Hitting The Trunk Road: Kick(Start) Out The Jams

With the metaphorical distance between artists and their fans shrinking with every new digital innovation, we may one day look back on the growth of Kickstarter as one of the most significant yet polarizing catalysts in changing the traditional dynamic. For decades, in order to bring an artistic endeavor to fruition, moviemakers, painters, musicians, writers and their ilk have sought investors who share their desire and expectation that the resulting project finds an audience expansive enough to justify the expenditure. Out of that need rose the Hollywood studio system and the major music labels.

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Kickstarter, an online fundraising application that allows artists to directly solicit their prospective audience, seems to bring the entire concept of art back to patronage system of yore, only instead of wealthy philanthropists funding the art’s creation, it’s the potential audience that now funds the art it wishes to enjoy. One way of looking at this paradigm shift is that movies and albums that might not get made may now come to be realized. Another view might be that under the guise of populism and grass roots activism, Kickstarter insidiously has fans paying on both ends of the creative process.

With Zach Braff, Amanda Palmer and Veronica Mars deservedly drawing criticism for their use of Kickstarter, it’s easy to forget that it can be a vital source of income for artists working outside the sphere of corporate sponsorship. In contrast to the typical “give me money” approach, Tea Leaf Green offered their loyal and devoted fan base quite the fair bargain in their Kickstarter campaign geared towards financing the proper recording and production of their latest studio album. Rather than expect the joy of giving to suffice, TLG crafted one of the most equitable Kickstarter campaigns to date by offering autographed copies of the album, tickets to future shows, personalized recordings, personal Skype concerts, musical lessons and the ability to collaborate on a setlist as an inducement for varying levels of contribution. For practically funding the album, Tea Leaf Green would come play at your home, provided you provide backline.

In The Wake, the Kickstarted effort, benefits greatly from the added investment in its creation. Lushly produced, it’s easily Tea Leaf Green’s finest, most complete studio effort. The added strings dress up keyboardist Trevor Garrod’s songs in the manner they’ve always deserved and the psychedelic flourishes give a slightly decadent glam rock feel to guitarist Josh Clark’s songs. On Penny Saved, Tea Leaf transforms a Papa Was A Rolling Stone groove into a gritty jam and Space Hero III gives you an idea what Sweet Black Angel might have sounded like had The Rolling Stones been doing acid on a mountaintop instead of heroin in a basement. Give Me One More Chance, which gets a soulful jolt from Lesley Grant of London Street, ranks as one of their catchiest songs, boasting a melody that will linger long beyond any listen.

Significantly, on various tracks, TLG comes across like Radiohead. Whether this works depends on how much Radiohead you’ve wanted to hear in your Tea Leaf Green. On Two Parts and Don’t Go, the results work out extremely well but the title track, which is unlike anything the band has done before, could emerge as an acquired taste. It’s irrelevant whether the adornments persist on future releases; it’s nice to see what Tea Leaf Green sounds like with some truly capable production.

OFFRAMPS AND REST STOPS

IN THE FLEDGLING DAYS of rock and roll, it was not uncommon for record labels to assemble the best musicians in the area to serve as their house band. While many toiled anonymously in the studio, relegated to perfunctory credits within the liner notes, some like Booker T & The MGs (Stax) and The Funk Brothers (Motown) emerged as stars in their own right. Looking back to the days when in-house musicians and production was a selling point to artists, Spacebomb Records in Richmond, Virginia are trying to bring that model to the 21st century. In their first salvo, Spacebomb has coalesced and crystalized around its charismatic leader, Matthew E. White, who serves as the company’s focal point and first featured artist, and Big Inner, which not only serves as an exemplar of the talented Richmond collective, it’s the label’s finest sales pitch.

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Arranged, recorded, produced and published in-house, Big Inner features Spacebomb’s exceptional studio musicians while showing off their capacity for bringing strings, horns and choirs into the mix. Singing in a slow, measured baritone that would make Matt Berninger pause and take notice, White imbues Big Inner with a laid back style, deliberately and soulfully loping lazily through each song. Rather than show of the skills of the Spacebomb collective by showcasing their individual abilities, Big Inner creates compelling musical moments and sustains them like the jambands that draw the love of many Hidden Track followers.

