Saturday, January 29, 2011

Diverse Amos Lee set thrills sold-out crowd in Anaheim

Photo courtesy of Kelly Swift

Please note this review was first published on the Orange County Register's Soundcheck blog earlier today

Having just released one of the first great albums of 2011 — Mission Bell, his fourth for venerable jazz/folks/etc. label Blue Note — Amos Lee was clearly in a mood to celebrate throughout his 19-song concert Friday night (Jan. 28, 2011) at House of Blues Anaheim.

It’s been a busy week for the Philadelphia native: he arrived at the Downtown Disney venue on the heels of appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Ellen Degeneres Show, as well as concerts at the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Music Box in Hollywood.

Many artists will choose to open a show with an upbeat (or at least uptempo) number to kick things into high gear from the get-go, but Lee went the opposite route, launching his 105-minute set with the introspective folk-rock of “El Camino.” A beautiful song, it proved to be typical of the subsequent material only in that Lee offered up one song after another, each its own musical world with little relation to others positioned around it.

With the possible exception of the Zac Brown Band, few modern-day success stories seem able to blend so many styles together so effortlessly. Throughout his wide-ranging journey Friday night, Lee and his strong backup band explored folk, rock, soul, gospel, alt-country, blues, funk and even a bit of jazz without losing their way.

Lee’s soulful vocals were certainly spotlighted, conjuring the spirit of Al Green on “Flower” and Gram Parsons on “Violin,” the latter enhanced by Andy Keenan‘s pedal steel work. But elsewhere his voice and material (whether on acoustic or electric guitar) were so distinctive, they both defied easy categorization.

An Americana-infused performance of “Cup of Sorrow,” the piano-anchored “Careless” (boasting some of his most emotive singing of the night), a quiet version of “Sweet Pea” and the jazz-tinged “Hello Again” showcased the winning ways his five-member band and two backing singers have with Lee’s songs. His joyful version of “Street Corner Preacher,” meanwhile, was propelled by a spontaneous clap-along from the large crowd, and his new single “Windows Are Rolled Down” was equally charged.

Although only in his early 30s, Lee is already a treasure; rare are artists who can blend Philly soul, alt-country linked with the Southwest, the California folk of the ’70s and Southern gospel (as evidenced by the uplifting “Jesus” during the encore). He handles so many styles so well, what’s not to love about his music?

South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela also delighted the capacity crowd with a 35-minute set of original work melding folk and exotic world-music influences. Alternating between songs in English and his native language (introducing “Woza,” he noted: “Don’t try to say that; you’ll break your tongue”), Mahlasela, known as “The Voice” at home, delivered several wonderful songs off his new release Say Africa, which dropped Jan. 18.

His joyous approach easily filled the Mouse House, while songs such as “Conjecture of the Heart” had lyrical depth to further lure listeners into his unique approach. I only wish that a few rude concert-goers behind me during his marvelous set would have taken their senseless chatter to the patio.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Decemberists, Social Distortion earn high marks on Billboard

Here are a few news releases I wanted to share. I've got to listen to the new Social Distortion album Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes and to The Decemberists latest disc The King Is Dead and am very impressed by both.


The Decemberists have earned the first-ever #1 chart position of their career with the impressive first-week showing of their widely acclaimed new album The King Is Dead, which was released by EMI’s Capitol Records on January 18, 2011. The album scanned 93,567 units in the U.S. in its debut week, landing it at the top of the Billboard Top 200 chart, and has also given the band their highest career chart position in territories all over the world. The King Is Dead was released on Rough Trade Records in the UK and Europe.

Over the course of 6 albums and 10 years, the Portland, Oregon-based band has steadfastly followed their own creative path, from their 2002 debut Castaways and Cutouts and the early critical breakout success of 2005’s Picaresque on Kill Rock Stars, to their even more ambitious efforts for Capitol Records, 2006’s The Crane Wife and 2009’s song-cycle The Hazards of Love. Now with The King Is Dead—a profoundly simple set of 10 concise country-inflected songs produced by Tucker Martine and featuring guests Gillian Welch and Peter Buck—The Decemberists have reached music’s top spot entirely on their own terms.

