Greg Brown & Bo Ramsey at D&G’s Tap House in Ames, Iowa

In March 2013 I finally, and belatedly, discovered the music of Greg Brown and through his albums, also that of Bo Ramsey, his long-term musical partner, and not only in my opinion I guess, guitar genius. How fond I have grown of either artist should come as now surprise if you have browsed through this blog before. I posted raving reviews of Greg Brown’s album If I Had Known  and Bo Ramsey’s very fine album Fragile and have been listening to both artists a hell of a lot of time last spring and summer (and still do, actually). When planning last year’s trip through the Midwest which lead me, only partly coincidentally, through Iowa, I was looking to find out if Greg Brown was playing any shows in the 2 weeks I was there – without too much hope that would actually be the case. So I guess you can imagine that I was more then overjoyed to discover that both were playing a show in the central Iowa town of Ames which I could easily fit into my schedule. After spending about 10 exciting and interesting days on the road travelling through Nebraska and Iowa their show on the 27th of September was ideally timed towards the end of my trip so the timing was right too.

Unfortunately I neglected to take notes about the songs they played but it was, naturally, an excellent show. I was especially surprised and delighted about Bo Ramsey’s brief 7 or so song set in the beginning. He sounded quite different compared with his album Fragile, which was the only album of his I currently know (a fact I plan on rectifying soon). He sounded very energetic, slightly rough, with songs, as far as I could follow the lyrics, mainly about travelling on dirt roads, trains and other similarly rustic subject matter, which was of course much to my liking.

Bo Ramsey at D&G's in Ames, Iowa

Their set together was also splendid, but as I wrote above I can’t really remember exactly which songs they played. As Greg Brown has released about 25 studio albums throughout his career, they have obviously got a wide variety of brilliant songs to choose from. Unfortunately I wasn’t really able to take good quality photos as the show was packed and I was a bit locked in the middle of the audience, so the photos on here are rather poor, sorry about that. But just being there was a dream come true and most probably a chance to catch them playing a show together I won’t have again, so I am absolutely happy with how things went.

Bo Ramsey adn Greg Brown in Ames, IA

Bo Ramsey and Greg Brown in Ames, IA

Pretty much the only song I do remember hearing is Here In The Going Going Gone.  As I didn’t possess The Poet Game at the time, it was brand new to my ears. It immediately became one of my favorite Greg Brown songs, in my opinion it’s one of his finest compositions, both musically, but especially lyrically. It was also immediately stuck in my head, so back in my hotel I tried to find a video of it on YouTube, I didn’t find one of his versions but I found this absolute gem of a cover version. I must have watched the video about 10 times that night (and many more since). The guys playing this seem to be only gigging in the Seattle area and I could find very little information about their work, and, sadly, no recording. I was a little bit sceptical about the singer’s voice at first, but have become quite fond of it in the meantime. And that violin is just wonderful. A cover version doing a great song more than justice.

 

The Pines : Tremolo and Dark So Gold

The Pines are the next in a line of great artists out of the Midwest scene that brought us Greg Brown, Dave Moore and Bo Ramsey, all artists I hold in very high regard indeed, as you will undoubtedly have noticed if you visited my blog before (see here, here or here or have a look at my tag cloud). Not only share two members of the Pines the surname with Bo Ramsey, they are indeed his sons Benson and Alex. Benson is one of two principal songwriters alongside David Huckfelt, his brother Alex can be heard on keyboards and piano. They are based in Minneapolis, also home to their label Red House Records. I have to applaud The Pines for chosing Red House as their label home anyway, as it is perhaps not one of the hippest labels to be on if you are young musicians (which they are). Which of course isn’t to say Red House isn’t a good label as far as I’m concerned, just the opposite as I have come to have a tremendous love for a lot of their artists (and I am by far not finished exploring their roster in more detail).

The fact that the Ramsey brothers and Huckfelt hail from Iowa is very much in evidence in their music and extends to the cover design of both records that feature barns, scarecrows, fields and woods. Given their ages, naturally their sound is a tad more modern than that of the artists mentioned above, although it has to be said, rather marginally so.

Having found out about the Ramsey brothers involvement in The Pines somewhere I wasted no time to do a bit of research and luckily found the live in studio recording of one of Dark So Gold’s best tracks All The While (see my post from a few weeks ago) and I have to say that the live version is actually even a bit better than the one on the album, as it is a perfect rendition with a superb arrangement (see the outstanding and understated percussion work of drummer J.T. Bates for example).

