Maverick Lounge Series – History of Steely Dan at Workplay Theater

Mark Lanter of Black Jacket Symphony (BJS) fame launched a new production earlier this year called, the Maverick Lounge Series (MLS) where he recruits musicians to reproduce the music of famous artists who dedicated themselves to making quality music and maintaining an unprecedented level of originality and integrity into their craft. These were songwriters and composers who’s timeless songs define the sound of their generation and are staples in the era when radio still set the standard for good music and most everyone bought music on a regular basis. The Maverick artists they reproduce in these shows all have the common thread of simultaneously representing the outside, cutting edge of song craft while reshaping it into music that was wildly popular and sold millions of records. For the Steely Dan live rockumentary, Lanter’s long-time BJS partner, J. Willoughby reads a historical narrative with a slideshow of the artists before and during breaks in the performance, explaining the unique history of their evolution as recording artists and the albums they released. I had the fortune of seeing the BJS perform the Jimi Hendrix timeless Are You Experienced at Workplay and a few years later, I witnessed them blow my mind doing the Beatles White Album at the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, so I knew this show would be good. With Crosby Stills & Nash and Eric Clapton performances under their belt, Lanter and the MLS took on Steely Dan to a sold out Crowd at Birmingham’s favorite music room, Workplay.

In contemporary terminology, the band that showed up to play Steely Dan exemplifies all levels of badassery and they deliver this music flawlessly in an unrivaled fashion. These artists are the cream of the crop and they all bring lifetimes of performing and studying music to the stage. Not surprisingly, many of them are music teachers, including, drummer/vocalist/bandleader Lanter, guitarist, Tom Wolfe, saxophonist, Jon Noffsinger, and bassist, Chris Kozak, all of who teach Jazz Studies at The University of Alabama. Allen Barlow, founder of Homewood School of Music has been a guitar teacher for 25 years, and Will Cash teaches guitar at Bailey Brothers. Lanter and Kozak are like a well-oiled rhythm machine greased by soulful technique and world-class chops, pushing the band for all they have. Barlow, Cash, and Wolfe burn with amazing skill and dexterity to play the eccentric signature guitar parts that Becker and Fagan where able to capture in the studio with some of the world’s greatest guitarists like, Jeff Skunk Baxter, Denny Dias, Elliot Randall, and Larry Carlton. Wiley’s keyboard skills were equally impressive as he plays the melodies and solos of these magical songs with a master’s touch. Along with a superb horn section featuring, Rob Alley, Daniel Western, and Jon Noffsinger, Wiley’s wife, Jeni Simmons Wiley, Alice Bargeron, and Lanter provide background and harmony, vocals. As Lanter pointed out, the lead vocals of Tony Lucca made it all possible, as he channeled Fagen’s instantly recognizable voice with eerie precision. The multi-talented Lucca held his own playing keys and guitar on a few songs as well.

Although the rockumentary is a bit different format for a live performance, this show is all about the music and the commentary is brief. After a history of how Becker and Fagan met, formed the band, and recorded the first album, the platinum-selling Can’t Buy A Thrill, the MLS took the stage with their A game and fired off “Reeling in the Years,” a song that immediately electrified the sold-out room. The intensity progressed as the band and Willoughby led us through some of their best known songs from all of the famous studio albums, as well as some of the lesser-known gems like, “Fire in the Hole,” “Green Earrings, and “The Fez.” Most of the crowd was on their feet singing along and dancing. All of the players on stage who did not have a microphone were also singing along to melodies and lyrics so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that they might as well be part of our DNA. Add impeccable acoustics and sound in Birmingham’s legendary Workplay Theater, and it’s homegrown, laid back vibe from Tom Williams and his top-notch crew, his wife, Courtney Allison Williams, and their dog Cheetos and it doesn’t get any better.

Bunko Squad at Crestwood Tavern

Bunko Squad made a rare appearance last month at a haunt known for clandestine affairs held under the guise of pizza, pool tables, and beer. The Crestwood Tavern has long been an after-hours hangout for spies and other mysterious characters in our community and a place where they can mingle with all the civilians, get new intel, and knock down a burger and a few beers before heading off to Moscow or Bejing on their next mission. Taking cues from the Men in Black, Bunko Squad keeps everything covert and people guessing with their impeccable sense of fashion and their own brand of music that defies category,

These guys don’t mess around taking the crowd right into a 50s-era, Hollywood Noir film with a rendition of Henry Mancini’s, A Shot in the Dark, the title song from the 1964 movie featuring Peter Sellers in his second appearance as the famed bungling French inspector, Jacques Clouseau. The timeless surf guitar-riffs from Mark Kimbrell and Jerry Chapman wrapped around the infectious groove laid down by Birmingham’s hardest-working rhythm section, Lief Bondarenko and Eric Onimus draws you into this mysterious experience. By the time they finish the first song, you’re in!

