Kris Embry's Posts
|I am a biologist, librarian and music writer for KDHX. I live in South County with my family.|
Many songwriters lead storied lives, no doubt, but few are as successful and iconic as Kris Kristofferson.
It’s a cliché to say, “Seen it all, done it all,” but one gets the impression that the Country Music Hall of Famer has, in fact, done just that. A boxer, Rhodes scholar and military officer, not to mention an actor and singer-songwriter, Kristofferson has found success in a variety of vocations.
His notoriety as a songwriter allowed him to launch a career as a performer, and he began recording his own songs, releasing his first album in 1970. However, success as an actor came more readily than as a singer and he appeared in many films throughout the 1970s and beyond.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Kristofferson is perhaps better known to the public as an actor, as a songwriter he has been an influential force in country songwriting. His songs are both personal and reflective, yet strike a chord with a variety of people in all walks of life. His latest album is no exception; it is the work of a man at peace with both his demons and his legacy.
“Feeling Mortal” is Kristofferson’s first album of new material in four years and also his first independent release on his own KK Records label. It is the third record in a trilogy, produced by veteran producer Don Was, that began with “This Old Road” (2006) and “Closer to the Bone” (2009).
“Wide awake and feeling mortal/At this moment of the dream,” he sings on the opening line of the title track, a song which finds the singer facing his own mortality; reluctantly perhaps, but with gratitude and without regret. At the forefront of this record is Kristofferson’s weathered voice, no longer the voice of a young man of course, but still strong, with a gentle grace and a hard-won wisdom.
The musicianship is excellent throughout; a fine band backs the veteran performer and also features Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, lending vocals and violin. The record consists of 10 songs, all penned by Kristofferson, with the exception of the old 1970 song “My Heart Was the Last One to Know” co-written with Shel Silverstein. Originally recorded by Connie Smith, the tune is a simple and beautiful country classic.
“Stairway to the Bottom” is another vintage piece, a rerecording of a song that originally appeared on “Spooky Lady’s Sideshow” in 1974. But “Bread for the Body” and “You Don’t Tell Me What to Do” are among the most enjoyable on the record, the former a song of realization about what’s important in life and the latter an ode to freedom and an independence of spirit.
And I will go on making music
and love for as long
as the spirit inside me
says you don’t tell me what to do.
If the songs on “Feeling Mortal” are any indication, it looks like Kristofferson will be doing just that for a few more years.
Capable of creating both lush, verdant landscapes of sound and sparse, haunting ballads, Beth Orton is a master of the acoustic guitar-driven, folk-pop song.
As a singer-songwriter, Orton emerged in the late ’90s, blending folk and acoustic music with elements of electronica and trip-hop, creating a unique and moving style of music and helping to define a genre sometimes known as “folktronica.” At the same time, her music was also anchored in the strength and distinction of her voice, a voice that could be at once melancholy and resigned, conveying a sadness that often belied the tinge of hope that underscored many of her songs.
After several side projects and collaborations, including work with William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, she finally released her first full-length record, the critically-acclaimed “Trailer Park,” in 1997. By the release of her next record, 1999′s “Central Reservation,” however, she had stripped away much of the electronica, favoring a more organic, acoustic sound. But Orton has never been what one would call prolific, having released just a handful of records since that time. Her latest release, “Sugaring Season,” is her first recording in six years.
From the spare, fingerpicked opening notes of “Magpie,” it is obvious that Orton is still at the top of her craft. As strings swell behind her she sings accusingly, telling a lover, “You’re what a lie looks like.” Her voice artfully conveys that feeling of anger and betrayal, and of standing one’s ground, as she sings the final line of the song: “Silence me and I won’t be here anymore.”
Orton is often known for her melancholia, yet she does upbeat quite well, too. The breezy “Dawn Chorus” is a perfect example, and features a guest vocal by Laura Veirs. Even the plinking piano waltz of the schmaltzy “See Through Blue,” a song she wrote for her daughter, is lively and enjoyable, whereas it might have easily come off as cloying and silly in the hands of someone less capable.
