Album Review: Billy Crockett – Rabbit Hole

Billy Crockett

photo by Rodney Bursiel; photo courtesy of Shock Ink

Album Review of Billy Crockett: Rabbit Hole

Billy Crockett opened the Kerrville Folk Festival’s main stage this year. He is widely revered within folk music circles. And, as I first discovered at a house concert in April and found confirmed by repeated listens to his newest album Rabbit Hole, he has as good a shot as anyone (and better than most) at making that leap into the broader public consciousness.

Billy Crockett - Rabbit Hole

image courtesy of Shock Ink

Billy’s voice is an original. It’s his calling card. It’s the perfect voice for a storyteller. While he often channels emotion via an exceptionally emotive vocalization a la Randy Newman, he does it with a voice that can be as smooth and able to hit big notes as Bob Halligan or Joshua Kadison. It’s a style that works well for him. I can picture Billy’s songs providing the narrative to a play or film, with Billy himself serving as the singing narrator. In fact, if there’s ever a remake of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, I’d nominate Billy Crockett for Burl Ives’ narrating snowman role.

With that in mind, Rabbit Hole is an engaging collection of folk paintings, with Billy’s voice serving as the paintbrush, or folk stories, as told by a master storyteller. And, though I hadn’t intended to mention each and every song when I initially planned this review, I found it impossible to leave even one out once I started composing the review, so here you go…

Billy Crockett

photo by Rodney Bursiel; photo courtesy of Shock Ink

The title track kicks things off in a carnival barker-ish style that’s an instant attention-grabber. Indeed, Billy’s narrating the story as an Alice in Wonderland-ish Mat Hatter exploring things rabbit hole-related. It’s a unique song, an interesting journey, a great way to kick things off.

“Record Player” follows, with guitar-slapping syncopation, an emotional voice, a cheery rhythm, and a healthy dose of nostalgia. As a standalone track, I think this one is my personal favorite.

Forboding vocals, as hinted at on “Rabbit Hole,” return full on “On Your Way,” as if Billy’s lead and the backing Gospel-blues wails are warning of a gathering storm. It’s followed by the thoughtful “Drought,” with Billy’s wistful vocals painting a picture of drought, aided by carefully picked strings portraying raindrops.

As Billy moves around the big tent of folk styles and incorporates other influences, “Take Me” sports a bit of a Jimmy Buffett vibe, cheerful, playful, and relaxed. And, in an act of wise song placement, it’s followed by a soft song in the same vein, relaxed and happy, the mellow, comfortable “Almost Perfect,” replete with reminiscences and of the fortunate results of opportunities foregone.

Billy Crockett

photo by Rodney Bursiel; photo courtesy of Shock Ink

“Spare Me” utilizes an accelerating and decelerating vocal tempo and sorrowful tone, along with sparse guitar strumming, to draw the listener closer and bring tears to the listener’s eyes. If you can withdraw yourself from the song’s emotion enough to examine it, the song structure is as interesting as its content.

Fortunately, Billy doesn’t leave the mood low for long, as “That’s Something” is the next song up. Impossible to stay down in the face of this song’s building wave of cheerfulness, as powered by its upbeat music, it’s an ode to small pleasures and the subtle things at which to marvel in everyday life, if someone’s eyes are open to them. Remaining upbeat, he follows that with “Mavis,” an uptempo, groovy ode to Mavis Staples (and to civil rights).

Next up is an homage to family he barely or never knew, those family members before his time, who he never met or merely crossed paths with as a young child. “Ghosts” is a softly-strummed, detailed, comfortable spoken-sung story-song that will bring a lump to your throat, even though the song is about complete strangers – well, not to Billy. And if you don’t get completely choked-up when his father arrives at his dinner of ghosts, you’re not human. Such a powerful song.

Billy Crockett

photo by Rodney Bursiel; photo courtesy of Shock Ink

The mood comes right back up with “Big Old World,” the album’s final track. Utilizing the one-phrase-flows-into-the-next vocal style, it’s a happy ditty encouraging exploration of the world outside, living life beyond your four walls. Indeed, after the roller coaster of emotions in Rabbit Hole, it’s a great one on which to end. Enjoy life because every day’s a gift. As is this album. Thanks, Billy.