 

The Pines Dark So Gold album cover jpeg

Dark So Gold (2012)

Their style can be described as Gothic Americana Folk, with some moderate blues leanings, and it’s fitting then that I hear traces of Sixteen Horsepower in a number of songs, most notably Be There In Bells, which is one of the few tracks on either album which could almost be described as a rock song – thankfully, and surprisingly given their young age, in my opinion is the fact that they totally avoid the temptation to ‘rock out’ and make do without the usual distorted guitars that more often than not go with bands their age – I for one am very happy about that.

Others hear traces of Ryan Adams in Benson Ramsey’s vocal delivery (Rob at 45spins), a comparison they can probably live with well too, I should imagine.

As mentioned above, instead of turning up their amps, they fortunately prefer to imbue their music with melancholy and a rather peaceful (if sometimes a tad moody), dreamy atmosphere and introspective and rather soft arrangements that don’t sound one bit lifeless or dull. Things are helped further by the skilful acoustic-electric guitar interplay and Alex Ramsey’s keyboard/piano sounds. In contrast to the predecessor Tremolo the band also took on a more hands-on role with producing the album that shows how much they have grown together as a band. Three tracks, Moonrise, IA , Grace Hill and album closer Losing the Stars are rather short instrumental tracks, short in length maybe but high on ambience. Other highlights for me on Dark So Gold are the dark opener Cry Cry Crow, the lovely and slightly uptempo If By Morning and the rather optimistic and catchy and folky Chimes.

 

The Pines Tremolo Cover jpeg

Tremolo, the 2009 predecessor to Dark So Gold doesn’t sound much different compared to their latest release. The main difference being the fact that at this stage The Pines were actually a duo comprised of Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt also most of the other musicians that can be heard on Dark So Gold are on here as well. Also noteworthy and clearly audible is the bigger role Bo Ramsey does play on here. This can most outstandingly heard on Behind The Time which features one of his trademark sparse, understated and soulful electric guitar solos that literally make the hairs on my arms stand up almost every time I listen to the song – nobody I can think of on top of my head can do that sort of thing better than him. He also does provide the beautiful Weissenborn that can be heard on Lonesome Tremolo Blues.Alex Ramsey’s keyboards are given slightly more space to shape a couple of songs, namely a contemporary update of Mississippi John Hurt’s Spike Driver Blues and album closer Shiny Shoes. The album is chock-full of excellent songs, I especially love the exceedingly tuneful (and fittingly accompanied by brushed drums and/or percussion) songs such as Heart & Bones, Meadows of Dawn and Skipper And His Wife – the latter being written by Spider John Koerner, apparently a semi-legendary Folk artist I wasn’t familiar with at all until recently, but one I will most definitely be investigating in more detail in the near future – Skipper And His Wife being an absolutely wonderful song, although the arrangement on here I suppose is quite different from his.

The Pines offer a very welcome alternative to the myriad Alternative bands around – theirs is not the sound of an urban generation but decidedly just the opposite. Their voice is one infused with true values and a rural background which is pervading pretty much every inch of their sound and making them something rather special and absolutely cherishable in today’s music scene.

http://www.thepinesmusic.com

 

 

The Pines : All The While (Live On 89.3 The Current)

A brand new discovery for me (they have been around for a few years though), The Pines totally enchanted me with this utterly fabulous and gorgeous version of their song All The While from their 2012 album Dark So Gold, which I don’t know yet, as I have only just ordered it. But if it’s only half as good as this track hints at, you probably will be reading about it on here soon. One of them is also the son of Bo Ramsey whom you can see talked/written about here before. Or here. And a few times more. If you also take into account that they are on Red House Records it’s perhaps no wonder they are this good. Anyway, here it is:

 

Danny Schmidt : Parables & Primes

DS_Parables

Danny Schmidt : Parables & Primes

(2005 Live Once Records)

 

Danny Schmidt is a singer/songwriter based in Austin, TX. He’s received tons of  good press – and rightly so! I don’t want to drop the D-comparison (that has been done too many times before in the last 40 years or so), but I see him more in line of songwriters such as John Prine and Greg Brown, as he’s considerably younger than either of them it wouldn’t be wrong to call him the next generation.

