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Concert review: A packed Pageant feels the force of Mumford & Sons, Sunday, June 5

Mumford & Sons at the Pageant

Photo by Nate Burrell

For anyone who was fortunate enough to see British folk-pop band Mumford & Sons play at Off Broadway last year, their second pass through town was also an adrenaline-inducing performance, but on a grander scale. The Grammy-nominated group played to a packed and demographically more diverse audience this go-round at the Pageant.

In the 14 months since Mumford & Sons last visited St. Louis, a bit has changed in the band’s live performance. For starters, their success in America following two 2010 Grammy nods (including Best New Artist and Best Rock Song for “Little Lion Man”) propelled them to overnight stardom. Once playing primarily to hipsters and early adopter music junkies, the four are now playing to audiences ranging from country lovers to indie and alternative followers, some of whom were willing to pay at least a cool hundo to see the guys perform live after their show sold out in — what was it? — 45 seconds?

Either the bashful Brits have become accustomed to their popularity, or their manager has demanded a little extra action on stage. In either case, they have morphed from a band who naturally poured their vigor out through their music as if they were jamming in a back bar somewhere with friends, to a band that makes a much more physical display of their energy.

Perhaps this was necessary with a larger following, or to keep the album Sign No More fresh in its second year on tour (though the band introduced a few new songs, including the anthemic “Lover’s Eyes”). Between string bassist Ted Dwane’s goofy camaraderie on stage and Winston “Country” Marshall getting down on the banjo to “Roll Away Your Stone,” bandmates helped lead vocals Marcus Mumford supercharge the performance. Ben Lovett, the once shy keyboardist who hid under his hoodie during last year’s show, has emerged full-force from his shell to bring added physical presence to the stage. Dancing, jumping, and incorporating random on-stage antics, one might have mistaken Lovett for Arcade Fire’s Will Butler.

Newfound fame means newfound funds, and the group made a great investment in a horn section accompaniment to assist in songs such as “Winter Winds” (a popular pick they couldn’t perform live last year in the absence of any brass) and sprinkled in to the moody “Thistle and Weeds.” Despite the pageantry (that’s right, I went there) of added lights, props, smoke and stage effects, Mumford balanced playing to the audience’s wild adoration with reigning them in to an atmosphere more intimate and conducive to his thoughtful, literary songwriting. “Dust Bowl Dance,” a raw jam fest of clanging drums and raging guitars, was brought to a close with Mumford solo in the spotlight, hushing the crowd with his quietly powerful presence. He wowed fans further gathering the group into a semi-circle to perform “Timshel” a cappella, and without the aid of the PA system. The packed house fell instantly silent, allowing the foursome to fill the air with a song that sounded more personal, and highlighted the groups’ vocal talent more profoundly than any other performance that evening.

It is difficult to put a band like Mumford & Sons in a sizable venue because their acoustic, pub-jamming sound becomes more electric, competing with elements such as reverb and distortion. Still, there was nothing but awe from the paying customers leaving the Pageant feeling satisfied that they came for a performance of Mumford & Sons, and perform they did.

Album review: Lucinda Williams finds herself and others ‘Blessed’

Lucinda Williams - Blessed

Lucinda Williams
Blessed
Lost Highway

She’s 11 albums and 32 years into a career built on the things country and blues are made of: personal heartache, loss, betrayal. With the release of Blessed on March 1, 2011, country and blues singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams remains shroud in solemnity, but the inspiration behind the 3-time Grammy winner’s songwriting no longer comes exclusively from within.

What has changed? It could be Williams’ marriage to manager and co-producer Tom Overby. It could be the loss of two of her close colleagues in recent years. It could be that in her 30-year career, the healing power of time has helped her to say, “To hell with it.” Whatever sparked the transformation, it’s clear in Blessed that Williams has been inspired to look to the pain of others as her new muse.

A concern and empathy for her friends powers much of the new album. The woe-tinged soulfulness in “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’” expresses a deep worry for a friend who is devoid of emotion, a shell of a person. The loss of friend and long-time manager Frank Callari in 2007 inspired “Copenhagen,” in which Williams sadly recalls the moment she learns of her colleague’s passing. With an eerie clarity, she captures the vulnerability of the moment when learning of the loss of a friend: “I’m 57 but I could be 7 years old ‘cause I will never be able to comprehend the expansiveness of what I’ve just learned.” Singer-songwriter friend Vic Chesnutt, who passed away in 2009, is the subject of Williams’ exploration in “Seeing Black,” where grief-stricken and angry, she quizzes her friend’s decision to take his own life.

For those that miss the old take-that Lucinda Williams, she still rocks the contemptuous moxy that powered her Happy Woman Blues years in tracks like “Buttercup.” While her personal love life is less of a theme, Williams makes room in the album for the points she wants to drive home, as in her personal protest with “Soldier’s Song.”

Blessed is not an overly-produced album, which makes it stronger. With a notable Butch Norton on drums, David Sutton on bass and Elvis Costello picking up guitar for three of the tracks, the bluesy ensemble is an impressive complement to Williams’ smokey vocals without overwhelming her ability to tell her story.

While Williams’ is trying to turn her eyes outward to the pains of the world, we see her own sorrows and vulnerabilities pour through. Those experiences that she can only try to imagine or empathize with lack the poignancy and authenticity that should give the music life. There is a simplicity in the basic rhyming of stanzas and repetition in lyrics that are evident in the title track “Blessed,” “Born To Be Loved,” and “Convince Me,” during which we hear the phrase “Please, please, please convince me” no less than 15 times.

