Review: Trigger Hippy comes “Full Circle”

By Brent Thompson

Trigger Hippy’s self-titled album appeared in 2014, offering a unique blend of rock, R&B and Gospel sounds. In October, the band released its sophomore effort, Full Circle & Then Some [Thirty Tigers]. The band’s rhythm section of Steve Gorman and Nick Govrik remains and Amber Woodhouse and Ed Jurdi have joined the fold. And though some of the names have changed, the group still mines timeless musical territory in fresh fashion. “Dandelion,” “Long Lost Friend” and the title track could have been recorded yesterday or 30 years ago, and that’s a good thing. A host of first-rate musicians – including Sadler Vaden [Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit] and Mickey Raphael [Willie Nelson] – make guest appearances on the album. We wish it hadn’t taken five years for the band to release its follow-up outing, but Full Circle & Then Some was certainly worth the wait.

Love for Leonard: A Conversation with David Stegall of The Famous Blue Raincoats

By Brent Thompson

It is fair to say that the thirst for cover bands and tribute shows has never been greater than at the present time. The Black Jacket Symphony, Yacht Rock Revue, Rumours, The Molly Ringwalds and Electric Avenue – among others – all consistently fill venues these days. But alongside bands that perform radio staples are bands that delve into artists that didn’t always inhabit the charts but still deserve our attention. The Famous Blue Raincoats are one such act and the group focuses on the catalog of Leonard Cohen, one of music’s more shadowy figures. The Birmingham-based sextet – David Stegall, Reid Brooks, Chase Arrington, Andrew Malinoski, Johnny Hicks and David Lambert – performed its inaugural show at WorkPlay earlier this year. Recently, we sat down with Stegall as the band prepared to make its debut appearance in Atlanta.

Birmingham Stages: David, thanks for your time. If you will, give us some background on yourself and the formation of The Famous Blue Raincoats.

David Stegall: I was never actually a huge Leonard Cohen fan, but I had some friends in college that had a couple of his albums. I sort of liked him, but I liked faster-paced music then. I think Judy Collins covered every song he ever wrote – so you could hear him through her – and some other singer/songwriters covered him. He does have a way about him, if you will. I just started taking up the harmonica maybe 10 years ago and I was just playing the harmonica with different guitar players. About three years ago, I met a girl named DeAnna Fields and she was very knowledgeable about all sorts of music. She was a folkie for the most part. We started playing together and then she started encouraging me to sing. I said, “I don’t think I can sing” and she said, “Sure you can” and we worked out some songs where there was always a deep male vocalist like Johnny Cash and Tom Waits.

As I started listening to more artists that had deep voices, I found that I really could sing like Leonard Cohen in his latter years. So, we started doing some songs that way and we hooked up with Reid Brooks and cooked up this idea that maybe we should do a show of just Leonard Cohen music. We had seen the [Birmingham-based tribute ensemble] Maverick Lounge Series and we were thinking it was a good idea. We started messing around with it and DeAnna and I parted ways about the same time we got serious about doing this show. So, Reid and I got serious about it but I didn’t know how to form a band. Reid had a friend named Chase Arrington – he said Chase could put together a band and we could make him musical director. He did and it’s an excellent band.

Birmingham Stages: How do you select the specific Cohen songs that are included in the band’s repertoire?

Stegall: We started getting together and working through songs. He has probably 250 songs, so I basically look at what songs he played in concert. If you ask people to name their top five Leonard Cohen songs, it isn’t going to be the same songs. He has an album called Live in London that was particularly well done and he was in his mid-sixties. Not that we follow that exactly, but we try to emulate it to a degree. Learning more about him made me like him more – it was about getting familiar with him. I read a couple of Leonard Cohen biographies and and books and poems that he wrote.

Birmingham Stages: The band’s debut performance was at WorkPlay earlier this year. If you will, tell us about the show.

Stegall: I talked to Tommy Williams and his wife, Courtney, and told them what I was thinking about and they said, “We love the idea – just tell us when you want to do it.” We had about 200 people there on a rainy, cold February night. Half the people there were probably only familiar with one Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”

Birmingham Stages: Your band has an upcoming performance at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. How did that show come about?

