Ed Haynes

A Man Walks Into a Bar Vol. 1
Sack of Hits Records

There is no one else quite like Ed Haynes in all of Portland. That’s a mighty tall contention, but after all the time I have spent listening to local music acts, I can unequivocally state that I’ve never heard anyone quite like him. He’s a curious musical anomaly, who stands apart from trends, while serving as the terminus of a long tradition.

The practice may go back further (Woody Guthrie?), but for our purposes let’s say it began with Tom Lehrer. Ed Haynes is a fan. Lehrer played the hip clubs in the ‘50s and ‘60s, writing and performing bitingly acerbic satirical songs with insights into events of the day, accompanying himself on the piano.

Tom Lehrer

His first album was recorded in 1953 for $15. Self-promoted, the record slowly became a national underground sensation. Over time, with a couple of better recorded follow-up releases he became known as a known source for social commentary. Eventually, Lehrer went on to write ten songs for PBS’ The Electric Company, a children’ program that preceded Sesame Street.

The folk movement of the late 50s and early 60s ushered in a new breed of insightful bards, beginning with the likes of the Limeliters—who brought an extra level of innuendo to the traditional folk music they played. The Smothers Brothers soon followed suit. Johnny Horton, Jimmy Dean and Ray Stevens arrived on the airwaves with mainstream novelty appeal, followed shortly thereafter by Roger Miller. Then songwriters such as Dylan and Phil Ochs gave the lineage new perspective.


And from that core sprung an array of arcane storytellers such as Townes Van Zandt, Arlo Guthrie, Randy Newman, Jim Stafford, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, John Prine, Tom Waits and Jimmy Buffett, etc. But, since the mid 70s, that well seems to have run dry. Careers have been maintained over the intervening decades. But there’s been no new blood.

That is, until Ed Haynes showed up on the scene. Ed is the step-child culmination of all that went before him. He first appeared in the late ‘80s to take up the mantle of his predecessors. But it just so happened that, with metal, punk and new wave (and eventually grunge) at the fore, the musical landscape had shifted like quicksand beneath his feet and he could find no real purchase or center of gravity for his uniquely idiosyncratic compositions.

Ed was born just outside of the DC beltway in Springfield, Virginia the year the Beatles landed stateside. He moved with his family to the Bay area when he was fourteen, just around the time he first started playing guitar and writing songs.

Ten years later he released his first album, Ed Haynes Sings Ed Haynes (an album long out of print that will cost you up to $100 for a CD version and $200 for the LP). That album is a catchy collection of witty, pithy introspective eruditions, many autobiographical (or seemingly so), strewn across the span of eleven songs that include an ode to (possibly the worst part of) “I-5” and the salty trucker shanty “One Brief Liaison With the Lady of the Afternoon.”

The video of the single from that crazy album, the anti-war anthem “I Want to Kill Everybody,” was featured briefly on MTV’s 120 Minutes, and the song met with college radio success as well. Other songs from that album focused on the lifestyles of the destitute and misbegotten who populated the vast underbelly of California’s central valley, where Ed did a lot of traveling for gigs. In support of the album, Ed toured extensively across the US, Canada and England.

After that, as he put it, Ed “rested on his laurels. His friends, family, and colleagues all told him ‘Ed, don’t rest on your laurels!’” But Ed followed his own drummer and “lumped this and all other kernels of advice he received into the ‘actively ignore file’ and remained a determined follower of his own, sometimes bizarre predilections.”

All laurels aside, Ed released a couple of albums in the ‘90s that failed to make of him a household name—a certifiable tragedy. He got married, and moved to Portland in 2002. He promptly released an album Snacking With a Vengeance, that received a generous write-up from the typically prickly local entertainment critic Martin Hughley.

In an effort to further sabotage his feckless music career, Ed, a renowned bread-maker, opened Ed’s Bread and Submarine shop in Portland, serving “the best subs west of the eastern seaboard” for ten years, while for the most part foregoing his music. But in 2014 the indefatigable Ed first developed the concept of “The Ed Haynes Show,” his stage entity as a singer, guitarist, raconteur, joke-teller and devil may care n’er-do-well.

Photo by Wally Hinson

These presentations evolved into the stage show, A Man Walks Into a Bar: A Comedy With Songs in 2016. Lately he has returned to “The Ed Haynes Show,” with the new album A Man Walks Into a Bar Vol. 1 serving as some, though not all, of the repertoire for his current performances.

A Man Walks Into a Bar Vol. 1 is the eruditely incisive, generally hilarious, ten song account—mostly real, one would imagine, of one man’s journey through life, or as much of it as he reckons to observe. It’s amazing the situations a man finds himself in when he’s paying attention.

A bit o’ the Prine inhabits the cheerily morose “Hospital Bar,” which kicks off the album. Over Enrico Conedera’s honky tonk slip-note piano, and along with his own scintillating acoustic guitar accompaniment, Ed spells out the parameters of his dark premise with weary resolve: “Affiliated with no healthcare provider/Just by proxy, right next to the florist/My name is Sheila, I’ll be your server/What can I get for you grieving people/A hospital bar, we keep the high times down low/ A hospital bar— drink specials daily.”


The happy jaunt of “Grumpy Sad Hipster Baker Girl” belies the subject matter, which would seem to spring from Ed’s days as an entrepreneur of the oven. A bit of electric guitar from Mike Coykendall (who also recorded and engineered most of this project) and snappy drums from John Gannon serve to propel the story of a young woman whose general crankiness subsides for Christmas. Her story arc touches down again, later in the proceedings. Ed’s vocal calls to mind the gritty texture of the late John Stewart.

The epic “Swinging Disco Orthodontist” is everything you could possibly hope for from a song with a title like that. “I was taken to the orthodontist to get braces on my teeth/The waiting room looked like a set on Soul Train Dance Party USA/Sleek like a well-lit nightclub/Or something on TV/Set in the distant future, or in space/I took a seat by a ficus tree.”

The ensuing tale of Ed’s odd encounter with a cologne-drenched dentist, clad in disco raiment and complementary coiffure, is a drama of such upwelling vastness, it needs be heard from the bard himself to be fully assimilated.

Ferrante & Teicher

“Good Afternoon Ferrante…Et Al.” weaves an account of mistaken identity that had a profound effect on Ed’s adolescence. “My dad bought those albums because he believed/They were the duo mom liked, but he got it wrong/He’d been misled most likely by a young record clerk/The albums he’d meant to buy were by Ferrante and Teicher/Ferrante and Teicher the easily listening piano act/among their hits renditions of popular movie themes.”

This bit of nostalgic exposition is followed by a wonderfully memorable chorus, ornamented by Ed’s rhythmic acoustic guitar and Conedera’s shimmering piano inflections. Here, as elsewhere, the mix on Ed’s vocal is dry and unadorned—no echo or reverb to speak of. It’s as if he was standing in the room right in front of you, which might be the best way to experience Ed Haynes.

Apart from their arcane subject matter, another curious aspect about Ed’s unique work is the fact that his lyrics seldom rhyme. They really don’t scan like song lyrics at all so much as phrases and paragraphs from a short story or novel. Willy Vlautin—with a sense of humor.

An exception to Ed’s easy going personae would be “SFO International November ’78,” a poignant look at a month that would reverberate throughout the Bay Area for many months and years to come.

Photo by Wally Hinson

Over some stellar, sweet guitar picking on his trusty ‘70s Takemine F365 “Guild Lawsuit” jumbo acoustic guitar, Ed’s narrative unwinds like “Taxi,” or some other serious Harry Chapin song, and his vocal performance reminds of Chapin as well.

Ostensibly set between a departure and return arrival at the San Francisco airport in that tragic month, the song recalls two horrific incidents that shook the community around the Bay Area for many, many years—even still, today. The first, November 18, 1978 was the day that US Representative Leo Ryan from California’s 11th congressional district, serving the East Bay, was gunned down in Guyana in an incident just preceding the infamous “Jonestown Massacre,” which transpired later that day.

Not two weeks later, on November 27th, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk were gunned down in San Francisco City Hall by a disgruntled former employee, who was trying to get his old job back after having quit. The perpetrator, Dan White, was able to get off on a lesser charge by claiming the “Twinkie Defense,” which quickly became the subject of comedians everywhere.

Ed deftly weaves the incident into a piece of his lyric. “The man who would stand trial on two counts of Murder One/Would instead be found guilty on lesser charges/Voluntary Manslaughter, temporary insanity/Brought about in part by an addiction to junk food.”

The rocker of the set, of Buffetian/Prineian heritage one would suppose, “Mid-Level Roller,” is a satisfactory description of the typical Portlander from days of yore—before the rude outsiders came in and took over. “Hop in my mid-level roller/I don’t worry ‘bout the dings and dents/That ride’s been getting’ me to where I’m goin’ to/Since Bill Clinton was president.”

Driven by a ballsy, bluesy acoustic guitar riff, and backed again by Gannon’s smart drums and Coykendall’s amazingly effective single note on a dreamy angry fuzzy electric guitar, the groove is solid. Compact. It’s like the three of them are performing beneath the glare of a single 100-watt light bulb.

With suave irony, Ed moves to inter-relational territory in the final verse. “We got a mid-level dining establishment/A mid-sized spot for the car/So now my only questions at this point are/How am I so lucky you stuck with me/Down this pothole road so far/And are we in that magical time/A dollar off well drinks at the bar.”

Landsverk & Brunberg

“All of a Sudden Karl Malden” is Ed’s account of a close encounter with an airing of Nevada Smith on late-night broadcast television. Ben Landsverk and Jim Brunberg provide the Greek chorus behind the chronicle—one that bursts into majestic sonic fireworks at the discovery of an integral character in the midst of an otherwise ephemerally forgettable flick. The song, however, is actually quite memorable, especially in that rousing flash at the end.

The other end of the narrative arc initially scribed earlier in the project, “Bowling Alley Boy” is much closer to a short story than to a lyric, unfolding in a linear flow. We become acquainted with a young man who, not surprisingly, works at a bowling alley: with a reasonable record as an employee it would seem. Ed goes to great lengths to note in minute detail (“There’s a party of five on Lane 42/They place a complicated order—he gets it wrong”) the overwrought vagaries of our Everylad’s existence. So, by the time things begin to go awry, one has become emotionally invested.

photo by Jason Colston

The arrangement gets the full treatment, with Conedera’s gauzy organ patch, Gannon’s drum, and Paul Trubachik on bass, as well as a sizeable vocal ensemble for backing in the choruses all adding to the glitzy bowling alley ambience. And as the Cascade Lanes close for the night, and Bowling Alley Boy sweeps up, the entire passion play of A Man Walks Into a Bar Vol. 1 is consummated in typical Haynesian fashion, wherein the mundane is elevated to the status of celestiality. The ridiculous becomes completely plausible in what might be construed as an unexpected “happy ending.”

A kiss-off auld lang syne, “Rough Year,” earnestly mulls the passage of time, personal and interpersonal relationships, and the acquired varnish of existence, across a wistful melody that vaguely calls to mind Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”

Finally, an incident of no particularly great significance is treated like the Hindenburg disaster in “Grain Silo Stainless Tank,” a shaggy dog story that lacks only a dog to complete the circuit. The things a guy will put himself through just to get a beer.

