Category: Michael Daves

(Re)Covered, vol. XXII: more covers of and from
Daniel Johnston, The Smiths, Stephen Foster, Chris Thile & more!

February 22nd, 2012 — 08:36 pm

It’s been a long haul these last couple of weeks, with new projects and courses to teach at work, and budget season fast approaching at the local school committee table. School vacation was cancelled, and the skies and ground remain dry as a bone despite the calendrical claim of New England February, leaving us grey and wan in the pale light of almost-winter above the equatorial line. And here at home, the stress is sky-high, thanks to an unfortunate incident at the beginning of the month that turned us into a single-car family struggling to make ends and family meet.

It’s times like these when the heart turns to echoes of the past to find evidence of meaning, lest we drown in the drudgery of the day-to-day. So join me as we attempt to spruce up our souls with yet another edition of our popular (Re)Covered series, featuring new and newly-discovered songs that revealed themselves just a little too late to make it into the original posts where they rightfully belonged.

We covered Hard Times Come Again No More in an end-of-year Single Song Sunday a few years ago, naming the mid-nineteenth century Stephen Foster tune – which admonishes the affluent to pause and remember the hard times, that they might be more inclined to support those whose lives are full of sorrow and pain, hunger and need – a perfect companion to the precarious blessing of a good year gone by.

Alas, the world is no less needy now than it was back in December 2009; indeed, since then, the Occupy Wall Street movement has taken up the cry, redefining the lines between those who would and those who can. And so, as with so many well-covered standards which resonate with the injustices of the ages, several strong contenders for the throne have emerged to add to our once-upon-a-time. Here’s two: an unusually rich and melodic Irish transformation from Voice of Ages, an incredible new album from The Chieftains which is notable for its amazing list of special guests (The Decemberists, Bon Iver, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Civil Wars, The Low Anthem, Punch Brothers, and more), and a dark, ragged stunner from the equally-amazing yet sadly overlooked 2011 tradcovers album Dark River, which finds Slaid Cleaves, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, and other familiar and new faces from the Austin, TX branch of the contemporary dustbowl folkworld taking on the Civil War-era songbook.

Speaking of Single Song Sundays: Last January’s feature on what is perhaps the best-known work from impish, self-destructive manic-depressive lo-fi genius Daniel Johnston was predominantly populated by covers which retained the fragile, destructive nature of the original performance even as they expanded the sonic potential of what is, ultimately, one of the best and last words in self-solace in the world of music. Not so with Seattle, WA indiefolk-slash-popsters Hey Marseilles, who turned the track into a drunken gypsy indiefolk waltz, high in energy and rich with muted mariachi rhythms and orchestral strings, for the 2010 Starbucks Sweetheart sampler, and then re-released it free on Valentine’s Day 2012. (Thanks to Adam, who previously brought us the Gundersen Family, for the pass-along.)

One of the things I love about being a blogger is that artists I never would have heard of otherwise send me stuff. Some of it is quite good, too. This month’s case in point comes via email from Marin of French slowcore duo The Missing Season, who sent along this vocally-layered indiefolk cover of The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out alongside notice of the band’s third homemade LP The Last Summer, a wonderfully haunting pay-what-you-will download which he describes as “a very slow album, both very synthetic and acoustic.” The phrases cover the cover, too, both aptly and in the best possible way; the cover, in turn, anticipates the studio work, which is winning me over all over again as I type this. And if you like their sound, too, know you’re not alone: the cover, which is available free on Bandcamp, was among the winning songs of a 2009 contest presided over by Geoff Travis, boss of Rough Trade Records, home of The Smiths themselves.

