Recommended diversions

“Picket Fences,” and “Northern Exposure”

Is it possible to be nostalgic for the 1990s already? Or maybe it is the relative lack of excellent, quirky, hour-long “dramadies,” especially on network television. Before HBO blew the networks away with “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “Deadwood,” and the like, these shows were two of the best television had to offer. “Picket Fences” was created by David Kelley, who also created “LA Law,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Boston Legal,” among other shows, but I thought “Picket Fences” might be the best of the bunch, and after a long delay, the first season is finally available on DVD. Since Kelley’s shows are often topical, some of the episodes seem a bit dated now, and the edginess of the show is not nearly as edgy now in the wake of “The Sopranos,” et al. Still, it is well worth seeking out. “Northern Exposure,” on the other hand, has not dated at all, remaining as fresh and inventive as the day it aired. Instead of watching another stupid reality show, give these a try, or if you know and love them already, go ahead and wallow in some ‘90s nostalgia.

A smashing residency in Asheville

By Joe Hooten

As I was barreling down Interstate 40, racing to make it to Asheville in time to see the fifth concert in a nine-show residency put on by the Smashing Pumpkins at one of the South’s finest venues, the Orange Peel, I hesitantly reached into my glove compartment to find my map. I slowly unfolded the aged paper with some lingering anxiety and felt compelled to double-check to see if my favorite mountain metropolis was still there.

I played in a classic rock cover band and lived to tell about it

By Chris Cooper

Through the last few “Play For Peace” extravaganzas I’ve been lucky enough to meet and perform with some musicians I might not have had the opportunity to otherwise. Having studied, poked and prodded Sylva’s little microcosm of a music scene over the years, I’ve attended many more shows than I’ve actually participated in, something most of my closer friends have graciously tolerated me whining about somewhat incessantly. “Oh, woe is me, always a bridesmaid, never a guitarist...” it would go, ad infinitum, with much eye-rolling and self conscious gnashing of teeth. “If only I could get out there and play some rock and roll, then everybody would know I wasn’t totally full of... myself.” I mean, Mark Knopfler was a music writer back in the day, and he doesn’t suck, right?

Celebrating a jazz guitar legend

By Chris Cooper

Up for review this week is a live set of inspiring music from an incredibly influential musician in his genre: a burning birthday celebration from one of jazz guitar’s brightest and most enduring lights, the inimitable Kenny Burrell, flanked here by a host of remarkable musicians from the cream of the jazz crop.

Women to watch

By Chris Cooper

In the mid 90’s it would’ve been nearly impossible to write about “new to the scene” female artists without mentioning Paula Cole. You know, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” and all that.

The rhythm method weekend

By Chris Cooper

It’s been a year at least since I did a live show review, and it’s likely that that last review involved Sylva’s one bright hope for a live music venue, Guadalupe Café. I’m also pretty certain that in the aforementioned article a particular ever-evolving band of musical n’er do wells (Shiner Miners) made an appearance, and there may have been some minor chastising involved by yours truly regarding certain long-winded excursions into the great wide world of tuning by Mr. Webb and Co. that evening.

It was a while back and my memory is hazy, so that’s merely my best recollection.

But Friday night, a little after 10 o’clock, a band that so closely resembled the Shiner Miners it was shocking took the, err “stage,” at the Guad and proceeded to bang out some of the tightest and freakiest “smartass with a sense of humor” rock I’ve heard just about ever in this town. Still quirky, still a bit disheveled and glassy eyed, but this new, leaner three-piece gave me the distinct impression that they actually had their *&^% together, and have developed into one of the better rhythm sections in town.

Put simply, no matter how goofy the music may occasionally come across, drummer Isaac Sturgill and bassist Jason Beck have achieved that joined-at-the-hip quality that defines a band’s sound and momentum. As a guitarist, Webb has embraced the creative use of effects (namely echo) lending a whole new atmosphere to the mutated reggae/rap/dub/country/spoken word/rock thing that’s become a sort of trademark.

