Look at old photos of the Foggy Mountain Boys -- aka Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs -- and you'll notice they used a single microphone on stage. You might assume Flatt and Scruggs were limited by the sound technology available in the 1950s. Until you notice that contemporary artists like the Foghorn Stringband and Del McCoury use the same single mic approach. So does the Colorado-based FY5, formerly Finnders & Youngberg, and it works out just fine for them. I spoke with FY5's Mike Finders recently about their upcoming April 7 show at Off Broadway.
Bill Motchan: One of the distinctive things about FY5 on stage is the single mic. How did you come up with that style?
Mike Finders: The way we mic ourselves up, the way we present ourselves sonically and visually, we always try to keep a balance, and one of those things is gathering around a single mic. It's a bluegrass tradition that goes back to the earliest days of Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. They would just lean into one mic.
In bluegrass music you're all focused on one thing at one time, because everybody has a shot of going up to the mic and being front and center, and the rest of us are playing a supportive role. There is something that is powerful about that one mic performance style that goes back as far as 1940.
The first time I saw the Del McCoury band, one of the pre-eminent bluegrass bands, they were going back to the single mic approach, and I couldn't believe it. It was in a theatre in Chicago, and I remember I walked back to the sound guy and verified it, I said, "Are you kidding! You have a 50-channel mixing board and you're only using one channel." Finders said he wanted to channel other classic bluegrass styles too because he and his bandmates were looking for a purity and clearness where the music looks and sounds like they are focused on one thing.
Bill: One of the things that come up often in reviews of FY5 is how well the band harmonizes. How does a band achieve that balance?
Mike: We're really proud of our band, and one of the things that we're most proud of is our longevity. We're in our eighth year together, the same five people. Five people focused on one goal for any length of time is always an achievement. And for us to be on this mission, the chemistry, our musical sensibilities, our varying degrees of risk-taking with our playing, we were all kind of aligned and we noticed that right away before we started thinking about the music that we were going to make.
We all had similar temperaments, similar visions of what we wanted to do, and before we even started making music, we enjoying being with each other, and that's one of the things when you're in a band, different than a local band, when you're trying to establish pockets of people you play for and build a fan base, you end up spending time in the van and having meals together than you do playing, so if you don't like each other, the music's hardly worth it.
Bill: What are some of the ways the band relaxes on the road or before gigs?
Mike: Hacky sack is one of the things we always do when we get out of the car (to stretch our legs) and Ryan Drickey and Rich Zimmerman -- our fiddle and mandolin players -- they both juggle. We're trying to figure out some kind of juggling routine they could do on the stage. We also all love good coffee, so wherever we're traveling, we try to find the best coffee, we all value good food, so whatever town we go through, we just know there's going be some kind of fast food option, but we try to find something organic or non-toxic, those are the lifestyle things we all have in common.
Bill: The name FY5 is a recent change from your original band name, Finders & Youngberg. Why did you make the change?
Mike: Rich and Ryan, the two guys that aren't named Finders or Youngberg, they have been just as integral to the band as the other members. "Finders and Youngberg" sounds like an accounting firm or something. Sometimes a band gets stuck with a name, and changing it was hard, too, because there's websites and search engines, and stuff. We wish it would have been FY5 from the beginning, But, we're going to stick with that for now. It looks better on a T-shirt, too.
Bill: Eat The Moon is FY5's most recent album and it's getting excellent reviews. No Depression called it "wholesome, traditional and brimming with ideas plucked from years gone by." What was the inspiration for the title song?
Mike: I do most of the writing. "She wants to eat the moon," this was about a girl I know and she said that to me while we were on a walk, and it really was similar to a lot of the other things about her that I observed while we were getting to know each other. Her drive in life was to experience things in a deeply tangible way, she stops and smells the roses, and if we're on a walk and we see wild grapes she'll want to stop and eat them, she wants to put her feet in the river, and she has this tangible thing, so the song was about having a such a lust for life that you would not only experience things but bring them in, so I just played with that image, and tied it back.
Bill: When FY5 played at the Sheldon in September 2015, you also led workshops at the KDHX Folk School. Do you enjoy getting to work with adults who are learning roots and bluegrass music in that type of setting?
