Saturday, November 20, 2010

Roll With Me

Montgomery Gentry

It was with sadness that we learned this week that Eddie Montgomery has prostate cancer. The Inky Jukebox likes Mr. Montgomery because he manages, like a good rodeo clown, to excel at what he does by being who he is. Example: he reinforces everything you suspect about celebrity twittering: Dude tweets from the tour bus or plane late at night when he can’t sleep and uses a lot of exclamation points. 

This unhappy news reminded me that high on the list of shows I saw this year were Montgomery Gentry (named after Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry); they headlined the Country Throwdown tour and let me tell you something: it was a long hot day full of one stellar act after another; by the time these guys took the stage most folks were sporting severe sunburns and were on their seventh or eleventh beer. It was a rowdy crowd who voiced their wholehearted dedication to the band by singing along so loud at times they rivaled the PA system (no mean feat).

Troy and Eddie put on a hell of a show, though: a couple of hours that consisted of one hit after another, Eddie in his trademark long black duster and flat hat, Troy in sparkles playing flashy guitars. Eddie wields his mic stand as if it’s a cross between a cheerleader’s baton and a lion tamer’s whip. Here’s how they operate as a duo: Eddie sings the verses and Troy steps in to ramp up the vocal for the choruses. (Some People Change) They deliver songs about being rednecks, mostly, and being good Southern boys with old fashioned traditions and beliefs (My Town). These include getting drunk; wrecking cars; not giving a shit what anyone thinks of you; being surprised to have grown up; giving props to the military; and being down with Jesus. Typical stuff. (There’s One in Every Crowd) As such, they are the kind of band your Democrat friends wince at if they hear it blaring out of your car window as you sing along to “Long Line of Losers.”

This was the song I think the crowd sang loudest to, come to think of it. Perhaps it was the alcohol.

When you see Montgomery Gentry being interviewed, you notice a couple of things right off the bat. One, that they both have preternaturally white teeth. Their teeth are so damn dazzling they could misdirect incoming aircraft. Eddie was raised in a church where they handled snakes; no way are his real teeth that color. Two: Troy comes across as dumb as shit. Clearly he is not. Together they sound like what they actually are: childhood buddies having a lark. ("Hell Yeah")

I’ll say it: I love this band. I don’t care how cheesy or clich├ęd their songs are, or that they are beloved by folks with very different political beliefs than me. Every song on all of their records is great. The Inky Jukebox hopes Eddie makes a full recovery because I want to see them in concert again. ASAP. (How self-serving is that!) Why is there not a concert DVD, guys? Huh? 

If you are going to only listen to one of their songs, check out this little gem: Roll With Me. (Eddie: “He sang the crap out of it.”)

This is pretty funny: Speed.

Hear the boys speak about their songs at Montgomery Gentry's You Tube Channel

Friday, November 19, 2010

Awesome Foursome: Little Big Town

The Reason Why
Little Big Town

Little Big Town released their fifth record, The Reason Why, by Fleetwood Mac in August. That’s right, you heard me. If you got the joke, you already know how awesome Little Big Town are, so you can go make popcorn or feed the chickens or something. If you didn’t, then let me clarify.

Little Big Town are a quartet who make songs that sound like Fleetwood Mac if Fleetwood Mac’s music was a little more Nashville and a little less LA. And did less coke. And didn’t break up with each other so much. And were still around. The first time I heard Little Big Town I thought “They remind me of….hmmm….Fleetwood Mac….” And almost immediately I saw the CMT Crossroads special they did with Lindsey Buckingham which sort of sealed the deal. ("Go Your Own Way") If you ever wished Fleetwood Mac were still making great records, wish no more: they are. ("Kiss Goodbye")

Although a fair share of the singing is handled by the men, it is the ladies who are the stars of the show. Like any good foursome (ABBA), the blonde one catches your attention first, and then you realize that the brunette does most of the heavy lifting. I won’t beat around the bush: Kimberly Schlapman looks like Glen Close in Jagged Edge: scary as all-get-out. But listen to her: she has a Marilyn Monroe voice. (“Stay.”) Karen Fairchild’s voice is the kind ordinary girls think they could probably imitate but probably not. (“Shut Up Train.”) The magic happens when they sing together. On record it is lovely; if you listen to them in practice, a capella, it is sublime (“You Can’t Have Everything," "Bring It On Home.")

