Songs for Juliet, a celebration of unicorn moms for Katy Vernon’s CD early preview at the Hook and Ladder

Katy Vernon celebrated her birthday with a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society called Songs for Juliet, a tribute to her mother. She was kind enough to invite everyone. It was also a sneak preview of her upcoming CD, which was a treat.

Vernon’s catch phrase is “sad songs on a happy instrument”; the show last night was a demonstration of that marriage of opposites. She has a very upbeat persona, slightly self-deprecating, wears light-up shoes and plays the ukulele, while her songs pull hard at the heart strings. I heard this especially in Heart is in Your Hands, a song for her daughters Lily and Daisy; it’s a sweet slower song with an added emotional aspiration in her voice last night. Very touching.

Somebody’s Daughter is apparently a song in progress, written for the powerful women in her family. It showcases her clear voice highlighted with slight modulation. Vernon has a strong, very pretty voice. The deceptively upbeat nature complements the dark humor of a song like Five O’clock – a song about her own battle with alcohol, which she is wining. Taking the old phrase – it’s 5:00 somewhere – a phrase that usually conjures a gregarious image of folks on vacation or in the pub together and putting it on the face of a young mother at home is realistic look at what motherhood and life with alcohol can look like. There’s an important backdoor to feminism in the song; an example of women in art owning the things that are hard for women today.

It was great to see her with the full band. The band gives a range of genres that one instrument just can’t do. Look to the Sea has a bold festive feel, Undertow has a twang and some songs have a feel of old radio shows. The horn especially is a great counter to her voice – both loud and strong but different. I loved the keyboard in Lily, it sounded like a xylophone. Lily, about Vernon’s daughter, was a song that caught my ear because my oldest daughter is named Lily, after Pictures of Lily. But I think I’m going to tell my Lily that I named her after this song, it’s much more mom-approved.

The night began with Home Fires, a duet of Vicky Emerson and Sarah Morris. I think it was Morris who used a phrase that captured a theme for the night. She mentioned how glad she was to meet other moms who were musicians – a creature to her that seemed as rare as unicorns. So they sang for the unicorn moms. That feeling isn’t restricted to musician moms.

The Home Fires sounded great. Their voices blend well together. If theirs voices were a painting Emerson would be the green of the grass with Morris the blue of the sky and together the picture is richer. It’s tough not to like a songs like Front Porch about kindness and wine. Ad added bonus was ABBA-solutely, Vernon’s ABBA cover band. Nothing will take you back to be 10 years old faster than an ABBA song.

The Long Odds play to a full house at Mortimer’s

I got a sneak preview of The Long Odds a couple weeks ago at the Rock Your Rights NARAL concert at the Icehouse. So I was excited to get a chance to see them play their CD release (Level Ground) party at Mortimer’s. I have to say, I liked them even more there. It was a full room, cozy feel and a Americana-loving crowd.

The band filled the stage: Tim Heinlein on guitar, Missy Heinlein on keyboard and vocals, Jonas Lader on drums and vocals, Jason Streitz on guitar and vocals, Mike Fruncillo on bass and vocals and a special appearance from Jimmy Rogers on bass.

The music is easy to listen too, a nice twang with beat that keeps in interesting. I love the keyboard, which seemed to Hammond organ sound at times. I’m sure I heard a mandolin pop out and pretty sure I heard a cowbell too. The variety of instruments add an interest to the music.

One of my favorite songs was Paper Made. It’s slower, moodier than some of their other toe-tapping tunes. But it particularly showcases the combined vocals and I’m a sucker for a song that tells a good story. Throughout the show, each musician gets a chance to be the star, to highlight their talent, but with Paper Made I feel like everyone really comes together in a cohesive way.

River High at O’Gara’s – dark, pop, 80s appeal

The last band in the back room at O’Gara’s had a 1980s sound – no wait – it was the 1980s. So I’m not sure how much that memory infused my take on River High but I was definitely getting some 80s sensibilities out of the band.

There’s a dark undercurrent to the music – the last album is entitled Blood and Darkness and they sing about blood quite a bit so there’s truth in the advertising. But there’s an underpinning to the sound as well – a drudging beat that moves the songs forward and a drone that gives it a pleasant finish. The dark gives the music a depth.

They play rock with a catchy chorus. There are four in the band – Joe Masanz (bass), Jason Anderson (drums), Justin Law (guitar and vocals) and Rena Rasmussen (vocals). I think they’re at their best when Law and Rasmussen harmonize. Their voices blend really well together. Rasmussen has an I-won’t-take-crap attitude on the stage that makes her fun to watch and a powerful voice. Masanz looks the part, he’s fun to watch as a performer and Anderson keeps the songs going with a strong beat.

It is hard to pin down the genre. It’s  high energy with catchy chorus. Some songs (like Red Canary) are very danceable, while some are more like ballads. Then there’s that 80s feel, which I think is a quirkiness that gives over to rock. It’s hard not to like a band with a song called K.I.S.S.

