HIGHWAY 62 runs from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to El Paso, Texas, and is the only U.S. highway to connect Canada and Mexico. In my home state of Kentucky, it passes the Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceburg and the state maximum security penitentiary at Eddyville.
Further north it takes you to Buffalo, N.Y., the hometown of roots music singer-songwriter Peter Case. That’s why he picked HWY 62 as the title for his latest album, a collection that can be taken as a sort of “state of the nation” recording. The Christian Science Monitor even said that the album “plays like a John Steinbeck novel set to music.” And they have a point. Most of the album’s 11 songs are peopled with prisoners and deportees, the evicted and the gentrified, and other 21st-century American outcasts.
Unlike many folkie populists, Case comes by his sympathy for the down-and-out honestly, if a little foolishly. Back on that lost planet that was the1970s, he dropped out of high school to become a musician and eventually landed on the streets of San Francisco, hungry, homeless, and frequently drunk. This part of Case’s life is covered unsparingly in the blog/memoir that he keeps at petercase.com, some of which has become a book, As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport.
After a near-miss with the poppish-punk band The Nerves, Case got his ticket to the music business punched with The Plimsouls, whose hit, “A Million Miles Away,” was one of the high-water marks of jangly 1980s New Wave rock. But then, just before he could become really rich and famous, Case’s contrarian streak reasserted itself. He left the band and started what now looks to be the rest of his life as a singer-songwriter who sometimes records with the likes of T Bone Burnett and Ry Cooder, but most often performs solo with his own acoustic guitar and harmonica.
The last time I listened to Nickel Creek was to analyze their adaptation of Robert Burns’ poem, “Sweet Afton,” in my English literature class in college three years ago. Indeed, the waters of Nickel Creek flow gently, a trait reflected in “Sweet Afton” and many other Nickel Creek staples. And that general lack of bite, paired with an almost robotic mastery of each band members’ respective instrument, pushed me away from the band.
So it was strange that, with no expectations and an arbitrarily negative perception of the classic folk band, I really enjoyed seeing Nickel Creek reunite in Washington, D.C. after a six-year hiatus. The show, in sum, was really, really good.
“I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” Lou Reed, who just this past week passed away, once told the journalist Kristine McKenna.
English band Noah and the Whale take that observation and run with it. I had the opportunity of seeing the band live last week, and the show — and their sound — was simple, as nearly every rock song is, yet cathartic and delightful. It mixes elements of Reed and his sixties and seventies peers with Springsteen and sprinkles on touches of indie-folk that’s flourished over the last decade. And the results are marvelous.
I first got wind of Stornoway back in 2011 when Izzy Westbury was president of the Oxford Union during the Michaelmas term of 2011 at Oxford University while studying abroad. The group of Oxford natives were Izzy’s favorite band at the time, and she made sure to give them a chance to play that I regretfully passed up to grab a pint with some friends.
So when the opportunity arose to see Stornoway in Washington, D.C., envelope myself in Oxford nostalgia, and enjoy some good tunes, I couldn’t pass it up.
And Stornoway delivered with hopeful, honest songs about life, love, and everything in between. Delightful is probably the best word to describe their music and the experience of seeing them live. It’s like taking a deep, refreshing breath. The British quartet mix elements of beach boys-esque pop with fleet foxes’ harmonies and a low fi, organic feel.
Chesapeake, Virginia-based folk band The Last Bison talked with Sojourners about music, creativity, and God before their show in Washington, D.C. a while back. Be sure to listen to their recently released debut album Inheritance and catch them while they're on tour in the U.S.! Their music is definitely worth a listen.
Our friends and up-and-coming musicians Branches trekked all the way from California and stopped by our office in D.C. last week to play a couple of their songs during their East Coast tour!
Their songs explore the ideas of doubt, faith, loneliness, love, and above all, hope for life as it was meant to be.
Best friends turned band-mates, the lady and gentlemen of Branches are an independent, self-writing and self-producing collective. Birthed in a living room in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 2010, Tyler, Natalie, Jacob, Mitch, Tyler, and Mike have since spent their time together making friends, playing shows, and writing and recording the songs for their EPs ("O, Light!", "Cabin", "Covers", "Songs For Christmas") and their full-length ("Thou Art The Dream", released 2/12).
