Album Review: Annie Brobst – Where We Holler

Annie Brobst

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Album Review of Annie Brobst: Where We Holler

I reckon y’all know we’re big fans of Annie Brobst here at the Blog. From Eric Harabadian’s review of her debut album, My First Rodeo, to my coverage of her appearances at both Behind the Songs events and all three Local CountryFests, we’ve mentioned Annie’s name a lot. When she’s performing live, Annie owns the stage and the audience. She’s a big-stage-caliber country artist. And she’s proven to be a talented recording artist with songs that cover a broad swath of country music real estate.

Annie Brobst - Where We Holler

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie has a sweet, high voice that can be near-angelic on the slow songs, and she has an extra gear (or two or three) when she swings for the higher-tempo fences. The most frequent comparison for Annie vocals are to Miranda Lambert, all the way down to the puckishness in her delivery, though at times she amps it up to Dolly Parton-level mischievousness.

I’ll start my review with the biggest party song on Where We Holler, the sort-of title song “Holler & Swaller.” Long a drinking mantra at Annie Brobst concerts, this is the song behind the holler and swaller shouts (and shots) fired at Annie’s live shows. It’s the best showcase on this album for Annie’s comfort on that always-popular party-country end of the scale.

The album actually opens with “Jealous,” a reminiscent, relatable song that’s right in Annie’s sweet spot, one that’ll hit you with emotion then boom it to the rafters with a big sound in the chorus, tempering the pure-country melancholy guitar weep along with that hint of defiance that so often lurks beneath the surface of Annie’s vocals.

Annie Brobst - Where We Holler

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

“Ain’t He the Worst” shows the first hint of Annie’s vocal playfulness in this downhome country mid-tempo twanger.

After the aforementioned “Holler & Swaller,” Annie follows with a more introspective, slow to mid-tempo drinking song, “Red Wine on My Mind.”

Annie follows with the biggest Opry-flavored number on the disc, “Amazing Greats,” paying homage to both the country gospel hymn that inspired the song’s sound and the country artists who inspired the woman behind the microphone.

“Little Girl Dreams” is one of the poppier country songs on the album, radio-friendly all the way down to its reminiscent lyrics, with small-town childhood memories of throwing rocks off a bridge to make a wish and of grandma sitting on the front porch.

Next up is the sassiest, most mischievous song on the album, “Baby Don’t Love Me.” It features the sort of fast-paced, playful lyrics that are invariably bound to be found on an Annie Brobst disc. (In that respect, it’s kind of a sister song to “You Either Love Me or You Don’t” from My First Rodeo.)

Annie Brobst

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie shifts gears almost immediately, tugging at the heartstrings with the heartfelt, small-town story-song “Make Lemonade.”

I’d call “On the Record” a “lite” version of “Baby Don’t Love Me,” not quite as sassy and a fair bit more serious. And that leads up to the last song in the collection, the soul-searching, sweetly sung ballad “On the Road That Leads Me to Kentucky.”

A strong album from beginning to end, Where We Holler is a disc worthy of being the second of many rodeos. Annie Brobst is firmly establishing herself as a dependably exceptional country artist, one whose diverse song styles deliver something for everyone, while providing the variety to keep a full-album listen interesting.

Looking Ahead

An Annie Brobst show is an event. So be sure to catch one if you can. At the “Buy Tickets” tab of Annie’s website, you’ll find a summer full of Massachusetts shows, starting the Saturday, June 26 Team Song Is Born MS Fundraiser at Endicott Grille in Danvers MA. There’s a single New Hampshire show currently booked (the Gear Jammer Truck Show at Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, NH on Saturday, July 31). And there’s one show far afield from Annie’s home base: the Freedom Jam STL 2021 concert in Eureka, MO on Saturday, August 28. She’ll also be headlining Local CountryFest this year – an annual concert I’ve not missed since its inception – on Saturday, September 11 at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA.

Album Review: Annie Brobst – My First Rodeo

Annie Brobst Band

photo by Matthew Allen Photography; photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Annie Brobst: My First Rodeo

Annie Brobst is a master storyteller and singer-songwriter based in the Boston area. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she made the move to the North Shore in Massachusetts and has become a musical fixture on the traditional and modern country circuit. Brobst has performed at numerous festivals, community events and media-related functions throughout New England. And the list of contemporary country artists she has opened for is stunning, including everyone from Big & Rich, Frankie Ballard and Gretchen Wilson to Don McLean, Wynona Judd, Uncle Kracker, Darius Rucker, etc.

Annie Brobst - My First Rodeo album cover

image courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie Brobst’s first full-length release is called My First Rodeo. And it’s the follow up to 2016’s EP Ghost. On it she mines personal influences such as Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde and Jason Isbell, with tales of human interaction; love and loss, with a focus on herself and the observation of others. Brobst partnered with top co-writers on this album, including Rodger Hagopian, Ryan Dupont, Brian Alex and Drew Smith.

My First Rodeo features a dozen original tunes that cover a wide swath of melodic invention, passion and emotional investment. Even though Brobst draws from a variety of sources she really dives into the material and owns it.

Annie Brobst

photo by Lisa Czech; photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

It’s an album that is experiential, with an arc that begins with “Before I Leave,” which is upbeat and melodically earnest, with a message of connection and staying in touch with the ones you love. “Still Water” has a traditional country lilt powered by a steady snare beat and the combo of banjo and fiddle.

“Love You More” changes things a bit, with a subtle funky pop undertone. Atop a great groove Brobst sings “Maybe I love you more than I could ever love myself.”

That’s followed by the 2018 New England Music Awards Song of the Year, “Change of Heart.” It’s an insightful tune about how love can erode over time, with tight harmonies and framed by some beautiful acoustic guitar.

