Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rhythm Angels - Duncan House Concert - October 4, 2009

I can't really explain why, but Nature and the Cosmos seem to be all about duos and the number two! There is a reason why there are two genders, why the world is viewed in terms of yin and yang, hot and cold, up and down, on and off, etc. I just don't really have a grasp on why it is that way. Maybe a basic natural binary code of on/off, it/not it? Who knows? But I have also noticed that in realm of music, the duo is the smallest and most pure expression of being a band and it is that "twoness" that allows for magical things like harmony and counterpoint to happen. So often musical duos become something more than the sum of the two parts. And it is this sort of transcendence that is the duo, Rhythm Angels' stock and trade.
Very often, in anticipation of a certain concert featuring a performer I haven't heard yet, I'll catch a bit of a buzz about a show. The host might point a out a certain upcoming show and say "Don't miss this one!" or another performer or house concert presenter will mention the artist positively. In the case of this show featuring the Rhythm Angels, ALL of the above happened. I was really anticipating a great night when we arrived at Scott and Rosemary Duncan's home that evening, and I knew, with the endorsements I had heard, there was no way I was going to be disappointed!
Rhythm Angels are the duo of Celeste Krenz and Rebecca Folsom, who originally hail from North Dakota and Colorado  respectively. They both had successful solo careers when they crossed paths in Nashville, began singing together at workshops and song circles and soon decided to join forces full time. This past year they released their first CD "girls like us" on High Horse Records and I had been hearing great things about them and their songs for a few months.
The duo took the "stage" and, without the benefit of microphones or PA systems, launched into their first song, a rocking blues called "Lets Kiss and Make Up" which immediately got the crowd into it and ready. From there they switched pace with the title tune from their CD "Girls Like Us", a gorgeous ballad with an anthem-like universality in its lyrics:
"Girls like us go with the wind
We risk it all, and if we fail, we risk it all again
We burn hot and we fall hard
Girls like us are like the stars"
Here's a video of this song not from this show:
I may never be a girl but I've known some who "burn hot and fall hard like the stars"! A really beautiful and amazing song!
I wondered to myself, what kind of songs must these two have to use up such a strong tune so early in the set? Well, the next tune REALLY floored me! "If I had A Gun" may be one of the most chillling and direct songs I have ever heard anywhere! I don't often quote lyrics in my reviews but already I feel compelled to quote these ladies for the second time. But dig these lyrics and tell me they don't make you squirm a bit, even without the haunting music!
"If I had a gun, you'd be dead
One to the heart,one to the head.
If I had a gun, I'd wipe in clean,
My fingerprints, off on these sheets.
They'd bury you in the cold hard ground,
Fist full of dirt would hold you down.
They'd bury you in the cold hard ground
It'd be the first night, I'd sleep sound."
Here's a link to a video of this song, also not from this show but worth viewing:
Heavy stuff but not heavy-handed in execution, these women can deal with the barest of emotions directly with grace and dignity and though you MAY squirm just a bit, they are always entertaining while doing so.
The set continued with one killer tune off their CD after another with no drops in intensity, either in subject matter or performance. Every song was a highlight and I could write on and on about each one, but I will TRY to restrain myself just a bit. But many tunes need to be mentioned if only in passing. I have to comment on the smoldering sex appeal of their version of "29 Ways", the Willie Dixon classic.  I'd be remiss not cite the universal feel-good healing vibe of "Sister Love's Cafe". And Rebecca's song "Mama's House" is so personal, so painful and intimate, that it would be hard to listen to if it were not such a beautifully crafted and sung composition. Celeste's powerful  "If I Don't Leave Now" really grabbed the audience and got a big ovation. And when the ladies finished the first set with the bluesy "She Loves To Love A Fool" I had to wonder what they left for the second set, the first was SO strong.
During intermission we mingled as usual and had some forbidden treats but my prime purpose during the break was to purchase the Rhythm Angels' CD and have it signed and to meet Celeste and Rebecca and let them know how much I was loving their music. They were both as friendly and personable face-to-face as they were on stage!
Well, as usual, I needn't have worried about the second set. They still had plenty of great tunes and, while the first set maybe had more of their killer tunes in it, front-loading your set with some of your best material can be an understandable survival strategy for acts playing in front of new audiences in unknown venues. Nonetheless there were lots of highlights left for the rest of the night. They started the second set with "If I Had A Boat" with its beautiful river imagery. Next was Rebecca's gorgeous ballad "Wish I Could Love That Way Again" a wistful look at innocence very much in the tradition of the Ronstadt/Waldman/Bonoff acoustic SoCal sound.
 I need to interject a thought here. I've written on and on already with hardly a mention of the fabulous voices these two possess or their professional musicianship as guitarists. I assure you that is only a testament to the quality and power of their songs!  I often find with world-class songwriters, it's easy to overlook their vocal or instrumental talent. I have done it in this forum when writing about John Batdorf, a world-class writer who is also world-class as a vocalist and guitarist. When's the last time someone spoke to you about Paul Simon's singing or guitar playing though he is a great vocalist and guitarist. The ability to write with such power,clarity and entertaiment is so much more rare a quality! Celeste and Rebecca are GREAT vocalists, whose voices complement each other wonderfully. Rebecca's voice is little more bluesy and more comfortable on lower parts and Celeste usually takes the higher parts. But their voices are also almost interchangable and I'm sure they'd be comfortable singing each other's parts. And their guitar work is professional, precise and rhythmically interesting. Great singers, players AND writers!
The other highlights of the second set included several from their CD. Celeste contributed "Listen To October" a pretty song about endings and Rebecca gave us "Something Good" which she described as a tribute to the joys of infidelity (her idea not mine!). Mixed in were a few non-originals and older songs not on the CD. It was a VERY entertaining second set, and it culminated with the encore tune , an a capella sing-along on "Amazing Grace" that left us all feeling the power of song! This show was definitely one of the best of the year and these are a pair of compelling singer/songwriters whose synergy together make them one of my favorite finds of 2009. And a note to my wife Becky, see I told you I could write a whole review on the Rhythm Angels without one mention of how beautiful they both are! OOPS!

A link for the Rhythm Angels:

and for Duncan House Concerts:

Blogger's Note

All THREE of my regular readers have been wondering what's up. Did I just stop seeing shows, did I give up the blog?  Well I assure you all, I have seen a bunch of shows and have good notes and have every intention of getting caught up. I'm afraid some real life intruded.I call it being "blogged down" with life.  I'm now on vacation and have a bit of discretionary time.  I have one review almost ready to post and hopefully there'll be more on its tail in rapid succession. First up is a review of the Rhythm Angels at the Duncan House Concert from October 4.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jimmy LaFave - Bodie House Concerts - September 20, 2009

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit I've had a thing for Texan singer/songwriters for decades.  It began back in the 60's and early 70's with folks like John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson (yes, he used to be a songwriter and a good one too!). It continued over the years with people like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark,  John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely. And while these Texans have styles that vary from country to blues to swing to folk, the one thing they all share seems to be powerful storytelling in the form of song. And after this beautiful September evening in Thousand Oaks, I can now add the name Jimmy La Fave to that impressive list. Although he grew up in Oklahoma, he has spent decades as a prominent member of the Austin, Texas music scene.

Renee Bodie, who runs these Bodie House Concerts at the Thousand Oak Library, this past summer put on the first LA Acoustic Music Festival on the Santa Monica Pier. Because of date conflicts with an already-booked other festival, we were unable to attend, but I heard a lot about it from folks who were there. And the name I heard brought up most often for praise was Jimmy La Fave. So , that coupled with my long-standing love of Texas songwriters, made me anticipate this show for months. I was not disappointed!

So, as we are known to do, we arrived fairly early and made the donation at the door, which on this night was manned by Severin Browne, singer/songwriter extraordinaire. We found some pretty good seats in about the fourth row and watched as the room filled. During opening introductions we learned that there were more first time attendees than regulars including a contingent of 41 folks from Hemet. Clearly this act had some drawing power.

The band took the stage with Radislav Lorkovich on baby grand piano and accordion, Glenn Schuetz on electric standup 5 string bass, John Inmon on electric guitar and of course Jimmy on acoustic guitar and vocals. They kicked off the night with a tune which I believe was called "Bluebird" (I had some trouble verifying this title), a blues tune that featured a rollicking piano solo by Rad. The next couple of tunes were some of my favorites of the night , first of all "Deep South 61 Delta Highway Blues" which had an incredible John Enmon guitar solo, followed by "Only One Angel" a love song with a bit of Cajun two step flavor and Rad playing squeeze box style accordion.

