Album Review: Persona – Metamorphosis

Persona

photo courtesy of Persona

Album Review of Persona: Metamorphosis

Persona - Metamorphosis

image courtesy of Persona

This is another extraordinary effort from heavy progressive metal band Persona. Comprised of Melik Melek Khelifa (lead guitar), Jelena Dobric (singer/piano), Yosri Ouada (rhythm guitar), Youssef Aouadi (drums), Walid Bessadok (keyboard), and Nesrine Mahbouli (bass), this Tunis-based outfit has produced a worthy follow-up to Elusive Reflections, which I reviewed here a couple years ago.

Jelena Dobric

Jelena Dobric; photo courtesy of Persona

From the start, you know Persona means business, as they kick off album-opener “Prologue – The Initiation” with a serious metal growl, proving the band’s progressive rock musicianship is matched by its metal attitude. “The Omen of Downfall” and “Esuriance Guilefulness Omnipotence” continue in that strain, with nearly angelic soaring vocals interrupted by growls as the tunes enter into heavier territory from time to time, supported by a menacing musical backdrop.

Melik Melek Khelifa

Melik Melek Khelifa; photo courtesy of Persona

The amped-up energy in “Esuriance Guilefulness Omnipotence” is carried over into “Armour of Thorns” via a less dense, energetic driving rhythm. I very much dig its rollicking tempo and baseline vocal melody, while musical explorations in the back half of the song add variety that keeps things interesting.

Still heavy and with some meaty, chunky guitarwork driving it forward in parts, the softer-touch “Netherlight” fits in nicely mid-album, though the opening growls of “Bete Noire” let the listener know the intensity is about to crank back up.

Nesrine Mahbouli and Youssef Aouadi

Nesrine Mahbouli and Youssef Aouadi; photos courtesy of Persona

I’m running out of adjectives, but “Invidia” and “Hellgrind” keep the energy level up, with “Hellgrind,” naturally, the darker of the two.

The energy level sustains for the rest of the disc, with “The Seeress of Triumph” a back-end favorite, with its insistent rhythmic energy, driving the album toward its closing “Epilogue – The Final Deliverance,” a pleasantly low-key release of pent-up energy that carries Metamorphosis to its conclusion.

Walid Bessadok and Yosri Ouada

Walid Bessadok and Yosri Ouada; photos courtesy of Persona

I’ve now reviewed two Persona albums, and it’s clear they’ve earned a place at the heavy progressive rock table (and concert/festival circuit), likely to appeal to a broad cross-section of fans spanning several rock/metal sub-genres. Truly inventive, progressive axework. Sweetly powerful and soaring vocals punctuated with rough-edged metal chops, replete with the requisite growls. And the songwriting skills to add variety to the song mix. I’m not sure which album is my favorite, Elusive Reflections or Metamorphosis, but I’d urge heavy prog-rock/metal fans to pick up one, play it awhile, and then grab a copy of the other.

Persona

photo courtesy of Persona

Looking Ahead

Keep an eye on Persona’s concert schedule. There’s nothing listed on their Facebook events calendar at the moment, but watch for future shows. And maybe also sign up for the band’s newsletter via the bottom of their webpage to make sure you don’t miss out. If they make it to Boston one of these days, you bet I’ll be there. (As Europe has a better festival circuit, I imagine you’ll have better luck catching them live there, if you live outside the band’s native Tunisia.) Indeed, if you get a chance, Persona’s music is the sort of power rock assault you just don’t want to miss.

Album Review: Justin Piper – Transcend

Justin Piper

photo courtesy of Justin Piper

Album Review of Justin Piper: Transcend

You first read about Justin Piper here at the Blog in the spring of 2017, when he was one of the songwriters “in the round” featured during Off the Stage Music’s first Behind the Songs event. Today, I’ll take you through a spin of Justin’s latest release.

As you listen to Justin’s album Transcend, you’ll quickly discover instrumental guitar stylings that are unique and intricate; his music is memorable, with song structure and progressions forming tight single units, all cohesive within the album as a whole, tied together intentionally by writing and ordering the songs to connect to those before and after. And, of course, Justin does have an identifiable guitar style, intricate though it is, tying his songs together, as well. The style, if it must be categorized, is perhaps cool, nature-themed jazz, but very adult contemporary singer-songwriter structured (sans the singer part), forming its own little corner of the easy listening genre, as it sure is easy to listen to. In fact, it’s a form of music that stands up to dozens of listens a month for months on end – I know that from experience – without fading in enjoyment.

Justin Piper - Transcend

image courtesy of Justin Piper

Most of the songs on the disc evoke outdoor imagery. In cases like album-opener “Lakeside,” for example, you can almost hear raindrops falling on the lake, and also at times the lake washing against the shore.

