Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Demi Lovato - Disney's latest teen princess backs up her style with plenty of substance

In the 60s, Motown Records used the slogan “The Sound of Young America” to tout its roster of fresh musical talent as well as the demographic of its target audience. Today that title would most accurately belong to Disney’s Hollywood Records label, which has become the prime launch pad for teenage musical talent aimed at an even younger teen market.

Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers might be the best known artists on Hollywood’s roster, but singer, songwriter, and actress Demi Lovato, who will appear August 21 at the Hershey Park Star Pavilion in Hershey, Pa. and August 22 at the Trump Taj Mahal’s Etess Arena in Atlantic City, is rapidly establishing herself as a legitimate pop star.

Like other young stars in the Disney family, Lovato, who turns 17-years-old August 20, stars in her own Disney Channel sitcom, Sonny With a Chance. But unlike some of her peers, Lovato has always made it clear that music, not acting, is her “first passion.”

Born Demetria Devonne Lovato in Dallas, Texas, Lovato began her acting career at age six on the children's television series Barney and Friends. There she met Selena Gomez, her Disney Channel co-star with whom she remains best friends. Lovato appeared on several television shows and series before landing the role of Mitchie Torres in 2008’s Camp Rock opposite the Jonas Brothers.

For her 2008 debut album Don't Forget Lovato co-wrote several songs with the three Jonas Brothers. The result was rock-edged pop closer in style to Avril Lavigne than Miley Cyrus. Critics took note of the fact that Lovato co-wrote her own material, and her live performances confirmed that her sturdy voice was no studio creation. On stage, Lovato focused more on playing guitar and piano than her dance moves.

On her current CD, Here We Go Again, Lovato takes another step forward. Her singing voice has matured nicely, developing a gritty lower register that compliments her higher range. Although she has a tendency to succumb to the “breathy” delivery that seems fashionable among young female singers, Lovato’s phrasing is leagues ahead of that of most of her peers.

In “World of Chances” she sings “You’ve got a face for a smile, you know / A shame you waste it when you’re breaking me slowly / But I’ve got a world of chances for you…/ Chances that you’re burning through” and the heartbreak is palpable.

“I wanted to make an album that parents would enjoy listening to while their kids are playing it in the car with them,” Lovato said in a recent telephone interview. “It's nice because now people get to see what I'm all about. This album is more me and hopefully they like it.”

Here's Lovato in the music video for "Here We Go Again":

Here We Go Again features plenty of high-energy pop-rock tunes (notably the title track, “Solo,” and “Everything You’re Not”) for Lovato’s younger fans to bounce along with, but the most pleasant surprises on the album are the songs on which Lovato stretches out stylistically.

On “Every Time You Lie” she shows off her sassy side on a sultry, R&B-flavored kiss-off to an ex-boyfriend, then charms with her sweet, romantic side on “Falling Over Me.” On “Got Dynamite” Lovato channels her idol Kelly Clarkson with an edgy rocker that would fit comfortably on Clarkson’s latest album.

The aforementioned “World of Chances” is a mid-tempo ballad Lovato wrote with John Mayer that could be embraced by both Top-40 and Adult Contemporary radio. Lovato says collaborating with Mayer was “a dream come true.”

“One of the best parts about being in this industry is getting to meet and work with the people who have inspired you,” she says. “I was intimidated at first, but he’s such a down-to-earth guy that when we started writing I forgot who he was and just appreciated his music. He made it really comfortable.”

One of Lovato’s favorite songs on the album is “Stop The World,” which she co-wrote with Nick Jonas. “I put a lot of personal things into it,” she says. “The song is basically about like falling in love with someone you shouldn't fall in love with, which is what I tend to do.”

Another personal song is “Catch Me,” a pretty acoustic ballad with a string section, reminiscent of the Plain White T’s hit “Hey There Delilah.” Lovato calls the song, about the pleasures of falling in love, her “baby” since she wrote it alone in her room. She says she was thrilled when producer John Fields told her it was good enough to make the album.

Although she always intended Here We Go Again to be more personal and reflect her maturity, Lovato seems keenly aware that her core audience might not be ready to grow up too soon.

“You can’t do that overnight,” she says. “You don’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I don’t want to be teen star anymore. I want to be respected as an adult.’ I think it’s something that you start working on at an early age.

“Since I do want to have a long-lasting career, I want my fans to grow with me,” she adds. “So with the projects that I take on and the roles that I take, I ask myself if they are appropriate for younger audiences – ‘Is this something that is a little more mature, but not so much that it will scare my fans away?’”

With that in mind, a few songs written for Here We Go Again were left on the shelf, including one about her relationship with her estranged biological father entitled “For the Love of a Daughter,” which Lovato wrote with William Beckett from the emo-band The Academy Is.

“When I’m a little older, maybe my fans will be ready,” Lovato says. “But this album really expresses my writing and outlook right now.”

Lovato’s Hershey and Atlantic City shows are two of the final stops on her summer tour. She’s set to film Camp Rock 2 in September, followed by another season of Sonny With A Chance, and her third album after that. It’s a busy schedule, even for an energetic 17-year-old who hopes to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music one day.

“I wish I had more time off or more time at home,” Lovato admits, “but you’ve got to work hard to get to where you want to be.”

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Ten Underappreciated Artists You Should Hear

Lennon Murphy sounds as good as she looks

For every band, artist, or group that enjoys a successful career in music, there are literally dozens of others who fail to achieve that goal. Many of those fail not because of lack of talent, but because, as most music professionals will tell you, hits often have as much to do with luck and timing as with talent and ability.

