Hoosier Americana: Bobbie Lancaster Finds Home

Bloomington's Bobbie Lancaster new album expected in early 2010

Arriving at a meaningful place in life requires detours and surprises. And then, the destination can still be unexpected. We know this is true, because every damn one of us has been there.

And a pair of new albums last year, and two more on the way, Bobbie Lancaster may have finally found her road home. She has finished recording her first solo album, a second children’s CD, and along the way, developed a gutty yet sweet stage persona.

Her haunting vocals on “I’m on Fire” as part of this summer’s Grimm-organized “Hoosier Springsteen” concerts made the short, brooding song one of the best performances of the show. The Bloomington singer’s bouncing, smiling, in-the-moment stage presence cemented the musical package; the woman can crank it up like Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Riatt, and engage a crowd with her subtle stage charms. Watching Lancaster feels like we’re seeing a woman who knows her strengths and power, but is only beginning to refine and unleash it.

“I was scared to death,” she says of the shows, talking on the phone from her Bloomington home. “We had a rehearsal and I just felt I had to get in there and give everything I had. And at the end of the gig, I felt really good about my performance and overcoming that little confidence hurdle I had before the show.”

With an upcoming solo record, she is putting herself in front of whatever comes with it. In September, she recorded the album at Farm Fresh studios in Bloomington, with a band brewing a stew of rootsy, Americana music.

“I have cried and squealed with joy so many times that I think they (the band) are worried about me. It’s the most incredible thing to hear these songs I wrote on a mandolin be brought to life,” Lancaster says.

This new record will come a little more than a year after she released a catchy preschool-focused children’s album (“Bobbie Lancaster’s Little Folks”) and an Americana/folk record called “On with the Show” with the duo Stella & Jane.

“On with the Show” is an intriguing piece – Jane is Lancaster’s middle name. Using a middle name isn’t the quickest way to wider recognition, right? Maybe Bobbie wasn’t ready to come out from behind the one-name middle-name anonymity? That seems to have changed.

“I am looking forward to focusing on doing more solo stuff. It’s where I feel led to go right now,” she says. “Every CD I have done has been with a group and a compilation of different writers. I have probably 50 or 60 songs that I’ve just been sitting on, plus have written seven new songs since May – I have just had a nice creative spurt lately.”

As happens with most good stories, it hasn’t been a simple process to wind up where talent and opportunity intersect.

Some 25 years ago, Bobbie Jane Lancaster’s mother and father had her take in piano lessons, from kindergarten until fourth grade. She’d always had the gift to be able to sing, and even earned a full ride scholarship in music vocal performance to Indiana University, but blew the opportunity. It became a long road and indirect route that’s brought Bobbie to the point of making her first solo album.

“I was so young when I went (to IU), I wish I had a better grip on myself at the age that I went to college,” she says. “But I didn’t and I gave that up, nor really realizing what a gift it was to get that scholarship.”

She ended up going to Vincennes University, held three jobs while there, and started singing in a coffee shop when she was 19.

“That’s when I first found my own voice,” she remembers.

She has spent the past five years starting a family, and playing music – first with a Bloomington blues band called Code Blue, and more recently, with musical partner Stella Suzette Weakley.

“I was a real estate broker for about seven years, and actually got fired by some guy,” Lancaster admits, recounting how she and Weakley got together. “I had never been fired in my life and was shocked. I called Suzette – I had met her just once before – and went to work a real estate company she owns.”

From that sequence of workforce events, the two started playing music together. Weakley essentially served as Lancaster’s mentor, musical partner and teacher. Bobbie started by singing some background vocals when the two met at Weakley’s house.

“She had a little Contessa mandolin in her basement and said ‘Why don’t you pick this up, I’ll show you a few chords and see what you want to do with it’. When I picked up a mandolin, it just felt like I had been holding it forever,” Lancaster says.

“She taught me three chords, and I went home that night and I played until my fingers couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I iced them and I kept playing.”

On the Stella and Jane (with help from multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jeff Foster) album , Lancaster’s singing shines on the self-penned CSNY-ish “The Rain”, the bluesy, sassy, Hammond B3-drenched “Fast Car” and especially on “Low Down”, a shorter than three-minute pop-rocker, hinting at a healthy John Hiatt influence.