Up-and coming-/singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen stopped by the Sojourners office to talk with our Brandon Hook about music, his new album Family, God, and creativity.
The Seattle-based folk artist was recently featured on Spotify’s Emerge app, which pits rising artists against each other based on play frequency, and is currently on a U.S. tour.
Special thanks to Noah for stopping by and being so open with us!
“Are Mumford & Sons as big in America as they are here?” my English friend asked me a year ago over a pint at a pub on High Street in Oxford, England.
“Uh … yea,” I replied, astonished that their popularity was even in question. “They’re huge.”
Turns out that English friend is Marcus Mumford’s cousin, and he eventually got to see how big they are in the states, spending this past summer in Arizona and scurrying over to Colorado for their show at Red Rocks. (I know I’m jealous.)
But has that popularity and success translated into a decent sophomore album? Absolutely. One way to avoid the perilous “sophomore slump” that plagues many musicians and bands these days is to stick to your guns. And that’s exactly what English quartet Mumford & Sons did with their second album Babel.
“The idea was always, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’” producer Markus Dravs told Rolling Stone.
And that’s almost exactly what audiences get on Babel. It’s as if Mumford took all the good things from their first record, Sigh No More, and channeled them into Babel.
Who blames ‘em? Their foot-stomping, banjo-plucking signature folk-rock sound has sent them to the far corners of the earth and back. It also shot Sigh No More up to platinum status, selling five million copies and nominating the band for two Grammys.
Break out the tambourines and rise up singing! A hymn revival is happening … again.
This month, The Lower Lights continue to shine as they release a second stand-out collection of hymns, aptly titled, “A Hymn Revival II.” And this time around, the group of 20+ musicians expands their repertoire outside of the “American Protestant” catalog, and into the wider collection of folk music, including country classics like Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” and “Calling You,” the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” and the familiar Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision.”
Each of the 16 tracks on “A Hymn Revival Vol. II,” glow with intention. Whether it’s the soft but steady pulse of the song “Nearer My God to Thee,” or the call-and-response elicited from snappy chorus of “In the Sweet By and By,” The Lower Lights’ sophomore album presents another authentic look at the joy of the Christian life found in community and comradery, all propelled by the sacred art of making music.
Editor's Note: This is the first post in a series called FIRSTS, where some of us take a look at classic works of art, music, film and literature for the first time. We hope that a fresh perspective on these influential pop-cultural artifacts will inspire discussion and interest that outlasts the shelf-life of daily reviews.
Townes Van Zandt
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972)
Townes Van Zandt isn’t a songwriter I’ve heard many people praise (or even acknowledge, really.) But the few people I know who love him are folks with musical tastes I admire and respect.
One is my college roommate’s brother, who introduced both of us to the great Tom Waits during my junior year.
Another is a friend who’s always following a new dream, be it dropping out of school to travel, or finding work on farms and in coffee shops.
Both are people I’d describe as earthy and natural — devotees to folk tunes with lyrics that transcend contexts, offering timeless truths that smirk at popular culture’s music of cheap love and consumer-driven individuality.
So, this week I began listening to an album that my musical mentors hold dear — and one that I’ve never heard laid ears on before — Townes Van Zandt’s 1972 LP The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
Winter has always been a sweet spot for discovering and sharing music. A little bit mellow, comforting — something you can listen to as a fire crackles or cozy up beside with a mug of hot coffee.
In heeding the groundhog's warning of "six more weeks of winter," here's a short list of independent music to help you make it through the season's chill: Three albums hosted over at Bandcamp that might provide a little warmth on the colder nights.
Each day leading until Christmas we will post a different video rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" for your holiday enjoyment and edification.
Today's installment comes from Maggie, Terre and and Suzzy Roche, aka The Roches, that iconoclastic folk sister act from Park Ridge, N.J. The Roches have been performing their quirky musical stylings since the 1970s.
Their rendition of "Hallelujah Chorus" comes from a performance at the 1982 Improv.
You can enjoy The Roche's high-pitched Hallelujah inside...