Posts Tagged With: Chip Robinson

Showtime’s coming

Losering2So the second “Losering” tribute show is coming up, happening April 11 at Deep South The Bar in downtown Raleigh. And as if you needed another excuse to go, it’s going to be a benefit for the Food Bank of Eastern North Carolina. No, we’re not expecting Ryan himself to show up, but it will be a very fine lineup and most likely another sellout. So don’t sleep on getting tickets.

I’m also happy to report that this is not the only Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown tribute show in the works at Deep South. Coming later this summer will be an event paying homage to the definitive Whiskeytown album, Strangers Almanac. The date for this show is not yet settled, but it will probably happen somewhere around the anniversary of the album’s original release date (which was July 29, 1997). Stay tuned.

PrineEddieWhile I’m at it, there’s also a tribute show inspired by my man Eddie Huffman’s John Prine biography, “In Spite of Himself,” which will be in stores March 15. “A Tribute to John Prine” happens May 17 at Doodad Farm in Greensboro with performers including Chip Robinson, John Howie, Michael Rank, Caleb Caudle, Jon Shain, Danny Gotham and tons more. This, too,ReadLocal1 is a benefit – for Voices Together, a super-cool non-profit in Durham that serves children and adults with disabilities.

I’m not sure I’ll make it to the May 17 Prine tribute show because I’ll be on a music-writing panel at the Read Local Book Festival in Durham that same day. But I hope to be at one of Eddie’s bookstore readings, mostly likely Durham’s Regulator on March 25. He’ll also be at Scuppernong in Greensboro on April 10. Check his book blog for particulars on that.

PrineTributeShow.

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Ryan Adams picks up Bloodshot, while the NC Music Love Army sticks to the plan

BS20Ryan Adams released just one full-length on Bloodshot Records, but that album was a doozy — his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, which (as recounted in chapter 12 of “Losering”) cracked 300,000 copies in U.S. sales. That’s the Chicago-based alternative-country label’s commercial high-water mark by far, with albums by Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle and Alejandro Escovedo next in line. All these years later, Heartbreaker remains Bloodshot’s top seller even though the label’s licensing agreement for it expired last year, which means that Heartbreaker is officially out of print nowadays. That probably won’t be changing anytime soon, either. When I inquired with Ryan’s publicist about whether or not a reissue was in the works, the answer that came back was, “There are no plans that I’m aware of” (and she would know).

Nevertheless, Heartbreaker remains a big part of Bloodshot’s history. So it’s no surprise that its songs dominate While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, a two-disc Bloodshot tribute album set to be released Nov. 18. While No One Was Looking compiles 38 covers of songs from Bloodshot releases, with versions by luminaries including Ted Leo, Handsome Family, Minus Five and the regrettably named (but still quite good) Diarrhea Planet. Four songs on the track list came from Heartbreaker, more than any other album in the Bloodshot catalog:

* “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” — performed by Blitzen Trapper from Portland, Ore. (thanks, Erin!)
* “My Winding Wheel” — Seattle indie-folk duo Ivan & Alyosha
* “Come Pick Me Up” — Superchunk
* “Oh My Sweet Carolina” — San Francisco’s Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

You can listen to the very fine Blitzen Trapper cover below, and the versions of “Sweet Carolina” and “Winding Wheel” are also both quite lovely. But the real revelation is Chapel Hill punk band Superchunk’s “Come Pick Me Up” — take a listen to the stream on Pitchfork — which revs up the original’s dirge pace to a fast and gleeful raveup (stoked by Whiskeytown alumnus Jon Wurster on the drums). Covering Ryan’s Heartbreaker songs is getting to be a thing for Superchunk guitarist Mac McCaughan, who similarly recast “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with his other band Portastatic for another tribute compilation a few years back.



Even beyond the four Heartbreaker songs, Ryan casts a long shadow over the rest of While No One Was Looking. In terms of both songs and performers, the album is littered with Ryan’s former collaborators (Caitlin Cary, Alejandro Escovedo) and rivals (Robbie Fulks, Old 97s). Superchunk isn’t the only act from Ryan’s home state of North Carolina, either; there’s also Hiss Golden Messenger, Dex Romweber Duo and most of all the North Carolina Music Love Army — featuring Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Caitlin, head Backslider Chip Robinson and 6 String Drag’s Kenny Roby — turning Graham Parker’s “Stick to the Plan” into something like an ironic latterday answer to the old Kennedy campaign theme “High Hopes,” describing a certain political party’s apparent we-know-best attitude:

Don’t pay no attention to what the experts say
Too much intelligence gets in the way
Yeah it gets in the way
You know it gets in the way
And if you wanna be happy
Be like Forrest Gump everyday.