Pussy Riot brings post punk feminism to the Turf Club

The show sold out quickly and apparently everyone with a permanent guest pass showed up for Pussy Riot at the Turf Club.

I think most folks (who remember Pussy Riot) remember when they were arrested and detained for staging a protest performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. They were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and at two of the members spent two years in jail.

I had no idea of what I might be walking into when I showed up. The night started with an interview with one of the members – Nadya. She talked about why the members do what they do and introduced their media channel – Media Zonna. It was interesting to hear about what it’s like to want to bring the news to Russia and other places where the government wants to control every message. In short, she said that all of their partners have decided that they are at peace with whatever should happen to them should they be detained for their work. Frightening and inspiring.

Nadya recognized that art can amplify a message. She didn’t use the word apathy but called people back to a time – the 1960s and 1970s – when people were more political. Art and music will make politics cool again. They are tools we can use to engage people.

Nadya asked what was the call to action for everyone attending? A pointed question. And the answer was to invite everyone to get engaged in politics and bring a friend. It was an invitation to go to the Capitol, to talk to legislators – not just during protests but on regular days to tell them how you feel. It was a good suggestion. Politicians who want to stay in office listen to voters. They try to represent their constituents. But they need to hear from all voters to do that.

The second set was music – techno pop, super energetic pounding beats. It is what I used to heard in discos in Catalonia back in the 1990s. But that music is fun. Some songs were in English; some in Russian (with subtitles).

Annie Mack’s Soulful CD Release at the Aster Café

Annie Mack’s music is uplifting, her voice is strong and she has an slow confidence that exudes cool. She opened her set Friday night at the Aster Café with Love, a slow, anticipatory song. Her voice is smooth with a depth. But it’s the assuredness that is so appealing.

She played songs from the new CD – Tell It Like It Is. Two highlights were Just Do Right and the CD namesake, Tell it Like it is. They are both upbeat and they seem to straddle a few genres – gospel, Americana and soul.

With Tell it Like it is, there’s a sassy redemption to the recovery story of the song and the tempo speeds to lift up your dancing toes as much as the story lifts the spirits. The back up vocals add to the build and the live version ends in a joyous rasp. Just Do Right has a self-righteous bossiness of a good friend setting you straight. Her voice is controlled and comforting so that there’s no edge, just wisdom coming through.

An added delight was Hey Momma, a slower song written for Mack’s mother and her experience raising two kids in North Minneapolis. The music is Americana. The voice is soul. That’s what makes for such an interesting blend.

It doesn’t hurt to have super talented musicians on stage including Joel Sayles, Noah Levy, Peter J Sands and Jon Herchert. It’s a glimpse and the wealth of musical talent we have in the Twin Cities!

Art is … Black Light! PaviElle curates a show to young Black Women Artists

Last night I was introduced to three amazing young artists: Amani Ward, Yoni Light and ShaVunda Brown. They were all selected by PaviElle French to perform as part of the Art is series at TPT. Each performed and then answered a few questions from PaviElle; each clearly had a nurturing relationship with PaviElle and a strong sense of community. It was awesome to see how each had thought about how her community had an impact on her and how she would have an impact on her community.

It was also awesome to see the community in the audience supporting the performers. It would be nice to bump this show up to LowerTown Line status. To get the promotion and production power of LowerTown line behind these women to help lift them up – because they are worthy of the heights! And the audience deserves to be let into this powerful  community.

First to the stage was Amani Ward, starting with George Gershwin’s Summertime. She has been performing since she was 8, which maybe wasn’t all that long ago. She’s young but her voice is powerful and she has ease on  stage. She chose a set list that include greats from the past – such as Nina Simone. When asked about her greatest influence the answer was – her mom. So already I love her. She was wise beyond her years when she spoke about learning to have the confidence to present yourself in your situation.

Second to stage was Yoni Light, a multi-disciplinary artist who sings, dances and does spoken word. She’s inspiring. Like the other young women, she had a message for all ages. She said she had learned that she didn’t have to sacrifice herself to give. That is a message I hope my daughters hear. That is a message that I hope I learn to heed. She has the grace of movement and presence of someone stays in control, someone who takes it to the edge but will only cross the line on her own rules.

Finally ShaVunda Brown took the stage. She is a young mother, originally from Texas and came up here for the Guthrie. She is wow! The imagery of her poetry is vivid, so even if you haven’t been in her shoes you feel like you get it – a little. She speaks (and I abbreviate hugely) ” My name is poetry …blues… jazz… hip-hop…the residue of resilience.” She has a poem about the creativity of African American names. There’s a wonderful line about how these might not be names designed for a resume’ – they are names for becoming the owner! How wonderful! A new lens. Well, a new lens for me and I have gratitude that I got to see through it for a night. Her presence is luminary.

