Review: Les Nuby’s long-awaited debut album has arrived

By Brent Thompson

If there was ever an artist primed for a moment in the spotlight, it’s Birmingham’s own Les Nuby. Local music scenesters know his backstory but for the uninitiated, here goes: Nuby is the former drummer of Verbena and has since spent time with Idlewild, Amy Ray and Vulture Whale. Currently, he produces and engineers numerous artists from his Birmingham studio, Ol’ Elegante. Nuby is also guitarist/vocalist with the quartet Holiday Gunfire. Clouded [Cornelius Chapel Records] is his debut album and is his album in the truest sense. Nuby produced, engineered and performed every instrument on the album’s 10 tracks, a lush and layered collection of Pop/Rock gems. The ability to play multiple instruments, the luxury of unlimited studio time and his production skills allow Nuby to craft an album that plays exactly as he chooses. The guitar work of “Standing Still” and the single “Never Falling Away” best exemplify what can happen when an artist knows his way around both sides of the recording studio. Ultimately, Clouded is a concise account of the music that has influenced Nuby along the way coupled with his own style. Let’s just hope a follow-up album is already in the works.

 

Ready Freddie: A Conversation with Black Jacket Symphony’s Marc Martel

The following is a reprint of 0ur story from 2019:

BY CAREY HEREFORD

Photo Credit: Kevin Herrington
Marc Martel never thought his career would ever be centered in the world of tribute bands. With vocals sounding similar to legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, the Nashville-based singer was tasked with the job of recording the vocals for the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. These days, Martel fronts the Black Jacket Symphony’s new project Queen: A Night at The Opera. On Friday, June 26, the renowned tribute ensemble will bring the album’s sounds to its “Concerts from the Car” series at the Hoover Met Complex. Recently, Martel spoke with us by phone about his experience with Black Jacket Symphony and the career path that led him there. Birmingham Stages: Marc, thank you for your time. Why do think that tribute bands are more prevalent and high-profile these days compared to 10 or 15 years ago? Marc Martel: I got involved when I saw an advertisement for when Roger Taylor of Queen was starting a tribute band called “The Queen Extravaganza.” I decided to audition and got the part for the singer and that opened up a whole new world for me. We ended up doing a whole tour of Europe and North America. But nowadays it has become so common – like apparently there is a Pink Floyd cover band that sells out areas consistently in Australia. Birmingham Stages: Do you perform the Queen songs as they were recorded or do you change them to make them more of your own? Martel: That depends on which band I am playing with. I am obviously with Black Jacket Symphony and a tribute band of my own called the “Ultimate Queen Celebration.” The goal of the Black Jacket Symphony is to reproduce the album’s sound as best as possible and the second part we start to let loose a little bit and have more fun with the arrangements. On the first part, that is where I will stick to the script. I do not explore different ways in that part of the night. When I am with other bands, it can have a more of a free-flowing feel. You have to find new ways to keep these songs fresh every night and still give liberty to Queen and the songs themselves. I know people come to hear how they listen to these songs and then see that live. Birmingham Stages: Which song on the Black Jacket Symphony setlist do you think is performed best live so far? Martel: “Under Pressure” – that song holds a special place in my heart because I get to share lead vocals with somebody. There is just a really fun camaraderie built in that song because there is such an interesting chemistry built into that song. But, all in all, I think it puts out a positive message. You know, “Fat Bottomed Girls” may not be my favorite Queen song, but to the audience it really gets people on their feet so that’s really awesome every night. Birmingham Stages: How did you get the role of recording the vocals for the movie Bohemian Rhapsody? Martel: Well, like I said, I have had a relationship with Queen ever since 2011. I’ve worked closely with them for several years now. So when the movie was finally funded, they needed someone to do the vocals for the parts of the recordings that were lost or could not be used. So that’s how I fit into the mix, when the movie got green lit they reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be a part. That part and my involvement was such a huge honor to me. Birmingham Stages: What was your reaction to Bohemian Rhapsody winning a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture and being nominated for a Oscar? Martel: It was pretty crazy. You know, when the movie was made that was my first time being involved in the movie industry in any shape or form. There were whispers of Oscar nominations before the movie was even out yet which blew me away. I was thinking it through logically – Queen is one of the biggest bands to this day. On top of that, Freddie Mercury was one of the best performers of all time. So if any musical biopic is going to do well, it would be this one. This is because you cannot go anywhere on this planet where people haven’t heard of Queen. So I already knew it had potential to do really, really well. Just to talk with all of the producers and people on the set and knowing how dedicated they were to this movie. Just when that much passion goes into a movie like that, you just know it is destined to do very well. Birmingham Stages: Whose music influenced you growing up? Martel: Well, I remember growing up my main memories of music were being alone in my bedroom waiting for a certain song to go on the radio with my tape recorder. When that song would come on, I would record it and then later try to mimic the vocals the best I could. Especially with George Michael’s music – I was a big fan of him. I grew up doing music mostly in church – that was a huge part of my formation as a musician. My father is a pastor, so I was on stage whenever I wanted or sometime when I did not necessarily want to either. I really dove into music in the early ’90s, and that is when grunge hit really hard. I was huge fan of Pearl Jam, Jeff Buckley, and Richard Marx. Richard Marx was the one who inspired me to try a more raspy voice.
Photo Credit: Rob Hereth
Birmingham Stages: How did digging deep into the lyrics and foundation of these songs change your perspective of Queen’s music? Martel: When I started listening to Queen’s Greatest Hits, to be honest I did not love the lyrical content at first. Maybe because before this I was in a Christian band for 13 years and all of our content was meant to inspire. Even when we dealt with darker subjects, there was always a light at the end of tunnel. But, that is not the case with all of Queen’s music, maybe on the surface though. It took me awhile to really appreciate the lyrical content. Now I have a better understanding, there maybe a little bit more and it helps knowing Roger and Brian a little bit, too, as well as knowing more about Freddie’s personal story helps appreciate that much more. Birmingham Stages: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you and your career? Martel: I just would like them to know that I have some records of my own. There is a Queen covers album I just put out recently called Thunderbolt and Lightning. It is my own take on some of the Queen songs that are my favorites. As well to check out my social media and all of that good stuff! The Black Jacket Symphony will perform Queen’s A Night At The Opera at the Hoover Met Complex on Friday, June 26. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show can be purchased at  www.blackjacketsymphony.com.

