CAMBRIDGE, Mass. • James McCartney sat behind a piano on the cramped stage of the legendary Club Passim last month and introduced the song “Bluebell.”
“It’s about my Mum, it’s about different things,” he said. He then misplayed the opening chords, smiled, apologized, and started again as the half-full room of about 75 people murmured and chuckled in support, seemingly trying to will McCartney to succeed.
It was a telling moment during the late show May 20 (an early show was sold out), because it was one of the few times he revealed just a sliver of himself: the only son of Sir Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman McCartney, out front, solo and vulnerable, in support of “Me,” his first full-length CD.
Singer-songwriter Dave Alvin appeared on the tough, violent TV drama “Justified” and lived to talk about it.
“I consider that a great achievement,” Alvin says with a chuckle.
He guest-starred as himself, fronting a band in a bar. And it didn’t hurt that “Justified” creator Graham Yost is a big Alvin fan who wanted to use Alvin’s music in the show to represent the inner voice of the lead character, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant).
Alvin, who plays Off Broadway on Friday, has had four songs featured in the FX series: “Harlan County Line,” which he sang in the barroom scene in Season 2; “Every Night About This Time,” from deep in Alvin’s catalog; “Beautiful City Across the River,” written for the show; and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a cover of a Darrell Scott song that closed the recent Season 4 finale.
Belleville-area native and Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar has two releases this spring: the CD “Honky Tonk” and the memoir “Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs,” an episodic account of his life and times … so far.
The book’s short, almost songlike organization lets readers connect a lot of the dots. Farrar talked about the book shortly before taking Son Volt out on its “Honky Tonk” tour.
‘There’s a world of wisdom inside a fiddle tune,” Jay Farrar writes on the smart and evocative new Son Volt album “Honky Tonk,” a work that embraces the band’s early sound as well as that of classic country music.
Farrar hasn’t explored the fiddle and steel guitar vibe so extensively since “Windfall,” the first track on the first Son Volt album, “Trace,” in 1995. It’s a sound that was reinforced for Farrar over the past few years as he sat in with his brother Dade and new Son Volt player Gary Hunt in their St. Louis band Colonel Ford.
Farrar, a Metro East native and co-leader of the groundbreaking alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in the early ’90s, calls the fiddle a “transcendent instrument.”
“I wanted to explore the twin-fiddle sound, which is really something that speaks to me, and which I got to witness first-hand playing around town with Colonel Ford,” Farrar says. “It’s a powerful sound; it draws you in. There’s a natural chorus effect on the fiddle. The pitch is just a little bit off, and it’s an intriguing sound.”
In 1954, a young surfer-musician walked up to guitar maker Leo Fender and said, “Hello, my name is Dick Dale, I got no money, can you help me out?”
Simple question, and one that Fender answered by allowing Dale to play one of the first Fender Stratocasters.
“I picked it up and I held it upside-down and backwards and I was playing it, and Leo fell off the chair laughing,” Dale says. “He says, ‘How come you’re playing it that way?’ And I say, ‘When I got my first ukulele, I held it that way because I was strumming with my left hand, and the book didn’t say, ‘Turn it the other way, stupid,’ and it’s been that way ever since.”
That encounter began an association that arguably led to hard rock, heavy metal and amps turned up to 11. Dale pushed Fender to create the amplifier electronics and heavy-duty speakers that would let Dale play louder and louder, chasing the swing-era sound of Gene Krupa’s drums that Dale wanted to hear coming from his guitar. There’s a reason why one of Dale’s compilation albums is titled “Better Shred Than Dead.”
Rockers took over the stage for the third night of Twangfest 16 at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room on Friday, and they were greeted by a sellout crowd, the largest in recent memory.
As the hour crept past midnight, the audience remained strong, active and loud for Ha Ha Tonka. And the Ozark band once again delivered a smashing set of music that mixes an indie rock vibe, Midwestern sincerity and Southern mysticism that no other band can match.
Ha Ha Tonka had to be on its game, because it followed co-headliner Langhorne Slim (the two acts are touring together), who brings boyish charm and energetic angst to a deepening catalog of rich music.
Opening was Kasey Anderson and the Honkies from Portland, Ore., a straight-ahead, four-man group of three-chord rockers fronted by Anderson, who connected to the crowd right away. His St. Louis references were delivered with self-aware irony: He knew he was pandering, so did the crowd, and both parties enjoyed it.
If you’re lucky, at some point over multiple days or multiple stages at a music festival, some act will open your eyes and knock you over.
