My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Category Archives: Live Reviews

Dixie Chicks Live: long time gone, but back once again

imageIf there was ever a time for Dixie Chicks to mount a comeback tour in the United States, it would be now, while we’re in the midst of the most decisive presidential election in our nation’s history. Dixie Chicks are a political band, for better or worse, and not just because they register folks to vote in the concession area before, during and after each show.

The election does play a role, albeit a small one, in this latest production. The MMXVI Tour, as it’s being called, exists to commemorate the watershed moment Natalie Maines replaced Laura Lynch as lead singer twenty years ago. The success that followed forever changed the trajectory of mainstream country music, although this show, fierce country-tinged rock, spends more time ignoring that legacy than honoring it.

The balance skewed Taking The Long Way-heavy (although “Easy Silence, complete with a lyrical video, and the unexpected and rarely performed “Silent House” were fabulous), which allowed banjos, fiddles and dobros to act as accents opposed to centerpieces for the majority of the evening. But this being a Dixie Chicks show, they honored their past with fiery renditions of “Sin Wagon,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” “Mississippi” and “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Lush renditions of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Landslide” were also excellent, while the latter had a beautiful backdrop containing reflective images of the Chicks’ heads.

The rock theme was matched by the black and white set, minimal yet powerful, which hit you in the face with lights and sound as Dixie Chicks took the stage for the one-two punch of “The Long Way Around” and “Lubbock or Leave It.” They added significant muscle to the uptempos from Home, giving “Truth No. 2” and “Long Time Gone” a charge of energy unmatched by their humble acoustic beginnings.

The show is broken into two separate sections at the conclusion of highlight “Goodbye Earl,” and is bridged by a black-and-white car chase in which the ladies race to the sounds of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” They returned with the night’s strongest segment, an acoustic set that hinted at their beginnings (“Traveling Soldier” and “White Trash Wedding”) while nicely showing where they could go with a cover of Beyoncé’s “Daddy’s Lessons,” from her recently released Lemonade. (They excluded their brilliant reading of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” for obvious reasons). They concluded this portion with an instrumental they concocted that had Maines banging a single drum framed in bluegrass beats.

FullSizeRenderThey skewed the presidential race jib-jab style on “Ready To Run,” my favorite moment of the whole show, which ended with red, white and blue confetti festively blanketing the audience. The eluded to Donald Trump just twice more; giving him devil horns during “Goodbye Earl” and when Maines said she’d protect a bug that had flown on stage by ‘building a wall’ around it.

It actually wasn’t Trump, but the recently deceased Prince that dominated the evening. They set the stage for the evening with him singing “Let’s Go Crazy” (after a video about wrongly incarcerated inmates, Dixie Chicks trivia questions and a random selections of Maines’ always colorful tweets) and treated the crowd to a stunning cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that brought fourth unforeseen colors in Maines’ voice soaked in a backdrop of his giant purple symbol. They ended the evening with Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” which they dedicated to the Pulse Nightclub victims in Orlando.

This Mansfield, MA stop on their tour was my fourth time seeing Dixie Chicks live. I saw them open for George Strait in 1999 and headline their own Top of The World (2003) and Accidents and Accusations (2006) tours. I was supposed to see them open for Eagles in 2010 at Gillette Stadium, but an unforeseen engagement got in the way. Each show has been dramatically different from the last, providing its own distinct flavors and textures.

While I’ll likely always regard their 2003 outing as their finest, this show wasn’t without considerable charms. The Chicks haven’t lost an ounce of the spunk they’ve cultivated over the past twenty years. They may have been pushing a bit too hard – the show was much louder than it needed to be – but the true essence of Dixie Chicks came through wonderfully. They’ve only gotten better, which is a testament to their incredible prowess. Ten years was a long time, but it was certainly worth the agonizing wait.

Concert Review: Loretta Lynn in Cohasset, MA

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Loretta Lynn escorted by her daughter Patsy onstage at the South Shore Music Circus, August 22, 2015

In the immortal words of the almighty Chris M. Wilcox, we need to revere the living icons of country music and ‘Love ‘em while They’re Here.’ His 2012 piece is a subtle battle cry of sorts, a wake up call to seek out concerts the talent we’re fortunate still has the energy and stamina to traverse the country and put on shows. Wilcox’s article is met with added urgency for the mere fact a good number of the artists he cited have died since it was published.

One legend still going strong, at 83, is Loretta Lynn. I had the good fortune of seeing her live for the first time last Saturday, August 22, at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. I’ve seen many a legend there through the years and have witnessed many incredible evenings of music under their tent. But this may’ve been the most special night of all.

The night began with Lynn’s daughter Patsy taking the stage with some housekeeping and other general announcements. She got the crowd going with talk of an autographed box set and lyric book available at the merchandise booth. Once she was done, Lynn’s band The Coal Miners (which features her son) took the stage for some opening numbers to get the crowd going. They began with a feisty “Mama Tried” and ended with “Good As I Once Was.” The pair is random on paper, but the Toby Keith hit really isn’t terribly far off from the Merle Haggard classic sonically.

I was pleasantly surprised when Patsy returned with her sister Peggy for a couple of tunes. They opened with a contemporary number before closing with the crowd pleasing “Tulsa Time.” I was kind of remiss they didn’t perform “Nights Like These,” but I was likely the only one in the crowd to distinctly remember their sole “hit” from the late 1990s.

Once Loretta came out to a standing ovation, she literally didn’t let up for just over an hour. A blessing of country music from her era is the length of songs. At about two minutes or so each, you can cram in quite a bit in a short amount of time. And boy did Lynn give us everything she’s got.

I’m not as familiar with everything in her vast catalog, but I was surprised just how many of her hits I was familiar with, at least on some level. Lynn ran through the requisite classics – “Fist City,” “The Pill,” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin,’” “You’re Lookin’ At Country,” “Blue Kentucky Girl” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” Lynn executed each of her iconic songs with precision – no false notes or signs her voice has significantly aged.

The poignant “Dear Uncle Sam,” which she said she wrote at the start of the Vietnam War was an emotional highlight. For a forty-nine year old song, the message in “Dear Uncle Sam” rang loud and clear. Everyone was chocked up when she got to the final verse. It was a lesson that great songs really do stand the test of time.

IMG_5122Lynn didn’t go off a set list, which allowed for audience requests. I hate that distracting option, but it didn’t hinder the flow at all. No matter what we threw at her, she gave all the gusto she had. Her son joined her on “Feelings,” the only one of the duets with Conway Twitty that was performed. Lynn also gave a gorgeous reading of “Love Is The Foundation” and added even more humor to “One’s On The Way” by upping the number of kids in the title (“Four’s on The Way”). I’ve always found that song to be a little cutesy, but it’s one of the most honest portrayals of motherhood in country music history.

The only negative aspect of the evening, and it was very minor, was Lynn’s overall attitude. She seemed a little sad – frustrated when she didn’t feel her voice was making it. Lynn explained to the audience how she’s much better when she’s sung on consecutive nights opposed to coming back after three or so weeks without a performance. Towards the end of the hour she had to rest and her band took over with a couple more songs. Once they made the decision to have Lynn sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” you knew the once-in-a-lifetime night was drawing to a close.

The concert was magnificent. I truly couldn’t have asked for anything more from a woman who’s given so much goodness to the betterment of country music. It would’ve been wonderful to hear her talk more about the individual songs, (she did say no one would probably remember “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” after she performed it), but she chose to fit in as much music as she could instead. There’s no arguing about the gift of hearing great music instead of a lot of talking. She also focused solely on the hits, leaving out tracks from Still Country and Van Lear Rose.

What surprised me, though, was how modern everything sounded. I didn’t feel like I was listening to tracks designed for a 1960s/1970s musical landscape. Lynn’s songs are so expertly composed they transcend decades and trends. No matter what generation you were from, and there were some kids in the audience, you could relate to what Lynn was singing. It’s a good thing, too, because five new albums are coming – Patsy teased them at the start of the night.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to have had this rare chance to see Loretta Lynn live. If she hadn’t come to that venue, I never would’ve sought her out. I urge anyone who’s never been to one of her shows to run if given the chance. Chris M. Wilcox is correct, we really do have to love ‘em while they’re here.

Concert Review: Lee Ann Womack in Brownfield, Maine

10418219_10153975043913916_5933730150065047502_nWith her blonde hair resting in curls below her shoulders, Lee Ann Womack strutted onto the stage to the tune of her debut single, “Never Again, Again.” The setting was Stone Mountain Arts Center; a barn located five miles down a rural road in the sticks of Brownfield, Maine.

