landmark work was a unique mix of influences that introduced generations of open-minded music lovers to the rich musical heritage of their past, seasoned with a bit of rock for the times.

Gryphon_RedQueenBack in the golden age of progressive rock there was an amazing array of artwork that graced record album covers, and I was originally drawn to Gryphon by the cover art for their third album Red Queen to Gryphon Three (1973). The music was as fantastic as implied by the sumptuous cover painting by Dan Pearce – an older man contemplating his chessboard in a pastoral scene recalling the Renaissance era.

Being from California, I never had the chance to see the group ply their trade live, though I was well aware they opened for Yes in Britain and on the east coast in 1975. They haven’t played live since then save for a one-off show in London 2009. Therefore, the shows this spring are a special chance to see these musicians perform their masterworks.

GryphonGIG_BandIt was absolutely well worth the wait. The band played their set in two halves, the first covering a number of their early tracks with an emphasis on their self-titled debut, which includes a number of more traditional pieces. The second half of the show added the title track from Midnight Mushrumps, a good portion of crowd-favorite Red Queen to Gryphon Three, and a fun encore with some unexpected deviations from their normal fare.

GryphonGIG_GraemeANDDavidOberleFrom the moment the guys first took the stage it was striking to hear how effective they were going to be in a live setting. There was a consistent display of virtuosity from each of the skilled multi-instrumentalists. Drummer Dave Oberle and Brian Gulland occasionally sang in rich bass and baritone voices undiminished by their long absence from the stage. Dave’s work on drums and percussion, along with bass player Jon Davie anchored the songs with rumbling toms, and a thick and varied bottom end. Guitarist Graeme Taylor spent the evening seated with his acoustic guitar front and center, adding shimmering rhythms and leads to the music. Relative newcomer Graham Preskett filled in on all sorts of instruments including the only electronic keyboard, along with guitar, violin and winds. Founder Richard Harvey and Brian led with solo and dueling winds and traditional keyboards, each thrilling the audience with their display of talent. Richard’s lightening fast leads on recorders bring honor to a sometimes-maligned instrument. Brian’s skill on the bassoon is a fun listen – certainly something you won’t often hear elsewhere. And, you haven’t seen anything in progressive folk/rock until you witness two expert krumhorn players duel with rapid-fire counterpoint! There was good humor on display from all, particularly Richard who introduced most of the selections.

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Brian with Jon Davie

It was an exciting evening, long anticipated, and all we hoped for. Earlier this year, of these shows drummer Dave Oberle remarked: “The last proper tour was 39 years ago. Some of the people who will come to this concert weren’t even born when we started. We know a lot of the audience are “silver surfers” that are our age, but if you look at the web stats, there are guys 15-24 years olds telling us they found our records in their dad’s collection and are looking forward to seeing us. It’s medieval meets the 20th century!” In fact, attending with us was a young bass player studying music at Leeds who to Dave’s point, very much enjoyed the experience. Here’s hoping the group take this music to the public again – it’s best served up live by this important band.

The Band:

Richard Harvey – Keyboards, Recorders & Krumhorn
Brian Gulland – Vocals, Harmonium, Bassoon & Krumhorn
Graeme Taylor – Guitars
Dave Oberle – Vocals, Drums & Percussion
Jon Davie – Bass and Guitar
Graham Preskett – Keyboards, Winds, Violin, Enthusiasm

The Gigs:

By the time this hits Gonzo Weekly, there will only be three chances left to catch Gryphon on this short tour. These are the last dates for now:

17th May – Hertford Corn Exchange (Gryphon special guests to Fairport Convention)

        Tickets:

        – Website: http://www.reallylivemusic.com
        – Tel: 07904 333923 (Enquiries:10am-6pm, Mon-Sat)

20th May – Southampton Talking Heads

        Tickets:

        – Website:www.thetalkingheads.co.uk
        – Tel: 02380 678 446

29th May – London Union Chapel

        Tickets: 

         – Website: http://store.unionchapel.org.uk/events/29-may-15-gryphon-union-chapel/

 

If I might make a recommendation to anyone who is interested in progressive rock, medieval and Renaissance sounds and instrumentation I would say, hop off that couch and catch one of these shows!