Most music fans can think of one or two bands or artists that should have enjoyed more widespread success, but for whatever reason, did not. Here are ten artists and bands that you may not have heard of, but who are definitely worth hearing.

Danielle Brisebois: If you’re old enough to remember “All In The Family” and it’s spin-off “Archie Bunker’s Place,” you might remember child actress playing Archie’s niece, Stephanie. That child actress was Danielle Brisebois, who had a variety of stage and screen roles before turning her attention to music.

Even if you’ve never heard Brisebois, you probably have heard her music. Her songs have been recorded by Kelly Clarkson, Natasha Bedingfield, and Kylie Minogue, among others. Brisebois has released only three albums (one of which is mostly a compilation of the other two), but if you like upbeat, melodic, somewhat quirky pop-rock, both 1994’s Arrive All Over You and 1999’s Portable Life are well worth checking out.

Here's the official website for Danielle Brisebois: www.daniellebrisebois.com

Cock Robin: This duo, consisting of singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Peter Kingsbery and singer and keyboardist Anna LaCazio, have enjoyed chart-topping success in nearly every major country in the world except the United States. Here in the States, the band only cracked the Top-40 once, with the 1985 single, “When Your Heart Is Weak.” They released three albums in the 80s, but reunited in 2006 for I Don’t Want To Save The World.

At it’s best, Cock Robin’s melodic music has a dreamy, almost etherial quality. Fans of Coldplay’s first album might find draw similar pleasure from Cock Robin’s 1985 eponymous debut. Check out the band’s site here.

Here’s Cock Robin performing “Just Around the Corner”:

Donnie Iris – Iris is often mistakenly considered a “one-hit wonder” by casual fans. His best known song, “Love Is Like A Rock” was his only Top-10 hit, but “Ah! Leah!,” “My Girl,” and “Do You Compute?” also cracked the Top-40.

At their best, Iris and his band, The Cruisers combine the best elements of power-pop and arena rock – think Cheap Trick meets the Raspberries. Now in his 60’s, Iris has never stopped making music. His 2006 release, Elwood City, proves that he hasn’t lost his touch. Here's his official site.

Liz Larin: Singer-songwriter Liz Larin has been favorably compared to artists like Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, and Liz Phair. She is one of the most celebrated musicians on the Detroit music scene. In recent years, "Detroit's Goddess of Rock," has dominated the Detroit Music Awards, beating competition from artists like the White Stripes and Eminem.

She was once signed to Atlantic Records, and her 1993 album, Test Your Faith is well-worth checking out. Since then, she has successfully gone the DIY route, releasing five albums on her on Bona Dea label since 2002, including her latest, the 2008 trio Stella 13, Blue Circus Life, and Luster Kraft. You can order them, or find out more about Larin at her official site.

Here’s Larin and her band performing a live version of “Better, Better”:

Lennon: Singer-songwriter Lennon Murphy had the bad luck of having her major label debut album, 5:30 Saturday Morning, released on September 11, 2001 – yes, that 9-11. Whether the stylistically ambitious album (which ranged from tender piano ballads, to hard-edged metal tunes) would have found an audience under different circumstances is hard to say. Lennon’s strong songwriting and vocals shine throughout, and garnered more than a fair share of critical acclaim.

Since going the independent route, Lennon has released three additional albums, and is working with a new metal band called Devil’s Gift. Here’s her official website.

Machan: Machan Taylor has been singing professionally since she was 17. Over the years she has performed live or in the studio with a wide variety of jazz, rock, and pop artists, including Hiroshima, Sting, Pat Benatar, Pink Floyd, Gov’t Mule, Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen, to name a few.

If you like breezy pop-jazz with a Brazilian vibe, both Machan’s 2004 self-titled debut and 2007’s Motion of Love should hit the mark. Smartly produced, arranged, and performed, both albums feature mostly original songs showcasing Machan’s silky vocals matched with exotic rhythms and warm melodies. It’s as tasty and refreshing as an ice cold tropical drink on a hot summer day. Check out Machan's site here.

Dan Reed: Over the course of only three albums released from 1988 to 1991, The Dan Reed Network developed a strong cult following that continues to today with Reed’s solo work. The multi-racial band took a rock-centered approach, but combined heavy elements of soul, funk, and R&B into its sound.

The group was even better live than on record, as evidenced by its 1997 Live At Last CD and DVD. The group disbanded in the mid-90s, but Reed has continued as a solo artist. He has a number of projects in the works, including a new album, Coming Up For Air. For the latest updates, visit Reed's official website.

: This Tampa, Florida based hard-rock outfit got caught between the “hair-band” trend of the late 80s and the grunge movement of the early 90s. While they might have looked like a lot of other metal groups at the time, they developed a unique sound that combined classical symphonic elements into their metal-hard rock sound. The band’s high-point was 1991’s Streets – A Rock Opera, a tale of fame, fall, and redemption that still holds up today.

Despite the tragic death of lead guitarist Criss Oliva, who was killed by a drunk driver in 1993, the band continued on. Several members of the band found success in the side project, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Ironically, TSO’s breakthrough hit, "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24" was originally recorded by in 1995 by Savatage for its Dead Winter Dead CD. Both bands have found a way to co-exist however, and Savatage is currently planning a new album and tour. For more information, see www.savatage.com.

Spider/Shanghai: The band known as Spider recorded only two albums in the early 80s (now available on a single CD). After a slight change in line-up, the group returned as Shanghai for a self-titled album. Only one song, “New Romance (It’s a Mystery)” cracked the Top-40 for Spider, but several of the band’s songs were recorded by and became hits for other artists, including “Talk To Me” by Fiona, “Change” by John Waite, and “Better Be Good to Me” by Tina Turner.

