Monday, November 24, 2014

Ken Wenzel - Beneath Potomac Skies

I frequently become myopic by allowing myself to focus on new music created in East Nashville because (1) it's often great and (2) much of it is available for live listening nearby.

Yet, I believe I do a pretty good job of pulling up and keeping my eyes on the horizon for new music from all over the place. In 2014, one place from which I've gleaned a good bit of new music is our nation's capital: Washington DC.

Ken Wenzel (web | Twitter) is part of that contingent and recently released his first, full-length album ...Beneath Potomac Skies

Like many Federal government processes in DC, Wenzel has had a bit of convoluted trek to end up in the District as his current home.

He grew up a Midwestern kid from Illinois playing saxophone from middle through high school. He then went to Las Vegas to major in jazz studies. The next decade took him all over the place as a hired-gun sax player. After being typecast a bit, he broke his own mold so to speak. He took up guitar, expanded his professional music offerings and relo'd to the beltway.

As someone who wanted to break from the stereotype of what a saxophonist is expected to sound like, he accomplished that goal with a lot of diversity in his compositions on the album. A few songs have a pop feel. Others with fiddle and pedal steel guitar fit nicely within the Americana genre. Another one or two could just as easily been recorded on 16th Avenue in Nashville rather than in a DC 'burb. Across the 12 tracks, the album is an impressive debut - a debut by someone who has been performing professionally for about 15 years!

A few highlights from the album include...

Red Letter Days - Wenzel recaps what it's like to attempt a relationship reconciliation after months away playing gigs and tending bar - in this case aboard a cruise ship.

To watch you turn and walk away
It's like watching sunlight fade away
We'll be together one day
After all this ends
We can live the red letter days again

(Let's See) What Happens on the Highway - Road Trip! As recorded, this song has almost a contemporary country feel to it with a nice blend of fiddle, bass, drums and guitar.

Fire it up and drop the top
Point in west and never stop
The whole wide world is waiting girl
Let's see it our way 
No more pressure, no more work
Forget the boss man, he's a jerk
We'll leave all that stuff behind us in the driveway
There's magic in the backwoods and the byways
Let's see what happens on the highway

The Wisdom of Flowers - Perhaps my favorite track of the album. The previous song, Caving In, is a quick-paced one with contrasting references to a picture-perfect sunlit day, some morning regrets of the night before, and an acceptance of the 'new norm' as a DC resident. As it ends, The Wisdom of Flowers then begins with a completely different sound and dark vibe. Wenzel's newer-found guitar picking skills opens the track followed soon by the haunting sounds of pedal steel guitar and rhythmic brushes on a snare.

There's no need to argue now
There's no need to talk about our faults
And there's no need to talk about the vines outside my window choking off
Choking off the daylight
Like I'm slowly choking on my own resolve

Come Read My Heart - This uptempo song opens with some great dobro and banjo work. Wenzel's lyrics are based on the book Ten Sisters: A True Story. The book (and the song) tells the remarkable story of 10 sisters separated as kids in 1942 but who found one another decades later.

The album closes with a song titled Unbroken. Appropriately, Wenzel returns to his roots with an extended saxophone solo - though within a musical arrangement likely different than he played with others over a 10-year span. But that's just a generalization on my part - didn't mean to stereotype anyone there.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sharing a Six Pack with Charlie Harrison

I continue to be amazed by the professional talent I glean from Couch By Couchwest each March. During that 8-day span:
  • I slack, 
  • I eat tacos.
  • I celebrate French Toast Friday. 
  • I drink beer.
  • I tweet.
Meanwhile, most of the folks who provide music videos for CXCW have fun with it and use it as a legit platform (as they should) to intro folks to their music.

Charlie Harrison (web | Twitter) fits in that category. He has performed as a band member and as a solo artist. His latest venture is with a new band named Charlie And The Regrets. The band has just released its debut four-song EP titled New Night (iTunes).

