A little bit of country

About two minutes after arriving early at the High Noon Saloon on Wednesday evening for a Hayes Carll show, I found myself with a PBR in my hand and a smile on my face. I stood seven feet away from the stage entranced by a woman with a powerful, raw and raspy voice and a great set of bangs. I soon found out that the voice belonged to Cary Ann Hearst, half of the opening act called Shovels and Rope, an up-and-coming duo out of Charleston, South Carolina. Accompanying Hearst was her husband, Michael Trent, a singer, drummer, guitar player and harmonica player, who was heckled at one point by Hearst until he took his whiskey shot. And this is one of the reasons why I immediately fell for this band. With all due respect to Carll- an immensely entertaining storyteller with a voice like a cool glass of neat brown liquor- Hearst stole the show.

Talented musicians want to tour with other talented musicians. It’s a lesson that I learned when I went to see She & Him a couple of summers ago at the Barrymore Theatre and was introduced to a band called Lavender Diamond who blew me away with their song entitled, “Oh No.” The performance by Shovels and Rope on Wednesday was another reminder that you may not want to skip the first band because today’s opening act could be tomorrow’s headliner. I have this feeling about Shovels and Rope.

Hearst lit up the stage and I fell right away for her strong lead vocals, on-stage charisma and carefree attitude; at one point she told the crowd that when she found out about the flooding of her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee last May, she wanted to do something but she found herself in a predicament because she was already too drunk. “But I did write this song,” she joked on stage, “I wanted to remind people to have a sense of humor.” The lyrics of the song invites people to “Come to Carolina/ The drinks are on me/ At least the first one, two, three.” In between songs, Trent takes the backstage to Hearst’s bold personality, but during songs, he also shines. I loved it when the duo pulled an Avett Brother-type move and jumped up quickly to switch instruments; Hearst taking over on the drum kit and Trent reaching for his guitar. No matter what they are doing, Shovels and Rope is fun to watch and even better to listen to; they are coming back to Wisconsin in May and if I were you, I wouldn’t miss them.

Hearst and Trent were a tough act to follow, but if anyone can do it, it’s Hayes Carll.

And if Carll is going to open with a song about bad livers and broken hearts then I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Carll’s voice is like an ice cold PBR on a hot summer day. His music quenched my thirst for some live country music- a craving that started from an early age by way of Willie Nelson and has grown stronger with a new-found love of Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers.

Rocking out the country music, Carll tossed back countless whiskey shots (never touching the bottle of water in the drink holder of his mic stand), joked about starting a poultry folk rock movement and sang songs with titles like, “One Bed, Two Girls, and Three Bottles of Wine.” Looking around at the crowd Wednesday evening, it was obvious that Carll has built up a strong fan base; everywhere I looked there were people mouthing along to the words to all of the songs and there was never a lapse of more than a couple of minutes when someone wasn’t placing a shot glass of brown liquor at Carll’s feet, an homage to the shrine that is country music and this man that plays it.

On the road promoting his fourth album, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories), Carll, a 35-year-old who was born in the outskirts of Houston, Texas but now resides in Austin, plays guitar, banjo and croons with his band, The Poor Choices. Carll played a number of songs off his new album, including, “Hard Out Here,” in which he sings: “It’s hard out here/ I know it don’t look it/ I used to have a heart/ But the highway took it.” In the middle of this honky tonk song, which had the bass player two-stepping around the stage, Carll addressed the crowd, thanking them for coming out and celebrating life instead of staying home with a 12-pack of beer. If you ever find yourself contemplating this decision, spring for the price of the ticket to share an evening with Hayes Carll… you won’t regret it.

This review originally appeared on dane101 in April 2011.

Road to Nowhere

This review originally appeared in September 2011 on dane101. 

Josh Harty’s latest album, Nowhere, creates a complex quilt of emotions. At times, as in “Whiskey and Morphine,” it is as harsh as a Dust Bowl-era smoker’s cough; other times, in the title track, for instance, it’s as lilting as an afternoon breeze through a North Dakota wheat field.

At first listen, everything fits. Instrumentation and melodies carry emotionally relevant and evocative vocals. You may find yourself thinking, this is a solid and downright catchy album. When you revisit it, prepare to catch your breath and sink down into the depths… The placid surface hides a turbulent undercurrent of regret and disappointment. Do past failures and regrets lead to nowhere? Or can Harty forgive himself and attain redemption? Will he ever be able to ride off into the sunset on his “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”?

On “Whiskey and Morphine,” Harty speaks of losing his heart and having no one left to love. He sings about how under the shroud of intoxication you can convince yourself of just about anything until the morning comes creeping in with the hangover of harsh realities. Trevor Krieger’s fiddle transcends notes and scales and becomes a wordless personification of Harty’s conscience; sometimes cajoling, sometimes mocking, sometimes reaching out and shining through the darkness, begging Harty to hold on.

Is “Nowhere” a place or is it a state of mind? Harty sings about trying to recoup his losses and reconcile with those he has left in the ashes on the other side of the bridges that he has burned. The pleasing melody of the song serves as juxtaposition to the lyrical heft. You want to join Harty in his journey to nowhere but at the same time wonder how you can help him escape.

The contradiction between lyrics and melody is never more polarized than it is on the third song, “Sweet Solution.” Melodically the happiest-sounding song on the album, it also deals with the heaviest of subject matters, suicide. One has to wonder why Harty decided to employ the most energetic fiddle line on what is seemingly the darkest song on the album. Why does he want us clapping along as he contemplates a way to end it all? Krieger fiddles while Harty’s own personal Rome burns. Is it meant to mock or is it meant to encourage him to hang on till morning? Is it laughing in his face at a dark moment in his life? Or is it hope in a hopeless world? However you answer these questions, one thing is for sure: “Sweet Solution” is an epic example of a musician’s internal struggle against external forces. This album is a testament to Harty’s talent as a songwriter as each listening only leads to more questions. I want to know why Harty feels so compromised. Has he suffered these misdeeds or is he a storyteller who can create these characters with the authenticity of someone who has been to hell and is clawing his way back?

“Yesterday” presents a convergence of past, present and future. Self-doubt swirls, lost love looms. Harty is right: Yesterday is gone. And thoughts of the past lead him nowhere.

Looking so far back that it isn’t yesterday anymore, Harty finds no answers here. The same is true when he tries to find them on Brooks West’s “6th Avenue.” Boredom is king and distractions are many. But this song serves as a turning point in the album. While Harty sings about broken air conditioners and dollar Cokes, he seems to make a conscious decision to want to change. He realizes that even the sky gets tired of being blue and longs to change into vibrant shades of red. “On My Mind” carries with it all the hopes that Harty has kept bottled up throughout the album. Making himself vulnerable and available, he is no longer looking back; he can know see the lights up ahead. Josh Harty used to be nowhere but now he has found himself somewhere and it feels like home.