Sturgill Simpson–A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Sturgill Simpson is a country artist.  I don’t like country music.  Some label him “alt-country,” so perhaps that creates a crease I can slide into without making myself a hypocrite.    That label is due perhaps to his nerve in abandoning today’s corporate paint-by-the-numbers formulas to reimagine country music from its classic 1960’s sound, for which he was lauded in his 2014 CD, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

From this artist comes the following quote, in an interview with Rolling Stone:  "All I'm really interested in musically is trying to make concept albums," Simpson said. "Serving a larger sum than the parts. I just can't sit down and write three verses and a chorus and a bridge anymore. I just don't find it inspiring."

Huh.  A country artist saying he’s going to make a concept album, until now the conceit of progressive rock bands worldwide.  Okay.  I’m curious.

Sturgill reflected on letter from his grandfather to his grandmother and newborn son, written while serving in the Pacific in WWII.  He said he learned more about his grandfather in the several pages than he would have spending time talking with him.  Sturgill, auntitled-1 Navy veteran himself, applied that notion to the travel demands of an entertainer’s life and his own newborn son, thus the concept became postcards, in a sense, telling his son the things that mattered to him now.  Given the nautical heritage, the title A Sailor’s Guide to Earth makes some sense, and he works the theme into several songs.

“Welcome to Earth” is the apology song for being away.  “Breakers Roar” is about finding hope when things are working against.   “Keep it Between the Lines” is a “Do as I say, not as I do” advice piece.  “Sea Stories,” the most overtly “country” song (agh!), is a travelogue of sights and regrets – a “not as I do” allegory. 

Following that is an imaginative interpretation of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” a song for a teenage son and a song favored by the artist when he was one.  To my ear, it’s about kids’ inward focus without yet contemplating the greater issues in life.  To fill the gap, Simpson steps up to the God question in “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”:

Someday you’ll wake up and this life will be over
Every party must break up for burdens to shoulder
We're all dying to live and living to die
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And all of us cry for the ones we must leave

So go and live a little
Bone turns brittle and skin weathers before your eyes
Make sure you give a little
Before you go to that great unknown in the sky

Some will beg for forgiveness from someone above
For something they did to someone they love
Some scream like a baby and some go out crying
Some bid the world goodbye and welcome the dying.

Wait a second, where’s the lyric about the pickup truck, a lover scorned or a patriotic hell yeah?  Sturgill’s lyrics are as well constructed throughout.  I guess a concept album will do that.

He touches the metaphysical a little more directly in “All Around You:”

But just know in your heart that we’re always together
And long after I’m gone I’ll still be around
Because our bond is eternal and so is love
God is inside you, all around, and up above
Knowing
Showing you the way

“Oh Sarah” is, as the title suggests, probably the Cliff Notes version of his grandfather’s letter.  War (and touring) are heluntitled-3l, but love will find its way home.   “Call to Arms” closes the album, a country-rocker-protest song about political, media, and Hollywood agendas that tell a person who they should be.  I’d prefer “Oh Sarah” as the final point rather than a middle finger, but it still works.

I’ve read elsewhere that this CD upends expectations and previous labels, blessing him now with a “Southern soul” tag.  That’s likely due to the frequent and inspired use of the Dap-Kings, a supporting band for Sharon Jones that is very much in the funk/soul category.

Overall, it’s a masterfully conceived CD, from conception, songwriting, musicianship (except the occasional twang and the moments where the steel guitar rises to prominence), and… packaging even.  At the end of the day, I guess I can like country music.

5 of 5 STARS_thumb

   

 

Ian Anderson–Jethro Tull (the Rock Opera)

A bucket list artist… one that I planned on catching before the clock turned to 2016, the year the music keeps dying.  I’m at that tender age that’s old enough to be a fan of all the old classic rock artists, but young enough not to require an oxygen bottle and orthopedic shoes to catch the legends that still manage to tour.  It’s often surprisingly rewarding, and it keeps me young – both in memories and by surrounding myself with an older crowd (except my son). Jethro Tull A Rock Opera review

Jethro Tull is a band that I liked – not loved.  They certainly played a style of music I enjoy – emphasis on lyrical tales, musicianship, and a healthy dose of flute.  Maybe their records weren’t in the used bins when I had the cash, but I just never gave their catalogue a full review.  Aside from that, likely much to the leader’s horror, I never really paid attention to their lyrics – at least until I got the remastered Aqualung a few years ago.  It was always more about the sound for me.