Womack charmed the packed house; capacity is just 200 people, with a taut set that revisited the past, reverted to the present, and took some satisfying left turns along the way. At forty-eight Womack’s as spry as ever, with one of the clearest sopranos I’ve ever heard.

Earlier in the week she did an interview with The Boston Globe in which she said she only sings her favorite past hits, so as she ticked them off one by one, I had fun guessing what she would and would not sing. Womack ran through the majority of her eponymous debut, stopping short of “The Fool.”

I was quite surprised that she performed “Buckaroo,” which barely qualifies as an essential Womack single, but it sounded incredible in the setting, which is regarded as one of the top ten venues in the country to hear music. Her biggest risk came with “The Bees,” a Call Me Crazy non-single that would only appeal to those who are intimately familiar with that album. Womack also shined on “You’ve Got To Talk To Me,” which has been a favorite of mine going on eighteen years now.

Additional highlights included a sinister reimagining of “Little Past Little Rock” and a toe-tapping “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” one of those hits I fully expected she’d thrown away. Womack stopped in the middle of her set to reflect on her upbringing in church before launching into a breathtaking mandolin soaked reading of “Wayfaring Stranger,” which she performed how she learned it all those years ago.

Her small town childhood crept in again, as slight context before her latest single “Send It On Down.” Womack spent ample time treating us to her masterful The Way I’m Livin’, from renditions of “Don’t Listen To The Wind” and “All Them Saints” to an effortless take on “Chances Are.”

The night’s most enjoyable element was the cheeky introductions Womack gave to her past hits. The band would play some IMG_1130slightly non-descript instrumental bed before playing the recognizable openings of the various songs. This concept proved fun, especially as a segway from her aching new material to something more sunny and upbeat from her early years.

To that end the night leaned heavily on her most recognizable material, although she threw in a beautiful rendition of her low charting hit “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” which foreshadows the darker elements that threads together her most recent material. Womack even found a way to make her biggest hit, “I Hope You Dance,” work. By stripping the song bare, she ditched the sheen and reduced the song to its simplest form. By focusing squarely on the lyric message, Womack proved there was substance beneath the inspirational hoopla. She closed her main set with “Ashes By Now,” which sounds as good today as it did fifteen years ago.

Throughout the night, Womack referenced her admiration for George Jones, but even I was surprised when she emerged for her encore, asking the audience if they were ready to hear some hardcore country music. She sang a Jones song I’m still unfamiliar with, but it involved drinking in a barroom. Womack closed with her beautiful rendition of the Don Williams classic “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good.”

If you only know Womack from her albums, than you must find a way to see her live. She’s easily one of the most remarkable vocalists I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing in person. Unlike a lot of singers, she not only knows what she has but how to use it. I couldn’t ask for any more from an artist. Well, she could’ve sung “The Fool,” “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” and “Last Call.” But other than that she more than gave us a stellar evening of fine country music in a setting worthy of her authenticity.

Concert Review: Suzy Bogguss’ opening act, Wisewater

IMG_2759As if seeing Suzy Bogguss April 16 at TCAN in Natick, MA wasn’t enough we were also treated to a performance from Americana band Wisewater, who opened the show. I’m always weary about opening acts – I’ve seen my share that that add nothing to the show – but these guys were the opposite in every conceivable way.

On the onset, the setup is oddly familiar. Wisewater is a trio comprised of Forrest O’Connor on Mandolin, Kate Lee on Fiddle, and Jim Shirey on Guitar (O’Connor and Lee also perform, as a duo, under the Wisewater name). While their sound may hearken back to those early days of Nickel Creek at the turn of the century, they’ve found an individuality that’s allowed them to shine on their own.

While the particular songs may’ve been unfamiliar, I came away with my heart filled with a joy it hasn’t felt in a long time. The sound they’ve created is amongst my favorite in the world – I’m addicted to the magic created when mandolin and fiddle come together as one, either on a song or as the foundation for the sound of a band.

But what totally sold me was their unbridled passion for their craft. They give the appearance that their group is a jam session among friends and not a fully formed label assisted entity given direction about how they should sound or what they should wear. Wisewater is the real deal in world starving for authenticity from their favorite artists.

While Lee’s angelic voice is the center of the music, O’Connor stole the set with his approachability. He came across as anIMG_2762 everyman, so it was kind of surprising to learn he is the son of six time CMA Musician of the Year Mark O’Connor. Throughout their set, he was playing the same Mandolin his father plucked during the sessions for Aces twenty-four years ago. O’Connor played the fire out of the thing, but treated it with the reverence is rightfully deserves.

While Lee doesn’t have a personal connection to Bogguss, she shared how influential Bogguss was in helping her shape what she wanted to sound like as an artist. It was a shame Bogguss didn’t bring them out on stage during her set, even for a song, but she did reference them a point along the way. To close their set Wisewater played two covers, ending with the rip-roaring highlight “Johnnie B. Good,” which served as a showcase for O’Connor’s breakneck picking and rapid-fire singing.

When they were through O’Connor came out to the lobby and signed copies of the band’s EP, which proved very popular. The concertgoers were raving about their authenticity and commenting that you don’t hear much of that in today’s musical landscape. Even more rare is to find the band as genuine as their sound; eager to play for and meet the fans they’ve just so easily won over.

Music Video for a track performed at the show:

Concert Review: Suzy Bogguss in Natick, Massachusetts

IMG_0899Towards the end of her majestic set at the Center For The Arts (TCAN) in Natick, MA April 16, Suzy Bogguss declared her Midwestern roots have led to a life of running, always heading somewhere. It’s been a subtle thematic presence in her music since the beginning, only growing stronger the more fully realized her catalog becomes.

Flying by the seam of her skirt, Bogguss and her band mates (which included Charlie Chadwick on upright bass) let inspiration guide the evening and erase the fourth wall, gifting the audience a rare intimacy. We were as much a part of the show as the trio on stage, proving the essential need to help tiny venues (TCAN, housed in a firehouse built in 1875, has just 270 seats in its performance room) prosper for the sake of feeding hungry souls craving the authenticity of genuine performers singing and playing real music.

Bogguss ran through her hits, opening with the one-two-punch of “Outbound Plane” and “Aces,” the latter of which she admits is so open to interpretation she doesn’t try and explain its meaning anymore. She gave an all-to-brief shout out to her friend and co-writer Matraca Berg before “Hey Cinderella” and spiritedly performed “Drive South.”

She spent the majority of the evening reflecting on Merle Haggard and Garrison Keillor, the separate inspirations behind her two most recent projects. It was those Haggard and folk tunes that stole the show, from the angelic “Today I Started Loving You Again” to the playfully wordy “Froggy Went A ‘Courtin.'” Bogguss stunned with “Shenandoah” and turned in a masterful rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger.”

She referenced hallowed company before “I Always Get Lucky With You,” which had George Jones covering Haggard before he then recorded the ballad himself. When talking about Haggard, she reminisced about wanting to return to country, looking for a Haggard song to include on the album and choosing to end up with a whole record of his songs.

Bogguss grew emotional talking about her 20-year-old son Ben, a college sophomore, and the empty nest he left behind. She celebrated the highs of reconnecting with her husband Doug through her tantalizing version of “Let’s Chase Each Other ‘Round The Room” and the lows with her own “Letting Go,” one of the greatest off-to-adulthood songs in country music history.

“The Night Rider’s Lament” kicked off a detour into her penchant for Western themed songs and displayed how much she’s grown as a storyteller since first recording that track twenty-five years ago. “Someday Soon” fit in nicely, too, with Bogguss encouraging the audience to sing along. Bogguss opened the encore yodeling away on “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” a 90 year old tune that sounds as at home in her hands as it did when Patsy Montana took it up the charts in the 1930s.

Bogguss and her band relied on the power of their voices for “Red River Valley,” coming off their microphones to give an already intimate performance another level of closeness between singer and audience. She came full circle with the theme of escape through Haggard’s “The Running Kind” and confessed she isn’t confrontational; she just wants people to like her.

IMG_0898If anything, Suzy Bogguss doesn’t have to worry about being liked. She’s easily one of the warmest artists I’ve ever seen live, a homey presence on and off the stage. By leading with her heart, she rewards her audiences with a transparency that once defined the essence of a country singer. She’s a mother and a wife who just so happens to spend her life making records and singing live. She shares her emotions and leaves us feeling like we’re friends gathering in a coffee shop to catch up. In addition, she’s genuinely grateful whenever someone comes through the meet-and-greet line with a bunch of her records to sign.

