I just wanted to throw in my good-luck wishes to The Lumineers tonight on the Grammy Awards, and smile as I remembered this night we all shared back in November 2010, at the house show I put together with them and The Head and The Heart. This was a completely ridiculous, end-of-the-night group effort. Go team:
The warmth and resonant connection of the Denver music community flowed so apparently out of the article this week by Jon Pareles in the New York Times; it is just as he says, and I am so grateful to live here.
There’s a wistful knowing and a coy restraint in the way Charity Thielen (from The Head and The Heart) sings. Her voice has a redolent timbre that could just as easily be coming from a lazily-turning Victrola as a silvery modern pop record — it’s irresistible and won me over from the first time I heard her. I’m a big fan of her forays into her own territory, whenever I’ve gotten a chance to hear her sing up a storm on her own solo material and side projects.
This duet is charming and easy, a playful repartee between Charity and Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, The Minus 5) on his forthcoming record Danzig In The Moonlight. Stringfellow is a musician who I have heartily dug over the years (the man can craft a power-pop gem), and seeing them work together is exciting. The tune reminds me of the banter between Jade and Sharpe on “Home” (do you remember that day you fell out my window?), except with overt and pleasingly languid old-country overtones.
See those little dots waaay down there? Yep, that’s The Head and The Heart
Last week I had the distinct joy of seeing my pals The Head and The Heart play at the legendary Red Rocks, sandwiched between Blind Pilot and The Shins (oh what a night!). It’s transitioning towards being a normal thing for them to play huge venues like this one, but for this gal, it still made me smile goofily like a kid on Christmas — seeing their same explosive live performance that first made me notice them two years ago light up those steep rows carved into the rocks, watching 10,000 people dancing along.
Highlights of the set for me included the jubilant “Sounds Like Hallelujah,” which couldn’t help but resonate strongly in that setting (I mean, Red Rocks is where they start each concertgoing season annually with an Easter sunrise service, after all) and a full-band version of the long-favorite unreleased “Gone,” with a stirringly intricate outro (listen: from about 4 minutes onward) that shows a growing depth and continuing intuition to their full-band arrangements. Also, Josiah sang a brand new song from the band that I had never heard before, a bright and big tune called “What’s The Point” that wended its way past ballad and straight towards anthem. It’s exciting to continue to see them as a band and as individuals, finding their voices as songwriters and consistently delivering that goodness to the ears of their fans with passion.
Ten days shy of the one-year mark from the Saturday morning in March 2011 when we recorded our very first fledgling chapel session ever, my friends in The Head and the Heart made a special trip south to meet me at my house one Friday so we could head into the chapel again. I’d left my door unlocked for them, and walked in to them eating the leftover Cuban black beans I’d mentioned in the fridge, with a Townes Van Zandt documentary on the television, and the Alabama Shakes advance album doo-wopping on the kitchen stereo. I loved how much it felt like home, to all of us.
It has been a hell of a year, a rollercoaster that I’m sure was hoped for but never would have been predicted when I first met this band in the summer of 2010. After their debut album wowed people and their live show exploded across the US (back and forth and back again), Europe, and even Australia, it’s been gratifying to see their exuberant songs of home resonate with so many. The album that’s out now was recorded over two years ago, and while the band has always had a fertile creative process and freely experimented with new songs in their live set, actual recordings of these songs are hard to come by while we wait for the sophomore effort.
Therefore I feel pretty dang lucky to get to peel the lid off this second Fuel/Friends Chapel Session with The Head and The Heart, filled up with new and re-envisioned songs. They’re the first band to come back for another go-around. This session was recorded in a very small, secret-feeling white clapboard chapel nestled next to a creek in the Manitou Springs foothills on the way to Pikes Peak, amidst all the resonant golden wood and humble stained-glass windows. It was called Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and felt like Sunday school. I palmed the keys and let us in those creaky painted doors with no one around but maybe the church mice, and the songs started unfolding.
The session was laced with the fresh. I just laughed to myself as I re-read what I wrote about that very first session: “After multiple takes of whatever felt right, three of the four songs we ended up with here are not recorded or released anywhere else, and the fourth is reinvented.”
Ditto on this one: three new, and one reinvented. Bookends.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART
FUEL/FRIENDS CHAPEL SESSION (MARCH 2, 2012)
Honey Come Home (chapel version)
The version of this song on their debut album sounds downright jaunty in comparison to this fingerpicked, darkly re-worked rendition. Here the song is weary, and almost completely defeated. It sounds older. It sounds bruised and slow and exhausted. None of these things are bad things, because the sentiments Josiah is singing about are difficult and they are sad. The laser focus of grief in this version smolders and hurts, echoed somberly by Charity’s prescient and mournful backing vocals, and I am immediately drawn to it.
