TVD Live: Yep Roc’s 20th anniversary celebration, 10/19–10/21

PHOTOS: ALEX KROHN | Sometimes a record label anniversary concert can be a pretty disparate affair, if only because of the breadth of the rosters. Motown 25 was probably a pinnacle of its type in 1983, even though it also included Adam Ant and DeBarge as well as Michael Jackson. Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary fete in 1988 featured both Ruth Brown and Debbie Gibson (famously culminating with a Led Zeppelin reunion).

Yep Roc is a smart indie roots label that has always had a pretty simpatico roster, top to bottom. So its big 20th anniversary celebration over the weekend in small town North Carolina built on its complementary approaches. And while it touched on bluegrass, R&B, and country, it basically rocked pretty hard.

Because Nick Lowe was an early signee—and a lure to other bands—he headlined two of the three nights at Cat’s Cradle in Carbarro. The first was a hushed backroom acoustic VIP appearance for label “completists”— fans who paid a couple hundred dollars to get every release all year. The second appearance was a big stage sampling of Lowe’s current tour with Los Straightjackets, the hugely fun Mexican-masked instrumental surf band that backs him up and gets to play a bit of their own twangy instrumentals as well.

Other than Lowe there were few repeats at an event that also had stellar sets from The Fleshtones, Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, Alejandro Escovedo, Phil and Dave Alvin, Tony Joe White, Dressy Bessy, Eli “Paperboy” Reed and Tift Merritt. Also on the bill were Jim Lauderdale, Grant-Lee Phillips, Josh Rouse, Kim Richey, Mandolin Orange, the Stray Birds, and Jeremy & the Harlequins. And there were surprise one-song appearances throughout the weekend from Gary Louris of the Jayhawks and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

The glue holding the four concerts together may have been Wesley Stace, the former John Wesley Harding, who introduced every act and told every joke he knew, though he only got to perform a handful of his songs all told. He did return to duet on T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” with Grant-Lee Phillips and get in on the maelstrom that was the Fleshtones’ finale set. He also hawked Yep Roc special merchandise like the Nick Lowe lunchbox and other items in the pop-up store full of the label’s vinyl, CDs and boxed sets.

The kick off party Thursday set the tone with top talent, starting with Stace’s set, performed with Louris, a producer of his last album, who got to do the Jayhawks’ “Tailspin” as well. Tift Merritt surrounded herself with equipment, saying she had to try everything out before her upcoming tour. But she began with her back to much of the crowd on a couple of piano songs. She’s so expressive in her movement, though, you could pick up on her vibe from the shimmy of her spine.

Phillips’ solid set of old and new led to Lowe’s sublime solo set to cap it off. The man once so associated with Stiff Records excelled in recent years with crooning balladry and hushed the room with solo selections from what he called “an odd set list”—of songs he wasn’t doing on the Los Straightjackets tour. That included the wistful “Long Limbed Girl” and the R&B yearning of “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill.”

He’s recorded his cover of Arthur Alexander’s “Lonely Just Like Me” with which he closed his six-song set. But his surprise selection was the one that came before—a Lowe-like slowed-down deconstruction of the Dionne Warwick hit “Heartbreaker” written by the Brothers Gibb. Though he complained about throat strain and carried hot tea, he ably climbed the challenging notes of its tuneful chorus.

The next night—looking just as cheery, trim and dapper—he took to the stage expertly set by the Straightjackets. The band is well versed in Lowe not only from a pair of Christmas tours, but from a new album of covers. They provide a nice edgy twang to Lowe’s classics, but both acts seemed to relax a bit in their new relationship. Los Straightjackets didn’t have to sweat much under their plastic masks; Lowe didn’t have to stand out there for the whole set, allowing them to do a string of their tasty instrumentals, from “Kawanga!” and “The Casbah” to “Brooklyn Slide” and “Space Mosquito” before going back into “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” playing it through until Lowe joined them in the end.

A lot of his classics were in the set, from the slowed down “So It Goes” to start it off, to “Without Love” and “Half a Boy and Half a Man” in the midsection. He covered R. Dean Taylor’s “Ghost in My House” in part as a nod to the scary season. Once more, his cool balladry won over the night, though, on shimmering things like “You Inspire Me.”

But the once hair-raising rockers that ended the set, from “Heart of the City” to “I Knew the Bride” were so slowed down, they were at first unrecognizable. Still, there were no complaints after an encore that started with the Straightjackets’ combo of the Batman TV theme with “Wipeout,” followed by Lowe’s aching, and more timeless than ever “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”

They weren’t the concluding act of the night however. That was saved for Eli “Paperboy” Reed, the babyfaced Boston singer who tried to convince the crowd to stay with his R&B and gospel style numbers, performed surprisingly with Brooklyn’s High & Mighty Brass Band—an eight piece that included two trumpets, two trombones, and instead of bass, a Sousaphone. Reed had their attention, though, with strong numbers like “Your Sins are Going to Find You Out,” “Call My Name” and the closing “Take My Love With You” that morphed into a version of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light.”

Friday’s bookends may have been so placed because they were the largest outfits on the stage. Like Reed, opener Alejandro Escovedo performed with eight or nine other performers that ranged from two young string players who seemed unfamiliar with the material, to a pair of North Carolina’s most esteemed producers: Mitch Easter on guitar and Chris Stamey, who had organized the onetime group on bass. Linda Hopper of Oh-OK and Magnapop, joined in on vocals. It was a solid eight-song set that included the rocking “Chelsea Hotel ’78” and closed with “Velvet Guitar.”

