Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2015 – First Artist ‘Announcement’

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Some of the crowd at the Rooster Stage, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2013

From its beginnings in 2001, it’s become one of the largest roots music festivals in the USA.

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Chuck Prophet Goes Night Surfing

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Chuck Prophet’s New Album

Night Surfer

 

I love Chuck Prophet’s work.

A key figure in the influential 1980’s indie band Green and Red, a string of compelling solo records since 1990, a sideman and session musician to many esteemed artists and a man with a damn fine sense of humour.

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Mustered Courage Signs New Record Deal

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AUSTRALIA’S BRILLIANT, CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED
MUSTERED COURAGE,
SIGNS TO TRAVIANNA RECORDS
*
GROUP SETS OUT ON 50 DATE U.S. TOUR

 

Travianna Records has announced the signing of one of Australia’s most individual and sought after Americana bands, Mustered Courage, to the label.  Like the Avett Brothers or The Steel Drivers, Mustered Courage breathes new life into the bluegrass scene with a style that appeals to both traditionalists and newcomers alike.

Based in Melbourne, Australia, the band bridges the gap between traditional bluegrass and modern roots music.  Consisting of three Aussies and a Texas expat. – the quartet has risen to the top of Australia’s folk and roots scene on the strength of their energetic live shows and an eponymous debut album that won them a string of glowing reviews, loads of national radio support, an endorsement from Seal, and a trophy at the 2012 MusicOz Awards (Australia’s Independent Music Awards).

Their latest album Powerlines has also garnered the band two Golden Guitar nominations at the 2014 CMAA Country Music Awards of Australia for Alternative Country Album of the Year and Instrumental of the Year for the track “Allegheny.”

 

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Travianna Records president, Mark Hodges is incredibly excited to bring Mustered Courage’s music to the U.S. “I first saw them last year in Nashville at the world-famous Station Inn when they were here for a short tour and had stopped by to do a showcase at the Americana Music Conference.  Blew me away.  Total Entertainers.  The real deal,” he says.

Mustered Courage’s quick ascent has not gone unnoticed in music industry circles, both in Australia and abroad.  Their down-home picking style has afforded them the opportunity to play many of the major Australian festivals, perform an official showcase at September 2013’s Americana Music Association Conference and Festival in Nashville, and they are about to embark on another 50-date summer tour of the USA this summer, staying through October where they will meet in Raleigh, NC for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass events.

 

It’s GREAT to be seeing such as good outfit going from strength to strength.

 

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Best Coffee – USA Trip 2013

Now we are getting to the serious stuff…

A recent five-week music trip to the USA with friends has concluded, attending the Americana Music Conference and Awards, the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  I visited the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and California and there were many good coffees and many not so good.  I will not dwell on the latter as it may leave a bitter taste in my mouth!).

Having lived in Melbourne Australia for a few years, I have come to embrace the all-pervasive coffee culture here.  A culture to a large extent built upon the influx of Italian immigrants to the city decades ago.  The quest for my kind of coffee was a serious component of the recent music odyssey to America.

I should point out that assessing these coffee spots, it’s not just about what’s in the cup.  It’s also the ambience, service, the food options, the comfort and the WiFi accessibility.

Here are my top caffeine picks.

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Best Food and Lodging – USA Trip 2013

A recent five-week music trip to the USA with friends has concluded, attending the Americana Music Conference and Awards, the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  I visited the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and California and there were many food and lodging stories.

Here I recount some of the best (and a few of the worst) accommodation and culinary experiences… Continue reading

Best Music Experiences – USA Trip 2013

I’ve just returned to Australia from five weeks in the USA with (long-suffering) friends, attending the Americana Music Conference and Awards, the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  As well there were gigs elsewhere along the journey.  I visited the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and California.

I have already offered my favourite gigs for the trip – see previous entry.  As well as a host of specific performances, there were a number of other experiences that were forever memorable on the trip.  Here are my top picks.

8. Paul Kelly – Film, Interview and Songs – Nashville TN

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Emma Swift interviews Paul Kelly

The recent documentary on Paul Kelly, Stories Of Me, was screening at the Nashville Public Library, along with an interview and a short live performance from Kelly.  The film was excellent (I had not seen it before) and it filled in a lot of gaps for me about this iconic Australian.  Journalist and performer Emma Swift conducted the interview and there were a few familiar faces in the audience – Damian Howard, Anne McCue and Kim Richey.  Paul sang three songs from his most recent album Spring and Fall.

