Category Archives: Review

Steph Johnson’s Art Don’t Belong in a Box

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“You want to be free, you must let go of everything.”
–Steph Johnson, “Be Light,” from Music is Art

Steph Johnson can sing that line with complete integrity. She has made her name in San Diego’s music scene by jumping feet-first into new ventures without fearing change, or letting possible risk stand in the way of expressing herself.

She began her musical journey by leaving a career in banking to play music full-time. After success in soul and R&B with a band she loved, she stumbled into a collaboration with Rob Thorsen that led her to switch music genres and now is a beloved voice in San Diego jazz.

She has had great success. She won the San Diego Museum of Art’s award for Best Jazz Album before she considered herself a jazz musician. Music is Art is her fourth album, and The Steph Johnson Trio is an in-demand act in San Diego.

She is used to making her own way, and learned early that her path would be unique. As she says in her bio, “I thought everybody sang like Aretha Franklin,” Johnson said. “But because I had a big voice, even as a little girl, whenever I tried out for the choir, in elementary or middle school, I was made an example of how not to sing — because I had this big voice that wouldn’t blend.” Thankfully, she believed in herself–advice she wrote into the lyrics of her latest album, Music is Art.

The album represents her perfectly. The R&B is there, flavoring her jazzy original songs. The vocals are throaty and soulful, and the lyrics reflect her blend of optimism, willingness to have an open heart, and celebration of what makes each person unique.

My favorite track on the album by far is the title song, “Music is Art.” She laments a world where music is not respected unless “you can vote for it on TV,” and celebrates music as a creative expression that should defy labels. “Music is art, it don’t belong in a box” is the refrain, and she delivers the words with intensity.

Steph Johnson is well-known in the San Diego music scene for her great instrumentation and on-point vocals. She is also an activist who is open about giving her heart to all that she does. She started Voices of Our City choir with fellow musician and activist Nina Leilani, which is a group formed from those experiencing homelessness and professional musicians. The group does public performances as a way to share beauty with people who rarely have their voice heard while also bringing attention to a topic too many people ignore.

Visit her website for more information on shows, to purchase her album, or learn more about this great performer.

Will Overman Band: All I Say

When I reviewed Die Where I Began, one of the things I loved about Will Overman Band was the way the band’s songs capture a feeling in words and music. Their new single, “All I Say” shares that strength.

The single is released fresh off their appearance at MerleFest, the great music festival in Wilkesboro, NC, created to honor Doc Watson’s son, Eddy Merle Watson. They joined other groups I will need to check out, such as Scythian, The Waybacks, Shinyribs, and Fireside Collective, as well as the great John Prine. Our Charlottesville boys certainly held their own with their honest lyrics, gorgeous vocals, and layered instrumentation.

“Every closing door becomes a slam when silence fills the air;
You know that you’re wrong, but your ego says hold strong;
So you can be like me.”

The song describes the moments we all regret–slamming a door too often in a loved one’s face, literally or figuratively, walking away from someone who needs us to hear and acknowledge a hurt, the moment you say something you can’t take back, and the moment you decide to stop saying anything at all.

As often happens when the angry words flow, then stop, you “realize too late” that there is love between you, when you see your loved one “walking away.”

Will Overman Band hits these painful emotions with a poignancy that resonates after the song is finished. I plan on weighing my words more carefully after listening.

You can hear the band at their CD release show at The Southern Cafe and Music Hall in Charlottesville, VA, on June 4. You can grab “All I Say” and Die Where I Began on their band page at SoundCloud.

That Green Hen Fights Mouse Music

“I always give Chris Strachwitz credit for creating, for me, the opportunity to hear accordion so I could love it.” –Taj Mahal

I watched a great documentary today. That Ain’t No Mouse Music, the story of Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records.

First, go to Netflix and watch this movie. Or buy it on Amazon. It is a gem, if you like music, like quirky stories, or just have eclectic taste.

Chris Strachwitz would have been a German aristocrat, managing a Polish castle, but his family had to flee his native Germany to escape the Russians at the end of World War 2. Chris ended up in the US, and soaked up parts of American culture others ignored. He began recording blues straight off the cotton fields and factories of Texas and Lousiana.

