Bonnaroo’s Decade of Dust & Dreams: Jacket’s Sonic Beauty, the Sightings of Ben Sollee, & So Much More

June 19, 2011

Trekking down to Manchester, Tennessee for another music festival touches the body and soul like embarking on a mission trip or a fishing trip or a combat mission – where music fandom stretches your physical limits to achieve a limitless emotional and spiritual experience.

The social barometer consulted by our neighbors in the mid-South sees us as suffering a mild form of insanity, but that doesn’t stop us from returning again and again – despite logic and basic boundaries as to what a human can endure. This year, in a late spring where the weather’s been remarkably wet and mild, our convergence weekend wore us out by being unusually hot and dry.

With an outer composure hiding an excitement that hasn’t subsided even in my sixth year attending and an inner howl of “Bonaroo-hoo” warming my blood,  I headed off with a crew of coworkers and best friends for the tenth anniversary of a world-renowned and somewhat risky weekend of concerts, community, and collaboration.

Doing three days instead of four this year, I knew that Friday alone would be worth the journey. Making my first stop at our “home base” inside the Academy tent in Planet Roo meant stumbling into a mesmerizing and mellow chanting workshop led by the Rahasya crew from Athens, Georgia. In general, Bonnaroo doesn’t need to sell counterculture stereotypes or cultivate its jam band reputation because these notions tagalong regardless of how close they resemble reality. But in the case of these folks bringing the day by humming “Hare Krishna,” this welcome flashback to the early 1970s calibrated our inner spaciousness in a way that we could spread across the weekend. (Besides all the overt instances of jam band and classic rock that populated the schedule, the indy-Americana of Low Anthem came sweating into Saturday afternoon so steeped in retrophilia that a song like “Hey, All You Hippies” functioned as a sort of audio time machine for those who hadn’t already left the temporal realm by other means.)

Seeking my first serious headliner on Friday took me to The Other Tent at the edge of Centeroo for a rousing afternoon revival with the incomparable rockabilly hipster Justin Townes Earle. Like his father did in this same tent a few years ago, JTE reminded us how crazy we were for spending the whole weekend roasting in the heat with our fellow fans. His sizzling set brought our first Ben Sollee sighting of the weekend, as the Kentucky singer-cellist-activist came onstage to add cello to “Mama’s Eyes” and background vocals to “Harlem River Blues.”

As afternoons at Roo this year meant grilling one’s flesh like a burger in a global solar barbecue, we decided to seek refuge in the fabled and air-conditioned Cinema Tent. After cooking some more in line, we were able to score seats for the screening of Louisiana Fairytale, Danny Clinch’s documentary about the collaboration between My Morning Jack and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Immersion in the cool dark room as deep journey into dynamic devotional: a musical and cultural cross-pollination placed me in a religious mood that would last into the night. My Morning Jacket pay homage to the past as it lives in the present, presenting themselves to us as a tribal tributary that links heart and sound, sharing a roots reverence and popular lineage that taps history without cheapening it. At the movie’s conclusion, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band kicked it out live, much to the delight of the packed house of patrons.

Even though we were able to catch some of Ray Lamontagne’s set on Which Stage that included many of my favorite tracks from last year’s excellent God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, his lack of conversation between songs combined with the day’s lingering heat, gave the performance a detached mellow and lazy mood that has historically been a real detriment to artists who’ve performed on Which Stage during daylight hours. Such was the steamy curse that I recall from a particularly alienating Animal Collective show in 2009 and that this time around afflicted the wispy waiflike work of Lamontagne and Amos Lee later in the weekend. Luckily, we’d see some folks defy the dusty odds and do their best to play their best even in the daylight.

Field of Dreams: the Jacket’s Victory Dance

As dusk quickly approached, though, we found ourselves on the crowded walk towards What Stage to grab a spot for the Jacket’s 8pm slot, seeking a particular piece of lawn where we could spread out and dance. Leaving the pit and the several rows after it to the patient folks willing to press, we really got a sense of the vastness of the main Bonnaroo venue by laying our blanket halfway back, with the VIP section just behind us and the waxing moon above. Seeing this band for about the tenth time brought layers and levels of emotion based on how their music meets me on a spiritual plane and in sheer anticipation of how they’d weave in the new songs that I’d been listening to for about ten days since Circuital had been released.

