Album review: Heidi Talbot glides through ‘Angels Without Wings’

Heidi Talbot
“Angels Without Wings”
Compass Records

Here’s how every review of Heidi Talbot opens: Talbot is from County Kildare, Ireland, and famously was a member of the Irish-American all-female supergroup Cherish the Ladies.

“Super group” seems to be an important term, and is so often used that it seems like part of the band name. And County Kildare seems a very big deal, for whatever reason. The reviews for her new album, “Angels Without Wings,” likewise will all tell you in the first paragraph that Jerry Douglas and Mark Knopfler play on this disc, so there now I’ve done it too.

More importantly, though, is that it’s a really nice collection of new songs from a seasoned performer and writer. While Douglas and Knopfler are the big names that guest here, their presence is so mild as to be non-existent. Better is the inclusion Dirk Powell’s fiddle and banjo on “Dearest Johnny,” and Tim O’Brien who lends his voice in a very noticeable and lovely way on “Wine and Roses” and “When the Roses Come Again.”

And, indeed, the wealth of the material here is lovely. Talbot’s voice is a draw, one that is both strong and delicate, often impossibly at the same time. Her phrasing comes from traditional Irish music, the genre within which she has made a career, though here she branches out. The guest musicians too hearken to the transatlantic sessions O’Brien and Douglas have taken part in at the request of the BBC, and Talbot’s goal seems to be the same as well: to shift the focus a bit from the highly traditional sounds of Ireland and to tease out the commonalities between that music and traditional North American music.

This is her fifth album as a solo artist, though just the second that includes only original material. It also presents a broader range of sounds than her previous albums have, from Parisian accordion on “Angels without Wings” to a feel that echoes ’50s pop on “I’m Not Sorry.” There are many arching melodies that we associate with Irish singing, though “Will I Ever Get to Sleep?” has a bounce that is more US than UK, though with a beautiful pipes part played by Michael McGoldrick that reminds us what we are listening to. That song stands out, as does “The Loneliest,” a sparse vocal piece that will rightly get a lot of attention.

But, really everything here is a strength, and if you haven’t been familiar with Heidi Talbot, this album makes the perfect introduction to an impressive talent. (And did I mention she’s from County Kildare? Apparently, she really is…).

Concert review and set list: Cellist Ben Sollee (with Justin Paul Lewis) fights off stereotypes at the Old Rock House on Saturday, February 16

Ben Sollee at the Old Rock House. Photo by Ben Mudd.

When most people think of the cello, they think of classical music or symphonies. Ben Sollee breaks those stereotypes and brings his instrument to a whole new level.

Show opener Justin Paul Lewis crept up onto the Old Rock House stage and began his solo-acoustic set without warning. Lewis’ take on the singer-songwriter genre was drastically different from what I’m used to hearing. He treats the guitar as a percussion instrument, producing shucking beats and heavily muted chords with his finger-style technique.

Lewis treats his vocals as another form of instrumentation, delivering his stories with a mumbled rhythm as if he were talking in his sleep and describing his dreams in real-time. The only comparison I can really draw is that he sounds like Tom Waits without the ravages of whisky and poor life choices warping his vocal cords. He spent the majority of his set hunched over his guitar, bobbing around and crooning while playing and whistling the horn lines his trumpeter, who was not with him at this show, usually added to his set.

Lewis’ motions were as mesmerizing as the songs themselves, almost a performance art piece in and of themselves. He got the crowd involved with the show by clapping the beat to a funky slow jam of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” before bringing Ben Sollee up on stage for a great performance of “Salt” from his most recent recording “Rinse, Repeat, Rewind.”

Ben Sollee was the next up, sharing the stage with drummer Jordon Ellis. I had not heard anything that he had performed before the show and opted to check him out based on a recommendation from singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, who occasionally raves about him on Twitter.

Sollee is a classically trained cellist that often forgoes the usual classical song structure to breathe new life into an old instrument. That was apparent from the first tune, which consisted of bowing and plucking a rhythm that would be equally at home on a New Order album. Every song seemed to shift in style from synth-pop to jazz to R&B and hip-hop grooves thrown in for good measure. Although there was a broad array of styles in play, the transitions were smooth as silk and nothing seemed out of place.

