Gov’t Mule Rule With Powerful Pink Floyd Set

Southern jam rockers and Avett Brothers bring their summer tour to central NJ

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When I told a good friend from Germany the other day that I was going to see Gov’t Mule for a Dark Side Of The Mule show, he had the same initial reaction I had a few weeks ago: What’s a southern rock band got to with Pink Floyd? And why would such distinguished musicians with plenty of own material devote an entire gig to the British psychedelic rockers? Well, because not only does Mule dig great music, but they also like to celebrate it during their own shows. In fact, they always have done so since they were founded in late 1994, though thus far, Pink Floyd is the only band to whom they dedicated an entire show.

As I previously wrote, Mule first introduced the concept in 2008 in Boston when they added a second set to their set of original tunes, which solely consisted of Floyd covers. They repeated it at the Mountain Jam music festival in 2015. And now the band is doing this dedicated show for the third time during a short co-headlining summer tour with The Avett Brothers – something I didn’t want to miss as a huge Pink Floyd fan, especially since one of gigs was happening right in my neck of the woods at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. last night. Based on Mule’s corresponding live album, my expectations were high – and boy did they deliver!

The Magpie Salute

But first things first. The evening was opened by American rock band The Magpie Salute, which was formed in October 2016 by guitarist Rich Robinson, a co-founding member of The Black Crowes. He pretty much co-wrote all of their songs with his brother and lead vocalist Chris Robinson. I didn’t know any of the band’s songs but liked what I heard. Their remaining current lineup includes two other former Black Crows members, Marc Ford (lead guitar, vocals) and Sven Pipien (bass, backing vocals), as well as John Hogg (vocals, percussion), Matt Slocum (keyboards) and Joe Magistro (drums). The Magpie Salute currently have one live album out from 2017 and are set to release their studio debut High Water I on August 18, 2018. I’ll definitely keep that on my radar screen.

The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers: (from left to right) Bob Crowford, Joe Kwon, Scott Avett and Seth Avett

Next came The Avett Brothers, a band that except for its name I hadn’t known. To get a sense of what to expect, I checked setlist.fm for the first date of the tour. It didn’t help much, since they made many changes to their set last night! The band’s core members include brothers and multi-instrumentalists Seth (vocals, guitar, etc.) and Scott Avett (vocals, banjo, etc.), Bob Crawford (double bass, bass, etc.) and Joe Kwon (backing vocals, cello, piano, etc.). The current touring lineup is complemented by Mike Marsh (drums) and Tania Elizabeth (violin, vocals, kazoo).

The origins of The Avett Brothers date back to the late 1990s when Seth’s high school band Margo combined with Scott’s college rock outfit Nemo. After Nemo had released three albums, Seth and Scott started The Avett Brothers as a side project, playing acoustic music with some friends. Eventually, this resulted in the release of an EP, The Avett Bros., in 2000. Their fist full-fledged studio album Country Was appeared in 2002. To date, the band has released eight additional studio records, three additional EPs and four live albums. I was impressed with the craftsmanship and warmth they used to deliver their music, which blends folk, bluegrass, Americana and indie rock. I didn’t record any video, but here’s a YouTube clip of a tune they did last night: Down With The Shine, from The Carpenter, their seventh studio album released in September 2012.

And then it was time for Mule to rule, and boy they certainly did! While like The Avett Brothers they mixed things up compared to the tour’s opening night, they kept the same format.

Gov't Mule 2018
Gov’t Mule (left to right): Danny Louis (keyboards), Matt Abts (drums), Jorgen Carlsson (bass) and Warren Haynes (guitar)

After kicking off their set with two original songs, it was on to mighty Pink Floyd. Last night, the original tunes included Thorazine Shuffle and Banks Of The Deep End, from the Dose (February 1998) and The Deep End, Vol. 1 (October 2001) studio albums, respectively. Here’s Thorazine Shuffle, a co-write by Mule co-founding members Warren Haynes and Matt Abts.