The opening one-two of “Victory Dance” and “Circuital” perfectly tones the crowd to connect with the new tunes – from the spine-chilling trumpet solo that kicked off the set as though “Taps” were playing in the belly of our common memory to Jim’s otherworldly wail at the end of “Victory Dance” to the comforting way the new record’s title track tracks our cellular responsiveness to the Jacket’s versatile jangle and sparkle.

Immediately switching gears to three soaring hits from 2005’s Z, the setlist immediately attracted anyone who wasn’t already reeling towards bliss. “Off The Record” opens slowly before slinking into lyric and hook and a danceable refrain that had the mass of thousands grooving along joyfully; then, suddenly, at midsong we meet the kind of whacked and wicked jam that makes the Jacket the Jacket, that stretches every player in the band to follow its tangly riffs into the manna of meaning as Bo Koster’s keyboards carry us to the misty mountaintops of rock and roll bliss. Followed by the fierce glory of “Gideon” and the playful abandon of “Anytime,” the party was fully underway, with James then greeting the “ocean of humanity” by announcing the occasion as an entirely surreal, mind-blowing, and “magical honor.”

At Roo, the everyfan’s festival, many bands forget their roots as fans, arrive just in time to do their set, and leave with similar haste. That’s not the case with My Morning Jacket who have been like pillars of the whole Bonnaroo project since its earliest years, always hanging out to catch other artists and really taking things to the next level with late-night sets of legend in 2006 and 2008.  For two hours on Friday night, we got to give the Jacket their due by giving them such a premier place in the schedule, and the Jacket just poured the love back out on us.

Even though only a handful of tracks from 2008’s excellent but polarizing Evil Urges have remained in the set, the journey that injects “Smokin’ from Shootin’” into a snippet from “Run Thru” (a 2003 track) and then collapses into the arms of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part Two” undoubtedly torques listeners into a state of rotation and levitation that leaves little doubt that this band has no qualms about bending the tilt of the universe for the time that it’s onstage each night.

Intentionally or inadvertently, My Morning Jacket give a ton of credibility to the narrative that the moment of Circuital signals a retro movement all about returning to the band’s roots by playing more songs from the 2003 pre-breakout album It Still Moves than they do from either Z or Evil Urges. And even though I did miss hearing “It Beats for You,” “Wonderful,” Librarian,” “Dondante,” and “Evil Urges,” to name a few, neither the focus on the new album nor on the older, jammier jams from earlier in the century in any way diminished the devastating beauty of the entire evening for me.

From their funkiest and freakiest with newer tracks like “Highly Suspicious” or “Holdin’ On To Black Metal” to the culminating guitar-god pyrotechnics of “Dancefloors” diving into “One Big Holiday,” My Morning Jacket made my night and my weekend with what may have been one of their career’s most important sets to date. For me, it meant watching and dancing from a vaster vantage point, from a different distance and angle, from a more mature but no less appreciative perspective. As far as I can tell, the latest album embraces all these added textures in what is already a many layered rock and roll masterpiece of a musical vocation.

Festival Gospel and Living Greats

Nobody pretends that Bonnaroo is a gospel festival or that when most people use the term “religious” to define the weekend that they really mean it in any other than the figurative, symbolic, or mythopoetic sense. Nonetheless, in ways that might surprise people who have never caught one of these shows or are skeptical of such old-fashioned spirituality in general, Bonnaroo offers plenty of bonafide soul songs for people who want to get their Jesus on or feel the Holy Spirit moving in ways that don’t require chemically-induced imitations of infinity.

With Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens and then Mavis Staples, both Saturday and Sunday afternoons kicked off with healing services on main stages, giving us what Staples said would be the closest thing to church we’d find inside Bonnaroo. Complete with arm-waving ambiance and “Amen” shouts, the altitude and attitude of the sun-kissed masses shifted as we got a taste of the Son – whether that’s what we were looking for or not.

Later Saturday afternoon saw the sought after Mumford & Sons show overwhelm the capacity of the Which Stage field for a stunning 90-minute set that included several new songs and all-out closing jam of “Amazing Grace” with support from members of Old Crow Medicine Show and Apache Relay. As great of a show as the Mumfords was, we snuck away to catch some of a veritable legacy Loretta Lynn over at That Tent. In a similar fashion on Sunday, we decided to forgo Iron & Wine to watch Cold War Kids but then ditched CWK to hear a few tracks from living legend Gregg Allman.