 "Secret Garden" had John's guitar sounding like  a violin and then a very soulful guitar solo. I need to pause and talk about John Inman. I'm sorry, Jimmy, to spend review time talking about a sideman so much, but Jimmy knows how special a player he has! This is world-class guitarist who has spent decades backing up the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and Delbert McClinton among many others.  A player of such talent that a teenaged Stevie Ray Vaughn idolized him and followed him around Austin, Texas. As a bit of a guitar player myself  I can't help but rave about one of the most talented players I've heard in a long time. And much to the credit of Jimmy LaFave, not a whole lot of singer/songwriter types have the talent, self-confidence and generosity of spirit to not only put together a band of such strong players but also give them the musical space to work out.

The first set closed with a quartet of great songs. First, the Dylan classic "Just Like A Woman" done Texas Highway style with an epic guitar solo by John and a piano interlude by Rad that was quiet, contrapuntal classical sounding and wonderful. And then the rocking boogie of "Rockin' Little Baby", with nods to Chuck Berry but sounding fresh with the usual great solos by Rad and John. Then came Woody Guthrie's classic "This Land is Your Land", which I still say should be this country's national anthem which featured Rad's accordion work that was reminiscent of the great Tex-Mex sounds of Flaco Jimenez and , of course the audience singing along.  The last song of the set was my very favorite of Jimmy's compositions. "Deportee" is one of the only and certainly one of the best songs documenting the travails of illegal aliens entering this country only to be become prey of the elements, the authorities and people's attitudes. This was an extremely moving song and it brought the first set to a close on a very high note.

Intermission brought the usual, pot-luck treats, mingling with friends new and old and of course a chance to purchase CDs and have them signed. Among the familiar faces in the crowd, besides the aforementioned Severin Browne, were Russ and Julie, house concert presenters extraordinaire, Kenny Edwards, who we had seen the previous night in Goleta and Steve Brogdan, who runs the Thousand Oaks Library and is somewhat of a cohost of this concert with Renee Bodie. I also got a brief chance to speak with John Inmon and learned that HE doesn't hear those "violin" sounds he makes though he is often told others do. To him they're just electric guitar sounds he achieves with the use of only some overdrive distortion and a volume pedal and some finger technique. There was no attempt to make fiddle sounds but I wasn't the only one who heard it like that!

The second set began with another of Jimmy's great compositions, "River Road", a tribute to the spiritual healing that love can bring. Next up was "Blues in C Minor" which served as an intro to "Highway 49 Driving Blues" yet another example of Texans' obsession with both the blues and with driving and yet another chance for John  to show off his amazing skills on electric guitar. After a couple of typically great originals,"On My Mind" and "Desperate Men Do Desperate Things"and another Dylan cover, "Tomorrow Is A Long Time" the set built momentum towards a conclusion.

But there still was a lot of ground to cover!  "Indian Nation" about the Oklahoma hills where Jimmy grew up featured Rad on accordion again and Jimmy making the same accordion jokes that we heard Dan Navarro tell a couple of months ago on the same stage. After a cover of Van Morrison's "Have I told You Lately That I Love You" that was made popular by Rod Stewart, the set began to really cook with Jimmy's "Bohemian Cowboy Blues", a blue shuffle with shades of Lyle Lovett that featured a  wonderful, very melodic bass solo by Glenn.  Next up was "Revival" another of Jimmy's inspiring "religious" love songs and then, by request of our hostess, Renee Bodie, Jimmy's great total rearrangement of the 60's classic, "Walk Away Renee" which was a big crowd-.pleaser.

The night was drawing to a close. The band out-did itself on "That's The Way It Goes", a rocking boogie-woogie with the usual incredible guitar solo by John and Rad doing his best Jerry Lee Lewis impression, just wailing on the piano while standing up and kicking away his bench! The crowd loved it and very quickly made enough noise to coax the expected encore. The encore began with Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods' 60s peace anthem "Get Together" with the whole audience joining in and John's solo at turns nodding to the original and also sounding incredibly like a pedal-steel guitar. The night finished with a medley that started as an uptempo version of the bluegrass classic, "I'll Fly Away" and turned into the classic "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" that had the audience singing along again and John's hyper-speed guitar-picking on his solo that made John stand while playing for the first time that evening!

Wow, this was a very fun evening. Jimmy LaFave is not only a first-class songwriter and expressive vocalist but as a band leader he has assembled a world -class band featuring musicians totally capable of fronting their own bands. It's a testament to Jimmy's talent and personality that these guys are having so much fun playing with him!

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Forward Into The Past" Firesign Theatre Live at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, Hollywood October 16, 2009

So I wanted to write a brief description of last night's show cause there seems to be a lot of interest. As we typically do, cause I'm pretty anal, we left REAL early from Oxnard to beat Friday night traffic. Had a real early dinner in Los Feliz, and still had hours to kill before show time, but Barnsdall Park is very cool, Hollyhock House, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, while not open gave us something to check out. Plus a cool sculpture garden and the Hollywood Hills to look at, and of course an awesome sunset.

We were one of the first inside the theatre, our seats were right where I thought. Fourth row of right hand section on the aisle. Wonderful vantage point. Small 299 seat theatre came close to filling but never did. Wider age range in the audience then I would have guessed. Sure most were our age, but there were quite a few 20,30 and 40 somethings also. Great place to see a show! Smaller than your average high school theatre these days, low stage only about a foot or so higher than the floor, pro sound and lighting.

Finally the houselights dimmed and the four guys took the stage. They pretty much all look like older versions of the guys I remember from back when (duh!), David Ossman seemed to look the most different, I'm guessing from years of playing Rocky Rococo maybe? They immediately went into the beginning of "Waiting For The Electrician", learning our next three words in Turkish, bath, towel,border, and then of course "May I see your passport please" right through, I think the whole side of the album, including "Beat The Reaper" which has taken on new levels of meaning for me now! It then morfed into "Porgie and Mudhead" from "Don't Crush That Dwarf".

I should pause and mention that the guys are holding scripts in their hands the whole evening, like they are doing a radio show, which essentially has always been their format. If anyone was disappointed for their $60 they didn't get to see costumes, sets, special effects, etc they were misguided. Firesign was always first and foremost about imagination, both theirs and their audiences'. Theatre of the Mind. Much more effective in its own way than theatrics! I thought the format was perfect. Their classic material presented so you could keep those same mental images we all carry from the old days but with the addition of facial expression, body language,sound effects both live and recorded, even a couple of tunes, the Loosner Castor Oil Flake jingle and the Porgie Tirebiter theme song.

The end of the first half was new material, not too much of it, but funny. I wish I could remember any of the new stuff, but it didn't stick. I wasn't about to be taking notes at my first and only Firesign concert! There was a short intermission and we went outside cause it was really warm evening. I checked out the merch and noticed they had but one "Beat The Reaper" T shirt left and it was my size and seemed destined to be mine and now it is! Very meaningful shirt to me on a couple of levels! Lots of other merchandise, I almost bought a Ralph Spoilsport license plate frame until Becky reminded me I'd have to get rid of the "On Loan From The Smithsonian" frame that graces my 65 Dodge Dart (can you believe some woman once asked me what was on loan, me or the car?lol)

The second half began with "Nick Danger,Third Eye" but was greatly abridged from the original. Rocky Rococo only had two lines! But very classic. Funny thing, Peter Bergman tried to do a fireplace sound effect by crumpling paper, it was the wrong paper, not cellophane as needed and it failed miserably much to the delight of the the other three amd the audience. There were several of these "in the moment" reactions throughout the night, knowing or sarcastic looks, adlibs even a "balloon boy" reference. Made the guys very real and human and the material come alive.

After the Nick Danger bit they went into something I've never heard, Firesign Shakespeare, which if you know me at all, is pretty close to a description of my own personal nirvana! And they were spectacular! Very literate, in iambic pentameter and often rhyming but at all times typically Firesign hysterical. From there they became high school teachers talking to their students in the audience at the Shakespeare play discussing the curious upcoming menus at each of their four schools. They ended with some more new stuff and encored with new material that morphed into that poem on the first album, the poet escapes me now, but its famous, that "yes,yes, a thousand times yes" bit that closes, I think the first album.

The guys were going to be out after the show to sign autographs and chat, but I had been up since 4 am and on the go since, and we were at least an hour from home so we had to pass on that. Kinda regretting it now but maybe we'll have another chance. Well that's it as I remember today. I'd be glad to try to answer any questions if I can. If you have the chance, go see these guys. They haven't "lost a step" and still got their "chops"! One last note, Becky, who was aware of them back in the day but never a "fan", had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed it and got all but the most "inside" references. I wouldn't hesitate to bring anyone who has an open mind with you.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kulak's "Wonderland"

So, I really didn't plan on writing this review. This show wasn't a house concert or a music festival which have been my primary focus with this blog.  Besides, I'm CONSTANTLY behind in writing reviews, I have one half-finished review from a show two weekends ago that needs to be finished, with another show from last weekend waiting to be written about. But, even with all that, I had such a great time last night, that I need to at least write briefly about it, and I need to do it today, because, unlike my usual MO, I took no notes last night.