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Richard Harvey
GryphonGIG_GrahamPreskett
Graham Preskett
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Graeme Taylor
GryphonGIG_DaveOberle
Dave Oberle
GryphonGIG_BrianGulland
Brian Gulland

 

America at Home

america_2America is one of the few rock bands from the US that I’ve followed since first hearing them on the radio as a teenager. I first saw them perform at a bicentennial concert with the Beach Boys and Santana way back in 1976 and they’ve stuck with me ever since.

The band started in 1970 as a trio of multi-instrumentalists Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek, and Gerry Beckley. Their core period of success ran until 1977 at which point Dan Peek left the band. Since then, Dewey and Gerry have carried on as a duo, recording and releasing records, but primarily touring the world averaging 100 shows a year. We saw them perform last night Tuesday November 6, 2014 at Yoshi’s in Oakland California with a crack backing band, some videos, stories to tell and lots of hits to play.

america_hattrickMy sister owned America’s third record, Hat Trick (1973), which meant that I played it incessantly then and since. The album includes some of their most adventurous, accomplished work, though it was disappointing to them commercially. The opening track “Muskrat Love” was actually penned by Willis Alan Ramsey – later ruined by a cloying Captain & Tennille rendition. America’s version is a fitting opener for the album – a charming lead in to a beautiful set of rich and varied compositions. The piano driven “Wind Wave” highlights Dewey’s forceful vocal power while “She’s Gonna Let You Down” is one of Gerry’s prettiest love songs. Dan penned two tracks – the first, “It’s Life” features a clever transition driven, uncharacteristically, by a bit of synthesizer leading to a rocking coda. The title track runs longer than 8 minutes, with several complete changes of key and cadence and backing vocals by three members of The Beach Boys. The hard rocking “Green Monkey” includes lead electric guitar played by Joe Walsh and one of their most hippie-era appropriate lyrics “Speak the wisdom of a Redwood tree – speak to me”. In short, Hat Trick is the band’s most progressive work – small wonder it disappointed on sales charts at the time given they were building a fan base looking for more radio-friendly hits.

america_1Now 40 years on, only one song from Hat Trick, “Green Monkey” made it into last night’s set list, though there were other deep cuts along with the hits, and covers. “Tin Man” started the show sounding fresh and vibrant. “Ventura Highway”, “Sister Golden Hair”, “Sandman”, “I Need You” and other popular songs were all crowd pleasers. A couple of covers found on their album Back Pages (2011) – “Til I Hear It From You” (Gin Blossoms) and “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell) sounded great – Gerry introducing that album as one where they covered songs they wished they had written. The show’s encore was Dewey’s “A Horse With No Name,” America’s first single and biggest hit. Occasionally Gerry had trouble with some of his singing – mostly phrasing, but Dewey didn’t miss a note and all in all vocals and musicianship were all top notch. At one point Dewey said, “We’re up here reliving our youth – something we’ve been doing for the past, oh, 20 years!” Sure a bit of nostalgia, but more importantly, a night of quality rock music in the American tradition.

Genesis – Sum of the Parts (Minus Two)

hackett_2The teaser for the new documentary “Genesis – Together and Apart” (in the states called “Sum of the Parts”) begins with a quote from Phil Collins: “We’re out entertaining people and if they’re entertained we’ve done our job properly” – later adding “We just got more and more popular – I won’t take the credit and I won’t take the blame.” This perfectly sums up the dichotomy that is Genesis – the older work in the 1970’s from Trespass (1970) to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) with Peter Gabriel up front, along with the three subsequent albums created after Phil Collins took over vocals, found the band playing an eclectic blend of classical, rock, and English folk – a complex, determined form of “progressive rock.” The latter half of the band’s career in the 1980’s and after brought them massive success as a skillful pop rock band.  The two incarnations have been at odds in the media for decades.

