L-O-C-K-N’: LIVIN’ the life/ON seas of music/ COLORS of the rainbow/Part 4 – Interviews!
Part Four (of four parts)
Lockn’ Festival: LOCKN’ Festival celebrates its fifth year in 2017. Located in Central Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the festival site is halfway between Charlottesville and Lynchburg. According to their website, “We’re a group of dedicated music fans who began this journey in 2013, aspiring to provide the ultimate atmosphere for live music and community to flourish.” It has a reputation for jamming bands, but their roster reflects a wide variety of contemporary musical expression. The festival has been singularly successful in attracting major musical artists to perform year-after-year, in addition to up-and-comers. They have also sought to effect unexpected musical collaborations such as this year’s highly entertaining performance by Gov’t Mule and Ann Wilson.
Profiles in 21st Century Music: More In-Depth looks at some of the Artists of LOCKN’ 2017
Please see Parts One and Two if you haven’t already; Part Four is the last of several portraits (following the snapshots in Part Two and the Warren Haynes portrait in Part Three) of artists I had the opportunity to have conversations with at Lockn’:
Blackberry Smoke is a Southern rock/country rock band from Atlanta consisting of Charlie Starr (lead vocals, guitar), Richard Turner (bass, vocals), Brit Turner (drums), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals), and Brandon Still (keyboards).They have performed throughout the United States, both as headliner and as the supporting act for artists such as Zac Brown Band, ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Really hard-rocking band, rising rapidly with nice songs and biting-hard playing, they provide a symphony of Southern rock n’ roll. They were fresh off a gig on the Colbert show and soon to open for Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule, with whom they have mutual admiration. I met with Charlie and Richard on their tour bus.
Ron: You like doing festivals?
Charlie: Yeah, You see a lot of familiar faces, as far as artists.
R: Is this your first time at Lockn’? Both: Yeah
RT (Richard Turner): Farm Aid C: We’re doing it. In a few weeks
R: What were you on the other night, Colbert? Both: yeah
R: What’s that like. What does that feel like, as opposed to other performances you do?
What is different?
C: None of our fans are there. (all laugh) It’s very stressful. Performing for 3-million people, and you only have five minutes to get it right. And, it’s about five degrees in the room.
RT: Yeah it’s a scientific study that says the colder, it makes people laugh more
R: Is that right?
C: We don’t know. I guess to keep people from sweating, keep them comfortable.
RT: But all these shows are a bit like that. We were on letterman and Leno, same thing. One of the fellows we talked to who had worked Letterman and Leno said that they do that, always keep the temperature at 50 degrees.
R: The sense I’ve gotten is that you’re really taking off right now, maybe on a different plateau, record sales, public, etc., or maybe artistically, do you see yourself at a sort of juncture right now?
C: Its been like that since five years ago. Since the Whippoorwill album, it’s felt like we’re on a slow climb like that roller-coaster ride.
R: Who writes most of the songs. Or is it mostly collaboration?
C: (points to himself)
R: If you had to choose a name for what you do, like rock or jam band or whatever, what would it be?:
C: Just say that we’re a rock-and- roll band from Georgia. Such a tricky question deserves a tricky answer. Like some of those southern bands that were before us, Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Skynard, they all sounded different from one another. So calling us Southern rock is a little tricky But, if people call us Southern rock, that’s fine. They can’t call us a punk band, so they have to call us something.
R: You’ve mentioned the Southern bands. Who would you say were your biggest influences?
C: I don’t think you could say just one. We’re just as influenced by the Stones and Aerosmith as we are, you know, with Allman Brothers or Skynyrd. When we were growing up, rock-and-roll, before it was even considered classic rock, that’s what it was , some of the greatest music to come out, and coming from the South, it made us think some of the Southern bands were as big an anyone else, like Atlanta Rhythm Section
R: Have you been together for a long time? Did you know each other as boys growing up?
C: No, but several of us have been together for 20 years.
RT: Back in the 1900’s. R: I can kind of remember that All: (laughs)
C: It doesn’t seem like we’ve changed all that much. I like to think we’re getting better at making records. We’re more comfortable. It doesn’t feel like we hurry as much. I guess we’re getting old. (Ron laughs)
R: So you’re coming off of this tour, will you be taking a break or not?
