Don’t Listen to Me? I Think I Will!

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Halem Albright Band, source: Facebook

Halem Albright Band, source: Facebook

Thursday night I missed both Moon Taxi shows in town, but things turned out alright in the end… or should I say Albright! Later in the evening I strolled into the Green Room and caught a good chunk of a set from the Halem Albright Band (H.A.B), who absolutely lit the place on fire. The shear number of jam bands in Athens never ceases to amaze me, and still more amazing is that each of them have their own distinct sound; not once I have found myself saying, “This sounds just like…” or “Didn’t I see these guys last night?” H.A.B. was no exception to that trend, and by the time the show was over, I found myself, jaw dropping, loving another band.

3462After the show I spoke with guitarist and frontman, Halem Albright, who hooked me up with a copy of his 2012 album, Don’t Listen to Me, which has now been on repeat the last few days. Predating the 2013 formation of H.A.B, Halem’s solo release is a work of major collaboration between some top-notch local musicians and producers (John Keane, Jeff Mosier). The results are an impressive, highly polished sound that presents an eclectic, but masterful blend of instruments and styles that takes listeners on a kind of musical road trip.

As the album plays through, one can imagine gazing out of a car window at the changing environment rolling by; being aware of the distinct environments, but understanding the whole picture as part of one journey. The pacing of the album matches this sentiment well, driving forward with relaxed, but energetic drum beats that fall anywhere on spectrum from dance to rock steady, but aren’t afraid to get real tight and complex when the moment is right. Over this, the range of melodic influences are just as vast, using a blend of electric and acoustic to play blues, reggae, southern and classic rock, and even a little bit of that wistful western sound, too. Featured instruments include flute, banjo, violin, several types of organ, harmonica, and a horn section, broadening the diversity even further.

10600624_911700295511079_2470095596923669479_nHalem Albright shows his versatility as a guitarist and singer on this album, showcasing his talent without showing off. The melodies and soloing achieve a more structured tone than plain noodling on the guitar, keeping things interesting and grounded through some of the more lengthy tracks. He also creates some wild noises; every now and then a siren will scream through the music, and it takes moment to realize it came from the guitar. The vocals are well harmonized and pristine, allowing the lyrics to be just as relevant as any other part of each song. While Halem shines through, every instrument featured gets to have its moment, making for a tasteful and balanced total composition that keeps the album interesting over multiple listens. It can be dangerous to give comparisons to bigger names, but for anyone who needs a little orientation, blend up Phish with String Cheese Incident and some of the jazzier Lotus, throw in the lyrical consciousness of Twiddle, and you’re in the right ballpark.

Don’t Listen to Me has been thoroughly enjoyable so far, and I look forward to catching more of H.A.B. in the future. Their live presence is much different. As a four-piece, they ramp up the energy to a much more heavy-dancing level, taking time to do some serious shredding and extended jams. Worth mentioning is that the Green Room was fairly empty when I saw them, and they still raged their set. Respect to bands who still give everything to tiny crowds; they got me moving! It would be interesting to see what an album from H.A.B. would sound like after performing together for a year or two now.

The Halem Albright Band plays next at New Earth Music Hall on September 18th with The Heavy Pets. Don’t miss it!

http://www.halemalbright.com/index

 

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Nothing Too, Too Fancy: Umphs at the Classic Center and Miracle Tickets

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August 29, 2014

I need a miracle every day

-The Grateful Dead

 

Miracle tickets. They’re an easy, but crucial part of jam culture and fandom that are often overlooked in their significance. At any moment, one can swoop in, radically altering the course of a night. For anyone who has ever wandered a Phish lot, baking in sun – becoming more and more delirious for any number of reasons that could afflict a body in this situation – finger in the air, calling out who’s got my miracle, the emotional roller coaster, the anxiety of the experience is all too real.

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Miracles can happen!

Sometimes the ordeal is over in minutes, sometimes hours go by without so much as glimmer of hope. And when the masses start funneling their way into the venue, the lot hollowing into a disturbingly quiet ghost town, those left behind still holding that one finger up, now slightly limp, things get real. To land a ticket in that moment is an experience everyone who loves live music should have. Once the stub is in hand, no matter where it leads to inside the venue, it is understood that everything is going to be just fine. You made it, and you’re not gonna miss a minute of the show.