Stegall: My old friend Dan Nolen, who owns half of The Nick and Smith’s Olde Bar, called me and had seen a video that was taken at WorkPlay on Facebook. I said, “I’ve been meaning to call you” and he said, “I sort of thought you would and I thought you’d tell me that you wanted to play.” I said, “I didn’t know it was that easy.” He said, “It’s not that easy, but I’ll let you play.” He’s come up with some really good ideas. [Cohen fans] have become an older crowd for the most part. Dan said, “Let’s do an early show with maybe more seats than we usually have, sell it out and book another one.”

Birmingham Stages: Are there any plans to take the show to different markets? You have a unique niche, so it seems other cities would be receptive to it.

Stegall: Leonard Cohen has a cult following, so you want a larger population area. The bigger the city, the more Leonard Cohen fans you’re going to have.

Birmingham Stages: The cover band and tribute show market is very healthy these days. I don’t know whether or not that factored into your decision to form the band, but your timing seems ideal.

Stegall: I’m not astute enough to have seen that in the music scene and I’ve never really been a part of the music scene, other than I’ve always really loved music. But Dan brought that up and I said, “I thought you discriminated against people that didn’t do original music.” He said, “I used to, but I’ve changed my tune.” I said, “Why’s that?” and he said, “Primarily because of my friends in Yacht Rock Revue.” They’re based in Atlanta and they’re killing it. Dan said, “Plus, people use aren’t interested anymore in hearing a bunch of songs off a band’s new album. They want to hear music that they’re familiar with – they want to sing along.” Also, a lot of the bands being covered aren’t touring anymore, so the cover band experience is as close to the original experience as you’re going to get. Cover bands are where it’s at – it’s a trend.

For more information, visit www.thefamousblueraincoats.com or @thefamousblueraincoats on Instagram.

Completely Honest: A Conversation with Allison Moorer

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Heidi Ross

The story has been told so many times that it tends to overshadow Allison Moorer’s prolific body of work. But for the uninitiated, here it is again: The mother of Moorer and her sister, Shelby Lynne, was murdered by their father who then turned the gun on himself. Though she has addressed the murder/suicide topic in both discussion and song over the years, she is now baring herself like never before via her new book and companion album, both titled Blood. On Wednesday, November 6, the Oscar and Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter will appear at Saturn. A discussion moderated by Paul Janeway (of St. Paul & The Broken Bones) will be followed by a musical performance and book signing. Recently, Moorer spoke with us by phone from her Nashville home as the release date of Blood neared.

Birmingham Stages: Allison, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to the Saturn event on November 6.

Allison Moorer: This is going to be the first one of those shows. Paul Janeway will be with me that night – he will be my moderator. We’ll do 30 to 45 minutes of talking and then I’ll play some songs from the new record. Then we’ll take some questions from the audience and sign some books and records.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the origin of the book.

Moorer: It came from an interview I did with Maya Angelou. My son was about six weeks old and I was asked to go in and do her radio show and of course I didn’t want to say “No” to that. I went and we were talking and she asked me about my childhood and at one point she said, “OK, what are you going to tell [Moorer’s son] John Henry? When he’s old enough to ask, what are you going to tell him about this?” and I didn’t have an answer. It just got me thinking and I decided I needed to write it down. I didn’t even know what it was going to be – I didn’t know it was going to be a memoir – I just started writing. I think it was the fall of 2012 that I started in earnest what is in the readers’ hands now. I think I did four rewrites from top to bottom between 2012 and 2017 because it takes a while to figure out how to tell things. I finished the book in June 2017.

Birmingham Stages: As the release date quickly approaches, how do you feel? Are you relieved, anxious or a little of both?

Moorer: A little bit of both. It is so naked and it is the most bare thing I’ve ever done and it’s completely honest. It’s not shrouded by any sort of poetic license – it’s the story as I remember it and how I felt as a little girl. The whole thing to me is a psychological exploration of what happens when you grow up in an abusive household and an unstable household and how things add up and affect you for the rest of your life.

Birmingham Stages: Was the companion album that accompanies the book originally planned or did the idea come later in the process?

Moorer: I didn’t know that I would do an album until the beginning of this year. It was suggested that I make an EP as a companion piece and I thought that’s what I would do but then I just kept writing. It turned into a full-length record with the addition of “Cold Cold Earth” and “Blood” that I had previously recorded. So it was almost accidental, but I think that the record goes a long way in fleshing out the characters even more. I always say, “You tell the story until the story is told.” I have mined this territory over and over, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever done it justice and it took me a long time to gain the maturity that I needed to tell it properly.