Beginning to end, Rabbit Hole is a masterwork from a masterful singer and songwriter in the folk genre. So I’ll repeat that thanks to Billy for sharing it with the rest of us. Now it’s up to you, reader, to take a listen.

Looking Ahead

Well, if you can get out to see Billy Crockett perform live, you should. I saw him perform a couple months ago, as I reviewed in the Blog. He opened up the Kerrville Folk Festival as the first opening night performer on the main stage last month. At the time, I inquired of an old music industry friend in attendance if she’d be at his performance, and she replied “Of course. I wouldn’t miss Billy.” So don’t miss Billy.

At the moment, according to the “Shows” page on Billy’s website, he lists only six upcoming shows, the first more than a couple months away: Saturday, September 30 at Rolando Diaz Fine Art in Santa Fe, NM; Saturday, November 11th at Blue Sage Hall in Kerrville, TX; Sunday, November 12th at Kessler Theater in Dallas, TX; Saturday, November 18th at the Cactus Cafe in Austin, TX; Sunday, November, 19th at the Dosey Doe Big Barn in The Woodlands, TX; and Friday, March 9, 2018 (next spring!) at The Calgary Folk Club in Calgary, Alberta, sharing the bill with Perla Batalla. Check back to Billy’s website for more updates; he added three of those six shows between my first draft of this review and its publication date.

Live Review: Ali Handal and Billy Crockett at Fox Run Concerts

Ali Handal and Billy Crockett

Fox Run Concerts, Sudbury, MA

April 29, 2017

The Backstory

I was introduced to Ali Handal’s music more than two years ago by some mutual musician friends in Los Angeles. Since then, I’ve tried catch her Boston area live performances but have heretofore failed in that endeavor. Last night, however, she opened a double-bill that fit my preferred time and location – an early time slot in an outer western Boston suburb – so I was finally able to make it happen. Better yet, it was a house concert; these more intimate performances in front of smaller audiences are one of the great new(ish) trends in independent music that I’ve really enjoyed since returning to music journalism.

Last night, she opened for Billy Crockett, who, after reading his bio, seems like someone I should have already known about. He is a respected artist who has been around the music industry for years, but our paths had not yet previously crossed. With a quick listen to some of Billy’s YouTube clips in preparation for the event, I knew I could expect a stellar evening.

Ali Handal

Ali Handal; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Opening Act: Ali Handal

Ali Handal opened her six-song set with strength. Granted, that’s no surprise, but her initial song of the evening, “You Get What You Settle For,” showcases the element of her voice I can best describe as an expressive roar. There’s perhaps a bit of a bluesy edge to the song, as well, with some cool funky guitar effects.

What’s so intriguing about Ali, though, is her range. In addition to an arena rock-worthy roar, strong and smooth enough yet artfully restrained befitting an acoustic singer-songwriter event like last night’s, she has a crisp, sweet, high end to her vocals as well, which she’s able to weave seamlessly into her songs, allowing them to showcase both power and sensitivity.

Halfway through her set, in fact, she displayed that sensitivity particularly well on “Distance,” with the sweeter vocal augmented by an interesting guitar-picking style. It’s that mix of power and sensitivity that make Ali a unique talent – well, that and the fact that her guitar skills are capable of providing varying soundbeds beneath her strong voice.

And there’s also her engaging stage presence, intimate but with a sense of humor, that draws her audience in. She closed her set, in fact, showcasing that sense of humor with “Thank God for Birth Control,” the prototypical anti-parenthood song, if there ever was one. And I’m not sure there ever was.

In all, it was a fun set by an exceptional talent. I’m glad I finally found a chance to see Ali Handal live, and I look forward to seeing her perform as a headliner, perhaps, sometime down the road. (Also in a club or arena setting where she can better unleash her rock chops, perhaps allowing me to hear her perform my current favorite Ali Handal tune, the more raucous, rawkin’ “But I Do,” live.)

