by Julian Spivey
American Aquarium and Cory Branan put on a fantastic show at The Revolution Room in Little Rock, Ark. on Saturday, May 26 for a packed crowd of adoring fans. Branan and American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham proved to the house they are two of the finest songwriters currently in the world of alt-country or Americana (however you want to label them).
Branan, the Memphis-based performer, does a lot of shows in Little Rock – I saw him just a few months ago at the White Water Tavern – and has become something of a cult favorite among fans in the area. He began his opening set on Saturday night with a couple of newly written songs as a means of testing them out. The songs, which I’m guessing are titled somewhat close to “Happy New Year” and “Look I Lost” sound like they will fit perfectly on a future Branan album. Branan is an interesting performer who seemingly never prepares a setlist before a show and just performs whatever he feels like in the spur of the moment and relies heavily on audience members shouting requests – he said on Saturday night that he was there solely “for you.”
After the new stuff he performed a couple of fantastic songs from his 2017 release Adios, “I Only Know” and “You Got Through,” the latter truly showing off his skills as a songwriter. A fan requested Branan do a song he had written about his dad and Branan asked, “do you want to hear the one I wrote before or after he died?” The fan said “both” and Branan obliged with the rocking “Daddy Was a Skywriter” and the deeply emotional “The Vow.”
Branan has a lot of frankly depressing songs and it’s these songs I seem to enjoy the most from him, especially off Adios, but on a bar venue Saturday night he stuck to mostly rocking crowd-pleasing fare like “Prettiest Waitress in Memphis,” “Tall Green Grass” and “Sour Mash.” It made for a truly fun and raucous opening set.
American Aquarium opened their 26-song epic set with three tracks off their upcoming Things Change, which comes out on Friday, June 1, beginning with “The World is on Fire,” which is my favorite off the album thus far and I believe an early contender for song of the year in the Americana world. “The World is on Fire” led into rip-roaring performances of “Tough Folks” and “Crooked+Straight.” The audience really seemed to love the new stuff and it seems Things Change could become American Aquarium’s best release yet.
I’m amazed at the level of intensity American Aquarium and particularly Barham perform with. It’s a long set of music – rarely do you see an artist perform 26 songs in a show – and they go 90 miles an hour down a dead-end road the entire time. Oh, and they’re performing on nine straight nights to begin the tour (with Little Rock as just the second show of the run). The group, from Raleigh, N.C., has been around since 2006, though Barham is the only original member with drummer Joey Bybee, bassist Ben Hussey, guitarist Shane Boeker and pedal steel guitarist Adam Kurtz all joining the band in April of last year.
Barham said that Little Rock was an important stop for the band and an important place in the group’s history as it was the first place the band really felt welcomed outside of their home state when they first began touring. He especially had love for White Water Tavern, which they included in their rocking song “Rattlesnake.”
The audience really ate up the group’s older stuff throughout the night singing along at the top of their lungs to performances of “Jacksonville,” “Wolves,” “Good Fight,” “Lonely Ain’t Easy,” “Wichita Falls” and “When We Were Younger Men” among others.
One of the best performances of the night was “Losing Side of Twenty Five,” the first AA song I ever heard a few years ago, which made The Word’s best songs of the year list in 2015. The song included a spirited introduction from Barham about how his good Southern Christian mother was confronted by a former teacher of his in a busy Sunday grocery store and asked, “you oughta be real disappointed that BJ decided to be a songwriter for a living?,” to which his mother responded, “Fuck you!”
Just as the show was starting to wind down and you didn’t think the band could amp the intensity up anymore they end the show with bombastic performances of “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” and “Burn.Flicker.Die.” You could surmise from the audience’s reactions to these performances that they were probably the ultimate crowd favorites of the evening.