C: Not really, we’ll be doing a whole other set of shows in October.
R: Who are some of the other bands you listen to now?
C: Colter Wall, do you know him? R: I don’t think so
C: He’s a young guy out of Canada, 21 or 22 years old. He’s got a great record. But Jason Isbell, Sterling Simpson, they’re all great. Both of the Robinson brothers have great projects right now, Chris and the Brotherhood. JJ Grey, who’s playing today.
C: That’s a great Phil Lesh shirt you got there. Did you get that here? R: Yeah, it’s got a ¾ length sleeve which is kind of cool too. C: (to his partner) I think the Dead invented the cool rock and roll t-shirt.
R: I take it you must know those guys.
C: We know bob, we never met Phil. R: Somebody said you’d played with Bob. C: Yeah, we did a live DVD, we recorded it there in his studio in Marin. And he played with us, which was fantastic.
R: Anybody likely to join you on stage here.
C: We don’t know, depends on who’s hangin’ around when we’re still up there.
C: Has Marcus King played? R: Yeah, he’s playing now. I was just listening to him.
C; We like him a lot.
R: You guys have families waiting for you?
C: Yeah, (pause) lots of children. And, we’ll most likely get in the studio again before the end of this year and start things out.
MIDNIGHT NORTH/TERRAPIN FAMILY BAND
I got to speak with all the members off the talented, young band, Midnight North. These four guys and one strikingly lovely young woman named, misleadingly, gender-wise, Elliott Peck, are from the San Francisco Bay Area. They have quickly become one of my new favorite bands. I just played their records over and over, especially a new favorite tune, “San Francisco Rain” from one of their earlier albums.
The leader of the band is Grahame Lesh. Grahame is the son of Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, and Grahame shreds electric guitar with his dad often. Members of Midnight North also constitute a second band, The Terrapin Family Band. As Terrapin Family Band, they play with Phil Lesh, doing a largely-Grateful Dead repetoire.
One new fan raved about their Lockn’ show: A new fan wrote them on Facebook, “Great, another addiction to add to my list!!!!! Saw you guys at lockn / was so impressed. I would buy your album today if I wasn’t lockn broke!!!! Thank you so much what is the name of the save the kisses song?!?!”
Ron: Did you start playing music as a boy, playing guitar with your dad?
Grahame: Playing with him was later. I mean, there was music all around. My brother and I took piano lessons, as if there was anything else. I didn’t personally try to learn until later, like when I was in high school or college.
R: Those early lessons, was it somebody in the neighborhood, like when I took piano lessons from the lady across the street, or, given your family, was it somebody well-known or famous?
G: It was the local person, it was like, the Suzuki Method, you know. Like, you learn theory, the keyboard, you learn to make the chords. I mean it was something you just had to learn.
R: When did you start guitar?
G: Oh, middle school or high school, something like that, I just taught myself?
R: Did you take any lessons?
G: Naw, I took maybe one lesson. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like piano lessons either. I just can’t take lessons.
At this point, other band members talked about their learning in music, some started with piano, some didn’t have much training, one had voice training early on, another member was classically-trained.
Elliott: (to Grahame) So, you just made all that up by yourself (chuckle)?
R: Elliott, you’ve played with a lot of different people haven’t you?
E: Ah, yeah. R: Who are some of them?
E: Well, there’s Terrapin Family. They’re terrific. (to Grahame) I’ve played a lot with your dad. I’m on the new record with Jason Crosby. And, there’s a record label, Blue Rose, I’ll be doing a solo record with them. Danny Click. Jackie Greene. Bob Weir.
G: Yeah, there’s a lot of us in the Bay Area. We always get together and jam.
R: You’re all in the Bay Area?
Grahame and I then found that we both have lived, as he does currently with his family, on the obscure but lovely San Rafael Canal in Marin County, me on a boat and Grahame in a house on the opposite side of the canal.
R: Are you on tour now?
G: We’re on kind of a one-off. Then, we’ll start out on tour in the fall. We’ll be at Levon’s Barn. A number of places on the east coast. They like us here, so we come back.