“Through Composed” makes me picture an intellectual journey. There’s a meandering nature to the versus, with a faster pace to the chorus, which brings forth thoughts of an accelerated periods of understanding something, interspersed within prolonged periods of seeking and questioning. If I make an effort to picture physical events, I can, as well. That’s the cool thing about Justin’s compositions. They go somewhere, and they’re open to interpretation, even if/when he had something specific (and different) in mind. Of course, a lot of our favorite songs are that way.

Speaking of favorite songs, one of my preferred cuts on this disc, “Camels,” is next. It sports a recurring energetic series of notes that seem to exist in a few spots on this album, with soaring bridges in between. Very hip, cool, and jazzy in nature, this is one of the standout tracks on Transcend.

Justin Piper

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The soft finger-picking on “Rondo” forms a welcome, familiar, comforting North Star each time through the disc. Relaxing and calming. Recalling elements of many of the other tracks but with a light sense all its own, at times seeming to cheerfully indicate beams of sunlight shining through gaps in the pine forest before giving way to slightly different but sonically similar “Lenny Three.”

On “Falling Through the Dark,” Justin takes a little more exotic musical turn, with heavy strumming and a somewhat otherworldly twang driving the music. It flows nicely into “Mahavishnu’s Lullaby,” which softens the hard edges a bit and replaces them with some winding musical twists and turns.

“Peace Three” picks up the pace, perhaps one of the truly jazziest numbers on the album, with lightly dancing runs returning to a frenetic base rhythm. Followed by the memorable rhythm of “Fayetteville Honey,” this pair of songs is a welcome guidepost along the album’s musical journey that sparks a joyful smile of recognition each time through.

Justin Piper

photo courtesy of Justin Piper

From there, “Nearly Arriving” softly sets the stage for another of my absolute favorites on this disc, the pleasant “Snow Shower,” a song whose musical sprinkles land softly and joyfully with a light, upbeat energy. Brings forth images of frolicking in the snow and, during the slower segments, perhaps catching a flake or two on your tongue.

After “Bugs” zips by quickly, with an odd little sound at the end – a bug crawling or flying quickly and then getting zapped? – Justin showcases an odd, halfway off-kilter sound on “The Line.” It brings to mind, for me, an image of a snake-charmer getting a cobra to rise, though that’s only a 90% correct image, as there are a few notes that don’t quite fit. With these two tunes, though, Justin has added a bit of tension to the listening experience.

So he winds the album down with a couple songs that unwind the tension. First, “Stutter Steps,” which is a little stop-and-start – stutter step-like, I suppose – before washing the album out to sea with “Bobbing,” a number that (you guessed it) rises and falls pleasantly before twittering away to an end.

By the end of the first listen, you’ll realize Justin Piper’s dynamic, original talent, combining his songwriting skill with a unique guitar-playing style that’s soft but substantial. And the resulting Transcend is an album that’s enjoyable across repeated listens.

Where to Catch a Live Performance

At the moment, Justin’s performance calendar only lists his recurring Monday night gig at the Bell In Hand Tavern in Boston. Get out to see him some Monday night, and check back for more performances as he adds them.

Album Review: Shawn Butzin – Northern Trails

Shawn Butzin

photo courtesy of Shawn Butzin

Album Review of Shawn Butzin: Northern Trails

This review is long overdue, as Shawn Butzin has already released another EP, Adventures, since, but Northern Trails is such a great album I need to tell you about it. Shawn’s music sounds comfortable and familiar, like a favorite old shoe. I suppose it’s best described as Americana or, perhaps, folk-influenced country. At one time, I might have labeled this California country-rock due to its Eagles-ish rock edge with folky overtones, though Shawn lands on the country side of that equilibrium while I’d place the Eagles on the rock side. But you know by now I rarely have a favorite album that fits neatly into a category. Shawn emotive and not-quite-gravelly vocal combines with energetic strumming and, most importantly, imaginative and catchy songwriting that keeps the album moving forward, never settling into a rut, always turning out new wrinkles into a cohesive set of songs.

I have several favorites on this album, and disc-opener “Carefree to Carolina” is the first. A travelin’ song with twang and a feeling of wide open spaces, it’s driven by a hooky recurring guitar bit and a wisftul, edgy vocal, always persistently pushing forward without abandoning its laid-back posture.

Shawn Butzin - Northern Trails

image courtesy of Shawn Butzin

It’s followed by full-on contemplative moodiness in “What Did I Mean to You,” a plaintive ditty with a purposefully plodding rhythm, all serving the lyrics well. And, as with so many of his songs, Shawn’s lyrical skill shines on this song, with his words precisely chosen, suiting the song’s distinct flavor. In this case, descriptive but not showy.