I feel like this version of this song could have only come two years after the album version. “…And I am ready to be home.” This time, I might believe him.
Starting with lyrics about sailing into the fog and vanishing, this is an unreleased song that strongly invokes a departure from a solidly known shore and a journey away. It’s been a fast favorite since I first heard it in 2010, then googled various live versions and fell in love with it. There is the resonance in the naked wail of a confession that we are tryiiing here. On this version, Jon growls a little in seeming frustration. Don’t send me no postcards telling me you miss me. Maybe sometimes we don’t want to miss anybody.
This is a brand new song that I had never, ever heard before, and hoooo is it a kicker. This is the second time in the chapel that Josiah has brought something completely new, working out chord changes and sketching notes in the margins. After listening to the first performance (because I am linear in my narrative and always like tracing connections) I told Josiah that it sounded like a bookend to the song “Honey Come Home” – the same ache of a breaking or broken relationship, the same interminable distance from one person to another even as you sit nearby, or across town. He smiled the way that makes his eyes crinkle and affirmed that this is indeed a preface to that very song from their first album, but written from the perspective of the woman in the relationship, and from a younger time in their story. My favorite line in this new song is “so hold me down if I’m running off.” That one slices me, in particular, since sometimes I can appreciate a firm hand on the shoulder and an incentive to “come back.”
He also smiled as he said, “And let’s call it Fire/Fear, in honor of where it was first recorded.” Um, sure. Yes.
The session ended with a nuanced performance of this untitled, unreleased song from Jon. I hope that it is someday called “Not Afraid,” because that lyric and that declaration feels like the place in the song where everything hangs for a second, the limbs bend, the constitution is braced. A very early version of this was also part of the first fantastic house show they did for me in November 2010, but this is the only time I’d heard it on the piano, echoing so redolently. The punch infused by the piano is the perfect accompaniment to this song, changing it from a striking campfire song to an irrevocably gutting eulogy. It’s getting harder these days.
At the 2:14 mark, this song made my stomach hurt.
This whole session left me reeling, which by now I should be used to for these folks and their music, since the first time I heard them. I’m glad I’m still not used to it, and that they keep furrowing deep and leaving us shimmering.
In the last few days, we’ve gotten to record devastatingly rich Chapel Sessions with both The Head and The Heart (our first encore session) and Tyler Lyle. I have felt exceedingly blessed, and can’t wait to share them with you.
One of my favorite songs off one of the albums I’ve listened to the most in the last year, this new cover of Damien Jurado’s “Beacon Hill” is suffused through the warmed-up, knowing rasp of Jon Russell (of The Head and The Heart). It’s been on constant repeat for me this week, since it was unveiled as part of an extremely cool mini-series of covers over on Andrew Matson’s music column in the Seattle Times.
Get Saint Bartlett if you never did, and stream Damien’s entire new forthcoming record, Maraqopa, here. Highly recommended — is anyone else also hung up on “Life Away From The Garden” (in addition to “Working Titles,” of course) like I am?
Keep your ears tuned to Matson’s column for the Seattle Times (check out Pickwick’s!). I don’t know what covers are coming next, but they can’t help but be amazing if this is the magnetic songwriting fodder we have to work with.
Rather than start this post about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with a picture of an amazing headliner like Mumford & Sons, or the surprise stellar guests like Patty Griffin, I’m going to share that view up above instead: a cell phone snap taken while I sat inside my tent and looked out the zippered door. I think it captures something about this festival that you need to know, as foundation. As enticement to come next year.
I pitched my tent on slanty ground, deciding to sleep on river rocks just so that I could hear that powerfully rushing roar of water as I was falling asleep at night, and first thing when I woke up in the morning. When I rambled through the darkness at 2am each night to my waiting cocoon of nylon and synthetic down, I’d sit for a good half hour on the banks, just watching the water that came from far away and was heading who-knows-where, as the moon glinted off the fast-moving surface. I felt a deep peace, and a happiness.
After ogling the lineup of performers and arriving into the stunning natural beauty of the town (last year was my virgin year), the first thing you notice about Telluride Bluegrass Festival is that it is inherently different. People at this one are nicer. Strangers stop to both secure your unattended tent when it’s about to succumb to the ferocious winds and blow into the river (happened to me), and also when you are struggling to lug all your stuff out to where the carpool is going to meet (ditto). The staffers might not only watch your gear, but move it under a tarp when the skies open up and the rains begin. The bus driver loops back around once he’s off duty in the wee hours of the morning, because he hears on his radio that a gal needed a ride. Things like this strike me as exceedingly rare in this world of music festivals, and deeply appreciated.