TIME magazine predicted before the album’s release that “with critical buzz building behind it, The King Is Dead could mark their crossover to the realm of important American rock groups alongside the likes of Wilco and the White Stripes.” Rolling Stone marveled at “how much richness and beauty the group has folded into the 40-minute album,” adding that “For a band able to push the limits of songwriting, it’s a revelation, and a chance to see how deep simplicity goes. Very deep, it turns out.”


January 26, 2011 - Los Angeles, CA - Southern California's iconic rock ‘n' roll band Social Distortion has achieved their highest charting album and biggest first week sales in their 32 year career with the release of Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes.

Selling 46,366 copies in the first week, Social Distortion's first album in over six years has entered the Billboard Top 200 at #4, surpassing 1996's major label release White Light, White Heat, White Trash, which debuted at #27 and 2004's Sex, Love and Rock ‘n' Roll, which sold 36,273 in the first week. Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes' first single, "Machine Gun Blues," has also garnered the band a #16 spot on the commercial alternative radio chart, their highest position ever. Social Distortion's career-high chart position is a testament to the band's legacy, longevity and relativity as they continue to rev their engine well into the third decade of their celebrated career.

Social Distortion's seventh studio album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, has received mass approval from fans and critics around the world. Billboard states that "each one of these tunes will clearly rattle the rafters anywhere Social D plays, but with an added veneer that complements the raw, punk-like energy that is the band's stock in trade." "Instantly familiar, gorgeously warm in both tone and delivery, and imbued with the very essence of rock ‘n' roll, this record manages the remarkable feat of balancing true integrity with universal appeal," says the UK's RockSound. American Songwriter exclaims that "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is a well-rounded and excellent addition to the band's body of work" with British rock mag Kerrang! adding "this new album is well worth the wait!"

New and old fans alike are showing up in droves to see the band live too! Having almost already sold-out their entire west coast tour, including three consecutive nights at The Palladium in Hollywood, Social Distortion's devoted fan base continues to spread across the country as demand for the band hits an all-time high. The group recently announced their spring US tour which kicks off in April with tickets on-sale this weekend. Fans are encouraged to buy tickets early to avoid sellouts.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Old 97's return rock 'n' roll to its rightful place

Singer-songwriter-rhythm guitarist Rhett Miller led the Old 97's through an original set of energetic rock 'n' roll at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana on Jan. 20.

Alt rock. Folk rock. Hard rock. Modern rock.
Heck, whatever happened to plain ol' rock 'n' roll?
Well, rock 'n' roll made a well-deserved return to the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana on Thursday night courtesy of the Old 97's.
Admittedly, there is plenty of alt country grit in the Dallas, Texas-spawned quartet's sound, but watching the Old 97's tear it up in a loose and engaging 90-minute concert played out in Orange County was refreshing.

And indeed, watching the Old 97's I could imagine that Buddy Holly might well be doing this exact mix of roots rock and country rock if he had been born 50 years later.
Led by singer-rhythm guitarist Rhett Miller (seen above in a photo I snapped at the show), the band's approach was much like it was when I caught them at the Hootenanny Festival in Irvine last summer. But that is clearly part of the outfit's appeal. Simply put, Miller, lead guitarist Ken Bethea, singer-bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples rocked.
It didn't matter whether the Old 97's were playing some of their better-known stuff ("King of All of the World," "Four-Leaf Clover," "Question") or new material off their 2010 disc The Grand Theatre, the band's approach was authentic, engaging and raucous.
Several new songs were standouts, notably the forceful rocker "Champaign, Illinois," the rollicking "Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)" and similarly fast-paced "A State of Texas."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vanguard Records and Stacy Clark Join Forces to Support To Write Love on Her Arms with Free Download

January 20, 2011 – Stacy Clark and Vanguard Records are proud to support To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. Beginning today, for every free download of Stacy Clark’s new single ‘Not Enough’ from Vanguard Records will donate one dollar to To Write Love on Her Arms.

