Monday, January 30, 2006

Buddy Miller -- Universal United House of Prayer

I had so many exceptional surprises last year when it came to seeing artists I knew absolutely nothing about. Buddy Miller was definitely a stand out performance. He's been playing since his teens in Ohio and then in Nashville and all over the world; sometimes with his wife and fellow musician/writer Julie Miller and sometimes with Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, or his own band featuring some "tear it up" gospel singers, the McCrary sisters. He released "Your Love and Other Lies" to little critical acclaim in 1995.

There's an affinity with Buddy's music that cuts to the core on this CD. This is one stand-up musician admired by legions of Nashville writers and performers. When it came down to it, he figured that his remake of the 1960's Dylan hit "With God on Our Side" had to be included. Clocking in at more than nine minutes, it was a long shot but the song really holds up in concert and on the CD with Buddy's long drawling tenor accentuating all that can go wrong with religion. He's been writing Christian Country music with strong themes that are at times both clever and harsh. Make no mistake, though, Buddy doesn't write harmonic, gushy, Christian music: his music has a defiant edge.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Lonesome Bob at the Buddy Miller show. As fate would have it, the hulking mass stood next to me at the bar, hanging on every word and relating his personal kinship with Buddy. Lonesome Bob lived in Nashville for a good many years and has released a very personal, searing, CD recounting the death of his son.

"That Buddy," Lonesome Bob quipped before the show started,"he's a really stand up guy. Everyone loves him. I feel so much when I get to see him. His lyrics are hard to beat." I had only asked Bob if the guy was any good.

And yes, Bob was right. Buddy can write and sing some awfully powerful lyrics that, in the hands of lesser figures, might come off wishy washy or preachy. Buddy connects with the audience in a way that overcomes the Christian messages. His band is tight and complementary, pausing to let him drawl out one long Texan note and then rushing to catch up with the audience's admiration. He gets inside of a feeling and stays there only long enough to rush the crowd into the next thought. I must say, Buddy Miller can play the guitar like a heartstring, hammering into a deep tremolo that sits inside of you like an eggshell waiting to be cracked.

Buddy started out in Austin, Texas, with the likes of Shawn Colvin singing backup for him in Partners in Crime. Maybe that's where Shawn learned those lilting harmonies couched by sharp punctuation of a flat note.

He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and traveled to Austin, Texas, where he met Julie, his wife. He's spent time writing and performing in Austin, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, and finally Nashville. Brooks and Dunn recorded Buddy's "My Love Will Follow You" which secured him financially and continued his dream of writing and producing albums.

Perhaps I liked Buddy for his charismatic style and gentle gnawing on the Bush administration's right wing televangelism. Buddy's on a mission with this CD and he aims to set the record straight when it comes to abusing religion in the name of politics and war.

Sometimes, when researching an artist, I find a nugget worthy of repeating. Apparently, Buddy's brother-in-law was struck by lightning and died 20 years to the day after he suffered nearly deadly injuries in a motorcycle accident at exactly the same spot. Eerie and infusing this CD with its uncanny look at religion and life purpose.

This is a gritty, heartful, CD full of purpose and human spirit. You can't help but love the guy. I had been hearing for years how I "had to get out and see Buddy and Julie Miller." Little did I know just what a show I was missing. You can see and hear Buddy here:

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Ray LaMontagne -- Trouble

Ray LaMontagne's story is a great example of destiny finding you. What are the chances that a young man who barely graduated high school, moved around with his Mom and five other siblings, and never studied music or voice would eventually be signed to Chrysalis Records, would release his first effort ("Trouble") and be nominated for "Best New Touring Artist" at Pollstar? I mean, really, what are the chances? Slim to none.

Ray never spent his childhood engulfed in music. Nothing captured his interest except making a living where he finally ended up at a shoe factory in Maine. It wasn't until he heard Stephen Stills' "Tree Top Flyer" one morning that things changed for Ray LaMontagne. You can listen to the Stills song on Amazon here Treetop Flyer. I just had to hear the song, of course (thought you might like to as well).

"Stills Alone" which featured "Treetop Flyer" was released in 1991. Ray ran out and bought it that day instead of heading into the shoe factory. He spent the next eight years learning to sing and play guitar and imitating Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Neil Young; Otis Redding (who he sounds a lot like); Bob Dylan; and Joni Mitchell. He even taught himself how to sing using his diaphragm instead of his nose. He quit his job at the factory and started his musical journey.