The earliest of his 7 albums I bought to date, this beauty of an album enticed me because of the haunting and delicate violin part in album opener This Too Shall Pass that I knew from YouTube. This Too Shall Pass is quite dark in theme, and the violin does complement it to very fine effect indeed.

But as very soon became obvious, this track isn’t the only highlight on the album, far from it! Neil Young sounds a lot like, well, prime Neil Young (of the Harvest era, his finest period if you ask me), complete with a relaxed and somewhat sleepy acoustic guitar as well as a lovely steel guitar.

Dark Eyed Prince is prime Danny Schmidt, mainly him, his (as mostly is the case) fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a captivating, memorable story, in this case about a prince that has got it all in a material sense, but behind all that wealth he’s hiding his deeply hurt soul, by a princess long gone – as Danny Schmidt is quite often speaking in metaphors and allegories this probably has a universal meaning, but being able to package a thought and idea like this in a story so imaginative and memorable, is what makes a (song)writer as good as he clearly is (which is evident in most of his work).

Other fine examples of this ability are Stained Glass and A Circus Of Clowns. Stained Glass is only accompanied (like This Too Shall Pass) by violin and his acoustic guitar and the story does concern a stained glass church window being damaged by a storm and being only rudimentarily restored by the 90 year-old dad by the master glazier – upon seeing the finished product the church congregation is sceptical at first, but quickly recognizes that perfection isn’t what counts most, but being able to pour your heart and soul into something is much more meaningful and, in this case, beautiful than doing something perfectly – that’s my interpretation of the story at least. Plus that violin between the verses is amazing – it’s mixed somewhat into the background, but it kind of floats around in your room (provided you listen to the record on a proper stereo, not on your computer or those cheap in-ear headphones) – hard to explain that effect adequately, but it sounds simply wonderful.

Riddles And Lies and Esmee By The River are both simple, straightforward Folk song and only accompanied by lovely mandolin and accordion parts respectively (and acoustic guitar, naturally), which is actually all they need to be from a first-rate songwriter of his ilk.

Ghost became something of my favorite on the album (as far as it is possible to name one from an album with so many excellent tracks on it), maybe for the Wild West imagery (‘…swing swing, gallows swing…’) but most probably for the somber mood and stripped-down arrangement with only an acoustic and an electric lead guitar.

In contrast to this are the next two songs Beggars And Mules and A Circus Of Clowns, which are both, for his standards I should add, lavishly arranged. The first one with a nice, relaxed 70’s Country-Rock beat and arrangement with a soft lead guitar and female backing vocals (some of Arlo Guthrie’s work springing to mind) and A Circus Of Clowns, suited perfectly to the circus theme of the song with trumpets and marching drums, which I am quite fond of, when it’s done in moderate doses (it’s probably all the church visits in my childhood that did that). Lyrically it’s a political allegory and a slightly madcap story about a circus coming to town and the townspeople, after much fanfare in the beginning, slowly coming to realize that maybe the clowns aren’t really up to any good, but by then it’s too late and they aren’t really able to get rid of them all that easily.

The title track and album closer is quite unfinished intimate acoustic guitar only track and more of an afterthought than a fully finished song, which isn’t to say it’s not worth listening to at all – more reminiscent of a live recording.

If you don’t know his work yet and are into Folk-based singer/songwriter fare telling and imaginative storytelling you could do much, much, worse than checking Parables & Primes out. This is top stuff (as are all of his other records I know to date – keep checking back here for more reviews of his other albums). His website is http://www.dannyschmidt.com

 

Eldon, Iowa

This is the 2nd post from Eldon, Iowa on this blog (the first one’s about The American Gothic House can be found here ). My main reason for visiting this part of Iowa initially was watching the documentary Hacklebarney Tunes The Music Of Greg Brown (see the related post here), as he grew up partly in and around Eldon. As I read about the American Gothic House being located in Eldon I had all the more reason to make this a stop on my trip.  I went on a warm, sunny Sunday morning so there wasn’t a lot going on in the town.

Pink truck and silo, W Elm Street, Eldon, Iowa

W Elm Street, Eldon, Iowa

Wooden toy train, Eldon, Iowa

Rock Island Caboose, Eldon, Iowa

Selma, Iowa

Selma, Iowa is a little town/village in Southeastern Iowa, located about 20 miles south of Fairfield and 5 miles east of Eldon, site of the American Gothic House. One of my favourite singer/songwriters, Greg Brown, grew up partly in this area.

