Sense of Belonging: A conversation with Styx’s Lawrence Gowan

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Rick Diamond

“Right down the barrel! The double barrel – the double-decade barrel,” Lawrence Gowan says with a laugh when I mention that he is approaching his 20th anniversary as a member of the legendary band Styx. Already a bonafide solo artist in his own right when he joined the group, the keyboardist/vocalist replaced Dennis DeYoung in 1999. Known for radio staple hits including “Babe,” “Come Sail Away,” “Lady,” “Renegade” and “Too Much Time On My Hands,” Styx continues to fill the Classic Rock airwaves. In 2017, the band released The Mission, a concept album a futuristic mission to Mars and the group’s 16th studio recording. On Sunday, April 8, Styx will perform at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater with REO Speedwagon and special guest Don Felder. Recently, I spoke with Gowan by phone from a Styx tour stop in South Dakota.

Birmingham Stages: Lawrence, thanks for your time. How’s the tour going so far?

Lawrence Gowan: Amazing. The first two nights have been arenas jammed to the ceilings. We roll out all of the big stuff on this run – all the Styx stuff, the REO stuff and the cherry on top is the opener, Don Felder. It’s rare that you have an opener that gets a standing ovation every night, but that’s well-deserved because he’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and he was involved in the writing of “Hotel California,” a song quite a few people are familiar with.

Birmingham Stages: Is there a way to sum up your 20-year tenure in Styx?

LG: I cannot escape that fact that there’s a lot of gratitude on my side and I think for the band as well. We were the right fit for the right eras of our careers. The weird thing is I feel like I’ve been in the band all along. I know that I came in very late in the game so to speak for a band that’s approaching five decades of existence, but we were instantly simpatico about our musical drives and that’s really remained true until this day. I think putting together The Mission, the new album, and releasing it last year  – that really solidified my sense of belonging in the band. That’s something that you have to earn over time for a band that’s been around as long as Styx has. There’s only been 10 members of this band and that’s an incredibly low number for a band that’s existed this many decades.

Birmingham Stages: I think, like the Stones’ Ron Wood, it’s funny you are still thought of as the “new guy” after all these years.

LG: I think I’ll always be the “new guy” and I don’t mind anything that refers to “new” at this point in my life [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: Were the songs on The Mission created during a quick, inspired period or did it take time for the material to evolve?

LG: I would say, relatively speaking to the time I’ve been in the band, the material came together quite quickly. It began with the last song on the album, “Mission To Mars.” Tommy wrote it two and a half years ago. It started to kind of outline the basis of the story about a NASA mission. I came in and began to become part of the writing team of the record and we were invited to to NASA to see the arrival of the spacecraft New Horizons. They told us they’d named this new moon they’d discovered “Styx.” The story does revolve around man’s endeavor to make it to Mars, but I think it would be remiss to let the Styx story slip by – it really focused the end of the album. So, there was about a year of writing and about nine months of recording in order to pull it all together.

Birmingham Stages: Are you still pursuing your solo career or is your focus exclusively Styx these days?

LG: It’s a Styx focus but I play about 10 shows a year. I’m still in the process of completing a solo record that I go at in bits and pieces whenever I have a slight break from the road. I have a studio in Toronto and a good team of people that I work with there and I go down to Woodstock [N.Y.] and work with [bassist] Tony Levin and [drummer] Jerry Marotta. Each one of us has a solo endeavor and when we come back to the band it really enhances the overall chemistry of the band. But 85 to 90 percent of our focus is what we are as a band and we end the year with big smiles on our faces and that’s a good way to live.

Birmingham Stages: Given the enormous catalog of songs at your band’s disposal, how does Styx determine its set lists for tours?

LG: That is a process that I used to get deeply involved in because I thought there were Styx songs that had not been given enough attention. In the last 15 years, the process of trying to choose the set list can be so endlessly debated that I have decided to leave the debate up to the guys that want to get involved.

Styx will perform with REO Speedwagon and Don Felder at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater on Sunday, April 8. Tickets to the 7 p.m. show are $20 – $139 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com.

Rewarding Work: A Conversation with Béla Fleck

By Blake Ells

Béla Fleck has earned 14 Grammy Awards over his career, but his 2016 GRAMMY for Best Folk Album may have been the most special as it was won in a collaborative effort with his wife, Abigail Washburn. Fleck spent years with his own band, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, after spending some time with New Grass Revival. He’s offered his banjo talents to everyone from Dave Matthews Band to Asleep at the Wheel. On Friday, March 30, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Before the tour stop in Birmingham, Fleck spoke about nurturing his collaboration with Washburn, the popularization of instrumental music and Bonnaroo’s support of bluegrass.