The jangly, fun “Homemade Jesus” is a toetapper of the first order, its homespun twang delivering a vocal line full of emotion, while a more straightforward harmony vocal line adds stability. The song is over before it really settles in, a quick ditty (and “ditty” is descriptive in this case) that’s sure to be an audience favorite.

“Leaving Colorado” and “Hometown Blues” return the album to its wistful, melancholy lane. In this respect, Northern Trails‘ song order is one of the things that makes it such an interesting listen, a cohesive whole that never bores. Even though each song has its own distinctive sound, I can envision a grouping that wouldn’t accentuate the songs’ individuality as much.

Shawn follows those two songs with a very cool cover of “Blue Bayou.” His vocal waver adds a distinctive Butzin flavor to the well-worn favorite, and he even pulls out an insistive vocal edginess while hitting the high notes that’s not widely used in the rest of the collection. I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this cover based on Shawn’s other songs, but it fits quite nicely among Northern Trails‘ other entries.

Shawn Butzin

photo courtesy of Shawn Butzin

I’d place “You and I” at the alt-country edge of the disc, if only due to the sort of Talking Heads-reminiscent music bed. (I didn’t catch that comparison until after a few dozen listens, but now I can’t unhear it.)

“Back Together Someday” is more pure folky Americana twanger, a notably hopeful number that utilizes brief but abrupt vocal pauses to great emotional advantage.

Shawn plays with the tempo a bit in “I’m Your Loving Man” before slowing things down on album-ender “Your Sweet Love,” a drawn-out-sounding ballad that seems like what you might hear during a slow dance at an old-school country music/’50s pop-rock dance hall; there are a couple spots where I almost expect Shawn to break into “Please Mister Postman.” (I checked, and that was a 1961 release, but yeah, the early ’60s still had that ’50s vibe.) Picture a mirror ball and a sea of couples slowly swaying to the rhythm, and you’ll get the vibe of “Your Sweet Love.”

As a whole, Northern Trails is a collection that stands the test of time. I should know – it’s been on my playlist for more than a year, and I still dig it every time through. So, yes, even though there’s a more recently released EP in Shawn’s repertoire now, this is still the last full-length release, and I heartily endorse checking it out.

Shawn Butzin Live

The “events” tab of Shawn’s Facebook page lists a couple of upcoming gigs. On Saturday, December 15th, he’ll be at the Acoustic Tap Room in Traverse City, Michigan. And on Saturday, January 12th, he’ll be at Rocky’s Bar and Grill in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Shawn’s bandsintown page lists a lot more upcoming gigs, including January 4th at the Snowbelt Brewing Co. in Gaylord, Michigan; January 24th at the Traverse City Whiskey Co. in Traverse City; and several more shows across Michigan (plus a March 15th date at Uncommon Ground in Chicago) through the rest of the winter.

Live Review: Los Goutos at Lizard Lounge, with Jimmy Ryan & Dana Colley

Los Goutos at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Los Goutos and Jimmy Ryan & Dana Colley

Lizard Lounge, Cambridge, MA

October 20, 2018

As you’ve probably read here before, I don’t make it into the city for shows very often. Partly because I’m out in the suburbs. And partly because the headliners go on so late, and I prefer early sets that allow me to get a good night’s sleep for work the next day. I also don’t usually go out by myself on Saturday nights. Those nights are reserved for family, so if it’s a Saturday night show, I usually don’t go; and if I do go, it’s rarely by myself.

Los Goutos at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

This performance broke all of those rules. It was a late event in the city on a Saturday night. But it was a big CD release show for the highly-anticipated release of Mighty by Los Goutos, a band I had heard about but not yet seen – or rather, “witnessed” would probably be a better term. I also hadn’t been to the Lizard Lounge before. Hard to believe, yes, but that’s the case. It opened a few years after my first stint in Boston, which is when I started my music journalism career, and I hadn’t gotten to the venue yet since I moved back. So for this event on this night, I made an exception.

The evening began with a set by Los Goutos, followed by a set by Jimmy Ryan and Dana Colley, and then a set of “Los Goutos and Friends” (the band plus Jimmy and Dana; and I can’t be sure if there were others, as I called it a night sometime between 12:30 and 1:00). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Featured Band: Los Goutos

From the very first notes, one thing became clear: Los Goutos is Spanish for “Party in a Box.” OK, I made that up. But it could be. An eight-piece band including three singer-songwriters, the band takes up a lot of real estate – a stageful of musicians generating a roomful of fun.