I tell you all these things not to brag about what a goddamn nice weekend I just had, but to set the stage for the sorts of musical chemistry that spark effortlessly and burn glowing-orange within this fertile laboratory of music. All weekend long you’ll see musicians peppering each others’ sets, stepping off the stage to perform in the round, and just smiling a whole lot. Although my friends who bring in the acts have a keen ear for what works (old standards and new exciting acts), I think I would come no matter who was playing.
…So who did play?
These guys: Matthew & The Atlas
Matthew & The Atlas was the best new artist I saw at the festival. I’d written about their song “I Will Remain” many months ago, and listened to it probably a hundred times since then. I have these days where I just park on their MySpace, and blearily stumble out of it three hours (and the same four songs on repeat) later.
Rising out of the same Communion folk scene in London as their peers Mumford and Sons (who attended both Matthew & The Atlas shows I saw), Matt Hegarty’s smoky dark voice is wonderfully evocative, like it knows of sorrows that I haven’t met yet – and I’ve met me a few. It quavers with some echo of ancient wisdom, if that makes sense — like a wizened wizard lives inside this young man. Weird/magic. Plus there are banjo and handclaps and accordion, and prominent female harmonies and countermelodies. I promptly bought all three of the EPs they had for sale after the show. It’s been too long since I’ve let myself do that. Take me back to when the night was young, and another song was sung. I Will Remain – Matthew & The Atlas
Worth waking up for
Two morning sets blew the early-riser Telluride crowd away, and both happen to be two of my personal favorites. The Head and The Heart were the first act I saw at Telluride this year, a fresh and crisp noontime set on Thursday, while Joe Pug played even earlier the next day, while the dew was still on the lawn. There may be nothing nicer in this world than hearing Joe Pug’s harmonica ringing out at 10am on a clean and bracing mountain morning, or watching THATH stomp and laugh and echo those three-part harmonies back off the rocky mountains all around us. Both acts did a fantastic job of converting the audience all around me with their smart songwriting and contagious passion for music. Previously unknown to most of the seasoned bluegrass crowd, I heard both names on everyone’s lips for the duration of the festival.
Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (how do you not have this song yet?! get it)
Looks like he would win a knife fight
This was my first experience seeing Steve Earle live. I deeply respect his music and songwriting, but had never before witnessed his live set. He performed with his wife Allison Moorer (“did I marry out of my league, or what?!” he asked), and I was surprised at the soft incisiveness of his performance. He looks hardened, but life seems to have worn off the painful edges and left this rich and gorgeous beauty in his music. I foresee myself entering a large Steve Earle period.
Amazing ladies unite
And YEAH, I got to see some of the most amazing women in my musical lexicon all in one weekend. I was mesmerized by Emmylou Harris (as I stood next to Marcus Mumford for it, both of us just beaming at her folksinging glory), then Patty Griffin just dropped on in unannounced for the Sunday morning gospel hour. Griffin has written some of my absolute favorite songs, including “Mary” (which KILLS me, EVERY single time) and “Top of the World.” She performed “Heavenly Day” — and it was.
Hearing the silvery-voiced Sarah McLachlan both made me feel very, very fifteen again, but also reminded me how many songs she has written that I’ve loved and not listened to in forever: “Path of Thorns (Terms),” “Good Enough,” “Hold On” — I surprised myself with the quantity of singing along I was doing. Her performance was strong and vibrant, and induced at least one of my 20-something year old male friends to go home and download her greatest hits album at 3:00am. But I won’t name names.
I would study vocab cards every night for you, Colin
Let’s just set this straight. Even though I know that frontman Colin Meloy of The Decemberists is happily married to a talented lady and has a kiddo, I could stand all day blossoming under the quenching rain of his perfect vocabulary. I’m a sucker for smarts and wit. It leads to marvelous music, and their show was a delight. Surveying the Telluride crowd, he praised us: “each man more rugged than the next, each woman more sundressed and sunkissed than the next.”
All the songs from The King Is Dead (one of the best albums of 2011 thus far for me) seemed custom-penned to be performed in a setting like Telluride. It is the rootsiest of the Decemberists albums for a while, maybe ever, and the harmonica and fiddle felt right at home. Bela Fleck joined Colin for a (fake) dueling banjos challenge (to “win Telluride”), while Benmont Tench and Jerry Douglas also came out for the final song, a cover of “When U Love Somebody” by The Fruit Bats.
