Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
Hot damn! Just what the doctor ordered. This is serious outlaw, honky tonk, hell raisin’ music. And it should be played loud. All I know is that when I hear that pedal steel, it gets the blood flowing. And there is plenty of steel on Smokin, Drinkin, & Gamblin. Yes, it is very much 1977. That is the golden age of outlaw so ’77 is a good year to target. Craig has that perfect country voice with a bit of twang and a very strong set of pipes. 
Craig hails from rural Illinois, although his voice and music put him somewhere in West Texas. He is no stranger to country music, as he played in a band with his dad at ten years old. He grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry through a faded radio signal. Those are the roots of the tree but the branches spread a little further, crossing into gospel and blues territory.
This release is not for the faint of heart. This music is rowdy and tends to elicit thoughts of rowdiness and throwing caution to the wind. If you can handle that, than have at it. No song encapsulates that rowdiness like the shack shakin’ Redneck Sonsabitches (Track 4). This song is a lament about the division between the real musicians and the music row establishment in Nashville. And it depicts it beautifully, both the words and music. With a little more feedback and electric guitar, this could be a punk number. It has all of the aggression and speed. Hell, it is a punk song already.   
Yes there is plenty of swagger on this release, but Craig managed to slip in a few very sensitive and heartfelt ballads. You Saved Me From Me (Track 5) is a heavy emotional number from the opening note. The acoustic guitar intro let me know that this song was going to be very introspective, and it is. This song is about redemption. I am not sure if Craig is talking about a higher power, a true love, his kids or that and maybe more. The point is this song is interchangeable and all of us can relate. Everybody needs someone or something to guide them from the dark side. 
Let’s take a break from the melancholy music and get back to the foot stompin’. On Smokin, Drinkin, & Gamblin (Track 1), Craig channels the spirit of Waylon and sings about his former life of smoking, drinking, and gambling. This is another song that deals with some serious content without glorifying it. The music doesn’t give any indication of the lyrical content. It all works perfectly together and is another reminder that life is full of paradoxes. 
This is another album where I am a little late to the dinner table. But there is still time because Smokin, Drinkin & Gamblin has a very long shelf life. Add it to the list of amazing releases in 2018. And one that belongs in a good country music collection. 
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Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
This came out in January so I am a little late. But this album is so good that it needs to be heard. This is true classic country both in musical stylings as well as the song topics. This is true tear in your beer country. With song titles like Bar Fight, Bullies Win Again, Frail Shadow, End Of The World, etc., you know this is going to be a multi tissue listen. Maybe I like tragic stories or maybe misery loves company, I don’t know. What I do know is this, I Want To Believe is absolutely irresistible. 
Let’s begin at the beginning with the classic in the making, Bar Fight (Track 1). It isn’t what you might think by the title. The bar fight is Nathan fighting himself and his demons. Let’s overlook the musicianship for a moment, which is absolute perfection. I want to focus on the lyrics. This is definitely one of those tissue moments:
I lay in bed, nurse my aching head,
I earned in a bar fight,
I lose to my demons most every night,
Talking to spirits,
That tell me to have some more wine.
It really doesn’t get any better than this. Talk about man versus himself. I stated I would get back to the musicianship and I am a man of my word. The instrumentation is blissful. Nathan and the band know how to evoke every bit of emotion in their playing. They know there way around a sad country song pretty good. This is not uncharted territory. 
The sadness continues. Take the next classic in the making, Frail Shadow (Track 4). When the song first began, I thought it was a cover of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere because that iconic intro also graces Frail Shadow. This is song is superbly written and played. And Nathan’s singing is absolutely soulful and oh so real. I can’t say enough good things about this number. You really have to listen for yourselves to truly appreciate the greatness. 
Just when you start to reach for that third tissue, Nathan lightens up the mood with the rocker Roswell (Track 7). The guitar is Chuck Berry style rockabilly and it is the perfect call. I am still completely impressed by the strong lyrical content on the album in general and especially on this song. This is a road song and makes me feel like taking the car out for an eight hour spin and listen to this song on repeat. Not the whole way. I do need variety. 
Speaking of variety, this is the type of diversity that a good record collection needs. And you just can’t have too much classic style country in a collection. I Want To Believe is destined to become a cornerstone album for any real country music fan. Certainly one of my best for 2018. Nathan really topped his other great albums and created his best work to date. 
