The 2014 Sower Summit
Judging from the first few bars of his set, Evan Bartels was going to help you feel some pain and anguish. All you needed to hear was the sound of his cigarette-rasped voice.
But what reaction is warranted when he introduces his next song, “Poor Boy,” by saying “This is a true story”? Does it matter as long as the listener feels something?
Many familiar emotions were present throughout the night: heartbreak, loneliness, love, loss, nostalgia. Storytelling is important and prevalent in folk music, be it a literal tale or a well-spun metaphor. But tone can have just as much effect as subject matter. Bartels’ lyrics relayed his sorrow well enough; that he appeared labored betrayed pain more acutely. Singing “bury me seven feet down” was just the kicker. With a deep, hell-raising growl like the one he unleashed, he could have been singing about anything.
The folk and roots genres, more than many others, demand balance. The degree to which the individual members of a band are exposed makes it so. Quality musicianship abounded at Duffy’s Tavern for Friday’s Sower Records Showcase, so the real distinguishing factor from band to band became vocal tone, lyrical quality and the difference between a wagon ride and a breakneck boxcar chase.
Root Marm Chicken Farm Jug Band could have played to a Duffy’s Tavern backlot of five or 35, and the intensity would have been the same. Surely, they’d prefer the latter, but that doesn’t seem to be from where they conjure their energy. Rather, with seven members on the outdoor stage on Friday, the charge came from the enjoyment of their own party.
It’s not unfair to chalk up the sweet cheeriness to a quaint simplicity, to laid back country folk, playing on odds and ends they found around some farm yard. Guitarist and frontman Ian Egenberger wore flannel, overalls and a large scarecrow hat. In the jugband form, Kyle Bruggeman blew into glass jug in lieu of proper onstage bass. Regan Kessler grated texture with the washboard. But do not mistake that for backwardness. That they could shift from a hoedown to a swinging cover of “Shake Rattle and Roll” and back to their celebratory folk suggests a mastery of the instruments as well as the stage.
Günter Voelker employed vivid imagery to create the moods in Jack Hotel songs. This was never more apparent than during the foot-tapping “Sideways Lightning Blues.” He foreshadowed the song, musing that the sexual tension in the air of the night “feels like the set of One Tree Hill.” The imagery of sideways lightning and approaching rain are rich. With his band playing at a relaxed jaunt, you could almost hear the rain begin to fall in the distance. Voelker displayed a playfulness in this tune reminiscent of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’.” Instead of “cooking something up,” he sings of a woman’s hair, “so pretty and your bun all tied up tight/you look like a storm would do you right.”
For the Bottle Tops, the onstage chemistry between Kerry and Mike Semrad generated their magnetic charm. Their set would have been perfect timing for a rockabilly prom or wedding celebration (except for the cold), but they were strongest when they stepped out of that comfort zone. The harmonies created by their intertwining, complementary voices shone through when the band slowed to a ballad. Their charisma allowed them to effortlessly shift the mood. When Rico Sisney of Sidewalk Chalk joined them for a freestyle rap, and Mike broke out into an “Everybody in the 402” chant a la B Rabbit in 8 Mile, somehow it didn’t seem out of place.
Bud Heavy and the High Lifes finished the outdoor half of the showcase with a runaway steam train of a set. Their cavalier nature added a punk rock element to their rolling bluegrass. Sweat poured from the stage as guitarist Jeremy Wurst removed his shirt to egg on the crowd. Upright Bassist Kenny Kinlund casually smoked his pipe as he played, bolstering a down-home appearance. Their energy exploded forth as they held a rollicking call-and-response for their second to last number. To hear a band close with a high-speed romp through folk classic “I’ll Fly Away” by beginning and ending the song with R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” is to hear a band with a devil may care attitude. Its clear that they enjoy themselves, but that the tradition of their genre isn’t going to hold them back from bending it.