Such is the reality of seeing shows at Bonnaroo: you don’t ever see all the shows you want, and you often stop short of seeing all of one show just to catch a moment of another one. Sometimes this decision making is based on which artists I have seen before and which artists I expect to have the chance to see again.

One set that stood out among the others as a “must see” and “might never see again” came Sunday afternoon with Daniel Lanois’s new project Black Dub, featuring Lanois on guitar, Trixie Whitley on vocals, Brian Blade on drums, and Daryl Johnson on bass. For years, I’ve followed Lanois as the legendary U2 co-producer, and this was my first opportunity to hear him with his own group. For some reason, This Tent wasn’t terribly packed for the set; we got a great spot in the center of it all, in front of the sound board, and just sank our toes into the sandy floor and soaked in the funky, jazzy, clubby, soulful, and pleasant assault on the senses.

Cheesy Does It & Our Late Night Danceathon

Sleep at Bonnaroo is both rare and precious, and the musical schedule both dares sleep-deprivation and defies what’s even possible. As I grow older into the festival, I’ve had to sacrifice some shows for others, and I’ve had to prioritize rest. Now, many people might think I was crazy to skip both Buffalo Springfield and Eminem (skipping Black Keys was no big deal, having seen them many times before, including a real disappointment at the Ryman last year). But as soon as the sun set Saturday, I took a nap in order to be able to enjoy one of the fabled Bonnaroo late nights (which are in fact very early mornings).

Rising from my rest around midnight meant enjoying shows under the cover of darkness, with thinner crowds and cooler temperatures. And we found it amazingly easy to make our way from tent to tent to stage, taking in bits of Scissor Sisters, Dr. John, String Cheese Incident, and STS9 – and still making it back to the tent long before dawn. I don’t what it is about slipping from the simply sleazy gay disco of the Sisters to the mojo-moving Louisiana hoodoo of Dr. John to the eclectic cheesy jammy-pleasing work of String Cheese or STS9, but I was able to get my dance on in every case and loved the last stroll home with Cheese ripping through their closer, an awesome cover of U2’s “Mysterious Ways.”

The Wild World of Ben Sollee

On Sunday morning, we were browsing some booths when we stumbled across Ben Sollee giving an impromptu unplugged concert outside the Oxfam American tent in Planet Roo. We heard his track “Electrified” and a cover of Cat Stevens’s “Wild World.” Having arrived at ‘Roo in 2009 by bicycle, Sollee required many golf-cart shuttles this time around to show up at just about everything.

Even though we missed his actual headline set, we saw him jam with Justin Townes Earle, My Morning Jacket, and Low Anthem. We caught a bit of his set on the Sonic Stage and this spontaneous Planet Roo set. We also saw him marching in a protest parade around Centeroo with the folks from Mountain Justice Summer, advocating an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. And when we were deeply enjoying the Black Dub show, we looked behind us to see Ben Sollee just digging the set as a fan.

In a musical and cultural world where borrowing is both blessing and necessity, it’s hard to call very many artists original anymore, but Ben Sollee’s invigorating and innovative blend of cello, songwriting, and singing sure comes close. Add to that his warm activist spirit, and we have a real force for good in the world, embodying the best of what we’d like a festival of Bonnaroo’s magnitude to be.

With an anchor in the arts, music, theater, spoken word, gardening, drumming, and dancing classes we taught back at the Academy and with as many shows as I could manage when not working, eating, or sleeping, another Bonnaroo came and went quickly. With attendance such a miracle in logistics and a marathon in persistence, each year I tell myself that it could be my last. We’ll wait for the lineup to be announced in early 2012 and for our Academy plans to coalesce. We’ll wait and see and recover and rest. In the meantime, we have dusty memories (as well as pictures, videos, and downloads) documenting our dreams all over the web. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

My Morning Jacket pictures by Jeff Kravitz; Black Dub picture by Morgan Harris; courtesy of Bonnaroo.com; all other pictures by Andrew William Smith. For more information: Bonnaroo.com


Combination, Collaboration, Liberation: The Best Music of 2010

January 1, 2011

Each employing different methods of compiling and listing, Interference editors and webzine writers bring you some “Best Of 2010 musical picks.