Birmingham Stages: I think you and Abigail were together for nearly a decade before you really collaborated, certainly in the studio. Was that deliberate? Or was it always inevitable that you would record together?

Béla Fleck: We were waiting for the right time. She wanted to get her profile up a bit before collaborating with me so she would have her own established identity, rather than being Béla’s girlfriend. I always said that as soon as they heard her play and sing, they would understand why I was playing with her. But when we had our son, Juno, it was the perfect time to join forces.

Birmingham Stages: You both have very unique styles of how your perform the same instrument. How have you blended those styles to create your sound as a duo, and how do you feel that has matured since your debut together?

BF: Part of it is very natural, in that we sounded pretty tight right away without a lot of thought. But the other part is that we work hard to find combinations of “Us” that are unusual, and we don’t shy away from something that is hard at first.

Birmingham Stages: In recent years, you’ve combined your work with some symphonies, notably you performed a concerto with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Is blending those two very different sounds as challenging as it sounds?

BF: It is a ton of work, but very rewarding work. The challenge and the unusual setting for the banjo make it worth the effort.

Birmingham Stages: You had a heavy hand in popularizing instrumental music with a younger audience. Do you know why or how you were able to make that connection in the ’90s?

BF: My group, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, were so darn unusual that we were able to attract a lot of attention. Even mainstream places like Johnny Carson or Arsenio Hall gave us spots. And then we hooked into the early ‘jam band’ phenomenon, and that got us to a lot of new young folk.

Birmingham Stages: How much did festivals like Bonnaroo play a hand in introducing bluegrass music to that younger audience?

BF: I like that Bonnaroo has always made an effort to respect bluegrass. Part of it is that the audience is intrigued by it, so they are very responsive. A lot of folks that never would hear bluegrass check it out at Bonnaroo and become serious grass fans.

Birmingham Stages: Has raising a child slowed you down a bit? Do you find yourself committing to fewer projects nowadays?

BF: I am cautious, because I don’t want to be gone much. So I don’t encourage projects that require a serious touring commitment. But I pick things that I can do at home, like writing orchestra music, which I don’t have to leave my family to write. Things will become more involved when we have two children, as we are expecting number two in a couple of months. I will have to be away a bit more, because Abby shouldn’t have to be out touring with two kids, she will need a break. So I’m finding a few more things to do that take me our for short runs.

Birmingham Stages: Will we ever see any form of a New Grass Revival reunion again?

BF: I wish! It’s not looking good currently, but maybe someday!

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn will perform at The Lyric Theatre on Friday, March 30. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $29.50 – $49.50 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.

The Time Is Right: A Conversation with Victor Wooten

By Brent Thompson

Photos by Steve Parke

Victor Wooten is just your everyday bassist, composer, producer, educator, author and record label owner. Oh, and he’s also won five GRAMMYS and been named “One of the Top 10 Bassists of All Time” by Rolling Stone in a recording career spanning nearly 30 years. The youngest of five musician brothers, 53-year-old Victor first gained notoriety as bassist for the genre-bending ensemble Bela Fleck & The Flecktones. in 2017, Wooten released his 10th solo record, TRYPNOTYX [Vix Records], with the Victor Wooten Trio (the trio includes drummer Dennis Chambers and saxophonist Bob Franceschini). On Thursday, March 29, the Victor Wooten Trio will perform in the Alys Stephens Center’s Jemison Concert Hall. Recently, Wooten spoke with us by phone as he prepared to embark on the current leg of the TRYPNOTYX tour.

Birmingham Stages: Victor, thanks for your time. TRYPNOTYX is your first solo release in five years. How did you decide it was the right time to make this record?

Victor Wooten: Good question – the real reason is I don’t know. I put records out on my own time and when I feel the time is right. Life is complex for me with family and kids, so making records is not the most important thing. I’m also not an artist that puts them out every year like some other people do because I’m not bound by a record label that’s forcing me to put them out. I just put them out when I feel the time is right. I had no idea that it had been five years. I constantly tour so time just flies by.

Birmingham Stages: How did the album’s material take shape? Are the songs mostly newer compositions or had they been around for a while?