And speaking of The Smiths, whose covered-in-folk songbook we took on back in December of last year: I’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to post another few covers from the short-lived UK band, ever since they came to me via various sources in the weeks just after our original post, and it looks like the time is nigh. Owen’s Girlfriend In A Coma is gently playful, and I’m not sure how I missed it the first time around; Sandy at Slowcoustic adeptly encapsulates Pickering Pick’s version of the song as “sombre aching alongside…ambient acoustics”; fans of Jeff Buckley’s dreamiest electrofolk will find Piers Faccini’s live, slow, solo electric guitar and vocal take right up their alley.

Devon over at Hearth Music unearthed this older tradfolk cover from Pharis & Jason Romero just yesterday via Facebook, and I couldn’t resist keeping it moving forward, both because the sound is utterly stunning, and because the setting is perfect for the flowing banjo and guitar which carry us through. You may recall the Horsefly, BC-based banjo-builders and old-timey aficionados from several sets here on these pages last year: first in March, when we celebrated several Jason & Pharis cover videos passed along by a fan, and subsequently via our feature on Hearth Music itself, who sent us their debut-as-a-duo album in August; we liked it enough to name it one of our top mostly-covers albums of 2011 in our year’s end best-of feature, and if this one track alone doesn’t show why, you’d better head back into the archives for a second look.

  • Pharis & Jason Romero: Wild Bill Jones (trad.)

Finally, though I know the bluegrass has been a bit thick on the ground for the past week or so here, thanks to our recent trip to the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival for the sixth year in a row, I just keep coming back to a triplet of powerful videos from Michael Daves and Chris Thile recorded last month in honor of Daves’ five year run at the Rockwood Music Hall in NYC. Regular readers may remember our joy at discovering Daves’ high tenor yawp and high-energy guitar at last year’s festival; his 2011 album with Thile was a true joy to hear, easily making The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album in our end-of-year review, and I’m pleased as punch to be able to help spread the word about their ongoing collaboration.

And speaking of punch, and as a Chris Thile-related bonus, I’m also tacking on the Punch Brothers’ recording of Kid A, off the post-grass quintet’s brand new album Who’s Feeling Young Now? Paste magazine calls it an “eerily faithful interpretation of Radiohead’s electronic masterpiece”; I’m inclined to agree.

  • Michael Daves & Chris Thile: Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms (trad.)

Hey, you! Looking for more coverfolk in your daily existence? Don’t forget to “like” our Facebook page for microblogged videos and streams from far and wide – this week’s posts include an Iron Maiden song transformed into a beautiful “traditional english ballad” with bouzouki and voice, a frenetic polkafolk take on Bon Jovi, a stripped down Stevie Wonder song, and a cover of The Swell Season’s Falling Slowly with tight harmonies and beautifully light instrumentation from Cover Lay Down faves Edie Carey and Girlyman taped live on tour just this week!

2 comments » | (Re)Covered, Michael Daves, The Smiths

Tributes and Cover Compilations Week, Vol. 4: Countryfolk
albums of and from Laura Cantrell, Tom T. Hall, Michael Daves & Chris Thile

April 30th, 2011 — 12:07 pm

Our week-long coverage of this Spring’s fine crop of tribute albums and cover compilations comes to a close today with a trio of albums that fall square on the line between country and folk music. Enjoy!

Sleep With One Eye Open, the collaboration with ex-Nickel Creek founder Chris Thile which Brooklyn-based bluegrass musician Michael Daves alluded to back in February during his appearance at the Joe Val Bluegrass Fest, hits the ground running May 10, and I haven’t been this excited for a bluegrass album in a long, long while.

Daves is one of the best guitarists and vocalists in the business, a constant tour companion with banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka and Roseanne Cash who channels the high tenor tones of his forebears with exquisite deliberation; mandolinist Thile has had no small success bringing bluegrass to a younger, more indie-minded audience, first with Nickel Creek, more recently with his newgrass band Punch Brothers. Unsurprisingly, the combination is gleefully potent, making this a project sure to please fans of multiple generations. And, says Michael, though the male voice mando-guitar duet form is a staple of the bluegrass sound, it was important for us…to get that brother duet thing, but with this Lower East Side punk energy. One of the most enjoyable things about this experience was to underline the slightly delinquent side of bluegrass.