Little Big Town put on a great set at this year’s Country Throwdown. I saw them close-up when they rode past me on a vehicle, and let me tell you something: they look better than normal folks. They look like famous people. They were every bit as good live as they sound on record, which is no surprise. They also make handy back-up singers; they appeared on Jamey Johnson’s “Macon” and The Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather,” enriching both songs with the well-practiced harmony of a band who has been singing together for donkey’s years. Also check out the collaborations they’ve done with pals Sugarland (“Life In A Northern Town” and “Walking In Memphis.”)

The Reason Why you should get this album? Why the hell not? It’s really good. (“Lean Into It”) And Christine McVie retired, already. ("I'm With The Band") Besides they look good in thigh-high boots and shake tambourines. 

Capitol Nashville

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Everything He’s Cracked Up To Be

Uncle Kracker
Happy Hour

All superheroes have a sidekick: he’s there to perform essential tasks that fall beneath the dignity of the big guy; serve as the but of jokes; and his diminutive stature and/or lack of English and/or maturity make his big buddy look better. He usually gets stiffed with a more comical version of the superhero’s costume, and never gets the girl.

Uncle Kracker has long been Kid Rock’s sidekick, and to be sure, his career has been allowed to flourish slowly under his more flamboyant papa’s large wing. His first album, Doublewide, sounded more like a Kid Rock record he was given so much primo mic time. The one song that doesn’t have his master’s voice all over it is “Follow Me,” the hit that lit up the radio and brought Uncle Kracker to our attention. (Dig the cameos!) It is a mellow, happy-sounding plea to a girl to jump ship and take up housekeeping with the singer; it’s so upbeat though that you have to listen hard to hear that the lyrics are a bit strong.

Uncle Kracker’s new album, Happy Hour, is full of songs like that: you get the impression that this is one easygoing dude who flicks life’s annoyances (“My Girlfriend” turns out to be a lesbian / girlfriend pisses off to Hollywood (“I Hate California”) / girlfriend is a “Hot Mess” etc.) off his shoulder like so much dust. He’s riding along in his Cutlass Supreme singing “It’s Good To Be Me” with a “Smile.” He’s like the anti-Eminem, a Detroit boy who sees the sunny side of life.

He was marketed as a white rapper back in the day (when Kid Rock was rocking it Big Pimp style) but that is clearly not where his musical heart is. Nowadays he can be found on Country radio, though why this record qualifies as a country album God only knows. It’s a pop record, let’s be clear. Uncle Kracker makes lovely pop songs: there’s nothing on here that will hurt your ears.

He’s outgrown the whole sidekick gig. This can be seen in the video for “It’s Good To Be Me” where he and Kid Rock go for a ride and Mr. Rock takes shotgun: the message is clear: Uncle Kracker is in the driver’s seat. Indeed, he’s branched out lately with a popular duet with Kenny Chesney ("When The Sun Goes Down"), and he pulled up on Jason Aldean’s tour, which will have given him a great deal of play with the country crowd.

An interesting highlight of this album is the Bob Seger cover of “Mainstreet,” which sounds for all the world like the original. It’s as if Kracker got up at karaoke and completely demolished the competition. This has become a bit of a tradition; check out his version of “Drift Away” too (Dobie Gray!).

Personally, I’m glad he’s back; he ain’t the best singer out there; he ain’t the most good-looking; he ain’t the most charismatic. But he’s good at being himself, which makes any hour listening to this record a happy one. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Please Pass The Jar

Zac Brown Band and Friends 
Pass The Jar
Live from The Fabulous Fox Theatre, Atlanta

The Zac Brown Band have just released a DVD and double live CD that documents a concert they did to raise funds to help rebuild the fabled Georgia Theatre in Athens, and you should buy it.


Because unless you have had your head up your ass for the last two years (or not been listening to country radio, which some may argue amounts to the same thing), then you will not have been able to escape them. First, you will have liked, then hated “Chicken Fried,” their zydeco-styled paean to Georgia good-old-boy living, which was played too much for its own good. Then you will have loved the ballad “Highway 20 Ride” and the pop song “Whatever It Is” and thought huh; they can do more than fiddle around a campfire. Then “Toes” will have gotten on your nerves a bit, but that would not have prevented you from singing along. It’s been enough of an introduction to have garnered them some serious trophy action in the Best New division, but like most best new acts, this is because they’ve been around for donkey’s years honing their craft. To absolutely no-one’s surprise they walked away with the coveted New Artist of the Year gong at this week’s CMA’s.

So what, you ask?