I've been hearing about Kulak's Woodshed for years, but hadn't ever made it there. I had even sent them an online donation once, but my technical incompetence prevented me from seeing a webcast at the time. And I wasn't tracking this show early on, because we were planning on attending the Joshua Tree Roots Music Festival this weekend. But then I had my surgery the week before last and also some terrible back problems and it became apparent I wouldn't be able to hack camping at a festival and we looked for alternatives. And then our friend, Scott, who lives in Hollywood, expressed interest in seeing this show, and it became a      no-brainer.

After meeting Scott for a really nice early dinner we headed over to Kulak's early for an 8:00 PM show. We had John saving us seats but wanted to still arrive early to check out the place and to socialize a bit. This was a good move, mainly because the room itself was so interesting. Picture a living room-sized space filled with hand-me-down seating of wide varieties. We sat in three connected theatre style seats right in front of the "stage" (actually just a space in the center of the room), but other seats were old couches and arm chairs and bar stools and even an old bed where a couple of people had a very relaxing view. The seating is for about 35 people.  And then there is the decorating!  Think Early American Hippie decor crossed with a real-life Peewee's Playhouse! There is so much STUFF on the walls and ceiling it defies description. Hopefully when I put up pictures it will help or check out the archived videos on the website, pictures being worth so much more in this instance. The net effect was like a trip to Wonderland, NeverNeverland or some other magical location. I even got to read an email live on air! Yep, little ole shy me!

Kulak's is a labor of love for owner Paul Kulak and his staff of volunteers. It is run as a non-profit, no one makes any money, including the musicians. The donations are all there is to keep this place up and running. They pass the donation bucket during the show, suggested donation $10. They also take Paypal donations online. The appeal to the musicians is the warm, enthusiatic and hip live audience and the chance to go out live world-wide  on the net with a fairly professional 6 camera video set-up.

The musical format for the evening was John Batdorf presenting his friends Scott Wojahn and James Hurley, with the performers taking turns with twenty minute sets and each of the three doing two sets. Because I didn't take notes, I'll just give a brief description of each performer's sets as I can remember them with this aging medicated brain. I apologize for not being prepared and taking notes, but I really thought I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now.

First up was Scott Wojahn, who is an old friend of John's, they did a bunch of jingle work many years ago doing vocals together to sing about hardware and the like. I gather Scott hasn't been performing in quite a while.  Can I be among the first to say "Welcome back!"?  Because for someone who hasn't performed  lately he was great!  His songs ran the gamut from hysterically funny to emotionally moving to the point where you could find yourself crying in two consecutive songs for two totally different reasons! That's some depth of experience!  Scott has a really nice voice and is an adept guitarist who also played piano on one piece, a very moving song about his daughter which was a highlight for me (sorry didn't catch the title). The other high point in Scott's sets was a little ditty called "It Sucks To Grow Old" a hilarious documentation of the myriad betrayals by our bodies as we age.  Becky was literally in tears, she's still chuckling about it today as I write this. We all thoroughly enjoyed Scott's performance. Scott here's a vote to dive back in and start performing again regularly. If nothing else think of it as altruism, you have too much talent not share it with the rest of us!

James Hurley, the next performer to hit stage, is a name I've been reading on house concert and other schedules for a while, though I never really had any particular feeling for what his music was all about. Well now I understand why!  What do you say to describe a force of nature or  a mirage of an enigma?  How do you relate something you've never experienced before? James has to be one of the most unique performers I've ever seen. It may start with his anti-star appearance, seemingly  middle-aged and balding with some of the most extreme sideburns you'll ever see. But his music almost defies description at times, acoustic guitar and vocals that remind one of a diverse palette of genres from Hoagy Carmichael to OingoBoingo to Delta blues and all points in between. He is both a reviewer's delight and nightmare to try to describe. His songs range from the perfectly over-the-top "The Vampire Song" where he sings about the vampires of Southern California or "Mushroom" where the real house of horrors comes with a hefty mortgage! But just when you think you can pigeon-hole him as a hopelessly quirky escapee of the Dr. Demento Home for the Musically Insane, he hits you with a song like "Mountain"  a driving blues riff that is a scathing indictment of the damage done in the name of "progress" and the "nuisance" of conscience. Or one like "To Carry On" an inspirationally uplifting ballad urging us to strive through adversity.  This is no "novelty" act though he is loaded with personality and quirkiness. James is an amazing guitarist, both in a technical and creative sense and his voice has so much personality that you might overlook how GOOD it is, pitch perfect over a wide range, with an emotional depth. At the night's end I paid James my ultimate compliment, I bought his CD, partly because John told us how good it was. We enjoyed listening to it on the drive home, as good and unique as his performance.

Well, that leaves us with the evening's host and headliner, John Batdorf.  Well it should be getting harder to write a review of John's shows. After all there is no one whose music I've reviewed any where near as many times and now we do the Facebook friend-thing and are getting friendly. You'd think I'd be running out of things to say. Right now you're all going "Right, Peter, running out of things to say! As if!" Well just to not let you down there are always new things I notice in John's music, that's why I go see him so often. There aren't that many artists that will stand up to such repeated scrutiny, but John isn't just any artist. But I will ask you to go back and read my previous reviews of his shows, they are more detailed than this will be and I think he has also inspired some of MY best writing.  On this night we were treated to selection of John's music spanning the decades, with the emphasis, as expected, on the "new" album. I put new in parentheses because I have been living with it and actively listening to it for months and months now.  I show no signs of tiring of ANY of it. Last night he did several songs off it, "That Don't Seem Right To Me" a bluesy rocker of a wail against the negative changes we all see aroumd us, "Eyes Wide Open" his normally scathing musical goodby to W and his cronies that last night sounded extra-venomous like John had a real bad day or something, "Will I Love You Forever" one of the more unusual love ballads that you'll hear, that Becky finds exceptionally moving and I love its almost Cajun-waltz feel and of course "What Dya Got"  maybe John's best song ever, probably at least his most commercially appealing to my ear. Since I never tire of quoting myself, I'll again remind you I once called it an anthem to the down-sizing of the American Dream and the power of personal relationships to pull us all through.Which is just a glib way to say this song tells us to lean on each other to get ourselves through tough times. The fact is that its one of the greatest melodies John has ever written and melody has always been his strong suit. And the lyrics are the usual, literate but universal and always clever. I'm not sure how John and his writing partner, Michael McLean, split their work, who does what. My guess is that it varies from song to song but I've never asked John. But this song may be their best work!
So, in addition to the new stuff, we were treated to some classics like "She's The Girl" a beautiful ballad for their wives, "I Don't Always Win" his dark take on the tolls of substance abuse and of course John's "Stairway To Heaven"  or  "FreeBird" equivalent, a classic from the early 70's Batdorf and Rodney, "Home Again" a song that never fails to make me feel like I have just arrived home!  A true classic. I had a very hard time not singing along like I always do, but we were going out live on the web and many of you have heard me sing, enough said!  The night finished with all three performers joining in a rousing version of The Stones' classic "Ruby Tuesday" and this time we were all INVITED (big difference) to sing along, which we all did! A really fun great night of music in a unique venue. I urge you all to go there in person or visit on the web. And check out musicians links below.

Link for Kulak's Woodshed:

Link for John Batdorf:

Link for James Hurley:

Link for Scott Wojahn :

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kenny Edwards and Michael Frey - SongTree Concerts, Goleta,CA - September 19, 2009 - House Concert Review

One of the coolest parts of living in SoCal, going to house concerts regularly, and now doing reviews, is that I've gotten to see, listen to, meet and sometimes get to know a bit, some artists that I have followed and respected for many years. One of the most accomplished of these artists, though not that widely known, is Kenny Edwards, who we have had the pleasure of seeing live several times in the past few years. Even if you don't know the name, I guarantee you have heard many, many songs that have featured him as a writer, producer, vocalist, or sideman on a variety of instruments. His discography reads like a veritable Who's Who of Southern California rock music and he has worked with many country artists also. When we heard he would be playing at SongTree, a venue fairly local to us that we'd never been to before (see my venue review just below this one), there was no question that we'd be there.

We had no tickets or reservations, so we arrived nice and early to ensure that we would get in and to score some good seats. It was a good move, the room filled up pretty early and though we were in no danger of not getting in, the closer seats filled pretty quickly. The crowd here was on the oldish side and many seemed to know each other, leading me to guess many were members of the Congregation that sponsors these concerts.