Just last month, White returned to New York City for a gig at the Bowery Ballroom. On stage, White doesn’t attempt to replicate Big Inner’s lavish production. He simply doesn’t need to as the band can amply fill the space with what they have at their disposal. In gathering Trey Pollard (guitar), Cameron Ralston (bass), Gabe Churry (keys), Scott Clark (drums) and Pinson Chanselle (percussion), White assembled a phalanx of Spacebomb all-stars that can easily produce the album’s lush textures without reproducing its exact sounds. The nimble appropriation of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross into Will You Love Me serves as a nice touchstone into where the band is coming from and their cover of Neil Young’s Are You Ready For The Country stood out as being decidedly non-countryish in its delivery. Feeling to groove themselves, Ralston and White slipped into a little choreographed dance that echoed the steps of the Four Tops and Temptations and their easygoing footwork fell two trampolines short of a reasonably accurate Phish homage.

The Spacebomb piece-de-resistance is Brazos, the ten minute opus that closes Big Inner. In telling to story of two slaves escaping to a better life in a Christian land, White guides the narrative into a lengthy mantra that consists of nothing more than a repetitious exhortation to Jesus Christ as Lord and friend, albeit one laid over an infectious groove rarely found in the ecumenical world. Confounding the general belief that overt religious messages are typically not the pathway to widespread acceptance in the secular realm. Brazos transcends any religious message and in concert, White delivers the song without affect or irony. Live or on a record, it’s simply a transfixing song.

WHEN HISTORY LOOKS BACK on the career of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, it will be curious to see how much recognition is given to Blues & Lasers. From 2007 through 2010, guitarist Scott Tournet’s side-project operated during the down time of the main band, producing two of the finest classic rock albums of the last decade. In Nocturnal-land, Blues & Lasers remains notable as guitarist Benny Yurco’s entre to the band, freeing Ms. Potter from the role of second guitarist and allowing her to do all those things great singers do so well. Yurco’s incorporation into GPN preceded their assimilation into the mainstream and precipitated their rise to headline status. Over the course of GPN’s rise, the focus deservedly centered on the vivacious lead singer but in the process, the efforts of the Nocturnals tend to be overlooked.

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For Ver La Luz, Tournet’s recently released solo outing, the guitarist set his sights on recording a more personal effort. Thematically, Tournet stares down into an emotional abyss and Ver La Luz embodies all the reasons to avoid letting it crush the soul. Moving in a different direction from Blues & Lasers, Tournet doesn’t reach down into the Delta blues bag of trick on his latest (Yurco likewise moved in a different direction for the space-age soul of This Is A Future). Rather, he offers an easygoing collection of rock-based songs that would sit nicely amidst Wilco, Jim James and his folk monsters. Musically, the album moves from the sunny pop of Song For You, the Rhiannon-ish echoes of Treasure to Stand By You, which may be the best My Morning Jacket song that the Kentucky rockers will never record. Vermont natives Lowell Thompson and Kelly Ravin and Alberta Cross’ Austin Beede lend a hand as does Potter, whose presence is subtle, adding some lyrics and backing vocals to Treasure and The Longing.

Never one to rest, Tournet embarked on a small mini-tour of the East Coast to support the album, making a stop at the Brooklyn Bowl. Even within the cavernous bowling alley, the Ver La Luz material retained its warmth and earnestness with Tournet being a more-than-capable frontman. The sweetness of Ex-Lover didn’t seem out of place in a live setting and the mournful Roy Buchanan style close of Crawl Back has all the makings of a resounding concert standout. To close the set, Tournet led his band through Blues & Lasers’ Take You Down and I Ain’t Changing, offering a fine reminder that he is an extremely compelling and gifted rock guitarist. For those who misconstrue the Falling or Flying guitar solo as the limits of Tournet’s skills, in Ver La Luz terms, Tournet’s live show offers a reminder that Scott Tournet “todavia es un gran guitarrista.”

IF THERE WAS AN award for best use of the Pink Floyd’s Fearless chord progression over the course of an entire album, the 2013 winner would be Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle in a landslide. The album doesn’t deserve to be pigeonholed like that but Marling truly makes you hear the sound of the faces in the crowd.

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