Were I to post them here, the lyrics of this song are so long and convoluted that the length of this review would easily double (something I surely would have done in the 2 cents-a-word Two Louies days). Shakespeare wrote several plays that were shorter.

That in no way lessens the enormity of the situation portrayed. There are moments when the arrangement briefly explodes: surrounding the phrases “condescended to,” “leaning awkwardly over a non-pushed in stool,” “unless I fuckin’ Google it” and “I was startled by the formality,” images deeply embedded in the awkward sluice of Ed’s uneasy experience. The sense is that he did not return to the establishment in question.

It’s sad that Ed Haynes did not include a lyric sheet with this CD, although perfectly understandable in that it would have had to be a 16-page booklet that probably would have cost more to produce than the rest of the package, disc included, altogether. But the lyrics and Ed’s ironic delivery of them are an intrinsic part of his presentation.

Photo by Jeff Bailey

He’s a real good guitar player, with a deft touch. He’s a singer of the aforementioned vernacular, able to hold his own against any of them. You recognize his raggedly ironic voice the moment you hear it. His melodies are familiar and accessible—but, in reality, they only serve as soundtrack coloration to the musical screenplays he sets forth. And it is that precision with the setting of a scene that sets Ed Haynes apart from most other folksingers today. You’ve probably never heard anyone quite like him.


February 2019

Richard Lloyd

Rosedale CoverRosedale

Richard Lloyd’s place in the annals of rock music is secure. For over forty years he has proven himself to be one of the most versatile and knowledgeable guitarists in the business—with a career that begins with the founding of the new music scene in New York in the early-70s, extending through to the present, where he is a sagacious purveyor of a very highly refined craft.

Television circa 1973
Television circa 1973 with Richard Hell

Along with Richard Meyers (bassist Richard Hell) and drummer Billy Ficca, Richard Lloyd and his partner, guitarist Tom Miller (Verlaine), formed the band Television in 1973. Even more importantly for their own success, and that of countless other bands, the fledgling Television were instrumental in helping bar owner Hilly Kristal convert his country/blues dive bar into the quintessential punk/new wave dive bar: CBGB. The prototype. The heights (and depths) to which all punk/new wave dive bars aspired.

Television is renowned to have constructed the actual stage in the club as a demonstration of their solidarity. Hilly Kristal himself proclaimed that he thought Television’s first show at the revitalized club in March of 1974 was the “beginning of new wave.” To be sure, innumerable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bands found their footing on that rickety CBGB stage, and made their subsequent fortunes from the incredible creativity that was spawned there at that magical time.

Television circa 1975 with Fred Smith
Television circa 1975 with Fred Smith

With Hell replaced by Fred Smith of Blondie, Television broke out nationally in 1977, via the release of their debut album, Marquee Moon, on the Elektra label—an album that to this day is regarded as one of the most seminal records in all of rock music history. In support of Marquee Moon and their follow up, Adventure, Television actually played the Earth Tavern in Portland in July 1978, with a molten set (a bootleg recording of which is available out there if you want to track it down. It’s worth the effort believe me!) Check out this version of the song “Marquee Moon” taken from that performance.

television liveWhat made Television special, then as well as now, was their unusual twin-guitar attack, which featured complex interplay between Lloyd and Verlaine. Television were always considered outside of “new wave,” not settling into any specific box—which made them far more difficult to market than some of their peers, such as Blondie, Ramones, Talking Heads and Patti Smith, etc. The band never quite found their niche. They essentially broke up by the end of 1978.

Their brief existence in the spotlight and lack of a convenient musical pigeonhole did not prevent Television from being highly influential. The Cars owe much to Television. Cars Ben Orr and Ric Occasek both sing in a highly stylized manner very similar to Verlaine. And though far more a pop band, their presentation owes a great deal to Television’s audio prescience. More recently, the Strokes have proven on occasion that they have spent some time in the living room with the Television. It’s a sound. It’s a feel. It’s woven fabric. Sonic Kevlar.

Richard Lloyd during an erratic period
Richard Lloyd during an erratic period

Post Television, Richard proved himself to be a talented, if somewhat erratic, solo performer, releasing two influential records: Alchemy in 1979 and Field of Fire in 1985, and the little heralded Real Time in 1987, before entering an extended period of performance as a side musician. From 1991 through 1995 he sporadically alternated with the late Robert Quine, serving as lead guitarist, both on tour and in the studio, for Matthew Sweet. He contributed numerous fiery solos to Sweet’s two finest albums, Girlfriend in 1991 and 100% in 1995.

Television_1992In 1992, Television reconvened for an eponymous third album that succinctly recaptured a sound the group had abandoned fifteen years earlier. The band infrequently played a few influential live concerts in the years that followed. Lloyd left Television, once and for all, in 2007

cover doesn'tHe released The Cover Doesn’t Matter in 2001. It’s not an album of covers, as one might expect from the title, but a collection of great original songs—clearly a distillation in many ways (the songs themselves and their arrangements) of the Sweet Experience. Fans of the aforementioned Matthew Sweet albums would find much to appreciate in The Cover Doesn’t Matter.

In 2003 Richard lent his NYC sensibilities to the Cleveland consciousness of Rocket From the Tombs, joining Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys) and David Thomas (Pere Ubu) to explore anew the retrospectively precocious musings of the long deceased band founder Peter Laughner (also Pere Ubu—and an early admirer of Television, before his death in 1977), culminating in the release of Rocket Redux in 2004.

As with his previous solo album and Matthew Sweet, 2007’s The Radiant Monkey suggested Lloyd’s experiences with Television and Rocket From the Tombs: posing a tougher, more raw sound, while capturing some of the fire of his early solo career: the prickly quickness of his deft fretwork never far from the fore.

nevertsThe Jamie Neverts Story, issued in 2009, is a tribute album directed toward two people who influenced Richard, as a guitarist, more than any others. One was his high school friend and fellow novice guitarist Velvert Turner, and the other was Jimi Hendrix. One thing that distinguished Velvert Turner from just about any other teenager in the world was the fact that he actually knew Jimi Hendrix, and visited him in his flat when he was in New York for a concert or for recording.

Velvert would receive a guitar tip or lesson from Jimi and run directly over to Richard’s house to show him what he’d just learned. Together, the two young men mastered many of Jimi’s unique early techniques. It was through Velvert that Richard met Jimi Hendrix and was afforded the opportunity join with Turner in the studio (presumably the Record Plant for the Electric Ladyland sessions) to listen to mixes with Jimi.

Jamie Neverts was a covert code-name the two concocted in order to hide the identity of their famous mentor from friends at school. Richard has distinguished himself as a spirited raconteur, and he spins this tale in one of his many online interviews. (Also not to be missed are his esoteric guitar lessons—the series entitled The Alchemical Guitar—presented by Guitar World magazine).

Velvert Turner Group '71
Velvert Turner Group ’71

Velvert Turner released one lone album in 1972, a few years after Jimi died. And Velvert died in 2000, long away from the business of music by that time. But an audition of the guitar and vocal work on his only recording leaves no doubt as to the imprint Hendrix left upon him.

Likewise, it’s hard to tell where Richard Lloyd’s tribute to Hendrix begins on The Jamie Neverts Story (all ten numbers are faithful renditions of songs taken from Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold as Love), and where the homage to his fellow acolyte begins, as their shared assimilation of the teachings of the master are not to be denied. They both learned their lessons very well.

Over the course of his career, Richard manifested those principles in myriad ways—perhaps the influence of Hendrix is not readily apparent in the twin guitar onslaught of Television. But then again their propensity for harmonic discord seems philosophically in accord with the master.

richard studioAnd since leaving Television, Richard Lloyd has spent the better part of forty years wandering the horizons of possibility his instrument offers. Moving from solo album to solo album, over the years, Richard has covered a lot of stylistic ground, seldom repeating himself. Every one of his solo albums has had an identity all its own. Each seems to acquire subtle features from the previous project.

So there are intimations of The Cover Doesn’t Matter and The Radiant Monkey (and always the work of Hendrix) in Rosedale. Still, though much of this was recorded before the event, something in this album reflects Richard’s recent move from his long-time home in New York City to a rural setting outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. There is a laid-back swampiness in the stylistic attitude displayed here. Even the name of the album suggests a rustic, burnished quality borne out by the music itself.

Photo by Godlis
Photo by Godlis

It’s a pastoral collection, a guitar record, pure and simple. But the Lloydian riffs are the same as ever, playing out against different contexts. More subdued. More laid-back, perhaps. Rootsy rock. Performed pretty much live in the studio with a minimum of overdubs, there are no supporting keyboards or background vocals, no sax solos. Just the basics. Drums, bass, vocals­ and guitar—maybe the occasional overdubbed guitar. But that’s it. No studio trickery. Simply the straight shit.

The brief, jagged riff that opens “Crystal Mountain” plumbs directly back to Television before resolving in a ballsy rocker with bluesy undertones. Richard plays all the instruments on this number, with crisp, whipsmart guitars decorating the periphery. There is a Joe Walsh-like quality to the vocals, bolstered by the general feel of the production.

Chris Frantz
Chris Frantz

Chris Frantz (Talking Heads) provides the beat on “The Word,” another rocker with big cajones. There are hints of Lou Reed in the vocals­—as well as Steve Kilbey of The Church—but this song swaggers far too fast for the former to keep pace, and too forthrightly for the latter’s informal vocal gait. The guitars gear like a watchspring, each cog turning another wheel. The effect is as if the guitar methodology of Television had landed in some other completely different thematic space.

“I Want You” is a primitive piece of work, originally recorded to 4-track. It’s a slow soulful blues-fueled number, reminiscent of Otis Redding, Percy Sledge or Joe Tex, with a touch of Lennon lime squeezed in. Richard navigates a rich falsetto through the vocal changes, wringing raw pathos from the tortured lyric.

Billy Ficca
Billy Ficca

Billy Ficca takes over the drum chair for the next five songs. His longtime association with Lloyd, via their time together in Television and after, coats Richard’s instrumental vehicle like a thick coat of paint. “Everytime It Rains” is very Sweet-like in its composition. Ficca’s drums bridle the intense prance of Richard’s keen guitar phrasings. He pins the ears back on a fantastic solo to lead out the final forty-five seconds of the song, with Billy playing the role of Mitch Mitchell. Hot! Hot, hot!

Which jumpstarts the reptilian slither of the next cut, “Tasting Quicksand.” Into a crucible riff that alchemically fuses elements of The Heads’ “Life During Wartime” with the Nuge’s “Cat Scratch Fever,” are stirred Richard’s goosey, falsetto infused vocal—reminiscent of Jagger circa “Fool to Cry” in the verses. The gritty chorus furthers the Jagger feel, more in the direction of the “She’s So Cold” era.

“Murder Boogie” is imminently self-descriptive: a swampy, ZZ Top-ish shuffle that affords Richard room for lots of tasty fills and blade-sharp solos, over a nasty vocal of wicked intent. Ficca’s bold beat drives “The Real Girl,” a charming pastiche of Television’s angular dynamism buffed with a country sheen—as sung, alternately by Warren Zevon, David Byrne or Marshall Crenshaw.