The good thing about double billed concerts is that you get to hear acts that you've never heard before, the bad thing about them is you get to hear acts you've never heard before. Fortunately this was one of the former, a nice opportunity to hear a good artist. The opening act was a gentleman named Michael Frey, a singer/songwriter from the Santa Barbara area that I had heard of but never heard before. He did a nice set of tunes, most of them his own. Michael is a VERY  talented guitarist with a servicable if unremarkable voice who has written some nice songs and I gather he has a good following in the Santa Barbara area. Many there that night were there to see him in particular, from what I could discern. His songs ranged from the Cajun rocking chair rhythms of "The Bayou Teche" , the stylish fingerpicking ballads  "Way Out in The Desert" and "Old Soul" to my favorites "Making It Up" which really suited his voice best of any tunes I heard and "Its Not There Anymore" a beautifully constructed song that describes a hometown "before it got mall-ed" in his clever lyrics. The set closed with a bluesy cover of Hank Ballard's "Shelter From The Storm" and we went to intermission feeling quite entertained. Here's  a picture of Michael:

At intermission we bought a snack and drink at the outdoor snack table, had a nice chat with a friendly couple we met and enjoyed the cool night air. Unlike most of the house concerts we attend, familiar faces were few at this show, though we saw a couple of musicians we recognized in the audience. We re entered the concert really looking forward to Kenny's set.

So for those of you who aren't familiar with Kenny Edwards, here are just a few high points. In the mid 60's Kenny was a founding member of The Stone Ponies along with Linda Ronstadt, they had a hit with the song "Different Drum". From there he teamed with Karla Bonoff, Wendy Waldman, and Andrew Gold in the "supergroup"  Bryndle, and was a leader of Linda Ronstadt's touring and recording band, contributing material and expertise in creating her hit-making sound. Since then he has collaborated  and played with a wide variety of acts ranging from Don Henley, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, and Ringo Starr to country artists like Juice Newton, Charlie Daniels, Wynona and Emmy Lou Harris. There may be no one as influential in establishing the SoCal acoustic rock sound. In 2002 Kenny released his first solo album, the wonderful "Kenny Edwards" and the exciting news this evening was that his second solo album "Resurrection Road" is just about to come out, my copy is on order!

On this evening, Kenny was accompanied by the wonderful multi-instrumentalist Freddy Koella who produced both of Kenny's solo albums.  The set started with the title tune from the new album "Resurrection Road" with Kenny laying down a groove on the mandolin and Freddy playing a tasty fiddle. The next tune, the bluesy "I Got That Fever" featured Kenny on acoustic guitar and Freddy playing dobro. Freddy is one of the most economical and tasty players you will ever hear; every note he plays has a purpose and serves the song itself, with not a drop of "virtuoso ego" in spite of his obvious virtuosity. Next was another song from the new CD "Will You Still Love Me" whose clock-like rhythm propelled its theme of the futility of trying to make someone love you. Here's a picture with Freddy on dobro:

"My Home Is Anywhere You Are", another new one, was a countryish tune with a bouncy, driving rhythm that again featured Freddy on fiddle.Here's a picture with Freddy on fiddle and Kenny on acoustic guitar:

 Kenny introduced the next song as one of those "internal mining disasters of folk music", a favorite from his first album, "No Tears", an examination of macho attitude full of heart-felt irony. Freddy's really exceptional dobro solo was one of his best moments in a night full of memorable playing. Freddy switched to a vintage Gibson acoustic guitar on "So Many Ways To Break A Heart" and then back to dobro, adding to the swamp-funk sound on a cover of Lowell George's classic "Roll Me Easy".  After Kenny urged the purists in the crowd to look away as he put a capo on his mandolin, he did the old R&B song "I Can't Stand The Rain", which at one point humorously became "I can't remember this song" as the lyrics evaded his memory temporarily.

Kenny's talent is enormous but in no way is he showy. His guitar playing has been so influential in establishing the distinctive sounds of SoCal folk rock, its easy to forget the crowd has followed HIM, rather than the other way around. His voice, while also never showy is full of emotional depth and has kept him in demand as a backup singer. And while his songwriting has never been hugely prolific, he writes really beautiful tunes and lyrics full of feeling. The next song, "I Saw It All There In Your Eyes" is an example of his beautiful, haunting  lyrics applied to music written by co writers, and then on the following tune, "On Our Way To Heaven", Freddy played some beautiful acoustic guitar licks to again highlight Kenny's great lyrics.

Well, all great nights have to draw to a close and Kenny closed this one with a couple of my favorites. "Statesboro Blues" is a Delta blues standard dating back to 1922 and covered innumerable times. Somehow, in doing a classically authentic arrangement, Kenny makes this song his own, easily the best version I've heard since Taj Mahal's first solo album, circa 1968.  Freddy's dobro backing and solo were as authentic-sounding yet fresh as the arrangement, a remarkable feat.  And then all that was left was the encore, a tune that Kenny describes as "my life story of obsessive compulsive love" (a theme I think we can all relate to!), "Misery and Happiness". Kenny played one of his driving mandolin rhythms with Freddy adding fiddle fills, making obsessive love seem like a whole lotta fun and bringing a great show to a rousing close!

Kenny Edwards is one of a handful of SoCal musical icons whose body of work DEMAND your attention. Please if you have a chance , don't miss out! Go see him live and buy both his CDs! You'll be a better person for the experiences, I guarantee!
Here's a link for Kenny:

and one for Michael Frey:

and one for Freddy Koella:

and one for SongTree Concerts:

As always, my love and thanks to my best friend and love of my life, Becky, for her photos and indulgences!

Saturday, September 26, 2009


This is another "house concert" - type venue that has taken us a long time to finally visit. We had heard of SongTree a few years ago when we first started attending house concerts, but somehow, for one reason or another we were never able to make it. Then for about a year, the venue wasn't operating, but when we heard they had re-opened and that one of our old favorites, Kenny Edwards, was appearing, we knew we had to finally go.

SongTree Concerts, I guess, is not technically a "house concert". It operates at the Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Goleta, CA, just north of Santa Barbara and about an hour from our home. It also doesn't work on the "donation at the door, all for the artists" system, but acts as a source of funding for the Congregation's environmental and social action programs, both local and global. But since they use many acts that are regulars on the house concert circuit and are not really a commercial enterprise, I figure they still fit my format here pretty well.

The concert series was not running for a year because they built a new building to house their services and  use for concerts. It is a beautiful structure and was designed explicitly with music in mind, with a new professional sound system,  a stage and very comfortable, extensive seating. The legal capacity is posted as 428, but its hard to envision that many in here. The night we were there they had about 170 seats arranged in a semicircle around the stage. They also claim to have professional stage lighting, but that was the only item I found a bit lacking, the front third of the stage being in darkness, forcing performers to set up back a bit from the stage front. But other than that, it is an attractive and comfortable room with lots of seating and great sound, perfect for concerts. The room has very nice woodworking trim and the stage used chains of origami cranes hanging as a backdrop the night we were there. I'm not sure if this arrangement was permanent or temporary, and while it was unusual and kind of cool, it was also a little busy and distracting as a background (see above picture).The room is also devoid of ANY religious iconography or symbols, making it appropriate for other uses.

The SongTree Concert series has been operating for seven years and 73 shows, bringing in a wide variety of music, including folk, jazz, rock and world music. A gentleman named Tom Lee books the entertainment. Their upcoming schedule includes Brazilian music, jazz, a Celtic harpist and then Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band, a bluegrass/country act which I have previously reviewed here. I'm sure we will be taking in at least a couple of these upcoming shows, so stayed tuned here for more on this great concert series.

Here's a link for SongTree Concert Series :

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Stonehoney - House Concert Review - Russ and Julie's House Concerts - September 12,2009

Well, I could write one of my usual long-winded reviews, or I could sum up the Stonehoney concert at Russ and Julie's last night in only three letters. WOW! This quartet of singer/songwriters put on an amazing show featuring great tunes, incredible harmonies, impressive instrumental skills and just a whole lot of old-fashioned fun. And, I guess while a three letter review may give you the gist, I hope one of my rambling reviews may give you the additional info you folks need to make you want to run out and see this act live and buy their CD. I strongly recommend both courses of action!

This was a concert I had really been looking forward to and as the date approached my anticipation just grew. First of all I found the group's story compelling; four singer/songwriter types from various parts of America meet up in LA, form a "songwriters circle" where they played around with each other's songs, becoming a "band" in the process, despite the intentions of all of them. You can't WRITE plot lines this good! And then a few weeks ago, we saw Dan Navarro performing with John Batdorf and saw that Stonehoney had backed up Dan on his first solo CD, done live at McCabe's in Santa Monica. The fact that this was a favorite group of both Dan and his musical partner , Eric Lowen, was a ringing endorsement in my mind. And of course this was to be at Russ and Julie's, where we are continually delighted by music we had never heard of before and have learned to trust implicitly. Then throw in the fact that the show was booked solid so early that an afternoon show was added, an occurrence that was unusual for most house concerts. Clearly there was something going on around here!

