Review: Tyne and The Fastlyne at Zeno’s

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(28 April 2015) STATE COLLEGE, PA — First of all, all I’m going to do here is gush. Second, I’m going to call them a bluegrass band, even though they do other things. I’m going to call them that because if somebody asked me, “What do they sound like” I’d say, “Like a grittier Union Station,” and that there’s a bluegrass band, more or less. Whatever you call them, Tyne and The Fastlyne are one of central Pennsylvania’s best bands, and could go banjo-to-banjo with anybody anywhere.

Tyne Palazzi sings and plays banjo at such a high level that it’s breathtaking to hear her. The musician sitting next to me had never heard her before and was completely enraptured the whole time. “I didn’t expect this,” he said. Palazzi’s banjo playing is effortless. Even when she’s playing the most complicated figures or soloing way up in the teensy frets, she looks like it’s the easiest thing in the world. And her voice. Sweet lord, her voice. I know this is a facile comparison, but when I walked in they were playing Mick Ralphs’ “Oh, Atlanta,” which for me will always be an Alison Krauss song (watch), and Tyne nailed it. There are very few singers whom I can compare favorably to Krauss, but Tyne Palazzi makes that list.

tyne2Bill “Wiggus” Wilgus shreds on mandolin and guitar. He’s a complete joy to listen to because he employs his impressive chops in the service of the music, never as a means of grabbing attention. And when he and Palazzi are playing lines in unison or trading solos, it’s a thing of beauty. He also adds harmony vocals (as do drummer Kevin Lowe and bassist John Kennedy), something every bluegrass outfit needs.

Lowe and Kennedy are rock solid. Music like this absolutely depends on strong rhythm. The relationship of the bass and drums to the rest of the band is more complex than you might think, though. In the best bluegrass music, the banjo and other stringed instruments are also carrying a lot of the rhythmic load, so the rhythm section needs to be solid but sensitive. Kennedy and Lowe fit this bill perfectly. Kennedy even stepped to the front to sing a song while I was there: Johnny Cash’s relationship tale “Mean Eyed Cat.”

This band just happens to be based in central PA. If you walked in on them in a club anywhere in the U.S., you’d think you’d walked in on a very special night. And you’d be right.

The power of an arrangement: Randy Newman vs. The Blues Brothers

OK, “Randy Newman vs. The Blues Brothers” is a little deceptive, because actually I adore both these versions of this song. But I wanted to highlight how much the arrangement changes the character of the song.

Exhibit A: Randy Newman singing his song “Guilty,” from his 1974 album Good Old Boys. Pay particular attention to the dissonant strings in the first verse, and how they make this song sound so plaintive and despairing.

And now here’s John Belushi singing this same song with The Blues Brothers. In this live performance, it’s introduced with humor. And without those dissonant strings, it’s been transformed, at least for me, from a somewhat eerie wail of despair to a jaded, last-drink-of-the-night blues song.

Again, I dig both of these. But listening to the Newman version this morning I was really struck by the difference.

REVIEW: Nikki Talley at The Gnu’s Room

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(18 December 2012) AUBURN, AL – When it’s just right, music can carry us up above everything and put us in touch with something greater than ourselves. Tonight in Auburn, Nikki Talley gave that kind of performance.

After a long day at work and the longest run I’ve ever completed, I was dragging by the time 7 p.m. rolled around. I trudged out to the truck and drove over to The Gnu’s Room anyway to hear a singer who describes herself as a “ hardworking, energetic, mountain girl with a big voice.”

Well let me tell you, she’s selling herself short. Her voice isn’t big, it’s all-encompassing. It fills up a room and everyone in it. When she was singing it was all I could do to keep my feet on the floor and not drift up into the sky.

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Talley sang mostly her own songs and played acoustic guitar and banjo, accompanied on acoustic and electric guitars by her husband Jason Sharp. The Gnu’s Room has a wonderful, warm sound, so Talley’s voice needed no amplification. Honestly, with a voice as strong as hers, it would have been too much in that small space anyway.

It wasn’t just her voice, either. Her whole body made music, and her face conveyed every emotion and heightened every lyric. I pulled my gaze away long enough to look around the room and saw every single eye in the house completely focused on her. If she’d been a cult leader rather than a singer, we all would have been in trouble.

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She’s a strong songwriter, focused mostly on the themes that make the best country music universal – getting in trouble, finding and losing love, living on the road, trying to make ends meet. One of the standout songs of the evening was “Anna Marie,” a song in which she imagines her grandmother as a mermaid and a siren, calling sailors to their doom. It’s from her most recent studio album, Beautiful Charmer.

IMAG5850 Jason Sharp was no slouch, either. I’ve spent years listening to people who are extremely good at improvising, and Sharp should be added to that list. Despite looking like he was barely touching the guitar, Sharp managed to make himself heard with one fluid, melodic solo after another. He even added some lovely vocal harmony to a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” In fact, I could have done with more of his harmonies. And more of Talley’s sublime clawhammer banjo, too.

Speaking of covers, Talley took complete possession of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie.” In a just world, her version would be an enormous hit. (You can hear it for yourself on her album, To Be A Bird.)

I know I’m supposed to say some critical things so this review isn’t just one long gushing lovefest, but I’ve got nothin’. It was one of the most musical, most impassioned performances I’ve heard this year, and all I can say to you is if Nikki Talley comes to your town, cancel the wedding and go hear her.