As if that isn’t enough, what makes Bogguss truly special is her innate ability to separate from the big machine and create passion projects that allow her to further the legacy she’s been cultivating since the beginning. That enthusiasm for her work allowed her to effortlessly glide between the Merle Haggard Songbook, timeless folk tunes, the Wild West and distinct nods to her hit making heyday with confident ease and sophistication. Bogguss may be a woman on the run, but she’s found a home at every pit stop along the way.

Concert Review: Wynonna and Friends – ‘Stories and Song’

photoShe emerged from the wings, her fiery red mane draped past her shoulders. Dressed in basic black extenuated with a lightly patterned wispy overcoat, Wynonna Judd walked up to the microphone strumming her white acoustic guitar. Alone on stage she started in, belting the glorious beginning to “Mama He’s Crazy.” The band gathered around Judd, who’d taken to sitting on a stool, for the acoustic rendition of “Rock Bottom” that followed, jet setting the audience from 1984 to 1993 with seamless ease.

From the onset it was clear this would be a show unlike any other from Judd, devoid of production, and heavy on the power of that voice. Billed as ‘Wynonna and Friends: Stories and Song’ she traversed the country playing historic theaters armed with her husband Cactus Moser on percussion, a lead guitarist, an upright bass player, and her. Judd’s March 8th stop at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre brought the tour to a close.

For the next two and a half hours Judd navigated through her extensive catalog, opting for surprises over forgone conclusions. She turned soulful with her version of Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning “Change The World” and contemplative with “Dream Chaser,” a spiritual highlight of The Judd’s catalog. Emotions ran high during “She Is His Only Need,” which had her thanking the audience for her first solo number one, and sass led the way on both “Give A Little Love” and “Turn It Loose,” which had Judd shredding on her harmonica.

“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good ‘Ol Days)” was a revelation, a hit-upside-the-head reminder of our changing world that’s even more relevant today than it was thirty years ago. The night’s emotional and spiritual center, I was struck by the generational shift – the ‘good ‘ol days’ to kids today are the childhoods of our parents.

The stories aspect of the show was heavy on her relationship with her mother, a much-belabored subject that somehow didn’t feel clichéd. She talked about doing her mother’s hair before each show, seeking revenge by jacking it to Jesus, and reminisced about their appearances with Johnny Carson. Mom would sit next to Carson for the first segment before they’d switch seats during the commercial break.

Judd’s very open observations about the music industry were far more interesting. She lamented about the electronic recording techniques used today. She shed some light on The Judds’ first meeting with RCA Records, a showcase of family harmonies backed by their own guitars. She reminded us that Garth Brooks had opened for them back in the day, a young cowboy who had Naomi wondering if he was going to make it. She mentioned her daughter’s insistence that she hear this new Tim McGraw song, which prompted her to remember when McGraw, and his mullet, opened for her in the early 90s. Judd felt proud she’d ‘helped raise’ many of the stars who came up in her wake.

If you’ve ever followed Judd the person, you know how open she is. She traced her life back to childhood, talking about being the child of an unwed teenage mother saved only by the power of their voices in Appalachia. She then gifted us with a gorgeous rendition of a hymn she and her mother would sing together during that time. She also referenced playing for several presidents even though she didn’t agree politically with any of them.

Judd’s trademark openness became a hindrance, when nine-year-old twin girls made their way to the stage with flowers. The show stopped while selfies were snapped and interviews conducted. Turns out one of them had composed a song (“Possibilities”) Judd asked to have sent to her via Twitter. A second set of concertgoers, armed with a ‘Wynonna’ license plate, were next for pictures as was a man who jumped the stage to join in on the action. Never mind there was a woman begging for Judd’s attention, who finally got it, when she called her ‘Wy, Wy.’

When Judd returned to singing she belted “No One Else On Earth,” which required us in the audience to vigorously sing along. She turned giddy during the encore, when she introduced opening act Pete Scobell, a former navy seal, who devastated with a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” during his opening solo set. Judd gushed about her admiration for Scobell, whom she felt should be a huge star, before he snuck on stage to sing their Chris Kyle inspired duet “Hearts I Leave Behind.” It was a tender moment for Scobell, who wore his military heart on his sleeve, and told stories about deceased friends from the Naval Academy and the time he lost 22 comrades in one day.

What struck me about the show, in addition to Judd’s voice, was her band’s passion for playing. Usually when you to a show, thephoto 2 band members are hired to backup a singer and make them look good. Since Judd knew most of these members personally, they were so hungry to be there, they played long after the show had officially ended. There was a joy from Scobell, Moser, and the others that I loved, and rarely see.

What I truly enjoyed the most about the evening was the chance to be reacquainted with an artist I love and see what they’re up to now. I had downloaded “Hearts I Leave Behind” prior to the show, but appreciated it so much more with the context Judd provided not only into the song but also into him.

It truly was a wonderful evening and a very vivid reminder that Wynonna Judd sings circles around every other singer on the planet. She truly is one of the strongest vocalists I’ve ever heard, a fact that only seems to be enriched by age.

Concert Review: Sara Evans and Kiley Evans at the South Shore Music Circus

IMG_3885Sara Evans is an incredible vocalist. That at least was evident when she took the stage August 29 at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. Evans turned in one brilliant performance after another, wrapping her comforting twang around a majority of her most recognizable singles.

She opened the show with “Born To Fly” before treating the audience to a brisk set of her career during the new millennium. This fantastic overview ranged from “Perfect” and “I Keep Looking” to “Real Fine Place To Start” and “As If” with ease. She loaded the set with uptempo tunes, bringing out lesser faire like “Coalmine” and enjoying the audience’s eruption during “Suds In The Bucket,” which followed a brief synopsis of her upbringing on the Missouri farm; a life with three older brothers and four younger sisters.

In the beginning Evans stuck with the music, pausing after a generous strand of songs before engaging the audience. While I normally enjoy banter, Evans has a way of coming off slightly disingenuous, like a performer fulfilling a job, and not a singer giving a whole-hearted performance. This is just Evans’ way; a fact that hasn’t changed in the three years since I last saw her live (and wrote a concert review of her show).

She was quick to mention that 2011 performance, a herculean feat where she arrived late to the venue (Cape Cod Melody Tent) via private jet, with her tardiness blamed on a combination of her kids and the Birmingham, Alabama airport she was flying out of. Her circumstances this time weren’t much better – sick kids she claimed she had to spank – but she was able to get to the venue on time, even if she fell asleep (or so she alleged) during hair and makeup.

An attempt to joke about the revolving circular stage (which the South Shore Music Circus and sister venue Cape Cod Melody Tent are known for) fell flat, but she was able to creep everyone out with a story about lice going around at her daughter’s school. Evans is a mother after all, with tweens and teens, so sharing stories of that world isn’t necessarily unwelcomed.

And for all her banter (she didn’t even know how to pronounce the town she was performing in, which was written out taped to the stage for her), she actually focused heavily on the music. Evans brought the audience back a few years and reflected on her marriage before launching into “A Little Bit Stronger,” mentioning how grateful she was to us fans for helping make it one of her biggest hits. She also graced us with her cover of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” which made me happy, as I never expected her to sing it. The same went for “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus,” which came early on. I would’ve figured Evans would’ve forgotten all about that song by now.

Those who saw my review of Slow Me Down this past March (and engaged in a healthy debate on Engine 145), would most likely be surprised I would even attend an Evans concert. Despite what I said, out of anger toward her musical direction, I do love her and have been a fan ever since seeing the “Three Chords and the Truth” video on CMT seventeen years ago. She graced us with three new cuts from her latest project; her Isaac Slade assisted duet “Can’t Stop Loving You” (a duet with her phenomenal backup singer/guitarist), the title track, and brand new single “Put My Heart Down.” I actually do like the new single, and it is one of the more memorable tracks on the new project. All were sung well during the show, too.

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Concert Review: Little Big Town at the South Shore Music Circus

IMG_3747They may be from the Boondocks, But Little Big Town have sailed their Pontoon into a rock and roll Tornado.

If their recent show at the South Shore Music Circus proves anything, it’s that the quartet known for simple backwoods arrangements complimenting their airtight harmonies have morphed into a band solely focused on succeeding in the current “country music” landscape.

They made their way to the rounded stage like rock stars filing into a stadium, Kimberly Schlapman’s head of tight blond curls visible a mile away. Karen Fairchild, modeling denim short-shorts, knee high leather boots, and a gold sparkle jacket launched into pulsating set opener “Leave The Light On,” a track from the band’s upcoming Pain Killer due Oct 21. The band and crowd embraced a little “Day Drinking” shortly thereafter, which worked in the environment despite missing the snare drums utilized in award show performances of the track.