Richard Lloyd
Richard Lloyd

The blustery rocker, “Easy,” is so familiar, it sounds as if it has always been in the rock music canon. It could have sprung from any era. Richard tosses out a few Hendrix infused runs in the solo sections and the song breezes by like a springtime love affair. Catchy. The hook sticks in the mind like gum to a shoe.

The final two tracks feature support from musicians culled from the Chattanooga scene, and were recorded after Richard’s move to Tennessee last winter. It’s clear from the start of “Devil’s Design” that drummer Jeff Bonebill is up to the task of replacing the formidable Billy Ficca. And the addition of Terry Clouse on bass rounds out the sound as well, freeing Mister Lloyd to turn out low-slung sidewinder licks, and brash, slashing chord punctuations. The song could be the work of the Pixies—with some guy of Richard Lloyd’s magnitude playing lead guitar. Vocally, it’s a cross between the frankness of Black Francis and the reediness of Lou.

Richard Lloyd is not availed of the greatest singing voice in the world, but he manages to take it a lot of places. He gets his point across via rough hewn lyrics: sometimes course, sometimes dirty and gritty, sometimes smooth and resonant. Still, the centerpiece of this album is the unique guitar work.

Richard 3Every riff, each run, presented across the span of the entire album is dead on the money. Clarion flashes of clarity, and an acupuncture precision of attack differentiate Lloyd from the typical guitarist. He has nothing to prove to anyone.

This isn’t a great album. He hasn’t recorded his great album yet. But this album is solid from start to finish and quite enjoyable for its diversity and flair, and certainly worthy of his legend.

June 2016

A Special Goodbye to Steven “Pearly” Hettum


Steve Hettum, known as “Pearly” to his friends, died on February 8th, 2016. At the end of March, SP Clarke published a review of Steve’s final album, Folks Like Us, and a bit of an obituary. This month J. Michael Kearsey steps forward with a formal obituary for Pearly Hettum. A proper send-off. Michael, who has been a fixture in the local music scene since the 70s knew Steve very well, going back thirty years. They toured the UK together in the mid-80s and shared many adventures.

Michael played bass, with Dennis Elmer on drums, and Houston Bolles on lead guitar, to form the Janglers—Pearly’s crack backup band. Steve Hettum’s loss has hit a portion of the Portland music community very hard and efforts continue to bring life to some of the traditions he started.





Steven Charles “Pearly” Hettum
(March 3, 1957-February 8, 2016)

Steven Charles “Pearly” Hettum died peacefully and full of song on Feb 8, 2016. Born and raised in Gresham, graduating from Centennial High School in 1975, he spent a year at OSU and moved on to PSU as an English major. He met musician Billy Rancher and became his manager, taking him from bar rooms to a contract with Arista Records.  Rancher was stricken with lymphoma and the recording contract was quashed.

Steve went on to the University of London, studying classic English writers and poets. He met musician Mike Kahn, who accepted Steve’s offer to come to Portland touring the West Coast in 1985. In 1986 Hettum and Kahn brought Portland rockabilly trio, the Rockin’ Razorbacks, to England and then brought English blues musician, Mick Clarke, to Portland in 1987. Steve began to release his own records in the late 1980’s with titles Simple EleganceThe Jangler, Middle Age Man and Fishermen’s Ball. On a trip to Nashville, his producer noted his voice wasn’t golden but “Pearly”- a nickname that stuck.

He married Betsy Shanklin, loved her daughters as his own and became a father when son Emmet was born in 1992. Moving to Gold Hill, Steve worked as a musician and bartender, returning to Portland in 2000. He recorded two more CD’s with his band, the Janglers, including this year’s CD, Folks Like Us. All his records are available at Music Millennium, CDbaby.com and Localsonly.org.

Diagnosed with cancer of the tongue in 2013, he had a successful skin graft but was told he might not be able to speak. Within a month, he was talking, singing and writing more songs. He established an ‘open mic’ night at Eugenio’s on Division to support local songwriters as well as traveling musicians. It ran for five wonderful years. When he was told he had terminal lung cancer last summer, he put his talent to work on his final album and continued to perform. Steve chose to have “A Wake While I’m Awake,” a musical event that brought together 300 of his friends and family on January 24th.

Steve is survived by his children Caia Shanklin, Margot Shanklin and Emmet Hettum, his mother, Connie Hettum, sisters, Jackie Miller and Sandie Cooper, and brother Mark Hettum and 5 grandchildren: Thatcher, Theodora, Khloe, Thalia and Magnus.

Contributions in Steve’s name may be made to the Oregon Music Hall of Fame Scholarship Fund at http://www.omhof.org to support high school seniors furthering their music studies.

J. Michael Kearsey


Steven “Pearly” Hettum

coverFolks Like Us
Locals Only Records

Steve Hettum died on the evening of February 8th. He succumbed after a long, valiant struggle with cancer. His death was not unexpected. A few of his friends were able to put a life celebration together for him, what he called his “Wake While I’m Awake,” at the end of January, and several hundred people were in attendance.

To a lot of people, he was known simply as Pearly—a nickname he acquired in the ‘80s from a producer in Nashville, who found his voice to have a certain nacreous quality. He was a singer/songwriter from a country/folk tradition, on a trajectory scribing an arc between Garth Brooks and Van Morrison. His own compositions fell along that line somewhere.

Unreal Gods. Steve Hettum far right.
Unreal Gods. Steve Hettum far right.

I always saw Steve in a different light. When I first met him, in 1981, he was just a young guy in his early ‘20s. He had just begun managing a new band in town called Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods. My friend Lew Jones introduced us one evening over at the Dirty Duck, a tavern that used to be on NW Glisan, at the base of the Steel Bridge. From that time on, my path crossed with Steve’s on a regular basis.

After he was unceremoniously dumped from his managerial position with the band in 1983, Steve subsequently made a couple trips to the United Kingdom, on one occasion guiding Portland rockabilly stalwarts, the Razorbacks through an extended tour of the country.

On another occasion he brought the K Khan Band over from Great Britain, and they played many gigs across the Portland area, though probably not to as much acclaim as they deserved. They sort of fell through the stylistic cracks in the Portland music scene of the mid-‘80s.

Steve in Europe
Steve in Europe

Steve lived in Europe for a while, studying at Oxford. He got married and divorced and married again, father to three kids, while living out of the loop down in southern Oregon. Then he divorced again and moved back to Portland.

I caught back up with him at about that time. It was the early ‘90s and he had begun performing as a solo act around town. In fact, I remember that Steve and Lew Jones hosted the very first open mics at the newly opened Laurelthirst tavern, when the music was still in the front window, and they were having neighborhood issues with volume, and the usual civic complaints.

Steve released a nice album, Simple Elegance, in 1991, showcasing a knack for crafting catchy country/folk songs, and singing them with a pure, iridescent voice that, except for the faint whine of a craggy twang, was free of all affect.

It was about that time, too, that I began my first preparations to write a book about Billy Rancher. It had been five years since he had passed—and just before his death I promised Billy that I would tell his story. At the time I thought I would be writing a biography. Since Steve had been the manager of Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods, I started the process of gathering notes for my book by interviewing him first. Doubtless his insights would be different from those of the other members of the band. From my conversations with him, I was able to begin roughing out an outline for the book I had in mind. A sequence of events.

A few years later a fellow published a biography of Billy and the Gods, called Rocky Road—thus my plans for a biography were pretty much shot down. After all, how many biographies does the world need of an unknown musician who died before reaching his full potential? I didn’t give up my plans for a book. I kept my interviews with Steve, my outlines and notes and put them away for quite some time.

UNreal gods
UNreal gods

It was Steve’s version of events that I held on to. Doubtless I could have chosen someone else in or around the band to interview. And that was most certainly my original plan. But somewhere along the line, since I could no longer write the biography I had in mind, I decided the book might actually work better as a novel: where Billy’s story could become archetypal and not simply relegated to a backwater bio.

And while the story I tell in my novel UNreal gods is most certainly Billy’s heroic tale, it’s also Steve’s story—his point of view. And, as in real life, his character is an affable team player, willing to do the unsung dirty work behind the scenes. Not every person is cut out for those duties. It’s an unforgiving position, with few rewards. Whatever the case, Steve did his job well.

I lost track of the guy again after that. I know he was managing the kitchen out at the Edgefield for a while. Then he was gone again. It turns out he’d ended up moving back down to Gold Hill to help raise his two kids. That’s the kind of dutiful square guy Steve was. He made every effort at all times to do the right thing. He was always very conscientious and fair.

At the Alaskan Folk Fest, April, 2000
At the Alaskan Folk Fest, April, 2000

The next time Steve’s name came up was in the late 2000s. I’d heard through the grapevine that he was back in town. I saw him play a couple songs when the wall was still up at the old Eugenio’s. But it wasn’t until 2011 that I really had the chance to catch up with him again. He was the congenial host of the weekly Wednesday open mics at the new, post-wall Eugenio’s. By that time, he’d been at the helm for a year or two and he had a real smooth operation going. There was always a huge crowd there.

He ran a tight ship. He’d open the evening by singing a few songs to set the mood, and then he’d introduce each successive act to take the stage. Novice or old pro, Steve always had a kind thing to say in the presentation of each performer. If you think running an open mic would be a fairly easy gig, you’re out of your mind!

Think about it. You’re dealing with “ sensitive artist” types with egos as big as the Great Trumpkin himself, totally unrealistic about their own abilities. Some are pushy. They want their slot at such and such a time. Can my daughter crowd in? The family’s here. I was with Steve on many occasions when I was astounded that he didn’t go off on somebody for stepping way over the line. I know I would have. Still, Steve always handled every situation with fairness and affability.

But he was having health issues. He’d had something happen with his foot. (He’d broken his back while living in Gold Hill). And he was nursing a hip that he eventually had to have operated on. Then he got cancer of the tongue. They ended up removing a chunk of his tongue and he had a tough time speaking for a while. But through it all, he persevered, rarely missing a Wednesday Open Mic at Eugenio’s. Friends took up for him when he was out, keeping the gig going. But he didn’t miss that many shows, really. He just played through.

Open Mic at the Starday
Open Mic at the Starday

There was a period a few years back, when Eugenio’s was forbidden from having music at all—at which point Steve moved the Open Mic operation to the Starday Tavern on Foster. That went on for a month or two before the music was back at Eugenios’s and so were Pearly’s open mics. And from that point on, the place was packed out on any given Wednesday night.

The Janglers
The Janglers

Over time, Steve put together a tasty little combo of backing musicians, local pros who’d accompanied him on one or another or all of his various recordings over the past twenty five years. They were called the Janglers. Steve sang lead and played rhythm acoustic, Houston Bolles on lead guitar, J. Michael Kearsey on bass and Dennis Elmer on just a snare and a ride cymbal. Don’t kid yourself, Dennis Elmer can do more with a snare and a ride cymbal than most drummers can pull off with an entire field array of percussive artillery.

Dennis Elmer
Dennis Elmer

All in all, with comparative ease, that quartet could knock out an evening’s worth (more than half of the songs were Steve’s originals, the rest: well chosen covers) of top-notch entertainment—at easy listening volumes! Steve’s genial charm and his incredible ability to get people’s attention always made for a fun affair. Always.