In her bio Brobst, refers to “bro-country” as part of what she does. I guess “We Were Breakin’” would fall into that category. It’s got that playful Gretchen Wilson/Tanya Tucker kind of romp to it, with the hook “Breakin’ it down while we were breakin’ up.” Definitely a crowdpleaser to be sure!

Annie Brobst

photo by Lisa Czech; photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

“Ghost” is a strong song about changes in a relationship and picking up the pieces of one’s life. It has a very autobiographical feel to it as she sings “I’m moving out from the city I need the most. I’m movin’ out from the man I love the most. I’m movin’ out so raise your glass and make a toast, and that’ll leave me here as nothin’ but a ghost.”

Other highlights include “You Either Love Me,” with its old-time honkytonk vibe and hot groove. Tasty pedal steel, piano, fiddle, and lead guitars really make this a knockout. “The Teacher” also is a showstopper, with a fine melody and great hooks. Brobst really draws you in with the illustrative lyrics: “Some things teach you how to fall in love, some things teach you how to hold a grudge, from all the bridges I’ve burned, I still know I’ve got a whole world to learn. Thank God life’s one hell of a teacher.”

Annie Brobst’s newest releases, since My First Rodeo, include the singles “Little Girl Dreams,” which came out earlier this year, and “Red Wine on My Mind.”

Annie Brobst Live

Annie is a memorable live performer, and while shows are infrequent these days, for obvious reasons, hers have been much less infrequent. Annie has been staging “house tours,” performing from a trailer/stage around the region. Check out the “Tour” page of Annie’s website for upcoming live performances, both now and as more are added. She has upcoming performances on Thursday, August 20th in Danvers, MA; Friday, August 21st in Hampton, NH (with a livestream available); Friday, August 28th in Danvers, MA (also featuring a livestream); and Saturday, September 19th in Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA.

Live Review: 3nd Annual Local CountryFest

Mychael David at Local CountryFest

Mychael David; photo by Geoff Wilbur

3rd Annual Local CountryFest

Indian Ranch, Webster, MA

September 29, 2019

This popular annual event draws more fans every year while presenting the very best local country music. Organized and promoted, as always, by Octo Rock Cinema Productions, this year’s 3rd Annual Local CountryFest lived up to the high expectations attendees now have of it.

I’ve reviewed this event every year so far (see my reviews of 2017’s 1st annual and 2018’s 2nd annual), and I look forward to next year’s year number four, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This year, Backyard Swagger performed on the Corral Stage as the gates opened. Then the performances moved to the main stage, featuring short sets by Meghan Lynch, Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy, Taylor O’Connor, Tim Buono, and Matt York and full-length, full-band sets by Lyssa Coulter, the Jake Ash Band, Mychael David, the Darren Bessette Band, Annie Brobst, and No Shoes Nation.

Magician Steve Charette at Local CountryFest

Steve Charette; photo by Geoff Wilbur

But first I’d like to talk about the venue. Indian Ranch is very cool. It’s big enough for a big stage show but small enough that every seat feels intimate, definitely compared to most other decent-sized outdoor concert locations. The venue is also home to The Indian Princess, a riverboat that gives tours of the lake, a campground, the very nice Samuel Slater’s Restaurant, and a banquet hall/function facility. Yes, I’ve only ever attended concerts at the amphitheater, but the entire grounds seem well worthy of future visits.

With so many artists performing, I’ll keep each review quick, drop in a band photo, and move on to the next, especially since the posting of this review has been so delayed that I have to lean almost strictly upon my notes. Hopefully it’ll be enough to give you a sense of each band’s performance.

I arrived a little late, but I did catch the last couple of songs of Backyard Swagger’s Corral Stage set. Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy then performed the national anthem on the main stage before yielding the stage to Lyssa Coulter’s full band performance.

And on the grounds, attendees were treated to the magic stylings of Steve Charette, who was as impressive this year as he had been when I first saw him perform during the 1st Annual Local CountryFest.

Backyard Swagger at Local CountryFest

Backyard Swagger; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Backyard Swagger

Before the national anthem, Backyard Swagger kicked off the day’s music with a performance at the Corral Stage as fans filed in. Their fun rendition of “Man I Feel Like a Woman” was being performed as I approached. The group also delivered a lively rendition of “Little White Church” with kick and punch, a version of Maren Morris’ “Rich” sporting a fun, funky rhythm, and a performance of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that showcased Miriam Smith’s blistering fiddlework. Backyard Swagger closed its set with “Any Man of Mine,” a tune ideal for Diane Ferullo’s voice, driven home by the band’s booming rhythm section.

Lyssa Coulter at Local CountryFest

Lyssa Coulter; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lyssa Coulter

After Ayla and Rob delivered “The Star-Spangled Banner” to kick things off on the main stage, the Lyssa Coulter Band launched into its set. Lyssa Coulter has been a mainstay at Local CountryFest, moving up the performer food chain each year. This year, she finally landed a main stage, full-band, full-set performance, and she not only owned the stage this year with her full-band, eight-song, main-stage performance, but she delivered with some serious charisma and vocal talent, leaving no doubt that she’s a bona fide front-line New England country act.

Lyssa kicked things off with “Whiskey in the Twilight,” a tune that showcases her best vocal qualities, those that are most identifiable, a great opening song choice. Lyssa’s sensitive vocal quaver worked well on the heartfelt “Maybe Tonight.” Her “Should’ve Said No” cover was energetic. “By Myself” sported an emotional, moving wail. Indeed, Lyssa’s originals are always the songs best-suited to her voice, as if they’ve been written with her unique strengths in mind.