VW: Kind of all of the above. The song called “Liz & Opie” is an old song that I revamped and sped up and made it right for this band. The other ones are all new – it’s a collaboration; I didn’t write everything. Bob had some songs and Dennis had ideas and we were able to put all of them together to come up with new music that fits the band. I didn’t really treat it as a solo Victor Wooten record – I treated it as a band record and that helped. These two guys are two of my musical heroes.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs still evolve even after you take them into the studio for the final recording?

VW: Yes, and that’s what I want. I want the band to influence the songs so it’s rare that I finish them completely before I start bringing them in on it. With Bob being a great sax player, he’s going to write better sax parts and melodies than me. With Dennis, I don’t want to tell him what to play.

Birmingham Stages: Are you still on the faculty of The Berklee College of Music?

VW: Yes, I’m there one week every month. I teach a Monday through Friday.

Birmingham Stages: Do you enjoy the variety of working with students in addition to recording and touring?

VW: For 19 years I’ve been running music camps so I’m in touch with students all year, but the college experience on a regular basis is new to me. I never went to college, so being at a college every month is a lot of fun. Because I’m not there all month, it would take a long time for it to get old to me.

Birmingham Stages: Your book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music [Berkley Books, 2008], was well-received both commercially and critically. In addition to songwriting, do you have any book plans in the future?

VW: I am writing as we speak. I’m literally one page away from having the sequel to The Music Lesson completed. This year is the 10-year anniversary of The Music Lesson, so I’m trying to make sure the sequel gets out this year.

Birmingham Stages: Given all of your projects and commitments, are you still involved in The Wooten Brothers project with your three brothers?

VW: [Oldest brother and guitarist] Regi still does it but he does it now at a new Jazz club called Rudy’s. We had a fifth brother who passed away a few years ago who played saxophone named Rudy and some of his friends opened up a Jazz club named after him. So Regi’s weekly Wednesday night jam is now at Rudy’s. [My involvement] depends on if I’m in town or not. It’s definitely Regi’s gig, but if I’m in town on a Wednesday I do my best to try to get by there.

The Victor Wooten Trio will perform in the Alys Stephens Center’s Jemison Concert Hall on Thursday, March 29. Tickets to the 7 p.m. show are $40 (limited $10 student tickets are available) and can be purchased at www.alysstephens.org. For information on Victor Wooten’s educational camps, please visit www.vixcamps.com.

Keep The Guitar Alive: A conversation with Space Of A Day

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: John Scott Young

If you’ve been anywhere near the Birmingham music scene since the 1980s, then you are familiar with Ben Trexel. A prolific guitarist, composer, engineer and producer, Trexel has performed with – and produced – a multitude of bands and artists while becoming a local legendary figure. His current project, Space Of A Day, finds Trexel fronting a guitar-driven Pop ensemble with vocalist Autumn Yatabe. Drummer Daniel Coyle, guitarist Keith Shannon and bassist Scott Young round out the quintet’s lineup. On Friday, March 16, Space Of A Day will perform at Daniel Day Gallery. Recently, we spoke with Trexel and Yatabe as the band prepared to release its latest single, “Small Doses.”

Birmingham Stages: Ben and Autumn, thanks for your time. When did Space Of A Day begin?

Ben Trexel: I would say about a year ago – we just started singing and playing around the house for the fun of it. I’d play a song and she’d start singing and I’d say, “You have a nice voice.”

Autumn Yatabe: My mother and two of my aunts were singers and my sisters are singers. My grandfather told me my voice was shrill.

BT: She was told by the family that she wasn’t the singer [laughs]. But she has such a pure voice and a good vocabulary and she loves to read. I asked her if she wanted to write some lyrics.

AY: We just started singing together and it just sort of worked out.

Birmingham Stages: When it comes to songwriting, are there defined duties for each of you?

AY: I write the lyrics and sometimes the melody.

BT: I usually take care of the music, but we’re exploring different approaches to writing. Being a composer, I write at least 50 to 75 pieces of music a year. We want to make modern Pop, but I’m trying to keep the guitar alive in music. I’m not turning away from the electronic side of music, but I want the listener to say that there’s a lot of interesting guitar stuff happening.

AY: He will send me two to three pieces of music a week sometimes that he thinks I might be able to work with. When I have some down time at work, I’ll take 15 minutes and listen to it. [Singles] “Small Doses” we wrote in a week and “Vivid” was fast too. “Shiny Things” took about a month – there was something about it I didn’t like and I finally worked out the kinks. It just depends.

