Flanfire (Duggan Flanakin) is bringing LIFE to Austin music -- and telling the world how sweet it is!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Steve Ulrich Back in Austin!

Longtime Austinite Steve Ulrich (aka Steve Convenience, Zeus Muldoon, Steve Duckfoot) moved a few years ago first to Guatemala (where he met his lovely wife Elizabeth) and then to Portland, Oregon (her hometown), where he has found numerous venues and written many new songs. Steve will be making a rare appearance in Austin at Cafe Caffeine on March 28th, with Beth Richard starting off the evening with some of her new piano-friendly songs. Steve will be showcasing tunes from his brand-new CD, "Break on Through" (and yes, he DOES cover the infamous Doors song).

Once again, Steve has teamed with famed bassist and producer Brian Beattie (Glass Eye, Okkervil River, etc.), this time to make what Steve calls "nouveau skiffle" music -- live takes with two tracks on analog tape. Eight of the tunes are his own, including "Dishdraining Blues" and "Someone Like You," with "George and Martha" and "Banks of Jordan" from Mark Ambrose, "Blue of the Evening" from Paul Sanchez, and "Fall Down" by Matt Meighan. Longtime pal Emerson Roberts is on drums here, all the way from Montana, with Richard Parke and Jason Richard sharing guitar duties. Jonathan Meiburg played banjo on "Break on Through," and Scott Marcus added a few drum tracks.

I first heard Steve on a regular basis back at the OLD Hole in the Wall in 2001-02 -- he was my daughter Susan's favorite singer. Hilarity with a social conscience marked songs like "Westernman," "Salamanderman" and "Swedes of Minnesota." Plus, of course, Steve was always talking about subatomic particles for peace -- and loving people around him. Steve is also using his concerts these days to raise support for street kids in Guatemala.

Craig Marshall: The King of Austin Pop!

I was so excited to learn that Craig Marshall had completed work on his self-produced CD, "Point of View" -- with Jon Notarthomas on lead guitar and vocals, John Thomasson on basses -- with drums and percussion by Jason McKenzie and Jeff Botta (alternating tracks), keyboard help from Derek Morris and Sam Lipman, some steel guitar from Charlie Richards, and harmony vocals on one track by Jo Beth Henderson. Craig, of course, is also the lead singer in the jazz swing cover band The Lucky Strikes (he is also a fine guitarist!) -- but since hearing his pop songs years ago at the now-defunct Woody's South, I have admired his pop songwriting.

This THIRD solo CD (after "Popular Crimes" and "Before the Fadeaway") includes some of my all-time favorites, led by "Lost in Space" and"Radio Girl," but all of the songs are singable, catchy tunes that bring back that feeling that anything is possible for those with a song in their hearts. "Why IS everything so difficult?" for people to recognize that this guy is writing songs as good as Lennon and McCartney? "I Know What It's Like" just marches along until the very end, when Craig slows it down (catch the harmonies!) before the final explosion that makes you want to mimic the Butabi brothers and their headshake.

"When the Camera's On You" slows it down (Ricky Stein should steal this song) so you can focus on the lyrics -- "hiding in the negative, quickly gets repetitive, something's gonna have to give, I know, you know .. the camera's on you ..." And, really, it always is. "When You Come Back Down" just has to be sung by the whole HOUSE FULL of people, "Will you remember me, when you come back down?" This is a true HIT SONG! If you liked, "That Thing You Do," you gotta have this record!

"Paper Cut" is a true ballad -- sounds like the 1950's and feels like dancing at the prom. Live, you cry out for a real piano solo -- why wasn't this song in any of those Sixteen Candles movies? [the whole genre?] You get to kiss the girl at the end of this one -- to heal the hurt -- "now that we've had some time, now that we seem to know, now you can let your mind get some rest." Just wonderful!

But next up is "Lost in Space," complete with sound effects -- and that great signature riff! "It's right between the reds and greens in life that you're floating through." Another song you just have to sing along with -- and light a candle! This is date music! Especially for the long-wed! Okay -- "Radio Girl" is just as special -- another jukebox necessity! This is another one that the whole crowd just stands up close to the stage and bounces up and down to the music -- and shouts out the lyrics back to the band.