The foursome focused most heavily on their work produced by Jay Joyce, a response to the lukewarm reception of their most recent Wayne Kirkpatrick-produced set, 2010’s The Reason Why. Apart from down playing their country credentials, their work with Joyce is far more guitar heavy, which afford them to gave the banjos and mandolins a break for most of the evening.

Pain Killer got a generous showcase, a risk seeing as no one, not even me, has heard the album yet. They played more than half the album and while most of the tracks ran together, I could hear something special in the title track and Schlapman’s vocal showcase on “Save Your Sin.”

Tornado made up the majority of what was left and tracks like “Pavement Ends,” “Front Porch Thing,” and “On Fire Tonight” fit in perfectly with the vibe of the evening. “Pontoon” had the whole crowd singing along and “Your Side of the Bed” was as effective live as on the album. “Sober,” which I expected to be treated more acoustically, was a slight disappointment, but the magic of the track shone through. Fairchild traded her sparkle coat for long leathery fringe to croon “Tornado,” a set highlight.

I did appreciate how they sprinkled in subtle nods to the past ten years, gifting the crowed with “Little White Church” and “A Little More You.” I had completely forgotten about “A Little More You” and was happy when they resurrected it. “Boondocks,” easily the band’s signature song, came towards the end of the evening with a drum heavy beginning that rendered the track almost unrecognizable at first.

At one point Fairchild commented on this being their second ever performance on a revolving stage (they played the Cape Cod Melody Tent the night before) and how they were nervous about letting down the audience with their lack of production.

After introducing their band, the group commented on their history as a band and how 2014 marks twenty-five years together. The women talked about how IMG_3751Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook went to college together and their first meeting with Phillip Sweet. Instead of logically launching into “I’m With The Band,” which they didn’t play, they gave us a couple of tracks that influenced them. First was a stripped down almost bluesy cover of the Oak Ridge Boys classic “Elvira” that got such an inventive take from the band, it took until the chorus before I knew what they were singing. The other track that influenced them was Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” a logical choice seeing as they’re always being compared. In fact, when I was playing Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance live album a while back, I thought it was Little Big Town on opener “The Chain.”

At the encore they turned the spotlight on Lori McKenna, who helped write tracks on their most recent albums. Hailing from Stoughton, MA, McKenna is ours as much as she is a nationally recognized singer/songwriter. She was brought on stage to sing a new song “Humble and Kind.”

Just because the show was steeped far more in rock and roll than what most would consider country music didn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable or a huge disappointment. Did I long for them to grace us with an acoustic set? Yes, I did. But they are still exceptionally talented and perfectly showcased it during their set. Little Big Town worked the stage brilliantly, a job mostly regulated to Sweet who threw many a guitar pick into the crowd and was, no pun intended, sweet to the audience the whole show. I was thrilled that I finally got to them, and it was an added bonus that it occurred at my favorite music venue, a place I would’ve deemed far too small for them at this point in their careers.

Singer/Songwriter Sara Haze opened the show with a thirty-minute set focused on originals and “Riot,” a song she had cut by Rascal Flatts on their latest album. Haze, who had a guy accompanying her on guitar, was very good although a little too indistinctive. Haze also joined Little Big Town on stage during the encore.

Concert Review: Jennifer Nettles & Brandy Clark at The South Shore Music Circus

IMG_3594The gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar and rolling percussion fill the tent. Most turn a deaf ear to the customary sounds of house music as a concert commences. The lights were low and the stage empty, instruments waiting to be played, microphones eager to be sung into. A baby-voiced vocal adds character to the instrumentation, a singer with a distinctive bite. It’s a forty-one year old classic recording, a composition we’ve all dug into time and again. When the two-and-a-half minute ballad draws to a close, the audience erupts. The band files in and begins.

More light procession fills the tent. The sounds are different this time, subtly so, modernized with handclaps. The singer, with her sandy blonde hair back in a ponytail adorning dark jeans and a white Keith Richards tank under a white vest is handed a guitar. She makes her way to the microphone for a seemingly endless parade of “ohohohohohs” before launching into, “a friend gave me your number…”

The delicate connection between the two songs is missed, if you weren’t aware Jennifer Nettles and Butch Walker wrote “That Girl” as an answer song to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which filled the air before the band took the stage. Little connections like that were the benchmark of the evening, as Nettles gifted the crowed a lengthy set that had the audience in the palm of her hand.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen Jennifer perform three times as part of Sugarland and she remains one of the greatest artists I’ve ever seen take a stage. Her ability to capture an audience has always been electrifying, but she was on fire at the South Shore Music Circus, a partly biased observation aided by my front-row set, a position allowing me to capture every nuance of her movement on the circular stage.

Nettles ran through the entirety of her That Girl album, weaving each track through the set like a river snaking towards an ocean. Keeping an audience engaged with songs that didn’t receive support from radio is an undertaking, but she did it by giving them context, allowing us to hear what she was hoping to achieve with each track.

This context allowed me to finally appreciate the album, which by itself can come off a bit cold. She explained the connection to 70s radio by first gifting us with a spirited take on Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” and one of Barry Manilow’s ballads before launching into “This One’s For You.”

The rest mostly got short explanations (i.e. “here’s one about…”) and all were excellent and true to form. The highlight was easily “This Angel,” a perfect excuse for Nettles to use the theatre atmosphere to allow her vocal to soar but also reduce to near whisper, silencing the audience. She paired the song about her son with “All I Wanna Do,” Sugarland’s #1 from six years ago, claiming the upbeat ode to spending time with your lover as the prequel.

Throughout the night Nettles ran through a majority of Sugarland’s hits, performing at least one song from each of their albums except, but not all that surprising, The Incredible Machine. “Baby Girl” was as infectious as always and “Stay” did its job of bringing down the house. She brought local girl Kristen Merlin, who finished fourth on The Voice this past spring, on stage for a great duet of “Something More,” which they mashed up with a snippet of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.”

IMG_3573I’ve always adored her foray into covering rock songs, and at the August 8 show, she didn’t disappoint. She launched into the song with no warning, and I wailed when I figured out she was doing “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. The track is perfect for her voice and aesthetic, a meaty ballad right up her alley. She closed by encoring with “Thank You,” a perfect slice of gratitude towards the audience, and “Like A Rock.”

I’ve always found it near impossible to accurately convey my admiration for Nettles as a performer – her love of music and being on stage are so intrinsic, it’s palpable. The little things made the night – how she posed at the piano so I could take a picture of her, how she sang directly to a friend who was sitting next to me. Jennifer makes eye contact with the crowd and makes you feel like you’re a part of the show. I’m never happier than when I leave a night in her presence.

Of course, I love her even more for bringing along Brandy Clark as her opener. Clark’s set was short, but she made a nice impression. Instead of merely running through tracks from 12 Stories, Clark focused on a couple of newly written tunes and the requisite songs she’s written for other performers. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a sweeter number in her hands, and she told the story of how “Better Dig Two” was written as a love song, not a murder ballad. She closed with “Stripes,” but my favorite moment of her set was “Hold My Hand,” a standout 12 Stories cut that showcased her voice and while I don’t love “Get High,” it worked well at the show. Clark’s only misstep was joining Nettles on “His Hands” during Nettles’ set as her microphone wasn’t working right and you couldn’t hear her too well.

Although I’m struggling to find the right words, this was easily (along with the Kathy Mattea show from 2013), the best concert of my life; a moment in time I hope never to forget. Nettles changes your life with her transcendent being and positivity. Everything, even something as kooky as giving away a guitar via Twitter during the show, just works. Nettles may’ve lost herself during The Incredible Machine era, but she’s firmly back on track now and enjoying every minute of the ride.

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Concert Review – ‘An Evening with Vince Gill’ – August 10, 2013

1373942682001-VG-PF-0487-GPub-300rgb-1307152246_4_3I was witness to a major bucket list moment for the second time in four years Aug 10 – an in the round performance by Vince Gill at one of my favorite venues, The 2,250 seat South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. With his full band in toe (including Paul Franklin and Dawn Sears, who sang, but held back on many songs, likely due to her ongoing cancer battle), he ran through a two and a half hour set that mixed his legendary recordings with the iconic numbers he and Franklin made their own on Bakersfield.

I knew the night would be special when I bought the tickets last June, before I’d heard the album, or knew Franklin would join him. Gill is easily one of my favorite people in country music, a constant professional who can write, sing, play, and host with an ease that hasn’t been duplicated by any superstar that’s risen in his wake. He’s also the rare exception who’s only gotten better with age. Gill is as good (if not better) now at 57 then he was in his commercial prime more than twenty years ago.