Mike: Yes, Ryan Spearman asked us if we would give some lessons, and three of us are trained teachers. Bluegrass is easy music to teach because it's got so many rules. We teach at least two bluegrass camps a year mostly to adults. A lot of the people stopped singing around middle school because they're voices started to change and crack, and a lot of guys who feel like 'I never should have given it up, and I'd like an outlet,' so one of the things I love to do is work with adults and almost grant them permission to sing and play, and tell them, "Yes, you can be an artist!"
Bill: You said Finders & Youngberg sounded like an accounting firm. I don't think you would have been an accountant if you hadn't started a band. What might you have been?
Mike: A teacher. I had a teaching degree. It's telling stories, getting people together. When I write a song, I hope I'm writing in it in such a way that it moves people. I imagine I would be doing something involved with telling stories.
Note: FY5 is based in Ft. Collins, Colorado. The band members are Rich Zimmerman on mandolin, Ryan Drickey on fiddle, Erin Youngberg on stand-up bass, Aaron Youngberg on banjo and pedal steel. Mike Finders, the bandleader and guitarist, is an accomplished storyteller. He is a two-time winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.
Click the image below to see all of Bill Motchan's photos from FY5's performance at Off Broadway, April 7, 2017.
With his easy smile, bushy beard and laid-back manner, Chris Robinson Brotherhood's Neal Casal looks like your friendly hippie next door. Humble as he may seem, Casal is easily one of the most impressive guitarists touring today. With an accomplished resume including stints in Ryan Adams' band The Cardinals, Phil Lesh & Friends and super group Hard Working Americans, as well as a dozen solo records to his name, Casal seems content to stand off to the side of the stage and either help his frontmen shine or completely outshine them, depending on how you see it. It's often the latter based on his mastery alone.
While he may not yet be a household name, Casal's skills have not gone unnoticed by those in the music world. In 2015, he was tapped to write and produce five hours of psychedelic instrumental jams to be played during the breaks at the historic "Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead" concerts an honor to say the least for the longtime fan.
As lead guitarist for CRB for the past six years, Casal is as vital a part of the Brotherhood as its namesake. If the band's fourth album, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel, and its companion EP, If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now, are any indication, this cosmic musical bus is in high gear with no sign of slowing down any time soon.
The next installment of CRB's Betty's Blends live album series, Volume 3: Self-Rising, Southern Blends, is set for release on May 5, with tracks from the Southeastern leg of the band's 2015 tour, recorded and mixed live by legendary Grateful Dead engineer and archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson. It's also the first live album featuring the band's new drummer Tony Leone, who joins Robinson, Casal, keyboardist Adam MacDougall and bassist Jeff Hill.
CRB makes a stop in St. Louis on Sunday, April 2 to play the recently opened Delmar Hall for the first time. I chatted with Casal by phone in advance of the band's Spring Tour kickoff about CRBs journey, being schooled by Phil Lesh and his second career as a photographer, among other topics.
Amy: What has it been like to work with Betty Cantor-Jackson on the Betty's Blends series? How did that relationship come about?
Casal: That relationship came through Chris. He likes to honor the greats who have come before us and pay them the respect that they deserve, especially people like Betty, who are less known to music fans, but equally as important. Betty's recordings help us and she makes us sound great, of course, but the purpose is also to shed light on her career and work and the fact that, even though she's done all these legendary recordings since the '60s, she's still around now making beautiful recordings and still working at her craft that she's perfected over decades.
There's so much to be learned through Betty and we're all ears when she speaks. On a technical level, when we master the Betty's Blends records, I've often gone in and sat in on the mastering sessions, and I listen for her experience and try to pick up what I can from her because it's vital information and you can't get it through looking it up on the internet.
And through her, we've also gotten to know Kidd Candelario, who was a longtime Grateful Dead crew member and he makes all our cables for us; he makes our pedal boards too So we're working closely with a lot of these people that are still around and have so much knowledge to offer.
Amy: Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel is I think the most complex and diverse CRB album in its styles and influences. How has the band evolved over the past six years with regards to songwriting?
Casal: We've evolved just by doing it; by sticking with it and never letting up for even a day. When the band started, there were some relationships and friendships there, but we were all very new to each other really. Chris and Adam had been in the Black Crowes together, but the rest of us had a long way to go to deepen our friendships, and it takes a few years to do that. So several hundred shows later, and a few records later, it took us a while to truly find our groove.