“I have been really open with everybody in Stella and Jane (about the new solo work). I have their support,” she says. “We just all care about each other an awful lot, and I think by being open and honest makes those conversations easier. I think they both understand I am just coming into my own right now.

“I’ve been thinking about cutting my own album for years, and my friends have asked me to do it for years, and I’m at this beautiful stage in my life where I feel like I’m ready,” she says.

Lancaster says she wants to have the album out before February, when she travels to the Memphis Folk Alliance.

In addition to her new solo record, Lancaster cut a new kids album, recording a recent WFHB live radio broadcast of her show. Children’s music is a burgeoning part of her musical career, and includes weekly musical sessions at four different preschools, and appearances at Central Indiana public libraries, performing for kids and parents.

“I know what I want, I’m happy with what I’m writing, and these amazing people have shown up in my life and wanted to help me do this,” she says, referring to her studio band, led by Scott Kellogg, “I’m feeling the love right now.”

And more than ever before, Bobbie Lancaster is coming out from behind the middle name. She seems willing to show us the soul – nurtured with piano lessons, surviving through the opportunity lost at IU, and allowed to blossom on the bumpy road that has followed – that she knew existed all along.

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Concert Review: Will Hoge Brings His Influences to Indianapolis

Will Hoge began the final night of his 2009 tour by sitting in a chair at the front of the stage, playing acoustic guitar. By show’s end Saturday night at Radio Radio, he was in full Pete Townshend windmill, testifying frontman mode. He was sweating, screaming and generally doing what Will Hoge does in a live setting: channeling his inner Petty and Springsteen to create Memphis via Nashville soulful rock and roll. And damn, if he isn’t about the best at what he does.

Ambling on stage in a white dress shirt, back vest, and black tie with an unbuttoned collar, Hoge dotted his 2 hour, 10-minute, 28-song show with songs from his five studio albums, leaning most heavily on his first (“Carousel”) and his latest (“the Wreckage”). Opening with the title cut to the new record – it served as a metaphorical reminder of the nearly year-long battle Hoge fought to recover from a serious scooter accident in August 2008, suffered on his way home from a studio session during the recording of the album.

While the sold-out show (a sign was posted on the front door of Radio Radio just before 8:30pm) pushed showgoers together and created a palpable energy of expectation, Hoge’s initial two songs, played seated, had much of the audience struggling to see the singer and dive into the moment. His voice is gritty, blue-eyed soul when he slows his music down, and his plaintive, tough yet-sensitive lyrics shine.

But with “Highway Wings” from the new record, Hoge stood up, the audience energy came with it, and the rock and roll began. The three song-suite, featuring the ultra-hooky “Secondhand Heart” and the rocker “She Don’t Care”, played to Hoge’s strengths: Petty-esque, anthemic pop/rock, dirtied up with loud Fender Telecaster rhythm and a band that fits nicely and loudly into the mix.

The sound at Radio Radio is always some of the best for any venue in the city, and this night was no exception, treating the audience to clean, crisp instrument separation: just the right thump of Adam Beard’s bass and Sigurdur Birkis’s drums (and they may be the best rhythm section I have seen in 2009), with dueling, jagged guitars, and vocals that rode just atop the mix. Nearly perfect.

Hoge and his band built energy in five or six song bursts, starting with an acoustic song or two before heating up the room with the electric guitars. As the band rocked Hoge would hold his blond Tele above his head, and lean backwards and sideways into the microphone to sing a lyric.

He mentioned how nice it was to have an audience that knew the words, and responded by playing “Heartbreak Avenue”, a song he said the band rarely tries, pulled from the “Carousel” album. “Favorite Waste of Time” had a Smithereens crunch to it, while “Better Off (Now that You’re Gone)” from his underappreciated “Blackbird on a Lonely Wire” album showcased the band’s ability to take a sugary rock song and infuse it with off-the-beaten-Nashville-path twang. Halfway through the show, it was evident Hoge was back. Sure, he sat a few times, either to rest or for effect. Either way was OK, because when he did stand, strap on the electric guitar, and rock, that’s the Will Hoge experience that most seemed to relish.

And you have to be proud of Indy to pack 500 or so into a club for a band whose music doesn’t fit neatly onto the radio in 2009. It’s a shame, a sham, and a pity; Hoge is the guy delivers energy and connection with his rock music, not to mention some great fuckin’ lyrics on top of the guitar snarls and snare snaps.

