Listening Station: Matt Marshak

By Brent Thompson

Guitarist Matt Marshak has been a fixture on Billboard’s Smooth Jazz chart, but he has always let his instrument do the talking. With the upcoming release of his album Simple Man (March 29), Marshak literally finds his voice on the 11-track outing. Enlisting a crack team of producers, songwriters and session players, Marshak reinvents himself as a singer/songwriter and it’s a surprisingly seamless transition. Drawing on the sounds of early inspirations including Paul Simon and James Taylor, Simple Man fits comfortably in the Americana realm. The video for the album’s title track – which includes cameo appearances by Marshak’s wife and daughter – has already been an online sensation, receiving more than 100,000 views on Facebook alone. Who knows if Marshak will stay on this current course or return to his jazzy roots, but Simple Man is a stylistic detour that pays dividends.

Concert Shots: Ruston Kelly at WorkPlay March 16

By Brent Thompson

On March 16, Ruston Kelly took the stage at WorkPlay in front of a sold-out audience. The singer/songwriter made his first Birmingham show a notable one as he engaged the crowd with a number of between-song stories. The most unexpected highlight of the set occurred when Kelly’s wife Kacey Musgraves joined him onstage for a duet. We were on hand to capture the memorable night.

To Serve The Music: A Conversation with Amos Lee

By Brent Thompson

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

With a style incorporating elements of folk, rock and soul, Amos Lee offers a timeless sound that also rings fresh and unique. In 2018, the singer/songwriter released My New Moon (Dualtone Records), a 10-track collection produced by Tony Berg (Andrew Bird, Joshua Radin). Featuring appearances by Benmont Tench and Greg Leisz among others, the album has been described as Lee’s most personal body of work. On Friday, March 15, Lee will perform at the Alabama Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from Los Angeles.

Birmingham Stages: Amos, thanks for your time. Has the current leg of the tour started yet?

Amos Lee: We start on March 8 in Nashville at The Ryman. I’m in Los Angeles – I’m out here working on some new music.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the creation of My New Moon. Were the songs newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?

Lee: Let me think about that for a second. Most of it was pretty new. I think that – as an artist who has gotten on in the stage of my career – I don’t have that 50 or 60-song suitcase that I can pull out of the closet that’s still in there from my early days. So, you have to regenerate your ideas more quickly which I think is interesting as a writer because everybody talks about the first album and how you have a lifetime to write that and then the next album is more of a challenge. I’ve definitely had ups and downs in my process, but a great thing about this record for me was working with Tony Berg who produced the album. We spent a lot of time beforehand working on the songs and arrangements. Plus, I’m a dog – I work. I’m always writing and I’m always trying to create and collaborate with people. It’s not something that I have to try to do – I’m just always doing it. Those are things that have kept me inspired and motivated – I love what I do. It really helps to get in front of crowd like Birmingham and have the feedback from people that says, “We feel the same way you do about it.”

Birmingham Stages: With the catalog of material you’ve amassed, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

Lee: Honestly, I’m still working that out after all these years because what I find happens is I’m continuously falling back on the songs I know people really want to hear, but at the same time I want to make it more diverse. I don’t always know what songs I don’t play that people really want to hear and I want to keep the set dynamic and up-tempo as much as we can but I have so many mid-tempo and down-tempo songs. I don’t want it to get too morose. I have to balance all that stuff out.

Birmingham Stages: My New Moon has been called your most personal album to date. You also speak to the current political climate on it. Do you feel exposed or anxious when releasing material that hits close to home or do you feel a sense of relief in getting it out in the open?

Lee: My interest artistically is to be as straightforward and honest as I can with whatever songs are coming to me. The reason that [these] songs are about what they’re about is because that’s what I was living through at the time. I think that every batch of songs will hopefully be the same way. The problems are universal and our journey as a country – forging a complete identity – has always been a challenge in the United States. It’s a country that was born from many different places. I have a lot of faith that things are going to get better, but we started from a place that needed a lot of work. I think politically whatever allows you to look into yourself and forge forward and create a more cohesive country interests me. I try to come from a place of connection. Everyone has their own angle and everyone’s ideology is their own for a very specific reason.