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Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
This gets a WOW right up front. Just stunning song arrangement, writing, musicianship, etc. But then again, we are talking about Paul Kelly. He is the Australian equivalent to Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Nature is Paul’s 24th studio album and it is a true game changer. I will get back to that shortly. 
Some of the most powerful forms of protest are ones that had unintended benefits or consequences. Paul Kelly’s Nature falls into that category. I don’t know if that is how this collection was intended, but that is my takeaway. By singing songs about nature, this took on a purpose that is different from the rest. Not only is it sonically pleasing, but the words are so sharp and poignant that they can cut glass. Paul just wants us to think about subjects like animals, seagulls, mushrooms, and rivers. And by thinking about these subjects, maybe just maybe, we will see the error of our ways. Not at all different than the warning we all got from The Lorax years ago. 
Some of the songs are so weightless and cerebral, the have a heavenly quality. Just take one listen to Morning Storm (Track 8) and you will see the light. The guitar effects are so comforting, I just want to savor this moment. It is the equivalent of a warm blanket on a cold night. The feeling of uncertainty and danger from a bad storm is also present. The song starts off softly, but definitely has that stormy feeling as it progresses. The thunder sound effect definitely adds to the atmosphere. 
God’s Grandeur (Track 11) has that “British Invasion” feel to it. Not the vocals as much as the instrumentation, tone, and tempo. This is another non protest, protest song. Not preachy at all, just provokes thought. The lyrics and backing vocals are gorgeous. I wanted to say heavenly but because of the song title, I resisted. I guess the cat is out of the bag.  
To round out the album is the absolutely stunning number, The Trees (Track 12). No, this is not a Rush cover. This is an original composition by Paul Kelly. This song is not complex, but the beauty is actually in its simplicity. The song’s intro and outro seem to be very similar. It works perfectly on this number. It’s such lovely ear candy that two times isn’t nearly enough. Good thing for rewind. 
This is definitely a must have for 2018 and beyond. I have listened numerous times as of this writing and I still cannot get enough. If you are not familiar with Paul Kelly, you should get acquainted. This is a great entry point into the Paul Kelly catalogue. It also happens to be one of my tops for 2018. 
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Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
Very solid third offering from The Nouveaux Honkies. This is a difficult release to classify since they really cover so many different styles from classic country, folk, rockabilly, and rock and roll. The Nouveaux Honkies are comprised of Rebecca Dawkins on violin and vocals and Tim O’Donnell on guitar and vocals. Vocals are certainly their strong suit. Not to say that the other elements are not good, because they are. But what really sets this band apart from the other man/woman duos are the strength and beauty of the vocals. The duo has become smitten with the Smokey Mountains and made Knoxville, TN their home base about two years ago. 
The first song on this collection that caught my ear was a cover of the Jimmy Webb classic, Wichita Lineman (Track 3). Most people are probably familiar with the hit version by Glenn Campbell in the late sixties. What distinguished this version, beside the stellar vocals is the musical arrangement. The space and atmosphere presented by the Honkies completely transforms this song into almost an improvisational jazz piece from a pop song. The guitars and fiddles and spellbinding and work themselves beautifully into the song. And add the horns and you have a winning trifecta. 
I like twists and turns, to some degree. I got a real surprise when I heard the title track, Loud In Here (Track 11). I expected this song to be a real  rock and roll hootenanny. Much to my surprise, this song is introspective with a variety of heavy themes going on. This song covers a lot of real estate in four and a half minutes with such topics as loneliness, heartbreak, isolation, and grief. “Something’s got to die to make room for something born”. That’s heavy!
If you are a fan of the male/female dues like me, you will over this album. It’s all there: good writing, exceptional vocals, and phenomenal playing. What are you waiting for? 
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Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
This is the first time I have been to the new Union Craft digs and let me say, I am impressed. The venue itself is very industrial and has a nostalgic feel to it. All that metal and austerity is tempered by the positive energy inside. Even with all the cold steel and concrete, the venue is warm and inviting. The staff couldn’t be more accommodating and the patrons all seemed to be quite friendly.  
The concessions are of the highest quality and for a very reasonable price. My friend, Marc Sinofsky, accompanied me to the show. We decided to get a beer. The beer prices were great! Five to six dollars per pint. For a live music venue, that’s astounding. Also, they have a self serve water station with normal sized cups! And food. We didn’t eat because the line was quite long. But, the food looked fantastic. People around us were eating hand made fire roasted pizzas that looked delicious. What I am trying to say is Union Craft thought of the little things that make people feel comfortable and they are still making a profit (I hope). A win win.