BT: I can’t not work on music.

AY: I cull it. He’ll send it to me and if I think it fits our sound, I’ll write something to it. 

BT: We just want to release singles for a while. We’re not going to think about making an album – it’s just so overwhelming. Let’s just make good songs – if it takes two or three months to make good songs, so be it. Maybe at the end of the year we’ll have enough songs for a proper record, but there’s no logistical reason to release a whole bunch of music at one time. In fact, it’s counterproductive in that it overwhelms listeners. Now, they’d rather be fed a little at a time. We want to do it in a process. We do social media on each song release and now we have followers as far away as Portugal.

Birmingham Stages: You mentioned social media and the way modern listeners consume music. How do you feel about the current climate of the industry?

BT: In the music business you traded off one bad situation for another bad situation. In the ’70s, the bad situation was only a select few could even make a record because of the technology and the costs involved. They had a huge market and not a lot of product. Now there’s 100 times as much product divided among the same amount of listeners. The playing field is level but you still have to work as hard – or harder – on your promotion as you do your music.

Birmingham Stages: With your engineering and producing skills, you have the ability to take a song from inception to release. That’s an advantage that many artists don’t have.

BT: It would cost $2,000 – $3,000 per song to do what we do for ourselves.

AY: We can do two to three songs per month and do a video ourselves. On our next video, we’re working with a filmmaker. We don’t want to just stay in the same thing.

Space Of A Day will perform at Daniel Day Gallery on Friday, March 16. Tickets to the 8:30 p.m. show are $10. Daniel Day Gallery is located at 3025 6th Avenue South. For more information, visit www.spaceofaday.com or contact the gallery at (205) 731-9420.

 

Relaxed About The Process: The Wood Brothers Return to Birmingham

By Brent Thompson

Photos by Alysse Gafkjen

What started as a side project for two sibling musicians has turned into a thriving, primary musical focus for Chris and Oliver Wood. Already established artists prior to forming The Wood Brothers – Chris as bassist for Medseki, Martin & Wood and Oliver as frontman for the Atlanta-based band King Johnson – the duo (now joined by multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix) has been recording and touring for more than a decade. In February, the band released its sixth full-length album, One Drop Of Truth. On Thursday, March 15, The Wood Brothers will perform at Iron City with Pierce Edens opening the 8 p.m. show. Recently, we spoke with Chris about the band’s approach to writing and recording.

Birmingham Stages: Chris, thanks for your time. You’re now based in Nashville – do all three of you live there?

Chris Wood: Yeah, that’s why we moved there actually. The Wood Brothers was taking over our careers and we lived very far apart. Oliver was in Atlanta and I was in New York, so we met in Nashville about five years ago to pursue The Wood Brothers. I’m not there a whole lot and, when I am, I’m recovering from tours and trying to record some music.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the recording process for One Drop Of Truth.

CW: For this record, we approached it a little bit different. On most records, most artists feel like they have to write a big batch of songs, get them all finished and book a big chunk of studio time for one to three weeks – depending on your budget – and record it all in one shot. The problem with that process is it gets overwhelming and you can get lost in it, especially if you’re trying to self-produce. So this time we started writing new material and every time we finished a song or two, we’d go into the studio and record it immediately. Nashville has so many great studios that are relatively inexpensive and we could go in and think maybe we were making a demo or maybe it was the real thing. It allowed us to be a little more relaxed about the process, to work on a song and set it aside for a couple of months while we finished writing other material. That allowed us to get away from things and have a fresh perspective on it. That’s the hardest thing about producing – you get too close to your work and it’s hard to make good decisions about it.

Birmingham Stages: Generally speaking, did you leave the initial recordings as they were or did you go back and tweak them?

CW: It completely depended on the tune. There were some songs where we just gave it a shot and later liked what we did. Other songs – after some time went by – we said, “This could be much better.” It was a great way to learn and have perspective on the material. You get better results that way.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

CW: You have to be home – the road’s a little too nuts for that. You need some solitude. On the road, all kinds of spontaneous things happen that spark new material. We may improvise a little groove backstage or at sound check that we’ve never done before that sounds cool and we record them on our phones. We have this whole catalog of voice memos and you sort of forget about them and you go back and listen to them later. It may inspire a new song  – anything goes.

Birmingham Stages: What’s the status of Medeski, Martin & Wood these days?

CW: We really don’t tour anymore – we do festivals and one-offs. We are working on a documentary that was shot at a recording session where we were recording a new record.

