“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.

Your Soul and Your Mind: A Conversation with The Record Company’s Chris Vos

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Jen Rosenstein

The Record Company is a prime example of a band forging its way in the modern music industry. Recording and mixing its debut full-length debut album [2016’s Grammy-nominated Give It Back To You] in its Los Angeles living room, the trio quickly garnered exposure via heavy rotation on satellite radio. In 2018, the band – Chris Vos, Alex Stiff and Marc Cazorla – released All Of This Life, 10-track collection that mines the raw, blues-based sound of its predecessor. On Friday, October 4, The Record Company will perform with Blackberry Smoke at Avondale Brewing Company. Recently, vocalist/guitarist Vos spoke with us by phone from his California home.

Birmingham Stages: Chris, thanks for your time. We are enjoying All Of This Life.

Chris Vos: Thanks. It was fun to make and it’s fun to see these songs get out there. It’s been a cool experience.

Birmingham Stages: I can only imagine the whirlwind your life has been since the release of Give It Back To You.

Vos: It’s all good. You can’t work to create chaos by being a musician and, when it happens, not enjoy it. It’s a crazy life but – to paraphrase Willie Nelson – it’s my life.

Birmingham Stages: With the touring and promotion demands that surrounded Give It Back To You, was it a challenge to write material for All Of This Life?

Vos: You get better at it. To borrow another phrase, you make hay while the sun shines. If you’re going to wait around for conditions to be perfect to sit down and write a song, those days are gone. If you want to continue to be out there, you have to continue writing and taking information. It’s just having your antenna up every day. Back in the day, you’d carry a pad and paper in your pocket and if an idea hit you you’d get it down. But now we’ve got these [digital] voice memos and you get it down on there – it’s a nice little tool to have. You have to be listening to your soul and mind at all times because they go by real quick. Inspiration does not knock loudly all the time.

Birmingham Stages: Were the songs on All Of This Life newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?

Vos: Most of it was brand new. There were a couple that were concepts that had laid around for a bit. There were song fragments and lyrics that had been laying around. Sometimes you’ll have a lyric or a melody that you feel like is good but you can’t find the personality of the song yet. You try to beat your head against the wall in those moments, but sometimes the song just isn’t ready to be born yet so you move on to the next idea.

Birmingham Stages: When you take songs into the recording studio, is there ongoing tweaking that takes place?

Vos: I think it’s different on every record. For All Of This Life, we had a release date set and we hit the deadline and we said, “That’s that.” Deadlines sometimes are good because you can sit and horse around with something forever. We tend to be more of a “let it be what it is” kind of band, but as you go on in your career you never know what will happen.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists say this is a great time to be in your position given the technology and the instant accessibility it brings. Others say it’s a difficult time to be found among the crowd given the clutter that technology creates. How do you feel about the current climate?

Vos: The one thing I’m always hesitant to think about is the concept of the good old days. I don’t think it was ever easy is my point. Back in the day, there were gatekeepers telling us what’s cool and what’s not cool and they controlled the whole game. A band like us probably wouldn’t have had much of a chance to get out there. I wasn’t making music when people bought music so I didn’t get the benefit of that. I’ve never had checks just rolling into my mailbox. I’m of the era where you put out a record so you can go play shows.

It’s a complicated question. Everybody has a chance and I see a lot of diverse artists out there. Artists I meet these days are not motivated by money. I think musicians that are out there truly love what they do and they do it because they don’t want to do anything else. They are looking to be fulfilled spiritually and musically. You just have to get in there and work hard.

The Record Company will perform with Blackberry Smoke at Avondale Brewing Company on Friday, October 4. Advance tickets to the 6:30 p.m. show are $35 – $40 day of the show – and can be purchased at avondalebrewing.com.

Road Trip Recap: AmericanaFest 2019

By Brent Thompson

It’s our favorite week of the year and it’s an easy drive from Birmingham. Each September, a throng of talented artists descend on Nashville for the weeklong Americana Music Festival & Conference (AmericanaFest). Legends and newcomers alike blanket the city’s venues, rooftop bars, hotels and restaurants, prompting frustration that you can’t be everywhere at the same time.

Liz Brasher
Mitch Easter
Trigger Hippy
Early James & The Latest
The Rails
Sarah Shook
Don Dixon

On The Line For The Music: A Conversation with Will Hoge

By Carey Hereford

Photo courtesy of the artist

The term “Americana” befits Will Hoge as the musical genre is as definably indefinable as the singer/songwriter’s familiar-yet-fresh sound. For more than 20 years, Hoge has garnered a loyal fan base via word-of-mouth and incessant touring. Since leaving Western Kentucky University to pursue a full-time career in music, Hoge has released a steady stream of albums and has a new record slated for release in 2020. On Wednesday, September 25, he will perform at WorkPlay Theatre with Stephen Kellogg. Recently, we spoke with Hoge by phone.

