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Show Review- Kacey Musgraves at Tricky Falls

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2015-04-21 21.43.08

It’s a hard thing trying to be all things to all people. Especially in Country Music. Especially now. Especially if you’re a woman. Kacey Musgraves finds herself in the same weird position that k.d. lang and Dwight Yoakam did before her. She’s a smart, retro-minded act in a genre that exceedingly prides itself on willful ignorance and distance from it’s past.

Armed with funny, insightful songs and a girlish voice, her show is better suited to an attentive crowd that knows how to listen, and how to follow along with a perfomers whims. This was not that crowd. Country music doesn’t produce that kind of crowd. Folks came to sing along to the songs they knew, and hoot and holler over the talking. Instead of viewing the night as an interaction between performers and audience, they acted like it was a TV show with no screen between them and the performance.

None of which is El Paso, or Kacey’s fault. I blame the mainsteam audience Kacey has to placate. We don’t really need to go into how much the country audience has changed or look at pictures of the trashed stadiums anymore. A George Strait cover and a few bars of “Como La Flor” by Selena were big hits and seemed natural. The Bob Marley cover and the request to put lit cellphones in the air like lighters felt forced. But, again, this is a pretty quirky, singular artist by Nashville standards and telling the crowd how to react emotionally to canned moments seems like a concession to the CMT crowd. Reggae singalong at a country show? Yes, because that’s what country music is now. If it’s the price that Kacey has to pay to stage eccentric shows with neon saguaros and light up Nudie suits, I’m all for it, I guess. She has a fun, self-deprecating way about her that’s likable and stands in contrast to a history of brassy, brash country ladies.

Which isn’t to say that the show wasn’t fun. It was. I had fun and I hope Kacey had fun. I hope she continues to have fun and do the fun, kitschy stuff she likes to do. Country music is better for having her around, and hopefully, she’ll find the niche she needs to to stick around. Lord knows we need her.

Album Reviews: Zoe Muth, Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, Matt Hillyer, John Fullbright

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Basically, this is all the new country music worth buying this week. (edit: there’s a new Betty Soo album out this week. It’s probably good too.)

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Matt Hillyer- If These Old Bones Could Talk

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the leader of Eleven Hundred Springs would put out a solo album of swaggering honky-tonk. The album opens strong with “A Little Less Whiskey” and stays the course from there- confident songwriting and twang from a veteran of all the smokey bars. What struck me most was the outright sentimentality of the lyrics, the unashamed, old-fashioned emotion Hillyer has no problem laying down. Even by country standards, he’s not afraid to wax nostalgic or get mushy. It’s a bit disarming at first, because where a lot of people are good at aping the sound of old country, Hillyer has flat-out mastered the heart-on-sleeve tenderness of Lefty Frizell in a way that is refreshing and as I said before, a little disarming. Speaking of mid-century softiness, if you love recitations, you’ll like “Dancing With The Moon,” which takes George Strait’s “The Chair” on one of the early Apollo missions. If you don’t like recitations, there’s lots more of the somewhere between Texas and Bakersfield sounds to soak in. If you like your country like you like your Chevy’s: dependable, sturdy, and thankfully not all that different from what your Dad tooled around in, here’s your man.

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Zoe Muth- World Full of Strangers

Zoe Muth, like many of the protagonists in her songs, has an appealing weariness in her voice, like she just got off a long shift in a five year stretch of them at a job she only meant to keep for 6 months. The mandolins and steel from previous albums are gone, and while still working in a country-ish vein, you’ll not find the two steppers you may be accustomed to. Organ, cello and some really punchy drums replace the honky-tonkier instrumentation from her earlier work. Once I spit out the haterade (I REALLY love mandolins and steel), I found all the qualities that I like about a Zoe Muth song; a gently unfolding story, sung in a sly voice. “Mama Needs A Margarita” is two minutes and a little change, while “Taken All You Wanted” clocks in north of five. I couldn’t tell you which one was shorter from listening, such is the way Muth draws you in to a well-worn world, one I will revisit again and again.

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Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis- Our Year

The last time this husband and wife duo put out a record it became one of my favorites (and the soundtrack for every time I’ve cleaned the kitchen since then.) While “Cheater’s Game” had a looser, “hey, let’s have fun playing some songs” vibe, “Our Year” is a little more studied in it’s approach, a little more locked into the groove. Which is to say, they do a really good job with “Motor City Man” and “Harper Valley PTA.” It seems to me that Robison sings more this time around, and harmonizes more with Willis. Or maybe the arrangements just highlight that more. The record ends with a resolute, banjo-studded cover of the Zombie’s “This Will Be Our Year”, replacing the disaffected, youthful cool of the original with a heartening touch of defiance, sung by folks who’ve seen enough years together to know. This is the perfect soundtrack for late afternoon patio drinks your s.o.

