J.S. Ondara at the 8×10

I finally saw J.S. Ondara at the 8×10 Club last night. The show was originally scheduled for May, but got rescheduled because as he told us last night he got invited to tour with Neil Young for a few dates. I had been very confused when I bought the ticket because I was able to buy it off of his artist website, but the show never appeared on the 8×10’s website. I felt like I had a ticket to some mystery show. I was planning on just showing up to see if there was in fact a show, but finally the day before the 8×10 finally sent out an email saying it had been rescheduled with the new date.

It turns out the date was just a couple of days after the Newport Folk Festival where J.S. Ondara was also playing. At Newport Dawes came out and sang about 5 of his songs with him, so I was joking about inevitably being disappointed last night when he didn’t bring Dawes with him to join him for half his set.

He didn’t need Dawes. He was amazing all on his own. It’s kind of funny because it almost seemed like he was two different performers. At Newport he really didn’t say much of anything. He just sat up on stage and played his songs. He certainly had the audience rapt with his music and drew a very large crowd to the smallest stage at the festival. As one review of the set I saw said people were so quiet you could hear banjos tuning at another stage.

That was not so last night. He talked a lot between all of his songs. He’s a great storyteller and very funny. He had the audience laughing all night. I suppose part of the difference is wanting to fit as much music as possible into a short festival set vs. needing to fill the 90 minutes he was probably contracted to play at the 8×10 when he only has one album full of songs. Some artists tend to fill that time with cover songs. He filled it with stories. Although he did do a Nirvana cover as one of his encore songs. It sounded so different I didn’t even realize what it was until the lyrics in the chorus finally tipped me off.

I wish the audience had been as great as the Newport audience though. I was surprised that the club was only about 1/2 full. I really would have expected that he’s gotten enough press at this point that he would have sold out the show, but I guess not. There was one super drunk woman right in front of the stage, who could barely stand up. I was like it’s Tuesday night and you’re in your 50’s. Why are you so drunk? She was loudly “singing” along to all the songs, which was super obnoxious given how quiet J.S. Ondara’s music is to start and how few people were there. I was not right next to her and she was often drowning him out.

Aside from a few obnoxious people in the crowd, the show as great. If you’re unfamiliar with J.S. Ondara he is from Kenya. He moved to America 6 years ago to follow his dream of becoming a folk singer. He was telling us last night that he loved Bob Dylan and didn’t really know enough about America to know where to move when he decided to come here and since Bob Dylan was from Minnesota he chose to move there, which given the weather was a big mistake. His first full length album appropriately titled Tales of America is all about his observations of America and Americans in the time that he’s lived here. It’s definitely in my top 5 albums of 2019. It was great to hear him play all the songs from it last night and to hear him tell stories about writing them. I look forward to seeing him again in the future some day.

2019 Newport Folk Festival

This year celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival and what a celebration it was! Jay Sweet, the current producer of the festival, says every year how he’s worried that he can never live up to what he’s done the year before. Every year I have gone has been better than the last, so I’ve never doubted that he could, but this year I think he might be right because I don’t see how he could possibly top this year’s festival. I’m going to let him try and it will always be great, but man this year just blew me away.

I always try to think of a way to frame these posts about Newport that aren’t just a list of all the artists I saw. This year I’m going to write using the theme “Only at Newport” and write about the things that happened that probably wouldn’t happen anywhere else, which is what makes this festival so special. Buckle in because it’s going to be a long one. (I won’t embed any photos or videos here because I didn’t take any because I believe in putting my phone away and being present for the experience, but there are tons of other people’s stuff up on YouTube if you want to find any of the performances I’m talking about).

Before I get to the music itself let’s talk about the people. Newport manages to briefly restore my faith in humanity every year. Usually with large crowds of people you expect everyone to be rude and out for themselves, but that is never my experience at the Newport Folk Festival. I had someone taller than me kneel down for an entire set so I could see over them. I had someone chase me down to hand me back the paper fan I dropped and made sure my backpack was zipped up tight before I moved on. Every time I accidentally bumped someone or they bumped me I felt like we were in one of those stereotypical skits about Canadians about who can apologize more profusely. It was nothing big, but just a lot of small kindnesses that I don’t normally see in crowds full of strangers. Everyone talks about the people at the festival being their folk family and it feels so true. I see the same people year after year. I don’t know them but every year I’m happy to see them set up their blankets in our same spot. The artists also seem to feel that way about the festival. They don’t just drop in, do their set and leave. They hang around. They sit in with each other. They hang out in the audience like the rest of us to see people play. I saw Anais Mitchell more than once. At one point when she was right next to me I wanted to stop and tell her how excited I am to see Hadestown in October, but I didn’t because I’ve heard artists say one of the things they love about Newport is that they can hang out and people don’t bother them. Also as an aside. the number of people I saw reading print books between sets made me extremely happy.

