Casey Prestwood Keeps It Real (Westword 3/1/2017)

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Casey Prestwood Keeps It Real
by Adam Perry for Denver Westword 3/1/2017

Casey James Prestwood, veteran of Colorado country-rock band Drag the River and acclaimed Alabama emo group Hot Rod Circuit, is a country-music encyclopedia. Get him talking about legendary session musicians and he’ll spin a yarn the size of Texas. Discussing the earnest, emotional and sometimes downright depressing lyrics he sings over his backing band, the Burning Angels, however, doesn’t come so easily.

“I think I’ve kind of found a groove with when I should write and how I should write,” the Littleton resident says about his new album, Born Too Late, which drops in early March. “I lead a pretty happy life now. I’ve got a great wife and kids, and my band is awesome, so I kind of write when I’m down, because it feels like stuff’s more real. I pretty much keep it real in the songs story-wise, too. It’s almost always told from something that happened to me, so most of it is taken from earlier times, before I was settled down.”

For instance, “Jailbird,” from the new album, is about a family member who was incarcerated long-term and other references to Prestwood’s past, including somebody knocking his teeth out in Houston and spending time in jail himself.

“Sometimes you write a song because you’ve gotta get it out,” he explains.

On Prestwood’s first solo album, 2007’s The Hurtin’ Kind, he sang about being “passed out and kicked around” and “sleeping under the stars” — similar to the “blue, lonely and wasted” life he describes on Born Too Late, a crisp, lyrically deep and musically entrancing twelve-song trip through heartache and heavy drinking.

Prestwood’s most interesting recent travels include a month-long tour of Belgium, where, in true Johnny Cash style, the Burning Angels’ gigs included maximum-security prisons.

“About eighteen inmates came to see us, and they were, for lack of a better term, violent — serial killers and that sort of thing,” Prestwood says. “It was real clinical. They’re in the room with you, not shackled up or anything, and the guards didn’t have any weapons. They were real strange characters, but fascinating. We just did songs about prison and murder ballads.”

The bandmates — decked out as they almost always are in rhinestone suits made by the legendary Manuel Cuevas — played country gems about incarceration, such as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Mama Tried.”

“The guy they call the Belgian Butcher, a big guy who was a schoolteacher and serial killer, he stood up while we were playing, and it kind of freaked me out,” Prestwood recalls. “He came up to me after and said, ‘Hey, man, great set. I really loved the tunes. Nobody really comes through here and does country music. But you guys don’t need to do “Folsom Prison” if you come back. Everybody who comes here plays that tune, no matter what kind of band they’re in. We’re sick of it.’

“I don’t think we’ve played it since,” Prestwood says of the song. “Maybe that’s the last time I’ll play it.”

Around the time the Burning Angels got together, in 2009, Prestwood — who has kept a side gig at Whole Foods for many years — thought maybe it was the last time he’d pursue a musical career. He says that bandmate Kevin Finn inspired him to keep going.

“Kevin was bugging me to get a band together, and I was kind of nestling in on my Whole Foods career, working up the ladder a little bit in that,” Prestwood says. “I’d cut my hair and was just, like, ‘Oh, man, I’m not gonna do band stuff like I used to when I was a kid.’ Really, if it weren’t for Kevin, I probably would’ve hung it up.”

Prestwood says it’s “wild” how many bandmembers have come and gone since the Burning Angels’ salad days, which are highlighted on a recent compilation disc called The Best of the Early Years. He calls Born Too Late “the most cohesive material I’ve written,” and bassist Jeffrey Martin seems equally pumped about the new record.

“Even though it was recorded in five cities, it all jells and sounds cohesive, like we did it as one session,” Martin says. “It features some of Casey’s best writing, and he’s really growing as a songwriter. The best is yet to come.”