So here's the cast of characters you're about to "meet". Start with Shawn Davis, the one native Californian in the cast but from such a remote rural area it could have been Mars. His career arc had brought him from playing and singing back up in various bands to a successful career as a frontman/songwriter on the club circuit to staff songwriting with heavyweights in Nashville, and ultimately back to LA and Stonehoney. The songwriter's circle began at the home of our next character, Nick Randolph, whose story includes growing up in first Boston then San Francisco, successful stints touring in bands, a debilitating wrist injury in martial arts training threatening his ability to play, his recovery and then a successful solo career. The last pair of characters are a pair of East Coast imports (like myself). Dave Phenicie grew up in the DC area, played the club circuits all over Maryland and Virginia, writing all along. He then moved to LA as a session player and touring sideman to array of country and alt-country acts, did a solo album and then this group. The last of the four, Phil Hurley, hails from Potsdam, NY originally. He played the upstate NY area in bands with his brother, Steve, and then on to Boston and then Seattle, getting side-tracked from his own music by a successful stint as a sideman for acts like Tracy Bonham, Fountains of Wayne and Lisa Loeb. And somehow his efforts to do his own solo music led to another band, Stonehoney. Like I said, you can't write stuff this compelling and ironic! And guys when its time for your screenplay, I'm your guy!

So all this and we haven't even gotten to the show yet! Some of you are wishing you stopped at "WOW", for sure! Anyhow we were warned to arrive early for the evening show, it was a sell-out and seating would be at a premium. But somehow we left ourselves too much time after an early dinner, which led to recreational shopping and we all know no good can come from that, so we arrived later than I hoped. Seats were all taken, so while Becky dropped our pot-luck offering in the kitchen, I found us standing/sitting room on the stairs which acts as a balcony. There were lots of regular, familiar faces there but lots of new ones too, with a bit younger-than-usual audience profile. We were soon joined on the stairs by quite a few people, it really was more crowded than we had ever seen here. But while we did have a bit of discomfort due to crowding, our sight lines were excellent and the sound superb.

Russ did his usual intro talk about other music in the area and introduced the show's cosponsor, Rick Hermelin, a massage therapist in the Agoura area. Rick is a super-regular at Russ and Julie's having been to over 100 of their shows, has cosponsored shows for ten consecutive years and is one of those "friendly faces" we see at intermission at many local shows that I have reviewed in the past. Then, finally, Stonehoney took the stage. In a venue this small, they play without drummer Scotty Lund, who augments the quartet in larger rooms. The evening's instrumental lineup was constant all night, Nick on acoustic guitar (Martin), Shawn on acoustic guitar (Gibson) with Dave holding the rhythm on Fender Precision bass and Phil adding ornamentation on lead guitar, alternating between vintage-looking Fenders, a Telecaster (with a humbucker in the neck position) and a Strat, and a vintage-looking Gibson Les Paul (in the pictures above, from left to right, Nick, Shawn, Dave and Phil with a Strat at top, and with a Tele below). It very shortly became evident that, while all these guys write great songs, their "bandness" ultimately relies tremendously on Dave's rock-solid, yet inventive bass playing and Phil's stunningly amazing lead guitar work. They are key in taking the simplicity of earnest folk/country/rock songs to the fullness of a finished product. Because Becky is studying hand percussion, we were at first disappointed that there was no percussionist this night, though I never felt the lack once the music started.

A quick aside: a band with four lead singers and four songwriters could be a reviewer's nightmare and add in the fact that their CD attributes all songs to only "Stonehoney" and their frequent lack of any song introductions, some confusion is almost inevitable. But the fact that they, on stage referred to songs as being "one of Dave's" or the like, caused me to assume that songs were written by the one who sang lead on it and that lines of lyric repeated often in the song are most likely the title. So take most of the songwriting attributions and song titles with a couple grains of salt. And, as I have often done discretely in the past, I will edit this in the future if I become aware of blatant factual errors.

So, Stonehoney kicked off the night with one of Phil's, "Feels Like Home", a feel-good country rocker that got the crowd going from the get-go. My first thought about the band was "These guys are much younger than I expected". After reading their bios on-line and listening to a bunch of their music, I had assumed these guys were much older, more like my age, than the 30- somethings they appear to be live. I have no real idea of any of their ages, this is just my impression seeing them. They look like they might be just as at home covered in tattoos and piercings and playing in some grunge band. They are quite accomplished guys if I'm at all close on the age thing. The next tune was one of Shawn's and one of the band's best, maybe the best prison ballad I have heard, called "Good As Gone", which features this memorable lyric "at the intersection, I could have turned right, but I turned wrong". Shawn has a voice like a thrift-store leather jacket, new and interesting but at the same time instantly familiar and comfortable. I heard moments when he sounded like the singer from Lynyrd Skynyrd or the guy from The Marshall Tucker Band, but still sounding original. And the harmonies! Most of these songs feature great four-part harmony, often evoking groups like The Eagles, The Byrds and even Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The other immediately striking part of the music was the lead guitar work of Phil Hurley, always extremely tasty in a classic country way but also often sounding a lot like Jerry Garcia in his best countryish stuff with The Dead or like Clarence White of The Byrds.

The set progressed with Dave sounding vocally a lot like a young Jackson Browne on "Still Gonna Sing Your Song" and with Phil and Shawn's first collaboration, the upbeat, uplifting "There Is Light". Nick added a rockabilly flavor with "The One She's Taking Home". Other highlights in that first set included Phil's self-described "buckle bumper" (slow dance) country ballad " I Just Want To Dance With You" where he abandoned his voice's usual country/rock growl for a much sweeter sounding vocal, Dave's great song "Smile Again" sounding quite bluegrass with just a hint of rockabilly and featuring Phil's pyrotechnic country lead licks and Nick's "Little Angel", his songs being the most poppish and mainstream, but still true to the band's core country feel. When the set closed with Dave's rocking tribute to touring life on the road, "Your Turn To Drive", we all needed a break from the high energy excitement and the rising temperatures.

At intermission the first order of business was to buy CDs. The band has only their first CD out and were selling it for only $5 each, which was ridiculously cheap for a really great CD. I was afraid they'd sell out at such a price and fought my way to the CD sales table post-haste and bought one for us and one for our daughter, who is a big fan of country, doesn't often share our taste and has a birthday coming up. I'm pretty sure she never reads me, so I don't think I'm ruining any surprise. As I'm writing this I was listening to the CD and our daughter said, "I'll have to burn a copy of this one" which I discourage as a fan of independent music and have made unnecessary with my purchase, so I guess I did real good in my gift buying. Becky held our spot during intermission, not wanting to fight the throngs. After my purchasing, I brought her a soft drink and some sweets for my sweet from the pot-luck table and then went back and grabbed a bit for myself, went out to the backyard to cool off and mingle and then it was time to go back for the second set.

First up in the second set was Dave with his sweet bluesy "Melinda" that featured Phil's tasty bottleneck playing on his Tele. Shawn was next with his "Simple Life" which sounded like Buck Owens joining Lynyrd Skynyrd if you can get your mind around such a setup. Nick added another sweet melancholy number with "I Don't Want To Go Home" and the then the four took turns on the verses of one of my all time favorites, Dylan's classic "You Ain't Going Nowhere" which developed into a sing-a-long, at least for me it did!

It was right about then the band began the most extensive series of guitar string breaking that I have ever seen in decades of hanging around performers! It became comical as both Nick and Shawn repeatedly had to rush to change strings in mid set if not mid song. Looking back on it now it was one of those opportunities to see performers as real people that make them that much more endearing to the audience and often leads to some magic of improvisation and spontaneity.

Apparently the band knew that a young woman named Sara was there, in the front row with her friends (you can see the back of their heads in the left sied of the pictures above) , celebrating her Sweet Sixteen birthday seeing Stonehoney. So Dave knocked into an off-the-cuff version of the Chuck Berry classic, "Sweet Little Sixteen", a primal rock song every guitar player knows to one extent or another, and Phil had a blast riffing on such a standard in such a informal setting. Dave struggled a bit with the lyrics, which only made the moment more perfect, with the whole audience AND the band sharing a really unique event. Then Nick began the Hall and Oates hit "Sara Smile", crooning it for all it was worth in his best mainstream pop voice, adding his own perfection as he struggled for a chord or two and, of course Phil vamping jazzily on electric guitar in the background. It was as if a whole new band had taken stage or we were transported magically to a back alley bar somewhere. The improvising moments continued as Dave launched into The Temptations' classic "Just My Imagination" with the band doing their best Motown backup singer voices and even a touch of playful "choreography".