Luke Pimentel, Editor

5. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening

4. The Walkmen, Lisbon

3. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

2. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma

1. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor


Colin Alford, Contributing Writer

The End of ’10: A Music Fan’s Favorites

It’s the end of December, so its the time of year when music fans nitpick, bicker, and argue heatedly over what should be considered “the best”.  Personally, I spent most of 2010 with 2009′s albums in heavy rotation, so I’m not qualified to judge what was best this year.  Since most of the albums I bought will end up being praised on various high traffic blogs or large circulation magazines, I’ve decided to skip the critic in me and write as a music fan.  Few of the records I picked up this year were acutely memorable; therefore, I am limiting my list to songs only.  So without further ado, here’s my 2010 aural report.

Mac Miller – “Outside”

I’m not typically a fan of rap and hip-hop.  I’m also not overly enthusiastic about songs singing the praises of the drug culture.  However, Mac Miller’s ode to the blithe and bucolic days of youth always puts a bounce in my step and a smile on my face.  The best songs make a synesthete out of even the tone deaf, and “Outside” vividly conjures sunny, Southern days spent sliding on creek beds and warm, summer nights on back porches with coolers full of beer and the best of company.

Jamey Johnson – “Can’t Cash My Checks”

For many of us, the last years of the “naughties” will be remembered as a time when money was itself a luxury item.  Jamey Johnson’s album, The Guitar Song, perfectly captures the fear and uncertainty present throughout the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Especially haunting is his song “Can’t Cash My Checks.”  On the chorus, Johnson moans, “You can’t cash my checks/And you can’t feel this hunger/You can push me into the water/ But you can’t hold me under.”  During a time when the middle class is shrinking, the poignancy of Johnson’s lyrics transcend the class lines typically drawn by country music, making this song a true work of art if only for its timeliness.

Yeasayer – “Ambling Alp”

If Hell were personalized, mine would be a room with The Breakfast Club on eternal loop while a man in spandex with big hair played me songs composed on his keytar synthesizer.  That being said, Yeasayer’s retro infused romp through the 80′s, “Ambling Alp”, has been the most repeated song on my stereo this year.  The gooey, flashback inducing intro is instantly memorable, and the drum beat, hook and melody sound like they were stolen from Phil Collins’s wet dreams.  If you like your sugary sweet pop music with more than a dallop of reverb and a side of sawtooth leads, this song is sure to satisfy.

Arcade Fire – “Modern Man”

I have finally reached the age when many of my friends have graduated, have real jobs, are married, and have kids.  So when I first heard Arcade Fire’s newest album, The Suburbs, I was intensely moved.  “Modern Man” is the track that stands out the most, as it epitomizes the angst only the aging young can have about their lives.  The vocal performance bellows the urgent dread of becoming numb to youthful passions while the guitar hook is pure, juvenile pop.  Though the album ultimately closes the chapter on the frivolity of juvenescence, this song encapsulates what it feels like to be stuck in the mire that is growing up.

Josh Ritter – “Another New World”

If there was ever a musician who deserved the title of poet, it is Josh Ritter.  His 2010 release includes what will undoubtedly be his lyrical masterpiece, “Another New World.”  Using the same meter as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, Ritter crafts a story of adventure, intrigue, heartbreak, and ultimately despair through a captain and his beloved ship, the Annabel Lee.  In 7:39, Ritter amalgamates the best of 18th century Romantic literature into a single song.  This gothic horror version of Captain Ahab cannot be topped by any of the best 1960′s folk songs.

Far East Movement – “Like A G 6″

Every year, Top 40 radio never fails to provide me with a guilty pleasure.  While Kesha kept me busy last year and most of this year, “Like A G 6″ quickly became my favorite way to feel guilty when I heard it last month.  The simple, repetitive beat raises my primal urge to move, and there is something oddly sexy about the boozy, nonchalant vocal delivery on the chorus.  I have no idea what the lyrics say nor inclination to find out, but I’m sure that the Far East Movement will keep my head bobbing into the new year.

Amelia Tritico, Contributing Writer

I’m an avid music listener, but it takes me a while to warm up to the current musical trends, so much so that I’m usually at least one year behind.  For example, though “Gold Digger,” by Kanye West debuted in 2005, it didn’t show up on my radar until 2009.  Yeah, that’s how far behind I am.  I like to look at it as me savoring what I am listening to.  This year, I’ve become enamored with the Glee Season 1 soundtrack, The Best of Etta James and all things Southern Rock.  Just to show that I’m not completely out of the loop, however, I have complied a list of my top albums of 2010.    (These albums were actually released this year, and these artists are actually current.)

