It’s no secret that I attended Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois this year basically to see one band.
They’re called the Lost Dogs, and they’re sort of a nexus point for a number of great spiritual rock bands. They’re made up of members from three of my favorite acts: Derri Daugherty from the Choir, Terry Taylor from Daniel Amos and Mike Roe from the 77s. And since I’ve wanted to see the Choir, DA and the Sevens play since the early ’90s, and all the Dogs were going to be there, it was a no-brainer for me to take advantage of my newfound geographical proximity and go to C-Stone for the first time.
And yeah, the Dogs and their respective bands were great, but I’m so glad I went for a number of other reasons. I got to meet everyone I’ve ever wanted to meet from this corner of the musical galaxy, and I got introduced to a few new bands I plan to follow forever. I also got completely turned around on one act in particular I’d been resisting, and got to see the remarkable artistic growth of another I’d loathed for years. And, of course, I bought 24 CDs, 14 of them brand-spankin’ new, and I’m here to tell you all about them.
First, though, the festival itself. Cornerstone has been an annual thing for 18 years, and typically draws between 20,000 and 30,000 people. It’s billed as a Christian rock festival, but if you’re not in the mood to be preached to, don’t worry about it. Hell, they had Pedro the Lion on the main stage this year, despite the fact that David Bazan’s work is often littered with profanities and offers no easy answers. Best of all is the price: $65 for advance tickets, $85 at the gate, for a week-long event. That price includes camping as well, as Cornerstone takes place on this huge farm in the middle of nowhere.
And the bands are more than worth twice the price. I’d have paid that amount just to see the 77s tear through their two-hour set, and I got 35 more concerts on top of that. I even missed two days, and feel like I got more than my money’s worth. It’s sort of sad to see so few people turning out for such great shows, but then again, Cornerstone is an intimate affair at its best, a secret you’re sharing with only a few, and that makes it somehow more special. (Although I wish someone at some major label somewhere would just take a listen to Mike Roe…)
If there was a catchphrase for the Dogs’ shows, it was this: “We used to play the big rooms.” Terry Taylor delighted in chuckling that line out, mostly because, for more than 20 years, none of these guys have ever played the big rooms. The extensive catalogs of Daniel Amos, the Choir, the Sevens, and numerous other Cornerstone bands are waiting there, like buried treasure, to be discovered. Once you hear this stuff, you won’t believe that millions of people across the globe aren’t lining up for tickets to these shows. The small, select fanbase has them all to themselves. For the fans, it’s the best of both worlds, but for the bands, it’s a sad state of affairs, even though they’re appreciative of every fan they have.
* * * * *
The first show I caught at C-Stone was an acoustic set by a guy named Bill Mallonee. This guy looks like Guy Pearce, sings like Bruce Cockburn’s rowdier younger brother, and plays a mean guitar. He also writes a decent Americana-tinged pop song, as you can hear on any one of his 14 albums. Truth be told, I’ve only heard a few, but samples from the others have done nothing to dissuade me of my opinion.
Mallonee used to be the leader of a band with the unfortunate name of Vigilantes of Love. The VOL has always been a money-losing proposition for Mallonee, and so last year, after the two best VOL albums (1999’s splendid Audible Sigh and 2000’s poppier Summershine), he broke up the band and pursued a solo career. His first solo album, Fetal Position, came out last month. However, when it came time to tour behind that record, he called the same musicians back and made it a VOL tour. They now go by the hysterical name Bill Mallonee and the Trophy Wives.
I’ve been trying to be a Mallonee fan for a while now, and haven’t managed it. The problem, I discovered, is that for his entire career, Mallonee has been trying to capture his live sound in the studio, and it just hasn’t worked. He’s electric live, a powerhouse of energy, and he turns simple rockers like Audible Sigh‘s “Goes Without Saying” into dramatic rides. Give him a real rave-up like Summershine‘s “Putting Out Fires With Gasoline,” and then hang on. The Trophy Wives show was a revelation. (Special props to Anne, who’s been trying for months to make me a fan. Mallonee himself managed it in two hours.)
And that’s part of my disappointment with Fetal Position. I had heard a number of the songs in a live setting first, and they cranked, especially the brisk “Life on Other Planets.” Hearing them again decked out in studio trickery was a diminishing experience. Opener “She’s So Liquid” has a high-wire falsetto part in the chorus that brought an instant smile to my face live. On record, it’s not nearly as ingratiating, especially since Mallonee’s guitar is processed and swirled a bit too much.
