Monday, July 27, 2009

Sweet Talk Radio and Nathan McEuen - House Concert Review

Putting together a double billed show can be tricky business for everyone involved, the promoter, the acts and the audience. There are a bunch of variables that come into play. The drawing strength in a given area, the artistic compatibility, the relative energy levels of the music are all important factors for those involved. And there are risks involved for everyone. The audience may be risking their time, attention and money on an act they weren't really there to see. The promoter risks alienating their audience if they use acts that are musically incompatible. The acts risk playing in front of a possibly hostile audience, in the case of an opening act, or being upstaged if the headliner. And the promoter faces the possible alienation of the acts in either of these scenarios. Like I said, this can be tricky business! In the "upper-echelon" of the music biz, like the big arena shows, these cobills are most often dictated by record companies, which are often huge multinational corporations used to trampling on the feelings of the acts, the promoters and the audience. When we are talking about independent music and house concerts in particular these options are more often chosen by the promoter or host and often involve some real hard choices.

Which is all a convoluted way to open a review of two really good acts. Or really, as I'll try to describe, one really good act and one act on the verge of greatness. For me that contrast was magnified, because the act I came away raving about was the opening act. And it made me feel sympathy for the headliners who really had a tough act to follow and performed quite admirably in what was, in my humble opinion, a tough cobill for them.

So if you figured out that I LOVED Sweet Talk Radio, give yourself two points, click on their link and buy their CD. No really. I think they are that good. The group is the husband and wife songwriting/performing duo Tim Burlingame and Kathrin Shorr (see above picture) augmented on occasion by keyboardist/percussionist Dennis Hamm, who also appears on their CD. They are both individually and together pros in this area and they have the TV and commercial credits to prove it. Quite a few people in the audience seemed to be fans of theirs. Some called out requests and there was that "recognition applause" at the beginning of a couple tunes and, unfortunately, several people left at intermission.

As the night began and we took our seats, I immediately noticed on stage a Gretsch electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, a mandolin and an electric piano. Not necessarily the usual instrument array at a "acoustic folk" sort of concert. But I was convinced I was in for a treat when the group took the stage and Tim took up that Gretsch electric, with a bottleneck slide in his left hand and an e-bow in his right hand. Most of you are probably not familiar with the e-bow, a real nifty, somewhat esoteric device that electromagnetically vibrates the strings of a guitar producing infinite sustain. In the hands of a pro guitarist who has mastered its subtleties, this device allows guitarists to achieve incredible sounds that can mimic strings, horns and even synthesizer sounds. They are not very common, I have seen maybe a dozen guitarists use one live in the 25 years or so they have existed. Those guitarists all have been exceptional! So you can see that my expectations got pretty high in just a few moments.

My expectations were met and surpassed! That first song with the e-bow slide electric guitar began as a haunting ballad with Kathrin on acoustic guitar rhythm behind Tim's tasty e-bow slide and delivered in Kathrin's husky bluesy voice. Then I realized that the song was a slowed down, spacey reworking of the Thin Lizzy rocker, "The Boys Are Back"! Talk about musical adventurism! From there their set just got better as they settled into their own material, much of it from their debut CD "My Hallelujah" along with some new songs and another cover. Kathrin has an absolutely great voice, at times reminding one of maybe Sheryl Crow, maybe Amy Winehouse, maybe Norah Jones, even a little Fiona Apple, but ultimately unique and captivating. It can be a cliche to describe a female vocalist as sounding sexy but even Becky commented on how sensual she sounded. That was reinforced by her playful stage presence and interactions with Tim. And if her amazing voice was what allowed the band to achieve incredible heights, it was Tim's understated yet technically brilliant guitar work, background vocals and occasional lead vocals that underpinned the whole structure to allow those heights to be reached.

The varied instruments the duo played kept things interesting. Tim switched to mandolin on a tune or two and Kathrin alternated between acoustic guitar, mandolin and just sang on a couple of songs. Add to this the fullness offered on some songs by Dennis Hamm's piano and percussion and the band really delivered. Among the highlights for me was the title track from their CD "My Hallelujah" which comes off as a folksy hymn to the religion of Romance, an interesting cover of Van Morrison's "Moondance" and a bluesy "Ballad of Hank Williams" which again featured Tim's slide guitar (minus the e-bow this time) and background vocals behind Kathrin's dark atmospheric vocals. But the song I think may break-out for them, the one I expect may get radio play is "Lovesick", one of those bouncy, quirky-yet-catchy anti-love anthems that the world seems to love. I have a feeling that soon it may be stuck in your brain like its now stuck in mine! And I hope Tim and Kathrin's marriage at home works as well as their Sweet Talk Radio marriage does on stage because, at least on this night, they appeared to be a pair destined for greatness!