And, speaking of originals that utilize Lyssa’s vocal skills, she closed the set with “Curisin’,” her summer single. This is one of those upbeat, catchy, teen-movie-friendly numbers. And this one, in particular, has a catchy, playful guitar line. Lyssa has established herself as a marquee local talent in her lane. I really dug this set.

Meghan Lynch at Local CountryFest

Meghan Lynch; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Meghan Lynch

Pop-country singer Meghan Lynch – from Boston but now based in Nashville – followed with an acoustic set. I wish my notes were more detailed, but the short set was fun. She kicked things off with “Wild Guess,” sung with a heartfelt vibe. She followed it with original “My Greatest Mistakes.” Meghan closed her set with an energetic, bubblegum, pop-country, fun number “Party Girl.” The quick four-song set was over too quickly. Here’s hoping Meghan will be back again next year.

The Jake Ash Band at Local CountryFest

The Jake Ash Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Jake Ash Band

I was psyched for this. I’ve been following The Jake Ash Band for a while, and this was my first chance to catch them live. They did not disappoint. They kicked off with “Five Star Dive Bar,” complete with driving guitar, great storytelling, and reminiscing vocals. Catchy, this song sounds like it’ll grow on you. Next up, on “Easy on the Eyes (Hard on the Heart),” I really liked the way the piano line prominently drove this song. My notes even tripled use of this word for this song: catchy, catchy, catchy. “Sweet Babies” had a raucous energy with a great use of vocal pause-and-punch. The band’s October 4th release, “Tequila Season,” followed. Then catchy, hooky, fun, guitar-crunching “Wedding Ring Money.”

After a powerful, edgy, bluesy-rocking country numbers (whose title I didn’t glean), the JAB launched into “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Mountain Music” before closing with original “25 Again,” a powerful song, “on 11” from beginning to end, followed by a frantic close. It’s obvious why it’s a fan favorite, a terrific way to close a set, leaving the crowd buzzing.

Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy at Local CountryFest

Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy

The next acoustic set featured this exceptionally well-matched duo. On set-opener “Always Have a Home,” as throughout the set, Rob’s deep textured voice was complemented by Ayla’s softer, sweeter tone. The “white space” was as musically important as the guitar, at least in this acoustic arrangement. Next up was a cover of A Star is Born‘s “Shallow.” On this powerful ballad, Rob’s rich voice kicked things off, followed by Ayla’s warm, also-rich voice. “Built That Way” was about the purest country song there is, about praying, patriotism, and working hard; it was delivered powerfully and sincerely, as they have the requisite vocal chops for this song to hit home the way it was intended. Ayla and Rob closed their set with “The Honeymoon Phase,” a fun, clever, light-yet-lyrically-interesting, catchy tune.

Mychael David at Local CountryFest

Mychael David; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Mychael David

The marquee old-school country voice of Central Massachusetts for quite some time, a singer with an impressive national pedigree, Mychael David took the stage next for a long set with his full band. Sporting a deep, powerful, timeless country voice and endless talent and surrounded by some of the region’s best musicians, a Mychael David full-band concert event is always a treat.

The band opened with “Even the Man in the Moon is Crying,” followed by “Folsom Prison Blues” – so much axe talent in the band, they totally rocked this! In fact, it’s such a great fit, the band included “Folsom Prison Blues” on Mychael’s most recent album, Heroes & Honkytonks.

Next up was “Smoke and Ash.” As here, Mychael’s old-school, rich country voice can carry a set. Always. Anywhere. But Howie Swett’s wailing riffs put this song over the top.

After a cover of “Country Roads” that nailed that pluckin’ country energy, the band rolled on to “Some Gave All.” This ballad “to veterans and to those who never made it back” is always a misty moment during a Michael David set. This swaying, sad ballad was punctuated by Mychael walking through the crowd shaking as many veterans’ hands as possible. A true, sincere, patriotic mid-set moment.

After uptempo “That Ain’t My Truck,” the band closed its set with “Goodbye is Still Goodbye,” a country rocker driven by an energetic guitar line and subtle hooks, complementing Mychael’s rich vocals.

Taylor O'Connor at Local CountryFest

Taylor O’Connor; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Taylor O’Connor

Taylor O’Connor’s short acoustic set was next. Showcasing serious twang for a Grafton girl, Taylor delivered a solid cover of Luke Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours,” featuring vocal tempo and pace changes. Next up was “Reset Button,” an original that highlighted Taylor’s nice, tuneful voice. Finally, Taylor’s performance of “Wine Again” impressed; there was a bit of an emotional warble on this song that really delivered the goods.

Darren Bessette Band at Local CountryFest

Darren Bessette Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Darren Bessette Band

The Darren Bessette Band followed, opening with “It’s a Long Way Down,” a song that prompted me to note “rockin’ country, tight band, great vox.” That about sums it up for this crowd-pleasing assemblage of consummate country music pros.

I was particularly impressed by original “Tail Lights,” an old-school country music hall type of song. It sported a steady rhythm, but the guitar line was active, giving the soundbed character to complement Darren’s expressive vocals.

Cover songs ranged from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” to Eddie Rabbitt’s “Driving My Life Away,” delivered flawless and timeless. And the set closed with “I Love This Life.” A great set of crowd favorites, showcasing this talented band.

Tim Buono at Local CountryFest

Tim Buono; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tim Buono

Tim Buono’s short set was next. He opened with a laid-back country song (whose title I missed). My favorite song of Tim’s set was his original “Anyway,” with soulful emotion dripping from every syllable – an absolute must-hear! And he closed his set with a cover of Brad Paisley’s “Little Moments,” again featuring emotional vocals, almost seeming like they the words themselves were about to crack. Whew!