The staccato riffs of “Your Fool” revved the song and audience up, and the current radio song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” proved to be anthemic, as expected, singing about the powers of ambition filtered through the radio of a kid. It began a sweep into the back half of the show that found the audience finding their voice, and singing with Hoge.

The crowd knew and sang with “Ms. Williams”, the Elvis Costello-ish “Hard to Love” and laughed along with a story of him breaking into one of the band’s two hotel rooms to find the guitar and bass players on the web, watching video’s of 80’s heavy metal band the Scorpions..

Ending the set by sitting at the piano for “Too Late Too Soon”, Hoge and the band soon came back for a nine-song, end of tour blowout encore, channeling the Georgia Satellites, Todd Snider, The Faces and The Who as they sweated their way through “Just Like Me,” , Long Gone” and a beautiful “Highway’s Home” featuring guitarist Devin Malone on pedal steel.

Near the end. Hoge said the band was going to do a “social experiment” and took them into the back of the room, with only acoustic instruments, and sang and played unamplified, quieting the crowd with harmonies, before he jumped back on stage to perform a sublime, gospel-influenced, “Washed by the Water”. It found Malone moving over to play the keyboard, and eerily emulating a church organ. The audience sang the chorus back to Hoge as the singer waved and walked off the stage.

Will Hoge’s ability to rock and roll with aplomb and walk away with a big smile was a far cry from the days following his accident, after a van driver failed to yield and Hoge smashed into the side of the vehicle. He broke numerous ribs, his sternum, leg, knee cap, shoulder blades, and required more than 100 stitches. So it’s quite a distance traveled for Hoge. Just only once did he quickly mention how “tough it had been” before he fell back into his show, performing like he was glad to be back.

Great, up-close video from the show – November 21, 2009 at Radio Radio

Indiana Album Review: Shelby Kelley – “Alone”

I live in Indianapolis.  I love Indiana rock and roll.  Hoosier albums come my way a lot; through stories and review I write  for NUVO, and through unsolicited packages.   To call much of it Mellencamp infused and influenced would be far too simplistic. But much of the really good music from Indiana does contain  “Scarecrow” and “Lonesome Jubilee” echoes, even if only faintly heard. But there is usually some Petty.  It has Seger.  I even hear R.E.M influences in a lot of it.  Oh, and add some country shit too.  Maybe Cheap Trick, but then I think any great rock band that has come of age after 1981 is influenced in some way by Cheap Trick. – it’s one of my idiosyncrasies.  Whatever.  I can’t help it.   I could go on, but the more I think about it, the more I think I may be wrong.  There are those bands, but also weird, sensational, inspired surprises that come from the best Indiana artists, hidden – or not – in their music.

shelbykelley_albumShelby Kelley is probably known best in Indianapolis as a member of Creepin’ Charley and the Boneyard Orchestra, but here steps out on his own for a raw-but-clean solo album.

With the appropriately named “Alone”, Kelley gives us an acoustic guitar-based, Americana album, featuring Kelly’s voice, guitar and occasional harmonica as the only instruments. He strips down the garage rock of his Creepin’ Charley band, and crafts an intimate-yet-rocking solo record that showcases his folk rock side

Standing somewhere between Tom Petty and Robert Earl Keen, the record proves inviting and engaging, though the lyrics, despite some good lines, are always fighting to keep up with Kelley’s terrific rhythm guitar. If you are going to make a record as simple and basic as “Alone”, listeners need both memorable melodies and meaningful lyrics. There is no crash-bam-boom drums or gritty guitar solos to provide rescue. When Kelley’s music and lyrics do connect (“Based on a True Story”, “End of It All”, “Down This Road”), listener patience is rewarded.

“I Know” opens the record in a Petty “Free Fallin’ feel, with lyrics peering, from an outsider viewpoint, into the soul of girl’s lost innocence, while “Down This Road” is a country-tinged rocker, hinting that Kelley may have some Joe Ely cassettes at home. Kelley’s hard strumming rhythm guitar makes the tune one of the best on the album. The sweet harmonica solo in the middle is all the more powerful because of the sparse use of instruments on the record.

“End Of It All ” carries the record into the rough pop-rock hooks and Springsteen themes at which Kelley excels.