If you accept that the albums will never be as good as the concerts, though, Fetal Position ain’t bad. It continues the ornate yet guitar-centered poppiness of Summershine and adds a few new twists: the piano-driven “Wintergreen,” for example, or the subtle “Crescent Moon.” His lyrics are, as usual, in fine form here as well, a mixture of Cockburn and Springsteen filled with keen observation. There’s really nothing wrong with it, but I’m hopeful that someday Bill Mallonee will find a way to translate his terrific stage shows into equally terrific studio works.
Pick up Fetal Position as well as a whole bunch of Mallonee’s back catalog from his new label, www.pastemusic.com.
* * * * *
The other guy I wasn’t too keen on seeing was Michael Knott. I’ve always kind of hated Knott, even though I’ve perversely sought out and purchased everything he’s ever done. Lest you think that’s not a big undertaking, Knott has made, under various names, more than 25 albums. Until recently, each one has left me vaguely cold. Knott often stops short of writing whole songs, preferring to let the noise and power of the guitar carry everything for him. The names may change (Lifesavers, L.S.U., Aunt Bettys, Bomb Bay Babies or just Michael Knott), but the sound rarely does.
It turns out, though, that Knott has spent the last 20 years or so battling alcoholism, and his recent rehab stint may have been the best thing that ever happened to him. At his concert, of course, he was suitably maniacal, preening and lumbering across the stage like a crazed rock god with painted-on sideburns. At one point, he knelt by the edge of the stage, scraping at his eyes for a full four minutes. At another (actually during “Sorry”), he wrapped the microphone cord around his neck and raised it behind his head like a noose, which he held tightly until he turned red. He screamed, he spit, and he always went for emotion rather than precision. It’s no wonder audiences have come to see him since the ’80s.
But the concert wasn’t the eye-opener for me. Knott has lately been making (gulp) good music, not just pummeling his audience with repetition. This trend started last year with his finest solo album, Life of David. There was a palpable sense of penitence on that record, a shame and a sorrow that somehow translated to finely crafted songs like “Candle Killing Light” and “Halo.” Or like “Chameleon” and “Shoe Gazer.” Or, hell, like the whole album. It’s far and away his best.
But his two new ones aren’t far behind. Both the full, rocking Comatose Soul and the stripped-down, sweet Hearts of Care show Knott’s newfound sense of craft, which only appeared sporadically in the past. Comatose Soul opens with a typical Knott tune, the thumping “Cruisin’ Ride,” but swiftly veers into more complex territory with “Callous Wheel” and the great “Pusher.” The latter song revolves around the line, “If you don’t want me to jump off this bridge, you might have to do something about it,” the most unsentimentally honest cry for help I can remember hearing.
Highlights abound from there, including the so-cheesy-it’s-cool synthesizer line on “Pop Goes the World,” the swirling melody of the title track, and the veddy British “Gold.” Unlike most of Knott’s catalog, Comatose Soul keeps surprising you all the way through to the end, the summery “Lollipops and Daisies.” It’s a painful album in places, dealing as it does with addiction, recovery and loss, but it’s an honest and complete one that’s actually quite impressive.
Knott plans to release Soul independently, and hence he made signed and numbered pre-release copies available at the show. His other album, though, is officially out on Northern Records, home of Cush and the Violet Burning (whom we’ll get to in a moment). Hearts of Care was produced by Andy Prickett, who used to play with the late, lamented Prayer Chain and now anchors both of the above-named bands. It features voice, acoustic guitar, harmonica and violin, and that’s it. It also includes some of the sweetest and most off-kilter songs Knott has ever written.
“And I Love You Girl,” for example, rises on a dissonant violin line that stands at odds with the simple love song lyrics. “She Steals This Heart” makes fine use of violinist Beth Spransy and Knott’s own weary voice. The title song strums and shimmers, and “Wasting Time” finds Knott playing off of Spransy’s sprightly voice well. All in all, it’s a very successful collection, even if the harmonica and violin sometimes clash, and it shows that Knott doesn’t need furious guitar playing to be effective.
Both new albums are pretty good introductions to Knott’s little corner of the world, and unlike some previous efforts, they get you on their side quickly. Hearts of Care is available at www.northernrecords.com, and they have sound clips there as well. I don’t know where or when you’ll be able to pick up Comatose Soul, but keep checking his official site at www.michaelknott.com.
* * * * *
How cool is Northern Records?