Birmingham Stages: Do you envision MMW becoming an active project again in the future?

CW: There was a desire to not tour – not everybody wanted to stay on the road. As far as our musical connection, it’s strong and the same as it ever was. But not everybody wants to be hitting the road that hard. That’s the reason The Wood Brothers became such a priority for me but I still love playing with MMW. It’s just a matter of filling it in the cracks, schedule-wise.

Birmingham Stages: To be able to go on this journey with your brother is a unique situation. There aren’t a lot of artists that get to have that experience.

CW: It’s amazing. The MMW guys felt like brothers to me, but to actually have a band with my real brother is amazing on a lot of levels. You hear about the “brother band” horror stories – it’s youth and ego. We started when we were middle-aged so we had the chance to get over a lot of that stuff and start the band when we knew who we were.

The Wood Brothers will perform at Iron City on Thursday, March 15. Pierce Edens will open the 8 p.m. all-ages show. Tickets are $30 (seated general admission) and $20 (standing general admission) and can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.

The Process of Making Music: A Conversation with Michael Nau

By Brent Thompson

His masterful instinct for arrangement, along with his reedy voice, earns Nau a place in the rock’n’roll underdogs’ Hall of Fame,” says respected online magazine Pitchfork of Michael Nau. In 2017, the singer/songwriter released Some Twist [Suicide Squeeze Records], the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2016 release Mowing. On Saturday, March 10, Nau and backing band The Mighty Thread will perform at The Firehouse. Recently, Nau spoke with us by phone from Vermont as he and his band rehearsed for their current tour.

Birmingham Stages: Michael, thanks for your time. We are enjoying Some Twist – if you will, talk about the creation of the album. Were these mostly newer songs, ones that had been around for a while or both?

Michael Nau: It’s definitely a bit of both. Some were as new as six months prior to the record coming out and some were as old as five years. With both of the solo releases, it ‘s worked that way both times. I think a lot of times, when I’m trying to make a record, I’ll get four or five songs that I really like and I feel like I’m on my way. I’ll go on tour and come back and start fresh. Songs end up getting set aside for long periods of time. I think once they get old enough they feel new to me.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs continue to evolve even as you’re recording them in the studio?

MN: Yeah, because we don’t really take the approach of being rehearsed to go into the studio. Every time we’ve done stuff as a band, we’ve had four or five days to spend. I’ll play a song and the guys will hear it once or twice. We’ve never toured on a group of songs and then recorded them – I imagine that would be a different approach. What I do like about it is we’ll be able to catch some things in a recording that probably wouldn’t have happened had we thought about it more.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists favor the current musical climate given anyone can release content and music is instantly accessible via iTunes and Youtube. Some artists say, for those same reasons, the current model makes it difficult to separate yourself from the crowd. How do you reconcile this give-and-take?

MN: I haven’t really figured it out. We’ve kind of tried to do it in a certain way that feels right to me. A lot of times people are coming to the show because they came across a video or something like that. My records all sell the same amount regardless of what’s going on. I really enjoy the process of making music and I’d be doing it regardless and I’m trying to navigate my way through it. It’s all I can do – I just try to make records I’m happy with.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

MN: It varies – I try to write all the time. I don’t write very much on the road – I’ve never been able to do that unless I’m by myself. A lot of times I write by recording the music first.

Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread will perform at The Firehouse on Saturday, March 10. Tickets to the all-ages show are $8 and can be purchased at www.michaelnau.com. The Firehouse is located at 412 41st Street South.

The Heart of Every Song: A Conversation with David Wilcox

By Brent Thompson

In a career spanning 18 albums and more than 30 years, David Wilcox has melded James Taylor-like storytelling with the dazzling, open-tuned guitar sounds of Michael Hedges into his own unique style. Along the way, Wilcox has garnered an extremely loyal fan base that has few rivals. On Friday, March 9 (his 60th birthday, no less), the singer/songwriter will return to Birmingham to perform at WorkPlay. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his Asheville, N.C. home.

Birmingham Stages: David, thanks for your time. Where are you right now?

David Wilcox: I leave tomorrow. I’m home right now in my studio and we have a gentle rain here. I not only have a new riff that’s just kicking my imagination, [but] in the shower I got an entire chorus [laughs]. The lyrics are all there and I transcribed it on my phone and I can’t wait to write this song. It’s going to be so fun.