Kelley’s channels Pretender-era Jackson Browne on “Wish Upon Wish”, letting his voice become the leader; his California rock sound no more evident than here.

Part of the success of the record comes from the clarity-plus-fullness sound. Recorded without much evident reverb, there’s immediacy to the sound that helps pull a listener’s ears into the album. Recorded at Stable Studios in Spencer, Indiana and engineered by Michael Osborne, the production gives the album a sound much like a Kelley live solo show.

A bit less successful is “Camelot is Burning”. Not as pop-influenced as other songs, and tougher to instantly like, Kelley and Osborne add a bit of processing to the guitar, giving the song a different feel than the rest of the songs on the album. And the breakdown before each chorus effectively builds musical tension and becomes the tunes’ hook. Similar to “Dead End Skies” later it the record, they are two of the album’s songs that take more than one or two listens to find their heart

“Based on a True Story” ends the eight-song album with a powerful flourish. Again into Robert Earl Keen/Todd Snider territory, taking his shot at the story-song “Road Goes on Forever” template, it is one that works well for Kelley.

It’s the consistent energy and in-the-room sound produced from Shelby Kelley’s gut-grabbing three-chord guitar playing that gives “Alone” the needed push. It makes the full-yet-simple guitar and vocals record worthy of a listen for fans of Americana singer-songwriters.

Concert Review- Lucinda Williams at the Vogue – Indianapolis

Sliding into the spotlight as she walked on stage at the Vogue Theatre on Tuesday night (6.9.09), Lucinda Williams, with her now brunette-not-blonde hair, a flowing white long-sleeved blouse matched with a black vest, seemed relaxed. Maybe it was the confidence of supporting an excellent album (“Little Honey”) on the tour. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that her backing band (Buick 6) brings the rock and roll goods.
Or most likely, she knows just how good her songs really are.

Over the next two hours, Williams proceeded to rip through 25 songs from her stellar catalogue, and magic happened when it clicked; the band rocked, her glorious voice purred and shouted, and both left room for the music to breathe.

Lucinda Williams drew a full house for her show at the Vogue in Indianapolis
Lucinda Williams drew a near-capacity crowd to the Vogue for her show on Tuesday

The back half of the night was full of energy, scorching guitars, slamming drums and Williams’ high and lonesome rock voice. While many of her terrific relationship songs were loaded into the front of the show, there was the large crowd’s palpable, growing desire for the band and singer to catch fire together and elevate the energy level in the room.

After opening the concert with “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad”, and the island-flavored “Big Red Sun Blues”, both off her self-titled 1988 album, it was evident her band (who also played 35 minutes of rocking and nuanced instrumentals as the opening act) was well suited for Williams. They push her, just as her own lyrics and unique voice pull the band into moments of magic. They need each other.

“Can’t Let Go” was a pleaser, one of a half dozen songs she would play from “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”, her 1998 masterpiece that still stands as her crowning achievement. “Concrete and Barbed Wire” (also from that album) followed, giving the crowd gospel in the music and falsetto in her singing.

“Learning How to Live”, from 2007’s “West” record was a highlight of this early part of the show, with well-placed Hammond B3 keys, and Williams’ signature tough-as-hell-but still fragile delivery, The song contained echoes of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fade Away”. It was beautifully executed.

The new record’s “Tears of Joy” paid homage to a Stax/Al Green/Memphis groove and also got the first big audience response when the band ripped into the instrumental sections and turned the tune into fiery rock and roll, grabbing the crowd’s attention. “Are You Alright?” was beautiful, sung as a would-be lover pining for someone long gone, while “Ventura” had a 60’s pop feel, complete with a sublime Beach Boys-influenced background vocal.

Two off the “Gravel Road” record followed; “Jackson” was performed with stand-up bass and the anthemic “I Lost It” featured a vocal performance from Williams that one-upped the recorded version. At 56, Lucinda’s vocals sound better than ever live, and she wasn’t fearful of pushing her voice as the band roared behind her. The only time she was tough to hear was between songs late in the show when the crowd’s appreciative applause and screams drowned her out. When that happened, her big smile revealed that the noise was OK with her.

As Indianapolis was shown by Williams’ performance, two strengths head the list of her virtues as an artist: the consistent sexiness of her words and songs, and the depth of her material, both in individual tunes, and the cumulative effect of her output over the past 20 years.