Log Cabin, Selma, Iowa Garage, Selma, Iowa

Greg Brown : Freak Flag (Video)

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Nebraska and Iowa which starts tomorrow morning I am posting this video of (one of my) favorite tracks from Greg Brown’s last studio album to date ‘Freak Flag’. Needless to say perhaps that I like it a lot, and I’ve been meaning to write a review and post it on here, but I didn’t have the time to finish it. This video shows Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey in fine form, and I am happy to be able to say that I plan to go and see their show in Ames on the 27th if everything is going according to plan. Should be excellent.

 

 

Dave Moore : Over My Shoulder

D_Moore_Over

Dave Moore : Over My Shoulder

(Red House Records, 1990)

I recently reviewed Dave Moore’s last album to date Breaking Down To 3 on my bog (check it out here). In comparison with that album on here it’s showcasing a broader variety of musical influences, mainly stemming from his experiences and the time he spent in various countries in Middle and South America. This time clearly left a lasting influence on him and the music on Over My Shoulder, whereas on Breaking Down… these are not really to be heard (I am not familiar yet with his first record Jukejoints and Cantinas form 1984 but judging from the album’s title these influences most probably are on there too).

These South/Middle American and TexMex influences are prevailing on a number of tracks, most notably on Open Your Heart (Abre El Corazon) which seems to have been written/amended by Mexican artist Manuel Guerrero and is based on Buck Owens’ Open Up Your Heart (or the other way around) and El Golfo written by Lolo Cavazos, which is the most authentic Mexican tune performed on here. The song The Mexican Highway is the track bridging these influences (it’s one of a number of songs where Moore also shines on the button accordion) with the Singer-Songwriter, Folk and Blues influences to very fine effect and is one of the melodic highlights on here.

The album starts off though with a track perhaps the clearest indication of what Dave Moore is all about, an immensely gifted acoustic guitar player strongly influenced by Folk-Blues artists the likes of Mississippi John Hurt (who is name-checked on Over My Shoulder) and a warm, rich voice. Just A Dog is a slightly up-tempo song, with some outstanding guitar work, a fiddle providing some memorable sounds and Moore’s expressive vocals (he howls like a dog a number of times). A great opener.

Bukka White’s classic Fixin’ To Die, perhaps most famous in Bob Dylan’s version (to me at least) is given the Dave Moore makeover  – I have to say I like it better than Dylan’s version – and you don’t often hear me saying something to that effect when it comes to Dylan’s early work. I very much like the brilliant slide guitar and harmonica on here.

God Moves On The Water (by Blind Willie Johnson) is updated here very convincingly. I have to admit that I am not familiar with the original version, but Moore’s version is affecting and quietly beautiful, with the Peter Ostroushko’s lovely fiddle sounding very wonderful indeed. The afore-mentioned El Golfo is the only instrumental on here, although it’s maybe a tad too traditional for my taste, but that’s just me, I am far from an expert on this kind of music, my only experiences with it are pretty much from Los Lobos and Calexico records, so don’t mind me.

The next two tracks A Little Hey Dad and Half My Life are a bit more familiar stylistically, both being excellent acoustic Singer/Songwriter/Folk songs, the first one featuring a highly original and brilliant vocal arrangement and Moore’s trademark harmonica which I love a lot (not just on this track, but throughout his work). Half My Life sounds very much like an Old Time Country tune, complete with Western fiddle and saloon piano – it’s a lot of fun to listen to. The tongue-in-cheek Waitresses is a catchy little Folk-Blues ditty holding the flag for the working class high, which is always endearing to me. The Third Candle I Burnt Tonight is another sparsely arranged, gentle ballad on which I especially love Chris Weygand’s standup bass, it’s understated, tasteful and the song is all the better because of that.

The best track on here is the title track, tucked away right at the end of the album. There’s actually an even better version than this available, which I included below (it’s a live recording from The Mill in Iowa City with only Moore and a gorgeous violin by Al Murphy). But the version on here is brilliant too, and as a song it may just the best song Dave Moore has ever written, it definitely is one of my favorites.

Listening to these two records, it’s clear to me that Dave Moore does belong in there with the best of his like and in my opinion it’s very unfortunate and unjustified that he is not as highly regarded or well-known as some of the other Singer/Songwriters and musicians of his generation. I wish he would release another album.