* * *
Boot vs. Bonehart: Constructing Identity in Live Music
When pop punk quartet Thirst Things First played The Zoo Bar on Friday night, it was, as always, at the supposed behest of the band’s overlord Boot, who appeared at stage front via a flat screen TV. Boot, perpetually clothed in a Cold War-evocative military uniform and aviator glasses, garbled other bands’ names. He encouraged the consumption of oil and generally avoided universe-building in the absurd pseudo-narrative Thirst Things First have cloaked their music in.
Around the corner at Duffy’s, Bonehart Flannigan played an album release set for his new LP, Backpacks and Mason Jars. Jon Dell, the sole authority behind Bonehart Flannigan, led a full-band through a subtle, autobiographical fiction routine, slipping almost imperceptibly between Dell, the amicable guy who books shows at Duffy’s, and Bonehart, the sad bastard troubadour who sleeps on park benches and hasn’t paid rent on time since the day he moved in.
Bonehart and Boot (played by TTF frontman Mikey Elfers) exist in similar, yet chasmal, spaces. The overlord’s life ends when the song starts and the other begins as soon as Dell steps to the microphone. Think about either too long, and the meaning of identity in performance becomes as muddled as Boot’s between-song diatribes.
It’s almost comically preposterous to think of Elfers dressing up as Boot before every TTF set and standing in front of a camera, playing out dialogue and dances he wrote for a literal and figurative two-dimensional character. But it also doesn’t really matter once TTF kicks off another highly energetic electro-driven pop punk track.
Boot is a concept that supposedly (through the band’s in-universe narrative and through the stories we trade about seeing TTF live) dictates the band’s show, but if Elfers and guitarist/vocalist Alec Wise weren’t whipping their voices back and forth over fat power chords and trading guitar solos through a thick, artificial fog at Zoo Bar, would anyone care?
Add the fact that Elfers and company aren’t really using Boot toward a larger arc, it’s easy to understand that Thirst Things First could, despite what they say, exist without Boot. He’s there to give the audience something to digest between songs. And while there may be an artistic point to Boot’s presence (say, generously, a commentary on digital age paranoia), it’s the self-referential Devo-meets-Offspring tracks about pressure cookers and fat-cat-long-cats that get people through the door.
Unlike Elfers transformation into Boot, marked by donning a hat and sunglasses, Dell’s occupation of Bonehart is something much more subtle, consequential.
Between tracks Dell is pleased, friendly and grateful. It’s his hometown album release show and his last Lincoln Calling, and his last Lincoln show for the foreseeable future, on the back-end of a Duffy’s lineup filled with local friends.
But watch Bonehart begin a song and see Dell fade away. The smile in his blue eyes turns to a vacant, steely dissociation. Bonehart sings mournfully, passionately about debt collectors, drug addicts and hitting the road, all while blank-staring over audience members’ heads at nothing in particular — maybe compulsively calculating the exact weight of the storm clouds unceasingly gathering over his head.
Those storm clouds are both Bonehart’s bane and his muse. But that doesn’t mean they are Dell’s.
We know that Dell inhabits the content of Bonehart Flannigan songs — it’s obvious, for instance, that “Get In the Van, Let’s Go” is based on his time touring as the bassist in Universe Contest. He’s said that his hometown of Beatrice generates the foundation for “Locust Road Lament.”
Still, these songs are Bonehart’s, a distilled version of Dell’s own experience. And what comes through the filter is a persona of staggering, complex sadness born by a world stacked against him and all the fun-havers and beer-swillers on his side. Bonehart will smile and wink at his own misfortune while bewailing that of others.
Together, Boot and Bonehart represent opposite ends of the assumed-identity spectrum. Boot supplements the Thirst Things First experience that otherwise succeeds on the merits of music, whereas Bonehart Flannigan, Dell’s band and songwriting vehicle, could probably not exist as profoundly without the Dell’s sieve, Bonehart Flannigan the man.
* * *
We’re Here to Watch You Dance
Whether its the ability to meld soul, jazz and hip-hop or effortlessly connecting with the audience, Sidewalk Chalk is transfixing.