The thing about music is that you can connect people and you can unite people [in a manner] that maybe you can’t approach outside of music. I sing about something that conversationally might not be appealing to you. From a musical standpoint, there’s rhythm, there’s melody, there’s harmony – there’s a way for these messages to be more connected than in a simple conversation. That’s my hope at least – when you leave the show, we’re more connected than when we came. That’s my whole interest as an artist. I’m there to serve the music every night.

Birmingham Stages: You’re cover version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” made a real impact. It was originally released nearly 50 years ago but remains relevant to these times. Stylistically, the song’s a good fit for you as your sound has always had a soulful element.

Lee: It’s funny because I was doing a Sirius XM show and they were like, “Do you know any covers?” and I was like, “I really only know one; I might know two.” I don’t know a lot of covers so it worked out pretty well. That whole era – there was a forging of new ideas into what was part of a genre before and Marvin Gaye embodied that as well as anybody, especially because there was resistance to his ideas from Berry Gordy. Marvin was like, “This is what I’m doing.” The business side had to accept it and it changed the culture and it changed the way music is appreciated.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process typically work? Do you write on the road?

Lee: I find it harder to write on the road because I’m putting so much energy into the shows. My whole day is about trying to make that hour and a half show the best show it can be. I try to give myself up completely to the performance.

Amos Lee will perform at the Alabama Theatre on Friday, March 15. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show are $37.50 – $57.50 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com.

Never Sit Still: A Conversation with Billy Strings

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Ever so often, a young virtuoso comes along and reintroduces his or her contemporaries to traditional music woven into the American fabric. Stevie Ray Vaughan breathed new life into the blues, Diana Krall gave us an updated take on jazz and standards, and now guitarist Billy Strings is bringing the sounds of bluegrass to his generation. Strings’ 2017 album, Turmoil & Tinfoil [Apostol], has taken on a life of its own by still charting in 2019. Produced by Glenn Brown (Greensky Bluegrass) and featuring appearances by fellow Nashville-based musicians including Miss Tess, Molly Tuttle, Bryan Sutton and John Mailander among others, Turmoil & Tinfoil rings familiar and fresh at the same time. On Thursday, March 7, Strings will perform at Saturn. Recently, he spoke with us by phone shortly before he took the stage at the Wintergrass Festival in Bellevue, Wa.

Birmingham Stages: Billy, thanks for your time. Have you performed at Wintergrass before this year?

Billy Strings: I’ve played this festival – it’s been quite a while. We’re doing soundcheck here in about an hour and play a set around 4 and our last set is around 11:00 tonight.

Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying Turmoil & Tinfoil.

Strings: I appreciate that – it’s been kind of crazy. I made that album two years ago and it’s still on the bluegrass Billboard charts, or at least it was last week. We have made a new record since then – it’s probably going to come out this fall – but I’m just glad that thing seems to be getting the longevity. Two years later people are still going, “Hey, that’s a great record.”

Birmingham Stages: How did Turmoil & Tinfoil come together? Were the songs written in a creative burst or had they been around for a while?

Strings: I think probably more of the latter. I had a few of those tunes and two of the songs I wrote while we recorded the session. A few of them I had a year before we went and recorded, but once we started recording I squeezed out two more songs as well. So, it’s a little bit of both. We played “Meet Me at the Creek” live, but we try to keep the songs under wraps ’til the album comes out.

Birmingham Stages: With the touring and promotion for Turmoil & Tinfoil, has it been challenging to find time to write new songs?

Strings: Absolutely – it’s been very difficult. It’s not difficult in a negative way. We play so many gigs and I’m never home and I never sit still. I’m always in an airplane or van or loading in or doing a soundcheck or something. There’s never a moment for me to try to write a song, so it’s hard to find that time. I carve it out every once in a while. [In writing] some of the songs for the latest record, I told my agent, “These 10 days right here – this is all mine. I’m not playing gigs – I’m going to be writing songs.”

Birmingham Stages: From the outside looking in, it seems that the bluegrass scene is a true musical community. Is that a fair assessment?

Strings: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the cool thing about bluegrass. Everybody’s normal and they’re not big stars that are too cool to talk to anybody. Everybody’s normal and they play guitar or banjo.

Birmingham Stages: You’re based in Nashville these days, correct?