The set, which is comprised entirely of “traditional” oldtimey tunes and bluegrass standards made popular by Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, The Louvin Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and other bluegrass legends was recorded in Jack White’s Third Man Studios, and will drop on Nonesuch Records on May 10; a single with two more songs – Man In The Mirror and Blue Night – will follow on the 24th. preorder the autographed CD here, or merely pass on your email address at their website, and you’ll be entered to win a Martin guitar…but to be fair, as the promo two-fer below makes clear, the chance to hear these two virtuosos at the top of their game should be more than enough incentive to buy the album.

  • Chris Thile & Michael Daves: You’re Running Wild (pop. The Louvin Brothers)

Laura Cantrell has long been a darling of the countryfolk set, with fans from NYC, where her Saturday-afternoon country show The Radio Thrift Shop became an institution, to Nashville, where she is known among the Grand Ol’ Opry crowd for both her deep, deceptively delicate songwriting and her refined ability to resurrect hidden gems from the early days of acoustic country, and transform more modern pieces from the popular canon in her inimitable singer-songwriter style. And the critics agree, with kudos from Paste to Rolling Stone; no less than UK tastemaker John Peel called her debut, Not The Tremblin’ Kind, his “favourite album of the last 10 years – and possibly my life”.

Her new tribute to country legend Kitty Wells is Cantrell’s most country album yet, with a vividly colorful cover shot reminiscent of the gingham-and-whiskey era which she is here to revive, and instrumentation that suits a modern interpretation of the canon of a long-gone, almost forgotten queen of early country. But folk fans with a penchant for the country side will still find much to love here, most especially in Cantrell’s voice, which remains as sweet as ever, in the gentle, classic slide-and-harmony driven country balladry which pours forth from the speakers, and in the love she brings to what is clearly a project for the ages.

Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music is already out in the UK, while Cantrell tours the country in the wake of the wedding of the century; it will go global on May 17, and can be pre-ordered at her website. The title-track single, a tribute to Kitty herself, is the sole original on the album, making it tough to justify inclusion here, but you can download it for an address at her website; I’ve included her take on Kitty Wells’ 1952 chart hit It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, and a few older, almost-as-countrified covers here, but encourage all to check out the album, and our 2008 feature on Laura Cantrell’s coverage, to see what makes this one worth pursuit.

Bonus Tracks:

Singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall’s children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow was released in 1974, just a year after I was, and to be honest, I’m surprised that I had never heard of it, having grown up in a home full of kidfolk. But that’s the whole point of I Love: Songs of Fox Hollow, an album tribute which aims to introduce a new generation to a gentle, playful kids’ album which was, apparently, born of Hall’s attempt to explain the working of his Kentucky farm to his two young nephews after a memorable summer spent together among the chicken coops, goat herds, and hayfields.

The songs, which speak of conservation and care, fit as neatly into the modern movement towards agro- and eco-sensitivity as they surely did in the seventies, and their reimagining here in the hands of Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Bobby Bare, Elizabeth Cook and others is sweet and gentle. The result is an album as accessible as it is unabashedly country-slash-Americana, simple and direct in language and rhyme, a perfect album for kids of all ages. It drops May 25, but can and should be streamed in its entirety at the project’s website.

Previously on Tributes and Cover Compilations Week:

528 comments » | Chris Thile, Compilations & Tribute Albums, Countryfolk, Laura Cantrell, Michael Daves, Tribute Albums

Bluegrass and Beyond: Notes from Joe Val Fest, 2011
featuring Michael Daves, Frank Solivan, The Bee Eaters, Della Mae & more!