Over the course of the show, Sollee primarily kept to his cello with a change to octave mandolin for a couple of tracks halfway through the set. His vocals seemed to have a heavy lean toward the singing-storyteller style of Paul Simon, the words sung with a warm tenor that exuded wisdom beyond his years. When he was really getting into the groove Sollee would start to yelp and shout with joy, reminding me of the shouts that accompany “Better Git It in Your Soul” from the Charles Mingus album “Mingus Ah Um.”

There was also a strong jazz influence in the drumming of Jordon Ellis, who has more beats than Schrute Farms. He was running from hip-hop grooves to jazz riffs and filling the air with sounds that accented Sollee’s cello runs without stepping over or falling behind the beat.

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Concert review and set lists: Carrie Newcomer’s folk (with Jenna Lindbo) ebbs and flows through the Sheldon Concert Hall, Friday, January 18

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Spiritualism comes in many forms. For Carrie Newcomer her brand began with her Quaker upbringing, continued with her education and culminated in her powerful songwriting.

On tour to support her new compilation “Kindred Spirits,” Newcomer has been playing shows in St. Louis for nearly 20 years. Last night her longtime followers came out to hear her perform on the wood-lined stage at the acoustically beautiful Sheldon Concert Hall. Even having performed here before Newcomer extolled the virtues of the venue: “The Sheldon is my favorite theater in the country.” Whether it was pandering or the truth, everyone agrees the room is magical.

The 54-year old Newcomer brings a soulful voice and strong songwriting chops to her music. With lyrics influenced by writers, poets, academics and her surroundings, she demonstrates her skill as a true storyteller. Accompanied by pianist Gary Walters, an accomplished jazz and classical musician, Newcomer warmly entertained the crowd — filled with teachers, activists and local non-profit organization workers — with her original music and sly, humorous asides.

She began her 100-minute set with an upbeat strummer “Ghost Train,” one of the few songs in the show not on the new compilation. Her song “I Believe” followed with its convictions about everyday life. The line, “There’s a place in heaven for those who teach in public school” received a rousing applause from the educators in attendance.

Before beginning “Geode” she gave the audience a lesson in geology as she discussed the glaciers and their impact on the state of Indiana. She advised, “They are as common as corn, but yet they are a miracle.” At times the room felt full of a new-age mysticism, and during other moments humor and life’s trials and tribulations took the spotlight.

Newcomer continued with a new song, “Work of our Hands,” which she said is right out of her notebook about a large group of her friends getting together and canning last fall and her memories of her grandmother. This song along with many others employed an intricate capo system that she uses on her guitar; at one point she asked for more light on stage so she could see the frets. Another new song, “The Speed of Soul,” began as thoughts she had about a Native-American saying, “We should never travel faster in a day than our soul can keep up,” and ended with time spent in a corner booth at a truck stop in Kansas. Inspiration comes from everywhere for the prolific songwriter.

As the set ebbed and flowed, the songs were fast and upbeat and also slow and melancholy. Mid-set, before she played “If Not Now,” she joked that everyone in the audience was thinking, “This is a folk show — I hope she does a sing-along,” which got the audience laughing and looking to their friends and neighbors. But the best line of the night was when she advised, “The one rule in a folk sing-along is volume over accuracy.”

While most of her songs fall into the category of folk or country, the upbeat “Breathe in, Breathe Out” comes as close to the singer-songwriter rock of the early ’70s. Next she gave way to Walters as he took a solo turn on an instrumental jazzy composition that could work well as part of a score to a movie. She followed his turn with the nostalgic “I’ll Go Too,” a song she revealed is about her dad.

At the end she brought humor back with her song about animal groupings, “A Crash of Rhinoceros,” and finished with a spiritual number that seemed to sum up the evening, “The Gathering of Spirits.”