Not waisting time with formalities or tidy vocals, the band moves harmoniously into Bebop on their journey through sonic territory that maintains a heavy jazz, rock, fusion interplay between Chapman and Kimbrell while Bondarenko’s drums and Onimus’ bass create a subtle, yet powerful force of nature for the guitars to fly on. No matter what tag you wish to put on this amazing sound, they keep the crowd smiling and grooving to their music non stop. Kimbrell sets off on a tonal journey to Bill Frisell territory and beyond with his flawless and unique interpretation of Frisell’s Strange Meeting that explores his vast musical landscape and guitar prowess. Kimbrell is a serious musician’s musician, a one-of-a kind player who stretches the boundaries in this musical environment. Champan is also a unique and gifted guitarist with a nice contrasting tone that is more subdued and tame than Kimbrell’s and keeps everything flowing gracefully. After interesting takes on some jazz standards, including Summertime, Chapman introduces a medley that only these guys could pull off called, I Shot The Real Jungle Immigrant For Ya, a joyous instrumental romp through Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, Kool and the Gang’s, Jungle Boogie, and Johnny Guitar Watson’s 70s funk masterpiece Real Mother For Ya, before winding up in Jamaica via Mars with some more spaced-out guitar gymnastics on Bob Marley’s, I Shot the Sheriff.

One thing you notice immediately about these guys is they are having fun! The next no-brainer is that they are all amazing musicians; a unique gathering of some of the finest talent in the world, and certainly the cream of the crop of the fledgling Birmingham music community. It would be interesting to tally the collective number of gigs these pros have played over the years, and the collective number of great bands they have played in to see the many styles and genres they have all perfected. This is the second time I’ve seen this band, the first being when they blew the roof off of Mathews Bar and Grill at Secret Stages in August. I can’t wait to see them again and would love to see an album from my new favorite Birmingham band.

The Steel City Jug Slammers and the New Punk Rock

Published in the October, 2013 Issue of The Leaf.

This year SCJS-nola133at Birmingham’s Artwalk, I caught a killer set by The Steel City Jug Slammers, a band of six young Birmingham locals ripping it up in the street the way they like to perform, live, in your face, and raw. About five years ago before they were The Steel City Jug Slammers, their love of Jug Bands and the tradition of busking on the streets came from trips to New Orleans where they learned the rules of survival among street performers first hand from other musicians working the busy New Orleans music scene. Their first few trips were tough and didn’t go so well, but persistence paid off for them and with more hard work on the streets, they amassed a circle of incredible musician friends who also play what lead singer Jerrod Atkins calls, “amazing old tunes, Jug Band, Jazz, Bluegrass, and all the good stuff.” Paying their dues on the streets has started to pay off for these hard working guys and they are scheduled to make a guest appearance on national TV in late November or early December. They asked me not to reveal the specifics until all of the legalities are ironed out, but this exposure, along with a high-profile November 9 gig at Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans may be the kick these guys need to get their fledgling music careers in high gear. In the past month, they have generated enough buzz online to triple their Facebook followers. They all love playing what jug player, Derek Stack calls, “The New Punk Rock.” Read More

2013 Americana Music Association Conference & Awards

Published in the Mid-September issue of e – Leaf Magazine.

With over a century of recorded music born on American soil, you can take your pick of styles and genres from all of the big categories like Rock, Country, Blues, Gospel, Folk, or good old Southern Rock to lesser consumed, but equally important grooves like Jazz, Hillbilly, Texas Swing, Dixieland, Ragtime, and Jug Bands and never stop discovering an endless vault of treasured American music. Read More

Review: The Black Jacket Symphony Plays The Beatles White Album, Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center

This review was published in the September, 2013 Issue of The Leaf, formerly The Tannehill Trader.

IMG_1826Having seen the Black Jacket Symphony do a blistering performance of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced several years ago, I knew they were an incredible band but I have to admit, my expectations for covering The White Album, were skeptical at best. Long considered the Beatles crowning achievement by many critics, The White Album, covers vast musical ground with an equally wide array of instrumentation ranging from sparse acoustic guitar to horns and strings, all masterminded in the studio by their famous producer, George Martin. The Black Jacket Symphony delivered all 29 songs without a break in the original album sequence, flawlessly covering every dynamic and nuance with perfection. Read More

Pets At Peace Article

My good friends, Troy and Julie Bland asked me to write an article about their business, Pets at Peace for the Trussville News.

pets-peace-logoWhen my friends Troy and Julie Bland told me they were buying a pet cremation business, I first thought how odd that two animal lovers would want to work in this line of business, but after thinking it over and learning more about the process, it occurred to me that pet lovers are the only people you should trust with this painful and delicate task and I could think of no other couple who would be more qualified to handle this process than the Blands. Read More