Ian Anderson has retired the band as a recording and touring unit but continues as a “solo” act.  I’m not sure why there’s a difference.  When I heard that he was remaking the story of Jethro Tull, an 18th century agriculturist after which the band was named, I thought he would be taking songs created over the years and forming a new narrative in the sequencing.  Not so much, as it turns out.

Atlanta’s Fox Theater is a fine place to see a show.  Its décor distracts even during a show, just as much as the prowling ushers who pounce on those trying to capture their Kodak moments on their iPhones and Androids.  (Not me.  I bring a camera to a gun fight and wait until the end). 

It was a bewildering evening.  Anderson played three “hit” songs – a tried and true “Aqualung,” a roaring “Locomotive Breath,” and “Living in the Past” – a song whose timeless melody might be suitable for something as demanding as a soundtrack for a 60’s documentary or as an ear worm to bring viewers back for more of a game show.

This wasn’t a greatest hits show. The music was not otherwise familiar – being newly created for the “rock opera” – and while the new music couldn’t help but sound like Tull, it was not what anyone expected.  As  one audience member voiced during a lull, “Play something we know!”  Amen brother.

Only, that wasn’t possible.  Spontaneity isn’t really expected in big production shows these days – Springsteen does, certainly, and many bands hastily put together one time tributes to the music that died the day before – Lou Reed, Bowie, Prince, etc.  But shows are programmed from a visual standpoint that often require a fixed set list from night to night, including not just computer controlled stage lighting but in this case a video/audio narrative projected onto a back screen.

So, unfamiliar music… a band that dashes off the stage so as not to block viewer’s appreciation of the video segues between songs, then dashes back on to play perfectly in time with… pre-recorded vocals (and we trust not the music) of three performers who sing the narrative that we’re supposed to be following – the agriculturist raging against genetically modified organisms and big chemical companies.  I think.

For me to be certain on that point, I would have had to have purchased the official concert “program” for $15, an item that I didn’t know existed until at a bar after the show when another attendee let me glimpse it.  Here’s an idea.  If you want to sell a concept that, frankly, doesn’t translate in a voice yielding to the infirmities of age or even prerecorded vocals that get muddled in the din of a large concert hall, charge $5 more per ticket.  Hand a program to each attendee as they enter, or, better yet, make it downloadable for people when they purchase their ticket.  

Otherwise, your audience is watching, in this case,  three people sing their roles, clueless as to who they are supposed to be or the story they’re attempting to tell.  Young Jethro.  Old Jethro.  Jethro’s cousin? Girlfriend? Conscience? Monsanto sales rep?  I have no idea.

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I’ll say that, as failed as it was, I want to admire that an artist would attempt to reinterpret their work for relevancy decades after their star began to fade.  I can’t quite give that much credit here as this is more properly considered a new work, one heavy laden with unintelligible, but nice sounding, filler.

As I’m watching the show, I’m also understanding some of the “why things are the way they are.”  Before writing this, I had to go back and watch some YouTube videos to satisfy myself as to how Mr. Anderson got to this place, this time, this concert.  The singer playing “Young Jethro” actually toured with him last year.  Young Jethro has a very similar voice to 70’s era Ian Anderson, and he sings far better than the band leader does today.  Another video from 2003 confirmed that I’m a decade late in hearing Mr. Anderson sound like Mr. Anderson.  It makes sense then, that at any opportunity, he ceded the vocals to a virtual guest whenever the flute was an option.  Thankfully, he still has the pipes for that, and his playing was both plentiful and excellent.  That, the overall music, and Mr. Anderson’s penchant for striking rock flautist poses will carry me through for my bucket list memory.

What did others think?  My son was more appreciative for the (free) experience than a particular care about the show itself.  So I checked Ticketmaster’s online reviews.  Ouch.  I can’t help myself here… Reviewers’ tiles read: “Sucked!” - “Very Disappointing” - “Stay away” - “Boring” - “Too Old for Rock and Roll” - “Disappointed and sad” - “Save your money.”

A field is also provided for reviewers to post their favorite moments:  “Chocolate covered pretzels from the snack bar” - “leaving” – “leaving after 30 minutes” – “intermission so I could leave” – “left before the encore because I couldn’t take it anymore” – “when I left after the 5th song – I should have left after the third”, etc. I’ve never seen reviews so consistently negative, but it’s also rare that an artist, particularly of the “legendary” variety, chooses to ignore his audience.   Despite the ambition, a Grail Knight can sum it up:

 

The back screen dominated the stage and distracted from the band throughout, the female virtual guest had a pretty voice but her accent clouded all but the briefest deciphering, and Mr. Anderson’s voice doesn’t just struggle with notes but hardly resembles his recorded self, despite the spirited attempts.