The Chicago band knows how to whip the crowd into a burning froth, and then suddenly pull it down to a fireside smolder, MC Rico Sisney cooing “we must be better, at lovin’ each other,” before smoky horns and keys swirl the volume back up again.
Where around the corner, the voices of Kerry and Mike Semrad of The Bottle Tops intertwined and harmonized, Sisney and singer Maggie Vagel of Sidewalk Chalk are more yin and yang. Sisney’s flow is harsh and biting, aggressive even, bumping “Them, Us” over bouncing rhythm and horns. His incredible pacing sometimes means he has but one high gear, but the rest of the band molded well. Vagel’s rich, soulful voice drizzled honey atop the thick cake of Sidewalk Chalk groove.
“You think y’all at our show, but we’re at your show. We’re here to watch you dance,” Sisney said. Sidewalk Chalk has played the Zoo Bar three times in 2014, but the crowds keep growing every time. They have staked ownership of the Zoo Bar each time, and yet continually appear grateful. “This is your night,” he continued, turning attention to the sweaty dance party happening in front of him. That it raged on was all the validation they needed.
* * *
Freak and Roll at the Zoo Bar
Halfway through a blistering set at the Zoo Bar, nearly gasping for air, Courtney Kirby peered up through her burning red hair and chided, “We’ve got 7,000 more songs for you guys.” At the pace at which they were screaming along, even seven felt impossible.
Many of the billings this weekend featured some kind of unifying factor, like Wednesday night’s Women in Music showcase or Friday’s Sower Record’s summit. In contrast, the Zoo Bar offered more of a hodge podge, where those arriving early in anticipation of the soulful Sidewalk Chalk, for instance, might have taken in the raw energy of Freakabout.
To describe Freakabout’s music as “hard” is really an injustice to their haunting, molten riff-based rock. Guitarist Aaron Galvan and bassist Alex Drvol ripped demons from their frets and sent them spiraling around each other. Their sound crashed like a mercurial wave of flowing lava. So hot that drummer Zach Zoellner had lost his shirt by the end.
Above all, Kirby proved to be an excellent frontwoman. Her deep, powerful voice held strong as she swayed about the stage, arms held aloft and hair flailing about. Think Gwen Stefani fronting a thicker, more acidic Black Sabbath.
Thematically, Freakabout might have fit in better elsewhere (than previewing AZP and Sidewalk Chalk), maybe a night of loud rock at Duffy’s or Vega. But it was refreshing, and one of the best parts about Lincoln Calling, to see such an eclectic mix of genres at one venue, reminiscent of the mixing and matching of past years.
* * *
*Fluid and overlapping lineups are a staple of Sower Records bands, so it was no shock when Casey Hollingsworth began playing live with Jack Hotel earlier this year, seemingly stemming out of his mandolin and piano contributions to Jack Hotel’s debut record. His mandolin strings, often, are additional set in Jack Hotel’s moments of moving, steel cacophony around the lyrics. On Friday, it could have just been a live mixing decision on the part of the sound engineer, but the volume of Hollingsworth’s playing truly arrived. Arguably, his mandolin was the loudest instrument in the mix, which created a neat effect with regard to Voelker’s strapping and literary songwriting voice, as it rose above the mandolin’s light dusting. Pair that with a falling and improvised moment of isolated vocal harmony between Hollingsworth and Voelker at the end of “Iodine,” and the former’s standing in Jack Hotel has never been higher.
photo of Jack Hotel dobro player Joe Salvati
*Even if we try to illuminate and isolate the specific ways in which Nebraska musicians work, there will always be some elusive and inborn qualities. For an analogy, in every Saturday Night Live cast, among a stable of a dozen classically talented people, there will be a scene-thief: someone for whom you might catch yourself saying mid-sketch, “Wait, why am I looking at that person?”