"I feel very lucky to be involved with To Write Love on Her Arms,” says Stacy Clark. “We all have our own stories, struggles and obstacles. To know you can reach out to them is a great thing. I am happy to support such a wonderful organization and find everyone very inspiring." Clark first teamed up with TWLOHA to develop a video for her song ‘Hold On’ to raise awareness for the organization. Filmed in downtown Los Angeles, and directed by award-winning filmmaker Jay Torres, the video features some of the young women who have been helped by To Write Love on Her Arms, each of whom share their stories.

‘Not Enough’ is the latest single from Clark’s label debut, Connect The Dots which is a collection of twelve emotionally uplifting songs with resilient melodies. 944 Magazine hailed, "...she’s a breath of fresh air... Her dedication and risk-taking has turned her into more than just a girl with a guitar. She is a girl with a heart, an idea and a talent of indescribable magnitude." went on to say “…her melodies are relentlessly catchy, her lyrics are honest and heartfelt…” Connect The Dots is currently available at all major digital retail outlets and all Borders stores nationwide. The album will have its worldwide release on February 15th.

For more information about Stacy Clark visit

To learn more about To Write Love on Her Arms visit

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

2011 NAMM Show celebrates music and those who play it

Photograph on left: Fingerstyle guitarist Trace Bundy plays his guitar at the Gator Cases, Inc. booth on Jan. 15, 2011.

Large photo on top of page: Singer-songwriter-guitarist Billy White Acre performs his original song "The Apple" on Jan. 15, 2011, featuring the new Yamaha GL1 Guitarlele ("half guitar, half ukulele"). A unique mini 6-string nylon guitar that is sized like a baritone ukulele, the instrument is played like a standard tune guitar.

In case you missed my series of reports on the Soundcheck blog of The Orange County Register's Web site, here is a recap of some of my highlights from The NAMM Show last weekend.

Although I have interviewed many high-profile legends in the music industry over the years, it has usually been a phone interview and set up weeks in advance. Such was not the case leading up to my interview with Jackson Browne. I received an email on Wednesday, Jan. 12 asking if I was interested in interviewing him in the morning on Thursday, Jan. 13. I'm no fool and jumped at the chance.

The arrival of Browne on Thursday has been one of countless unscheduled surprises at this year’s NAMM Show. The Hall of Famer, turned up in the Gibson Guitar suite on the third floor of the Anaheim Convention Center to celebrate the unveiling of his own signature guitar from the manufacturer.

Browne, who spent his formative teenage years in Orange County and attended Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, was gracious enough to sit down for a brief chat before his hour-long noontime press conference. Not only is this the first guitar to bear his name, he told me, but it took five years of collaboration — with master luthiers Ren Ferguson and Robi Johns at the company’s research and development plant in Montana — to get everything right.

The inspiration for the Browne guitar was Gibson’s ’30s-era Roy Smeck model, several of which Browne owns and uses on stage and in the studio. He loves the old guitars for their sweet acoustic sound, wrapped up in a big tone.

“It’s both a triumph of guitar-making and fitting this pickup,” he explained, noting his 2011 model comes factory installed with the Trance Audio Amulet, a true-stereo acoustic pickup. (Purists can also get his model without it.)

“There is a lot of latitude,” he added, “and people have grown up playing a completely different kind of acoustic guitar, and a very different kind of pickup. I think in a way it’s like coming home. This sound is very natural and actually can be made very loud. The last record I made, I used this pick-up and a really old Gibson guitar, and you could play the guitar hard or soft. You could always hear it even with drums and bass.”

You can see Browne and his collection of vintage guitars, along with his new model, when he performs March 5 at at the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula and March 8 at the Long Beach Terrace Theatre.