To finish the night Newcomer brought out opener Jenna Lindbo to help her on an encore of “Air and Smoke.” As tangible as music is in its physical form, it only occupies the air and space for so long. Newcomer went one step further last night; she inhabited the mind, body and soul as well. The true mark of a strong and dynamic performer.

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Album review: Old Man Luedecke proves himself on ‘Tender Is the Night’

“Tender Is the Night”
Old Man Luedecke
True North

“Tender Is the Night” is the fifth solo collection from Old Man (Chris) Luedecke, and it feels like some of the musical ideas he’s been working with are really beginning to gel. His writing has always been very strong, remaining true to the roots of American folk and country music, though dealing with modern themes and ideas.

The production on some of the earlier releases, however, often sounded as if he was trying to find his footing. In some instances the settings for his songs were overly sparse; in others, it was overly rich, as with the fuller band numbers that were included on 2008′s “Proof of Love.” He was ranging across the spectrum of arrangements in order to find a home, not entirely successfully.

But with “Tender Is the Night” he’s clearly found what he was looking for thanks in large part to the involvement of Tim O’Brien who produced and plays on this album. O’Brien’s mandolin, fiddle, octave mandolin, guitars and harmony vocals are the perfect accompaniment to Luedecke’s quirky, unique and delightful lyrics and hooks. The production has granted a confidence and clarity to Luedecke’s writing, especially on songs like “I’m Fine (I Am, I Am)” which are tougher to pull off solo, just him and his banjo, which is the typical approach of his live gigs.

All of the great things that Luedecke has been doing so well are also utterly intact here, in particular the way he brings traditional sounds and structures to modern ideas. On “A&W Song,” he laments the awkward feelings of holding up a line while the debit card reader rejects your pin. It’s an idea that could come dangerously close to novelty, but he’s a skilled enough writer to give the idea real poignancy.

The material has a nice range: Luedecke can be old-time mournful, as on “Little Stream of Whiskey,” and cunningly funny on “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Throughout is the charm that comes through so well in his live shows. If you haven’t given much thought to Old Man Luedecke in the past, this is the album that you might want to give a good listen to. It has the feeling of a true arrival, and I suspect that that’s exactly what “Tender Is the Night” will prove to be.

Album review: Nothing better than Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott on ‘We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This’

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
“We’re Usually a Lot Better than This”
Full Lights

In 2000 Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott released “Real Time,” a gorgeous album of duets by two complete masters of instrumentation, arrangement and performance. Beautiful.

Then the duo toured it and pretty much immediately demonstrated that there was a dimension to their playing that the recording lacked; it was a studio piece, and didn’t entirely capture the energy, spontaneity, camaraderie and humor that both O’Brien and Scott share. In a live setting, the pairing of these two performers — who can be absolutely commanding of an audience on their own — was pure unadorned fireworks.

Since that tour, I’ve often had discussions that began “Weren’t Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott fantastic at that show…” and then devolved into the kind of conversation you’d hear between grade-schoolers when discussing Pokemon cards — your basic immature enthusiasm.

This album, “We’re Usually a Lot Better than this” comes from just after the period in which they toured “Real Time.” The tracks are taken from two shows they did in 2005 and 2006, and if anything they are even more infectious than the music they created together when touring “Real Time. What really shines here is the sheer, unbridled confidence that they have in what they are doing. Neither one wants for confidence on his own, to be sure, but together it’s as if they are each pushing each other further. They take what, for others, might be real chances, but they just pony up and let fly. Their voices dance around each other, and their instruments do too.

The performances here sound spontaneous — something of a pure lark — and that’s because, to a lesser or greater extent, they really are. In the liner notes Scott writes, “Some songs we’d played [together] hundreds of times over the years, some we just did on the stage on this recording for the first time.” Gutsy, to be sure, but it’s a reminder of just how good they are at what they do.

One of the things they do so well is bring new energy to old songs and old ideas. There are some standards here, including “House of Gold,” though on this album they do it a cappella and with a kind of force and authority that raises the song from dirge to field holler. O’Brien’s delivery of “Mick Ryan’s Lament” is a stand out, as is a song that he wrote early in his solo career and which was later a hit of sorts for Garth Brooks: “When There’s No One Around” (a song that many people have covered, including Darrell Scott on his 1999 release, “Family Tree”).

