Author Archives: Roger Catlin

TVD Live: They Might
Be Giants at the 9:30 Club, 4/14

High school pals John Linnell and John Flansburgh have pretty much stayed true to their eccentric approach to pop music as a guitar and accordion duo singing about science, history, and weird things might. Despite a successful foray into children’s music where they’ve recorded a handful of albums, earned Grammys, and scored music for Mickey Mouse, they’re back with a new non-kids album in I Like Fun, out this year, and a long tour to accompany it.

While they once made fun of their endless touring with a fanciful They Might Be Giants Tour 2040 T-shirt that pictured them as doddering on the road decades from now, they’re still in great shape at ages 57 and 58. Playing a sold out show at the 9:30 Club in DC Saturday night, it would seem they might have trepidation with their fate, judging from the title of their opening song “Let’s Get This Over With,” the first of seven from the new album.

But instead, they played a long and generous, two-set, 35-song show, full of favorites from throughout their 36 years with a pretty good sampling representing at least 14 of their 20 albums. It was a strong show in part because of the audience—not the over-excitable sing-along middle schoolers as it seemed to be last time I saw them, but fans who grew up with the band, loved the old stuff, and appreciated hearing the new concoctions which were as smart and melodic as ever.

While there was a segment at the start of the second set that featured just the duo (a Quiet Storm portion that featured videos of lightning), the show featured their longtime band of guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and drummer Marty Beller—who were now all clearly in view of Linnell for the first time, he gleefully told the audience, since he had only recently installed a rearview mirror on his keyboard. To that solid quintet, Curt Ramm strolled out to provide trumpet six songs in, a nice surprise and big addition.

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TVD Live: The HillBenders at the Hamilton, 4/12

Recording bluegrass versions of pop or rock songs goes back nearly half a century, to the days when the Country Gentlemen made Manfred Mann’s “Fox on the Run” their own and adapted Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” Both of those came out about the time The Who issued their rock opera Tommy, which has been turned into a full length Bluegrass Opry a couple of years ago by The HillBenders in a project so successful they’re still touring on it, returning to the Hamilton in DC Thursday to run through it all again before an appreciative crowd.

Pete Townshend wrote most of Tommy on his acoustic guitar, which makes it easy to adapt to what The Hellbenders were describing as an all acoustic approach (though the bass was amplified and there were some electronic touches of loops and amplified stomps). And yes, it kind of works, especially when they’re doing the best known single from the work, “Pinball Wizard,” with Mark Cassidy’s banjo picking overtime.

That they’re doing the whole thing, beginning to end, in order, is half the appeal, given the opportunity to hear some of the individual songs again, from the plaintive opening “1921” to “Sally Simpson” and “I’m Free.” Some of the less than 30 second interstitials sound as corny as ever, from “Miracle Cure,” to “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found.” Even harder to hear as entertainment is the child abuse archly approached in “Christmas” and “Fiddle About”—a bluegrass title if there ever was one (and, alas, there was no fiddle in the quintet).

One of the best things about The HillBenders adaptation was its cover variant—which was projected behind them on stage all night, the blue criss cross ribbons of the original turned to brown, as if they were slats in a country picnic basket.

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TVD Radar: Johnny Mathis’ I Love My Lady with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards for Record Store Day

Among the riches of Record Store Day 2018 is the first time release of the album Johnny Mathis recorded in 1982, written and produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. Though some of its tracks first came out last year on the boxed set The Voices of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection, this will be the first time the almost experimental I Love My Lady will be released as a standalone album, pressed on clear smoke vinyl. “That was just stuff that was happening at the moment and I’m glad I did it,” Mathis, 82, said in an interview with TVD. “It was a learning process, though. It was like: tell me what to do and I’ll try to do it.”.

It was a little weird for him, the smooth singing balladeer whose first hits came more than 60 years ago, teaming up with the duo who were behind big hits from Diana Ross and Sister Sledge, as well as their own indelible funk sound that provided the basis for hip-hop hits (and for Daft Punk’s last album). “It was a completely different process, as far as my making the recording,” says Mathis. “I got in there and they were writing the songs as I was singing. And along the way, they would say, ‘Oh, that sounds nice, let’s go with that a little more,’ and they’d write a melody or something. But it was mostly rhythmical, kind of words, not so much melody. But it was fun.”

Mathis says remaining open to new avenues is something he did throughout his career. “I started studying at a very early age with a voice teacher, but I also went to church and I heard church music. I also had classes in school listening to classical music, so I was just jumping in anywhere I was thrown,” he says. “With Bernard and Nile, it was fun. They were really, really enthusiastic. Of course, they were in a different genre of music than I was. But they were to me the first people who opened my eyes to the fact that just because you sing one kind of music doesn’t mean that people who do other kinds of music aren’t listening to you. So when I got an opportunity to work with them, I was thrilled.”