Following their two original songs, Mule launched into a transitional instrumental that blended into One Of These Days, from Meddle. Floyd’s sixth studio album from October 1971 happens to be one of my favorites. All for a sudden, it felt like the band had kicked up the intensity by a few notches. The song’s bass line came across like a furious jack hammer – since I didn’t anticipate it and didn’t want to start recording after it had started, unfortunately, I missed capturing that one.

After this powerful rendition of the first Pink Floyd tune of the night, Mule kept their foot on the gas. Next came Echoes, another gem from Meddle and perhaps my all-time favorite Floyd track. Again I didn’t record that one, figuring if my arms wouldn’t fall off holding my smartphone, the device would probably run low on battery power, given the length of the tune! Next it was on to a series of songs from Dark Side Of The Moon, my favorite Floyd album released in March 1973. Here’s The Great Gig In The Sky, featuring Mule’s outstanding backing vocalists

In addition to Dark Side Of Moon and Meddle, Mule also heavily drew from Wish You Were Here, another Floyd gem and the follow-on to Dark Side, which came out in September 1975. Here’s Welcome To The Machine.

Before playing some additional tunes from the Dark Side and Wish You Were Here albums, Mule threw in Nile Song from More, Floyd’s first soundtrack and their third studio release from June 1969. Then it was time for the cash register to ring with Money, another track from Dark Side. Again, I thought the band did a great job with the tune, especially the saxophonist who killed it!

The epic Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V) rounded out Mule’s regular set. Like on the Dark Side Of The Mule album that I previously reviewed here, this was the track where the band took the most artistic freedom, especially Haynes on lead guitar. And just like on that record, I thought he did a nice job, so the deviations didn’t bother me at all. No Pink Floyd show would be complete without Wish You Were, which the band threw in as the encore.

As mentioned at the outset, I thought Mule’s show last night was outstanding. But, as I also noted before, Dark Side Of The Mule is not a note-by-note rendition of Floyd’s music. I imagine not all hard core Floyd fans may like the artistic freedom Mule occasionally takes. As a former hobby musician, I can fully appreciate that artists want to add a little bit of their own flavor when playing covers. If you feel the same and dig Pink Floyd, this show is for you, if you live in the right corners of the country. There are only four remaining dates: Xfinity Center, Mansfield, Mass. (today, Jul 14); Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center, Noblesville, Ind. (Aug 23); Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park, IL (Aug 24); and DTE Energy Music Theatre, Clarkston, MI (Aug 25). But there is always hope for additional dates, though Mule’s summer 2018 tour schedule looks dense through the second half of September.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Mule official website, YouTube

Neil Young Triumphantly Returns To Boston

Solo set at Wang Theatre spans various decades

“One of my first solo shows was in the Wang Theater, then called the Music Hall,” wrote Neil Young on his website in May, talking about his 2018 solo tour that officially ended last night with the second of two dates at the landmark venue in Boston’s Theatre District. “It’s a real beauty folks – a chapel of soul and music. I hope it still sounds as good as it did then and that I do too!” While I wasn’t around when Young played Music Hall in January 1971, I saw him at Wang Theatre on Wednesday night, the first of his two concerts there, and he surely sounded amazing to me!

Wang Theatre
View of Wang Theatre auditorium from stage

Young was right. The venue is pretty impressive. Take a closer look at the above photo, and you can see the rich ornaments and decorative painting. In addition to its looks, he certainly also well remembered the Wang Theatre’s acoustic, which was great.

While it must be about 40 years ago that Young entered my radar screen with Heart Of Gold, I had never been to one of his shows. When I read about his solo tour a few months ago and noticed it would bring him to Boston, it didn’t take long for me to decide that seeing him was worth a five-hour drive from my house, especially given the tour only had six dates: Two in each Chicago and Boston, and one in each Detroit and St. Louis.

Neil Young

But before I further get to Young, I’d like to acknowledge William Prince, a folk and country singer-songwriter, who like Young hails from Canada. Punctually at 8:00 PM, he walked on stage with just an acoustic guitar and opened the night. Prince is a member of the Pegius First Nation from Manitoba.