Then there's the title cut -- great harmonies -- almost Beach Boys half an octave lower but with a little Beatles psychedelia mixed in -- and yet, some of the lyric structure hearkens back even earlier to 1950's style harmonies (can you say Four Freshmen?). But squeeze your sweetie stuff to be sure. Thankfully, "One Face in the Crowd" just flat out rocks -- vintage style. [How often do I start thinking "Revolver"?] Last (but there IS no least here) we get a "Small Reminder," one of those songs you just stop dancing to and just squeeze her tight. Reminds me of the Hollies (did I leave anybody out in my quest to get across the fact that this is great great pop music?)

Once more -- this is absolutely the perfect record to put on when you and the one you love are stuck at home on a rainy day. And be sure to thank Craig for the great memories .... BUY THIS!

But Wait! There's More!

The amazing Molly Venter, a New Englander who has spent time in Idaho (as did her singer-songwriter brother Josiah), just returned to Austin (and Body Choir!) from a long stay in Mexico with a brand-new record almost here (but with a five-song preview that made me fall in love with her music). "Shaky Ground" opens up, but then there is the title cut, "Love Me Like You Mean It." Sorry -- no Molly dates to report, but keep an eye out. Her songs cut like a knife.

Cranes of the Republic -- which bills itself as a band comprised of a high-pitched-singing choir boy, an apathetic giant, a lanky jew who runs charities, and an A.D.D. drummer. How can you not like "I Found Happiness on the Radio"? I also liked "Two Pair," which is posted on their myspace page. This band is just getting started -- and getting noticed. Meanwhile, An Even 3 (AE3) and TheHeroCycle (the twin bands of Althea Capra and Griffin Yu - electric and acoustic, respectively) also handed out demo EP's during SXSW week. Look for giant leaps forward for these and other young Austin bands (for example, The Fireants) in the coming months.

Okay -- I have CD's from Austin Collins (sure, he's from Dallas, but he does record for Austin's own Fat Caddy Records) and the one and only Izzy Cox ["Love Letters from the Electric Chair"]. And more to come. And, yes, I forgot to mention an entire day's worth of great music I heard last week. Or for that matter, last night's trip to the Hole in the Wall to see the Shake Em Ups! But as always there is so much more to see than time to see it, and so much that just gets trimmed at the cutting table of time.

Flanfire -- Bringing LIFE to Austin music.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Blastbeat: A Gift from Ireland!
About a decade ago, Irish music promoter Robert Stephenson had had enough of the grimy London music scene -- so he cleaned up his own act and began working with youngsters just starting out as live performers. Did pretty well, too -- but there was still this nagging feeling that he could do more. He had an idea for starting a nonprofit to teach kids the music business from the ground up -- but sat on it for years .... until he got this e-mail from a young singer-songwriter.

Rory Griffin had just finished his own program in music management with a heavy focus on youth. Stephenson immediately recognized his prayers for a partner had been answered ... and the rest is history in the making. Starting in Ireland, but already in South Africa, Belgium, and several U.S. cities (now including Austin), Blastbeat (which is seeking nonprofit status here and elsewhere, while Blastspace is a for-profit arm) works with high schoolers who create and manage Music & Multimedia Companies who earn money organizing concerts using the talents of photographers, videographers, journalists, sales and marketing managers, talent scouts, and of course a CEO.

Irish bands Steer Clear and HotStop.

The MMC's compete for prizes, as do the bands they recruit for their concert events (battles of the bands). Winners in both categories have a chance to fly to Ireland for the world finals -- and recording contract offers. Judging is done by industry professionals (chosen at the local level by the MMC's, but at higher levels by Blastbeat personnel). The kids earn money while learning entrepreneurship skills and trying out professions they may enter as adults and also participate in helping others by donating 25 percent to charitable activities such as MyLife in South Africa and 2WinAid in Sri Lanka. Blastbeat has had corporate sponsorship in Ireland from Coca-Cola and similar support in other nations as well. Sister site Blastspace.com is where the bands can post their profiles and music, the MMC's can promote their shows, and fans can log on and listen -- and comment.
Stephenson brought two Irish bands to Austin for a showcase on Saturday at Freddie's on South First Street. Belfast's Steer Clear was a world finalist two years ago -- now they are playing gigs all over Ireland and the United Kingdom; Hotstop, from Wicklow, Ireland, won this year's world competition. Stephenson also invited several teen bands from Austin to share the stage as part of the marketing effort -- Blues Mafia, The Daze (just done with their work in "Will"), Cranes of the Republic, and Super Pal Universe (a band put together by Sara Hickman as part of a broader vision).

