Mountain Stage: The Sweetback Sisters and Fitz & the Tantrums

Last night’s Mountain Stage concert featured Bearfoot, The Sweetback Sisters, Katie Costello, Fitz & the Tantrums and Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers.

Let’s be honest here. I really only went to the concert for The Sweetback Sisters and Fitz & the Tantrums. As vastly different as the two bands are, they were equally entertaining and provided the two most exciting sets I’ve seen in Mountain Stage in recent years.

Opening bluegrass band Bearfoot was also surprisingly good. I really wasn’t in the mood for bluegrass and was thus prepared to be bored by their music, but they won me over by the end of their first song. The highlights of their set were the haunting folk ballad “Eyes Cast Down” (co-written by Claire Lynch) and their “Boys II Men” acapella performance of “Billy.” Both songs are featured on Bearfoot’s new album, American Story.

The Sweetback Sisters’ new album, Lookin’ for a Fight, has been by far my most played album of the year and will most certainly be near (if not on) the top of my best of 2011 list. Their classic country inspired album is one of the most fun, catchy collections of songs I’ve ever heard and already makes me feel the affection and amusement of an old favorite album. I was amazed the songs sounded even better live.

The Sweetback Sisters are Emily Miller and Zara Bode and those gals were fierce, funny and absolutely fantastic on stage. Their performance of Lookin’ for a Fight‘s title track was especially feisty and their backing band, which includes West Virginian guitarist-fiddler Jesse Milnes, really tore it up on the cover of The Traveling Wilbury’s “Rattled.” It looked like they had as much fun playing the songs as much as we in the audience did hearing them.

Six-piece ensemble Fitz & the Tantrums’ mix of retro soul, electro-pop and crunchy garage rock also made for quite the lively set. Their electric and bombastic performance had the crowd clapping, singing along and dancing in the aisles. Fitz should really get singer Noelle Scaggs some backup dancers, that girl is a real live wire. Among the crowd pleasers in their set were “MoneyGrabber,” ” L.O.V.” and “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” from their new album, Pickin’ up the Pieces, and a funky soul cover of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.”

Buy Bearfoot’s Music @ Amazon
Bearfoot Official Site

Buy The Sweetback Sisters’ Music @ Amazon
The Sweetback Sisters Official Site

Buy Fitz & the Tantrums’ Music @ Amazon
Fitz & the Tantrums Official Site

Live Review: Mountain Stage & Mavis Staples in Glasgow

Muruch’s new Scottish reviewer, Jamie Morrison, had the wonderful opportunity to attend Mountain Stage’s special concert in Glasgow, Scotland last Friday. The concert featured Joy Kills Sorrow, Dougie McLean, Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore, and the legendary Mavis Staples. Jamie is an old, dear friend and happens to manage Oxfam’s Music Shop (Facebook group: oxfammusicedinburgh or Twitter: @oxfammusicedin) in Edinburgh. His review and pics from the show are below…

Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival, now in its 18th year, is a celebration of tradition that also seeks out and embraces the new – casting its net further afield each year to showcase new trends in traditional music worldwide. This year, at the Royal Concert Hall, the festival hosted the first ever broadcast of American radio show Mountain Stage (based in West Virginia) to take place outside its native country in its 28-year existence. A regular showcase for a wide variety of musical guests of diverse nationalities and styles, the Mountain Stage format implies that music from any and all backgrounds can find common ground and flow together, encouraging an atmosphere of collaboration and appreciation – an ethos that marries perfectly with that of Celtic Connections.

On the bill were Boston-based folk fusion group Joy Kills Sorrow, Scotland’s own Dougie MacLean, husband and wife duo Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore (featuring regular Mountain Stage guest, fiddler Tim O’Brien) and legendary gospel soul singer Mavis Staples – another newcomer to Scotland.

5-piece Joy Kills Sorrow play an engaging mix of midtempo bluegrass with a debt to 60s sunshine pop. Singer Emma Beaton’s vocals are the undoubted focal point; she is possessed with a rich country-inflected voice which occasionally recalls Suzanne Vega. On first due to being double-booked at another Celtic Connections event, they will no doubt be regarded as one of the finds of the festival, after a set characterised by accomplished musicianship and interesting songwriting.

