Ten years after the height of their success, Virginia’s Carbon Leaf are still releasing albums and consequently still touring the country. To their credit, the band is getting stronger with time. During a headlining set at Orlando’s The Social, frontman Barry Privett even alluded to such a thought. While joking with the crowd about re-releasing 2004’s Indian Summer he made a point to note, “Its a good thing if we continue to re-record all of our old albums, because we’ve gotten a lot better than we used to be.” For most musicians, such a brag would come off boastful or ostentatious but nothing about the band’s 90-minute was any of that sort. Quite the contrary in fact. From start to finish, Privett and his bandmates were grateful, humble and fully locked in. Choosing to open the set with “Life Less Ordinary,” easily their most well-known and commercially successful song was a bit of an odd start, but from there the set opened up nicely.
Divided into triads, the first third of the set was the band’s Americana fare and the immediate highlight was the heartland ballad “One Prairie Outpost,” which featured lilting slide guitar work from multi-instrumentalist Carter Gravatt. A four-part harmony opened up an inspired rendition of “Torn to Tattered,” one of the band’s oldest songs and surprisingly one of the night’s most effortless and confident moments. Quickly though the band left the heartland charm behind and segued into darker, guitar-driven material. Easily the best of the lot was the pulsing rocker “Lake of Silver Bells” and the night’s undeniable apex moment: a spine-tingling, near eight-minute version of the patriotic “The War Was in Color.” The set’s final third was preceded by two songs performed acoustic and in the round. Though the two songs lasted all of eight minutes, the near-perfect “Two Aging Truckers” was an apex moment and proved that as much as they might love being raucous, their strength is in songs as fragile and brilliant as “Two Aging Truckers.”
And then almost expectedly, the band performed four songs that illustrated the band’s now trademark penchant for Celtic fare. Beginning with “American Tale,” they roared through hip-shaking, beer-swigging favorites “She’s Gone,” “The Donnybrook Affair” and ultimately ending in “The Boxer.” For as much as the band might have enjoyed giving “The Boxer,” a denser, more guitar-driven vibe, the end result was awkward and clumsy and was one of a select few down moments of the set. Frontman Barry Privett’s frequent use of the penny whistle was also a joy but hearing it on searing blues-tinged cuts like “Desperation Song” and “Paloma” felt somewhat forced. All of those gripes were easily erased during the band’s encore, a nine-minute version of “Let Your Troubles Roll By” that was rousing, hopeful and undeniably joyous.
Whether Carbon Leaf continues to release albums and tour the country with the same frequency they have in the last two decades remains to be seen. It is for that very reason that Friday night’s pre-Rock Boat tour stop in Orlando was all the more special. While they are far removed from their glory years, they are actually as strong a touring entity as they have ever been.
Here’s to twenty more years of a life less ordinary.
Stephen Hunley's The Other Side of Never came out in October and yet this disc will not leave my speakers. Here's a review I wrote back in the fall but it never went live.
Sometime surprises come from unlikely places. Stephen Hunley is a veritable unknown from Knoxville, TN, who released one of 2014’s most engaging releases. The Other Side of Never is an amalgamation of blue-eyed soul, jazz, blues, gospel and naturally singer-songwriter fare. Armed with a burly and diverse vocal range, he coasts over each of these songs with effortlessness, charisma and aplomb.
The album opens awkwardly with the string-backed ballad “Oklahoma.” Seen as an entity all itself, “Oklahoma” is a delight but an an opening statement it is somewhat awkward. Of the dozen songs on The Other Side of Never, few if any, sound like “Oklahoma.” On the contrary, the title track is a frolicking bounce replete with breezy horns and serves as a better introduction to the sound that frames much of The Other Side of Never. “Come Back Home” is a soul-infused power ballad with a gospel touch while “Elizabeth” is playful and fun and builds on the efforts of the acoustic and winsome “Love You in the Dark” but goes much deeper. Few are better than the organ-drenched hymn “Something’s Wrong,” a 21st century take on Elvis’ famed “In the Ghetto.”