There were many, many gifted performers at Duffy’s on Friday night. People like Gerardo Meza and the Semrads have honed their stage presence for years, like an art unto itself. But nobody seems to turn more strangers’ heads than Evan Bartels. Lincoln Calling outsiders who applauded politely during other sets actually moved to the stage when the three-piece, Evan Bartels and The Stoney Lonesomes, band ripped into its Americana rock. Maybe its his potential to have a voice like Chuck Ragan in 15 years. Maybe it’s that (with a nod to their subject matter) his songs have a feeling of being either hellbound or bent on absolution. Before closing his set, Bartels gave a promotional farewell, “… find us on Facebook … buy us a drink, I don’t give a shit.” Spot on. Whether or not any non-scenesters click the ‘like’ button this week, they might find their minds drifting back to Bartels at the office this week, for a reason they can’t understand.
*A wry, old boxing coach once said, “One fight is worth 30 days in the gym.” That folksy arithmetic reverberated on Friday at Zoo Bar when AZP threw down. Consider their last six months: a memorable SXSW showcase, a 20-city “Geo Tour,” a trip to Madison for Bubble Music Festival and opening for Matt & Kim last week to a couple thousand people at Sokol Auditorium. What teaches you more about performance than performing? What could be more fortifying?
So on Friday, AZP battled through an unfortunate and persistent buzzing sound to vitalize the pre-Sidewalk Chalk crowd, without much more than one grimace. Pushing past, they expanded their staple song “Keep It Simple,” into an eight-minute opening jam in which guitar and piano solos seemed to liven the crowd as much as the words. The hip-hop/rock act has been one of Lincoln’s top draws for a few years now, but watching them hammer through “Anchors Aweigh” and sell instrument breakdowns as inescapable highlights indicates they’ve figured out something about working a room. It’s like they’re playing to the crowd precisely on their terms — big terms — instead of responding to particular ebbs and flows. That’s something major music festival acts do.
*Gerardo Meza’s secret band didn’t hold astonishing lineup surprises — Jon Dell (bass), CA Waller (guitar), Günter Voelker (banjo, percussion), Jordan Ellis (viola), Kyle Foster (accordion) — but the cumulative sound was something noteworthy. Meza, the longtime frontman of Mezcal Brothers, has partaken in his rusty folk music solo for a few years now. Over the summer, he recorded 20-odd demos and released them on SoundCloud. But as the band “Gerardo Meza” on Saturday, he took on straight-shooting ’60s pop, closer to a countrified-The McCoys (or The Animals) than Tom Waits. While the lineup may shift, with Dell moving to New York this month, Meza says this ensemble and atmosphere are what he’d like to pursue moving forward. It’s a good look: somewhere between the daring Mezcal fronting and the introspective folk. Ideally, it’d give a crowd a reason to both dance and listen.
The instrumental arrangement of Twin Cities pop duo Har Di Har was among the most unconventional of the festival (outside of Gloom Balloon). Andrew and Julie Thoreen combined to play drums, bass and keyboard structurally arranged in pieces on the Yia Yia’s stage. The keys, snare, and hi hat surrounded Julie, while her partner was left with his bass and remaining pieces of drum kit. Julie sang like a vibrato-heavy Kate Nash while playing a bouncing chord progression on the keyboard with her right hand and tapped her hi-hat/snare combo with her left. Andrew hummed on a five-string bass guitar while stomping a kick drum. At one point, Julie abandoned the keyboard to wail on her side of the frankenkit, creating rolling tribal rhythms. Their coordination alone was impressive.
See more photos from Lincoln Calling’s Friday shows:
The Renfields at Tower Square
The Emily Bass Project at Tower Square
Sidewalk Chalk at Zoo Bar
Bud Heavy & The High Lifes at Duffy’s Tavern
A Ferocious Jungle Cat at The Bourbon
Matt Cox Band at Duffy’s Tavern
AZP at Zoo Bar
Root Marm Chicken Farm Jug Band at Duffy’s Tavern
The Bottle Tops at Duffy’s Tavern
Freakabout at Zoo Bar
Bonehart Flannigan at Duffy’s Tavern