Although Orton’s career began around the time of Lilith Fair, a period that was particularly favorable to women artists, it is difficult to draw a comparison between her and her contemporaries. To begin, Orton is British and is not working in the Americana traditions of her American counterparts. Instead, she draws influence from the UK folk traditions, and from groups like Fairport Convention and Pentangle. In fact, Orton took lessons from Bert Jansch, guitarist of the latter band. His influence and tutelage are evident in the deft fingerpicking that anchors nearly every song on the record. And nowhere is that British folk influence more evident than on “Poison Tree,” a song adapted from the poem “A Poison Tree” by William Blake.
Orton makes all her tunes seem effortless as she glides from mood to mood across this record. From the haunted bitterness and anger of the opening track to the sweetness and simple beauty of the closer, “Mystery,” Orton shows she has continued to expand her musical spaces. She remains a quietly confident songwriter and record maker.
Concert review and set list: Lyle Lovett strikes up the Large Band at Peabody Opera House, Saturday, August 25
Singer-songwriter and Texan Lyle Lovett is a consummate and versatile performer, drawing great musical power from the strength of the musicians backing him in his Large Band.
The band opened the show with an extended intro jam, showcasing its talent and flexibility as individual members traded licks and solos for several minutes. Lovett then took the stage as the band launched into a cover of “Release Me,” the title track from Lovett’s current record. After 27 years with Curb Records, “Release Me” is Lovett’s final recording for the label. Like Saturday night’s show at the Peabody Opera House, the album mixes eclectic covers and originals that run through nearly all of the musical styles and eras that Lovett has visited throughout his career.
With the assistance of vocalist Arnold McCuller, Lovett and his Large Band played a selection of songs from the new album, including a rollicking version of the single “Isn’t That So,” written by Jessie Winchester. “We’re playing some new songs,” Lovett said, “because when you’ve got a new record out, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Lovett then exited the stage momentarily, handing over the reigns to McCuller, who performed “Gods and Monsters” from his record “As Soon As I Get Paid.” Lovett then returned for “Well…All Right,” a song written by fellow Texan Buddy Holly. The first part of the show mixed material from the new record with both older and recent originals such as “Penguins” and “Cute as a Bug.”
Lovett later handed over the lead vocal to fiddle player Luke Bullock, whose self-titled solo record is also out now. Always the Southern gentleman, Lovett is obviously happy to showcase the talents of the members of his group, and is himself grateful to the people who have helped him in the past. For example, Lovett spoke highly of another great, but unfortunately lesser-known, Texas songwriter, Eric Taylor. Taylor was instrumental in helping Lovett in the early days of his career, when he was playing gigs at the renowned Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant in Houston. The band then played Taylor’s “Understand You,” which Lovett also recorded for “Release Me.”
Casual and soft spoken, Lovett is, of course, an excellent storyteller, conversationally and in song. The wry sense humor reflected in his work was on display in his banter as he frequently adjusted the tuning of his guitar between songs, keeping the audience entertained with his occasionally rambling anecdotes. “Looks like I’ve brought things to a stop here,” he remarked at one point.
Midway through the show, most of the band left the stage, while Lovett, Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Bullock played a couple of songs as a bluegrass trio, the three players sharing one center stage mike. On the second song “Up in Indiana” the band slowly rejoined the mix, and, once reunited, then launched into a wonderful version of Lovett’s classic wedding song/murder ballad “L.A. County.” That song was followed by “Private Conversation” from 1996′s, “Road to Ensenada,” a record released in the wake of his much-publicized romance with Julia Roberts. It’s a shame that Lovett’s brief relationship with a movie star is his biggest claim to fame for many Americans, because he is truly one of our greatest living songwriters.
With a sharp lyrical sense that brings a twist to many of his songs, Lovett is also a master of many musical styles — a great performer and a true country traditionalist. He and his Large Band are always impeccably attired and a joy to hear. Composed of legendary players such as Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums) and younger players like Sean Watkins (mandolin and acoustic guitar), the Large Band is undoubtedly one of the great configurations of musicians touring today. And the Peabody Opera House is a perfect venue for the Large Band. More formal than the Pageant yet more intimate than the Fox, the Peabody is just big enough to house the band, unlike the Sheldon, where the size of the Large Band threatened to overrun that small stage in 2010.
