By Samir Shukla
The “picking" tents, filled with guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle players of all ages, were hopping as I walked through the entrance and into the musical swirl of the 30th edition of MerleFest on April 28. The Friday afternoon sky was scattered with clouds and bits of sunshine, a perfect day to take in music in the outdoors.
There are over dozen places setup for performances during MerleFest and the Hillside stage has become my favorite spot to see bands there. The Hillside stage is a natural amphitheater where folks can sit up on the hill facing the stage. It's a bit of a workout on your back as you sit on the hill, but the view of the stage and the sound are top-notch.
I caught the ever-danceable Scythian perform a feisty set there. The band has become a crowd favorite and this was their 10th year performing at the fest. The Steep Canyon Rangers played later in the afternoon with special guest mandolinist and bluegrass veteran Sam Bush. The legendary Del McCoury was slated to be a guest but had to opt out due to laryngitis. The Rangers started off mellow, but played a toe-tapping set with Bush adding his mandolin firepower into the mix.
I strolled up to the indoor Walker Center and caught the Docabilly Blues Blowout with Mitch Greenhill and compatriots. It was an eclectic jam of blues, rockabilly, and country blues with several guests including Tara and Jeb from Donna the Buffalo, Jim Avett and others delving into the bluesier side of Doc Watson's music.
Sierra Hull's soft mandolin and voice were a bit mismatched for the large Watson stage, sometimes getting lost in the crowd's chatter. She is a wonderful performer but maybe better heard at a smaller, more intimate venue or stage.
The Watson stage is of course perfect for a large band, like the Transatlantic Sessions Tour hosted by Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain and on this night featured the main attraction, music legend James Taylor. The headliners brought a multi-artist jam to the big stage and Taylor strolled onto the stage and opened his set with the classic “Carolina in my Mind." He quipped, “I might as well get this out of the way," knowing fully well the crowd would expect that song, especially from a Chapel Hill native performing at a beloved NC music gathering.
I caught parts of many other performances at other venues including the Creekside stage and the Plaza stage.
Over 100 bands and musicians performed this year, including Zac Brown Band, The Avett Brothers, Béla Fleck, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, The Earls of Leicester featuring Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, Jorma Kaukonen, Sarah Jarosz, and Jim Lauderdale.
According to MerleFest officials, over 80,000 people attended and or participated in the festival this year. MerleFest, held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.
“We've had an incredible weekend," Festival Director Ted Hagaman said in a press release. “With over 100 artists on 13 stages over the four days, we again feel we succeeded in providing a quality and successful event for all involved. Preliminary numbers show we attracted thousands of fans from all over the world. This event could not happen without the work and dedication of our 4,000-plus volunteers and the many great safety and service agencies in Northwestern North Carolina. We're already looking forward to MerleFest 2018."
By Samir Shukla
Red Baraat is a rollicking dhol 'n' brass band that can get the sleepiest crowd shaking their booty and moving their feet with leader Sunny Jain's first beats on his dhol. The band's interaction with the audience when performing live, including jumping in the middle of the dancing mass and leading them around like pied pipers, only fuses that connection further. The diverse musicians combine their individual specialties into the Red Baraat alchemy, constantly experimenting and expanding the possibilities of their sound.
Red Baraat is back with their third recording Bhangra Pirates. The album is bhangra (that unmistakable beat of the dhol), New Orleans brass, rock, jazz improv, Bollywood kitsch, and hints of hip hop all rolled into Red Baraat's wholly original sound. This time around there is the added layer of a guitarist while Jain also infuses effects into his dhol beats for an occasional whirling sound. The brass section is tighter than ever as are the percussionists.
The fluid instrumental “Horizon Line" kicks off the album while the title track “Bhangra Pirates" begins with the dhol and guitar leading the horn section to kick open the dance doors goaded on by a mix of Hindi and English lyrics. It's too infectious to sit still through. “Bhangale" (feat. Delicate Steve) is a scat-filled number while “Se Hace Camino" is a Latin and bhangra blend. The songs can wander and skitter off into all sorts of angular sounds.
