Album Review: Jeff Litman – “Outside”

If you’re hurting a bit and want to feel better – or at least have a drinking buddy – fire up Outside, a new album from New York roots and power-pop singer/songwriter Jeff Litman.

With “Runaway”, he channels Petty’s bright and drawling vibe to create the best slice of jangly American rock since Matthew Sweet’s heyday.  Growling guitars, tight harmonies and a let-it-loose arrangement makes it a descendent of Sweet’s “Girlfriend”.

“Chasing My Tail” harvests the same territory, turning it into a bouncy, late 70’s Raspberries-style nugget

Litman has more than one influence, and the record shifts between the Petty’s guitar rock and Elvis Costello’s sneer and pop.  The title cut is mid-80’s Costello, with a loping rhythm and New York City doo wop underpinning.

The acoustic “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” is a gentle, melancholy ode to the end of a relationship.  Much of the album strikes a theme of relationship heartache and defiance; the centerpiece of the idea rides in this song.

The best cut is midway through the record, with “Don’t Want to Talk About it”, tying a tough midtempo rock melody with a killer chorus and lyric sung with anger and a “don’t mess with me” growl.  A beautifully skewered song wrapped in gleaming power-pop; it’s the sound of an ought-to-be hit song,

“Back to You” goes all Hall and Oates blue-eyed soul, crossed with more Costello, and includes a segue from rough and tough vocal break midway through the song to a Smokey Robinson gentleness.  Litman’s got the soulful vocal chops to separate him from many.  On this record, it is bonded to some smartly arranged and consistent pop-rock.

Still relatively unknown to most, Litman’s Outside is the work of an artist who fits firmly between classic rock and power-pop, and an mid 1960’s British invasion sound.  He’s never far from his influences, but is able to cut into the sounds with some of his own tough and unique ideas. It is enough to warrant another listen,  and to pay attention to where Litman goes next.

Jeff Litman website

Hear the song “Outside”

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Album Review: The Lumineers

The debut record from The Lumineers wallops with a roots-rock punch of backwoods-via-NYC soul, mixed with giddy realism and music surprising and powerful.

Riding the rootsy sound, the Denver, Colo-based band, was founded by two New York City guys, guitarist Jeremiah Fraites and drummer Wesley Schultz.  They added multi-instrumentalist Neyla Pekarek through a craigslist ad when the pair moved west. They have been touring with another guitarist and bass player.

The band sold out a Friday, May 25 show at Radio Radio, and added a second show on Thursday. When they rolled into Indianapolis, it was with a self-titled debut full-length effort that reflects an Avett Brothers influence, but has echoes of an acoustic Gaslight Anthem, Springsteen-esque musical spiritualism, Arcade Fire majesty, and a hint of Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan.

“Ho Hey” is the song they have been playing on the TV stops (in the past two months, the band has appeared on “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson” and on “Conan”) and smartly builds with shouted backing vocals, a kick drum banging  in 4/4 time, and  a loose recording full of talk and echo.

“Stubborn Love” is a melancholy ode to not letting go even when you should, driven by acoustic guitar and violin.  “The Big Parade” mines gospel roots (“All my life I was blind, now I see”), with a soft, incessant backbeat.

“Flowers in Your Hair” opens the record with Dylan storytelling – a short two-minute taste of what is to come.  “Classy Girls” follows, telling the story of a meeting at a bar, a full-on narrative with a thrilling chorus.

“Morning Song” ends the album with a crashing electric guitar and lots of space to sing about a girl leaving.  Jeff Tweedy and Wilco would be proud. Songs reward patience, as opening notes build to include more instruments.

The cinematic words and sugar-coated rustic hooks of the record win us over; it’s a very good, – and at time s thrilling — gospel-stamped, folk-fried American rock album.

Lumineers website

Review: “The Wake” – four Indianapolis American rock bands turn it up

Dubbed “The Wake,” the four-band bill at The Earth House in downtown Indianapolis on Friday night was a well-paced night of throwback Midwestern heartland rock, updated for the times. Held in an old church (with the gospel influence that brings) is most certainly a good thing in rock and roll.

All four bands were almost entirely Indy-based. The Weakenders, with only a guitar player not from Indy (he was the from-the-gut guitar-playing, long-haired Nashville cat) were the final band of the night, and brought home the two-guitar rock and roll turned-up-to-11 noise.