The back half of the disc roars with the brassy “Speakeasy,” and never stops from there. "I'm Not Who You Think I Am" is defiant and damn near perfect while "Pictures in Her Mind" is poignant and deeply affecting. From front to back, The Other Side of Never is a true delight. It is rare that an artist with so little fanfare can craft such an affecting album but that is exactly what Hunley has done. Citing a love of Otis Redding and Elton John, Hunley channels each of those on this absolutely absorbing and deft miracle of an album.
If you like your country music brawny, boozy and bawdy, you’ll probably enjoy all 60 minutes of Whitey Morgan’s latest album Born, Raised and Live From Flint. From start to finish, Morgan makes no apologies for who he is. Whether he’s celebrating cheating, reveling in a cocaine habit or delighting in the wonders of alcohol. Much of the disc bleeds together and few songs stand out from the rest. Those that do are mostly due to a first-rate live band, including keys/organ player Mike Lynch and sensational pedal steel player Brett Robinson. Organ player Lynch is most felt on “Cheatin’ Again” and “Another Round.” Similarly, pedal steel player Robinson is most pronounced on “Turn Up the Bottle” and “I Ain’t Drunk.”
Truthfully, pedal steel player absolutely shines and is the real goldmine of Live From Flint. That’s not to take anything away from Morgan. HIs best songs are opener “Buick City” and the aforementioned “Cocaine Train,” a Johnny Paycheck cover. Not surprisingly, Morgan tackles a few covers, Johnny Cashs “Bad News,” a honky-tonk clunker of Springsteen’s iconic “I’m on Fire,” Hank Williams’ “Mind Your Own Business” and a sterling version of Dale Watson’s “Where Do You Want It?” And it is on “Where Do You Want It?” that Morgan absolutely charms from the opening notes. Granted, Live From Flint is uneven and uninspiring at times, but there’s to champion for an artist who sings country music much like it was sung in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And for that and that alone, Morgan should be rewarded.
Regardless of your feelings on the garage-blues duo The Black Keys, there is no denying the band’s influence in popular music over the last half-decade. Which is why when the duo provides a positive recommendation for a veritable unknown band, in this case Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers, one can’t help but take a flyer and dive right in. Heck, Black Keys vocalist Dan Auerbach is such a fan of Buffalo Killers he produced their sophomore album Let it Ride in 2012. The quartet has also caught the attention of Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, who invited the band to open for them in 2007.
On their latest six song EP, Fireball of Sulk, the quartet makes arguably their strongest statement to date. Ostensibly a guitar-driven grunge effort, Fireball of Sulk is a howling, ass-kicker of a record that absolutely deserves more listens. Produced by Jim Wirt (Incubus, Fiona Apple, Jack’s Mannequin) it is an album that hits in all the right places and never once yields to filler or placidity.
Whether it’s the stoner, late 90s grunge vibe of opener “Blankets on the Sun” or the hard-hitting and concussive “Weird One,” the disc opens with a roar and never once relents. Easily the apex of the album is "Marshmallow Mouth," which features a smoldering guitar solo and outro that would make the likes of Steve Vai quite proud. By the time, you get to final track “Something Else” it is readily apparent that when it comes to guitar-driven garage-blues Buffalo Killers are a band worthy of Auerbach's admiration.
Twenty years ago, an unassuming Gainesville quintet splashed onto the national scene with “All For You,” a happy-go-lucky acoustic anthem that stayed atop the charts for years. Successive hits would follow but nothing could ever topple the prowess of “All For You.” Nearly two decades removed from the ubiquitous heyday of “All For You,” Sister Hazel are still releasing albums and still touring to hordes of adoring fans. If you question that notion, just a few listens to the band’s new album 20 Stages (Rock Ridge Music, Oct. 4, 2014) will put any doubt to rest.