“To get a company like Gibson — they have already made my favorite guitars years ago — to take up the task of making a whole new run of them and make them available for a new generation of players, that’s exciting,” he says of the Jackson Browne Signature Model A, which retails for about $7,700. (Those without the custom-made pickup go for $5,700.)

My conversation with Browne was brief and mostly focused on the new guitar, but I did get to ask him about any local memories.

“Orange County’s always fun for me,” he said of his visits here now. “I just drove down to Newport Beach (from his home in Los Angeles); we had a family gathering with both my sons (one was visiting from Australia). But Orange County has changed so rapidly, (though) some things are the same — Disneyland is the same.

“The beach is great. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I first learned to drive; it was important to drive because it was my way out of Orange County and to get to Hollywood.”

But Browne also noted that the burgeoning O.C. music scene of the late ’60s allowed him a training ground to develop his craft: “I played the Bear (the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach), I played the Paradox (in Tustin) … the Four Muses in San Clemente is where I started playing.”

Here are some other highlights of the performances and artist meet-and-greets at the NAMM Show.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, songwriter and recent American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick and Def Leppard lead guitarist Phil Collen were among those who took part in opening ceremonies for the 109th annual NAMM Show on Wednesday, Jan. 12.

Collen, a longtime resident of South Orange County, is one of many well-known musicians particpating in the “Guitar World Lick of the Day,” which provides instruction via those same Apple products (seemingly everyone at NAMM uses them). He showed off the product — and his own impressive skills — with a solo performance of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

Perhaps the most surprising performance of the day almost didn’t happen.

Several people asked Huckabee if he would play some bass, in addition to his speech on behalf of NAMM’s efforts to put a musical instrument into the hands of every child in America (a program called I Wanna Play!). After getting some technical details worked out and finding a bass guitar the governor could use (he was first handed a five-string bass but joked that he’s “old school” and required a four-string axe), Huckabee joined forces with Dick Boak (from Martin Guitar) and Collen for an extended blues jam.

The first official day of the annual NAMM Show (Thursday, Jan. 13) delivered a little something for everyone, no matter what your musical taste. Far-flung performances focused on jazz, modern rock, folk and classic California rock (courtesy of Jackson Browne), while surf music and Americana were also on the menu over the course of the 12 hours I spent at the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday.

For jazz fans, there was an early-morning performance from legendary guitarist Lee Ritenour. For lovers of instrumental guitar, his performance of the beautiful “Waters Edge” (from his Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors album) offered a great chance to showcase his playing as well as a line of new acoustic guitars being unveiled by Yamaha music.

But it proved to be only the first of many fine performances I caught from a number of acclaimed players here. Finger-style guitarist Don Alder, for instance, showcased his talents on cuts like “DRDR” and “The Wall,” his fiery strumming and tapping drawing a number of onlookers to a press conference about a new campaign focusing on more than 50 new guitars and basses being unveiled at this, the world’s largest music trade show.

In another hour of original songs, Huntington Beach singer-songwriter James Grey pleased with well-written tunes that came to vivid life with his intimate delivery. Along with the Beatles-esque “Wonderful Day” to the inventive “Monsters,” other standouts in his set included “Safety Net” and “Sea Breeze.”

Doyle Dykes, on the other hand, is a master who can flat-out play the guitar. Considered by many to be one of the world’s finest bluegrass-country-Americana virtuosos alive, his hour-long appearance on the Taylor Guitars stage did much to enhance that reputation.

Opening with a beautiful arrangement of “How Great Thou Art,” his wide-ranging set went on to include other material centered on his country and spiritual roots, as well as fun choices (the theme from the old Batman series from the ’60s) and a medley of tunes in the key of A (the “Alpha” key), with David Pack of Ambrosia fame joining in for the Doors‘ “Break on Through,” the Champs’ “Tequila” and Ray Charles‘ “Hit the Road, Jack.” Other highlights included a reworked version of Eric Clapton‘s “Lay Down Sally,” which allowed both Pack and Dykes to trade licks, and a beautiful set-ending “Amazing Grace,” with Dykes’ guitar gracefully dancing around his daughter Haley’s expressive soprano.