The Dead Hearts showed the promise and original music that warrants following the Tom Petty/Bryan Adams/Springsteen vibe they throw off when they play. Attakula was a surprisingly diverse and mature roots rock version of Arcade Fire. And Henry French and The Shameless worked as a three-piece; French wrangled rock and roll grit and beauty out of his Telecaster guitar and was helped along by the cranked-up drums.

The show was a model of efficiency, moving from one band into the next in about 15 minutes each; it roared to a start with French, whose sound channeled a rocked-up version of Son Volt. They tore through just over 45 minutes of originals. French, who has said he is taking a break from the band and music for a while, was most effective when taking a song’s energy, and twisting it higher as the song roared. A neo-Bo Diddley beat, and Henry stomping his right foot while facing the drummer during the last song of the set, was goose bump-inducing.

Attakula, six-piece band of nuanced roots rock, revealed themselves as a contender for best local talent working in the Americana genre. They can come with twin guitar attack, or bring on a mandolin to replace the Gibson Les Paul. A full, intricate sound and Petty blues mixed with The Band country-rock moments were highlights.

With “Not What I Wanted to Say” coming early in their set, The Dead Hearts brought the most accessible songs of the evening. They, as all the bands did at some point in their set. worked moments of beauty mixed with barbed wire electricity, By the time they reached “Bad For You” at the end of the 50-minute set, singer Brandon Perry had found sweet spot of chunky rhythm guitar with Brian Gropp’s gospel-tinged Hammond B3-like keyboards. The band is only one year old, and they’re still growing in confidence. If they find a way to let loose a bit more during performances while continuing to write, I like their future,

The most polished, and also pleasingly Shooter Jennings-like rugged, of the groups was the Nashville-based The Weakenders. Three of the four members are from Indy, and have recently moved to Tennessee. Guitarist Eli Chastain led them through “Sink or Swim,” echoing a Neil Young rawness; the two hard-strummed guitars worked together with slamming drums to show off the band’s efforts to take their musical game up a step by moving to Music City. Their effective harmonies and a nicely rehearsed set closed the show, using high-energy rock and roll with country-via-“Exile on Main Street” touches to pull the crowd in.

Were there things to that could have been better? There were moments with each band when lyrics needed to be sold harder, as they stopped being words and blended into melody. I would have loved a cover tune from each band; sometimes I need one, even on a night of originals. And the crowd of a 100 or so felt large enough to make it seem like the night was appreciated, but they did hang back until The Weakenders took the stage.

In reality, these are minor qualms with a show that was meant to refute the notion that American rock and roll is scarce — or dying — in Indianapolis.

As Brian Gropp of the Dead Hearts told me between sets during the show “American rock is out there” — at house parties and in basements; it’s just harder to find.” For one night, it seemed lost no more, and instead found in an old church in downtown Indianapolis.

And it may be in the hands of these four – and the others who mine the same sound — to keep playing, elevating their on-stage energy, and continuing to honor their true voice. We know it is rarely a one night or one week or one month endeavor to get anywhere worthwhile in life, professionally or otherwise.

It’s up to one band to make themselves heard with American rock in Indy. If any one of these bands, or others who were not at this show, takes their musical game to the next level — in popularity and with creativity — then others could follow. This was a good step in the process. What’s next?

Concert Preview: “The Wake” – Four Indianapolis American rock and roll bands ready for Earth House

Can American rock and roll survive in Indianapolis?  And if it is going to, where in Indianapolis can it be found?  And what happens when four bands, all who embrace the retro-yet-authentic sound of American rock, struggle to get booked into an Indianapolis club?

On May 18, the stage on the Earth House in downtown Indianapolis will be shared by four Indianapolis American rock bands, doing their part to make Telecaster guitars ring loud in our city, just as Roadmaster, Henry Lee Summer, Mere Mortals and many others did in the 70’s and 80’s.

Dubbed “The Wake: A Showcase of American Rock ‘n Roll” (i.e. if rock is dead, let’s have a freakin’ party), The Dead Hearts, The Weakenders, Attakulla, and Henry French & the Shameless bring three-chord rock and roll noise to the old church.

Yet to hear The Dead Hearts keyboardist Brian Gropp explain it, there seemed to be little love for the Tom Petty-esque rock the band embrace.

“At the end of February, Eli (Chastain) from the Weakenders contacted me looking to get a show going in Indy,” he says.   “A couple days later, I get an email from Greg Osborne from Attakulla.  Our name happened to be dropped to him.  I’m thinking the more the merrier. After listening to both bands, and knowing how good Henry French is, I thought this is one heck of a lineup,” Gropp says.

