Which is good news for the many fans in Iowa who have been following his career. He wrapped up 2017 with a couple of shows: one at the Mill in November with a lineup that included new sidemen Matthew Bernemann on drums and Randal Davis on guitar in addition to original 90’s Backsliders band member Marty Christensen on bass. A late December show at The Octopus in Cedar Falls replaced Bernemann with longtime drummer Steve Hayes. These were both amazing shows with Bo in excellent form and clearly really enjoying himself.
Bo is playing with different band lineups and he also pulled in some deeper catalog songs for those shows, and it will be interesting to see if they stay in. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard songs like “On The Range” (from 1988’s Either Way). These have been the first shows that Bo has brought out the songs from his 2016 album Wildwood Calling. These instrumental tracks have been used to open the sets and do a fantastic job of adding some mood and atmospherics to the show.
2017 to me felt like a transition year in many ways– personally, politically, culturally and certainly musically. For me personally 2017 will represent the year that my wife and I made the biggest steps away from 2011 when I was unemployed for eight months following a 13-year run in IT middle management. We bought a house after renting for over six years– the house hunt was a crazy one with lots of ups and downs. But we found a house that we love and it ends up being kind of perfect for being a place our grandson can come hang out and listen to records with Papa.
2017 was another year in a troubling pattern of musician deaths. The biggest of these is the unexpected passing of Tom Petty which for me was as big a loss as Prince was in 2016. I discovered Petty in 1986 with the release of Southern Accents. Although I had heard the big singles on the radio up to that, Southern Accents was released when I was searching for music that spoke to me. In that regard I look at Tom Petty as being “my Beatles.” The Beatles were a big part of my musical rearing, but they were already broken up by the time I started striking out on my own musical tastes. Petty was someone whose career set a benchmark for everyone who made guitar driven rootsy rock and roll. Petty continues to be something I can put on at any time and never tire of listening to. I was fortunate to be able to see him during his 40th Anniversary tour this summer in Des Moines and it was kind of full-circle as I was there with my dad and my brothers– just about 30 years after the first Tom Petty concert we saw in Chicago.
As far as new notable albums for 2017, I’m kind of out in left field again. My other writing gig as album reviewer for Little Village Magazine ends up determining what I listen to the most at any given time as I crash-listen to new Iowa-based or related albums and that is reflected again in my list. That said, these are all really strong releases that hold up against the deluge of new major releases. Albums that others are including in their lists that I probably need to give at least a cursory listen to include the new Foo Fighters album Concrete and Gold, Queens of the Stone Age’s Villains, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Some releases that nearly made the list were the new National album, the new Fleet Foxes album, and the new War on Drugs.
Here’s my Top 20 for 2017 (In no particular order):
Beth Bombara – Map & No Direction – Beth Bombara has been cranking out really solid albums for a while now. She’s a gifted songwriter and musician and her releases are always really strong. With her 2017 album, she has taken her spin on folk, Americana and rock and turned the “rock” knob up a bit putting out a record that is up there with the best releases Sheryl Crow put out. Bombara is kicking off 2018 with her first tour of Europe which will give her more deserved exposure.
Pieta Brown – Postcards – Brown’s latest album is a collection of “musical postcards” which are made up of collaborations with folks like Calexico, Mark Knopfler, The Pines and David Lindley. The resulting album still sounds like a Pieta Brown album which is always a good thing. You can read my interview with Brown for Little Village Magazine here.
Charlie Parr – Dog – Dog is Charlie Parr‘s second release for Red House Records and he’s continuing the full band trend for releases. Dog doesn’t have Phil Cook and friends behind him like Stumpjumper did, but the album still has the same energy and blistering slide guitar and picking we’ve come to expect from Parr.
Crystal City – Bartenderly – Iowa City’s Crystal City is primarily the duo of Dave Helmer and Sam Drella who stylistically occupy an intersection somewhere between John Prine and Paul Westerberg. Their latest album Bartenderly is a celebratory salvo of headbuzz rock for the bruised blue collar. You can read my review for Little Village Magazine here.