NCMLA14The NC Music Love Army has been busy this fall in conjunction with the upcoming midterm elecitons. One of the nation’s marquee contests is North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis — a brutal and interminable campaign that’s on course to be the most expensive in history, with total spending expected to top a staggering $100 million. To raise spirits, awareness and turnout, the Love Army crew has been putting out new songs that can be heard here. The most notable of the new tunes is an environmental anthen called “Senator’s Lament,” in which Caitlin Cary’s fiddle features prominently. The lyrics are below.

“Senator’s Lament”

There are places in the ocean
They are dark and sacred still
We cannot reach them
But we can ruin them
With a greed no sea can fill.

Oh green mountain, her bones are older
Than the pillars of any town
But we move her with our big plans
Dig out her heart and steal her gown.

Oh Carolina, how I love you
And your ever-changing ways
I didn’t see how much I hurt you
I only hope I’m not too late.

There are children in the harvest
Their backs are bent to rain and sun
And we profit while they’re poisoned
When they fall, don’t no one come

There are places in the ocean
That are dark and sacred still
We can’t reach them, but we can leave them
And we can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive…

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Photoshopped spaghetti in the mirror

BSfotoshopI’m in the midst of a hectic stretch right now, but I wanted to share a couple of quick Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown-related tidbits that turned up this week. First up is a poetry blog called Tweetspeak, which publishes a monthly musical playlist as a thematic poetry-writing prompt. June’s theme is “Mirror, Mirror” — and the song of the same name from Whiskeytown’s 2001 Pneumona album is the first of eight tracks listed alongside mirror-titled songs by Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, RJD2 and others. Some of the poetry this prompted is truly beautiful and inspired, too, well worth checking out.

Speaking of inspirational, dig the cool little piece of genius on the right here. Bloodshot Records (former label home of Ryan’s still-out-of-print 2000 album Heartbreaker) is conducting The Eddie Spaghetti Photoshopped Into Anything Challenge; and this is Whiskeytown’s drummer-turned-artist Skillet Gilmore’s entry, featuring the one and only Chip Robinson. The contest deadline is next Friday, June 14, with Supersuckers frontman Spaghetti himself selecting one winner and fans selecting the other via “Like” votes.

If anyone other than Skillet wins this thing, I’ll be stunned…

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More from the supporting cast: Bob Ricker

BobRickerWhen I was interviewing folks for “Losering” a few years back, one of the people I tried but failed to track down was pedal steel player Bob Ricker, who did some stellar work on Whiskeytown’s full-length debut Faithless Street (in fact, I wrote that he was that album’s “unsung hero”). He’d been gone from Raleigh for more than a decade by then, and I asked around; but nobody I queried seemed to know where to reach him, so I had to move on.

Fortuitously, however, I heard from Bob recently after he read the book, and we chatted a bit about the old days. Now 57, Bob has been in Nashville since 2000, working as a telecommunications consultant when he isn’t playing and producing music. But the early ’90s found Bob living in Raleigh while working in Nortel’s Research Triangle Park plant by day, and playing pedal steel guitar around town by night.

At a bookstore in Raleigh one evening, Bob met local musician Jeff Hart — the same Jeff Hart who was ringleader of the 1995 show where I first interviewed Ryan Adams, as recounted in the “Losering” preface — who introduced him to some key people in the scene. Bob played a few shows with the earliest version of Chip Robinson’s Backsliders before falling in with Whiskeytown in 1995, one of a series of pedal-steel players who passed through the lineup as Ryan Adams tried to countrify the sound. Although he was nearly 20 years older than the rest of Whiskeytown, Bob fit in well enough.

“I think the thing that made Whiskeytown work as a band was that it had some pretty intelligent people,” Bob says now. “They’d catch on quick about sharing lead parts, what worked, what didn’t and accepting things that would make it work. And of course, Ryan was just full of songs, which is why he made it where a lot of others didn’t. Some of the parts on [Faithless Street] are just so original, they get to people. I was impressed with Caitlin, too, but most of all Phil. He really made a lot of stuff happen in the studio, and I was impressed at what he came up with at such a young age. There were parts I’d recognize from classic country that I was sure he’d never actually heard, and also some Beatle-ish stuff. That really helped make the whole picture.”