He opened with the weary “One More Last Chance” before launching into “Take Your Memory With You.” Gill then preceded “High Lonesome Sound” with the joke that if you want to win a Grammy Alison Krauss should play on your song, a bit of irony seeing as he’s as much a Grammy magnet as Krauss. “Pocket Full of Gold” came in tribute to the cheaters as Gill wanted to know who he should look at while he sings.

His set, billed as an “Evening With Vince Gill,” was broken into two segments, bookending a 25-minute intermission to sell merchandise and beer. He spent a lot of time in the first act on his admiration for songwriter Max D. Barnes, complementing his talent on “Chiseled In Stone” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” A detour into sad songs led to a childhood memory of his dad singing “Old Shep” to him, before he told of the writing session behind “Look At Us,” a would be weeper that Barnes had Gill flip around to extenuate the positive. One of my favorite of his recordings, he sang it with beautiful precision while Franklin made the steel solo come alive. Another favorite was “Old Lucky Diamond Motel,” a Guitar Slinger album cut that I was glad he brought out.

What surprised me the most about the whole show was how little emphasis was placed on Bakersfield. They closed the first half with the requisite five songs an artist usually plays from their newest release, but they almost felt like an afterthought, when they should’ve been the main attraction. They opened this portion with Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” before gracing us with their timely cover of Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a little loud, but excellent. His odes to Emmylou Harris – “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again” were stellar, but I got the most joy from “I Can’t Be Myself,” which is as perfect a lyric as I’ve ever heard. “Together Again” had the right amount of steel, but “I Can’t Be Myself” was the winner of the Bakersfield songs.

Gill opened the second half with “What The Cowgirls Do,” another of my least favorites, but won redemption with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” He was more musically focused and thus didn’t interact as much this time around, but with his catalog front and center, that didn’t matter. I was surprised when he went way back into that catalog and pulled out “Never Alone” and the breakneck “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he flubbed a little lyrically (it was funny to watch him reading the lyrics from a monitor). Both were good, but I wasn’t as familiar with the latter as I would’ve liked to have been.

The highlights were a mix of both expected and somewhat surprising. Gill brought out his usual greatness on “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but it was an out of nowhere “What You Give Away” that threw me. I had forgotten about that single, a top 30 hit from 2006, and was pleased when an audience member had requested it. He was also great on “Pretty Little Adriana,” “Trying to Get Over You,” and show closer “Whenever You Come Around.”

As intricately specialized as Gill is, the show wasn’t without a couple of minor cracks. Frankly, I would’ve killed for a little more experimentation. Gill and the band was almost too tight a unit, too perfect. The show would’ve been even stronger had they reworked some of Gill’s classics in the Bakersfield Sound, like he did with “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in the wake of Kitty Wells’ passing last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was regulated as the onstage steel player, thus he didn’t talk at all – the album was as much his project as Gill’s, so it wouldn’t have hurt to hear him talk about the music from his perspective. I didn’t expect his presence to feel like just another member of the band, and it was jarring seeing as Bakersfield was a collaborative album.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Gill put on an incredible show from start to finish that’s a must see for any country music fan. In thinking about his place in music, I would put Gill up there with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney as an icon who may not be as transcendent as those rock pioneers, be he’s arguably just as important to the genre he’s helped shape for the better part of the last thirty-five years.

Sounds like last century: Pam Tillis live in Switzerland

Last month our friend Thomas Kobler reported on a recent Suzy Bogguss concert in Switzerland. Our current Spotlight Artist Pam Tillis has also just paid a visit to that beautiful country, and Tom has kindly shared another review with us.

We must have been real good here last year, since I cannot think of any other reason, why on earth Lorrie Morgan in March, Suzy Bogguss in April and now Pam Tillis in June all should find their way across the Atlantic to Switzerland to play us some of the best 90’s country that there is.

So far, the last one in line of those 90’s greats was Pam Tillis on the big stage in the huge white tent of the 20th (Anniversary) International Trucker & Country Festival in Interlaken on June 29. If the name of that place rings a bell, you might have heard it on TV. It is the pretty resort in between two alpine lakes just around the corner from that dramatic north face of the Eiger mountain, where Clint Eastwood had been hanging around quite a bit in the 1975 spy thriller The Eiger Sanction.
As usual at festivals, the slots can be more or less favourable. Pam Tillis’s slot was a slightly tricky one. She came on after the Bellamy Brothers – whose country music is quite similar to popular German hit-radio tunes except for pedal steel and language. (The Bellamy Brothers’ 70‘s hit song ‘Let Your Love Flow’ is the biggest German hit single of the last forty years or so, according to a representative audience poll in a popular German TV-show a couple of years ago. Here it is called ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’, sung by German singer Jürgen Drews.) Hence, coming on after them and their Swiss friends – which gave them almost something like “home field advantage” – at around 11 p.m. was probably not the most desirable slot.

However, Pam Tillis could not be bothered and hit the stage with two more women beside and a further four musicians behind her. In a glittery white blouse, matching dangly earrings and glittery tight blue jeans, tucked into – you might have guessed – glittery black knee-high boots, she looked as shiny, proper and attractive as it could get.

Consequently, she started her show warning not to leave anything hanging around – especially not your heart – only to think over the whole mess love life can bring a couple of minutes later and ending up wondering: ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’. It most likely was not very far, but far enough to consider flirting with the ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’ experience. In the end, things sounded as if they got worked out because next came ‘Sweetheart’s Dance’ just before things turned somewhat sour again, making her shout ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do’, and coming to the conclusion that ‘Life Has Sure Changed Us Around’. . So far, so good. In a pre-concert interview Pam Tillis told CountryStyle:

“I love to express all kinds of feelings, be it through music or acting.”

No doubt, I thought after this opening selection of songs.

Then came a series of covers consisting of ‘Ring Of Fire’, ‘Walking After Midnight’ and Dolly’s ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind’. Had not Carlene Carter performed an absolutely stunning ‘Ring Of Fire’ the night before, I might have enjoyed Pam’s take more.

Turning back to her own material, she picked things up with the never recorded ‘Dance To The Sweet Rhythm Of Mine’, and reiterating her heart‘s desire unmistakably when continuing, ‘I Sure Could Use Your Company Now’. Something ‘Blue Rose‘s’ been dreaming of too, right afterward. Still one of those songs that almost make you want to thank the good Lord for the pedal-steel and Pam Tillis a lot.

After that, the concept of the playlist got more difficult to read, but ‘Calico Plains’, ‘Band In The Window’, ‘Put Yourself In My Place’, ‘Train Without A Whistle’ and the funky-bitter and witty ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’ did not make you miss any greater underlying scheme at all. She delivered these songs grippingly, supported by a fine band in which the multi-talented Mary Sue Englund stood out playing second fiddle, keyboard and acoustic guitar as well as providing background vocals and Lorrie Morgan’s part in the duet ‘I Know What You Did Last Night’ from the remarkable Grits and Glamour song catalog. In fact, I found it quite difficult to read my hastily scribbled notes for this review because I was somewhat afraid of missing a single moment of that part of the show.

After ‘Early Memories’, a running around ‘Pony’, the insightful ‘I Know What You Did Last Night’ and a good look at her ‘Vida Loca’ in general, it was almost 1 a.m. when her doubts about whether ‘Memphis’, the southern summer nights or just her and him being a little frisky were to blame for a doubtless great time there. Closing the night with wanna holding hands Beatles-style a little later was a rather charming, innocent and fitting encore in the light of what had happened there in Memphis.

Well, what really can you say after such a show? I felt, it might have been an even better concert than perhaps some during her country radio heydays in the 90’s had been, for it included so much of the music from a long and distinguished career of a wonderful artist and most charming person (with quite a particular taste when it comes to sunglasses, I found out at the media event). Or inversely: If Pam Tillis and her band had such a good time in Switzerland as the fans around me and I had during her concert – they must have had a blast.

Concert Review – Dwight Yoakam at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA

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Dwight at Indian Ranch – June 23, 2013

Ever since the release of 3 Pears last fall and his double sell-out at the Ryman this spring, there’s been a buzz surrounding Dwight Yoakam. Like his seven-year stretch between studio albums of original material, he doesn’t tour with great frequency, so I jumped at the chance to see him live when my godparents scored tickets to a show in our area.

It was a typical day in late June. The mercury was creeping towards 90 degrees with threats of afternoon hail as we made our way to The Country Music Capital of New England (Indian Ranch) in Webster, MA – an hour and a half long drive from our home south of Boston.