Los Goutos at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Stylistically, Los Goutos is a band with a quirky approach, lots of spastic energy, plenty of group-sung vocals, and horns, combined with songwriting talent. That’s a recipe for success in a college town like Boston. The energy of the evening reminded me of a typical college-town-favorite ska band, someone like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones or Chucklehead. But just the energy; Los Goutos’ sound is quite different. I know the band is generically categorized as Americana, but in reality it’s more like a demented hoedown, rockabilly on acid.

Los Goutos at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The eight band members are Mike Eigen, Chris Gleason, Paul Stewart, Bruce Bartone, Shamus Feeney, Emily Grogan, Eddie Barrett, and Jakub Trasak. Multi-instrumentalists, let’s just say, rather than listing their many roles within the band, enabling multiple instrument and role changes during the set.

As for the show itself, Los Goutos’ first set began with a beginning-to-end performance of Mighty. “Tequila Set the House on Fire” is sure to be a frequently-named fan favorite with its persistent energy, singalong-worthy lyrics (after a few listens to the disc so you can remember them), and guitar, horns, and growled lyrics splashing across a rhythmic wall-of-music bed. Party in a box. Or on-stage, rather.

Los Goutos at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Down to the Studs” is another standout track, a raucous number reminiscent of Weird Al-meets-cowpunk.

The fourth song of the evening, “Can’t Hurt” was a notable change of pace; it’s still very much true to Los Goutos’ rhythmic Americana style, and quite an energetic song, but it was the first indication of the evening (and on the album) that Los Goutos doesn’t need to have all of its instruments blasting all the time to maintain its trademark sound.

Los Goutos at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

A couple other standout Mighty songs made it into my sparse notes of the evening. First, “Moscow Mule,” a song that, musically, is part O Brother Where Art Thou, part “Cotton Eye Joe.” And “Corkscrew,” primarily because it’s perfect song for a college town band with its singalong lyrics, “screw! screw! screw!

Past the Mighty portion of the first set, “Broken” was another standout song of the evening. Way too enthusiastic for its lyrical content, the song seems like a great shout-along number, nonetheless.

Guests: Jimmy Ryan & Dana Colley

Jimmy Ryan & Dana Colley at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The middle set of the evening was a treat, as well. A nice change of pace, perhaps, from the full-tilt energy of Los Goutos. Mandolin player Jimmy Ryan teamed with Morphine co-founder, saxophonist Dana Colley. Especially on the back half of their set, they were joined by a member or two of Los Goutos for various songs.

It was a fun set from a pair of top-shelf musicians. When they leaned on the sax, there was a bluesy jazz flavor. At other times, more singer-songwriter (with sax). Jimmy’s vocals are the sort that can cut through a very full sound. Frequently, I felt a Paul Simon-ish vibe from Jimmy’s singing – not that he sounds like Paul Simon, but his style and presence are similar.

Jimmy Ryan & Dana Colley at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The song I noted as a standout was “Relax Your Body,” a number that shows great stylistic variety, at times a rolling blues number with a little deep Johnny Cash flavor, then some George Thorogood, maybe a little hipster, back to straight-up blues. This song alone was a terrific journey, indicative of the whole set.

The Third Set: Los Goutos and Friends

The final set was “Los Goutos and Friends.” In other words, Jimmy and Dana joined Los Goutos for a rollicking third set, a jam band extraordinaire (and an extremely full stage of musicians) that carried the party deep into the night.

Los Goutos & friends at the Lizard Lounge

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Though I only stayed for a few songs of the set – I wasn’t going to stay until 2:00 AM because I had responsibilities to get up for the next day – I can only imagine when the set ended an hour-plus later it must have been with reluctance. Because, you know… party in a box.

Bonus Coverage: The Charles River Reprobates at the Corrib Pub, Brighton, MA, October 23, 2018

On Tuesday nights, The Corrib Pub features Eddie Scheer’s Tuesday Night All-Stars. Some weeks, he performs with his supergroup The Charles River Reprobates. Scheer, Blog favorite (and artist number 7 in my Blog-launching “Road Back to Music Journalism” seriesDanielle Miraglia, Jimmy Ryan (who I had just seen perform for the first time a few days earlier), and Bob Enik, who are all featured on the band’s promo photos, were joined by Randy Bramwell on bass. Chris Leadbetter (who I’ve seen perform in Bob Malone’s band a couple times) is listed on the band’s Facebook page as the fifth Reprobate, but he wasn’t part of the band on this particular night.

The Charles River Reprobates at The Corrib Pub

The Charles River Reprobates; photo by Geoff Wilbur

I was returning home from an evening business event in the city on Tuesday, October 23rd, and the Reprobates were performing that night, so I took advantage of the opportunity, stopped by the Corrib Pub, and caught most of a set. No notes, so no real review, but I’ll share a photo and suggest that when this group of Boston-area all-stars assemble, it’s always worth a bit your time. The evening leaned blues and blues-rock, with lots of classic tunes, and a whole lotta fun.