J. Michael Kearsey
J. Michael Kearsey

But, as it so often does, Steve’s cancer came back. This time in the form of an inoperable tumor in the upper lobe of his left lung, right behind his heart. He had options to go with chemo and radiation treatments, to try to prolong his life for an additional three or six months. But Steve had seen what that process had done to his friend Billy Rancher in his final days and that’s not the way he wanted to go. So, he decided to forego further treatment and just ride the process out to the end.

open mikeI think it was last September when Steve first started to complain of chest pains and of feeling ill, lacking energy—and it was understood that the decline had begun. But that in no way deterred him from holding court with his regular Wednesday Night Open Mic at Eugenio’s and occasionally gigging with the Janglers on the weekend.

Around November, word got out that Eugene Gray was going to have to close Eugenio’s some time in December. Unbeknownst to most, the building’s owner/landlord, Tim Ellis, who also owned Kung Fu Bakery Recording Studios next door, was forced to sell his interest because he too was suffering from a struggle with cancer. This was one rare instance where Division Street gentrification was not directly responsible for the demise of the enterprise.

Open Mic 2By the time the middle of December rolled around and the final days of the club were being celebrated and mourned, it was becoming clear that Steve was in a great deal of pain. Despite that, or just as likely, because of it, Steve played on, hosting his final Eugenio’s Wednesday Night Open Mic on December 16th. I can’t remember the final total on his weekly open mic events. I think he hosted 306. It was over three hundred, I know that.

The Janglers played their last gig on Friday, the day before the closing of the club, on December 19th. If you didn’t know of his condition, you would not have known how sick Steve was, or how much pain he was enduring. On the tiny Eugenio’s stage, he was his in his element, being his typical fount of hospitable conviviality. His voice was thin, but still sure as pearl. His guitar playing was still crisp. He went out on a high.

steve fresh tracks
In the studio.

I spoke with Steve by phone frequently and visited him in mid-January. His condition had deteriorated dramatically. It was clear he was dying. He played me cuts of the album he was finishing up—whenever he was up to it—with members of the Janglers and many other friends joining in. He’d been working on it for a while, but when it became apparent that he didn’t have a lot more time left, he stepped up his recording schedule, jumping into Jon Lindahl’s Fresh Tracks studio whenever he could muster the strength to give it an hour or two.

Towards the end, his trusted friend, Steve Edgren, manned the board, recording a couple of songs in the living room of Steve’s apartment. He was weak and frail, but he knew what he wanted. Even in his final days he was directing traffic as he always had, whipping everyone into shape.

Madi Goldsmith and Will De Lance of the Glue Horses performing at Steve Hettum's "Wake While I'm Awake."
Madi Goldsmith and Will De Lance of the Glue Horses performing at Steve Hettum’s “Wake While I’m Awake.”

A bunch of Steve’s friends organized the event for him on January 24th. We weren’t sure Steve would live to attend his “Wake While I’m Awake.” But, as through all things, Steve showed rugged determination, and he wasn’t about to miss the celebration of his life. He was there, right up front in the place of honor. Many of the performers who made Steve’s open mics so successful took the stage to play for him one final time.

Steve sat in his recliner, soaking up every minute of the event, so sick and weak, his voice was just a hoarse croak. He could barely speak to the stream of well-wishers who came up to greet him and say their last goodbyes.

But someone had given him a microphone, so occasionally he would bark out some orders to performers or speakers on stage. And he sang with everyone for the evening’s fitting finale, “Party By Myself,” with a solo vocal for a verse, which led to an inspired round of choruses to close.

Steve “Pearly” Hettum died two weeks later on Monday, February 8th, at Steve and Esther Edgren’s house. Steve and Esther selflessly looked after Steve in his final days, offering him hospice in their home, allowing him to die as he wished: in peace, with friends and family at his side.

familyA fitting end for a guy who spent so much of his life looking after the needs of other people—as manager for Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods, as a husband and father, and as host to an interminable array of insecure musicians with enormous egos at his weekly open mics (I include myself among them)—he always took charge of the situation to put people at ease. When he was at his end, he was at ease and he had put someone else in charge.

Which brings us to Folks Like Us. What started out as the next Steve “Pearly” Hettum album eventually became his send-off, and you can feel that energy among the performers here. One can hear a profound sense of desperate determination among the musicians, motivated by the bleakness of the situation. But through it all, it was Steve who kept flagging spirits high, creating a mood of joy and thankfulness that is palpable from start to finish.

Among the fourteen songs presented, three are well-chosen cover songs, and a couple others are reworkings of self-penned songs he had produced for other recordings. But most of the material is new and original and performed with the sort of urgency you don’t hear on every record released these days.

The title track leads off the set, a homey, hillbilly sentiment reminiscent of the ‘50s, Claude King, Johnny Horton and the Burnette brothers, etc.—all cornbread in the oven, chicken in the skillet and cows out in the barn. Steve always had a knack for making any song he wrote sound autobiographical, so I have no idea if this yarn about his cousins in Oklahoma and family in Missouri, his Granny in Nebraski who smokes a pipe, or his cousin in Kansas, bear any resemblance to the truth. It sounds like “Wolverton Mountain” to me. A fascinating piece of Americana, all the same.

Jeff Bailey and Pearly
Jeff Bailey and Pearly

The arrangement is standard Janglers fare, stripped down a bit: with Steve on vocals and acoustic guitar, a little percussion and Jeff Bailey’s bass (and accordion)—laidback, but spot on, bustin’ along like a spirited pony. Guest Ritchie Raye contributes totally appropriate mood fiddle that lends the scent of hickory to the smoke in Steve’s tale.

“Cowboy Song” has been a staple of Steve’s repertoire for several years, this rendition culled from his 2008 release, The Jangler. It’s a yippy-oh-ki-yay song, to be sure, but there is an element of Van Morrison in the melody and feel. It’s an intangible. But when you hear Steve’s take on Morrison’s “Wild Night” a little later, the connection becomes clearer. There’s a vague element of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” at the back of the sonic palette too. Jon Lindahl’s tasty slide guitar lends the perfect western element, while the piano backing fills out the rhythm section

Steve was regularly accused of being sentimental, in fact one of the songs found here, “Sentimental Bastard” defends that position (Billy Rancher suffered from the criticism that his songs were “corny,” which he freely admitted: so the compulsion runs in the family). “Funny Little Girl,” a paean to his daughters Caia and Margo, could pass for Ralph McTell or maybe Nick Drake. And because it’s about his daughters, he can be forgiven for his references to “licorice drops and peppermint sticks.” I’m not sure Drake or McTell would go there.

Houston Bolles
Houston Bolles

I actually thought Steve’s adaptation of “Weep No More” was his own composition. It sounds nearly nothing like Bad Company’s version from 1975. And I wasn’t familiar with that one in the first place. Steve wisely cut out a lot of superfluous material to get to the heart of the song. A streamlined take, with a bit of a country feel. It’s a Janglers arrangement, with Houston Bolles singing the high vocal harmonies, and adding a sweet guitar solo in the middle.

Steve’s had “For Pete’s Sake” in his catalogue for many years. It’s a song dedicated to Pete Jorgusen, who was the drummer for the Malchicks—Billy and Lenny Rancher’s band that preceded the Unreal Gods—and with whom Steve had a special friendship. Jorgusen died of cancer early in 2010. It’s a philosophical song, perhaps a father addressing his son, with a message about intention and accomplishment.

Steve Edgren
Steve Edgren

“Luella” is one of the last songs Steve wrote and recorded. With the help of Steve Edgren at the controls, Pearly recorded this in the living room of his apartment—just a solitary vocal and a lone acoustic guitar. Edgren described the occasion like this: “About three weeks before the album was to be mixed, Steve was putting the finishing touches on ‘Luella’. I stopped by his apartment one afternoon, and he was having an exceptionally good day.

“He said ‘I think I’m done writing “Luella”’, and grabbed his guitar and started playing it. I could tell the energy was there and stopped him, grabbed my phone, and started recording. As luck would have it he nailed it. I’m glad we recorded it that day because he never was able to play like that again. We did a lot of overdubs at Steve’s.”

It’s a ghostly lament, the wild, wicked, wraith-like Luella haunting his every waking moment, obviously recorded spontaneously, but with undeniable magic, all the same. About half way through, Edgren contributes additional guitars and the Janglers join him via the magic of studio overdubbing for a stirring finale. Following the performance, Steve briefly recounts the fascinating tale of how the song came to him in a dream.

Photo by John Alcala
Photo by John Alcala

There are no surprises with “My Old Man” and “Sentimental Bastard.” Those bookends are performed solo, just Steve, his guitar, and his memories—shared with candor and honest reflection. One cannot help but be touched by these simple songs. “Sweet Rose Diane” is a moving ballad in 6/8 time, from the folk tradition.

“If I Were a Christian,”also spills from a folk idiom, in the Bob Dylan vein (circa Blood on the Tracks). Steve’s observations are tinged with thinly veiled rancor: “I am not an Arab/And I am not a Jew/And I do not sympathize with either of the two/When they draw the line in Palestine/For another holy attack/And then they wonder at the other side—‘How come you’re shooting back’?” The rest of the commentary hits home with similar explosive impact.

There are many similarities between “Boogie Man” and “Luella.” For one thing it was recorded in Pearly’s living room studio, the Caruthers Street Corral, again under the oversight and assistance of Steve Edgren (although this track was recorded via a twelve track digital recorder, not a phone). And it’s another song of voodoo voogum, here sounding as if Doctor John were chewing through a swampy rendition of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” with Creedence Clearwater Revival providing the accompaniment. Edgren’s lead guitar fills seem steered straight out of “Born on the Bayou.”

steve1Pearly’s warm depiction of John Prine’s “Souvenirs” touches all the bases. A home run. As with many covers Steve performed through the years, he found his way inside the song to make it his own. When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if Steve had written it, or what. I thought it sounded like a Danny O’Keefe (“Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues”) song. The cut is also the perfect example of what the Janglers brought to their live shows. Simple. Subtle. Laid-back, not a wasted note, and tasty as all get out.

Conversely, Steve’s smart take of the aforementioned “Wild Night” is backed by a hefty contingent of guests—including a manifoldly stacked sax section created by the legendary Dan Schauffler (Nu Shooz, Crazy 8s), steeped in a rich broth cooked up by fabled organist Dover Weinberg. Vocally, Steve could easily pass as Van Morrison’s American born cousin, again making the song his own, from the inside out.

The album comes to a dramatic conclusion with the cathartic hymn, “Get On Board.” Deeply rooted in American gospel, spiritual soil, fully twenty people preform on the finished track, lending their talents, including the eleven-voice Diversion Street Choir.

Diversion Street Choir
Diversion Street Choir

Knowing the end to his story makes the song all the more poignant, as Steve was not playing with the possibility of leaving this life behind. He knew it to be a certainty. With that big, dark cloud hanging over his head, he created a piece of music that shines with immense light. Even to the end, Steve’s message remained resolutely clear and strong: “I lost the battle, but I won the war/And I feel the fire within /I’m knockin’ on the door/ Please let me in/Forgive my sins/I don’t want to go back to where I’ve been.”

And there it is. Few artists are availed of the opportunity to release a fitting close to their careers before the end of their lives. Coincidentally, David Bowie was able to do just such a thing before he died in January. That concurrence was not lost on any of the participants.