A few band members went on to more famous careers. Keyboardist Holly Knight formed the band Device, and later had a solo career. She enjoyed her biggest success, however, writing or co-writing hits for artists including Pat Benatar ("Love Is A Battlefield”), Scandal (“The Warrior”), Heart (“Never”), Kiss (Hide Your Heart), and Aerosmith (“Rag Doll”). Drummer Anton Fig joined Paul Shaffer’s band on the David Letterman Show.

Here’s Spider performing “Everything Is Alright”:

Drew Weaver: I “discovered” Drew Weaver when I read an extremely positive review of his 1997 CD Unfaithful Kind in Billboard Magazine. The review called him “an undiscovered gem” and mentioned that Weaver was a Delaware resident.

I found him living in Historic New Castle, and he turned out to be an extremely cool, engaging, musically obsessed fellow. He worked for MBNA at the time, but he had been releasing records for at least ten years. He rarely did any local gigs, but he had toured through Europe with his band, The Alvarados, a few years earlier.

Weaver’s music is a unique blend of Tex-Mex and surf rock. He tells dark tales of down-on-their-luck characters who frequent shady establishments, drink too much, and engage in questionable behavior. He even wrote about some Delaware “landmarks” in his songs – check out “Route 13” on his El Mirage CD.

Weaver is based in San Clemente, California now, but he’s still making music. You can check him out here.

What underappreciated artists or bands would you add to this list? Share your thoughts by posting your comments below.

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

'Almost Famous' or 'Nobody’s Perfect' – my life as a music journalist

In the Cameron Crowe film “Almost Famous,” a teenage journalist lands his dream job and gets to tour with the fictional band Stillwater while covering the group for Rolling Stone magazine. The film is semi-autobiographical, as Crowe himself was a teenage writer for Rolling Stone.

Much of the material in the 2000 comedy-drama rings true. As a music journalist, I could relate to many of the situations. But as much as I’d like to believe that when I was starting out I was as calm and collected as the bright young writer portrayed in the movie, that’s not the case. A descriptive title for a film about my early experiences as a music journalist would be “Nobody’s Perfect.”

A recent article offered advice to bands and artists that use the web as a promotional tool. In the spirit of full disclosure, for Top-10 Tuesday, I’d like to fess-up to ten blunders, gaffs, and missteps I’ve made in my career as a music journalist.

In no particular order:

1) Lost Archives – I started my journalism career in the 80s, and had the opportunity to interview the local and national acts that performed in Delaware at venues like the Tally Ho and the Stone Balloon. I usually had my trusty tape recorder at my side when interviewing artists like the Hooters, the A’s, Huey Lewis, the Romantics, and Modern English. But being young and dumb, I would record over those tapes once the article was written.

A few years later it dawned on me that those interviews should have been preserved.

2) Name Recognition – I wrote a feature on the band Semisonic (of “Closing Time” fame) that appeared in both the News Journal and the Washington Times.

For some reason that I still can’t figure out, I referred to lead singer Dan Wilson (who I had interviewed) as “Dan Murphy” throughout the article. Nobody caught the mistake… except for the band’s publicist when I sent her copies of the feature.

3) Equipment Failure – Batteries die, microphones break, and tapes can tangle. I learned these lessons the hard way. On more than one occasion I left an interview thinking I had gotten great material, only to find out that what I really had was a tape full of hiss. On one occasion, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen was kind enough to call me back (while he was at a skating rink with his daughter, no less) and “re-do” a telephone interview I had botched.

These days, I always go into important interview situations with my batteries fresh, and my audio-visual equipment well-tested.

4) Communication Breakdown – When I began my career, I typed my features using a typewriter, and turned in my stories on paper. These days, everything is emailed or uploaded electronically. It’s a quicker, more efficient, and all-around better method – unless you email the wrong file.

I once accidentally attached a sketchy, unfinished work-in-progress to an email instead of the completed article. Because the editor was up against deadline, the piece was sent to production without being proofread. When it was published, it read like a first-time writing effort from an incoherent, grammatically challenged high school freshman.

5) Swamped – My first “Sonicbids Sunday” profiles ran here last week. When I opened the press coverage opportunity on the site, I thought I might get a few dozen responses. To date, I’ve received nearly 300. About a third were picked for coverage, so expect “Sonicbids Sunday” to be a regular Examiner feature for some time to come.

6) How’s That Again? – Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing hundreds of artists from all over the world. I’ve dealt with all sorts of dialects and accents, but the two that proved the toughest to decipher were a trans-Atlantic telephone interview with Nick Marsh, the lead singer of 80’s British Goth-punk band Flesh for Lulu, and an in-person chat with reggae star Luciano.

The telephone interview was hampered by a bad telephone connection and Marsh’s heavy Brit accent. Luciano’s Jamaican dialect was also difficult to understand, especially since the interview took place in a noisy Philadelphia club. Somehow I was able to get through both with enough material for a feature.

7) Coming Attractions – I once made the mistake of letting a musician “preview” a feature before it was published. The guy was a “composer” related to someone at the publication I was writing for at the time. I was asked to interview him about his latest "project," which was a rock musical based on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

As awful as that concept sounds, the finished product was worse. But in the article I was kind; I simply stuck to the facts and let the fellow speak his mind.

The mistake I made was obliging him when he asked if he could do a quick “fact check” before the piece was published. Instead of a “fact check,” he tried to do a re-write. Ever since, only my editors and I get to preview my work before it’s published.

8) Wiki-Wacky – Any high school freshman will tell you that you’re not supposed to use Wikipedia.com as a factual source. A few years back, I was writing a feature on Carlos Santana and wanted to use his full name in the piece.

