Andrew Vilko at Kind Folk

Andrew Vilko, Kind Folk, New Castle PA 9/4/15

My second show at the newly opened Kind Folk this year also marked the first electric show for the venue, with a full band for Ohio-based Andrew Vilko.

Andrew’s show on Friday 9/4 was a lot of things. It was messy when it needed to be. It was quiet, very occasionally. At times it seemed he and his guitar were both howling all at once. It was crowded, maybe the biggest crowd they’ve had at Kind Folk yet.  This was only the second stop of Andrew’s tour and there was no opener, so he played nearly three sets with very little break and kept an upbeat folk energy alive all night.

“Time Honored Traditions”, Vilko’s second album, came out less than a month ago, with just enough time for the audience to get to know it and learn some words to sing along. For the most part the crowd all knew Vilko and were anticipating his arrival.  Newer songs were met with open arms, in particular “Inside of You” and older songs from his first album and early demos were met with similar fervor.  It wasn’t always a particularly interactive show, with the tunes rolling one into another but I think it was an implicit understanding that Vilko prefers to put his money where his mouth is, so to speak.

Most of the crowd stood up and swayed accordingly with the music, but were also mesmerized by Vilko’s trademark, his rambling lyricism, and sang along accordingly. He has a knack for fitting more lyrics in a verse than that verse is built for, and something about this approach makes his lyrical approach seem completely accidental but it works. It’s like the lyrics were written right there in that moment, and you’re hearing them for the first time.  He pulls it off beautifully and the crowd almost has a hard time keeping up.

Something surprising about even a rockin’ folkie’s stage presence: he swapped instruments between almost every song, going from guitars to bass and accordian, even banjo at one point. It’s not important but seemed unusual for a folk-based musician.  Maybe it’s because his music is so lethargic, and everything from the ballads to the more rockin’ numbers sounded almost drunk, or at least a little woozy.  It’s undoubtedly their style, and I don’t mean for that to sound dismissive at all.  It’s a style he’s fully comfortable in and makes no excuses for.  The show is all at once loud, yet quiet and far away.

Andrew Vilko is a master of his craft.  Catch him on tour if possible, through the witner.

Bright Sky Blue “S/T”

Wooden instruments and 3-part harmonies?  Lancaster’s Bright Sky Blue is the band for you, and their debut S/T CD will make you jump for joy.  They lay a foundation of traditional style bluegrass as a quartet and build on top of that into similar genres effortlessly.  Of the 10 tracks here, eight are originals and were penned by the chief songwriting duo of Jill O’Brien and Avery Smith.  Those two plus banjoist Shawn Worden contribute some beautiful vocals that really make these songs pop.

“The Storm” opens and introduces the listener to the group, singing about life in the US’s famed Tornado Alley region, where O’Brien came from.  Smith’s guitar work stands out, meshing well with mandolin, banjo and bass to give a very organic depth. O’Brien does the lead singing on the record’s highlight, “Just Give me Something, Anything” which captivates with its rhythm and Ryan Adams-esque lyrics and vocal delivery.  The strings, particularly the mandolin shine on every track, especially “Dirty Old Town”, one of my favorite Pogues songs which this band absolutely makes their own.

It’s all about O’Brien again on “Get Out Alive”, a country blues ditty that tells a gruesome tale about Appalacian coal miners. Her voice has just the right amount of country edge to bring it to life.  The other cover on the album is the traditional Gospel song “Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan”, its sung a cappella style most of the way through and joined only by light bass and mandolin for the final minute, and stands out, giving the group a chance to display nothing but their harmonies.

Later in the album there are a couple of tunes that fall a little short, “Outside Looking In” and “Take Me Back Again” Both seem a little forced, and are just so slow and dreary they bog down the rest of an otherwise fantastic record. “Highwayman,” on the other hand, is a strong and snappy rocker, sung by Smith with a killer fiddle and bass groove intertwining.  It’s a fitting finale for an overall solid debut effort from one of Pennsylvania’s newest bands in the roots genre.

