EP Review: Chris Ruediger – Secrets

Chris Ruediger

photo courtesy of Nina Pickell on behalf of Chris Ruediger

EP Review of Chris Ruediger: Secrets

You may recall my review of Off the Stage Music’s Behind the Songs event in June. That was my first exposure to Chris Ruediger‘s music; it also served as Chris’ EP release event for Secrets. At the time, my response to some of the attendees at the event was, “Oh, my god. That thing in his voice!” You weren’t there, so you aren’t able to nod in agreement like the people I was speaking with did, but there’s a tuneful warble in Chris’ vocals that’s unique, original, the sort of distinctively identifiable vocal edge that can take a singer to the next level.

Chris Ruediger - SecretsEnergetic EP-opener “One Way Ticket” is my pick as the song with the biggest hit potential among the five tracks on Secrets. Take Marc Roberge’s wobbly-edged vocal from O.A.R.’s “Shattered (Turn the Car Around)” or Darius Rucker’s tuneful warble from Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You,” add it to an uptempo pop-rock hit like Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” and you have the essence of “One Way Ticket.” Chris, though, has his own characteristic voice, and this song has its own original energy and monster hook. I guarantee you’ll remember “One Way Ticket” after the first couple listens. Imagining myself a playlist-builder or radio programmer, I might pair this with a song like Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love.”

“Summertime Story” has its own warm, laid-back, wide open flavor. It would make a terrific follow-up single to a faster-paced opener. It is, indeed, an ideal summertime song. Roll the windows down and enjoy this tune with the wind in your hair. (If I had been able to turn this review around more quickly, while it was still summer, that comment would have been more relevant.)

Chris Ruediger

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The title track, “Secrets” has a smooth groove and always makes me think of a modern twist on The Young Rascals’ ’60s hit “Groovin’.” I like to think the two songs share a similar vibe, but it may just be a lyrical run early in the song that makes the connection for me. Still, “Secrets” has a distinct hotel lobby smooth jazz feeling to it. And you can hear Chris calmly smiling throughout this track. Yes, trust me, you can hear the toothy grin.

“Forgive Me” adds a bit of edge to the smooth groove of its preceding song but combined with the pop-radio vibe found in “One Way Ticket.” This sounds like the mid-tempo cousin of the disc-opener and would fit easily into the same subgenre box. Toward the end of the song, as well, there’s a little surf-recalling electric guitar run; as such, a music video for “Forgive Me” might be well-designed to end at sunset on a beach.

The final track, “Even If You Say No,” is an introspectively melancholy strummer. Considering the arc of the disc, this feels like a well-designed soft landing. There’s a touch of hopefulness in Chris’ voice, but not enough you can be entirely sure he believes it. It could just be that warble that makes Chris’ vocals sound sincere, but I’d say it isn’t. Indeed, this young man feels his lyrics deeply while he sings them, and he transfers that emotion to his audience.

Aside from that emotional connection, one of my other favorite things about this EP – and you’ve seen me write this before because it’s a common thread among recordings that impress me – is the musical variety in this collection, all while being cohesively, easily identifiably Chris Ruediger.

Looking Ahead

Keep an eye on the “Tour” tab of Chris’ website to see upcoming show dates. (There are currently none listed.) You can also keep tabs on Chris via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Single Review: Gracie Day – “I Don’t Want Whiskey”

Gracie DaySingle Review of Gracie Day: “I Don’t Want Whiskey”

Hartford, CT-based Gracie Day has been popping up on my local radar a lot lately, so it’s a pleasure to review the first single (just released today, September 27th), “I Don’t Want Whiskey,” from her upcoming debut EP. Named 2017 New Act of the Year by the New England Music Awards, Gracie’s voice sounds pretty old-school country on this track. A quick examination of Gracie’s YouTube videos point to soul and folk influences playing prominent roles in her voice, as well, but if I were to name the genre at her vocal center, it would definitely be country.

Gracie Day - I Don't Want Whiskey

image courtesy of Nina Pickell on behalf of Gracie Day

On “I Don’t Want Whiskey,” a slight warble to Gracie’s voice and prominent slide guitar give off a good ol’ Opry-ready vibe. Though a full-band production with a rich, radio-friendly sound, the instrumentation is relatively sparse, focusing listeners more specifically on Gracie’s voice. Drums and strings drive a mid-to-late-song bridge that serves as a bit of a musical crescendo, but overall the voice-focused recording brings out the emotion of every voice-crack and lilt in Gracie’s voice. With “I Don’t Want Whiskey” serving as an advance introduction to Gracie’s forthcoming EP, it will be interesting to hear what else she has in store for us.

It also occurs to me that this is one of the few country songs I’ve ever heard about not wanting whiskey. Just saying.

Looking Ahead

Gracie is performing Friday, September 29th at Thunder Road in Somerville, MA. Her Facebook events page also lists a November 4th gig at starlite in Southbridge, MA. You can also check the “shows” page of Gracie’s website for additional information about upcoming shows as she adds them.