R: How often do you play with your dad and with members of the Dead. Well, we are the Terrapin Family Band, it’s a band, and we play quite a few gigs as that band. We play with Bob (Weir) , occasionally, whenever he’s around. And we have guests, Elliot’s actually in the band, but Nicki’s (Bluhm) done gigs with us. We don’t tour that much with them, as my dad doesn’t usually tour. So, we do most of that with Midnight North.
R: And, this was your first time to Lockn’?
G: Yes, for Midnight North it is. I was here at the start, four years ago.
R: Nicki Bluhm played with Terrapin last night? G: Yeah, she hadn’t done those songs, but she’s sat in with us before. Elliott’s done it before.
E: Yeah, I sang Terrapin on the album.
R: I’ve been talking with other bands about biggest influences. What about yours’?
G: Don’t start with me, what about you, Conner?
Conner O’Sullivan, (bass): More genre than individuals, jazz,
Alex Jordan (Hammond B3, lead guitar): Conversational stuff translates into how we play. And, that all translates into the instruments I play and the role I play in the band. As far as Hammond goes, Joey Di Francesco & Bonnie Smith I don’t listen to jazz guitarists as much as horn players. You have to listen to Coltrane, you have to listen to Miles.
E: I Grew up in the Midwest, right outside of Chicago. Heard a lot of blues. My parents always took me into the Chicago Blues Festival. Koko Taylor, I love Etta James. Moving to California, I got more into country, Bakersfield.
G: Yeah, we listened to a lot of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. That led to some of our harmonies. Which a lot of what we do, playing together, singing together; and that sets us apart a bit from a lot of other bands.
E: Yeah, that’s been good, our harmonies, we’ve developed something special.
G: How about you?
C:: Grew up in the same area. Most of my influences, blues-based, but my parents listened to punk rock and Talking heads, so I have kind of an edge.
Nathan Graham (drums): I grew up listening to everybody also. I grew up listening to jazz. My mother was a classical cellist, so I listened to classical. Then I picked up a banjo and learned all the bluegrass standards. I just love Tony Rice and all of that great music. But, then I got into jazz and punk, and now I play drums and get to play with all these great musicians. We’re not a country band, we’re not a jazz band.
A: Were all totally aware of our influences, and we may shift within one song. It’s head space as well as musical space.
R: Anybody currently you’re listening to?
G: A ton of the New Nashville, Jason Isbell , Sturgell Simpson, Hayes Carl, co-headlining with us at Levon’s, covered a couple of songs of his, toured with Twitty, really fun to play with, the best people, they’re our new best band friends. I’ve been digging into the old country and honky-tonk stuff, and when Albert Lee was playing with Gram and Emmylou
G: And, all the musicians we gig with in the Bay Area, putting out so much stuff. Jason Crosby’s band, Mother Pip’s,
R: Do you ever play with Molly Tuttle.
C: Yeah, we play together. I work in the same store with her dad, Gryphon Music in Palo Alto. I see her all the time. I’ll do video sessions with her, and it’s just great. The whole family just shreds! She’s a mean picker, I listen to her all the time. She needs to sit in with us, she’s just the best. Love her new album too.
Great band, doing a generous show as always. I’ve seen them act like they’re never going to stop at shows without a festival schedule. One of my favorite bands, they are not so much bluegrass with a twist as they are a twist with a bit of bluegrass. Finely-written songs with dark edges and lemony joys to them. Had the pleasure of interviewing Anders Beck before their show. I spoke with Anders (pronounced AWNderz), who plays dobro, before he went on stage with Greensky.
R: Is it you first time here? / A: Yeah / R: But, you’d heard about it?
A: Indeed! It’s almost surprising it’s our first time here. I’m mean, it’s our people, you know.
R: Paul’s feeling sick?
A: Oh, yeah, a bit. He’ll be playing. You know, that’s being on tour. It’s fun. But it’s a lot of hard work that can sometimes make you sick. But, yeah, you won’t notice. We’re professionals! (laughs) We’ll drive right through it.
R: Have you played with Phil and Bobby of the Dead?