Strings: I’m from Michigan and I live in Nashville.

Birmingham Stages: I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of changes in your adopted hometown since you moved there.

Strings: I have – isn’t that crazy? I’ll be on tour for a couple of weeks and I’ll come home snd see a whole new building pop up that wasn’t there before.

Birmingham Stages: You enlisted the help of several Nashville musicians for Turmoil & Tinfoil. How does that process typically work? Does the guest fit the song or does the song fit the guest?

Strings: It might start with the instrument – “Oh, I could hear fiddle on this.” And then I go to John Mailander and he’s a great fiddle player. He ended up playing on a bunch of stuff. Bryan Sutton – that’s a good example of how it happens because of the song. I needed a guitar track – something to showcase flatpicking guitar – and Bryan Sutton is my hero and he’s an inspiration and a mentor. I thought how cool it would be to have him play on it.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about working with Glenn Brown as producer.

Strings: He’s made quite a few records up in Michigan for a lot of my friends – not just Greensky Bluegrass – but he also made stuff with Joshua Davis, Steppin In It, Airborne or Aquatic?, The Go Rounds. These aren’t bluegrass bands – Glenn knows how to take a bluegrass band and record them like a 1970s rock and roll band. He has all that old gear and he’s kind of a wizard.

Billy Strings will perform at Saturn on Thursday, March 7. Showtime is 9 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $12 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Tedeschi Trucks Band Performs at Alabama Theatre

By Brent Thompson

On Thursday, February 28, Tedeschi Trucks Band – fronted by married guitarists Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks – will perform at the Alabama Theatre. The band comes to town with a collective heavy heart as TTB’s keyboardist/flautist Kofi Burbridge passed away on February 15. On that same day, the band released Signs [Fantasy/Concord Records], an 11-track collection that – in foreboding fashion – deals with loss, reflection and redemption. Expect a night of timeless music, lengthy jams and a flood of emotions being poured across the stage. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show can be purchased at www.alabamatheatre.com.

WorkPlay Presents: The Music & History of Leonard Cohen on February 23

By Brent Thompson

Many music lovers are familiar with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (and Jeff Buckley’s renowned cover version of the enduring song), but Cohen’s catalog of material runs deep and wide. On Saturday, February 23, WorkPlay Presents: The Music & History of Leonard Cohen. The tribute to the Canadian singer/songwriter – who passed away in 2016 – will be performed by David Stegall and Reid Brooks with The Famous Blue Raincoats (Chase Arrington, Rebecca Egeland, Taylor Hunnicutt, David Lambert, Andrew Malinoski and Johnny Hicks). Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $18 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

Austin Stalwart Jeff Plankenhorn Performs at The Nick on Feb. 19

BY BRENT THOMPSON

Photo Credit: Todd Wolfson

Guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn divides his time between his burgeoning solo career and being a first-call sideman and session guitarist. The Ohio native has built quite a name and reputation among the musical community in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. Adept on many stringed instruments, Plankenhorn has even designed his own guitar called “The Plank.” In 2018, Plankenhorn released Sleeping Dogs, the follow-up album to his 2016 debut SoulSlide. Co-produced with Austin legend “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb, Sleeping Dogs features appearances by Patty Griffin and Ray Wylie Hubbard. On Tuesday, February 19, Plankenhorn will perform at The Nick. The SBGs will open the 10 p.m. show. Advance tickets are $6 – $8 day of the show – and can be purchased at www.thenickrocks.com.

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

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 Saturday, February 23, the renowned tribute ensemble will bring the album’s sounds to the BJCC Concert Hall. 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 BJCC Concert Hall on Saturday, February 23. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show can be purchased at  www.blackjacketsymphony.com.

The Underlying Sound: A Conversation with Papadosio’s Billy Brouse

By Carey Hereford

Photo courtesy of the artist

In a career spanning more than a decade, Papadosio has built a dedicated fan base. With the release of its fifth studio album Content Coma last September, the quintet has put both its songwriting skills and genre-bending versatility on display. On Thursday, February 14, Papadosio will perform at WorkPlay Theatre. Heavy Pets will open the 8 p.m. show. Recently, we spoke with Papadosio keyboardist/vocalist Billy Brouse by phone.