Annie Brobst Band at Local CountryFest

Annie Brobst Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

The Annie Brobst Band was next. As has been the case every time I’ve seen this world-class outfit, they owned the big stage, delivering a big concert performance. They kicked things off with energy via “You Either Love Me Or You Don’t.” Next up: “Still Water,” a song whose dancing rhythm guitar live added character and motion to this catchy, mid-range number. Oh, and the cool vocal bridge added even more character.

After “Change of Heart,” Annie and band went whiskey – original “Whiskey Colors,” a dynamic personal favorite delivered with a catchy use of stop-starts and a funky bass bridge and “Whiskey Glass,” which featured crowd engagement. Then went wine. New original “Red Wine On My Mind” sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, a singalong-able tune that builds to power and even features a little guitar shredding. Well done.

Then, after “Love You More,” Annie delivered “Ghost,” a smooth, rich, full song to close the set.

Matt York at Local CountryFest

Matt York; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Matt York

The last acoustic mini-set of the day belonged to Matt York. He opened with an energetic, fast-strumming, country story-song growler, then a strummer with a deep growl. He closed with a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Fit to Kill and Going Out in Style,” delivered engagingly with that all-knowing, smirky vocal edge. Exceptionally well done.

No Shoes Nation at Local CountryFest

No Shoes Nation; photo by Geoff Wilbur

No Shoes Nation

Local CountryFest closed with a set from No Shoes Nation, the Kenny Chesney tribute band that’s a huge local draw with its tight musicianship and near-flawless delivery of Chesney’s hits.

The band opened with “Reality” and closed with “Beer in Mexico.” Highlights in between included “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” which had the crowd swaying, and “Boston,” an obvious local favorite. Also, my personal favorite Kenny Chesney tune, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” Across a set that spanned more than a dozen songs, No Shoes Nation wrapped up a day of great local country music with an energetic, funny, very true-to-Chesney set.

No Shoes Nation at Local CountryFest

No Shoes Nation; photo by Geoff Wilbur

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Local CountryFest – this concert has quickly become a must-attend annual event on the local music calendar.

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.

Live Review: Behind the Songs 2 at the Hard Rock Cafe

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Behind the Songs 2

Hard Rock Cafe, Boston, MA

March 28, 2018

I reviewed the first Behind the Songs event last June. It was a highly-anticipated pleasure to be at event #2, again organized under the banner of Nina Pickell‘s Off the Stage Music. Loosely based on Nashville in-the-round songwriter nights, Behind the Songs is a talent-packed showcase with live guest performances sandwiching the in-the-round event, during which five songwriters take turns talking about the songs they are about to perform… and then, of course, performing them.

Maverick from Flight of Fire opened the evening. Nina’s co-host for the event, Annie Brobst, also performed a couple songs before the main event. The songwriters’ round was comprised of Jazzmyn Red, Gracie Day, Liz Borden, Aubrey Haddard, and Josh Knowles, who took turns performing songs for three rotations. Livv performed between the second and third rotations. And Lee Moretti of The Furies and Erika Van Pelt & Ryan Faraday delivered short post-round sets. In all, it was an evening showcasing ten of the area’s best performers. Indeed, if a Behind the Songs event is on the calendar, it’s a guaranteed night of good music.

As regular readers will recall, I had previously reviewed Annie Brobst (at the first Behind the Songs and at the 1st Annual Local CountryFest) and Gracie Day (the her single “I Don’t Want Whiskey”), and I was aware of Erika Van Pelt’s top ten finish on American Idol, so I knew what to expect from them. And over the course of the evening, everyone involved delivered the good, showcasing their well-earned place among the area’s best. Perhaps the two breakthrough first impressions for me, personally, among those with whom I wasn’t already familiar, were from Audrey Haddard and Josh Knowles, if only because they displayed exceptional talent in genres or styles I just don’t hear performed that well very often, and they each delivered those performances with a unique edge. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Opening Acts

Maverick (of Flight of Fire)

Maverick; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The frontwoman of rockers Flight of Fire opened the show energetically, on-stage by herself slinging her acoustic guitar. Here’s the thing; her band’s song “My Last Gamble” won a Hollywood Music In Media award in the Folk-Acoustic-Americana category, while Flight of Fire is currently nominated for a Worcester Music Award in the Best Hardcore/Metal Act category. So clearly there’s versatility in her band’s music. And, as Maverick portrayed during her three-song set, talent in her songwriting. “Too Much Woman For You” is a growl-and-strummer that displayed Maverick’s voice as if a crisp, clean, powerful roar. “Girl,” next, sparked me to note “What if The Pretenders did a strong ’50s pop version of an Americana classic?” On this tune, Maverick’s voice was sometimes a thin, ragged edge while at others warm and rich before re-adding the aforementioned edge. Her third and final song, “In Spite of You,” was delivered with defiant power. Noticeable in the songwriting is that the vocal line takes its own path, not always the obvious one driven by the guitar strumming. It’s the sort of thing you only hear occasionally in hard rock; more frequently in Broadway showtunes. It’s a very cool, effective mixing of stylistic elements that produces a truly original, memorable performance.

Annie Brobst with Ryan Duport; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

In addition to sharing hosting duties with Nina Pickell, Annie performed a two-song set with guitarist Ryan Dupont. One of Boston’s top big-stage country performers, Annie gave the acoustic duo treatment to a couple of her newer songs. I’ve already told you (twice, in previous reviews) how amazing Annie is, winning highly competitive regional awards and a well-deserved mainstay nominee on any New England country music award ballot, so I’ll focus on her songs here. “Love You More” is a pop song with a country edge, that edge provided primarily by Annie’s clearly-country-tinged vocals. It’s a nice, soft pop number with choppy guitar supporting rhythmic short vocal runs, all while remaining within the song’s structure. She followed with “Change of Heart,” a ballady, Gospelly country number. Well-suited to a movie soundtrack, this stylistically seems like the sort of number I could’ve envisioned TV’s Scarlett (Clare Bowen) singing on Nashville, at least back when I used to watch it when it was on ABC. Two songs is always too short for an Annie Brobst set, but that’s the only way to squeeze ten performers into a single evening. Later on, Annie also announced her VIP book/private party promotion as part of the run-up to her first full-length album release this year.