There are two rockers on the album that benefit with the added guitar including “Zindabad," a skewed wedding march-like song that turns into a jazz scorcher and returns home halfway through with a decidedly Punjabi twist. The other is “Gaadi of Truth," clearly the most rocking song on the record with guitar riffs sparring with the horns and percussion.
“Tunak Tunak Tun" is a scats-laden take on Daler Mehndi's hit song.
“Rang Barse" is the Red Baraat version of the classic Amitabh Bachchan song. It begins as a jazz and Indian classical swirl that dives into a percussive instrumental mélange. The cut is interspersed with the horns going in and out of the mix, turning it into a long jam.
“Akhiyan Udeek Diyan" is a lingering showcase for the musicians as individual players do their solo bits and melt back into the groove.
“Layers" is an experimental track that flows on its own accord and nicely wraps up the record.
By Samir Shukla
Parallels, the new recording by Indian-Canadian singer Vandana Vishwas is a study in genre-bending. She has woven five songs recorded in two distinct styles - think two parallel tracks each colored differently yet moving in the same musical direction. She brings Canadian and Indian musicians into the fold that enhance her voice that is embedded into varied styles. The album kicks off with the tropical flamenco track “Mai Bequaid" where one feels the lilting guitar and dreams of soft sand between toes standing on sunny beach, a lovely Bollywood actress in a sari swaying along. The same song is later given a country treatment that makes the listeners feel like they are strolling in the foothills of Appalachia. “Piya na Mose Bole" is sung along to a new age version and also in a traditional Indian version, both showcasing the longings of a woman as if on different days or in different moods. “Dhula Dhula" is a feisty number first sung with African beats and later treated to Afro-Indian beats. Vishwas's voice fully blooms singing the ghazal “Fiqr E Manzil" with the musicians taking the compositions into higher elevations with traditional music. The track also gets a rock treatment with an amped electric guitar in the second version. The closing track on the album, “Hum Gum Huye (Unplugged)" is a sparse, haunting version that really showcases her voice. The ballad version of the song fills in the lines with thicker musical accents. In Parallels, Vishwas shows her range and adaptability in multiple musical genres.
Mai Beqaid (Flamenco)
Piya Na Mose Bole (New Age)
Dhula Dhula (African Beats)
Fiqr E Manzil (Ghazal)
Hum Gum Huye (Ballad)
Mai Beqaid (Country)
Piya Na Mose Bole (Traditional Indian)
Dhula Dhula (Afro-Indian)
Fiqr E Manzil (Rock-E-Zal)
Hum Gum Huye (Unplugged)
Photo by Samir Shukla
News Note: The music festival MerleFest 2017 will take place from April 27 - 30. MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of Eddy Merle Watson as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College and to celebrate "traditional plus" music. The music of MerleFest was best explained by the legendary musician and festival founder Doc Watson as posted on the festival website: “When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional plus’, meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play. Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is ‘traditional plus’.” MerleFest has now grown to a 4-day event with hundreds of musicians, bands, and performers showcasing many genres of music on several stages throughout the grounds. It is the festival's 30th year and is now internationally regarded as one of the finest such gatherings in the world. The lineup of performers is as intriguing and eclectic as ever. Dozens of bands and musicians will perform over the course of four days with some of the headliners that include Zac Brown Band, James Taylor, The Avett Brothers, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Del McCoury Band, Leftover Salmon, and Jim Lauderdale. This year the festival will mark a few one-of-a-kind happenings, like a museum of MerleFest History, special backstage tours, a tiny home display, and more yet to be announced. There will be plenty food vendors on hand along with impromptu jam sessions taking place. Bring your acoustic instrument and join in the fun. MerleFest will also feature the festival favorites including, the little pickers tents for kids, the family and environmentally-conscious atmosphere and the cool air of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the campus of Wilkesboro Community College in Wilkesboro, NC. For more details visit, www.MerleFest.org.