Birmingham Stages: Tell us about the writing process for Content Coma​.Billy Brouse: Well, we went a little different route than we did with the album before this one. There were no lyrics on the last album – it was all pretty much electronic. With this album it is full-length – we used these programs called Splice and Ableton. Splice is a program that we all have access to songs we are working on and are able to make our own changes and edits and it saves as a new track, as well as giving feedback and a easy way for all of us to learn our parts if we are not all together. This program is really amazing – the future is just so cool now. We also got together sometime to hash things out, but the studio of the future is just so endless nowadays.

Birmingham Stages: Why might Content Coma be considered Papadosio’s best album to date? What makes this one different from the rest?

Brouse: I don’t know if anyone considered it the best – Content Coma is different I guess. It’s hard for me to categorize them as different because they all have the same underlying sound. I think this one sounds more polished because we usually do everything ourselves, all of the recording and mixing and everything. This time we got to go to a really nice studio and record some of the parts for this one so it sounds a little bit different. But I would say this one sounds the best.

Birmingham Stages: How is the music scene in your hometown of Athens, Ohio?

Brouse: Well we are all from around Ohio, but we all met each other in Athens. Athens only has one college there, which is Ohio University. There is a big bluegrass and indie scene there, as well as a pretty good bit of jam bands there, too. I would say Athens has the cool and most diverse scene in Ohio as far as colleges go. But we used to have an excuse to stop there but now there are not any venues which kinda sucks.

Birmingham Stages: How do you make your songs stay fresh after playing them night after night?

Brouse: Well, we do not ever repeat a setlist – I have never ever done that. So that ultimately makes every show different. We have about 90 songs to choose from our whole career, but even after having a different setlist we do not play the same song the same way every time. We will change the way they are played in the middle of the show. We usually talk about it, but sometimes it can just happen and small parts will change. We also rework some of our older songs – we will put a new version out and play that.

Birmingham Stages: How do you define your genre of “space rock”?

Brouse: Yeah, I don’t know. I thought I made that up, but I did not realize space rock is an actually genre. So I have been trying to tell our PR team to stop using that [laughs]. I thought it meant to me that we play rock and roll and then take it way into outer space sometime. It will come back but it is not always straightforward. I thought that was a good definition for space rock, but apparently there is a whole ’70s space rock actual thing. I guess our genre is progressive rock and roll.

Birmingham Stages: How did Papadosio form?

Brouse: It would have been 12 or 13 years ago in Athens, Ohio. There was this thing at a venue called open jam night, which was a open mic type of thing for jam bands. Everyone had a bunch of instruments and we would jam out and it was great. So a couple of us started going consistently and playing together in a rotation, and it felt great. Then from there we came to the decision to start a band.

Birmingham Stages: What has been Papadosio’s biggest challenge as a band so far?

Brouse: Being gone on the road for a long time really sucks. I mean it is really fun at the beginning – and I love playing shows – but when it gets to a month and you’ve been gone, it can get a little bit tough on us. So we try not to do that as much anymore unless we really have to. Also, just trying to not play too many shows but at the same time to play enough. So far it has been weird to find the line you are supposed to ride. We could play all the time, but we can just get a little bit burned out sometimes. The whole social media aspect has kinda been daunting. It really sucks sometimes to read a bad comment or a bad review. But we have realized that is just part of being in a band.

Birmingham Stages: How do you think music has changed in general since Papadosio formed?

Brouse: Obviously, social media has been one big thing that we have had to adapt to as well as Spotify becoming a way for music to be put out there easier. [Funk band] Vulfpeck especially – they saw a huge opportunity and ran with it and have made a huge impact that way. We grew up with Myspace, and I do not know how we would have done anything as a band without Myspace. So we were right there in the beginning when that happened and it was nice for us. But since then, Spotify has come about and there was nothing like that when we had just formed. That alone has changed everything with being able to put music out. Youtube has also been the same way – it could greatly help you as a band and could also bury you. Also, the rise of EDM [electronic dance music] has changed concerts and festivals so much.

Coder-R Productions Presents: Papadosio with Heavy Pets at WorkPlay Theatre on Thursday, February 14. Showtime is 8 p.m. Advance tickets are $22 – $25 day of the show – and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.