At intermission, we stuffed ourselves with chocolate, only to pay homage to our hostess, Renee Bodie, a self-confessed chocoholic. She sometimes claims she does house concerts for the chocolate, not the music, but don't believe that. As we mingled, I realized that we had a house concert industry convention started here. In addition to our hostess, Renee Bodie, in attendance were Scott and Rosemary Duncan from Duncan House Concerts in Ventura and Russ and Julie Paris, from Russ and Julie's House Concerts in nearby Oak Park, the pioneers of house concerts in SoCal. Its always great to see these folks supporting each other. And of course you know, I bought a Sweet Talk Radio CD and had it signed. So did my visiting buddy Erik, who joined us that evening for his first taste of a house concert and he was captivated by the whole thing. But nagging at me, while I was still very much on a musical high, was sympathy for the act that had to follow such pros. A lot of big-time acts would have trouble following them on stage and while I had never heard the next act, I knew that they were young.

I probably should have worried about something else because Nathan McEuen has quite the musical lineage and has been on stage since he was a little kid. His dad, John McEuen was a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and still plays around this area and his older brother, Jonathan McEuen has his own band that has a following. So this young man knows a thing or two about performing.

When the band took the stage with Nathan, I was immediately stuck by how young they all looked. I admit I'm not always great at guessing ages, but they all looked to be in their early to mid-twenties except the mandolinist who barely looks to be driving age (I'm sure he's older than he looks, I'll have more to say about him later). Nathan and the band launched into their opening song ,"Quicker at the Draw", a bouncy bluegrassy tune and then followed it with the Los Lobos classic "Saint Behind the Glass" firmly planting the band's sound in that area of old style/new material that is often described as Americana. This band may be young-looking but they are serious musicians. Nathan played acoustic guitar and sang lead in a full, rich voice. He was backed up by Elaine Gregston on accordion, Chuck Hailes on stand up bass and vocals and Scott Gates on mandolin and vocals. This is a tight professional band but the stand out, by far, is Scott on mandolin. If he is anywhere near as young as he looks he is quite a prodigy, playing lead mandolin lines as fast as any I've heard and for most part quite tasty.

The band served up a set that covered quite a bit of musical ground. There were some original tunes by Nathan, written alone and with co writers, interspersed with covers. The originals included the folkish "Beautiful Night", the Tex-Mex meets rockabilly sound of "Fool Around" , the lush ballad "Grand Design" co written with Crosby Loggins and my favorite "Moonrise". The covers included bluegrass/swing master Bill Monroe's "Good Woman's Love", a campy, a bit over-the-top "It's Now or Never" made famous by some guy named Elvis and my favorite, a traditional reworking of the Rodney Crowell classic " Long Hard Road". Nathan and the band did all this with professionalism and taste (with the possible exception of the Elvis tune) and the audience seemed to really like them, with a lot of applause especially for Scott's solos.

And I really enjoyed their music a lot personally even if they never hit the transcendent heights that the openers did. As I have stated, it was a tough spot for them following an act like that. But there a few specific ideas I would humbly offer that might make them an even stronger act. First and foremost, if they are going to bill the act as "Nathan McEuen" he needs to command the "spotlight" more. For some reason he and Scott were sharing one microphone and Nathan spent almost the whole night turned sideways to the audience. And looking at older pictures on his website this seems to be standard procedure for them. So, first off, face the audience! And then, we'd like to get to know you! Let's see more personality in your song introductions and stage patter as well as while you're delivering songs. I came from the night feeling like Kathrin and Tim from Sweet Talk Radio were folks I really know but I got no such familiarity from Nathan. Another minor problem is the static instrumentation. All songs offered the exact same instruments used pretty much the same way. Scott played most of the solos, as is probably warranted given his talent, with a couple of guitar solos by Nathan. Elaine on accordion played no solos, which might have given some variety of sound and I wouldn't mind seeing what Nathan could do with an a electric guitar at times. And adding a fiddle could be a natural addition to the sonic palette.

I understand there are probably good economic reasons to feature Nathan's somewhat-known name rather than being "The ________", but the band could be featured more if they were "Nathan McEuen and the ______" or "The ________ featuring Nathan McEuen" if Nathan is uncomfortable as the "frontman". But I would recommend using "The Nathan McEuen Band featuring Scott Gates" because the kid has that magical "IT" that will make him a star one of these days.

So there lies my tale of the two bands, one very good, one approaching greatness and some very difficult scheduling choices. I may have scheduled them in opposite roles were it me doing the booking yet both acts performed great in their assigned places, so who knows if it would have worked better the other way? Reviewing, like setting up cobills, is also tricky business!

As always here are links for all involved.

First for Bodie House Concerts

Next for Nathan McEuen

And finally, for Sweet Talk Radio


  1. Nathan is approaching 30. Chuck is 30-something with a degree in Classical Performance on the Upright Bass. Scott graduated from high school a year early, finishing 11th and 12th grade in the same year. His primary mandolin studies were in classical and bluegrass music, which began at age seven.

  2. Scott Gates is 17 years old.