Billy Crockett

Billy Crockett; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Headliner: Billy Crockett

Billy Crockett’s music has been labeled folk/Americana, and I suppose it is, but there’s more to it than that. Rather than pigeonholing it, I hear music with the potential for significant crossover appeal beyond a single genre, one well-placed hit away from making Billy a household name. I hear a sort of timeless singer-songwriter vibe in Billy’s songs. It’s the sort of music you’d hear at festivals and occasionally on pop radio in the ’60s/’70s. Rich, storytelling songs driven by Billy’s powerful, emotionally expressive vocals.

In a house concert setting, Billy’s personability and storytelling ability carries over into his between-song banter, and, as a result, this evening at Fox Run Concerts had that sort of intimate, gathering-of-friends feeling. Of course, the on-stage “friend” on this evening was an exceptionally talented troubadour. And during his songs, the intensity with which Billy feels his music is written on his face, carried in his voice, and driven home by his full immersion in his performance.

Billy followed Ali’s set with his own short set before intermission, then returned for a longer set to close the evening. He kicked things off with “Feel It,” an emotion-driven acoustic singer-songwriter number. He followed it with the engaging “That’s Something,” displaying the richness and versatility of his strong voice, supporting the vocals with a ’60s/’70s folk-influenced strumming.

Over the course of the evening, my mind kept circling back, comparing Billy’s music to that you might find on a soundtrack. More precisely, a Broadway soundtrack. I’m not talking about those big production numbers. Rather, the emotion in his voice and progression of each song’s music and content are more akin to songs (and portions thereof) that share important plot points, in which an individual character tells backstory, explains his emotions about something, or moves the story forward. This past winter, I (finally) caught a production of Cabaret in Boston, and I think Billy’s songs, particularly the more haunting, introspective ones, remind me of some segments of that evening’s performance. Not exactly, though. The pace and tempo of Billy’s songs and distinct enunciation remind me a bit of Randy Newman, best known by the general public for his movie soundtrack work, though I wouldn’t compare Billy’s rich, distinctly original voice to Randy’s beyond that. More appropriately, I’d call them musical neighbors.

Billy continued with songs like “Record Player,” which appealed to the audience’s nostalgia, and “On Your Way,” a storytelling song with a bit of a dark tension to it, before intermission.

After the break, Billy returned for a full set. Highlights of the second set included “Ghosts,” a song whose warm, rich guitar song adds gravitas to the vocal; “Meant That,” with all its soulfulness; and the engaging, somewhat twisted tale of “Rabbit Hole.”

Billy closed his set with “Mavis,” his tribute to Mavis Staples, augmenting his trademark vocals with some dancing guitar strumming, and an archetypal storytelling singer-songwriter song, “Already Perfect,” recalling for me hints of Joshua Kadison or Bob Halligan, though with a Billy Crockett spin.

For his encore, Billy led a singalong of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” followed by his cover of “Native Boy,” dropping the curtain on an evening of warmth, camaraderie and song, wrapping up a double-bill perfectly suited to a house concert.

Billy Crockett and Ali Handal, of course, are clearly artists whose power and skill can (and often do) engage thousands as easily as dozens. Singers of that caliber in an intimate house concert can deliver a special evening, and, indeed, they did.

Looking Ahead

Though Ali doesn’t have any more gigs left on her latest East Coast swing, she does have a Saturday, May 20th house concert (with limited seating) scheduled in Reseda, California. For more information about this show and for future concert information as it is announced, see this link to her website.

Billy does have a few shows left on his East Coast tour. Per his website, you can see him at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA on Wednesday, May 3rd and at Rockwood Music Hall in New York on Monday, May 8th. Then he’ll be back in Texas, performing on the main stage at the Kerrville Folk Festival on Thursday, May 25th. Check this page for more information about those gigs and upcoming performances, as they’re added.

As for more detailed reviews of Ali and Billy – since live reviews tend to be more hastily written than album reviews, based on my notes from a single evening rather than dozens of listens – watch for my review of Billy’s current album Rabbit Hole in the coming months. Likewise, Ali will soon be releasing a new record soon; when that’s available, rest assured I’ll reach out to “her people” for a review copy.