During the early years the group was subject to criticism from mainstream press as being too obtuse, too arty to be real “rock-n-roll.” But then the latter, more popular incarnation that embraced pop over prog was accused of having sold out – of cashing in. When you listen to the band members interviewed in the documentary, you still pick up on the impact of this contest between complex artistic music and the more simple pop form. In reality given a bit of distance and historical perspective, both phases of the bands career have incredible merit, and the debate is needless.

hackett_1Unfortunately, in editing the new documentary some the early Genesis story was cut a bit short, both in terms of coverage of their ‘70’s work and also more seriously with the exclusion of the long solo careers of founding guitarist Anthony Phillips and his replacement Steve Hackett. In addition, editorial as to the time when Steve joined and then later left Genesis, and two of the Genesis albums containing much of his best work with the band receive short shift. Steve complained of this in print, stating: “It’s certainly a biased account of Genesis history, and totally ignores my solo work.” The truth of this is immediately evident to any knowledgeable viewer.

Here’s my attempt to fill the missing segments related to Steve Hackett, and do so in the style of the film. Will save Anthony Phillips, who is also left out of the R-Kive box set, for a later date.  Here, I will cast my thoughts in roles of voiceover, pop music critic, Radio DJ, comedian, gardener and music journalist to provide the missing material, in documentary style (no relationship to actual or real persons is intended or implied):

Steve Hackett Joins the Band:

Editorial: The segment covering the difficult transition after Anthony Phillips left the group includes the impact of that change, along with Phil’s recruitment and history, but leaves Steve’s a bit light. To make this more inclusive we should insert the following in the timeline, circa 1971:

Voiceover: After Anthony Phillips departed Genesis, the search was on for a new guitar player. Steve Hackett had placed an ad in Melody Maker seeking a band “determined to strive beyond existing stagnant forms.” Indeed, Steve brought a definitive edge to the Genesis sound – he could in one turn play quiet 12 string guitars in harmony with Mike Rutherford, then cut to his electric guitar for searing riffs and power-chords. Never monopolizing the limelight, he seemed comfortable taking shorter leads and coloring the bands overall sound with intricate, detailed playing.

hackett_3Music Journalist: Steve’s tapping technique, an influence on so many guitar players including Eddie Van Halen deserves due credit as a key part of the early Genesis sound, as heard on tracks like “Return of the Giant Hogweed” or the tapping and sweep picking heard on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.” Steve hit fewer notes but invested them with feeling, precision and import.

Gardener: The plaintive sustained tones making up the melody in the center of “Firth of Fifth” is one of the most beautiful and compelling musical passages in their early work. The middle solo, even when played by touring guitarist Daryl Struermer, remained a highlight of their shows for years.

Editorial: After Steve’s intro, and some quality coverage of Nursery Crime (1971) and Foxtrot (1972) the masterpiece Selling England By the Pound (1973) is then given limited time in the documentary. The aforementioned tracks that feature Steve are stunning, while Tony’s playing on “Cinema Show” – Phil driving the long instrumental with his trademark skipping beat – is magical, becoming a major crowd pleaser in live shows with dual drummers after Gabriel’s departure. We would insert the following into the timeline, circa 1973:

Radio DJ: To be honest, Selling England By The Pound marks the point at which the band really sound fantastic in the studio and represents the best summary of that era’s very English, pastoral, classically tinged progressive rock.

Pop Music Critic: I don’t know what “progressive rock means” – unifauns? Twenty three minute, six second songs… really?

Editorial: While The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) receives just airtime, itself marking the time Peter Gabriel left the group, this would also have been the right moment to introduce the solo career of Steve Hackett:

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Voyage of the Acolyte
Released: October 1975
Chart Position: #26 in the UK (silver); #191 in the US

Voiceover: Steve recorded his first solo album just weeks after the last date on the Lamb Lies Down tour and at the same time the remaining members of Genesis were working on their first post-Gabriel recording. The album sounds quite a bit like Genesis, even sporting some material that the band had auditioned but rejected.