I don’t know why I thought that Mumford and Sons was not going to impress me again. So I’m figuring: I first saw them at SXSW 2009, at a small but hyper-potent daytime set at Maggie Mae’s outdoor stage. Having already been smitten by their songs, I fell instantly for their live show: “I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.” I named that set one of my favorite concerts of SXSW and the entire year. Last year at Telluride, they completely blew me away again – their very first show on Colorado soil, and everyone in the Sheridan Theater was singing at the top of their lungs, stomping so hard the floorboards shook. It felt like a secret exploding. I still get chills to think of it.
I was blind to my jadedness that assumed since they are huge on the radio now, since everyone seems to know their songs, that somehow their live show would have changed, becoming more diluted and sterilized. I could NOT have been more wrong, or more arrogant perhaps, to think so. They were completely incredible, playing in the pouring rain on Sunday night. It was the last show I saw (sorry, Robert, we had to get home ahead of the snow), and one of the most memorable. As the Punch Brothers played their set before the Mumfords (and covered Josh Ritter!), a frigid, steadily-increasing rain fell without ceasing, running in rivulets between my shoulder blades and dripping off the ends of my sweater sleeves. All the smart people pulled out their ponchos (me: not smart) and the audience turned into a sea of plastic primary colors. We shivered and were absolutely miserable.
But when Mumford & Sons took the stage, the crowd galvanized into one teeth-chattering supernova, singing with our heads back (“and Iiiiiiiii will hold on hope, and Iiiiiiii won’t let you choke / …and Iiiiiiiiii’ll find strength in pain and Iiiiii……”), dancing our frozen asses off. Not only was their set terrific (including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Abigail Washburn coming out to play along), but they still retain all the passion that made me love them in the first place.
For someone who has played as many shows as these guys have, it was truly something exceptional. I saw our rain-soaked joy reflecting back off their faces, and it was a wonderful way to end Telluride 2011.
Wake up kids: today is the Christmas, birthday, and Valentine’s Day of the indie music world all rolled into one. Record Store Day is in its fourth year today, and you would be smart to head down to your local independent record store to celebrate the vibrant role they all play in keeping good music alive. There are also a slew of Record Store Day exclusives being offered today, so maybe break that piggy bank to take with you as well.
In the spirit of celebrating everything that’s right about Record Store Day today, Fuel/Friends has a special giveaway pack for one lucky reader.
To note all the excellent new releases that will be available today for the first time, the first item in the pack is the debut record from The Head and The Heart on vinyl. Sub Pop is releasing their album today, now remastered and with “Rivers and Roads” on it, with expanded liner notes / sweet art. You know by now why I like them; or you can read what I wrote for Sub Pop. Can’t wait to hear the record on warm, crackly vinyl.
The second item in the gift pack is to note all the re-releases coming out on vinyl today. For the first time, Matt Costa‘s 2006 debut record Songs We Sing is coming out on vinyl through the good folks at Brushfire Records. This is a sunny acoustic gem of an album that will serve you well all summer long, also one that will sound great on vinyl.
And finally, Fingerprints Records in Long Beach –a terrific independent record store– is contributing a signed poster from the in-store they are doing today with Brett Dennen. I bet your local record store is having musicians play amidst the stacks today as well.
To enter to win the Fuel/Friends RSD 2011 prize pack, leave me a comment telling me what you are doing today and why. I’ll pick one winner at the end of the weekend. I am in Chicago, so a whole new city beckons. I have my Reckless Records tshirt to guide me.
Two weekends ago on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we recorded the very first Fuel/Friends Chapel Sessions in an empty stone church sanctuary, something I have been wanting to do for years now and never had the help I needed to make it happen. The Head and The Heart and Kelli Schaefer filled those colossal stone halls with a sound that was so huge that I kept feeling like I was drowning.
The Saturday afternoon before the house show, I rousted Jon, Josiah and Charity from my couch and coaxed them over to the historic Romanesque halls of the Shove Chapel on the campus of the college where I work, and they rewarded us with a profusely vivid, simple, stunning time of musical inspiration. Thanks to my wonderful friends at local Blank Tape Records, the recording gear was running.
After multiple takes of whatever felt right, three of the four songs we ended up with here are not recorded or released anywhere else, and the fourth (“Rivers and Roads”) is reinvented with the richly profound resonance of the piano instead of the fiercely-strummed acoustic guitar that we’ve previously heard. I could not be more pleased with how these turned out. Growing from the fertile feeling of comfort that filled that space, it felt more like a private songwriting session than a concert.