Steve's BoardTribute. Statement. No person could better sum up his own life than Steve Hettum himself. Unabashed schmaltz, whiplash insights. Imaginative expressions of well-worn homilies. Steve was an expert at setting a mood, at making everyone in a room comfortable. This album is no different. It brings joyful warmth to all who hear. Goodbye, Pearly.

The past six months have seen the city lose a number of important longtime contributors: Brian Berg in October, Dane Petersen in November. Jimmy Boyer died on January 21st, Steve died February 8th, Andrew Loomis died March 8th and Tim Ellis died on March 21st. Five of those sixth deaths are attributable to cancer. These were not old men here, people! They were still in their primes. One must ask himself what the hell is going on in this city that cancer is so persistently in our midst?

Home Base 2620 SE Powell Wednesday Night Open Mic
Home Base 2620 SE Powell
Wednesday Night Open Mic

The process has begun and we’re only going to lose more of our friends in the days and years to come. For that eventuality we must steel ourselves and appreciate what we have while we have it.

Though Eugenio’s closed in December, and Pearly’s Wednesday open mics ended at the same time, the Lost Tribe of Eugenio’s wandered for forty days and forty nights before longtime participant Larry Harrel, “Latenight Larry,” was able to secure a new location for the weekly event. Homebase Coffee and Espresso (and Tavern) at 26th, across Powell from Cleveland High School. In honor of Pearly’s spirit, in his memory, the music continues.

The space is small and intimate, in much the same way as Eugenio’s was. Late Nite Larry has hosted six Wednesday night open mics in the new venue, and every week the response is greater, and the quality of the musicianship, already of keen order, challenges all participants to perform at a higher level. In just a few visits I have seen several acts, one in particular, that I’m certain I will be writing about in the future. Rest assured that Steven “Pearly” Hettum will be watching over it all.








Matty Charles and Katie Rose

katy cd final (in progress) (3)-minCatching Arrows
1906 Records

It was precisely two years ago that I first ran across Matty Charles. Steve “Pearly” Hettum had just been forced to move his very successful Wednesday Nite Open Mic operation from Eugenio’s on inner Southeast Division, to the Starday Tavern—farther out on Southeast Foster. I wrote about that transition.

It wasn’t a perfect fit. Nothing would be, really, in comparison to the uniquely artistic atmosphere and congenial milieu of Eugenio’s. The Starday is laid out laterally along a narrow corridor, with the small stage up next to the entry door. Not so conducive to artist/audience interaction. The audience stretches away into the distance.

Eugenio's Veterans at the Starday
Eugenio’s Veterans at the Starday

But even with the change of venue, Pearly’s Wednesday Nite Open Mics successfully migrated to the Starday. Many of the Eugenio’s regular performers made the journey. A few new voices made appearances as well.

One of the things the Starday had going for it was an engaging young bartender, who regularly manned the station on Wednesday nights. Matty Charles. I’m not sure how it happened, exactly, but let’s just say I have a knack for getting people to tell me their life stories—part of the trade, one would assume. It transpired that Matty told me of a former musical career as a singer guitarist, in what was a burgeoning alt country folk scene in Brooklyn.

Matthew Barber grew up in Southeast Portland, and attended Jefferson High School. While he was still in high school, he and some friends formed the band PHNEA. Matty notes with pride that he bought his bass rig at Captain Whizeagle’s. Old school all the way! The band played Satyricon and the X-Ray Café, getting paid, as he says “mostly in beer, which was great for teenagers.”

After high school, Matty travelled the world some, settling in New York City in 1993. He was was in the vanguard of an old-time music revival in Brooklyn in the early 2000’s. Just as with the original folk renaissance in Greenwich Village, fifty years earlier, the scene consisted of a small coterie of local musicians circuiting between a few clubs in the neighborhood. The loci of that thriving little scene was a neighborhood joint called Pete’s Candy Store.

It was at Pete’s Candy Store, that Charles and his trio, the Valentines, maintained a weekly gig, and it was where their popularity grew and they achieved modest success. Over the course of ten years, Matty released four records (several with the Valentines), composed the musical score for a film, playing himself in a bit part in Hal Hartley’s Meanwhile.  

Land Beyond the Sea by Matty Charles and the Valentines
Land Beyond the Sea by Matty Charles and the Valentines

Both with the Valentines and through solo gigs, Charles gradually acquired a reputation for his gritty alt-country style as a guitarist and vocalist. The Village Voice compared him favorably to Guy Clark. Acoustic Guitar Magazine heard Johnny Cash or “a less twangy” Robert Earl Keen. Other critics likened him to Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristopherson.

But Oregon’s siren song beckoned him home to Portland in 2012. Shortly after his return, Matty met Katie Wheetman at the Landmark Saloon one night, and from that encounter forward a partnership was struck. Katie brought a pedigree of her own to the collaboration.

Her father, Danny Wheetman, has an array of musical creditials among which include playing fiddle for John Denver in the ‘80s. He has fronted the touring band, Marley’s Ghost for over thirty years. Her mother, who performed as vocalist in an Aspen band called Pearly White in the ‘70s, is a singer/songwriter today who performs under the name Seraina Wood. And though she frequently sat in with her musician twin brother Trevor at some of his gigs in Seattle, Kate had never sung in a “band” before. Then she ran into Matty.

Matty Charles and Katie Rose
Matty Charles and Katie Rose

“Matty and I met by chance at the Landmark Saloon in May 2012.  I had just been on a family trip where I did a bunch of singing, and when I finished the trip, I vowed that I would find some folks to play music with in Portland.  The night I met Matty, he had his guitar with him, so I asked him for his card so we could get together and play sometime.  We got together the next week and discovered that our voices had a really great blend etc….”

So, it was a year or so after their moment of kismet that I met Matty tending bar at the Starday Tavern out on Foster Road. It was only a matter of time until, during a lull in a particularly slow evening, Jeff Bailey coaxed Matty into coming out from behind the bar to perform a song or two.

What Matty did was to play deceptively simple guitar phrasings on his old Martin guitar, while singing his own songs with a voice like burnished hickory. I was blown away, and I told him so: another propensity of mine. He was good. Total pro. A sound and style all his own.

Katie and Matty
Katie and Matty

A few weeks later, Matty was back at Pearly’s Open Mic—on his night off, no less—this time with a tall, pretty, dark haired woman in tow. Katie Rose. They sang three or four songs together. He usually sang in the lead, with Katie providing sweet high harmonies, against Matty’s effortlessly well-executed guitar accompaniment. I was knocked out. My favorable impressions are in that same article, cited above.

They’ve been working toward the release of this album since those days—a couple of songs I heard that first night are represented in this collection. The record doesn’t sound that much different than a Valentines effort, except for the fact that Katie’s presence greatly alters the environment.

There’s a reason why there have not been a lot of great vocal duos in the history of popular music. It’s very hard to do. More precisely, it’s very hard to do well. I can think of Simon and Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers doing it well. Even fewer are teams comprised of a man and a woman.

It’s not just the difference in the voices that’s hard to manage, it’s the difference in gender perspective. The material must reflect an unique spirit of togetherness, even if the song should speak to falling apart. George and Tammy, and Sonny and Cher are the only pairs of male/female vocal acts that I can think of as pulling that feat off.

George and Tammy
George and Tammy

Matty and Katie traverse musical turf nowhere near the domains of George and Tammy, nor Sonny and Cher. As I pointed out in the previous review, their construal is far closer to the rare encounters between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Their country is the western prairie and the lone restlessness such wide-open distances produce.

The couple recorded the basic tracks live, just Matty’s guitar and their two vocals, accompanied by drummer Kevin Major, at Fremont Studios, with Brud Giles manning the board. Instrumentation sparse and in keeping with their style, Matty and Katie recruited Joel Savoy to play fiddle and guitar, and Nick Forster to play tenor and electric guitars, and mandolin.

Forster is a member of a Grammy nominated bluegrass band called Hot Rize, and the producer/host of a radio program E Town, based out of Boulder, Colorado. Veteran bassist David Jackson is a founding member of the band Dillard and Clark, and Hearts and Flowers, and has played a long list of well-known rock and country artists, from Jackson Browne to Dwight Yoakam.

Matty Charles
Matty Charles

Matty actually sounds a little like Jackson Browne on “What I Want,” with his reedy vocal intonation, pining a lonesome plaint, until Katie jumps in for the harmony parts, wherein the combination of voices instantly melts into golden Everly butter. The musicianship on this cut is out of the park. Nothing overstated. Everything perfectly pristine and in its place. Nice.

Katie’s lead vocal on the simple “Julia” recalls early Linda Ronstadt’s honeyed euphony, an engaging  choirgirl, a sense reinforced even more when Matty adds the backups— sounding all Don Henley-like circa “Hasten Down the Wind.”

The homespun waltz, “Steady and True,” calls to mind Gram and Emmylou. Humble and plain guitar backing simple vocals. Echoes of Irish balladry reverberate from a distance. But at many turns the blend between Matty and Katie is pure Everlys—there’s a certain ineffable quality—only rarely duplicated. A stroke of fortune, to be sure.

A stripped-down ballad, “Maryanne,” plays like something Townes Van Zandt might have written. The ghost of John Denver lingers in the corners of the melody. Guest Arcellus Sykes’ elastic double bass columbines around the trellis of Matty’s deceptively simple guitar presentation, the creaky weariness in his voice smoothes when Katie arrives for the harmonies at the chorus.

photo-2“Hey, Pretty Birds,” is a lilting waltz, again with Sykes’ backing on bass, that recalls some of the great folk singer/songwriters of the early 70s: Steve Goodman, Danny O’Keefe, Paul Siebel and a hint of Jerry Jeff Walker at the back of the sonic palate. Katie slathers on more Everly harmony gravy. And there you go. It doesn’t take much for these two to make a song work. They draw you into their very intimate world, spinning their tales like cobwebs.

Conversely, “One Hundred Years,” is pure, old-time traditional country corn—the Everly vocal blend is never far away. Savoy’s forlorn fiddle kicks things off. A faint echo of J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt dueting his “Faithless Love” threads through the vocal melody, although the twang is set to stun in this instance. In addition to the fine fiddle, Savoy chips in some mighty slick pickin’ in the solo. Zesty!

The Linda Ronstadt comparison seems apt, as Katie takes the lead for “Where They’re Gonna Bury Me,” a performance that sounds as if it could have come from that same Heart Like a Wheel period. Forster provides subtle, but perfectly placed electric guitar fills, never once crowding the space, but always adding just the right touch, usually with a country chortle or trill.

photoI wrote about “Glorietta” in that Starday article, so I won’t repeat myself (for a change) here, but everything I said then: all the comparisons and descriptions, are completely in keeping with everything here. It’s a pretty, dusty, windswept song. The familiarly catchy chorus and Forster’s flitting mandolin phrasings decorate “Standin’ On the Corner (With Your Head On Fire),” yet another of Matty’s superior compositions. The wonderful bridge is far outside the alt-country territory he has staked out for most of his material, stylistically. An unexpected departure in just the right place in the program.

