Tue, 03/01/2016 - 7:34 am

If you followed any of the countless jam bands that dotted the American musical landscape in 2015, it’s likely you ran into Tom Hamilton at some point last year.  As the guitarist and vocalist for four touring bands: American Babies, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Billy and the Kids, and Electron, Hamilton rarely had a night off from the scene.

Rolling Stone perhaps said it best when they named him the “MVP” of the large, Allman Brothers-curated Peach Festival, lauding his flexibility in a number of bands, and saying his “nuanced playing was ethereal and inspired, subtly tailored for each artist with whom he shared the stage.”

Another way to say it is that fellow musicians trust him.

At 36, Hamilton has clearly settled into something.  Relaxed, at peace in his work with his main project, American Babies, and an almost constant touring schedule, Hamilton seems well-suited to keep it all in the air, all spinning.

I talked to Hamilton last month in the Fishtown section of his native Philadelphia, just around the corner and a few days removed from where Joe Russo’s Almost Dead left a wild New Year’s Eve crowd in a puddle after a mind-blowing show at the newly-opened Fillmore. We talked about a whole host of topics in a sometimes jovial, sometimes direct, sometimes difficult conversation.

First of all, Hamilton’s a great storyteller, as you might expect of a musician and producer almost two decades deep into a career that spans for the early jam-tronica of Brothers Past and his producing Disco Biscuits records to the more recent high-profile jamming with members of the Grateful Dead. There’s a hint of the frenetic pace he keeps about him, but he seems comfortable with the life and career he’s carved out for himself, even as the buzz around him has continued to grow.

He’s assertive though. And he has a clear artistic vision of putting his internal struggle out there, reaction be damned.

We talked extensively about the creation of his excellent new American Babies record, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark, which the Royal Potato Family label will release on March 18.  Hamilton talked about the emotions that spawned it, the groove that he hears and writes to, and the need to keep pushing with each record to make something new.

Best known as a gifted improvisational guitar player, Hamilton seems to be blossoming as a songwriter and producer with each recording, and An Epic Battle is his most assured work yet.

Even his singing, which was often the least powerful part of his previous work, has matured, and An Epic Battle finds him at his least affected, most natural, most confident.

We also talked about what it’s been like to step into a peer role with childhood heroes like the Grateful Dead, and how that experience has created a new and totally unexpected chapter of his career.  Like any good prospect, when he got his call up to the majors, Hamilton made his mark.

That’s because as a guitar player, Hamilton can slip into almost any set of clothes.  As we discussed, his signature in-the-groove playing is clearly informed by his early days as a drummer.  You watch him play a familiar Dead tune live and think there’s no way he can come out of that somehow familiar, but simultaneously innovative, lead and get back to the rhythm structure.

But there he is, every time.  Never jarring, always in the pocket.

Of course, jam band guitarists don’t struggle with the live setting as much. That’s why they’re in jam bands.  It’s the transfer to the studio that’s usually the hard part. Capturing the spontaneity of improvisation in an environment defined by starts and stops is notoriously difficult.   That’s why I was interested in how An Epic Battle turned out to be such a tight and cohesive record.

GW: I thought [2013’s] Knives and Teeth was an interesting hybrid of your Brothers Past work and the newer direction of American Babies.  There was a decent amount of acoustic guitars on that record, but this new record, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark seems a step in a pretty different direction for you—much more atmospheric than your previous record.  I really liked it, and I was surprised by it a little, especially after these last couple of years of playing a lot of shows as a guitar slinger.  How do you see it as a finished project?

Creatively, it’s exactly what I want to be doing.  I’ve got to get comfortable going into territory I’m not comfortable going into.  I’m not a 23-year old kid, writing songs in my dorm room about love.  I’m 36 years old. I’ve been making records for a while.  I don’t want to repeat myself.  It’s hard enough not saying something that somebody else has said before.  I certainly don’t want to say anything I’ve said before.

As a kid, whatever it is you’re into, you say, “I’m going to make music like that,” and it’s probably going to sound a lot like what you are listening to.  As my career has gone on, I’ve actually listened to less and less music going into making a record.  Going into this record, I just wanted to make a record that sounded cool—that I wanted to play live, that I wanted to listen to.  That’s the bare minimum of expectation I can put on myself.