Songwriters in the Round

Next up was the in-the-round portion of the show. With five songwriters seated on stage, they each took turns performing. Technically, Jazzmyn Red performed her first song before Annie, and there was a break between the second and third circuits during which Livv performed and a few other special announcements were made, but this was evening’s centerpiece. As I did in my Behind the Songs 1 review, I’ll share my thoughts on all three of each artist’s songs before moving on to the next artist.

Jazzmyn Red; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Jazzmyn Red

I generally beg off on analyzing hip-hop performances, as it is the genre for which I have probably the shallowest frame of reference, but there is no denying Jazzmyn’s talent. Lyrically hard-hitting, rhythmically in-step with the lyrics, Jazzmyn is both poet and performer, tackling substantive thoughts and issues, striving to lift up and to inform. She’s a magnetic presence on-stage and a bonafide, undeniable talent. I totally get the buzz. She kicked things off with her current single “Positive Vibes Only,” a song with a positive message and a delivery that varies enough to maintain interest while providing a recurrent catchy hook – the key components of hit songwriting. Notably, the important messages of the song are made memorable by their placement corresponding to the song’s rhythms and crescendoes. Jazzmyn’s second performance, “Uncle Sam,” was powerful poetry. Art speaking truth to power, loaded with emotion, fully on the “not my uncle” point. For her third number, the strong and uplifting “If I Had a Daughter,” Jazzmyn was joined on-stage by Lee Moretti of The Furies, whose guitarwork well-supported Jazzmyn’s rap. Jazzmyn hit some sweet, strong notes with her high, clear voice, as well, best showing off her vocal range among her three performances. With three very different approaches to her songs this evening, Jazzmyn showcased both her talent and her versatility.

Gracie Day; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Gracie Day

Folk, alt-rock, soul, country. Gracie’s music has been described by a variety of different genres. My first exposure to Gracie was to the first song she performed, “I Don’t Want Whiskey,” a tune I’d place inside the orbit of country music. It’s Gracie’s distinctive vocal warble, likely, that places it there. That’s the source of the impression that you might be listening to a 45 spinning a bit slow (at 42?), even though you’re hearing a live performance, as if some notes are being drawn out a little longer than normal. It’s cool flavoring to a musical style if you can pull it off. Most can’t; Gracie does. And its impact is to emphasize the storytelling nature and emotional connection to this folky-with-a-country-edge strummer, whose Patsy Cline-ish wail at the end seals the deal on its countrydom. Gracie’s second song of the evening, current single “Black and Blue,” is, she says, “about missing someone that’s still in your life.” On this tune, her strumming pattern matches the roundness of the vocals in such a way that I almost picture a carousel while listening to it. Combined with Gracie’s rasp – and this thought may have occurred to me just be because I saw a clip about a Dawson’s Creek cast reunion on TV that morning, but I’ll run with it – “Black and Blue” is something I’d picture playing during a montage while Joey pines for Dawson (or Pacey, depending on the season). Stylistically, at least, this song is very Dawson’s Creek-worthy. And then there’s something about Gracie’s final number, “Tennessee,” that seems quite “Nashville songwriter.” Maybe it’s the slice-of-life, small-town, everyday-life lyrics that bring out the nostalgia in Gracie’s vocal. Regardless, of the three, this strikes me as the song with the biggest crossover, broad-audience hit potential.

From a positioning standpoint, I think Gracie could share stages with rock, country, and (in an acoustic format) even folk artists. Not a bad place to be. Also this evening, Gracie previewed for the audience a new music video, slated for an April 13th release, a cool, ensemble-cast-in-the story clip featuring her song “100 Milligrams.”

Liz Borden and Danny Modern; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Liz Borden

Taking the stage accompanied by guitarist Danny Modern, Liz Borden (long ago of Lizzie Borden & the Axes; currently of The Liz Borden Band) is a Boston music mainstay. (That means you’ve been part of the Boston music scene since even before I got my start here, Liz.) With a punk rock background and a rock ‘n roll attitude, Liz sports that stylistic songwriting skill all good rockers must have. Her first song, “Beautiful,” featured a ’70s pop darkness but with an almost punk song rhythm. Throughout, you could hear a restrained power in Liz’s vocals. Liz’s second song, “Oh Lord,” carried a mid-tempo rock vibe (perhaps ’70s radio rock, with a hint of protest song – well, obviously more than a hint), as she repeated some of the lines in the verses, coolly delivering lines important to the song’s advancement that you might envision backup singers tackling in a full studio recording. Danny’s guitar bridges were notably big time, though subtly so, moving the song forward. Liz’s third song was fun strummer “I Can’t Drink You Away,” my favorite of her trio, though surprisingly so, since it was the lightest of the three.