Chris and I have had a nice songwriting partnership right from day one, but even that had to evolve, and a few years in, we found ourselves in a deeper groove than when we started and the momentum has really helped us. Some bands peak early their debut record will be their best and they're chasing that for the rest of their lives; but in the case of CRB, the opposite is coming true in that we're finding momentum as we go. Our first record was very good and a nice way to get started, but the best, amazingly, is yet to come with this bunch of old dogs.
Amy: I understand you recorded the album and EP in a unique home studio. That must have been quite a stimulating environment.
Casal: Yeah, there's a house high on a hill in Marin County that some friends of ours turned into a studio. It's a really amazing house that was built out of remnants of San Francisco bridges that were torn down. This guy had access to these materials and built with his own hands this house literally built out of San Francisco and it overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It's quite a scene. Some friends of mine turned the place into a recording studio and lots of bands are going there.
It's an amazingly creative atmosphere. The band loved it. Chris particularly found it very easy to write there. He can just take a walk around the grounds and stare into the woods with his notebook and come back an hour later with an incredible set of lyrics for a song we're working on. So it's great for him great for all of us. We get to live there, live communally, make our meals there in the kitchen and sit down at the table together to eat, and right in the same space, we're recording. That really does inform the writing and the sound and the authenticity of the music.
Amy: I would imagine being self-produced allows for greater creative freedom as well.
Casal: It does if it's the right group of people. It can be a complete nightmare if it's the wrong combination of personalities. The lineup that we have now is really comprised of a bunch of producers, because we've all made our own records for so long. We all know what a good take sounds like. It's not a huge mystery. We've all been through many of those trials and we're all back at that simple place where it comes down to the question, "Is this good or bad?" And we can all reach a consensus on that very quickly. This group is able to self-produce.
Amy: Speaking of experience, you've played alongside some of the best musicians around, including Chris, Ryan Adams, Phil Lesh and the guys from Hard Working Americans, who are all very different from each other. What have you gained from that combined experience that's helped you be the player you are today?
Casal: As different as those groups and people are, there's so much commonality there as well. Whether it's Chris or Ryan or Todd or whomever I might be around, all of us in the music community, we're all after the same things. When it comes to being a songwriter, Ryan's and Todd's lyrical style is completely different, and Chris' too, but I can tell you what's the same about all those guys you can find them every morning at their desk or a table or the lounge of the bus and they're grinding away at their notebooks, pressing their pens to the page as hard as they can digging for the next song. That's what I respond to. I'm just there to help them find that.
Amy: Growing up a Deadhead, it must have been a bit surreal to be asked to write and perform the break music for the "Fare Thee Well" anniversary shows. How did you even begin to tackle that daunting task?
Casal: Well, what was great about tackling that is that there wasn't much time to think about it. If I'd had more time to think about it what's that Dylan line? "If I'd thought about it, I never would've done it; I guess I would've let it slide." That's completely true for me with the "Fare Thee Well" stuff. I got a call from my friend Justin [Kreutzmann] and I said yes, of course, and then I asked, "How much time have we got?" And he said, "None, really." So okay, we're making music for the visuals that will be on the screens on the side of the stage, so I asked, "Can I see the visuals?" And he said they weren't done yet; so I said, "We've got no time and I've got no visuals, what do you want me to do?" And Justin just said, "Go make some music that will make you feel good. Just imagine yourself being at the show and approach it from that perspective."
So I thought back to my days in the '80s at Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows when I was a kid and imagined what kind of music I would want to hear if I was walking around before the band started and before the set break, and then I called some of my best musician friends that I thought would be right for it and we jumped into a studio very quickly and just improvised for two days. We just wrote everything on the spot and felt our way to something we thought people would enjoy and, much to our shock, people overwhelmingly liked it. The entire project and that music has had a much longer life than I ever thought it would. To be embraced by this Dead community the way we have I can't even find words for the gratitude there.
Amy: You pulled it off remarkably well, considering.
Casal: We did our best to honor them with that music, but the idea was to do our own thing with it and improvise and do something weird and let the moment take you where it's going to take you. Let the music play you. We got a little of that magic with that music. Sometimes when you're torn out of your comfort zone, the best things happen.
