Thursday, April 14, 2011

Zoe Muth Live at the Axe & Fiddle, Rusty Willoughby Live in the Studio

Listening to Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers is not unlike sliding into a hot jacuzzi after a good workout.  There is something in the music--- the texture of the voice, the shuffling brushstroke of the rhythm, the relaxed cohesion of the musicians--- which puts me at my ease while making me smile.  It doesn't hurt when the venue is Cottage Grove's Axe & Fiddle, a restaurant/bar which is a bit more than a restaurant/bar.  I saw Zoe and band there last summer and the return last Saturday (April 9th) was a bit of a return home. 

Zoe had contacted me regarding her newly minted album, Starlight Hotel, and mentioned casually that they were playing the Axe & Fiddle should I be interested.  Of course, I was more than interested.  Their show last year, played to a crowd mostly ignorant of the band and their music, was the kind of show I embrace (I also like sitting in a theater all alone watching somewhat unknown or unpopular movies).  That was a good night and I talked with Dave Harmonson and Greg Nies as well as Zoe before and after the gig, trying to get their take on the bar and the music biz.  It was their first tour and, of course, everything was new and exciting.  Even playing to a small audience which on the whole had no idea who they were.  (Read my review here)

They knew who they were on the 9th.  A number of people showed up specifically for the band, grabbing seats and chowing down on the food long before showtime.  I ordered a Reuben sandwich (grilled to perfection, I might add) and headed upstairs, hoping that one of the two tables on the rail would be empty.  One was.  I sat down.  Someone approached and said something which I missed.  I looked up and saw Zoe herself and heard the hellos of the rest of the band, settled in at a table on the other side of the room.  And we talked.

We talked about the music business and her new label, Signature Sounds, and the Doe Bay Music Festival they had played last summer, directly after the Axe & Fiddle gig.  We talked about money and how hard it is to survive in music these days and how much fun it was in the studio working on Starlight Hotel.  We talked about audience response and the differences between good and bad venues and how you really never knew unless you had played them before.  We talked about a number of things, music and otherwise, and they brought her food and then they brought mine and before I knew it, we were done eating and it was time for the band to gather.  Hear me here:  I am a positive guy who believes that the new music business paradigm is exponentially better than the old one and I try to show that.  But when a band the caliber of The High Rollers is faced with a gig in a small bar in an out of the way town playing for peanuts, though, I find it hard to support that stand.  Don't get me wrong.  I love the Axe & Fiddle.  The brews are excellent, the service is topnotch and the food is great.  It is a wonderful place to see live music.  But The High Rollers should be playing bigger venues in bigger cities to bigger crowds.  They should be breaking out of Nashville or Austin.  They should be gaining the attention of major media.  They are that good.   So I talked between sighs and bemoaned the fact that the band isn't a household word among media pundits and spewed my frustration to Zoe, who surely had frustrations of her own, and I probably bummed her out to a degree.  Yeah, I know.  Good job, Frank.  Headslap.  I'm hoping that she and the band realize that my frustrations have to do with a business I have not quite been able to unravel yet, a business in chaos and with no easy answers.  A business which should have welcomed them with arms wide open, knowing what they are.

Well, after a set by a Eugene group called Apropos (pronounced Apper-poe) who came off as close to the old Up With People of the sixties as I've heard in some time, Zoe and crew took the stage and turned on my musical jacuzzi.  The opening track was the lead-off track on their first album, You Only Believe Me When I'm Lyin', and by the end of the song, the sound man was getting it down and it was gravy from there on out.  They worked their way through tracks off of the new album (Let's Just Be Friends For Tonight, If I Can't Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart) and the outstanding Starlight Hotel), a number of songs from their first (Not You, Middle Of Nowhere, Such True Love and Hey Little Darlin') and Zoe gave the band a short break while she performed, solo, one of my favorite tracks from the new album, New Mexico.  By the end of the set, only a handful had left (it was Saturday night and when you're young, hormones dictate your moves) and the crowd demanded an encore.  The band provided it and the evening, as it were, was over.

The sound was excellent, though the PA system could have handled the vocals a bit better.  The band played with the ease of professionals, Greg Nies and Mike McDermott laying down excellent rhythms, Ethan Lawton weaving his mandolin in and out while looking at the stars it seemed, and Dave Harmonson pedaled his steel with elan when he wasn't working wonders with an outfit he called the SDG Vintage, a guitar/amp system which spewed sounds you seldom hear from even the best.

I left after thumbs-upping the band for a job well done, shaking hands with the sound man (no ringing in my ears this night, thanks to him) and flipping a few dollars on the bar counter on the way out (did I mention that the service was excellent?).  In the car, I slipped Starlight Hotel into the CD player and listened to it all the way home.  It's a killer, as was their first.

It is hard to be negative about music after something like that.  The really good ones float to the top, right?  Well, Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers are better than really good.  They have that something that many of the stars don't have.  If I could figure out what that is, I'd bottle it and make a fortune.

I give you this video because, alas, I could find no live video of exceptional quality.  There are some good ones out there, but after a buildup like I gave the band, good just won't do it.

Rusty Willoughby--- Where have you been hiding?

Two days ago, my buddy Howie posted a video on my Facebook page, asking if I'd seen it yet.  Not only had I not seen it, I had barely heard of the artist--- one Rusty Willoughby.  Evidently, he was in a band out of Seattle called Pure Joy, a name I knew only in passing.  After watching the video, I wondered how I'd missed it.  Someone should have brought it to my attention.  Well, Howie did, but a bit after the fact.  If you don't know this guy, I suggest you scope him out.  Another musician who deserves more attention than he's getting.

Mariana Bell--- Charlottesville's Queen of Pop

Mariana Bell is another of those Charlottevillains you hear me rave about now and again.  She's a generation down from the likes of Danny Schmidt, Devon Sproule, Paul Curreri, Keith Morris, Shannon Worrell and the seemingly unending line of outstanding musicians who call C-ville home and she's a different weave of cloth (Mariana is a true Pop maven, swimming in a pool of melody, harmony and full-on production a la--- ahem, who was that lady who sang Perfect Day?).  Her new album is called Push and it is stunning.  The more I hear it, the more I love it.  I will be reviewing it on my site, Rock & Reprise, soon, but in the meantime, here is a video of the making of the album.

A Reminder---

Research Turtles  will be making their single available for free download starting May 3rd.  It's a bit smoother than their hard-edged tracks on their excellent self-titled album, but it is more great pop nonetheless.  The album will be available for sale at the end of May.  Check them out!  Bob Segarini said that if he was 20, he would kill to be in this band!  What's that, Bob?  Gotta Have Pop?

Liz Pappademus & The Level----

Here's something you might want to check out.  Liz Pappademus recently released an album titled Television City, which she put up on bandcamp for download.  At $5, it's a steal.  A concept album revolving around TV and its penchant for game shows, it tells a story I find intriguing.  About time someone turned the tables on the media clowns and looked into their workings, for a change.  Stop by and take a listen.

Lots of new things to go over on the next installment.  Lots of links to new releases and the odder side of the business.  Stay tuned!

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