june 2008

With 1861, Moreland & Arbuckle Take the Blues, and Themselves, to Higher Ground
By David McGee
Things are looking up for the Kansas-born and –bred blues duo/trio Moreland & Arbuckle. The band’s third album, 1861, released this past spring, is a flat-out hill country blues monster. Calling it one of the best albums of the year is to diminish it. It has classic written all over it. The ferocity of its energy is nigh on to overwhelming. 1861 is their first for a nationally distributed label, and in June they signed with a major blues booking agency. Rave reviews have been pouring in and after seven long years of humping on the road, traveling to gigs in a van, setting up and breaking down their own gear, they’re in a good place. “We’re in this for the long haul,” guitarist Aaron Moreland says. “We’re here to make the music we love, not just be a flicker today and gone tomorrow.” Not a chance. We catch up with them on the road to a gig in Arizona and offer the unabridged inside story on a powerhouse band’s coming of age. (Cover photos of Moreland & Arbuckle by Art Tipaldi).


Hawaiian-born Jake Shimabukuro Finds Vitality, And a Career, In the Ukulele
Native Hawaiin ukulele master Jake Shimabaruko is gaining great acclaim from his appearances on national TV and as the opening act this summer for Jimmy Buffett. He’s brought the ukulele a measure of prominence it hasn’t enjoyed since the late ‘60s emergence of Tiny Tim, but he isn’t merely strumming it. Shimabaruko is following in the footsteps of his home state’s masters with a style that explores the tonal and sonic possibilities of the instrument while remaining resolutely melodic and accessible. In concert is where the real Shimabukuro magic happens, in performances that can be enjoyed whether one is engaging with the history informing the method, the exhilarating musicianship, or the entrancing mood conjured in deeply introspective interpretations. In this interview, he outlines a modest, admirable goal: “I just want to keep challenging myself, keep learning new things.” Go for it, Jake.

Heybale! Shows the World What Austin Knew About All Along

Anchored by the estimable country music veterans Earl Poole Ball on piano and Redd Volkaert on guitar, the Austin-based honky tonk quintet known as Heybale! Is making a stand for what it considers authentic country music—and proving it all night on a terrific, self-titled new album, its first nationally distributed long player, titled, audaciously enough, The Last Country Album. Come again? “There’s just not much of our kind of country stuff around,” says Volkaert. “Bands don’t make their living playing this; they may play once a month or something like that. One way or another that’s all we do.” We investigate.

Jeremiah Lockwood Fuses Cantorial Music with a Big Beat, and Reveals Hidden Melodies on the Road to Faith
By David McGee
Almost from the time he was 13 years old and an apprentice blues guitarist and singer on the streets and in the subways of New York City, Jeremiah Lockwood, now pushing 30 and about to be a father for the second time, has envisioned fusing what he has inherited in family, faith and music into a singular experience that speaks to many worlds: with songs drawn from the recorded canons of several prominent Cantors, not the least being his beloved grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, and his twin interests in both the mysticism and philosophies of the Jewish faith as handed down through the generations, all coupled to a fairly encyclopedia knowledge of and stylistic immersion in country blues and early rock 'n' roll, Lockwood is taking Jewish music to places it simply hasn't visited before, in what he views as a deeply spiritual act of restoring an ancient tradition he describes as having been “essentially lost, or degraded” with the waning of the Cantor’s influence in the Jewish community. In the process he’s connected to his faith in a deep and lasting way. To the question of what faith means to him, he says, “It’s very much being concerned with an aesthetic, an idea of learning as a form of meditation, by studying ancient texts or studying old music—that that’s the spiritual act, that learning, going in to yourself and this process of discovering something that’s outside the realm of the everyday. That’s where the spiritual experience lies.”

Remembering Bo Diddley, Dottie Rambow, Tim Russert and Jack Mildren.

ALBUM SPOTLIGHT: Bearfoot, Follow Me
Hailing from Alaska, the coed quintet Bearfoot have emerged from their home state with a challenging, rootsy meditation on the commonplace feelings, dilemmas and experiences of ordinary folks trying to get a handle on things, for their own sakes or others’. Although staying resolutely (and appropriately, given the band’s geographical source) Spartan in ambiance, the all-acoustic textures of Follow Me are nigh on to dizzying in their sources. And in Annalisa Tornfelt, Bearfoot may have in its midst an artist capable of becoming one of her generation’s most important songwriters.