Harrison and his bandmates packed their debut with a couple of upbeat cuts - one rowdy and one with a bit of biting commentary about The Man - and a couple of genuine, country ballads. The band's "sound" is best experienced live in a small Texas bar. Capturing that sound is a tough recording challenge. The band recorded the four cuts in a room above Harrison's garage on a Sunday afternoon. When the session was completed, all seemed to be satisfied with a result that is comparable to what one might hear in their live show.

I had the opportunity to share a six pack ... of questions ... with Harrison that went a little something like this.

TMC: Country music - especially out of Nashville - seems to be constantly fluid with many flavors-of-the-month acts having a polarizing effect. Hat acts, bro country, gals bordering on pop, etc. Folks either truly love these folks or have a passionate dislike for them. Yet, Texas-style country has seemed very consistent over the years. I'm not sure if you agree with that generalization. But if so, what influences your songwriting and performing - particularly when you and the band intend to sell music and perform outside of Texas and even the US?
CH: When I turn on the radio, I wonder if anyone will remember any of what they will be playing in 15 years. This used to bother me, but I have gotten a little more zen about it. It's not music that does anything for me, but if it makes someone else feel something then great. I’m glad they have it.

That said, I think that you are right about the consistency in Texas music tastes. A lot of that comes from Texas culture which says “I don’t really give a damn about what people are doing in places that aren't Texas”. So we still have radio stations that play Texas music, and people hold onto the really great heritage we have here. One benefit of being a little self-obsessed is that we keep our musical legacy as part of our identity and won’t swap it out for the hottest new thing. People here still speak of Guy and Townes with reverence.

As far as the band, we do have big plans. And while it can be discouraging to try to figure out how we might fit in with what is popular today, I am inspired by bands/artists such as Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Hayes Carll, Ray LaMontagne, etc. who are continuing to make the quality of music we aspire to and play to large audiences across the country and around the world without much attention from radio, etc.

Lastly, I think tastes ebb and flow. People loved Waylon Jennings and the other outlaws because they were doing something different from mainstream artists of their day. Today Willie, Waylon and the boys are still relevant whereas some of more fluid acts of their time are not. At some point, I think people will begin to gravitate back to rawer country music when they have had their fill of the other stuff.

Just in case, I am working on a song about going to the lake in my truck with a rap breakdown.
TMC: All four songs on the EP have a 'full' band sound. This makes sense with the EP being a Charlie And The Regrets release. What are some things you've learned about going from an individual performer to a member of a band?
CH: When I was playing as an individual performer, I wrote the songs and put together the arrangements. When we put together band shows, I would book musicians and tell them the parts I wanted them to play.

I got some experience working collaboratively with a band I played with in Virginia (Charlie and The Contraband), but that project came to an end right about when we were finding our footing.

As we put together The Regrets, all of a sudden there were multiple ideas about how we play and what we should do. It was hard and great.

On Start a Company we spent hours arguing about two little breaks in the solo section that most listeners probably won’t pick up on. At the time it was frustrating, but it is awesome to be a part of something that Gregg [Daildeda, drums], Mitch [Burman, bass] and Willy feel passionately enough about to fight for.

The other cool thing that has happened is that as we continue writing, the other guys are bringing in more musical ideas that would not have occurred to me. So what I might have written as a three-chord song gets taken somewhere else new and cool.
The video for the band's first single Baytown was recorded by Harrison's brother at Houston's The Rose Garden, a 60 year-old beer joint near his house.

TMC: On Baytown, I sense hints of John Anderson and Hayes Carll. And if I heard Start A Company on a Todd Snider record, I might make the mistake of thinking he'd written it. Are those fair comparisons? Who are some singers and artists who influence your songwriting?
CH: I didn’t mean to be so transparent, but you nailed them. My buddy Taylor (Western Youth) introduced me to Near Truths and Hotel Rooms when we were playing bars together in Austin, and I have loved Todd Snider ever since. I sort of stalk him. I grabbed Elvis (his road manager) at a show in Virginia and gave him a demo. Then to make sure, I figured out Todd’s address in Nashville and sent one to his house. I don’t know what I thought he would do with them, but for some reason I felt compelled to have him listen to my songs.