Circus of the West shows off Some Connections at the Icehouse

The music scene in the Twin Cities has been thriving for generations but it’s still nice to see concerted effort to bring in the next generation. Circus of the West had that going on in spades! Rumor has members of Broken Beaks, the first band are in high school and the audience included all ages. The legacy continues and brings in a full house!

Their music is happy, toe tapping, mood changing. Even with a song like (I’m on the outside) Looking In, with a strong theme of alienation – the tune is upbeat and seemingly joyful. Even more so when they are accompanied on stage by so many friends. The show opened with nine on stage.

Their songs tell a story with a rock opera feel. Lead singer Edwin Caldie has a strong voice and emotive presence. The first four songs came from their debut album – followed by a few even newer songs. Some Connections is a song that resonates with the specifics in the lyrics from date and location (Nicollet Island). There’s something about details that makes a song more universal.

Through out the show (and wlbum), you can feel the 80s influence, the pop sensibilities, the love of showmanship in the keyboard and old school rock in the guitar.

There was a fun gospel interlude with Dr. Andrea Q. Langford. She was accompanied by the band and several women with strong powerful, plaintive voices singing Work for Me. Again very uplifting!

When We Land album release at the Turf Club

Technically When We Land is a boy band but they’re not a boy band in the traditional sense. They are deeper, more thoughtful. They opened with Throttle and the Wind off their latest CD (Introvert’s Plight Album). Whether fact or fiction the song is deeply personal and a uniquely male perspective on heartbreak that would almost make you hate your last lost love a little less.

Singer Jesse Baxter has a strong voice. The music is indie rock with some country sensibilities possibly based on the song themes. While I think there are usually four in the band, there were five on stage at the Turf Club Friday night.

They had an even bigger crowd than was expected and a crowd that clearly are big followers of the band. (And not your usual Turf Club crowd.)

Their second song was more rocking but equally melancholy in temperament Five Bar Blues. The drum was particularly strong but it’s really Baxter’s voice that leads the charge with most songs. That being said the guitars and bass meet the quality and support the sound. The set went on with new and old songs.

Ben Noble highlighting Whisky Priest at Bryant Lake Bowl

If you have time for just one song by Ben Noble, make it Little One. As he says, it’s a story song presumably about his own three year old. It’s a gentle song, too loud for a lullaby but the kind of song you’d listen to with your own little one cuddling on the couch. It showcases his falsetto range that produces an ethereal, soothing sound. The strings (especially on the album but also live) have a dream quality that plays against an otherwise straightforward tune. The lyrics are touching and sweet. The song is like a little vacation.

Luckily I had time for a few more watching Noble play at the Bryant Lake Bowl with a bass player, keyboardist and drummer. They played many songs from his latest CD, Whisky Priest. Keeping with a theme, he led with Daughter, which is another pensive almost melancholy song. Again the song features his unique voice. The lyrics, the voice, the guitar are very tender.

Noble’s song writing is very personal but it’s a case of when personal detail can make something so universal. Many of the tunes are inherently sad. Good listening for a cold winter afternoon.

Piano preview of Christmas peace from Steven C & Friends at the St Paul Cathedral

Steven C’s piano solos have been downloaded millions of times. Millions! He has played with the London Symphony Strings at Abbey Studios and with Mannheim Steamroller on the TODAY show. So I feel fortunate to have seen him in his own backyard, which it turns out is the same as my backyard.

Steven C (and his friends) played a set of Christmas and Emotive music at the Cathedral. His friends include the St Cecelia and St Gregory Choristers of the Cathedral Choir School, vocalist Kathleen Johnson and three musicians, Pat Frederick on violin, Charles Asch on cello and Lawrence Lawyer on pipe organ.

They started with O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The choir began a cappella. Then just the piano. Then the strings joined in. The music sounds like the Cathedral looks. The majesty draws you into the space but the details keep you there. A joyous start.

The second song was Still, Still, Still with piano and strings. It’s a more pensive piece and the audience was clearly touched – each in a different way. I find it soothing. It’s a one-hour break with stimulus that spoils you into a brain lull. But around me, I could see tears or joy and remembrance. Everyone has taken time from a busy week to escape and the music did not disappoint.

Some songs stand out – such as the siren’s plaintive start of Twas’ in the Moon of the Wintertime. And the husky low notes of Mary Did you Know.  There was a sing-along and Phil Coulter’s Irish Blessing. That’s always going to be a hit in St Paul.

I enjoyed Steven C’s original work too, especially Restored. Apparently, he felt called to write that just before he recorded the new album live at the Cathedral (Sep 2017). He wrote it based on his experience restoring old houses in the area and based on memories of the restoration of the Cathedral roof. (Remember when the Cathedral dome was green?) He wrote it during a 3-mile run to the Cathedral. And that is when I knew we shared a backyard. Because I had walked with a friend to the show that night,  4 miles each way in windy, freezing weather. But it was absolutely worth the hike!

Steven C has two more shows this season:

I rarely include video and I hope the artist won’t mind – but I thought everyone could a quick break of hectic for splendor of music and art