Recorded at various concert venues throughout the years, the two-disc 20 Stages is an engaging look at a band still reveling in their opportunity to live out with their dream. Disc One opens with “Shame,” a guitar-driven slice of Southern rock that reiterates what a cohesive live unit Sister Hazel truly is. The song also serves as a reminder that Ryan Newell is a first-rate lead guitarist and much of the band’s strengths rest in his deft command of his guitar.
Proving that they are still tied to their roots, the quartet dives into the sun-splashed acoustic pop of “Starfish,” before segueing into the splendid “Mandolin Moon,” arguably one of the strongest efforts of Disc One. From there, the disc vacillates between memorable numbers and forgettable filler. Highlights include an acoustic version of minor hit “One Love,” the moving piano ballad “World Inside My Head” and the romantic valentine “Everything Else Disappears.”
Disc Two kickstarts with the uplifting and confident “Change Your Mind,” the terrific ballad “Concede” the glorious singalong “Champagne High” and the punchy “Swan Dive.” Easily one of the more memorable efforts of disc two is “This Kind of Love,” a Drew Copeland-led slow-dance that features the backing of the Wilmington (NC) Symphony.
All over 20 Stages, songs are sprinkled with banjos, mandolins, keyboards and even a sax, providing a layer of versatility that very much bucks the band’s acoustic rock categorization. Though the two-disc effort will probably not win over many, if any, new fans, there’s enough robust material here to satiate old fans, entice casual fans and satisfy anyone who enjoys hearing a band in a live concert setting. While 20 Stages is not the band’s first live effort and at times is far from their best, the winning moments are well worth revisiting. In the end, 20 Stages very much proves that 20 years into a career they stumbled into accidentally, Sister Hazel shows little signs of slowing down.
Having always been a champion for under-the-radar talent, the forces that be placed me at The Big Orlando radio festival this past weekend. Headliners included Weezer and Fall Out Boy, but none of those names will be mentioned in said column.
No, this column is here to focus more on the lesser names who arguably deserve just as much press time as those big two.
Arkansas' Knox Hamilton performed a polished and self-assured set of eight bright indie-pop gems. Opening with the breezy singalong “Take a Walk,” the group planted a seed rather early that their set was going to advocate hip-shaking and beer-swilling and that’s a tone that never wavered throughout the duration of their set. Using dual vocalists the band coasted through their set. Whether it was the groove-based ballad “Barely Missed You” or the punchy “Right From the Start.” Easily the strongest song of their set was “Work It Out,” a song which catapulted the band from obscurity to #1 on Sirius XM’s AltNation. Though the band did lack charisma, they more than made up for it with their songs.
New York City’s Bear Hands offered up a dizzying cocktail of garage pop that was eye-opening for its proficiency and precision. With nary a flaw in the entire nine song set they made a pronounced statement and more than proved their worth. Cohesiveness as a functioning unit is ideally the end result for any touring band but what Bear Hands did in just 40 minutes was nothing short of stunning. Highlights from the Bear Hands set included art-pop opener “Peacekeeper,” profane ass-kicker “Bone Digger,” keys-tinged “Moment of Silence” and fast-rising single “Giants.”
Similarly, New York City’s Big Data dove headfirst into a hook-heavy dose of synth pop. Be it their novel take on Hall and Oates’ “Dangerous Eyes” or their Facebook diatribe “The Business of Emotion,” the set was a top-flight mix of technology and melody and vault them to the top as one of synth-pop’s strongest live bands. Word to the wise for young electro-pop bands out there: if you want to learn how to do it well, take notes from Big Data.
Kentucky's Sleeper Agent, who were one of Warped Tour 2014's many highlights, continued to further that argument with an absolutely frenetic and sweaty set of eight humdingers. The epicenter of Sleeper Agent is frontwoman Alex Kandel, who twirls about the stage like a whirling dervish and sings with a conviction as if these songs were her last will and testament. The sextet who have been on tour virtually nonstop for the better part of two years in support of their sophomore effort About Last Night, one of 2014’s most underrated pop albums.