Because I was on deadline, I grabbed it off of an article on Wikipedia, figuring that some fan would have spotted and corrected any error. I figured wrong. His publicist informed me, after the feature was published, that Santana’s full name is Carlos Humberto Santana de Barragan.

Years later, Wikipedia still lists Santana’s name incorrectly as Carlos Augusto Santana Alves.

backstage passes9) Kiss Off – One of the perks of being a music journalist is that you sometimes get tickets, and better yet, backstage passes to shows. I was backstage at the Wachovia Center for Kiss’s Psycho Circus tour. I was having a great time, and I should have been satisfied with the fact that I got to hang out with Sebastian Bach, Bruce Kulick, and Tommy Thayer, who were also there before the show.

When the show ended, I got back stage again. I noticed that Kiss’s mic stands had been brought back from the stage and were sitting at the top of the entrance ramps. Still attached to each of the stands were several personalized guitar picks that the band tosses to the audience during the show. I figured, they were free then, so why not now? I headed up the ramp and began pulling a few picks from each stand.

When I turned around, a very large roadie was standing behind me. By the expression on his face, I knew he wasn’t happy with my impromptu souvenir shopping. I got out of there quickly – with a set of guitar picks in my pocket and only my ego a bit bruised.

10) You Can’t Get There From Here – In 1990 I did an interview with former Angel keyboardist Gregg Giuffria for his band House of Lords. The band was opening for Nelson (which was a weird pairing) at Upper Darby’s Tower Theatre.

My buddy and I had backstage passes and got to hang out with the band and crew after the show at the bar across the street. After a few hours, lead singer James Christian wanted to get back to the downtown Philadelphia hotel where the group was staying, but the band’s tour bus wasn’t scheduled to leave for another half hour. Out of the blue, the tour manager asked if I would mind dropping Christian off at his hotel.

"No problem," I said, failing to mention the fact that I’m known for my lousy sense of direction, and really didn’t know how to get from Upper Darby to downtown Philly. Once Christian was in my car, I mentioned as much, but he must have thought I was kidding.

Ten minutes later, as I circled back to the Tower after three failed attempts to find a familiar road, Christian looked at me and asked, “You guys really don’t know where you’re going, do you?”

Fortunately, the tour bus was still parked behind the Tower. Christian decided to hop out and wait for it. Ironically, House of Lords’ hit single at the time was a cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

Here's the ideal life of a music journalist, as portrayed in the trailer for "Almost Famous":

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sonicbids Sunday: Unsigned artists profiled

The purest way to discover new artists has always been, and always will be live performance. Second to that, the Internet has provided a variety of interesting forums, from MySpace to YouTube, to individual artist sits.

One of those forums is a site called Sonicbids. At Sonicbids.com artists or bands can submit an electronic press kit, or EPK, to a variety of promoters, venues, and media outlets for consideration for anything from gigs, to publicity, to inclusion on a CD compilation, to a spot in a performance showcase. In my case, the artists are looking for press coverage.

One of the things I like most about Sonicbids is the wide variety of artists who participate. There are musicians and artists from every style and genre of music from all around the world represented. Many are quite good. So good in fact that I’m often surprised they are not already signed to a record contract. Some are what I call diamonds in the rough – artists who have talent but perhaps need seasoning or a good producer to make their music shine. Sure, a few of the artists leave you scratching your head, but those are the exception and not the rule.

Every Sunday, I’ll profile a few artists who recently found their way into my “Sonicbids Dropbox” (as it’s so cleverly called) that are definitely worth checking out.

Andy Hawk & The Train Wreck Endings, Tin Can Town – Hawk accurately describes his sound as “mid-'60s Bob Dylan singing with the Old '97s.” Tin Can Town serves up 13 whiskey-soaked slices of folk/blues Americana that recall a night spent with friends at a favorite watering hole. Some of the tunes lend themselves to spontaneous sing-alongs, others will have your toes tapping, and some will cause both.

'Tin Can Town' album coverThis is Hamilton, Virginia-based Andy Hawk’s fifth album since 2004, and his second with his band, The Train Wreck Endings. Hawk might look like the high school English teacher he is by day, but judging by the quality of his singing and songwriting, music is much more than a part-time hobby. The Train Wreck Endings - Chuck Bordelon (bass), Steve DeVries (mandolin, banjo, harmonica, backing vocals) Branden Hickman (drums) and Gary Rudinsky (lead guitar, backing vocals) provide strong support throughout.

The album kicks off with “Think Too Much,” a bright, catchy tune driven by DeVries mandolin playing. Hawk pairs introspective lyrics about a lost relationship to a bouncy melody:

It's 3 a.m. and I can't help but wonder what went wrong/
Though I fill my glass, it looks half-empty to me/
I'm misty eyed and true and tried, alone with all I fear/
I can't go back or forward while I'm here

The title track is one of the album’s most “Dylan-esque” tracks, with Hawk relating a tale of small town life in a rough-around-the-edges vocal.

“Maybe Someday” is a contagious piece of pop perfection, with a hint of Rubber Soul Beatles added for good measure, while the equally catchy “Real Gone Girl” amps up the country flavor. Hawk again acknowledges his Beatles/Dylan influences on mid-tempo acoustic tracks like “Music From Another Room,” “I Never Thought To Ask,” and “Ferris Wheel” – the latter featuring a tasty guitar solo from Rudinsky. The album comes full circle thematically and returns to the bar for the closing track, the lighthearted “The Last Two In The Bar.”

There a few minor missteps on Tin Can Town – weak lyrics spoil “Good Night,” and “Pitchy & Time-Erratic Blues,” and the latter tune seems out-of-place stylistically on the album. But overall, Tin Can Town is a remarkably strong independent effort the compares favorably to major label releases in the genre. You can purchase a copy, as well as Andy Hawk’s other albums through iTunes, or at CD Baby.