Looking Ahead

Los Goutos are performing several times in the Boston area in the coming weeks, as you’ll see on the “Shows” page of their website. There’s their ongoing Sunday night residency at The Burren in Somerville every Sunday. And then there are some other big shows: a late afternoon/early evening gig Sunday, December 9th at the Aeronaut Brewing Company in Somerville; Los Goutos’ “Mighty Holiday Hootenanny” on Saturday, December 22nd at the Burren Back Room in Somerville; Saturday, December 29th at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge; and Saturday, January 12th at The Bebop in Boston.

You can catch Jimmy Ryan playing in a variety of groups, per the “Shows” page on his website: with Wooden Leg on Friday, November 29th at Sally O’Brien’s in Somerville; with Jimmy Ryan & Hayride on Sunday, December 2nd at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge; with the Sado-Domestics on Sunday, December 9th at the Aeronaut Brewing Company in Somverville; and with Jimmy Ryan & Hayride on the last Sunday of every month, December through April, at Atwood’s Tavern.

EP Review: Edge of Paradise – Alive

EP Review of Edge of Paradise: Alive

Edge of Paradise‘s follow-up to Immortal Waltz continues its full-on edgy hard rock aural assault. Margarita Monet’s emotively powerful voice again combines with a hard-driving, shredding metal music bed to deliver a set of memorable tunes. The songs are in Edge of Paradise’s trademark slightly off-balance, funhouse mirror metal style.

I gave a sneak peek at a couple of this EP’s tracks at the end of my Immortal Waltz review in 2017. One of those was the title track, “Alive.” Driven by churning guitars, some nearly-full-stop tempo changes, and a breathy flavor to a fair portion of the vocals, this is a power rock track. And it’s stylistically very clearly an Edge of Paradise song.

Edge of Paradise - Alive

image courtesy of Edge of Paradise

I totally dig the harmonies in hard rocker “Dust to Dust.” Yet, as straightforward as this track is, it still keeps the listener off-balance with croakily growled vocals and off-balance musical backing during the bridges. Indeed, nothing about an Edge of Paradise song is ever perfectly straightforward, but this churning rocker sprinkles EoP’s trademark song-twisting elements with a light touch for a fun change of pace.

It’s followed by “Mystery,” a theatrical ballad, suitable for anything from radio play to a rock opera performance. Monet’s straining vocals sit atop a music bed based on piano and orchestral strings, driven by booming drums and a rock guitar growl. An extremely touching, emotional, sensitive ballad, “Mystery” shows off Edge of Paradise’s range and is the song on this disc with the broadest cross-genre appeal.

The power is back with “Shade of Crazy,” with Monet’s expressive vocals providing texture to the otherwise hard-driving, powerful, crunchy melodic metal song.

“Humanoid” closes the Alive EP. Kicking off with frenetic drums and guitars behind an odd croaking vocal, the song evolves into a rhythmic power rocker in which Monet’s vocals are largely another instrument, and the beat is the real star.

I’m never sure if Edge of Paradise is one of the more uniquely original progressive rock-influenced melodic heavy metal acts or if they’re one of the more mainstream power rock-influenced heavy theatrical progressive bands on the scene. Regardless, their music is fun to listen to, their musicians and vocalist are top-shelf hard rock/metal talent, and I always look forward to hearing what they’ll do next.

Looking Ahead

I’ve taken so long to get this review written that Edge of Paradise’s new album will be out in just a few months, so there’s plenty to look forward to, but if you don’t already have this EP, it’ll be a great way to fill the gap while the next disc is in the works. In the meantime, also check the band’s website for tour dates. Currently listed are a couple early 2019 shows in Japan – January 31 in Yokohama and February 2, 2019 in Tokyo.

EP Review: Allyson Paige – Little Girl Lost

Allyson Paige

photo by Tom Dellinger; photo courtesy of Allyson Paige

EP Review of Allyson Paige: Little Girl Lost

The depth, warmth, and emotion of Allyson Paige‘s voice is what first stands out, and it’s the piece of the Little Girl Lost musical tapestry that remains a memorable constant. Stylistically, the three songs included on this musical snippet are old-school, folky country. The folkiness comes from Allyson’s picking (and, I assume, grinning) guitar style. The music on this disc would dub Allyson the country singer on an adult contemporary radio station, the folk singer at a country dancehall show, or just the singer-songwriter at an outdoor festival.

Allyson Paige - Little Girl Lost

image courtesy of Allyson Paige

The most energetic – and most knee-slappin’, twangy – number on the disc is the title track, “Little Girl Lost.” It’s a lively story-filled ditty with tempo changes, hooks, vocal flourishes and guitar runs all endearing this song quite quickly. A fun song, you’d definitely turn the sound up on the radio if this came on. This is (usually) my favorite of the EP’s three songs.