The album is also a reminder that, for some people, it’s more about the performance of the songs than it is the recording of them. Yes, O’Brien has some great recordings, including “Away out on the Mountain,” and the more recent “Chameleon.” But he’s a performer, and to go to see him live is more than worth the effort. Darrell Scott is cut from entirely the same cloth. I hope that this album prompts them to head out on the road together again. Fingers crossed.

‘I feel filled up again’ An interview with Joe Pug

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October 27 and 28, 2012 on the eve of Superstorm Sandy and in the shadow of the the construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan, Joe Pug took the stage at Pace University to thank the man who created his job — Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora asked Pug’s friend and frequent tour mate Justin Townes Earle to curate two nights of music from the current generation who are working in her father’s spirit. Earle invited Pug, the Low Anthem and Deer Tick’s John McCauley to represent the continuation of Guthrie’s singer-songwriter legacy, punctuated with Guthrie biographer Joe Klein reading passages from his beloved “Woody Guthrie: A Life.”

While most of the audience bought tickets to see Earle, the murmurings after the shows focused on Pug’s impassioned performances. I kept hearing Pug’s name attached to variations of “I’d never heard of him before tonight, but he was incredible!”

Not that Pug didn’t have a fan base prior to the show. Justin’s troubadour papa, Steve Earle, brought Pug to his son’s attention, forging a pair of kindred songwriting spirits that includes shared tours and stories getting Woody Guthrie-themed, rib-cage tattoos in western Australia.

Playing solo for both New York shows, the Austin resident spat out fiery takes of his social commentary — “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” “Nation of Heat” and “The Great Despiser.” While most Guthrie tributes end with a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land,” the new generation did it their way, joining voices on Earle’s joyful and ominous “Harlem River Blues” with enough power to make getting covered with dirty water seem like a good idea and not a harbinger of disaster to come.

Pug took time from his tour schedule a few weeks prior to the New York City shows to discuss Guthrie’s legacy, songwriting, giving it away and what we can expect from him at Off Broadway on Monday, November 12.

Robin Wheeler: I want to talk to you about your upcoming St. Louis show, but I’m really interested in the two upcoming “In the Spirit of Woody Guthrie” shows you’re doing with Justin Townes Earle in New York at the end of October. How did you get involved in this, what will you be doing and what are your thoughts on the whole thing?

Joe Pug: I got involved in it through Justin’s invitation. He’s always been a huge advocate for my music and he’s really given me a hand up in a lot of ways. I first did a tour with him about three years ago where we did two months straight together on the road. We toured in Australia together. This is just the latest example of Justin helping me out, and helping me be a part of something that’s very special. He invited me to this, and I just talked to him about it in more detail at Hardly Strictly [Bluegrass Festival]. Basically, he’s invited other artists who … not only … to say we owe a huge debt to Woody doesn’t even describe it. He invented what our job is. It’s just a way for us to come and explore that lineage, explore that influence and pay tribute to him in his centennial year.

What has Guthrie’s influence been on you, besides creating your job?

I think Woody was the first person in American popular culture to complete a synthesis, which is very common now and we take it for granted. A synthesis of someone who is — in the most high-minded and esoteric ways possible — an artist, but also in some of the most pragmatic and basic ways, an entertainer. Again, we really take that for granted. Not only with singer-songwriters who are made to come on like your Bob Dylan or Steve Earle — the social parts. He was that, but this was also someone who was taking old songwriting tropes and putting them in an entertaining package. This was a guy who could keep a room spellbound. That’s mastery. It’s a mastery that he did for the first time in American popular culture.

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Album review: Dave Gunning mints new, earnest folk on ‘No More Pennies’

Dave Gunning
“No More Pennies”
Wee House Music

Sometimes with new albums, as is the case with Dave Gunning’s “No More Pennies,” it’s as much about the packaging as it is the music.