He founded the company Arhoolie Records. Arhoolie is a term for a “field holler,” the songs used by slaves and laborers in the South to coordinate the rhythm of their work and express themselves as they worked. Mack McCormick, a blues researcher who helped Chris find many of the artists he recorded in the South, suggested the name.

The film covers nearly every kind of music that does not get big play in “mainstream” music circles, starting with blues, then moving to zydeco, Mexican folk music, and Appalachian roots and bluegrass. Along the way, Chris shares stories of recording names like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Mama Thornton, and introduces you to enough new names in music to keep you in new music for a year.

Here is one of the bands I discovered from the video. Pine Leaf Boys are well known in Zydeco and Cajun music circles.

Pine Leaf Boys

“I Got a Camel / Lulu Don’t Go to Bingo”

This Ain’t No Mouse Music was thoroughly enjoyable, and I plan on watching it a few more times.  You can get the Soundtrack CD at Arhoolie Records. Take a look and let us know what you think!

 

 

 

 

The Flying Sulsers!

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Green here.  The hubby and I went to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s Flowers After Five last week.  The garden stays open late every Thursday, and features a local music group. This Thursday The Flying Sulsers owned the stage.

The Flying Sulsers are a Richmond cover band. They describe themselves as a “raucous mix of Swing and Country peppered with strains of Hillbilly and Bluegrass”. The show Thursday was characterized by high energy, and what I am calling “loose harmony.” The vocal blends fit together beautifully, but not in a barbershop quartet way. It feels like the musical equivalent of doing stunts on runaway horses–beautiful, technically spot-on, but with a sense of messy adventure that is appealing.

They covered a bunch of stuff, and–silly me!–I didn’t jot down the playlist. A few of the songs included “Blue Moon,” “Undecided,” “A-Tiskey, A-Tasket,” and “Two to Tango.” It was obvious the group loved what they were doing, and the best word to describe their style is “fun.” The group is led by Brian Sulser, who plays the upright bass (and even though I had 7 years of orchestra, I didn’t know until today that was called a doghouse bass), with Marty Flipman on guitar, and Aimee Sulser leading the vocals. They remind me of the Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel. They have the same casual competence that fools you into thinking their performance is easy.

We enjoyed their performance immensely. You can bump into them all over Richmond, but I’ve had a hard time finding their dates ahead of time. In addition to yearly appearances at Lewis Ginter, they’ve played at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s jazz nights, and Taste of Richmond. Lewis Ginter had the sound done perfectly. If you were anywhere near the show, you could hear every note clearly in spite of the happy kids dancing and talking.

The rest of the Flowers After Five schedule is available at Lewis Ginter’s website. The second and third Thursdays each month are also Fidos after Five, when you can bring your pets on their leash to enjoy the garden. So look for the Flying Sulsers around town, and come to Lewis Ginter on Thursday for more great music.

 

Hen’s Crowing Over His Keb’Mo Coup (or is it Coop?)

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So. . . Hen got to go to a Keb’Mo concert. Because he lives in San Di-frickin’-Paradisi-AY-go. He got some great pictures, because he’s good like that.

I got to see Keb’Mo once, too, long ago. It was in Austin, which should have made it wonderful. But it was so long ago he was opening for Lyle Lovett. In an outdoor venue. And my cheap seats were by concessions. Now I think Lyle Lovett is one of music’s true gentlemen, and will challenge you to a duel if you think differently. But his fans. . .well, the ones at the concession stand evidently did not realize Keb’Mo was the same caliber of genius as Lyle, and made a ton of noise. So I didn’t get as much enjoyment out of my Keb’Mo concert as Mr. Third-Row-in-the-Intimate-Venue-of-Belly Up. Not that I’m bitter. . .or anything.

 

Here’s a tiny snippet of the concert, compliments of Lucky Hen:

Since I want to have some part in the Kevin Moore adventure, I’m writing a review of his latest album, BluesAmericana. It has everything I love about Keb’Mo. It’s equal parts touching and humorous, upbeat and heartbreaking. It has a beat. Perhaps, most importantly, it meets my requirement for blues–you may be talking about how life is low-down and dirty, but you can’t help smiling, because you’re having so much fun making music about it. Here’s a quick run-down of the songs, and more of Hen’s great pics. Because, you know, none of us got to go.

