IT'S MIGRATION TIME: With the alt-country revolution in full swing, one of the genre's formative and most enduring bands, the Jayhawks, has been largely silent over the past couple years. But the faithful might have noted the band's recent appearance on the Monster's Ball soundtrack, with a new track, "I'm Your Man," and recognized it as a sign of more to come; they'd be right.
First, a quick history: The band formed in Minneapolis in 1985, a few years before fellow country-rock revivalists Uncle Tupelo, and a few years after, say, Jason and the Scorchers. As part of the first wave of alt-country bands, all three of the aforementioned were at least as popular with those who followed college rock as with die-hard country fans. The band released four albums: a tough-to-find self-titled debut (Bunkhouse, 1986), 1989's Blue Earth (Twin/Tone), Hollywood Town Hall (1992, American), and Tomorrow the Green Grass (American) in 1995. All four featured the songwriting talents of co-leaders Mark Olson and Gary Louris, and found the band conjuring the spirit of Gram Parsons far better than just about any band before. Add to that mix slightly-tougher-than-the-Byrds guitars, and some of the most gorgeous harmonies ever put to tape, and the result was a band that captured a rootsy, corn-fed Midwestern sound whose appeal was undeniable.
Following the tour that ensued after the release of Tomorrow the Green Grass, however, Olson, the Lennon to Louris' McCartney, decided to leave the band, ostensibly to spend more time with his wife, singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years earlier. With Olson's departure, fans assumed the Jayhawks had run their course, but Louris had other plans.
Forging ahead without one of its primary singer/songwriters, the Olson-less version of the Jayhawks has released two albums, so far: 1997's Sound of Lies, and 2000's Smile, both on American. The former was largely a continuation of the band's earlier sound, with Louris writing or co-writing all the tracks, save one, while the latter was markedly more dense and textured than previous releases, reveling in the same era of AM pop radio that informed Wilco's Summer Teeth, released the previous year. Neither sucked, by any yardstick, but they also didn't quite match the work that marked the band's heyday (though both sound better in retrospect than they did at the time of their under-the-microscope releases).
With its second incarnation back in full swing, after having taken a bit of time off, the Jayhawks are ready for their close-up once again. In addition to the Monster's Ball track, Louris teamed up with Olson once again to write and record another new track, "Say You'll Be Mine," which was intended for release on the soundtrack of the current film, The Rookie, but was not used. Expect it to turn up on Olson's next solo record, and likely, on the next Jayhawks album, which is slated to start recording on May 15 in Los Angeles, with Ryan Adams producer Ethan Johns behind the board.
In the meantime, an acoustic three-piece version of the band has embarked on a tour of the South and West Coast, and it's that version that will arrive in town tonight. It's a rare chance to see a stripped-down version of one of Americana's forebearers, and the set will likely be appropriately front-porch-like--bassist Marc Perlman has promised his mandolin will be in tow. And to those who still have their doubts that the post-Olson Jayhawks simply don't matter anymore, I can attest that the show I witnessed following the release of Smile, in 2000, was, in a word, transcendent.
The Jayhawks appear at 9 p.m. tonight, April 11, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. The Cash Brothers open. Advance tickets are $10, and they'll be $2 more at the door. For more information call 622-8848.
DAWG DAZE: Only one man has been called "the Paganini of the mandolin" by The New York Times, and that man is David Grisman.
Grisman has been one of the most prolific and inspiring mandolin players in the country for three decades now, and his influence is undeniable, as is his list of credits. He's appeared on albums by Bonnie Raitt, Bela Fleck, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Dolly Parton, to name but a few, and has influenced just about every modern-day mandolin player, as well as just about anyone who seeks to expand the boundaries of his instrument. (While the mandolin is often seen as a vehicle for bluegrass alone, Grisman has incorporated jazz, gypsy, Klezmer, and swing influences into his sound, seeing just how many genres into which he can weave his distinctive sound, which he calls "dawg music.")
In 1970, Jerry Garcia asked Grisman to add mandolin to a couple tracks--"Ripple" and "Friend of the Devil"--on the Grateful Dead masterpiece American Beauty and the association/friendship would last the rest of Garcia's days. In 1973, the two teamed up with Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan and John Kahn, to form Old & In The Way, whose resulting self-titled 1975 album, released on Grateful Dead Records, is the largest-selling bluegrass album in history (at least until the release of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack). The two continued to collaborate sporadically over the years, during hiatuses of Garcia's full-time gig in the Dead, and Grisman's work with his highly acclaimed Quintet and studio sessions. In 2000, a documentary directed by Grisman's daughter, Gillian, entitled Grateful Dawg, which focused on the collaborative kinship the two men shared over the years, was released.
These days, Grisman is back out on the road with his Quintet, the configuration in which his "dawg" experiments have had their strongest foothold, influencing Bela Fleck and every other like-minded genre-twister along the way.
The David Grisman Quintet performs two shows, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., on Saturday, April 13, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Advance tickets are available for $28 to $34 at CD City, Enchanted Earthworks, or by phone at 297-9133. Call the same number with any questions.
FRESNO-TORIOUS: Hailing from his namesake town in California, Brian Kenney Fresno is a Warr guitar-playing one-man band who uses the complex instrument not to showcase how kick-ass he is on the fretboard, but to tackle a much more serious endeavor: making you laugh so hard you pee your knickers.
Utilizing the Zappa-isms of wry social commentary, virtuoso guitar work, and herky-jerky rhythms, Fresno is also far less self-satisfied than ol' Frank ever was, and every bit as funny. Sorta like if Zappa and Tenacious D ever met halfway on the former's actual smugness and the latter's ironic smugness, with a heady dose of Ween's genre-hopping tendencies tossed in for good measure. And while songs range from the inside-joke-that-the-rest-of-the-world-gets "Bobby Salazar," about a Fresno taqueria, to a mockery of classically trained metal guitar god "Yngvie Fucking Malmsteen" ("Stravinsky, just step your ass aside!"), all will coax a chuckle, if not outright belly-laughs.
Brian Kenney Fresno opens for Tucson's The Beating, which also uses the Warr, and has recently released its own genre-hopping, pop-tastic debut full-length album on Independent Records, at 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. For further details call 798-1298.
SECOND CHANCE: And finally, dear readers, I beg of you to make up for past transgressions and head out on Sunday night to see the great Moris Tepper, whose music you've likely heard, even if you didn't realize it at the time.
Tepper's contributions over the years are many and worthy of worship: As a teenager, he was a guitarist in the second lineup of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, and played on the Captain's last three albums, Shiny Beast, Doc at the Radar Station, and Ice Cream for Crow. He played on Tom Waits' Frank's Wild Years, and has toured as a member of both Robyn Hitchcock's and Frank Black's bands. Most recently, Tepper and his own backing band served as opener on PJ Harvey's last U.S. tour.
Tepper's solo work is at once challenging and pleasing to the ear: swampy ballads and off-kilter square dances, quiet interludes abruptly interrupted by burps of noise, and back again, with his leathery voice guiding the audience on a whirlwind tour of absurd tall tales amidst the cacophony.
Almost exactly a year ago, Tepper brought his band to Club Congress, and performed a jaw-dropping spectacle of a show for an audience of about 15 people; he deserves far better this time around.
Moris Tepper performs, along with opener the Nick Luca Trio, at 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Call 622-8848 for more info.