So much of that, too, was the preparation we had by getting to play with Phil [Lesh] for the last few years. For Adam and I, that was a big deal because Phil taught us about improvisation and musical courage and being able to hang in there with a jam for more than a few minutes. Those guys were the masters they'd hang in here for 15-20 minutes, and that takes incredible focus to do that convincingly. It really blew my mind when I played with him because I realized that a guy in his 70s could outlast any 30 year old. So we got our asses handed to us by Phil and it really was humbling, and I've been a dedicated student since I've been able to hang around that guy.
That connects to the CRB as well, because Chris takes that stuff very seriously. We are a band that plays two full sets every night. We don't mess around. It doesn't matter where we are if we're in St. Louis at a small show or at a big festival, we're always trying to get there. We're a strange bunch that way. There's no day or show that we want to waste or phone in. It actually means something to us still. When Chris gets that smile going it's not show business.
Amy: So, what's next?
Casal: We just made another record, actually, that will be released later this year with 10 new original songs. With that one, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel and If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now, we'll have released 23 new songs in the past year and a half, which is pretty cool. Our rhythm section has changed a bit over the past year, but we're better than ever.
Amy: In addition to your music, you're also an accomplished photographer, and you have quite the Instagram following for your photos from the road. What do you love about the photography medium, especially as it relates to music?
Casal: Because it relates so well to music. I find myself in these situations that no other photographer can get to no one can get the access I have; and I started thinking it would be a shame to waste that access and it would be very easy for me to have a guitar in one hand and a camera in the other. It broadens my artistic life and adds more to the overall picture.
I've always been a fan of photography. Jim Marshall is one of my heroes, and I got to meet him a couple times and I've met Henry Diltz. I just try to emulate those guys in a way. There's just something so inspiring when you see Jim Marshall's photos; the composition, that black and white look. It lights me up. So part of my artistic life is trying to make moments like that myself. And when you have people like Chris in front of you, you can't resist trying to make something of it.
It's also a nice thing to do with my days when I'm not playing, and the nicest things have happened from it. I never expected to have a book of photography, which I did. When I started taking pictures, I wasn't trying to land album covers or anything I was just taking photos to do it. And then, like the Easy Tiger [Ryan Adams] album the fact that one of my photos became a cover was incredible, and the fact that they've appeared in magazines and books and on records wow, what a nice thing to add to my life.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood will play Delmar Hall on Sunday, April 2.
Gene Jackson will remember night of March 10, 2017 for the rest of his life. It is the date of his Beale on Broadway release party for his first album, 1963. It has been a long road for the well-known local soul singer but the wait has been worth it.
Gene, a 1979 Soldan graduate, started life in the Pruitt-Igoe projects with his mother, Mary Coleman, who loved to sing and did freelance work with Ike and Tina Turner, The Shirelles and others. She provided the R&B and soul influence while encouraging his interest in music by signing papers when he was 15 to enable him to play with bands. Back in those days he says he was "too shy to sing on stage," so he stuck to flute, congas and drums and limited his vocals to the Mt. Gideon church choir.
As a teen, Gene began a nine-year gig with Doc Terry, the house band at the Mary Moonlight Lounge on ML King, playing flute and congas while his friend Skeet Rodgers played the drums. Rodgers (Inner City Blues Band) eventually stepped out front as a singer which inspired Gene to did the same. He joined Power Play as a pop singer thirty years ago and added blues/soul to his catalogue when he joined Soul Reunion sixteen years ago. A decade ago, after losing his day job, he decided to make a go of it as a full time singer.
The only other time Gene recorded it was a music industry rip off story. In 1989 he recorded two singles. One, "The Night I Fell in Love," became a smash hit in England but he didn't know it. When he found out he discovered his name was spelled Jean and another person's picture was on the cover. He and his attorney daughter, Venus, are still chasing the royalties that were stolen from him.
It was trust and respect that brought Gene to Paul Niehaus and his Blue Lotus Studios. He was impressed with Niehaus and Kevin O'Connor's work as co-producers of Roland Johnson's 2016 CD, Imagine This, which was first original music release of Roland's career. Like Johnson, Jackson had covered others work for years but hearing that release convinced him it was time to do one of his own.