Birmingham Stages: How did your family react to you writing the book?

Moorer: I didn’t seek their approval. My sister’s point-of-view is the one that I really care the most about because it’s really a story about our immediate family and what I’m doing is acting as a witness to that. Our extended family – they may agree, they may disagree, I don’t know. That’s their right just like it’s my right to write it as I see it.

Birmingham Stages: How many tour dates are set up at this time?

Moorer: I think I’ve got 10 on the books right now.

Birmingham Stages: In addition to performing new material, will you perform older songs on this tour?

Moorer: I’m sure I will. I haven’t really decided yet and it’ll probably change from night to night.

Birmingham Stages: You’ve amassed a large catalog of songs by this point. How do older songs stay fresh and relevant after you’ve performed them literally hundreds of times?

Moorer: The ones I don’t like I don’t do, but they aren’t too many of those. I can’t remember them all to tell you the truth, but most of them feel like old friends.

Birmingham Stages: You’ve seen a lot of changes in the music industry over the years. How do you feel about the current climate in the era of Youtube, iTunes, Spotify and satellite radio? It seems to be a give-and-take of easy access and clutter.

Moorer: I feel like there’s not a damn thing I can do about it so I better make the best of it. I’m not one to sit around and complain about the good old days being over. I can buy pretty much any record I want on vinyl and if I want it on vinyl I can go get it. I think that’s a wonderful development. If I want to go to my phone and say, “Gosh, I love that old song – let me find it” I can go to Spotify – which I do pay for – and find it. There is a lot of clutter, but there aren’t as many gatekeepers so I think it’s a plus. The ancient beast in the game is terrestrial radio, so we’ll what they do to keep their ratings up.

Birmingham Stages: I was interested in your take on that subject because your lengthy career gives you a perspective that many other artists can’t claim.

Moorer: [laughs] Yeah, and it’ll change again and it’ll change again. That’s life and that’s the world. If we’re not changing, then we’re dying. You’ve got to keep up. I miss the days of going into Tower Records every week to see what’s new and see the Top 25 releases. But we have some great independent stores and I’d say support those stores and support artists by buying records directly because that’s what’s putting money in our pockets now. No other streams of revenue can be counted on and the margins get thinner and thinner.

Birmingham Stages: After this tour ends, what are your upcoming plans?

Moorer: I have no idea. I’ve got my regular job as a songwriter and I’m actually working on my second book.

Allison Moorer will appear at Saturn on Wednesday, November 6. A book discussion (moderated by Paul Janeway) will be followed by a musical performance and book signing. Showtime is 8 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $23 ($50 for a ticket/book bundle) and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Flight of the Spirit: A Conversation with Jimmy Webb

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Detailing Jimmy Webb’s hit songs, accolades and overall impact on pop music would require a separate article, but the following list will give you an idea: Grammy Award winner – Song of the Year (1967), Grammy Award winner – Best Country Song (1986), National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1990) and Great American Songbook Hall of Fame – Songbook Award (2013). To date, he is the only artist to receive Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. But of all of the accomplishments in his distinguished career, Webb’s partnership with singer/songwriter Glen Campbell perhaps remains his calling card. Together, the two artists collaborated on a successful run of hits including “Wichita Lineman” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” These days – in addition to recently releasing an album of covers titled Slipcover (S-Curve Records) – Webb is celebrating the life and music of his late friend with his Glen Campbell Years tour. On Saturday, November 2, Webb will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his New York residence. 

Birmingham Stages: Jimmy, thanks for your time. How are you doing?

Jimmy Webb: I’m doing fine. It’s a beautiful day here and I’m soaking up some rays.

Birmingham Stages: Are you home right now or on the road?

Webb: I’m temporarily – very temporarily – at home. We live on the north shore of Long Island in a place called Bayville – it’s greater Oyster Bay, New York. It’s right on the Long Island Sound and we have our little patch of rolling hills and beautiful trees. We also have a beautiful beach that we walk down to behind our house. It’s a small town. We’re about an hour from New York City, but it’s small town America. 