Dave Moore : Breaking Down To 3

Dave Moore Breaking Down To 3 cover

Dave Moore : Breaking Down To 3

(Red House Records, 1999)

To state that Iowa Singer/Songrwiter Dave Moore has kept a low profile would be something of an understatement and he certainly can’t be considered to be prolific when it comes to releasing records – 3 albums from 1984 to the present day isn’t a lot. Which is an absolute shame, if you ask me. I first became aware of Dave Moore watching the Greg Brown documentary Hacklebarney Tunes that, with its accompanying CD If I Had Known, acted as a catalyst for me to discover Bo Ramsey as well (see my review of his album Fragile here…), not to mention Red House Records, which Greg Brown founded in 1981 and which I only knew by name before.

 

Finding information about Dave Moore hasn’t been easy, he hasn’t even got a Wikipedia entry or example, so there was more or less only the short biography on him on the Red House Records website (http://www.redhouserecords.com/Moore.html). But fortunately there’s YouTube and there are quite a few videos of him playing in small Folk clubs, festivals etc. to be found.  You can also get all three of his albums over at Amazon (if, like me, you live in an area without any record stores you could hope to find albums like his). However, I liked what I heard on these clips immediately, they were mostly solo acoustic recordings as well as a few that show him accompanied by other musicians. I soon discovered that he is an extremely talented (mainly acoustic) guitar player and ace songwriter. He’s also playing harmonica and accordion (which he learned from TexMex/Norteno legend Fred Zimmerle).

The first thing I have to say about Breaking Down…  is that it sounds absolutely stunning. I have seldom heard an album produced, mixed and mastered as well as this, the sound is crystal clear and airy while at the same time substantial and muscular (in a stripped down way – no loud and hard electric guitar riffs or anything like that). You can hear each and every instrumental track recorded with stunning clarity and the same goes for his rich, full voice. But having bought a few other records released on Red House Records recently I am slowly beginning to suspect that their records are usually produced to a very high sound standard, which of course is a distinct plus for me, I am very fond of good-sounding records.

His music is Singer/Songwriter fare straight out of the American Heartland, with just the right influences from Folk to Blues, Roots and TexMex, (though the latter is mainly the case on the Over My Shoulder album and not really on here). His characteristic harmonica sound is employed to very fine effect throughout the album, especially on tracks such as Down To The River and Big Fool For You. Coupled with Ramsey’s (who also shares the production credits with Moore) amazing guitar work (if you read my review of his album Fragile or Pieta Brown’s Mercury you will now how much I am into his style of guitar playing), the combination of the two could be described as a match made in heaven.

On here it’s especially Sharks Don’t Sleep and Midnight on which Ramsey shines. As usual he’s supplying just the right amount of ambience through his understated but highly effective, soulful and bluesy lead guitar. Midnight for me is the best song on here hands down – the bass guitar is going way down, it sends chills straight to your bones and it’s got great harmonica work too.  The image I have got in my head whenever I listen to Midnight is that of standing next to the train tracks late at night and having a freight train rumbling by a few feet away.

The other musicians of the small band accompanying him on the album don’t disappoint either, even if they stay in the background somewhat by Moore and Ramsey. David Zollo’s piano is augmenting Big Fool For You rather nicely and the use of an acoustic stand-up bass, as is the case on some tracks, is always a plus in my book. In the laid-back Big Drafty House a man is reminiscing back on his life of 20 years ago and the area he lived in at that time, sentimental perhaps, but a nice image nevertheless.

On the ballad Painting This Room Ramsey plays (what I believe is) a National resonator guitar, unsurprisingly, that’s sounding fabulous. Next track Let’s Take Our Time And Do It Right is a good-natured blues shuffle. The saddest song on here is All the Time In The World, an intensely personal, gentle ballad about a father taking to his deceased daughter, so it sounds appropriately melancholic.

But he can do upbeat, easygoing Blues/Folk-Pop songs as well, as tracks such as Big Fool For You or Mr. Music prove. The aforementioned Sharks Don’t Sleep is another highlight on the album. I have listened to it many times and still can’t figure out what the lyrics are about, but never mind, the music is utterly captivating, a mid-tempo song with a rather restrained musical backing and a moody atmosphere, and that Bo Ramsey guitar…

Album closer Down To The River is an unashamedly romantic song about a man, his woman and a dog escaping city life in their cabin by the river with a suitable lovely tune and a simple yet graceful Folk-Pop arrangement.

One of the overlooked gems in the Singer/Songwriter field of the past 15 years, that’s for sure.