Music Journalist: The standout tracks are the rocking opener “Ace of Wands” and the closer – the beautiful, haunting “Shadow of the Hierophant” which ends in a doom-laden coda that would have perfectly fit Genesis. Though Mike and Phil both play on the record, Mike states in his autobiography that he felt a bit badly about the timing, since the real focus of the four remaining band members was to get the next Genesis album right.

Gardener: As it turned out, the next album A Trick of the Tail (1976) ended up doing quite well, and Steve seems as confident and vested in that work as anything.  Steve’s album also did a decent business… but it was also the first step towards leaving the band.

Editorial: The documentary skips this important moment on the band’s history (together or apart), and instead moves on to a decent segment on Trick of the Tail. However, the next, equally important release Wind & Wuthering (1976) is nearly left out:

Music Journalist: The Wind & Wuthering album and it’s companion EP Spot The Pigeon are outstanding, showcasing every member of the four piece band, and containing some of Steve’s best work – the opening siren call of “Eleventh Earl of Mar” with it’s quiet centerpiece – the gorgeous classical guitar featured on “Blood on the Rooftops” and the three part album closer that follows – still featured in Hackett’s concerts today.

Pop Music Critic: Steve left the band at the end of mixing for Seconds Out – the double-live album culled from their 1976-77 concerts, as it was clear his role was waning and they were moving in a more pop friendly direction.

Comedian: I’m into Genesis and I’m not going to apologize! Not too sure about “Squonk” though!

Editorial: In the film, Steve is shown (finally) in group interview explaining that he felt unable to get enough of his material included on the band’s records – ‘nuff said. I’ve always picked up that the rest of the band felt his method of departure was more awkward and acrimonious than has been shared – the “saw him on the street” story Phil tells just seems a bit light.

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Please Don’t Touch
Released: May 1978
Chart Position: #38 in the UK; #103 in the US

Voiceover: Steve’s first record after leaving Genesis is a bit of an experiment, with Hackett trying out several different styles including rock, prog, and jazz. Guest vocalist Steve Walsh (Kansas) lends his powerful pipes to two tracks, while Richie Havens and Randy Crawford lend softer, lovely tones to three others.

Gardener: The title track is a standout, apparently offered by Steve for inclusion on the Wind & Wuthering album, but rejected – it’s a tour de force highlighting his assertive playing, and ability to switch rapidly between keys and meters.

Music Journalist: The delicate instrumental played with just Steve on acoustic guitar and his brother John Hackett on flute, named for his then wife Kim Poor, is exquisite, and points the way to a later acoustic work Bay of Kings.

Radio DJ: Ultimately this second album is an amalgam of styles, unique in Hackett’s repertoire – the artist in search of a new sound.

Editorial: The first Genesis release without Steve, came the same year, appropriately titled And Then There Were Three (1978.) This was also an album where the remaining band members search for a new sound, trying to land somewhere between opener “Down and Out” and closing hit “Follow You, Follow Me.”

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Spectral Mornings
Released: May 1979
Chart Position: #22 in the UK; #138 in the US

Voiceover: Steve’s next album came as he built up a band to tour his solo work. His new group, including Peter Hicks (vocals), Nick Magnus (keys), Dik Cadbury (bass), John Shearer (drums) and brother John (flute/keys) joined to record this album, and undertook a tour to perform it and material from his first two solo efforts.

Music Journalist: This album and its follow up Defector is where Steve finds his footing as a solo artist. Vocal tracks including “Every Day” and “The Virgin and the Gypsy,” lend respectable lyrics to both progressive and popular structures. Instrumentals like “Clocks” and “Spectral Mornings” are fine displays of both his pastoral and ominous tendencies as composer.

Gardener: This is the album where Hackett truly finds his own voice – the band sound tight as a unit, Hicks delivers smooth vocals backed by Hackett and Cadbury, and the album is a cohesive collection of songs that have an identity apart from Genesis.

Editorial: A clear, high quality DVD of one of these early shows was released last year.