The other two cuts on Little Girl Lost are much softer, slower in tempo. First, a heartfelt ode to a certain beloved Gibson guitar, “Gibson Dove.” Sentimental and poignant, Allyson’s voice wavers in all the right spots, cementing this song’s very personal, emotional nature.

Final track “Jerry the Viking” sneakily became another favorite over the past many months. A strumming number that most clearly shows off the soaring power of Allyson’s voice, it plods along pleasingly in a sway-to-the-music drinking song style. But one from the end of the night, as everyone’s almost fallen asleep, mellow from perhaps a drink too many, its slow tempo bringing the EP to a close with a warm, pleasant, satisfied feeling.

Allyson Paige

photo by Bob Hakins; photo courtesy of Allyson Paige

I’m a big fan of song-ordering on discs, and the song order of Little Girl Lost is ideal, opening with energy and closing with relaxing warmth, a feeling of completion.

This short collection from Allyson Paige seems like a great introduction to a talented singer. Rather, singer-songwriter, as the well-craftedness of the songs are perhaps the most important element, Allyson’s vox notwithstanding. Of course, if you’re already a fan, it’ll simply be a new favorite.

I’m particularly intrigued by the text on the EP’s CD Baby page: “A country folk departure for well known SF Bay Area Blues singer and songwriter Allyson Paige.” Now I really want to hear more of her music.

Looking Ahead

I don’t see any upcoming dates on the gig calendar page of Allyson’s website, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. You can also keep an eye on the “happenings” page of Allyson’s Joni Mitchell tribute band, Foni Mitchell.

Live Review: 2nd Annual Local CountryFest

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

2nd Annual Local CountryFest

Indian Ranch, Webster, MA

September 23, 2018

The 2nd Annual Local CountryFest, organized and promoted by Octo Rock Cinema Productions, seems to have quickly become an annual pilgrimage for local country music fans. I really enjoyed last year’s inaugural event (as you recall if you saw the review) and had been looking forward to its follow-up. This year, another decent-sized, fully engaged crowd came out to see a line-up that included a significant portion of the area’s top country artists. Decent fall weather served as the backdrop for a show structured with short acoustic performances interspersed between the full sets to keep the audience engaged. Lyssa Coulter performed on the Corral Stage while the crowd was filtering in. Then the performances moved to the main stage, featuring short sets by Liz Bills, Steve Robinson, April Cushman, Lyssa Coulter, Mychael David, and Tom Revane and full sets by Tequila Bonfire, Back Rhodes, Timmy Brown and Black Diamond, Annie Brobst, the Houston Bernard Band, and Scarlett Drive.

Lyssa Coulter at the Corral Stage; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The venue itself is one of the coolest places to catch live music outdoors in central Massachusetts. The big stage at the Indian Ranch campground sees a lot of big-name acts that country music fans (and classic/southern rock fans) would enjoy each summer. At one edge of the concert grounds is a dock where you’ll see The Indian Princess, a riverboat that gives tours of the lake. You know I love unique concert settings, and this is a cool place for a show.

With so many artists involved at Local CountryFest, I’ll write a quick paragraph or two about each band, drop in a photo – I hope I have decent shots of all of them – and move on. I’ll save fuller artist reviews for when I catch their live shows or review their recordings.

I arrived during the last few notes of Lyssa’s Corral Stage set, just in time to join the crowd for Scarlett Drive’s performance of the national anthem to kick things off, quickly grab a cheeseburger, and hear Liz Bills’ opening set on the main stage.

Liz Bills; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Liz Bills

You know we’re big fans of Liz Bills here at the Blog, most recently reviewing Liz’s eponymous EP. Liz’s powerhouse voice lends itself to psychedelic rock, whether hard rocking, as is often the case when she takes the stage with Analog Heart, or a more jangly version, still ’60s/’70s-rooted, in a more acoustic setting. And, while she’s not a pure country artist, I’m glad she was included at this event, as she has become one of the area’s top voices, and her style should appeal to the rocking side of a lot of the area’s country music fans. Liz’s short set showcase both the power of her voice and her range, with the power being represented by “Born to Wander.” She closed her set with one of my favorite songs from her EP, “The Bomb Song,” which is janglier and more airy, showing off the folk-rock edge of Liz’s style. The song selection this afternoon was a great sample of Liz’s singing and performance skills.

Tequila Bonfire; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tequila Bonfire

The first full set of the day came from the 2017 Worcester Music Awards winner (and perennial nominee) for Best Country Act, Tequila Bonfire. I hadn’t seen these guys before, but they lived up to their reputation of providing a rockin’ country good time, kicking things off with “Let the Games Begin,” a song that adds a unique vocal vibe to an otherwise straightforward modern country sound.

