An Artist Who Even Had Levon Helm Play On His Albums
This review includes a parallel look at the studio album Eden and Bow’s first live album, Live at the Chandler–recorded at the sold-out Chandler Music Hall in Randolph, Ver., on January 19, 2013, where the band showcased the entire Eden album in sequence.
From its opening fiery guitars and banjos the newest Bow Thayer album Eden solidifies Bow’s place in Americana-roots-folk-rock music. Applying his signature vocal style and songwriting, Thayer hits another musical ball out of the park in a highly energized album that fits into the melodic Little Feat-Hot Tuna-the Band tradition. This new studio album was co-produced and engineered by the Grammy Award-winning Justin Guip.
Bow Thayer and his band, Perfect Trainwreck, have been praised by American Songwriter as “the best artist to come from New England in recent years,” and I agree. Never at a loss for providing just enough tease in the structure of the tunes, Eden echoes the expressive delight of what Thayer does best: playing music with the enthusiasm of an artist who has the talent and respect for the genre he mines, while injecting his own passion throughout.
The first track, “The Beauty of All Things,” is the perfect live opener. Less than 16 bars into this song, it convinces the audience this is going to be a special evening of live music. The banjo and acoustic guitars grip and never let go. Back-up vocalists lend a full measure of support and, with equal power in his vocals, you can tell that Thayer is possessed by the exhilarating arrangement and enthusiastic performance of all the musicians.
No matter how good an album is written and recorded, the true test is how it plays live, before an audience. Not all great songs in an artist’s repertoire play well live. Why? Who knows? Many of Elvis Presley’s fans asked why he never sang certain songs in his live concerts and, in a candid, rare interview years before his passing, he let his guard down and told an interviewer that there were certain songs he never felt came across effectively in a stage performance. Presley must have been right because the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia echoed the same opinion in regard to some songs that were played rarely, or not at all, during Dead concerts. They were indeed good songs; they just didn’t have the magic that made them good performance songs.
Thayer doesn’t have that issue with this collection. Surprisingly, I discovered between these two albums that Bow Thayer & Perfect Trainwreck play these tunes live, remarkably close and faithful to the studio versions.
All the nuances, intricate notes, and feeling are not lost in the live performance. They are all there, woven together as if the studio album were being played for the audience. That special relationship between the musicians and those in attendance is not lost. It’s all there. The music is tight, whimsical, with not a musician out of place. No one is jostling for space, no one is playing too slow or rushed. The atmosphere is filled with excitement.
The haunting title track “Eden“ is energetic and instantly memorable. The performance is definitely in the hands of someone who knows the musical four-post ring. Thayer knows when to jab, when to punch, clinch, and deliver the knockouts with confidence. This comes with experience and, most importantly, performing.
The live performance is also not marred by any spacious echo, big room ambiance, or extraneous audience noise. You can hear their presence and enthusiastic responses. The performance is isolated wisely from any interference. This allows a clear indication of how well these musicians interact with each other in a live environment.
There was a time bands played well, it all jelled nicely, and it was accepted. But, this is an effort in clarity, expertise and, most importantly, expressionism. The Band had it during their Last Waltz concert. Elvis had it during his Madison Square Garden and 1973 Hawaiian concerts. The Dead had it when they were firing on all cylinders. Otis Redding had it Live in Europe. It’s live magic you would have to experience to understand.
Some people may believe that Thayer, as good as he is, is basically one-dimensional in the type of roots music he writes and performs. But, one listen to “12 Inch Steel,” and that opinion would be eradicated. It’s pushing the envelope time–the way Neil Young would when he explored music in Trans and later Rust Never Sleeps. Young always was one of the most diversified, experimental songwriters who ever walked into a studio with a guitar. Thayer is not far behind. He is not shy about shaking the soda bottle and then opening it to see what happens.
But, does this music play out live?
Thayer’s voice reminds me of ultra-Christian rocker Steve Taylor on “12 Inch Steel.” Taylor was famous for his aggressiveness in tunes like “Jim Morrison’s Grave,” and Thayer certainly, without knowing it, has tipped his hat in Taylor’s direction. His voice is sharpened like a chisel. It’s an excellent slice of how a great roots musician can rock. Fiddle player Patrick Ross smokes the live version, too. Anyone who got up to go to the rest room must have come back, hopefully zipped, for this one–a real showstopper.