The music industry has changed and I’ve changed.  I have no allusions of trying to make some hit record or some bullshit.  That’s just not the world that I’m in.  I’ve afforded myself a career; I have a job to do.

GW: There are two absolute anthems on the record, the opening track “Synth Driver,” which you guys tested the waters with and people seem to love, and “Fever Dreams,” which is probably my favorite song you’ve recorded.  Tell me about writing and recording those two—they are kind of epic.

That’s funny; “Synth Driver” is probably my favorite thing I’ve recorded. It’s interesting that you pick those two.  “Synth Driver” was the first one we wrote.  I made the record with Pete Tramo.  We worked together on the last album and just clicked, so I was stoked to make a record with him.  So that song was the first thing we did; we had the whole thing done and loved it, and then we lost our hard drive and we had to recreate everything.

It was devastating to say the least.  But when we got it back together, we knew it was the sonic signature of the record.

When we got to “Fever Dreams,” that one was very different.  Originally it was just mostly acoustic.  The final version is different, but even after working on it, it was still decidedly different from “Synth Driver.”  So those two were the sonic ends of the record. 

In deciding what was going to fill in between those two were the gradients.  We had about 16 songs to work with, but we were deciding what made the most sense.

GW: So, for people who know you as a guitar player first, it’s interesting, because in “Oh Darling” and also in “Bring it Close,” there are “Tom Hamilton guitar solos”—really good ones.  But they are down in the mix a little, with the synths on top.  Is there a consciousness in American Babies music to not make it about Tom and his guitar?

I don’t really give a fuck about the guitar.  [Laughs]  It’s not about ego.  It’s down in the mix because it belongs down in the mix.  Louder than that would be gratuitous. Serving the purpose of the song . . . I don’t need to rub it in people’s faces.  That’s not what it’s about.

GW: What it does seem to be clearly about though is the struggle.  I mean the title is right out there. And many times the light-dark thing happens within a song.  There will be heavy chords like the starting of “Oh Darling” broken by this sporadic lightness.   Is that a thing for you—do you turn on a dime emotionally?

That’s life, man.  [Pauses]

Yes . . . it is me as well . . .

GW: Okay, let me ask it in a more direct way.  To me, it seems like a very personal record. Were you going through a bunch of shit when you made this record? 

[Pauses] The girl I was with before I made that record, I was with her for a year . . . she just disappeared.  I came home from the road and she had left. I mean, she was going through some difficult stuff.  She was ill.

But you know . . . um . . . I mean, I’ve dealt with stuff my whole life too, depression.  You know, it’s tough.  And then Robin Williams killed himself around that time as well, and that just ruined me for a long time. 

GW: I’m sorry.  I noticed that the album is dedicated to him.

Yeah, that guy.  I really looked up to that guy; I mean I always aspired to play guitar like he told jokes. 

GW: You know with all that happening, you aren’t letting yourself off the hook on this record though; there’s the album cover imagery for one.  And there’s a very prominent line in “Fever Dreams”: “I think I’ll go wrong somebody so I can feel alive.”

Well, I mean we’ve all done it.  I don’t know what it is.  Think about what we do at the end of relationships. People have this thing with self-destruction.  It’s the therapy.  I mean with me it was always self-destruction, but some people are destructive towards others as well.  I mean there’s something that makes us feel better—doing something stupid . . .

GW: But how cathartic is it—getting in the studio, playing out live as much as you do?

None of it is cathartic.  It’s not. I admire people like that.  But to me it never goes away.  I don’t get the thing where like, “I got that out, it’s in the rearview.”  We’re all just in it.  We’re dealing with it.  I accept it for what it is. 

I mean the job is to tell it.  But it doesn’t provide any relief.  Cathartic is your word, not mine.  I mean, it does provide fodder, inspiration. It makes it real. To deal with it, to put it out there, with the hope that somebody out there can feel better to hear it.

We all owe ourselves self-realization. That’s the point of it. In accepting who you are in such a public platform as this, hopefully it helps other people accept who they are.

GW: I asked Bill Kreutzmann [drummer for the Grateful Dead] what he thought about you, and here’s what he said: “Tommy is a real fun player, very energetic & synergistic. Big ears.”  What does that mean to you—especially coming from him?

[Pauses] That freaks me out.  What do you say about that?  I’m flattered . . .