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Defector
Released: June 1980
Chart Position: #9 in the UK; #144 in the US

Voiceover: Defector found Steve continuing in the style of Spectral Mornings – the two can be taken as a pair representing his quintessential work.

Music Journalist: Standout track “Jacuzzi” is bright and airy, showcasing Steve’s versatility and John’s fantastic, intricate flute. The mid section veers into more minor tones and highlights Steve’s tapping technique. The whole band plays splendidly on this handsome instrumental.

Pop Music Critic: I really loved the song “The Show” when my parents used to play it for me.

Voiceover: Steve’s work continued with his last two releases for Charisma – Cured (1981) and Highly Strung (1983). He continues his solo career today, alternating between classical, jazz and progressive rock releases. Fans of early Genesis warmed to Steve’s solo work, which continued in more of a progressive rock tradition, albeit a bit updated, fresher sounding in the keys section, and even including a bit of pop structure for good measure.

Hackett Today

hackett_4_bandHackett is also the one ex-Genesis solo artist who consistently continues to perform work he originally recorded with Genesis. He’s released two albums titled “Genesis Revisited” and is currently on a two-year tour for the second, exclusively playing songs from their 1971-1976 output. Given the sold out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October 2013, it’s clear there is still strong interest in the classic era Genesis work.

While we can hope for a expanded documentary that truly shows all band members “together and apart”, here’s hoping this helps to round out the story. Another great way to hear the band members tell the tale of Genesis is to invest in the box sets, which include the remastered albums, and almost all available footage and videos of the group over the years. Each disc contains a documentary of the album, using direct quotes from each member of this seminal band, whether pop or prog.

Paula Frazer and Tarnation

Paula_3Paula Frazer is a singer/songwriter and recording artist whose work is characterized as “alternative country,” or “electric folk.”  Her voice is absolutely gorgeous – in the vein of a Emmylou Harris or Shawn Colvin, and very modern.  Her lyrics touch on themes of love and loss.  Her music and her own playing demonstrate very eclectic, refined tastes.  Paula’s recording history includes solo works and releases under the name Tarnation or Paula Frazer and Tarnation – all of which are essentially Paula and her many friends and collaborators.  She released three records as Tarnation during the 90’s on the Nufsed and 4AD labels, then released four more records since the turn of the century as Paula Frazer solo or plus Tarnation (full discography here). Paula spent part of the last several years playing with Skystone and is about to release a new EP this September with a complete album next March.

Paula_CornershopPaula has also been a guest on recordings by numerous friends and contemporaries.  A personal favorite is her vocal on Cornershop’s “Good to Be on the Road Back Home Again” from 1997.  I’d only just recently been introduced to her work, and have fallen for her many beautiful, sometimes haunting recordings.  I had the chance to talk with Paula in her Victorian era San Francisco home this week surrounded by her instruments, crafts and a weaving loom.  We started by discussing her many live performances, and her love of playing live in almost any setting:

D: How do you decide on the venues to play?

Mostly through friends, but it’s a funny as it changes so much.  The bookers seem to change and move around – so I’m always calling and asking “Do you know anyone at this venue?”  We play many diverse sites, and even are happy to play at a party – hang out talk to people, play some songs.  Our music works well for that – I have a pedal steel player, David Cuetter, and another fellow, Jacob Aranda, who sings with me and plays mandolin and guitar and I play guitar and we trade off acoustic and electric.  It works out really well.

Paula_1D: As a working musician, you used to go from release, to concert, to release, but it seems now you are moving ahead as part of a community

Yeah, its always been that way – we were talking about Tarnation and what people think is Tarnation vs. my solo stuff – its really the same because I’ve always played with different musicians – whoever is available.  Sometimes musicians can play in town but they can’t go on tour because they have a family or something or there’s not enough money involved – just different things – people can’t quit their jobs and go on tour – or people move away.  So Tarnation was never really a set band – every record had different musicians playing on it.  I started out playing solo as Tarnation, then with a couple of guys who moved on, then others – I kept changing the lineup.  It’s always been like that.