Although Alex Skolnick is known for his chops as a member of Testament, his Alex Skolnick Trio performed a breathtaking 60-minute set of instrumental jazz on Thursday. Skolnick is an amazing guitarist, shredding across the fretboard regardless which style he tackles. A large crowd packed the Marriott Center Stage and cheered this show as loudly as any I heard throughout the day.

One of the weakest performances I caught, however, was by a surf band dubbed Duo-Tones+2. Although the group covered a bunch of classics from the likes of Dick Dale, the Ventures and other ’60s mainstays, its set was too loose and lost luster as it went along.

On the other hand, what’s not to love about the legendary Otis Taylor? Having first encountered him during a jaw-dropping performance at the Doheny Blues Fest in 2010, Taylor here proved that lightning can indeed strike twice thanks to an incredible hour-long set at the Anaheim Marriott on Thursday night.

Backed by one of the hardest-hitting blues bands in the business — with his oldest daughter Cassie Taylor on bass and backing vocals, along with fiddle player Anne Harris, lead guitarist Jon Paul Johnson and drummer Larry Thompson — Taylor was striking on banjo, acoustic guitar and (finally) a Fender Telecaster as his set grew in intensity by the minute. By the time he got to “Rain So Hard” near the end of an 11-song turn, many in the crowd were swaying, totally caught up in Boulder resident’s hypnotic, haunting music.

If, in some mythical universe, the Doors and Led Zeppelin could have formed a band with Robert Johnson and B.B. King, the results might have sounded a bit like what Otis Taylor does now.

It’s no surprise that technology continues to be such a big part of NAMM. In the past two decades I’ve seen seemingly never-ending advances in how instruments are made and the development of entirely new tools help both legends and newcomers sound better and simply do more stuff.

Such proved to be the case once more when my journey through the world’s largest music trade show began Friday, Jan. 14. A year after the launch of the Beamz Player, I was curious to see how the interactive music system was coming along. A musical instrument with legs, it has the potential for broad appeal — it’s fun and anybody can play it.

Guitar hero Craig Chaquico introduced the device during a showcase at last year’s NAMM, entertaining a small crowd as he ran his hands through the device’s beam of light, enhancing pre-recorded tracks. This year, however, he was able to artfully play his Carvin guitar while also utilizing the Beamz Player, clearly expanding his approach on some of his best-known contemporary jazz and new-age material.

Chaquico is one of those rare members of a classic rock band who has been able to redefine himself over the years. He got his start, while still in his teens back in 1974, by accepting an invitation to join Jefferson Starship. Having played guitar with the band for more than a decade (and written some of its best songs, including “Find Your Way Back”), he embarked on a career in modern jazz.

At NAMM 2011, he performed several of his instrumental pieces, spotlighting his fluid six-string style while simultaneously using his fingers and hands to provide Native American flute on “Indian Spring” and other supportive sounds on “Cafe Carnivale” and “Gathering of the Tribes.” Visit Chaquico’s site for more information on his relationship with Beamz.

Not everything at NAMM is about sprinting into the future. A long performance by Kim Wilson (of Fabulous Thunderbirds fame) was an old-school excuse for fans of the blues to hear him demonstrate the wide variety of sounds from Hohner harmonicas. Wilson is undoubtedly one of the genre’s best (and best-known) harp masters, something he proved repeatedly during an extended set, with lone accompaniment from bassist Larry Taylor. His sales pitch was brief, too: “Hohner is the harmonica of choice — that’s all I got to tell you.”

Like Chaquico, Laurence Juber has been able to successfully define himself as someone far larger than his classic rock roots. Decades after his start as the last lead guitarist for Wings in the late ’70s, he is now recognized as one of the world’s best fingerstyle guitarists. Performing a dozen or so pieces on his Martin guitar at the Mogami Cables Company booth Friday afternoon, his sales pitch was also pithy: “Life is too short for using bad cables.”