GW: So what’s that been like, these last few years, getting to play with people like that, to play with people that you listened to in your bedroom as a kid?

It wasn’t even an option.  It’s insane.  It’s crazy. 

It’s easier than I thought though musically.  I’ve been playing with those guys my whole life.  They just didn’t know it.  I mean when I’m playing with Phil [Lesh], or Billy, or Bob [Weir], when they do shit, it’s like “Oh, right!  That’s what you do there!”  In my head I’m anticipating: “I wish they would . . . oh, yeah there they go.”  It’s so funny, I was playing with Weir and he started doing his little move . . .

GW: His step-up?

Yeah!  I looked over at [Disco Biscuits and Billy and the Kids’ keyboardist Aron] Magner, and we’re just laughing, both just like “Holy shit. He’s doing it!” 

GW: How do you think you got that opportunity in the first place?  I mean this is a seminal time for the Dead and its offshoots.

It’s weird, but you know, what’s that saying about luck?  It’s hard work . . . and opportunity meeting?  Whatever.  The fact that I know that material so well; I was never one of those guys who listened to the Dead and just listened to Jerry.  I went through years of listening to just Phil, just Bob, just Jerry.

I play all the instruments, so I know each one of their individual styles so well.  I mean, I know what those guys do.  So when we play, it’s like “let’s dance.”  That’s what improvising is, it’s a shared language.

GW: Speaking of Bill, you’ve talked about writing your music from the perspective of a drummer. It’s a different way of writing than most do it. But you and your brother both started as drummers when you were little kids.  Did you write the music on this new album from that perspective still?

Yeah, I always think of the groove first. When Pete first turned on the synthesizer when we started to make this record—the very first sound I heard—I immediately felt a tempo, a groove, I felt everything.  I was like, “that’s it!” 

I think it was always just easiest to put the drums down first.  When I was a kid, I had a little four-track my dad gave me.  I didn’t know how to do anything.  But I just figured out that it worked best for me to lay the drums down for the song and layer everything else over it.  But that forces you to know every nuance of the song so you can just play it. I just forced myself to do it that way since I was, like, eight.

Feel is just a really important thing to me.  A swagger. Groove.

GW: Are you sad to not be playing with Russo and Bill as much in 2016 as you take out the Babies and everyone has their “main” projects to get back to?

Yeah, but I’ll still play with those guys this year.  It will slow down a little bit maybe, but we’ll still play.  Who really knows?  It’s hard to plan anything really solidly these days. You know, things just kind of happen in this business.

GW: Well I was wondering, I know you’ve finished this album.  What’s was your plan of the timing of releasing it? Did you want to wait until we’re into the new year a bit to finish up touring?

Well, we were out playing with Greensky Bluegrass this past fall, and those guys are doing really well, so we knew we’d have a good sold-out run of shows, so we felt like it was good momentum build leading into releasing this one. 

GW: So you’ve been doing this for 20 years or so now, and your career kind of coincides with the death of the industry—just as Brothers Past was getting started, the internet killed AOR. You’ve done it yourself most of the way.  What’s it been like to mostly create your own path for all these years? 

I mean, those things still exist.  Look around the corner here in Philly: Kurt Vile, War on Drugs, they both have more major label record company contracts.  And they so deserve it.  Kurt is just an incredibly talented dude.

GW: “Synth Driver” in particular sounds to me like this great combination of the longing, bit of electronic darkness of War on Drugs and the soaring of a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. What do you think of those two Philly bands?

You know, a lot of people have said the War on Drugs thing.  I don’t hear it.  To me, maybe Stereolab.  Maybe if Stereolab, Jerry Garcia, and Ryan Adams made an album together. [Laughs]

GW: That was interesting to me what you said earlier about not listening to a lot of music when you are making a record.  I would think it would be very different—that you would be immersing yourself in things around you.

Well, don’t get me wrong. I give myself freedoms to listen to and enjoy things. I’ll circle a date on the calendar.  That’s the date you need to go make a record, and from that date on, I stop listening to music while I’m working. Well, maybe something that has nothing to do with what I do.  

But right now, I’m clear.  I finished a record.  And now I can go back and listen to music again, just enjoy music again.