The reason you should give a toss is that the Zac Brown Band are throwbacks: to a time when bands consisted of fuggly-looking musicians who could write and play the crap out of actual songs. When was the last time you saw a chubby bearded dude wearing a velvet jacket hit up lead guitar, mandolin, piano, organ, pedal steel and vocals? With absolute virtuosity? Not all at the same time, sure, but, you know, wow. (Clay Cook. That’s him singing “America the Beautiful.”) And he’s not even Zac Brown. This is a band in which every member has an integral part to play: they are a BAND. They sound, if I’m being 100% honest, like The Band, and if this concert reminds you of anything it will be The Last Waltz. But since when was that a bad thing? (See “I Shall Be Released and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”)

They pull a happy bunch of musical friends, famous and not, onto the stage with them to deliver a mix of their best hits (new and old) and awesome covers. Kid Rock lights up “Can’t You See” the way only Kid Rock can (balls-to-the-wall); and if any band could take on “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” (how apt!) it is they, and their fiddle player (Jimmy Di Martini). If you ever wondered how a violin hacks it as a lead instrument, lend this your ears. Little Big Town, a group whose sound is based on harmonizing (a la Fleetwood Mac), gives “Colder Weather” a richness that reminds you of the Allman Brothers at their rocking finest. Joey and Rory help out on a version of “Free” that incorporates “Into The Mystic” in the bridge, thus bringing Van Morrison into the fold.

The Zac Brown Band are popular with my kids because of the song “Sic ‘Em on a Chicken,” which is a song about setting a dog on a homicidal rooster. Hey, it’s country, y’all. But my favorite is “Jolene,” a ballad that manages to feature the line “Booze in my hair, blood on my lips” with sublime grace.

There are 24 songs on the CDs, and 19 on the DVD (with 5 bonus tracks). That’s a lot of great music for your dollar. This concert is an instant classic, something you get the feeling someone, somewhere knew it would be before they decided to roll the cameras. Thank god they did; the Fox Theater don’t hold that many folks.

Country Strong!

CMA Awards 2010

So last night Nashville threw itself a little hootenanny we like to call the CMAs – the Country Music Association Awards. 

Here’s how it goes down: Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood show everyone else, in every genre, how this whole hosting thing is done. They have become the go-to comedy duo who can be relied upon to kill it while remaining (mostly) wholesome, on-script and on-cue. This is the sort of thing you expect from a seasoned pro like Paisley, but it always comes as a bit of a shock to see how slick a performer  Carrie Underwood has become in the few short years since she walked off the farm and onto the American Idol stage.

There was a lot of chatter drummed up about a special Loretta Lynn tribute, which featured Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow trading verses of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with hearty aplomb; the Grand Dame herself walked out to complete the song. I will obviously hold off on commenting on her frock, because that’s what we expect from the girl from Butcher Holler.

The other performance that got a lot of advance publicity was the Jason Aldean / Kelly Clarkson duet on his new song “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” Each of these folks smack you upside the head with the quality and timbre of their voices when they open their mouths, and sure enough, they delivered. Both of them got the memo about dressing up, but alas they both turned up in all-black, rendering them invisible against the all-black orchestra and set.

OK, I’m obfuscating: the one thing everyone tuned in to see was whether Gwyneth Paltrow would go down in flames when she took the stage in her much-touted debut as, improbably as it sounds, a country singer. Would she, could she pull it off? And how does a waif who weighs all of 90 lbs stash the giant pair of hairy balls it takes to even attempt such a move? Do they make Wranglers like that? I want some! Country music television has been hawking the video promoting the movie she’s starring in, Country Strong, for a while now: it opened a few nights ago. It features Ms. Paltrow (a NY prep school girl now transplanted to England, let’s not forget) in the role Kelly Cornbread or something, a washed-up yet vibrantly healthy looking young blonde singer who has to rebuild her career once she gets out of rehab. Her husband is played by Tim McGraw, who has become so typecast in this role that you can literally wheel him around like Han Solo encased in that stuff Jabba the Hut freezes him in. The video features clips from the movie (obligatory dancing-on-the-bar scene; obligatory drunken breakdown scene, obligatory comeback on stage scene) that reveal a cross between The Rose and YouTube concert footage of Taylor Swift. Yes, it’s chick-flick hell. The big soundtrack song is the self-same “Country Strong,” a bit of old-timey pap that the real blondes in the audience could demolish the living shit out of. Along to help her out is the kindly Vince Gill, who looks like he’s lost some weight (go Vince!). So how did she do? Passable: she sang on key, she didn’t puke. She looked terrified and stood rooted to the spot like she’d been pinned there with a giant iron rod through her trousers. For this, she got a standing O. Let me tell you: country folk are polite.