Album Review: Kenn Rowell – Instant Solo Album

Kenn Rowell

photo courtesy of Kenn Rowell

Album Review of Kenn Rowell: Instant Solo Album

Kenn Rowell is a fixture in the New York punk rock scene. Bandleader of The Baghdaddios. Organizer of BlankFest. About as pure an old-school punk rocker as you’ll find. And yet I’ve always found some of his band’s songs catchier than those of most punk acts whose music crosses my path.

Indeed, behind all of Kenn’s music, he is a songwriter with a broad variety of influences, and this solo album shows the breadth and depth of his musical influences, a colorful musical palette that likely causes his songs to be so frequently interesting beyond genre-specific audiences. But, yeah, they’re mostly still as raw and real as you’d expect, so he’s still a punk at his core.

Kenn Rowell - Instant Solo Album

image courtesy of Kenn Rowell

Album-opener “(It’s) Good to Be Back” kicks things off by smacking the listener in the face with shades of Lennon. Rough and ragged Lennon, but Beatles-esque nonetheless… with a bit of a growl here and there unlike anything you’d hear from the Fab Four. But also with some string to give the song a rich fullness.

Psychedelic, slightly swampy guitarwork serves as the driver to “I Guess I’ll Never Fall in Love.” “All About Me” sports a fiddle and almost bluegrassy Americana rhythm supporting its beat-poet-punk vocal style. And “Scared to Move” is dark, outlaw country-influenced, edgy punk Americana. And that’s just the first four songs of this album’s 18.

Kenn Rowell

photo courtesy of Kenn Rowell

There are several other songs that stand out to me over the course of the rest of this album. “Let It Shine” is a softer-touch strummer that again hints at Lennon a bit, especially so during a mid-song lyrical growl. “This Old Soul” sports a Hee Haw-esque, pickin’ ‘n grinnin’, rockabilly musical backdrop. The acoustic punk “Henry,” a tune perfectly matched to its feedback, squeals, and staticy production. “Antonio” pairs a Beatles-esque guitar-picking style and soaring strings with quirky, somewhat abrupt lyrics that are delivered in a tone that suggest they may be inappropriate though it’s not clear why. “How Low” is a mid-tempo strummer that hints at The Animals but never quite fully commits, holding the tension throughout. “Without a Word” blends heavy rock strumming, booming thoughtful-rock vocals, a slow, steady tempo, and even a well-placed harmonica section. And “This Old Soul” is a wistful, melancholy acoustic guitar-picker reminiscent of what Wally Pleasant might sound like if he had a deep voice and performed such serious songs.

Kenn Rowell

photo courtesy of Kenn Rowell

Finally, don’t give up on the album too soon. The “hidden” bonus song is a fun punk-rock cover of an old favorite, reminding you of exactly whose album you just listened to, in case you forgot. It’ll also remind you that an old Baghdaddios disc might make the perfect main course to follow this tasty aperitif.

In the end, Kenn Rowell’s Instant Solo Album is a raw disc showcasing the musical variety and songwriting skill of an industry veteran.

Singer, songwriter, New York punk rock icon. With such a history of accomplishment and talent, it’s always worth giving anything Kenn Rowell does a listen. And this disc is a worthy journey that hints at his broad-based musical influences while offering a little something for everyone.

Looking Ahead

To keep up on what Kenn and The Baghdaddios are doing, you can peruse The Baghdaddios’ website or follow the band on Facebook or Kenn as @Baghdaddio on Twitter. Kenn has also organized Blankfest for the last couple decades, an annual concert in Nyack, NY that gathers and distributes blankets to New York City’s homeless each winter.

Album Review: Robert Miller’s Project Grand Slam – The PGS Experience

Robert Miller's Project Grand Slam

photo by John Wisdom; photo courtesy of Project Grand Slam

Album Review of Robert Miller’s Project Grand Slam: The PGS Experience (Cakewalk Records)

I reviewed Project Grand Slam‘s last CD, The Queen’s Carnival, about a year ago. This new release is a fresh collection with a guest appearance by a jazz saxophonist whose fame transcends genres, Mindi Abair. The PGS Experience contains nine songs, beginning with five new studio recordings, followed by four live numbers.

Every saxophonist has his or her distinct sound, and I recognized something familiar from the very steady, powerful horn powering energetic, light, playful album-opener “Metro Shuffle.” It was no surprise to discover that was one of the two tracks that featured Mindi Abair. As with any good jazz number, of course, the instruments pass the baton around, and there’s a neat electric guitar bit, too, that adds something special to “Metro Shuffle.”

Robert Miller's Project Grand Slam - The PGS Experience

image courtesy of Project Grand Slam

“Free” adds vocals to the musical mix, with keys and saxophone – this isn’t a Mindi Abair number, but sax often features prominently in PGS’s catchy originals. There’s a bit of electric guitar, too, but the bluesy vocal wails are the key element on this track.

Back to instrumentals, “Fishin” is the second Mindi Abair-featuring tune on the album, with a light, jangly, Jimmy Buffett-esque organ bed and island rhythm supporting the blissfully meandering sax line.

Next up is “Hollywood,” another memorable piece with a bit of jazzy jangle, its tightly cycling rhythm and harsh sax parts creating a bit more tension than found elsewhere on the disc. The most relaxing portion of the song is probably the keyboard-driven segment, but even it is a little frenetic.