Wait, here’s a better one: How cool is Andy Prickett? He’s an absolute master of guitar tone, and can turn one note into the most glorious and agonizing personal experience of this or any other lifetime. As a producer, he’s helped make some of the best-sounding platters available, like the Autumns’ gorgeous Winter In a Silver Box. As a player, he’s astonishing, whipping off complex lines and rhythms and then, two heartbeats later, adding finely woven textures to the song’s foundation. Musicians love to work with the guy because he always gives them what they need.
And despite his considerable talents, he apparently enjoys being in the background. He’s a born rock star, but he shuns accolades for both bands he’s in. The Violet Burning is vocalist Michael Pritzl’s project, and Prickett is content to stand to his right, adding soaring tones and snarling rhythms to Pritzl’s songs while the focus remains squarely on the voice and the lyrics. Cush, meanwhile, is a collective of anonymity whose membership and sound changes with each release. That makes it impossible to single anyone out, and Prickett apparently likes it that way.
Well, tough for him, ’cause I’m going to single him out anyway.
The Violet Burning show at C-Stone was a loud, lovely festival of sweet, weightless guitar, almost entirely provided by Prickett. Pritzl sang his little heart out, and his songs are pretty amazing, but they usually suffer when Prickett isn’t playing on them. Versions of tracks from the first two Prickett-less VB albums (Chosen and Strength) were twice what their studio counterparts were, especially the standout “As I Am,” and the new material was just great. Through it all, Prickett basically stood in one spot, chewing gum and making the most beautiful noise you’ve ever heard.
Of course, I don’t want to slight Michael Pritzl, who is as nice a guy as you could ever want to meet. His songs are epic constructions, often reaching eight minutes, and his voice is sweet and powerful, a combination few can pull off. Pritzl is a major talent, but in conjunction with Andy Prickett, he’s a musical force.
There is no new Violet Burning album yet, but there is the next best thing: a Pritzl/Prickett project called The Gravity Show. The album is called Fabulous Like You, and that tells you a lot of what you need to know about it. Despite some glam-pop overtones in the first few tracks, the Gravity Show is like a miniature Violet Burning album, especially when you get to the slower, more epic numbers like “Worlds Apart” and “Halo.” Remarkably, it never sounds like a side project – Pritzl’s voice is in fine form, and Prickett, well, what’s left to say about him? This is a cool record.
And then there’s the new Cush, which, like the previous two, is just titled Cush. As strange as this collective normally is, this is their strangest outing yet – a collection of old and new spirituals. I’d say “done Cush style,” but there is no set Cush style, and that’s one thing I love about them. You never know what you’re going to get. This time you get old-time gospel, like the claps-and-moans leadoff track “Run Mary Run” and the low, acoustic “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace.” And then they throw you a curve ball – a straight acoustic rendition of the old Prince song “I Would Die 4 U.” As usual, there’s no mention of who did what, and on this one, they don’t even provide a list of who’s involved. It’s just Cush, and like always, it’s just great.
You can get everything Cush, the Gravity Show, some Violet Burning and cool records by Frank Lenz, the Lassie Foundation, Charity Empressa and others at www.northernrecords.com. The label is co-owned by Prickett and some of his fellow ex-Prayer Chain bandmates, and it’s a textbook example of great musicians charting their own destinies.
* * * * *
Cornerstone is, if my experience is any indication, a great place to discover new music. Here are a few groups and artists I happened upon during my week:
Beki Hemingway used to be in a great punk-pop band called This Train, refusing again and again to take herself seriously. Her solo career, however, is proof that she can make terrific music that doesn’t need to wink at you. Equal parts Aimee Mann and Chrissie Hynde, Hemingway floated through a set of swell guitar-pop tunes from her second full-length, Words For Loss For Words, on the acoustic stage, and the only difference between the show and the record is the addition of electric guitars on disc. From the superb breakup song “Only Thing Worse” to the hopeful lilt “Siouxanne” to the folksy admonishment of modern culture “The Crows of Cashel,” this album is just great. She even covers soft rock hit “Just Remember I Love You” and makes it listenable.
There is one standout stunner on Words, though, and it’s called “To Spare You.” It jumps points of view so effectively at the end (“I say it’s me I’m sparing but that really isn’t true, it’s me that needs to be spared by you”) that it sends chills, and her husband Randy Kerkman’s acoustic work elevates it from mere pop song to real statement. This could come close to the ol’ Top 10 List this year. Check her out at www.bekihemingway.com.
