Artist of the Week Band of the Week

Band of the Week: Howlin Rain

Described as “A psychedelic cocktail of Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Faces, the Damned and author Raymond Carver” by Rolling Stone, Howlin Rain is no doubt a band to watch. Their upcoming release, The Russian Wilds, is a captivating mix of solid rock & roll with Southern and jam band influences. With minute long instrumental interludes, striking vocals and captivating percussion and guitar accompaniment, Howlin Rain grabs the listener.

The San Francisco quintet’s third LP, The Russian Wilds embodies all the components of a standout album. Each track offers a new side to the band and whether it’s ear-grabbing vocals, impressive guitar riffs or impeccable percussion parts, it’s nearly impossible to not hit that repeat button.

“There was a point when we were really trying to blend Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town,” says frontman Ethan Miller. “There’s a sense of audacity to these records — a band chasing down strong, invisible connections — and there’s moments like that on our record. We didn’t always do the smartest or safest things.”

The standout “Phantom In the Valley” blends genres with distinct rock influence at the song’s start before a Latin flavor with horn features and seductive vocals enter mid-track. As soaring vocals that bring to mind Queen crescendo five minutes in, it is evident that Howlin Rain are in a league of their own.

Listen to “Phantom In the Valley” on SoundCloud here.

Able to transition from the high energy rock numbers to ballads effortlessly, songs like “Strange Thunder” showcase the band’s more serious side. With ethereal vocals by Miller, delicate guitar strumming and light percussion for five minutes, the nearly nine minute track picks up mid-song with powerful guitar riffs, a heavier bass component and surprisingly forceful vocals. Likewise, the mostly instrumental “…Still Walking, Still Stone” embodies jazz elements with a beautiful piano introduction, soothing background vocals and impressive guitar chops.

A versatile album, Howlin Rain’s The Russian Wilds is due for release February 14. About to kick off their tour, Howlin Rain performs next week in New York. Catch them February 7 at Mercury Lounge and February 8 at Brooklyn Bowl. For more on the band and complete tour dates, visit their Website.

I have a pair of tickets for their intimate, invite-only acoustic set at The Living Room in New York City on Monday, February 6. To enter for your chance to win, e-mail me the answer to the below question. Good luck!

What band was Ethan Miller in when he started Howlin Rain?

Interviews Q&A

Q&A with The Trews

Over the summer, I caught up with Canadian-based rock band The Trews after an intimate performance in Brooklyn. “I find playing in the living room more nerve-racking than playing in front of 30,000 people,” frontman Colin MacDonald admitted after their set. “Playing in front of 25 people in a living room, you can really feel the eyes on you.”

After their set, the band filled me in on their songwriting process, what it’s like performing to American audiences and learning from the bands they tour with like Kid Rock and Robert Plant. Be sure to catch them tomorrow at Mercury Lounge. For complete tour dates, visit their Web site.

Their fourth album, the standout Hope and Ruin, is a departure from previous studio albums as the band wrote and performed everything live. A more organic process, The Trews spent time recording at The Tragically Hip’s Bathouse Recording Studio. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario between Toronto and Montreal, the band lived in and wrote the album at the converted mansion.

“We were just trying to catch lightning in a bottle, just playing until it felt right,” MacDonald said. “Bathouse has a tree house kind of vibe, it’s a good hang. It has a pool table, record collection, woods in the backyard, lake in the front yard. It’s a really cool place to focus for a band, to get out to the country and really focus on the task at hand. It’s really informal. We’ve recorded records at places that have felt a lot more clinical.”

For this record, the band went into the studio for the first time without songs completely finished. “The Dreaming Man” was written over coffee with their producer after jamming on a D riff.

“We had a great little melody and great little jam and I found some lyrics for it from some other song I had. It was done that night and recorded,” MacDonald said.

Songwriting isn’t always that easy though, guitarist John-Angus MacDonald explained.

“Sometimes songs are more fully formed upon delivery than other ones. For the most part, we want to have music that you feel something from,” explained MacDonald ‘s brother, John-Angus. “I don’t think the lyrics have ever come first for us. It’s mostly just a feel, melody, groove or riff and we either shoehorn or Colin comes in with lyrics that are more fully finished than others. Lyrics can be painful. If you don’t get them right away, it could take a while.”