Hawk’s performance schedule keeps him in Virginia. If you’re down that way, here are the currently scheduled dates:

June 7, 11:00 a.m. - Celebrate Fairfax Festival - Starr Hill Stage (Fairfax, VA)
June 12, 5:00 p.m. - King's Court Tavern (Leesburg, VA)
July 11, 9:00 p.m. - King's Court Tavern (Leesburg, VA)

For complete up-to-date information, visit Hawk’s website: www.andyhawk.com

Charles “Big Daddy” Stallings, Blues Evolution – If you didn’t know Baltimore-based Charles Stallings was a blues guy, all you’d have to do is take one look at the man. Smartly dressed, usually in black, a trademark red fedora (which, of course matches his Les Paul guitar and his point tip shoes) sits atop his large frame. Okay, he’s either a blues cat or an old-school rapper.Charles 'Big Daddy' Stallings

But Stallings is definitely a blues cat. He was born in Columbia, South Carolina and raised on a farm in Hobbsville, North Carolina, with his ten brothers and sisters. After moving to Baltimore, Stallings began performing in local R&B and Jazz bands, but always dreamed of recording with his own blues band.

Now he’s got one. He plays live with a seven-piece outfit that features core members Ronnie Jenkins (drums), Wayne Johns (guitar), Kelvin O'Neal (trumpet), and Joe "E Flat" Thomas (sax). They all appear on Blues Evolution, along with some notable guests, including keyboardist Bill Pratt, bassist Gail Parrish, and harp player Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks.

Blues Evolution plays like a live party album, opening with “Into Blues/Let’s Boogie” an extended instrumental in which the band gets to show off its considerable chops. Over the course of 15 tracks, Stallings and the band serve up just about every flavor of blues imaginable.

First up is some good ol’ dirty blues, “Going Down South,” which shows off Stallings strong vocals on a tune that may or may not be about the pleasures of travel and eating.

Wilmington gets name checked on the next track, “Blues Train Express,” which take the listener on a blues journey down the East Coast:

Philadelphia, PA, where we’re not gonna stay/ Wilmington, Delaware – you wanna go, you gotta pay

“Hard Times / Good Times” is a traditional slow blues, featuring Wenner wailing on the harmonica throughout.'Blues Evolution' album cover

Blues Evolution kicks into full-on party mode with the next track – “Blues Line Dance” – one of several tracks that applies the blues to some less traditional musical styles. On “Blues Line Dance,” the mash-up works well, especially when the horn section of Thomas and O’Neal drops in a little James Brown tribute. It’s not hard to imagine the song catching on and becoming another “Electric Boogie.”

“Cha Cha 3000” and “Hola Senorita” mix the blues with cha-cha and Latin styles respectively. “Hola Senorita” pushes the envelope a bit far and winds up sounding more like a parody, but the instrumental “Cha Cha 3000” brings the two divergent musical styles together surprisingly well.

Stallings seems to want Blues Evolution to be an album for blues fans and non-fans alike. For extra insurance, he throws in “Hand Dancin’” – a pretty good straight-ahead soul number. The album ends with “Thank-You Boogie,” in which Stallings calls out all the band members and guests that appear on the CD.

Blues Evolution has already received quite a bit of national attention, with reviews in Living Blues, Blues Review, and DownBeat Magazine, and has received enough airplay to reach the national blues radio charts. If Stallings and his band are as much fun live as they are on record (and I’ll bet they are), they must put on a heck of a party.

Here’s Stallings and his band performing live at the Surf Club in Bladensburg, MD on November 17, 2007:

You can purchase a copy of Blues Evolution, as well as Stallings’ first album, One Night Lover through iTunes, or at CD Baby.
Stallings performance schedule keeps him in Maryland. If you’re down that way, here are the currently scheduled dates:

May 29 - WEAA Spring Fundraiser Eubie Blake Cultural Center (Baltimore, MD)
May 31 - Chesapeake Bay Wine Fest - Terrapin Park (Stevenville, MD)
Jun 20 - City View Bar & Grill (Woodlawn, MD)
Jun 21 - Patterson Park Concert Series - 6-8 p.m. (Baltimore, MD)
Jun 27 - Bare Bones Grill & Brewery (Ellicott City, MD)
Jun 28 - Federal Hill Main Street Blues & Jazz Fest – 3 p.m. (Baltimore, MD)
Jul 4 - Blues Concert - Quiet Waters Park Concert Series – 6 p.m. (Annapolis, MD)

For complete up-to-date information, visit Stallings’ website: www.bigdaddystallings.com

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Monday, May 11, 2009


Newtown, Pa. native Jared Costa performs a 10:00 p.m. show at Philadelphia’s Tin Angel on Friday, May 15. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter recently released his debut CD, Onwards and Upwards, a collection of 12 well-written songs in the bluesy folk-rock vein.

A singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar is a tried and true pop music blueprint, but Costa distinguishes himself from the pack with memorable songs that not only sound good, but also have something to say.

On Onwards and Upwards, Costa keeps the arrangements clean and straightforward, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, harmonica, and an occasional keyboard. The style and instrumentation invite the inevitable comparisons to the work of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Atlantic City-era Bruce Springsteen.

While those might seem like lofty comparisons for a first album, Costa’s work is up to the task. Costa succeeds specifically because he doesn’t try to sound like the “second coming” of any famous predecessor, concerned more with sounding like the first coming of Jared Costa.

