As much as I follow/listen to a certain kind of music, I still sometimes get hit over the side of the head with something new, that manages to sing out “new” and “true” and says “listen to me! you old f—t, you’ll be glad you did.”
And if that new stuff:
- Has content that feeds the brain while moving your feet.
- Has melodies and arrangements that swing new and sweet.
- Are, in few words, dope.
Then, I have new bands to follow. And, so it was this summer when I heard some bands in concert that were new to me. My inner NEON sign flashed: Driftwood, Western Centuries, and C. W. Stone King. The top three newbies in my music-laden pantheon, which drives my train and starts my engine daily.
From Driftwood through the Centuries
I sat-around in a super-entertaining interview with Western Centuries, a cool intro to their genesis, history, and musical ambitions. They are laid-back and funny.
Western Centuries, when performing, as well as on their recent record, Weight of the World, is dynamic and wise in the course of its craggy, country-coursing, rocking roll. Like me, Jim Miller, is no kid, as they say, but leads as the center of talents. Three players comprise the band’s core with a goal to share songwriting and performing equally.
They were so effective that one man they’d known from Merlefest was moved to tears in a performance I saw this summer. “Dr. Jim, so great to see you again. I cried during the first two songs,” he said after the show, “It wasn’t that they were sad songs, I was just so moved at hearing you again!”
You’ll need your GPS with Western Centuries. Ethan Lawton hands over to Cahalen Morrison guitar and lead vocals, while he himself moves to drums. The guys make this shift depending on the songs in the set. It’s a plan I don’t think I’d ever seen before and fits with their intent to share musical responsibilities. It also builds off Ethan’s unusual twin talents of drums and guitar.
Jim is not effusive, more laid back and with an easy going, sarcasm-tinged, wit. Still, you could tell he was struck by the friend/fan’s sentiment. This also put to rest the joke they had later that the band had one fan at least, just one, me. The Dr. Jim designation comes from his degree. Jim’s doctorate is in entomology, which he said made him qualified to treat a friend’s scabby knee during our interview. The Doc’s been in music most of his life, as co-founder of and having played in the iconic Donna the Buffalo band for twenty years, among other incarnations. One of his old friends, Tim O’Brien, sat in for awhile in my interview circle, a trip for me, as Tim and Jim reminisced a bit and discussed what level of gin and tonic led to good pre-performance balance.
The guys in the band met in Seattle where all were living at the time. Ethan’s from there and still hails from Seattle. Jim’s now in upstate New York, and Cahalen has joined Nashville. (The italics are mine; if you ever wanted to form an army of singers, players, and songwriters, you’d go to Nashville.)
Readers & Beer Drinkers
Their songs burn hot but include bluely-painted ballads and lyrics of uncommon interest. “One reporter interviewing us the other day asked if we were trying to be saga, sagat,” “Sagacious,” I offered. “Yeah, sagacious, and we said, no, we’re not trying to do anything, just sing the songs we want to sing.” “And say what you want to say?” I asked. “Yeah, Cahalen wrote most of our songs to date, but we’re now each writing songs. Cahalen reads, a lot, mostly the Bible. We never read. Just eat and drink beer.” (an example of the sarcastic wit at the core of a conversation with Dan and Ethan).
The writer in me asked Cahalen what he reads, “besides the Bible,” I added. “I read a lot,” he said, “mostly except the Bible.” “Like what,” I asked, “as a writer, I’m interested. What were some recent books you’ve read? What are some favorites?” “Well, I like Steinbeck a lot,” he answered. “Gates of Eden,” I asked? Remarkably, he replied, “That’s my favorite books of all time.” I say remarkable because the book is one of my favorites too! Then he mentioned that he’d been reading the Japanese novelist Haruku Murakami these days, huge works, he said, but incredible. I intend to check them out.
Driftwood and Jungle
Driftwood, originally from upstate New York, is a super treat, and gave one of the most dynamic, enthusiastic, and unusual performances I’ve ever seen. The excited crowd was “raising the roof” of the tent I saw them in. Their recent album, City Lights, offers more of the same musical excitement.
Like Western Centuries, Driftwood features thoughtful and truly interesting lyrics. Their instrumentals are wild, with jamming banjo/bass duels and endless, swirling, fiery fiddle solos. Lead vocals by Dan Forsyth and Claire Byrne are unusual and beautiful, his especially in its sometimes fragile expression. Their banjo player, Joe Kellar, a lovely guy, writes most of their tunes, but the others are joining in now.
C. W. Stone King is about a unique an act as I’ve ever seen or heard. He does what I’d say are Black tunes from a bygone day. They seem to border a racist nature, but they also seem not to have that as an intention at all. C. W. just seems to love these songs that are based on his emersion into “jungle songs” and “jungle boogie” and other related explorations into what is apparently part of blues history/culture.
He is white, but his drummer is black as are his two sexy African-American dancers, rhythm players, and harmony singers, dressed in short brown dresses and flowing alongside him stage right. C. W. is funny and off-the-wall, and you never know what eccentric-sounding statement will come next. The stuff is unique and red hot and at other times mellow and loving. I watched as the ladies eyed him carefully, smiles on their faces, as they never seemed quite to know where he would go next.
His latest recording (I believe) is Gon’ Boogaloo, which captures much of the live performance gumbo.
I saw these acts live recently at Virginia’s Red Wing Roots Music Festival and have spent the early summer months enjoying their records. As I prepare to head soon to two other excellent Virginia (& Tennessee) music festivals, Lockn’ and Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, I wanted to share these finds that will be a big part of my listening future.