Fri, 03/11/2016 - 6:31 am

The pure, almost orchestral musicianship of Railroad Earth has always separated it from its jam, Americana, and bluegrass peers.  When you place a band with that dedication to craft in a venue with a deep commitment to acoustics, sightlines, and spacing, you have the foundation for a flawless night of music.  And as usual, Railroad Earth didn't disappoint last night at Philadelphia's exquisite Union Transfer.  Kicking off the show with favorites from their beloved break-out record Bird in a House, RRE alternated between traditional fiddle dust-ups and softer, beautiful songs like "Grandfather Mountain" off their most recent Last of the Outlaws.  The winter tour continues this weekend at the 9:30 Club in D.C.

March 10, 2016

Union Transfer - Philadelphia, PA

Set 1

1.     Mighty River

2.     Saddle Of The Sun

3.     Happy Song

4.     Grandfather Mountain

5.     The Good Life

6.     Potter's Field ->

7.     Lone Croft Farewell

8.     Any Road

9.     Elko

Set 2

1.     Black Elk Speaks

2.     Like A Buddha

3.     Crossing The Gap

4.     Came Up Smilin'

5.     Farewell to Isinglass ->

6.     Chasin' a Rainbow

7.     Walk Beside Me

8.     Hangtown Ball

9.     12 Wolves

10.  Hard Livin'


1.     Peggy-O

Sat, 05/07/2016 - 9:21 am

“Oh man, Bill Withers, oooh, he just gets me all over, you know?” a middle-aged woman I’d never met revealed to me as we waited for The New Stew to take the stage last night.

In just the second night of their limited run playing Withers’ classic 1973 album, Live at Carnegie Hall, it was clear that all over feeling is likely to spread.

The New Stew is a collaboration between Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover and pedal steel impresario Roosevelt Collier.  The band features renowned guitarist Dave Yoke, drummer Jared Stone, bassist Kevin Scott, and keyboardist Matt Slocum, all of whom bring jam-band, soul, and rock pedigrees.  And though they are clearly still in the creation stages of the experiment, on Friday night The New Stew left singed earth in Philly.

If you are of a certain age, Live at Carnegie Hall is lodged into your psyche.  Taking up a central place between the heart-on-their-sleeve singer-songwriters of the day and the rich soul and R&B landscape of the early ‘70s, Bill Withers shooting star shone brightest on Live at Carnegie Hall.

Which is not to say that the record would be your first or easiest choice to cover end to end.  Parts of it, like the opening soul-funk groove of “Use Me” and the closing rabble-rousing beauty “Harlem/Cold Baloney,” are incendiary crowd pleasers.

But in between, Live at Carnegie Hall is filled with some heavy, heart-wrenching stuff.  In fact, it’s one of the most vulnerable, personal, and raw albums ever recorded.

Going into the Ardmore show, I worried about two things.  Number one, could Glover even come close to Withers’ confessional, intimate, heartbreaking vocal work? And number two, how was Collier’s pedal or lap steel going to lead this whole mix?

It turns out there wasn’t much to worry about.

Corey Glover first began to redefine himself a few years ago within the jam circuit doing some fabulous vocal work with the jazz-funk powerhouse Galactic. And in between Living Colour work, he’s sat in with Robert Randolph and a number of progressive soul and improvisational bands.  But the tent-revival pastor persona he brought to Philadelphia last night was a revelation. 

“Is this a music venue or a church?” Glover grinned early on. And for stretches last night, mostly due to Glover’s impassioned showmanship, the answer wasn’t entirely clear.

From the edge-of-stage, microphone-less crowd work during “Friend of Mine” to the late-set almost a cappella “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” which had Glover (and most in the room) in tears, Glover didn’t just honor Withers’ work, he elevated it.

Early on, Glover gave a hint about some personal turmoil as he proclaimed “I'm having a great time singing songs about my life I didn't write.” And it was clear throughout that though he’s still not entirely comfortable with all the lyrics, the emotion in Withers’ heart-splayed-open work has touched and invigorated Glover in a very real way. It was remarkable to watch.  Funny and sad and joyous and heartbreaking.

Collier, on the other hand, seemed to be having the time of his life the whole night.  “I’m ready to make some babies after this,” Collier joked after a couple of grooves got the crowd amped up and in the mood.  