February 20th, 2011 — 11:18 pm

In my heart, Bluegrass is the epitome of summer, calling up images of bare feet, hot sun, cold beer straight from the cooler, and warm outdoor nights pickin’ tentside in the camps. And in most audiences, the genre is grounded in the geography of the American South, where summer lingers long and lazy – both in the appalachian ranges which hold its old-timey roots, and in the country music of Grand Old Opryland which so supported its evolution.

But there’s plenty of good reasons why the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival – an annual mid-winter event which celebrates the surprisingly strong New England bluegrass community, previously featured here in 2008 – has won fan accolades and “best fest” awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Crammed into a turreted Sheraton Tara, its conference room workshops, lobby picking circles, and grand ballroom mainstage sets defy all expectations – and the Boston Bluegrass Union, who sponsor the event, deserve kudos for packing in enough time, energy and diversity to make for a grand and intimate experience.

Though it’s a strong festival in its own right, I tend to approach Joe Val as a preview tour for discovery, a guide for what not to miss come July as I make my annual pilgrimage to Grey Fox. And it works: without fail, each time I have attended, I have come away excited about a few new discoveries, and this year’s festival, which ended yesterday, was no exception.

In five years of regular attendance, Joe Val has introduced me to The Infamous Stringdusters, The Steeldrivers, Sierra Hull, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and a plethora of other stringbands, gospel quartets, and high tenor crooners both new and old. Many of these discoveries are driven by coverage – after all, the Bluegrass canon is chock full of old standards, and the genre itself is intimately tied to the performances and songcraft of a finite handful of individuals, from The Carter Family to Flatt and Scruggs, from The Stanley Brothers to founding father Bill Monroe himself.

Given that recent and personality-driven history, I was surprised not to hear any Louvin Brothers covers at this year’s festival, though we did hear three different bands take on Kentucky Waltz on Saturday alone, in fitting tribute to Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday this year. But though, as you’ll see below, I did find a number of new favorites on the mainstage this year, I was even more surprised to find that this year’s most exciting discoveries sprung from the set of one of the most well-known of all bluegrass banjo players.

I’ve seen Bluegrass-and-beyond banjo wizard Tony Trischka solo a few times, including a revelatory introduction 8 years ago at the now-defunct Winterhawk 2000 festival, and in partnership with fellow five-string star Bela Fleck at a memorable Grey Fox workshop a few years later. Trischka’s performance is always fluid and masterful, but it’s never showy, and for this year’s Friday night closing set he played it especially cool, allowing a hand-selected trio of young performers to share his limelight.

Trishka was amazing, as always: fast and magical, both solo and in tandem with another banjo player. But I’m grateful that he gave front billing to Territory, the band he had recruited and organized. Because fiddler Tashina Clarridge was stunning, fluid and graceful, keeping up with the legend’s licks like lightning. And vocalist and guitarist Michael Daves, who I had never even heard of before this weekend, so impressed me that I spent an hour the next morning in his well-attended guitar-and-voice workshop.

Thankfully, both artists perform in other formations, so there’s ample opportunity to celebrate and listen to them outside of the unexpected sideman’s slot. For example: along with her brother Tristan, who plays cello for Crooked Still, Tashina performs and runs string workshops regularly with The Bee Eaters, a group who travel in the same classical-meets-old-timey vein as Crooked Still, The Folk Arts Quartet, and other Boston bands we’ve featured here in the past, and I think you’ll find their Beatles cover below an apt introduction to their chamber folk style and flair.

Meanwhile, Brooklynite Michael Daves, who in performance and morning lesson showed himself to be a mature, thoughtful, extraordinarily deliberate master in hipster glasses and Chuck Taylors, has the mind-blowing power and presence of a bluegrass and neo-old-time superstar. His utterly stunning vocals and deliberate guitar work are only available in live recordings – on his website, and on Live At The Rockwood, a 2007 album which represents his only purchaseable work to date, but even they reveal a star on the rise, with Del McCoury’s raw, high-strung tenor vocals in his throat and no less than Bill Monroe’s deliberate, note-by-note method running through his hand on the strings.

