Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Merle Haggard - Learning to Live With Myself

During a recent lull in summer television, I found myself watching a brand new documentary on Merle Haggard, from the American Masters series on PBS, entitled Learning to Live With Myself. I started out with relatively low expectations, but they were raised a good bit when I saw that the director was Gandulf Hennig, the same person who made the Gram Parsons documentary Fallen Angel, of which I was a big fan.

If you look up Hennig's IMDB profile, you'll see the aforementioned documentaries are the only two films he has made (that have made it onto IMDB at least). For a German national, who apparently now lives in Nashville, Hennig has an amazing ability to capture the lives of American musicians in a way that few other people can. He compiles interviews with a wide spectrum of people and his storytelling is simply perfect in its continuity and completeness. (Note: embedded video below may not show up in Google Reader).

Watch the full episode. See more American Masters.

The documentary follows Haggard through his traumatic early life, largely a result of the death of his father when he was 9 years-old, and moves through his troubled early adulthood into becoming a country superstar. They do a beautiful job of portraying the somewhat contradictory roles he filled, being an outlaw of sorts, but also becoming a conservative icon following the release of "Okie From Muskogee." Not only does the film chronicle Haggard's life in depth, but it also stands as a detailed record of the important role California country music, specifically the Bakersfield sound, played in the diversification of country music in the 1960s and beyond.

Not unlike the Fallen Angel documentary, the strength of this work is in the wide breadth of interviews that were conducted. Keith Richards, Dwight Yoakum, Kris Kristofferson, and Marty Stuart are but a few of the stars who contribute to the film, but maybe even more importantly, family members and childhood friends were also interviewed, providing a very strong and detailed picture of a man who doesn't often reveal his public life. Hennig truly succeeded in his endeavor by gaining Haggard's confidence on a level such that there are many candid moments in his interviews with the artist.

One of my favorite moments in the film comes when it was discussed how Dick Clark one time told Haggard, near the peak of his mainstream success, that if he simply recorded a few pop music songs he could literally be one of the biggest stars on the planet. Haggard reportedly told Clark very simply "That's not who I am." Rather, Haggard took it upon himself to promote American roots music, recording songs with the Texas Playboys and releasing an album of Jimmie Rodgers songs.

This film far exceeded my initial expectations and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Haggard or in the history of country music in the United States.

I don't know how long it will be available, but apparently you can watch the entire film online at the PBS Web site here (or click the link below the video above).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

UMS 2010 Preview

The time has come once again for Denver's best music festival, The UMS, taking place on South Broadway from July 22-25. It's like CMJ without the hassle, like SXSW but with less butt sweat. In short, it's well worth your time. I've put together a short list of the bands I most want to see. In my past experience, there will be someone good playing almost all the time, so this is but a sampling of what the UMS has to offer. You can still by a $30 pass that will get you through the entire weekend of music up through July 21st, so don't delay any longer!

While some of these set times are close together, the beauty of this festival is the proximity of all shows to one another. You can make it between the most distant venues in probably 10 minutes at the most, while it's less than 5 minutes between most.

These United States
- Friday, 11 PM @ the Hi-Dive
(Photo credit Sarah Law)

The UMS has been working the last few years to bring in national headliners, and These United States will be a fantastic act to headline Friday night. I've recently become quite a fan of this band on account of hearing their Daytrotter sessions, and have since bought their most recent LP Everything Touches Everything. The band should have a new record out for their performance at the UMS, which should result in the Hi-Dive being packed wall-to-wall for their

Munly & the Lupercalians - Saturday, 10 PM @ the Hi-Dive (Photo credit Gary Isaacs)

Munly shows have been quite rare around Denver as of late, and I believe his last two shows have been on New Years Eve with the Auto Club, so the chance to see him at the UMS should not be missed. Munly's double album continues to have no release date, but I expect that he'll be playing mostly material from that record at his showcase this year.

Thrift Store Cowboys - Saturday, 11 PM @ the Skylark Lounge (Photo credit Logan Caldbeck)

Having recently celebrated their tenth year as a band, TSC theoretically could have played at the UMS every year of its existence, but since the festival started out with locals only, and TSC hail from Lubbock, Texas, it just wasn't meant to be. However, now that they're both 10, their parents arranged a play-date for the two. TSC will have lots of new material to play from their soon to be released LP Light Fighter.

One Wolf - Saturday, 7 PM @ the Skylark Lounge

Another great Lubbock band, One Wolf plays their first UMS this year as well. With two great albums under their belt, and plenty of time honing their live show, this will be a set you don't want to miss.

Paper Bird - Thursday, 11:55 PM @ the Hi-Dive; Friday, 7:30 PM @ CarToys Stage (Photo credit Gary Isaacs)

I have somehow gone four years in Colorado without getting to see Paper Bird, but I continue to hear great things about them. Hopefully their two appearances this year will finally give me the chance I need to catch their show.