But the flute… was awesome.  Instrumentally, all of the music was enjoyable. And… maybe Anderson should just sing with “Young Jethro” when he chooses.  Get him off the screen, and pay the guy to tour.  Your fans will forgive you.  Lighten the work load.  Play the flute.  Play the hits.

2 of 5 STARS_thumb

Fox Theater, Atlanta, GA 4/16/2016

So I Smoked a Cigar

Did anyone get that license plate?  Hit and run!

For once, I was in the mix for winning the NCAA basketball pool, and I got an invite for people who, supposedly, were gathering to watch it.  “Bring your specialty” when it comes to food…  That would be something from the grocery store. 

Nevertheless… hmm.  Sausage balls.  I can do those.  Did them years ago.  But wouldn’t a bacon and sausage ball be better?  And, while I’m at it… how about a pepperoni, bacon, and sausage ball?  I didn’t find such a thing, but I did find a recipe for Cheeseburger rolls.  No problem, just subtract the ground beef and add sausage, right?  So I cooked spicy sausage.  I cooked crispy bacon and crumpled it to bits, and I got micro pepperoni’s for saving on labor.  Place with a couple of grated cheeses into Biscuit dough, wrap them into a ball, place them upside down, cover with Parmesan cheese and egg whites… Yeah, I can do that.  All it takes is… time.

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That done, I feel certain my teams are going to win.  Things are working out pretty well.  I arrive at the party and… there’s a ton of food, too much for the counter space even. 

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Who are all these people and why aren’t they watching the game?  No matter.  The evening trudges on with two boring blowouts instead of grand competition, one of which removing me from contention in my pool.  And, at some point during the second game, the second party starts.

Thus begin chocolate cake shots and sips of Grand Marnier orange liqueur, set around an outside fire pit.  With a wirelessly connected TV, overall a close relative to a man-cave.

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And then came the cigars. 

The last time I had a cigar was summer between 3rd and 4th grade.  I wasn’t a hell raiser by any means, but I was always told “go outside and play” which then necessitated either playing outside or going to someone else’s house.  Bad influences, I’ll say.  I didn’t like the cigar and haven’t smoked one since until…  It wasn’t peer pressure.  I could have said no.  But when I occasionally golf, others will smoke a cigar, and they seem to like it.  So, call it curiosity.   I selected the shortest one of the handful offered.

You’re supposed to draw the smoke in and exhale from your mouth, rather than draw it into your lungs.  I learn this slightly late, but carry on.  Puff, puff, puff.  Not so bad.  Not great, but… it’s okay.

Nicotine overdose is a thing, apparently not uncommon for first time cigar smokers and/or those who selected a “cheap” cigar.  I’ll single out two “symptoms” because that’s plenty.

  • Dizziness – This is believed to be caused by the restricted blood flow to the brain.
  • Stomach ache and nausea – Like all poisons, a body will work to get rid of this substance. That means via vomiting if necessary.

So, I’ll spare details of the unpleasantness that followed.  However, for those so inclined, here’s some tips helpfully offered by, ahem, cheaphumidors.com.  

  • Smoke slowly – a puff or two each minute. You’re not a human smoke factory and you aren’t getting paid for smoke production. You’re just relaxing and enjoying yourself, so take it easy. When you smoke too quickly, you get too much nicotine and can easily overwhelm yourself. As with any of life’s little vices, you don’t want to get in too deep, too fast. Take your time and keep your head attached to your shoulders.
  • Don’t inhale – this isn’t what cigars are meant for. Even if you’re a regular cigarette smoker, you may get sick from inhaling an entire cigar, especially an intense one. Savor the flavor then blow it away. That’s how it’s done.

I’d argue that the following ANSI Z535 compliant warning label should have been attached to the cigar in question:

Capture

The following day, I awake feeling fine.  No headache.  Dry mouth though.  Wait… what is that taste in my mouth?  Bleh.  Brush the teeth.  Mouthwash.  Bleh.  Brush the tongue.  Bleh.  Repeat.  It seems that “cigar taste,” for cheap cigars at least, hang around a while.  So much so that any time I pressed my tongue, a distaste that could lead to “stomach ache and nausea” immediately returns.  Later in the day, having all but skipped lunch, it dawns on me that I should brush the roof of my mouth.  It helped me far along the road to recovery, in fact.  So, there, gentle reader, you have my lessons learned, the foremost being just don’t do it.

Holeman and Finch Cheeseburger

Some years ago I started searching for burger joints around Atlanta, for personal curiosity and to satisfy the protein cravings of my T-Rex who was attending Ga Tech at the time.  Atop many lists was the Holeman and Finch Public House cheeseburger.  The problem was that they only served 24 burgers a night, and that after 10:00 p.m.  So the reviews explained that people essentially camped there hours ahead to ensure a burger.

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This runs contrary to the intentions of the owner, who didn’t want the burger to overshadow their other fares.  I’d imagine that, for a small venue, having people hold tables for hours wouldn’t help the sale of anything other than beer.  Maybe that’s okay, because drinks are more profitable.  In any case, they folded and now offer the burger on the regular menu. 

T-Rex left town, but I brought her little brother and another friend.  Fortunately, seating can be had in the bar area rather than waiting hours for a table.  This allowed a view that confirmed that that the owner’s fear was correct.  Given the option, most people order the burger.  

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The result?  I’d have to say it’s a hype burger benefitting from hyper Keynesian psychology.  Reduce supply to practically nil; increase demand.  It’s not a bad burger, but when it comes to thin patties with limited condiments, it’s not a huge difference between this and a Five Guys burger.  You can argue freshness, blends of meats, etc., but… it was a fine burger and not particularly remarkable in any way.

Which also begs a partiality to burger styles.  A little research shows some of the varieties that can be found, but I’ll separate them into thin crispy patties and juicy thick tavern burgers.  I enjoy the the thin ones double stacked, but my preference is always for a tavern burger.  My favorite currently?  “Dan’s Pimento Burger” at Alpharetta’s Hop Alley, certified Angus beef topped with house-made pimento cheese, fried onion, and a sweet house glaze with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and pickle… for $3 less than the more renowned H&F burger.

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Trillium Brewing

IMG_6668It’s interesting how some breweries get things right and others get them wrong.  Trillium Brewing, a small entity that dominates the arguments as Boston’s best, began downtown in a tiny strip of a building which allows just enough room for people to squeeze in for bottle purchases and growler refills. 

It makes sense that Trillium would grow elsewhere, and I suppose Canton, MA makes sense.  I’m not from around there.  I might prefer restoring a historical building within easy access, but a nondescript office/warehouse tenancy in the burbs probably has pricing and headache advantages, not to mention access for those who escape the urban congestion.

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Still, with breweries expanding like weeds, there are enough like kinds to borrow an original idea or two… like building a destination.  This doesn’t mean that they have to reach for a megavenue like Harpoon, but whatever is chosen should reflect their own personality.  For most brewers, this coalesces into trappings that invite people to enjoy a couple hours, taste the beers, and engage socially… with decorum that says something about the brand, from corporate to kitschy.

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Trillium’s motto must therefore be interpreted to be “functional and efficient.”   Enter.  Enjoy four free 2-3 oz. samples in plastic cups.  Please proceed around the corner.  Purchase your refills and bottles. Thank you for coming!  Essentially, let’s make the lines easier than our downtown location and let people have a taste as they’re passing through…  a surprising lack of imagination.

Those four samples were as below, with Big Sprang a fill-in for Scaled.  These rank a tidy 91, 87, 93, and 92 on BeerAdvocate.    

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Weird though.  My daughter and I both agreed that the first three were worthy only of a “Meh,” with Launch Beer particularly an underperformer.  It put me in doubt for the 8 bombers I’d accumulated through a Christmas gift and purchases that day.

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Happily, I’ve now had two of those, Vicinity and Double Dry Hopped Melcher Street, both IPAs which were excellent (and graded 97’s).  I don’t trust BeerAdvocate other than using it as a starting point, but the other three samples wouldn’t have graded an 85.  So there seems to be a hometown curve among voters as the beer isn’t distributed further than shouting distance.  Okay, I exaggerate a little.

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Or, maybe it was just a down day, as I narrowly missed getting Artaic, their most highly prized IPA, where I suppose their imagination counts most.

Robin Trower–Where You Are Going To

A new Robin Trower CD is easy to review.  I know I’m going to like it – it’s just a matter of how much.  Pre-release he indicated that this CD would “rock a little harder” than his last.  That’s true in that he shies away from jazzy influences in entire songs or solos, but overall, it sounds much the same as all of his CDs since  2009’s more textural What Lies BeneathRobin Trower where you are going to cd review
Recently, Trower said, “I like to play the guitar for 2 or 3 hours a day, and that invariably leads to a new song idea every few days.”  Aside from hinting at a treasure trove of unreleased recordings, the process of making a CD (happily only a year after his last) becomes a task of selecting the better ideas one has.