A: Yeah, we played with Phil at Terrapin Station, his place out there. Phil playing a set with us. It was super fun. It was amazing. We learned his stuff. And, he learned ours. Playing Dead stuff, and having him playing ours. And, listening to what he did with our music. It was amazing. And, standing there, playing his music next to him, and seeing him smile, you know. I mean I’d finish a solo, and I’d look and see this shit-eating grin on his face, was one of the joys of my life. (laughs).
R: Last night I was fortunate, I got to speak with Warren Haynes about his first meeting with Phil.
A: Yeah, I first met Warren, I played music with him, before we actually started hanging out together. We are on jam cruise, and he called me up and wanted to talk about playing together. So, I went up to his room, and we started to discuss tunes. It was amusing, because we just dove into the music, right? He was, like, he’d rather play music with someone and get to know them later. Like having dinner, let’s have dinner later, for now, let’s play music together and make sure we’re cool, you know. (laughs).
R: I’ve been asking the other bands. Have you guys played the late night shows, like Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel?
A: No, we haven’t done any of those. I think the word bluegrass scares them away. They don’t know that we’re cool. (laughs)
R: That’s something that happens with you guys, isn’t it, false expectations?
A: Yeah, it does. They’re expecting bluegrass. And, it’s not. It’s bluegrass instruments, but it’s not, we’re not a bluegrass band, we’re a rock-and-roll band. We’re a song band. And, just because we have banjos and mandolins, we probably get discriminated against, you know? (laughs). But, once you hear us, it’s just music, man. Some say, you should drop bluegrass from your name. We say, no, man, that’s the inside joke, we’re not bluegrass. We’re bluegrass, but we’re also the complete opposite.
R: Are you guys on tour?
A: Well, we just did three days with Railroad Earth. But it was just that. Tomorrow we go home.
R: Could you single out one or more of your strongest influences?
A: Um, for me it’s all over the place. Like with bluegrass. With dobro, I learned from Jerry Douglas, I learned listening to him. But, my other influences, are, like The Grateful Dead and Phish. The music I had my heart in when I was growing up. So, that is, like, my background. You know, I try to play the dobro more like those guys than I do the bluegrass dobro players. And, then I then I listen a lot to Derrick Trucks. I love Derrick. I mean as a musician, I love what he does with his hands. There’s no filter between his soul and his hands, I mean like there’s no impendence gaps. He really, like, shines. I mean, like, he’s a slide player right, but you can feel the emotion in his playing. And that’s always been what I’m goin’ for, you know. You know, like slide guitars. You can do it with those, and saxophones, things where you have breaths and slides, real lyrical stuff, you know.
R: Speaking of lyrical, and lyrics. Paul does most of your lyrics doesn’t he?
A:Paul, yeah, Paul and Dave. Maybe 50-50, maybe a little more Paul. Depends on who’s on a roll.
R: And do you all collaborate musically?
A: Yeah, They’ll bring something to the band, and then we’ll all work to make it a Greensky Bluegrass song. I mean, like, they’ll come and it’s like a singer-songwriter, thing, with an acoustic guitar, right? We turn it into something bigger, together.
R: The Springsteen song, Atlantic City.
A: Yeah, we do that one.
R: It’s not the Springsteen song most bands would do.
A: Yeah, more are now. But, it’s just a killer song, you know. We play it more like the Levon Helm’s version. I mean we play it more like the Band’s version than Bruce’s version. It’s just an amazing song.
R: Did you have any contact with Levon before he passed, played the ramble.
A: No, never met him, unfortunately. We were a little late for that party.
R: Have you played Bristol before, I’m going there in a couple of weeks, again. A: Yup, we’ve played there.
R: Is there anybody you’ve been playing on the bus a lot these days?
A: Some of the guys we’ve been talking about. New bands, I’ve been listening to a lot of Dawes. I like them. Um, what else, let me think. Rayland Baxter, he’s a friend of ours, also an amazing songwriter. I listen to Fruition a lot, they’re friends of ours, but they’re an amazing band. I mean, it’s weird, like they’re my friends, but separated from that, I remember, they’re one of my favorite bands there is. Fruition, yes. Portland, Oregon. Amazing songwriters, and musical as all hell, a great band.