Dougie MacLean took to the stage next, not before a good-naturedly grandiose introduction by compere and host Larry Groce (in which it was claimed that MacLean owned his own distillery, a fact instantly called into question by Dougie himself). He played a short acoustic solo set, showcasing material from throughout his 30-year career. Despite the hushed, introspective beauty of his glossy ballads, MacLean can easily call upon his folk club pedigree to win over an audience, regardless of the size of the venue. This was shown a number of times throughout the set, as he led the audience in singing along to some quite complex choruses, and, at one point, filling in a missing guitar line. Culminating in his signature song, the once-ubiquitous alternative national anthem “Caledonia” (“I’ll get lynched if I don’t play it”) and a new eco-friendly number, it was a crowd-pleasing affair from start to finish.

Well-known to Mountain Stage and Celtic Connections audiences alike, Tim O’Brien, his sister, Mollie O’Brien and her husband Rich Moore presented the transatlantic flipside to MacLean’s set. With a nod to Mountain Stage’s heritage, their version of Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia My Home” soared over the packed auditorium, evoking the same feeling of national longing as MacLean’s “Caledonia.” As Larry Groce astutely pointed out afterwards, this was the message for the whole evening – a sense of unity, of cultural identity being solidified by a common love of music and the lands we call home.

Mavis Staples received a rapturous reception as she made her way onstage, and an atmosphere of anticipation and hushed reverence descended as she and her backing singers (one male, possessing an almighty soul bellow, and two female, both vocally in the same league as Staples herself) launched into an a capella rendition of the gospel standard “I Am His and He Is Mine.” Barely slowing down following this understated opening, Staples and her band assailed us with classic after classic throughout the hour they spent on stage, from the expected to the unexpected, as she flailed her arms at the sky and belted out every line with the energy and fervour of a performer a quarter of her age – particularly during the scream-from-the-rooftops soul of “Freedom’s Highway.”

A major highlight came in the form of the title track of her new album, You Are Not Alone, written for her by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Mellowing the pace after an up-to-then relentlessly rollicking set, the light and shade of Tweedy’s song illuminated a different side to Staples as a performer, as she gave a touching performance, full of emotional strength and assurance.

Despite her (justified) claim that she has earned the right to make a few mistakes here and there, it was, all in all, a flawless set from an admirably tight band and an almost peerlessly seasoned performer.

Mavis was joined on stage at the climax of the show by the previous acts (minus Joy Kills Sorrow) for an ensemble performance of the spiritual “You’re Going To Need Somebody On Your Bond,” in which Larry Groce traded lead vocals with many of the performers from the night (though, thankfully not Mr. MacLean, who possessed the unmistakable air of a deer in headlights!) It was a fitting end, and left us with a sense of Appalachian charm and warmth permeating the grim, foggy Glasgow night. Let’s hope this particularly successful collaboration can become a yearly tradition.

Mountain Stage Official Site

Mountain Stage & Mavis Staples in Glasgow!

Mountain Stage is travelling from West Virginia to Scotland next week for a special concert in Glasgow as part of the Celtic Connections Festival. The magnificent Mavis Staples will headline this unique Mountain Stage concert at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall on January 21st. If you have the opportunity attend, it’s sure to be a fantastic and unforgettable show.

The Event:

Mountain Stage feat. Mavis Staples, Dougie McLean, Joy Kills Sorrow and Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore

Date/Time:

Friday, January 21, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.

Place:

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, G2 3NY

Tickets:

£23, £20, £18 – Buy Online

Mountain Stage Official Site

Please help promote the show by posting about it on your own blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc. This is a great show with a great crew and some amazing guests and they all need your help to make it a memorable night!

Mountain Stage: Anais Mitchell, Danielle Ate The Sandwich, Horse Feathers, Delta Spirit, Black Dub

I expected Sunday night’s Mountain Stage concert to be good, but even I was suprised at just how fantastic it turned out to be. The lineup was Anaïs Mitchell, Danielle Ate the Sandwich, Horse Feathers, Delta Spirit and Black Dub.