The final studio number, PGS’s cover of Cream’s “I’m So Glad,” is the other new song with vocals. Full of energy, its tempo is driven by guitar, drums, and vocal howls and showcases energetic guitar and sax solos. Not surprisingly – Cream, anyone? – it’s probably the most rock ‘n roll of the new studio songs…

Robert Miller

photo by John Wisdom; photo courtesy of Project Grand Slam

…which leads nicely into the four live numbers. The live songs are rawer with a bit more rock ‘n roll flavor than the studio recordings, on the whole. They do a great job of demonstrating the energy I suspect a live Project Grand Slam show would feature. And they make me want to catch a live PGS gig. The live portion of the record features two PGS originals, both from The Queen’s Carnival, and two cover tunes, one of which was also included on the last album.

Of the live originals, “Gorilla” shows off blaring sax, roaring guitar, and interesting tempo changes, while “The Queen’s Carnival” is a lively Latin party number that’ll be sure to get you dancing, a memorable tune that stood out on the previous CD and by now is an old friend and, I suspect, a live performance favorite.

The live covers are PGS’s super-funky version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and a distinctly roaring rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” surprisingly full of nuanced keyboardwork amid its edgy, in-your-face overall style.

The PGS Experience is yet another gem full of electric energy from one of New York’s jazz fusion jam-band treasures, bassist/composer Robert Miller’s Project Grand Slam.

Looking Ahead

To keep up with PGS’s live performances, see the “calendar” page of PGS’s website. The band’s currently-scheduled next gig is Sunday, October 1, at Magic City Smooth Jazz’s “Alabaster Jazz In The Park” in Alabaster, Alabama (south of Birmingham); then on Monday, October 16, opening for Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers at B.B. King’s in New York; and on Thursday, October 19th, opening for Boney James at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Check the site for additional information and for more live dates as they’re added.

Live Review: 1st Annual Local CountryFest

Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan; photo by Geoff Wilbur

1st Annual Local CountryFest

Indian Ranch, Webster, MA

September 16, 2017

In what is intended to be an annual event, organized and promoted by Octo Rock Cinema Productions, the inaugural Local CountryFest seemed to be a rousing success. With a decent-sized, fully engaged crowd and several of the area’s best country artists, this was a great start to what will, hopefully, become a Massachusetts fall tradition. With Lyssa Coulter performing before the event and during the first two intermissions, special guest Tom Revane, and a country line-up of the Houston Bernard Band, Annie Brobst, Scarlett Drive, and Timmy Brown and Black Diamond leading up to headliner Ashley Jordan, the day was a veritable who’s who of local country music.

Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The big-name line-up itself recently received some brand new accolades. Three of the artists – Annie Brobst, Ashley Jordan, and the Houston Bernard Band – were recently nominated for Country Artist of the Year by Boston Music Awards. Of course, from first-hand experience, I knew to expect great things from the two artists I had previously reviewed: Annie Brobst was one of the artists at Nina Pickell’s Behind the Songs event at the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston this spring. And, of course, I reviewed Ashley Jordan’s latest album, He’s Crazy, and have reviewed Ashley’s live performances at Loft 266 in Worcester and at The Mill 185 in West Boylston. In any case, the lineup of this year’s inaugural event was loaded with talent.

Steve Charette

Before I get to the music, I should note that I ran across magician Steve Charette both before and during the show. He was on-site to entertain those waiting in line and mingling outside the main stage area – between sets, presumably, since I can’t imagine people wandering far from the music with such talented artists on-stage. I witnessed a sequence of cool card tricks and other close-up illusions. Very cool. (Sorry Steve; I didn’t think to snap a photo of you to include with the review.)

Lyssa Coulter

Lyssa Coulter; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lyssa Coulter

Lyssa performed acoustically at the Corral Stage, accompanied by Rocco Lombardo on guitar, for a half-hour while the crowd was filing in before the initial main stage performer and for about fifteen minutes each during the first two set breaks. Lyssa is a young artist rapidly building a local following, and this was a nice showcase for her skills. Lyssa performed “Leave the Night On” (twice, during different breaks) as it seems to be a cover that suits her. She sounds best when pushing the upper limit of her range; it gives her vocals an insistence and intensity. “Live Like You Were Dying” featured notable guitarwork by Rocco, while Lisa’s voice almost (but not quite) cracked for some cool emphasis. Other covers she performed well included “American Honey” and “Bartender.” The one original I heard Lyssa perform, the engaging, mid-tempo “By My Side,” very clearly hit her vocal sweet spot, as should generally be the case with an original.

In all, Lyssa’s short Corral Stage performances offered quick glimpses of a fast-developing, talented young artist who will just keep getting better. Of course, Lyssa’s star is already quickly on the rise; she was a finalist in the regional NashNext competition this year, an event won by Ashley Jordan.