D: During the early days of Tarnation, Gentle Creatures was released on the 4AD label and that continued with Mirador in 1997 with the addition of Warner Bros in the states.  What was going on at that time?

I did play some shows under the name Tarnation with some people and we played at the Great American Music Hall, and we met David Katznelson from Warner’s who liked us but was not ready to put us there without development – so he talked with 4AD about doing the first record and then combined their efforts on the second.

D: I was thinking about that word “development” when labels used to be able to take time with an artist over multiple releases – seems less common today.

Paula_GuitarsIt still happens but it does not seem as frequent as in the 90’s – there are still some development deals with labels, but its not like it used to be. A lot of things are coming into play with that – lack of CD sales, attitudes about “music should be free” and “artists should have a day job.”  I don’t know where it’s going but it still feels like the laws have not caught up to the technology – there isn’t a lot of protection for artists and musicians these days or even a lot of support.  In the 70’s there was a lot of art everywhere – still happens, you can go downtown and see a sculpture, but not like it was.  So it seems to have trickled out of fashion – even getting music and art to be taught in school is difficult now.

D: Then there were three records on the Birdman label – was there some development work on your behalf there.

Paula_2David Katznelson who worked at Warner/Reprise and first saw me play, also had Birdman Records – he talked to 4AD about me.  He and Mark Koselic (Red House Painters) talked me up – a few people at the time helped, which is wonderful when people do that.  David worked out the deal with 4AD and Reprise.  After that he continued to put my records out on Birdman – he left Reprise and moved up here and had a family and so Birdman faded back after awhile.  It’s hard to sell physical media anymore.

D: How is iTunes working as a way to get your music out there?  Are the economics similar or very different from selling physical media?

Paula_GIJaneI notice that most of what I’ve made as come from soundtrack work – licensing – and it seems how so many people make a living now.  I’ve played on several soundtracks – most fun was “The Breakup” with Keifer Sullivan and Bridget Fonda as they flew me down to LA to play along with the film.  Also I played a track for the film G.I. Jane which starred Demi Moore. I have not seen a lot of money from downloads, because I think a lot of it goes to recoupables – I don’t owe money out of pocket but did have expenses from touring and those things – I hope it’s going to that.

D: During the last 5-7 years there has not been a full album release – what’s been your path?

Paula_SkystoneMuch of this time has been playing with Skystone.  We never toured or released a record other then a song on a compilation for Northern Star Records.  We played together for a couple of years – me, Brock Galland (guitar/voice) and Royce Seader (drums.)  Royce more recently moved to New York.  The thing that was cool about Skystone was we were playing more heavy sounding stuff but I was still singing the same way I did in Tarnation – just louder!  It really made my voice a lot stronger.

D: What music or musicians do you like out there today?

Paula_DrumsThere is a band called Prairie Dog which is Sara Beth Nelson – I love her music and seeing her play.  Tom Heyman, I love his stuff – we’ve played together and he plays all kinds of instruments.  I like Sea Dramas a lot – they are great – a lot like Magnetic Fields.  Ryan Fuller from Fort King was on the bill at a recent Virginia City show.  Aaron Embry, Tim and Nicki Bluhm – all favorites. On the national front, I listen to a lot of ‘70’s music but not as many new bands.  From the past there’s Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, Karen Carpenter, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, the Wilson sisters from Heart, and… Ennio Morriconi – I would love to sing on any of his soundtracks. Milton Nascimento is a Brazilian player who plays psychedelic jazz and other forms – the records and arrangements are wonderful.  I would like to sing with him – he’s still out touring.  I would love some day to sing with the Brendan Perry, the lead singer from Dead Can Dance – he has a great voice.  So many people I would love to sing with are gone – maybe we will eventually project holograms and then be able to again!

Part of the reason I like the older stuff is because with newer material the mastering has become so blasted out – it’s bass-ed out, blown out – too loud. It’s just not easy to listen to for my ears – I like the way we used to do it with analogue equipment.  Paula_analogWhen you make a modern record you have to put it at a certain level so it can play up along side all the new productions –otherwise the volume isn’t stable.