SHOW REVIEW: Steve Earle at Chautauqua (Westword 8/24/2015)

photo by Adam Perry
photo by Adam Perry

More Than Music: Steve Earle Soars Sober at Chautauqua
by Adam Perry for Westword, 8/24/2015

Even if he or she is in peak form — like country rocker Steve Earle surely is, as evidenced by his new blues album, Terraplane — a true musical legend always ends up putting on a show that’s about more than the music. That was a bad thing when egomaniac Bono repeatedly prostrated himself at the Pepsi Center earlier this year while walking through his life story. It was a halfway good thing when a chatty, fall-down drunk Eddie Vedder celebrated Pearl Jam’s 24th anniversary in Denver last fall.

Friday night at old-fashioned Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, the 60-year-old Earle was captivating as he put on a veritable clinic of country, blues and home-fried rock ‘n’ roll, with self-deprecating tales of his seven-marriage love life and his widely publicized struggles with alcohol and narcotics.

After opening the show with “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” (featuring Earle on harmonica and the “Big Boss Man” nod “Can’t you hear me wail my call?”) Earle commented on how hard it is to make a powerful blues album if you’re from the South, “because the bar is set pretty high.”

“There’s no such thing as a Los Angeles shuffle,” he quipped.

Though the sound at this particular show was uncharacteristically bad, with the bass almost non-existent and the drums as flat as you’d expect at a high-school Battle of the Bands, multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore (who soared on violin most of the night) and lead guitarist Chris Masterson shined. Not only did they bring snippets of Earle’s fifteen-album catalog (plus a little Hendrix) to life, Whitmore and Masterson also showed what anyone who has seen a top-flight country band knows: country’s finest are the most versatile and tight, and arguably the best, musicians in popular music.

When the “’80s hits” portion of the show kicked in (beginning with Guitar Town’s title track and “Copperhead Road”), Earle and his Dukes finally got some energy back from the virtually all white, middle-aged Boulder crowd, partly by doing something it’s been hard not to notice at concerts lately. During anthemic instrumental passages of well-known tunes, everyone in the band (except the drummer, of course) walked four or five paces closer to the audience, which went wild.

Earle, for his part, spent most of his between-song banter joking about his wild past. He mused on his failed relationships, stumped for action on climate change, and deservedly gave himself praise for using his early ‘90s bottoming out (heroin, cocaine, weapons charges, etc.) to transform himself from a Grammy-winning mess to an outspoken, recovered — and humble — musical icon who is also a respected actor and poet.

“After the show I’ll be at the merch table,” Earle said at one point, “because diesel is expensive.”

Earle — who is currently single, looking relatively healthy, with a salt-and-pepper beard and Santa Claus physique — also touched on his seven marriages (two of them to the same woman) by commenting that at least he “gets to keep the songs,” though not necessarily the royalties.

“Goodbye,” which Earle (whose affable stage presence has moved closer to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s) called “the first song I wrote sober,” was delivered beautifully, sung with gut-wrenching clarity and common sense. He followed it by joking that when he “sees the mirror out of the corner of my eye I think, ‘Who the fuck let Allen Ginsberg in here?’”

Other than the darkly powerful song-poem “The Tennessee Kid” from his new album, Earle’s high point at Chautauqua was following the pointed self-criticism “A lot of these songs have a tendency to make my [substance abuse] sound a lot more fucking fun than it was,” with the inescapable misery of “CCKP (Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain).”

For a bona fide living legend whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Earle was remarkably self-effacing, which was even more interesting for those of us who’d seen Earle’s son Justin Townes, who is also a recovering addict, play the Fox Theatre last year. The younger Earle, who plays a lighter, mellower form of country-rock, also regaled Boulder with comical, earnest tales of debauchery.

One hopes that the few young people inside Chautauqua Auditorium on Friday night—side note: Why don’t they open the big doors and let the music out anymore?—trusted the elder Earle’s lesson they can write, and play, great music without getting in as much trouble as he once did.

CD Review: Johnny Cash “Out Among the Stars” (East Bay Express, 3/26/2014)

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CD REVIEW:

Johnny Cash Out Among the Stars
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express, 3/26/2014

Listening to previously unreleased music by Johnny Cash in 2014 feels a little eerie at first. But Out Among the Stars is positively startling: a diverse and mostly impressive collection of “lost” recordings Cash did in the early 1980s with “countrypolitan” producer Billy Sherrill, who was known for polishing gritty artists and bringing them mainstream success.