Highlights of his set included beautiful arrangements of the Beatles‘ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Blackbird” as well as a gorgeous rendering of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Little Wing.”

Not every player is a virtuoso, however — so it was nice to see several young songwriters featured on the small stage at the Martin Guitars booth. Jason Charles Miller (lead singer of the hard-rocking band Godhead) showcased his acoustic Americana solo project in a strong 30-minute set. Aided by guitarist Brett Boyett and fiddler Aubrey Richmond, Miller showed he can sing powerfully and with plenty of feeling outside of a big rock sound. His highlights included “Long Long Gone” and the Southern rock of “Raise a Little Hell with an Angel.”

Another young promising singer-songwriter followed Miller’s set on the same stage, as Mia Sable (accompanied by guitarist Ainjel Emme) served up almost a dozen originals. Confessional material such as “Somebody Tell Me” and “When It’s All Been Done” showcased both her pleasing soprano and ability to craft winning songs.

Taylor Guitars has a burgeoning history of presenting full-scale performances on its first-class stage, positioned inside a large space on the second floor of the Anaheim Convention Center, and capping its Friday lineup was an hour-long concert by Night Ranger, back in O.C. only four months after appearing at Jack’s 5th Show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine. The good news for fans who landed a spot inside the packed space was that singer-bassist Jack Blades and the rest of the outfit were out to have a good time and rock out.

There is something about performing at NAMM — perhaps having so many notables on hand watching — that brings out the best of every artist. I saw several members of Night Ranger enjoying Otis Taylor’s incredible set on Thursday, for instance, with Blades coming up to talk with Taylor after his set.

Night Ranger has improved as a band over the years, and this NAMM showcase marked one of the most rocking sets I’ve witnessed at the trade show. Big hits were delivered with unbridled power, especially “(You Can Still) Rock in America” and “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” complete with dueling lead solos from guitarists Brad Gillis and Joel Hoekstra. Young and old sang along as the band performed “Sister Christian,” and metal fans went nuts when the quintet closed with a thunderous version of AC/DC‘s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”

Having spent the bulk of this NAMM Show on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday immersed in seeing noted artists — Jackson Browne, Plain White T’s, Night Ranger, Lee Ritenour, Dave Koz, etc. — I decided to use what few available hours I could spend at the show on Saturday to check out some unsung heroes, young artists just waiting for a much-deserved big break. Catching that kind of talent requires only a simple walk through the massive convention with your ears tuned.

I was lucky enough to find myself at the Gator Cases booth just after instrumental guitarist Trace Bundy started. Aptly dubbed the Acoustic Ninja by fans, the fingerstyle guitarist (above) — worthy of comparison to genre heroes like Doug Smith, Don Alder and Laurence Juber — delivered a masterful performance of Pachelbel’s Canon, working the neck of his guitar with both hands at first, hammering the strings while adding harmonics to his version of the celebrated baroque piece. Eventually he used the full guitar, expressing the beauty of the work with a complete range of his instrument.

Bundy is unsigned, yet he has sold 60,000 or so physical CDs via his own label Honest Ninja Music. More impressive: views of his performances on YouTube (like his on-the-spot looped handling of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” below) have racked up in excess of 12 million views. No wonder he has recently shared the stage with the likes of Chris Hillman (the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers), Neko Case and David Wilcox. Bundy returns to Southern California next month to play Feb. 19 at Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles.

Many of NAMM’s most intimate showcases were found on the two large stages in the lobby of the Marriott, adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center. But a small performance area inside the nearby Starbucks hosted morning and early-afternoon acoustic performances as well, including one featuring singer-songwriter-guitar virtuoso Billy White Acre, who turned in a dazzling set of both instrumental pieces (“Drive” was especially good) and intelligent songs.