When Gene called Paul to see if they could do something similar his response came easily: "I said yes because I love his voice and emotional singing style." Once they began working together "it became clear," Gene says, "they were meant to make music together. He reminds me of my younger self." Their five-month effort with co-producer Kevin O'Connor, resulted in a deeply personal album about love, desire, marriage, joy, poverty and death that draws upon Jackson's life experience.
The 10 cuts selected for on 1963 came from the 15 they actually wrote. While soul flows through the album, Gene and Paul describe it as a "bit out of the box." Jackson says it has "the feel of the early movement 60's through the roughness of the 70's with each song in a different key." And, he loves the "icing on the cake" that Paul adds to the songs at the end of their creative process. Paul agrees citing one of the out of the box elements: "Some of the tracks have 'wall-of-sound' elements in their production style, which was really fun to make."
Their creative process begins by finding a groove/a feel for a song. From there Paul says, "I would write a song form to it, to get all the phrases and sections. Then I added guitar and keyboard parts, and bounce out a rough mix." Gene would then take the music and work out the melody and lyrics. There was plenty of give and take between Jackson, Niehaus and O'Connor. Jackson co-wrote seven of the songs with Niehaus; O'Connor, who played drums and handled the string arrangements, joined them in writing the other three.
In the case of "Ain't No Way," which also appeared on the new St. Louis Blues Society 16 in 16, Jackson had a melody in his head and Paul and Kevin turned into music. On "Son" it only took Paul playing a few chords for Gene to tell him, "I have it, the music speaks to me. I can write the words easily."
Other songs weren't as easy. Both say "Rag Doll," even thought it was the first song written, and "Voodoo Girl" were the toughest and last to be finished. The creole flavor of the latter "was a real change of beat and rhythm," Jackson says, "I had to get online and do a lot of research to understand what it is so I could find the right words."
The traces of Stax and Motown run through 1963. Listening to the opening chords on "That's Why I Love You," "1963," "Only God Can Help Us," "You're Gonna Get Hurt," and "Married at the Station" will make you think of other hits from those labels. The opening of "Love at First Sight" even echoes the Beatles. The icing on the cake Gene loves here is the "lushness and change of direction" that Paul achieves with the final elements he incorporates such as a conga drum, violins or orchestration.
Gene and Paul are pleased with the outcome. Paul is excited because "this album has one foot rooted in classic 60s soul and another reaching forward into the future." Gene says the message "is about life and I hope people get enjoyment from what I wrote." As a guy who grew up in Motown in the '60s, all I can say after listening to 1963 is well done, brothers, well done.
Click below for Bob Baugh's photos from the album release party.
East Side Slim of Rhythm Highways had a chance to talk to Johnny Iguana of The Claudettes about recording their new unplugged EP 'Pull Closer to Me: Live in the Piano Room' and the expanded lineup in advance of the live full-band electric blues show at Off Broadway on Thursday, March 16.
East Side: You've had a three piece with The Claudettes before, two piece, three piece, kind of varied, and now you've expanded to a four piece.
Johnny Iguana: Yeah, we're going to limit it at four. Anything beyond four is just outright insanity, right? I mean we don't want to go to those kind of extreme lengths, but we started out as a duo -- piano and drums--and then added a singer and that made us a trio. We've continued to expand, we've got an additional singer who plays bass, so we've got piano, drums, bass, and vocals, but it's still really piano-forward. It's amazing how a band doubles in size when you not only have vocals but two vocalists singing in harmony all the way through. It just really, really expands things. I'm lucky to have two great singers whose voices blend so beautifully, and even though I'm kind of territorial about the bass lines -- playing them on piano -- Zach [Verdoorn] is such a great musician. He plays some guitar and some bass but when he plays bass he's not always doing the bass line. He might be doing a texture or figure along with what I'm doing, so it's wild! Those live sets are part instrumental part vocal songs and have kind of a Minutemen style of just pounding in sixty songs into a night or however much time we're allotted. All our songs are in the two- to three-minute range and there's no gratuitous solos all over the place. There are solos, but we kind of hit it and quit it with every song, flying fast and furious -- I think that pace makes for a really fun show.
ES: You mentioned the problem of a bass player riding over the piano player's lines and that was one of the very first things I thought when I heard the news, "They added a bass player? Oh man, they really don't need a bass player with your left hand going all the time," but once I saw the live performance, it works so very well.