Concert review: The Indigo Girls (with the Shadowboxers) keep fans singing along at the Pageant, Saturday, July 21
With the muscle of a young backing band behind them, veteran folk singers the Indigo Girls demonstrated the power of acoustic music last night, proving they still have miles to go before they sleep.
The Indigo Girls are, of course, Amy Ray and Emily Sailers, the folk-rock duo that has been writing and performing thoughtful, well-crafted acoustic music since the late ’80s. A good deal of their staying power is no doubt attributable to their distinct, yet complementary, personalities; they are like yin and yang. Sailer’s voice inhabits a higher register; she is sweetness and light, whereas Amy is the gritty, angrier side, bringing a rock and punk influence to their songs. Sailers takes the guitar leads, while Ray handles more of the rhythm, at times even relying on a low-slung mandolin for a driving strum.
Indigo Girls returned to the Pageant last night for the first time since 2010, this time with a full backing band, the Shadowboxers. The Shadowboxers are a five-piece band from Atlanta, serving as both backing band and opening act. (The band’s first album, “Red Room,” recorded in Shreveport, La., will be available in October.) After a short set from the Shadowboxers, Ray and Sailers took the stage, opening with “Least Complicated” from 1994′s “Swamp Ophelia.” From that point on they had the audience singing along for the entire show.
The set ran through many of their best-known songs, and drew heavily from their ’90s catalog. The bulk of the songs came from the records “Rites of Passage,” Swamp Ophelia,” and “Shaming of the Sun” but still included some of their newer songs, and material from their current record, “Beauty Queen Sister.”
They both began the show on Martin acoustics (for those of you with interested in such things one of Ray’s guitars is a 1942 Martin 0-18), but switched instruments frequently throughout the set. Both play electric guitar at times, and “Shame on You” and “Get Out the Map” had Sailers pulling out the electric banjo.
Album review: Justin Townes Earle moves on with ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now’ (MP3 download)
Justin Townes Earle
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
That Justin Townes Earle would begin his career in the shadow of other great songwriters was unavoidable; after all, his father is Steve Earle, and he carries the name of late Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
Yet despite the long shadow those two songwriters cast, the younger Earle has always forged his own path musically, a path that has typically been much more country than that of either his father or his namesake. However, on his latest record, “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” he diverges from that country road and channels a Memphis soul sound.
Earle has spoken both of the similarities between chord progressions in soul and country music, and of the fact that both musical genres have roots in the church, in gospel and worship songs. So, the move from a Nashville to a Memphis sound was a logical one for him, and the record was even recorded in a converted church. Produced by Earle and “Harlem River Blues” co-producer Skylar Wilson, it was recorded live in the studio (no overdubs), over a four-day period in Asheville, N.C. Their intention was to create a collection of songs that were both timely and timeless.
Still, Earle seems burdened by his familial connections. The record opens with “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” as he sings the first line, “Hear my father on the radio, singing ‘Take me Home again.’” A subtle horn section swells behind the singer’s vocal, underscoring the forlorn feeling that pervades the song and the record overall. The horns serve that same purpose throughout, as on “Look the Other Way,” a sad, albeit more hopeful, tune about trying to get the attention of a woman. He could be a better man for her, but she always looks the other way.
There are some upbeat songs here too, such as “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea,” but many of the songs are slower numbers; quiet tunes and hushed confessionals that offer a glimpse into a conflicted and desolate world of heartache and loneliness. The record finds a groove, however, as on “Down On the Lower East Side” with its jazzy beat, brushed snare and muted trumpet. But in spite of arrangements and the Memphis soul spirit, it never really swings until nearly the end, with the rollicking “Memphis in the Rain,” one of the best songs on the album.
Earle brings a lot of emotional weight to his lyrics, and by the end of the record it seems he’s at least worked through some of his issues as he closes the album with “Movin’ On.” With a great walking bass line and simple supporting harmonica, Earle sings, “I’m trying to move on,” and the listener feels he really means it.
“Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” is a solid effort from talented young singer-songwriter. If a record like this is the result of Earle “movin’ on” from his country and Americana roots, then it will be fascinating to see what musical direction he heads in next.
“Look the Other Way” – Justin Townes Earle
With her lilting voice and nerdy, girl-next-door looks, Ingrid Michaelson has charmed an audience and built a career around her good-girl appeal.
But that’s not to say there’s no substance behind her style. Michaelson’s career is both an indie success story and a commentary on the current nature of the music business. In an environment where it is easier than ever to make music, where everyone has a website and a YouTube channel, it can be, rather ironically, harder and harder for musicians to get their songs heard. Commercial radio is simply not as much of a factor in introducing new artists, and musicians must pursue other avenues to reach an audience.
Michaelson first got attention for song placement in television shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” and later by licensing her songs for TV commercials. Once upon a time, an artist that sold a song for commercial use was considered a sellout. (Remember when Neil Young declared that he wasn’t singing for Pepsi or Coke?) Today it’s the opposite. An artist can have a song on TV before a single on the radio. For Michaelson, “selling out” was the stepping stone to the audience she has now. When Old Navy picked up “The Way I Am” (from her 2006 record “Girls and Boys”) it helped pave the way for her career.
With her clever, literate lyrics and sometimes quirky, well-crafted pop songs, perhaps Michaelson’s success was inevitable. I never watched “Grey’s Anatomy” or saw those commercials. I came to appreciate her the old-fashioned way: by falling in love with her voice (and, to be honest, her looks). It may have been her persona that first got my attention, but I stayed for her songs.
On her new record, “Human Again,” Michaelson delivers more of the deeply textured arrangements and soaring vocals that are her trademark. And while she has always sung about both love and loss, this time around the emphasis centers more squarely upon the loss. “Human Again” is clearly Michaelson’s take on the classic break-up album.
As if there were any question, the record opens with “Fire” as she sings, “Open heart surgery/That is what you do to me.” She then moves right into “This Is War,” another heartbreaker featuring the lines “It’s a wonder at all that I survived the war/Between your heart and mine.” Thankfully, the third track delivers a bit of a respite with the upbeat tune, “Do It Now,” a catchy number and an admonition to seize the day.
Concert review: Ryan Adams and Jason Isbell fill the Peabody Opera House with solo songcraft, Tuesday, January 31
The newly-renovated and recently-reopened venue is beautiful, with great acoustics that rival even the “acoustically perfect” Sheldon Concert Hall. The interior is spacious and ornate, with a large seal of St. Louis prominently displayed over the stage. This was my first visit to the Opera House since it reopened last year, and it was a pleasure; the venue was ideally suited to Adams’ solo acoustic performance.
Adams took the stage a bit late, with an intimate set up affording him a chair, two guitars in the red, white and blue hues he favors, and a small upright piano. His attitude was that of a guy just hanging out in his living room, playing a few songs for a group of close friends, rather than that of a man playing to a near capacity crowd in an intimate, early 20th century theatre.
He opened with his standard show opener, “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” from his classic album, “Heartbreaker.” What song he would do next on this (or any) night was anybody’s guess. Although shows are similar from night to night, his set list is largely improvised. A mercurial performer, he relies on notebooks and his own whims for inspiration. He likes to mix it up, improvising on songs as well as the set list, and, as he says, making it up as he goes along. It’s not all as off the cuff as he likes to make it seem, however. I recently saw his extended performance from the Ed Sullivan Theatre online on “Live on Letterman.” There he performed several of the same songs, and included some of the same banter. So, it definitely takes work to make it all seem as effortless and spontaneous as Adams does.