Birmingham Stages: In looking at your touring schedule online, it seems that you have a found a nice balance of time at home versus time on the road.

DW: That has always been the case and I really have to attribute it to my lovely wife, Nance. When we first got together, she said, “You have to be home more than you’re away – otherwise, it can’t work” and she was right. I look at all my musician friends who have tried to do it other ways. Unless they’re actually playing music with their spouse onstage, the relationship won’t work if they’re out more than half the time.

Birmingham Stages: You have a large catalog of songs at this point in your career. How do you go about determining set lists for each tour?

DW: That is a spectacularly good question [laughs]. What I’m looking at it is the set list that I just drew up for this next run – I’m going to Denver. What I do is browse through 10 or 20 set lists that I have archived on my computer. Not the sequence of songs that I play, but a collection of songs that I’m just curious about and curious what they do to my heart. They can be old songs, but I go through a bunch of set lists and I think, “What are the songs that move me?” So I put those songs down and be sure that I know them because some can pop up that I haven’t played in 20 or 30 years. On my set list now – which is why I’m laughing – is a song from my first record, The Nightshift Watchman – and I haven’t played it in 30 years. It’s amazing [laughs]. What’s wild to me is I came back to that song now because my dad died a few months ago so I have this song suddenly full of this new intensity, so that song feels like an important song for me to play. I think I’m a better person when I’m reminded of that song and what it does to my mind and heart.

So, I have this collection of songs on a list and right now I have 65 songs on this list. In a given night of music, I can play 22 if I don’t talk a lot but that’s a two-hour set. I can glance down and every song would be an excellent choice. In terms of how I weave the set together in a given night, I’m finishing a song and singing the last few phrases and I let my mind wander to, “Where do I go from here?” I glance down at my list and one of them will jump out at me and I’ll go there. It’s interesting how the song before sets up this current song that I’ve chosen and I realize that each time I put songs in a new order there’s a different story line. I’m lead to see things in different ways. Sometimes the same song can serve very different purposes in the set. I love stepping into that place where a song is holding me accountable to a vision that I had about how I want to see the world and that’s what the songs are good for.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

DW: The way it works now is I have a steady practice of taking whatever idea is on my phone and sitting with it – trying different melodies and imagining all the different ways it could go. It’s sort of like playing Chess 10 moves ahead – you’re thinking of the strategy and how could it be arranged. Who’s the character? Who’s speaking to who and why? That’s the heart of every song. I love collecting these little seeds and fragments that might turn into a song or they might just be silly. It’s a practice of catching those seeds and seeing what I can make out of them.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about your “Custom Songs” program that provides personalized songs for your fans.

DW: That started with a request. There was someone who really was moved by a lot of my songs and he had a really tragic childhood in the first 12 years of his life. He’d done the work with therapists and journaling and he wanted me to re-frame these events with a different story to it that wasn’t such a dead end. I worked on it and I got the information and I found a way to re-frame that story and I delivered it to him. He said, “What does that cost” and I said, “I have no idea what this worth. I could just tell you the time I put in – it was four days of working at it.” It’s such a privilege to be trusted with someone’s vulnerability and to trust that the music will have some beautiful evolution and healing that we hadn’t anticipated. I told some people about it and people started saying, “I want a song, too.” So it sort of became a thing one person at a time.

David Wilcox will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Friday, March 9. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $20 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

Photo Credits: Jack Hollingsworth & Lynne Harty

An Audio Journey: A Conversation with Graham Nash

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credits: Amy Grantham 

The phrase “a man that needs no introduction” is overused, but it’s befitting of Graham Nash. A two-time inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (let that sink in for a moment ) as a member of Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Hollies and a 2009 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, Nash has stamped his tenor vocals on numerous Classic Rock staples. But beyond his membership in two iconic groups, the singer/songwriter has a noted solo career and Nash released his latest outing, This Path Tonight [Blue Castle Records], in 2016. On Sunday, March 11, Nash will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone as he prepared to embark on his current tour.

Birmingham Stages: Graham, thanks for your time. Where are you right now?

Graham Nash: I’m home rehearsing. I live in New York City  – I’ve lived here for two years. I lived for 40 years in Hawaii – I just traded jungles [laughs]. My life changed tremendously a couple of years ago. I divorced my wife, Susan, after 38 years. I hope that time will heal but it’s a little difficult with my kids. I wasn’t in love anymore and neither was Susan so we decided that we would divorce. I changed my life and here I am in New York City. I live with this incredibly beautiful artist, Amy Grantham, who’s a painter and collage artist. I have a beautiful apartment here and a studio I can do my music in and dabble in painting. I’m having a good time with my life and I’m really looking forward to coming on the road.