It was a session permeated, for me, by a flooding sense of luckiness. There were only three of us non-participants sitting in that sanctuary watching the three of them play, their instruments and voices reverberating off the old stones and the stained glass. You can hear it on these recordings, the dusty space in the air as the light streamed in. I have a strong intuition that this band is going to be significant to a much larger audience, as they have been to me and so many of you. The three of us sitting in the pews kept just looking at each other across the room; we couldn’t believe how heady it felt when the moment resonated and the chords struck and the harmonies fit like keys and locks, or fingers interlaced, or an embrace.
After the session when I hugged each of them, they were sweaty and elated — clearly electrified from the moment we all felt hanging in the air all around that Saturday. Listen.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART ::
FUEL/FRIENDS CHAPEL SESSIONS
In The Summertime
In its purest essence, this is a song about the certainty of love, and the undeniable beauty when you just know. Some things you just know. Josiah wrote this song in the green room in Memphis before their show with Dr. Dog last month. At the beginning of our session while we were setting up mics and cords, and the band was exploring the gorgeous setting we found ourselves in, Josiah sat down at the massive black piano that was on the stage, and started to pound out these chords, then launched into the words, “Lord, give me to the one that makes me whole…“ There is a traditional structure here that made me first think it was an old gospel or hippie-church song, but I soon realized it was all his.
It was one of the first times he had played it for his bandmates, and Jon walked over with his guitar and started feeling out the strum of the chords alongside Josiah, gauging the building ferocity as Josiah’s voice strengthened and cracked, smiling at Josiah so that his eyes crinkled. As I stood there, I could almost see the bluish-purple energy crackling between the two of them when things hit just right. Then the sad sweet song of Charity’s violin pierced across the stage as she felt out the parts where it wound and fit into this new song that they created there. When they recorded it a bit later in the session, her last notes sound like a deep cold river and make it hard to breathe.
Chasing A Ghost
This is a new song that readers first started emailing me about just in the last few weeks; the band closed the Chicago show encore with this one, a heady and molasses-sweet song with Jon on lead and the duetting “oooooh”s sweetly shading in the colors. The song has the flickering warm campfire glow of an old country lovesong, ballasted with Jon’s raspy warmth that commands notice. The lyrics detail the struggle to not fall in love with someone you’ve already kinda fallen in love with, the jumping without a rope to catch you.
There’s a point at 2:30 where everything else cuts out and Jon belts “and I am falling, falling for you…” and it shot chills up my neck, both when we recorded it and again now each time I listen to this.
From what I understand of this song, it’s an older one, based on words penned by an old friend of Josiah’s. This is the same one I have been calling “Attic Ladder” or “The Seat Beside Me” for several months now since I first heard it; I love the weight of classicism and the delicateness woven throughout it. It feels very ancient somehow, timeless. As they played this song, Jon slid behind the piano and started feeling out those little piano fills you hear in between the guitar picking, for the first time. This weekend as we listened to it, my friend Michelle pointed out that the piano cadence that Jon made up sounds like the ladder referenced in the song, the up and down.
There’s a direct contrast between “you are in the seat beside me” (I picture driving in a car, knee close enough to touch) and “you are in my dreams at night.” It is a wonderful thing when the actual aligns with the nighttime meanderings of our dreams.
There is also so much resonance in me with the line about how this is “not the last time, we are learning who we are, and what we were.” Oh, we all are. This is a song for that.
Rivers and Roads
There was a Daytrotter session once with The Tallest Man on Earth where he sang his song “I Won’t Be Found” completely on piano. The first time I heard it I literally stopped dead in my tracks, riveted. That also happened with the pendulous sadness that “For Emma” absorbs when Bon Iver plays it on piano, and it’s the same way I feel about hearing this song reinvented with Josiah on piano, and Jon and Charity crowded in closely behind him, over the building chords.
It’s an undeniably great song either way but, wow, this version has my number and stole my heart; I think the piano is my favorite instrument. The tinkly top notes on the piano towards the end (after the “rivers ’til I reach you” lyric) come from Jon leaning in over Josiah’s shoulder to plink out those shiny accents. And inbetween the tapping of toes, those harmonies on the last line of this song create one of the most chill-inducing moments of the entire session — you can hear the echo and feel, truly, like you are at church. A benediction and a blessing, a hope of paths that will continue to cross. Oh, and Charity also completely knocks it out of the park on her verse here. She leaned back and opened her chest to the heavens.
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel." —Hunter S. Thompson
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