Aubrey Haddard; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Aubrey Haddard

Next up was a woman whose voice is truly remarkable. Aubrey Haddard bills herself as “whiskey-soaked, unrepentant soul.” I suppose that works. I’d probably namedrop a couple big names here. Blend the soul of Amy Winehouse with the sass and attitude of Elle King. But that’s not Aubrey, either, and I’m not sure whose name to call upon to represent the jazz portion of her style. Perhaps I shouldn’t namedrop at all and just note that Aubrey’s first song, “I Should Know Better,” was that style of pop-soul that relies on slick, jazzy vocal runs and attitude. I truly dig Aubrey’s cool rasp that she wields where you’d ordinarily expect a growl; it’s as if there’s something half-loose in her voice, as if a lugnut is about to slip off and send a hubcap flying into the audience. Metaphorically speaking. Yes, it was that cool. Next up, “Blue Part” was a smooth and jazzy blue; you might call it a sort of torch song. The third song, still untitled (though I vote of “Ordinary Pain”), drove home the fact that Aubrey’s voice isn’t one you simply hear; rather, it’s a voice you feel. Of the three terrific songs she presented this evening, this one would be her best bet for a four-chair turn. Jazzy soul with attitude, I’d say “it’s all about the phrasing,” but her voice would be a tour de force even without the stylish phrasing. And the way she writes her songs, it makes me feel like a cool cat just for being in the room while they’re being performed.

Josh Knowles; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Josh Knowles

Seriously, the dude knows his way around a violin. It’s almost not fair how well he can sing, too. He plucks like a guitar (and like a violin), he bows, he loops. Josh Knowles uses the entire musical arsenal of the violin. And he sings. His first song, “White Dress,” was that sort of mainstream alt-rock that relies on barely-there instrumentation and vocals, mixing in just enough power you know it’s always there. I was particularly impressed with Josh’s high, strong, tunefully-textured vocals on this number. The song itself winds tightly, occasionally pausing, sometimes booming explosively. As the room began to be struck over the course of “White Dress,” it became one of those “you could hear a pin drop” songs, with a rapt audience in awe of its power. Josh’s second number, “Ember,” was an instrumental on which he looped his plucking so he could bow over it soulfully. The combined effect was as if his violin was crying in the rain, maybe; regardless, the song came across as heartfelt and almost painfully moving. Josh’s final number was “Night and Day.” He displayed his ideal pop music voice, rich with great range, especially suited to enter a quiet room on a rich, warm violin music bed. Or perhaps a TV morning show studio; this song would’ve made the Today Show hosts go bonkers if he performed it live in-studio for them. Just saying. Amazing talent, both instrumentally and vocally.

Mid-Show Set

As I mentioned, there was a break between the second and third rotations through the songwriter group during which Livv performed a short set, Annie Brobst revealed her VIP book promotion, and Gracie Day unveiled her “100 Milligrams” video.

Livv; photo by Geoff Wilbur


Livv is a room-filling – in sound, style, and stage presence – 15-year-old pop (maybe pop/country radio crossover) star-in-the-making. On “Tear Down the Walls,” Livv built to power. It’s a pop song of the style you might hear on country radio (though I’ll stand by my assessment that it’s definitely a pop song). It was a great showcase for Livv’s talent, as the song built to a storm, offering many spots where Livv could unleash her vocal power. Her other tune, “Words Don’t Matter,” reminded me of a blend of several recent hit songs recombined into an original wrapper. I can place a little Ed Sheeran, as well as several other artists’ influence (though their names escaped me at the time, so there’s nothing else in my notes). Livv clearly has the vocal chops, and her on-stage poise is equal to that of artists decades her senior. This brief set was an eye-opening glimpse into a developing young talent who will make a name for herself – soon! – if she remains on her current trajectory.

Closing Sets

To end the evening, after the in-the-round portion of the show concluded, Lee Moretti took the stage, followed by Erika Van Pelt and Ryan Faraday, before a “traditional” finale.

Lee Moretti (of The Furies)

Lee Moretti; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lee Moretti, lead singer of The Furies, who joined Jazzmyn Red earlier in the show to provide guitar support to Jazzmyn’s “If I Had a Daughter,” returned to the stage for a two-song set. This time it was just Lee and her keyboard. Stylistically, the music she served up is radio-friendly piano rock. Her first song, “A Walk Inside,” was a piano rocker with a little hint of almost-Southern-rock – not exactly-Southern-rock, but a touch of that Southern rock edge. Lee’s second song was a presently untitled piece of uplifting, piano-based power pop rock – not exactly Fleetwood Mac, but something along those lines but much more modern. Notably, the song utilized interestingly foreboding piano, unusual to be combined with such an uplifting, hopeful vocal style. It was a quick glimpse into Lee’s music, and it left me intrigued and looking forward to the next Furies release, which I’m sure will be “not exactly” like a lot of my favorite rock ‘n roll music.

Erika Van Pelt and Ryan Faraday; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Erika Van Pelt and Ryan Faraday

A soulful, powerful vocalist and an energetic guitarist – a perfect team. You may have seen them perform together as The Soul Estate Band. Or the Vagabond Blues Band. Or Van Pelt-Faraday. Undeniable talent with tight teamwork. The duo opened their three-song set with “Why Should I,” guitar-rockin’ pop with heartfelt vocal soul. Erika’s vocals growled with attitude specifically where the lyrics dictated. And there were a few spots in the song for some well-placed vocal runs. (I don’t recall Erika’s turn on American Idol, but I do know you can’t finish in the top 10 with her vocal style unless you can deliver a convincing, crowd-pleasing vocal run.) Ryan’s energetic axework was equally important to the success of the song. Next up, they performed “Bubble,” a thoughtful, sweet, soulful, warm number that washed over me like bright sunshine with a hint of melancholy. Just a hint, and I can’t place exactly why. Finally, Erika and Ryan closed with “Closer.” This song was soulfully uplifting. So much so that Erika unleashed a muted “woo” or three during the number. Her vocal line moved in and out around the melody, as she deployed some cool phrasing. This duo’s trio of songs provided a nice glimpse at Erika’s power and range and into Erika and Ryan’s performance rapport.