Birmingham Stages: We are glad that Birmingham is a stop on this tour.

GN: In the early ’70s we were on the road and one of our roadies was an African-American and he was sensitive about going to Birmingham. But the South has changed a lot in the last few years. I mean are you kidding? Democrats winning in Alabama?

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the creation of This Path Tonight.

GN: I must confess, I think it’s a fine piece of work. Shane Fontayne – my lead guitar player who will be with me in Birmingham – we wrote 20 songs in a month and it was all about my emotional state which I just roughly explained to you and the songs were fantastic. We only used 10 [songs] on the album  – 13 if you bought the deluxe version on iTunes – we still have seven that we love and we’re writing all the time and I’m going to try to find time this year to make a new record.

Birmingham Stages: How did you and Shane begin working together?

GN: We have a friend, Marc Cohn, who’s a brilliant American songwriter – he did “Walking In Memphis” – and he was doing a show at the El Rey [Theatre] in Los Angeles and he called me and David [Crosby] and asked us to come sing, so we did. He had a band with him and Shane was his guitar player. The Crosby/Nash Band had Dean Parks as its guitarist – Dean is one of the most sought-after session men in Hollywood. If you’re not available every day for a couple of months, you tend to lose your place in that queue so Dean couldn’t go on the tour with that me and Crosby had planned. Shane Fontayne learned 36 songs in a week and he came with us and he’s been playing with us ever since.

Birmingham Stages: Given the catalog of songs you’ve amassed – The Hollies, CSN and solo material – how do you comprise your set lists when you go on tour?

GN: It’s always been a delicate balance because you’re really planning an audio journey. It’s the same thing with LPs – it used to be six hits and six B-sides but John Lennon and Brian Wilson realized an album could be an audio journey and that’s where we get Sgt. Pepper’s and where we get Pet Sounds from. A live concert is exactly the same. My choice of music is however I feel. There’s a skeleton of a set list but we make so many left turns. I’ve got to tell you I’m having a fabulous time.

Birmingham Stages: Over the course of your career, how have you determined which songs belong on your solo albums and which ones belong on CSN albums?

GN: I have a feeling that every writer writes only for himself. What happens with CSN is we have what we call the “Reality Rule.” It goes like this – if I sit David and Stephen [Stills] down and play them a song and they don’t react to it, they never hear that song again. If I play a song to David and Stephen and they say, “I know what I can do in my harmony part,” now we’re talking. That’s the “Reality Rule.” We only have recorded songs that all three off us truly love and we’ve never stopped doing that.

Birmingham Stages: With your music career, photography and painting projects and humanitarian projects, how do you find time in your schedule to do all that you do?

GN: I just have a tremendous energy. Every day I have to do something constructive and positive in my life and I have a lot of tools to be able to do that – music, photography, painting and poetry. I’m a lucky kid, man.

Birmingham Stages: I assume the ability to still create and perform is something you don’t take for granted given all the incredible artists we’ve lost in the past couple of years.

GN: Stunning – it’s stunning. It’s overwhelming.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

GN: I have a great relationship with the muse of music – she knows that I’m open anytime she wants to come visit. I have to feel something before I can start to write about it. If I’m falling in love, if I’m pissed off at cops, if I’m upset about the way that Trump is dealing with America – particularly women’s issues – I have to be there as an artist to tell the truth and reflect the times in which we’re living. That’s how history has been written – by poets, composers and musicians. We have to talk about the times in which we live and there’s no end to the songs that could be written about what’s going on in America right now.

Graham Nash will perform at The Lyric Theatre on Sunday, March 11. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $40.50 – $70.50 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.

Concert Shots: Michael McDonald at Alys Stephens Center 2-25-18

On Sunday, February 25, Michael McDonald performed at the Alys Stephens Center’s Jemison Concert Hall. The singer/keyboardist/guitarist’s setlist was filled with mega-hits from his solo catalog (“On My Own,” “Sweet Freedom,” “I Keep Forgettin'”) and Classic Rock staples from McDonald’s time in The Doobie Brothers (“What A Fool Believes,” “Minute By Minute”). In addition, he tossed in two cover songs (“What’s Going On,” “What The World Needs Now Is Love”) that he described as relevant in today’s times.