The group returned to the stage for a great four-song encore consisting of “Harmless Sparks,” “PBR Promenade,” “Clark Ave.” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to finish up the show. Barham said that if any songwriter wasn’t inspired by Springsteen than they’re doing it all wrong and I couldn’t agree more with that statement. The band invited Branan back to the stage to join in on the performance, which as a major Springsteen fan ended up being one of my personal favorite moments of a special night of music.
by Julian Spivey
I’ve never really been a fan of mid-year or quarter-year favorite songs lists as they often seem to be done for clickbait purposes and more importantly I do a year-end best songs of the year post and I don’t want to spoil anything that might be on that list. But, there are many songs I’ve been a fan of this year and wanted to highlight some of them. Here’s what you should listen to if you …
Want Something to Stick in Your Head: “Good Kisser” by Lake Street Dive
I promise you that Lake Street Dive’s unique take on cheating “Good Kisser” will get stuck in your head with its infectious soul and Rachael Price’s powerhouse vocals. The narrator has become the source of rumors from the man she cheated with, but if he’s going to talk about her being a homewrecker the least he can do it tell them everything, including about how she’s a good kisser. Price’s vocal might be one of the best of 2018.
Want Something Fun: “Road Crew” by Mike and the Moonpies
One of the best albums thus far in 2018 has been Mike and the Moonpies’ Steak Night at the Prairie Rose (likely the best title of the year), which captures the Texas barroom sound brilliantly. “Road Crew,” the opening track of the album, is a fantastic ode to hard-working roadies, the unsung heroes of touring bands, that hums along at breakneck honky tonk speed and will keep a smile on your face throughout it’s brisk runtime.
Want Something Mainstream, But Good: “Shoot Me Straight” by Brothers Osborne
It’s no secret that a lot of people don’t want anything to do with mainstream country music lately and I’m one of those people. However, every now and then there’s an artist that can manage to be both played mainstream and beloved by outsiders and lately Brothers Osborne has been one of those acts. I enjoyed the infectious fun that was “It Ain’t My Fault” last year and this year they’re back with another catchy tune, the unique breakup tune “Shoot Me Straight,” which compares a breakup with drinking straight whiskey. Now, that’s country.
Want to Hear Something Sexy: “Hands on You” by Ashley Monroe
You don’t get a whole lot of sexy songs in the country/Americana genres, at least not the good type of country, but Ashley Monroe’s “Hands on You” is sultry as hell. It’s not the first time Monroe has gotten sexually provocative in song, something you certainly don’t see much from the ladies of country music. The track about wishing you hadn’t let a one-night stand get away from you has a nice soulful quality to it, culminating in a good little keyboard solo toward the end.
Want to Laugh: “Earthly Justice” by Western Centuries
This song, written by Western Centuries’ Cahalen Morrison, really makes me chuckle every time with its description of a bar fight and the back-and-forth dialogue inserted into it like, “See that barrel over there’ll come flyin’ through the air/I’m gonna put your head right in it” and “Don’t, don’t you do it/See that bar that holds the beer that’s a-sittin’ right here/I’m gonna put your head right through it.” I can just see that taking place in a light-hearted Western movie moment.
Want to Cry: “Cabinet Door” by Anderson East
I don’t think there’s anything more tear-inducing this year than Anderson East’s “Cabinet Door,” a ballad with an older gentleman having a conversation with his deceased wife. It’s as raw as it gets and proof that something so sad can also be incredibly beautiful – in much the same way Randy Newman’s fantastic “Lost Without You” was last year. One lyric that really gets me as a baseball fan of the Atlanta Braves is about how he misses watching Braves games with his wife. That’s as heart wrenching to me as missing holding hands with a loved one at church on Sunday.
Want Something Political: “Oval Room” by Hackensaw Boys
I know a lot of people are turned off by politics in music – though I’ve never really understood why people believe musicians should be unopinionated beings and “stick to music.” In today’s world music is getting political and opinionated again, after many years of not being that way, and I believe it’s good for public discourse. One of my favorite political songs of the year is actually a cover from the Reagan-era of Blaze Foley’s “Oval Room” by the Hackensaw Boys. If you’ve never heard the song though you’d think it’s about our current President, which is why I believe it’s a great time for the Hackensaw Boys to release this gem. If you’re OK with the way things are going in the Trump White House you’re probably going to want to avoid this one though.
Want Something That’s a Throwback: “Mr. Jukebox” by Joshua Hedley
When Joshua Hedley’s album Mr. Jukebox came out a few weeks ago I was a bit critical of it’s throwback sound because it seemed a little unnatural to me for someone to release something so completely of a different era, but despite my opinion of the album, I have always liked the title track. “Mr. Jukebox” is everything that’s good about that countrypolitan sound it’s paying tribute to and has one of the best old-timey sounding lyrics you’ll hear.