Other standout songs of the set were the band’s powerful rendition of “Life is a Highway,” more mid-tempo rockin’ performance of Old Dominion’s “Hotel Key,” and their fun cover of Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You.” Tequila Bonfire has the chops and knows how to engage the crowd on a big stage; I can easily see why they’re a regional favorite, and deservedly so.

Steve Robinson; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Steve Robinson

A late addition to the bill, we were lucky to have Spotify top 100 artist Steve Robinson join the event. I’m not a chart-follower or I would have known to be excited about his inclusion at the event. He has a memorable tone to his voice, and that heartfelt, achy, strong vocal that’s clearly meant to be a radio (and live) favorite. All three of his songs were the sort that kept my attention, but I was particularly impressed with “Little Piece of Me,” for which my notes simply say “dig the sincerity!” Yeah, it’s one of those songs. Steve closed his mini-set with a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Rockstars.”

Back Rhodes; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Back Rhodes

The next band on stage was another whose name I had seen repeatedly but whose shows I hadn’t yet made it out to, so it was a pleasure to catch Rhode Island’s own Back Rhodes. I’d describe their lane on the country music highway as a traditional country music foundation with a modern country twist. Featuring a fiddle and banjo in the line-up and led by deep vocals, Back Rhodes has the tools to pull it off.

They kicked their set off with Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinking” and closed it with a rousing rendition of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” One tune that stood out for me during the set was the band’s new song, “Big Spender.” Featuring an old-school country foundation, the song was full-on new country whenever the band kicked things up a notch. There were subtle little musical hops and kicks, especially late in the song, that are the sorts of details that give a tune a memorable style. With their unique country brand, Back Rhodes is an interesting band to keep an eye on, and clearly already a fun band to see perform.

April Cushman; photo by Geoff Wilbur

April Cushman

The next short set featured the soft, lush vocals of April Cushman. Very warm and easy-to-listen-to, April’s voice and style would be equally well-suited to an intimate listening room or a big stage. The one song I noted, in that it showed the breadth of April’s range, was her rendition of the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Her performance displayed a sort of rolling power in the vocals but remained soft and appropriate for its acoustic guitar accompaniment of this particular performance.

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Timmy Brown and Black Diamond

Though I had heard about Timmy for quite some time, last year’s Local CountryFest was the first time I saw his band live. If possible, and I’m not sure it is, the band is even tighter this year. No one can whip a New England crowd into a frenzy quite like this local boy can, and his performance once again amped up the energy at this year’s concert. Two-time New England Country Male Artist of the Year, Timmy relied on a mix of well-considered covers and hard-driving originals for this set. (Notice what they have in common.) Covers included “Leave This Town” and, notably – I told you he could whip a New England crowd into a frenzy – a terrific rendition of “Sweet Caroline” that really showed off his rich, deep voice.

Timmy’s originals are so familiar-sounding that they often feel like songs I’ve known for a long time, particularly within the context of his set list, which means he’s always playing to his strengths. Timmy’s songs range from the down-home country of “Leave This Town” to the crowd-pleasing party song “How We Drink Here.”  Timmy closed his set with a laid-back, nostalgic-sounding, everyday, relatable, crowd energy-lifting tune, “Lil Bit,” one you’d stylistically expect to hear on country hit radio. It’s always a pleasure to catch a set by Timmy Brown and Black Diamond. They’re a tight musical act, and their performance is a guaranteed good time.

Lyssa Coulter; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lyssa Coulter

Though I missed all but the last 30 seconds of Lyssa’s as-the-crowd-files-in performance at the Corral Stage, I was fortunate she had this three-song spot later in the show. 2018 New Act of the Year award winner at the New England Music Awards, Lyssa’s voice has a characteristic warble when she hits some of the softer notes, and she showed it off particularly well on her originals. Notably, “Whiskey in the Twilight,” a very young-feeling pop-country song that showcased her stylistic calling card. Lyssa’s mini-set also featured a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” the sort of cover that seamlessly fits with her young, light, poppy country music style.

Annie Brobst; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

Nobody. Simply nobody. Owns a stage better than Annie Brobst does. And musically, Annie’s a one-of-a-kind on the local country scene, too, coupling her identifiable, sweetly powerful voice with her big stage presence to deliver a “strong country girl” persona.

As is sometimes the case at fun concerts, moreso lately it seems, I caught myself grooving to Annie’s set rather than taking notes, but I do believe she opened with the first single from her new album, My First Rodeo, “Love You More.” And she followed it with one of my favorites from the disc, a song with softly rolling strength and power, the more-energetic-than-its-tempo “Still Water.” Annie closed her set heartstring-tugging, memorable “Change of Heart,” one of the songs that showcases the rich side of her country voice.