Southern California’s Dirty Heads was the night’s biggest anomaly: a hip-hop-reggae hybrid effort at a mostly rock-driven music festival. But what they lacked in conformity they made up for with a set that was polished, whip-smart and worth the 50 minutes. Though at times the set drifted towards braggadocio and imitation, their winning moments (“Cabin By The Sea,” “Medusa” “Lay Me Down” and “My Sweet Summer”) more than made up for the set’s weaker moments.
Virginia’s J. Roddy Waltson and the Business made arguably the strongest statement of the entire night with a howling tour-de-force of seven Southern rock anthems. Anchored by searing guitar solos and Waltson’s Leon Russell-esque piano playing, the entire set was a marvel from start to finish. Scruffy opener “Sweat Shock” yielded to “Full Growing Man” which yielded to singles “Take It As it Comes” and “Don’t Break the Needle.” But alas, the band was not done just yet. Set closer “Heavy Bells” was a masterclass in what exactly a set closer should be. Like distant kin of My Morning Jacket or The Black Keys, the blues-tinged stomper was an absolute delight from a band more people should be talking about.
Performing in support of January’s ho-hum Mind Over Matter, California’s Young the Giant more than made up for that album’s mediocrity with a smart and snappy 50-minute set. Most of the set’s highlights were all songs from Mind Over Matter, proving that perhaps the songs were written more for the stage than studio. With the exception of both “Anagram” and “it’s About Time,” which were both clumsy and self-indulgent, the rest of the Mind Over Matter songs were first-rate. Whether it was the romantic ballad “Crystallized” or the nostalgia-laden “Teachers,” Young the Giant proved that they were ready for the limelight and then some. Though frontman Sameer Gadhia had a Jim Morrisson-esque complex at times, his far more humble bandmates did much of the heavy lifting for him anyways. In the end, a band this writer had written off as a lukewarm live band proved to be anything but and proved that despite its flirtations with pretentiousness the Mind Over Matter material is tailor-made for a big stage.
Though the turnout was low, one can only hope that The Big Orlando returns to The City Beautiful for 2015. Here’s to hoping.
Few pop bands have captured my attention quite like Los Angeles duo TeamMate. Comprised of two West Virginia transplants, the duo makes some of the hookiest songs you're likely to hear for months.
Their latest single "Until You Find Me" is an atmospheric jam of crashing drums, creaking synths and Scott Simons' reedy vocals. Vacillating somewhere close to Passion Pit and that ilk, "Until You Find Me" is just the latest in a long line of earworms from a duo that absolutely deserves widespread appeal.
"Goldmine," is a sun-drenched singalong that is as lush as it is lingering, whereas "Don't Count Me Out" is a surefire radio single that to this day has yet to see the circulation it deserves. Ditto for "Love is Love," a slinky paean to equal rights/
The band's progression as artists in just a matter of months is probably the biggest takeaway from TeamMate's slow-moving ascension to ubiquity. Last year's Sequel EP, which at the time was hooky and captivating sounds almost pale compared to the layered, atmospheric approach of "Until You Find Me," "Goldmine" and "Love is Love"
That kind of progression is no surprise however. Frontman Scott Simons is an in-demand songwriter/producer who has written songs for film and television and is an in-demand studio keys player. Ten years ago his power-pop quintet The Argument wee a consistent draw all across the eastern seaboard.
For now, TeamMate remains LA's best kept secret but having shared the stage with the likes of OneRepublic, Skylar Grey and Bleachers, one has to think their time in the limelight is only weeks away.
“There is something about a gig after everyone has gone. A palpable atmospheric charge that hangs in the thick air above all the detritus on the floor. The roadies start to haul out the cases, and that energy slowly dissipates, as the real hard work begins. That night it stayed a little longer and was tinged with blue.”
Let’s be honest: there is a dizzying array of musician biographies to choose from these days. Whether it’s Neil Young’s latest Special Deluxe, 2010’s Life by Keith Richards or Willie Nelson’s Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, there’s no shortage of rock biographies to comb through. Add another one to the lot: David J. Haskins’ masterful Who Killed Mister Moonlight?: Bauhaus, Black Magic and Benediction.