The Elevator Division is a four-piece propulsive rock guitar unit that shimmies and shakes like the best of Sense Field and Fugazi. When they’re firing on all cylinders (as they are on their full-length debut Movement), their guitar lines weave in and out with startling originality over a bone-crushing rhythm section that never lets up. Their new EP is called Whatever Makes You Happy, and comes in a hand-stenciled cardboard sleeve that’s worth the $5 price all by itself. Dig them at www.elevatordivision.com.
By far, the best band I discovered at Cornerstone, though, is a six-piece from California called Ester Drang. Imagine if Radiohead had moved into the atmospherics of Kid A but had retained all the fullness and melody of OK Computer. Now imagine that with the aforementioned Andy Prickett on guitar. Ester Drang played a set that moved like a living thing, rising and falling in waves and swirling about itself. Their songs are coiling beasts, snakes eating their own tails, shifting every which way on changing time signatures and unorthodox beats. Their sound is layered and thick, yet lighter than air.
Ester Drang has an incredible album out called Goldenwest, their second, and it fulfills the promise of the live show and then some. Opening with the piano-driven title song, this epic monstrosity plays like a single piece of music, winding through the complex “Repeating the Procedure” and the ornate, sleigh-bell-driven “Words That Cure” before winding up at the sweet “Felicity Darling.” It packs more punch in 50 minutes than many bands do in twice that, and hopefully sets the stage for a long and wonderful career for these talented boys. Get thee now to www.esterdrang.com and purchase it.
* * * * *
There is one show I wish I had seen at C-Stone: the multi-artist Brian Wilson tribute that Silent Planet Records put on. It likely was terrific, and all I have to go on for that opinion is the CD around which the tribute was based. It’s called Making God Smile, and it’s 26 tracks of inventive interpretations of Beach Boys and Brian Wilson songs by some great artists and a bunch of talented unknowns.
Of the more famous folks, there’s Phil Keaggy delivering a note-perfect run through of “Good Vibrations,” Sixpence None the Richer doing a lovely take on “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” and my boys the Lost Dogs singing a nearly a cappella rendition of lost track “With Me Tonight.” Other standouts include Aaron Sprinkle (of Poor Old Lu) doing a great medley of “I Know There’s an Answer” and its doppelganger “Hang On To Your Ego,” Phil Madeira playing an instrumental version of “Heroes and Villains,” Terry Taylor half-laughing his way through “Vegetables” and Rick Altizer making your jaw drop with his one-man rendition of “Surf’s Up.”
I do want to mention one in particular, though. There’s a guy that everyone at Cornerstone has seen, either tuning a guitar or running to get a capo, or maybe even playing the occasional bass part. His name is Jeff Elbel, and he has the crap job of being everyone’s roadie while hopefully garnering an audience for his band, Ping. Well, Jeff has a great voice, plays guitar well, and put on a great show, which almost no one at the festival saw. It’s a shame, really, but hopefully his swell reading of “You Still Believe In Me,” complete with glorious harmonies, will increase his profile beyond that of super-roadie.
You can get Making God Smile at www.silentplanetrecords.com. It’s worth it.
* * * * *
Look at how much space I’ve used up, and I haven’t even gotten to the really good stuff yet.
Steve Hindalong told a great story at the Choir’s acoustic show on Thursday. Hindalong has two daughters, 11-year-old Erin and 13-year-old Emily. One evening while the family was out at a restaurant, Erin asked innocently, “Do you think anyone will come up and want to get Daddy’s autograph?”
To which Emily responded, “Oh, Erin, the Choir used to be popular, but now Derri and Dad are just two old men walking around.”
Old they may be, but they sounded great. The Choir was the only major band at C-Stone without a new album to plug, but I wanted to mention them anyway, because seeing them live has been a decade-long dream of mine, and I got to do it twice, and they didn’t disappoint. The acoustic set was great, featuring a revved-up “To Cover You” and a stripped -down “Yellow Skies.” Hindalong proved himself as one of the great drummers once again, eschewing the full drum kit for one snare, one tom and a tambourine between his knees. The full electric show was amazing, with guitarist Derri Daugherty showing just how much noise he can make. In a break with tradition, they started with “Restore My Soul” and came crashing to a conclusion with an extended “Circle Slide.” Dream come true.
* * * * *
Terry Taylor starts every show with an obnoxious, throaty, bellowed, “Howareya?” He got four chances to use that line at C-Stone: two Lost Dogs shows, a solo set and a fan-freakin’-tastic concert with his band Daniel Amos. Throughout the DA show, Taylor made reference to the age of his fans, playing mostly old stuff from the Alarma Chronicles (1981-86), and he only managed to get the lethargic audience to its feet for the mandatory participation number “Dance Stop.” Still, they rocked, securing the spot for second-best show I saw at Cornerstone, and it was really cool to hear old favorites like “New Car” and “Travelog” alongside soon-to-be-classics from the new album Mr. Buechner’s Dream, like “Author of the Story” and “Joel.”