For example, Costa’s “Love” talks about the subject in the broader sense, as it applies to “our fellow man”:

Well you can't look down on another man unless you intend on helping him up/And the Lord above says a window's always open whenever the door is shut/

In a savvy move, Costa weaves a melody line from the classical piece “Canon In D” (the popular wedding ceremony choice) into the song to make his point. Costa’s music is further distinguished by his rich, soulful singing. On “Take It All” his voice glides smoothly from a deep whisper to an emotional wail; on “Love” it gets gritty and real.

Costa recently took the time to answer a few questions about his career and music.

Q: Your bio says that you played in a number of rock bands before deciding to go solo. Was that decision made primarily so that you can have more control over your music, or are there other things that appeal to you about the solo acoustic format?

A: It wasn't so much a conscious decision to go solo as it was a somewhat natural progression. I was always the primary songwriter in those bands. I would sit and write on my acoustic: putting together the melodies and arranging the music. Over time, I found I was accomplishing my vision for those songs as they were on my own - just the guitar and vocals. I do enjoy having the control and being able to really go in any direction I want to go with the music. I think the ability to really explore dynamics is what makes it so appealing. Energy and intimacy can be achieved all in a single transition.

Q: Is there anything you miss about the band format?

A: There are some aspects I miss and I may put some of my music into a band project in the future. In the meantime, I enjoy the positive aspects of a band with some of my very good friends in Crow vs. Lion, a band I play with that is fronted by longtime friend and amazing songwriter, Dan Gallagher. It gives me the opportunity to collaborate and to play several instruments: mandolin, banjo, guitar, keys, and harmonica. It's a lot of fun and gives me some ideas for my own music to be applied to a band dynamic.

Q: Your song “Love” incorporates a bit of the famous classical piece "Canon in D" by Pachelbel. Are you classically trained?

A: I am not trained in any way, actually. I taught myself how to play guitar, harmonica, and a few other instruments. Although, I do feel I am constantly taking things from those around me and I am very fortunate to have always had people around me that were willing to answer questions, give me guidance, or offer advice.

And of course, I enjoy music across the board. Classical music, in particular, has themes and melodies that really lend themselves to interpretation and imitation. "Canon in D" is certainly a favorite of mine and a great example of how I was influenced by and able to incorporate my appreciation for a classical piece into my own songwriting.

Q: What is the writing process like for you? Are you someone who has creative ideas all the time, or do you need to be in a certain mood to be able to write?

A: I try not to be too scientific about the creative process. You risk losing something if you become too rigid about something that I think has to come pretty natural. I am someone that tends to be creative throughout the day. So when I sit down to put pen to paper, I usually have a good idea about a concept or direction.

Q: Do you usually start out with lyrics or music first, or is it a mix?

A: I'd say most often I start with with music and melody based on a feeling or thought I'm having. Then, I put the lyrics to the melody. For me, it's rarely a finished product right away. A song usually needs to be explored and maybe even played live before it's completely finished. Even when a song is done, I'll play it differently on stage from time to time. In that respect, a song is always a work in progress.

Q: The music business has changed quite a bit in the years that I’ve been covering it. These days, artists can be discovered or build an audience through a variety of nontraditional methods, sites like Sonicbids and MySpace. However I still feel that the most direct, lasting, and purest method is still through live performance. Are there any performances of yours that remain particularly memorable?

A: I agree. Live performance is the most important avenue for connecting to your fans. For me, every show I do has something about it that is special to me.

One that stands out immediately is my recent CD release show at
Puck in Doylestown, PA. It was just an experience I really cherished. I had some close friends and family there as well as some great folks coming to check it out. The venue really allows the artist to play to the room rather than at it.

Puck is one of the top sound stages I have ever played and the room has a great vibe. Things really clicked from the onset and I was able to hit an intensity and energy level that was exactly what every performer hopes to get out of playing a show. The audience was so responsive; I felt that I was actually just reciprocating their energy at times. And any time you get an encore call, you've done your job. It was the perfect way to celebrate the release of the album.

I could go on and on about many nights because there are so many that stand out. Honestly, every show I play has something memorable for me. I really do try to approach every show as a different entity. If you come out to see me on any given night, I am going to try to make it the best show I've ever played. It's more important that the show will be memorable for the audience and that's exactly my goal. (interview continues below video)

Here's Jarod Costa performing "No Revolution" / "All Along the Watchtower" live at Philadelphia's North Star Bar on December 2, 2008:

No Revolution/All Along the Watchtower-Live

Q: Along those lines, now that your music is available to the public, I was wondering if you’ve been surprised by how it’s been received. For example, have you ever had someone talk to you after a show about your music, or perhaps write to you and express an interpretation they had, or tell you how it affected them in a way that surprised you?

A: First of all, for me there is nothing better than someone coming up to me after a set, saying hello, telling me what they think, and just hanging out. Live performance is the apex of the creative experience. It's the fruition of the whole songwriting process. Not to say recording isn't important or fulfilling, but playing live gives you the connectivity and excitement that you can't replicate any other way. You can really emote what the song was intended for.

I have had a few interpretations and some feedback that struck a chord with me. Feedback from the record is important as well. I put a lot of time and effort into this album and not just because this is my first album, but because anything I do musically represents the best of me.

Origivation Magazine said the album was "iconic" in a recent issue. That was a huge compliment and an honor. I had someone call a song on the album inspiring and say it touched them profoundly. And I always enjoy listening to someone's interpretation of a song. I believe that interpretation is how people participate in the art of music. It's the experience coming full circle. In that way, it's as necessary as anything else in the songwriting process. It makes the artist and listener connect to create something special together.

For more information on Jared Costa, or to purchase a copy of Onwards and Upwards visit www.jaredcosta.com. Tickets for Friday’s Tin Angel show are available by calling (215) 928-0978, or on-line through Comcast Tix.