Birmingham Stages: We are really enjoying Slipcover. Had it been on your mind to record an album primarily of other artists’ material for some time or was this a recent inspiration?

Webb: It really came out of my association with Linda Ronstadt and the fact that we had always talked about doing a special set of songs. The first one that she really wanted to do was “Accidentally Like A Martyr” by Warren Zevon. We kicked around different ideas including Randy Newman’s “Marie” and all of these inside songs – really the creme de la creme. Misfortune struck in a big way and it appears that [Linda] will not be recording. I still had these songs rattling around in my head and I thought about Linda and Warren. Believe it or not, Warren and I were going to write some spiritual, inspirational songs together. So, you take all of that and it amounts to an album that was never made.

I was hanging with Randy Newman out in L.A. and they cooked dinner for us one night at his place. I was playing his piano and he said, “I didn’t know you were such a good piano player.” I don’t think about myself as a great piano player but he said, “You should make a piano album.” So that was added to the mix and I said to [Webb’s wife] Laura, “I think I would love to do this. I don’t have to sing and I can do piano arrangements, which I love to do.” It’s just me plunking out these tunes that I love. I’m a sucker for the classically-tinged rock/fusion thing, so that’s one of the ingredients. The other is the slip key, which is a stylistic contribution of country music. It’s kind of a bending of the notes on a keyboard. So, it’s a little classical, a little Floyd Cramer, a lot of beautiful melody and chord structure and no singing. It was a labor of love and a flight of the spirit.

Birmingham Stages: Was it a challenge to select just a few songs from the vast amount of material at your disposal?

Webb: Yes it was, and I plan to do another three or four of them. We had no label – It just all happened. One of BMG’s subsidiaries – S-Curve – said, “We’ll do it.” I think we’ve done pretty well with it. It’s the first thing I’ve ever had on Spotify – I’m sort of behind-the-times with all the techie stuff. I just got a big crate of LPs with the full size artwork and it’s almost pure vinyl. I did my own album cover – I did a self-portrait. The fans – I call them “Webb Heads” – they’ve been snatching them up. The numbered albums have been flying off the shelves at the concerts.

Birmingham Stages: You touched on Spotify which leads to my next question. Given the industry changes you’ve witnessed over your lengthy career, how do you view technology’s place in music and in your career specifically?

Webb: When I first got on the ASCAP board 20 years ago, we used to think that it was going to be nirvana because computers were going to enable us to locate a performance of any one of our songs – I’m talking about “We” as the community of songwriters. We were excited about that ability to track a performance of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” in Borneo and get paid for it and it hasn’t quite turned out like that. There were so many things that happened to us that were adverse that, to this day, one has to say that the impact of digital technology on the average songwriter was catastrophic. We’re down at least 50% on the catalog income that we depended on. 

Birmingham Stages: Your friendship and musical partnership with Glen Campbell is well-documented. If you will, please talk about the origin of The Glen Campbell Years tour.

Webb: Not long after Glen died, we did a tribute show for him. I decided that – for as long as I could play the piano – I had to keep his music alive. The show is pretty simple – it’s me and a piano and some storytelling. It’s a little self-indulgent [laughs]. But, thanks to technological advancements, we are able to do some multimedia things and Glen appears in the show a few times. 

Jimmy Webb will perform at The Lyric Theatre on Saturday, November 2. Tickets to the the 8 p.m. show are $45 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.

Never Go Halfway: A Conversation with Matthew Mayfield

By Carey Hereford

Photo courtesy of the artist

For more than 15 years – first as the frontman of Moses Mayfield and since as a solo artist – Matthew Mayfield has been a fixture on Birmingham’s music scene. Moreover, Mayfield has played a prominent role in elevating our city’s musical stature on a national scale. Earlier this year, the singer/songwriter released Gun Shy [Sweet Exchange], an 11-track collection of raw and honest material. To allow listeners further access into the album’s creation, Mayfield created the podcast Inside the Song with Matthew Mayfield. On Friday, November 1, Mayfield will perform at Saturn. Recently, he spoke with us by phone.

Birmingham Stages: Matthew, thanks for your time. Tell us about the writing process for Gun Shy?

Matthew Mayfield: It was kinda scattered. I had some rock songs and I had some really raw and organic songs, and the record was a combination of those kind of songs. I was writing from three different perspectives in time – I just got of out the box a little bit and took some risks.