Dion Gets The Blues With A Little Help From His Friends

By Brent Thompson

Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famer Dion has taken a career path similar to fellow stalwart Boz Scaggs by going to back to his love of the blues and no longer chasing radio hits. Dion’s latest, Blues With Friends [KTBA Records], could also be titled Blues With Legends given its stellar lineup of guest artists. Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Brian Setzer are but a few friends that stop in along the album’s 14 tracks. Shunning tired cover versions in lieu of original material, Blues With Friends only includes songs written or co-written by Dion. The material touches on several styles that meld together in a cohesive manner. As Dion himself says, “Great songs, great guitarists. What more do you need?”

Jimmy Buffett Review: The Latest Chapter from the Sultan of Sand

By Brent Thompson

At this stage of his life, Jimmy Buffett doesn’t need to release new music in order to annually sell-out amphitheaters all over the country. But pop music’s most laid-back figure – who probably works much harder than any of us suspect – has consistently given us new songs throughout his career. His latest and 30th studio effort, Life On The Flip Side [Mailboat Records], is a 14-track collection that finds 11 of the songs written or co-written by Buffett. Equal parts tongue-in-cheek (“Cussin’ Island”), philosophical (“Oceans Of Time”), gritty (“The Devil I Know”) and self-congratulatory (“Mailbox Money”), Life On The Flip Side is another welcome entry into the singer’s Country-meets-Caribbean catalog. Along the way, Buffett is supported by guests including Lukas Nelson, Paul Brady, collaborator/fellow Alabama native Will Kimbrough and his ever-loyal Coral Reefer Band. If Buffett’s sound isn’t your thing, this album likely won’t convert you. But if his music is the soundtrack to your endless summer, Life On The Flip Side is a worthy addition to the fold.

Review: Jason Isbell’s new Nashville sound

By Brent Thompson

With an honest storytelling approach, searing guitar lines and crack backing band The 400 Unit, Jason Isbell has released a string of albums that have garnered deservedly positive reviews. And while the four-time Grammy winner could have released another collection of country-tinged, sobriety-centered tunes to the delight of critics and fans alike, Isbell instead takes a departure on his latest release, Reunions [Southeastern Records]. While keeping his partnership with producer Dave Cobb, Isbell opts for a more “produced” approach over the album’s 10 tracks. Politics (“Be Afraid”), Classic Rock (“Overseas”) and nostalgia (“Dreamsicle,” “Only Children”) are all sonically wrapped in a layered sound that can’t be heard on previous releases such as Southeastern and The Nashville Sound. Even rock icon David Crosby joins the fold, adding background vocals on opening track “What’ve I Done To Help.” A recent, must-read interview that Isbell gave The New York Times (written by David Peisner) offers insight to the personal and professional matters that plagued him during the album’s creation. Like Reunions itself, the article is a sobering reminder that Isbell – while seemingly sitting on top of the world – still faces the same doubts, fears and pressures as those listening to his songs.