“Long Gone” sits outside the fences of the country pasture, as well. Closer to Jackson Browne (with Emmylou backing) perhaps. The pining feature is still prominently strong in the lad, but here more in keeping with a folk rock sensibility. Everything about each of the dozen songs on this album is flawless—skillfully executed by the players—well-crafted numbers: each instantly recognizable, as if the song had been heard a hundred times before. Matty is an expert at weaving new cloth from old strands.

untitled shoot-9156
Katie Rose

Katie returns to intone the winsome solo vocal on “Stars That Shine,” joined by Matty with harmonies at the turns. It’s perhaps her best effort of all, demonstrating Brud Giles’ proficiency in capturing the delicate articulations expressed within her richly human voice. Every nuance and filigree is secured with faithful attention to detail. It’s yet another of those songs that’s been out there in space for quite some time, waiting for someone to write it. And Matty just happened on to it first. He’s got a lot of songs like that here.

For example, “I Belong to Heaven” sounds as if it has always had a back page in the American country gospel hymnal, though bursting forth with a secular sensibility: “I am not a miner for the things that cannot be/I belong to heaven and the world belongs to me.” It’s a simple arrangement. Just a guitar and two voices, but the purity of the sound is remarkable. Katie and Matty blend in a most unique way—here somewhat differently than most of the other songs in the set. Her angelic soprano soars above Matty’s homely baritone, like June Carter above Johnny Cash’s younger brother. Try to hear that one I your mind’s ear!

Matty Charles and Katie Rose

Their music is deceptively simple. The accompaniment doesn’t come any more stripped-down than this. What there is of it is at all times quite tasty, but the audible landscape is mostly quite sparse. Matty Charles and Katie Rose bear the weight of these songs squarely on their shoulders. Lesser singers could not pull off the task. Their vocal blend is directly in the spotlight throughout this program and they never once fail to deliver. As authentically American as roots music gets.




March 2016

Chris Newman Deluxe Combo


Chris Newman’s name came up last time in my review of Mike Coykendall. Chris has been a very busy fellow over the past year or so. I wrote about his self-produced (on his trusty Teac 4-track) album King Shit last January, and included a review of his previous album, Beachcomber (produced by the legendary Jack Endino) released in May of last year. So between the twenty-nine songs dispersed across those two records and the fifteen here, we’ve got two score and four. And with the recent addition of an 8-track machine to his studio arsenal, there is every reason to believe there will be more from Chris very soon.

But Nobody was recorded on the 4-Track and sounds like it (that’s meant to be a compliment as much as a criticism). As on the previous outings, Chris, plays the guitar, occasional piano, a couple of harp interjections, and an organ pad from time to time. He’s again expertly supported by bassist Nathan Jorg and Doug Naish on drums. And, as with King Shit, the arrangements are pared down and primitive. There’s not much room for a lot of fancy-dancy overdubs, tricky punch-ins, or doubling here. It’s mostly live to tape. Raw and real.

Chris Newman
Chris Newman

Chris isn’t reinventing the Newman wheel here. His influences remain at the forefront, really no different than they were when he first got rolling 35-40 years ago (at this stage of his career he stands as one of those influences: as launcher of the early grunge ships). But he presents his songs in such a variety of styles, from blues to psychedelia, any Chris Newman recording is a real sonic adventure. And there are always nuggets to be unearthed in the program—and this instance is no different. In fact, there are many inspired performances to be found.

The album begins with the languid “Castaway,” which seems to pick up the narrative thread that left off on King Shit. The verse traverses ground similar to the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” until midway, whereupon Chris launches into an elephantine solo, his guitar emitting a great pachydermic wail. Oh yeah!

Vocally, Chris fuses Captain Beefheart with Fred Cole, exorcising his dark interpersonal demons on “Drivin’ Me Mad,” while paving a black-top, two-lane grunge highway on guitar that drives hard from here all the way back to Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.”

The prototypical primordial grunge of “Homo a Go Go.” Thick, churning clouds of guitar hover low over the brimstone collision between human introspection and a fast-changing species. Joy Division meets Interpol in a dark cavern. Sublime. The rueful ballad “Bad Television” arrives, full circle, at the other end of the musical telescope, recalling “My TV,” a gem from Chris’ days with the Untouchables at the beginning of his career.

But where the former was a bit of a cheery ode to the companionship a television occasionally offered—the new song affords a far darker view. “I blame bad television, in all its encompassing nature.” Much has changed since Chris wrote “My TV” thirty-five years ago, the cultural landscape since laid to waste is starkly captured here. A touch of moody cocktail piano adds just the right touch of cynicism to the presentation.

Chris Newman Photo by RJB Photo (Rob Butler)
Chris Newman Photo by RJB Photo (Rob Butler)

“Elsewhere” is a bit of Floydian psychedelia, circa the Syd era. There’s a shadow of early Who hanging over the production as well. Chris invests a Leslie-like tremolo to his mournful solos, a tone that fits the ‘60s mode to a T. The moody psychedelia continues with the spacy, somnambulant ballad “Rings of Saturn.” Chris’ sparse, soaring guitar leads conjure Explosions in the Sky in scale of epic sonic majesty.

Jimi Hendrix watches over “Cryin’ All the Way Home,” a moody, bluesy number with incendiary solos, and banshee harp interjections, delivered over Naish’s rock-solid beat. Chris’ stinging, whipsmart fills fall somewhere along the line between Jimi and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yow! The ghost of Jimi returns for “Deadman Blues,” with Chris firing off blistering solos over a “St. James Infirmary,” “House of the Rising Sun” setting. The nasty, roadhouse blues “Cleopatra Don’t Mind” is buoyed by Chris’ jazzy barrelhouse piano. Low, dirty vox spell out a tale of some gray, brooding voogum.

Following that extended blues interlude, the mood returns to lurching sludge with “City on Fire.” This time the keyboard ornamentation of choice is a smoky organ, but the guitar burns hot lead, distinctly maintaining Jimi in the arc of its manifestation.

Chris Newman1
Photo by Kurtis Kirk

A brusquely unique nylon string acoustic guitar propels “Dreamworld,” an energetic, ‘60s-informed rocker with a familiar turnaround. The focus here is lyrical. Though the vocal is buried just enough to make the deciphering of the lyrics difficult, the sense is that Chris is experiencing a great deal of confusion in his life, not all of it of his making. This song is a nice departure from the others.

The title track slaloms a hard driving two-beat, sliding downhill at a breakneck pace, until it tumbles into a heap momentarily, before resuming its cartwheel descent. Vocally, Chris occasionally invokes the wry Beefheart croak, a jagged broken windshield at other times.

Chris Newman is a musical treasure. His significance within the Portland music scene (and well beyond) cannot be overstated. And while Chris has experienced fallow times in his life, he is now undergoing an inspired period in which he is producing high quality material on a low-budget.

In bassist Jorg and drummer Naish, Chris has found solid support, similar in reliability to the olden days of Napalm. Justifiably, Chris has bemoaned the paucity of attendees to some Deluxe Combo shows. But the truth is that so much of the population in Portland is new to the city, recently arrived, that the sense of history once so highly valued within the local musical community has dissipated.

There is good music everywhere to be found in this town, the relative importance of one act against another is such, that older musicians often fail to attract a younger demographic that might actually enjoy the artistry, if there was any real name recognition. For some genres, the blues, for instance, the demographic in this city is aging right along with the chief proponents­—well, it’s the old story of the spirit being willing but the flesh (and the pocketbook) being weak.

deluxeChris Newman merits wider recognition. It seems so odd to even be making that statement, over thirty-five years into his career, but there it is. He is certainly still relevant, still cranking out great songs at a pace someone one-third his age would be hard-pressed to rival. But he is decidedly unglamorous.

Glamor and image, increasingly, seem to be what the denizens of New Portlandia crave most. Of course that’s entirely at odds with the very qualities that drew them to a backwater hardscrabble burg like this in the first place. The image of the “artist” that attracted the Nouveau Upwards here has drawn so many to Portland that the newcomers are now crowding out the “artists” they came to be among. That worked out well.



October 2015

Mike Coykendall

Coyk frHalf Past Present Pending
Fluff and Gravy Records

Mike Coykendall has been a longtime fixture in local music, involved in nearly every aspect of the scene. Since moving to Portland from San Francisco (where he and his wife Jill led the Old Joe Clarks) in 1999, he has quietly gone acquired a reputation for good ears and good musical taste. In 2003 he worked closely with M Ward on his third release, The Transfiguration of Vincent, subsequently touring with Ward in support of that album. Later he played with She & Him for their recordings and tours. He also collaborated with Gillian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams, among many others

In addition to working as a sideman, Mike has served as producer and engineer on countless local recordings. We caught him here a couple of years ago, producing and playing on Little Sue’s New Light, wherein he was…ahem…instrumental in the outcome of that project.

He’s worked with countless local alt-folk musicians, in one capacity or another over the years—producing and recording the likes of Richmond Fontaine, Blitzen Trapper, Sallie Ford and her band, and the late lamented Amelia, to name a few. An early supporter of the career of Annalisa Tornfelt, Mike produced her album The Number 8 (released last March) and recorded her on his trusty 8-track analog recorder.

As if all that weren’t plenty enough on his plate, he’s released self-produced albums of his own from time to time. This is his fourth, the previous record being Chasing Away the Dots in 2012. For that outing he enlisted the aid of many of the big name stars he’s worked with in the past. Here he pretty much goes it alone. Because he’s been producing his own side projects for quite some time—he’s acquired an intrinsic personal sound and style that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of fanfare or fireworks.

But, left to his own devices, Coykendall is capable of amassing sonic munitions if the occasion calls for it. His drum-work, as demonstrated on Little Sue’s album, can be ruthless. When he’s of a mind, he tortures his modest kit. The rest of the time he is said to be employing “the rig,” a jerry-built percussion device, which doesn’t amount to much really, just a few household items. But when you hear it in action, it manages to fill all the necessary rhythm spaces quite adequately, whatever it is.

coyMike’s placement in the Americana arc would be a point located near that of Blitzen Trapper—with many similar reference points. But one can readily tell that he’s well versed in the classics, as his music reflects familiarity with the work of the masters.

There’s a Petty vibe in places among the ten songs (and two instrumentals). You can hear that brittleness in tracks such as “All That I Wanted,” “Just South of Levitation,” and the wry “You Don’t Have to Treat You That Way.” You hear Dylan, and mainly John Prine, in “Hard Landing,” wearied JJ Cale over jagged, smoky guitar in “Spacebaker Blues,” and the introspective lyrical poignance of Danny O’Keefe or Steve Goodman in “Burn on Re-Entry.”

But there’s more to Mike Coykendall’s music than that. Much more. For one thing, the two instrumentals included in this package demonstrate a distinctive, if somewhat primitive, studio savvy—after all, the guy’s only working with 8-tracks, although I thought I read somewhere that he ping-ponged to the 8-track from a 4-track cassette. But any way you cut it, we’re talkin’ lo-fi, DIY, down in the trenches, seat of the pants creativity. There’s wizardry here, but it seems born more of necessity than by design.