Calling “Drunken Angel”, (another off of “Car Wheels on Gravel Road”) her version of Bob Seger’s “Beautiful Loser”, she swayed left to right and up and down as she played her guitar. The new album’s “Little Rock Star” had the feel of an epic as the momentum built.

Faith was rewarded as the show took flight over final seven songs of the set, beginning with the chiming “la la la’s” of “Out of Touch” from her 2001 album “Essence”, and into her recent single “Real Love”. Next came the driving country rocker “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar” from 2003’s “World Without Tears”, followed by the great, sexy kiss-off of “Come On”. That led into a roaring “Honey Bee” from her new album, which had the musicians in a tight circle at center stage, pounding their way through the rocker.

“Righteously” closed the set, featuring a buzzsaw guitar and lyrics showcasing essential Lucinda Williams attitude: honesty, a bit of anger, and always hinting that she’s one bad ass chick who can be yours if you could only figure out how to love both her charms and daggers.

The three-song encore proved a bit anti-climactic, saved by the AC/DC cover of “It’s a Long Way to the Top” that’s the last cut on her “Little Honey” record. A nearly full Vogue theater, damn good for weeknight, was acknowledged by Williams, obviously enjoying, and seemingly a bit surprised by, her crowd’s screaming warmth.

Indiana Roots-Rockers The Elms Set Album Release; with Henry French and Shameless in Indy Friday; Mellencamp Box Set, More

TheElms_street
The Elms hit the Rathskeller Friday with new album ("The Great American Midrange") finished

The Elms’ new studio album, “The Great American Midrange”,  is out on August 25 and will have 12 brand-new songs, recorded in Nashville and Seattle from February – April of this year. Their new single, “Back To Indiana”, will have its official premiere this Sunday on ABC during the national television broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 race

Of the local bands (regional bands?) that flip my Americana switch, they are one.  And they team with an up-and-coming band to hit the Rathskeller in downtown Indy Friday (5.22) night. The Elms just wrapped recording a new album, and are out playing tracks from it. More of their crunchy, literate heartland rock. Henry French and the Shameless open up. Check out their webpage, ’cause you may not be familiar with who they are.  If you are reading this, you will like it.

BONUS TIP: It is the outdoor biergarten with French from 7-8p and Elms rock from 8-11pm. Hands down, it is the best place to see live music in the summer. Stop arguing. Go see.  Good beer.

Patterson Hood (Drive-By-Trucker leader) releases his second solo record in June.
Drive-by-Trucker leader Hood releases second solo album

Summer Roots Rock album releases…and more to come.

JUNE 9
TODD SNIDER – THE EXCITEMENT PLAN
RHETT MILLER – RHETT MILLER

JUNE 23
TIFT MERRITT – BUCKINGHAM SOLO
LEMONHEADS – VARSHONS
PATTERSON HOOD – MURDERING OSCAR

JUNE 30
WILCO – WILCO (THE ALBUM)
LEVON HELM – ELECTRIC DIRT

JULY 7
SON VOLT – AMERICAN CENTRAL DIRT
THE JAYHAWKS – MUSIC FROM THE NORTH CO…

John Mellencamp will release a four-disc, 72-track box set titled “On the Rural Route 7609” this fall.  The number 7609 is a reference to the fact that the set spans Mellencamp’s entire recording career from 1976 to 2009. It will include a disc of early demo recordings, two discs of various versions of well-known songs and previously unreleased songs, and a fourth disc that will include different versions of other material. It is estimated that 65-75% of the material on the box set will be previously unreleased recordings, whether they are demos or alternate versions of familiar songs or songs that were never released for one reason or another.

indiana_telecaster_flag150INDIANA AMERICANA: Stella and Jane
Even when comparing artists to other similar-sounding bands, there seems to be a musical flavor that runs through many of the artists who come from Indiana.  A lack of pretension.  A small, almost unnoticable degree of dirty rock in the sound.  And usually a nod (or more) to some kind of 60 or 70’s rock sound, even from today’s younger bands.

Stella and Jane are Stella  Weakly and Bobbie Jane Lancaster, based in Bloomington, and with harmonies Indigo Girl-like. But there is far more twang from these two (and the band that comes along) than to stop with that comparison.  Soulful, folky and even three-chord rockish in places, the album “On With the Show” also features multi-instrumentalist Jeff Foster.