The Dogs were similarly wonderful, playing up the kvetching rock star schtick they’ve been perfecting for years. “We used to play the big rooms,” Taylor said, to which Mike Roe instantly replied, “We used to play the big tents, too. Now we just wear ’em.” There should be a new Lost Dogs album out by the end of the year, although they played nothing from it. “Bullet Train” was great, though, and they dedicated the mournful “The Great Divide” to their fellow Dog, the Late, Great Gene Eugene.
Taylor has two new pieces of music, although one of them takes some explaining. In 1995, Daniel Amos released their most misunderstood album, the conceptual Songs of the Heart. It’s the story of Bud and Irma Akendorf, an aging couple who decides to take one last trip across America. The songs are simple yet strange, and most people (or most of that small number who heard it) just didn’t get it. Complicating the matter further was Taylor’s decision to play the part of Bud Akendorf vocally, adopting a low, rumbling, weary tone throughout. Many thought he’d simply lost his vocal range, not paying attention to the fact that he did all the high harmonies himself as well.
At any rate, Songs has remained the weird cousin to the rest of DA’s output, and Taylor has decided to rectify that a bit. Hence, the three-CD book set When Everyone Wore Hats, a reinterpretation and explanation of the Songs of the Heart album. Taylor has done a good job of making this relatively inscrutable project accessible. In addition to the original Songs album, you get a complete reinvention of same on disc two – acoustic arrangements with the full range of Taylor’s vocals. You also get two new songs, and Taylor reading selections from the 100-page book, on disc three. He’s done everything he can do to invite you in.
Does it work? Largely, yeah. I came away from Hats with a greater understanding and appreciation of Songs of the Heart, both of its original concept and of how short it falls of conveying that concept. Nearly without exception, the new acoustic arrangements work better than the originals, since the focus is more on the fantastic lyrics, and Taylor actually sings. “When Everyone Wore Hats” itself is a great song, with a lyric to die for – a particularly unsentimental salute to his father’s generation. (“When everyone wore hats, in the land of immigrants and pilgrims, the world came rolling off their backs and landed on their children’s.”) The original suffered from overproduction and that low, uninspiring vocal, but the new version is clean and perfect. Taylor leaps into falsetto for the chorus, which finally soars as much as it always should have.
In fact, even lesser songs like “The Organ Bar” benefit from the new arrangements, and when it comes to tunes that were already swell, like “Loveland” and “Get Back Into the Bus, Aloha,” the new settings take the songs to another level. Still, I’m glad that both versions of the album are included in Hats, if for no other reason than to have the full band cover of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” that opened the original. When Everyone Wore Hats is a successful reworking of a fairly unsuccessful album, one that will never be my favorite DA record, but one that has moved up a few notches because of this effort. I’d say that makes it time well spent.
At his solo show, Taylor played the entirety of his second new album, the six-song solo EP LITTLE, big. Thanks to a bizarre backing track setup, the show sounded exactly like the album, which is covered in synthesized instrumentation like a miniature low-budget Pet Sounds. Which isn’t far off, since Taylor has said he was inspired by his participation in the Brian Wilson tribute. Horns, strings, whistles, bird noises and bells come flitting in and out of all six songs, which are set to electronic drums and synth beds.
And true to its title, LITTLE, big is a study in dichotomy. The songs themselves are small, concerning mundane matters like family life, good friends and clever cats, but the sound is huge, nearly full to bursting. It’s an epic about tiny things that comes in at roughly 20 minutes, and fittingly enough, half of it is excellent, while the other half is less successful. “Molly Is a Metaphor” is a great name for a song, just not this song, all about the family feline, and the unabashed sentimentality of “Oh, Sweet Companion” and “Rob’s and Carolee’s” stays on one level. Taylor usually delves deeper than this.
But the other half, though – the title track is a mini Brian Wilson suite complete with harmonies and crashing percussion, “Lovely Lilly Lou” revels in its silly alliterative nature while bopping along to a Beatlesque groove, and the closer, “Mama’s In the Desert, Daddy’s In the Sky,” is a treasure. Taylor lost his father two years ago, and this song is the first time he’s dealt with that head-on. It’s a sad, sweet love song for his mother, one in which Taylor lays himself bare once again, reminding you that when he’s inspired, he’s practically peerless. All by itself, that song is worth buying LITTLE, big. (And yes, there is a full-length album on the way called Big.)