Having excellent intuition for pacing, the band continues the concert with a slow, moody, compelling “Parallel Lives” which, like early King Crimson compositions, has several layers. The tune includes subtitles: “Big Brass Band Theory,” “Carbon Creatures,” “Joy Ride,” and concludes with “No Defense,” which slowly changes like a chrysalis and takes many musical shapes. This is quite an endeavor.
The audience must have been listening, because it’s quiet as the fiddle and accompanying instruments surround Thayer’s vocals like an ornate frame around a painting. The song progresses into a disciplined musical break that, in itself, is a statement of concern with sensitivity rather than “talking points.” The fiddle is mournful and gripping. Again, the studio version and live version are equally compelling–no energy was lost between the performances. This suggests the artist is committed to his message, and never throws away a tune for the sake of getting to the next song.
Eden is an environmental statement, but not in your face like what politicians and advocates tend to do. There is nothing terribly controversial, though there are thought-provoking moments. There’s an opportunity for listeners to think for themselves, through the poignant notes and melody.
The job of a great musician should be to pose questions. Dylan did it on “With God on Our Side.“ I don’t hear songs like this on commercial radio. The majority of artists seem preoccupied with songs that are all gristle and no substance, all dance and no discipline, words with no potency, music with no melody, hooks with no bite. Meanwhile, a song like “Parallel Lives” does not focus on the singer, because the song is what’s important. For some, it may be too much to take in. For others, it will be like “On the Road” by Kerouac. They will keep coming back to it, to find what they may have missed the first time.
The studio version of “Parallel Lives” has really well-recorded brass to enhance the emotion. This song could very well take its place beside such classically topical, political, controversial statement-songs as Steppenwolf’s “Monster” and John Kay’s “The Wall.” Or, Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John.” The finale is full of gentle notes cascading like water to my ears. This was not merely a song but a musical editorial polished into a high-sheen message. The composition is close to 13 minutes long and it is worth listening to multiple times. Don’t have the patience? Find some. It’s a big production number arranged in a stunning, balanced manner.
“May your dreams have mercy on you….” Indeed.
Up next: “Inside Joke.” The melody approaches from a different direction than “Parallel Lives.” This is a showcase for the brass while the voice is in that rock and roll strain that is so irresistible, surrounded by the decorated notes of a plucking melodic banjo. I guess it’s safe to say this is a banjo-oriented album supported by the unlikely “friends” of trumpet, saxophones, and cellos. It’s a nice, magical combination.
This is what makes these songs so original and fresh–even the Band did not employ much banjo in their music. The vocals never intrude. There are equal measures of milk and whiskey in every song. And, the cross-reference between the studio album and live program is an exercise in true musicianship. Not a note is out of place.
“The Tide,” recedes a little from the sting, and the band once again performs with a different focus. Here, it seems the song is built on banjo and pedal steel with a wonderful, full Hammond organ sound, with its Leslie speakers spinning and building into a tight exhilarating flurry of notes. There is absolutely nothing boring here.
The only criticism I have is that the live album–as good as it is–is a little muddier than the crisp clarity of the studio songs. But, that may be expected. Live is a different animal from studio. In a small setting, maybe a band can capture that studio sound live, but it’s not easy. The equipment is different, the engineers may be different people, the acoustics of the room are different, there are “bodies in the seats” watching, and that plays a role. However, the live versions are faithful to the originals and, if not for the direct comparison, I doubt anyone would notice.
Also, I believe the live version of “The Tide” is better, looser than the studio version. I got more excited listening to it and went back to it several times. The drums are impeccable on the live take. Jeff Berlin is quite a disciplined player here. He creates and lays down a tight percussion that is like the right tie with the right shirt and suit. The audience must have loved it, too, because they were very loud with their appreciation. It’s exciting to hear that response–like a getting a Christmas bonus in your paycheck.
“A Bad Day at the Zoo” is the tune that lightens up the seriousness and allows the musicians to perform with some humor. Bow takes a page from either John Prine’s songbook or Randy Newman’s, with some satirical, sarcastic, yet humorous lyrics: “playing with matches under plastic trees.” “Stare into the mouth of a true believer.”
