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Just like the old opry: Hayseed at Valentine’s. Photo by Martin Benjamin.

Brand New Day
By Erik Hage

The Brand New Opry: Hayseed, Coal Palace Kings, knotworking and Jackinany
Valentines, Feb. 8

I’m not sure if WRPI Sunday Morning Coming Down host Jeff Burger had an If-you-build-it-they-will-come vision in a cornfield near Troy, or whether it was just a matter of a talented singer from Nashville named Hayseed falling in love with a Capital Region girl and moving north, but something really coalesced at the inaugural Brand New Opry. The event, which took place at Valentine’s on Saturday, turned out to be the perfect umbrella under which to gather some of the area’s best roots-music talent. A gridlocked hootin-and-hollerin’ barroom enjoyed a broad range of local wealth, from the fractured rural poeticism of knotworking to the new-millennium country-gospel of Hayseed to the jacked-up assault of the Coal Palace Kings. And Burger did a solid set for fans who like their Americana.

Burger’s newly formed band, Jackinany, opened the night in front of an enthusiastic, vocal crowd. The newcomers offered a loose but fun set, plowing affably through their ragged and sincere barroom balladry. Hayseed joined them for a run through the traditional gospel number “Further Along,” a song he has recorded as a duet with Emmylou Harris.

Knotworking (or an incarnation thereof) followed, showcasing their brooding alt-folk-country. Instruments revolved, with John Brodeur sitting in on the rhythm section. Ed Gorch just keeps growing into a more and more confident frontman, and he quietly and assuredly commanded the attention of the audience with his compelling narratives. A stirring “In Frozen Space” and the brooding, art-damaged folk of “Imbecile Smile” held folks rapt. At one point, Gorch addressed the bleed of pounding hardcore from above while preparing for a quiet number: “Now, what we want here is the hardcore band upstairs to play really loud.”

Hayseed introduced himself with a daring a cappella opening that cut through the barroom hubbub, inducing pin-drop silence. CPK’s Rick Morse (dobro), Jeff Sohn (standup bass) and Don Ackerman (drums) backed him up, as did two skilled vets, John Dermont (guitar) and Craig Thaler (fiddle). This was far from a loose aggregation, however, as the acoustic group’s set was rousing and tight—and the sky’s the limit when Hayseed is in the company of strong allies. Clutching a small, round flask (Holy Water? A Charm? Nope, just a little something to nip at), Mr. Seed belted out some tunes from 1998’s lost classic Melic, such as his cautionary discussion of the Internet, “Keep It Between the Lines.” He also dipped into the some of the covers featured on his most recent release, standouts being the upbeat country-rock of Duane Jarvis’ “There Is a Light” and Tommy Womack’s buried treasure “When Country Singers Were Ugly,” a tune that Hayseed jokingly claims is his theme song.

The singer provided a great nucleus around which to gather the night’s talent. He not only spruced up other acts’ sets with guest spots (including a storming take on his “Cold Feet” with the Coal Palace Kings), but his set also provided a nice bridge between the pensive, more folksy presentation of knotworking and the full-on blistering attack of the Kings. And if you haven’t heard him sing, you’re missing out on one of the world’s natural wonders.

As for the Kings, they just keep getting more powerful. Props to drummer Don Ackerman for his deceivingly subtle four-on-the-floor approach. His down-home, nuanced solidity and backing vocals (à la Levon Helm) have made him a strong addition to the lineup. CPK burned through a bunch of their standards as well as a new one, “Slow Fade,” upon which Rick Morse ripped open some beautiful flashes of pedal steel. As usual, guitarist Larry Winchester uncorked some inspired episodes of smoldering twang (at one point shouting “Sweet Jesus!” and swatting frantically as he disappeared in a cloud of dry ice). Leader Howe Glassman’s tales of vans, cheap beer and people he cares about are slowly and surely becoming part of our local lore.

Deep into the night, when things should have been winding down, the room was still thriving on the sounds of the first Brand New Opry. I couldn’t think of a better way to showcase the area’s Americana/alt- country talent, and can’t wait to see what Burger cooks up next time.


You and What Army

Skinless, Shadows Fall, Burnt by the Sun, Locked in a Vacancy
Saratoga Winners, Feb. 1

I am going to start a new not-for-profit organization. Modeled somewhat after Big Brothers/Big Sisters or those programs where you feed a starving child from Zambia for $25 a week, I will establish the “Adopt a Total Hessian” program. The premise is simple: Every show I review for this fine publication is complimentary, and includes admission for two. However, it has grown muy dificil to acquire good company for shows, especially for bands like Skinless, who emit pure splatter and attract the most truculent sub-types of human (like me). So at each show from now on, I’m going to get some anonymous mook in the door for free so he can use his cash to buy cigarettes and other carcinogens. There are worse fates.

After 20 years, you’d think the owners of Saratoga Winners would pave the goddamn parking lot already, or at least build a reasonable outlet so people can actually leave the place. I stood in line longer than most people stand to kiss the hand of the Pope, next to two kids all the way from Westerlo shivering in their muscle shirts. Then I remembered there were tickets at the door (we Americans get used to standing in line), so I grabbed the one guy who was hoping the event wouldn’t sell out and barged the hell onto the musty dance floor for some timeless, filthy metal.