“Killing Time” marches onto the scene in a whirring din, before snaking into a repetitive, low-strung guitar filigree riff. Elements of Duane Eddy, Link Wray and even Neil Young circulate through the rumbling bloodstream of this forlorn sonic koan. Similarly, “Paranoid Eyes” hovers in an overblown cloud (with a thrown rod) before unwinding and finally settling into a cartoon-sprinkled swirl of peculiar sound. Accessible stuff, but weirder than shit.

coyk bkBut two of the strongest songs of the set are covers. Obscure covers to be sure. He gives Roger Miller’s “In the Summer Time” (a hit for Andy Williams in 1960) a fairly straight-ahead, goose-step two step treatment—while possibly employing the vaunted “rig.” Whatever it is, it’s raw, and raucous, and reverberates like a garbage can tipping over in a windstorm. Vocally, Mike is a sawblade cutting through brick: gritty, raw and tightly compressed; resembling some of Eric Earley’s early exhortations for Blitzen Trapper. “East of Cheney,” culled from the Coykendall back-catalog, has a bit o’ the Blitzen running through it as well.

Even better is Mike’s take on Syd Barrett’s nugget “Late Night,” from his ill-fated debut solo album The Madcap Laughs, released early in 1970. Maybe it’s just me, but everything about Mike’s presentation reminds me of Chris Newman—his gritty vocal, his molten guitar, his basement recording. Which brings to mind an interesting hypothetical admixture: Chris Newman and Mike Coykendall in a project together. I don’t know if they even know each other, but we live in a small town magical world, anything can happen.

Mike Coykendall knows what to do with what he’s got, and what he does, he does very well. His idiosyncrasies and quirks render him not so much a flavor as a spice. A versatile spice to be used in many different dishes, such as those found here.


July 2015


Brownish Black

B&B FrLife Lessons
Breakup Records

Brownish Black are an unique strain, a funky soul octet with elements of r&b floating though their lineage, and they are a distinct anomaly within the current Portland music scene. They’ve been together about five years, adding positions to the ensemble along the way, gradually expanding the scope of the group’s musical purview to include a line of horns and occasional keyboard/organ fills. The songs presented here touch thirteen separate stylistic bases (referencing mostly ‘60s and ‘70s) and never land for long on any single reference. It’s easy to generalize about the band, but hard to summarize.

And unique. Brownish Black are not descended from the funk/soul of the old days in the Portland music scene hierarchy, such as Pleasure, Cool’r, Nu Shooz, or the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and other seminal local acts. The Brownish material and delivery is harder, and more honest, closer to the Daddies in that respect. They exhibit a boldness and social consciousness worthy of Sly & the Family Stone, or War, or Gil Scott Heron.

M. D. Sharbatz

Lead singer, M.D. Sharbatz, a Detroit native, brings with him a bargeload of Detroit r&b/soul freight. He is availed of a slippery falsetto and a thin, but respectable Wilson Pickett/Otis Redding/Joe Tex/Mitch Ryder growl. Meanwhile, the music and arrangements cast a broad net, often closer to early ‘70s: Temps, Ojays, Spinners, and the like. But in truth they’re all over the place.

They frequently exhibit an offhanded smartassedness. Like the children of Steely Dan, or the cousins of the Flock, they use similar settings to create the new soul paradigm for the 21st century. Music with a message. An amalgam. As an example, “Le System” resembles somewhat middle period Steely Dan, with a funk groove circa Earth Wind and Fire, and a brief Edwin Starr reference. The strange Mexicali middle that may or may not work.

brownish 2The melody to “Passing Time” waves at the Supreme’s “Where Did Our Love Go” as it floats by. “Fight It” calls to mind the Temptations doing a “Get Ready”-like follow-up to The Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher.” It’s a stew. But it cooks, without being imitative. This is in homage territory. No frills. Not ironic. A lot of irony in music today, tongue buried so far in cheek it’s coming out of the ear. One thing nice about Portland. Some bands are not ironic. Brownish Black are not ironic.

The quality of the recording is sparse, clean, punchy, no frills and to the point— such that it is right in the pocket with 1965-1972 soul releases played on the radio back at that time. John Neff co-produced the album with the band, and his previous work with Curtis Mayfield, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker clearly demonstrate his bona fides. He reveals his chops unobtrusively, subscribing to the “less-is-more” school of engineering.

brownish3Not really soul at all, the ballad “Singing a Song” is closer to ‘60s R&B ala the Drifters—or even closer to a female ballad, like Barbara Lynn’s “You Lose a Good Thing.” “You Can Taste It,” is Was Not Was-y and different from the rest of the material. “Louder” rides on Detroit Wheels.

While not sounding the same at all, Brownish Black have a lot in common with our very own Quick and Easy Boys—who also proficiently produce a brand of music that’s just as hard to pin down (i.e. kind of Parliament-ish funk at times, other times ZZ Top). It’s a hard road, as on the face of it, those odd choices would seem anathema to success in the current music market. But one thing about current music markets: they are subject to change. What’s old is new and it generally sneaks up from behind you.

There are a few others like them out there in the world. Trust that Brownish Black honor their r&b/soul heritage, without being a knock-off band. They take the genres to the next level. This is cool stuff that grows on you very quickly.


June 2015

Los Hijos de la Montaña

Los Hijos FrontLos Hijos de la Montaña
Cosmica Records

Here’s a productive side project that’s a real mind blower. This is one of the strangest releases I’ve ever run across. Strange, not in a musical sense whatsoever, but strange in the genesis of the recording. It’s not clear how it came to pass. And once it was finished, it really isn’t clear what the subsequent plan was. The label certainly doesn’t know.

Luz Elena Mendoza
Luz Elena Mendoza

This much we do know. It was Portland’s own Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) who first arranged to place local vocal treasure Luz Elena Mendoza (Y La Bamba, Los Tiburones, et al.) with Sergio Mendoza, leader of the Tuscon-based band Orkesta Mendoza—who has also worked with Devotchka and toured as sideman with Calexico.

And while the Mendozas aren’t familially related, their dedication to the traditional music of Mexico both folk and popular, unites them for this album (all songs but one are sung in Spanish), which Berlin produced (his influence is subtle, but pervasive); and which was released to little fanfare­—as in almost none. The recording seemed to come as a complete surprise to young Jessica who was handling the phones at Cosmica Records, when I called for information. She didn’t know about it. She knew Orkesta Mendoza, because they are distributed by Cosmica Records too. But Los Hijos de la Montaña? Never heard of it. Them.

I asked after a one-sheet, or any information about who played on the record (because there is some really great playing going on in the nine cuts: and brief instrumental). Anything. I got her email address and sent her my email address so she could send me information when she finally got a hold of some. Nada. So far the only information online about the album is the same scant stuff that came out just after it was released at the end of May.

Sergio Mendoza
Sergio Mendoza

I don’t know why the ball was dropped on this project. There are a lot of great songs, which appear to be Mendoza/Mendoza originals—though Luz sounds herself in a musical place not quite like any other in which she has sung before. It’s great material, well-produced, wonderfully played and sung. I’m not sure what the hell is the problem. But it kinda seems like no one wants anything to do with this one.

Too bad.

“Amor de Lejos” spins on a dark guitar figure, reminiscent of the Robby Krieger intro to the Doors’ “People Are Strange.” The arrangement then dissolves into a noir-ish fog, with Luz sounding passionately mysterious, accompanied by the festive thrump of acoustic guitars and classic lowslung spaghetti-western guitar themes. The song itself could pass as the soundtrack to one of those films, windswept and parched.

A sprightly dance rhythm propels the charming “El Tamalito,” with jaunty keyboard flourishes backing Luz in her element (this could easily pass for an Y La Bamba tune). The chorus is charmingly bilingual, with the hookline “Ay, si!” sounding very much like “I see.” Clever.

The one song sung in English, the moody “One Breath, One Soul,” is given one of Luz’s rapidfire vocal treatments, so that it is difficult to tell what language she’s singing in. But it’s not like her choice of languages has ever been an obstacle. She sings with such fluidity and emotional expressivity that language is not a factor.

A burbling synth figure threads against the persistent chuckle of a charango, or a ukulele, or some other small, stringed instrument. Mariachi brass join in the turnarounds, providing a keen, lamentational wail behind Luz’s own windy call. Sergio sings a verse of his own, a portentous cloud, jarring when it shows up. But well-placed!

Steve Berlin

“Compañera” is a song steeped in customary flavors of Mexico—more horns, organic, flamenco-like percussion and wistful acoustic guitars. Luz sings at the very lowest end of her register, like a shadow giving voice to some long unlit emotion, dark and smoldering. The ballad “Mi Sangre es Tu Ventana” (from my elementary Spanish: “My Blood is Your Window”?) is darker still. Heavily wrought. In the tradition.

Breaking up the torchy mood is the romantically edgy “Manos En Las Bolsas,” replete with stirring strings, whammy guitars and a hook in the chorus strong enough to hang up a winter coat. Luz’s impassioned vocals bespeak a sense of desperation, a hint of danger and intrigue. Again faithful to musical culture, in the ranchera style, while taking it to a new and different place. Great stuff. Very exciting!

“Lengua De Leon” plays with a cumbia disposition, a ska-like limp in the rhythm. And the ballad “Adonde Voy” is a sweet farewell to a place to which there may be no return. The band did release a subsequent track, “El Chumina,” which does not appear on this album, but should. Another superlative track.

Luz and Sergio Mendoza

Luz and Sergio Mendoza, guided by Steve Berlin, have taken us to a very special place in popular music, where there are no borders or boundaries—to the common denominator between humanity and music. It’s a shame more of the world hasn’t heard it.








June 2015

Lost Lander

LL Cover FrMedallion
Glad I Did Recordings

It’s been three years since we last heard from Matt Sheehy and his smart synth pop band Lost Lander. In that time he has undergone several life transforming experiences, many of which are reflected in the cohesive program presented in this sophomore effort. The focus is more acutely drawn here, more clearly defined. Which is saying something given the precision their chosen genre demands.

Lost Lander toured extensively in support of their first release, DRRT— acquiring a prestigious list of critical accolades along the way. Perhaps the most prominent among Sheehy’s post-tour activities was his creation and performance of the first ad for the much-maligned Cover Oregon campaign (I looked all over the internets for a link and I’ll be damned if I can find a copy of that ad. Laura Gibson’s subsequent commercial is still floating around, but Matt’s contribution is, sadly, nowhere to be found).

Matt Sheehy for Cover Oregon
Matt Sheehy for Cover Oregon

It’s sort of a Guthriesque, “This Land is Your Land” affair, entirely in keeping with Matt’s ulterior career as a forester. More’s the pity the clever production is no longer available for viewing. It wasn’t like the ads were big budget affairs to begin with, though they did serve as symbols for the boondoggle the entire campaign became. It must be said that, for all that went wrong, it certainly wasn’t the fault of the commercials.

Other calamities in Matt’s life more definitively shaped the context of this album—a sense of loss and redemption hovering over it all. His mother died and it is clear that her passing had a profound impact on his psyche. Her recurrent dream of Lost Land Lake was the inspiration for the band’s name when they first convened in 2011, and her passing cast a longer shadow over the philosophical perspective expressed here.

Then, on top of that, Sheehy witnessed the disintegration of his intentions to marry and the subsequent breakup of that relationship, adding yet another layer of anguish to his woe. But in the midst of that adversity, Matt and Lander keyboardist/vocalist Sarah Fennell began to forge a deeper bond beyond their musical affinity. That sense of renewal and reconciliation manifests in this new recording as well.