R: Remind me where you guys are from.
A: Basically, Michigan. We’re from all over now, but we’re Michigan-based.
R: Where? A: Kalamazoo, MI, that’s where it all started.
R: You played other festivals this summer.
A: Tons. Every week we’re playing another festival.
R: What are some of them?
A: Well, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, that’s one of my favorites. The Northwest String Summit, that’s another one that I love. And, Rooster Walk, from around here in Virginia, we liked it there, a new one for us, loved it there. Almost too many to think of. I mean we get home Monday, and we say, what the hell happened?
R: Where are you in terms of albums right now.
A: “Shouted” (“Shouted, Written Down, and Quoted”) is the last one, been out about a year. But, we expect to go back into the studio, maybe in the spring. I mean, it’s fun to make albums! (laughs)
R: Going in any new directions lately.
A: Well, it’s always evolving, you know? It’s always a new direction. That’s what I like about our band, there’s not a lot of boundaries. In fact, you know, the one boundary is, like, there are no boundaries. And, we all encourage each other to get as weird as possible, or explore different territories. I mean the improvisational nature of our band is pretty strong, I mean, like, stare over the edge of the cliff musically. See what’s over there, I mean sometimes you fall. Sometimes, there’s a good view.
R: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I’ve always been drawn to the subject matter in your songs. I mean, like, it’s rather dark and kind of edgy. It’s like, wow, that’s an unusual subject for a song. A: Yeah!
R: So,it is a conscious thing for you guys in the writing, something you strive for.
A: Yeah, I think there is a kind of dark edge in the writing. Something with darkness there. Which is something that makes us unique. I mean bluegrass is something with subject matter that is often death and murder and shit like that, right? But, it’s happy chords. So, like, you’re going, hey, wait a minute, what’s going on here? That dark subject matter, that’s something interesting. I mean I don’t need to hear a song about rainbows and something that’s mountains and stuff. I mean, like, I’ll take the real feelings, you know.
A best-laid secret that was a pleasure to discover, a world-renowned group that it seems like no-one’s ever heard of. They were house-band for Carnegie Hall for concerts by Aretha Franklin and other famed guests playing the Hall, have made appearances on most of the late night talk shows, and have many other accomplishments. The band makes eclectic music and genre choices in the music they choose to make. The band is rich in multi-ethnic membership. I spoke with bandleader/founder Martin (pronounced Mar-tine) Perna after his performance. Formed in and mostly from Brooklyn, their colorfully dressed and adorned lead singer, Amayo, was working locally as a tailor, when he was recruited into the band. They have toured 35 countries, played Austin City Limits, and were featured in the Broadway musical Fela!.
Martin Perna: Alright, Yes, this is Martin Perna, of Antibalas. We are here at the Lockn’ Festival on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 at 4:48 p.m., Eastern Time.
R: Would you pronounce your band’s name for me?
M: Anti-balas. It’s a Spanish word. It means bullet proof. Anti … balas. Balas are bullets. Literally, no bullets.
R: Could you describe the band. I read the literature. It makes things sound spiritual and cosmic.
M: Yeah, it’s big band protest music. With roots in West Africa. There it is, a one sentence saying, you know.
R: Are you starting a new tour?
M: Yeah, we’re starting a tour supporting a new record called “Where the Gods are in Peace.” It’s coming out Sept. 15.
R: Any particular background on that title.
M: Yeah, it’s a lyric from one of the songs, and it’s the idea of much of the conflict going on now. It’s a religious conflict. And it’s almost like imagining, maybe, humans aren’t in peace. But, that the gods we believe in are at war with each other, and we’re just fighting these wars for them. And then, the question is, what do we need do to make these gods, Allah, Jesus. How do we make peace between them, you know? Because it’s not happening right now. And I don’t think there’s really any religion that wants to be dodging bombs and living in fear. All the religions that people believe in, it’s all about becoming a better person, you know, living to be your best self, and we’re just asking as musicians, to question, hey, what’s going on here. If you’re truly a Christian, how do you become the best Christian, if you’re truly a Muslim, how do you become the best, peace-loving Muslim, if you’re Jewish or Hindu. There’s something we’re doing wrong here, because the world should look a lot better than it does.