All I Intended To Be: There are interpretive artists, and then there are artists who interpret to the point of self definition. The former flit along the surface of a melody, touching down in no particular place but that of beauty itself, averting their eyes from life’s niggling complexities as if avoiding the sun’s unyielding glare at the height of Summer. At that point, you are a song and dance man, fine and dandy; it can be a worthwhile calling. Or you can be Emmylou Harris, whose I Intended To Be Be reveals itself as a work of superior interpretive artistry and compelling emotional depth, its songs and its ethereal, often minimalist soundscape (as sculpted by producer Brian Ahern in his first pairing with his ex-wife in a quarter century) suggesting a Tolstoyan backstory of a search for moral truths in an alien environment. It is, also, a testimony to the power of art to spring unannounced and unexpectedly from the unlikeliest circumstances.

Abigail Washburn And The Sparrow Quartet by Billy Altman
If you've never heard Abigail Washburn, maybe the best way to start to talk about her and the Sparrow Quartet is to note what happens when you start to listen to her new CD on your computer. Look at the screen when the info comes up, go past the Track/Artist/Album/Title lists, and you'll see that under the Genre heading, every line says the same thing: "Unclassifiable." Then click on the track called "Sugar & Pie." On it, you'll hear a cello, a violin, and two (yes two) banjos, all grooving to a bluesy mid-tempo beat in an arrangement featuring tightly arranged interlocking parts but also solo interludes and swirls of jazz-tinged improvisation among all four instruments. Did I mention that this song is in Chinese?

The Last Country Album: If you’re going to a honky tonk, Heybale! is the band you want to find playing there when you walk in. But no one in their right mind would want this to be the last of anything we hear of Heybale!

Rollin’ With the Flow: The unfortunate irony afflicting the careers of country artists of Mark Chesnutt’s generation is that mainstream country radio has abandoned them as it did the generation preceding theirs (George Strait being a notable exception). No matter. A lot of those artists are still making wonderful music, Chesnutt included. In fact, Rollin’ With the Flow is so good it’s fair to say this smart, sensitive singer has rarely been better than he is here, or had a stronger batch of songs to work with.

Gardens In the Sky: A stirring tribute to one of the most powerful gospel singers in bluegrass history, Rounder’s ample 18-track Gardens in the Sky retrospective is but a taste of James King’s rich catalogue, but it’s a taste that goes a long way and, properly, leaves a listener wanting much more. As such, and for his considerable acclaim as a gospel singer, this is King’s first all-gospel album. Savor it.

With Roots & Wings: As impressive as was their 2006 debut, Beautiful Noise, Angel Band’s sophomore effort, With Roots & Wings, is doubly so. Some changes are evident and telling: original band member Adrien Reju has been replaced by Kathleen Weber, and Lloyd Maines is behind the board as producer. David Bromberg remains as the band leader and arranger, and his sure sense of roots and rhythm maps perfectly with Maines’s unerring feel for each number’s appropriate sonic texture. In the voices of Weber, Nancy Josephson and Jen Schonwald, and in Josephson’s humanist songwriting, Bromberg and Maines have all the substance they need to craft a compelling soundscape.

Walls Fall Down: Of all her many artistic gifts—playwright, actress, author, singer, songwriter—the latter has brought her the most acclaim and is the heart of Kimmie Rhodes’s legacy. She’s one of Emmylou Harris’s favorite songwriters, and one of Willie Nelson’s favorite duet partners, and that’s pretty good for starters. That her decade-plus of solo recordings haven’t brought her near to being a star in the country/Americana firmament isn’t for lack of compelling music, which keeps on coming on Walls Fall Down, yet another deeply haunting example of her singular musical vision.

The Complete Hits: This wonderful collection spotlights the enduring work the Browns did under the guidance of Chet Atkins, on some of the early, essential documents of the pop-influenced “Nashville Sound.” Starting out as a coed version of the Louvin Brothers, Jim Ed Brown and his sisters Maxine and Bonnie metamorphosed into the countrypolitan version of The Fleetwoods and made beautiful music together.

Of Surf, Sun and Shadows: Two new reissues of the Beach Boys’ U.S. singles from 1962 to 1965, and Dennis Wilson’s two solo albums, the critically acclaimed Pacific Ocean Blue and the unfinished-at-his-death Bambu, spur reflections on another time and place in American history, one artist’s fruitless search for an identity that was abundantly evident in his own music, and the persistent warmth of the sun.

Deep Cuts: Man, there are some bad doings down in Swampville, if Tony Joe White is to be believed. And why wouldn’t anyone believe TJW, who knows whereof he speaks when it comes to swamps? This is likely as close to art music as White cares to venture, with all the weirdness swirling about across the sonic spectrum, purposely dense and unsettling, an ideal backdrop for skullduggery. New and old, the songs are more suited for reflective moments when a listener can turn off the mind and float downstream, absorbed in the sunset mood, perhaps puzzling over the import of it all but appreciating, even luxuriating in, a veteran artist’s reconsideration of some of his best work and his own persona to boot. Maybe, finally, the gator got his Granny. Chomp, chomp.

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