Although I’d never been to the venue before, I wasn’t a stranger to the cheap ticket prices (they’ve gone up with the times), nondescript location, and traditional mid-afternoon starting time (all shows are Sundays at 2 p.m.). The venue, essentially a hillbilly campground, was a pleasant surprise – boarded by a picturesque lake – and the bleacher style seating not as uncomfortable as one would assume.

The atmosphere – a crowd of people (many my age or younger) who were all kinds of kinds – was the perfect backdrop for the two and a half hour show. Yoakam, dressed in a Canadian Tuxedo and his signature brown cowboy hat, looked like something from a bygone era while his band mates, dressed in shimmering suit jackets recalled a retro Vegas lounge act primed to croon do-wop anthems. Yoakam has always been an individualist, so this display of eccentricity wasn’t too startling.

He opened with the rousing “Take Hold of My Hand” before going back to 1987 with “Please, Please Baby.” I fully expected the fourteen cuts on 3 Pears to dominate the proceedings, but Yoakam did a wonderful job of mixing new and old giving the enthusiastic crowed a satisfying overview of his career. Fully in keeping with his mantra, Yoakam didn’t play it safe throughout his set and I was stunned at how many of the left of center songs I actually knew.

If you were only familiar with Yoakam’s radio hits, then there were plenty of moments throughout the show that would’ve gone over your head. I was surprised when he dug out three songs, all title tracks of his records, that weren’t singles – 1990’s “If There Was A Way,” 1993’s “This Time,” and 2005’s “Blame The Vain.” He also brought out a single few know, but one I played a lot on my radio show in college, “Close Up The Honky Tonks” from his Dwight Sings Buck album.

Yoakam kept the Buck Owens theme alive throughout his set, even pausing “Turn It Up, Turn It On, Turn Me Loose” just after the line ‘While We’re Dancing to an Old Buck Owens Song’ to bring out a full rendition of “Act Naturally,” before finishing his 1990 hit. Their “Streets of Bakersfield” was done by Yoakam solo, a nice touch, as you can’t replace Owens on the iconic single.

He didn’t converse with the audience too much during his set as he let the music do the talking. Yoakam rolled through most of his trademark songs – from debut single “Honky Tonk Man” and early hits “Guitars Cadillacs” and “Little Sister” to 90s hits “It Only Hurts When I Cry” and “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” He tweaked “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” into a slightly slower honky-tonk ballad, and I enjoyed this arrangement a little more than the hit recording. Easily the most fun (and my favorite) moment of the show was “Little Ways” because Yoakam had the crowed in the palm of his hand with each “You. Got. Your. Little Ways” at the start of every chorus. He closed with “Fast As You,” which was just as fun as when it came out twenty years ago.

There actually weren’t that many new songs in his set – Yoakam only sang four of the tracks from 3 Pears. The esoteric Roger Miller-like “Waterfalls” was my favorite of these moments and a definite crowd pleaser (the couple in front of us even had a toy giraffe in honor of the song). I’m always at a loss for what’s popular, and I misjudged that one.

Sadly, his cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” proved an unofficial theme of the show. As much as I enjoyed the concert (and Yoakam is a great entertainer) the band was too loud and created a melding of sound that equaled noise more than music. Yoakam’s voice is still in fine shape, but it sounded like it was in a vacuum when he’d step up to the microphone. I chalked it up to another chance to utilize the reverb that somewhat overshadowed 3 Pears but it could’ve been the acoustics at the venue.

It didn’t ruin the show, but did damper my enjoyment a bit. Luckily, though, the noise factor didn’t affect “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” as I could still make out the band crooning “always late” throughout the song. The noise factor did make “Ring of Fire” unbearable, but his rockish treatment of the Johnny Cash classic always seemed a bit much anyways. Being a big Yoakam fan I also would’ve liked to hear him stretch his set even further – I was dying to hear him play “Nothing,” “Pocket of a Clown,” and “Thinking About Leaving” – but that’s just me being selfish.

Thankfully Yoakam’s charm shone throughout his set and had me glued to the stage despite the abundance of people watching, an always enjoyable hobby. He may be pushing into his late 50s, but Yoakam still has the swagger of men half his age. His trademark footwork hasn’t succumbed to time nor does he look ridiculous bringing out the same moves that had fans swooning more than thirty years ago. If you ever get a chance to hear Yoakam live I’d highly recommend it, his show is a thoroughly enjoyable experience from one of the best artists to come around in the modern era and a moment you’ll never forget.

Concert Review: An Unexpected Visitor from Nashville

suzyinconcertLongtime MKOC reader and commenter Tom had the good fortune to see our spotlight artist Suzy Bogguss in concert in Switzerland recently. He wrote the following review for the German magazine Country Style,and has graciously allowed us to reprint it, for the first time in English.

I almost did not trust my eyes: Suzy Bogguss in concert in Laufen, Switzerland. This was almost too good to be true and Laufen too small a place off the beaten track to believe it right away. But as it turned out, Suzy Bogguss, Pat Bergeson and Charlie Chadwick had been on their way to the Salerno Guitar Festival in Italy and someone with good enough connections got them to stop over in this small town in Switzerland for a gig – and what fine concert it turned out to be.

All 400 or so eyes in the small auditorium of Laufen’s beautifully restored Culture & Arts Center “The Old Slaughterhouse” checked out the big bass that was lying quite lost on the dimley lit stage, just waiting to be picked up by the right kind of arms. Then the promotor, Martin Meier, entered the stage and introduced Suzy and her fellow musicians. No sooner had he ended his laid back speech, they stepped out of the dark and kicked things off with “Outbound Plane” followed by “Aces” – still one of the most difficult country hits to understand. Then again, three-way ties have never been an easy thing to understand in the first place. If that was a beautiful start, it surely got even better when she made a real little vocal gem out of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”. In between the songs, she had a blast interacting with the audience and her companions – Pat Bergeson playing acoustic lead guitar and Charlie Chadwick being eventually reunited with his bass. Both of them are excellent musicans and witty entertainers.

After that, Suzy Bogguss, dressed in simple blue jeans and blouse, started to play songs from her latest album American Folk Songbook. “Shenandoah” was the closing title before the mid-session interval. Her superb voice, her sincere delivery and Pat Bergeson’s lonesome harmonica made the audience in that small venue almost believe that they found themselves at a confederate camp fire at the eve of a civil war battle. For a few minutes, it felt as one had been traveling back in time to a far away place.

After the interval classics like “Wayfaring Stranger” and a bunch of cowboy and rodeo tunes were played, before the bluesey “Eat at Joe’s” led on to some of her jazzy material. Rounding off the show were her big chart-hits “Letting go”, which she introduced from a mothers point of view, whose son had left home not too long ago to go to college. “Drive South” and “Hey Cinderella” were the closing numbers before they disappeared into the dark again, receiving a big hand of applause before a series of encores and more applause finished off a nothing less than most excellent and very charming gig out in the sticks of Switzerland.

“Remember country music?” – An Evening with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 10 May 2013

promo for emmylou harris rodney crowell birminghamHaving relished their new album together, Old Yellow Moon, I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Emmylou Harris reunited live with Rodney Crowell when their tour to promote the record came over to Europe. I was joined at Birmingham Symphony Hall by an enthusiastic audience; it was almost, but not quite a sell-out, and the crowd clearly enjoyed every second.

It was a generous set; two hours and twenty minutes revisiting highlights of the pair’s past careers (mainly the 70s when they first worked together with a sprinkling of songs from the new millennium), as well as songs from Old Yellow Moon. There was no opening act, and no time for one. The focus was on music rather than chat, with the first four songs completed before anyone spoke a word.

The evening opened with a reminder of Emmylou’s time with Gram Parsons as the band walked on stage and launched straight into ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, followed by his song ‘Wheels’ which Emmylou included on Elite Hotel and which was magical here.

A change of pace led to a beautifully understated version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’, opening with Emmylou and her acoustic guitar, with the band later coming in and finally Rodney adding his vocal – a stylistic template for many of the evening’s best songs.

Rodney then sang his own ‘Earthbound’ (from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand), which I enjoyed much more live than on record. Emmylou then introduced the wonderful ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ as the first song Rodney ever sang for her. He sang a tender lead on the song, with a lovely harmony from Emmylou. The pair then sang ‘Tragedy’, a song they wrote together for her Red Dirt Girl album; while okay, it was not my favorite moment of the evening.

Emmylou paid tribute to the late Susanna Clark by singing Clark’s song ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, which Emmylou recorded on 1978’s Luxury Liner. This was just delightful, with honky tonk piano. It was followed by a stripped down ‘Red Dirt Girl’, which was very good.