NYC-based readers can catch Michael Daves at the Rockwood every Tuesday night; the rest of us will have to wait until his duo album with indiegrass darling Chris Thile of Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek drops this Spring. After this weekend’s performance, I’m ready to call it album of the year without even hearing it first.

Of course, other voices should have their due here, too. Among this year’s other big discoveries was Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, a modern bluegrass quartet who seem to be making waves in their native Washington, DC. Powerful multi-instrumentalist bandleader Solivan, who whet his chops as a mandolin player and fiddler in both classical and bluegrass venues in California and Alaska before joining Country Current, the United States Navy’s elite country and bluegrass band, early in the 21st century, released two solo albums and mentored and toured with some big names indeed before organizing three other award-winning musicians into the tight-knit group that goes by Dirty Kitchen; together, they craft and arrange some mighty fine original compositions, and Frank delivers them in a powerful, clear voice just right for easy bluegrass listening – fine enough, in fact, to have come to Joe Val straight from the weekend’s National Folk Alliance conference down in Memphis.

My festival companion’s favorite this year was Hot Mustard, a two-banjo, two-couple quartet who moved up from a showcase set last year to an early Friday evening mainstage debut this year, and who will be touring with Tony Trischka this year. As my father said, their set alone was worth the price of festival admission, due in no small part to the virtuosity of Bruce Stockwell and Bill Jubett, banjo players brought together initially by a NH Arts Grant apprenticeship, and to the sweet, gutsy vocals of lead singer and guitarist April Hobart.

Though they played several in concert, Hot Mustard don’t seem to have any covers recorded, or indeed any albums for sale at all, so I’ve included two of Hobart’s folky home recordings below – a familiar Carolina Chocolate Drops revival and a sweet, quiet kidfolk cover – you’ll hear what brought us is; just imagine it with strong stand-up bass and double banjos for full effect. But Frank Solivan’s quartet has an equally strong knack for reinterpretation, when they put their shoulders to it – and you can hear it in these two vastly different endcaps from their newest album, as well as in an early track from Solivan’s 2002 solo release.

Of course, there’s never time to see everything. Attending Michael Daves’ workshop taught me to appreciate bluegrass in a whole new way, but it also caused me to have to skip the morning’s set by Chasing Blue, an old-timey-style five-piece, born out of Berklee School of Music, who seem eager to make a first impression on the larger New England audience after a solid live performance at the IBMA Awards a couple of years ago. I bought their self-titled EP fresh off the presses afterwards, and am enjoying their youthful energy immensely, not to mention their solid original compositions; their Jimmy Martin cover, which seems to be a track from a previous, now out-of-print debut EP, speaks well of their performance and their potential for more.

More significantly, I had to skip Sunday at Joe Val this year, which meant missing the morning’s gospel performances, and that’s a shame – imagine a two-hour block of gospel harmonies, and you know your ears are in for a mighty fine morning. It also meant missing Della Mae, a relatively new New England-based all-girl bluegrass quintet that came with no small amount of buzz. I’m quite disappointed to have missed what promised to be quite high-octane performances from this year’s two big young barnburner bands, so I’m making it up to them by sharing the covers below, in the hopes that it’ll help keep them at the top of all of our minds as we look towards summer.

In other Bluegrass news, as a coda of sorts: the Gibson Brothers, who so impressed me with their Greg Brown cover this summer in a workshop stage set at Grey Fox, release their newest album Help My Brother on Compass Records this Tuesday, and – thanks to some fine sibling harmonies, smooth-ride instrumental interplay, heartfelt lyricism, and guest spots from the likes of Claire Lynch and Ricky Skaggs – it once again demonstrates why the band of five remain strong headliners on the festival circuit. They weren’t at Joe Val, but we discovered them there, and they’re on my mind and my CD player today, along with all the other artists above.

794 comments » | bluegrass, Michael Daves