So it was that around 8:45pm, as I paced madly around the kitchen, about to abandon all hope, that I received a call from a post on craigslist I had responded to earlier in the day, telling me that I had a ticket if I needed it, that the show starts in 10 minutes, that I could make an offer. I spat out $40 over the phone and leapt into my car. Every red light I hit was a penance in purgatory, agonizingly slow to change. It seemed like I hit one every hundred meters or so. Despite this, I found parking, sprinted to the doors, and received my beautiful ticket from a hand extending out of the building, struggling to make the connection as security strictly enforced no-exit policy. I was in.

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Inside the Classic Center for Umphrey’s McGee

Up until this point, I had been contemplating wandering the streets of downtown Athens and people-watching as the swarming thousands that had arrived earlier in the afternoon for the UGA-Clemson football game the next day. It was quite a sight, but now was not mine to have, and believe me, I was more than okay with that.

The Classic Center is a small, but classy looking auditorium. It feels inspired by old theaters (think the Landmark in Syracuse, NY), but with a sleek, modern spin. The flat white walls of the auditorium’s interior make it a very pristine and elegant space, and act as a perfect canvas for whatever displays a lighting rig might display. It’s a perfect fit for a band like Umphrey’s McGee, complimenting their tightly polished, somewhat glamorous storm of power and piercing notes.Going to a show alone can create a lot of apprehension or doubt about the experience you’re going to have, but it wasn’t long before I remembered the fact that it is impossible to not enjoy yourself at Umphrey’s McGee. The energy in the music is always ramped up, and it carries listeners away on a journey through a wild blend of hard rock, metal, pop, funk, and just about any other genre conceivable.

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Some nifty light work

Having just recently released their new album, Similar Skin, the six-piece rage-fest from Chicago that Umphs is played sets that were full of fresh tracks (“Cut the Cable, “No Diablo,” “Loose Ends,” “Little Gift”) and classic jams (“Plunger,” “1348,” “Booth Love”). Despite being in an auditorium, the show felt very intimate. When I think intimate shows, Higher Ground in Burlington, VT comes to mind. The playing was a little more laid back, relaxed but rocking, and there was nothing but love for Athens. I was not prepared for the show to be sold out, which was part of the reason for my last minute scramble.

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“Spot” lighting the crowd

The popularity of Umphrey’s McGee here was much stronger than I expected, but apparently, they have quite the following down in my new home than they did up North. Flagpole‘s most recent release had a short promotional piece for the show in which it stated that Umph’s has “made Athens a second home over the years” and it certainly seemed to be true. There was more audience interaction than I’ve ever seen at one of their shows, and it felt like we were all getting a special treat.

The climax of the show hit at the end of the second set, with a steady and heavy cover of
Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” under dark red lighting. Immediately following this to cap off the set was “Wizard Burial Ground,” the preposterously hard romp of a metal unnamed-2anthem that’s enough to make your head do flips no matter what state you find yourself in. The break before encore was a raucous and joyful period of cheers between the audience on the floor and in the balconies. The classic “We got the Umph, gotta have that Umph” call and response resounded through the auditorium. The three song encore started on a clear response to the cheer with “Soul Food II,” a song that sounds almost exactly like Parliament’s “Give Up The Funk”. After playing through “Glory,” the final conclusion of the show came with a tender and powerful cover of the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” which they announced with a shoutout:

This one’s for the South.

FranAllen Jam V

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“For those of you who don’t know Mark, he’s a high-in-the-sky hippie.”

As I’ve learned from my friends in Monadnock region of New Hampshire, nothing beats a homegrown jam. The best local bands are always there, throwing down a little extra, and the headiest people in town come together, making for a delightful atmosphere. Good vibes are all around – it’s impossible to NOT be in a good mood.

Saturday night I was a bit down in spirits. I spent the greater part of the day inside, searching through job postings and thinking about my ever-draining bank account. Around 8pm I realized I’d better climb out of the dark hole dug myself into and do something fun. At the Athens Farmers earlier this week (held at Creature Comforts), I picked up a poster for the Fifth FranAllen Jam at New Earth Music Hall which now lay on the table next to me. After staring at the poster for a minute (it’s a pretty cool poster), I decided to go check it out.

Fran Cooper and Mark VanAllen - "FranAllen"

Fran Cooper and Mark VanAllen – “FranAllen”

From the website, I learned that the FranAllen Jam is the creation of Fran Cooper and Mark VanAllen, and started out as what may be the most incredible wedding gift ever conceived. The first Jam was a showcase of bands that Mark, a killer pedal steel guitarist, had played and recorded with over the years and took place at a venue called Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, GA. It changes locations from year to year, with the number of acts varying as well. FranAllen Jam would be a benefit for the Athens Farmers Market and the UGA Honey Bee Program.