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Friday, May 8, 2009


Few experiences are quite as disconcerting for music fans as when they realize that the once seemingly ageless artists who created the soundtrack of their collective childhood are now deep into middle-age. When these former music icons – now bloated, balding, or gray – show up on some sad VH1 retrospective to recount tales of their heyday, it’s their fans who suddenly feel very old.

So when our long-standing musical heroes return to defy Father Time and live up to, or even surpass our expectations – recent examples being U2 or Bruce Springsteen – they are typically welcomed by fans with unbridled glee. Rock ‘n’ roll never forgets, indeed.

The latest band to successfully emerge from the time capsule (which is, ironically, the title of the group’s 1998 hits compilation) is the quirky pop-dance band the B-52’s. Touring in support of Funplex, the group’s first original album in over 16 years, the B-52’s are in the midst of a cross-country spring/summer tour.

Vocalists Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson are both Northern New Jersey natives, but the group, which also includes guitarist and composer Keith Strickland and vocalist Cindy Wilson, will always be associated with the Athens, Georgia new wave music scene they helped establish in the mid-to-late ’70s.

“We were the outsiders in Athens,” Schneider told Time Out London in 2007. “We'd go to parties and people would, like, bolt the door.”

With a sound that combined elements of punk, surf guitar, and early '60s go-go pop into a visually unique, kitschy mix, the B-52’s began winning over audiences with tracks like “Planet Claire,” “52 Girls,” and the group’s breakthrough hit, “Rock Lobster.” The interplay between the female harmonies of Pierson and Wilson (who wore large, beehive style wigs, aka B-52’s), and the half-sung, half-shouted vocal counters of Schneider became another of the group’s trademarks.

The group’s goofy/hip visual style combined with the off-the-wall nature of their song lyrics seemed to scream “FUN PARTY BAND,” but Schneider says that the group always took its work seriously.

“We're serious about what we do, even though a lot of it is humorous or whatever,” he said in an interview last year for AOL Sessions. “People say, ‘Oh you probably just throw things together.’ We don't. We spend a lot of time on songs. We've always been serious about wanting to do good songs, and if they make you laugh, great.”

Throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, the B-52’s kept fans smiling, dancing, and partying with hits like “Private Idaho,” “Roam,” “Good Stuff,” and their biggest hit, “Love Shack.” The material on Funplex complements that repertoire perfectly. The album mostly avoids the double-edged sword of trying to sound either too retro or too trendy. A modern electronic-dance vibe filters through songs like “Pump,” “Juliet of the Spirits,” and “Love in the Year 3000,” but the band doesn’t overreach trying to update its sound to match current fashion.

“I wanted it to be more rock and more electronic – leaner, more focused and up-tempo and danceable,” Strickland said in a 2008 interview with MP3.com. “I also felt that if we are to release a new album after 16 years, then we've got to give it our all and do what we do best. I've always felt that what we do best is really high energy, up tempo, shameless dance floor party music. A lot of the dance music aesthetics have filtered into our sound, but I still feel like we still sound distinctively like the B-52’s.”

If you take the songs on Funplex at their word, the band, which now ranges in age from 51 to 61, still revels in dancing, partying, and making frequent visits to the proverbial “Love Shack.”

“Yeah,” Schneider says. “We are a bunch of oversexed middle-aged people. It’s pretty tongue-in-cheek, but I think every song except one is about sex.”

If nothing else, Funplex confirms – for both the band and its fans – that while you can’t avoid growing older, you don’t have to grow old.

“There's a maturity to [this record],” Wilson said in an interview with Atlanta Creative Loafing, “but we're not about to grow up. It’s still us, you know.”


Saturday, May 09, 2009 Atlantic City, NJ - House of Blues
Sunday, May 10, 2009 Morristown, NJ - Mayo Center for the Performing Arts
Wednesday May 13, 2009 Baltimore, MD - Rams Head Live
Thursday May 14, 2009 Red Bank, NJ - Count Basie Theatre
Saturday May 16, 2009 Boston, MA - House of Blues
Wednesday May 20, 2009 Kansas City, MO - Uptown Theater
Friday May 22, 2009 Little Rock, AR - Riverfront Park
Saturday May 23, 2009 Thackerville, OK - Winstar Casino
Sunday May 24, 2009 Norman, OK - Riverwind Casino
Wednesday June 17, 2009 Seattle, WA - Woodland Park Zoo
Friday June 19, 2009 Portland, OR - Oregon Zoo
Saturday June 20, 2009 West Wendover, NV - Peppermill Casino
Sunday June 21, 2009 Aspen, CO - Belly Up
Monday June 22, 2009 Denver, CO - Denver Botanic Gardens
Wednesday June 24, 2009 Tucson, AZ - Centennial Hall
Thursday June 25, 2009 Del Mar, CA - Del Mar Fairgrounds
Friday June 26, 2009 Agoura Hills, CA - The Canyon Club
Saturday June 27, 2009 Oakville, CA - Robert Mondaydavi Winery
Tuesday June 30, 2009 Saratoga, CA - Mountain Winery
Thursday July 02, 2009 Livermore, CA - Wente Vineyards
Saturday July 04, 2009 Albuquerque, NM - Isleta Casino and Resort
Sunday July 19, 2009 Costa Mesa, CA - Pacific Amphitheatre (Orange County Fair)
Saturday August 01, 2009 Hyannis, MA - Cape Cod Melody Tent
Sunday August 02, 2009 Cohasset, MA - South Shore Music Circus
Tuesday August 04, 2009 Altoona, PA - Railroaders Memorial Museum
Wednesday August 05, 2009 Bethlehem, PA - Musikfest
Friday August 07, 2009 Lincoln, RI - Twin River Events Center
Saturday August 08, 2009 Vienna, VA - Filene Center
Sunday August 09, 2009 Westhampton Beach, NY - Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center
Wednesday August 12, 2009 Glen Allen, VA - Innsbrook Pavilion
Friday August 14, 2009 Mableton, GA - Mable House Amphitheatre
Saturday August 15, 2009 Saint Petersburg, FL - Tropicana Field
Thursday August 20, 2009 Clarkston, MI - DTE Energy Music Center
Friday August 21, 2009 Chicago, IL - House of Blues
Saturday August 22, 2009 Petoskey, MI - Odawa Casino Resort
Monday August 24, 2009 Green Bay, WI - Oneida Bingo & Casino
Sunday October 04, 2009 Austin, TX - Zilker Park