Bands gathered at Freddie's; Patrick and Sasha (Blues Mafia) with Evan Butts (The Daze); Blastbeat's Ryan Sweeney with The Daze.

Earlier on Saturday, I stopped by to catch a set from the wonderful Tommy Womack (with my pal Brett Staggs of Slowtrain on drums), the Nashville-based writer of intelligent, quirky songs about life as a singer-songwriter father and husband trying to sort out meaning after the dream has died (rock stardom, that is). Jovita's inside and outside was a big sardine can all day.

Later, I went back to Cafe Caffeine to show my friend Robert even MORE teenaged music makers from the Live Music Capital -- Althea Capra and Griffin Yu (as TheHeroCycle and with Kelvin Stewart and Jackson as An Even 3), a band called Girl in the Closet, and the amazing Mother Falcon, featuring three cellists and the songs of Nick Gregg (second from right). All in all, a very satisfying SXSW week -- including a special Deja Vu Friday afternoon at Bull McCabe's Irish Pub with Slowtrain, Bryce Clifford, Ricky Stein, and the duo of B. Sterling Archer and Nicolette Manglos. Special turned to phenomenal on the duo's last number, as they were joined by their bandmates on a brand-new song -- and by the legendary Beatle Bob!

Flanfire -- Bringing LIFE to Austin music.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Only Tragedy: Nathan's Still a Sideshow!

Nathan Singleton; Justin Wade Thompson and Jeremy Harrell (the Sideshow Tragedy); Sam and Ruby (from Nashville); Dustin and Savannah Welch.

It's not every week you get to see the same band blow your head off twice! And you can hardly wait until round 3. I stayed out till 2 am on Monday to finally catch a set from Nathan Singleton and His Sideshow Tragedy, then got a second shot of White Lightning Wednesday night at Ego's -- who needs a massage?

This band is pure Texas. Nathan hails from Tyler, admits to ripping his resonator collector dad off for the two jewels (a National 1933 and a National 1938), and oh yeah has a brother named Hunter Thompson Singleton. Maybe a sign that he should team up with Justin Wade Thompson and his Rickenbacker bass, his acrobatic energy, and his poetic passion -- and with Jeremy Harrell on drums (whom Nathan met up with at Texas A & M Commerce and played with in the band Myna) flailing away with punch after punch to set the pace.

I am not even going to try to explain this band to you (just read the stuff on their myspace page) -- because this is all about energy and emotion -- and, yes, the juxtaposition of the rhythms of Robert Johnson and Chris Whitley (for starters) against the artistry of Ingmar Bergman and Arthur Rimbaud (for example) filtered through this Texas trio makes for toe-tapping, brain-rattling music that challenges body and soul alike. Whether it is a re-telling of the story of Stagger Lee or an innocent "Fishing Song," or even one of the rarer ballads, you just keep wanting more of this band -- their energy, showmanship, and sheer talent.

Another way of saying it -- Nathan Singleton is the male counterpart of fellow East Texan Michelle Shocked. The new CD, "Borrowed Guitars, Unwound Hearts, and Broken Strings" will be out soon. So why are these guys [or Jeremy Nail, who also played Momo's on Monday, or Dustin Welch - see below] not playing major festivals?

Probably because the Lords of SXSW, Austin City Limits, and (yes) Famecast (etc.) are too busy fawning over manufactured celebrities. Take, for example, the outstanding live show from Stubbs by REM (broadcast live on KUT and many NPR stations worldwide) -- four other bands (one with Rain Phoenix), none of which is from the "live music capital of the world." If SXSW is supposed to be an Austin music showcase, what up? Despite the ravings of the press, the Papercranes were nowhere near as good (at least on radio) as half the Austin bands I saw last week. I'd like to do an "Austin Unlimited" show featuring Austin bands and solo performers juxtaposed against counterparts from other American cities -- genre by genre. Meanwhile, our own musicians -- the guys and gals who make the scene that is the backdrop for SXSW and ACL -- are far more popular in Europe and even Japan than on local radio.