(Nikki Talley: website | Twitter | Facebook)

Auburn Diary: One Night, Four Bands

(16 November 2012) AUBURN, AL — You can either go where the scene is, or stay where you are and make your own scene.

That came up again and again during my “Jazz Or Bust” Tour this summer. I traveled from town to town finding people who’d decided to stay and create a vibrant scene right where they were. I was reminded of that again tonight as I traveled around Auburn from arts center to restaurant to bar to hear many of Auburn’s finest.

I work at The Gnu’s Room, a nonprofit bookstore and arts center. Tonight we hosted two bands — Low June and Less Than Heroes.

Low June is Scott and Ashley Waters. They’re from Savannah, but we’re lucky to have them here in Auburn, where Ashley is finishing her degree and Scott is helping to run the college radio station, WEGL. Tonight they played a set of originals and covers, including a beautiful banjo-driven version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love.” I already liked Scott and Ashley, but they certainly didn’t do themselves any harm with me by busting out some Leonard Cohen. There was something about hearing Cohen played on a banjo in Alabama that just felt right. It’s fitting, too, because Cohen was a huge fan of one of Alabama’s favorite sons, Hank Williams.

The headliners tonight, Less Than Heroes, are a really fun nerd-rock band. And they have a big following here in Auburn. The place was packed, with people standing all the way back to the coffee bar in the rear of the store. The show was billed as a “storytellers” concert, so lead singer Quinton Charles Smith gave some background to each song. There were stories of near-death experiences on the highway, a break-up song or two, and a warning about drinking and driving. But my favorite thing Quinton said was this gem: “Everyone wants you to be something — good or bad, beautiful or ugly.”

OK, let me pause for a minute to admit something. It’s hard for me to say this, but it’s the truth and you need to know. Ready? Here it is:

I’m addicted to Katie Martin.

I mean, every time she plays here, I go. I went to a martini bar to hear her play. I wrote a poem about her. I’m one ride on the tour bus away from full groupie status. And tonight I heard her at Maestro, a fancy joint where by all rights I probably shouldn’t be allowed in. Katie was joined by vocalist/keyboardist Marie Robertson and guitarist Zack Milster.

I saw most of a set, during which Katie and Marie divided the spotlight and the songwriting credits. Zach also took some nice country-blues solos on several tunes. Maestro probably isn’t the ideal venue for Katie’s music, though, which is too raw and powerful to fit well in a bar/lounge environment. But I’d go hear her play anywhere. Oh, and I introduced myself to Grammy-winning producer and guitarist Larry Mitchell tonight when he sat next to me at the bar. He couldn’t have been nicer.

The only reason I left is that I was intent on seeing all the bands who were playing in town tonight who’d also played at the Gnu Fall Festival. The last one of the evening: Teacup and the Monster.

Teacup and the Monster is a powerhouse, four-on-the-floor, let’s-all-sing-along kind of band. The kind you want to hear playing when you walk into a packed bar late at night. The Hound was full of people, some of whom were even dancing, which was great to see. I like lead singer Jake Carnley’s voice and songwriting a lot, and I was happy to finally get to hear lead guitarist Tommy Kratzert strut his stuff with a full band behind him. There were a few issues with the mix (which is never easy in a brick box anyway), but I really enjoyed the show and can’t wait to hear them again.

I also want to compliment WEGL 91.1, the Auburn University radio station. I had WEGL on in the car as I was driving from place to place and the music was outstanding. Particularly the Phantasmagoria show, which featured 50s rock and rockabilly all night and just killed it with every track. You know a radio station is doing well when they make you belt out Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” at the top of your lungs.

You go where the scene is or you stay and make a scene where you are. We’re lucky there are so many talented people in Auburn who’ve decided to make a scene right here.

(NOTE: If you’d like to see all the photos I took tonight, you’ll find them here.)

(ANOTHER NOTE: I wrote this post while listening to The Complete Hank Williams boxed set. I feel an obsession coming on.)

Los Lobos: Spanish for “the bomb”

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Jen and I saw Los Lobos at The Egg tonight. The set list included Tejano classics, Jimi Hendrix, the Dead, and a whole bag of original music from one of the greatest bands of all time.

I said it. One of the greatest bands of all time. These guys are absolutely amazing, more than 30 years after it all started in East Los Angeles.

Here are some selections from tonight’s set list, in no particular order:

  • Don’t Worry Baby
  • Kiko
  • Last Night
  • Will The Wolf Survive?
  • Volver
  • Bertha
  • Little Wing
  • Mas Y Mas
  • Manny’s Bones
  • Are You Experienced?
  • Ooh My Head

David Hidalgo still sings like an angel and plays guitar like the devil. And his squeezbox is the bomb!

Cesar’s got all the blues he needs and some cumbia on top.

Louie spent time tonight on drums during the tejano set, and then ripped out several guitar-god solos during the impromptu Hendrix medley.

Conrad Lozano? Love him. And who knew that he sang the harmonies on “Will The Wolf Survive?”

Steve Berlin took it to the woodshed on the bari.

Cougar Estrada kept it all together on the drums.

If all you know about Los Lobos is La Bamba, it’s time for you to experience the full reality. If they come anywhere near you, go see them.

Added “bonus” photo:

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Kristi Gustafson from the Times Union took this photo of Jen and I at the Los Lobos show