I’ve loved many bands in my life. Those I’ve loved and haven’t ceased loving. The great thing about music is how, when it’s the right music, it can be timeless. As of today, The Avett Brothers are my Sherpa. If I am being honest, it’s been that way for years.
What a great Valentine’s Day gift all the way from Charleston, SC. Even before palmetto state’s Shovels and Rope took the stage on February 13 there was already limited floor space, a good sign that the audience was in store from some rich Southern folk rock. After an entertaining set by Austin, TX native Shakey Grave, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent took control of the stage.
Dressed in a bright red cowgirl shirt Cary manned the drums sporting a wide smile, while Michael humbly strapped on his guitar, and let “Keeper” start things off. With assistance from an occasional harmonica or keyboard the two showered the crowd with catalog ranging from 2013’s O’ Be Joyful, individual material and even a few songs for their soon to be released CD.
On Twitter Shovels announced “It’s the beginning of tour! Jacksonville, there’s an awful lotta good songs written about you, so show us some leg and get down tonight!”, with Shakey Graves adding “Ok Florida…let’s do this”. It was a calling the crowd honored as they danced and sang along to Shovels favorites “Birmingham”, “O’ Be Joyful”, “Tickin’ Bomb” and “Kemba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues”. Most memorable might have been the dead silence that filled the packed Rabbits during “Lay Low”, my personal favorite.
Shovels stage persona is one of intrigue, with Trent allowing Hearst’s personality to shine through. With limited crowd dialogue, though enough to keep the 300 plus satisfied, it was their own onstage interaction that sold not only the songs but the night itself. And the crowd fed of that intimacy as strangers slowly became friends. “Cavalier” found Trent inches from Hearst, yet with all that heat it was a stage tease with only lyrics separating them.
Playing for just over two hours, this Americana duo gave as much love as they got. At one point they thanked the crowd for coming out on a Thursday to help them launch this leg of the tour, and I could not help thinking we got more than we paid for. And maybe, just maybe, they might return so Jacksonville could give even more back. Doing some research on future dates it looks like sold out shows will be as common as dirt, something this band more than deserves.
A few more words on Shakey Graves. Driving all the way from Austin that day, this solo artist engaged the attendees with sharp and witty lyrics backed by fluid guitar work. His singing style left some words inaudible and the audio quality was at times distorted, yet his crowd banter and general showmanship made him a perfect opening act. Even if I had not listened to his 2011 release Roll the Bones prior to the show his Austin sound would have won me over live. Check out his website, and if you get a chance you must see him play live.
It has been almost three years since Jars of Clay released Shelter, a disc which Glenn McCarty of Crosswalk.com heralded as “a clarion call to unity” relative to the Christian community. Lead singer Dan Haseltine noted, “…we were already thinking about a project that would be specific for the church.” But on Inland, their first release as an “indie” band, the central focus is a bit more existential.
In an interview with Hans Schiefelbein, keyboardist Charlie Lowell says of Inland:
It’s where we all live- caring about work, family, faith, doubt, the world around us- but really struggling to connect them and find lasting meaning out of them all. So we approached this record process with that in mind- our goal was to write in those specific moments of humanity, and to put the many voices we have accumulated over the years behind us.
Since 1995 when their debut single “Flood” further closed the gap between pop and Christian music, Jars have been a band that refused to compromise their faith nor their crossover viability. For every directly religious “Love Song for a Savior” there was a more universally accessible “Work“. Yet even amidst the brambles of praise and pop music that is their entire catalog, they always managed to present the subject matter with a poetic elegance so both believer and non-believer alike could take in the experience.
Being Agnostic allowed for a first hand appreciation of Jars’ artisanship, a sentiment which I thought peaked at their 2006 release Good Monsters. It is with great joy that I announce Inland as the new standard. Taking its theme from The Odyssey, the new disc asks the listener to reflect on their pilgrimage through life. The beauty in its presentation is that you do not need to have faith in God for the message to resonate.
You should know up front I am a huge fan of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Years ago our old classic rock station down here in Jacksonville, Rock 105, carved out a few hours on Sunday night to showcase new bands in this budding genre called Alternative Music. Robert Goodman was the host and on a special evening he kicked off with this unknown band from Santa Barbara, CA singing “Way Away” from their debut CD Bread and Circus. Being a fan of Michael Stipe’s vocal delivery for R.E.M., hearing Glen Phillips leverage a melancholy delivery for the lyric “Line of people to pass you by, Posing sympathy with its whitewash eyes, With the ladies feigning their mourning cries, And the men shaking hands” it was love at first…listen.
When a fan reviews an artist’s work, the reader, by definition, must consider whether that fan can be critical enough to say the work is not good. Years ago when I reviewed The Connells Weird Food and Devastation my objectivity was challenged and the reality that the disc simply failed to deliver was hard to write. With the release of “New Constellation” early to those who donated to Toad’s Kickstarter campaign I immediately downloaded it to all devices I owned so that there would be nowhere the songs could not be played.
Mowing the yard: check.
A trip to Orlando: check.
At work: check.
In the bathroom: check.