So they started looking for a venue.

“There was not a medium-sized club within I-465 that gave us the time of day.  We went after a few of our favorite clubs from multiple angles and were repeatedly ignored,” Gropp admits. “We started to get a little frustrated.  Nobody wanted this show.”

Eli emailed Gropp about renting a DIY venue or having a house party.  At the end of his email he said, “Is rock and roll dead dudes? Say it aint so!’

“We finally got a bite at The Earth House. After we worked out the details, we realized that we have to show that independent local rock and roll is very much alive in Indianapolis.”

French had the idea for the show’s theme.

“Since we kind of got snubbed by everyone, I consider this a call to action to an extent,” he wrote in the original email to the bands.  “Time to prove that rock and roll still has a crowd in Indy.”

It was his suggestion to build a title and theme for the show that’s on all the posters, website and handbills that proclaim “rock and roll ain’t dead.”

They found a media partner in the Back Roads Radio Show.  They emailed, and it intrigued me; one show, four American rock bands in Indy, and the struggle to do it.

***

The Dead Hearts

What the hell is American rock and roll anyway?

Do the Black Keys fit the description?  How about less-mainstream bands like the Bottle Rockets and Deer Tick?  Or Kid Rock, with his penchant for emulating his idol, Bob Seger?  Or is it the domain now of country performers like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church?

I’d wager it is somewhere in the influences of these artists, and standard bearers like Wilco, John Fogerty’s CCR, Tom Petty, and the sound of Seger and Mellencamp – who loves that sound more than Indy, right?

“Our opinion on it is kind of like this; our favorite bands wrote classic songs,” Chastain, the guitarist in The Weakenders, says. “To us, stuff like What’s the Story Morning Glory? or Damn the Torpedoes are always going be on iPods or in playlists or on radio for a reason; they’re full of absolutely undeniable jams. We are aiming for that kind of territory.”

Longtime Indiana guitar player John Byrne has been plying his trade for two decades as a go-to sideman in bands like Mere Mortals, Danny Flanigan and the Rain Chorus (who he is joining for their own show the same night at another Indy club  / Locals Only – 9pm), with Jess Richmond, 8-Track All-Stars and many others, most variations on a sound that used to be called heartland rock.

“It’s a tricky business trying to define or quantify something as broad and subjective as American rock,” Byrne says. “Neil Young said it best, I think, when he said ‘once you talk about mystique, you have none,’ but I definitely think that it has some essential, defining characteristics.

“For me – who basically grew up trying to be the kid that Patrick Fugit plays in the seminal rock movie “Almost Famous”, – the best, most effective American rock and roll had to have at least some self-awareness of what it was trying to deconstruct.

The Weakenders

Gropp echoes the sentiments of Byrne.

“(It’s) always a slippery slope when you start to define a genre.  We have some obvious influences.  All four Dead Hearts have a mutual enamoring of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.  I am biased being the keyboard player, but I love a band with driving organ and keys (and) love the E Street band so much.”

“If pressed to pick a single band that has become the most succinct standard-bearer for American rock in our current era,” continues Byrne, “I’d have to say Wilco because they quite literally took up the mantle of “Americana”, that somewhat self-congratulatory sub-genre that did its best to keep burning the twangy troubadour flame of vintage Neil Young, Gram Parsons, (and) Townes Van Zandt, and infused it with the intensity of the Stooges and the weariness of Steve Earle while rocking like a hurricane.”

With regional and national rock acts playing shows at the Vogue (upcoming dates include the Bodeans, Otis Gibbs and Dawes), Birdy’s (Paul Thorn has a show on June 23) and Radio Radio (two shows this month from The Lumineers), it would seem there would be a market for bands with similar sounds, on the local level.

What is trickier for most local and regional bands, is working on establishing a consistent fanbase for shows.  And to do that, it is more difficult if there is not a healthy American rock and roll scene.  Is there one in Indy?  I would argue a pair of shows from aforementioned The Lumineers, and consistent crowds for Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams, Old 97’s and BoDeans, among others, gives the appearance of a plugged-in, web-savvy audience that knows the music and where to find the shows. Is that enough for local artists and bands of the genre?

“Rock and roll is still everywhere,” Gropp says. “In garages, basements, and house parties.  I think there are a lot of frustrated rockers wondering how to get the music elsewhere.  There are still a handful of places that will occasionally let a live rock band do their thing, but they better bring a crowd.  If not, they don’t want you back.”