JI: Yeah, Zach is also a really fine singer. I'm really, expressly, trying to write some songs for him now because when you have multiple singers -- it just keeps things moving, keeps things interesting, to mix up who's delivering the vocals, especially with different stories to tell.
ES: Could you go through the lineup?
JI: So Berit Ulseth is the other singer, and then Matt Torre is the drummer, and I'd also played with Matt in Chicago, he's from the Detroit area. Matt was actually the one that introduced me to Berit, who's just such a beautiful singer. She's from Minnesota and has been in Chicago for years. So none of us are from Chicago, we all met here. That's one of the great things about the city is you just meet musicians and people from all over the place; you get its own kind of melting pot.
ES: I was fortunate enough to catch this version of The Claudettes at a house concert here in St. Louis not too long ago.
JI: Yeah, in November.
ES: Yeah, and Berit's voice is just mesmerizing. She just kind of closes her eyes and it's like she's going someplace else and the guys are still all doing their thing around her. Hey, I know you've got a new album in the works coming up a little later this year. Care to talk about that with a little bit?
JI: Actually, our drummer Matt was the one who urged me to spend our winter filming some videos. He said, "Let's do some kind of acoustic videos right around your piano," because we had this one show we did in Connecticut at a festival where they lost power, and it was in an old field house and there was an acoustic piano, just an old upright against the wall, so we left the stage and went over there and played the last 40 minutes of our set with tambourine, singing and piano. The reaction we got was just so rapturous. It was more so I think than even when we'd been plugged in. Matt was saying, "How many bands that really just churn out the electric sounds can also just do a whole set around a piano, and one that sounds so good and gets such a great reaction?" So we decided to do a video series of acoustic, unplugged performances and we filmed them and posted them, then our label Yellow Dog Records -- who put out our first two albums -- asked if they could put out the audio as an EP introduction to the four-piece Claudettes, to cast a spotlight on the softer side, the intimate side. It even makes me think of old '50s and '60s records, like we should title it "The Other Side of The Claudettes."
ES: It does!
JI: Because the album that we have coming in the fall was produced by Black Keys producer Mark Neill who had gotten ahold of me, who had gotten hip to the band and really liked the piano approach to the band and wanted to record us -- so we went down to his studio in Georgia and recorded a really pretty crazy, really great, wild ride of an album that's going to be out later this year, kind of in anticipation of that electric album we have this acoustic EP that is up on the Yellow Dog Records website right now. It's seven songs, it's some of our own songs, kind of previews from the forthcoming album and all, our takes on some soul and pop and other songs that are on there.
ES: And I would say there are a couple surprises on there. I've listened to it several times over and am enjoying it very, very much. Now those new, live videos, are those going to be the only songs that are on the new album? Or will it also mix in some of your older material?
JI: There's a few covers on there too, a couple songs you've probably seen us do live. There's a Leslie Gore song and there's The Ikettes' debut "I'm Blue," and the version that we did was more like the Shangri-Las, which is really fun to do live. So those two, but otherwise it's all songs from the next album. Also a couple of them that we're going to post last are our instrumentals from our first two albums that now have been expanded to have bass guitar; they were recorded with just piano and drums. Kind of wild gonzo-blues piano drum songs.
ES: That's a pretty good description right there, and actually that was going to be the next direction I was going to go. I was going to ask you how you describe your sound on the new album and I say that because some of the material that your publicist gave to me, there's several pages, there's one page that's just all quotes and one that really struck me was from Eden Brent who said it has "all the sophistication of twenty-first century serious music with a hell of a sense of humor, most interesting piano album in my collection since Brubeck's Take 5," and that's coming from a person who is a heck of a piano player herself.
JI: I was thoroughly charmed by that.
ES: Yeah! That's pretty cool, and the fact that Mark Neill sought you out, right? Is that correct?
JI: Yeah, which was quite amazing because we were looking for a producer that we thought might bring other artistic flavors to the songs that we had written. It was really quite amazing that while I was contacting some other producers, Mark contacted me separately in an unrelated fashion. It was amazing timing because that was just exactly what we wanted to do was to ally with someone who was going to have their own outlook and their own take on the sound. And in fact, it was not all peaches and cream recording. When you have someone like Mark that's such a strong personality with strong principals of recording as well as arrangements -- he was unyielding in some ways and it made us squeeze out something that could please all of the above. It was quite a process.