Performing on his new A-Series Yamaha guitar and a GL 1 Guitarlele (a nylon six-string guitar shaped like a baritone ukulele, one of many acoustic instruments that debuted at NAMM this year), Acre’s material benefited not only from strong fretwork but a vocal delivery dynamic enough to convey quiet beginnings and dramatic finishes (as on “Just a Dream” and “The Apple”).

One of my favorites that really showed off his chops was the Celtic-styled “Sir Gavin Gets Down”; like fellow Canada native Bruce Cockburn, Acre is a master guitarist whose talents on the instrument enhance his songs, making them even better. His new EP, The Apple, is $4.95 on iTunes.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Tower of Power impresses at The Coach House

Baritone sax master Stephen “Doc” Kupka, lead tenor sax player Tom E. Politzer and second tenor sax player Emilio Castillo had a blast at the Coach House on Thursday night. Photo credit: Robert Steshetz 

 Few legendary artists deliver the kind of sonic fireworks four decades into their career that they did in their first. But don’t tell that to the 10 members of Tower of Power, who performed an energetic show that likely inspired as much as it fully entertained a capacity crowd of mostly baby boomers at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Thursday night (Jan. 6, 2011). 

The Oakland-based funk-soul outfit is in a musical world of its own, with its five-man horn section planted firmly center stage next to lead singer Larry Braggs while the solid rhythm section, guitarist Jerry Cortez and keyboardist Roger Smith occupy the rear. But what mattered most was the wonderful material and how the urban soul champions performed it over the course of 90 wonderful minutes. From the opening notes of the grooving “Soul Vaccination” that kicked things off to the night-ending “You’re Still a Young Man,” the troupe performed as if they were a young band just trying to get a break. Indeed, hits such as “What Is Hip?” shined as brightly as material off Tower of Power’s latest CD, 2009’s Great American Soulbook

While R&B takes on “Me & Mrs. Jones” and “So Very Hard to Go” allowed Braggs’ incredible tenor to take the spotlight, it was frequently the band’s celebrated horn section (singer-second tenor sax player Emilio Castillo, baritone sax master Stephen “Doc” Kupka, lead tenor sax player Tom E. Politzer, trumpet and flugelhorn virtuoso Adolfo Acosta, trumpet and trombone player Mic Gillette) that dazzled. The aptly-titled “Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now” and “You Got to Funkifize” were among the many songs that allowed the horn section to blast away without ever wandering out of the pocket. With Tower of Power continuing to be one of the hardest working bands in show business and playing hundreds of shows every year, it’s easy to take the Bay Area boys for granted. Best to follow in the delinquent steps of this critic, and catch them now. The band is a frequent visitor to the Coach House, but will perform its next area show as part of a double bill with WAR at San Manuel Indian Casino in Highland on Feb. 17. 

Opening the show was Orange County-based blues singer-songwriter Connie Rae, who despite the sole accompaniment of keyboardist-singer Roland Jenster, delivered a solid 45-minute crowd pleasing set. She scored big points with the audience for a strong reworking of the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but reached equally-emotive heights with her own “Sister Garden” and “Message of Hope.”

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


Exclusive CD will feature guest artists joining in for some bluegrass fun

LEBANON, Tenn. - Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is pleased to let you know that the next CD in its exclusive music program will feature some of the biggest names in country music joining up with one of the most beloved bands on today's bluegrass scene, The Grascals. The album, The Grascals & Friends - Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin, has 13 country music songs on it that you have probably heard before, but most likely not like this. The Grascals bring their own bluegrass style to the tunes and bring the different tracks to life with eight of their friends, including Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Charlie Daniels and Dolly Parton. The Grascals & Friends - Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin will be available on January 10, 2011, exclusively at all Cracker Barrel locations.

The bonus track, "I Am Strong," was written by Grascals band member Jamie Johnson and his wife Susanne Mumpower-Johnson along with Jenee Fleenor after The Grascals visited the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital® and were inspired by the stories and power of the children being treated there. "I Am Strong" is powerful in its message and artistic vision and brings together vocals from all of the artists who also appear separately with the Grascals on other tracks on this CD. In honor of the children and this song, Cracker Barrel is donating a percentage of the proceeds from this CD to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"The Grascals are steeped in bluegrass tradition and at the same time are in touch with their contemporary audiences, bringing authenticity as well as freshness to the music," said Chris Ciavarra, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Cracker Barrel. "We are pleased to be able to offer our guests this unique CD as the latest album in our exclusive music program."