David Who, you might say?
For those unfamiliar Haskins, who performs under the name David J. was bassist for Bauhaus, the English post-punkers whose love of doom and gloom made them the world’s first gothic rock group. The band’s short five year run from 1978-1983 would eventually propel David J to American fame with Love and Rockets before reuniting as Bauhaus in 1998 and from 2005-2008. All of those details are documented in Who Killed Mister Moonlight, including the band’s humble beginnings in Northampton and the band’s formative years in and around the British club scene. For those who enjoy biographies such as that, they might read this book and be somewhat disappointed.
Oh sure, there’s plenty of those details in here, but in many ways, the book is a ruminative reflection on Haskins’ life and its many strange twists. A gifted writer who possesses both clarity and candor, Who Killed Mister Moonlight? moves swiftly and from the very first pages is wholly absorbing. Whether it is Haskins admission that seeing The Birthday Party live forced the band to work harder, that “Who Killed Mister Moonlight?” was written about John Lennon’s murder or his ambivalent passages about Bauhaus vocalist Peter Murphy’s repeated paranoid episodes, there’s something refreshing and honest about Haskins’ book.
Who Killed Mister Moonlight? goes beyond rock music biography as it delves deep into Haskins’ interest in black magic and the occult. In those passages, Haskins digs deeper and becomes more naked and revealing. Whether it is one of his adventures with William S. Burroughs, Alan Moore, Genesis P. Orridge or Rick Rubin, there is always something revealing, open and provocative at work in these vignettes. Whether he’s documenting the traumatic fire of 1996 that threatened to stall the making of the Love and Rockets album Sweet FA or his brief involvement with the Self-Realization Fellowship, Haskins has a way of tapping into memories that makes the book a pleasing page-turner.
If everything Haskins writes is this profound, one can only hope another book is released soon.
Everyone loves an overcomer, an artist who fights tooth and nail for what they believe. New York City-based singer-songwriter Amanda Kravat is such an artist. Her four song EP AK is a DIY effort that vacillates between late 90s alt-rock (think Alanis Morrisette) and plaintive piano balladry (think Carole King). Written as a result to a series of panic attacks she was suffering, AK is a deeply personal and powerful work that charms and delights.
The EP opens with “Not Myself Today,” an angsty almost yelpy effort that suffers from being overly ambitious. Sonically the song is all over the place and is too cluttered for its own good. It is plainly clear to hear what Kravat is trying to achieve. Unfortunately the song suffers from shoddy production and just never reaches the song’s lofty goals. On the contrary, the placid piano ballad “I Could Tell You I Don’t Love You” is heartfelt and tender and proves Kravat’s limitless potential. Penultimate effort “Would’t Be This” has a definitive Sheryl Crow vibe and meanders along through a mid-tempo melancholy that has a pronounced sense of gravity.
The EP closes with “Somebody Else is Driving,” a big-hearted slice of alt folk-rock with a towering chorus and the most promise of any of AK’s songs. It is here and on “Not Myself Today” that AK resonates, smolders and simmers. Whether AK launches Kravat out of the ever-crowded Manhattan singer-songwriter scene remains to be seen. For now, it’s a welcome tonic to the onset of winter.
It’s rainy and melancholic here in Orlando this morning and this song is fitting my mood. Decidedly British, extremely liberating and instantly captivating, this is a garage-rock song that hits in all the right places. In short, Clones of Clones is a band who is destined to do big things. The band’s full length is being produced by Ted Comerford (Jukebox the Ghost, ZOX, Jonas Sees in Color) at Savannah’s Low Watt Studios and is due in early 2015. Expect a review by yours truly when the album drops.
Back in the late 90s I was mesmerized by the Liverpudlian band Treehouse. Their album Nobody’s Monkey, which was released by Atlantic Records, was a splendid collection of honeyed roots-rock that garnered the band countless praise and found the band sharing the stage with the likes of Edwin McCain and Hootie and the Blowfish. Nearly two decades later Treehouse vocalist Pete Riley has passed the torch on to his son Pete Riley Jr.