Nice bass guitar and steady beat on the opening of “Trials,” is like a fat worm on a hook in front of a hungry fish. The tune builds–guitars snake around a solid Hammond moaning under the surface. These musicians are relentless with an aim that’s accurate on the finger-tapping mechanism and foot-tapping gears of your body. Who said you can’t dance to Bow Thayer? The tune is simple but, in the hands of experts, this ear candy will even get someone in a wheel chair to want to stand up and boogie. The pedal steel howls in the distance and the band thunders with this haunting wintry wall of frosty notes. I had to put a sweater on listening to this. It’s like a steam roller at the end, though.
The live version of “Trials” starts off with some cool syncopated beats and hi-hat. The audience’s howl adds gasoline to Jeff Berlin’s fire and it ignites the ears. A perfect jungle rock voice–bluesy and sweaty, down and dirty, snaky and with hints of lycanthropy. Yes, I said lycanthropy. You’d have to be a wolf to sing like this.
Sometimes the less you say, the more is said. This live version is fleshed out. It has moments where it trumps the studio version. It could be that Thayer just discovered it’s a song that works in a live setting and can cook in front of a hungry audience. This is a little performance piece–I can picture the musicians all over the stage like cannibals or natives. Barbara Smith’s saxes reminded me of the dark, powerful, sometimes scary saxophone attack David Jackson made Van der Graaf Generator famous for.
The live version of “Wreckoning” continues with a clean drum intro intercepted by guitars. With a steady, relentless hi-hat and syncopated jazzy drum drive, the tune with Thayer’s otherworldly aggressive voice, clearly shows the diversity of the program. It’s a dark blues Bob Dylan would admire, the banjo reminiscent of the great Paul Rodden–a supernatural banjo player who once performed with Frank Tovey (Fad Gadget) and laid down some incredible banjo licks.
Here, Thayer mirrors that excellence to perfection. What I really enjoy is how the banjo is tuned. It’s got some strange, energetic synergy in it. Couple that with Barbara Smith’s snarling saxes overlaid on this effort, and it’s witchy the way Jethro Tull could be in its most mythological moments. If I had to suggest this tune had any influence, I could only suggest Jethro Tull. Ian Anderson is the only person I know of who had that kind of creativity in rock. The lyrics have that Tull color, flavor, and bite. Thayer doesn’t sing like Anderson and there’s no flute, but it’s all about atmospherics, which are here in spades on this song. The tale is supernatural, the way “Aqualung” was for Tull. This may be my favorite. No one plays and writes songs like this today, with the expertise Thayer displays. Americana music reaches new levels when this degree of performance is engineered. It’s like ten Red Bulls swallowed in one sitting. I’m spent.
“Happy Ending,” is on the other side of the “Wreckoning” spectrum. This is back to the more rootsy and folky tim- to-go-home style of songwriting. The energy level is consistent, on both the studio and live performance. The poignancy and sincerity on this closing tune has the optimism that there will be more to come.
It’s sad that the Band is no longer, that the Grateful Dead are history. But, anyone who enjoyed the fruits of those musicians for all those decades needn’t look far. There are students of that tradition with the right balance of ingredients and understanding of what those musicians had invested their time in. Bow Thayer continues, highly regarded, in that vein.
Garth Hudson, I’m asking you to be on Bow’s next album. Paul Rodden, play some banjo with this fine young man and thrill us. Bruce Hornsby, add some spider finger piano to the next Thayer album. Finally, to the supporting musicians: keep pulling those rabbits from your hats. You should all be proud of the contribution you made.
The packaging for “Eden” is fine, too–a beautiful laminated tri-fold with lyric book, copy reproduced so anyone who lost their eyeglasses can still read it. I am beginning to believe that many independent artists know how to package their music better than the major record companies. Layout and design is by Hello Maseman, with the painting by Alexis Mollomo and photography by Tom McNeill. Take a bow.
Bow Thayer albums can be sneak-peaked on Bandcamp and YouTube.
Disclaimer: Support Independent Artists — The opinion expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression.
John Apice – Contributor – No Depression – May 2014