Here’s the thing: country music is still a farm system; you have to play the sweet bejesus out of your singing chops before you get invited to the Game. By the time most people hear you you’re a hardened professional who would have fallen by the wayside long ago if you couldn’t REALLY SING. Gwyneth wouldn’t have made it past round One of the reality audition show that was won by the real star of the evening: Miranda Lambert.

Girlfriend had a good night. It was her birthday: she won an armful of gongs, including Album of the Year for her second CD, Revolution, and she utterly deserved it. Add to that, her hotter-than-hell fiancey (as she spells it) (and newly inducted Opry member) Blake Shelton won a bunch of trophies himself. Nashville likes their power couples; Tim and Faith have had a good run; it’s time for some new newlyweds to spawn some babies. She says she’s been on a no-pizza diet in order to pull off the red-carpet glam, but evidence of that was overshadowed by the potential spectacle of her massive boobies bursting forth from her low-cut dress. Any minute I expected disaster to strike, but no: the double-sided tape held fast.

Taylor Swift, of course, doesn’t have that problem. She is the biggest star in all of American music (oh, COME ON: try to deny it!). When the first single off her album was leaked during a flight to Tokyo, a decision was made on the spot to go ahead and release it: by the time the plane landed, that single, “Mine,” was already a number one hit. The album sold over a million units in its first week. Therefore, seemingly in the pursuit of fairness, she was not nominated for anything this year, so as to give everyone else a chance. Very sporting.

This allowed Brad Paisley to pick up the hallowed Entertainer of the Year title (after being nominated for five straight years). The evening’s touching moment came when, in accepting it, he genuinely choked up. You know what? I saw a lot of country acts live this year: and his H2O show was clearly the most entertaining: it was satisfying to see merit given where due. Country Strong? Hells yes, my friend. That’s what Miranda was relying on, at any rate. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses, The Rex Theater, Pittsburgh

Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses
Rex Theater, Pittsburgh, October 19, 2010

There’s only one thing better than listening to a Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses record; it’s seeing them live. I’ve seen them twice this year as they are still very much a road band, so I can also say that the only thing better than seeing them (as many will have done) as part of the summer concert juggernaut that was the Country Throwdown Tour (where they occupied a very tiny slice of a giant stage playing to folks in hats fashioned out of beer cans), is seeing them in their natural habitat: a smaller, darker, grubbier venue where even fans at the back felt like they were being sung to: the Rex Theater, for instance.

On October 19, there were so many fans that if you failed to arrive suitably early, at the back is where you would have been, too. The good-natured crowd came from far and wide and responded with raucous enthusiasm to everything the band played, which was a balanced mix of songs from their first record, Roadhouse Sun, and their new one, Junky Star.

As I write this, the video for “The Weary Kind” has just come on the TV. It’s a typical music video featuring a song from a film; clips interspersed with Bingham playing guitar. The reason it’s on my TV at all is because it won him an Oscar last year for Best Song. It is a magnificent bit of old-school musicianship, and when he failed to play it in the summer show, the crowd bristled noticeably. Hence it is with a good deal of savvy that he played it as his encore this fall. As I had the sweet spot (next to the stage, right under Bingham’s mic) I tried subtly to record it by placing my phone on the stage, but it snapped shut halfway through. Luckily, the guy next to me was less shy about this sort of thing: his footage can be seen here.

The Dead Horses are a professional outfit; they rock out yet remain always on focus and in tune with one another, cutting more loose in this venue than they do, say, when being filmed on stage playing Austin City Limits, much of which you can see on YouTube. There, Ryan looks like Dylan redux in a white hat, and truly, this is who he reminds you of, both in his singing and the tenor of his songwriting, which often touches on topics that support the underdog. When Bingham sings in his distinctive rasp, he looks comfortable, gazing at no-one in particular, just doing his thing with no grain of pretense or showmanship. He lets the music speak for itself.

What the music says is Get up off your ass and listen: this is the real deal. Don’t settle for less. If you’re going to don a hat, let it be made of felt, not beer cans. Come on out to a show. It’s good for your soul. 

