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: Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Vasko the Patch

Lilypad, Cambridge, MA

September 14, 2017

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

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

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

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

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

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

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

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

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

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

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

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

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

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

Vasko the Patch at Lilypad

photo by Geoff Wilbur

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

Looking Ahead

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

Live Review: Dwayne Haggins at Chill Kitchen and Bar

Dwayne Haggins

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Dwayne Haggins

Chill Kitchen and Bar, Marlborough, MA

September 9, 2107

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

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

Dwayne Haggins

photo by Geoff Wilbur

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwayne Haggins

photo by Geoff Wilbur

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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

Live Review: Sophia Ward at Twin Seafood

Sophia Ward at Twin Seafood

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Sophia Ward

Twin Seafood, Acton, MA

August 26, 2017

The Backstory

Yes, you know Sophia. She’s the lead singer of TOS, who I’ve reviewed twice live (here and here) in addition to my review of the band’s CD Killer. This is, however, my first time seeing her perform solo, something that will be more typical now with former TOS band members no longer all living in the same region of the country (though you can count on me doing my best to cover the anticipated reunions shows).

Sophia Ward at Twin Seafood

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Concert

Twin Seafood in Acton has a large patio/deck, ideal for eating outside on a pleasant summer evening; it’s also well-designed for live music on such a night, especially for those of us who like early shows (it started at 6:00 PM), accompanied by dinner… or at least a little delicious chowder.

I stayed through Sophia’s first set, all 18 songs, and discovered she’s quite capable of mixing things up with just a voice and an acoustic guitar, providing varying tempos and underlying sounds to keep things interesting. And, of course, there’s her exceptional, easily identifiable voice – for a career that extends beyond being a local musician, that’s a must, and it’s a primary reason I’m so confident this young woman has a very high career ceiling.

With acknowledgement that I may have mangled some song titles…

Sophia Ward at Twin Seafood

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Sophia kicked things off with “Childhood,” a song with a good tempo that reaffirmed my expectations – she’s creatively adept with song structures, this one featuring well-placed stops for emphasis, and those well-designed songs transfer well to a solo performance. She also used a bit of echo on her vocal on this particular evening, an effect that works well with her characteristically, uniquely memorable, often-somewhat-haunting voice. After “Childhood,” the next song up was “California,” a song that featured that haunted, edgy thing she does with her voice, in this case in spite of the lyrics.

In addition to the many new songs on her setlist, Sophia performed a few songs from TOS’s Killer album. The first of those was “Cry Baby,” at the request of a very young new fan to play something cheerful; I’ve always loved the energy of that tune.

Sophia interestingly paired “Wait” and “Without You.” “Wait” is a new song that’s sparse and mellow, with the tempo combining with her vocal timbre to drive home the lyrics’ indecision. She then immediately brought the tempo back up with emphatic strumming on “Without You.” And there’s something about the way she drops “without you” after “dyin'” that makes me smile; it’s oddly amusing (in a serious way).

A few songs later, Sophia unleashed the immediately appealing “Wild Card,” a tune in which she strings some words together quickly, blended with a bit of a modernized ’50s vibe. The song has a cool energy, especially unique as its sound is noticeably absent of Sophia’s frequent haunting vocal overtones.

Sophia Ward at Twin Seafood

photo by Geoff Wilbur

She followed that with the second of her three songs of the set from Killer, “The One.” A standout track from the album, as a solo acoustic number she adds even more texture to the vocals, hitting a few more high notes, too.

Another song well worth highlighting is “Pipe Dream,” a tune that seems to float a little otherworldly. Particularly in contrast to the hint of uneasiness Sophia conveys vocally in so many of her songs, this one is truly a mellow and pleasant number.

“Years Ago,” a song that comes across as an acoustic version of a radio hit-style tune but with a hint of a mildly radio-unfriendly alt-rock vibe – one of those songs that’d get radio play while still being considered edgy – builds tension with energy.

The lyrics and tempo of “Heaven in a Girl” go along well with a strumming guitar. Lyrically clever and well-constructed, this song moves along with direction and energy, not just lyrically but musically as well.

The next song, “Your New Girl,” had a kind of surf rock recurring riff with an interesting stop and go tempo that carried a hint of a favorite band I initially couldn’t place (before realizing it was TOS). The tempo of this song was such that it had my toes tapping to the rhythm by halfway through. It was followed by “Keep You,” a song with prominent guitar-plucking and soaring structure and vocals.

Sophia Ward at Twin Seafood

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Sophia ended her set with what eventually became my favorite track from Killer, “Mouthful,” which is just as haunting and enchanting solo as with a full band. Of course, it was one of the most vocals- and lyrics-driven songs on Killer, so its easy conversion to solo acoustic performance isn’t surprising. The emphatic stops and vocal flows and runs are very cool in this one. And a great way to end the set, after which I headed home with enough time to watch a movie and still catch the early news. (Yes, I do like early shows.)