The musical collaborations and the way it honors the past while looking to the future are really what make this festival something special. There were some real once in a lifetime moments at this festival. The artists too always seem to know how special it is to play this festival. I watched multiple artists tear up during their sets this year from people who were playing the festival for the first time talking about how they’ve been fans in the audience and are now standing on the stage to veteran artists like Rhiannon Giddens being overwhelmed and literally sobbing her way through the song “Mama’s Cryin’ Long”.

Newport is also special because it actually makes a place for women artists. There are tons of memes about how male centric other music festivals are showing if you erase the names of the male artists from their lineups there’s almost no names left on the posters. Not so with Newport. On Friday I spent the entire day listening to nothing but female artists excepting the set put together by the Cook brothers, but they had plenty of women out to sing with them so I think it counts. I started off the festival listening to Yola, who although I don’t have the numbers, I suspect deserves the Jim James award, which is the unofficial Newport award for the artist who sits in on the most sets over the weekend. She seemed to be everywhere, and I was here for it. I ended the day with the live debut of The Highwomen, the new country supergroup composed of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby. It seriously was like all my favorite people on stage together with Jason Isbell backing them on the guitar, and being at the festival allowing them to pull in other women like Yola and Sheryl Crow who sing on the album with them but who obviously won’t be there at all potential future shows they might perform. It was everything I dreamed it would be and more. It just made me even more excited for that album. Also, I know whatever tour dates they do as a group are going to be very limited and this set just made sure that I’m going to pretty much go anywhere and pay anything to see one of them.

Saturday featured a set called “Songs for Beginners”, which was a set full of different artists covering Graham Nash’s album of that name. As M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger said this is pretty much the most Newport thing ever. What other festival would put something like this on? I’m pretty sure this is what Jay Sweet managed to pull together to replace an artist that pulled out at the last minute as I watched this set time go from unannounced to this. But that’s the kind of festival this is that he could get various configurations of artists playing the festival to collaborate together and cover this album as a set. Speaking of cover sets, that’s practically what Dawes’ set was. They were playing their first album “North Hills” and almost just acted like the backing band for other people to come out and sing their songs including of course aforementioned Yola singing “When You Call My Name” and Jason Isbell singing “If You Let Me Be Your Anchor”. If you know anything about me you know I love Jason Isbell and Dawes and this was absolutely amazing. I also got to see Dawes support J.S. Ondara for a bunch of songs during his set.

I absolutely hated to leave the Dawes set early, but there was no way I was going to miss out on the mystery set curated by Brandi Carlile titled The Collaboration (with the female symbol all over it). My Newport rule is if there’s a set with no actual artists’ names on it, be there. This absolutely was the highlight of the festival for me. It was the first all female headlining act in the 60 years of Newport. It featured an amazing lineup of women including all of the Highwomen, Judy Collins, Yola, Sheryl Crow, Linda Perry, Amy Ray, Maggie Rogers, Lucy Dacus, Rachel Price, Jade Bird and so many more I know I’m totally forgetting. They all sang various songs for the first half of the set, and then the big surprise (which by that point in the night really wasn’t that much of a surprise as rumors had been flying all day) was Dolly Parton! I never thought I would see Dolly Parton live and to see her in this amazing venue sharing the stage with so many amazing women was more than I could ever hope for. She sang “Just Because I am a Woman”, “Eagle When She Flies” and “Jolene” with all of the Highwomen, did a duet of “I Will Always Love You” with Brandi Carlile, and finished off the set with “9 to 5” with pretty much every female artist at Newport. There really are no words.

Sunday didn’t feature anything nearly as monumental as that, but there were lots of smaller moments that were just as special. That’s why I have never actually believed that the festival can’t possibly live up to what happened the year before because I don’t ever need things to be bigger to be better. It’s the small, special, only at Newport moments that make each year better than the last.

During the set changes at the main stage they have artists do short acoustic sets in the Late July Family Tent, which they don’t announce until right before they happen. Devon Gilfillian blew me away during the short part of his set I saw on Saturday, so when they announced he was playing the family tent I booked it over there to see more of him. I’m so glad I did because it was the best. He handed out all kinds of musical instruments to the kids for them to shake and be his percussion and then got down off the little stage and danced around in the crowd with them. I love falling in love with new artists at Newport and Devon Gilfillian definitely has a new fan.