Colin went on to explain that songs often come from what the title dictates.

“A song like ‘Hope and Ruin,’ came from a magazine cover somewhere. I saw hope and ruin and thought it had a nice ring to it, ‘I’m going to sing that over this song. What does hope and ruin mean to me?’ It’s as simple as that. If a song comes in 15 minutes chances are you have a pretty good song on your hands. Sometimes I write from personal experience, sometimes I write from other people’s perspectives and make it sound personal. It’s not always just about me.”

In fact, often the songs fans most relate to are not about him.

“If you can write a song form someone else’s perspective and still feel it, that’s important. You can’t just keep wining about your own situation over again. You have to broaden your emotional pallet,” he said. “Sometimes you write a song that predicts your future, which is weird. Maybe it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. You write this great breakup tune and you’ve broken up four months later. I don’t know what that means, maybe it’s you asking for it. From time to time, a songwriter can tap into something that has yet to happen to him or her.”

Having toured with everyone from the Rolling Stones and Robert Plant to Kid Rock and Nickelback, The Trews say they learn something from each act they perform with.

“As soon as I’ve done my set, I’ll go grab a beer, park myself side stage and watch the entire set of the bands we’re playing with,” MacDonald said. “We just got off tour with Kid Rock and that guy is one of the greatest rock performers out there right now. I watched his set every night and he was incredible. We opened for Robert Plant a few years back. It’s incredible. It’s always a thrill to open for bands you admire.”

Having been called “the greatest rock band of their generation,” The Trews continue to expand their fan base in the United States and Australia. While performing throughout various cities in Canada always feels like home, the band admits there is something special about U.S. audiences

“This is taking nothing away from our Canadian fans, but there is a real sense of diehard devotion that we get from the fans that we gathered here from the States,” MacDonald said. “It’s there in Canada too, but I guess I’m more struck by it because the numbers are generally smaller. To see them follow us from city to city in these small clubs that we’re doing in the States just emphasizes how much they really do believe in it. That’s cool because we’re not as well known down here. Americans, if they decide they like you, they’re lifers.”

With the goal always in mind to make music they want to listen to, The Trews continue to grow their fan base worldwide.

“It’s an ongoing process,” MacDonald explained. “We’re always trying to make the best possible music that we can make. If it’s something that I want to put on when I’m hanging out at home, then I’ve succeeded.”

Catch The Trews at Mercury Lounge Wednesday night. For more, visit their Web site.

Artist of the Week

April Smith and the Great Picture Show Bring Surprises to Mercury Lounge

With frontwoman April Smith‘s soulful vocals and quirky banter with the audience, April Smith and the Great Picture Show entertained all at Mercury Lounge for an early show last Wednesday. Playing songs off their most recent EP, Live From the Penthouse, the band’s versatility is spell bounding.

Whether Smith is singing jazzier track “Terrible Things,” a song she dedicated to hit television show, “Dexter,” or having a guest band member play the suitcase onstage as if it was a drum (no joke), April Smith and the Great Picture Show kept the audience enthralled for the entirety of their set.

The cabaret inspired show brought to mind many genres; rock, pop, jazz and even classic tunes from the late 50s and 60s. Infused with guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion and melodica, among other surprise instruments, the band kept a lively and easygoing vibe throughout the night.

The energy was fierce during tracks like “Colors” with fun melodica features (think kazoo with a keyboard attached) and tambourine accompaniment, not to mention that suitcase I mentioned earlier. Who knew a band could have the percussion section consist of a suitcase? Definitely a first seeing a suitcase being played onstage.

Stand out track was emotional ballad, “Beloved.” Before beginning, Smith told the crowd she wrote “Beloved” about her grandparents. “I hope one day two people in the movie Twilight will be kissing to it,” she joked. “Maybe Bella or Edward will make out to this song.” With lyrics like “You are the thrill that stilled my beating heart, baby/You are the one I dream the most/But if I cannot have the real thing/I’ll gladly settle for your ghost,” it’s hard not to picture hearing it on the big screen.

Ending their set with fun track “Wow and Flutter,” Wednesday night was only a glimpse into the bright future for April Smith and the Great Picture Show. Garnering a slot opening for for The Bangles as well as this year’s Lollapalooza is well deserved and I won’t be surprised if you’ll be hearing April Smith and the Great Picture Show everywhere soon.