Deer Tick – Deer Tick 1 & 2 – This couple of albums from Deer Tick is as close to a #1 as I’m willing to commit to on this list. Aside from John McCauley’s stint in the supergroup of Middle Brother with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit I really hadn’t listened to any Deer Tick until this two LP release this year. The band took a four-year hiatus while the members did things like start families. They came back together and pulled a Use-Your-Illusion two album release this year. The band says that these are not to be considered as one release, but really it would be tough choice to only buy one of them. The band said that they were always kind of two bands: an acoustic folk band or an electric rock band. So, this is what we got, an acoustic album in Vol 1 and a rock album in Vol 2. These records are both full of brilliant songs– no filler (unlike the Guns ‘n’ Roses pair mentioned earlier).
SUSTO – & I’m Fine Today – SUSTO is a “friend of Codfish Hollow” band that’s played there a few times and I managed to catch them during the first GARP Festival in 2016 and was really impressed. They played a few songs from this album, so I was interested in hearing it when it came out this year. & I’m Fine Today is an album that slides around stylistically with ease and comfort making this album musically more interesting than their previous releases to me. This album was on a very regular rotation for me in 2017 and one that I never get tired of spinning. The song that rips me up every time I listen to it is what I consider to be the spiritual successor to “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat : “Gay In The South.” Brilliant song.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow – If you’ve been following my Year End posts, it shouldn’t be surprising to see this album on here, since M.C. Taylor has been a favorite of mine since before he launched Hiss Golden Messenger. His partnership with Merge Records and with Phil and Brad Cook (formerly of Megafaun) has created a music juggernaut: touring nearly incessantly and creating four albums in three years of head-nodding rhythm and groove albums which draw inspiration from the golden era of Van the Man and The Dead. Releasing Hallelujah Anyhow so soon on the heels of the double album Heart Like A Levee and Vestapol is counter-intuitive based on the typical album release/tour/album release cycle. Taylor said that when he and manager Brad Cook were talking about wanting to release an album right away, they thought it felt good to do it and Merge was amenable to the idea, and certainly it was the right time because this album fires on all cylinders.
Game Theory – Supercalifragile – Prior to his unexpected passing in 2013, Scott Miller of Game Theory and The Loud Family was working on a new album of collaborations. To be titled Supercalifragile, it was going to be the first album of songs under the Game Theory moniker since the 1988 album Two Steps from the Middle Ages (itself was reissued in 2017 as part of the massive Omnivore Records reissue campaign). Miller’s wife Kristine took the mantle of finishing the album by taking the notes and her memories of what he had planned and called in friends, former bandmembers and collaborators in to finish the album. The songs were in varying degrees of completeness: some had demo recordings Miller had created, some just notes. The resulting album is bittersweet: equal parts official posthumous release and tribute to the fallen songwriter. I find it to be a fitting closure. You can read my post on this site here.
Grateful Dead – Cornell 5/8/77 – When the Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux announced that Cornell 77 was going to be released as a Dead Archives official release, I was really excited (as many were). Cornell was one of the first full Dead tapes I ever heard and was really amazed by how good it sounded– both performance and recording itself. I had pretty much been avoiding Dead tapes due to how much of a mixed bag they were. As luck would have it, one of the early peer-to-peer trading networks (pre-dimeadozen) had the full cache of the Betty Boards tapes, which included the legendary 5/8/77 show. These were early rips of the reel-to-reels done by a close-knit group of Dead fans who bought the contents of the storage facility that she’d let lapse. Eventually the Dead pulled electronic trading of soundboards, but I had the show I cared about downloaded. I managed to snag one of the 5 LP box sets of which 7700 were pressed used on eBay. It had a crumpled box corner, but the contents were in fantastic shape. They did a fantastic job of cleaning up this recording and somehow even fixing the first missing couple of minutes. The bootleg that circulated had spliced in part of an audience recording which created a really annoying transition. The box has has re-energized my interest in the Dead, and I’ve added some LPs to my vinyl collection and I’ll continue to do that, I’m sure.