The gentle giant kept things simple with a simple lap rig, and absolutely fried the synapses of everyone in the room a dozen times over.  Starting the classic “Ain't No Sunshine” with a dirge-like solo, Collier somehow managed to make one of the more mournful pop tunes in history even more mournful than it already is.  The place fell silent, and hair on back of your neck stood up.

A few songs later, Collier’s lap steel elicited a spirited call-and-response vocal from Glover that completely reimagined the anti-Vietnam blues of “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.”

Glover gave over singing duty to the crowd for Withers’ best known song “Lean On Me” next, and the place was theirs for the taking.  After the power of “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” in which the crowd urged the weeping Glover on with shouts of encouragement, there was nothing left to do but wipe the tears and let Collier and Yoke blister towards the “Harlem/Cold Baloney” finisher, which The New Stew wisely split between closer and encore.

14 songs, two nights in, a new band, a new persona for a long-time frontman, a new supergroup on the horizon?  The hints are that if this first run of shows goes well, there will be other classic albums explored.  As good as Friday night was, they may just want to stick with this one for a while.

Tue, 08/02/2016 - 7:33 am

The big news over the weekend at the 15th installment of Floydfest was the unfortunate hospitalization and subsequent cancellation of headliner Gregg Allman’s Saturday night set.  But in true Floydfest fashion, the excellent talent evaluators of this year’s five-day festival, dubbed “Dreamweavin’,” had just the type of jam-band superheroes onsite to put together a dream replacement set.

With Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, and Larry Keel on stage, there was plenty of instrumental octane on hand, but what really blew the powder keg was combined vocal powers of Kim Dawson of Pimps of Joytime, Elephant Revival’s Bonnie Paine, and all three of the T Sisters.  The collection was dubbed “Buffalo Mountain Jam” after the iconic peak near Floydfest’s cozy site that spills out over an otherworldly ridgetop on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

In addition to that beautiful jam-band tribute set, which featured a wild “Whippin’ Post” to honor Allman, Floydfest’s weekend was full of world-music legends, jam-band stalwarts, up-and-coming Americana acts, and lots and lots of sit-ins and jamming.  Over its 15 years, Floydfest has built a solid reputation as one of the best run and family-friendliest festivals, even though the nine stages scattered throughout its gorgeous setting rage all day and all night. 

Here are six of our favorites of the weekend:

6.  Almost unbelievably, The Wood Brothers have been playing together for a full decade now, even though most of us think of them as a “new band” put together as a side project for Chris Wood of Medeski Martin & Wood.

The truth is, and this weekend proved it once again, The Wood Brothers are evolving into an absolute Americana force.  Over multiple sets on multiple stages, the brothers continued to show their incredible chops and their startling diversity.  With multi-instumentalist Jano Rix playing a beautiful foil between Oliver Wood’s searing guitar and Chris’s world-class bass work, The Wood Brothers may have been the MVPs of the weekend.

5. Con Brio has been on a dizzying world tour this Spring and Summer in support of their second release and first full-length record Paradise.  Fresh off a couple of triumphant Lollapalooza and Fuji Rock performances, the incendiary R&B/Soul outfit hit town late, late Saturday night and preceded to blow the roof off two different stages on consecutive nights.

With frontman Ziek McCarter playing off the crazed horn-playing of Brendan Liu, a rock-solid rhythm section, and some dirty guitar work from Benjamin Andrews, Con Brio’s confidence is skyrocketing and word-of-mouth is growing.  When we passed through vendor row Sunday morning, mention of the band garnered head-shakes and a few jaw drops.

4. “You getting tired yet?  Well, we’re your Sunday saviors!” Greensky Bluegrass’s Paul Hoffman assured the crowd on Sunday afternoon.  It’s true: three or four days into a camping festival, you start to get a little itchy for a bed and a good shower and you do need a little pick-me-up.  Greensky Bluegrass did not disappoint.

It’s hard to believe the growth in these guys over the last couple of years as they’ve gigged the songs off the excellent If Sorrows Swim. It’s been said before, but it’s impossible not to get on your feet, even your tired ones, when Anders Beck comes in on the dobro.  We watched as the whole main stage field woke from their Sunday naps and started getting down.  

It’s the sound many have tried over the last 20 years, but along with forerunners Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass seems to nail modern jamgrass best.