Houston Bernard Band

Houston Bernard Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Houston Bernard Band

I was quite impressed by Houston and his band. I hadn’t previously heard any of the band’s songs, but the band caught my attention from the initial song, a high-energy kickoff number that from my notes I presume was “You’re All I Need (I Don’t Need Much).” The band’s music is full of energy, country hooks, Houston’s voice – he has a vocal twang on his middle and upper ranges but also a booming deep low-end – and a diversely talented set of instrumentalists. Houston actually worked all of his vocal tricks – twangy high and mid-range vocals and booming deep vox – into the singalong-compelling second song, “Country Crowd.”

Houston Bernard Band

Houston Bernard Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Ready to Leave” really popped, with strong hooks, massive stop-starts, and an opportunity to strain the vocals for emotion; it’s built for country hit radio. Speaking of country hit radio, though, the band’s catchy song “Yoga Pants” is topically hit-worthy wrapped in great old-school country packaging, replete with a guitar-picking and spoken-word opening.

Those were the first four numbers. At this point, the band had the crowd in the palm of its hand, leading into its Montgomery Gentry tribute, a solid rendition of “Hell Yeah.” Later in the set, a cover medley showed off the great Southern rock voice of the band’s keyboardist and the electric guitarist’s more Southern-rock-meets-the-Eagles voice. Versatility. Eventually, the band closed with the energetic, danceable, rockin’ country tune “Knockin’ Boots” (“knockin’ boots on the dance floor…”) The band’s mostly-original-music set was concert-quality. I’d be excited to discover these guys were opening for my favorite national act. And I see a path to that given the Houston Bernard Band’s radio-ready style and versatility.

Annie Brobst Band

Annie Brobst Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

Annie Brobst owns the stage. Period. It’s hers. And she established that from the very start by leading off with an immediate pop of energy on “I Could Say No.” The first song on her EP, it showcases Annie as the power-country singer she is and, well, boom! Then she moved straight to her mellow side with “Write Me a Song,” utilizing a rich, serious, strong, soft vocal.

Lyssa Coulter and Annie Brobst

Lyssa Coulter and Annie Brobst; photo by Geoff Wilbur

A couple songs later, Annie was joined on-stage by Lyssa Coulter for a duet of Kelsea Ballerini’s “Yeah Boy.” They performed the song with great back-and-forth vocals and duet harmonies; it also served as an opportunity for Annie’s fiddle player to shine.

Next up (I think) was Miranda Lambert’s “Baggage Claim,” recognizably driven by slide guitar and a little sly shuffle in Annie’s vox (and, holy crap!, that powerful punch in some spots). And then… Annie’s softer-again storytelling original “Ghost.”

“Paperweight” bopped along with the banjo adding a travelin’-song flavor to this fun-tempoed number, complete with stop-start attention-grabbing “pops.” And then, following her “bro country” cover, “Bottoms Up,” which she delivered with punch and with featured a great guitar solo, Annie closed with “Still Water.” “Still Water” featured that strong but wistful vocal edge that’s perfectly suited to its slide-guitar accompaniment, and it was driven by a relentless drum line that served as its tempo-mover. A terrific song to close an arena-caliber set.

Scarlett Drive

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Scarlett Drive

I suppose the shortest description of Scarlett Drive is that they’re a fun, jammin’, party-country band with strong vocals and tight harmonies, showing the crowd a heck of a good time. (OK, you got me; that’s not very short.)

The band got off to a powerful start, with driving drums, screaming guitars, and those aforementioned harmonies driving the first song of their set.

Original “Next Train” was an early-set standout, featuring notable drop-down vocals. It was followed by a strong cover of Lady Antebellum’s “We Owned the Night,” sporting funky guitar and three-party harmonies.

“If You Wanna” was performed in the band’s trademark celebratory style, mixing harmonies with vocal runs, guitar punch, and forceful drumming, while “One More Time” showcased that top emotional edge of lead male vocalist Chris Martin’s range, with strong backing harmonies in moments-of-emphasis and a neat electric guitar line snaking its way through the song.

Remaining highlights included “Quarters,” Scarlett Drive’s slow-dance song, one of those anthemic, arena-full-of-lighters numbers, and set-closer “I Blame the Whiskey,” a danceable, fun, energetic, arena-country number.

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond

Another of the Boston area’s big-name country acts that has earned its fair share of notoriety, Timmy Brown & Black Diamond kept things humming, kicking their set off with “Amen,” an arena-filling number featuring crunchy country-rock guitar and textured power vocals.

Next up were “Dirt on My Boots,” which prominent fiddle accents, and “Tequila Lime & Salt,” a fun – what else could it be with a song title like that? – mid-to-uptempo original. And then “Drinkin’ Problem,” mellow and smooth with a rich, warm vocal texture.

Timmy followed that with “Fly Away,” noting it was a song for his grandmother, and following through with an as-expected sweet, heartfelt song with rich harmonies. Timmy’s vocal was smooth with just a hint of a rough edge, as if it was textured with really fine sandpaper. The band continued with slow-paced twanger “Save It For a Rainy Day.”

Later in the set, the band pandered to the New England crowd by performing an exceptionally well-done rendition of a guaranteed Boston-area crowd-pleaser, “Sweet Caroline,” setting up its closing number, the band’s single “Little Bit.” “Little Bit” seems like one of those songs you’ll sing along to quickly, with an engaging tempo and everyday-life, “real” country feel – one of those everyday American slice-of-life songs. Great way to end the set, and a terrific choice for a single.

