Indiana Music: New album from Eric Baker; new music coming from Otis Gibbs, Bobbie Lancaster

Former Elms guitarist Thom Daugherty’s first record as a producer is available as a free sampler. He helmed the knobs for Indianapolis singer/songwriter Eric Baker’s debut album Hope & Thin Space. You can listen here and download four songs by entering your email and zip code. It is a smart slice of American gospel rock and roll.

Baker writes on his website that “My producer, Thom Daugherty, and I went into the studio to record “Kingdom”, (and) we talked about giving it a Killers-like vibe, full of energy, with a sound that hopefully captured the passion of the lyric. And, while other lyrics on the record express struggle and questions, I wanted to kick it off with an acknowledgement of hope and optimism.”

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Indianapolis (now living in Nashville) folk artist Otis Gibbs announced on Wednesday that he has started recording his next record. He wrote on Facebook that “I guarantee that of all the records that have ever been made, this will be one of them.”

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Bobbie Lancaster next album, a live project, is nearly mixed and will be released in Bloomington in August, along with, she says, a new album from The Millbranch String Theory. Lancaster, by the way, is in the process of moving with her family from Bloomington to Greencastle this month. She also continues her summer tour of central Indiana libraries, performing and working on music with children, and hits the road at the end of the month for a pair of John Prine tribute shows.

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Catching up with: The Civil Wars

(originally appeared in NUVO Newsweekly’s June 20 edition – preview of July 1 show in Indianapolis)

Joy Williams and John Paul White are sitting on a disabled tour bus, marooned near the border between Washington state and Canada.

The two members of the folk-rock duo The Civil Wars tell me another bus is on the way; it should have already arrived, actually. They think they’ll make this evening’s concert, though it might be close.

They’re patient people, to be sure. They waited more than a decade for success to catch up to them. And now that they’re a “buzz” act — at least, according to Billboard album charts, the Americana Music Awards and fans snapping up tickets for their live shows — they’re in it for the long haul.

“We’ve been told by a wise man who’s part of our team that the way you rise is the way you fall,” White said. “We really want to steadily grow this so that we have like a 20-year career arc.”

White, a Muscle Shoals, Ala., guy who banged around in rock bands throughout the South for 10 years, looks like a Jack White/Johnny Depp mash-up and speaks in a smooth drawl. Williams, who appears serious and stoic on the cover to the duo’s Barton Hollow album, sounds smart and spunky over the phone. Both are polite, allowing their partner to talk, though you get the impression they could finish each other’s sentences if they wanted.

No, they are not married. They get asked a lot. Yes, there is an undeniable chemistry between the two on stage. Think a modern-day Johnny and June Carter Cash-performance: flirty and sassy, with great music between the banter. And none of it would have happened without the chance meeting at a songwriting conference in 2008.

“There were 25 top potential songwriters gathered,” Williams remembered. Like a speed-dating event for songwriters, the gathering was structured so that each songwriter could work one-on-one with his or her 24 compatriots during the course of the event. “John Paul was my first partner that day. I had no idea who he was, and he had no idea who I was. Somehow, that didn’t seem to matter. Within 20 minutes after we started playing music together, it was as if we’ve known each other all our lives.”

So they stayed together. They put out material early and often, recording their second performance, an opening gig for rocker Will Hoge at a small club called Eddie’s Attic near Atlanta. Released as Live at Eddie’s Attic, it’s still available as a free download from the band’s website. Mainstream Nashville was impressed: Country-pop darling Taylor Swift tweeted in late 2010 that the duo’s song “Poison & Wine” was her favorite duet. Their debut album, Barton Hollow, released in February 2011, peaked at No. 12 on The Billboard 200 and No. 3 on both Billboard’s Folk and Rock Album charts.

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NUVO: How would you guys describe what your show is to somebody who’s never been to one?

White: Well, there’s a lot of blood. [chuckle]

Williams: A lot of pyrotechnic.

White: And a lot of glitter.

Williams: Yeah. Yeah, dancers.

NUVO: Costume changes?

Williams: Yeah, you can’t get pretty without the costume changes.

White: We’ve got animals. [chuckle]. Really, it’s like we are all hanging out in somebody’s living room. We play the guitar and piano and are up there just telling stories. We try to keep everything personable and personal. We don’t like to have too much of a separation between the audience and the performers.

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Their live show is — at various times — magical, sexy and fun, and all three when at full boil. The two make each other laugh. They have fun. Their new status as one of Americana’s best emerging artists and duos (at least according to their nominations for the 2011 Americana Music Awards)has helped make nearly every show in their spring and summer tour a sellout, including Friday’s show at the Earth House, though a free in-store at Luna Music earlier in the day remains first-come, first-serve.

“We have seen children bringing parents,” Willams said of the live show. “We’ve seen parents bringing teenagers. We’ve seen older couples. We’ve seen metal heads coming to shows and who love us. And they know the words. Male, female alike; gay, straight and everybody in between, and that is perfectly fine with us. We love that.”

At one point, White was signed with Capitol Records. He recorded a rock record for the label, but it went unreleased after the wholesale firing of the staff that had hired him.Called The Long Goodbye, it was recently made available on his website.

“I’m honestly a lot more creatively fulfilled, excited about the future of this more so that I was about a solo career, which is really strange to say looking back at it,” White said. “With this, I feel like it’s more than me. It’s bigger than I ever could have been alone.”

Williams, who migrated from California to Tennessee, feels blessed to have found a musical partner and success after not knowing if a break would ever happen.

“I grew up in Northern California, signed a contract when I was about 17 years old and moved to Nashville the same year that I graduated high school,” said the singer. She made three solo records that she now describes as “really dry and constricted.” It was during a period of soul-searching that she met White.