The event provided us with an opportunity to examine the impressive Nashville Public Library as well.

7. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Day #3 – San Francisco CA

It was my first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  It took a while to get used to the layout of Golden Gate Park, how to manage the large crowds and get good vantage points and getting to and from each day.  But on day 3 it clicked in beautifully.

One song from the impressive The Deep Dark Woods on the way in, with sets from the exciting duo Shovels and Rope and favourites Kane, Welch and Kaplin to follow.  Ryan Bingham was a revelation with a solo and acoustic set that I have enthused about in my Best Gigs post.  A Kate McGarrigle tribute was next with Martha Wainwright, Sloan Wainwright, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III.  All the gang joined in for a fitting finale.  A quick peek at Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey on the way out.  An action-packed day of musical highlights.

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Martha Wainwright and Maria Muldaur

6. Wide Open Bluegrass Festival (Overall) – Raleigh NC

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At the Red Hat Amphitheatre

The two-day Wide Open Bluegrass Festival that I attended was an eye-opener.  It was only a part of the World Of Bluegrass event which spread over five days, but our two days there were difficult enough to take in – there was:

  • the Awards show on the Thursday night
  • sixteen prime performances at the Red Hat Amphitheatre during the day and night on Friday and Saturday .
  • over fifty bands playing free street events within a few blocks of each other and the Red Hat
  • artist workshops and industry stalls
  • almost two hundred performances at the Bluegrass Ramble at various venues around the city
  • street stalls and impromptu jamming everywhere
  • everything within easy walking

It was pretty challenging to choose what to do and who to see.  But challenging in a really nice way.  The level of musicianship was stunning as was the sheer depth of talent in this one music genre.  Simply thrilling to have a first look of such an event.

5. Bishop Al Green’s Church Service – Memphis TN

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Bishop A.L. Green aka Mr Al Green.

This man today lead the service for 90 minutes – preaching, singing and bringing joy and laughter.  A twenty-odd choir, a full electric band – keys, guitar, drums, base and bongos, as well as a grand piano and three other preachers.

When Al sang “Amazing Grace”, I was so moved – never have I heard the song in such an emotion-charged setting, sung with skill, beauty and elegance.  Never I believe will I hear that tune again with such emotional resonance.  During the plate collection, he sang “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and I was a true believer.  So uplifting.  So optimistic.  So soothing.

At the end of the ceremony, many went up for a blessing – he put his hand on their head and then prayed and sang, other preachers gathered around in case the recipient might fall in a trance-like state.

What an experience and we were lucky that Bishop Green was in Memphis and led the whole service. Praise The Lord.

4. Rodney Crowell Session – Nashville TN

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The Country Music Hall of Fame

As part of Americanafest, there was an interview with Rodney Crowell at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Auditorium.

I say an interview but it was just Crowell taking questions from the audience and playing whatever songs fitted in with the conversation flow.  When, in response to an enquiry about the songwriting craft, Crowell mentioned his experiences with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, I knew we were in for a special experience.

The questions from the assembled were pretty good and we learned an enormous amount – the high standards of Clark and Van Zandt, the perspiration and commitment to songwriting, the influence of the death of his mother on his superb The Houston Kid.  He played the last track he wrote for that album, one that he penned after a dream in which his mother and father said to him that he needed something else to finish the album – that song was “I Know Love Is All I Need”.  You could hear a pin drop.

He also played a new song, I think called “These Houston Blues”, quite a departure from his work with Emmylou Harris on Old Yellow Moon.  The hour and a bit went in a flash – heady stuff.

3. Wayne Jackson Tour Of Stax Museum – Memphis TN
I have waxed lyrical about our experience with Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns and his lovely wife Amy.  A personal tour of Stax Museum and a visit to their home.  Just search “Wayne Jackson” on the home page and you’ll find all the details.  Unforgettable.