Erin Bedouin live at Kind Folk

Erin Bedouin, Kind Folk, Newcastle PA 7/11/15

Kind Folk is a new lounge in New Castle, in a renovated old storage space.  A friend invited me to Pittsburgh for the weekend and we caught word of this new space, decided to check it out.  This was only their third or fourth show and we were very impressed.

The lounge is dim and very inviting.  They have a nice selection of coffee and tea, and shows are BYOB which is always nice.  We picked up a nice bottle of wine and settled in for a relaxing evening with up-and-coming western PA songstress Erin Bedouin.

This was girls’ night with opening act Patrice Derkee, who had a throaty growl approach to her voice, almost like a female Louis Armstrong or Tom Waits, but not quite so gravelly and still very melodic.  Her fingerpicking style reminded me of Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, and matter of fact she closed her set with a cover of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”.  She has a very interesting voice but personally I don’t think it fits her soft guitar style.  She’s still very talented though.

Erin Bedouin also had a look that didn’t fit her style, though we enjoyed both.  Dressed in tight red pants, bright red lipstick with long hair in a single side ponytail and polka dot hightops, she looked much more like a 1980’s punk rock chick than a soft-spoken storyteller.  She played a lovely hollow body guitar with a stand-up bass accompaniment, and told tales of her broken childhood and abusive father, recalling some horrifying incidents in “The Night He Drove Away” and “Crystal Clear”.  It’s refreshing to hear an artist so candid and vocal about a harrowing past, but in a way that suggests it hasn’t fully ruined her (maybe, hence the sunny outfit?).

Erin also had a soft croon like Joni Mitchell and played her guitar delicately, almost like she didn’t want to disturb it.  “Take Me Away Home” closed her set and suggested maybe she’s found peace after a long and winding road.  She left the stage area to cheers and a standing ovation from the 40+ in attendance.  She’s definitely going places.

There isn’t a better setting for a singer like Erin.  We will be making the trip to Kind Folk in the future, many times I’m sure.

Album Review: Calman Reznor “12”

There really should have been a warning label on this CD. You know the one, “Do not drive or operate heavy machinery, etc., etc.”, because I do most of my CD screening while I commute daily and I innocently popped Calman Reznor’s “12” into the CD player during a rush hour drive home. The first sign of trouble was when I drifted out of my lane on the I-83 trying to read the credits for “Barbie Doll”. Who in the hell was playing that incredible boogie-woogie piano accompaniment? Turns out it’s Reznor himself on the ivories in this very driving yet subtle opening track. I fought my way back into my lane only to discover within minutes that I was flying past my exit while enthusiastically singing along with the hyper catchy “Slide on Over”.  This CD is very beguiling. 

My favorite song may be the title track “12”. It’s really clever, it’s singable, it’s funny, it’s touching, and it’s trademark Reznor songwriting.  I’ve been enjoying his open mic performances and occasional headline slots locally for awhile and it’s high time he enters the recording world.  Calman sings so sweet on this classic country arrangement in that honest style of his which somehow manages to combine the tongue-in-cheek with heart-felt sincerity. “I Got Nothin'” is a gorgeous love song in a lovely and simple acoustic guitar arrangement with a heart-breaking harmonica line.  “Bleeding Heart” is probably the most addictive tune on the album – running through your head long after the CD player’s been turned off.

“12” is very acoustic and folk-based and if you’ve seen Reznor live, will definitely remind you of his performances.  Most of the songs are stripped down to just a few instruments and let the songwriting speak for them.  There are a few more upbeat moments though, like “Barbie Doll” and “Trouble” that both rock a bit more with the piano, almost Jerry Lee Lewis-esque.  The album closes with a great version of Uncle Tupelo’s “Moonshiner”, incidentally one of my favorite UT songs.  Calman does a version that would make the band proud. 

The liner notes are a fun addition too, with several references to the fact that he’s not related to Trent Reznor.  The “thank you” section closes out with “Thank you for buying my CD but sorry, I can’t get you Nine Inch Nails tickets”.  I get the feeling he gets the Trent thing a lot. 