My Top Albums of 2010 (in no particular order)

Ray LaMontagne and The Pariah Dogs – God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise

I’ll always be a fan of this guy.  This album is little bit rootsier than his previous albums and definitely a big step away from the horns-driven “You Are The Best Thing.”  Nevertheless, it’s beautiful in its own rite.  My favorite track is “New York City’s Killing Me,” but the rest follow suit right up to “The Devil’s in the Jukebox.”

The Dirty Guv’nahs – Youth Is In Our Blood

This album takes number one for my summer jams!  I dare you to listen to “We’ll Be the Light,” “Baby We Were Young” and “It’s Dangerous” without at least tapping your foot.  Expect great things from these guys in the future.  Six intelligent, passionate guys from Knoxville, Tenn. on a mission to show people what rock ‘n’ roll is really about.  It’s feel-good music at its very best with life lessons snuck in when you least expect it.

Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer

A little out of place in my top albums, Cee Lo Green’s The Lady Killer made the top cut for me simply because I just love R&B.  There’s a lot of good, modern R&B out there, but I’m a sucker for the artists that hint at throwbacks while creating amazing, new music.  I really feel Cee Lo Green hit the nail on the head with this album.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals – Grace Potter & The Nocturnals

Potter first caught my attention a few years ago with This Is Somewhere, so I anxiously anticipated the release of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. I definitely wasn’t disappointed.  With more polished lyrics and punchier melody lines, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals have established themselves in the world of rock ‘n’ roll and aren’t going away anytime soon.

Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues

Earle is my completely new artist for 2010.  I had never even heard of him until I was asked to write a review of Harlem River Blues. One listen through the album, and I was hooked.  “One More Night In Brooklyn,” was stuck in my head for at least a week, and “Christchurch Woman,” has that repeat button quality.  Great album overall!

Carole King and James Taylor – Live At The Troubadour

Okay, you got me, the material on this album isn’t exactly new, but it’s refreshing that after fifty-plus years of making music for King and forty-plus years for Taylor, they still have that special spark.  All my favorites from both of them were on the album, and that’s why it made my top albums of 2010.

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Though I haven’t quite caught the Mumford & Sons fever, yet, I have listened to the album a few times through.  I am in tune enough to know that these guys are huge.  I’m sure I will love them by this time next year.  Talented blokes from England that have a knack for literature through song, how could I not end up loving them eventually?

She & Him – Volume Two

Volume Two continues the mission of Volume One: create simple music while paying homage to those who created simple music before them.  Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have a knack for creating great music.  I didn’t like Volume Two quite as much as I liked Volume One, but I liked it enough to look forward to hearing Volume Three should they decide to make it, and I hope they do.

Andrew William Smith, Editor

I’d have to say that 2010 was another great year for new music. This list comes in the form of an annotated playlist that includes the artist, a song, the album release date, all followed by a brief comment on the music’s emotional/spiritual impact on my life.

Kanye West–Lost In The World (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released November 22, 2010) Without weighing in on the layers of love, hate, and hype that surround Mr. West, “I’m lost the World/I’m new in the city” captures a year of much transformative transition for me where the angels and devils of reality revealed their faces oh-so-clearly.

Cee Lo Green – Old Fashioned (The Lady Killer, released November 5, 2010) In a century where old-school has felt entirely fresh, it’s hard not to get intoxicated by records that sound this timeless.

Yeasayer – I Remember (Odd Blood, released February 8, 2010) A hidden spring gurgles up tribal memories for the future, narrating liberation and romance as it goes down, outside my head and in my headphones.

Jonsi – Go Do (Go, released April 5, 2010) Euphoric Icelandic vegetarian falsetto sings in English what could easily be the anthem for my life (and also, apparently, for car commercials) on an album of sweet affirmation. “You will survive we´ll never stop wonders/You and sunrise will never fall under/We should always know that we can do anything.” May it be so! And what are we waiting for?

Sufjan Stevens – Now That I’m Older (The Age of Adz, released October 12, 2010)

Wisps of wisdom, whispers of reflection, and in this refraction, I finally got infected by Sufjan’s vision. Impending maturity feels better by the day.

Frightened Rabbit – Swim Until You Can’t See Land (The Winter of Mixed Drinks, released March 1, 2010) An anthem and epiphany of letting go and moving on. Song still moves after multiple listens. Listen: “Swim until you can’t see land/Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?/Up to my knees now, do I wait? Do I dive?” And finally: “Let’s call me a baptist, call this the drowning of the past.”