Speaking of finding new artists at Newport and artists being like family, one of the great things is watching artists come back over and over again and getting to see them grow. I remember seeing Hozier play the small Harbor stage shortly after his first album came out and thinking I do like his music, but he’s not much of a performer yet. Now he’s been back to the festival multiple times and was a commanding presence on this year’s main stage. It was one of my favorite sets of the whole weekend. As soon as he released the song “Nina Cried Power” featuring Mavis Staples I told my husband this is happening at Newport. Since Newport releases their lineup one artist at a time over like 5 months I kept waiting for them to add Hozier to it. He was one of the last people announced and though Mavis didn’t have her own set at the actual festival I knew she was doing one of the after shows and she’s often there whether she’s on the official bill or not. Aside from the Highwomen knowing this song had to happen was the thing I was most looking forward to going into the festival this year. Listening to them sing that song together live was everything I dreamed it would be. Hozier also invited Brandi Carlile out to sing her song “The Joke”, which they dueted together. Also amazing.

I also love that Newport doesn’t have any real headliners. Whenever I tell people I’m going to the Newport Folk Festival each year they always ask me who’s headlining and I have to try and explain that I don’t know. In recent years the final Sunday set has become some sort of collaboration around a theme, and it is my favorite thing ever. It’s usually mostly various groupings of artists who have been at the festival over the course of the weekend, but there are always some surprises. It astounds me how every year there are artists who seemingly show up to sing one song during the entire festival during the closing set.

This year’s final set was a singalong in honor of what would have been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday. They passed out song books for everyone to sing a long with this year. It was wonderful. When looking through the book to see what we would be singing upon seeing “Rainbow Connection” was one of the songs my husband said Kermit better be here. Well guess what? Kermit the Frog was totally there and sang it with Jim James. He even did the Kermit flail. I mean. I also cracked up a little when they were introducing the main band for the set saying who they were and what band they’re a part of, but when they announced Janet Weiss they announced her as drummer for hire, since she just quit Sleater Kinney. We also got to hear Judy Collins sing Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, which Stephen Stills wrote for her. Dancing and singing along with the crowd to the doo, doo, doo, doo breakdown at the end of this song was incredible. How is this real life? My absolute favorite part of the set was singing “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” with Mavis Staples, Hozier, and Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythist Kyah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell), on vocals (their voices together are fire, seriously go look this one up), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on brass, Jason Isbell on guitar, and Phil Cook on harmonica. We closed out the festival singing “Goodnight, Irene”. The set was a magical way to end the festival and something I hope becomes a tradition. I’m already counting down the days until next year.

 

Veronica Mars Season Four

I was super excited when they announced that Hulu was going to air a new season of Veronica Mars. I also very much appreciate them deciding to drop the new season a week earlier than originally announced because I’m going to be at the Newport Folk Festival then and wasn’t going to be able to watch immediately. Since they released it early I was able to spend my weekend watching all eight episodes. My spoiler-filled thoughts are ahead.

In this age of remakes and reboots there are very few shows that I actually want more episodes of. Gilmore Girls was one because I always wanted to know what Amy Sherman-Palladino’s final 4 words for ending the show were that she never got to write since she left the show before its final season. After the Netflix reboot of that show I’m not sure I needed more episodes as much as I just needed her to tell me what those four words were. The only way to make those four episodes make sense is to pretend that it was season 7 and no time had passed and Rory was still 21 instead of 30.

Veronica Mars was the other show I always wanted more episodes of because it ended on such a cliffhanger. I definitely contributed to the Kickstarter for the movie and went to see it in the theater on opening night. I know a lot of people complained that it was too fan servicey. I admit the story and mystery were a little weak, but I’m a fan and I felt serviced and it made me happy. I never thought I was going to get more Veronica Mars after that, so I was happy they tried to tie things up in a nice little bow.

Even though I was happy with where the movie ended, I will never turn down more Veronica Mars. Or at least it hasn’t gotten terrible enough for me to want to quit yet like I have other shows. Maybe if it comes back enough times it will lose it’s mojo, but it definitely hasn’t yet. I even enjoyed the two books they put out after the movie. I would dare say that this season is my second favorite after the first season.