 

“The Worst is Yet to Come” I nominate this song as the official song for Mondays. It has everything–starting off wrong with a hangover, broke down car, lost job, lost woman who was no good to begin with. Everyone has days like this–and if you haven’t, just put this album back. You ain’t ready to listen to the blues yet. But here’s the thing about blues in general, and especially Keb’Mo’s blues, and even more especially his particular mix of blues/folk/funk/americana–he doesn’t dwell in the dumps. “I take a look around me. . .guess I”m doing pretty good.”

 

11758979_10207475112698836_374331550_n“Somebody Hurt You” I loved Keb’Mo from the first time my husband introduced me to his music because he writes songs that are good to women. He has a sweet tenderness, and many of his songs, just like this one, promise to make the past sweeter with his devotion in the present. The song has a gospel quality that raises the comfort quotient on it. This is a song to sing to the person you love when they’ve had the day in “The Worst is Yet to Come”.

 

“Do It Right” The perfect song for new love. Or an anniversary. Or a wedding. It’s goes beyond “I got the hots for you” to a mature look at the gentle hope, tenderness, and willingness to grow that love needs. My husband and I have a wedding songlist that we have grown over each anniversary. This song is going on the list.

 

“I’m Gonna Be Your Man” A true devotion song in the blues tradition. John Lee Hooker wanders through when Keb’Mo says “I’m a man, I’m a full grown man.” I love the confident certainty in this song–he’s gonna get his girl in the end. And that’s that. Shooby-doo-whap-whappa. . . .

 

“Move” Some great vocal wails start this one out. A good song for transitions, especially the ones you have to make because your world has broken beneath you. This song gives you the courage to face unpleasant facts and MOVE. It also has plenty of the wry humor that brings me back to Keb’Mo for feel good music.

 

11751362_10207475111898816_1610527406_n“For Better or Worse” Most of this album is upbeat. This song has Keb’Mo’s quiet tenderness. If he wasn’t such an amazing musician, he could have been a great marriage counselor. Play this song when you know you’re with the right person but you’re having a hard time. It reminds you that good things take work, and that’s ok.

 

 

“That’s Alright” The best blues song on this album. It’s got the beat, it’s got the hard times, it’s got the raw loneliness of wondering what your once-love is doing with that other person. And like all blues songs, it’s got the stand up and be counted, take no prisoners, make justice happen ending.

 

“Old Me Better” This song got a lot of attention when the album first came out. It has a great sense of humor and triumph. Sometimes the changes you have to make to be with another person are just too much. This song reminds you that you don’t need to be with anyone that won’t let you be yourself.

 

“More for Your Money” Nostalgia songs are great, and this one brings the Americana-folk feel squarely into the album. It’s got the plucky acoustic strumming, an aw-shucks tone, and the sense that yesterday was better.

 

“So Long Goodbye” Keb’Mo can break a heart more gently than any singer I’ve ever heard. This song about a love that just won’t work is shattering, but brushes your tears with a feather-softness. I hope this song doesn’t resonate with you. But if it does, the kind resignation of the song will help you begin the process of moving on.

 

Keb’Mo is an American treasure. If you haven’t heard him, this album is a great place to start. If you have, this album will remind you why you love him so much. He’s still on tour. You can see if you can still catch him near you here.

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Ferlinghetti and Holden Forrest

Today I posted a link to an interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti with his musings on San Francisco over the past 60 years. It got me thinking about poetry as song. When I searched for Ferlinghetti music, I found this cool song by Holden Forrest, who promises “more Ferlinghetti collaborations in the near future.” You can visit Holden’s YouTube page here.

 

Anna and Elizabeth–The Past in The Present

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Just heard Anna and Elizabeth, a duet of two beautiful voices that resurrects the old music from the hills. Their voices are haunting; their music simple and elegant. And they tell stories. Stories from the past, sometimes illustrated with Annie’s “crankies”–little tableaux she makes of cloth and paper. She has a hand-cranked rolling screen with the crankies loaded on, and runs them throughout the ballads. It is a nostalgic gesture that takes you out of the iPhone age, back to sitting around the fire at night after a hard day’s work.