Note: On Friday, May 15, Isbell and wife/collaborator Amanda Shires will celebrate the release of Reunions with a livestream acoustic performance on Fans.com. Showtime is 7 p.m. Central.

 

When the Crescent City Calls: A Conversation with Jack Sledge

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Like most everyone else, Jack Sledge has seen his spring plans derailed. A slate of tour dates booked across the South – including a stop in Birmingham – must now be rescheduled. But while we won’t see the New Orleans-based Sledge live in the near future, we are fortunate to have his new EP, Notes of a Drifter, available to us. Offering a timeless musical sound that has drawn comparisons to Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and The Band, the singer/songwriter’s style rings fresh and familiar at the same time. Recently, Sledge spoke with us by phone from his New Orleans home.

Birmingham Stages: Jack, thanks for your time. How are you holding up during this unbelievable situation?

Jack Sledge: It’s pretty crazy. I’m a teacher and I send the kids emails – I’ve still got a job thank God. I teach music at a small school – I’m just sitting by the computer and sending videos.

Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying Notes of a Drifter. Are the songs on the EP older compositions, newer ones or a combination of both?

Sledge: Usually, there’s about a year lag on songs. Typically, I’ll have songs ready about a year before they’re released just because the recording takes a while. Drifter is probably from 2016.

Birmingham Stages: This is the second time you have lived in New Orleans. If you will, talk about your decision to return to the gulf coast.

Sledge: As a musician, there’s a lot more work not only in New Orleans but in the South. Believe it or not, you get paid better as a musician down here. There are more bars that have live music down here for some reason. That was part of it. Also, going to college down here, I have a lot of friends that play different instruments. I just have a network down here that I didn’t have in New York even though I’m from New York.

Birmingham Stages: I know that every region of the country has musical history, but there is something special about living in the South. The fact that New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals and the Mississippi Delta are all within a few hours of each other is something that you can’t take for granted.

Sledge: Oh, yeah. My favorite music comes from here and I’ve always been drawn to it because of that. As a kid, my parents were obsessed with Elvis and we went to Tupelo and to Graceland – we did the whole Elvis pilgrimage in that area. So I was always drawn to it as a child.

Birmingham Stages: There will be a full-length album coming out later this year, correct?

Sledge: Yeah, it’s finished and the COVID-19 changed a lot of plans so we’ll see. I’ll probably put it out sooner because touring is going to be put on hold for a while.

Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the state of music in the age of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and Spotify? Some artists tell me that it’s a great time given the ease of reaching listeners. Other artists say that the current model makes it difficult to be found among the crowd.

Sledge: I’m on both sides. Anybody can hear your music and connect with you and I think that’s great. But at the same time, it clutters the playing field. I guess I fall on the side of the gatekeeper argument – that there should be someone [to vet artists].

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process? Do you set aside certain times to write or wait until inspiration strikes?

Sledge: I guess I’m a little bit of both. Right now I’m writing every day because I’m working less. I try to be more disciplined about it than I used to. I used to do it when inspiration would strike, but in the last couple of years I’ve been more into drafting. I’ll write five drafts of the same song and work with it and not pressure myself into having this lightning-strike of inspiration.

Jack Sledge’s Notes of a Drifter is available at www.jacksledgemusic.com and across all digital formats. We will update readers when the rescheduled Birmingham show date is announced. 

Logan Ledger introduces “Country Noir” sound on stellar debut release

By Brent Thompson

When a 13-time Grammy winner produces an artist’s debut album, you take notice. Such is the case for Logan Ledger – a Nashville-by-way-of California singer/songwriter – in pairing with T-Bone Burnett on his eponymously-titled debut release [Electro Magnetic/Rounder Records]. Performing his self-described “Country Noir,” Ledger offers up traditional country music with darkened tinges. Burnett’s production style is the proper fit for Ledger’s vision as highlighted on the album’s first two singles, “Starlight” and “Imagining Raindrops.” Across the album’s 11 tracks, Ledger is aided by a cast of musicians that have backed Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. On his debut, Logan accomplishes the difficult task of sounding reverent and relevant at the same time.