Closing Number: Liz Borden and Danny Modern, joined by Josh Knowles

Liz Borden, Danny Modern, and Josh Knowles; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Apparently, it’s a tradition at Liz Borden’s shows to end with the fun, rocking number “Moonlight and Whiskey.” And who can argue with that? Liz and Danny were joined on-stage by Josh Knowles, who added his violin to the rock n’ roll drinking song, lending a spirit of whimsy and camaraderie to end the talent-filled evening.

There’s another Behind the Songs event in the works, and I’ll do whatever I can to be there. I’d recommend you do the same. They’re a great way to discover talent you may have overlooked. Through the two events so far, there hasn’t been a weak link. I’ll get out to see any and all of the artists again whenever one of their performances fits my schedule. So this probably won’t be the last you’ve heard of these performers in the Blog. And it certainly won’t be the last you’ve heard of them on the scene.

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.

Live Review: Behind the Songs at the Hard Rock Cafe

Behind the Songs

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Behind the Songs

Hard Rock Cafe, Boston, MA

June 6, 2017

One of the cool things about curated music events like this one is that the talent has been sifted through by a music industry insider who is staking his or her reputation on the caliber of talent in appearance. As a result, they are often talent-packed events that offer a chance to discover several future-favorite artists in a single night, with a much higher hit-to-miss ratio than a typical multi-band local club night.

This particular event was organized under the banner of Nina Pickell‘s new venture, Off the Stage Music. Behind the Songs was designed as a Nashville-style songwriters’ night, with the main portion of the program consisting of five songwriter-performers on the stage at the same time, each discussing and singing one song before passing the baton to the next. Charlie Farren kicked the show off with a short set. Then the special guest for the evening, Paige Davis, sang a single song before retiring to the audience and returning for a short set at the end of the evening. During the main portion of the program, the five songwriters – Annie Brobst, Julie DiOrio, Chris Ruediger, Justin Piper, and Alissa Musto – shared the stage. It’s a format that’s similar to those used in other songwriter-friendly cities, and there’s a plan for this to be the first event of a series here in Boston. Given the relatively full house at this gig, it’s certainly off to an auspicious start.

I was quite looking forward to this event. Obviously, you’ve read about Alissa Musto here at the Blog, as I’ve reviewed a live show and her most recent album already this year. And I had been watching the calendars of half of the remaining six artists, hoping to catch convenient live performances from them. So I knew to expect great things from this line-up.

Charlie Farren

Charlie Farren; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Opening Act: Charlie Farren

Obviously nobody’s “opening act,” Charlie Farren is a local rock icon. From his ’80s days in The Joe Perry Project and Farrenheit to today, working on his 17th solo album, Charlie Farren is a rock star in every sense of the word, and by opening the music for the evening, his presence was a strong encouragement not to be late.

Charlie kicked things off with a short, three-song set. He began with “When You’re Nobody’s Somebody,” a heartfelt, gravelly number somewhere between soft and mid-tempo, filled with power – a rock star’s rock song. Next up was a bluesy, growling rocker, “Hold Me Down and Love Me,” that recalled the best of classic ’70s/’80s guitar rock. And he closed his set with “The Powers That Be,” another timeless rock song that sported a “Baba O’Riley”-esque guitar riff.

The set was a terrific appetizer, serving as encouragement to catch one of Charlie’s full concerts when the opportunity arises and also setting the table for the talented performers to follow.

The Main Event

The songwriters-in-the-round portion of the event featured five songwriters – award winners and rising stars – taking turns talking about and performing their songs. The unique Boston spin on this Nashville-inspired songwriters’ night was the variety of genres involved, a diversity of styles so broad that each transition between artist nearly required a bit of gari to cleanse the palate.

The evening consisted of five orbits around the room; i.e., each songwriter eventually performed five songs. Below, I review the night performer-by-performer rather than cycle-by-cycle.

Annie Brobst with Ryan Dupont

Annie Brobst with Ryan Dupont; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

The first performer of the songwriters’ round was Annie Brobst. Annie was joined onstage by her guitarist, Ryan Dupont. My first instinct was to call her a Miranda Lambert-reminiscent country singer, and, indeed, she talked about how many of Miranda’s songs she covers during her performances, so I suspect that’s not a bad comparison. To the extent she strays from the Miranda position on the country spectrum, Annie voice tends toward that of the classic, timeless stars.

The first song she performed – the one that sparked that comparison – was “What’s a Girl Gotta Do.” Annie’s second song, “(Stone in) Still Water,” was emotional and powerful with a bit of old-school country flavor. “You’ll Love Again” showcased Annie’s strong, emotional voice and was powered by a super-catchy guitar line. “Ghost” was a true-blue country music story-song delivered with an interesting flavor – I think I heard a little Jim Croce in the delivery. And Annie’s final song, “Paper Weight,” utilized great lyrics (yes, with a little anger) driving a power and edge to her vocals, punctuated by dramatic guitar pauses. Indeed, Annie performed a variety of songs that showed off her broad country range.

Julie Diorio

Julie DiOrio; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Julie DiOrio (of The Dirty Dottys)

Next up was Julie DiOrio. What a dynamo of excited, crowd-engaging energy! Another attendee at my table called her “adorable,” and, indeed, that’s apt. Julie was also the only of the five songwriters to attempt to sing the bass line (and other instrument parts) in a couple of her songs. Her first song, “This Nonsense,” was one of those. She sang half of the song each in its original (smooth) version, the second half in its band (alt-funky and a little edgy) version, with the tune getting frantic toward the end. “Ain’t Got the Time” combined crunchy, classic rock guitar supporting funky soulful vocals. Perhaps a hint of Amy Winehouse; in the neighborhood of Elle King. “Dragonfly” was a funky-cool song with a herky-jerky, fun tempo. “Not Too Call,” I think (messy handwriting), was a dynamic, fun tune featuring vocal gymnastics and a ukulele. Of course, “ukulele” renders the word “fun” redundant, but so does “Julie DiOrio,” so I’ll stick with it. And Julie’s final songwriter’s night tune, “The Furniture,” was soooo lyrically clever with an edgy, swingy, alt-rockin’ sound. And it, like so many of this charming songwriter’s songs, came to a cool, abrupt ending.