(News Notes are edited press releases sent by publicists, labels, bands, or musicians)
By Samir Shukla
Diverse backgrounds inform California Guitar Trio’s music. The group consists of Paul Richards, who immersed himself in rock and blues while attending The University of Utah’s jazz guitar program. Bert Lams graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels, specializing in classical guitar. Hideyo Moriya journeyed from Tokyo to Boston to study at Berklee. They met as guitar students around 1987 in California and by 1991 were performing as the California Guitar Trio.
They mesh everything from Bach to the spacey Pink Floyd classic “Echoes,” instrumentals like “Sleepwalk” to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” playful surf numbers and spaghetti Western tunes, while crisscrossing jazz, rock, and classical music.
They have been performing for 25 years and are on the road plugging the new recording Komorebi, which, in Japanese, roughly translates to “Sunlight shining through the leaves of trees.”
I spoke with Paul Richards about their quarter century of work. Some highlights:
“Three of us met while we were studying with Robert Fripp. He booked tours with students and the touring group was named League of Crafty Guitarists. And that was an amazing way for us to learn to go out and play live. At that point we didn't know we were going to form a trio. It was during that time we found some common interests including in musical diversity. (It was about) classical music, rock, jazz, blues...so many different things that we enjoyed combining all together. Also during that time, we became quite good friends and began hanging out.”
I asked about their backgrounds and how that informs their music.
“That's a big part of our sound, we are very unlikely characters who would have never met if not at these (Fripp’s) classes. We were all into British rock bands and Hendrix, but what set us apart was Hideyo's interest in traditional Japanese music, he has done arrangements of Kodo music, on the current tour he did an arrangement of a Japanese composer named Ryuichi Sakamoto, that's one example of what he has brought from Japan. Bert from Europe, he's the real classical player of the three. He graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and has the more real European classical sense at the same time he was a huge Hendrix fan. So he is combining these elements and when we combine them all three of us and do it on acoustic guitars that we end up with such eclectic array of music. I grew up listening to lot of American and English rock bands and I used to play in rock and blues bands as a teenager.”
When asked how each member picks a part to play in a song like "Bohemian Rhapsody," Richards explained.
“It kind of happens naturally because each one of us has our own specialties and after 25 years of playing together we recognize those specialties and even early on, for example Hideyo is the fastest player among the three of us so if we ever need anything superfast he is able to do those things. Bert is perhaps the most melodic player and with my rock background I play some of the heavier parts. When we first started playing together we realized each of us could do quite a lot. We just released a new album on that Bert plays some beautiful solos, all three of us have some solos, but Bert is the one that really shines playing solos, so it’s really developed naturally but also paying attention to what the music needed. That's also what's exciting about playing live, because on the recordings you can only imagine who's playing what part or what's going on. Live shows in one moment we would all be playing bass and then switch to a melodic part and we're always trading parts. It keeps things interesting for us and the audience.”
Richards previewed a bit of the current tour.
“On this tour we’re featuring an arrangement from Bert of Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and in that piece you can see us trading parts really exposing the brilliance of Brian Wilson's composition. When you break it down to three acoustic guitars and with us finding ways to play the layered parts of the original, the brilliance of the composition comes through.
We've gone through a phase where we used lots of effects. This latest album takes a step back and takes a break from using any type of effect. There's a tiny bit of reverb but other than that its pure acoustic guitar. These current shows it’s just the three of us, though in the past we've had guest musicians.”