Birmingham Stages: Are there any songs on Gun Shy that seem unfinished or incomplete or are you happy with all of them?

Mayfield: I’m pleased with all of them – I never go halfway. That’s for records, writing and for the stage as well. I just feel like if you don’t deliver a passionate, convicted performance, no one is going to buy or be interested it in. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned over the years is if you don’t get chill bumps when you’re across the glass [in the recording studio] cutting a vocal, stay in there and record it until you do. I like to work really hard – it’s been a long ride and it will continue to be.

Birmingham Stages: How did you go about choosing the singles for the album?

Mayfield: Well, I wanted to showcase a little bit of everything. Obviously, “Gun Shy” was the lead off with more of a rock and roll song. I am musically bipolar, so one minute it’s a table for one and a live recording of three of us and then like “Gun Shy” it’s a full-on rock and roll and we just hammer it out, so I chose “Gun Shy” for that exact reason – to show that side of me. “S.H.A.M.E” was the front runner for me, that was the monster of the record that really took me a while to understand that concept. I have learned about how much from a period of my life about how much that song means to me.

Birmingham Stages: What is the most recent artist, album or song you’ve picked up recently?

Mayfield: I have always been a fan of Jason Isbell, even back in the Trucker days. He’s come so far – I am so proud of him. His lyrical ability and ability to tell a story in a four-minute song is unbelievable. “If We Were Vampires” is the song I have picked up most recently, and the one that sticks out to me of his record with the 400 unit, The Nashville Sound. The Highwomen is the band that I have picked recently. I like how Jason Isbell backs up his wife in the band, Amanda Shires. Me and Brandi Carlisle shared a manager for a long time, but when the album The Story came out she went from playing small clubs to filling up big theaters so the manager didn’t have time for any other clients. Also, I’ve written songs with Maren Morris before. She was pretty shy, and I knew that there was so much untapped potential as a songwriter because of that. When she was given the boost she needed, she became a superstar. So yeah, I’ll go with those two.

Birmingham Stages: How have online streaming services such as Spotify Apple Music changed music nowadays?

Mayfield: I buy all of my music and it is absolutely intentional so I can support those people as opposed to them getting almost nothing from Spotify. I need people to buy my records so that I can keep the lights on. Let’s put it this way – if I sell one song one million times for ninety-nine cents I would end up making about $675,000, but if I stream a song one million times I maybe would get a check for a thousand dollars. People who are spending five dollars on lattes at starbucks, but can’t even spend one dollar on one song. Most people don’t spend the money because it’s free to get the music and it’s not the consumers fault. Most people use what’s called “freemium” which is free music just with ads. That ad money goes straight to the CEO – it’s a very political climate. For independent artists, it’s a good way to get discovered and they hope that people will hear the music and buy a ticket. Streaming is the new wave – I am not going to be the old guy and shade it. Either evolve, adapt or die. Everyone says that touring is the answer and it’s not. People don’t have the money to go see five of their favorite bands in a two-week or two-month period. Normal working class people don’t have that kind of money.

Birmingham Stages: What exactly is the S.H.A.M.E. campaign that you have started?

Mayfield: Well, it started out with the music video. It’s the most powerful piece of art that I have ever seen from myself. The visual components of the video are done with actual film – you get this grit without losing any of the warmth in the picture. It blew my mind by how powerful it was and it shocked me. The prison scenes were in the actual cell that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the actual “Letter From the Birmingham Jail”. I get chill bumps talking about it. The whole point of the campaign though is that you’re not alone. We’ve created a website where you can anonymously post what you are ashamed of – it can be whatever. Everybody has something that they are ashamed of – if they say they don’t, then they are lying. So I figured why not write a song about it; why not let that drive me and drive others to share what they are ashamed of. So when they share, it makes other people who read it and have the same issues feel like they are not alone.