Cash’s glossy version of the popular country song “She Used to Love Me a Lot” has received the most media attention, but the real highlights are “Out Among the Stars,” which contains the brutally beautiful lyrics when they’re shootin’ at this loser/they’ll be aimin’ at the demons in their lives, and the Cash original “Call Your Mother,” in which he sings please call your mother/gently break the news that you don’t love me. Especially powerful are Cash’s duets with his late wife June Carter Cash and the late Waylon Jennings. The latter, “I’m Movin’ On,” is upbeat, outlaw country at its finest, and includes a few sly bars of the now-legendary half-time “Waylon beat.”

Perhaps most notable, however, is the fact that Sherrill’s countrypolitan production — which didn’t work with Cash’s “outlaw” persona and arguably contributed to Columbia Records’ decision to drop him — couldn’t tarnish “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time,” Cash’s duet with his wife. Try listening to Johnny and June sing Let’s gather up our scattered words of love/and make them rhyme without getting gooey. 

Review: Wilco & Dr. Dog at Red Rocks, 6/23/12

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Review: Wilco & Dr. Dog at Red Rocks

by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly

More than probably any other current American band, Dr. Dog knows how to remind a crowd what rock ’n’ roll is all about. Midway through the sextet’s opening set at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Saturday night, Toby Leaman — whose onstage persona is somewhere between Rick Danko and Neal Cassady — set his bass down, stomping, clapping and howling while singing lead on “Lonesome,” from Dr. Dog’s new album, Be the Void(Anti-). The camaraderie between the Philadelphia group, notably the core members who’ve been together for a decade, was palpable as always. And the raucous, Band-style old-timey rock flowed like Milwaukee’s Best at a kegger.

Dr. Dog’s last two albums, Shame, Shame and Be the Void, have been a little disappointing in comparison with earlier underground classics like Easy Beat and We All Belong, and especially Fate, the band’s 2008Abbey Road-esque breakout. On the new stuff, more advanced recording techniques and rehashed ideas have come together to sometimes cloud the charming, irreverent old-school vibe that, along with touring like hell, put Dr. Dog on the map. But its invigorating live shows still reveal the talented group as relentless barnstormers capable of stealing the show from the biggest headliners around and making even a mega-venue like Red Rocks happily feel like a sweaty basement party.

Singer/guitarist Scott McMicken, whose high, quirky voice (reminiscent of the Dead Milkmen’s Joe Genaro) and deft guitar playing never seem to stop improving as Dr. Dog rolls along, brought a roar from the capacity Red Rocks crowd with the first lines of “From” (“Oh my love / don’t you leave me / ’cause I don’t wanna learn how to die”). McMicken soon jumped around Talking Heads-style while he and fellow guitarist Frank McElroy played harmony solos a la the Allman Brothers. As usual, the sense that Dr. Dog’s authenticity comes not just from a shared love of music but unconditional friendship was ever-present.

As My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, who took Dr. Dog out on a few tours years ago after hearing a demo tape, has said, as a musician it’s nearly impossible to witness the unbridled fun of a Dr. Dog concert and not wish you were in the band. That intoxicating energy was most apparent Saturday night during the set closer, “The Rabbit, the Bat and the Reindeer,” a fast-paced sing-along with no chorus, just gem after gem of simple urban Pennsylvania poetry. After the song, which became a stretched-out guitar-rocker with Leaman, McMicken and McElroy getting aerobic workouts until the dramatic near-“Free Bird” ending, the sun set and Red Rocks awaited Wilco.

Now called “an American institution” by many journalists and fans, Wilco has been around nearly 20 years and traversed the musical worlds of Alternative country, Americana/folk, bar-room rock, and a sort of electronic rock that blends navel-gazing indie pretense with mid-tempo, myopic alt-rock. Beginning their second straight night at Red Rocks with “Misunderstood,” a smoky classic from the 1996 double album Being There, it was good to see that singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy & Co. are still capable of keeping it simple and showing an audience Wilco is worthy of playing a marquee American venue like Red Rocks.