By Samir Shukla
Age of Uncertainty (Autumn Tone) is the third album from Athens, GA band Muuy Biien. It was recorded by David Barbe, a producer, sound twister and legend among indie rockers. The dozen songs are a potent mix of punk, krautrock, post-punk and bluesy darkwave. In the opening track "Moral Compass" the band and singer Joshua Evans weave a brooding and layered track that showcases their loose blend of guitar rock, which, this song especially, is reminiscent of the Birthday Party (Nick Cave's early band). The guitars throughout the album are controlled, but take off on their own when the song begs it. "The Clocks" is an especially dark number and evokes some of the best works of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds while remaining wholly original. "Mara" is a finger-snapping song lodged about midway through the album and changes the tempo while acting as a pivot for the remaining songs. "The Sound of a Trenchcoat" is a jazzy instrumental that could be a scene backdrop in a B&W film noir or even a David Lynch film. "Robbed" is a bluesy slow burner holding its own territory. The title track "Age of Uncertainty" opens with a sustained note and flows into echoed vocals and acoustic guitar that's got a psychedelic aura as it builds and fades away into the ether. "Skeleton Tissue" tosses keyboardish treatments around a bass line while the song is sung with spoken vocals reminiscent of Mark E. Smith and The Fall. Just after a few listens, Age of Uncertainty is, at this late in the year, elbowing its way into my top 25 recordings of the year.
Originally published in Creative Loafing Charlotte on December 7.
By Samir Shukla
A good film score can help visualize scenes from a film even though you haven't seen it. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto's score to the film Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (Milan Records), directed by legendary Japanese director Yoji Yamada, is such a piece of work. It is sparse in orchestration yet expansive in creating a visual backdrop to a film I have only read about: A mother who lost her son in the Nagasaki atomic bombing and he returns as a phantom and communicates with her throughout her life until she passes away. There are 28 tracks on this score that range from jarring noise, somber piano pieces, and swaying woodwinds. The track "August 9th 11:02 am" — the day and time the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki — is a short burst of noise echoing the screech of the bomb and the explosion sounding like a hard rainfall of death. It gets under your skin.
Other pieces, some are very brief but just as evocative, create varied backdrops for the different scenes. The sequential compositions portray the sad poise of ordinary people who lost loved ones in the fireball but survived themselves, and their lingering emotional injuries. The poignancy of the score is bookended with somber strings as well as dissonant noise that I'm sure not only adds gravitas to the film, but also stands as a lovely piece of music on its own. This is essentially an instrumental score, either reserved or unnerving with occasional drones or repetition, while the human voice is sparsely used. This film score is another chapter in Sakamoto's eclectic, decades-long and vast musical output.
This review was originally published in Creative Loafing, Charlotte on November 23.
(Photo credit Jannie McInnes)
By Samir Shukla
All four members of the Canadian rock combo Sloan are singers and songwriters. It's a collaborative effort that's democratic and creative.
Andrew Scott (drums), Chris Murphy (bass, vocals), Patrick Pentland (guitar, vocals), and Jay Ferguson (guitar, vocals) formed Sloan in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1991. These musicians have made fab records over the past 25 years while maintaining this creative partnership. It's a lesson we should learn while the band is on their current tour through our unhinged post-election America.
They are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their album One Chord to Another with a tour and specially-packaged vinyl box set. The guys will play the entire album in the first set and then launch into a second set of hits and fan favorites.
Sloan's democratic creativity was fully showcased on their last recording, the double LP Commonwealth released in 2014 on NC-based Yep Roc Records, which featured the songwriting prowess of each band member once per side on the vinyl — for CD and digital, just think a quarter of the recording each. The record is a prime example of the diverse voices that gel so well, the fluid individuality merging into one. There are feedback-laden songs, pure three-minute pop ditties, jangly guitars, sweet harmonizing and experimentation. Scott's side is a single 18-minute song while the other three sides highlight each persona that becomes one with their interplay.
I asked Jay Ferguson recently how four songwriters work so well together.
"(Commonwealth) was kind of an anomaly in our career, we are probably one of the few bands that can do that because everyone is a singer and a songwriter. Generally, when we make a record, everybody kind of writes and contributes," he said. "We usually try to make it that if there's 12 songs on the album, everyone gets three songs. If anyone is like 'I only have two songs,' then usually someone can pick up the slack. It doesn't really go through a process like a vote or anything amongst ourselves, everybody kind of brings forward the songs they want to do the most.