Portland, Oregan “chamber folk band” Horse Feathers opened the show with songs from their latest release Thistled Spring.

Led by singer-songwriter Justin Ringle, the band’s current touring lineup is violinist Nathan Crockett, cellist Catherine Odell, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cooper. After seeing Alex Wong, The Low Anthem and Lost in the Trees at Mountain Stage, I’m not as easily impressed by multi-instrumentalists as I used to. However, Sam Cooper ‘s ability to play the banjo and the drums at the same time was nothing short of extraordinary. Unfortunately, his drum set prevented me from getting a good shot of him in action.

The highlights of Horse Feather’s set were the hypnotically sparse title track from the new album and the beautiful ballad “Cascade.”

Next up was the incomparable Anaïs Mitchell. When I first saw Anaïs perform at Mountain Stage two years ago, she played a captivating song called “Why We Build the Wall” from a “folk opera” she was working on at the time. Since then, her “folk opera” was completed, recorded, and released by Righteous Babe Records. Hadestown is by far my favorite album of 2010, and to say I was excited to hear portions of it live would be a chasmic understatement.

The studio recording of Hadestown featured such well known guest vocalists as Ani Difranco, Greg Brown, Petra Haden, Bon Iver, and Ben Knox Milller of The Low Anthem. Sadly, though, it was impossible to book all of those artists for one Mountain Stage show. Instead, Anaïs was accompanied by her Hadestown co-composer Michael Chorney and “The Hadestown Orchestra.” Fine by me, Anaïs’ superbly nuanced voice has more than enough emotion and inflection to portray the entire cast of characters herself.

Since last winter, I have played the Hadestown album on repeat so many times that I know it by heart from beginning to end and love it with a passion and admiration I usually reserve for great literature. The monumental brilliance of the album was difficult to recreate in a live setting without the extra players, but Anaïs was absolutely resplendent and her backing band did an excellent job.

I wrote all about the inspirations, inner workings, and song descriptions in my rave review of the Hadestown album (click title for review). Long story short: Hadestown resets the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a fantastical Depression-era walled city with a gold mine. Proving my point that this isn’t your typical concept album, Anaïs provided little background on the songs she performed at Mountain Stage. Yet the audience obviously enjoyed and enthusiastically responded to each song for its own substantial merit without any need for context.

Anaïs began with “Wedding Song,” the Orpheus and Eurydice love duet that opens the album The stage arrangement and Anaïs’ vocals seemed much more buoyant than on the studio recording, which I think added the crowd’s enjoyment of the song. The faster, jubilant tempo didn’t work as well for Hades’ call-and-response “Why We Build The Wall.” The orchestral stage arrangement didn’t have quite the same chilling impact of Greg Brown’s quietly menacing album version or Anaïs’ previous solo acoustic performance. That slight disappointment aside, though, it was still a great performance.

Anaïs was wonderful as Persephone in the swaggering, speakeasy number “Our Lady of the Underground.” As much as I love Ani DiFranco’s version, I think Anaïs’ voice was better suited to the setting and time period. And hearing Anaïs sing Eurydice’s melancholy theme “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)” live was as moving as expected. She ended her set with “How Long?,” the duet originally recorded as “Hades and Persephone” on The Brightness.

There are several videos on YouTube from the original Hadestown productions, and you can hear Anaïs Mitchell’s solo performance at Mountain Stage of “Why We Build The Wall” at NPR.

Anaïs Mitchell – Flowers (mp3)*
Anaïs Mitchell – Wait for Me (mp3)*

*mp3s hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist’s PR rep Toolshed Media on behalf of Righteous Babe Records

Buy Hadestown @ Amazon

Anaïs Mitchell Official Site

As I said in my review of her album Two Bedroom Apartment, Danielle Ate the Sandwich is Nebraskan singer-songwriter Danielle Anderson and she describes her sound as “seven minutes in heaven with the most popular girl’s significantly less attractive best friend.”