Tom Revane Live

Tom Revane Live; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tom Revane Live

Tom Revane and his band were perhaps the closest thing to misfits at this event. Extremely popular local artists who live and perform regularly in and around Webster, they were the locallest of the local bands and brought a group of rabid, very vocal and visible fans to the event, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider them country. They did, however, perform a lively six-song set of favorites – Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Volcano,” “Wagon Wheel” (the sole country song of the bunch), and one more song whose name I failed to jot down before closing, fittingly, with “Margaritaville.” Indeed, simultaneously energetic and laid-back, Tom and his motley crew might best be described as Parrotheads-plus, as they brought an unapologetic party atmosphere to the evening. (“Parrotheads” because of the very Buffett-esque, laid-back party vibe; “plus” because their playlist extends well beyond Buffett.)

Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ashley Jordan

That led us to the main event, the headliner of the night, Ashley Jordan. I had only previously seen Ashley perform acoustically, so I was looking forward to this full band performance, a big show on a big stage where she could let loose. And, indeed, with the room to roam, Ashley showed how well she can work the stage and own the crowd as a big-show headliner. Bring on the arenas! But, of course, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Ashley kicked things off with a consistent crowd favorite from her Nothing in Doubt album, a tune about an oh-so-country topic, as she and her band found their groove during the course of “Drink Some Whiskey.”

Next up was a cover I particularly enjoy hearing Ashley perform, her rendition of “Black Horse and a Cherry Tree,” because it allows her to hit some big notes and showcase her vocal power. It also shows off some of her band’s exceptional talent with some fun fiddle parts, and a neat musical move her bass player deploys.

Ashley moved on to one of my (many) favorites from her latest CD, He’s Crazy, the guitar-picking-powered “Blue Eyed Boy,” a song that ranges from sweetness to twangy power.

Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan; photo by Geoff Wilbur

A cover of Miranda Lambert’s “Vice” stood out for its great a cappella opening and its showcase of the breadth of Ashley’s vocal range, from emotional voice cracks to her strong low end and some serious power vocals.

A trio of songs from He’s Crazy followed, from the emotionally powerful “So Far Gone” to a couple of the bigger songs on the album. “Lone Wolf” sports a true power vocal and prominently features the fiddle; its heavy rhythm and power is ideally delivered in a full band setting. And then “Weapon,” the album’s first track, a big Nashville-style production number that features strength and power and an especially cool role for the fiddle.

Ashley then did a pure country version of Maren Morris’ “My Church” before unveiling a new original. I’m not sure of the title, but with a woman-power, Miranda-esque delivery, she treated the crowd to her new song featuring lyrics referencing “just another boy playing games.” It’s a catchy one!

The next couple of songs, both from He’s Crazy, continued the theme. The first, “In Spite of You,” is vocally both sweet and spiteful, soft and powerful. And then the album’s title track, “He’s Crazy,” opened with crunchy lead electric guitar and grew into an arena-caliber country rocker.

Ashley closed the show with a powerfully-delivered cover of “Sweet Home Alabama” that’s really cool with the fiddle part. A crowd-pleasing end to a big set of music from a hard-working local musician whose career ceiling is a starry sky.

That brought to an end the first annual Country MusicFest. The event was well-run and featured a full day of top-notch New England country music talent. Hopefully, therefore, this will be the beginning of an annual local tradition, a showcase where country music fans can enjoy their favorite local performers and discover some new artists, performing in the sort of concert-style, big-event setting for which our best local talent is all ably prepared.

Single Review: Wilkes – “Stealing From Heaven”

Single Review of Wilkes: “Stealing From Heaven”

This spring, I reviewed Wilkes’ EP, No Filter Part 1. This single is Jason Wilkes‘ follow-up to that three-song collection.

Wilkes - Stealing From Heaven

image courtesy of Jason Wilkes

With a crisp, opening hook, “Stealing From Heaven” grabs the listener immediately. Then the lyrics join, with a Southern twang that screams “country hit.” But the rich, full music bed has rock ‘n roll roots. The tempo moves along energetically. And the stop-starts, vocal bridges, and mid-song guitar run bridge the rock-country gap. Combined with some soft, pop-rock isolated guitar work both mid-song and late-song, this is the sort of song that could be a huge crossover hit – Southern enough for country radio while pop-rock enough for hit radio.

Once again, Wilkes has delivered a fun, hit single-caliber song. Jason and his guitarist played all of the instruments, and the song was mixed by Jamie Tate at Rukkus Room in Nashville. (I’ll let you click to Rukkus Room’s website to see the studio’s pedigree and list of big-name clients.) Indeed, everyone involved deserves a tip of the cap for a job well done. And you deserve to hear the latest country-pop-rock earworm created by Wilkes.