Well eventually the guys got back to their own music with Phil offering his "Million Pretty Girls" rocker, a blistering Hank Williams Jr sounding rave-on that could be a theme for Monday Night Football were it not for its subject matter. One other little note about Phil. He was very obviously having the time of his life up there with a huge grin on his face much of the night (see top picture above). I always find guys like this quite infectious and, added to his amazing talent, I think he is going to be a name we hear about for a long time! The band continued to kick the intensity up a notch with Shawn's gritty murder story "Love Will Make You Crazy" a catchy Southern rocker firmly in the Skynyrd/Marshall Tucker tradition.

This band gave the impression that they could play all night and might have if they had not given an afternoon show already. With four writers they have lots of material to draw upon and simple math will tell you that we were probably hearing pretty much all of the best songs by all of these writers and the quality was certainly top-notch. As the set was drawing to a close the highlights for me included a brilliant rendition of The Eagles' beautiful harmony song "Seven Bridges Road", Dave's kind of jazzy sounding "Tear It Down" and Shawn's "I'm The Lucky One". Around then Russ let them know that, while they could play as long as they wanted, it was 10:30, when the concert was scheduled to end.

Of course the guys decided to do a couple more, kicking into Phil's "Two Years Down" a rocking missing you love song with Phil forgoing his bluesy growl again for a bit of sweet country twang and the whole thing sounding like a country radio hit if I ever heard one. And then they pulled out another of my old favorites to sing along with, again trading verses vocally on The Band's classic tune "The Weight". And then, of course the crowd demanded one more as an encore and they launched into the classic Joni Mitchell-as-done-by-Crosby, Stills and Nash "Woodstock", a celebration of the anniversary and more importantly the independent spirit of that time. The band had a blast on it, the audience sang along (this time I was sure it wasn't just me!) and the night came to a memorable conclusion. All that was left was for me to say "WOW!" I told you, you could have stopped there.

Links for Stonehoney:

and Russ and Julie's

Monday, September 7, 2009

Gates and Goodell and Stephanie Bettman with Luke Halpin - House Concert Review - August 29, 2009

I know I told you all last week that I was through with the worry thing, but here I am back at it! In a previous review I have discussed potential problems with co billed concerts and in another the problems presented by preconceived notions. This night saw a collision of these issues in my brain and presented new challenges to this relatively new and inexperienced reviewer.

This was another concert I had planned on passing on originally. I had heard Stephanie prior to this doing only a couple of tunes and I had been reasonably impressed. But Gates and Goodell were an act I had heard of but was unfamiliar with and the little bit of their music I had listened to on the internet had not convinced me that this show should be on my very busy calendar. Then the weekend before this show, as I hope you've read about in my last review, I saw Luke Halpin appear live with John Batdorf and I was so impressed with his virtuosity on mandolin and fiddle, we decided to come see this show after all. Besides, we like to try to support house concerts and live music in general any chance we get.

So on another warm SoCal evening, we arrived at Scott and Rosemary Duncan's house concert upbeat and expecting another great night of music. And this was another night when the audience at first seemed rather small but soon swelled to capacity or somewhere near it. Becky and I found seats about where we usually like, a few rows back but close enough that we can see fingers on frets, this night opting for seats near the open door for potential cooling breezes.

So first up taking the "stage" were Gates and Goodell, a SoCal staple for several years but this was our first chance to see them. John Gates and Bill Goodell take turns as lead vocalists, sing harmonies with each other and both play acoustic guitar with Bill switching to mandolin, or 12 string guitar on some tunes and adding harmonica on at least one song. The guys started out with Bill on mando and John singing lead on "Hurricane" which carried weather metaphors to their extremes, and then Bill switched to 12 string and took lead vocals on "The River". I loved Bill's voice when he sang harmony but as a lead vocalist his voice took on affectations that bugged me. The next tune, "Ghost" featured John's lead vocal and Bill adding harmonica to his arsenal. Unfortunately it was another song beating its metaphors into submission. The Duncan House Concerts generally take place with no PA system, which has never been problematic when we've been there before, but on this night, both acts had problems with dynamics that would have been helped by some amplification.

Their set continued in similar fashion but I must add that most in the audience were way more enthusiastic than me and many seemed to be there to hear these guys in particular. They did hit a couple of high points for me, the song "Half-Empty Moon" had a neat tropical feel, reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett and John's tune "Brown Paper Bag" had an awkward innocence that was entertaining and Luke Halpin, joining in on that tune and their encore ,"Carolene" on his mandolin, provided a bluegrass flavor that made these songs more appealing.

I never like to give less-than-glowing reviews. My whole reason to be doing this is my love of the music and wanting to share my enthusiasms. And it is only these co billed shows that throw me a bit, when I'm there primarily to see one act. I like to think I keep an open mind, I have even discussed my problems with preconceived notions. I really wanted to love Gates and Goodell. They are personable young men with nice voices, and adequate if not virtuosic instrumental skills. But ultimately for singer/songwriters it comes down to how good the songs are and here I find them a bit lacking in outstanding, memorable, or emotionally moving material. They ended up sounding like those talented frat brothers at the keg party or the guys playing happy hour at the neighborhood bar and grill. And if I wasn't truthful enough to say that, I wouldn't have much credibility doing this, would I? But, please this is only one man's take, and I often have strange taste, and many,many people think these guys are great, so I urge you to seek them out and develop your own opinions.

That brought us to intermission, our usual chance to mingle and eat forbidden treats, this night in the comfortable Duncan backyard. We saw some usual familiar faces from the house concert scene and I saw a couple of friendly faces from the college where I work. The Duncan's hold a raffle at every concert often including goodies from their garden. We didn't know quite what to do or say when we saw a couple munching tomatoes out of the basket we assumed was the raffle prize. We let discretion be the better part of valor and just chuckled to ourselves and went in for the second half of the concert.
So the Duncan's gave the raffle winner their prize (missing a few morsels!) and introduced Stephanie Bettman and Luke Halpin. Stephanie Bettman is a singer/songwriter/fiddler extraordinaire and has been generating a buzz in bluegrass/country circles with inevitable comparisons to Allison Cross and Emmy Lou Harris. She has the chops and talent to back up this hype. And her partner, in both music and love, Luke Halpin, is an awesome talent in his own right. The duo kicked off the set with a fiddle rave-up, Stephanie's "Seed Of Doubt" which let us know the kind of first rate musicianship we were in for. Next Luke switched to guitar on the ballad "Get Close To Me" with Stephanie's vocal recalling Joan Baez at her best (see picture, top left).

The tone shifted a bit with the latinish rhythms of "On a Moonlit Night" with Luke's falsetto vocals amazing us all. Actually the revelation for me this night was Luke's singing voice. I knew all about his instrumental prowess and knew what a great voice Stephanie had but I never had heard Luke's tremendous voice. Whether it was doing harmony backgrounds to Stephanie's lead or delivering booming bluesy leads himself ( I think the song was "The Place Where I Am Going", a little sketchy on some titles), Luke has impressive vocal talents I was unaware of.

Some of the remaining highlights included Luke's incredible guitar riffing in "Keep A Stiff Upper Lip", the up-lifting message song "The Good Silver" and the country ballad "The Letting Go" with Stephanie's vocals putting her in a league with the greats like Emmy Lou yet sounding only like herself. And when the evening ended to the strains of "Empty Words, Broken Promises" ,with John and Bill joining in on background vocals, we were left feeling like it had been a memorable evening after all (see picture top right).

A note about billing. This evening's second act was billed as "Stephanie Bettman" and I notice their upcoming show at Russ and Julie's is billed the same way. Note To Stephanie - The act needs to be "Stephanie Bettman and Luke Halpin" or "Stephanie Bettman with Luke Halpin". He no longer qualifies as your secret weapon, word is out. Do right by your man, give him co billing, at least you'd be keeping it in the family!