“Everything else paled in comparison to what we were doing together,” she said. “I couldn’t not pursue what the possibilities would be in linking arms with him.”

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NUVO: What concerts do you guys remember going to either two weeks ago or ten years ago that still resonate with you?

Willams: I remember seeing Annie Lennox perform live…[thumping noises] John Paul is currently whacking my head with a water bottle and it is very hard to concentrate right now. [laughter] Seriously?

White: I’ve seen so many live performances that I couldn’t really connect with, which makes me really sad. I am always very jealous of people that go to shows and come back changed. I want to have those. A lot of it is my own fault though.

Williams: One that pops out that I have seen is St. Vincent and just… I’ve never been able to get that one out of my head since.

White: Yes, she’s brilliant.

Williams: She’s an amazing singer, guitar player and songwriter and it kind of makes me hate her a little. [laughter]

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Three years removed from their chance encounter at a songwriter’s encounter group, life is good for The Civil Wars.

“Luckily, we’re on a bus now (instead of a van),” Williams said. “We’re really happy writing and playing new songs and trying to rest when we can.”

“Yeah, the bus,” White interjects. “The second bus was supposed to have been here quite a while back. We’re kind of wondering where it’s at. I’m sure we’ll make it to the show with no problem. We might be a little tired, but it’ll be fun.”

“No showers today,” Williams laughs.

Review: The Civil Wars at the Earth House – Indianapolis

With voices blending in a way that suggest the mystical magic of the Everly Brothers or Simon and Garfunkel, Joy Williams and John Paul White take a live show into territory that is magnetic and memorable. For their one night in Indianapolis, their spiritual folk music mesmerized a sweaty midwest audience on the second floor of an old church.

The duo, dubbed The Civil Wars, showed why they have earned the accolades that have come their way in the past year, showcasing harmonies and songwriting Friday night (7.1.11) at a sold out Earth House show. The singer/songwriters may never have to play small rooms again – unless they want to – and the Indy concert should be one that fans at the show remember long after the two graduate to bigger venues.

Playing nine of the 12 songs from their debut Barton Hallow album, they transfixed an audience crammed into the historic building, amping up the quiet songs just enough to give the live versions immediacy and energy, while sacrificing little of the emotion found on the literate, gliding album.

Walking onstage and launching into “Tip of My Tongue” and “Forget Me Not”, the two set the tone for the rest of the evening: Williams’ voice atop White’s delicate-yet-driving guitar, with his vocals providing a rootsy bottom to the harmonies. Williams sang both on the microphone and also would back away, sharing with the audience the organic aura of her powerful voice, carried with lovely unamplified strength.

White, beginning the night in a black jacket and pants, completed by a bowtie (playfully straightened by his partner at the end of the second song), and Williams in a sexy and simple black dress, hit one of the show’s highlights early, with “From This Valley”, a full-on gospel song not found on the album. The “pray, pray pray” refrain hinted at his southern roots and the accapella breakdown in the middle of the tune was the first of the evening’s many goosebump moments.

“20 Years” was mesmerizing, and “I Have This Friend” was introduced by Williams as the “one happy song on the record”, though they ultimately found light in the eight other selections played from their album. The pair finds positive moments in songs that, in other hands, might prove dour. Kudos to the standing-room audience for resisting chatting during the entire 75-minute set. They came to hear the American beauty of the music, and were rewarded.

Williams played a small squeeze box during the waltzing and odd-yet-epic “Girl with the Red Balloon” before they hit the album’s swampy title cut, the only rock tune on the Barton Hallow record. By this time, White had dispensed with the bow tie amidst the heat of 300 bodies in a room cooled only by a few box and ceiling fans.

The song “Falling” began with White playing the notes with his eyes closed, and the song’s nifty hook leading into the chorus made the version another highlight, aided by his emphatic strumming.

“C’est La Mort” was hampered by a muddy piano sound – no fault of Williams’ playing, before an almost unrecognizably slow version of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” brought the crowd back into the show, thanks to Williams’ Emmylou Harris echoes.

A four-song run to the end of the set began with “Birds of a Feather”, and eminated a Stevie Nicks vibe, assisted by Joy’s hip-swaying dancing. She then told the story of how the two songwriters formed the duo, melding completely different influences (happily noting White even had some “death metal” in his background). She revealed they found common ground with the Smashing Pumpkins, and they performed a beautiful verison of “Disarm”, as Williams held the ends of her long brunette hair, sexily twirling it with her fingers as she eased towards song’s close.

“My Father’s Father” and a build-to-a-lovely-crescendo version of “Poison & Wine” ended the regular set, with the mixed audience of teens, couples, and 40 and 50-something’s joyfully stomping their feet in unison to bring the two back for on encore.

Another Michael Jackson tune, “Billie Jean”, has become a staple of their live shows – for good reason. The Indianapolis version embodied all that The Civil War represent – an understanding of musical history, playfulness, vocal earthiness, and an ability to make any song their own. A closing Leonard Cohen-penned “Dance Me to the End of Love” proved most powerful when both singers stepped back, harmonizing much as they must have when first meeting at that songwriters night a little more than two years ago.

The pair’s new career is one that would seem to be full of promise – they write their own material – and can fly as high as they might want it to go. Nothing is as magical as two voices joining as if born to be together. For Joy Williams and John Paul White, they seem to know they are lucky to have stumbled onto each other, and have smartly decided to take their simple show – two people, a guitar and a bit of piano – across the country, sharing the gift that they have found.

VIDEO: From Indianapolis/Earth House