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Wayne Jackson in front of The Memphis Horns Exhibit – Stax Museum

2. Americana Music Association Conference and Awards – Nashville TN

This one is pretty simple choice.  In a little over two hours, we witnessed at the Ryman Auditorium:

  • Performances by Delbert McClinton, Holly Williams, John Fullbright, Shovels and Rope, Lennon and Maisy Stella, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, Richard Thompson, JD McPherson, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Milk Carton Kids, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Robert Hunter, Dr John, Dan Auerbach
  • An encore featuring all the above plus Tift Merritt, Joy Williams and Roseanne Cash
  • Lifetime Achievement Awards presented to Hank Williams, Robert Hunter, Chris Strachwitz and Dr John
  • Presenters Jerry Douglas, Ken Burns, Billy Bragg, Chip Esten, Ry Cooder, Nicki Bluhm, Bob Harris, Alejandro Escovedo, Langhorne Slim, Sam Bush, Wilco pair John Stirratt and Pat Sansone,
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The American Honors and Awards finale

1. Americana Music Association Honors and Awards (Overall) – Nashville TN

I’ve already mentioned parts of the Americana Music Conference – the Paul Kelly and Rodney Crowell sessions, as well as the Honors and Awards ceremony.  Three of the great side shows were “Best Gig” performances by John Fullbright, Bear’s Den and Lucinda Williams (see Best Gigs post).  On top of these were:

  • numerous wonderful night-time Showcase performances at various venues around Nashville
  • the Conference sessions featuring some exceptional artists and insights into industry issues
  • other captivating side gigs during the day – the Downtown Presbyterian Church and the Bluebird Cafe
  • Sounds Australia had two key events which exposed many great Australian artists and provided a touch of home
  • all in the beautiful city of Nashville where are lots of other music-related activities

So many highlights.  So many acts not able to be seen because of constant schedule clashes.

An amazing event.

Best Gigs – USA Trip 2013

I’ve just returned to Australia from five weeks in the USA with (long-suffering) friends, attending the Americana Music Conference and Awards, the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  As well there were gigs elsewhere along the journey. I visited the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and California.  I saw performances in Clarksdale MS, Memphis TN, Nashville TN, Raleigh NC, Austin TX and San Francisco CA.

I estimate that I saw over 100 different performances. What were the best ones?

10. The Infamous Stringdusters – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh North Carolina

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The last night in the Red Hat Amphitheatre.  This bluegrass outfit from Nashville released their first album in 2007.  They were on the Americana Conference bill a week before in their hometown but I couldn’t get to see them.

Unlike most bluegrass acts at Wide Open, the Stringdusters have a dobro player which suits my sensibilities.  Four lead singers, aforementioned dobro, banjo, guitar, fiddle and double bass.  Players with persuasive prowess.  Great jamming – absorbing and captivating.  The real ‘grass deal but with Americana cross-over for broader appeal.

9. John Fullbright – Cannery Ballroom – Nashville Tennessee

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John Fullbright

John Fullbright’s recent solo debut From the Ground Up blew me away this year.  He performed one song at the Americana Awards the night before – “Jericho” with gusto and passion.  Tonight he was playing at the Cannery Ballroom, a large venue and we were able to go right up front.
He plays with a sense of urgency and purpose.  A guitar malfunction in the middle of the opening song did not faze him – he simply moved to keyboards.

Most of the material I heard was new to me, a sign of an artist on the move, never wanting to stand still.  A fellow punter in the crowd told me of Fullbright performing a number of times at his house  – I learned a lot from him.  Apparently legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb was playing elsewhere in town and Fullbright dedicated a song to him, indicating that he rather be elsewhere to see Webb perform.

An emerging, forthright and serious artist.

8. Punch Brothers – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh North Carolina

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The second and final night of the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival.

A balmy and still evening. The Del McCoury band had just finished a set and the Punch Brothers were stunningly different.

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile assembled this all-star quintet.  Many of the band seem to have had classical training as it is infused in all their material.  A fascinating, talented and unpredictable outfit.  Recorded output started in 2008.

Be prepared to be challenged.

7. Bear’s Den Downtown Presbyterian Church Nashville Tennessee

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Bear’s Den

Jenny and I got to the church as the first act on the bill Black Prairie started.  Bear’s Den were next.

Bear’s Den is a three-piece from London, beautiful harmonies – two guitars, one acoustic and one electric (or banjo) and the drummer (who also sometimes played bass at the same time!).   I had no preconceptions about the band and I was captivated by their vocals, songwriting and banter.  The sound in the large, square, flat-topped church was brilliant.  Also, having a gig in a church has one huge advantage – no noisy bar and people talk only in whispers. It is all about the music.

I saw the band again that evening at the Mercy Lounge and was fortunate enough to see them on my return to Melbourne.  One EP has been released and another about to become available.  They had driven fifteen hours to make the church gig and they were out of their feet.  It didn’t show.  A delightful surprise.

6. Calexico – Slim’s – San Francisco

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Joey Burns – Calexico

My third live viewing of this band did not disappoint.