Destiny would intervene yet again in 1999 when he recorded his first demo of 10 songs, never having performed on stage, and met Jamie Ceretta of Chrysalis Music Publishing. Meanwhile, Ray did some intimate shows at a little club in Maine where he honed his stage skills. Again ... I ask ... what are THE chances? Destiny was calling.

Jamie hooked him up with other execs at Chrysalis who funded a deal for Ray's first effort before they even knew where they'd put his disc. Jamie knew Ray was a special artist and pushed his career forward.

If you've ever seen Ray perform live, you'll understand just how shy this guy is. He barely made eye contact with the sold out standing room only (and there were PLENTY of us standers) show at "The Rex" on Pittsburgh's South Side. Women were screaming his name and throwing God knows what lingere on stage and he would just shuffle his feet and quietly chuckle, launching into his next song as if he might be standing alone in his kitchen eyeing the pots and pans. He really relies on his band mate (one lone upright bass player) to keep him secure at live shows.

I went to the show not knowing ANY-thing about the guy. A friend talked me into going; not that I'm never up for live music in smallish clubs for any reason but I'd just been to see four shows before Ray strolled into town.

There we were, standing at the back of the former movie theater being jostled around by some nearby drunks, when Ray walked on stage with his bass player. The place went NUTS! When things quieted down, Ray began his 90 minute show with "You Should Belong to Me." His voice, raw and gritty, was soulful and booming at times, silky quiet at others. I kept thinking to myself, "who does he sound like?" when it finally came to me: Otis Redding with a little Michael McDonald thrown in.

His performance, though subdued in terms of audience banter, was mesmerizing stylistically. The show stoppers for me were "Shelter" and "Trouble." I simply cannot get over how closely his CD mimics his live presence. There was no tinkering in the studio with this one.

He has toured extensively in Europe to sold out shows as well. If you catch him in your town, get tickets immediately because he sells out within days. Rumour has it, he's in the studio again which can only mean great things are coming although no touring at present. I read one account this evening of a woman trying to buy his CD in England but none of the stores had any copies left. She finally found one that had a single copy left but Elton John was on the phone asking if they could hold it for him. She ended up the victor (awww, poor Elton).

If you'd like to check out Ray's unbelievable sound go to his web site at Ray LaMontagne.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Maia Sharp -- Fine Upstanding Citizen

I have been following Maia Sharp since she released her first CD "Hardly Glamour" which featured her first independent radio hit "I Need This to be Love" in 1997. There was something undeniably remarkable about Maia's lyrics and musicianship that latched onto my interest. I continued playing "Hardly Glamour" and listening to her play sax (her first love which launched her career), flute, clarinet, guitar, keyboards, and sing until she released her second solo effort "Maia Sharp" several years later.

In between solo CD's, she did a CD with Art Garfunkel titled "Everything Waits to be Noticed" and harmonized with him on several songs she also co-wrote. Cher recorded "Don't Come Around Tonight" from Maia's "Hardly Glamour" and other artists began to really notice her songwriting.

She's written for The Dixie Chics ("Home"), Bonnie Raitt, Lisa Loeb, Edwin McCain ("Say Anything"), David Wilcox, and Kim Richey. She recently toured with Bonnie Raitt who had this to say about her: "Maia is making some of the most innovative and soulful music around with songs that are head and shoulders above the rest. She has become one of my favorite artists. Fine Upstanding Citizen is a brilliant album, start to finish."

I've had the privilege of seeing Maia live several times over the years and it's wonderful to see the audiences growing with their appreciation for her work. She is, as they say, a musician's musician. At the November show in Pittsburgh, she opened for Raitt to an audience that knew very little about her work. I watched the audience reaction when she stepped away from her keyboards to wail on the horn and they were as enthralled as I was when I first saw her perform. She amazes with lyrics and harmonies that cascade, crescendo, and ebb back and forth between your heart and mind.