RickerSetlistBob also remembers Ryan coming out to his house to work on songs, and his wife’s reaction when he told her “this kid had it” — “Are you kidding?” But her skepticism ended as soon as she heard them playing together. Bob actually has tapes of some of what they worked on, which I would dearly love to hear. Someday, I hope!

Alas, Bob’s job at Nortel involved enough out-of-town travel that he had difficulty being around for Whiskeytown’s gigs. After the Faithless Street sessions, he stayed through the fall of 1995 (he was onstage at that October’s infamous Berkeley Cafe show where Ryan and Phil teamed up to destroy Ryan’s guitar), but had to bow out before the early-1996 release of Faithless Street. He recently found an old circa-1995 setlist from a Whiskeytown show at the Brewery in a road case, which is on the left. Going on two decades later, he still gets asked about Ryan with some frequency.

“At the time we first met he was still more punkish, but he seemed to want to be more country,” Bob says. “He was always really polite — with me, anyway. We’d work on things and he was like a sponge, taking it all in and adding to it. Nowadays, stories about Ryan are like stories you hear in Nashville from people who played with Elvis. You know, there’s what it was like in the band, and then the legends that grow. But you really could tell right off the bat with him that he knew what he wanted, and how to get there.”

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“Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams” — wish you were here

DMMCBack in Whiskeytown’s prime, I really wanted them to break through to widespread popularity, which seems a bit odd in retrospect. Sure, it would have been fun to watch from close range; but I can’t say why I was rooting for them beyond a vague belief that a large audience was going to provide some measure of validation. There was closure that only a large crowd singing along with “Sixteen Days” was going to provide.

Fittingly and belatedly, that happened last night, sort of. The fine folks at Deep South The Bar in Raleigh put together a tribute show inspired by my book, “Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams,” and I got to emcee. And about halfway through the show, while members of the band Old Quarter were playing “Sixteen Days” — the song I thought was going to be Whiskeytown’s big breakout hit way back in 1997 — I was hollering along with everyone else in the soldout house and feeling chills about the experience.

Ghost has got me running
Away from you, away from you, awaaaaaay…

It was a truly wonderful night, very much a feeling of being among friends and fellow fans; as much a tribute to the milieu Ryan came out of as to Ryan himself. There were multiple highlights, some of which went like this:

Aaron Menconi, shortly before asking why he started that damn country band.

Aaron Menconi, shortly before asking why he started that damn country band.

The Equivocators — Featuring my dear friend Scott Huler, they kicked things off with three songs from Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street album; “Midway Park,” “Hard Luck Story” and the title track. When Scott got to the “started this damn country band” line, I coached my 18-year-old son Aaron to yell out, “Why’d you do that?”

David Teeter (from the band Martha Ann Motel) — He brought out a couple of more recent Ryan solo songs, “Shadowlands” and “Desire.” And to make the absent guest of honor seem more present, David also played the recording of the infamous Jim DeRogatis voicemail, a legendary moment in artist-critic relations. Guffaws all around.

Ryan Kennemur — Continuing in a humorous vein, Ryan gave a nod to Mr. Adams’ touchier side by belting out a bit of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Then he got down to business, and his versions of “Turn Around,” “Avenues” and especially “If He Can’t Have You” were outstanding.

John Booker and Rachel Hirsh (I Was Totally Destroying It) — Major props go to John, who did a fantastic job with booking the acts for this show. And he and his bandmate Rachel did great with four songs — “Everybody Knows,” “Call Me On Your Way Back Home,” “Don’t Be Sad” and “Firecracker.” There was an enthusiastic audience sing-along on the latter song, and John needled me a bit for not giving it and the rest of Ryan’s Gold album sufficient respect in the book. Touche! Danny Johnson, who plays in about a thousand other bands, sat in.

Bobby Bryson — I’d never heard Bobby before, and he might have played my favorite set of the night with stellar versions of “A Kiss Before I Go,” “Let It Ride” (also much audience singing along here) and “Carolina Rain.” He showed absolute command instrumentally as well as vocally, and I loved his stage presence. Afterward, he presented me with a business card carrying the slogan Songs that gently rip your heart out. I believe it.

DeepSouthCharles Marshall and Richard Bolton (Balsa Gliders) — They put a couple of Strangers Almanac-era Whiskeytown classics through some unusual paces, quieting down “Waiting to Derail” and rocking up “Avenues.” Very cool, inventive versions that they clearly put some thought into.