Band Of Horses – Evening Kitchen (Infinite Arms, released May 18, 2010) Crafted songcrafters come crisply into cozy maturity, singing songs that linger on the soul, leaving a sweet aftertaste of truth: “And if you’re ever left with any doubt/What you live with and what you’ll do without/I’m only sorry that it took so long to figure out.”

Kings Of Leon – Pickup Truck (Come Around Sundown, released October 19, 2010)When I moved to the mid-south from the midwest in the mid-90s, I had no idea that our music city would become the icon of rock that it is. These kings follow the footsteps of the king and give good guilty pleasure and hometown pride.

J Roddy Walston And The Business – Used To Did (J Roddy Walston And The Business, released on July 27, 2010) I “used to did,” but “now I didn’t.” Tell it like it is (!) in balls loose lightning boogie.

The Black Keys – Next Girl (Brothers, released on May 18, 2010) On Brothers, the Keys get honest, and so must I: as in life, so in love, we make mistakes, and we move on. I am so glad that I too got another chance.

John Mellencamp – No Better Than This (No Better Than This, released August 17, 2010) It defies and fulfills logic that the same man who thrilled the radio with “Hurt So Good” or “Jack and Diane” some three decades ago would be a wise-and-fit elder and prophetic poet of a country-church-meets-hotel-room Americana. Go John.

Robert Plant – Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down (Band of Joy, released September 14, 2010) Traditional and medicinal, this magical hymn makes amends and bends the narrative. Nothing against Zepheads pining for a reunion, but these Nashville-fueled folk-fusions bury the dead of that epic past with a musical dawn we all hope will last.

Laura Marling – Devil’s Spoke (I Speak Because I Can, released March 22, 2010) Forget all notions that folk this good, this haunting, and this beautiful is all pentangled up in the past. Marling moves the mountain of your soul with her sole sincerity and stunning singing.

Ray LaMontagne And The Pariah Dogs – Devil’s In The Jukebox (God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, released August 17, 2010) Maple syrup slips on an old mountain road as Ray rips Joe Cocker-croons about yellow moons, a slinky serenade with slow sexy steam—kitchen kicking summer soundtrack still soothes on winter playback.

Delta Spirit – Devil Knows You’re Dead (History From Below, released June 8, 2010) Give a man a roof and road and a lyric sheet to pen eulogies like this.Matt Vasquez visualizes with his mouth a musical truth outside time but for our times and of our time. I am honestly surprised this record has not found a wider audience and a higher acclaim.

The Tallest Man On Earth – Burden of Tomorrow (Wild Hunt, released April 13, 2010) Gritty folksinger Kristian Mattson is “carving riddles,” and we are fed when we listen.

Justin Townes Earle – Workin’ for the MTA (Harlem River Blues, released September 13, 2010) Just his name conjures a jones for his voice, Justin Townes Earle owns retro folkabilly with metro sensibility and sears the ears and banishes fears.

Ryan Bingham – The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart Soundtrack, January 19, 2010) Bingham brings it on this song and on his album Junky Star. I began the year in a ball of tears in an almost-empty Nashville movie house on a weekday afternoon. We drove an hour to see a film which unrolled our lives on celluloid. This song won an Oscar for its plaintive summary of the alcoholic artist’s path. It sounds so sad, but its message is ultimately so hopeful.

Mumford & Sons – Roll Away Your Stone (Sigh No More, released February 16, 2010) On the hottest and dustiest of afternoons that would be Bonnaroo, I crammed to the front of the tent to sing this song out-loud with a few thousand other frenetic fans. Like so many other songs this year, the lyrics here say what I am thinking before I think, tapping my feelings with profundity: “It seems that all my bridges have been burned/But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works/It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart/But the welcome I receive with the restart.”

Anais Mitchell – Why We Build The Wall (Hadestown, released March 9, 2010) Duets and collaborations remind that music is ultimately a community affair for campfires, barn-raisings, work parties, weddings, funerals, rallies, protests, and prophecies. Mitchell and an army of friends make it real for all-of-the-above-and-them-some, preachin’ it with such precise passion that we don’t mind her preachin’ about walls and how wars are never won and how poverty is the enemy.