An Unholy Union

The Union
Elton John and Leon Russell

Look: I love Elton John as much as anyone. I have about ten of those songs in permanent rotation on my iTunes and never mind when one comes on. Even the ones with odd titles like “Border Song” and “Burn Down the Mission” have grown on me immeasurably in recent years. But then he stopped snorting so much coke and the good songs became fewer and far between, the odd sparkling gem on a record full of schmaltz. He started writing for musicals. More than Elton John, however, I love Leon Russell. I grew up with his beautifully clanging voice and tinkling keys; “Song For You” has always been my favorite song, bar none. Always. The Temptations do a good version. Sadly Donny Hathaway’s one seems to be the only one Americans have heard. But the original is a perfect few minutes of sound; it still leaves me breathless. The audacity of the final note alone is enough to make it a classic. Do yourself a favor and listen to it. Much to his credit, I have heard Elton give Leon his props in interviews, even to people who have no freaking clue to whom he’s referring.

So it is with considerable interest that I come to this collaboration between the two: the not-quite-accurately named The Union. Its path into my hand has been greased by the adulations of weeks of Rolling Stone slobber, so I’m prepared for glorious things. After all, Elton has done some passable duets; Justin Timberlake, for example, was a fine singing partner on that song they did. And let’s not forget whatshername he had that hit with back in the days when he had hair and wore silly clothes. The first time around, I mean.

But I pop the disc in and the first thing I hear are those half tone notes that can be sublime when offered as a quizzical turn here and there in a Leon Russell piano-driven song, but jar your ears when they presented at the front end of a song, without context. I fear a sad clown at the circus redux (not my absolute favorite parts of Russell’s legend-making self-named album), and sure enough, that’s what I get. All the way through the song only two things come to mind: first, that there are too many instruments on this record cluttering up the sound, like a kid let loose at the toppings bar of an ice cream shop; and second, that it sounds suspiciously like it’s all on there to camouflage the fact that Russell is slurring his words. Well, he did have a stroke. He always slurred a little, but this sounds like old man slurring as opposed to artful note-bending.

Each and every song on this album sounds the same, pretty much, as all the rest. They all sound like late-career Elton John show tunes. They sound like the result of entering a recording studio with a flamboyant queen who is footing the tab. If I close my eyes I fear I will see jazz hands. Each song seems to open with Elton’s trembling baritone leading the way for Russell to follow, as a back-up singer might, to flesh out the vocal. Some of this stuff is dreadfully plodding and morbid; “There’s No Tomorrow” makes you wish ardently that was in fact the case. Neil Young lends a bit of sparkle in the Civil War joy fest that is “Gone to Shiloh,” but it only reminds you that, unlike most of his peers, good old Neil can still sing. Halfway through I can’t recall actually having heard Russell sing alone. Come to think of it, I can’t recall having heard his piano playing either. In fact, the only solo Russell gets is on the very last track. I like to think he recorded it on a lark when Elton went for a pee, telling the engineers with rapid hand signals to keep the tape spinning. Still, the lovely backup girls were in on it, which tells you something. Interestingly, it is called “In the Hands of Angels,” which might be an inside joke.

Like many awesome records, this has been ushered into being by the able hand of producer T Bone Burnett. I get the feeling the gentle giant was bowed by the raw wave of diva power at the mixing board. It is uncharacteristic for him to be attached to music that sounds so muddy. I saw Leon Russell in a tiny club 16 years ago, where he played to about that many people. I took my parents. It was the first time we had ever been anywhere as a threesome. They are big Leon Russell fans. I ordered a beer, my first. The great man appeared, walking on a cane over to his piano, like an apparition. He looked like a funky Santa Claus. This must have been just before he slid into the oblivion these liner notes hint at. But when he touched that piano; when he opened his mouth and sang; the air changed. It was magic. I like to think this is what Elton had wanted to capture a little of, the dream of pure talent he’s chased all these years, and I’m glad, don’t get me wrong, that he has reached into that chasm and pulled his old hero out to reap some of the benefits of his fame — but honestly, anyone not familiar with the Leon Russell of old will be unconvinced of the genius of the new one dragged to the stage here. I would love to see Russell take a leaf out of Johnny Cash’s book and step out into that spotlight alone, and dare to sound like the man he is, rather than the man he was. Who can forget Cash’s take on the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”? That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.

If one song summed The Union up, it would be the aptly titled “When Love Is Dying.” Think an ABBA song arranged by Andrew Lloyd Weber, sung by Elton John, accompanied by Liberace. It is the most honest song here: when love is dying, it just might sound something like this. Congratulations, dude: you killed