R: Is this album a departure from previous albums?
M: I think so, it’s a little bit more conceptual. Our songs are long-form songs. So, instead of doing shorter songs, we wanted to do lone-form songs, with more movements in each song.
R: Will you be back in Virginia soon?
M: We don’t have anything booked right now, but we should be back in Virginia between now and February. DC, or Richmond, or Charlottesville, or all three. We played all those places many times, sometimes clubs, sometimes festivals.
R: Last time we played Virginia was at Newport News. We played the college there, yeah, Christopher Newport College (University). We played in the big performing arts center over there.
R: Are there any artists or bands that come to mind for you as your biggest influences?
M: Yeah, biggest influence-wise, Fella. Yeah, Fela, from Nigeria. James Brown. Eddie Palmieri, who is still alive, a Latin-American, Puerto Rican piano player and Latin jazz, a pioneer. There’s so many, but those are probably the top three.
Between those three musicians, that’s probably the bones of the music, the structure, the architecture of how the horns and the guitars work together and work off the singer. There’s a funk element. There’s a jazz element. Yeah. And, there’s always a dance element, all of our songs, you can dance to.
But, we’re doing our music, if we’re doing things right, there’s three things. There’s a message. Right, it gets your mind going. What are they saying? Here’s this thing that that I’ve thought about, but I’ve maybe not thought about it in that way. We try to nourish the spirit, you know and evoke joy and togetherness. And, beyond that, and then we try to get the body going, tapping your feet, moving your butt, snapping your fingers, nodding your head. And so, the music is not just a head music, it’s not just a booty music, it’s not just spirit music, it’s all three. So those are our goals, to get the listener, and try to satisfy them in all those ways.
R: Who are you listening to right now?
M: Well, there’s a lot of music out there right now. But, I’m old school. I collect records. The thing on heavy rotation right now at my house has been Fats Waller. (laughs) I mean music, if it’s good, it might be a hundred years old. I mean the Twenties, Thirties, New Orleans music, I’m listening for virtuosity, lyricism, swing, technique, spirit, I mean all of those things. And, a lot of the time, I’m going back into the past. I’m like, there’s good music now, but, like, the golden age of music, when bands, the industry, education in schools, the places where people would go to learn to play good music, they’re fewer and far between these days, you know, and so I find myself just going deeper and deeper back into the history.
I’m listening to a lot of Neil Young, too. On the lyrical end, I mean, his songs are timeless. And, I’m a saxophone player, but I’m learning some guitar. And, it’s just trying to get my campfire repertoire together, and Neil Young songs are great. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to play them, but you got to really dig in and feel them. I mean, they’re epic, and timeless. And, I’m learning “Old Man” right now, I’m learning “Ohio,” “Heart of Gold,” I mean we play a very esoteric and singular music, but we love everything. We’ve been the house band at Carnegie Hall three out of the four times the past four years. (R: Really?!) So this past year, we’re the house band for the music of Aretha Franklin. Two years ago, we were the house band for the music of David Byrne, and the Talking Heads (R: wow!) And in 2015, Paul Simon. So, we’ve gotten to work with everyone from Allen Toussaint, Rest in Peace, to Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top to Judy Collins to Kenny Loggins to Sam Moore of Sam and Dave. And, I’ve been the musical director for that, so I guess, it’s get the whole repertoire together, and as a band, we learn this stuff. And we’ll do it in the original style, or I’ll arrange it like the singer wants to arrange it. Or, we’ll do it our style, I mean, each one is different. So, we’ve been able to rock Carnegie Hall several times in the past couple of years, so that’s been a treat. Yeah.
R: Man, so I take it Lockn’ was aware of you.
M: Yeah, Relix Magazine and the big boss man, Peter Shapiro, we play Brooklyn Bowl a lot. We played the first club he was involved in, Wetlands, in New York City. In ’99-2000. So the people involved in Lockn’, we’ve been fans of theirs, and they’ve been fans of ours. And, I’m happy that we got to do it.
M: Yeah, man, I better catch up with the band, we got to get to a wedding. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, enjoy the rest of the festival.