"Chris and I get together the most ahead of time so he would know my demos and I would know his and we would chime in like 'You know I really like that song' and Chris would be 'I like this one of yours or less of this one,' and that's sort of an encouraging way to go. Other than that it's sort of like here's your quarter of the real estate of the record and you can do what you want and we just try and sequence it after that happens in the best way possible."
Ferguson explained how the bandmates might come into the recording process with ideas on how one song might flow into the next, but for the most part, they're in charge of their own specific projects.
"We're not all in the studio at the same time, sometimes in groups of two or groups of three. So often it's very Beatles' White Album where Paul's in one studio doing 'Why don't we do it in the road?' and John is in another studio with Yoko cutting up tapes. It works a little bit like that, although we only have one studio. So it's democratic but everyone still gets to rule the roost on their quarter of the real estate."
For this tour, the focus is on the album One Chord to Another.
That album was first released on the band's own Murder Records two decades ago when they parted ways with major label Geffen after a couple of records and went the indie route. It was soon picked up by The Enclave label and became a smash in Canada, while bringing Sloan further attention in the States as a power pop combo to be reckoned with. The have steadily released music ever since, including a just-released Christmas 7" with two original songs.
Although I sold their records in the '90s at my record shop, Sloan flew under my radar. I played their records but didn't quite dig into them as I should have. Now, as I flip through killer song after song on the eleven studio albums that stream on their website, I realize how much of shame that was.
Sloan will perform at the Visulite in Charlotte on Thur, November 17.
This article was originally published in Creative Loafing Charlotte on November 16.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have scored Mars, the new National Geographic Channel Original Series. The series premieres on Monday, November 14 on Nat Geo.
Listen to it here:
Photo by Susana Millman
By Samir Shukla
This is the second time I have interviewed the master of the tabla, Ustad Zakir Hussain. It's always a quandary to interview someone who has such a vast history in music. You want to ask him questions that he has likely answered a thousand times. But Zakir Hussain is a down-to-earth musician. I posed questions that I wanted to ask and he answered them in detail, just like the first time I interviewed him a few years ago when he was touring with his Masters of Percussion.
His musical history is legendary. He has connected with musical traditions around the globe and performed with musicians as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck, Mickey Hart, John McLaughlin, Ravi Shankar, Bill Laswell and Charles Lloyd. It is an exhausting list of musical masters who have also benefited from performing with Ustad Hussain.
Hussain is slated to perform in the Carolinas in early October with Niladri Kumar, a brilliant and accomplished sitar master. This pairing is a gift to lovers of Hindustani music. It will be a top-notch performance exploring India's North Indian classical music that harks back centuries.
According to the program notes I received, “This concert will present an exploration of Indian music, both ancient and cutting-edge, combining a traditional classical offering with a collaborative exploration of the raga and tala systems. The concert will begin with a rendition of a classical raga performed on sitar by Niladri Kumar and accompanied on tabla by Zakir Hussain. This piece will commence with a full alaap by Niladri Kumar in the Hindustani classical tradition, presenting and expounding on the raga. The concert will also include a tabla solo piece by Hussain, and will conclude with a contemporary performance based on the folk melodies of India."
These performances are the classic duet interactions where the musicians are so in tune with each other that they practically read each other's minds. Hussain's tabla will open a world of sound while Kumar's sinewy sitar resonates sounds both meditative and jubilant, depending on the moment.
Here's a portion of my recent chat with Zakir Hussain.
I asked him to talk a bit about this performance. He said “this will not be a Masters of Percussion or anything like a fusion performance. This will be a detailed classical performance. I don't get to do many performances like this so it's nice to be able to have this opportunity. Let's see if I can still keep up with these young punks (laughs while referring to Niladri Kumar)."
Kumar is lightning fast on the sitar. “Yeah, to put it mildly, he is 2 point something gigawatts of power. There's power there but also great attention to the traditional requirements. He's a very special combination of traditional values and their validity in the modern world of music. He can play in both worlds comfortably and with the same amount of confidence."