Ryan Adams – Prisoner B-Sides – 2017 brought the newest album from Ryan Adams titled Prisoner. It was his third release since his signing to Blue Note Records, and second album of original work (his full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 was also on Blue Note). In many ways Prisoner was kind of self-titled part 2. Most of the songs to me seemed like outtakes from Ryan Adams. Pretty good, but ultimately just more of the same 80’s influenced power pop mixed his trademarked Americana. For me, Adams is most interesting when he’s experimenting, and to that end, the massive 17-track collection of “B-Sides” from Prisoner is far more satisfying a listen. He still brings on the Smiths-influence here, but I just like the songs more. The B-Sides were released as a box set of 7-inch singles (that I should consider picking up at some point) and digital download. I’d love to see the 17 tracks released as a 2 LP (hint, hint Blue Note).
Loess – Pocosin – 2017 brought the glorious reunion of Clay Emerson and Ian Pullman as Loess. Their particular spin on electronic music comes from the Boards of Canada and early Autechre diced up and distorted ambient influence. I have loved everything that Loess has put out and Pocosin was an exciting addition for me this year. You can read my article about the release here.
Gloom Balloon – Drying the Eyes of the Goddess of Gloom, Underneath the Stars and the Moon – Gloom Balloon is the moniker for Des Moines producer/artist/label head Patrick Tape Fleming. This album ends up being kind of the sonic brother from another mother of Christoper The Conquered’s album I’ve Given Up on Rock and Roll. I love this record– it sits somewhere around The Flaming Lips and ELO for experimentation and bombast at times. My review for Little Village is a good place to start reading about what I think.
Har-di-Har — we will will you – Julie and Andrew Thoreen released their first full length album as Har-di-Har in 2017. They used to live in Cedar Falls, but relocated to St. Paul a few years ago. we will will you is an album that captures a marriage in a precarious state of doubt. The resulting album is a compellingly personal album featuring their signature vocal harmonies and spiderwebby chord and percussion infrastructure.
The Pines – Pasture II – The Pines returned with a second EP of covers. This time we get covers of a Bo Ramsey and a Pieta Brown tune. Read my review for Little Village here.
TIRES – LP1 – Phil Young is in a whole bunch of bands in and around Des Moines including The Wheelers. His instrumental side project TIRES put out their debut album in early 2017. It comes from the same “emergency rock” post rock space as bands like Trans Am and Cougar and I dig it a lot. The vinyl has a hand-screened cover, which is really cool. Here is my review for Little Village.
Colleen – Vol. 1 – Cedar Rapids synthpop duo Colleen put out their debut EP in 2017. Reminds me of Polica or Portishead. They have a new EP already recorded and should come out pretty soon. Read my review for Little Village Magazine.
NAOMI – Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish – Iowa band NAOMI is named after its lead singer and cranks out “snarky pop rock” which is as apt a description of the proceedings as any. A fun, anthemic guitar driven album that picks up where Avril Lavigne and No Doubt left off in the early oughts. Check my review for Little Village here.
Ryne Doughty – Date Night – Ryne Doughty has been crafting is particular singer-songwriter folk for a few years. I happened to catch him opening for The Pines at CSPS a while ago. He openly admits to worshiping at the temple of Greg Brown and that influence is obvious, but he’s got his own style and really we don’t have enough of the storytelling songwriters around. Read my review of Date Night for Little Village.
The Dawn – Wooly – The Dawn are the jam band ambassadors for the Quad Cities. Their latest album Wooly is the first for Cartouche Records and, I think is a bit of a departure for them. Wooly draws more R&B influences– specifically Prince into the mix which makes this album my favorite of their catalog to date. Here is my review for Little Village.
Friday night (12/1) Pieta Brown is returning to CSPS in Cedar Rapids. It’s her last live show of the year and she’s bringing Bo Ramsey and Marty Christensen as “Sawdust Collective.” Pieta’s shows at CSPS are a rare magical combination of artist, audience and venue and are some of the best shows I’ve seen of hers.
It just came together really seamlessly and it just happened. I started reaching out to some people — kind of wishful thinking people I would want to record with. You know I was really touched and honestly really inspired and kind of encouraged by getting the energy and the super-willingness right back at a time when I was struggling to figure out how to even afford to move forward and make another album. So, it was cool timing. And, it was really neat to do it here and I had never really recorded like that either. Which is to say that all of my other recordings have been recorded in a few days in a row with a live band, with everybody playing together. Maybe rehearse the songs one at a time or maybe have a day of rehearsal and then go in and cut the songs. Very experimental and not a lot of room for getting it exactly right so to speak. [laughs] One thing that was cool was just singing by myself with my guitar — I just have never really recorded that way except for a track here or there.