Hayes Carll got a similar treatment at a show in Washington, DC. He was very nice about it, but even if he hadn't been I would still be a big fan. Trouble In Mind is on the turntable right now.

Hayes and Todd really inspire me with the way they have connected with fairly broad audiences while singing about whatever was on their minds including everything from love to war and being Mike Tyson's Main Man.

I listen to those guys all the time so I suppose it makes sense that they bleed through to what I write.

I am also influenced by the usual suspects of Texas music: Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, etc. Max Stalling and Bruce Robison’s last few records play a lot in my house.

TMC: You told me New Night, the EP's title track, is the band's favorite. What is it about the song that has put it at the head of the pack for the four of you (other than the high probability you'll have some nice tight jeans slow dancing in front of you)?
CH: New Night was one of those songs that seemed to be birthed more than written. It came together quickly and felt right. It's pretty simple musically and lyrically, but nothing feels forced or artificial to us. As we were putting it together, I was imagining one of my heroes singing it on a record in the 70’s, and I like to think it would fit in then. It is a crowd favorite now.

Also, we recorded all of New Night live with the exception of Willy’s vocal, which we would have recorded live if I had more than eight channels in the home studio (I am working on that). I really like the vibe that we captured and the fact that what you hear is honest to what we do.

TMC: Willy T, the band's lap steel guitarist, is an amazing talent with a unique sound - particularly on Start A Company. Did you work with him on his arrangements to closely match the song's lyrics and pace? I'm curious if y'all just turned him loose during the recording sessions with rough recordings in his headphones.
CH: Willy T is great. He plays with a few bands in the area (The Broken Spokes, Sean Reefer and others), and I am glad he decided to be part of this. We have been playing a lot together over the last year so we had ideas about what we would track. We tracked New Night and Ease Away live, but we did go back and spend a lot time on the lap steel part on Start a Company.

The idea was to get some interaction between the vocals and the lap steel, and I hope we did that. We spent more time over at his house recording this part than we did tracking anything else (so I am glad you noticed it). Going forward we want to continue to bring out Willy so that the lap steel is more part of the frame of the song.

TMC: I'm sure you'll be out supporting the EP in various joints, and you've got solo material to add to a set list as well. But what else would folks expect to hear when they seek out a Charlie and the Regrets show?
CH: We play Regrets material (including tracks that we didn’t cut for the EP) as well as few of the solo tunes with a bit of a different flavor. I think that we sort of walk a country/rock line with a few of the tunes, a la Drive By Truckers etc. Recently we have been fortunate to be joined by a great guitarist Blake Thames on some shows which allows us to expand on what we had been doing in our own songs.

We are having fun with some long road house gigs where we are playing for 3 hours. So we have added a few covers into the library including stuff like “Feel Alright” (Steve Earle) and our version of “Gotta Get Drunk”. For the most part, we try to stay away from the stuff everyone has heard a million times. At the end of the day though, I know a reference point can be helpful to somebody in the audience.

TMC: Wait! How 'bout one more for the road! Have y'all played behind chicken wire yet? Or is that a complete Texas urban ... err, rural legend?
CH: So far I have played at venues with the following: mechanical bulls (many), club owners pimping out of the club office (offered the band a discount), club owners dealing out of the club (no discount offered), real rodeo arena, and a semi-truck cab as a sound booth - but no chicken wire yet. I hear there is a place outside of Austin where the chicken wire is still up, but I think the roughnecks and cowboys raising hell in the 70’s and 80’s have kids and a 401(k) now.

One of Willy’s other bands has a big biker following, and they play private parties for motorcycle enthusiast social organizations. He has told me about some crazy stuff at those parties, but they mainly happen off some back road somewhere which is probably best for everybody.

Don't get me wrong, we still have rowdy audiences. A guy tried to fight me for not playing a Keith Whitley song, But I am guessing that the really crazy stuff is in today’s boom towns up in North Dakota or somewhere.