3.  Back in the mid-‘90s, we’d see Magraw Gap play around bars of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and whisper to each other between songs, who’s a better guitar player than this guy?  Larry Keel has kept that promise of excellence as an award-winning flatpicker, festival stalwart, and musician’s musician for three decades now.

Whether with Keller and the Keels or his own Larry Keel Experience, Larry was all over Floydfest this weekend, bringing his somehow authentic yet progressive playing to every run, every tune.  Just how good of a guitar player do you have to be when Keller Williams switches off guitar?

2. Oakland’s T Sisters were the surprise of the weekend for many. Talk about building buzz:  playing four sets of their own and guesting on countless others, the three harmonizers upped their East Coast profile in a major way at Floydfest. 

With their upcoming album about to drop this Fall, and good number of festival appearances between now and then, expect to be hearing a lot more of the T Sisters in the coming months.  If the new record does even a half-decent job of capturing their vocal prowess, it should be a must-listen.

1. I have to admit, I was more excited to see Femi Kuti and Positive Force than any other set this weekend.  The band was ending a long American run which saw Femi surprise a New York audience a couple of weeks ago by playing with his brother Seun, who leads their legendary father’s former band, Egypt 80.  Somehow I’d always missed this rumored powerhouse on previous US runs.

My expectations still weren’t high enough.  The band simply made the mountain shake.  With Femi alternating between sax and keys and exhorting the horn section, drummers, and dancers higher, higher, it was a sight and a sound to behold.

As I looked back from the pit into the crowd, I could see shirtless kids jogging and ball-capped seniors walking briskly from stages across the festival to come see and hear what the roar was about. 

It was one of those festival sets that halfway through you get a little sad when you remember it’s only going to last an hour or so, and you’re not sure when you’re going to hear anything this amazing again.

Sun, 08/28/2016 - 2:32 pm

Saturday at Lockn’ was a beautiful sigh between Phish’s weekend bracketing headlining sets.  And the sigh is this: the scene is in a great place now. With the music of the Grateful Dead as a sustaining anchor, jam, electronic music, Americana, and Indie bands are forging a great new collective chapter in authentic, improvised American music.

As Joe Russo told Sirius Jam On backstage, we’re in the midst of an absolutely golden time in American music.  No, records don’t really “sell” anymore, but the live music industry is thriving. There are more access and possibilities to see and hear incredible live music than ever before. And it’s all the better when musicians from across previous boundary lines look for commonality instead of difference.

This year, Lockn’ made a special push to broaden its traditional jam band base, inviting indie favorites but relative jam outsiders Ween and My Morning Jacket.  Jam fans new to Saturday’s headliner My Morning Jacket got a glimpse of Jim James’ beautiful soul as well as his long-time twin guitar shred fest with bandmate Carl Broemel.  With an extended 18-song set that featured a gorgeous sing-along “Purple Rain” cover, My Morning Jacket showed why they’re often mentioned among the top live bands in the world.  

Before MMJ was the gloriously undefinable Tedeschi Trucks Band.  It’s hard to believe they’ve still only been together a few years.  They seem like a big family that’s been together for decades. Momma Susan and Poppa Derek lead the way out front, but the horn section is killer, the backup singers are wonderful, and Kofi Burbidge on keys and flute is a powerhouse.  The band is the perfect realization of what post-genre American music can be and is.  But there’s also a very discernable tie to where this music came from.  When Trucks takes the lead parts to Derek and the Dominos “Keep on Growin’,” it’s a chill-inducer every time.

And of course, the music of the Dead was everywhere all weekend, including the first of two different Phil and Friends lineups Saturday evening.  After a delayed start and some early technical issues, it was wonderful to see Phil playing godfather to the collection onstage, a collection including Anders Osborne, the Infamous Stringdusters, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman and Joe Russo manning the drum kits.  

You can look at the faces of these musicians who are now deep into their own careers and see the childlike wonder and love they have for Phil. Russo and Fishman exchanged blissful shrugs as the sound issues got worked out, and soon settled into a set that was a little haggard but long on emotion.  Trucks and Tedeschi came out late in the set to play “Sugaree” and a terrific “Mr. Charlie,” and it seemed like all was right in the world.   