It does what so few reboots seem to do in that it doesn’t try to act like no time has passed. The characters seem to actually have moved on in ways that make sense for the time that has passed and act like their age instead of stunted and stuck at whatever age they last were when the show aired. I also appreciate that they didn’t try to shoehorn all the old characters into the show in ways that don’t make sense. They let Wallace and Dick be side characters that only show up briefly in ways that make sense. Although I’m sad that Tino Majorino decided not to reprise her role as Mac because Rob Thomas told her she wouldn’t have a major storyline, it completely makes more sense that Mac wouldn’t still be hanging around Neptune. So for the character’s sake and the show’s sake it’s better that she wasn’t there.

My favorite part of the show has always been the relationship between Veronica and Keith. Although it’s always been a totally unrealistic father/daughter relationship, it has always been super delightful. I love their repartee and the love they very obviously feel for each other even though they don’t always support what the other one is doing. It is back in full form in this season and is still the heart of the show.

The mystery in this season was engaging and didn’t feel forced like the mysteries in seasons 2 and 3. I liked that they created a teenage Veronica-eseque character in Matty that gave the show a little bit of a throwback, but also allowed Veronica to see herself and how stuck she had become.

And of course we have to talk about the Logan of it all. I was always, always team Logan no matter who the triangle was with Duncan, Leo, or Piz. Of course I do want to give a shoutout to an excellent return of Leo in this season as well. He was delightful and written in a way that I almost wanted to Veronica to cheat on Logan with him. But of course I didn’t really want her to cheat on Logan because I wanted them to be together. I really liked the storyline they had in this season. Their relationship felt true to the characters and how they’ve developed over time. It makes sense that Veronica would be so reluctant to marry Logan, and of course because the show is what it is and living in the film noir genre it also feels very right that they wouldn’t actually get their happily ever after even after they get married. As much as I hate that they killed off Logan, it also felt completely right for the show to me. I wasn’t mad at it at all even though you’d think I would be. Veronica Mars was never a show that was going to let the characters be completely happy, and if they ever do get to do more seasons of the show then there wasn’t really anywhere else for Veronica and Logan to go. So farewell Logan. I was always rooting for you kids. I’m happy you finally ended up together even though it only lasted for a few minutes.

I will also say one of the things I appreciated about this season is that they still made it mostly the same show despite it being on streaming. They had a clever way of making a nod to the fact that they could now curse because it’s no longer on network tv without actually doing it. I also like that they didn’t go too overboard with the episode lengths. They were all a few minutes longer than network length episodes, but none of them were over 50 minutes. As someone who is tired of shows streaming or even cable these days that drag on for 80 or 90 minutes for no good reason most of the time just because they can I appreciate that they kept to a reasonable length.

I loved this season and it definitely left me wanting more while also leaving me satisfied with where it left off if it doesn’t return.

Tedeschi Trucks Band at Wolf Trap

This past Wednesday I went to see the Tedeschi Trucks Band at Wolf Trap with Shovels & Rope and Blackberry Smoke opening. Since it was on a Wednesday night and staring at 7, I bought us tickets inside the pavilion since we wouldn’t be able to get there early to get decent lawn seats. It turned out to be somewhat of a good idea since it was all thunderstormy until right when we got there. Though it never rained after we were actually in our seats, so we would have been fine on the lawn I guess. The problem with sitting inside for this particular show is that I screwed up my back again and then slant of the seats was killing my back the entire time. I would have been much happier lying on a blanket on the lawn.

I’ve seen Shovels & Rope open for other bands several times. I don’t super love their music. I don’t generally sit down and listen to it, but they are fascinating to watch perform since they both play so many instruments.

I had never heard of Blackberry Smoke before I went to this concert, but they wound up being my favorite act of the night. They play that sort of Southern guitar rock that I have a very big soft spot in my heart for. I really enjoyed their music and it was perfect listening for sitting outside on a summer night. They also played a cover of “You Get Lucky”, which is one of my favorite Tom Petty songs. I gathered from the program that they put this song out on an EP and Amanda Shires plays on the recorded version with them, which means they’re running with other artists I love. It makes me wonder how I’ve missed hearing about them in their 20 year career. Now I know.

I sadly didn’t love the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s set. I do love their music, but apparently only when it’s limited in their studio albums. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that they would be a complete and total jam band live because it makes total sense, but it didn’t and they are. I do not care for jam bands. I grow very bored by songs that go on for 15 or 20 minutes with long instrumental jams. There was a whole lot of that at this concert. I was also curious about the fact that they didn’t play their current single “Hard Case”. I wasn’t super disappointed by it, but I thought it was odd. They did start off with my favorite song “Anyhow”, so I could have been happy to leave after the first song. My husband who really didn’t enjoy the concert said we should have if that was the case. I still adore Susan Tedeschi’s voice, but I’ll stick to listening to it in album form from now on.