“Indy just doesn’t have the same amount or type of clubs that it did 20 and 30 years ago,” Byrne admits. ”Save the occasional aberration, local music has been banished from Broad Ripple. Plenty of cool shows happen in Fountain Square, but it seems to me that the gigs that get the most notice are for bands from out of town.”

As Byrne notes, there are clubs in the strip malls that book cover bands, And he plays in those bars because, “at the end of the day, I just love playing guitar.”

Henry French

“If you want to find the essence of American rock and roll in Indianapolis any given week and you aren’t willing to settle for another heartfelt walk-through of ‘Mustang Sally,’ you have to dig pretty hard,” Byrne concludes “The good news is that there is music here, and plenty of it,  but there’s just no getting around the simple law of economics that supply doesn’t create demand.”

***

For the four bands playing “The Wake”, the potential success of the event becomes a lesson in hard work, and networking an audience that they, WTTS and the terrific Back Road Radio Show cultivate.  It also helps they believe deeply in the sound they are making.

The Weakenders are living in Nashville, Tenn, with three of their members are from Indianapolis.  This will be their first show back in town. They have a new record Super Major, coming out this spring.

“We’ve noticed with the band, people seem to actually mean what they say to us when they talk about our songs, or the new record or the live set or whatever it is,” Chastain says. “People seem to really think we’re on to something. That is a really good feeling.

For The Dead Hearts’ Gropp, the effort to carve a niche, or be a part of something that means a lot to not just his band, but many like-sounding and –minded others, is one reason to go forward.

Attakula

“So much of what we do is promotion and trying to find a balance between keeping people interested and not annoying them. It can be really taxing and frustrating, contacting countless clubs and not getting a response  The bottom line is the music.  We love making music.  We would probably do it even if nobody was listening.”

Attakulla call their music a “revival of American garage rock wrapped in a crunchy, electrified folk sound.”  Henry French likens himself to Tom Petty, the Foo Fighters and the Replacements. I even wrote that French was a “guy has the potential to make the next great Midwest rock and roll record.”  And that The Dead Hearts were the Indianapolis’ Best New Band of 2011.

Is that enough?  Can their passion, diligence and the sound of Indiana rock and roll get an audience to a beautiful old church in downtown Indy featuring these four?

According to Gropp, music fans know where to find good shows.

“I think people want something honest, something they can interact with.  Something personal where they can say, “Oh yeah, I was there that night.  I remember when that happened.’

For all their struggles in finding the right venue, they hope the show called “The Wake” will jump start something for them.

And Indianapolis will have a place for music that we call American rock, the trusted sound has never really gone away. For bands like The Dead Hearts and the Weakenders, they simply keep pushing forward, even if it is just three chords at a time. Because, for them,  that’s the only thing they can do.

————————-

http://www.facebook.com/events/417279008285814/
www.backroadradioshow.com
www.earthhousecollective.org

When: Friday, May 18, 2012 at 7:00 p.m
Where: The Earth House Collective, 237 N. East St., Indianapolis, IN 46204.
Tickets: $7 in advance ($10 at door) and available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/240272.

www.thedeadhearts.com
www.theweakenders.com
www.attakulla.com
www.reverbnation.com/henryfrench

RiverRoots Festival in Madison turns up the rock

Greg Ziesemer has booked all the bands, and now he wants to make sure the beer is ready. When we caught up with him, he was riding in a van on his way to New Albany to visit one of the festival’s microbrewers for the upcoming Madison, Indiana RiverRoots Music and Folk Arts Festival. This year’s festival will take place on the weekend of May 18-20.

“We are bringing Sun King Brewery down this year and will [also] have five different microbrewers,” said Ziesemer.
In what is Ziesemer’s first full year as the music director, the festival will tilt slightly musically, as he and his committee has grabbed some uber-hot national acts that are both in — and out — of the folk genre.

Formerly known as the Ohio River Valley Folk Festival, this event has grown steadily in attendance; it struck gold last year by booking the Carolina Chocolate Drops just as they were going from little known regional performers to Grammy Award winners, Ziesemer would love to keep the “This performer is one the way up — remember you saw them here” connection.

“Roots music – it’s like the new folk. The name folk used to cover what we were doing, but now we’ve become broader. When people hear folk, they think Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. And we love them. And there may be some people who don’t want to come to folk festival who will come see music at a roots festival,” said Ziesemer.