Matthew Mayfield will perform at Saturn on Friday, November 1. Showtime is 9 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $16 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

“We Will Rock You” comes to the Alabama Theatre

Futuristic musical set to Queen soundtrack makes Birmingham debut on October 30

By Brent Thompson

It’s fair to say that – despite the death of iconic frontman Freddie Mercury in 1991 – Queen’s impact remains as strong as ever. The band’s three surviving members still perform together with the aid of vocalist Adam Lambert, the 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was an Oscar-winning success and the musical We Will Rock You is now in its 17th year of existence. Set in a sterile future devoid of rock music and independent thought, We Will Rock You finds a group of bohemians fighting the system to the soundtrack of Queen’s music. On Wednesday, October 30, We Will Rock You comes to the Alabama Theatre. Recently, cast member Kyle Gruninger (Khashoggi) spoke with us by phone from Texas.

Birmingham Stages: Kyle, thanks for your time. Are most of the We Will Rock You shows one-night engagements or do you perform multiple shows in each city?

Kyle Gruninger: We’re usually one-off in each city. In New York and Vegas we stay a few more days, but most are just one-offs.

Birmingham Stages: What is the tour’s schedule?

Gruninger: We are in the States until December 1st and then we hit Canada after that. We have months and months to go. We’ve been on the road for about a month now. We started rehearsals in August.

Birmingham Stages: How did you initially get involved in the production?

Gruninger: I’m an actor, performer and a singer and I saw an audition and a couple of friends of mine saw it as well and sent it to me. I’m a huge Queen fan, so as soon as I saw the notice go up I flew in from a cruise ship that I was working on in Florida and I auditioned.

Birmingham Stages: Where is your home base when you aren’t on the road?

Gruninger: I don’t really know another life that is not on the road [laughs], but most of the time I’m in Southern Alberta, Canada. I’m only there for very short periods of time – most of the time I live on the road.

Birmingham Stages: It sounds like, as a Queen fan, this show presents a great personal opportunity for you.

Gruninger: Yes, very much so. I’m a huge, huge, huge Queen fan so when I saw it coming up I had everything prepared and wanted it bad.

Birmingham Stages: With We Will Rock You and the film Bohemian Rhapsody, I’m glad to see that Queen still receives the recognition it deserves.

Gruninger: As am I. With The success of the movie and all of our shows doing very well, you can just tell it’s going well for them.

Birmingham Stages: When you’re not performing in the live theatre, you front the band Incura [incura.bandcamp.com]. How do you balance your careers of music and live theater?

Gruninger: It’s a little bit of a juggling act most of the time, but I try to record music with my band on my off-time from theater. When I’m on the road, I have stuff to release for my band. Then, when I get off the road from my theater stuff, I’ll tour my own original music. That’s kind of how it’s balanced for the past four or five years.

Birmingham Stages: Which creative medium did you seek first – music or theater?

Gruninger: It’s a good mixture to tell you the truth. I was taken to see The Phantom of the Opera at a very young age and fell in love with the dark theatrics of the theater and love and tragedy, but my dad is a rock and roll guy and I listened to a lot of rock and roll growing up. So, I kind of melded the two. I have a theater degree but I also tour with my own band. My band is a theatrical rock band, so it’s a hybrid of both.

Birmingham Stages: As a musician, you have the freedom to change set lists and improvise. That’s obviously not the case in a production like We Will Rock You. How do you deal with the repetitive nature of the theater?

Gruninger: The greatest thing about theater is the repetition is there for the lines and the words, but it’s literally different every night. There’s a different stage and each stage is a different size. Every night we go out there and I play that same character, it’s a different experience for me. Sometimes I wish it was more mundane [laughs] – I wish we could play the same stage once or twice. Every single day is a new challenge and that’s one of the things we’ve focused on with this tour – to make every venue the same when they’re all very different.

Birmingham Stages: So you still find creative freedom within the framework of the show’s script?

Gruninger: Every single day. The great and terrible thing about theater is you have to keep going – there are 2,000 people watching you as you stumble through it. The fear is always a great way to keep you motivated and keep you interested [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: Do you think that your two different careers compliment and affect each other?

Gruninger: I think so. I think with the performance aspect of live music nowadays, I think the theatrical side can inspire the rock side as far as the live show. Also, you’re playing a character as the lead singer of a song so I think they both compliment each other very well.

Birmingham Stages: It sounds like your careers afford you a nice variety.

Gruninger: And when I don’t like anything, I’ll head out on a cruise ship to the middle of the ocean and leave everything behind for a while.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe the typical audience at a We Will Rock You performance? Do you see younger attendees getting turned on to Queen’s music?