ES: Yeah, I know from the description and the notes that I have. I wished there would have been a picture of him because your description of the man was pretty entertaining, so I am so looking forward to hearing this new album. You all doing your thing working with him and the combination of making something even greater than the sum of the already very, very nice parts.
JI: I should quickly read you the quote that Mark Neill sent me about the album. He wrote: "Haunted cabaret, David Lynch movie-music crossed with Allen Toussaint's driving piano sound. And sort of like when you're driving late at night in the South and two radio stations are coming in together and it's perfect. Like Otis Spann and Mark Sandman from Morphine sitting in with Keely Smith. I'm kind of riffing here but seriously nobody sounds like them, I love this new record, it's crazy good."
ES: I'm glad you read that because that struck me as well, I did want to touch on that. It kind of got lost in my mind here but I'm really glad you mentioned that one; that is so good, and it's apt and it's perfect. That is a very good description of The Claudettes sound right now.
JI: It's indicative of the sort of doom we're in because you're supposed to be one thing. That's what the music business is all about. Unfortunately for us we're real living, breathing, flexing human beings with lots of interests and passions and it all comes out as this new thing, and yet to me I think we have one sound and I think it's rooted in American roots and blues music, but it's certainly not slavish to the past or dead on arrival like so much of blues and roots music sometimes is when people are too timid to let their own personalities and eccentricities lead the way.
The Claudettes will be performing at Off Broadway on Thursday, March 16 with Tortuga opening.
Paul Niehaus hears things in his head and St. Louis is about to hear them too because this year's St. Louis Blues Society Compilation album, 16 in '16, has just been released. It builds upon the success of last year's 15 in '15 which topped the list of KDHX's "Top of the Spins for 2016."
16 in '16 brings together yet another group of St. Louis musicians performing all original music. The producer and St. Louis Blues Society board member, Paul Niehaus, has been invaluable to this process volunteering his time and his Blue Lotus Studios to create the project.
Paul was a horn player in school but after hearing BB King's "Live at the Regal" at the age of 14 he bought a guitar and began playing. Then he began adding instruments -- bass, keyboards and percussion -- as he began performing with local bands. A 2009 music degree from Truman State followed and he returned home to "practice music as a professional freelancer." He has toured with several blues bands and now is considered one of the most desirable sidemen in town.
While Paul has a passion for playing music it's his audiophile instincts for the quality of the sound that got him into the studio. He says it was the "sounds in his head that got to him": "I'd go to shows and hear how the soundboards and live mixes all too often didn't sound that good. I was obsessed and I would dissect what I would do to it." It all added up to one cognitive experience that "the better you manage all those little parts of it the more awesome the end result."
Paul's sound obsession became a craft as he upped his knowledge, skills and recording equipment. It was formalized with the creation of Blue Lotus Studios in in 2015. He chose the name because "in Indian spirituality the lotus represents this beautiful plant that rises from murky muddy water." He describes sound engineering much the same way; "sometimes an artist comes in with a song and within it there is the statue. But it's like a massive block of marble that needs chipping away at steadily revealing this awesome structure that's underneath it."
Sometimes there isn't even a block of marble. Soul singer Gene Jackson's 16 in '16 song, "Ain't No Way," was just a melody in his head. He came to the studio and hummed it for Paul. "Then Paul picked up a bass and started playing and then added a guitar and some organ. I went home with the music and wrote the lyrics. Then strings were to create this sort of Irish soul sound," explains Gene. It worked so well they are now making an album together for a spring release.
The other side of the production business is people skills. "Every time you get musicians together it is a combination of sum factor of all their personalities, their feeling that day, their moods -- artists are complex eccentric people, myself included. It's all about getting them comfortable and stimulated for a good take and I'm still learning," said Niehaus.
The production of 16 in '16 began over four months ago with conversations between Paul and Jeremy Segel-Moss (Chairman of the STLBS) about potential bands to invite. Each band has the freedom to choose how they want to be represented on the album but it must be original music. The primary goal is to produce a stylistically diverse well-rounded album and Paul feels they have. "If the Blues were an octopus, we got all eight arms represented," says Neihaus.