 

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John Fullbright- Songs

John Fullbright sings like the kinda guy who learned to play piano in church, then immediately got a job playing in the bar across the street. “Songs” also moves from the elemental conflicts between God and the Devil found on his earlier album to more domestic concerns. The songs have an intimacy you’d expect from overhearing your neighbors talk about big issues while trying not to break into argument. Which isn’t to say that this is a boring record just because John Fullbright the rollicking Dust Bowl prophet has become come in and have a glass of wine John Fullbright. There’s a reason reviewers keep mentioning Tom Waits and Randy Newman, not because Fullbright shoots word arrows from behind his piano, letting them fall where they may, but because he’s that good.

Show Review: Old 97’s at Tricky Falls 5-5-14

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The Old 97’s have always a lyrical affinity for El Paso. It’s shown up in at least three of their songs. Maybe it’s because it has three syllables and ends in a vowel, which makes it handy for songwriting. Maybe because the name has evocative connotations of a remote and wild place, a place where a Marty Robbins ballad could play out on any given night. It could be that they just like us. Judging by their show at Tricky Falls on Cinco de Mayo, this seems the most likely answer.

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Nikki Lane opened with a brand new backing band (She quipped from the stage that she had “been hirin’ and firin’ for two weeks”) including a bass player that had only been hired the night before. Her band performed admirably, but lacked the tightness they’ll likely have by the time they get to the end of the tour. Lane played a lot of material from her newest album “All Or Nothing” which doesn’t differ much stylistically from her first record so much as it hones in on and solidifies her voice as a writer and singer. And what a voice; at times smoky, twangy, plaintive and booming, able to carry over the house PA like a force of nature. I’d like to see her again a little further down the line, with a road band and repertoire that’s been polished to a shine.

The Old 97’s wasted no time getting on stage after Lane’s set and started off with a rousing “If My Heart Was A Car,” leading with and emphasizing the El Paso verse. This was followed by Murry’s standard “W. Texas Teardrops” with it’s El Paso name drops. Having put the audience firmly in the palm of their hand, the band then launched into a solid hour and half of full-throttle action. This was the first stop on the world tour, but the second leg of the longer tour for Most Messed Up. It must have been a sweet spot in their schedules because the band was locked in and ferocious, but not ragged and road weary either.

If you were still on the fence about the new album, take notice: singalongs were noticeably louder and rowdier on the new songs than they were from some old standards off of Satellite Rides and Blame It On Gravity. I think it’s safe to say that “Nashville” off Most Messed Up is going to be a live favorite from now on.

I’m not getting any younger and neither are the Old 97’s. Leaving the club, my ears rang, my feet ached, my throat and lungs hurt from singing along with everyone else. I was tired and not looking forward to the drive back home or the next morning at work. The band must have been wiped out, but hey, that’s rock and roll or alt-country or whatever. You go out, you give it what you’ve got, and hopefully you get something back. We’re all too old to being doing this, but hopefully we’ll keep coming back every couple of years and letting it rip. It’s fun and that’s the point. It’s the Most Messed Up thing to do, and I would’t have it any other way.

 

Album Review: Old 97’s “Most Messed Up”

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I’ve been a fan of the Old 97’s since they appeared on Austin City Limits (I was too young and lived a little too far away from the bars they played back then). They recorded “Too Far To Care” about 10 minutes from my family’s farm. I’ve stuck with them through hiatuses, solo albums, and power pop. I appreciate that they’ll never make another “Wreck Your Life” and quite frankly, as awesome as that sounds, it probably wouldn’t be that great. You only get to do your 20’s once. Realizing that as a good thing is sign of maturity-for you and your favorite bands.

Grand Theater Vols. 1 & 2 were billed as returns to form, and they were; the loud, twangy, rumbly alt. country that got me in the door in the first place. Trying to find a place for THAT sound, the rockabilly-ish country punk, alongside some of their more wide-ranging albums like “Fight Songs” or “Blame It On Gravity” is no easy balancing act. For the most part, I think “Most Messed Up” pulls it off, integrating more poppy, jangling songs with the strum and twang cowpunk of their earlier albums.

Rhett drops some f-bombs too, if that’s something you’re into. But, HBO language aside, he remains king of the Roger Miller-esque one liner. It’s tempting to say that the 97’s are back, but they’ve never gone anywhere. If I had to make a complaint about this album, it’s that it lacks a certain Murry quality. His one song on the album is one of his Beatles-leaning numbers and I never get that good-natured, train-riding, aw shucks Saturday Matinee cowboy feeling he adds anywhere on this album. For me, it’s always been the key ingredient, the thing that sanded off some of the seemier edges of Rhett’s tales of drink, women and woe.

Anyway, it’s good to see the Old 97’s on a hot streak and I’ll be seeing them soon (in El Paso, on Cinco De Mayo). In the mean time, I look forward to settling in with these songs for awhile and getting to know all the words, because chances are, I’ll be singing along to them again and again.