Before I get to the music, I want to talk about the lighting and sound. Top notch equipment on both fronts. I don’t know what brand they were, but I know they were good. The lights were LED and crystal clear. The sound was loud, but without any distortion. The sound was like drinking water out of a mountain spring. That’s pretty clean!
Billy Strings may be the front man of this quartet, but without the other three outstanding members, there is no Billy Strings Band. Of course, you have Billy Strings on acoustic guitar and vocals. Then, you have Billy Failing on banjo. Billy is not failing on banjo, he is excelling. Billy also does backing vocal duties. On bass and backing vocals, there is Royal Masat. He is the rhythm section, playing both bass and drums. In baseball, Royal would be compared to the catcher, in football: the center. He is the backbone. Last but certainly not least, Jarrod Walker on mandolin and backing vocals. The mandolin acts as the cherry on the sundae, a necessary element. And let me add that the backing vocals are stellar. Billy Strings Live at Union Craft 3These guys came to play, and play, they did. Playing for a combined two and a half hours. No opening band, just Mr. Strings and the boys searching for the sound. This is called acoustic music, but technology plays a very important part in both the sound and lighting. The psychedelic colored oils on the overhead projector have been replaced with state of the art lighting that actually creates a light show on the walls or makeshift movie screen. Billy is very technologically savvy and uses different pedals and effects to enhance the sound. It is apparent that in addition to entertaining, all of these guys are extremely experimental. 
With the sound, lights, and psychedelic vibe, this was a cross between acid test era Grateful Dead and Sid Barrett era Pink Floyd. This ain’t yer daddy’s bluegrass. No, it’s better. The mechanics and talent are there and so is that sense of adventure and the possibility of achieving lift off. No doubt, lift off was achieved on December 14, 2018 and Captain Billy was at the helm of this cosmic musical space ship. 
Paying homage to their forefathers, it was only fitting that Billy play some Dead. The perfect amount. Just a Deal in the first set and an absolute tear inducing version of China Doll in the second. The harmonies were other worldly.  They took a great song and made it legendary. I sure hope this one stays in the playbook for a while. This is a show with legs, meaning this is one group to be seen over and over. Never the same show twice. Maybe the songs are the same but the improvisation makes each song version unique. 
This is definitely a band made for the road. Their tour schedule already extends pretty deep into 2019. My advice is to see Billy Strings while he is still playing normal sized arenas. Those days are numbered. If you like smaller and more intimate venues, see Billy Strings soon before he really achieves lift off. 
Set 1
The Old Home Place (The Dillards cover)
New Camp
Unwanted Love (David Grisman cover)
Turmoil & Tinfoil
Red Rocking Chair ([traditional] cover)
Southern Flavor (Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys cover)
All of Tomorrow
Dealing Despair
Deal (Jerry Garcia cover)
Love Comes Rolling Down
And Your Bird Can Sing (The Beatles cover)
Set 2
Pyramid Country
Little Maggie (Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys cover)
Living Like an Animal
On the Line
Tennessee Stud (Jimmie Driftwood cover)
June Apple ([traditional] cover)
Hollow Heart
China Doll (Grateful Dead cover)
I Know Your Married (But I Still Love You) (Buck Owens and His Buckaroos cover)
Dust in a Baggie
Set list courtesy of Setlist.fm. Link
Link to Billy’s website

 

 

Reviewed by Bill Tokash
Appalachian artist Tyler Childers is an “overnight sensation” eight years in the making. In 2018, during his “emergence”, he’s played both the Grand Ole Opry and Lollapalooza and had his name mis-pronounced while being named the Americana Music Association’s 2018 “Emerging” Artist. He even recently played with legendary songwriter John Prine on Austin City Limits. His recent take (paraphrased) that he wasn’t quite sure how all this came about, but that it may be best described as someone leaving the back door open while he snuck into your living room seems half accurate.

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Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
Rock and roll with the purity of mountain spring water. Sarah is very sweet, but when she is performing, it is take no prisoners. There is a rawness and authenticity in Sarah’s music that has not been experienced since Lucinda Williams was in her prime. Sarah’s music has a punk rock edge and attitude, even on the slower numbers. The emotion is real whether tempo is fast or slow. (more…)