Links for Gates and Goodell (please check them out, my opinion is ONLY opinion):

for Stephanie Bettman:

for Luke Halpin;

for Duncan House Concerts

for Russ and Julie's House Concerts (Stephanie and Luke there on Oct 24 ):

Sunday, August 30, 2009

John Batdorf and Dan Navarro - House Concert Review - August 23, 2009

Looking back at some of the reviews I've written so far, I get the impression that I'm worrying a lot these days. I'm worried about being late for shows, worrying about which act should open up and which should close, worried about being too nice or being too mean; it seems like a lot of unnecessary worry. Well I've kept the tradition alive again this week! Going to see John Batdorf and Dan Navarro's CD release at the Bodie House Concert series at the Thousand Oaks Library was a given, being that I'm a huge Batdorf fan who has seen John a lot in last few years and NEVER tires of him and being quite curious on how Dan would handle the Lowen & Navarro legacy while continuing on his own. But I knew Dan was bringing a band and I wondered if John would be solo and how that would work dynamically. And another thought occurred to me: would I be able to find new stuff to write about just having reviewed John and James Lee Stanley some weeks ago. I'm certainly too new at this to start repeating myself. But the only repetitive thing here really was my worry.
So, with the audience just seating and about half full, John took the stage alone with his guitars. His first song was "Let Me Go", an all-time favorite from Batdorf and Rodney days, its a tour-de-force acoustic guitar work-out he wrote back in 1971 inspired by the playing of Steve Stills. It was always impressive with the twin guitars of the duo but as a solo piece it is an extremely difficult task that John attacked so masterfully that its a testament to his maturing instrumental skills. See the top picture above. If anything, and I've heard this song live many times now, he played it just a touch fast, which I took as a sign of adrenaline flowing and a special show to follow. At last I was right about something! John followed up with one of his darkest numbers, a quiet, haunting examination of addiction called " I Don't Always Win " which, like always, got the audience so quiet you could hear that proverbial pin drop. At this point, I peeked at the crowd behind me, and the once half-full room looked totally full, leaving me with one less worry.

John then introduced his songwriting partner, Michael McLean, who we had never seen before, even with all the times we've seen John in recent years. As Michael took a seat at the piano, I realized again my worries were for naught, John obviously knew what he was doing, and of course he brought his "band". The next couple of tunes from his great new album sounded nearly as full as the album production with depth of sound added by the piano. John played a stirring version of "I Go To Pieces" , one of the prettiest ballads on the new CD. If John was Crosby, Stills and Nash, all wrapped up in one artist (and I COULD make a REALLY strong argument to that effect), this one would be in his Graham Nash mode. And if he were all The Eagles in one package (you know what I'm thinking!) the next one would be his Don Henley mode, the country-tinged "Don't Tell Me Goodbye". Wow, and we were just getting started!
John then introduced the next artist, Dan Navarro and his band. For those of you unfamiliar (remembering I have a HUGE east coast readership!) Dan for the last couple of decades has been half of the acoustic duo Lowen and Navarro who have quite a following and a great reputation in SoCal and much of the rest of the country. Health issues have forced Eric Lowen to retire from performing but Dan said they still will write together. In addition to Dan's considerable songwriting talent he has one of the biggest and best voices you'll ever hear. And this night he was releasing his first solo CD done live at McCabe's in Santa Monica with the group Stonehoney (coming soon to Russ and Julie's, see you there or stay tuned!). Playing with him tonight was a band full of some of the best players around. Joining Dan on acoustic guitar was Steve Postell, on piano and on accordion was Phil Parlapiano and the percussionist was Dennis Edwards playing cajon. See bottom picture above.

Dan and band launched into their half of the first set with the up-tempo "Let Her Ride" which is on the live album and then a favorite for me "Baby Its Cold Outside" very ironic because SoCal was in the midst of heat wave, drought and wildfire season. And in "Learn How To Let Her Go" he sounded much like a West Coast Bruce Springsteen. Another highlight for me was the emotional and moving "Raining In My Eyes" (more irony) where Dan and band sounded kind of like Robbie Robertson and The Band but Dan has a better voice than either of those other guys and nothing sounded derivative at all.

At this point John rejoined the festivities adding harmony vocals and acoustic guitar, briefly becoming a substitute for Eric. The four songs that closed the set were amazing. I loved hearing these two voices that are such perfect foils for each other, with John taking the higher harmonies. They did "The Road Is Never Ending", "I Don't Believe In Yesterdays" and another highlight, Dan closed with "A Better Man" a charming song he wrote for his newborn son many years ago.

And here we were at intermission and I felt like we already had our money's worth of music and then some! At intermission we ate foods we're not supposed to and mingled with the many familiar and new faces there. It was somewhat of a house concert convention there that night. Along with our host Renee Bodie we chatted with Russ and Julie and Scott Duncan and I got a chance to meet a Facebook friend I had never met in the flesh, Jeanette Lundgren, who among much other stuff handles John's publicity through her Mother Hen Promotions. I was starting to feel part of the "in crowd"!

The second half of the show began with Dan taking the stage solo for a beautiful version of "Don't Want To Do That To You" and then the band rejoined him. Steve Postell did some tasty bottleneck work on the bluesy "Until The Well Runs Dry" with Dan using his best Cocker-esque growl. They finished their portion of the set with a couple of Lowen and Navarro staples "Straight To The Heart Of Me" and "Walking on a Wire".

John then retook the stage alone with his '55 Martin D18 for a rousing rendition of the Batdorf and Rodney classic "Home Again", another incredible solo acoustic performance that featured near-impossible guitar work. See the picture second from bottom above. John had mentioned in the past that he thought for years that this song was impossible for him to do live all by himself, yet he has come up with a killer arrangement that captures all the power of what may be his signature tune. John never gets enough credit as a guitarist mainly because his great songs and classic voice over-shadow this aspect of his talent, but if you heard this song live you'd be wowed for sure.
For the next tune, John again brought up his writing partner, Michael McLean, to sing backups and play piano on the up-lifting "See Us Shine" , a tune they wrote in response to the LA riots that highlights all the great, loving things people do, an idea seldom sung about. Michael then was replaced by Luke Halpin on stage, first on mandolin on the beautiful ballad "Me and You" and then switching to fiddle on "Ain't No Way", a scathing open letter of good riddance to the end of George W. 's reign, from the new album and one of the only political songs I can remember John writing. Luke was featured on this song on the album and he really cooked on this tune, enough so that it convinced us to see him the following weekend playing with his partner, Stephanie Bettman (review coming soon!).

The next tune "Love: All I Really Know About It" , saw Dan joining John and Luke on stage to do background vocals as he did on the new album. See center picture above. This is one of those songs I've had stuck in my head for weeks now, a really pretty losing-out-on-love song. On the next tune John got help from a family member. His son Matt, one of his twenty-something twin sons came up to sing backgrounds on "That Don't Seem Right To Me", reprising his appearance on the album. See picture second from top. This was another song where John sounded a lot like Don Henley at his best, but with something to say, which would be unusual for Don but never for John.

To close up the show, John called back Dan and his band to join him on his last few tunes. First was the achingly beautiful "Will I Love You Forever" , one of the most moving depictions of the ups and downs that we all experience in love, with John singing one of his most memorable melodies with exceptional lyrics from Michael McLean. Then came the opening track from the new album, "What D'Ya Got". In my last John Batdorf review I called this "an anthem to the down-sizing of the American Dream and the power of personal relationships to pull us through".
It is an INCREDIBLE song, catchy and bouncy but with scathing lyrics that still manage to be up-lifting and positive, I can't believe its not being played on every radio station in the country. It has such hit single potential, I'm convinced that if it was recorded by a "flavor-of-the-month" female country artist (think Carrie Underwood) it would be a huge hit. I am still hopeful John's version will receive the attention it deserves. This night's version was a rousing group workout. All that was left was for the group to encore on a spirited singalong on The Stones' " Ruby Tuesday" done "All Wood and Stones"-style, like on John's album with James Lee Stanley. That brought this amazing show to a close. All those concerns I had, had vanished and my new theme song will be "Don't Worry, Be Happy"!
One note I must add to this review. While I have recommended artist's Cd's before in some of my reviews, I usually tell my readers to check out the music and see if they like it. I rarely get all worked up about some one's CD. I was on the early sales list for John's new CD, "Old Man Dreaming"and I have been listening to it a lot over the last few months. It just grows and grows and grows on me, in a way very few CDs ever do. I have most of these songs bouncing around my brain on daily basis and I'm still finding new aspects to all of them. If any of you are EVER going to take my advice, this is one time to do so! BUY THIS ALBUM!!!!!! Share it with your friends and family! I would not only love to see John get the recognition he deserves and make some money on it, but I assure you, your own lives will become richer, too!
All that remains are the links. For John Batdorf:

and Dan Navarro:

and Bodie House Concerts:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band and Fur Dixon and Steve Werner - House Concert Review

I should know better, I admit it. I mean, I've been going to shows at Russ and Julie's for years now, many featuring artists with which I was totally unfamiliar, but I have ALWAYS enjoyed them all. But having recently been disappointed elsewhere by an act described as Appalachian, I saw that word in the description of this concert, and somehow I mentally filed this as a show I'd skip. And in the back of my mind was the fear that, reviewing my first show at Russ and Julie's house since I began this blog, I REALLY didn't want to take a chance of not liking the first act I reviewed at the first place I ever saw a house concert! But like I said, I really should have known better.