Gruninger: Yeah, I’d say my favorite part is the fact that you look out into the audience and someone who’s nine years old is in a Queen shirt giving you the horns and there are three people beside him wearing their Queen shirts from when they saw them on tour in 1975. It’s such a cool mixture of fans. We run out into the audience and I get to high-five all these kids that are into this music and it makes me very happy. Hopefully, when you high-five one of those kids they take that experience home, they tell people and that theater experience inspires them to do whatever they want to do in life.

Birmingham Stages: Could the We Will Rock You tour be extended if additional dates are requested?

Gruninger: That sounds like my living nightmare you just talked about [laughs] – you just wake up and it keeps on going. That’s actually the dream, I guess. As long as the production company owns the rights to doing it, they could add more dates. This could run for a while. Right now, we’re going to hit the end of February but there are rumors it could extend.

Birmingham Stages: Even though you are already a Queen fan, has this “deep dive” into its catalog allowed you to learn more about the band’s music?

Gruninger: Oh, every day. The great thing is we got to work with Stuart Morley who is Queen’s musical director and theatrical director. He would take samples of Freddie’s voice and just let us listen to them – things from the studio that nobody’s heard before. He would rework the melodies how Freddie would have reworked them and things like that. I listen to them every day still and hear the magic that was in there.

We Will Rock You comes to the Alabama Theatre on Wednesday, October 30. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $46.50 – $56.50 and can be purchased at www.alabamatheatre.com.

Road Trip Recap: Billy Strings at Austin’s Historic Scoot Inn 10-18-19

By Sherman Center & Brent Thompson

Billy Strings reminded us why he’s the hottest name in bluegrass when he performed at Austin’s Historic Scoot Inn on Friday, October 18. Over the course of two sets and 22 songs, the guitarist/vocalist and his band mixed original songs with well-chosen covers of Pearl Jam, Bill Monroe, David Grisman and New Grass Revival material among others. Audience members – holders of the toughest ticket in town – will long remember this performance.

Embrace What’s Happening: A Conversation with The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Before Nirvana, Soundgarden and a host of other Pacific Northwest-based bands set the music industry on fire, The Melvins laid the foundation for grunge rock. Consistently cited as a major influence, the group – formed by vocalist/guitarist Buzz Osborne in 1983 – continues to tour regularly. On Saturday, October 19, The Melvins will perform at Saturn. Recently, Osborne spoke with us by phone while on a soundcheck break.

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

Buzz Osborne: We’re in Minneapolis. Tonight’s our 17th show out of 53.

Birmingham Stages: With the large catalog of songs your band has amassed, how do you construct set lists these days?

Osborne: We do about a third older material – which means 25 years old or older – and then two-thirds newer, meaning 25 years and newer. That’s how we do it pretty much. Then we try to put together a set that flows together – we don’t really do it jukebox-style. We try to play a good set every night.

Birmingham Stages: We are really enjoying Pinkus Abortion Technician. Were the songs on it older compositions, newer ones or a mixture of both?

Osborne: A lot of times people will hear a song and they think they’re brand new, but they have been kicking around with us for a long time. You know there are good parts but you just can’t finish it.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process? Do you write on the road, at home or both?

Osborne: A little of both. I don’t do too much writing on the road because I have my hands full with other stuff. I write at home and 99% never sees the light of day – that’s how it goes.

Birmingham Stages: After performing some of your songs for literally thousands of times by now, how do older songs stay fresh and relevant to you?

Osborne: If they’re good, we like them. Sometimes we’ll put a song to bed for a while if we’re sick of it, but we’ve recorded north of 500 songs so it’s not hard to come up with something that’s fresh. I still like playing old stuff. It doesn’t bother me – I like those songs.

Birmingham Stages: With avenues such as Youtube, iTunes and satellite radio, how do you view technology’s prominent role in music these days?

Osborne: I think it’s better now than ever. You have to embrace what’s happening. I’m not a “good old days” kind of guy. I think we’re progressive and we’re up to date as far as what’s going on now. We’re not an oldies band and our new stuff is as viable as anything else. We’re on tour to sell all of our records, not just the newest one.