Brent Knopf
Brent Knopf

For this second outing, Sheehy has again aligned forces with Brent Knopf (Menomena, Ramona Falls)—who serves as producer and contributor on keys. That would be considered a wise choice, as Knopf did a masterful job in both capacities on the first go around. Here he only exceeds his previous work, as nothing, not a single note, seems out of place here. All is as it should be, and it is glorious.

Last month I took Sleater-Kinney, or more specifically their producer John Goodmanson, to task for the unnecessarily ornate, gaudily overwrought aural picture the team painted with their new album, No Cities to Love—a cake with way too much frosting. By contrast Lost Lander’s Medallion, also heavily produced, creates quite the opposite affect. It’s a presentation filled with open air, where every of the varied instruments (and sounds) has room to luxuriate, a space all its own, before it disappears.

Sheehy and Knopf (sounds like a book publisher or a law firm) work in a 21st century manner, exchanging files of their projects and pieces online, rather than regularly meeting together in person in the studio. This aloofness does not translate at all in the music, for it sounds like Knopf lives inside Sheehy’s head most of the time. It is impossible at any given moment to ascertain just exactly whom is executing a particular part, or precisely what instrument is being played.

Which was pretty much the case with the first album, but here the process is even more refined. The production is world class, and somehow that pronouncement seems to shortchange the album somewhat. It’s truly a pleasure to listen to. Breathtaking.

Spandau Ballet - Those were the days
Spandau Ballet – Those were the days

Sheehy, Knopf and the band come from a distinct ‘80s synthpop perspective. At various points one can hear sonic references to all of the great synthpop acts of the era: Tears For Fears, Depeche Mode, Human League, Erasure, Howard Jones, Spandau Ballet, Ultravox and middle-period New Order, most obviously. But better. Much, much better. The technology that could only have been approximated and intimated in the ‘80s is here, now, for the savvy musician. Lost Lander are very savvy. They know how to use the technology as well as anyone.

This is no easy achievement, given the dappled emotional light and intense depth of field imparted within the subject matter. Still, at no time do the music or arrangements ever overtake the sentiments being expressed, instead at all times they compliment them.

A brief introductory interlude called “Pre” emerges into the first real track called “Gemini.” A halting flutey organ motif, underlain by a wiry synth bass play against jittery, ostensible electronic drums. Matt enters the vocal picture with the observation “There is an animal that finds us in the night/I see its eyes reflected in the soft light/I see trouble every time I look for you”—accented by a lone, low, muted trumpet figure of seven notes that appears then vanishes until it is called upon to fill the same space later on.

Matt Sheehy
Matt Sheehy

The mantis-like synth turns rubbery in the second verse and momentarily dominates the scene. All turns quiet for the turn at the chorus, a chattering synth in the background and Fennell’s expert backup vocal. At that point the chorus bursts into an Afro chant, Sheehy’s pleasant tenor turning grittier, calling to mind Curt Smith of Tears For Fears. “One by one we share a troubled… heart.” A sense of deliverance. Break down to a trumpet theme provided by guest Kelly Platt of Beirut and a weird wobbling synth feature. As might be expected, it all comes together down the homestretch, but never crowded, instruments speak their piece and get out of the way, a minimum of sustain to soak up the panoramic vista. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Every song in the set is laid out with the same precision and attention to detail. “Flinch” comes in with an early Eurythmics (and hint of Psychedelic Furs circa “Love My Way”) setting, but as if ABC’s Martin Fry or Neil Finn in his Split Enz days were applying the vocal where Annie Lennox might typically be. In reflection of his mother’s passing Matt sings “I need to keep a piece of what you leave when I’m alone again and feel your presence,” the intensity of his proclamation is Bono-esque, but free of creaky histrionics. Another anthemic chorus lodges the song securely in the memory, seamless harmonies the bond.

The obvious hit of the ten tracks presented is “Walking On a Wire.” Sparkling piano droplets sweep with a flourish across an insistently sputtering synth. It’s a song the Killers might do, although—as it has accurately been pointed out to me—better. Sheehy has a voice comparable to Brandon Flowers, with a similar slightly operatic delivery, coasting through the verse: “It seems so long since you sat on the bed with your hair all around you/Nothing there between us we were young, we were young.”

Things turn more urgent at the stirring chorus: “Hold on to that thread/We will not sleep until we’re dead.” A second, even more ornate filigree piano motif springs up, sounding as simple as the first until you try to sing it. This leads to a stirring bridge, which resolves in permutations of the chorus, the two piano themes intertwined in alternating sequence, tying it all together in the inspired finale.

Edward Snowden: Appropriately looking over his shoulder.
Edward Snowden: Appropriately looking over his shoulder.

Purportedly the lyrics to “Feed the Fever” were taken from transcripts of interviews with hero traitor Edward Snowden, although on the surface they would seem to pertain to anyone whose conscience was weighing heavily in an untenable situation. “You never run straight, coz that’s how they catch you/Feed the fever, sign away your life.” The arrangement is Howard Jones meets Depeche Mode. Tidy, compact. The production values are exquisite. The hook could snag a marlin.

It is difficult to put into words how complex these productions are—crafted with such meticulous care. The shifting clouds of tones and timbres on the introspective love song “Give It Time” burst like constellations in the firmament. Luke Price contributes a plaintive viola solo, which adds rapturous, windy wisps to the scene. Over another Afro tinged chorus, and with a voice sounding like Bono in a rare sincere moment, Matt delivers a heartfelt lyric. “I will crawl to you/Crawl out of my skin/And find myself again.”

Here's your new 2015 Jeep Cherokee
Here’s your new 2015 Jeep Cherokee

Of late there has been a revival: resurgence in the appropriation of African chant. It’s that choral “Whoa-oh-oo-oh” sound that you hear in a lot of car commercials or any other ad attempting to purvey some sense of energetic espirit de corp (reference Imagine Dragons’ “I Bet My Life” Sprite/Jeep Cherokee campaigns, or more recently X Ambassadors’ “Renegade”—also for Jeep Cherokee).

Dream Academy: Seminal Purveyors of Afro chant
Dream Academy: Seminal Purveyors of Afro chant

For a long time I thought the whole tradition could be traced back to Dream Academy and their hit from 1985 “Life in a Northern Town.” But after giving it some thought, I believe the whole thing started with Paul McCartney and his Hawaiianish finale for “Hello/Goodbye.” It probably goes back farther than that.

Whatever the case, Matt interjects some of that inspired, tribal character into several of his songs. My guess is this is not intentional—or premeditated anyway. It seems as if the triumphal outbursts are more likely a result of real emotions and emotional realizations, not a pitch for Jeep Cherokee legitimacy. As such, they can be accepted as genuine expressions of individual transcendence.

“SunBurns” is an example of just such an uplifting motif. A shimmering arpeggiated synth gives way to the very sort of chant of which I speak, resolving on a key call-and-response line: “We hold out…” upon which Fennell bolsters the back half with a clarion call, “for the feeling.” An intrepidly uplifting song.

Sarah Fennell and Matt Sheehy
Sarah Fennell and Matt Sheehy

Though she only sings back-up in the essential scheme of this album, Sarah Fennell provides the sort of stalwart vocal efforts one might expect from Stevie Nix supporting Lindsey Buckingham. The blend isn’t always perfect, but the level of commitment to the material is at complete unity between Matt and Sarah. The result is often quite stirring—as with Fleetwood Mac.

Sarah Fennell
Sarah Fennell

The pair demonstrate that vocal compatibility in “Never Go Easy,” wherein their commingled duet in the choruses produces a powerful effect, as if the couple are reassuring themselves and each other. Stuttering low-synths and chortling guitars inform the scene with nervous unease. In the bridge, Sarah is afforded a rare moment to stand in the spotlight. The peeling exigency in her presentation calls to mind a similar quality often found in Elizabeth Fraser’s (Cocteau Twins) work.

The track heads home on a familiar, spaghetti-flavored guitar solo riff, vaguely akin to some things the Allman brothers did in the bridge of “Jessica” (of all things). My first impression was that there wasn’t much guitar on the album, but after sundry auditions, I have noticed that there are numerous moments of inconspicuously understated guitar flourishes throughout the program. But it’s just like the rest of the instrumentation here: fleeting. You’ll hear a musical figure or phrase, and then you won’t hear it again for quite a while. You’ve got to pay attention!

Matt Sheehy
Matt Sheehy

An example of one of the many songs that unfold slowly, opening like a flower bud, is the pretty ballad “Trailer Tracks.” Matt wrote the song while on retreat, staying in an Airstream at the time of its composition and it reflects a sense of incisive introspection. “It takes every creature/It takes every kind/A momentary/Lapse of the mind/I am in the moment/I’m perfectly here/I can’t shake the past off/Can’t get myself clear.” A molten guitar solo, evocative of latter day Talk Talk, melts down to the core in the conclusion.

“Crush” reflects a mood and setting similar to that of “Walking on a Wire,” dauntless in the face of adversity, yet self-confrontational. “Self, please tell me what’s the answer/There’s no other way, to stay/Pull you through the mirror.” And, as with its predecessor, the chorus is indomitable. “Welcome to the miracle club/We are here on the other side.” Elements of Depeche Mode and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with a flash of Simple Minds, invest the production values—although the final minute, blown out synth bass and “quirky” guitar solo, head off in a different direction entirely.

Lost Lander, the Band (Photo Brendan Patrick Coughlin)
Lost Lander, the Band (Photo Brendan Patrick Coughlin)

A sinewy feature similar in character to the work of Arcade Fire (perhaps with Brandon Flowers fronting the band) graces the hymn-like “Alpine Street,” a number that could easily fit on The Suburbs. There are many moments here where the playing sounds as if it were executed by a real band, rather than individual instruments, more like a band. Drippy backwards flutes notwithstanding, this cut is probably the best representation of what the band sounds like live: which is pretty damn good, but different from the quixotic electronic ensembles assembled for the rest of the material.

In recorded music, the idea of “production” is a nebulous term, totally dependent upon just how much participants wish to alter and enhance the process and finished recorded form of their music. In the case of Sleater-Kinney (and they are certainly not alone), the choice was made to slather on the butter. In this instance, Matt Sheehy, Brent Knopf and engineer Jeff Saltzman went for the less is more approach, realizing a state of aural feng shui, where the sonic chi moves within the shifting environment.

As in life, there is not a lot of sustain in this album. Things fall away. Every musical part is clean and concise. Each struts its moment in the spotlight, then disappears—perhaps (or not) to return again at some other time. But in its disappearance the ambience shifts: the ear attracted by some other tracery. The workmanship here is artisanal.

LL5But above and outside of the rabbit hole fixtures one chases down through the eleven songs presented here is a lyrical latticework that binds each song, holding the entire project together. Matt Sheehy’s mature lyrical insights reflect efforts of deep personal work and transformation. His intrepid emotional honesty when confronted by the dogging demons of the soul reflect great courage. His valiant spirit and force of persistence are unmistakable.

This is an album to be treasured—for all the life survived in order just to conceive it, for all the energy expended to craft it, for the joy it brings to experience it. The timeless feelings and delicate sensitivities conveyed, combined with consumate implementation, render this endeavor into a modest epic.


March 2015