Indiana Music: Bill Wilson – Album Reissue – “Ever Changing Minstrel”

billwilsonOne night in February, 1973,  Indiana folk rock legend Bill Wilson was a 25 year-old musician looking for a break. So he drove to Nashville and knocked on the kitchen door of producer Bob Johnston, the guy who had produced Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde albums, and Johnny Cash’s at Folsom Prison and I Walk the Line records

What happened after that is murky, beautiful and puzzling.

According to the liner notes of Wilson’s debut album, Johnston answered the door to find Wilson standing there, saying “I’m Bill Wilson and I want to make a record.”

“Well, you came to the wrong house,” Johnson answered. “You can’t just show up and make a fucking record.”

“Will you listen to one song?” asked Wilson.

“One song,” said Johnston.

A Vietnam vet who hung around in the Austin scene, Wilson’s spark must have been evident to Johnston, because the producer let the singer in, allowed him to play, and as legend has it – there are no official notes that confirm it – rounded up many of the guys who played on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde to record Ever Changing Minstrel in one night.

The remastered (from the original tapes) album is now reissued by Tompkins Square with rare photographs, notes by reissue producer and Tompkins Square label owner Josh Rosenthal. “I bought the original album for a quarter at a record store in Berkeley, California in January 2012,” Rosenthal says. “I had never seen it before. I worked at Sony for 15 years, and thought I knew the catalog pretty thoroughly. I loved it and worked out a license with Sony We’ve almost sold through our first press. We can probably sell a few thousand around the world,” Rosenthal says.

Originally released on Windfall Records (an major imprint of CBS/Columbia at the time) in 1973, the tracks laid down are a time capsule of the Nashville-Dylan hybrid of folk rock from the early 1970s Folk rock framed by piano, filled with airy drums, kept gritty with some surprisingly dirty guitar lines and, just because that’s what was happening at the time, includes Elvis-inspired gospel backup vocals. Lyric-driven ballads backed by session pros and swampy, Memphis-like singer/songwriter soul cuts; the sound of Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe South.

As it happened, Columbia Records was changing management when the record came out and Wilson, the singer-songwriter from Indiana, suddenly wasn’t a priority. The record faded away. It doesn’t make the record any less thrilling. Instead, there a mystical quality to the music. How does this fall through the cracks? And how many other talented musicians suffered the same circumstances?

“Rainy Day Resolution” talks of “singing this song of freedom,”, and “Pay Day Giveway” is highlighted by Clapton-esque guitar lines and rolling blasts of words that give the verses a “Blinded By The Light” feel.

It’s a revealing glimpse of the early, fire-is-burning Wilson, who still holds a legendary place among the cult of Hoosier folk rock affecianados. A Central Indiana influence for 20 years of songwriters, he spent more time playing clubs, coffee houses and lounges than he did pursuing another record deal. He struck one more time as a songwriter, co-writing “Sultans of Swing” for Dire Straits. He later told an audience that he bought a truck with the money he made off the song after it became a hit.

“To Rebecca” is a beautiful slow build slice of acoustic guitars, while one of the best cuts is “Father Let Your Light Shine Down, straight out of the Saturday night gospel barns; inspirational church music cut from the musical cloth o”f south. “Following My Lord” carries forward the subtle theme of looking for faith that rides through the record.

The title cut sounds like it could have come the same hazy dawn that inspired Kristofferson to write “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” The set’s closer, “Monday Morning Strangers,” pulls out a “sleepy sidewalk pushes on” line that furthers that connection, with the loniliness of Sunday replaced by a “whenever Monday morning rolls around.” Added bonus: the track contains one of the juiciest Allman Brothers-like guitar solos unearthed in a long time.

After the debut, Wilson went on to record more independent albums, including Made in the USA (1982) and Talking to Stars (1977). His final album, Traction in the Rain, came out a year before his death. “Indianasong” from that album revealed how good Wilson was at what he did, all those years later. He had grown into a John Prine-like performer, and that genius is part of what makes this reissue sweet and beautiful and sad. He was really good.

A massive heart attack claimed Wilson’s life in November of 1993, while he was in Nashville visiting a friend.

Website: Bill Wilson tribute site
Website: Tompkins Square record label

Interview: Bob Johnston interviewed about Bill Wilson and the recording of the album –   Nashville Scene – September , 2012
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Interview: Indiana guitarist (John Prine) and singer/songwriter Jason Wilber and WFHB radio’s (Bloomington) Program Director Jim Manion talk about Bill Wilson – from Wilber’s “In Search of a Song” interview series/sho

Indiana Music: Dane Clark and Larry Crane team for an Americana Review

daneclarkOriginally written for NUVO – published December 19, 2012

As the engine the makes John Mellencamp’s band rumble, Dane Clark sits behind a drum kit, driving the roots-rock sound. With his own band and album, he stands squarely in front, with a guitar and directing his own take on the heartland rock sound.

Clark and his band will team with another Indiana rock and roller, as they are joined by Larry Crane’s band for a night of heartland rock on December 20 at the Bluebird in Bloomington.

“The seeds of the idea for this show came from a live acoustic show we did in the WTTS Sun King studio last summer with Larry and Jennie Devoe,” Clark says. “I’ve been thinking about doing an Americana Review-style show, and this will be a good way to start.

“We will run the show with both bands set up to save time, and I will do a couple songs [and] he will do a couple songs,” he says. We’ll sit in with each other’s band. We will do our own music, and so will he, and throw a few Mellencamp chestnuts in their too.”