New Music Friday: Redesigning Women by The Highwomen

I’ve been so excited about The Highwomen, which is a supergroup consisting of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby, ever since they announced it. I’ve been anxiously awaiting actual music from this project for months. Last Friday they announced that they would be dropping their first song today, so I’ve known since then what my New Music Friday post was going to be this week. They’ll be doing their live concert debut this time next week at the Newport Folk Festival, so I’ll be looking forward to that for the next week.

As I have written about here several times before country music has a problem in that it’s decided that no one wants to listen to music by women. Maren Morris is one of the few female artists that has been able to break through the barriers of the country music machine and actually get played on country music radio. Brandi Carlile said she wanted to start this group because she grew up listening to fierce female country artists and it makes her sad that her daughters don’t have that now since women have been all but banished from country music radio. I don’t know if they’ll actually break through to country radio, but I see that CMT will be playing their video all day long so that’s something. The music is very old school country and doesn’t sound like today’s pop country, so I’m not sure that country radio is going to embrace it aside from the fact that it hates women. I however very much like it and can’t wait for the full album. I also love that the video features a bunch of other female country artists old and new. So go have a listen to the Highwomen’s first song “Redesigning Women” and hope that they manage to break through some barriers.

 

Song of the Summer 2019

After last year when there didn’t seem to an overwhelming song of summer and the summer before that was dominated by Despacito, 2019 has a couple of strong contenders that stand out from the pack. Happily for the first time in what seems like awhile I actually like them all.

I think pretty much the undisputed song of the summer is Little Nas X’s “Old Town Road”. It’s been at the top of the Billboard charts for the past 14 weeks and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

There are a couple of other songs that are ubiquitous enough at this point that they too could make a case that they are the song of the summer.

Lizzo actually has two of them. “Juice” is still the song that is inescapable more than any other song because not only is it still all over the radio it has been included in seemingly every commercial, tv show, and movie that’s come out this year. It definitely has the fun attitude and beat of a perfect song of summer, but it’s power does seem to fading. Partly that’s due to the fact that Lizzo’s song “Truth Hurts” is overtaking its airplay. It is also an excellent jam and has some momentum that will probably give it staying power for the rest of the summer.

 

Finally, there’s Billie Eilish’s “bad guy”. It’s been moving up the charts over the past 14 weeks, but has stalled out at number 2. We’ll see if it has the power to finally bump “Old Town Road” out of the top spot, but I suspect it might be one of those songs that sits at number 2 and never reaches the number 1 position. Just for the record I am anti the new remix featuring Justin Beiber and am going to be annoyed if that’s what gets it there.

I’m actually a little surprised that Billie Eilish has become as popular as she’s become. First she seemed very niche among a specific teenager group and something the olds didn’t understand. Now her music seems to have become more universally loved though her core audience seems like it’s still very hardcore teenager. I suppose that’s how it’s supposed to be with pop music, if you can even call her music pop music. “bad guy” is probably the song that comes to the closest to being an actual pop song, which is probably why it has become popular. I love it and want to do a little dance to it every time I hear it.

New Music Friday: Look Away by Stephen Puth and Fighter by Joseph

2019 continues to throw more new music at me that I can handle. So I have two new songs for you this week. First up I have “Look Away” by Stephen Puth. Until this week when I heard him doing a breakdown of this song on the podcast Switched on Pop, I didn’t even know Stephen Puth existed. I know and enjoy music by his older brother Charlie Puth. I didn’t know the Puth family had multiple singers in it. It’s a pop song that very much sounds of this era of pop songs, but I like it. Like Marshemello (ft. Bastille)’s “Happier” this song sets the sad lyrics about a relationship falling apart to a somewhat jaunty pop melody. I always appreciate the juxtaposition of lyrics and music whose tones don’t match.

 

I also have a new song by the band Joseph for you. I’ve written about them numerous times here before, but in case you’re not familiar they are a band composed of three sisters. Apparently as is often the case with bands even those composed of family members, they reached a point where there was too much discord and they almost disbanded the band. This song, “Fighter”, is their response to their decision to try and fight for the band and stay together. As usual it features some beautiful sisterly harmonies. I’m glad they’ll be sticking around.