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009


When the Bay Area-based punk-rock trio Green Day performs its first concert at Philadelphia’s Wachovia Spectrum on Tuesday, July 21, it will be the 930th different band to take the Spectrum stage in the venue’s 42-year history. It will also be the band’s final show at the Spectrum, as the building is scheduled to be razed later this year.

Green Day’s Philadelphia show will be part of a tour in support of the forthcoming album 21st Century Breakdown, which will be released worldwide by Reprise Records on Friday, May 15.

Tickets for Green Day's July 21 Philadelphia show, priced at $25 and $49.50, go on sale this Friday, May 8 at 10:00 a.m. They will be available at ComcastTIX.com, LiveNation.com, the Wachovia Complex Box Office, by phone at 800-298-4200 and at select ACME locations.

Singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool have been writing, arranging, and recording 21st Century Breakdown since early 2006 with producer Butch Vig, known for his work with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and his own band, Garbage. The first single from the album, “Know Your Enemy” is currently the No. 1 track at Alternative radio.

21st Century Breakdown is Green Day’s first studio album since 2004’s two-time Grammy Award-winning American Idiot, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, spawned five hit singles, and went on to sell more than 12 million copies worldwide.

According to advance reports, 21st Century Breakdown is another full-fledged “punk-rock opera.” The musically and thematically ambitious 18-song set is divided into three acts, and tells the story of a young couple, Christian and Gloria, growing up in the early 21st century. It offers commentary on topics ranging from politics to religion, to war to love.

“The main message is trying to make sense out of desperate times and chaos,” Armstrong says in a Billboard Magazine interview.

To recreate the complex sound of 21st Century Breakdown and American Idiot in concert, the band is augmented on stage by guitarists Jason White and Jeff Matika, and keyboardist Jason Freese.

After the success of American Idiot, the notion of Green Day creating a three-part concept album doesn’t seem at all out-of-place. When I interviewed Mike Dirnt in 2003 in advance of Green Day’s first (and only) Delaware appearance, he hinted that the band’s next album (American Idiot) would be a “mini rock opera.” Given that most of the group’s material to that point consisted of three-chord punk rock anthems, I thought he was joking.

With the 1994 release of its major label debut CD, Dookie, Green Day became one of the first bands to successfully bring punk rock to the American mainstream. The songs “Longview” and “Basket Case” became MTV staples, “When I Come Around” hit the Top-40, and the album went on to sell over 12 million copies worldwide.

Some punk purists cried “sellout,” apparently preferring that the band continue to release albums on an obscure independent label. But Green Day paved the way for the commercial success of similar bands like Blink 182, Good Charlotte, and the Offspring. Ironically, Green Day’s biggest hit to date, “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life),” is an acoustic ballad complete with a string arrangement.

Some fans prefer the raw, early version of the band, while others like the more commercial sound. Dirnt (his stage name is the sound a bass makes) says that with so many albums to choose from, it’s natural that some fans identify with one version of the band over another.

“Every fan is especially attached to one record more than the other ones,” he said. “Whether they got into us on our first record, or because of “Time of Your Life,” they consider that their Green Day record. We like to pull songs from the entire catalog when putting the set list together.”

Here’s Green Day performing “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” live:

Dirnt (born Mike Pritchard) and Armstrong formed their first band, Sweet Children, in Rodeo, California when they were 14 years old. By 1989, the group had added drummer Al Sobrante (born John Kiffmeyer) and changed its name to Green Day.

Later that year, they independently released their first EP, 1,000 Hours. Its success led to a contract with Lookout! Records, a local independent label. The band’s first full-length album, 39/Smooth, was released later that year. Shortly thereafter, Sobrante quit the band and was replaced with Tre Cool (born Frank Edwin Wright, III).

Throughout the early 90's, Green Day continued to cultivate a strong cult following. The underground success of their second album, 1992's Kerplunk, led to the band signing with Reprise Records.

Dirnt says that while Green Day grew out of the San Francisco Bay area punk scene, they’re don’t hesitate to explore other styles of music.

“In a lot of ways, the word 'punk' carries a stigma to it,” he says. “The music comes first, it’s not like we’re stuck in any ditches. Everybody has lots of different influences. We grew up listening to all kinds of things. I was addicted to Top-40 radio when I was a kid. When I first started getting into rock ‘n’ roll, I remember the first things I really liked were AC/DC’s Back In Black album, and Billie Joel’s ‘It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me.’”

Rather than alienate punk purists, Dirnt says that Green Day’s forays into more commercial material have simply allowed them to broaden their audience.

“The range of people at our shows is really insane,” he says. “Most of our fans tend to be guys between 14 and 30, but we have kids as young as 6 up to people in their 50’s, and even older. Girls, women, punks, and college kids… the mix is just incredible.”

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