Amusing Australian songwriter Darron Hanlon was a nice surprise with his six-pack of talking blues and clever wordplay on songs like “A to Z” and “Lapsed Catholic.” Armed only with electric guitar he was reminiscent of a funnier and more laconic Billy Bragg.

Josh Rouse (above), who was performing his first show since July, seemed a little unready to perform. Playing with only standup bassist James Haggerty, they seemed to have problem balancing what should have been a very subtle sound (the snare on an off-set drum kept ringing). But I for one was very glad they played the breezy “Winter in the Hamptons.”

Saturday’s outdoor show in Hillsborough, the town where Yep Roc and the Redeye distribution warehouse is located, was like a lovely autumnal event, with acoustic and string players on a performance truck beneath huge trees flittering down their leaves, before a mostly attentive audience of families and music fans.

They didn’t bring out the biggest guns—or much rock—for the event, but the youthful bluegrass of The Stray Birds (above) who opened, and Mandolin Orange, the duo that closed, seemed well suited for the outdoors. In between there were some great songs, starkly performed on acoustic by the underrated Kim Richey and the affable Jim Lauderdale, who cornily kept trying his song titles to little boosts to the label. Chuck Prophet ambled on to help out on a Richey song they co-wrote “Whistle on Occasion,” though his harmony wasn’t really needed. Lauderdale’s well done songs, like Lowe’s, reached their pinnacle with a still, stunning ballad “I Love You More” that closed his set.

The big star of the afternoon event was Tony Joe White—yes, that Tony Joe White (below)—who at 74, still has a deep voice, picks a mean guitar and still extols the pleasure of Southern delicacies in his indelible 1969 “Polk Salad Annie.” Backed only by a drummer, the King of Swamp Rock also did “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which he wrote (and was a hit for Brook Benton) as well as one he wrote recorded by Tina Turner, “Undercover Agent for the Blues.”

But the gravelly voiced singer, who played a mean boogie, also had newer things that he had recorded for Yep Roc, including its title track of his 2016 album, “Rain Crow.” Of all 22 artists at Yep Roc 20, he’s the only one who had a Top 10 hit, so he followed an extended version of his closing “Polk Salad Annie” with a suitably psychedelic coda.

There was scarcely time to get back to Carbarro and get something to eat before the final evening’s club concert that began with the only odd note of the weekend. Jeremy & the Harlequins were a young band of good-looking guys from New York who really poured on the Vinnie Barbarino impersonations during between song-patter and played a kind of revved up version of ’50s rock, like Dion gone to Gold’s Gym.

They almost looked like a road cast of “Jersey Boys” between gigs, striking what they thought were rad rock poses (down to back pocket bandana) and delivering very little interest in what they were doing, as if someone else had cooked up this strategy and directed them.

Exactly what they were missing—verve, passion, sweat, abandon and surprise—was served up by the act that followed—Dressy Bessy, the Denver four-piece led by the expressive Tammy Ealom (above), whose red hair, extensive eye rolling, and tendency to end every vocal line with a curl of the lip suggested Lucille Ball in a motorcycle club.

Her passionate performance of fast, catchy, punky songs were backed by guitarist John Hill, who looks like a long lost cousin of Joey Ramone, and for this tour, bassist Michael Giblin of the Split Squad. Together they may have gotten the award for playing the most songs of the weekend—because they were all so speedy and succinct.

Playing half as many songs—but stretching them out satisfyingly—were Dave Alvin and his band the Guilty Ones, joined by his brother Phil Alvin. The latter, at just 65, is a bit of a fright to see after a health scare a few years back, still quite thin and standing absolutely still on stage. But his voice is still very expressive and it was great to hear him sing not only a couple of Blasters greats Dave wrote for him, “Border Radio” and “Marie, Marie,” but the Big Bill Broonzy numbers they recorded for Yep Roc, particularly the timely “Southern Flood Blues.”

They opened with Phil’s cover of the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet’s “This World is in a Bad Condition,” which couldn’t have a more immediate effect despite it being first recorded 78 years ago. It also showed the stirring staying power of Phil’s voice despite any physical limitations.

What man, after all, of any condition could hope to handle James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” credibly, and Phil Alvin surely did. Nonetheless, he ambled off stage before the final number, making way for the unexpected Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who is currently touring with Dave and happened to be around. They joined together for the Youngbloods hit “Let’s Get Together” to close the strong set.

Chuck Prophet (above) and his Mission Express have devised a killer road set and, shaving it down to 10 songs only amplified its punch. It began with the anthemic “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” and included the still-true “Bad Year for Rock and Roll,” the expansive “In the Mausoleum” and a version of “Wish Me Luck” that included swiping a front row fan’s video-taking phone from his hand. Perhaps teeing up for the Series, they closed with “Willie Mays is Up at Bat.”

As intense as the Prophet set got, it seemed to set the stage for the wild, climactic performance from the Fleshtones, who have had a home on Yep Roc since 2003. The garage rock mainstays tumbled out on stage kicking, twirling, and eventually jumping into the crowd, never missing on their terrific stomping sound. Ageless hipster Peter Zaremba by now looks like a manic Warhol with his flop of hair turned silver. He was a ringleader who only sparingly stopped at the equally vintage Farfisa. “We are honored to be the final act of Yep Roc 20,” Zaremba declared. “But it’s not an act!”

Using a “Wheel of Talent” ploy that not only had its four members spinning on stage, but also most fans in the audience, the lead vocals were shared with manic bassist Ken Fox and founding guitarist Keith Streng, who screeched like a pinched Paul Stanley. It was a crazy performance that included those rushes into the audience, somebody throwing a chair on stage, and even further spinning, like the 45s that have been turned out so diligently by the strong 20-year-old label.

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