Let me tell you, Danielle is freakin’ adorable in person. And not just because of her cool horn-rimmed glasses and bright green sweater. Her down to earth demeanor, wry in-between songs banter, heartfelt vocals and pretty acoustic melodies quickly charmed the audience. And that girl sure can pluck the life out of a ukulele.

I was a little worried for her having to step in Anaïs Mitchell’s shadow, but I must say Danielle Ate the Sandwich stole the show. If she ever tires of singing, she could easily have a career in standup comedy. She kept thanking us for being nice to her and alternated between self-deprecating quips and grandiose statements to the radio audience about her “amazing” instruments. After confessing her discomfort among “cool-looking musicians,” she said “I look like I made straight A’s, don’t I?”

Jokes aside, her voice was strong and beautiful. Danielle is a prime example of why I hate the current crop of Auto-tuned, packaged pop and country stars. Truly great singers don’t need any effects to make their voices sound perfect. She played “Bribes,” her funny ode to “El Paso,” the audience favorite “We Are Hot Dogs” and “American Dream.” But it was her lovely tribute to her grandfather, “17 and 53,” that stood out most to me.

You can watch and hear Danielle sing several of her own songs as well as some unusual covers at her YouTube channel.

Buy Two Bedroom Apt @ Amazon

Danielle Ate the Sandwich Official Site

Delta Spirit (which I keep confusing with The Duke Spirit) were formed by bassist Jon Jameson and drummer Brandon Young, both former members of Noise Ratchet . The band played songs from their new sophomore album History From Below, the highlights of which were the small-town boy in the big city anthem “St. Francis” and the love gone wrong ballad “Scarecrow.”

Lead singer Matthew Vasquez’ gritty vocals and the band’s combination of dusty tales and rowdy folk-rock were reminiscent of Felice Brothers. They were so good, I was starting to think it was going to be one of those rare Mountain Stage concerts that I loved from beginning to end. It almost was, but then…

Black Dub featuring guitarist-producer Daniel Lanois, singer Trixie Whitley and drummer Brian Blade ended the show with an extended set of rock, soul and Jamaican dub music. They played tracks from their recently released self-titled debut.

The first half of their set was astonishingly good and I was shocked to hear such a big, formidable voice emit from Trixie’s lil body. That girl can wail with the best of them. The highlights were “Surely” and “Sing.”

But when the band switched from soulful blues-rock to what Lanois called “cinematic” music, the evening took a long and boring turn for me. Longtime readers know how I feel about jam bands, and that is what Black Dub became for the second half of their set. The long instrumentals and repetitive vocals seemed popular with the musicians I glimpsed gathered backstage, but it’s just not my thing.

Anaïs Mitchell, Danielle Ate the Sandwich and members of Horse Feathers joined the Mountain Stage band for the group finale – a cover of the traditional “Sinner You’d Better Get Ready.”

Sometimes on these group sings, the whole isn’t equal to the sum of its parts. But this time all the singers sang in glorious harmony and it was one of the better finales to the show I’ve heard.

Mountain Stage: Lost in the Trees, Alejandro Escovedo, and The Felice Brothers

Mountain Stage’s October 17th concert featured Adam Haworth Stephens of Two Gallants, Lost in the Trees, Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore, Alejandro Escovedo, and The Felice Brothers. I reviewed the show for a local newspaper, so I initially didn’t intend to write about it here. But I do enjoy rambling about good music, so here’s an expanded review with more details that pesky newspaper word count wouldn’t allow me to include…

A small but very enthusiastic crowd greeted Sunday night’s Mountain Stage performers.

During the standard pre-show announcements and applause rehearsal, host Larry Groce jokingly blamed the controversial John Raese ad for his casual attire.

For the first time in the show’s history, Mountain Stage engineer Francis Fisher didn’t condemn the audience’s first attempt at cued “spontaneous applause.” He actually said it was “ok.” Groce look visibly disturbed and I know I was! Thankfully, Fisher still requested the usual second practice session and all was well with the world again.

Two Gallants singer Adam Haworth Stephens gave the show a solid start with chiming, harmonica-accented songs from his folk-rock solo debut, We Live on Cliffs. The album features members of My Morning Jacket, Blood Brothers and Vetiver.