When we talked to Julie, at the Severin Browne show at Boney Mountain House Concerts the prior weekend (see my last review) , she asked if we were coming and I honestly told her I thought not, but then we talked a bit about the acts she was hosting and the fact that she only had about 30 reservations at that point and that got me thinking. I went home and fretted over it. And ultimately, I decided that Russ and Julie had long ago earned our trust and support, this blog was a newer, less important thing and que sera, sera. Once Becky concurred, I emailed Julie and we were going. I already knew I had nothing to worry about!

Well as soon as Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band took the stage, the thought of worries were a thousand miles away. First of all the room was PACKED, I should have known Russ and Julie's regulars would come through for them. And just the band's instrumentation, stand-up bass, dobro, mandolin, acoustic guitar and vocals let me know this band would swing. That's them in the bottom photo above. And from the first note of Susie's vocals I knew this wasn't going to be that reserved, Celtic sounding almost madrigal-sounding Appalachian music that nearly puts me to sleep. Susie describes their music as "Americana Folk Bluegrass Fusion Band" , and that's hard to argue with, I'll just tell you, this is music with twang and swing and a touch of snarl and bite. The true Americana music that acknowledges its darker roots along with that white European stuff. The real folk music.

The band kicked off the night with a tune called "One More Mile" , a rollicking bluegrass tune and followed it with "Maggie Bailey" another authentic-sounding up-tempo bluegrass rave up. Yes, no one would be putting me to sleep tonight! Not with this rocking band! Featuring Susie's husband Steve Rankin on mandolin and vocals, Fred Sanders on upright bass and vocals and the impressive songwriting talents of guitarist/dobro player/vocalist Rob Carlson, the band was tight instrumentally and Susie's voice is perfect for singing this country flavored folk music.

As their set continued, we were treated to some great individual picking by Steve and Rob and great vocal harmonies by all the guys. The songs covered a bit of stylistic ground while never straying from its roots music, old-time feel. Some of the highlights for me included "River Road" with Susie channeling Joan Baez at her best and Fred doing some really tasty bowed bass parts, "Rocking In Your Granddaddy's Chair" , described as a lullaby but swinging, and Rob Carlson's tribute to that thriving metropolis "Albuquerque" that reminded one of a Bob Wills swing tune or a Dan Hicks delicacy. The Appalachian-sounding stuff they did came mostly in a couple of tunes written by the legendary Jean Ritchie, mountain folk songs with political overtones that share more with the work of Woody Guthrie than with any Celtic tradition, certainly nothing for me to fear! And when Steve sang lead on a couple of songs by one of my favorite songwriters, Steve Earle, I wondered why I ever thought of skipping this show. This is a fresh sounding act doing lots of new original tunes yet still sounding traditional and old-timey. I definitely will try to see them again soon and I urge you to try to catch them also. Here's a link to their website:

That brought us to intermission, time to sample the appetizer/dessert potluck, mingle with the rest of the audience and grab a little fresh air in the backyard. Though we saw some of the usual faces at this show, there seemed to be many fans that were here to see these acts in particular. I was wondering how the next act would fare, following such a strong opening act.

When the break was over, Fur Dixon and Steve Werner took the stage, and I must admit, my first thought was "These people must have beaten up a couple cowboys and stole their clothes!" Looking every bit the young hipsters, like they should be wearing punk garb or at least rockabilly outfits, they had a dramatic if unusual appearance. Just Steve's shirt alone may have been worth the price of admission. Check out the picture above center. But as soon as they started making music, there was no doubt, that they were the real deal. With both playing acoustic guitars and singing, they kicked off their set with Steve's country antidote for worry, "The Road Outside My Door Says Let's Go" , followed by Fur's "Ventura County Line" , a love and cruising ballad, and I realized this night would continue in the countryish Americana style that opening act established.

Steve and Fur traded lead vocals as they ventured further into their original repertoire. Steve did the honors in "Homesick For The Highway Blues" , causing me to write this note , "when you invite the audience to yodel, you get what you deserve!". But it sure was fun! So was "Pearl and Swine" , Steve's humorous theme song for the duo. Fur examined a bit more poignant territory in "Travellers" and "Back Roads and Blue Skies" , her voice evoking the country giants like Emmy Lou and the Carters, without sounding contrived. They also covered some classic tunes, Steve Goodman's " City of New Orleans" made popular by Arlo, "Do Re Mi" by that other Guthrie, Woody, and when they played "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" , I realized this act is WAY more Western than Country and all the more appealing for it. And their quirky looks and humorous takes on life, make a beautiful, moving song like "Scars" all the more meaningful. Don't let the schtick fool you, this is no novelty act, even though they ARE quite novel.
When the night's fun concluded with Susie and her Steve, joining Fur and her Steve (see top picture) and the whole audience in a stirring rendition of Woody's "This Land Is Your Land" (our REAL National Anthem if I had my way!), I couldn't help but remember Julie telling me how much FUN this night would be! The two acts were a perfect co-billing. I know, I know, I should have known all along, mea culpa! But I'm sure glad I didn't miss this wonderful night!
Here's a link for Fur Dixon and Steve Werner :

and one for Russ and Julie's House Concerts if you missed it:

Russ and Julie's House Concert - Venue Review

If you had to pick one house concert series to visit in SoCal, whether as an audience member or as a performer, the answer is a "no-brainer". Without a doubt, nearly anyone in the know would tell you, go to Russ and Julie's House Concerts!

Its ironic that one of the last house concerts in our area that I am reviewing would be Russ and Julie's because, not only was their's the first home where we attended a house concert, but they are known in this area as the "Godparents" of the house concert movement. Russ and Julie Paris have been holding house concerts in their home in Oak Park, CA for almost 13 years! That figures out to having hosted over 130 concerts featuring almost 100 different acts! I believe it is the longest continually running house concert series in SoCal. Here is a link to their website:

Becky and I first found Russ and Julie's House Concerts back in March 2005 when an old acquaintance of ours from back in Conn. , Jeff Pevar, played there. We had seen the show listed on Jeff 's website, and, though we had never even heard of a house concert before, we decided to check it out. We've been regulars ever since, we only wish we had discovered them sooner!
The concerts are held at the Paris' lovely home in Oak Park, CA in the eastern end of Ventura County. The concert space is in their living room/dining room/great room with high ceilings and excellent acoustics. Check out the picture above of their stage area. They have a small PA system which is more than adequate to provide great sound in this size room. The room has track-type lighting hung unconventionally on the walls aimed at the stage area and this provides remarkably effective lighting for the performers. They generally have 60 or so chairs set up and with additional seating on their staircase which serves as somewhat of a balcony. With standing room, we have been there when they have had over 100 people in the room. While this kind of crowd makes for cozy togetherness we have never been uncomfortably crowded.

Here you will find most of the regular house concert features, the "donation" bowl at the front door (usually a $15 recommendation), mailing list sign ups, and of course, the potluck appetizer and dessert table. The hosts graciously provide coffee and soda and cups and usually the guests have put out a selection of wine to share. The crowd at Russ and Julie's can vary in make-up depending on the act, but there are usually a core group of "regulars" that we recognize from other visits. They also seem to attract a bit more young people than some of the other venues for whatever reason. I find this encouraging, as I always worry where the audiences of tomorrow are going to come from and I hate feeling like this great acoustic music is some kind of nostalgia trip for us aging baby boomers.

Russ and Julie also book the greatest variety of music compared to other house concerts in the area. In addition to the best singer/songwriter types we have seen country, jazz, rock, pop, Celtic and bluegrass music here. Many artists we have seen here were acts we already knew and were fans of. Over time, we have learned to trust Russ and Julie's taste explicitly and we have seen several acts we have never heard of much less heard before and we have NEVER seen a show we didn't enjoy a lot. Sure, some have been better than others but I have never felt disappointed in any music I've heard at their house. And because they have been doing this longer than everyone else and because of their involvement in other acoustic music organizations, they have the best acts clamoring to appear there. Some of the acts we have seen there include Wendy Waldman, Freebo, Jim Photoglo, John Batdorf, James Lee Stanley, emith, Kiki Ebsen, and many others. We really have been there a lot in the last four or five years!

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in addition to hosting this wonderful concert series, Russ and Julie have been amazingly generous with their time, expertise and promotion, helping others get started in the house concert game, helping artists connect with new audiences and supporting these artists and venues with their attendance at many other concert venues. They are also quite active in the Far-WEST and Folk Alliance acoustic music organizations and, as part of their "day job" graphics business, Russ maintains websites for many other house concert presenters and for many musicians. On top of all this, they are two extremely friendly, outgoing and gracious people and wonderful hosts. I'm not only glad we found their concert series years ago, but also that they have come to be our friends. You can't have too much good music or too many good friends in your life!