Rodney then spoke for the first time, unexpectedly sounding a little nervous, before singing his autobiographical ‘Rock Of My Soul’.

The couple then duetted on ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a song written by Emmylou’s ex-husband Paul Kennerley. It was perhaps the most unexpected song choice as it came from Emmylou’s largely overlooked 1989 record Bluebird, and the only song in the set to date from that decade. It sounded very good, though, and was a welcome inclusion.

The swooping melody of ‘Love Hurts’ was a highlight, with emotional vocals from both Emmylou and Rodney (who is a much better singer than the late Gram Parsons). I was less impressed by the martial beat of ‘Luxury Liner’, although I was probably alone in that reaction – it seemed to get a particularly enthusiastic amount of applause, perhaps to reward the band’s virtuoso performances. The sound was a bit muddy for me on this song, although generally the acoustics were superb, and I wasn’t surprised when Emmylou asked for the sound to be turned down for the next song.

The band took a much needed break while Emmylou sat down for a simple acoustic number, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, her lament for her late friend Kate McGarrigle. Friendship was perhaps the overarching theme of the night. Rodney returned on stage to join Emmylou on a lovely traditional version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced’. Emmylou then sang ‘Longtime Girl Gone By’, the song she sang on Rodney Crowell’s Kin album of songs written with poet Mary Karr. She didn’t know the song well, and had to use a lyric sheet, while Rodney accompanied her on guitar (he confessed he didn’t know the songs from that album all that well either).

By now the rest of the band was back, and Rodney sang ‘I Know Love Is All I Need’, which he introduced as something he had dreamed.

The Old Yellow Moon portion of the evening then arrived, with a joyful version of the album’s opener ‘Hanging Up My Heart’, followed by a excellent (if slightly too loud) ‘Invitation To The Blues’. Emmylou asked pointedly,

“Remember country music? It’s hard to find sometimes back in the States. But it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our record.”

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Concert Review – Kathy Mattea at Silver Center For The Arts in Plymouth, NH

Kathy MatteaKathy Mattea came ready to give it her all. Amidst a blinding snowstorm, and the after effects of the head cold that had eluded her to three days prior, she took the stage Feb 23 in the teeny 665 seat Hanaway Theatre (located in isolated Plymouth, NH) with just three other musicians, a caravan of guitars, and a message.

Of late Mattea has been outspoken on the subject of coal, or “Black Gold” as she sings in a recent song. Her crusade opened a so-far two-album floodgate, a life-changing detour into the Appalachian Folk songs of her West Virginian heritage and the most fully realized music of her thirty-year recording career. Her otherworldly alto graces the lyrics of Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Garrard with the plainspoken beauty of a woman directly in line with her authentic center.

But even more impressive is Mattea’s ability to blend the “new” with the old, creating a woven tapestry linked by environmental cause, a deep sense of history, and a sharp ear. She opened with the first track on Calling Me Home (“A Far Cry”) before launching into “Lonesome Standard Time,” her #11 peaking single from 1992, without skipping a beat. She then graced the audience with my favorite of her singles, “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thrust),” which was recently reinstated back into her set.

The intermingling of her past hits and newer material took me by surprise. I expected Mattea to focus mainly on the subject of coal, with a dusting of her biggest hits, thus leaving non-signature tunes as distant memories. But instead Mattea covered the hallowed ground between her past and present with the seamless ease of a songstress in tune with every note, paying close attention to every lyric.

Dressed in a mint green blouse, black jacket, and casual leggings, Mattea had the confidence of a seasoned professional but the cool of an everywoman; she was one among equals not a star singing to a crowd. Her greatest virtue was her subtlety, showcased through her candor and humor, on par with that of a next-door neighbor, a friend.

She greeted us like we’ve known her all our lives, commending us “Plymouthians” on our toughness in weather, braving a major snowstorm like a bright sunny day. Later she encouraged communal participation, denouncing those who belittled us for an inability to carry a tune, before having us sing loud and proud on multiple choruses of both “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Come From The Heart.” The latter bonded us as a tight-knit family – she enthusiastically attempted to get us clapping on the offbeat, which wasn’t meant to be. Clapping on all beats didn’t work either so plan B had us singing “You gotta sing like you don’t need the money, love like you’ll never get hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work” at the tops of our lungs.

Further audience participation caused an off-script deviation into “Mary, Did You Know” and a proclamation that it wasn’t included with the $35 ticket price. She rolled with the flow, only grappling with the tune to see if she could reach the high note without her head popping off (she did have a head cold, after all). The song soared, and proved that sick or healthy professionalism wins out every time.

My favorite moment of the night confirmed another of Mattea’s many facets -her shrewd intellect. Her successful blending of old and new cumulated in a shared linkage – most of Mattea’s songs are deeply rooted in various fossil flues, albeit generally indirectly. I’d never viewed her material from such a focal point before, and she gracefully clarified her hypothesis, explaining how she’s singing about the diesel fuel of trains (“Lonesome Standard Time”) and the long hall truckers (“Eighteen Wheels”) to the coal. This led to a fabulous rendition of “455 Rocket” (fossil fuel: gasoline), her 1997 single and final top 20 chart hit. (In another showcase of her clever humor, I loved how she modified the line, “as we skid I thought I heard angles sing (sounded like the Beach Boys)” into a sly commentary on Beyoncé’s recent lip-synching scandal).

Mattea went on to grace us with more stories – how she first played the banjo in college only to pick it up again more recently, and the time she performed in newly restored theatre in Ohio, only to find out the majority of the audience didn’t know whom she was. She was candid on the subject of marriage, mentioning her and Jon’s recent (the prior week) 25-year milestone, gracing us with “Love Chooses You,” a Willow In The Wind album cut, and the song sung at their wedding.

Before “Love At The Five and Dime” she remarked on Nanci Griffith’s writing, likening the second verse to poetry, and shared that her classic “Where’ve You Been” almost wasn’t written, if co-writer Don Henry hadn’t been in the room. The latter came with a tale about a man with Alzheimer’s who’d forgotten his wife, until a visit in which she and their daughter were yelling at each other – and memories came flooding back.

Some of my favorite moments weren’t even the older hits (she also sang “Untold Stories,” another unexpected surprise) but the new material, even more simplistic on stage, than record. The quiet beauty of “Agate Hill” elicited tears, while her effective reading of “West Virginia Mine Disaster” showcased her storytelling prowess. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” was a nice uptempo change of pace, and “Coal Tattoo” really let the band rip.

My other great joy, and the benefits of my front row center seat, was witnessing the nuances of the band in action all evening. Sitting that close, I was able to take in all that was happening on stage and watch the four musicians bring each song to life with the fullness of a full ensemble. The front row seat brought an appreciation to the evening that even two or three rows back would’ve made near impossible.

Seeing Mattea live was one of those musical highlights of life where everything comes together perfectly for a truly outstanding evening. She’s an otherworldly talent who has only aged with sincere grace and humility since her Nashville hit making days. If you’ve never attending one of her shows, or if it’s been a while since your last evening with Mattea, it’s well worth it to catch her when she’s in your area. It’ll likely be one of the best musical nights of your life. That was certainty the case for me.

Concert review: International Festival of Country Music, Wembley Arena, London – 26 February 2012

For over twenty years (1969-1991) the premier country music event in the United Kingdom, and perhaps in Europe, was the annual International Festival of Country Music held at Wembley Arena in London, which for many years gained country music a wider audience thanks to TV coverage and provided a springboard for the international careers of many country artists. After a hiatus of another two decades, the original promoter, Mervyn Conn, decided to revive the festival this year. The event was reduced to a single day on Sunday 26 February (at its peak it was held over a three-day weekend), with the majority of the lineup moving on to branded festivals in Belfast, Northern Ireland (29 February), Zurich, Switzerland (2 March) and Mannheim in Germany (4 March).