This new direction of taking a look at the world is a big step for Lucinda Williams, who historically has written of her own troubles with love in life. If she’s headed in a new direction, her ardent fans will no doubt follow, but she will need to make sure she blazes a trail worth following her down.

Concert review: The Walkmen rewind and fast forward at Off Broadway, Wednesday, October 20

Photo by Tom Lampe

It isn’t surprising that the Walkmen played to a sold-out audience at Off Broadway last night. The band hasn’t come through St. Louis in years, so they could reasonably expect — with the success of their latest album Lisbon — that their fan base would garner more of a following than their usual garage-rock era fans, or those who tag along because they love to hear “Rat” played live.

For this fan, seeing the Walkmen live was akin to reading a screenplay, developing a mental image of how it should look on-stage, then seeing it performed with all of the gusto and panache of a seasoned theatre troupe. Complete with the drunken swagger and band member camaraderie you can imagine listening to Lisbon, the show came to life notwithstanding a few mishaps and lager-induced stumbles that — in small doses — thrilled the packed room.

Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser owned the place with his unscripted performance, breaking into a grin at the end of each song, taking a swig of his drink, and casually checking on the set list with his band mates as if it was all an impromptu concert in a friend’s basement. Guitarist Paul Maroon missed a few notes during “Victory,” to which Leithauser responded by dropping off on the vocals. The place erupted with whistles and applause as if the crowd just saw their favorite comedian break face briefly mid-routine.

The set list was an appropriate mix of tracks from Lisbon, as well as a few tracks from early albums You & Me, A Hundred Miles Off, and even further into the Walkmen’s back-catalogue. Lisbon was front-loaded in the show, with “Juveniles,” “Angela Surf City,” “Woe Is Me,” “Blue As Your Blood,” and “Victory” kicking it all off. “Victory” showed up surprisingly early in the night for such an anthemic piece that has typically been a massive hit with live audiences. It was surprisingly subdued, and may have enjoyed more energy later in the evening as the show gathered momentum. Otherwise, it was a very well-balanced gig, starting with the retro/surf rock of Lisbon and escalating in energy with the early garage rock hits to the tune of “Thinking of A Dream I Had,” and “In the New Year.”

Some creative swapping on-stage helped shake up the latter third of the performance. Paul Maroon, already deft with a guitar, traded in his six-string to prove his worth on the ivories, while Peter Bauer vacated the keys to try his hand at a quick solo in “We’ve Been Had.” Walter Martin and Matt Barrick maintained their stations at bass and drums respectively as the task managers keeping the group on beat. The guys were really going after it full tilt when they wrapped up 13 songs in. The encore lasted only 3 songs, but energy in the room was at full-capacity when the first notes of “Rat” filled the air. Oddly enough, the guys bid their adieu to St. Louis with the solemn “Another One Goes By.” It was a mellowing end to a powerful show, yet somehow fitting when considering their albums are often high energy music with somber vocals. Either way, the audience’s chants of “We Want More” just before the encore left nothing to the imagination. St. Louis will be eager to greet the Walkmen their next time through town.

Album Review: Frazey Ford glides solo on Obadiah

Frazey Ford - Obadiah

Frazey Ford
Obadiah
Nettwerk, 2010

Each successive track on Frazey Ford’s Obadiah plays out like kindling added to a slow-burning fire. The British Columbia-based singer-songwriter, a founding member of folk trio the Be Good Tanyas, remains true to her roots while expanding on her sound in her solo debut album. Obadiah, released in July 2010, is 13 tracks of introspection on Frazey Ford, the artist.

Canadian born and raised, Ford spent much of her early childhood living in a commune as the daughter of American draft-dodgers during the Vietnam War era. If that experience alone weren’t fodder enough for the earthy artist’s style, Ford drew further inspiration from the likes of ’70s soul artists Al Green and Ann Peebles. She aims in Obadiah to connect the ’70s soul she knew and loved growing up with her own cocktail of folk, bluegrass, gospel and soul.

Obadiah‘s opening track “Firecracker” is Exhibit A. Ford skillfully weaves her folk sound — supported with banjo-plucking and a stop-and-go pulse — together with vocals that are reminiscent of gospel mixed with a hint of country. Background vocals frame Ford’s exquisitely as her songbird cries of “Hallelujah” lift the heart.

“Lay Down With You” and “Lost Together” typify the more soulful tracks on Obadiah: slower, expressive and set against a backdrop of soothing vocals. In a voice like melted butter, Ford pleads, “help me forget myself for an evening.” Served up fireside with a glass of red wine, this album exudes tranquility.

The sassier side of Ford surfaces in tracks like “I Like You Better,” that break loose from the typical soulful ballads spread across the album. The tempo picks up so that idle swaying gives way to toe-tapping. An electric bass brings a touch of island reggae flavor to the mix; it’s just enough to feel a hint of sand between the toes. In the jazzy “Blue Streak Mama,” Ford lets herself break away from the prose to do some straight-shooting: “Think you’ve got something, you’ve got nothing all, nothing at all.”

Start to finish, Obadiah is a sultry album. While most of the songs boast a certain sensuality in their steady cadence, the consistently mid-paced beat could have been used more sparingly. That said, this debut is a solid showcase of Frazey Ford’s talent as a singer, songwriter and, now, solo artist.