The Grascals are frequent guests at Cracker Barrel as it provides a welcome stop along the way when they are out touring, which is most of the year. Ask any of the six band members what they like to eat when they stop in and there is no hesitation in the responses: chicken n' dumplins, the Sunrise Sampler, turnip greens or pinto beans....the answers go on and on.
The Grascals & Friends - Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin will be the latest in Cracker Barrel's exclusive music program, which features numerous projects. In November of 2010, Cracker Barrel released Smokey Robinson's Now & Then which features six of his current songs and live versions of six of his classics that were recorded last year. It debuted at #19 on Billboard magazine's R&B chart. September saw the release of the self-titled Rodney Atkins, which includes four #1 hits, and also released Mandy Barnett's Winter Wonderland, which offers up all the authentic sounds of the holiday traditions so many of us cherish. In July, the company released Craig Morgan's That's Why-Collector's Edition,and in May the release of Wynonna's Love Heals debuted at #7 on the Billboard Magazine Top Country Albums chart. February's release of Dailey & Vincent Sing the Statler Brothers debuted at #1 on Billboard's Top Bluegrass Albums chart, where it spent nine weeks in the top position and 18 weeks overall in one of the three top positions since its release on February 1st. Releases in 2009 included November's Songs of Love and Heartache by Alan Jackson, September's release of an exclusive new version of The Foundation by the Zac Brown Band, August's George Jones' release of A Collection Of My Best Recollection, May's release of Montgomery Gentry's For Our Heroes, which debuted at #5 on Billboard Magazine's Top Country Albums chart, and March's release of Dolly Parton's Collector's Edition of Backwoods Barbie, which debuted at #9 on that chart. Over the last few years, Cracker Barrel has released exclusive CDs with Bill Gaither, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, Aaron Tippin, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Josh Turner, Amy Grant, Sara Evans, and Charlie Daniels.

Tracks on The Grascals & Friends - Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin:

1. Tiger By The Tail (with Brad Paisley)
2. Folsom Prison Blues (with Dierks Bentley)
3. Pain of Lovin' You (with Dolly Parton)
4. I Am Strong (with Dolly Parton)
5. Louisiana Saturday Night
6. The Year That Clayton Delaney Died (with Tom T. Hall)
7. White Lightning (with Darryl Worley)
8. The Devil Went Down To Georgia (with Charlie Daniels)
9. Leavin' Louisiana In Broad Daylight (with The Oak Ridge Boys)
10. Mr. Bojangles (with Joe Nichols)
11. Hank Williams Jr. Medley-Born To Boogie / All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin' Over Tonight
12. Cracker Barrel Swing (Instrumental)
13. I Am Strong (Bonus Track) Featuring guest appearances by Dolly Parton, The Oak Ridge Boys, Darryl Worley, Charlie Daniels, Terri Clark, Randy Owen, Steven Seagal, Tom T. Hall, Joe Nichols and Ansley McLaurin

About Cracker Barrel
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store provides a friendly home-away-from-home in its old country stores and restaurants. Guests are cared for like family while relaxing and enjoying real home-style food and shopping that's surprisingly unique, genuinely fun and reminiscent of America's country heritage...all at a fair price. The restaurant serves up delicious, home-style country food such as meatloaf and homemade chicken n' dumplins as well as its signature biscuits using an old family recipe. The authentic old country retail store is fun to shop and offers unique gifts and self-indulgences.

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.(Nasdaq: CBRL) was established in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn. and operates 597 company-owned locations in 42 states. Every Cracker Barrel unit is open seven days a week with hours Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. - 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. - 11 p.m. For more information, visit