When I asked him if his and Kumar's work with fusion as well as varied musicians and genres brings more fans into the traditional Indian music fold, Hussain explained, “You know music must move forward. If it doesn't it'll stagnate. Therefore, you must found new avenues and language to express this traditional form. You have to speak in various tongues to be able to get the music's point across. You must deal with what's out there. And whether that helps you, I would say yes because for myself I would have to say my association with a lot of Western musicians and like jazz musicians or percussionists or drummers has really enhanced my ability to be able to play my tabla in a more I would say global manner. And so I'm able to take compositions and interpret them in a way where a drummer could understand it and easily document it to be able to execute the same information on his drum or a conga drummer could do it…and adapt those compositions to be able to work in the world of jazz, rock, pop or hip hop or whatever. All these interactions have allowed me to understand languages of expressions and that allows me to expand my traditional expression into those forms. I'm sure Niladri is having similar experiences, having invented a new instrument (zitar), playing funk music or playing in films and Bollywood, doing all that stuff. It develops you as a more complete performer and representative of the art form to be able to discover ways in which the sitar (or tabla) has never been played. And therefore discover what your instrument is really fully capable of."
Of all the genres of music you have played with, which one has personally challenged you most, I asked.
“Strangely enough, Western classical music. The reason why I say that because jazz and Indian music are somewhat distant cousins and also Celtic music. They all have elements of improvisation and therefore spontaneity plays an important role in the musical expression. In that way you are somewhat on familiar ground. If you understand the language of the music you are interacting with then you can speak the language and are able to fit in more easily than you would with music that is totally opposite. So when you think about Indian classical music as an improv form of music and western classical music which is a fixed form of music and has an element that Indian music does not have which is harmony and counter point where four notes are played at the same time, and then you suddenly end up with a 95-piece orchestra and you have to figure out that you are not just interacting with one or two musicians who are just as ready to be spontaneous and improvise in the musical form you are connecting with. But more like this (an orchestra) has to be fixed. It has to be written and different parts have to be handed out to all these many musicians and now you are thinking of all these things and in that sense it's much more challenging. I used to think it was easy but recently I had to write a tabla concerto in a full orchestra and it was a big challenge to make that happen."
When asked what he thought his legacy will be or what he wants to leave behind, he talked about his ongoing work of standardizing the “gharanas" (the regional schools) of Hindustani music. He said he wants to “Gather all the elements of all the gharanas and combine them into one system of study." The gurus of different gharanas have different styles and modes of teaching, and Hussain wants to simplify that. He is working with other musicians and gurus to create a codified manner of studying classical music much in the manner that Indian classical dance was codified in “Natya Shastra" or loosely interpreted as Study of Dance.
When I spoke with him, Hussain had just returned from Japan. They both performed in Kyoto, Japan in early September in front of Indian religious leader Morari Bapu. “It was a gathering of Buddhist and katha oriented priests of India, and what I was supposed to do was go there and say a few words about music and its association with spirituality and then a performance. I asked Niladriji (to join me) and he said yes and so we went there and did that. And now I go back to Japan to Tokyo next week (mid-Sept). I have a concert. I'm opening a new concert hall that they have built and they wanted to start it with my tabla solo. It will be a traditional solo recital.
This fall he is touring with Niladri Kumar. He returns to India in January and will perform in Rajkot and then in Amdavad at the famous Saptak Music Festival, where he has performed numerous times in the past.
This is the running legacy of Ustad Zakir Hussain, a troubadour of Indian music, an all-around performer.
Zakir Hussain and Niladri Kumar Concerts:
**Sat, October 8 (8pm) at Page Auditorium – Durham, NC
**Sun, October 9 (4pm) at Halton Theater – Charlotte, NC
**Mon, October 10 (7:30pm) Peace Center for Performing Arts Gunter Theatre – Greenville, SC