I loved this record. It will stay in my car player for a few weeks despite my poor driving during the first listen.  So please exercise more caution that I did while driving and listening if you so choose.  He has a few area shows lined up at the Abbey Bar and Gullifty’s and I’m hoping to catch one of them.  It’s been too long since I’ve seen him and now that I can make myself familiar with some of these album tunes the show will be better yet. 

Live Review: Anthony James LaLota at Suba’s

Anthony James LaLota, Suba’s, Harrisburg PA 5/2/15

“I’m from central Pennsylvania by way of Baltimore”, singer/songwriter Anthony James LaLota introduced himself Saturday evening at Suba’s before easing into his first set of acoustic bluesy folk songs, which was fantastic if a little surprising for me. With his sleeve tattoos and newsboy cap, he looks more like a punker gone solo.  I was expecting the smoky growl of a Tim Barry or Chuck Ragan and got exactly the opposite.  Truthfully the music was quite simple – the soft strum of a guitar chords with an occasional lead in to a chorus, but it was his vivid storytelling and strong, soulful voice that kept the audience listening intently.  He even joked about it after hitting and holding a high note for an impressive amount of time, calling himself out on the self-indulgent vocal display “to distract everyone from my lazy guitar playing”.

Clearly a fan of performers like the Guthries, and Springsteen’s “Nebraska” period, James made great use of such interludes to guide the crowd through his detailed stories of lovable down on their luck folks.  He breezed through song after song, and paused only occasionally to sip his cocktail or crack a joke to keep the mood light among the sadder stories, and had a smile on his face and conviction in his voice all evening.

I was hoping for an interview afterward but I had to leave before his last set was done.  I’m sorry to have missed the whole show and I will definitely try and catch him again, and hope for a recording to be released in the near future.  I’d no idea who he was going in but he proved to be someone worth

Interview: Ray Whitbread

Ray Whitbread fronted Red Bank, NJ-based indie folksmen The Stolen Hearts a number of years ago.  I was one of their biggest fans and just as big a fan of Ray’s new-folk solo material, mixing in blues and Caribbean tinges with the use of a computerized beat box.  He doesn’t perform often and it’s usually random, and as such I saw him open up for Carolyn Bassiga at Listen Live in Macungie last Friday evening.  He was kind enough to grant me a short interview after. 

EoF: Every time I see you, no matter where it is, you seem to have particularly loyal fans who follow to see you at every show. What do you think it is about your music that causes that?

RW: I think a lot of them are Stolen Hearts holdouts, hoping to see a reunion or at the very least see me do those songs.  I still throw a few in here and there but I hate living in the past, you know?  We had a great run and a great following but it’s over now and I don’t see us resurrecting it.  I love that we made such an impact and people still remember us but I’m doing my own thing now and it better suits me at this time in my life.  To be fair though a lot of them are connecting with my solo songs too, I try and make the rounds, talk to everyone I can after the show or whenever, I really am grateful to have such a loyal fanbase.  They become friends after awhile, I see a guy in the crowd and I remember a story he told me about losing his mother the year before.  I love that connection with a crowd, it’s one of the best things to come out of performing music.

EoF: You seem to like music people might not expect out of a folkie troubadour type, mixing in Caribbean rhythms and loops with the beat box these days.  What else do you listen to that people might not expect?

RW: I love all kinds of music.  Opera and classical might surprise some people, my grandparents always listened to opera and classical stuff in the house. Plenty of hip hop too, I guess people might not expect that. I stick to the classics there, De La Soul and Sugarhill Gang.  But that’s so weird to me, I get that question a lot, like I’m only supposed to listen to folk and blues.  Do people expect indie musicians to just listen to indie?  I don’t want to only listen to stuff that just sounds like me, or vice versa.  That’s boring.  Nobody’s music would evolve at all that way.

EoF: You moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey a few years ago.  What’s your favorite Pennsylvania venue to play at and why?

RW: I’ve played a few at the Abbey Bar in Harrisburg.  Great atmosphere there, and fresh beer from the brewery downstairs.  I love little coffeeshops and cafes best though, they’re my bread and butter.

EoF: You haven’t released any solo material yet.  Any recording plans, or online releases?