Chris Ruediger

Chris Ruediger; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Chris Ruediger

Chris just graduated from high school this spring. The dude is 18 years old but has a veteran, calm, confidence stage presence and a voice that has that certain je ne sais quoi that makes you sit up and say “Duuude!” (or maybe “wow” if you’re not a “dude”-sayer). This event also doubled as the EP release show for Chris’ five-song EP, Secrets.

He began with the first song on that disc, “One Way Ticket,” based in a college rock sound but with a versatile voice that ranges from thin and alt-rock edgy to big and full depending on the song’s requirement. Chris’ first single, “Summertime Story,” showcased nice variety, tempo, and vocal groove. I noted that I really liked the deep bridge that seemed to be hiding a secret in its stylistic depth; now I’m not sure what I meant by that, but it will probably be obvious when I listen to the song again while preparing to review the EP. Next up was a medley in which Chris utilized an interesting texture, and his higher voice and vocal rattle (not exactly a growl) put an interesting spin on what included, at a minimum, portions of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Jolene,” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

Chris referred to the Marvin Gaye groove in “Secrets,” and yes, you could really hear some R&B influence, Chris’ performance even hinting at a near-syncopated rhythm in spots. His last song of the night was “Forgive Me,” again featuring that unique timbre in Chris’ voice, combined with lyrics delivered with an urgent insistence. Chris connected so well with this song it actually gave me goosebumps, the sure sign of a song well-sung. This young man has talent to spare and a humble but confident attitude that will take him far.

Justin Piper

Justin Piper; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Justin Piper

Songs without lyrics. Justin is a guitar instrumentalist. But, you know, by halfway through his opening number, I forgot there weren’t any lyrics. “Rolling Blue Hill” sported an engaging verse, bridge, and a catchy chorus. On “Nova Scotia,” you could hear the song rise and fall, build and relax as it told its story. His third song, whose title I missed, painted very specific pictures for me; whether or not it was the picture Justin was painting, the images I “saw” were of a walk in the woods, maybe a stream, birds, a waterfall, rapids… Next up, Justin delivered a very flowing musical cover of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” And he closed his evening with “When I’m Alone”; as an example of speaking with his guitar, one section of this closing number made me laugh, though I wonder if that was an appropriate response given the song’s title. With a broad range of musical influences driving his guitar stylings, Justin was a terrific inclusion in this inaugural Behind the Songs songwriters’ night.

Alissa Musto

Alissa Musto; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Alissa Musto

Finally, Alissa Musto. What I think of this tremendously talented young artist is well-documented, first in my review of a live show and then in my review of her album What We Saw From the Piano Bar. An adept, precise, catchy songwriter with a hint of gravel in her voice that connects instantly with an audience when she sings emotionally and, of course, killer piano skills, this was an ideal setting to showcase Alissa’s talent.

She began with “Runaway,” doing her jazzy-pop keys and vocals thing. Man, can she wail emotion, especially impactful when using it sparingly at the edges of rich verses. This particular song rises and falls with her emotions detailed in the storytelling lyrics. Next up was “Temporarily”; dancing pianowork combined with a rich, powerful voice that she unleashed for emphasis periodically. Here, as elsewhere, Alissa exhibited the sort of powerful vocals you might hear in a lounge scene during a James Bond movie, and she combined that with a jazzy-pop edge, as if she was singing with a smirk every now and then. Très chic. Next up was “Black Flak,” a song Alissa really gets lost in, and tonight was no exception, as she delivered serious vocal inflection and soaring waves of powerful piano.

Next up, “Pictures on the Wall,” one of my favorites from What We Saw…, a song I caught myself singing along with throughout. This one’s a fun piano song (Billy Joel-meets-Peanuts‘ Schroeder), in which Alissa combines great voice inflection with worth-listening-to, well-crafted lyrics. She closed with an as-yet-untitled song, fun and engaging. I’ll just say the tune was ambitious, confident and clever as f—; inspired songwriting, just our luck. Such a rare, polished (and yet still developing) musical talent, and she’ll be working on a new album this summer, so you can count on reading more about Alissa Musto in the Blog.

Special Guest: Paige Davis

Paige Davis

Paige Davis; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Paige Davis sang one song in-between Charlie Farren and the “main event,” and she returned at the end to sing four more tunes. An award-winning country artist at just age sixteen, Paige was a welcome “special guest” this evening. My assessment at the beginning of the evening, based solely on her performance of “Better,” was that she has a sweet vocal with a hint of a twang. Paige connected emotionally with this song, which rises and falls, utilizing stop-start strums from the start.

Among the four songs at the end, Paige’s performance of the soft song “I’ll See You in My Dreams” displayed her breadth of skills. This short set proved that, while her vocals are sweet, she knows just where to crack her voice for emphasis and vary her tone for emotion. She’s a strong performer now, already selected New England Country Act of the Year in 2017 at this stage of her career, and she’ll only get better.

Looking Ahead

As I said at the beginning, events like this where the artists are selected for their excellence are a great way to discover multiple fantastic new performers in a single location. Designed to be the first of a series, Behind the Songs was a rousing success, so I expect to see – and attend – more of them, events showcasing more of the many special artists in our music-talent-rich city.