New sounds, unexpectedly made

“I think I did intend to go deeper into the Americana steel guitar and dobro sound,” Clark says, as we talk about his new album. “Records don’t ever turn into the one you envision as you go through the process.”

daneclark_albumThat said, Clark’s Songs from the Hard Road resonates with splashes of radio country and Mellencamp-inspired Lonesome Jubilee porch sounds. It’s a record that solidly based in the sound of Middle America.

“You’ve got to be realistic in the music business,” Clark says. “Nobody buys music anymore. You write songs so you can sing, get a band and go out and play. I love music. I have a great band that can pull it off.

He knows even the big guys don’t have the same power.

“One has to realize the state of the music business in 2012. Bruce (Springsteen) can put out a record, and it doesn’t sell like it did 20 years ago. What we make is modern music for adults. I hope people find a song that radiates – a lyric with a spark of truth.”

daneclark2Clark, who started playing piano when he was very young before moving to guitar and drums, realized that he “wasn’t going to be Jimmy {age or Elton John” but that he “could play like Keith Moon and John Bonham.”

“A drummer in a live setting is steering the ship. He’s the engine. With my band, I trust my drummer to be that engine.”

“I hope we can crack a little bigger audience,” Clark says. “It’s more about a few degrees of success – working to get to the next level.”

Reconnections

One of the side trips Clark has taken with the record is a reconnection with the legendary late 1960s rock band Moby Grape. After being enthralled by the band’s debut album (“It was life changing for me,” he says) Clark had a chance – many years later – to meet guitarist Jerry Miller and do some recording and touring with the group.

Clark connected with Miller when he used his Mellencamp pass to get backstage at Pine Knob in Detroit in 2007 for a ’60s-based Summer of Love show. It has led to the new album’s closing track “Over It” featuring the band – a chance for Dane to finally get the group together for an album track.

“Anything bad that could have happened to the band, did,” Clark says, of their history. “They only got the name back two years ago. There have been a lot of mishaps, but it was a great thing; five guys, and all five wrote and all five could sing. They were overloaded with talent.

It’s a relationship to a band that Clark is especially proud of, and you can hear the warmth in his voice when he talks about the San Francisco rockers.

Sounds of home

“I don’t know if there is an Indiana sound,” Clark says, when I ask him if there is such a thing. Though I believe there is, I still want to hear what someone closer to the heartbeat has to say about it.

“Rock music doesn’t really exist as we knew it,” Clark says. “What happened with rock is it became country music: Bob Seger with a fiddle. When John started using a fiddle in the ’80s, and that would be country music now. My roots are Midwest influences. Anyone my age is influenced by The Stones, Dylan, Cash and Haggard.”

“I want my record to catch on with people who think country radio is too cheesy for their tastes,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that isn’t appealing to the lowest common denominator.”

With these shows this month, Clark – and the gutsy Telecaster-driven rock of Crane – will both get their chance to find that ground that exists between country and rock; a place both artists feel comfortable.

December 20
The Bluebird
Bloomington, Indiana
8:00pm
216 North Walnut Street (812) 336-3984.

Indiana Album review – Owen Thomas – “Languages”

Owen ThomasWith his first solo album, Owen Thomas will not escape comparisons to his former group, The Elms, the Indiana rock and roll band that disbanded nearly two years ago on the heels of their best album, The Great American Midrange

Owen Thomas’ new album Languages {Or: Get Dark & Find Yourself.}, the rocker has written a damn good set of songs about rejection and fortitude. Thomas clearly hasn’t run from the band’s sound.

Instead, he has created a more lyrically introspective record and allows two of his former bandmates – guitarist Thom Daugherty and Thomas’ brother Chris on drums – to give the set a familiar, though updated, sound.

And he wraps his words in music that is hook-filled, heartland power pop. He has crafted a record that takes a strong lyrical step into the potentially slicker space of pop music without losing the crunch and earthiness of the Elms.

The heartland combination of music and lyrics makes for one of the very best albums – national or local – of the 2012. “Houdini” opens the set an understated vocal amidst churning guitars and gospel-pop chord changes, finally giving way to Thomas’ “Philadelphia Freedom” shouts of “Yes I do” by song’s end.

“I Don’t Miss Carin'” may be the best cut on the record; a great groove that belies a bittersweet message to a former love. Daugherty’s guitar slides in and out with hard-strummed chords, and he adds a sweet and dirty little solo to Thomas’ vocal “whoo-whoo’s”.

Soul-based pop from an Indiana guy? “I Might Be a Ghost!” lets Thomas use his supple voice to turn the tune into a midtempo hip shaker.

It’s a tightly produced record, though thumping drums and a healthy slice of guitar seep their way into the mix, dare we say, perfectly. Daugherty and Thomas are a potent combination of vision, feel and execution. Gloss and raunch. Shine and grease. Neither player solely one or the other. The two former bandmates still work well together, sharing bits of beauty and midwest rock grit.

“I Am High Above You” glides along and slowly, and subtly turns into a pulsating little rocker. “What You Say and What You Do” brings memories of The Cars with some 1950’s doo-wop-ish chord changes.

One addition to recording canon here is the use of loops to give the album a contemporary feel. Much like Springsteen crafted his recent Wrecking Ball album around pieces of music and beats, looped together and overlayed with the trademark Boss sounds, Thomas travels a similar-sounding road. He shows chops as a rock singer in the Jagger tradition of sass and smart, and lets his guitarist and drummer push the energy level higher. Smartly done.

“Who Knows” closes the album with a nod to the old sound of The Elms. The song’s line “Who knows where the road is going” is as good of a theme as any to describe the new album. The record – and life – is a search for truth and resiliency when both facts and emotion intrude. As the closer provides a neat reminder of how good The Elms were as a band, the song also gives power to the new sounds on this record; the words and music of the entire album. It helps prove just how good the music is that Thomas is now making on his own.