Get both new records, and a host of other stuff, at www.danielamos.com. If you haven’t heard the band before, a good starting point is the incredible new album, Mr. Buechner’s Dream.
* * * * *
It would take a truly great concert to outdo Daniel Amos, but the following night, the 77s did just that.
I don’t care if any of you reading this ever make it to Cornerstone, though I hope I’ve made it sound somewhat appealing. But if you can, try to catch the 77s live somewhere. They’re the best band that no one in America knows, a rollicking three-piece that can stop on a dime, led by a guy who ranks as one of my two favorite guitarists, Michael Roe. For those of you sick of hearing about the guy, the hope is that I’ll nag you into at least trying one of his more than 20 superb albums, or into catching him on stage someday. If you’ve never trusted me on anything before, trust me on this guy. He’s amazing.
The 77s put on the best damn rock ‘n’ roll show I’ve ever seen, crashing from the powerhouse “Woody” through the punishing “Rocks In Your Head” to the encore, a note-perfect rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Now, think about that for a second – Zep’s version is arranged for four players, which means that Roe played Jimmy’s part and sang Robert’s part at the same time. Meanwhile, bassist Mark Harmon and drummer Bruce Spencer hung together with Roe like a well-tuned machine.
Midway through the show, the band played all of their new EP, Direct. Man, what a disc this is. In six awesome songs, the 77s outdid their whole last album, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows. It’s softer and sweeter than that album, for one thing, and trades in melody and nuance more than the band has done in a while. The new single, “Dig My Heels,” would be a smash hit if Tom Petty sang it, and that acoustic number cascades into the near-epic “Lifeline” and the Grateful Dead-ish jam “Take Your Mind Off It.” Also outstanding are the electrified opener, “Born on Separate Days,” and the love song “Perfect,” which is. Oh yeah, and the acoustic “Roesbud” (not a typo) is great as well. Direct is too short, certainly, but it ranks as one of my favorite 77s discs.
If that had been all Roe released this year, I’d be fine with it, but he had to go and make two more albums worthy of attention. The first is the second installment in his and Mark Harmon’s instrumental series, which began with Daydream. The new one is nothing like that one. It’s called Orbis, and it’s the work of insane men. It’s doused in fluttering electronic drums, clanging keys and some of Roe’s most bizarre guitar playing. It tells the story of a space mission gone awry in 74 mindboggling minutes, and though it plays like one long composition, there are songs, with titles like “Mars Bars,” “Spaceman 7” and “Funky Planet.” The centerpiece is the 16-minute “Some Young Moon,” a beautiful ambient exploration that shows off a previously unheard side of Roe. Sure, it’s self-indulgent, but it’s also splendid.
And finally, there’s the real prize, a 27-minute solo EP called Say Your Prayers. I’ve been waiting for Roe to make an album like this since first hearing his acoustic live set It’s For You. Prayers is just Roe and his acoustic, exploring all sides of his personality (as embodied in the title, which evokes both spirituality and an impending right hook). The results are fragile and beautiful, and remind me of nothing more than the album that inspired this column’s name, Simon and Garfunkel’s Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.
Highlights include “The Itch is Back,” an ode to learning to live; “Sunshine Down,” a sweet song that contains, as Roe said, “the stupidest lyrics he’s ever written, so sing along”; and the title song, the dreaded Song For His Daughter, that he somehow manages to make indelible. (It even includes a sly stab at the censored title of his 1992 album, Pray Naked: “Say them clothed, say them bare, say them in your underwear…”) Every song here is worth treasuring, though, from the sad reverie of “20 Years Gone” to the sarcasm of “Lutheran Hymn” to the flat-out prayer of “Hobo Messiah,” which concludes with the refrain, “Come and see that love is good.” Yes, it is, and so is this album, another shining standout in a career full of them. Michael Roe’s guitar and voice could make a deaf man weep, and will break your heart even if you don’t think you have any heart left to break.
* * * * *
One final grace note: For the last concert of my festival, I caught Sixpence None the Richer on the main stage, who played all of their new album, Divine Discontent, out on September 24. It’s beautiful, especially the closing number, and it provided the perfect capper to a week of wonders.
Thanks for plowing through this enormous set of reviews. We’ll be back to regular size next week, with a look at the new Counting Crows, among others.
See you in line Tuesday morning.