That “keeping it simple” part didn’t last long. The 2004 addition of avant-garde electric guitarist Nels Cline, now 56 years old, has been a boon when he teams up with Tweedy to wildly (but not extensively) jam out Crazy Horse-style, as Wilco did Saturday night on the A Ghost is Born gem “At Least That’s What She Said.” But as the night went on it became clear that every other song was going to turn into a dark, spacey, almost Phish-esque platform for Cline to noodle. Unlike the sincere, rootsy Dr. Dog set just beforehand, Cline’s noodling was in fact not what rock ’n’ roll is all about.

Still, “Impossible Germany,” “You Are My Face” and a few other tunes showcased Wilco’s ability — when not stretching out too far into the Cline-led fusion freakouts — to blend tasteful Allman Brothers guitars with brilliant, sharp changes that show how Miles Davis’ ‘60s bands powerfully influenced rock.

And Glenn Kotche is a truly special drummer. Trained in jazz but possessing the enthusiasm and bombast of Keith Moon (whose drum kit was similarly huge), there’s really no one like him in rock today. Whether you need a gentle genius on lyric-heavy light-rock like “Jesus, Etc.,” the sort of big-band histrionics of Sky Blue Sky, or the all-out assault of Wilco’s new foray into noodling, Kotche can do it all.

In the end, though, it’s hard to escape the knowledge that at the center of Wilco is Tweedy, a guy who can wow a crowd of thousands with just an acoustic guitar, a microphone and a couple dozen of his best songs. Others may disagree, but when I head to a Wilco show it’s to see Tweedy excel at performing his now-classic compositions — and to witness at least a little of Wilco’s “what rock ’n’ roll is all about” youth flowering again after all these years.

I don’t head to a Wilco show to see Nels Cline move his fingers frantically up and down a fretboard minute after minute while the rest of the band vamps.

So it was a breath of fresh air, and a little bit of a selfish bummer in hindsight, to leave the show early on Saturday and then see that Wilco’s encore — incredibly, songs 23 through 28 — was a romp through the bar-room rock (“Casino Queen,” “Kingpin,” etc.) that won the band a loyal fanbase before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made them Red Rocks-size stars. So take this as a lesson: Unless you and your date have a babysitter waiting at home, as we did, never leave a Wilco show early.

Checking In: Yawpers Recording

Hello from Colorado. My apologies for the lack of posts over the past few months, but between working 9 to 5 as a veteran’s law paralegal, being a papa and playing drums full-time again, there just hasn’t been any space in my life for writing.

This morning, I leave for Colorado Springs to continue work on the debut CD by my new band, The Yawpers. We’ve been headlining midsize venues in Boulder all summer (as detailed in a recent Boulder Weekly feature) nd have a national tour in the works for late November and early December. The music is country-infused indie-rock, somewhere along the lines of Deer Tick, Wilco and early Elvis.

When you get a minute, “like” The Yawpers on Facebook and let me know what you think of the demos we’ve recorded so far.

Lyle Lovett, Fans Bid Paolo Soleri Farewell

Lyle Lovett at Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre
Santa Fe, 7-29-10
Review by Adam Perry

“I will always remember this night,” Texas-born singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett said from the Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre stage in Santa Fe late Thursday evening. “God bless you folks, and God bless Paolo Soleri.”

The Santa Fe Indian School, which owns and operates the 45-year-old Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre, announced earlier this summer that Lovett’s concert will be the last ever at the venue, though they have not ruled out preservation. Lovett, who has performed at the amphitheatre more times than any other artist, said that when he met with the venue’s renowned Italian architect Paolo Soleri—now 91—at a recent concert in Phoenix the socially and ecologically minded artist shrugged at the demolition rumors.