He was perfectly at home in this environment though, showcasing his songs, and sharing some amusing anecdotes and jokes between tunes. The crowd was hushed, and even occasionally shushed each other, as Ryan worked through a set emphasizing his latest release, “Ashes & Fire.” Every note and nuance of the performance could be heard, although the drawback to those wonderful acoustics is that every noise from the audience could be heard as well. Adams was both funny and engaging as he moved about the stage, deciding what to do next. He began seated, center stage, guitar in hand, occasionally adding harmonica and consulting his notebook for inspiration. He then moved to the piano to perform a few numbers; eventually he moved to another mike, set up on the other side of the stage, to perform standing. “Nothing’s gonna change,” he said as he moved over to the other microphone. “I’m just gonna stand — so large portions of my ass won’t fall asleep.”
It’s been said before, but I don’t mind repeating it: John Prine is a national treasure.
Since releasing his self-titled first album in 1971, Prine has penned so many great songs. Songs for and about the American everyman, the upbeat and the downtrodden; songs that have been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash and Bette Midler to the Everly Brothers, Nanci Griffith and Bonnie Raitt.
Prine was in great form Saturday night as he took the stage before a near capacity crowd in the intimate confines of the Touhill Performing Arts Center. Backed up by Jason “Shorty” Wilber on guitar and David Jacques on bass, Prine and his band opened the show with great rendition of “Spanish Pipedream,” a song from that very first record. Just four songs into the set and the show was already worth the price of admission as the band tore through the wonderful anti-jingoistic anthem “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” A song he said was “so old, I forgot what war I wrote it about.”
With a 40 plus year career as a folk singer and songwriter, as well as a fairly recent battle with cancer behind him, Prine has obviously racked up some miles. But his well-worn voice is as warm as the weathered old Martin acoustic he pulled out early in the show. With a razor-sharp wit, wry sense of humor and an unapologetically sentimental streak, he will make you laugh as easily as he will break your heart.
Songs like “Dear Abby” showed off his goofy sense of humor at it’s finest, but then he quickly followed that with songs like “Hello in There,” a song about aging and empty nests that is surely one of the saddest in the world. But the audience can make him laugh, too. A crying baby joined in on “Six O’ Clock News,” punctuating the line about “Changing all them diapers.” Prine grinned broadly at the child’s appropriate vocal contribution, and continued the song. Oddly and thankfully enough the child remained quiet for the rest of the show.
The duo band was perfectly suited to the songs, with Wilber contributing lead and slide guitar and mandolin, and Jacques on the upright and occasional electric bass. Wilber contributed wonderful acoustic lead work, especially on a beautiful version of “Christmas in Prison.” At one point Prine even acknowledged his own declining guitar skills with a nod to Wilber as he said, “I used to be able to play like that.” But that’s okay. He left the fancier guitar playing to the younger man, instead providing a solid rhythm guitar backing to his songs. And his voice is still, without question, a most capable instrument; he demonstrated just that as the rest of the band left the stage about midway through the show.
Beginning with “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” Prine performed six songs at his best: just the man himself and an acoustic guitar, proving just how formidable a man and a Martin can be. The band rejoined him onstage at the end of “Sam Stone” and then launched into “Bear Creek Blues” and “Lake Marie,” songs that gave the band some space to stretch out and groove.
Opening the show was Jason Isbell, formerly of Drive-By Truckers, who also showed how formidable a man with a Martin can be. He performed a short but earnest set, highlighted by polished guitar picking. Like John Prine, he sang songs about his contemporaries, beaten down by economic iniquities and this generation’s round of wars.
After an encore of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” Isbell joined Prine and band on stage to close the show with a raucous version of that classic song about Muhlenberg County and Mr. Peabody’s coal train, “Paradise.”
From the political to the amusing, the poignant to the absurd, his songs are as relevant as ever. And while he has never been as widely known to the general public as he has been beloved by critics and his fellow musicians, John Prine is certainly one treasure his fans are happy to share.
John Prine set list:
Humidity Built the Snowman
Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore
Six O’clock News
Grandpa Was a Carpenter
Christmas in Prison
Fish and Whistle
Crazy as a Loon
Glory of True Love
Angel From Montgomery
Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
That’s The Way That the World Goes ‘Round
Bear Creek Blues
Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody
Hello in There
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
Paradise (with Jason Isbell)