Running the gamut from heartfelt melodies to rockin’ country, an Annie Brobst set, particularly on a big stage, is a concert event.

Mychael David; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Mychael David

After Annie, Mychael David took the stage to perform a couple songs, solo and acoustic. A local country festival wouldn’t have been complete without this rich, classic, timeless voice that has entertained area crowds since before the local country music scene’s recent renaissance, so even though we didn’t get the treat of hearing his full band – I reviewed The Mychael David Project’s full band show a couple years ago – his two-song acoustic mini-set was still a special treat. He’s flanked by an exceptionally impressive guitarist and bass player in his full band (shoutout to Howie and Pete), so you forget how well he wields the axe himself until you catch a solo gig. But once Mychael starts to sing, no matter what, it’s always about his voice. And he brought that with him this past weekend.

Though he can cut across the country landscape – in many ways, in style and sound, a lot like Garth Brooks – Mychael’s music tends to be underpinned by the more classic end of the spectrum, and he skewed a old-school in this set. He opened with “Put Your Badge Back On,” a deeply emotional storytelling song from his new album, Heroes & Honky Tonks. Then, with a nod to the past, he covered Radney Foster’s “Texas in 1880,” one of those wide-open spaces songs. The set was too short, but it reminded me it’s been more than a year since I heard Mychael perform a full set; I’ll need to remedy that ASAP.

Houston Bernard Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Houston Bernard Band

The Houston Bernard Band delivered a crowd-pleasing set of big-stage-geared songs mostly culled from their new EP Lucky Man. Powered by Houston’s rich, deep voice surrounded by technically-sound, top-shelf musicians, this was a concert set. Houston Bernard is a headlining act in any country music scene, and I was really looking forward to this show, hoping to be treated to some tunes from Lucky Man, as I’ve listened to the previous disc, Knockin’ Boots, hundreds of times already. So let’s take a run through the band’s outstanding set:

“Wait For It” proved to be an energetic show-starter with a subtle hook I guarantee will get stuck in my head as I give the EP a few listens. “Lucky Man” followed, powered by heavy organ and featuring a cool steel guitar vibe. Next up was “Country Crowd,” a sure-fire, dancefloor-filling crowdpleaser from Knockin’ Boots. “What a Man Should Do” was a soaring crooner, a nice change of pace. “Never Grow Old” combined a comfortable familiarity with a sneaky hookiness. And “We Made Out,” a catchy mid-tempo number, was a great choice for the band’s current single.

Tom Revane Live; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tom Revane Live

You can’t hold a show in Webster without Tom Revane on the bill. A raucous, loud mix of southern/classic rock-meets-parrothead, a Tom Revane set is a guaranteed party event. Unlike most of the short sets, Tom and band performed in full band mode and kept the audience in an entertainment frenzy.

The short set list included “Gimme Three Steps,” “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” and “Margaritaville.” The frenzied crowd loved every minute of it. And a not-exactly-country but very entertaining Webster troubadours secured their place in the annals of yet another Local CountryFest.

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Scarlett Drive

Headliners Scarlett Drive brought the fun day of the cream of the local country music crop to a rousing, fitting close. Full of energy and doing a great job working the stage, these local country favorites – and reigning New England Music Awards winners for Country Act of the Year – embraced the well-earned mantle of “headliner.” The band opened with “Blame the Whiskey,” a song full of punch, power, hooks, and harmony. Other highlights included “One More Time,” a song with mid-tempo energy and soulful vocals. This could absolutely be a memorable one. And “Quarters,” a rich, plush, guitar-driven country power ballad – one of those songs that’d have an arena swaying with lighters – or phones – aloft.

Toward the end of the band’s set, the delivered a rollicking, energetic, crowd-pleasing rendition of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.” Then Scarlett drive closed the show with their original “If You Wanna,” an energetic number that hangs its hat on a heartfelt-flavored vocal. This is one of the many Scarlett Drive originals that’s geared toward a special tone in singer Chris Martin’s voice, supported by the group’s rich harmonies. A great country band in any case, Scarlett Drive’s originals play to their unique strengths. And that’s as it should be. Headliners on this day, Scarlett Drive closed the show out with a flourish.

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

One day. Many of the area’s best country music artists. And this really is a golden age of country music in New England, with so many great acts to choose from. This concert was a treat for fans. The acoustic sets between full band sets kept the show moving from beginning to end. And did I say what a cool venue Indian Ranch is for such an event? I love this place. In any case, though I’m still basking in the glow of this year’s Local CountryFest, I’m already looking forward to next year’s. Once the date’s announced, I’m circling it on my calendar.