In the middle of her solo performance at The Mill in Iowa City Thursday night, Pieta said to the small crowd, “It’s like I’m playing to you in my living room!” Pieta was referring to the small crowd on Thursday night, but the stage was adorned with a chair and nightstand as well as lamps and an old dress form giving the stage a homey touch with lighting designed by Stan Crocker, who has done a lot of lighting design for TV shows like CMT’s Crossroads.
Last night was the first night of a three-week artist-in-residency at the Mill Restaurant in Iowa City of Pieta Brown. As stated earlier, the This Land Is Your Music series is showcasing Pieta Brown’s music but also includes other musicians from the area as well as other artists. Pieta stated in an interview with Ben Kieffer on IPR’s The Exchange that she wanted to take the opportunity to try out her music– new music and old in different configurations– solo, duo and full-band. She feels that The Mill was is a good place for her to try out new material which will be drawn from her new EP on Red House Shimmer, as well as songs that she is recording for her next full-length to come out next spring.
Last night’s show featured Pieta performing solo with Bo Ramsey’s son Alex Ramsey opening. In the back-room gallery the art of Pieta’s sister Zoe Brown and photographs by Dustin Busch were on exhibit. A last-minute addition to the lineup were three writers from the University of Iowa International Writing Program reading their short stories.
Alex Ramsey has contributed his keyboard skills to a number of Eastern Iowa music releases including a two records from the Pines as well as the last couple of Bo Ramsey albums but to date he hasn’t had much exposure as a solo artist. I made the very incorrect assumption that Alex, like his brother Benson would provide a sound that draws from the folk and country blues that is identified with so many artists from our area. Alex played a set of original piano-driven music that reminded me at times of Radiohead’s piano-focused songs but I would also compare it to the late Epic Soundtracks. It’s the slightly off-kilter but soulful vocal combined with the piano that brought me back to 1991’s Rise Above. Alex’s set was a combination of vocal and instrumental songs– most of which were described as works-in-progress. Alex performed three covers– one by Dr. Dog– “Livin’ A Dream,” a relatively obscure John Lennon track “Mr. Hyde’s Gone (Don’t Be Afraid)” which I think is only included on the Anthology box as a home demo, and he wrapped up his set with “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” by Fiona Apple. He said during the show that he wished he had a CD he could sell us– I do, too!
Following Alex was three participants in the International Writing Program reading their own short stories. I wasn’t able to catch their names, but one of them was Maxine Case from South Africa who read her short story “Homing Pigeons” (exerpt here). Another writer was Garcia Groyon from the Philippines. I can’t identify the first writer from the pictures. I think it was pretty cool that they were able to participate– it reminded me of the incredible resource the U of I writing program is.
Up next was Pieta who set out to do a solo set, but ended up adding in some special guests towards the end of it. I’d never seen her perform solo before, so it was a treat to hear how her guitar work changes to fill in the missing guitar parts typically provided by Bo Ramsey. She’s not a flashy lead guitarist, but I was impressed with her ability to drop in a arpeggiated chord or two to round the songs out. “New songs and new guitars– probably not an advisable combination” she quipped at one point– apparently she had all new guitars in tow. The last time I saw her she mentioned that she was getting her own Reverend Flatroc, so this time the guitar was here. In a pretty butterscotchish color apparently called “Rock Orange.”
The set was a pretty good mix recent songs, older songs and new songs as she set out to do. Curiously, she only did one song from her upcoming EP Shimmer– “You’re My Lover Now”– which seems to be the “single” if there was one. Of course, the Shimmer songs were recorded back in March and she said that she just got back from recording songs for her full length, so possibly these are fresher to her. She told me that she doesn’t really hit the stage with a setlist in mind. Three of the songs were from her self-released Flight Time EP with just one track from Remember the Sun and her arrangement of the traditional “Little Sparrow” from her I Never Told EP. She dropped in her version of the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” and “Calling All Angels” which she did as part of her KCRW session back in 2007.
We were blessed with some new songs that all sound like they have some potential in the studio. “The Other Way Around” and “It Wasn’t That” were new songs to me. She also did “Faller” which I had heard when she did her show at the Mill with a full band back in June.
After the first nine songs she decided to invite her sister Constie Brown up to sing on “Remember the Sun” and “Just” and then she invited Dustin Busch up to the stage to provide some slide guitar to “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” and “Harry’s Blues.” Pieta said that her original plan was to play all of the instruments she had on stage by herself as she handed Dustin the Flatroc and a slide. She added that growing up music was always about getting people together to play. Dustin quickly adapted to the guitar and provided some nice accompaniment to Pieta. I’m looking forward to seeing his opening set at the This Land Is Your Music show on 11/19.
The backroom gallery was the back area of the restaurant that could be closed off and I think is sometimes used as a “backstage” area for bands. In its capacity of art gallery it was able to have some lighting to show the paintings of Zoe Brown and the photos of Dustin Busch. The gallery seemed to enjoy a pretty constant flow of people.
I like Zoe’s paintings quite a bit– you can see more of them in my slideshow below or at the flickr.com set. She’s not afraid of big expanses of color. Dustin’s double-exposureish photos were pretty cool, too. I would have liked to see more of them and maybe larger.
Ultimately, I think this is a really cool thing that Pieta is trying to put together. The idea is pure– bring the regional art together in celebration and give back. I think in our Internet-enabled era where we find our art and culture on a nearly boundless territory we often forget that there are artists in our own backyard that are worth supporting.
If you are available on either of the next two Thursday nights– 11/12 and 11/19– make the effort to come out. These are guaranteed to be loose, fun shows as Pieta considers the Mill to be her home turf.
The 11/12 show has Bo Ramsey opening and supporting her in her set with a gallery of Codi Josephson’s work. The 11/19 show will have Dustin Busch opening with Pieta fronting a full band that, billed as “Skyrocket,” I believe will have Jon Penner, Steve Hayes and Al Shares (I think). The gallery on the 19th will be a installation of photographs of Iowa photographer and supporter of the local scene Sandy Dyas.
The cover is $10 will proceeds going to support Iowa Public Radio, KCCK, and the Friends of Hickory Hill. Doors are at 7PM with the show starting at 8PM.
Other Way Around*
It Wasn’t That*
Calling All Angels
Gravel Road Blues (Joe Price Cover)
You’re My Lover Now
Remember the Sun (with Constie Brown)
Just (with Constie Brown)
Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (with Dustin Busch)
Harry’s Blues (with Dustin Busch) (Mississippi Fred McDowell Cover)
Here is some video I shot with my iPhone:
Alex Ramsey performs “Waltz (Better Than Fine)”
Here is a link to my flickr.com photoset of the show
Here is a slideshow of the pictures
Click Here to go to The Mill Restaurant Calendar for the details on the show.
Click Here to read my review of the 11/12 This Land is Your Music Show.
Click Here to read my review of the 11/19 This Land is Your Music Show.