Damon Johnson Returns to WorkPlay on March 13

By Brent Thompson 

 

Though he has traveled the globe with the likes of Alice Cooper, Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders, we still consider Damon Johnson to be one of Birmingham’s own. The Alabama native – and current Nashville resident – first put his name in the national spotlight as Brother Cane’s frontman. Since then, he has been active as a sideman, songwriter and solo artist among numerous other projects. On Friday, March 13, the vocalist/guitarist will return to WorkPlay. Currently, Johnson is touring in support of his 2019 release Memoirs of an Uprising [Double Dragon Records]. The Ladies Of… (featuring James Hall) will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance show tickets are $20 – Meet & Greet/VIP tickets are $50 – and may be purchased at www.workplay.com.

When Five Arrives: A Conversation with John Moreland

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Crackerfarm

Five full-length albums into his recording career, John Moreland remains a consummate “songwriter’s songwriter,” possessing the ability to craft indelible lyrics in plainspoken fashion. His latest release, LP5 [Thirty Tigers/Old Omens], is an 11-track collection that finds Moreland enlisting the help of an outside producer (Matt Pence) for the first time. Pence’s previous credits include projects with Jason Isbell, Nikki Lane and Paul Cauthen. Later this month, Moreland embarks on a nationwide tour in support of LP5. On Tuesday, March 17, he will perform at Saturn. Recently, Moreland spoke with us by phone from his Tulsa, Okla. home.

Birmingham Stages: John, thanks for your time. If you will, tell us about the creation of LP5.

John Moreland: Most of [the songs] were pretty new when we started recording. “When My Fever Breaks” and I think maybe one or two others were older – or had parts from older songs that I kind of reworked – but I’d say 70% or so of the album was written in the last few months prior to recording it.

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

Moreland: It depends. On this album, we were recording at a really nice studio down in Denton, Texas working with a really good producer named Matt Pence. As far as how we are going to do everything, I don’t know and I want to leave that open. But as far as lyrics and the chord progressions and the structure of the songs, that stuff is pretty much done by the time I go in there.

Birmingham Stages: For the first time in your recording career, you brought in an outside producer for this album. How did you choose to work with Matt?

Moreland: I was just a really big fan of his and of his old band, Centro-Matic, and I really liked his drumming and the records that he had engineered – they always sounded really great. We didn’t know each other before we worked together. I knew we had mutual friends and I just thought that, musically, it would be a really good fit. When we got down there, it all kind of clicked and fell into place and he ended up producing the album.

Birmingham Stages: With several albums now in your catalog, how are you constructing your set lists for the current tour?

Moreland: That’s what we’re doing right now. We are having rehearsals and figuring out what we’re going to play and how we are going to play the new songs. Most of the time we can only play 20 of my songs, so it’s just picking out which 20 of those are going to be for this tour. I see bands and people request songs from 10 years ago and they’ll just bust it out and play the song, but I get wigged out if I don’t know exactly what’s going on in the set [laughs]. I like to feel like I have it planned out and know what’s going to happen.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work? Do you typically write at home, on the road or wherever inspiration strikes?

Moreland: I definitely write a lot more at home. I don’t think I really write at all on the road, other than I’ll maybe think of a line or two and write it down. But as far as sitting down, working on music and putting it all together, I always do that at home. I used to be the kind of songwriter that didn’t really make myself do it that much – I just did it when I felt like it, but back then I felt like it all the time. Nowadays, it’s a little more like work. I have to show up for work every day, but it’s work that I really love. When I start making myself do it on a regular basis, inspiration starts to come a lot more frequently so it kind of fuels itself.

Birmingham Stages: When you are writing, do you typically start with a lyrical or musical idea first?

Moreland: There really isn’t a pattern – it can be anything. I never really sit down and write a whole song’s worth of lyrics without any music – I don’t really do that. Sometimes two or four lines come first and that starts the music from there and I’ll build from those lyrics. Sometimes I’ll have a whole musical composition with no lyrics and I’ll just write words to it.

Birmingham Stages: You are still based in your hometown of Tulsa. It seems that a lot of artists I interview have chosen – like you – to stay home in lieu of relocating to music industry hubs such as Nashville or Austin.

Moreland: It’s where I’m from and it’s where I can afford to live. It’s nice to come home from a tour and be in a place that really has nothing to do with the music industry at all. If I had to come home from tour and be in Nashville, I don’t think that would be good for me.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists applaud the musical climate in the era of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and other outlets that provide instant and worldwide access to listeners. Others say the current model makes it difficult for artists to be heard among the crowd. How do you feel about the current climate?