Though some would debate this, it’s my opinion that American Idol’s Season 9 in 2010 was the last season worth watching. The winning chemistry of American Idol to me was always a combination of the judges and the talent, and 2010 was the year that Paula Abdul was no longer a judge and in 2011, show creator and longtime judge Simon Cowell was gone. My wife and I– longtime followers of Idol– didn’t tune in for Season 10.. Over the nine years that we watched, there have been standouts in the talent, Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Season Five’s edge-of-the-seat powerhouse of Chris Daughtry/ Katherine McPhee/ Kellie Pickler/ Elliott Yasmin, Jordin Sparks, David Archuleta, David Cook and Chris Allen. One of my favorites for that nine-year run was Ohio native, by way of Chicago Crystal Bowersox. Though most of the highlights of American Idol have been squarely Top 40 types, Bowersox was an honest-to-goodness songwriter who could play and sing. She, with her slightly crunchy hippy personae topped with questionable dreadlocks, came off somehow as an underdog contender that I had hoped would take the top honors, but complications related to her Type-I diabetes (of which she is a spokesperson) cost her the top spot (Though, it could be argued that taking the top spot doesn’t always help your career– I’m looking at you Ruben Studdard and David Cook).
Since Idol, Bowersox has released three albums, with her most recent full-length All That For This released in 2013 and produced by reknowned Los Lobos member and producer Steve Berlin and features guest Jakob Dylan. Notably, she also shed her dreadlocks in 2013. Her most recent release is a self-released 7-track EP titled Promises. It’s difficult to glean what her next steps will be in her career based on her website, but she’s touring quite a bit. I’m certainly interested to see her live. Check out this great performance of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah.”
Crystal Bowersox will be performing for the 2nd time at CSPS this Friday night with a small band. The show is at 8PM (the doors and box office generally open an hour before) at tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door (if there are any left). You can purchase tickets at the CSPS box office or online. Details at the Legion Arts website.
The last two times California Guitar Trio played CSPS they were heralding new eras for the venue. Their October 2008 show was the first show in CSPS since the Flood. They generously donated parts of the proceeds of the show to CSPS. Their 2012 show was after CSPS was re-opened following the substantial overhaul of the venue. So, it is certainly fitting that California Guitar Trio is back playing CSPS in 2016– the 125th year the venue has been in existence. Coincidentally, it is the 25th year of the Trio!
The band has been back in the studio working on a new album– their first since Masterworks, their 2011 album of classical music. The recording is complete, and mixing, mastering and the rest of the release process is left to do, so they’re going to do a Kickstarter to get that funded. Some of the perks from that Kickstarter include a DVD of rare video performances from the band’s archives!
The trio always sounds amazing in CSPS, so this is a show not-to-miss!
Wed Aug 3 2016 – 7:00 pm • CSPS Hall
$17 advance | $21 door
To add to the things we’re thankful for this year, The Pines are making a return to CSPS Thanksgiving Weekend! The combination of the soft atmospheric folk of this band and the passionate, attentive crowds and the huge ambience of the room (and frankly, well stocked selection of handcrafted beers and local wines) always makes for a memorable not-to-miss show.
Above The Prairie includes help from the extended Ramsey and Brown families with contributions from Greg Brown, Iris DeMent, Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey, who also co-produced the album with The Pines. The first listen we’re getting from the new album is “Aerial Ocean” with Benson Ramsey on lead vocals, it has all of the trademark nuances of The Pines– the chimey clean picking, the washes of synths, but owes a lot to classic Dire Straits. But, they always kind of had that same vibe as mellow Mark Knopfler as well as JJ Cale.
So, grab a quick sandwich of leftover turkey and dressing on your way out the door to CSPS Saturday night to see The Pines. I can’t think of a better way to cap off the weekend.