Want Something Old New: “Father’s Gun” by Miranda Lambert
Many may not know this, but Elton John has gone country before. In fact, one of his earliest albums 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection was a concept album based on country and western themes. That album didn’t spawn any of his greatest hits, but it was fantastic. As part of this year’s country-flavored Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Miranda Lambert has taken Taupin’s tale of a son taking up his father’s gun and cause in the American Civil War and made it shine as something you could easily hear on one of her own albums. Sometimes the best covers are stuff that you weren’t all that familiar with before and this is certainly one of those cases.
Want a Collaboration: “Better Hope You Die Young” by Hellbound Glory & Tanya Tucker
Hellbound Glory and Tanya Tucker just seem like a natural fit for a collaboration and “Better Hope You Die Young” is a fitting piece for them with its tale of living a ragged life that’ll take its toll on you if you die tap out early. The raspy, rugged vocals of these two fit the rebellious spirit of this song perfectly.
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives Put on Fantastic Traditional Country Music Show at Conway's Toad Suck Daze
by Julian Spivey
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives put on a terrific show of traditional country music for fans attending the 36th annual Toad Suck Daze Festival in downtown Conway, Ark. on Saturday, May 5.
Stuart, who’s been on the road performing since he was 12 years old, has pretty much become the poster artist for keeping things traditional with a show featuring everything from traditional country music, bluegrass, gospel, rockabilly and even surf rock making for a fascinating set. He’s pretty much become country music royalty having performed as a teenager in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band, been a son-in-law of the legendary Johnny Cash and currently married to Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith.
The phenomenally talented foursome opened their show on Saturday night with the terrific “Sundown in Nashville,” which appeared on the group’s 2003 album Country Music. Stuart had a string of hits in the early ‘90s on the country charts before going back to his more traditional roots in the latter part of the decade and into the ‘00s and often staggers them together in concert to get fans who know him from radio into the mood. This includes his multiple Grammy-winning collaborations he recorded with Travis Tritt, “The Whiskey Ain’t Working” and “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time).” His biggest hit as a solo artist in the ‘90s was “Tempted,” which is my personal favorite of his, and I’m thankful he still breaks it out in concert. I wish he would bring out his top 10 hit “Burn Me Down,” from 1992, but I’ve seen him now in three consecutive years and I don’t believe he’s done it once.
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives are the reigning Group of the Year at the Americana Awards thanks to their excellent 2017 release Way Out West, which they broke out a few tracks of during the show with the surf rock instrumental “Mojave,” with “Cousin Kenny” Vaughan showing off his great guitar skills, and the harmonizing ballad of “Old Mexico.” It would’ve been nice to hear the group perform more stuff from that excellent album, but I believe they wanted to keep the festival crowd entertained by performing more stuff they would know and be able to groove and sing along with.
The truly great thing about the Fabulous Superlatives is they aren’t just an amazing backing band, but all talented vocalists and each member: Vaughan, bassist Chris Scruggs (from a music royalty family himself) and drummer “Handsome Harry” Stinson each getting a chance to shine at the microphone themselves. Vaughan performed the guitar driven “Country Music Got a Hold on Me” and “Hot Like That,” Scruggs performed “Never Gonna Do It Again” and Stinson showed off his fantastic voice on Woody Guthrie’s folk traditional “Pretty Boy Floyd” and a Johnny Horton cover “Let Me Down Easy.”
Having great respect for classic country music Stuart and the band always break out some great covers during their set like Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and the traditional “Orange Blossom Special,” with Stuart telling a great story of meeting the song’s writer Ervin T. Rouse in the ‘70s as a kid playing in Lester Flatt’s band at a bluegrass festival in Miami. Stuart’s solo performance of the song was one of the real highlights of the night with Stuart showing off his immense mandolin skills, in addition to be a terrific guitar player.
Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives are never going to get out of town without leaving you with some fine gospel music, which they did on Saturday night with great vocal performances of “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” and “Angels Rock Me to Sleep,” which ended the set.
The group would return for a rocking one-song encore of Stuart’s first top 10 hit “Hillbilly Rock,” from 1990, showing off the rockabilly side of the band that proves they were just as much influenced by the ‘50s rock scene of Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley as they were the sounds of Flatt & Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie and others.