Live Review: Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Vasko the Patch

Lilypad, Cambridge, MA

September 14, 2017

Known as Vasko the Patch (in Bulgarian, Vasko Krupkata), Vasil Georgiev is a famous Bulgarian bluesman. In the 1980s, he was in various pop-rock bands (Parallel 42, Start); after the fall of communism in Bulgaria, Vasko founded the Poduene Blues Band and performed songs with titles like “Bureaucrat,” “Sunny Beach Blues,” and “Communism is Going Away.” Last night’s event at Lilypad, sponsored by Face Bulgaria and the Bulgarian American Cultural Center Madara, was a chance for local music fans to enjoy the music of this talented, accomplished musician. And, of course, just to enjoy a great night of blues.

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Indeed, when one of the most renowned blues musicians (or jazz or rock or, really, a top musician from any genre) from any country comes to town, it’s worth going. Or, at least, it’s worth checking out some of his music online to decide if the talent lives up to the hype, and this YouTube concert video convinced me I couldn’t afford to miss seeing this top-shelf veteran blues talent perform live.

If there was one thing I wondered after viewing the online videos, it was how Vasko’s music would translate to an acoustic performance without a full band behind him; the result was a more intimate show with perhaps not quite as many rowdy-blues-wailing moments. A pretty good trade-off, and in a room full of people who know all of his songs, there’s the added sing-along aspect. I do love seeing musicians in smaller-crowd settings where the audience is primarily hardcore fans. And The Lilypad is an exceptional listening room, typically serving as a performance venue for some of Boston’s premier jazz musicians.

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

I know I don’t need to explain Vasko’s music to any Bulgarians reading this, but for the rest of us who don’t know about him (I didn’t before learning about him in advance of this show), I’ll give it a shot.

Vasko is often referred to as a blues-rock musician, and he does have a rockin’ flavor to his music, which spans straight-up blues, classic rock ‘n roll of multiple styles, including occasional psychedelic flavors, and some music that seems a bit in the ’70s folk-rock style. Some of the rockin’ numbers brought to mind the musical styles of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry. I thought I heard a little Three Dog Night in one song. And the purest blues songs spanned multiple sub-genres with well-recognized musical passages, often making it seem like I should know the words, though the words that sprung to mind were, of course, completely different from Vasko’s lyrics (and in English).

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The first song of the night was one of those exceptionally pure blues numbers, guitar augmented by great harmonica-work, as if I had stepped into a blues joint in Chicago… or Memphis… or New Orleans. I suppose if I were a blues-only superfan, I’d’ve known which city to reference, but in any case, this was pure blues-joint stuff clearly delivered by an exceptional talent. That first song was rather introspective and blue in nature, maybe a little melancholy. Definitely blues. Vakso followed it with an uptempo singalong number, “Kade e Kupona,” that had the room rocking.

Next up was “Pulen Pleibek,” another classic blues number, this one more mid-tempo with some tension, followed by another energetic rock ‘n roll song, “Boogie Woogie Tsyala Nosht.”

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The slower songs, often eliciting a knowing response from the crowd, tended to seem a bit ’70s folky with the acoustic guitar, and they settled things down nicely amid the more uptempo numbers. One that came across a bit like that, very heartfelt, was “Den Sled Den.” There’s so much expression in Vasko’s voice, which gets a bit rougher and more gravelly when he slows things down.

At least three of the evening’s songs were alcohol-related. Indeed, a few of the uptempo numbers, even those that weren’t about beer, seemed rather like lively drinking songs. One such tune that brought the audience to life even more than most (and actually is about beer… or lack thereof) was “Niama Bira.” And I also made sure to note the heavier-tempoed, oh-so-bluesy “Domashna Rakia Blues,” an song with an old-school blues tempo that almost has to be listened to with your eyes closed to properly soak up all the blues.

And there was a lone English-language song during the 90-minute-or-so set, a melancholy, jazzy, blue rendition of “Moon Over Bourbon Street.”

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Vasko the Patch is a talented bluesman with something for everyone in his performance. At this particular show, he seemed to enjoy the crowd as much as the crowd enjoyed him, playing to his audience and giving a rousing, heartfelt performance. Then, of course, he stayed after to chat and take pictures with his fans. In addition to a fun evening for a few dozen Boston music fans, it seemed to be a great kickoff show to Vasko’s American tour.

Looking Ahead

As I just mentioned, this was the first stop on Vasko’s tour. Tonight, he’s performing at the Polish Eagles Sport Club in Philadelphia. (If you’re in Philly, sorry; you just missed it.) As listed in the cover photo on his Facebook page, Vasko’s tour will then continue with additional September dates in New York (at the Wolfhound in Astoria on Sat., Sept 16), Washington, DC, Raleigh, NC, Miami, Tampa, Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, and Dallas. In October, Vasko will be in Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kansas City, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle. In addition to finding them on Facebook, these dates are also listed in the comments of Vasko’s U.S. Acoustic Tour ’17 YouTube video (and in the video itself).

Single Review: Wiens Lief – “Better Than Me”

Wiens Lief

photo courtesy of Wiens Lief

Single Review of Wiens Lief: “Better Than Me”

If you’re looking for a throwback to 1960s three-part harmony pop-folk, you’ve come to the right place.

Wiens Lief is a vocal trio with an international pedigree. Tiana Stuart (Austin, Texas), Joëtta Zoetelief (The Netherlands), and Fanni Walla (Hungary) formed Wiens Lief in the winter of 2016 and carved out their musical niche in Amsterdam, performing their self-described dark folk at cafés, house parties, and corporate events around their home base.