“Change is on all of our minds,” Lovett told the capacity audience. “If we live long enough, we’ll experience it.” Lovett said it was his intention to perform last night “with [Soleri’s] spirit and vision in mind, and the vision for the world he’s shown us.”

Lovett then launched into “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” commenting that “New Mexico is a dangerous place to do this song, but Paolo Soleri would’ve done well where I come from.”

Lovett’s immaculately tailored “Large Band,” which features over a dozen diverse and talented musicians, traversed poignant country ballads, gritty rock, bluegrass and galloping, tongue-in-cheek Dixie romance. The latter gave the band’s skilled instrumentalists ample chance to take flight as soloists and as a proficient and tasteful ensemble. The versatile and sometimes awe-inspiring group does well reminding audiences that real country equals stunning musicianship and raw poetry, and Lovett kept the Santa Fe crowd in stitches with his between-song banter, showing the uninitiated that country music is often also hilariously silly and self-deprecating.

Vince Bell, a collaborator and hero of Lovett’s since their embryonic showbiz days in Houston, now lives in Santa Fe and made a two-song appearance in the middle of Lovett’s set. Bell played one country-folk number alone and one with Lovett backing him on vocals and guitar. Lovett’s pained but tender and unwavering voice shined on tear-jerkers such as “North Dakota” and soared on impressive covers like Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” with help from a rhythm section just off the James Taylor and Carole King tour. But the Paolo Soleri stole much of the spotlight.

Lovett opened the evening by telling the energized audience, “It’s an honor to be here, especially on this night,” and his near three-hour set did not disappoint, although the irony inherent in much of the venue’s recent controversy was all too apparent from the get-go. A sense of history and tension was especially evident in the moments after Lovett sang the line “on a trail of tears I ride” during “Natural Forces,” a song he pre-empted with a diatribe about appreciating U.S. soldiers in the Middle East. “[They’re] fighting so that I’m able to watch football on Sundays,” Lovett said.

The Indian School’s campus has only been totally Native-controlled since 2000. Two summers ago, officials chose to tear down—sans public notice—virtually all of the original school, which had a history dating back to 1890 that included rampant oppression and indoctrination of Natives, who were frequently brought to the school from pueblos by whites via kidnapping. The Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre, which is notable not only for its intimate beauty but because it was one of Soleri’s few commissioned works, appears to be headed for destruction as well. Opinions abound in northern New Mexico about the need to “save” the incredible venue—not to mention what some see as the Indian School’s faulty administration—but opinions are not important in this situation. Music lovers such as the elderly blind woman who sat next to us last night—singing and clapping along with every song Lovett played—will follow their passion wherever necessary; as for the Paolo’s situation, the rights and free will of Natives are all that should be recognized and respected.

Besides Lovett’s dashing four-member African American backup vocal ensemble and the venue’s all-Indian staff, I saw exactly one black person and less than a half-dozen other people of color in or around the Paolo Soleri last night, though the capacity is listed as 2,900. It would be a tragedy for such a remarkably designed and great-sounding outdoor amphitheatre—with its “wishbone” architecture and close-up seating, which literally lets fans converse with performers—to abruptly vanish, leaving only fond memories of concerts by everyone from Leonard Cohen to Phish, but it’s not our choice. Music lovers, promoters and local officials in Santa Fe have no excuse for having never built another similar-sized outdoor venue in the area while presenting only a handful of concerts at the Paolo Soleri each year—only three in 2010—and Natives have zero obligation to privately fund the maintenance of an aging site they really only use for high school graduations.

Santa Fe Indian School officials claim that the renovation necessary to keep the Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre open would cost over $4 million dollars, which does seem outlandish. However, just this week the U.S. government approved continued funding for the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars every month, with no end in sight. If local officlans will not intervene to provide the necessary resources to fix and maintain the Paolo Soleri, its demise is understandable; what’s more, if the Native-controlled SFIS decides to close the Paolo Soleri no matter the circumstances—forcing the virtually all-white fans, promoters and performers who frequent the venue to enjoy entertainment elsewhere—theirs is the choice we must accept.