Birmingham Stages: Thank you for your time Will. Who was your biggest musical influence growing up and how does that compare to who influences you now?

Will Hoge: Oh, I don’t know, the biggest thing for me is just as a fan. I mean it wasn’t necessarily any particular artist. My dad had this really great record collection growing up, he had everything from the early ’60s through the mid ’70s. He kind of had all of the great stuff in my opinion. Whether that was singer-songwriters or country stuff or rock stuff, he had everything. I just grew up with this really great appreciation for what I like to consider great music. Genre of music didn’t necessarily matter. I like that artist would go out there and put themselves on the line for the music – that’s what always interested me as a kid. That still interest me to this day – I don’t think the general concept hasn’t changed much for me.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work and where do you tend to find inspiration?

Hoge: The inspiration for me is just daily life and that’s a constant thing. I think when was younger it was just trying to write songs about love or whatever it was when you were feeling 18 years old. Now that changes a little bit – there are kids and marriage [and] all sorts of things that could factor into this. Life is the inspiration. From there, the process is almost chaotic. You know you have all these thoughts that swirl around and then you, hopefully, sit still long enough where you can get a cool melody or cool lyric idea and you scramble to get them down and out as quickly as possible.

Birmingham Stages: How old were you when you wrote your first song?

Hoge: Aw man, first attempt was probably in like fifth or sixth grade, but I didn’t even play music at that point. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was about 17. Think I was trying to do it a little before that. I was 16 or 17 when I got my first guitar and I was learning like ​”Sweet Home Alabama.”  ​That was the first thing a guy kinda wrote out chords for me in a history class. From there I started to write songs pretty quickly. They weren’t very good, but I was trying my best.

Birmingham Stages: Do you feel obligated to play songs in your sets or do you play the songs you want to play?

Hoge: One thing I like about having done this for so long, I think there is a trust between the crowd and audience that they have come to see a great show. I don’t think the audience comes to hear a song in particular. That’s the beauty of not really having a bunch of hits – I don’t have the obligation to play any particular song. My favorite thing is when people leave and say “Man, that was one of the best shows I have ever seen and he didn’t even play this song or that song.” That’s really the biggest compliment I think you can get.

Birmingham Stages: When you are making a record, how do you choose which songs are going to be singles?

Hoge: I differ most of the times to other people on that kind of stuff – I just don’t know anymore. One, there is not much places for singles, – Americana as a format, they just put your whole record out at once. Then people get to pick and choose what they want to listen to which I think is great. That is one of the places where I try to listen more than lead, then I just get to go play the songs.

Birmingham Stages: What song of yours do you see as unfinished and still needs more work?

Hoge: Oh, everything. We are going to start a new record new week, start on the 11th (of September). So I’ve got 11 of them right there were I can think of that I need to be finishing in the next four or five days. So, those are the ones that I am focused on currently.

Birmingham Stages: Your recent record, My American Dream, was released in 2018. What made you feel like you were ready to start a new record? When do you plan to release your next record?

Hoge: I had a pretty decent batch of songs that I felt like kinda could make two records actually and I went in feeling pretty bold about it. But then, when we went in for pre-production, I realized that I like all of these songs and they all need to be released. There was a batch of them that fit together and then a batch of them that went together in another way. So we are concentrating on these 11 right now. I think that the album will be released in the first quarter of next year.

Birmingham Stages: So what kind of music might be found in your playlist right now?

Hoge: Man, I’m all over the place, like all of that stuff that I mentioned earlier. I try to listen to friends of mine and people that are putting out new records and spend some time there. I’ve got twelve and nine year old little boys that bring a whole different element of what there listening to. Things that I have never heard of or would have never found. So it’s a pretty healthy dose of all sorts of music.

Birmingham Stages: What do you consider your greatest musical achievement or failure?

Hoge: My greatest achievement I’d have to say is that I’m still here doing this, 20 years-plus of not having to do anything else – I’ve felt really fortunate about that. But, as far as failures, it’s kinda cliche to say but failure don’t really matter – it’s kinda about what you do afterwards that defines you. I just feel very lucky to be able to keep getting back up.

Will Hoge and Stephen Kellogg will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Wednesday, September 25. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $25 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

Matthew Sweet Performs at Saturn on September 17

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Evan Carter

The term “Power Pop” is synonymous with melodic, hook-laden songs performed with a rock & roll attitude. Big Star, The Raspberries, Badfinger and Todd Rundgren were early torchbearers in the genre and – for more than 30 years (has it really been more than 30 years?) – Matthew Sweet has been at the forefront of the movement. In addition to releasing a wealth of solo material, the singer/guitarist has been involved in projects with Susanna Hoffs, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge among others. On Tuesday, September 17, Sweet will perform at Saturn with People Years opening the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $20 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.