It was truly a fantastic night of music at Toad Duck Daze, which often seems to bring incredibly talented and great acts, especially in the country music genre, to the small-town festival.
by Julian Spivey
The Foo Fighters gave ample proof as to why they are the best rock & roll band of the last two decades on Thursday, May 3 at the FedEx Forum in Memphis with a killer almost three-hour set featuring greatest hits, new stuff and a lot of laughs in between.
The show was originally supposed to take place last year but was postponed due to Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl’s mom being ill. The band more than made up for the more than half year postponement.
The show kicked off with “Run,” from the group’s 2017 release Concrete and Gold, one of the hardest rocking songs in their repertoire. When I first heard it as the first single off the record last year I was a little bit disappointed. I didn’t care as much for the harder sound. However, I can say seeing it live really does give it a different life. It’s a good way to begin a night of rock & roll.
The Foo Fighters frontloaded the first hour of their show with an incredible order of “All My Life,” “Learn to Fly” (which was my introduction to the group many years ago), “The Pretender,” “The Sky is a Neighborhood” (my favorite track off their newest album) and “Rope.” It’s crazy to think a band could have such a stellar amount of songs that they can stick these powerhouses in the first quarter of their set and keep the crowd’s attention throughout the entire evening.
Following “Rope” was a hyper-extended drum solo by the excellent Taylor Hawkins, which was to lead into his vocal on “Sunday Rain” – a somewhat rare vocal for him – but, unfortunately his mic was turned off and Grohl stepped into the vocalist role for the first verse. Luckily Hawkins’ mic was turned on in time for him to finish the song. “Sunday Rain” has a cool throwback sound to ‘70s classic rock and shows the group has multiple talented vocalists. Guitarist Chris Shiflett is a talented vocalist in his own right with multiple country albums (yes, you read that correctly) to his name. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the opportunity to show off his vocal skills on Thursday night. He did have a really cool moment in which he invited a teenager onstage for a bit of a guitar riff off.
The Foo Fighters have, almost unbelievably, been active for 23 years (meaning they’re only two years away from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame eligibility and I’d have to believe they are a lock) and have amassed multiple generations of fans over the years, which Grohl brought up during the show. He said he would attempt to perform songs from each of their many albums over the years and came close to succeeding. He would play some older gems like “My Hero” and “Breakout” and newer hits like “These Days” and “Walk” from 2011’s Grammy Album of the Year nominated Wasting Light, which may be the band’s best album overall.
Grohl is known as the nicest guy in music and he’s also potentially the funniest, which made the band introductions a laugh riot. Bassist Nate Mendel played “You’re the One That I Want” from “Grease” for his introduction, which included Grohl perfectly singing the first verse (claiming it’s the only one he knows). Guitarist Pat Smear was introduced with a rip-roaring performance of The Ramones’ classic “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Keyboardist Rami Jaffee, the most recent addition to the band, was introduced by playing the opening piano part to John Lennon’s classic “Imagine” with Grohl wryly tricking the audience into believing they were about to join him in a sing-along of the classic before hilariously performing Van Halen’s “Jump” to the tune. It works surprisingly well.
Drummer Taylor Hawkins was given the chance to perform vocals again during his introduction with a little help from Luke Spiller, the lead singer of the tour’s opening band The Struts, on a cover of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” It was fitting that Spiller took the Freddie Mercury vocals because I felt during the entire opening set that he wanted so badly to be Mercury. It didn’t seem to bother much of the crowd, but it was almost as if he was impersonating Mercury while singing his own stuff during the entire opening set. It was distracting to say the least.
The Foo Fighters finished their set with a kickass foursome of “Times Like These,” in which Grohl began solo and was joined midway through by the rest of the band in one of the evening’s best performances, “Monkey Wrench,” one of the most fun Foo songs to belt out along with the band, a great rocking cover of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” and “Best of You,” one of the band’s biggest hits.
The group would return minutes later for an epic three-song encore that consisted of new song “Dirty Water,” “This is a Call,” the group’s first ever single from 1995 when it was basically just Grohl playing everything and ended the terrific night of rock music with “Everlong,” which is in my opinion the group’s greatest song and one of the 100 essential rock songs of all-time.
Seeing the Foo Fighters end an epic show with “Everlong” was truly one of those concert bucket list moments I’d always hoped to see and the cherry on top of a fantastic night.