If there’s a show not to be missed in Houston…
I am very excited to be writing here again for two reasons; 1) I was pleasantly surprised that my “music tastes” write up, which was more self-indulgent than I had planned, was well received, and 2) because it means that I have another reason to sit down and write about something that means more than almost anything else in my life: Music.
The reason this time is much more exciting and focused than my last post, an Austin based band that I never miss when they come to town, MilkDrive, is going to be at Last Concert Café in Houston, Texas on the 16thof December – Friday of next week. Let me preface this by saying that if you did not read my previous post, then you might not know that while I’ve run the gamut of musical tastes, trying to find the best of the best in any genre that I listen to, acoustic strings are my passion. On top of that, I am a big “theory” fan, I love interesting melody and harmony lines; if the music you’re playing makes that unexpected smile creep across my face until I’m grinning like a jackass, then brother, I’m a fan. MilkDrive does just that. The further into each solo they get, the happier I become, so much so that by the end of the show I’d be drunk even if I wasn’t.
MilkDrive is Brian Beken on fiddle and lead vocals, Noah Jeffries on guitar, Dennis Ludiker on mandolin, and the backbone, Matt Mefford on the double bass. While all of these guys are award-winning musicians in their own right, all but Jeffries played together prior to MilkDrive, in the waning stages of a band called South Austin Jug Band. This was where I first heard these incredibly talented musicians. South Austin Jug Band was closer to bluegrass with fast drivin’ songs like “Delerium,” “Long Journey Home” and “Old Settler’s Breakdown”, but they always had hints of many other genres; straight country on songs like “Dark and Weary World” and “She Don’t Care About Me”, blues on songs like “Karma” and “Turnaround,” and my personal favorite, jazz on songs like “Lady Be Good” and “No Baby Swings Like Mine.” All of this variety is what showed me that these were very skilled musicians not in one particular genre but just as music generally.
While still having some of that bluegrass feel, MilkDrive has ventured more into an indefinable genre (indefinable for me at least); their website claims they are an alt-folk-progressive acoustic string band… whatever that is in your mind, they cover it, and so much more. They released their first studio album in April of this year, Road From Home, which takes its name from the lyrics of first track on the album “Dry Creek Inn,” an old Bobby Earl Smith song, which I can only describe as eerie, with verses and solos always brought back home by Beken’s haunting fiddle.
The next few tracks, “Smokeblowers” and “SoHo” are equally unidentifiable when it comes to genre, but that does not keep them from sending the album in a very good direction, leading to a great two part instrumental composition halfway through. Nine of the thirteen songs on the album feature Beken’s versatile vocals, with Jeffries and Ludiker filling the gaps with interestingly harmonic lines, on guitar and mandolin respectively, and also with their harmony vocals. Not to downplay either the vocals or the songs that feature them, in my opinion, this band really excels when it comes to instrumental songs, especially on this album. The interplay of all of their musical lines will help that smile creep across your face just as quickly as it does mine. Songs like (both parts of) “The Ventures of Smiley Bob,” “Changa Chang,” and one of my personal favorites “Fiji” really showcase why these guys play so well together – you can’t make this kind of music unless you are having a damn good time doing it.
Official video for “SoHo”:
On that note, one of my favorite songs which is not on this album, but that I was lucky enough to hear at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck on the 4th of November, is a song called “Kay’s Tune,” which starts with a great mandolin line, played by Ludiker, that draws you in and gets you ready for the talent that follows by every single one of them, leading almost into a sea of dissonance about three quarters of the way into the song, centering around that first mandolin riff, with Beken matching it on fiddle… needless to say listen to it now!Here is one of my favorite YouTube video versions of “Kay’s Tune”:
Prior to their studio album earlier this year, in 2009 MilkDrive released a live album (MilkDrive Live ‘09) which features this song, along with a number of other great songs (mostly written by Jeffries, with one song by Beken, and another by well known violinist Darol Anger: Key Signator). It is a very good example of what kind of performance you can expect when seeing them live; not to mention there is a lot of instrument swapping between Jeffries, Ludiker and Beken, on their albums and in their live show, because they are all well versed multi-instrumentalists.
It does not surprise me that they put out this live album before a studio album because, with Beken and Ludiker as bookends on the stage, their live shows (even during South Austin Jug Band days) are intense, to say the least. While the tremendous talent of every one of these musicians is ever present on “Road From Home,” there is just something about seeing these guys live that can’t be explained unless it’s seen in person. The energy, the talent – both in the written music and the individual improvisation – combined with the fact that the music is itself so infectious, guarantees an amazing show every time. It also doesn’t hurt that they know how to engage an audience and really make you feel like they’re playing for the people there and not just playing for a room of faceless audience members.
I was lucky enough to meet these guys at their last show at The Mucky Duck back in November. I had seen a video of (most of) them playing an old jazz/swing standard, Limehouse Blues from 2007, which featured both Ludiker and Beken on fiddles. The song is a showcase of the incredible virtuosity possessed by both of these fiddlers, and I had wanted to see it performed in person since the first time I watched the video online. So when they took a break before their second set, I took that opportunity to go introduce myself and ask if it was possible for them to play it during their second set. This request went by the wayside when I began talking to Ludiker and Jeffries who are two very friendly guys, indulging my jamming buddy and I by talking about music, touring, and the like, for most of their break. It was not until they returned to the stage, performed one song, then asked for requests for other songs, did I asked again; I stood up and asked/yelled for LIMEHOUSE BLUES! Jeffries looked at Beken and Ludiker, who seemed hesitant, and asked me “you really want that song or do you just want some twin fiddles?” Knowing the toll a song like that can take on a musician who still has to finish out their second set – especially after a great first set (not to mention, knowing Beken was not at his full; something about ocean madness, maybe, from scuba diving… unless I don’t remember correctly) – I happily relented and said “sure twin fiddles would be great.” Then the song started, and it was Limehouse Blues… Talented and a sense of humor, they know how to play to an audience for sure; needless to say it was something else to see them play the song live, especially as well as they did it. Thanks again guys.
Here’s the video that inspired my request (Jeffries is the only Milkdrive member not present, which is a shame because he does this song quite a bit of justice on guitar; but on the other hand it is good to be able to see Mefford front and center, pounding away on that Bass):
Since that show, December 16th could not come soon enough. A week from today (Friday), anyone at the Last Concert Café is in for one helluva show, whether they’ve seen these guys or not. It really is not to be missed, and while seeing them at an intimate venue like the Mucky Duck is great, I can’t wait to see them filling the back patio at Last Concert with the great music and unending energy they always bring with them. Whether you are available to go to that show or not, go to that show!
And for those of you who don’t live in Houston, here’s a list of their current tour schedule (copied from – milkdrive.com):
12/10 – Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, TX
12/16 – Last Concert Café in Houston, TX
12/17 – Kessler Theater in Dallas, TX
1/6 – Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, TX
1/7 – Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio, TX
1/12 – McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston, TX
2/22 – Folk Alliance in Memphis, TN
2/24 – Dosey Doe in the Woodlands, TX
3/10 – Beats on the Basin in Santa Fe, NM
3/24 – RiceGrass III in Fischer, TX