John Massengil, George Hage and Danny Johnson (Old Quarter) — The aforementioned “Sixteen Days” sing-along went over great. So did “Jacksonville Skyline” and a lovely reading of “Houses on the Hill.” Meg Johnson sat in on vocals (and also with Jack the Radio). Felt like being at the Brewery back in the day.

Jack the Radio — Speaking of sing-alongs, there was a raucous one on “Come Pick Me Up,” maybe the most exuberant of the night. “O My Sweet Carolina” and “Lucky Now” rounded it out.

Adam Lane and Jeff Mullins — Ryan Kennemur returned for an exceptionally sweet harmony vocal on “Desperate Ain’t Lonely” (which they rehearsed once, outside in the parking lot, and Ryan had to read the lyrics off his phone — perfect). They also offered up a couple of nice rarities, “Onslow County” and “Oh My Sweet Valentine,” which never fails to put a lump in my throat. Last night was no exception.

Ryan Mullaney and Ashley Gray — Two fine singers teamed up to harmonize on “Desire” and the Gold standard “When the Stars Go Blue” (take that, Tim McGraw).

Wylie Hunter (Wylie Hunter & the Cazadores) — Back to Whiskeytown days with “Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” and Heartbreaker‘s “Be My Winding Wheel.” Really glad to hear both.

ChipNYNYChip Robinson (Backsliders) — He sat at the piano and covered “New York, New York,” reading lyrics he’d scribbled out by hand. Fascinating, weird and pretty great, made even moreso because he was wearing a Wu-Tang Clan T-shirt. I snagged the hand-written lyrics for my archive.

Debonzo Brothers — Jeff and Keef with another long-lost favorite, “Hey There, Mrs. Lovely” (yay!), plus Heartbreaker‘s “In My Time of Need.”

Be The Moon — And in the closing slot, this trio from Burlington offered up the resurrected Whiskeytown song “Am I Unstable.” It was fantastic, featuring box drum and an arrangement that Peter Blackstock’s memory placed in the ballpark of the original (which Whiskeytown only played live once, nearly 13 years ago).

All told, the event raised $579 for the Future of Music Coalition. I could not be happier, and prouder of everyone involved. Thanks to all the musicians, and especially to Deep South impressario Dave Rose for making it happen.

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Backsliders take us back to Hicktopia

HicktopiaSince starting this blog up last summer, I’ve written a time or three about Whiskeytown’s peers the Backsliders and their ongoing return to present-day existence. It’s been great to watch them play live again, because they’ve not lost one iota of awesomeness since their mid-1990s glory days. And while there still aren’t any new recordings in the works beyond the discussion stage, here’s the next best thing: Hicktopia, a five-track EP drawn from the Eric “Roscoe” Ambel-produced sessions that eventually yielded up 1999’s Southern Lines album. Four of Hicktopia’s songs have been in the vaults until now, and this is worth getting for “Angels” alone. It can be had for free here (and there’s a tip jar if you’d like to contribute to their cause).

Meanwhile, Backsliders frontman Chip Robinson is also among the acts on “Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams,” the big tribute show happening May 9 at Deep South The Bar in Raleigh. It’s going to sell out, so don’t sleep on getting tickets.

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Save that date — May 9 for “Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams”

LoseringShowSo things are coming along quite nicely for “Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams,” the tribute show happening May 9 at Deep South The Bar in downtown Raleigh. Dave Rose (impressario of Deep South Entertainment and also author of the music-business book “My Cousin Rick”) and John Booker have been busy putting it together and booking acts. And Dave also designed a great-looking poster for it, which you can see here on the right.

Checking the lineup for new additions, I’m quite happy to see a couple of names on there: my best pal Scott Huler’s band the Equivocators (who also played the after-party for the first reading I did last fall); and also Chip Robinson from Whiskeytown’s peers the Backsliders, which gives this shindig some very cool back-in-the-day cred circa the mid-1990s.

I do hope you’ll come on out if you can, because I’m very excited.

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Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody

Let’s mark the day with one of Ryan’s best songs from the vaults, 1999’s still-unreleased “Oh My Sweet Valentine” (also known as “Petal in a Rainstorm”). The first time I ever heard “Valentine” was Oct. 20 of that year, when it was one of a handful of spellbinding new songs that Ryan played solo at Local 506 in Chapel Hill — a show recounted in Chapter 11 of “Losering.”