And there were other great little moments all through the day, the evening, and into the night:  Twiddle front man Mihali Savouldis grinning ear-to-ear out in the crowd watching Phil Lesh and Friends, just minutes after his own band’s hater-converting set.  Overhearing Phish fans give grudging thumbs up to friendly rival Ween's Friday night set.  And vice versa. Grooving to Keller Williams and the Stringdusters run through an early morning “Grateful Grass” set as bubbles floated by in the breeze and the hair on the back of your neck stood up.  Watching the joyous Todd Snider lead his new band Hard Working Americans, featuring Neal Casal and Dave Schools, and get a rousing response from the big afternoon crowd.  Seeing the always incendiary Galactic bring the irresistible funk that made you dance when it seemed too hot to want to.

Through Saturday, there was some mild disappointment that there weren't as many guest spots and mashups as previous Lockn’ incarnations. That’s the thing after all that really put Lockn’ on the “must see” list for so many.  But there’s still Sunday left.  In this new world, who knows what new friendships will be forged?

Mon, 09/19/2016 - 4:34 pm

Imagine having to follow Neil Young and your sons after they’ve just slayed your own festival crowd with this string of set closers:


Welfare Mothers

Cowgirl in the Sand

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Cortez the Killer

F*!#in' Up

And you, with only an old, small-bodied, nylon-strung Martin with a hole in it.

Of course when you’re 83 and still on the road, you’re two days removed from releasing your 60th-something album, that guitar is one of the art forms’ religious icons, and you’re the main reason the term “outlaw” is even attached to music, the pressure’s not quite as hot.

In fact, Willie Nelson could’ve taken long stretches off from his inaugural Outlaw Music Festival closing set by listening to his legions of fans joyously serenade him with his own words as he tore through a collection of classics.

It would have been wonderful to hear Willie play a few more tunes off his just-released tribute to Ray Price, but you can forgive him lining up the crowd-pleasers after Neil and Promise of the Real whipped the large down-home Scranton, PA crowd into a frenzy.

By the surging crowds that filled The Pavilion at Montage Mountain and jammed out on its expansive lawn throughout the 10-hour day, you could tell The Outlaw Music Festival would not be a one-and-done event.

The Pavilion is a part of Montage Mountain Ski Resort, a venue organizers have most notably used for one of the East Coast’s premier multi-day events, the Allman Brothers’ Peach Music Festival.  Outlaw organizers Live Nation chose to test the waters with a one-day Outlaw Festival this year, but you can see the potential for a growing event as the festival gets its feet under it and hones its line-up choices.

It was a sleepy Sunday start as most of the crowd was still finding their way from the parking lots and through security for the homegrown Pennsylvania bluegrass jam band Cabinet’s opening set.  They should have gotten there earlier.  Cabinet, who has steadily built a regional and now a bit of a national following, is a band to watch; they rock.

Mainstream pop-country act Lee Ann Womack got the early arriving country faithful going a little bit, particularly with her gazillion-selling “I Hope You Dance,” but by the time Chris Robinson’s Brotherhood hit in late afternoon, the place had just begun to buzz.

Over the last year as the new rhythm section has coalesced, CRB has gotten tighter and tighter, which any fan of Chris Robinson and lead guitarist Neal Casal will tell you, leads to looser extended jams with more potential for lift-off.  When the crowd recognized the band’s sped-up version of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” a few songs in, you could feel the smiles break out and the limbs begin to loosen all over the mountain.

There are still fleeting moments when, having previously seen the one of best rock frontmen of his generation have crowds eating out of his palm, you wish Robinson would bring in another rhythm guitar player to allow him to let go the shimmy and hold that mic stand aloft and let out a primal scream.  But admirably, Robinson’s stuck to his guns.  No Black Crowes songs even to placate the unfamiliar festival goers.  Accordingly, the CRB tunes continue to grow and build a legacy of their own. The latest batch, from this year’s Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel, features Robinson’s most assured and alluring writing since the first New Earth Mud record over a decade ago.

For the outlaw and jam crowds, having Sheryl Crow follow CRB was perhaps a curious choice, but it proved to be a mostly popular one, particularly with the larger-than-usual female crowd.  Twenty years on from her first two huge records, you forget how many hits Crow had.  And she pulled them all out to the cowboy-booted faithful’s delight.  Having ex-Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed handle twin guitar duties with Peter Shroud is a wise choice. When Crow ended her set by endorsing Willie Nelson for president, saying “I think some weed in the White House would fix a lot of our problems” Crow had officially endeared herself.