 

Photos by Brent Thompson

Transmission and Interaction: A conversation with Marie/Lepanto’s Will Johnson

By Brent Thompson
Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, New Multitudes, South San Gabriel) and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster (Water Liars, solo) are two artists known for prolific bodies of work, so their partnership in the project Marie/Lepanto should come as no surprise. Taking its name from an exit off I-55 in Arkansas that sits between the two artists hometowns, Marie/Lepanto released the album Tenkiller on Big Legal Mess (a Fat Possum Records imprint) in January. On Saturday, February 17, the duo will perform at Saturn as the supporting act for Pedro The Lion. Recently, we caught up with Johnson as he and Kinkel-Schuster were set to embark on their current tour.
Birmingham Stages: Will, thanks for your time. How did the project with Justin first take flight? How long have you known each other?
Will Johnson: We met briefly back when he played in Theodore, but the bulk of our friendship has existed over these past three years or so.  Our bands played a show together on the final Centro-matic tour in 2014, then we did a living room tour together a couple years ago.  That’s when the idea for this record started to materialize.  Toward the end of that tour we stopped in at Sam Phillips Recording to see our friend Jeff Powell, who cuts vinyl and engineers sessions out of there.  Shortly thereafter, we agreed to meet back in Memphis to record there with him.
Birmingham Stages: How did the songs for Tenkiller come together? Did the two of you sit and collaborate or bring in some individual songs to the project that were fully realized? If you will, please discuss the writing process for the album.
WJ: We essentially agreed on a recording time and wrote separately during the ramp-up to that.  We sent a few demos and lyrics back and forth, so it wasn’t a case where we were showing up with all our cards hidden.  I wrote a handful of songs, then tried to pick some from that group that I could easily hear Pete’s voice and playing on.
Birmingham Stages: When you are writing, how do you determine if a particular song best fits Marie/Lepanto or your other projects?
WJ: Most of the time I’ve just written in batches, then sorted it all out later.  That was the case leading up to this record.  There have been one or two exceptions where I’ve conscientiously tried to write toward a record.  The South San Gabriel “Carlton Chronicles” record was that way.  But I found early on if I’m thinking too much about how to compartmentalize songs from the outset, I take a chance on losing a grip on what’s most important about the moment, which is hopefully writing the best song I can write.
Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about recording at Sam Phillips studio and how that came to be the location for the recording.
WJ: After the visit with Powell toward the end of that first tour, it seemed like the obvious place to re-convene for the record.  He’s a mutual friend, we had both worked with him in various capacities, and knew that his style and personality would be a good fit.  Fortunately all our schedules lined up to where we never had to keep the idea too far down the line, or in the abstract.  We finished the tour and immediately put in on the books.  Walking into that studio is a pretty psychedelic thing, and I’m glad we visited prior to recording.  It’s a bit like time travel backward, some fifty years.  So much is still in place, and there’s a near-intimidating amount of history surrounding you.  It can feel distracting at moments, but ultimately it was an honor to get to record some music inside those walls.
Birmingham Stages: Some artists tell me this is a great time to be recording and releasing music – multiple outlets and no “gatekeeper.” Other artists tell me it’s a difficult time given anyone can release content and it’s hard to get your songs heard among the clutter. How do you feel about the current climate?
WJ: I think it’s a bit of both.  The easiest thing about these times is that anyone can record and release records.  The most difficult thing about these times is that anyone can record and release records.  Inevitably, it leads to an overwhelming amount of volume to consider as a consumer, and to try to be heard through as an artist.  From both perspectives I think it’s a matter of peeling things back and trying to find what speaks to you in the moment; finding a voice or a simple sound that turns you on amongst all the noise.  In my experience as a listener, it’s still a raw and base reaction to a pristine form of communication.  From an artist’s standpoint, I think it’s a matter of finding unique ways to connect with your crowd, and staying dedicated to the work required to sustain that connection.  Limited edition releases, unique merchandise offerings, regular touring, and consistent social media presence are all time-tested, and generally positive forces.  Playing live regularly is still crucial in my opinion.  It’s a raw transmission and interaction in a room with people presumably interested in your music.  Amongst all the clatter and speed of our daily lives, that’s a rich environment in which to make a memorable connection.  No matter the era of music or technology, I think it’s still as pure a force as ever.
Marie/Lepanto will perform at Saturn with Pedro The Lion on Saturday, February 17. Doors open at 8 p.m. and showtime is 9 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $20 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.