But I digress. Momo's on Sunday had me hanging out to watch the Belleville Outfit (who did get to play ONE song at the Austin Music Awards show on Wednesday). Back to Momo's on Monday for CandiLand, then Dan Dyer's friends from Nashville Sam and Ruby (who was also Dustin Welch's high school classmate), who made me think differently about Nashville music thanks to their wonderful acoustic set (backed by cello and violin). I even went on myspace and checked out the Spiritual Family Band (also from Music City), more folks Dustin knows who are making beautiful music up there.

And then the fun began -- Dustin brought out his full band PLUS cellist Brian Standefer and literally blew the doors off Momo's (okay, they opened up and we all froze but loved it!). And what a band - Tricia Keefer on fiddle, Kyle Ellison on guitar (and yes this was his brother Sims' birthday), Drew Smith on acoustic guitar and vocals, Joe Humel on drums, and Joe Beckham on bass -- plus sister Savannah on vocals and Dustin on banjo, Gibson, and resonator. The "Whiskey Priest" quickly sold out of the five-song EP he had made just for SXSW week (more were on the way) after bringing the "Poor House" down. From "Empty Parking Lots" to "Idaho Moon," the brother-sister harmonies (plus Drew) just added to the zeitgeist. Dustin even threw in a Swindlers' song (that's his old Nashville band with Justin Earle, who would be in town later in the week) and an Irish murder ballad for good measure. The full CD will be out in May.

This musical journey report, though, goes back even further, to a cold Friday night at Austin Java with a very warm set from the wonderful Jean Synodinos (and later an even colder set by Blues Mafia at Junior's Ice House in Round Rock -- which on a warmer night would be a super venue, thanks to the food and the fine outdoor stage). On Saturday, it was more comfort food at Waterloo Ice House with music by Ruby Jane backed by Jim Stringer, David Carroll and an awestruck (see photo) Kim Deschamps.

Then it was back to Blues Mafia Sunday evening at Jovita's -- but not the usual lineup. Movie stars Kai Roach and Chris Copeland were late to the gig -- which opened with a blazing set from James Bullard with movie star Gary Clark, Jr., on drums. Drummer James Wiseman stepped in for Copeland, and Roach's slot was filled by a music teacher from Anderson High [see photo], and movie star Evan Butts sat in on harmonica for a song or two, to the delight of Mafiosa Sasha Zoe and Max Frost (not shown).

Now on Thursday afternoon, I was privileged to assist Lifeworks and Cafe Caffeine by recommending a few of my friends to share their outdoor stage. Opening up was Austin newcomer (just in from Seattle and holding her Billboard jazz song of the year trophy in her hand) Alyse Black -- a redheaded piano player with a goofy song or two in her cupboard and a smile as big as (well) her generous heart. Next up was Nicolette Manglos, backed by multi-talented (standup bass, lap steel, electric guitar, and trumpet) B. Sterling Archer. Nicolette is finding time to promote her newly released CD while working on her Ph. D.

Even newer to Austin (by a week) was the third performer, Carrie Engdahl, who will surely win audiences over with her infectious smile and songs "about boys" and other topics, too. This New Jerseyan reminded me a little of fellow New Jersey native Mary Chapin Carpenter (who after all wrote "Passionate Kisses" made famous by our own Lucinda Williams). Both Alyse and Carrie have been writing songs like crazy since getting to Austin (and both are posting these new songs You Tube style on their myspace pages). Carrie on Thursday performed "Red Light Kisses," which maybe she wrote while waiting eternally at one of Austin's infamous intersections. You can find Alyse singing "Who Am I" (in her own words) like a 14-year-old on her myspace. And did I mention that Nicolette is also a gifted pianist (as is Alyse)? Later, Stefanie Fix and Jenifer Jackson (with Billy Doughty helping) blessed the (too sparse) crowd with their wonderful songs.

Closing out a long afternoon, my mom and I (yes, she had enjoyed five hours of great songwriter music!) trekked over to Ming's for some great spinach stir-fry and equally great music hosted by impresario Matt Hubbard. Had to leave before Suzanna Choffel's set, but did get to hear my good buddy Kevin Carroll (backed by Mike Meadows on percussion) and also the wonderful songwriter Lee Duffy (backed by Will Sexton) -- how sweet that was!

Flanfire -- Bringing LIFE to Austin music.

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