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TVD Live: Jim White and Sylvie Simmons at Hill Country Live, 4/10

It was no wonder David Byrne signed Jim White to his Luaka Bop label nearly 20 years ago. The two kind of look alike, have the same set of social hesitancy, and a penchant for original, unexpected, and often delightful songwriting. But White, who played a solo show at Hill Country Live this week, reminisced that Byrne rejected scores of his songs as being too weird. “This from a guy who did…” and he went off in the Stop Making Sense arm-chopping move.

White, who conjures a swampy, lonely, Ecclesiastical-tinged, Southern gothic sound, often has his tracks used in similarly artful shows, from Breaking Bad to Rectify. Minus a band, he was left to picking out old tracks and some from his new Waffles, Triangles & Jesus on an array of guitars played through a couple of vintage amps that seemed to hum throughout.

Before a modest but rapt crowd sipping beers at tables and chairs, White intermixed his brooding songs with long, spoken interludes. It seemed he took 10 minutes to tell the origin of the 1970 Impala he drove in the BBC Documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which introduced his singular music to many.

He said he doesn’t like to sing his hits any more—and that would include things like “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi” or “Static on the Radio”—because that would bore him. But he included a couple of old favorites anyway, from “Alabama Chrome” to “A Town Called Amen.” He used tracks and loops to back up a couple of songs and it wasn’t off-putting. He’s well versed for kicking these things on and off at the right times, and he uses them sparingly. The track on “Jailbird,” he said, allowed him to play the harmonica solos.

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Johnny Mathis,
The TVD Interview

Johnny Mathis’ music has become synonymous with romantic pop ballads. Since his early hits with “Chances Are,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” and “Misty,” he’s been recording and performing for decades, occasionally returning to the charts with things like his 1978 Number 1 “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” with Deniece Williams.

He’s released a truckload of albums along the way, evidenced by the massive 68-disc collection The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection which arrived in stores late last year. He’s not strayed from contemporary sounds, as his Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook, produced by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, includes hits from Pharrell Williams, Adele, and Bruno Mars among others.

This month, Real Gone Music and Second Disc Records have started a new series re-issuing Mathis’ albums from the 1970s. The series begins with Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, which includes covers of the title song as well as “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach & Kaempfert, which includes his rendition of “The Look of Love” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” from Burt Bacharach, as well as versions of Bert Kaempfert’s work that includes “Danke Schoen,” “Spanish Eyes,” and “Strangers in the Night.” Both will be available as stand-alone CDs for the first time in the U.S., and both come with extra tracks.

We talked to Mathis about these recordings and more, from coming up through jazz to meeting The Beatles.

Your ’70s albums are just being reissued, starting last week with Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach and Kaempfert and Raindrops Keep Fallen’ On My Head, a collection of songs from that period. What do you remember about those?

I had just started going to England on and off, and then on one of my occasions I just went on across the channel to Germany. I’d always been a fan of the music of Bert Kaempfert, and got a chance to work with him.

Ha! I hope I’m not giving out too much information but I had never had schnapps before. So I went over there and we got pretty heavy into schnapps before dinner and what have you. So now when I listen to that, I kind of remember that!

But, you know, you do so much in your life, especially at an early age when I was running all over the world singing. I even ended up in Brazil—places where I had to learn the language a little bit. It was fun to sing—some of it worked and some of it, ha ha ha, maybe…

You had worked with Bacharach quite a bit.

Yeah, Bert was really early on, he was very businesslike about his music, which I loved, and as I got to know him over the years, appreciated it. He jumped right in when I was available to sing single records and we became friends. I think he was in the publishing business with Mitch Miller, as some of the young writers were at the time.

Yeah, I got really lucky. He wrote a couple wonderful songs for me. I guess he wrote them for me—you never know, you know. I found out that later on, these people who came to me and said that they just wrote it just for me had written it 20 years before. But it didn’t really matter as long as we got the song.

They were waiting for you to come along.

I guess, I guess. Gullible as I was, I believed it.

The other album coming around had a lot of contemporary songs from that time, from Jimmy Webb to Paul Simon. Those songs really hold up don’t they?

Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed singing songs of the day, songs that people listen to over and over again, and I got a chance in my career to sing almost everything that I ever wanted to. And it’s fun because there are special recordings that I did, for instance religions albums, that were just for special people who wanted to hear that.