For more on April Smith and the Great Picture Show, be sure to visit them on MySpace.

Recommended: For fans of Duffy and Tom Waits with the energy and emotion of PJ Harvey and Etta James.

Concert Reviews

Anya Marina Heats Things Up At Record Release

Playing nearly an hour set last Tuesday, California-based singer-songwriter Anya Marina showcased songs from her newly released album, Slow & Steady Seduction: Phase II. Receiving rave reviews from fans and critics alike, Marina’s New York headline performance at Mercury Lounge demonstrated just what the fuss is all about, proving that the buzz is only beginning.

Having toured with fellow San Diego native Jason Mraz last year, it is clear what makes Marina so distinct — her sultry and seductively mousy vocals. With her quirky, yet intriguing stories she didn’t beg for the audience’s attention, they gave themselves to her wholeheartedly.

Taking the stage solo playing “Not a Through Street” on acoustic guitar, Marina’s softer vocals fit the ballad well. One song later the band joined her onstage to which she enthusiastically told the audience, “Let’s hear it for our new President!” A record release and headline show on inauguration day couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate.

“I just had a record come out today. I’m so excited!” she exclaimed to the packed room. “Come out after the show and buy 17 for your friends and we’ll get acquainted,” she joked. The rest of the night was filled with tracks from Slow & Steady Seduction: Phase II and Marina’s never ending comical onstage banter (ie. “It was weird growing up Russian. Did you have people call you Commie and throw things at you?”)

Stand-out track, “Waters of March (Aguas de Marco)” was sung in Portuguese and English, which Marina dedicated to a friend in the audience. With stellar vocals and strong electric guitar accompaniment, the song’s Latin groove switched gears a bit as Marina continued to liven up the audience by jumping around the stage while singing.

Marina’s dancing wasn’t the only thing that affixed concertgoers’ attention. Catchy “Afterparty at Jimmy’s” grabbed the listener’s attention with intriguing lyrics, “So you say you got a band?/Three parts Kinks, one part the Jam/You got soul on stage, boy/How ’bout soul in the sack, huh?” The electric guitar feature throughout the song only complimented the edginess of the song.

Ending the night with hit single “Move You(SSSPII)” (yes, you’ve heard it on “Grey’s Anatomy”) Marina exclaimed, “This is a dream come true! Thanks for being here and celebrating 1/20/09 with me.” I have a feeling this is only the beginning for Anya Marina.

For more on Anya, be sure to check out her MySpace and watch her video for “Move You” below!


Concert Reviews

Passenger Pleases New York Crowd in Third U.S. Show

Though it was only Passenger’s third show in the U.S., you wouldn’t have been able to tell. The UK-based band had Mercury Lounge filled Wednesday night to an impressive set of solid acoustic guitar playing and even better vocals. The night included a six-song acoustic set with an unexpected, but highly enjoyable cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella.”

Frontman Mike Rosenberg introduced New Yorkers to his band by saying, “We are two of Passenger,” before kicking off the night with “Things You’ve Never Done,” a slower ballad with simple guitar strumming and soft vocals.

“It’s been a crazy week and a half. Before now, we’ve been in Nashville and L.A. It’s a different world down in Nashville. A lot of haircuts . . . or lack of them,” Mike joked before beginning “What You Think,” a song he wrote while in Nashville. With quirky lyrics like, “My girlfriend says I’m a mess/I should call her my ex-girlfriend I guess,” he had the crowd laughing throughout Passenger’s performance.

While some have compared his voice to that of David Gray and his songwriting reminiscent of Damien Rice in that you really have to listen closely to truly appreciate the lyrics and understand the story behind the song, whatever it is, Passenger’s music is definitely catchy.

Although the majority of their 25-minute set featured mostly acoustic, slower numbers, Passenger’s impressive “Umbrella” cover had the crowd erupting in claps and laughter. “I was trying to do the rap in there as well, but English people don’t rap well,” Mike joked. Throughout the slower, softer songs played during the evening the room was so quiet and attentive to the two men on acoustic guitars on the stage that you could almost hear a pin drop. “Thank you for being so quiet,” Mike told the crowd.