Stephens’ voice is similar to labelmate Bright Eyes and to be honest, he sometimes sounded like he was being strangled. But that didn’t matter, because his songs and particularly his Sufjanesque arrangements were grand. He promised at the beginning of his set that he was “gonna get gradually louder as the night proceeds” and he stayed true to his word. For a lil blonde indie guy, Adam Haworth Stephens sure put on a good rock concert.

Wheeling native Mollie O’Brien dueted with Mountain Stage singer Julie Adams on a Robert Randolph tune, and Adams later joined O’Brien and her guitarist husband Rich Moore on stage for their set.

Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore were a big hit with the locals. After twenty-seven years of marriage, the folk duo has finally released their debut studio recording, Saints & Sinners. The album includes a wide range of genres, instrumentation, and musical styles. Whether singing their own original songs or covering classics by Tom Waits, Jesse Winchester, Harry Nilsson, and George Harrison, the supercouple liven things up with splashes of jazz, blues, gospel, and cabaret.

However, it was North Carolina folk orchestra Lost in the Trees that dazzled the crowd during the first hour with their enchanting, multi-instrumental circus. Their latest release All Alone in An Empty House blends folk and acoustic pop melodies with lush orchestral arrangements.

Larry Groce called the band “a cast of thousands” and not since The Low Anthem have I seen so many instruments on one stage. Horns, strings, an accordion…Lost in the Trees had it all.

Singer and accordion player Emma Nadeau’s haunting wail melted beautifully with the band’s string section and drove the quiet melody of their first song up to chill-producing heights. Other songs made fuller, more rhythmic use of the entire orchestra.

Composer Ari Picker charmed the audience by temporarily abandoning the radio microphone to “connect” with them before leading them in a pretty sing-a-long. Theirs was probably my favorite set of the night, which was quiet a feat considering the rest of the lineup. I urge everyone to see Lost in the Trees live if you have the opportunity.

Texan singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo and his band, The Sensitive Boys, kicked off the second hour. Alejandro Escovedo is a favorite in my household and I’ve reviewed several of his albums over the years.

A legend in the folk community, he was named “Artist of the Decade” by No Depression magazine and deemed “his own genre” by Rolling Stone. He counts among his more famous fans Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Calexico, director Jonathan Demme and, to Escovedo’s consternation, former president George W. Bush.

Escovedo began his musical career as a punk-rock guitarist in the 1970s and his band The Nuns once opened for The Sex Pistols. He gradually moved through rock and country during the decades that followed before experimenting with a mixture of Americana, folk, and rock in the 1990s. Embellishing thunderous rock arrangements with delicate classical instrumentation, poignantly personal lyricism, and a heartfelt vocal style, Escovedo created his own beautifully distinctive sound.

Escovedo’s magnificent set was heavy on the noise, centering on songs from his recently released tenth solo album, Street Songs of Love. “Anchor” depicts love as a weight that may hold a person down, but also prevents them from drifting away. The instrumental “Fort Worth Blue” is a tribute to musician Stephen Bruton — a longtime collaborator of Kris Kristofferson and former Mountain Stage guest. Escovedo also played two songs co-written with Chuck Prophet: “Down in the Bowery,” which was affectionately inspired by Escovedo’s angry, punk-lovin’ teenage son, and “Always a Friend” from his previous release, Real Animal.

As the unofficial headliners of the evening, The Felice Brothers provided a fantastic finale. As I said in my review of their 2008 self-titled album, their music is “full of haunting beauty, wild tales, and eerie anachronism.” Their last two albums spanned American history from The Wild West to The Great Depression.

The band played several songs from The Felice Brothers album, including “Wonderful Life,” “Saint Stephen’s End,” “Love Me Tenderly,” and “Goddamn You, Jim” – during which James Felice played the hell out of his accordion.

They also played “Run Chicken Run” from 2009’s less impressive effort Yonder Is The Clock.

The Felice Brothers’ skilled musicianship, on-stage chemistry, and lead singer Ian Felice’s gritty, Dylanesque vocals made even the most somber of their songs an enthralling live experience.