The younger Riley is the frontman for Shamona, a Liverpool-based trio who just released the video for their single “Just Like You,” off an EP of the same name. Vaguely reminiscent of Ari Hest and mining the same sonic terrain as James Blunt circa Back to Bedlam, “Just Like You” is a sterling slice of plaintive balladry that points towards a very promising future. Though it will probably fail to make waves here in the States, color this writer as one that’s hoping it will.
I always try and keep an eye on young bands, especially here in Orlando. Due to my frequent dabbling in Christian circles, one such Christian band has attempted to make a name for themselves. Plaid Gig, based out of Apopka, is a modern rock quartet with influences that range from Paramore to Underoath and from August Burns Red to Flyleaf and Gill Radio. The band is led by feather-voiced vocalist Robbyn Thomas. On their debut self titled EP the band showcases their variety as well as armfuls of promise.
The EP opens with “Why Do You Love Me?,” a lyrically clumsy effort that has a first-rate chorus and deftly showcases the band’s penchant for pop hooks. The quartet takes a giant step forward on “Grace Covering Me,” the album’s first real worship effort and a can’t miss dynamo. Robbyn Thomas has a voice not unlike Evanescence’s Amy Lee and while that may sound like a knock to some, Evanescence does have a Grammy Award in their back pocket. While Grammy Awards are probably not in Plaid Gig’s immediate future, there’s no ceiling on just how high this band can climb.
Easily the disc’s most aggressive cut is the aptly titled “Riot,” a brawny and guttural effort that shows Plaid Gig’s ability to up the sonic ante and so so quite well. The song also serves as a direct nod to their influences.
Not one to shy from their Christian faith, the band covers the Hillsong United effort “Lead Me to the Cross,” and does so in perfect fashion. Though its never a good thing when the EP’s best song is a cover that is indeed the case with Plaid Gig. From start to finish, the song finds the band firing on all cylinders. The rhythm section is air-tight, the guitars are sturdy and Thomas’ vocals are confident and wholly inviting.
Plaid Gig ends with an acoustic version of “Why Do You Love Me,” which continues to illustrate the band’s versatility and that they are not afraid of stripping down their sound. Though Plaid Gig leaves lots of room for improvement, the band does have one thing on its side: not one of the band members is over the age of 22. With youth still on their side, there’s plenty of reason to think that in the next couple of years, Plaid Gig might become one of Central Florida’s most promising Christian artists. Heck, once they conquer Central Florida, there’s no reason to think they can’t conquer the Southeast and beyond.
I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a voice and an acoustic guitar. There’s a reason I’ve been a passionate follower of folk music for more than half my life. Sometimes those two instruments can convey a wall of emotion that even a scattering din never can. And when it’s done well, it demands to be shared. Enter Gainesville singer-songwriter Ricky Kendall. His name was passed along by a friend at church and hot damn, is it something. Though the video is a bit dizzying, this whiskey-soaked Appalachian folk has equal hints of the Mississippi Delta and armfuls of honesty. Color me interested.
For reasons I don’t feel like elucidating life has me down lately. Nothing that won’t pass and nothing I won’t conquer. However this summer swoon has me flocking to music to try and rise out of said slump. One of those songs that has been speaking to me lately is the tortured, tantrum-laden effort “Runnin’ Me Down,” from Detroit's Silent Lions.
The song is deeply haunting, nocturnal and definitely creepy. Equal parts serpentine, saturnine and downright horrifying, it’s a real auspicious effort from a band I know very little about.
Not like my opinion counts for much but my favorite summer song so far this year is “I Say,” from Norwegian singer-songwriter Dagny. Punchy, bubbly and super cute it’s everything a summer song should be. The song, which has yet to be released in the States, hits British markets on July 28. A paean to self-defiance, independence and flying your own flag, it’s a song that should do well in the States. But often what charts in Britain fails to reach American shores. Here’s to hoping that doesn’t happen. Dagny is a star just waiting to break out.