D: How does your compositional process work?

There been a few times where I have a concept and I sit down and write it down and write music to it, but more typically I write the music, and then the concepts and words after.  Mostly its love songs, or “lost love” songs,  except with Skystone when I was writing about UFO’s and mystical things.  Skystone sounded like Heart, who I was influenced by, plus Siousxie and then we did some stuff that sounded like Hawkwind!  I love Gong and Hawkwind.

D: What’s been happening more recently and what’s next for you?

Recent things include – Fresh and Only’s just came out with a record that I’m on – they are really good – people love them. I was on a Greg Ashley recording last year. I’m always singing on people’s stuff – might do one with Jeffrey Luck Lucas soon.

Paula_InSomeTime_CoverI am working on a new album for next year – looking to put out an EP called In Some Time with three songs this September – the three tracks on the EP are:

– In Some Time –

Paula Frazer – Vocals, guitar, Bass, Greg Moore – Vocals, Sam Foster – drums, Jesse Jackson – Guitar, Thomas Heyman – pedal steel, engineered by Desmond Shea, Paula Frazer and Nigel Pavao, mixed by Nigel Pavao, mastered by Alex Oropeza

– On The Way Back Home –

Paula Frazer – Vocals, guitar, percussion, Greg Moore – Vocals, Sam Foster – drums, Jesse Jackson – Guitar, Adam Thompson – Bass, engineered by Jay Bronzini, Desmond Shea, Paula Frazer and Nigel Pavao, mixed by Nigel Pavao, mastered by Alex Oropeza

– Distant Star -
Paula Frazer – Vocals, guitar, Bass, Percussion, Donny Newenhouse – drums, Jesse Jackson – Guitar, engineered by Nigel Pavao, mixed by Nigel Pavao, mastered by Alex Oropeza

– Songs Written by Paula Frazer
Tarnation Publishing BMI
Art layout by John Borruso

The release date will be 9/23, with Pre-Orders starting on 9/16.  The full album titled What is and Was is planned for a March release and I’m looking at labels for that release now.

D: I’ve listened to the first three tracks from the record, and would describe them as being in the same neighborhood as with Paula’s last release Now It’s Time.  More pretty and melancholic electronic folk that’s soothing while also being interesting throughout. One difference is in Paula’s vocal delivery – it’s stronger, more up front in the mix – a likely result of the time she’s spent on the louder side of rock most recently.  Expert, crafted musicianship, and even some flute!  Highly recommended.  Also if you happen to be in Los Angeles, here are a couple of upcoming dates:

– Sept 19 at Taix – 10pm
Taix French Restaurant
1911 W. Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Phone: (213) 484-1265
http://taixfrench.com/

– Sept 20 at HM157 – 8 pm
Historical Monument No. 157
3110 N Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90031
Phone: 562-895-9399
http://www.hm157.com/welcome?splash=1

Suzanne Vega at the Palace

After so many years, we finally decided to see Suzanne Vega play live, at the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco. Though I have been a fan of her brilliant poetry and soft folk whisper on record for years, the few live broadcasts I saw of her seemed lacking in personality. Apparently these were poor showings because at the palace last month Suzanne was funny, engaging and of very strong voice in her delivery of old and new work. She is touring to support a series of re-recordings of her best melodies over the years, now out on her own label, and coming in four parts beginning with Close Up, Vol. 1, Love Songs. Many of the highlights of the set were tracks from her first two releases, with standouts including Calypso, Gypsy, and The Queen and the Soldier bringing thunderous applause. The creative backing duo original bassist Mike Visceglia and guitar wizard Gerry Leonard added a bit of fusion and psychedelia into the mix improving the arrangements far beyond the studio originals. New tracks were equally resonant and even dramatic, coming from work Suzanne is doing for the stage this spring. Now very much a fan of both her studio and her live work. Fine art at the palace – yes.