The Melvins will perform at Saturn on Saturday, October 19. Redd Kross will open the 9 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $24 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Concert Shots: Christone “Kingfish” Ingram at Vulcan After Tunes 10-6-19

By Brent Thompson

The Vulcan After Tunes series closed its 2019 season in grand fashion with a performance by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Over the course of a 75-minute set, the 20-year old blues wizard mesmerized the crowd with his searing guitar work and a beyond-the-years vocal style. The show marked Ingram’s Birmingham debut and we are hoping he will quickly return to our city.

So Many Avenues: A Conversation with Penny & Sparrow’s Andy Baxter

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Folk and R&B don’t cross paths very often, but Penny & Sparrow effectively blends the two genres together on its latest release, Finch. Over the course of the album’s 11 tracks, the duo (Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke) layers in soulful textures while retaining its musical identity. On Sunday, October 6, Penny & Sparrow will perform at Saturn with Caroline Spence opening the 8 p.m. show. Recently, Baxter spoke with us by phone as the band traveled from New York City to Pittsburgh.

Birmingham Stages: Andy, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to your return to Birmingham.

Andy Baxter: Looking forward to coming back to Birmingham. We just did an in-store at Seasick [Records] and it was great.

Birmingham Stages: You must be pleased by the great response that Finch has received.

Baxter: We have been excited about that. It’s been nice to have so many people say such nice things. It’s been good.

Birmingham Stages: How did the album’s material take shape?

Baxter: All of these songs were new songs – they hadn’t been lingering from old songs. Some of the melodic ideas might have been, but for the most part they were all created during the season of writing after [2017 release] Wendigo. We wrote songs out of that surplus and then pieced them all together and didn’t really know what they were all about until we looked at them from a bird’s-eye view after we wrote them and recorded them. So it was after we’d written everything that we said, “Oh, I guess the songs are about change.” That’s how we came up with the name Finch – a nod to Darwin’s finches and the evolutionary changes of the Galapagos Islands. That was what the album sort of came to be.

Birmingham Stages: Does 11th-hour tweaking take place even after you enter the recording studio?

Baxter: Oh, I think that there’s a fair amount of 11th-hour tweaking. There were two songs where we did the majority of the work – they weren’t going to make the record – in the last two days of the studio and they came to fruition. So, that’s a great example of 11th-hour tweaking.

Birmingham Stages: How does your band’s songwriting process work? Is there a typical pattern?

Baxter: Typically, Kyle comes up with melodies first. He creates it and sends me a voice memo of him singing random words and gibberish to the melody that he has made up. I start piecing together words and playing mad libs to the melodies that he has sent. From there, we just do the editing process back-and-forth. This record has been one that we wrote totally separate – he wrote the melodies in Texas and I wrote words in Alabama and we would cross-reference and cross-edit when we came together in the studio.

Birmingham Stages: Are you able to write while you’re on the road?

Baxter: We do on occasion. Kyle’s been working on melodies and he’ll try out ideas when we warm-up and soundcheck and get my random feedback. We haven’t recorded on the road in a while other than little voice memo ideas.

Birmingham Stages: Where are you and Kyle based these days?

Baxter: I live in Florence, AL and Kyle is in Waco, TX. I’m originally from Ft. Worth and Kyle’s from Dallas. We met in college – we both went to the University of Texas in Austin.

Birmingham Stages: What prompted your move to Alabama?

Baxter: We moved there to co-write and work with John Paul White on a record and that’s what brought us to the Shoals originally. We just made friends there and wanted to stay.

Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the current musical climate in the age of Spotify, iTunes, satellite radio and other modern outlets?

Baxter: I think that technological advancements are unavoidable so you either learn how to deal with it, adapt to it and use it to your ability or it leaves you behind. For us, it’s done a lot of good – there are so many avenues to get music in the hands of people that never would have heard it. But this is a really strange time because it’s evolving so quickly. It’s about paying attention to what temperature the water is and making sure you know how to swim in it.

Birmingham Stages: It seems that even if artists can self-record and self-release albums, they still have to get out and tour behind them. Separating yourselves in the live setting is one of the strengths of your band.

Baxter: I appreciate that. That’s the way we’ve wanted to separate ourselves. When we get asked about advice for upcoming artists, we say there’s no substitute for playing shows. Go sing for people and play the same show if it’s in front of 6, 60 or 600.

Penny & Sparrow will perform at Saturn on Sunday, October 6. Caroline Spence will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $17 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.