RW:  Working with the Stolen Hearts really made me hate the recording studio process.  Not the band, just the tireless drag of overdubbing, making everything sound perfect.  I’m done with that.  I have a 4-track recorder I’ll probably lay some demos down with, maybe release them on cassette for sale at shows.  Cassettes are coming back, you know.  I don’t like the digital thing, Bandcamp and Reverbnation and all that.  I’m not a snobby vinyl stickler but I at least want something I can hold in my hand.  Maybe for next year, I’m not in a hurry.  The live show is much better for me than a recording.

EoF: Where does the Caribbean influence come from?  Is it a family background or are you deep into that music culture at the moment?  And where do you get the samples for the beat box, do you record them yourself on your 4-track?

RW: I visited Jamaica a few years ago yeah, and fell in love with the steel drum sound.  There was a little four piece band that would play in a square just outside my hotel window and I’d drift off to sleep to it every night.  I also started tape trading with a blog called Voodoo Funk, getting into some obscure African records and getting that influence.  I have a friend Tom Richey I collaborate with, we do the music together on his home studio.  He’s a whiz with the steel drum, we picked one up cheap at an auction.  It’s banged up but does the trick, he’s teaching me how to play it.

EoF: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Ray.  I’m a big fan and can’t wait to see what you do next.

RW: Its my pleasure.  Thank you for listening.

Live Review: Christine St. Thomas at Gullifty’s

Christine St. Thomas, Gullifty’s, Harrisburg PA 11/13/14

Christine is quick to point out that St. Thomas is actually her last name.  “I’m not trying to rip off St. Vincent” she shyly cooed into the microphone after her first few songs, but with an underlying attitude that makes you assume it’s become an issue for her.  She even went so far as to get out her drivers license and wave in front of the adoring crowd at Gullifty’s.  The night’s set list was almost completely made up of songs from her new self-released album “What’s So Great About Growing Up?” and played at fairly fast clip, and was very in tune with her attitude toward reaching adulthood.

She shuffled onto the stage with her hands in her pockets, not like she was about to play an amazing set at a concert but more like she was window shopping or browsing groceries in a store.  She took off her coat and draped it over a chair, then strapped on her guitar and chatted up the crowd a few moments before getting to work, almost like she was opening up for herself with a light comedy routine.  For a singer who’s accumulated such a great local reputation in such a short amount of time, it’s amazing how laid back she is.  She shrank into her microphone and spent a lot of time fiddling with the levels as the audience patiently waited and laughed at her jokes about being “so anal retentive, wanting to make sure the sound of my complaining about life is just right”.

St. Thomas is brimming with the right amount of humor and sincerity and really reminds me of Courtney Barnett or latter-day Fiona Apple with a guitar instead of piano. Her songs are hilarious and even the more depressing life songs lyric-wise are sung with a sarcastic eye-rolling conviction that make you smile.  Her confessions of a bad one-night-stand in “Champagne in a Can” made me want to laugh and cry at the same time, as did “Sunset Boulevard”‘s issues of sexual confusion.

She definitely gives off a vibe of strong feminism but in a way that she can laugh at herself.  She sang a few songs with sunglasses on, before removing them and saying something like “Oh wait, I’m not a rock star yet.  I’ll put these back on in a few years after I hit the big time”.  Her guitar also looked like it was about 100 years old but she played like it was brand new, strumming and finger picking carefully like she didn’t want to disturb the strings.  What a great combination of Billie Holiday blues and Carole King folk, and a hint of Amy Schumer’s sense of humor.

There’s something about St. Thomas that feels new and familiar at the same time.  She gives off a vintage-punk aura that feels fresh like one of the Runaways singing acoustically.  The highlight of the night was the 8-minute closer “What’s So Great About Growing Up?”, the title track from her new album that I can’t wait to listen to.  The verses repeat around a one-line singalong chorus (can you guess what the one line is?) but the lyrics are so varied and detailed that even though it goes on a long time, it never seems to get old.

She’s one to watch for and listen to.  She’s headlining Gullifty’s again in August and I’ll be there for sure.