In an earlier show this year at Club Cafe (fabulous small venue), she performed with her Dad, Randy, in an intimate show that included lots of dialogue with the audience about her songs and growing up in a musical family. She autographed CD's afterward and was really personable with everyone that wanted to talk to her. Her voice, in person, is just as saltry and intriguing as it is on her CD's.

She gives special thanks to her "sweetheart for life (yeah, you're stuck with me) for your unconditional, sometimes unbelievable love and support" on the credits for "Fine Upstanding Citizen" so I guess she's off the market, ladies. *wink*

If you would like to find out more about Maia and listen to her music, please visit: She writes constantly so perhaps we'll get some new material soon. I can only hope. She continues to improve with each effort.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Citizen Cope -- The Clarence Greenwood Recordings

Citizen Cope, aka Clarence Greenwood, first appeared on my music radar last fall when our local radio station announced his concert. I didn't know anything about Citizen Cope or the music I was about to discover. I bought some tickets to a show at Dowe's on Ninth, a little jazz club that hooked up with WYEP to bring live artists to Pittsburgh's cultural district.

The place was packed and sizzling with anticipation. I was excited to hear a band that was voted one of the "Top 100" on Amazon and made Rolling Stone's "10 Artists to Watch" for 2004. I knew one song "Bullet and a Target." The opening chords caught my attention immediately with a driving drum beat, crooning reminiscent of Al Green, and catchy hand clapping. The rest of the show built momentum with most of the audience obvious fans that knew every word to every song.


His band is tight and they work around his repeated choruses with a magical backbone of Moog synth, cut to your gut pounding drums, and bass/lead guitars supporting Greenwood's acoustic strumming. The drummer had a really interesting skin on his bass made out of some heavy hide with a groovy painting I couldn't quite make out. It didn't matter; I was reveling in this band's awesome rich sound and Greenwood's interesting lyrical style.

His voice rises and falls, stumbling and connecting again, with chorus hooks you'll recall for months. I often find myself strolling through the grocery store or driving to the melodies of "The Clarence Greenwood Recordings" pouring through my brain. This is one of those bands that once you get that "Cope" vibe inside of your head, you just have to play the entire CD. It's infectious pop with an edge.

Clarence is a shy performer by nature. He starts with a quiet mumbling but by the end of the show, if people are singing along, he really lets loose. He does very few covers but they're memorable.

"Nite Becomes Day," the CD opener, sets the stage for the societal storytelling that fills this disc. Drugs, politics, murder, madness, spiritual resurrection, and fame. There aren't many artists that can sing 16 lines over and over again for more than five minutes and still capture your attention. Citizen Cope does this beautifully with "Sideways," arguably one of the most Googled Cope lyric searches (... these feelings won't go away, they've been knocking me sideways...)

His song "Son's Gonna Rise" sparked a lot of interest for him when it was featured on a Pontiac commercial in April, 2005. He has also made appearances on the late night talk show circuit. You can find many of his performances and videos using the link below.

I've seen his band perform three times now and I can't wait to see him again. If you're looking for something fresh for your CD player and like some hip hop rhythms, some reggae, and the occasional high-pitched Moog, I highly recommend this CD. If you want to check out his music first, go to
For what it's worth, his audience spans all ages, races, and sexes. He is not currently touring which hopefully means he's writing.

Monday, January 02, 2006

I am a card-carrying public radio devotee

When I do stray from the lower bands, it's excrutiatingly difficult to listen to advertisements, babbling DJ's, and recycled play lists. Independent publicly supported radio offers a depth of music and special programming that you simply cannot find on the commercial dial.

This has been a great year for music -- Mariah Carey aside. A lot of sites have their 2005 Top Picks listed. I'll have to think about mine a bit more.

Meanwhile, my favorite IPR station, WYEP, has just opened shop in their fabulous new space in the South Side of Pittsburgh. It's a state of the art facility complete with a concert hall. WYEP brings a wide array of new artists into town each year. I'm very excited about the possibilities for compilation CD's drawn from studio performances in their new digs, not to mention some kick ass shows!

I saw quite a few live acts last year. Among the best performances:

1. Citizen Cope
2. Maia Sharp with Bonnie Raitt
3. Ray LaMontagne
4. Buddy Miller
5. Raul Malo
6. Mary Gauthier

Any of these are good bets for your concert dollars. I'll write more about each artist in the next Chewing the Clef.