Natalie Merchant – Peppery Man (Leave Your Sleep, released released April 13, 2010) While some critics cast aspersions at Merchant for getting too maternal and professorly on this dynamic and dissertationesqe collection, the combination of folk genres and folksy themes is anything but sleepy. When Natalie toured through Nashville and brought these songs to the Ryman Auditorium, she mentioned the powerful experience of working with our own gospel luminaries the Fairfield Four on this phenomenal track.

Mike Farris & The Cumberland Saints – Down On Me (The Night the Cumberland Came Alive, released October 26, 2010) Another great gift of the last year: further discovering rock-blues-gospel-Americana sparkplug Mike Farris and getting the spirit at the revival of his live shows. On this disc, a cast of collaborators (including the McCrary Sisters, daughters of the aforementioned Fairfield Four) and local champions take it to church (literally, in this live recording cut in a local sanctuary) to offer musical healing and Nashville flood relief.

Patty Griffin – Move Up (Downtown Church, released January 26, 2010) Mike Farris most likely got the idea to record at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church after collaborating on Patti Griffin’s deeply personal, heartfelt, and universally-appealing folk-gospel album simply called Downtown Church, one of many recent efforts to tastefully and dramatically bridge the indy-folk-Americana and traditional gospel genres.

Mavis Staples – Wrote A Song For Everyone (You Are Not Alone, released September 14, 2010) Getting “born again” (again!) as a Christian in middle age can really alter one’s music-listening-as-meditation habits, and I am so thankful for all the great gospel that crosses-over to indy and inclusive and intelligent, making an altar of sound in my heart and mind. Mavis Staples is a grand matron of rock-pop-gospel anthems, and this new record really earns an “Amen.”

Lizz Wright –I Remember, I Believe (Fellowship, released on September 28, 2010) Following in the steps of the Staples family tradition as well as that of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Lizz Wright spins so much sweet honey to soothe the sinner’s soul with a testimony towards salvation and liberation.

This playlist aired live on Monday, January 3 at 8pm CST on Teacher On The Radio on WTTU 88.5 FM in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Justin Townes Earle & the Essence of American Music

September 26, 2010

Reminiscent of times past, Harlem River Blues draws upon many influences creating an album that could easily capture a multitude of audiences.  From the graceful whine of the steel guitar to soulful horns to walking bass lines, Harlem River Blues captures the essence of American music.

As the son of singer-songwriter Steve Earle and named for Townes Van Zandt, Justin Townes Earle was bound to musically shine at some point in his life.  I think Harlem River Blues announces Earle’s arrival in the spotlight.

Though each song on the album would most likely fit in a different era, Earle’s songwriting allows his music to transcend decades.  In fact, if it weren’t for the lack of vinyl static and his mention of things such as “satellite radio,” one might feel transported to country music’s golden history.

Each track seems to build upon the one before it creating smooth transitions of sounds that take the listener on a journey from Brooklyn to Tennessee and even Chicago.  The album’s title track, “Harlem River Blues”, kicks off the record with familiar bluesy country riffs, and each consecutive track is a pleasure to the ears.

“One More Night in Brooklyn,” has an infectious quality that causes automatic hip swaying as Earle sings, “One more night in Brooklyn.  Baby, we’re getting lost.”

The third track on the album, a fast moving tune with an almost rockabilly inclination, “Move Over Mama,” is about a woman that has become too comfortable being alone.

“Slippin’ and Slidin’,” employs gritty guitar, wailing horns and poignant organ to lull the listener into a soulful, musical coma.  As Earle sings, “Darling, I just need a little company.  Ain’t seen the sunrise since I don’t know when,” emotion wells up in the listener inspiring empathy for the singer’s lonely journey.

The next track, “Christchurch Woman,” is noteworthy as well with a gently rolling rhythm and witty lyrics that one will be singing after a few listens.  With quick guitar riffs and steady piano, it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser.

Harlem River Blues is a lovely, melancholy foray into the world of Americana.  Justin Townes Earle is a truly gifted songwriter and musician that has learned how to harness the journey of life in music form.  Though not his first musical accomplishment, Harlem River Blues possesses qualities bound to set it apart from Earle’s previous records.

“Lord, I’m goin’ uptown, to the Harlem River to drown,” opening line of “Harlem River Blues.”  The only drowning involved in this album is the ability to drown out your surroundings while listening to it. –Amelia Tritico

Harlem River Blues was released on September 14.  Justin Townes Earle is on tour.