The first two nights of KDHX-sponsored Twangfest 16 have featured great music by artists who have met or exceeded expectations, based on either reputation or past performance: Kelly Hogan, Pokey LaFarge and Wussy, at the top of the list. But the band that has obliterated expectations is Humming House, which played Wednesday night after local opener Prairie Rehab and in support of hometowners LaFarge and his old-timey South City Three.
Nashville, Tenn.-based Humming House is made up of five seemingly disparate parts: Celtic-music fan and singer/songwriter Justin Wade Tam, soul singer Kristen Rogers, classically trained fiddler and college professor Mike Butera, bluegrass mandolinist Joshua Wolak and classical composer/bassist Ben Jones.
Together, they are … what? Irish jam band? Bluegrass porch stompers? Acoustic rockers? R&B interpreters? Yes, all of the above.
This retro but modern take on classic Memphis soul – the grit of Otis Redding, the groove of the MGs, the brass of the Memphis Horns – was just a joy to hear. And I couldn’t help thinking how much poorer we are for the corporatization and lack of adventure in modern radio, as the Bo-Keys reminded me of the days when you could snap on an AM radio and hear Aretha and the Animals, and Sinatra and the Stones, and keep up with the Joneses, Booker T and George. (Repeat after me, St. Louis: Thank God for KDHX 88.1 FM.)
The Bo-Keys have been together as a recording unit for only a decade, but some of the members of this interracial and intergenerational band go back to the glory days of Memphis soul. Co-founder Charles “Skip” Pitts played the signature guitar parts on Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” and the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.” Drummer Howard Grimes kept the beat at Hi Records during the heyday of Al Green and can be heard on his great single “Love and Happiness.”
The band performed all three songs last night, with Pitts growling through Hayes’ part and the terrific singer Percy Wiggins standing in for Green and Ronald Isley.
Dave Alvin has become one of America’s greatest songwriters and guitar players. His early work with the punk-fueled R&B/rockabilly band the Blasters has matured into an adventurous exploration of American roots music encompassing folk, country and the blues.
His story and love songs are rooted in real people, ordinary working people facing personal and societal challenges yet somehow hanging on to a sliver of hope. Among his best: “Fourth of July,” “King of California,” “Ashgrove” and the new “Gary, Indiana 1959,” plus exquisite co-writes with Tom Russell on “Haley’s Comet,” “California Snow” and “Out in California.”
I interviewed Alvin for a Post-Dispatch story on June 14, 2011. I reached him on a tour stop in Asheville, N.C., about 11 o’clock in the morning — early for a working musician — and he apologized for not being totally awake. Here is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.
We began by talking about Chris Gaffney, a fine singer-songwriter and accordion player and Alvin’s best friend who died of liver cancer at age 57 on April 17, 2008. Gaffney recorded with his own band as well as the great Hacienda Brothers, and he was a member of Alvin’s Guilty Men.
I told Dave I bought my first Gaffney album, “Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts,” in 1989 based only on the title and band name and became a fan instantly. I talked to Gaffney a couple of times at Alvin shows, and enjoyed the conversations.
Gaffney’s death hit Alvin hard.
DA: I could go on for hours. He was my best friend. He got all my jokes.
BG: Yeah, that is the mark of a best friend, isn’t it.
DA: That is the mark of a best friend (laughing).
BG: And if they don’t, they just pretend they do.
DA: He never pretended. He would let me know, on a scale of 1 to 10, how good the jokes were.
BG: “Two Lucky Bums” (on “Eleven Eleven”) of course is a duet with Chris. You had originally offered that as a download. And it’s that version I assume that’s on the CD.
DA: Yeah. I cut a couple of other songs for the record, and when I was piecing things together it kind of made sense to put it on and hold a couple of other things. … That just kind of summed everything up.
BG: There is a subtext of mortality on the new CD. Is that the influence of Chris’ passing, or is it bigger than that?
The Cardinals may have dropped out of first place in the NL Central on Sunday, but on Saturday night they led the majors in song as the Baseball Project hit it out of Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room to close out Twangfest 15 in St. Louis.
Veteran rockers Steve Wynn, Mike Mills, Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon, wearing their twin passions for music and baseball like a uniform, tore through 14 tracks from their two CDs as the Baseball Project. And for extra innings, they connected on songs from some of Wynn, McCaughey and Mills’ other bands: Dream Syndicate, the Minus 5 and R.E.M., respectively.
Twangfest, which became Flood Fest on Friday night when storms outside caused floor drains inside the Duck Room to back up and leave an inch or so of stinky water underfoot, was threatened again Saturday when water started rising just about showtime. But the Blueberry Hill crew dealt with it quickly, and opening act Marah went on just a bit more than a half-hour late.