I felt I couldn’t miss the return of this iconic event, but sales overall seem to have been disappointing. Even with ticket prices substantially discounted close to the event, the arena was far from full, so it is not clear whether there will be a repetition, but those who attended clearly enjoyed the experience, offering generous applause throughout the afternoon and evening. The lineup offered a wide range of acts from various aspects of the broad church that is country music these days, and ranging from veterans to newcomers. Presentation was slick early on, courtesy of the genial Essex based country DJ and occasional singer Steve Cherelle, who did an excellent job. Later on, compering was divided between him, veteran DJ David Allan, who did the job at the original festival, but is now rather obviously frail, and the even older George Hamilton IV. They reminisced about the original festival’s glory days, and it was good to have the event’s heritage acknowledged, but it did get a bit rambling and unfocussed at times. Read more of this post

The longest and worst Trace Adkins album ever: a concert review

Last Thursday, my friend Rhonda (hi Rhonda!) invited me to go to the Ohio State Fair with her, emphasizing that she also had tickets for the evening’s Trace Adkins show.  I like Rhonda a lot, and summertime fairs almost as much, so along I went even knowing who the show’s opener was. That particular night’s Trace Adkins tour stop at the Celeste Center in Columbus began with country-rapper (yes, that’s really a thing now) Brantley Giblert. After enduring Gilbert’s set, and the insufferable people around me who had convinced themselves we were hearing quality music, where the pseudo southern rock star sonically roared through his own compositions, including those Jason Aldean has taken to the top of the charts, it was finally time for the headliner to grace the stage. After every song Gilbert offered turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a fist-pumping anthem, I was more than ready to hear Adkins’ baritone tackle some of his better numbers. And while he finally did get around to playing a butcher’s handful of his more meaningful tunes, Adkins began his 70-minute set with a whole slew of his own brand of rock-your-socks country.

From “One Hot Mama”, “Marry For Money”, “Chrome”, through “Brown Chicken Brown Cow”, Adkins trotted out his arsenal of bawdy hits early and employed a large screen to play the music video for each. All but “Brown Chicken” featured an appearance by a bikini babe, in it puppets play the farm-couple porn stars. This apparently wasn’t lost on Adkins, as he remarked that his mother doesn’t like his music videos very much, and ended the shtick with his own Goofy guffaw. He would repeat this throaty hiccuping chuckle each time he tickled himself from the stage, which was often. He also offered up several tunes from his just-released Proud To Be Here album –  the catchy “Million Dollar View” sounds like the next single to me.  Midway through his own list of radio favorites came one of the night’s best performances in the form of a cover of rock band Ace’s 1975 hit “How Long”. During this number, he removed his hat and allowed his two-foot locks to flow and began headbanging to the song’s mid-tempo groove. Even though the night’s high marks were when he delivered lasting favorites “Every Light In The House Is On” and “Then They Do”, the only other of his ballads performed was his current single “Just Fishin'”. This was my first seeing either artist in concert, and even though Trace brought his best affable swagger to the stage, I walked away feeling like I’d just heard a really long version of the singer’s worst album.  When he finally played what I already figured would be the closing number, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” never sounded better.

Concert review: Gene Watson at St. George’s Hall, Bristol, August 13, 2010

The venueRegular readers will know that I’m a big Gene Watson fan, but I’d never actually had the opportunity to see him live before last Friday. I was delighted to attend the first of three concerts in England following a short tour in Ireland. I was really looking forward to this, and I was not disappointed.

The venue, St George’s Hall, Bristol, is a converted 18th century church (complete with altarpiece behind what is now the stage) with excellent acoustics, but it was only a little more than half full. The audience skewed older, but was extremely enthusiastic – understandable when you realize it was Gene’s first appearance in the country since the 1980s, and his first tour since 1979.

Gene opened with his first big hit, the sultry ‘Love In The Hot Afternoon’. He admitted later in the evening to having contracted a sore throat on the transatlantic flight, but for most of the concert this was not discernible, this opening number being one of the few exceptions where he did not sound quite a golden as usual. He led into a Ray Price cover, ‘Take Me As I Am or Let Me Go’, which Gene recorded on his fine From The Heart album in 2001. I was a little disappointed not to hear more from his more recent records, particularly nothing from last year’s The Taste Of The Truth, with the set list focussing on his big hits of the late 70s and early 80s. The only more recent recording to be represented was a really lovely version of Haggard’s classic ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, which Gene included on his 2007 release In A Perfect World.

He showed that (age and sore throat notwithstanding) his voice is still fabulous, particularly impressively so on this song, which showcased his beautiful phrasing, an impassioned version of ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, and the seductive cheating song ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

The most obscure inclusion, added by popular request on the Irish segment of the tour, was the Mexican-styled ‘Carmen’, a very minor hit from 1986. It was my least favourite of the evening, but got one of the best responses from the audience.

The songs were interspersed with genial chat, mainly about his career. He introduced the tender love song ‘I Don’t Need A Thing At All’ by recommending it as a way to get out of trouble with an irate wife. We also heard the stories behind ‘Got No Reason Now For Going Home’ which sounded good, and the #1 hit ‘14 Karat Mind’, where the mix was a bit loud.

Gene’s usual Farewell Party Band was unable to make it due to various illnesses, and he was backed by a rather pedestrian bunch of pick-up musicians, plus the genuinely impressive steel guitar virtuoso Sarah Jory (who doubled up on acoustic guitar on a handful of numbers), and lacking a fiddle player. Sarah Jory turned from steel to acoustic guitar on the sentimental story song ‘Paper Rosie’ (another of the songs I like less), and also, very appropriately, on the semi-autobiographical ‘Pick the Wildwood Flower’. Her steel playing was definitely front and center on the other songs, and Gene mentioned that his own band members had been impressed by her playing at a steel guitar convention, particularly on his own signature song ‘Farewell Party’.

The set proper culminated with a fantastic version of ‘Farewell Party’, with its building intensity showing off Gene’s voice, supported by Sarah’s steel. The obligatory (but in this case well-deserved) encore was ‘Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy)’, bringing a great evening to a close.

The support act, The Toy Hearts, were a very talented British family band led by the sisters Hannah and Sophia Johnson (lead vocals and mandolin and harmony vocals and virtuosic acoustic guitar respectively), and their father, who switched between banjo and dobro, plus a copule of hired guns on fiddle and bass guitar. Their music was a punchy blend of bluegrass, jazz, western swing, and a little country. There was a bit too much jazz in there for my personal tastes, but they were very good, playing mostly their own material, and the audience enjoyed their set. I thought the musicianship was better than the vocals, which sounded very good but with slightly muddy diction so that the songs’ lyrics were largely impenetrable. The song I liked best was a wistful sounding ballad called ‘The Captain’ (not the Kasey Chambers song, but an original they said was about being in a British bluegrass band), and I also enjoyed ‘When I Cut Loose’, a bluegrass train song about leaving their home town. They have some US gigs coming up.

In short: Gene Watson is still one of the finest live singers in country music.

Alan Jackson leads benefit for coalminers in West Virginia

Saturday night’s Freight Train Tour stop featuring Alan Jackson with openers Josh Turner and Chris Young wasn’t scheduled as a benefit concert.  But, after the disaster in Montcoal, WV on April 5 took the lives of 25 people, Jackson decided to donate the proceeds from the show to the Montcoal Mining Disaster Fund administrated by the West Virginia Council of Churches.  The Georgia-born singer acknowledged that he didn’t have any personal connection to the lost miners, except for “being just another blue-collar guy”, and paid tribute to them through song and video during the show at Charleston Civic Center.

Show opener Chris Young provided a strong set to a half-empty auditorium, with many of the concert-goers still milling around the lobby or finding their seats.  By the time he sang his closing number, the seats were pretty well filled up and Young lead the crowd in a sing-along of his chart-topping ‘Getting You Home’.  After his set, he made an appearance at the merchandise stand to the squeals of dozens of ladies.  I heard because I was in line for beer just as he emerged.

Josh Turner continued in keeping the ladies satisfied and an all-female mosh pot soon formed around the stage for his set.  Highlights of Turner’s 45 minutes onstage included a cover of George Jones’ ‘One Woman Man’ and his own ‘Got Here as Fast as I Could’.  After getting the crowd further amped up with ‘Firecracker’, he promised to play lots of new music, then launched into ‘All Over Me’, his latest single.  The loudest applause was reserved for Turner’s signature ‘Long Black Train’, which brought the Mountaineer State audience to its feet.

‘Gone Country’ kicked off the set from Alan Jackson.  This was followed by ‘I Don’t Even Know Your Name’, which featured a slap-stick comedy routine starring Martina McBride on the video screens.  It was shot in 1930s style cinema, and I admit, I couldn’t follow the plot, if there was any.  It still made for a neat visual treat to go with the song.  Pausing to reflect the benefit portion of the show, Alan talked briefly about the miners and their families, many of whom were in attendance, then dedicated ‘Livin’ On Love’ to them.  He played his hits, he played a couple lesser known singles, a handful of songs from the new album, and didn’t move around much.  Still, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand the entire time.  As was the case with George Strait, I marveled at Jackson’a ability to captivate a crowd with just his voice and a guitar.  About seventy minutes of traditional country music later, Jackson left the stage with the 12,000+ crowd dazzled.  Later, after pushing about 200 of my dollars into the slot machines at Tri State Racetrack and Gaming Center, I too called it a night.