That’s not to say that the slop we all know and love isn’t still there — it’s just that the Shiner Miners are getting so good at being themselves that even the slop is refined. The usual crowd of locals was present, and by the second set was wound up into such a frenzy that clothing began disappearing, footwear was set aloft, spontaneous wrestling matches broke out and even a fine example of the good old fashioned “drunken lip-lock on the dance floor” made an appearance. If my calculations are correct and all the votes have been processed and accounted for, the Shiner Miners easily won the “most improved local band of people that I’m friends with but that I’m not obligated to say nice things about” award, and that ain’t no small feat.

The next night was the fourth (fifth?) installment of Sylva’s “Play For Peace” music ... thing, with multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Matt Williams kicking off the late evening festivities. Considering the amount of times a mysterious “scheduling conflict” was mentioned into the mic, my educated guess is that there may have been some kind of “scheduling conflict” regarding who (Williams or funky jam upstarts Ideal Way) was the opener and headliner, but again, that’s just a guess — albeit a sarcastic one.

There’s no doubting the considerable skills of Williams and accompanist Stephen Foster (who qualifies as a multi-instrumentalist in his own right, looking at the sheer number of horns of varying shape and size he brought along for the ride) when you see them perform.

Williams has so many instruments under his belt, such a command of on-the-fly looping and layering (including his vocals) that it’s tough not to be a little knocked out when you see the guy pull it all off right in front of you. His fondness for vaguely 70’s styled “prog-pop” is apparent, with phased-out Jean Luc-Ponty styled violin solos taking flight over his major and minor seventh based “mini jams.”

And as carefully rehearsed as this kind of performance has to be, there were true moments of spontaneous improvisation, especially when he and Foster began trading fours and playing off each other. My only wish was for a little more ebb and flow in the set, maybe a few more numbers delivered sans looping and such fanciness, so that when Williams does build that miniature orchestra of sound we know he carries around in his head it’s just that much more meaningful.

Regardless, Williams has been hard at work in WCU’s studio on several new albums slated for fall and winter release, and if the new tunes in his set are any indication, they’re going to be quite excellent.

Back to the rhythm section thing — Ideal Way has a great one. As if it wasn’t difficult enough to basically improvise an entire set of music (in this case, an hour or two) it’s even tougher to make the majority of it actually work, and it’s that quality that may eventually separate Ideal Way from much of the tie-dyed jam band pack. There are bassists that groove, and there are bassists that noodle, but in Christian Ferri you get the better elements of both. Positively super-glued to Caleb Beissert’s bass drum, the duo struck the just the right balance of busyness and dynamic interplay in order to give Brett Dumsha’s guitar enough space to cluck, squawk and squeal as needed.

Though some of the transitions between the “songs” got a little lost, once these guys found a groove they chomped down on it like an emaciated pitbull on Ronald McDonald’s burger scented hand. Amidst the wacka-wacka of the wah pedal and the syncopated goodness of the drums and bass, there was a head-bobbing, hippie-dancing good time to be had by all, and though the vibe was completely different than that of the previous night, having two nights in a row of fine music on Main Street is nothing to scoff at.

But even better — it was proof that people do indeed still enjoy hearing talented players stretch out and take chances onstage, be it the brainy oddball antics of the Shiner Miners, the meticulously crafted singer/songwriter pop of Matt Williams or the inspired, mercurial soundscapes of Ideal Way: all local musicians, and all damn good. Now stop whining about being bored and go see a show.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

A voyage beyond new age

By Chris Cooper

Sometimes your ears want something different. Maybe they need to hear that which steps beyond traditional form into something at once simpler and more complex; where pure, unadulterated melody and soulfulness carry the music to places unfamiliar but undeniably inviting. Or maybe you’re just getting sick to death of guitars and drums and three-minute pop ditties that are about as filling as a handful of stale Cheetos.

The guiltiest of guilty pleasures

By Chris Cooper

OK, yes, it’s a widely held opinion that the Reagan years doled out its fair share of really, really awful music, clothes and other cultural oddities. Geometrically impossible haircuts, weirdo shoulder pads, ridiculously pointy, paint splattered guitars — the list could roll on for miles.