“When will the next blow fall” is inspired by the plight of Syrian refugees.  Trower is a surprisingly good lyricist, but I’d imagine that for most of his fans, the lyrics serve a need for setting the tone, even if, per Trower’s comment, the music likely comes first.  They’re not irrelevant, but the groove and guitar work are what I enjoy most. In this song, it’s good, but we’ve heard it all before.  Sadly, “Heard it all Before” might be a more apt album title.

“Where you are going to” is more introspective lyrically and slower, allowing Trower to draw out notes a bit longer.  He’s exceedingly good at this, and this song works well.

And those are the dividing lines – straightforward blues based rock or slower introspective songs.  “Back where you belong” rocks but has nothing distinctive to it.    “Jigsaw” meanders to the point of forgetfulness.  “The fruits of your desire” appears to be one of Trower’s favorites, due to the funky approach.   I’d go with “clunky,” though I hope he explores some different sounds or guitarists to suggest more variety in his music.

“We will be together someday” and “I’m holding on to you” are reflective, inspired by the passing of Trower’s wife.  The first has a beautiful guitar solo, but the context is a bit maudlin for regular listening.  The latter is more universally applicable and likewise ends with a rich guitar solo.    “Ain’t no use to worry” and “In too deep” are more forgettable rockers, sadly.  He’s done these elsewhere and better. 

The last track of the CD is a rocker, “Delusion sweet delusion.”  This was either conceived at a higher level or pored over to get the most out of it.  Either way, it may sound familiar, but there’s a crispness and energy about it that sets it apart.  Regrettably, it just sort of ends, failing to deliver the killer solo that it deserves.

Overall, this is a solid CD.  At a sitting, I’m satisfied.  I’m not disappointed in Trower’s vocals - its genuine nature pairs with his guitar tone, and the combined expression works for me.  But, if I’m picking additional tracks for my Trower playlist (and I do), this CD offers fewer keepers than any in his last four CDs.

It’s a solid CD.  It’s more than we deserve, and it’s great that one of rock’s elder statesmen is so enthusiastic about playing and recording – both at a high level.  We’ll see what he comes up with next.

Recommended: Title track, “I’m holding on to you”

3 of 5 STARS_thumb


Cahaba Brewing

Two and a half years ago, I visited Birmingham’s Cahaba Brewing, a fledgling brewery in the shadow of Good People and Avondale Brewing.  I don’t know how that war is being scored, but Cahaba has upped the ante.

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They relocated their humble beginnings to a more expansive space at the apparently vacant Continental Gin Industrial Park, a fairly massive campus of buildings used to manufacture cotton gins until the 1960’s.  As a surviving structure from 1925, someone had it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It doesn’t show so well at night, granted that they moved into a building on the edge of the property and the remainder was dark.

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In moving to the site, they quadrupled their area at half the rental fees, not including betterments and improvements as well as increasing their production potential eightfold.  That hasn’t yet proven to be helpful for tap room service, as there were only four beers available.  According to co-owner Eric, after fulfilling their distribution network, they have a thin margin to keep on site.  That’s a good problem, and it’s one out of which they will grow.  Of these, I tried the Bourbon Barrel Aged Ryezome Stout, which was excellent, and a repeat of their Oka Uba IPA, which was solid.

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Their new brewing facility is visible from the tap room separated by floor to ceiling glass inspired by Surly Brewing in Minneapolis.  Great idea as it allows for visibility while not interfering with the interior’s historic appeal.

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In the tap room, the manufacturing origins are preserved, with the high trusses commonly provided to allow light into the space.   apacity Smiths Sons Gin & Machine Company

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The building originally was built by Smiths Sons Gin & Machinery Company, which was bought by Continental Gin long ago, who later merged to become Continental Eagle.  The entry to the brewery opens to where the blast furnace used to be located, where some of the old equipment was wisely retained for the industrial feel of the place.  This includes the elevator that lifted iron and other ingredients to be dumped into the blast furnace as well as some of the pulleys. 

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Speaking of old, they have a couple of retro themed pinball machines for entertainment.

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And the new.  Gotta have merch.

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Overall, it’s great to see an old building converted for modern use, and the space is a great meeting spot for drinks and perhaps a Filling Station pizza.