16 in '16 showcases the talent, energy and momentum in the St. Louis blues community. People like boogie piano man extraordinaire, Ethan Leinwand, moved here to be part of it. The story's the same with our highly regarded Texas transplant, John McVey. McVey describes his up tempo swing boogie cut, "She's My Girl Now," as "sort of a garage band blues rockabilly." He moved to St. Louis because "there are more good blues in this area than the entire state of Texas, and you can reach half of the country in a day trip. In Texas we considered a 17 hour drive a day trip. No more of that for me." Ethan and John have become part of a "self-amplifying feedback loop," as Paul put it, "They love it here and want to be a part of it and make it better."
Those tentacles keep coming with younger musicians like vocalist Emily Richard and pianist/arranger Chase Garrett of Sweetie and the Toothaches with their song "Bigger Fool." Emily says she and Chase "are energetic happy people so jump blues fits our style." The song is personal. "You gotta go through the bad to write good blues," Emily says. Chase, another recent transplant and friend of Ethan Leinwand's also moved to St. Louis "because this is a piano blues city." Another up tempo contribution comes from Little Rachel with "Time Flies in The Friendly Skies." Paul says it is simply "2:42 minutes of dynamite of rockabilly energy."
Leroy Pierson and Tom Hall keep it authentic with their resonator guitars. Leroy's cut, "Easy Rider," also features Curtis Buckhannon on mandolin. They have played it together many times over the last 45 years. Leroy explains that "the tune is basically traditional blues with Lightnin' Hopkins and Henry Townsend influences . . . but if I listen closely I could probably find ten different influences in this song." Tom says his cut "Texas Twister Blues" draws from "a bit of North Carolina Piedmont blues and my own licks with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis influencing the tune."
Traditional and urban blues, soul and R&B are also on board. Beulah Foehner, daughter of local musicians -- Sharon and Doug Foehner -- makes her vocal debut on her mother's song "Homeless Child." A straight up blues song she wrote "after seeing a photojournalist report about children living in homeless shelters." Skeet Rodgers & The Inner City Band, the urban blues specialists, weigh in with a slow tune, "I Wonder." David Dee's "Bit by The Blues," takes on a Memphis Stax-y kind of R&B blues ambiance that pairs well with Gene Jackson's soul groove.
Tyler Stokes and the Delta Sol Revival stir up the 16 in '16 musical gumbo with "I'd Rather." He says he wrote "a blues-centric song in a way that fits with their Latin/New Orleans/ Rhumba style." The Maness Brothers, a guitar and drums duo, bring a bluesy rock style with "Drive Me (And My Soul)" that is reminiscent of the Black Keys. Tommy Halloran takes us on a jazzy/folksy Americana blues ride with "Sleepin' Dog" that features Eric McSpadden on the harmonica and some killer harmonies from Kari Liston and Leslie Sanazaro. Bob Case, who used to tour with JD Hutto and others offers up "Sometimes It Feels (Like the Whole World's Gone Crazy)" which has an early electrified Bob Dylan flavor to it.
Marty Spikener brings a couple of grooves. One is "to keep the blues scene thriving" which he does as a St. Louis Blues Society board member and by working with kids through "Blues in the Schools" program. The other groove is with his On Call Band that brings a Texas shuffle/backward beat style to the compilation with "Crawling Back." Paul calls it a "quintessential textbook cool blues with some funny lyrics in it." Marty laughs and says, "Paul also calls it a flat tire groove." Paul Bonn & The Bluesmen are also shuffling with "Stop the Killing" that brings an electric low down blues style featuring Jon Erblich on harmonica.
Tom "Papa" Ray brings it all home with a poignant St. Louis story, "Saint Louis Gunshot Blues." He said he wouldn't write songs for a long time but when asked this time he said, "I thought it was time for a proper weather report about our city." Tom says he "wants to do blues for the 21st century" and this styling is "somewhere between Slim Harpo and Gil Scott Heron."
What a way to start the year. The St. Louis Blues Society 16 in '16 has it all: octopus tentacles, gumbo, weather reports, and some great St. Louis sounds that will get stuck in your head.
This article was originally published in the January issue of the St. Louis Blues Society's monthly BluesLetter. To see more photos of Paul Niehaus' Blue Lotus Studios, click the image below.