Moreland: I think it’s both and I’ve definitely felt both ways. Now that things are working out well for me, it’s a lot easier to say, “What a great time – anybody can take their phone out of their pocket and hear my music.” But when I was struggling to get noticed, it felt like, “There are just so many people out there. It does feel hard to get noticed.” But I think if you write songs that people are going to notice, then they’re going to notice it. You just have to make the best music you can and you can’t control anything else.

John Moreland will perform at Saturn on Tuesday, March 17. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $20 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com

About The Music: A Conversation with George Winston

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Todd V. Wolfson

Since 1972, George Winston’s music has provided musical solace to generations of listeners. Along the way, the Grammy-winning artist has sold 15 million albums. Though adept on guitar and harmonica, Winston is best known for landmark solo piano recordings including Autumn (1980), December (1982) and Summer (1991). His latest release, 2019’s Restless Wind [RCA/Dancing Cat Records], is an 11-track collection that blends original material with interpretations of songs by The Doors, Sam Cooke and Buffalo Springfield among others. On Wednesday, March 4, Winston will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone while en route to a performance in Austin, Texas.

Birmingham Stages: George, thanks for your time. Is it hard to believe that your recording career is closing in on 50 years.

George Winston: The albums just kind of happen from time to time. I notice that there are some songs coalescing together and feel like a certain theme. I wait for it and it gets completed when other songs emerge. I don’t push it – I just kind of observe it all.

Birmingham Stages: Restless Wind includes your interpretations of songs from a variety of artists including Gershwin, Buffalo Springfield, Sam Cooke and The Doors. How did you go about specifically selecting the material?

Winston: They just kind of seemed to work together. You go by feel and take a lot of time to do it, as much time as needed. If you rush it, it’s a recipe for “Why did I do it?” [laughs]

Birmingham Stages: When interpreting, is there a challenge to retaining the integrity of the song while placing your own stamp on the material?

Winston: There are basically three elements when you’re interpreting: The original song or wherever I heard it from, the instrument – be it guitar, piano or solo harmonica. Sometimes all the notes are there, but it sounds like a clever transcription – it doesn’t breathe or anything. The third element is what I want to do. When you’re interpreting, you become the composer. If you’re playing it, in a way it’s your song. You’re the one that has final say on everything. It’s those three things that go into it.

Birmingham Stages: With a large catalog of songs under your belt, how do you select material for your live performances these days?

Winston: I’ve got two shows – the summer show and the winter show. I just go by what I’m currently playing. Most of the songs I record are just for the record – I don’t play them live. Well, maybe 25 percent.

Birmingham Stages: You have witnessed a lot of changes in the music industry over the course of your career. How do you feel about the current climate in the era of iTunes, Youtube, streaming and satellite radio?

Winston: I never really think about the climate – I just think about the playing because things change all the time. Everything’s got advantages and disadvantages. If [I was] looking f0r a song, sometimes it used to take months. I sent letters to used record stores and now it takes 15 seconds. So, if I was going to play “Georgia On My Mind,” I can find 15 versions of it. So, it’s great to be able to get to those and study them. The music business has been fighting ever since it’s been in existence. Music and money were never meant to be married to each other – it’s not how music came out of the ground. It is what it is, but the bottom line is I always think about the music. I’m lucky because I don’t have big expenses – it’s just me and there’s no band and no crew so I’m lucky that way. I didn’t do that for economic reasons – it’s just what I do.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

Winston: It’s a lot of trial and error. Something emerges and I’ll keep it around. I couldn’t try to compose something – it wouldn’t work. I have done soundtracks when I really liked the projects, but I already had all of the pieces. If I don’t already have the music, I refer people to folks who do that really well.

Birmingham Stages: It seems you have carved out a career on your own terms and that’s rare.

Winston: I always take a travel day between shows. I’ll make half the money and not hate my life. There’s nothing like wondering if you’re going to make the show or not. I don’t want to wonder if I’m going to make the show. I’ll do two in a row if they’re in the same town. Burning out is a long-term process. There are all these little things you can do to not burn out.

George Winston will perform at The Lyric Theatre on Wednesday, March 4. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show are $38 – $42 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com. Please bring a canned food donation to benefit Community Food Bank of Central Alabama – collection baskets will be placed at the theatre’s entrance.