Bandmate Steven’s deeper voice accented perfectly with Mike’s higher vocals while the two guitars blended well throughout each song, often assisting with the crescendos and decrescendos in Mike’s singing. Four of the songs played can be expected on their upcoming full-length album, Wicked Man’s Rest due out later this summer as well as a few on their EP due to hit stores June 24.

Perhaps crowd favorite of the night, a close tie with Rihanna’s cover, was their final song of the evening, “Night Vision Binoculars.” This song was the most upbeat of the night and you could tell Mike and Steven were having a blast onstage as the crowd thoroughly enjoyed it as well. Definitely a faster beat and quicker guitar playing and singing, the song ended the night on a high note.

Although this was Passenger’s last U.S. show for a while, be sure to check out their MySpace or Website for when they’ll be back!

Concert Reviews

David Ford, Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace Play Mercury Lounge

Mercury Lounge was packed Monday night during its early show featuring a solo set from Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace and English singer/songwriter David Ford. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from either singer, being that I never saw them live before, but I walked out in awe of both performers.

David Ford took the stage shortly after 7 p.m., opening up the night with “Go to Hell” off of his latest album, Songs for the Road. A bit of a raspy voice, somewhat reminiscent of James Blunt, his songwriting has been compared to that of Damien Rice and Bright Eyes. His six-song set really impressed the crowd and as his set continued, the audience crept closer and closer to the stage, very attentive to his one-man band performance. Rotating from acoustic and electric guitar to piano, harmonica, tambourine, and maracas – all while singing throughout the song was definitely a sight to see. Below is a video for a better idea, but basically he played and recorded a few bars of the song with each instrument, then looped the recording throughout the remainder of the song. It was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before, but he definitely pulled it off.

Check out his video for “State of the Union” here for more of an idea of what his live performance is like. Let me know what you think!

Ford had the audience laughing during his song introductions, even jokingly dedicating one song – “State of the Union” – to Eliot Spitzer. “This song is about the government, philandering, politics, money, greed, music . . . all neatly compacted into a nice sing-along tune,” Ford said. He explained that “Song for the Road” was inspired by spending time away from home and those he loves while on tour. Being from Great Britain, he said, “I love to come to your great country. The land of the free . . . refill I like to call it,” he joked before beginning the slower, more mellow closer of his set.

Raine Maida took the stage soon after for a 70-minute, 15-song set. While his set mostly included songs from his latest solo album, The Hunters Lullaby, the night featured Our Lady Peace hit “Innocent” and cover songs by the Pixies and Neil Young. Maida had most of the crowd singing along throughout his entire performance.

Onstage, Maida is such a captivating performer. His voice is deep and dark, blending well with the band accompaniment and darker cello and guitar features. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of him – his energy is contagious, almost trance-like. Maida started off the night with “Careful What You Wish For.” The song began with a slow piano feature before Maida joined in with cello and guitar picking up the beat.

“This is cozy,” he said to the audience at the sold-out show. “I wish you all could fit on our bus. That’s not an offer,” he joked while screams could be heard throughout the room. Many of the songs from his album sound a bit dark and edgy, with him singing or talking along with the song.

“Yellow Brick Road” Maida started out talking, “I remember the days when we’d talk for hours/We were young we thought we had superpowers/We kissed the sky, expanding our minds, thought we could fly/We were dreamers, and we’d never die/We were young punks but we showed potential/It was us against the world, we weren’t sentimental/We weren’t our problems, our age or our paychecks/And we weren’t taking anybody’s shit” before the crowd joined him singing along during the chorus.

For the most part, he preceded each song with a story about the meaning behind the song, joking “I feel like this is fuckin’ story tellers or something.” Before covering Neil Young’s song, “Ohio” he said he was upset when he read Young’s recent quote about music not changing the world. Young told reporters earlier this year: “I think that the time when music could change the world is past. I think it would be very naive to think that in this day and age.”

Raide then covered Billy Talent’s, “Try Honesty” telling the audience, “this is one of the songs I wish I wrote.” Soon after, featured pianist of the night, (wife Chantal Kreviazuk) sang a vocally strong and powerful cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” before Maida closed the night with crowd favorite, the night’s sing-along song and Our Lady Peace hit, “Innocent.”

For more on these artists check out their MySpace!
David Ford
Raine Maida
Chantal Kreviazuk