 

The ladies are musicians, actresses, crafters, and story tellers. They would not be lost if thrown back in time to the little town of Floyd, Virginia where they host The Floyd Radio Show. Before cars, interstates, and electricity made it possible to connect outside your holler, people entertained themselves. They taught each other to play the instruments they carried west or made at home, and used the materials around them to express the emotions of their lives. Anna and Elizabeth, though only in their 20’s, have dedicated their lives to bringing back those musical stories.

 

Like Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame, these women are not dabblers in music history. They regularly search archives of old music, including the living archives. One of the “projects” listed on their website is “visits with old folks.” Some of the old folks include Paul David Smith, Anna’s late mentor, Jimmy Costa, and the Kentucky Clodhoppers. Anna and Elizabeth tell some stories from their conversation with a neighbor of Lella Todd in their Tiny Desk Concert. Todd was a musician who “could play anything with strings.” She accepted all her neighbors as family. She played her music for them and with them, and brought food, flowers, and comfort when tragedy struck those around her.

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Anna and Elizabeth with a crankie.

 

Anna and Elizabeth remind me of Tasha Tudor, the writer and illustrator who chose to live out her days in a house without electricity until her death in 2008. She wrote by candlelight, made her own home-spun clothes and cooked by wood fire. She lived day-to-day in a world free of technological white noise, and brought a taste of that life to her audience. Anna and Elizabeth’s songs, crafts, and outreach to the older musicians around them brings that world to life today. Like Tudor, who wrote children’s books, A&E take their music to kids by playing music and doing versions of their radio shows in schools in their local area. I hope the children take home the idea that music is not something you download on your ipod, but something you make together with friends.

Here’s “The Lost Gander,” complete with a crankie:

Anna and Elizabeth’s second album is self-titled, and can be ordered from Free Dirt Records. The next Floyd Radio Show is June 20; you can stream it live or buy tickets to see it in person in Floyd, VA.

Thanks to Dylon Locke and Anna and Elizabeth for the photos used in this post.

Jimmy and Enrique in the Moment

There is a dirty-little-not-so-secret here at TGH. Green (that’s me!) doesn’t actually PLAY an instrument.

 

Well, I have played in the past. I took lessons on viola, violin, and piano, and sing off and on in church choirs. But I’m not a “real” musician. I’m the writer in the group. So even though I love listening to all kinds of music, I have only reviewed albums with vocals. I can talk about lyrics. And talk. But there are a lot of wonderful instrumental albums out there. Having half the website be an amazing musician makes me realize I’m missing a lot in my word-centric world.

 

I had to find a way to write about music my way. I feel like the old guy using the kids’ slang talking about gigs and licks and shredding guitars–or is it shredding music on guitars? Anyway, I usually focus on the poetry of lyrics and the overall feel of the music. Today, I decided to take on one album that is a wordless wonder: In the Moment by Jimmy and Enrique. Jimmy and Enrique are friends and colleagues of Hen, so that’s our full disclosure. In spite of that possible handicap, their album has me dancing in my seat as I type. The album has a strong Latin sound, and mixes all kinds of other influences.

 

Latin music has roots in a lot of different cultures. The guitar itself, recognized as a major instrument in Spanish and Latin music, descends from the Persian tar, a lute-like instrument named for the Persian word for “string.” Or so I’m told by Wikipedia. The troubadours, the original touring bands, have been connected to William of Aquitane and his influence from Muslim prisoners he captured on a crusade. Troubadour music highlighted loves lost and gained, amorous conquests, and evidently ribald poetry. The gyrating rhythms in Spanish, Latin, and Arab music are all perfect accompaniment for such subject matter. Jimmy and Enrique manage to get a lot of feeling across without needing words, which I guess is what great musicians do.

 

After listening to the album for the first time, I read another review. I was terribly pleased with myself to have noticed the Middle Eastern and of course, Latin influences in the music. Looking at the album now, I realize the song titles would have provided context clues. I dare you to listen to this album and sit still. Here are some highlights:

 

“Las Dos Vidoras” (“The Two Vipers”) is, well. . .serpentine. If a couple of snakes decided to start a flamenco, this is the song they would want as background. I can’t listen to it without trying to do a little “S” wiggle with my spine. Good luck managing better than me.