Wiens Lief - Better Than Me

image courtesy of Wiens Lief

“Better Than Me” is a sparsely-instrumented, soaring, sophisticated light-pop number with a flower-child-reminiscent harmonic blend of the trio’s voices. They’re not exactly a capella, but this group’s presentation clearly may benefit from the recent rise of such performers, at least to the extent listeners have grown accustomed to this sort of voice-driven, quirky, and not-quite-mainstream song style. How Tiana, Joëtta, and Fanni found each other, with their three voices forming such a pleasingly haunting blend is a fortunate happenstance. I’ve checked out some of the group’s cover songs online, and I can see why they’ve solidified a place within their local music scene. This original song plays even more directly to their vocal strengths and grows on me more with each listen, though I can’t be entirely sure it isn’t simply hypnotizing me into believing it’s one of my favorite new songs.

So if you’re in Amsterdam, keep an eye out for a live performance by these exceptionally talented vocalists. In fact, you can next hear them perform on Thursday, September 21st at De Jonge Admiraal. And if you’re farther afield, grab a name-your-price download of Wiens Lief’s debut single, “Better Than Me.”

Album Review: Greg Klyma – Never Knew Caroline

Greg Klyma

photo by Destiny Rogowski; photo courtesy of Greg Klyma

Album Review of Greg Klyma: Never Knew Caroline

I first ran across Greg Klyma when I caught the end of his set at Arlington Porchfest this spring. I only heard the final song of his set, but I did hear enough to mention him ever-so-briefly my review of the event (see the Samantha Farrell section of the review), and I’ve been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to write this review of his new CD as I’ve worked through my backlogged review queue.

Officially released on August 13th, this disc showcases Greg as a true Americana original. Delivering a comfortable mix of music primarily spanning country, folk, and subgenres in-between, Never Knew Caroline is a strong introduction to this singer’s versatility.

Musically, Greg seems like a bit of an outlaw. There are parts of the songs’ attitudes that suggest Johnny Cash, but only hints, as that’s maybe too much outlaw by comparison. He’s probably more like Kenny Rogers wrapped in the vocal stylings of Willie Nelson. Indeed, on many of these songs, though I wouldn’t say Greg sounds like the Red Headed Stranger, his voice exhibits a Willie-esque nasal vocal twang. The other thing Greg has in common with these artists – and the thing that ties him to many folk musicians, too – is that so many of his songs sound like stories. Most of them are, in fact, storytelling songs, but even where that connection is weaker, the tone of his voice suggests you need to pay attention or you’ll miss an important detail. The result is an effective, engaging song delivery.

Greg Klyma - Never Knew Caroline

image courtesy of Greg Klyma

Greg kicks the record off with its title track, “Never Knew Caroline.” It’s a melancholy, folky number with a slow pace Greg exploits to drive home a deep internal sadness via his emotional voice, helped along by well-placed harmonica wails.

The first track is an excellent representation of this disc, but the biggest potential hit is a more country number later in the album, the energetically twangy singalong “Ex-Girlfriends Cost Less Money Than Ex-Wives.” I can almost hear Toby Keith singing it, in which case it would be a massive country radio hit, but Greg’s true blue country spin is perfect for this song. In fact, if I were a radio programmer, I wouldn’t hesitate to place this song in heavy rotation, regardless of what the national media was doing. This will quickly become a local favorite; it’s already cause for a singalong every time through the CD during my commute. There’s an almost Georgia Satellites-esque, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” vibe to the music, though this is clearly on the country music side of the Southern country/rock border.

The album is filled with several additional worth-mentioning tracks that stand out for different reasons.

Homage to a musical great and to his effect on his legion of fans are part of “Kristofferson,” an old-school, swaying crooner Greg delivers with skillful precision.

Greg Klyma

photo by Cliff Spencer; photo courtesy of Greg Klyma

“Lonesome” has an eerie, deserted, wide-open-spaces feeling to it. The background instruments echo as if across emptiness, resulting in an intimate-feeling, emotionally powerful number that seems suited to be sung beside a campfire in a western desert, not so much during a cattle drive as perhaps by an outlaw on the run.

Perhaps the purest folk song in this collection is “My Old Guitar,” the final track on the disc, a love sonnet to an instrument in a slowly-strummed number on which wistful voice-cracking and short waterfall-like guitar mini-runs serve as the most obvious folk musician’s tricks.

And lest you think Greg’s influences are solely country, folk, and various Americana-spectrum subgenres, “All the Other Bridges” could almost be a Dire Straits song, so there are clearly other influences at play. It’s a combination of meandering, off-melody lead guitar line and Hammond organ that create that unique classic rock feel, though Greg’s vocal delivery has a hint of Mark Knopfler in it during this song, too, in places. As unique as it sounds, the tone blends neatly into the surrounding songs on the album. It’s a neat trick and great treat every time through the back half of the disc.

It’s fitting emphasis that Never Knew Caroline is an album on which Greg Klyma calls upon a variety of influences. In the end, it all sounds like Greg Klyma music – he has a cohesive sound and an unmistakable voice – but the album sports enough variety to remain interesting across multiple, frequent listens.