Calexico had played at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that day, finishing just before 7.  The band spent a lot of time sound-checking (presumably they had no other time to do it) and by 10.15 they launched into “Pepita”.  To say their performance was a sheer joy is an understatement.  Much of their set comprised about seven songs from their most recent New-Orleans-recorded release Algiers which is a fine addition to the band’s impressive discography.

Favourites such as “Alone Again Or” and “Not Even Stevie Nicks” were well received.  By the time they completed a rousing encore with “Guero Canelo”, the assembled were very content.

An excellent support set from Robert Ellis as well.

5. Peter Rowan – Raleigh Convention Centre – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh NC

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Peter Rowan and Michael Cleveland

 

Rowan had an eight piece line-up behind him with a very strong communal and familial feeling.  In fact it wouldn’t surprise if he hadn’t assembled the players from the hotel lobby – beautiful players all.

Michael Cleveland was absolutely stellar on the violin – you might like to check him out (see right).  He has won the Best Bluegrass Violinist Award nine times.

The forty-five minute set was over in what seemed a flash.  There’s a calm and a simplicity about this man with a glorious history.  I later chatted with his mandolin player Chris and collected Rowan’s excellent new CD Old School.

4. Ryan Bingham – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – San Francisco

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Ryan Bingham

Ryan Bingham is now based in L.A. His career is on a strong upward trajectory.

An Oscar-winning song for the movie Crazy Heart, the prestigious “Artist Of The Year” award from the Americana Music Association, an impressive and growing discography.   Today it was Just him and a fiddle player which provided a nice variation as I had last seen him with a full band in Austin.

It was a slow and moving set – just the guitar, fiddle and harmonica.  He evoked the spirit of Woody Guthrie.

An excellent set, one which convinced me that he is a roots music star in the making.

3. Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express – The Make Out Room San Francisco California

prophetWhat a great performance we saw that night.  Chuck was in brilliant form – his band the Mission Express was on fire.

After some pretty mellow music over some of our trip (at Hardly Strictly and Wide Open Bluegrass Festivals), it was thrilling to get a high-octane rock show and even more so for me to see an artist that I have followed for many years but never had the opportunity to see live.

A privilege to be there.  Another punter told me he had seen Prophet about twenty times and this was the pinnacle performance.  Peter Case was a special guest.

The Mission Express comprised James DePrato on guitar, Kevin White (bass) Stephanie Finch (keyboard and vocals – nice version of “Different Drum”) and Vincente Rodriguez (drums).  (The “Mission Express” is a bus line that runs through Chuck’s neighbourhood).

2. The Black Lillies – Levitt Shell – Memphis Tennessee

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Levitt Shell

 

Now for me and my companions, The Black Lillies’ performance was a revelation, above and beyond our high expectations.

Since picking up the band’s excellent 100 Miles Of Wreckage, I have been a big fan and enjoyed their follow-up release Runaway Freeway Blues which enhances their reputation.  When I discovered they were playing in Memphis in September we made sure our trip itinerary was altered to see them play.

Sensational. I have waxed lyrical about this band previously on this site – see previous entries.  This night we got to see Levitt Shell where Elvis Presley first performed professionally.  An outdoor venue with a gentle grassy slope for universal viewing.  It was a balmy night and we managed to get a park bench right up the front. The mood was festive, families on rugs and much dancing. The band performed their distinctive alternative country material with flair.  And it was free.

1. Lucinda Williams – 3rd and Lindsley – Nashville Tennessee

20131024-115138.jpgI think I have seen Lucinda live about four times to date.  But nothing came close to what I witnessed this night.

The gig was centred around the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of her third and self-titled album, one of my absolute favourites.  The band was much the same as on her last tour of Australia – Stuart Mathis on guitarist (awesome), Butch Norton on drums and David Sutton bass.

The sound was a good as I have ever heard.  Lucinda was relaxed and her voice strong and true – the great songs just kept coming, from her album aforementioned and others – she showcased a new song “Something Wicked This Way Comes”.  Jim Lauderdale guested on many of the songs.  A cover of Gregg Allman’s “I’ll Make My Cross again” was excellent and the blistering band building to the encore Neil Young’s “Rocking In The Free World”.

The support act The Kenneth Brian Band were really interesting (“country-fried rock n roll”).  The table we were on provided us with some interesting discussions at first and some revelry later.

A joy. The best concert I have seen this year.  The best sound.  The audience rapturous and adoring.  It was a stunning night and perfect way to close the Americana Conference and Awards.