 

“Sandstorm” started and my first image was a camel ride with dervishes whirling around a caravan. That was before I checked the title of the song. So J&E have done a masterful job evoking the feel of the desert. I want some Morroccan tea, which I have now discovered is much more complex than it looks. Not unlike most music, but especially the subtle layers throughout this album.

 

As we continue our world-tour-in-an-album, we come to “Calypso Coronado.” Since I’m not a California girl, I did not recognize the (possible?) reference to Coronado, CA. The calypso feel, however, came through loud and clear.

 

“Chocolate Eyes” has a smooth sound. I hear a little island, a little jazz, a little Latin, and a little sitting on a veranda with a microbrew and enjoying life. And dancing. Definitely dancing.

 

J&E are some of the best musicians in San Diego. Jimmy Patton is a top-class guitarist, currently signed with Pacific Records. He is acknowledged as one of the best guitarists in the country, and has opened for jazz greats Stanley Jordan and Terrance Blanchard. Enrique Platas is a world-renowned drummer and percussionist. He has played on albums from Sony Mexico, and has opened for the B-52s and trumpeter Chris Botti.

 

You can buy In the Moment on their website.

 

Die Where I Began–The Unusually Traditional Will Overman Band

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Since I started writing for That Green Hen, I’ve been amazed at how much quality music I’ve missed as a “radio girl.” My internet cohort, Hen, has been part of the local music scene on the West Coast for years, so he should have told me what I was missing, but NOOOOO, he kept it all to himself.

Now I love discovering new music, and one of these days I’m going to shed my inner Emily Dickinson and go off and visit some of these groups in person. The Will Overman Band is one of the great groups I’ve never heard until now. Here are my thoughts on their latest album, Die Where I Began.

The album is a nice mix of bluegrass-tinged americana and folk, expected themes and interesting twists. I especially love the cultural references worked into the songs, and the unusual topics handled creatively. There are not many songs about sitting in a hospital room, or being the one to break someone’s heart. And not many homages to a place that compare a street singer to Kurt Vonnegut. Will Overman Band goes to all these places, and does them with a touching skill that will send me searching for all their previous work.

A quick run-through of songs:

Whipporwill: True to bluegrass tradition, “Whipporwill” gives you all the banjos and fiddles you could want. The image of “licking my pen and writing these words about you” puts you back in time. The references to the natural world harken to any number of old songs that have come down out of the mountains.  Songs where love is best expressed as “the wind that cools you down when I’m not around” in a “song as long as the song of a whipporwill”.

Fix My Girl:  A song about waiting in the hospital room of a loved one. It catches the desperate tenderness you feel in a sterile hospital. “White wristband turning, strumming my new song. . .” while being willing to take her place if there was any way to trade places. If you’ve ever spent time sitting by a bed in a “hospital with its poker faced rooms,” this song will resonate with you. And probably make you cry. My favorite song on the album.

Minnesota I Was Wrong: For me, this song is made by the line: “the moon’s eerie beckoning is a broken-hearted dusk.” It’s just one of the great lines the pop up in this album.

Take Me Back to Virginia: I’m morally obligated to like this song, since I’m from Richmond. The band hits everything you’d expect about Virginia, and touches on our great education tradition, too, with references to Kurt Vonnegut, comparing him to a street performer who smells like “mustard gas and rose.” They hit the blue sky, the James River, dogwoods, freshly-turned fields, hills, and of course, in that Southern Gothic tradition made famous by Edgar Allen Poe, death gets a mention, too.

Falling In and Out: It’s not that often you find a song from the heartbreaker’s viewpoint. “Falling In and Out” is for those who spoke first, then reconsidered. The music is tender and sad, and Overman gets just the right amount of wistful tears into his voice to make you feel sorry for the one who walks away.

I Miss You: It’s appropriate that this song should follow Falling In and Out. “My lady done left me, but I pushed her along” explains where things stand. “I miss you, my dear,” with a sightly manic banjo accompaniment captures the feeling of sending someone away, knowing they need to go–in this case on a mind-opening travel tour “across this vast world”, yet wanting them back so very very badly. It  has the same feel as “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

You can follow the Will Overman Band on their Facebook page, and buy their album on iTunes.