Ryan played unaccompanied for most of the night, and Caitlin joined him for the closing stretch. “Valentine” remains among my favorite songs from that period, and I think it’s kind of tragic that it has yet to be properly released all these years later. But for those who care, at least it’s out there.

ADDENDUM: On the flipside of happy Valentine’s Day sentiments is the Love Hangover, an annual multi-city tradition and subject of a Wall Street Journal feature that quotes the aforementioned Caitlin Cary. The Raleigh edition of the 14th annual Love Hangover happens Friday at Kings, and Chip Robinson is among the participants this year.

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Phil Lee: You should have known him then

PhilLeeXMASI’ll never forget the first time I interviewed Phil Lee. It was late 1991, the year I’d moved to Raleigh, and it took place in a trailer park just off Interstate 85 in Durham. Phil was living there in a small silver Airstream that looked like a toaster from the outside, a place that had inspired a shit-hot rocker called “A Night in the Box.” Check out the video, with a spoken-word preface by Phil in full-on Mighty King Of Love mode. Pay attention to the bass player, too. That’s Danny Kurtz, later of the Backsliders and (yes) Whiskeytown.

Some 21 years later, Saturday night found me standing in a parking lot looking over Phil’s shoulder as he scrolled through the pictures on his mobile phone to find this album cover — packaging for an opus coming out in 2013. It was the sort of night that connected straight back to the Whiskeytown era. Phil moved on from Raleigh years ago but never cut his ties, and he was back in town to play a Christmas party at a joint called The Office Tavern. Opening the show was Chip Robinson, last heard from in this space a week ago. The aforementioned Danny Kurtz was back on bass. And the crowd included lots of folks I used to rub elbows with at alternative-country shows around Raleigh back in the day.

I’ve interviewed Phil a good bit over the years, including this 2000 piece (one of my favorites from the No Depression era). Saturday night, Phil was his usual hilarious mix of impishness, swagger and self-deprecation. As always, he was On The Verge. He mentioned a well-known band that was supposed to have played on his new album, which fell through when their frontman called them back to duty; an upcoming movie he’s in, as himself; a live DVD, shot at the fabled North Beach nightspot The Purple Onion — all while holding court with passersby and keeping up a steady line of chatter about stuff like one of his odder recent hobbies. As we talked and he hunted for pictures on his mobile device, a car alarm started going off nearby and we all looked up. Except for Phil. Without missing a beat, he cracked, “Don’t ask,” and we all snickered.

I told Phil he needs to hurry up and get famous, either by lucking into a hit or committing some sordid deed, so that I can write the book. But he just laughed and I did, too. I think we both knew that when the time comes, he’ll write that book himself. Meantime, when he fired up “A Night in the Box” Saturday night, it still rocked pretty formidably two decades on.

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The Backsliders return!

2012-12-15 23.14.05When last heard from back in September, Whiskeytown’s old peers The Backsliders were moving tentatively toward regrouping on a fulltime basis. They played a show as the Howell/Robinson Quartet, and it went well enough that they decided to play again — this time under the Backsliders name, last night at Raleigh’s Pour House. The first “official” Backsliders show in more than nine years, and it was pretty much everything I’d hoped it could be. They flat-out blew the roof off the joint in front of a packed house.

The proceedings began on a thoughtful note with Chip Robinson calling for a moment of silent reflection about the previous day’s horrific events. To my surprise, the audience actually complied. Then the Backsliders fired up the first song of the set, “Yep!,” triggering a mass adrenaline rush that was amazing to witness — and feel. We were all feeling it, too. Ever been overcome with the realization that you’ve been missing something without even realizing it, until the thing in question was suddenly back in your life? That’s what last night felt like.

In this particular instance, it was the combination of Chip’s voice and Steve Howell’s guitar, which still fit together with such bar-band perfection that it felt as if no time at all had gone by. This edition of the Backsliders doesn’t have quite as much guitar firepower as the mid-’90s model with Brad Rice, but Howell more than compensated with a display of the sort of six-string virtuosity you usually see on much, much larger stages. When they hit the one-two punch of “Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon” and “My Baby’s Gone” at about the halfway point, it was an ecstatic moment. Based on the fistbumps and handshakes Howell and Robinson were exchanging, I think you’ll get a chance to see it again real soon.

Yes indeed, the Backsliders are back. Yep!

ADDENDUM: By the way, I’ve also been meaning to post this lovely essay, which expresses with note-perfect grace what the Backsliders meant to Raleigh back in the day.

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