The progression of Toad’s catalogue is an interesting one. Both Bread and Circus and Pale (their second release) captured a more solemn sound and gave the listener the above noted lyric, which detailed a funeral, along with Pale’s beautiful but dark “Corporal Brown” and the barely optimistic “High on a Riverbed”. Fear brought them their first commercial success with “Walk on the Ocean” and “All I Want”, while still venturing into deeper subject matter like rape in “Hold Her Down” or faith in “Pray Your Gods”. The musical direction also began a shift to more upbeat melodies along with a more rock delivery. Dulcinea continued to show a maturing sound with the popular “Fly From Heaven” and “Fall Down” along with the comical “Nanci” and “Stupid”, the latter being lyrical content that glowed on the far too under-appreciated In Light Syrup, a collection of B-sides.
Coil showcased the band maturing even further. They had the radio friendly sound from “Come Down” and “Crazy Life but they also delivered the beautiful “Throw it All Away” (as poignant as Fear’s “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted”) and poetic “Rings”. Whether this is an after-the-fact evaluation but it seems there was a wedge being driven between the desire to pursue a more folk and rock sound.
To look at things as glass-half-full it must be noted that the breakup afforded us Glenn’s work in WPA along with some great solo releases, a specific mention being Winter Pays for Summer. Yet there was still a hole left needing to be filled and only Glen, Dean Dinning, Todd Nichols and Randy Guss carried big enough shovels.
I believe Glen’s work as a singer song writer helped form the basis of New Constellation but working with his old friends solidly stamped it with the Toad signature. The first single, which bears the CDs name, kicks things off and eases you in with familiar harmonies and arrangements. It bounces joyfully, leveraging the stellar imagery of writing one’s love “for all creation” in the stars. “California Wasted” starts with a country sounding guitar which sets the perfect mood for a story of struggling to sort things out while realizing the wasted beauty all around.
And thankfully that is one thing that has not been lost after all these years: the ability to tell a story through lyric while the music sets the proper mood. Three of the strongest examples of this are “The Moment”, “Enough” and “Life is Beautiful”. The latter is sung by Todd and being a huge fan of “Inside” it was a prayer answered to hear Todd’s pipes. With a haunting, but simple, guitar it is easy to see how this might be the first song you hear after being released from the worst event of your life. In turn, “The Moment” is defiant, demanding that we not waste our time on regret while “Enough” slams down its fist declaring I can take no more. Both additionally showing that Toad can still deliver their brand of uptempo rock.
“Get What You Want” and “I’ll Bet on You” may be the two songs you find the hardest to get out of your head. On the former Randy lays down a hypnotic drum beat while the boys layer their vocals sweetly noting “You got what you wanted, you forgot what you need”. The latter, another with a country feel, might find you on your front porch watching the sunset as a teenager, mulling over your failures while your parents remind you “We’ve all been hurt, It’s nothing new, Just bet on me, ‘Cause I’ll bet on you.”
It is interesting to see where the band left off with Coil and where they picked up with New Constellation. Maturity can be a very subjective term and one could argue that after so long together there is a Zen like quality to the new music. As Glen noted in a recent interview when asked about making the new album:
Frankly, I started to freak out a little. I was probably the last holdout as to whether we could do this or not. I didn’t know if I could handle it. I think I had a big chip on my shoulder. I didn’t want anyone to think I was going back to Toad because my career hadn’t panned out, and I was so afraid of that that I was very reluctant to do it.
Finally, I convinced myself that I couldn’t waste time caring about that. We were getting along and everybody was really into it. So I figured I should worry more about what I wanted and what everybody wanted. I needed to get over myself. So I decided I wouldn’t care about what everybody thought or what they assumed the motivations were and decided instead that everybody was getting along to the point where we could make a record like a real band, and not just be hurried into making some heartless product. I hope the album is proof of that.
We could have just regurgitated something that sounded enough like us to get by. But we wanted to do something that was at least as good as what we did before, and hopefully this record does that.
From beginning to end it is hard not to feel like care was taken in writing the songs and selecting the best of the bunch. The production is not overdone which seems to be where these guys are and because of this the song writing takes center stage, as it should with Toad. Their life experiences have afforded them a perspective of gratitude and optimism which shines through in what they have created, leaving the listener in a better place than they were. Feel free to question my objectivity but New Constellation is exactly what Toad fans wanted and needed, and the band should not be surprised if they gather some new fans along the way.
I’ll Bet on You
Get What You Want
Is There Anyone Out There
Life is Beautiful
Last to Fall
I’m Not Waiting
In honor of the pending Toad the Wet Sprocket show at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall along with the release of their new cd New Constellation I decided to consider what my perfect setlist would be if the band asked. Like any fan the easy answer would be “the entire catalog no matter how long it took” but in keeping with reality (because being asked to create a setlist qualifies as such) the number of songs will be consistent with their standard concert offering but not exact. In other words I had to add one more beyond the limit.
The way it worked out it is not too far off what they might be playing. While the obscure songs have an appeal the truth is their more popular songs have always played well live and there is something to be said of the crowd singing “Walk on the Ocean” and “All I Want” in unison. And as staples, you have to hear “Windmills” and “Fall Down”.
Fellow fans, share your thoughts.
1. New Constellation
3. Is it for Me?
4. I’ll Bet on You
5. I Think About
7. One Little Girl
9. California Wasted
10. Get What You Want
11. Whatever I Fear
13. Little Heaven
14. So Alive
15. All I Want
17. Fall Down
18. The Moment
20. Humble/Know Me
21. Walk on the Ocean
22. Throw it All Away