Looking Ahead

Greg has a few upcoming gigs on the “shows” page of his website. He’ll be performing at Thunder Road in Somerville, MA on September 17th and 24th and October 1st; in Buffalo, NY on September 23rd; at PK’s Public House in Bellows Falls, VT on October 6th; at Vincent’s in Worcester, MA on October 7th (and again on November 4th); at The Ale House in Troy, NY on October 8th; and in Maplewood, MO (near St. Louis) on October 27th. Check out his website for details and for additional dates as they’re added.

I also see a September 28th gig listed on the Chopps American Bar & Grill website in Burlington, MA. Chopps, which is in the Marriott in Burlington, is a venue with an early start time (7:00 pm), so you’ve seen me review a couple of the area’s other top artists at that location.

Live Review: Dwayne Haggins at Chill Kitchen and Bar

Dwayne Haggins

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Dwayne Haggins

Chill Kitchen and Bar, Marlborough, MA

September 8, 2107

I had a little time yesterday evening, so I decided to catch some live music. I almost opted for a redux of the Mychael David Trio at Hudson House Restaurant – I reviewed them at that very venue back in May – but first decided to check local listings to see if there was someone new I wanted to see. And, indeed, a quick search and a listen to a couple of Dwayne Haggins’ SoundCloud clips convinced me to check him out, allowing me to also try a new venue I had wanted to visit. And yes, I enjoyed my light dinner at Chill while waiting for the show to start.

I had a pre-determined exit time for the show, which began a bit after its listed start time, so I only caught the first seven songs of the evening, but it was enough to get a glimpse of Dwayne’s talent. Dwayne sang and strummed his acoustic guitar. He was joined onstage initially by Mickey Roache on mandolin. After three songs, bassist Will Woyda made it a trio, while Mickey split time between mandolin and electric guitar in the three-man format.

Dwayne Haggins

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Residing largely on the folky side of country, Dwayne’s vocals are deep, rich, and smooth, with a bit of a lilt on some songs, not exactly folk but also adding a more folk than country flavor to his country songs. And when the electric guitar joins the fray, Dwayne responds by adding a bluesy element to his vocals. So it’s clear he has an extensive vocal range, though at least in a more relaxed setting like Chill, he ranged from country-folk to blues. The song selection leaned heavily country, while the interpretation would appeal to a broader, more general audience.

Dwayne kicked the night off with smooth, rich vocals, his warm, moderately deep voice joined by great mandolin accompaniment on a song I jotted down as “It’s All a Dream” (or something like that).

The second song, “Wayfaring Stranger,” was very folky but a little darker and more brooding, exploring different elements of Dwayne’s voice. He followed it with a more rousing rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” on which he unleashed a nice twang and howl.

With Will Woyda turning the duo into a trio, Dwayne kept the tempo rousing and kept the mood Hank, delivering a smooth, rounded vocal version of “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Aided by lively mandolin, this performance was suitable for a roadhouse or a busy dancehall.

Next up was “Rose in Paradise,” on which Dwayne utilized high, folky vocals with a subtle lilt.

From there, it took me a while to realize I was listening to a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” almost a blues-jam-type version of this song, such a good dye job that its pop roots were baely recognizable. This was the song on which Mickey switched from mandolin to guitar, and he employed a really crunchy, bluesy guitar sound.

Dwayne Haggins

photo by Geoff Wilbur

And the last number I was able to stay for was a howling bluesy presentation of “11 Months and 29 Days.” Dwayne showcased nice little subtleties in his voice on this song and throughout the evening – on this song, he was soft, deep, and bluesy, able to hit high notes for emphasis.

Indeed, as much as I enjoyed the first few songs, I think the last two I heard were my favorites of the evening as Dwayne and his cohorts had started amping up the intensity a bit. I wish I had been able to stay longer. As the first set unfolded, Dwayne revealed different features of his impressive voice, slowly rolling out the breadth and depth of his stylistic reach, adjusting not just for song styles but also for the changing line-up of instruments involved. For sure, I’ll get out to hear Dwayne again; the longer I listened, the more intrigued I became by his skills.

It’s clear Dwayne has surrounded himself with some exceptional musicians, as entire portions of several songs had been skillfully carried by a duo or trio partner; the evening was more like a band concert with an exceptional vocalist than a solo gig.

Looking Ahead

Chill Kitchen and Bar has live music every Friday and Saturday night, with details on its website’s performance calendar. Pick and choose a night of interest, but if you can make it, I would suggest coming out tonight, Saturday, September 9th. One of the Blog‘s personal favorites, hot, rising local talent Sophia Ward is performing at Chill tonight. In fact, you already know how highly we think of Sophia if you’ve read our review of her performance at Twin Seafood just two weeks ago.

Dwayne’s upcoming performances are listed on the “shows” page of his website. He’ll be at Nobscot Cafe in Framingham on Friday, September 15th; at Dolphin Seafood in Natick on Saturday, September 30th; and back at Chill Kitchen and Bar in Marlborough on Saturday, October 28th. Check Dwayne’s website for additional details and new dates as they’re added.