New Earth is tucked away on West Dougherty St. in Athens. During the day, passersby might not even notice the place exists. When I arrived there however, the patio was scattered with guests and warm light was pouring from the front door. The Jam, which started at 4pm, was well underway, and Wiley Eyes, Kristen Englenz, and the Shane Bridges Band had already played their sets by the time I arrived. I paid $12 at the door – not bad for a whole night of music – and got in just in time for Kick the Robot take the stage.

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The inside of New Earth is surprisingly cozy and charming, The walls are covered with pieces from local artists and it the rough wood beam stage and sound booth give it the feel of a barn show. The light rig is phenomenal – they run it like pros – and the sound in the venue is superb. For me, New Earth is a familiar and friendly environment, it reminds me greatly of Nectar’s/Metronome in Burlington, VT, where I spent probably more time than I should have during my college years.

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Kick the Robot got the crowd moving right away, throwing down some high-energy tunes. The three piece definitely “kicked the robot” out of their music, keeping it steady-rocking throughout the set. Featuring a hollow body electric guitar, their tone was heavily rhythmic, with great harmonizing on the vocals. As far as comparison goes, think Arctic Monkeys. They were a great band to start on, and they were fun to watch. The most impressive member of the band was the bass player, who was a stellar singer, and was gutsy enough to jump in and rage an impromptu bass solo when technical issues cut their guitar out for a moment. By the time their set was finished, I was in an infinitely better mood and was excited to hear the other bands.

“I love kids, but I’m fucking glad there are no children around.”

 

Before the next band, Greco, Fran and Mark took the stage to make a few announcements, thank the audience and bands for coming out, and even implied intentions to return the Jam to New Earth Music Hall in the spring. Mark then called up “some of [his] best friends ever,” giving introduction to Greco. “First things first,” frontman Johann Greco instructed before allowing the show to begin, “come a little closer.” The band then erupted into a heavy, blues-driven soulful rock. There was even some psychedelic sound in there, in the same sense that the Black Crows can be considered psychedelic.

Greco

Greco

I was really impressed with how heavy, but still well rounded their overall sound came off. Some of the beats had the kind of pounding rhythm to them that you’d expect from Audioslave. A little humor was thrown in during a song break, where Johann commented dryly, “I’m glad there are no kids here. I mean, I love kids, but I’m fucking glad there are no children around. I learned later that all the band members are actually brothers, with the exception of the guitarist on Les Paul/acoustic/keytar, who is their stepbrother.

VanAllen on slide pedal

VanAllen on slide pedal

Greco had me dancing hard the whole time, and I was happy to join forces with the one other person there who was doing the same. It’s a crowd activity! Dancing is always better with more people involved. Towards the end of the set, VanAllen joined Greco, sitting in on slide pedal for a few songs that took the band’s tone towards the soulful side of country, but still kept all the power of the rock machine they are. Johan said of VanAllen, “For those of you who don’t know Mark, he’s a high-in-the-sky hippy. He has some burnt-out commune stories.”

Van Allen stayed on the slide pedal to play with his band, Saint Francis, a six-piece group that knows how to put down a serious jam. They have a little funk in them, a lot of hot southern fuzz (think Allman Brothers Band), and the slide pedal adds a really neat element to their sound, providing a distinctive twang. I don’t usually go for the country sound, but they way Saint Francis blends it into their rocking rhythms and generous improvisation was quite impressive. The slide can create some crazy sounds and melodies, ranging anywhere from nostalgia and melancholy, to eerie and downright weird. I have never heard a band like Saint Francis before, and I’m super stoked to have been introduced to them – and at such a cool venue and event too! Notable songs were “Watermelon Man,” which Fran told me always makes her cry, and their classic, “Bubble.”

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Saint Francis

To my delight, the last band up was Runaway Gin, a Phish tribute band from Charleston, SC. These guys were great! I’ve seen a couple other Phish tributes, all of whom have their own styles and areas of the music the focus on, but Runaway Gin is the first one I’ve heard that pulls of some great lengthy jams and can segue pretty damn well too. They opened up their set with “Divided Sky,” touched on other popular songs from “Chalk Dust Torture,” to the Ween cover, “Roses Are Free,” as well as a raging “Run Like an Antelope” and a “Tweezer” with a super funky jam. I made a few more friends during this set, geeking out over Phish and dancing around like it was Summer Tour.