Sat Nov 28 2015 – 8:00 pm • CSPS Hall
$16 advance | $19 door
Above The Prairie tracklist:
There in Spirit
Hanging From the Earth
Where Something Wild Still Grows
Come What Is
Time Dreams feat. John Trudell & Quiltman
One of my favorite albums of 2013 was JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound‘s third album Howl. I was already a fan of the band and their cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” was a smart, if calculated play to get some attention from the Indie Rock crowd.
But for me, the more sparse, stripped down– both musically and emotionally– approach of Howl was eye-opening. The album is reminiscent of 80’s soul like Fine Young Cannibals or Terence Trent D’Arby and maybe a little like The Smiths at times (particularly the guitars). The video for “Rouse Yourself” is really great with Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson in it.
JC and band have been in the studio recently working on their fourth album. Brooks told me that they would be performing some of the new songs on their upcoming live dates, which includes a stop in Cedar Rapids at CSPS in New Bohemia on Friday night! This will be the first time I’m seeing the band live, and I can’t think of a better place to catch them. Beautiful, big, room with a cozy bar on the side with great beer on tap and wine. If you haven’t been to CSPS yet this would be a great first show!
Friday, October 23rd CSPS/Legion Arts will be presenting a show I’m really excited about– two Iowa bands with their roots in electronic music– but both taking it to different places.
The opening band, MAIDS, calls themselves “Midwest Disco” and although the music certainly leans to a clubby disco sound, I’m not sure that “Midwest” adds any discernible spin to their music. Danny Heggen and Mickey Davis make something between Postal Service and Four Tet with the occasional Scissor Sister in for dance floor leanings. Midwestern, certainly, since they’re both from Des Moines but for electronic pop it holds its own against anything spun in a dusky, crowded club outside the rows of corn here.
The headliner Jack Lion is one of my favorite bands out of Iowa in the past few years and I’m VERY excited to be able to see them at CSPS as I think they’ll be able to really take advantage of the beautiful acoustics and general vibe of the attentive and warmly supportive crowds. Jack Lion is a jazz trio of trumpet, bass and drums that fuses electronic and ambient creating some really engaging and immersive soundscapes. They’ve released two EP’s so far “JAC” and “K L” and are working on a third (“ION” presumably). I wrote a review of the JAC EP for Little Village last year comparing it favorably to Kieran Hebden of Four Tet’s side project with jazz drummer Steve Reid. When I listen to Jack Lion, I can’t help but think about the experimental directions Miles Davis took and I’d like to think that he might have taken his music in this same direction.
Nellie McKay is in a lot of ways an artist from a different time. Compared to what is generally regarded as “pop music” currently, popular music from the 50’s/60’s and even the 70’s seemed to cut a much wider swath through genres. Jazz, Rock, Country, Folk and American Songbook. In that same spirit Nellie McKay has not been content staying in one genre– even per album in most cases.
For McKay’s sixth album titled My Weekly Reader, she opted to dive into the rich catalog of 60’s pop and rock and create an album of covers that demonstrates her incredible musical chops and catalog knowledge as well as presents the songs with her unique and smart sense of subtle irony and humor. While I really appreciate her original music more, the opportunity to see her dive into covers (as she did on her album of Doris Day covers Normal as Blueberry Pie) also reveals her influences.
And I haven’t even mentioned her stints on Broadway and film!
McKay is bringing her solo show back to Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, April 28th. She was here in September of 2012 (which is where the picture above was taken). Her shows are a lot of fun– she’s a great artist, musician and wonderful singer. Her adopted stage personae at first seems a little scatterbrained, but she uses that disarming “aw-shucks” delivery to make some sharp and thoughtful commentary about everything from veganism to feminism to current politics. When she performed last time, she improvised a cute song about Iowa.
She was interviewed recently on NBC 4 in New York City about her new album:
She is a performer who continues to impress me and we are fortunate that she chooses the big stage at CSPS to bring her show. Don’t sleep on this!
I’m pretty excited about the lineup for Saturday night at CSPS– both bands put on great live shows, and we’re lucky to get them here in Cedar Rapids. Oh, and Twins will be bringing vinyl! In between sets DJ Tone Zone will be spinning records.
Sounds like a great night, doesn’t it? See you there!
The Surf Zombies with TWINS and DJ Tone Zone will start at 8PM on Saturday, April 26th. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door.