But then when you do the contemporary music that’s available all over the place, it sort of keeps you in the moment, and that was fun for me. I had certain responsibilities as a singer and also contractually to my record company to do as much as I could and wide-ranging, as far as musical genres were concerned. But when I sang the songs of the day, that constantly changed all the time.

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TVD Premiere: Joachim Cooder, “Country Blues”

Joachim Cooder first learned music at the foot of his famous father Ry, and eventually joined him as percussionist on projects as big as The Buena Vista Social Club. He’s made his name as a film composer for movies from The End of Violence to Riding Giants, and has produced albums for his  wife Juliette Commagere and Carly Ritter (granddaughter of Tex).

Following a solo album six years ago, on which he was composer and instrumentalist backing others, he’s back with an EP out March 30 called “Fuchsia Machu Picchu” on which he also handles vocals for the first time.

Cooder conjures an alluring sound, blending thumb piano and other bright, tuned percussive tones to his unusual and compelling voice. For Cooder, it’s all a result of a charmed childhood, “influences I’ve had since I was really young, growing up around people like Ali Farka Toure or seeing John Lee Hooker live at a really young age,” he told Billboard magazine. Those two influences are especially felt in the one cover on the EP, which we’re proud to be premiering here at TVD.

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Eddie Money,
The TVD Interview

Add Eddie Money to the long list of rockers, from Ozzy Osbourne to Bret Michaels and Joe Jonas, to open their homes to reality TV crews. His new series Real Money, premiering April 8 on AXS TV—already home to Rock & Roll Road Trip with Sammy Hagar—chronicles life with his grown kids, who are also members of his backing band when he tours.

Money, at 68, is still getting mileage out of a string of hits in the 1970s and 1980s. He talked about the origins of hits like “Baby Hold On,” and “Two Tickets to Paradise” in a recent interview from Malibu. A long time Californian, he still retains his Brooklyn roots—mostly through a string of Rodney Dangerfield-like jokes that have been largely excised here for space and sanity.

“I’m sorry I sniffed all that airplane glue, I’m trying to give you good interview,” he began, before a conversation that told of his early days, a legal threat from Doris Day, touring with the Stones, and angering Sting.

Along the way, he took credit for everything from bringing Ronnie Spector back to show business, to being the first rocker to play the daytime TV circuit and the first guy to spray festival crowds with water. And he had a few choice words about Elvis Costello and Lou Gramm.

He concluded by declaring “I lied my way to the top!” in the manner of another ambitious borough-native, so baby hold on to that grain of salt.

Now you’re a reality TV star.

I gotta tell you, I’m very excited about the TV show. For some reason, it came out good, it’s funny, the kids are good. We’ll keep our fingers crossed. If we get a second season, it’d be good.

How many episodes have you done?

Ten. We shot a lot of it at the house until the neighbors got pissed off. So we shot it all over the place, in certain clubs and out on the road. They had me horseback riding, which is horrible. Hated that. And then they had me playing golf, and I play golf like Stevie Wonder at night, so I don’t know what good that episode was.

Do you think the series is going to bring new people to your shows?

I’ve got enough people out in my audience. I’ve got a lot of kids who grew up with their parents putting me in the tape deck. All these kids grew up listening to “Baby Hold On” and “Take Me Home Tonight.”

I get people at the shows who are in their early 20s, I got parents coming to the shows. We do have a pretty large following. You gotta remember, I was putting records out in 1976, I’ve got people listening to me who are in their 70s right now that still come to the Eddie Money show. Sometimes I have people asking the promoters if they have a wheelchair rack.

How many dates do you do a year now?

I’ve got five kids, so I’ll do anything to get out of the house. What I do is I try to work every weekend if I can, because I like to get Dez out there. I want to promote Dez’s music, and I’m not just saying this because he’s my kid, but he’s a great songwriter. He doesn’t sound like me, but the songwriting quality I think he’s a chip off the old block.

It’s a brave thing to do one of these shows and show everybody your family life.

Well, the kids—nobody’s got DUIs, nobody’s doing drugs or anything else like that. I feel fortunate enough, and of course all the kids are still living at home. But that doesn’t bother me either. I like having the kids living at home because I can keep an eye on them.

I’d rather have them in front of me, rather than being in someone’s car, or somebody else’s house until 4 in the morning. This way, I know when they’re going to bed, when they’re getting up, and somebody’s going to have to take out the garbage and do the dishes. I’m very happy.