At the end of the day, Sophia Ward is well worth the price of admission. There’s a strong future ahead for this singer/songwriter. I always enjoy hearing her new songs, and I look forward to seeing how her career develops from here. With continued hard work – it’s obvious she’s doing that already – and some good fortune, she’ll play a lot of big stages in her career.

Looking Ahead

Keep an eye on Sophia’s Facebook page and her website for future performance information.

Live Review: The Chills at Bolton Street Tavern

The Chills at Bolton Street Tavern

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Chills

Bolton Street Tavern, Marlborough, MA

August 19, 2017

The Backstory

I don’t often review cover bands. Not because I have anything against cover bands, though. Back when I published Geoff Wilbur’s Renegade Newsletter, particularly in the local editions of that publication, I reviewed a broad cross-section of local live music performances, and you can find some amazing musicians in cover bands who’ve simply chosen to take their music another route, whether earning a living on the cover band circuit or performing as weekend warriors while balancing solid non-music careers and family responsibilities. And I love hearing my favorite songs performed live by great musicians.

The Chills at Bolton Street Tavern

photo by Geoff Wilbur

These days, though, I don’t get out as much. I devote my handful of album reviews each month to talented bands producing amazing music, and I often spend my handful of nights either going to see targeted favorite artists or to see earlier sets. And while I might find an acoustic cover artist in an earlier time slot, cover bands rarely begin before 9:00, often a bit later (even if they’re scheduled to start at 9:00). Because of that and the robust original music scene in this part of the country, very few cover bands grace the Blog‘s pages.

But last night, an extremely talented old friend of mine performed with his band, The Chills, just a few miles from my house. In fact, if you read the “about” portion of the band’s Facebook page, you can see the exceptional pedigrees of the musicians in The Chills. Bonk Coelin (drums, vocals) has performed with The Bruce Marshall Group, The First, Viper, The Cherries, and Overstreet. Stephen “Sharky” Beccia (bass, vocals) was in Anxiety, Busted Allie, Cement, Frantic City, Robbin Banks, Uncle Wally, the Jenny Aia Band, Kate Russo, and One Eleven (111). And you may know David Allyn Steele (guitar, vocals) from the original Boston Brats, Trash Broadway, Love It To Death, and HatTrick (in which Bonk was also a band member). When I was just starting my journalism career in Boston, Trash Broadway was a fixture on the local music scene, with the band’s Torrid/Important Records album, a record produced by Chris Anderson (Cheap Trick, Todd Rundgren), placing it just one stepping stone away from international stardom. In any case, my familiarity with David led me to The Chills, and their performances are always an opportunity to enjoy a great night out. Cover songs performed by some of the best musicians out there.

The Chills at Bolton Street Tavern

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Show

The Chills’ set list – I stayed through the first set and a couple songs into the second – included a lot of songs you’ll know, rock tunes that reached popular consciousness in their day, most of them dating back to at least 20 years ago. They kicked things off with a rockin’ number, The Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle.” From there, they adeptly worked their way through a plethora of crowd-pleasing favorites.

The Chills at Bolton Street Tavern

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Other songs that impressed me the most during the initial set were Modern English’s “I’ll Melt With You,” Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and a particularly good rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama,” a song whose structure lends itself to some subtle guitar noodling, adding a little texture to the song in a way that’s not really noticeable unless you’re paying close attention, but it’s the sort of thing an exceptional cover band does to make its music just a little more interesting, one of the main reasons to seek out a cover act with the talent to add that extra flair. The Chills also delivered (to an obviously appreciative crowd) several other tightly-delivered tunes covering a broad spectrum of rock ‘n roll favorites, from “867-5309” to “Superstitious,” from “Your Mama Don’t Dance” to “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” They closed the set with another of their more exceptional efforts, a rousing rendition of Grand Funk Railroad’s oft-covered “Some Kind of Wonderful.”

The Chills at Bolton Street Tavern

photo by Geoff Wilbur

I only stayed a couple songs into the second of The Chills’ three sets last night. They kicked the second set off with Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and followed it with the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.” I’m sure the variety continued after I left. While I called it an early evening, the band and the Bolton Street Tavern’s room full of revelers continued well into the night.

Looking Ahead

Indeed, The Chills are one band that’s well worth making an extra effort to see when you want a night out, surrounded by rock and roll favorites. I don’t see any upcoming shows currently listed on the band’s Facebook page, but obviously keep checking. I often see their events pop up elsewhere before they mention them on Facebook. In addition to the Bolton Street Tavern, I’ve seen The Chills booked a few times at The PPC in Chelsea and Chopsticks in Leominster. In fact, on Chopsticks’ website I see The Chills listed on September 22nd and 23rd. And while the PPC doesn’t have any upcoming events listed on their website, a Facebook search turns up a Chills performance there on September 30th at the PPC (per this Facebook event). Obviously, as those dates approach, confirm with the venues.