Amanda Shires
- Saturday, 9 PM @ Walnut Room Pizzeria

As 1/6 of the aforementioned Thrift Store Cowboys, Amanda Shires has come into her own as a songwriter with her recent West Cross Timbers. She basically lives on the road, so when it comes to handling a live crowd, Amanda is among the best. Don't be surprised to see a member or two of TSC backing her up on this gig as well.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

3 reviews and a story

Band of Horses - Infinite Arms

This album is poppy, but not in a bad way. If I was going to represent it visually, the album would be a plate (the album) with 12 southern biscuits on it (the songs), all covered with honey (the harmonies). I use this example partially jokingly because the harmonies on this album are THICK. They work though. There is no "Funeral" on this album, but in my humble opinion, you only get to write one song like that in your lifetime (with a few exceptions, of course). The songs are recorded such that they don't really get heavy even when it seems like it is a heavy part, but I have no doubt that a song like "Dilly" will sound amazing (and will be plenty hard-hitting) live, because I was lucky enough to hear them play it a few months ago. Don't expect to rock out to this album, but it's a great listen.

The National - High Violet

It seems most bloggers and critics were expecting this to be the album that conquered the world, and they were disappointed that it didn't. Even if it didn't, I think "Bloodbuzz Ohio," "Afraid of Everyone," and "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" are amazing songs that anchor a very strong album overall. Not unlike BoH above, some want the National to write "Fake Empire" again and again, except more mind-blowing every time. The National seem to just want to make good music, and I think they've done it again here.

If you haven't already, check out their Letterman performance of "Afraid of Everyone", featuring Sufjan Stevens.

Deer Tick - The Black Dirt Sessions

I'm a bit of a latecomer to Deer Tick, having picked up their first two albums in late March. I don't know exactly what to think of them sometimes. From what I know, the band tours constantly, parties hard, and they continue to write great songs. At times it seems like their outward image is an inside joke, where they appear to be an out of control rock band, but they can't say that's what they are doing because it would ruin the image. That's not for me to decide, and it doesn't really matter as long as they write good songs. In short, I like the second half of this album better than the first, with the exception of the second song "Twenty Miles," which is among the best on the record. Besides that opinion, though, I will never again be able to think about this album outside of this one experience:

Approximately a month ago, just after TBDS was released, H. and I were driving through rural west Texas, on a small Farm-to-Market road between Muleshoe and Morton, to be specific (see map below). Basically you see little more than some farm vehicles and meet cars maybe every 5 miles. In short, very little traffic. It just so happens we had been listening to this album, and had just reached the final song "Christ Jesus," which if you haven't heard, is, well, typical Deer Tick. Less than a minute after the song started, we came upon a semi-truck that had written on all sides "Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word." The trucks appear to have their origin with these folks (I pasted a picture below), although that is somewhat beside the point. It was a pretty odd experience, feeling a bit like two universes collided in the middle of nowhere and we were the only ones who saw it. So yeah, that's what I'll always think of when I hear this record.

View Larger Map

A picture of a similar truck that I found here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Halsted - Life Underwater

As I am sure is the case for many of you, I typically have enough new music to listen to from artists I like and from bands recommended to me by friends that I don’t often seek out even more new music from the countless blogs that are pushing someone new every day. Every now and then there are exceptions, and I am in the right mood to check out something that wasn’t even on my radar previously. That said, I am most drawn to bands that send me links with a good concise press release and who don’t sensationalize themselves with a bunch of industry speak.

Halsted, based out of San Francisco, was a band whom I had never heard the name of, much less listened to. You know how sometimes your friend says – “hey do you like the band so & so?” And you, trying not to sound out of touch, say “I’ve heard the name, but I don’t know their music.”

Maybe that’s just what I do, for some odd reason, but I couldn’t have even said that much about Halsted. I also hadn’t heard of the previous release by the band’s principle songwriter, Ryan Auffenberg, who released a record in 2008 entitled Marigolds.

So all that roundabout description is to let you know that I basically knew zero about this band before I pressed play. Typically this situation results in listening to 45 seconds of 2-3 songs, then stopping the music, deleting the mp3s, and playing something else. As it turned out with Halsted, I liked what I heard, and before I knew it, I’d listened to the entire album a few times through. I'm still listening to the album regularly a month later.

Often a band’s first record sounds like it was made from a recipe. Songwriter: 1) writes song, 2) finds bassist, drummer, and sometimes lead guitarist, 3) records songs with band, making them sound just like they sounded before, except with bass, guitar, and drums in the background. This is not the case with Halsted. Each song on Life Underwater sounds carefully crafted and well arranged, and the influences of this band appear to be diverse. At times the band brings up impressions of Wilco or the Gin Blossoms, although the resemblance to those bands is not overpowering.

The album is strong for its duration, although the current favorite for me is "Rising Tide," a mid-paced rocker that I have to imagine sounds great live. "White Hot City Lights," "Sellout," and "Knock on Wood" are additional high points, although there is seemingly a song for every mood on this album, such that any song may emerge as a favorite depending on your situation at the time. The album's tone sound is generally upbeat and filled with strong guitar arrangements throughout. In short, I am thoroughly impressed with Halsted, and look forward to hearing the band progress, as their sound is well-developed for a first record and indicates a promising future.

Check out "Rising Tide," among other songs, on their Myspace page. Life Underwater will be released on Ashbury Records tomorrow, July 13th.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sometimes the world throws you a curveball

Believe it or not, Kenny Chesney will be recording a version of Guy Clark's song "Hemingway's Whiskey" for his new album, which he also plans to name after the song.

That's right, this guy:

Since I consider Clark one of the great living songwriters, it's not surprising for this to happen really, and KC even wins a few points in my book for recording the song. I hope it does well and gets the airtime it deserves. No word yet whether Clark will return the favor by recording "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy."