Portrait of Paul Geremia

Went to see a vocalist accompanied by an acoustic guitar player the other night, and their songbook was filled with Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith tunes, played quite competently. But it reminded me just how lucky we Rhode Islanders were to live in a time when Paul Geremia was at the top of his game, blowing minds with his acoustic blues and rags. Here’s a chance to find out more.

Geoff  Adams made this portrait of the acoustic blues master in the early 1983.

Rick Belaire wrote this career history when Paul was inducted in the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame

Here’s a bunch of things I blabbed about Paul a long time ago in the Providence Phoenix:

Astonishment is the norm when Paul Geremia sets up shop: the various strains of acoustic blues are wildly rigorous, and easy to get “wrong.” The guitarist has been getting ‘em “right” for half a century. He is one of our most nuanced and compelling acoustic blues players.

I like to cut to the chase when discussing Paul Geremia. The Rhode Island guitarist is the best country blues picker working today. The breadth of his stylistic expertise, the old-time vibe in his picking prowess, and the killer chops that he brings to bear on his now-enormous book truly make his one-man presentation seem near orchestral. Jumping rhythms and nasty trills, vocal growls and spiritual murmurs, a rush of energy that stomps its way through a tune – he’s got it all. When he’s having a great night – which is often – you can see just how alive this ancient music can be. And watch him drag Bush through the mud, too. A protector of the little guy, Paul’s always worked politics into his art.

Paul Geremia starts jabbing that 12-string on “Shuckin’ Sugar,” and it becomes obvious: he’s one of America’s top blues guitarists. The track is a part of the very impressive Love My Stuff (Red House), a compendium of blues styles, each of which Geremia has insights into. The piece I’ve been liking is “My Money Never Runs Out,” where a full-flowing rhythm drives the amusing tale of a penniless dude with an upper crust attitude; it’s a great example of how much sound can come out of Geremia’s instrument.

They Meant “Let’s Make Lots of Money”

Two Heroes

Mavericks Swingin At Rhythm & Roots

What if one of your fave bands covers one of your fave songs? Turns a reg weekend into a righteous weekend. Well, I was already happy with the Mavericks doing “Beer Barrel Polka” and “Never On Sunday” – the band’s retro cred has always crazed and cool. But now that they’ve thrown John Anderson’s “Swingin'” into the mix, they’ve leveled up another notch. Their take has a “Wooly Bully” slant, groove-wise. Do the math on Sam the Sham’s roots and that makes sense, too. Last time they closed the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, they had the place bumpin. That was a couple years ago, and below you’ll find a blab I wrote to preview that show.

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Sometimes it’s all about riding the rhythm. When the Mavericks rolled through their set at the Rhythm & Roots Festival a couple of years ago, their songs had plenty of hooks, but it was the thrust driving the action that had the crowd juiced up. When you hear ’em on the radio they’re a sing-along band. Melodies galore. But when you’re standing in front of them onstage, they’re a propulsion outfit. Shuffles, rumba, bluebeat, and swing are all part of the mix – maybe even some implied funk. And of course the kind of pop momentum that drives the insistent guitar strumming of their their update of “Here Comes My Baby.”

They’re back at this year’s R&R Fest, closing the kickoff night’s offerings, a spot meant for an act that can leave the crowd sweaty and exhuberent. Some of that fervor has to do with the charisma that pours from Raul Malo’s voice.  A powerhouse vocalist, he lets loose a clarion call when leading the band through their set. Could be a honky-tonk bounce, might be a tejano-inflected romp. There’s an operatic element to his singing, and it’s often earned righteous comparisons Roy Orbison – a mix of guts and grandeur that becomes unmistakable when he lights into a shimmering piece of balladry like the Cuban standard “La Sitiera.” Malo’s pipes are key to the Mavericks’ impact; he rides the grooves in all sorts of ways. When he flows through the lyrics of “Be My Guest,” the N’awlins swag gets nudged front and center. (Maybe that’s just what happens when your horn section includes an accordionist.) Watching him lead the band through a set that stretches from Springsteen to ska should be a blast. Wonder if they still do that crackerjack cover of Van’s “Bright Side of the Road”?

Rhythm & Roots Festival takes place today and through Sunday. Aug 30-Sept 1 

Sara Gazarek Thirsty Ghost

Repertoire isn’t a roadbump for Sara Gazarek. Like a handful of modern vocalists, the LA-based singer has created a broad book as she’s moved through her seven previous releases. From tunes by Gillian Welch, Laura Mvula, and Ben Folds to side projects populated with nods to a couple of key Jameses, Mr. Joyce and Mr. Taylor, she’s found a number of works outside the trad jazz canon to help explain her herself. That not only means she’s a modernist, but a valuable part of a singers landscape that includes Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato, Dominique Eade, Camila Meza, and Kate McGarry among others. On this new album, a record she rightly deems a turning point, Gazarek artfully adds Sam Smith and Bjork pieces to her bag of tricks. And she ups the clout of the performances by tweaking her theatrics, clarifying her emotions, and investing in a real-life momentousness. 

Some of these shifts are the result of a kick from Kurt Elling, an artist known for his intrepid nature. After a decade and a half of Gazarek filling records with pleasant and skillful jazz entertainment, he nudged his pal towards trusting the audience with a more “messy” version of herself; the result is an approach that reflects a human condition wisely dubious of constant rainbows. It works well, shifting the singer from the mildly glib tact she’d previously employed to something that feels a bit more authentic. 

In her latest press bio, Gazarek references a familial near-death incident, failed marriage, fresh romance, and first-hand bout with infidelity. This personal turbulence plays out in a suite of tunes that insightfully addresses such emotional unrest. “Gaslight District” portrays the psychological slight-of-hand used by cheating lovers to bolster their charade. The bouncy “Never Will I Marry” celebrates the self-trust one might find in isolation. “Not The Only One” shares the ache of being mislead. The jaunty swing of “Easy Love” explains how sublime romance can be when firing on all cylinders. “I Believe (When I Fall In Love)” turns Stevie Wonder’s jewel on its head a bit, dotting its promise with shards of dubiousness. Her sympathetic band – a piano trio often backed by three horn players – enhances each move. 

An immersion into Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” presents itself as a dramatic centerpiece. The arrangement swirls, and the music crests and ebbs with Gazark’s incisive interpretation – pride being subsumed by pleading. The New York Times once said that Gazarek’s voice wasn’t unique enough to “grab your ear or your heart.” Not true. Securing the appropriately mysterious arrangement of Bjork’s “Cocoon,” abstracting her vocals to fit the tale of first-blush courtship, trusting understatement to explain her delight – it grabs you quick. Here’s to taking the advice of friends and turning new corners.

DownBeat

Sara Gazarek

BeauSoleil Returns To Rhythm & Roots Festival This Weekend

I have a picture in my mind. It’s George Thomas standing next to Michael Doucet on the old wooden stage at one of the early Cajun & Bluegrass Festivals at Stepping Stone Ranch in Escoheag. The former is a New England-based music expert and radio host, and the latter is the longtime leader of forever-esteemed BeauSoleil. Can’t say why, but whenever I’ve seen the Cajun superheroes onstage during these last 30 years, I still picture GT up there introducing ’em. And there’s certainly been no lack of opportunities to catch Doucet’s outfit around here. The innovative traditionalists from Lafayette often include the Ocean State in their northern jaunts. But unless I’ve spaced out, it’s been a minute since they last shook the ground in RI. That makes their return to the 2019 Rhythm & Roots Festival a big deal. Their grooves seem to get deeper each year; so does the sophisticated blend of cosmopolitan rhythms incorporated by their Bayou-centric approach. Doesn’t matter if the graying fiddler is leading his crew through folk ditties like “Lula Don’t Go To The Bingo” or blues vamps like Bobby Charles’ “He’s Got All The Whiskey,” their robust playing is fueled by a blend of ancient and progressive perspectives, bending venerable themes to make room for plenty of wild solos and rhythmic explosions. Their mastery of dynamics involves an array of steadily shifting grooves built on subtly manipulated beats, and they have lots of ways to send a crowd to the moon. There’s not a way in the world you can stand in front of ‘em and not get your dance on.

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Pros know that the Rhythm & Roots kickoff afternoon usually boasts a certain je ne sais quoi (that’s pidgin cajun, y’all) . The optimistic vibe of arrival is in the air. Old pals pop through the gate. The whole place is welcoming. So claim that vacation day you deserve and own the Friday experience. The Travelin’ McCoury’s will be rollin through the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues,” the Pine Leaf Boys will be turning Ninigret Park into Eunice North, David Greely, Courtney Granger and Steve Riley will be tipping the hat to Dewey Balfa, and Chubby Carrier will be asking “who stole the hot sauce.” Has it really be 365 days since last we danced?

August 30-Sept 1 – Charlestown, Rhode Island

Rhythm & Roots

Weekend Schedule Break Out

Pine Leaf Boys Will Have You Dancing At Rhythm & Roots Festival This Friday

Spent Sunday morning driving between Charlestown Beach and Brooklyn, and as the Mrs and I passed Ninigret Park, we tipped a hat to Chuck Wentworth’s hard work, the unstoppable thrust of tradition, and the power of regional music while reminding ourselves to try and catch the Pine Leaf Boys in the Dance Tent at this year’s edition of the Rhythm & Roots Festival. The acclaimed Cajun outfit has been rolling for almost 15 years now and Wentworth’s annual roots gathering has hosted ’em a few times previously. As a working band, they grow and grow, these days incorporating a few elements of blues and rock ‘n’ roll into their blast of fiddle and accordion tunes. On the box in the car as we barreled down Route 1A was “Chez Moreau,” one of the Louisiana outfit’s earlier tunes, sung in French and knocked out with the animation of newcomers trying to make a dent. By the time the mixed tape petered out, we’d made it to “Werewolf Two-Step” from a more recent album. It’s not hard to describe: imagine Evan Johns romping through the swamp on a full-moon Halloween night. Like their older brothers Beausoleil (who play on Saturday and Sunday at the 2019 edition of the Fest), they keep one foot in the bayou while opening the music up to embrace some more modern touches.  And swing is part of the plan. They get a good bounce going on “Whiskey C’Est Mon Ami.” It’s a tough job to follow Steve Riley and Chubby Carrier on a stage where keeping dancers at a fever pitch is the job at hand, but grace blends with power when the Pine Leaf gents get going.

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Pros know that the Rhythm & Roots kickoff afternoon usually boasts a certain je ne sais quoi (that’s pidgin cajun, y’all) . The optimistic vibe of arrival is in the air.  Old pals pop through the gate. The whole place is welcoming. So claim that vacay day you deserve and claim your Friday. The Travelin’ McCoury’s will be rollin through the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues,” the Pine Leaf Boys will be turning Ninigret Park into Eunice North, David Greely, Courtney Granger and Steve Riley will be tipping the hat to Dewey Balfa, and Chubby Carrier will be dropping his very strong chank-a-chank science. Has it really be 365 days since last we danced?

August 30-Sept 1 – Charlestown, Rhode Island

Rhythm & Roots

Weekend Schedule Break Out