Friday, April 25, 2008

A month of live music

It's been a great month for live music here in north Texas. Here are a couple of the shows I've been to...

Sunday, April 6 - Mark David Manders, Liz & Lincoln - Shiner Sunday at Love & War in Texas (Plano)

My friend Stephen was in town visiting from Memphis, and joined me for the long haul over to Plano to see Mark David Manders. It was a picture perfect day for sitting in the sun on L&W's porch, drinking beer, and listening to some great live music.

Liz & Lincoln open for Mark David Manders at Love & War

First on stage were Liz & Lincoln, an acoustic duo with a likable, folksy sound that reminded me a little of the Sidehill Gougers. They sounded as good as Liz looks -- and that's saying something... wow. They played mostly original numbers but their set included at least one coverof a Townes Van Zandt song and another song that they co-wrote with Ray Wylie Hubbard. They talked too much between the songs, but their music sounded great. They'll have an album out later this year or early next... check em out at

Mark David Manders and his band at Love & War in Plano
I had caught the last couple songs of a Mark David Manders show a few years ago, but this would be my first time to see him play a full set. They opened with a cover of Billy Joe Shaver's "I'm gonna live forever", which actually served as a final sound-check before they started their REAL set. Mark and the boys played with lots of energy, smiles, and good attitudes. It's hard to pinpoint anything especially unique or special about MDM and his band that sets them apart from the crowd of other good Texas country acts -- although his fiddle player is damn good -- basically, they're just a group of solid musicians playing good ole Texas country music. Their set included MDM originals such as "Blackjack Road" and "Jim Murphy". I was a little disappointed not to hear their rendition of "Brokeback Mountain", their hilarious, off-color cover of the Claude King classic "Wolverton Mountain". Maybe next time. Still, it was a fun afternoon...

Sunday, April 20 - Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Sunny Sweeney - Granada Theater, Dallas

The Granada Theater on Lower Greenville in Dallas

I first saw Ralph Stanley at Poor David's in Dallas a little over three years ago. What were the odds, especially given my current work schedule, that I'd be able to see him again on his VERY NEXT show in D-town? As soon as I found out he was scheduled to play a Sunday afternoon show at the Granada Theater, I made plans to attend.
It was KHYI, especially during the Bruce Kidder era, that really helped develop my appreciation for the Ralph Stanley / Stanley Brothers sound. The second album Stanley recorded with Jim Lauderdale ("Lost in the Lonesome Pines") was also a big influence. Even casual music fans, who might be unaware of Stanley's status as "the king of mountain soul", or his musical background which stretches back more than six decades (he's 81 year sold), are probably at least marginally aware of his work which appeared on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Dr. Stanley visits with a fan before the show

The show was scheduled to start at 5 pm. I got there about 4:15, purchased a ticket ($37 - a little pricey, but definitely "worth it" to see a legend like Dr. Stanley) and walked inside. Sitting at a table to my right, ready to autograph his cd's for the crowd, was the man himself. How awesome was that? I purchased two cd's, both of which he signed for me. I thanked him for his autographs and for coming back to Dallas. He seemed a little "distant", acknowledging me with little more than a nod. I took the cd's back to my truck and then went inside the Granada to find my seat.

Sunny Sweeney opens for Ralph Stanley at the Granada
Sunny Sweeney opened. I've purchased a couple of her songs on itunes but had never seen her perform. She has one of those nasally, twangy high-pitched female country voices that people either love or hate. Think: a combination of Loretta Lynn and Kasey Chambers -- with maybe a touch of helium. I actually dig her sound pretty well... she and her band -- which includes an electric guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a talented steel player -- produce a nice, fairly "traditional" honky-tonk sound. With name-droppin' songs like "Trains don't sound like Johnny Cash no more" and her tribute to Merle Haggard (sorry, I can't remember the title of that one), it's not hard to envision Ms. Sweeney enjoying a lot of success in the "Texas country / Americana" scene in the coming years. She didn't play "Lavender Blue", arguably her best song, which she recorded as a duet with Jim Lauderdale (a cover of what was originally a Keith Sykes / Iris DeMent duet), but I was glad to hear her belt out the rockin' "If I Could" to wrap up her set before Dr. Stanley took the stage.

The impression that Ralph Stanley left on me the last time I saw him was reinforced at the Granada show. He puts on a polished, first-class production of hand-clappin', foot-stompin', bluegrass. Along with the legend himself was his full 6-piece band. Known as the Clinch Mountain Boys, the band consists of a fiddle player, a banjo player, two guitarists (one of which is Dr. Stanley's son, Ralph II), a mandolin player (Stanley's grandson Nathan) and a bassist.
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys

Dr. Stanley didn't lead every song -- he sang only small harmonies on about half of the numbers -- but the ones he did sing made the show well worth the price of admission... especially his a capella rendition of "O Death" from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?". What a voice! During most of the show, Stanley stood at center stage and sang with his hands folded (when he wasn't holding a sheet of paper with the words to the songs). But he did pick up a banjo and do a little pickin', "claw-hammer" style, during one of the songs. In addition to several gospel tunes, musical highlights from the show included covers of "Long Black Veil" and "Orange Blossom Special" as well as"Angel Band" (also from the "O Brother" soundtrack) and "Clinch Mountain Backstep".

Ralph Stanley on "claw hammer banjo"

Between songs, Stanley told stories about himself and his band members, and cracked a few jokes as well. My favorite was the one about how they press many of their cd's themselves -- so they can keep ALL the profit. The speed with which he made his way out to their cd table in the lobby after the show told me he was only half-joking... it was the fastest I'd seen him move all night.
Stanley signs an autograph after the show...

"But wait - there's more..." I'm not through yet. I plan to catch Wayne "the Train" Hancock this Saturday night in Denton, so stay tuned and you'll be seeing a review here soon.

np: Flatt & Scruggs - "Shuckin' the corn"

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