So the Outlaw crowd was primed.

After opening with a solo acoustic “Heart of Gold,” Neil Young brought out his touring band of the last two years, Promise of the Real, which features Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah on guitars. Referencing the brilliant harvest moon that had filled the weekend sky, Young gifted the crowd with a beautiful sing-along rendition of “Harvest Moon.” But shortly thereafter, Young’s 1953 Gibson Les Paul “Old Black” came out and he proceeded to set fire to the mountain.

What’s most fun about seeing Young and Promise of the Real over these last couple of years is the sly looks the Nelson brothers and their bandmates exchange as they wait for “Uncle Neil” to explode. And explode he did.

Long, mournful, note-perfect introductions began “Powderfinger,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and “Cortez the Killer.”  And the set-ending “Rockin’ in the Free World” had several glorious faux stops as Young continued to push the youngsters higher and louder out of the breaks.

It was stunning.

As the mountain stood spellbound, there was a touching and genuine band-hug that devolved into Young and the boys jumping joyously up and down as the crowd sent them off.

And the crowd still got their Willie, who still looks and sounds 20 years younger than he is, particularly when he led the band through a couple of rollicking back-to-back numbers, “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over,” from that original, original outlaw Hank Williams.

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 11:43 am

Penn’s Peak, perched just above the picturesque town of Jim Thorpe, PA is a gem of a venue; one that should become a pilgrimage for East Coast music lovers.  Located an hour and a half from Philly and two hours from New York, it’s “just far enough out here to chase off the riff raff” one rail-rider grinned to me last night during the second night of Greensky Bluegrass’s and Fruition’s run of 14 mid-winter dates. 

Heading into a string of upcoming sold-out dates up and down the more well-traveled East Coast venue route, the Penn’s Peak show was a rare opportunity for Greensky campers to stretch out a bit and get a little room to dance. 

Their favorite band indulged them. With two sets of long, extended jams and some great vocal work by Paul Hoffman, they filled the 20-year-old venue with beautiful noise late into the night up on that raw, windy mountain top.

In summer, the 50-mile views of the Lehigh Valley and beyond stretch out off Penn’s Peak expansive back deck, and on winter nights like last night, the soaring, ski lodge-like ceilings provide nuanced, soft landing places for acoustic instruments. 

The beauty of the place wasn’t lost on Fruition’s Mimi Naja, who announced during their hour-long opening set “we want to sing some ‘singy-songs’ in this place” before she and her bandmates harmonized on Kellen Asebroek’s beautiful cover of “Ain’t No Moutain High Enough.” 

Fruition focused much of their set on tunes from last year’s breakout Labor of Love, with Naja and Jay Cobb Anderson revving the Greensky crowd up swapping mandolin and guitar licks. There were lots of murmurs similar to what you heard on last summer’s festival circuit: this band is not long for opening slots.  With three strong singer/songwriters and a diverse sound, they appear ready for the next rung.

The rafters and the dance floor got another shaking when Hoffman kicked things off with “Merely Avoiding,” one of the highlights from Greensky Bluegrass’s most recent record, Shouted, Written Down & Quoted.  When they followed it with an epic 15-minute “All Four,” featuring the typically stellar, sweeping dobro from Anders Beck and some incredible banjo runs from Michael Arlen Bont, the timber was rattling.

Bont was in great form all night, particularly through the smoking first set, which featured Doc Watson’s “Blackberry Rag,” intersected with one of the more straight-ahead bluegrass tunes on Shouted, Written Down & Quoted, guitarist and songwriter Dave Bruzza’s “Take Cover.”   

Over the two sets, a full half-dozen songs from Shouted, Written Down & Quoted got airings, and the songs continue to reveal themselves on the road.  A jump forward in both production and songwriting, the record was one of the best releases of 2016.  Of course, Greensky made their early mark with inventive and fun covers.  Last night’s was a relatively faithful take on Paul Simon’s “Gumboots,” which came late in the second set and was met with a full crowd sing-along. 

And though it wasn’t exactly what Simon was referring to when he wrote “breakdowns come and breakdowns go,” it was a fitting choice from a band that right now is playing some of the best breakdowns of their career.