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TVD Live: Jason
Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Jerry Douglas at
the NCTA Benefit at
The Hamilton, 3/14

As the prevailing king and queen of Americana, it’s more likely you’ll see Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires at amphitheaters or headlining big summer festivals. It’s rare to see them together in clubs these days, especially one as intimate as The Hamilton in DC. But there they were last Wednesday night, special guests on a night of music organized by dobro player extraordinaire Jerry Douglas that was a fundraiser for the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

NCTA in turn helps organize ongoing free festivals of indigenous music in far-flung American outposts that play for three years at a time at a site (and by then are expected to be a traditional offering). This year, the three-year stint will begin on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Salisbury September 7-9 and on Wednesday, its mayor, folk fans who paid $100 for a seat, and even a US Senator, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was there to bask in the music.

It was worth it, too, if only to hear Isbell and Shires look into each other’s eyes as they sang about their love and mortality on his “If We Were Vampires,” a recent classic (chosen last Sunday as one of the “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going” in The New York Times Magazine).

It was great, too, to have Douglas join them on Isbell’s “Traveling Alone,” and having his “Something to Love” close out the night as a rousing all-star finale, with solos from Douglas, Shires on fiddle, and a brother-sister act that had previously brought down the house for faithfully bringing old string band sounds, Giri and Uma Peters.

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TVD Live: I’m With Her at the 9:30 Club, 3/13

They blushed and smiled as if they couldn’t believe it. Their debut had come out less than a month before, yet here they were playing all these new songs before a sold out crowd that was as loud in their cheers as they had been hushed in hearing their fine harmonies. “Who are you people?” Sara Watkins asked at one point.

It’s not that the group, I’m With Her, is full of newcomers, or that each of its members hadn’t faced acclaim as part of their previous endeavors—Watkins with Nickel Creek, the trio with her brother and Chris Thile; Aoife O’Donovan with Crooked Still and her own albums, and Sarah Jarosz, at 26 the youngest of the three but who already has two Grammys, rising from mandolin prodigy to folk star.

The three were surprised to find how well they harmonized together on a one-off collaboration at the Telluride bluegrass festival four years ago, kept performing together, playing covers or arrangements of their own established songs at first before putting their songwriting skills together as well for the recent full album.

They’d named themselves I’m With Her a year before Hillary Clinton used the same phrase for her presidential campaign, but the same kind of self-reliant, woman-powered confidence shone through their approach.

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Rachael Yamagata,
The TVD Interview

Rachael Yamagata’s first steady music gig was as part of the Chicago funk band Bumpus, back when she was a student at Northwestern. But in 2001, she decided to follow the singer-songwriter muse that she’d been following since she was a kid growing up in the greater Washington, DC area.

Almost instantly her first solo album, the 2004 Happenstance connected with fans, particularly after some of its songs were picked up on shows like Alias and The O.C. Her second album Elephants in 2008 rocked a bit more and still found songs landing on TV shows even as artists including Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, Rhett Miller, and Ray LaMontagne got her to open shows.

Of her recent works, the title of her 2011 Chesapeake recalled her mid-Atlantic roots; her most recent is the 2016 Tightrope Walker. She’s been touring almost constantly since then, most recently as a solo artist. Yamagata, 40, spoke one recent afternoon from Asheville, NC where it was unseasonably warm. “It’s 75 degrees, which is crazy,” she said. “So, I’m very excited.”

So, you’re out on a solo tour?

It is. I’m calling it my big road trip. Basically it’s been solo and I’ve been meeting up with different friends and artists around the country and they’ve been opening handfuls of shows, and then I move on—planes, trains, and automobiles. It’s actually kind of fun. I’m having a great time.

I guess your music pretty easily translates to playing it solo, right?

I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if it would be too dark or require too much attention, but it worked out great. I spent a lot of time preparing the setlist. I’m using projectors, I’ve got kind of a video element that’s supplementing the songs and the set.

But yeah, the music, it does lend itself to a really intimate connection with the audience. I’ve had fan requests for a long time for me to do something like this and so far, so good. Everybody’s loving it. It’s like its own unique experience, for sure.

Are you learning new things about the songs by playing them solo? Are you approaching the songs in a different way?

I did. Because I’m solo, certain songs make more sense as less rock guitar and more piano ballad. Or vice versa. I always like to change the arrangements anyway and find a new way of presenting something on a record, just to make a different experience of a live show, but particularly with this tour, there are certain songs I’ve taken to a different place because of the environment we’re creating with this particular show.

Can you give some examples, or do you just want to surprise people?

I’ll surprise people actually. Because you don’t always recognize them at first, when you change them that way and there’s always that little “aha!” moment, which I really love. So I’ll keep it on the down-low for now.

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