Live Review: Danielle Miraglia at Front Street Concerts

Danielle Miraglia (The Glory Junkies Trio)

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Danielle Miraglia

Front Street Concerts, Hopkinton, MA

August 12, 2017

Danielle Miraglia is a Boston treasure. Period. We are fortunate enough to have one of the best regional blues-centered music artists in our midst, a special performer whose full band shows (with her band, the Glory Junkies) are blues-rock and whose solo acoustic shows are more blues-folk, but they always carry that original Danielle Miraglia spark, that glint in her musical eye, and that fun, amusingly thoughtful emotional and intellectual sincerity. The entire east coast is lucky to get a chance to experience her music during her tours, but we in the Boston area can get a regular dose of her musical magic, and the fact that she typically draws strong crowds even with her frequent performances is a testament to how much we appreciate her considerable, world-class talent. This is my fourth review of Danielle’s music since the Blog‘s launch, but it is the first in more than a year. I reviewed her last album, a 2016 set at Atwood’s Tavern, and last summer’s gig at Front Street Concerts.

Danielle Miraglia

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Front Street Concerts, meanwhile, is a favorite venue, perfect for a pleasant summer night. It’s a backyard “house concert” with a dinner buffet and a purpose-built barn featuring a stage and a sound system, with wide-open barn doors and a tent allowing most attendees to sit outside on lawn chairs. Even without the music, it would be a great place to spend a summer evening. But, of course, the concert series organizers always, dependably bring in exceptionally talented musicians.

On this particular evening, Danielle performed fronting the Glory Junkies Trio, flanked by violist Laurence Scudder and guitarist Erik White from her Glory Junkies band. Using a stomp box where added percussion was necessary (as she does during solo acoustic performances), Danielle delivered a perfectly rockin’ evening of blues and blues-rock. The Trio kicked things off with one of the songs that first turned me on to Danielle’s music, “See the Light” from her 2011 Box of Troubles release. This is almost hillbilly blues-rock, showcasing her bandmates’ skills, hinting add the offbeat humor occasionally hidden in Danielle’s lyrics, and featuring her strong, versatile voice, touching upon its raw power while built around the textured emotion that makes her mid-range so powerful.

Danielle Miraglia (The Glory Junkies Trio)

photo by Geoff Wilbur

She followed that with a pair of songs from her Glory Junkies disc. “Fair Warning” sports a cool, almost syncopated sound in its trio arrangement, while “Famous For Nothing” is driven by kind of a chunky rhythm when performed live, a cool rendition of this album favorite on this particular evening.

Next up was the first of Danielle’s new originals to be performed this evening, “All of My Heroes are Ghosts.” Classic, gritty, growly Danielle Miraglia at her best. It was during this song, in fact, that I was compelled to comment to the person standing next to me, “Oh, my God! That thing in her voice!” Vintage. Or, rather, new, since it’s one of the songs I assume will be on the album she’s currently recording.

Danielle Miraglia (The Glory Junkies Trio)

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Late in the first set came another favorite new song, the topical, timely “Make Your Own News.” On the whole, the tune chunks along like a classic blues rocker, but the bridge almost seemed to borrow from seventies pop-radio harmonies, and there was a fun viola solo well worth its own shout-out, as well.

After that, Danielle shook the joint with the raucous “Stagger Lee” before mellowing a bit on “Home,” a powerful song whose sound is always so warm and uplifting, a tune that displays the richness of Danielle’s voice that makes this sort of connection possible. And, of course, she closed the first set with a Janis Joplin cover, just one of many iconic artists whose songs fit her voice so well.

Spotted Tiger (Laurence Scudder & Erik White)

Spotted Tiger (Laurence Scudder & Erik White); photo by Geoff Wilbur

The second set started with two songs sans Danielle, as Laurence and Erik have their own band, Spotted Tiger. So we were treated to a couple Spotted Tiger tunes. The first was an almost hillbilly-ish Americana number; the second more like energetic folk. Indeed, these guys form a cool duo. I saw them perform a full set as Spotted Tiger once before, the spring before I launched the Blog.

Then Danielle was back to finish off the night. The second set featured a couple favorites from the Glory Junkies disc, “Dead End Street,” in which I love the funky pop element that interacts well with Danielle’s blues snarl, and “Coffee Stained Thank You Cards,” a song that would easily win my vote as the best blues-rock song to mention sarcastic zombies in the lyrics.