Absorbing Skinless, the blast beats, the gaping maw of breakdowns, the dead-for-most-of-recorded-history vocals, is kind of like this: You are near the summit of a large mountain. It is windless, about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no sun, and the air is thick with the scent of motor oil, spoiled meat and alcohol. This seems curious until, upon closer inspection, you realize the mountain has morphed into a huge pile of industrial debris. “Holy shit!” you cry, “I gotta get offa this living, seething wreckage of human productivity!” But before you can say “Foreshadowing Our Demise,” a team of nomadic, undead technicians appears below with an 8-inch U.S.-issue M110 Self- Propelled Howitzer and fires an inconceivable volley of pure satanic goodness just above your coordinates, setting into motion an eviscerating avalanche of broken bed frames, shells of old American automobiles, wet pallets of bone cans from feed yards, pestilent carcasses of once-loved household pets, old scaffolding, construction refuse, broken toilets, PVC pipes, charred scraps from fast-food dumpsters and someone who looks remarkably like Nick Oliveri from Queens of the Stone Age. Skinless audio events, like “Extermination of My Filthy Species” and the liberating “Tampon Lollipop,” are burning, scraping soundtracks to meltdowns, to fastidious bloodthirsty coups. Awesome and mighty, but you be the judge. I took a shower as soon as I got home.

Shadows Fall returned to the Capital Region to burn the place down (too bad they can’t blacktop) before leaving the states for Japan. These guys are one of the few who have sincerely, successfully preserved the vital pulmonary organs of the old metal guard with timeless guitar harmonies, cutting riffage and an ebullient, near-perfect live sound at a volume and pitch one typically equates with most busy airfields. At the same time, they steal a trick or two from church-burners like At the Gates and the Haunted insofar as down-tuned swervedriven runs that harshly bounce high melody from low octaves. Their latest CD, The Art of Balance, is clearly one of the finest pieces of metal recorded in the new millennium, and we heard most of it that night. “Destroyer of Senses.” “Idle Hands.” “Stepping Outside the Circle.” Each effort seemed specifically written toward extracting the most base emotions from the brain as the floor erupted into absolute hand-to-hand combat. Fascinating and unstoppable, definitely a band to keep an eye on.

I have been quite enamored for some time of the excellent New Jersey quartet Burnt by the Sun, and they certainly did precious little to cast away such adoration to the fart winds with their punishing set, closing with the colossal “Famke,” a bruising stomp with downbeat triplets that serve as a refrain of sorts throughout much of their catalogue. BBTS and stunning openers Locked in a Vacancy wasted no time in coaxing the troops into action, ripping the floor wide open with windmill fists and white-guy judo kicks. It would be a disservice to attempt an adequate assessment of their talents here. Better to wait for next time. Until then, adopt a Total Hessian today. And teach him how to blacktop.

—Bill Ketzer


Take Me Higher

Don Byron
Club Helsinki, Feb. 9

Don Byron may be single- handedly responsible for liberating the clarinet from the dominion of polka guys and preteen girls with braces and anklet socks. He’s also eviscerated musical boundaries, exploring free jazz, klezmer, classical, whatever. With his akimbo dreadlocks, heavy-framed specs and studied aloofness, he’s also one of the most recognizable characters in modern music. On Sunday Byron brought his Latin-jazz based “Music for Six Musicians” ensemble to the Berkshires.

The danger with genre jumping is that if there’s a false move, a miss, the musician risks being branded a dilettante. While Byron’s virtuosity and remarkable body of work insulates him from this heavy a charge, his performance was lacking in some key elements.

Latin music, be it salsa, pop, jazz or classical, has, almost by definition, a groove thing going on. This is not to marginalize Latin music by saying if you can’t dance to it, it ain’t real. It is the nature of the beast, however, that Latino music should, at some point and on some level, make your body want to move.

Byron’s band didn’t. The extended pieces with what were supposed to be killer Latin grooves just sat there. It was the musical equivalent of looking at a high-priced sports car parked on the street. You know it is supposed to fly, and it’s not moving. The bass, which should propel the beat, held it back. The congas were little more than window dressing. The drummer was working his butt off, with precious little to show for it. Those few people in the packed house who were nodding and tapping in time did so through considerable effort. And all of this was made worse by the stop-start nature of Byron’s arrangements. When music is moving and it stops, it’s effective. If the music is immobile to begin with, a speed-bump thrown in is merely annoying.

For his part, Byron was astonishing on the clarinet—dynamic, fluid, and emotional. His playing was so right and so comfortable that one has to wonder why the clarinet isn’t a standard jazz weapon. Tellingly, the quiet song “Basquiat,” performed only with Byron accompanied with piano and bass, was by far the most effective and riveting song of the evening. Trumpeter James Zala, likewise, played fabulous and interesting solos throughout the set, occasionally throwing in some left-field reference that was funny as it was absolutely appropriate.

After a generous 90-minute set, Byron didn’t say “good night,” but rather announced that the group were taking a short break. I had to leave, but I’d like to think that the band had some unfinished business to attend to, and that the music would, as it should, lift off and go where it is supposed to go, up and out.

—Paul Rapp

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