First the music: Gunning is very much a songwriter of the Canadian Maritimes, and in this release he revisits so many of the themes we commonly see from that part of the world. In “Living in Alberta” we hear about the displacement of the young people to travel west to look for work. “A Game Goin’ On” is another anthem to the joys of hockey. Hard work, hard times and coal are the themes of “Coal from the Train.” Gunning also covers homesteading (“The Family Name”), rootlessness (“All Along the Way” and “Too Soon to Turn Back”) and the lone musician (“The Weight of my Guitar”).

The production is fine, the instrumentation is lovely, and there are some very nice moments here. But “nice” is a word that cuts both ways, and it’s hard to get past the studied earnestness of it all. “These Hands” includes a chorus of fifth graders, a bold decision given that it can backfire quite spectacularly. Gunning is hoping for moving, but the result falls closer to Hallmark.

The challenge that Gunning doesn’t quite meet is that it’s not only that we’ve heard these themes and concepts before; it’s also that we’ve heard them done more ably.

Allister MacGillivray’s “Song from the Mira” does what “Living in Alberta” does, but the former lets us see the tragedy, even if we’ve never been to the Maritimes, and imagine it for ourselves. Hockey is a common theme in the Canadian songbook, and it’s hard to add anything to what has gone before, including Jane Siberry’s “Hockey,” which in many ways provides both the first and last word as far as pond hockey goes.

And now the packaging: As CDs are poised to go the way of gramophones and 8-track tapes (CDs are oft rumoured to be on the way out, possibly sooner rather than later), one thing we’re going to miss is the kind of jacket design that “No More Pennies” has. It was created by Michael Wrycraft, a brilliant designer based in Toronto. He has had a long, celebrated career as an album designer, in part because his work is so varied, so beautifully adapted to the projects that he works on (for fans of cover art, you can waste quite a bit of time looking through Wrycraft’s archive).

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Concert review: Swans (with A Hawk and a Hacksaw) descend on the Firebird, Tuesday, October 23

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The line at the door of the Firebird snaked through the parking lot. This was the first sign. Then — the smiles, the excitement, no one worrying about not getting in — a sense of fate in the air.

Then, everyone making it inside for the Swans show, beering up, eyeing the crag of instruments looming, knocking around dreams and rumors of set lists (“Christoph Hahn just had a smoke with us, said, ‘We’ll do ze title track, zen an old one, zen a new one — one hour 45 minutes, exact. . . .’”), something began happening onstage.

The sound of Jeremy Barnes’ hammered dulcimer sucked all other sound from the room, sounding like myriad rattle-cage voices quivering through amps. Immediately, opening band A Hawk and a Hacksaw established the tone of the night: power through sincerity and space. Barnes and violinist Heather Trost play it straight — even their virtuoso finger-work and ascending solos in 11/8 come across humbly — but because of their lack of embellishment, and the solid energy of their music, I fully immersed myself in the sound.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw takes most of its cues from many Eastern European folk traditions, weaving a set of traditional songs and originals seamlessly. Their dance numbers featuring accordion and violin created a soaring feeling at times, and their ballads pushed away the walls of the room. Barnes and Trost had a fine sense of dynamics and tone — their instruments came through the amps angelic instead of distorted. Trost wove her voice through with vulnerability, but not overwrought emotion.

Swans’ six members appeared quietly, like ghosts out of a forest. After a roar from the crowd, a ubiquitous hum grew out of the amps onstage. Michael Gira swayed like a crazy lion, letting his band heap up the inertial textures of their music. Then, he sang, “To be kind, to be kind, to be kind, to be kind. . . .” His voice would command everything for the next two hours.

As the ambient swell continued to build, Gira sang, “To be lost in the sound of this rooooooom.” This was his purpose: forget what you’ve heard, forget the emotional and physical shit you’ve brought to the show, forget what Swans was long ago because if you’re here, it’ll only benefit you to experience here. When the song erupted into sustained one-chord bursts, repeated for nearly four minutes, it seemed Gira was hammering this point home.

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