Notable, as well, was new original “Everybody’s Wrong.” This one shows off Danielle’s blues howl – my notes from the evening simply say “Grrr!” and “Wow!” – in addition to some almost Chuck Berry-esque axework by Erik White.

Danielle Miraglia (The Glory Junkies Trio)

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The final set also included several covers. There was a Dylan cover, the heartfelt, melancholy “I Want You.” And a Prince cover, of course: “Gett Off.” And notably, as usual, a show-closing, wailing rendition of Tom Waits’ “2:19,” a Danielle Miraglia concert staple that she always makes her own.

Not ready to end the evening any earlier than necessary, there was, of course, an encore. In this case, a very gospelly rendition of “Shine a Light.”

There’s rarely a better way to spend a Saturday night than at a Front Street concert. And there’s never a better evening than a Danielle Miraglia concert. Combine the two, and you get a true summer memory.

Looking Ahead

There’s just one Front Street Concerts event left this summer. That’s next Saturday, August 19th, featuring Tim Gearan. If you can get out to Hopkinton next Saturday, it’s well worth it. But you need to RSVP in advance to reserve your spot.

Danielle Miraglia (The Glory Junkies Trio)

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Danielle Miraglia, of course, has several shows on her schedule. Next up is August 26th at Lemifest in Mashpee. Then, on August 27th, as part of the Charles River Reprobates in Newburyport. You can also catch her on September 3rd at the Plymouth Folk and Blues Festival in Plymouth, VT and on September 9th at the 7th Annual Haverford Music Festival in Havertown, PA. Be sure to check the “Shows” page of her website for details and check back regularly to stay current. Indeed, this is one of the thinnest schedules I’ve seen on her website in a while, so I’m sure there will be more shows added soon.

Spotted Tiger also has a few gigs coming up, as noted on their website. They’ll be onstage tonight, August 13th, at Toad in Cambridge, MA. They’ll be at Bull McCabe’s Pub in Somerville, MA on September 22nd. And they have gigs listed in Beverly and Salem, MA and Nashua, NH on various dates from October through February. For more details, see their website.

Live Review: 4EverFab at Ellsworth-McAfee Park

4EverFab at Ellsworth-McAfee Park

photo by Geoff Wilbur

4EverFab

Ellsworth-McAfee Park (Northborough Summer Concert Series), Northborough, MA

August 10, 2107

4EverFab at Ellsworth-McAfee Park

photo by Geoff Wilbur

If you saw my review of The Mychael David Project’s show last summer, you know I’m a big fan of the Northborough Summer Concert Series. It’s a nice park, and the series reliably books talented bands. Tonight was the first time I was able to Northborough for a show this summer, and it was the last show of this summer’s series. I arrived a half hour late, but the show started a half hour late due to some technical problems, so I actually caught what may have been the first song of the evening, “She Loves You.”

It’s easy to critique a bad Beatles tribute band. And a hard critique in such an instance is well-deserved. But it’s hard to know what to write about a good Beatles tribute band. There’s no point in describing the songs; you know them by heart. All I really have to do is mention song titles – don’t worry, I will – and you can hear them in your head. So, was this a good night or a bad night? Well, 4EverFab is widely-booked and popular in a major metro area with plenty of entertainment competition, so you can do the math.

4EverFab at Ellsworth-McAfee Park

photo by Geoff Wilbur

4EverFab covered all of the Beatles’ music styles, from the early stuff to the late stuff, with aplomb. They did a great job with the crunchy rock guitars (like “Back in the USSR”), the edgy psychedelic stuff (“I Am the Walrus”), the harmonies (“Paperback Writer”), the mellower stuff (“In My Life”) and everything in-between. 4EverFab is a talented, tight outfit that could perform a broad range of music beyond the Beatles, too, you’d have to imagine, based on how well they cover the Beatles’ catalog.

Of course, the two-hour set was filled with more favorites: “Penny Lane,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” “Hey Jude,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the Beatles’ “Birthday” song, and many more.

4EverFab at Ellsworth-McAfee Park

photo by Geoff Wilbur

An evening of Beatles hits performed by a top-notch Beatles tribute band like 4EverFab was a great way to end the summer’s outdoor concert series in Northborough, always an ominous sign that the summer is coming to an end.

Looking Ahead

You can catch 4EverFab at several more summer concert series around Massachusetts (and one in NH) this month, starting in Taunton tomorrow night, Friday, August 11; Burlington on August 15; Mansfield on August 16; Lynn-Nahant Beach on August 17; Plainville on August 20; Randolph on August 22; Southbridge on August 27; Danvers on August 28; and Plaistow, NH on August 30. They’ll also be performing at the Topsfield Fair on Saturday, September 30. Keep up with 4EverFab’s live performance schedule here on their website.