Good music for nice people

By Chris Cooper

John Prine and Mac Wiseman: Standard Songs For Average People

John Prine just sounds like a nice guy. You can almost hear the side of his mouth curl into a grin as he finishes a line, even on a sad little waltz like “The Blue Side Of Lonesome.” He’s also not a “singer’s singer,” he doesn’t belt it out and wow you with his pipes. But for most of us that’s another reason to love the guy, because what he does with what he’s got is always so satisfying and genuine. Joined here by bluegrass troubadour Mac Wiseman, Standard Songs For Average People collects 14 songs, some well known and some not, for these two remarkable singer/songwriters to interpret however they see fit.

You get anything from the brushed snare and tinkling piano nostalgia of “Old Cape Cod” to the world-weary storytelling of “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” both endowed with gorgeous backups from the Carol Lee Singers. You’re also afforded the opportunity to hear these two artists having fun with each other, trading verses with an almost conversational quality that masks some of the fact that this is a studio recording, not an impromptu songwriter’s jam among friends. The acoustic guitars are warm and woody, the vocals sweet, and the arrangements impeccable in their simplicity. It can’t hurt to have a virtual laundry list of fine players contributing to the project, with Tim O’Brien on banjo and mandolin, Del McCoury bassist Mike Bub and multi-instrumentalist/session man extraordinaire Pat McLaughlin on just about everything else with a string on it.

Swinging, two-stepping and tear-in-the-beering its way through just over an hour, Standard Songs For Average People is just the right thing for when you’re just a little blue, and these guys are just such characters on the microphone that it’s hard not to crack a smile after a while. This is an album that draws from many traditional American country sounds, from the mountains way down to Texas. Add to that the caliber of musicians delivering the material, and all you’ve left to do is cue up “Saginaw, Michigan” and turn the volume in a general “up” type direction.

 

Various Artists: Texas Hoedown Revisited

Fiddle tunes have served as a kind of boot camp not only for budding fiddlers but for many bluegrass mandolinists and guitarists alike. Doc Watson made a name for himself by adapting many such songs to the guitar’s repertoire. With County Records’ recent re-release (with the prerequisite bonus material) of 1965’s Texas Hoedown, you get to hear a few of the lesser known Texas fiddle practitioners; Benny Thomasson, Bartow Riley and Vernon Solomon. Thomasson gets the majority of the aural real estate here, sawing his way through half the CD on the classics “Ace Of Spades” and “Lady’s Fancy,” as well as some more obscure picks like “Killie McCrankie.”

Things almost veer into the realm of swing when Vernon Solomon tackles “Beaumont Rag,” accompanied here by chopping guitar and loping piano from his two sons, only 13 and 16 at the time of these recording sessions. Listening to the performances of all three fiddlers is a lesson in the appreciation of expression and technique inherent in the instrument, with Thomasson going pizzicato in the middle of “Black Mountain Rag” or Solomon’s exceptionally smooth bowing and intonation on “Red Apple Rag.” Riley gets some quick legato runs and a few blue notes in “Grey Eagle,” and in all, though Texas Hoedown Revisited is whole bunch of fiddle to consume in one sitting, it’s an enjoyable meal.

This re-issue as well includes some unusual tracks and live material- Thomasson’s “Star Waltz” is a pretty little tune that suffers a bit from wobbly intonation. He and an unknown group of accompanists get the last word here with live performances of “Forty Years Ago Waltz” and “Golden Eagle Hornpipe,” complete with wind noise in the microphone and the occasional chuckle from an audience member. Taken as a whole, though, Texas Hoedown Revisited surely succeeds in its goal: unearthing 24 tracks of fine Texas fiddle music from three of its best players.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Taking steps in the right direction

By Chris Cooper

If a band stays together long enough, it’ll probably morph into something a little beyond its starting point. At least, that’s the idea. With King Wilkie, this evolution involved letting the straight bluegrass roots of their beginnings fall away in favor of a more truthful, colorful representation of who they are.

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