For opening night, festival organizers booked The Band of Heathens as the headliner, with Americana rocker Hayes Carll on Saturday night. Carll’s album KMOG garnered the most Americana airplay for any album in 2011. Country folk-rock darlings The Black Lillies will headline Sunday.

Carll, an Austin, Tex. alt-country performer, built his reputation with rowdy country and rock shows throughout Texas and the Southwest. Much like The Band of Heathens, he’s a road-tested, rock and roll performer.

“Hayes Carll is a a rock band, and that’s the show they’ll do. And his opening band is five sisters (Searson), with a driving, really upbeat celtic band, but it’s anything but just celtic rock.”

Ziesemer understands the value of keeping the festival’s original idea of folk music alive, even with headliners that have strong rock and roll leanings. He says the committee has worked hard to provide varied musical styles. “We have singer-songwriters, Texas swing, a jug band, and a guy from Minnesota who is like their version of Rev. Peyton,” Ziesemer said. “We want people to hear jazz and country and blues too.”

According to Ziesemer, the festival draws many from the Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Lexington and Columbus areas, and as many from the smaller towns within that region.

“The crowd comes from what we consider to be a 150 to 200 mile radius. We did have fans from as far away as North Carolina and Minnesota. But our crowds are [becoming] increasingly diverse. The new bands this year will help pull a younger crowd,” said Ziesemer. “Tickets sales are going very well, and I would love to see 8,000 to 10,000 people come through gates for the weekend.”

Organizers have added more children’s activities and have been “expanding the family attractions, because it is a family-friendly event,”said Ziesemer. He mentions a storyteller tent and smaller demonstration tents, where people will working in historic costumes, creating and teaching.

Yet it is the music they bring to the riverfront town that makes this festival noteworthy

“What we want to be known for is bringing acts that are up and coming — bands with an upward trajectory. We had the Carolina Chocolate Drops play here last year, and nobody really knew who they were. And they blew people away here. Then they won a Grammy,” said Ziesemer. “We want to be a festival known as that discovery place, a launching pad.”

SCHEDULE
Friday, May 18
6 p.m. Carolyn Martin
8 p.m. Searson
10 p.m. The Band of Heathens

Saturday, May 19
1 p.m. Joe Crookston w/Peter Glanville
3 p.m. Roosevelt Dime
5 p.m. Charlie Parr
7 p.m. Over the Rhine
9 p.m. Hayes Carll

Sunday, May 20
12:30 pm Appalatin
1:45 pm Michael Kelsey
3 p.m. Whiskey Bent Valley Boys
4:30 p.m. The Black Lillies
Meet the bands
Here’s a look at the headliner and their opener for each night.

Searson
The sisters Searson’s numerous tours over the past eight years that have included stops in the U.S., Ireland, Germany and Denmark. Playing a sound described as celtic rock, they grew up in a musical family in Canada. Their dad Mike once played guitar and sang with the band.

The Band of Heathens
Legendary Texas musician Ray Wylie Hubbard said of the American rock band that they were, “kinda like if Rimbaud, Keats, and Rilke strapped on guitars and hooked up with a bad ass rhythm section; literary and sinfully cool.” The Austin, Tex hard-touring Band of Heathens released Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son in 2011, and a four-disc, two-volume, live DVD release called The Double Down – Live in Denver (Vol. I & II ).

Over the Rhine
Cincy-based husband-and-wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are still making great music 20 years after their 1991 debut. One of RiverRoots Festival Greg Zeismer’s favorites. Over-the-Rhine is the name of a downtown neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the band got its start.

Hayes Carll
Carll’s KMAG YOYO (and Other American Stories) album was the most played Americana album of 2011. Spin Magazine named it the third best country album of the year, behind top-ranked Eric Church and runner-up Gillian Welch. The album title is a military acronym that stands for “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re on Your Own,” the album hit #12 on the country album chart and #17 on the Billboard Album Chart.

Whiskey Bent Valley Boys
Hailing from the backwoods of Pewee Valley, Ken., they bring banjo, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass.

The Black Lillies
With Whiskey Angel, The Black Lillies kicked off their first national tour at the Ryman Auditorium. Pretty good omen, right? Cruz Contreras got the band together to record that first album, and the band took their name from a song on the first record. They chose to use a fan-funded model to record their album, 100 Miles of Wreckage, rather than signing to a label.