Suwannee Springfest, Live Oak, FL (concert review)

(recently published in Relix; direct link)

Suwannee Springfest, March 22-25, Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, FL

Hippies and hillbillies, and plenty of other folks who wouldn’t fit anyone’s stereotype of a fan of non-commercial music, gathered in the north Florida woods for the 16th annual Springfest, held on a sprawling, scenic campground near the Suwannee River. On tap: another laidback weekend of acoustic music and bluegrass, with strains of rock, blues, jazz, jamband, and even a novelty act (the manic Tornado Rider, with his strap-on electric cello).

A steady rain on much of Saturday dampened spirits a bit, but the fest nevertheless presented untold hours of music on a half-dozen stages over four days. Hardcore pickers were out in force, with much instrumental virtuosity on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, and upright bass demonstrated by multiple musicians, including a large contingent from Colorado. The Emmitt-Nershi Band, one such act, turned in favorites including “Restless Wind,” “Wait Until Tomorrow,” and “Colorado Bluebird Sky.”

Also plying multiple strains of music via traditional instruments were Greensky Bluegrass, who worked Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” into their set; the Infamous Stringdusters, with such tunes as the hard-stomping “Get It While You Can”; and fiddle man Darol Anger & the Republic of Strings, who capped their lively performance with a version of “Uncle John’s Band” begun a cappella. Similarly, headliners Yonder Mountain String Band turned in infectious versions of “Rag Doll,” “Blue Collar Blues” and “Southern Flavor”; and during their superjam, with as many as 19 on stage at once, they slipped into the Talking Heads’ “Girlfriend is Better.”

The plugged-in bands, including fest regulars Donna the Buffalo, were impressive, too. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s rootsy rock crunch fueled originals and memorable covers of New Orleans staple “Hey Pocky Way,” Hendrix’s “Stone Free,” and Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” Concertgoers were particularly keen on Great American Taxi, led by singer and guitarist/mandolin player Vince Herman. The quintet, its sound and vibe on “Poor House,” “Fuzzy Little Hippie Girl” and other tunes referencing such influences as the Dead, the Band, and Bob Dylan, welcomed Atlanta singer-guitarist Donna Hopkins on stage for a rousing “Everything Money Can’t Buy.” Her voice — bluesy, soulful, and raspy — was among the most powerful and memorable heard at the fest.

Goodbye, Levon. We’re Really Gonna Miss You

Levon Helm, the ex- Band drummer and solo artist, is in the final stages of life, or he may already have passed. I’m SO glad I got to see him play Jazz Fest in 2010, with so many special guests. And yet so sad that his personality and musicianship will no longer be present on earth.

Levon — he always felt like a friend, although we never met — was such a great drummer with a tremendous feel for rock ‘n’ blues and roots styles, always expressing such great joy to be behind that kit, driving his bandmates to ever higher musical peaks, and singing in that distinctive countrified style of his.

And he was so inspiring – coming back from throat cancer to make a career renaissance with several great albums, including Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, and singing again despite the odds.

Selfishly, I wish that he had lived long enough for me to see him play one of those storied midnight rambles in upstate NY. That was on my bucket list. Seriously.

Here’s to you, Levon, to a peaceful passing into the next world.

Condolences to those families, friends, fans, and musical colleagues you have left behind.

I wrote about Levon’s appearance at Jazz Fest 2010, as part of my review for Billboard. It’s here.

Charles P. Pierce’s column on Esquire’s site (here) is well worth reading.

The Rodriguez Brothers at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, NYC (concert review)

(recently published at; direct link)

There’s nothing like an in-house support system to inspire artists to great performances, and the Rodriguez Brothers benefited from just such an advantage on the final night of their engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The siblings’ drummer father was in attendance, as were a pair of Latin-jazz bass legends, Andy Gonzalez and John Benitez. As if the lush environs of the packed 140-seat club, on the fourth floor of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex next to Columbus Circle, with its picture-view backdrop of Central Park and twinkling Manhattan lights, weren’t inspiration enough.

Pianist Rob Rodriguez sounded the first notes of the set opener, a simmering “Gitmo’s Groove,” which he penned for his dad; trumpeter Mike Rodriguez took the melody. Following a piano solo which included a quick quote of “If I Only Had a Heart,” and a trumpet solo, the tune broke down to a rhythm section groove with bassist John Patitucci and percussionist Pedrito Martinez before rebuilding with Jeff “Tain” Watts’ solo. “Guayaquil,” another Rob Rodriguez composition, a nod to the Ecuadorean hometown of the brothers’ mother (“which makes us Cubadoreans,” he said), opened with Patitucci bowing, then plucking his way into a punchy groove. Rob’s solo was a gem—lush chordings shifted into short question-like phrases segueing into a climb up the keyboard, and some contrapuntal left-hand action; the tune evolved into a feature for Martinez, and closed with a long fade-out.

“Lulu’s Song,” another piece Rob penned for his mom, featured a poignant melody and an extended solo spot for Patitucci, who turned in a slowly unreeling series of artfully linked statements. The oft-recorded bassist is taken for granted too often; live, he remains a show stealer, a virtuoso with a knack for the right lines, every time out.

The remainder of the set was similarly engaging. Mike Rodriguez’s “Rude Awakening,” an uptempo bop burner, offered several tete-a-tete moments: the trumpeter and the pianist—the pianist and the drummer; the bassist and the drummer—and concluded with well-taken open space for Watts. The siblings capped the proceedings with a relaxed take on the Cuban chestnut “The Peanut Vendor,” led by Mike’s elongated notes, with a harmon mute on his trumpet. At one point, the pianist and the trumpeter traded solo lines, shadowing each other, then tracing over each other’s phrases. The Rodriguez brothers’ relationship comes off as musically symbiotic. Thankfully, they let listeners into their world.

Trampled By Turtles, “Stars and Satellites” (CD review)

(Recently published in Relix; direct link)

Trampled By Turtles, Stars and Satellites (Thirty Tigers/RED)

The Stars and Satellites track “Alone,” with its flickering guitar, mandolin and banjo, gorgeous vocal harmonies and nature imagery, feels like a peaceful respite under the open sky before suddenly turning intense, with a burr-edged cello spurring on the other instruments.

As Trampled By Turtles singer/guitarist Dave Simonett has suggested, the music breathes in part because it was recorded live during a weeklong stint at a log cabin in the woods outside of Duluth, Minn. The Minnesota quintet, which shares jamgrass tendencies with Railroad Earth, offers rich acoustic quietude on tunes such as “Midnight on the Interstate,” “High Water,” “Widower’s Heart,” “Beautiful” and “The Calm and the Crying Wind.”

But these onetime electric players still crank it up, as demonstrated on two-beat stomper “Walt Whitman,” as well as on “Risk” and “Sorry”—neither of which contain board-game references.

Esperanza Spalding, “Radio Music Society” (CD review)

(recently published in Relix; direct link)

Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society (Heads Up)

Esperanza Spalding follows up the Grammy winning Chamber Music Society with a rangier CD that ought to bring her to the attention of an even wider audience. Radio Music Society is probably too sophisticated to fit comfortably into any traditional radio format, although it touches on several, including mainstream jazz, R&B and funk.

The quiet, strings-enhanced balladry of “Cinnamon Tree” follows the bouncy “Radio Song,” laden with horns and vocal harmonies. Later, she connects with West African guitarist Lionel Loueke and the Savannah Children’s Choir for “Black Gold.”

She slips into Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” with sometimes boss Joe Lovano on tenor and taps Q-Tip for both “Crowned & Kissed” and “City of Roses,” which is a salute to her hometown of Portland, Ore.