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Runaway Gin

FranAllen Jam was a blast, and I will definitely go again if they do return in the spring. Otherwise, I found some great new bands to keep tabs on all based right here in Athens. I was a little disappointed to see that the crowd was still relatively small at an event like this, but I still enjoyed myself thoroughly, and the bands played their hearts out regardless. New Earth Music Hall is an awesome venue too and I will definitely be headed back there with some degree of frequency. I am proud to be living in a community with such distinctive and great talent. Cheers to Fran and Mark for putting this together!

First Night Out

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August 20, 2014

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I find myself down at the Caledonia Lounge on Wednesday, listening to some jagged garage-rock – a band called Deep Mind – the first of three bands on the bill that night. The man in front of me is dancing in spasms, something more akin to a seizure than a form of expression… but who am I to judge? I’ve lived in Athens for a bit over a week at this point, hardly enough time to form an opinion on anything that’s going on before me.

The decision to come down here was very last minute – a quick glance at a local events calendar and brief youtube session brought was all it took to get me off my ass and head downtown to see Star Death and White Dwarfs. Being that the lead singer, Dennis Coyne, is the nephew of Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, the band seemed like a worthy investigation.

The crowd, much like Caledonia Lounge itself, is small, and comprised mostly of what I assume to be members of the bands waiting to take the stage. Also in attendance are a few of what I can only assume to be Athens’ hippest. The vibe here is relaxed and generally friendly though, which is alright because I’m a bit delirious from walking around in the heat all day – everyone continues to assure me is unusually mild – and the extra space feels nice, especially as there is no AC or airflow in here to speak of. And so I stand, sipping on a Terrapin Hopsecutioner, keeping an open mind for the bands I’m here to see, and also for Shakes McGee, who is now spasming uncontrollably, raising concern that medical attention may soon be required.

All in all, Deep Mind puts on a solid performance blending aggressive rhythms and indy spirit with high energy vocals and great chemistry. Their set comes to a rocking close, leaving it all on the stage. The drums go wild, the band members lean on one another for support, and then it’s over. I grab another beer.

The previously mentioned delirium proves to be a good state to be in as the lights dim down, a coursing image-mapping projection appears, and eerie string music crescendos. Slowly, the next band, Chappo, takes the stage, last of whom is their frontman, who wears a feathered denim jacket and wields a fog machine that he proceeds to spray in the faces of his bandmates. The next forty five minutes are hard to describe. Somewhere between heartfelt folk and acid-induced noise lies Chappo. Their songs are brief, sometimes heartfelt, complex and highly performative. The antics of their feathered frontman are quite a display – towards the end of the set he prowls through the audience and rolls his way across the floor. This definitely isn’t something that’s heard every day. After they leave the stage, I talk with the drummer (I’m hesitant to approach the frontman) and suggest that they’re something of a psychedelic Deer Tick. “We’re fans of them,” he responds, “I’ll quote you on that.”

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Finally Star Death and White Dwarfs takes the stage. The fog grows so thick that the band members become nothing more than shadowy figures looming between an array of eight-foot LED light columns. Deep rumbling sound begins to emanate from the speakers, peaking into an explosion of heavy psych-rock. The performance is a captivating, eye-popping sensation of sound and light; a regular trip through another dimension. The lighting system – fittingly – strobes heavily across the color spectrum, stunning the audience (which had grown at this point) and even subduing my shaking friend.

Star Death’s sound is eclectic but distinct – a delightfully fresh and comprehensive blend of sludge, psych, and hard rock that ranges everywhere in feel form cerebral to straight up frightening, and still remains extremely danceable throughout.There are moments of heavy experimentation that never end up turning into jams, but have great potential to do so (I later learn from bassist Casey Joseph that, given a longer set, they usually get into some jamming and experimentation). The bass tone (speaking of) is incredible. It’s raw and synthy – a super crunchy but fat tone that shakes you in all the right places. To top it all off, they do NOT just sound like an offshoot of the Flaming Lips, striking out their own distinct sound and style.

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More than anything, for me at least, Star Death and White Dwarfs felt like home. After spending the last few years in Burlington, VT, I can say that a band like this would fit right in amongst the hippies, weirdos and underground musicians I know and love up there. Leaving the Caledonia Lounge, I feel great. I’m that much more familiar with my new city, and have at least one new band that I will continue to listen to.

Star Death and White Dwarfs played two nights in Florida in Jacksonville and Gainesville following this show, and continues their brief summer 2014 tour through Baton Rouge, LA before wrapping things up with tree nights in Texas in Houston, Austin, and Fort Worth.

http://www.stardeathandwhitedwarfs.com

http://www.chappomusic.com/main/

http://caledonialounge.com