In 2015, he released his debut album Earthly Days, for which he won a Western Canadian Music Award for Aboriginal Artist of the Year in 2016 and the 2017 the Juno Award for  Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. From that album, here’s Breathless. The look and feel of the performance, which apparently was captured in December, is very similar to Wednesday night. I thought his voice and guitar-playing sounded really nice. Visit his website for more information.

And then it was time for Young. To get an idea what to expect, I checked the previous shows from the tour on setlist.fm. I noticed the sets were relatively constant and included a mix of well-known songs and other tunes that at least to me were deeper cuts. A friend of mine, who is a Neil Young connoisseur and the lead vocalist in an excellent Neil Young tribute band, thought it was a selection for longtime fans.

The stage setup looked a little like a music workshop. It featured areas with different instruments, including an array of acoustic guitars, a semi-hollow electric guitar, two grand pianos and two organs. Young also had multiple harmonicas on hand. During the show, he shared anecdotes about most of the instruments. For example, one of the grand pianos was from the 19th century, and the bottom had been burned during a fire. Young maintained this gave it a very unique sound, adding this tour was the first time he took it on the road. He also pointed to guitars that had once been owned by Stephen Stills and Hank Williams.

Time for some music. I tried capturing some of the songs, and while the audio came out okay, the quality of the video varies quite a bit. The latter was due to challenging lighting conditions and my seat up on the balcony in the back of the theater. There was also what looked like an illuminated stripe in the background above the stage. I’m wondering whether this may have been done on purpose to discourage taking videos, which officially was strictly forbidden.

While I get they don’t want flash photography, I generally find these “no video rules” complete nonsense. Unless you walk in with a professional camera that enables you to record footage you could sell, what damage are you going to do with clips taken with a smartphone? On the contrary, in my opinion, taking and posting such clips on Facebook or elsewhere actually helps promote the artist. Okay, I’m stopping going off on a tangent now. The following is a combination of my own clips and footage from other recent solo gigs.

First up: Pocahontas, a song by Young that first appeared on the Rust Never Sleeps live album from July 1979. Initially, he recorded a version of the tune in the mid-70s for Chrome Dreams, a then-planned but unreleased album.

Ohio was the only Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tune Wednesday night and one of two songs Young played on the electric guitar. Written by him in the wake of the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, the track was released by CSNY as a single in June that year. It was also included on the band’s 4 Way Street live album from April 1971 and the studio compilation So Far, released in August 1974. The tune also appeared on Young’s solo compilation albums Decade (Oct 1977) and Greatest Hits (Nov 2004).

A highlight of the show and perhaps my favorite moment of the night was After The Gold Rush. Young played the title track of his third studio album from September 1970 on a pipe organ. The church-like sound was just incredible. He slightly updated the lyrics by singing, Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century/Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century. The performance was incredibly powerful and gave me the goosebumps!

Among Young’s more recent tunes was Love And War. He recorded the song for his 30th studio album Le Noise, which appeared in September 2010. This clip was captured at his June 28 show in St. Louis.

Young finished his regular set with two gems from Harvest, his fourth studio album released in February 1972: The Needle And The Damage Done and Heart Of Gold. Unfortunately, the following clip of Needle, shot in Chicago on July 1, is cut in the beginning but otherwise 10 times better than my attempt to film it.

Here’s the mighty Heart Of Gold. Young may be getting old (though he sounded great!), but not the song.

Young came back for one encore: Tumbleweed, a tune from the deluxe edition of his 34th studio album Storytone from November 2014. He performed it with a ukulele. This clip is from the above St. Louis clip.

For now, Young’s second gig in Boston last night marked the final show of his solo tour. In September, he is scheduled to perform back-to-back at Farm Aid (Hartfort, Conn., Sep 22) and, together with Promise Of The Real, at another Willie Nelson event (Saratoga, N.Y., Sep 23).

Sources: Wikipedia, Neil Young official website, William Prince official website, setlist.fm, YouTube

 

What I’ve Been Listening To: Rick Barth/Hand Me Down Soul

A mix of rock and acoustic-oriented roots music on Jersey singer-songwriter’s studio debut

Rick Barth is another promising example that good music isn’t dead, just harder to find nowadays than say in the 60s and 70s where all you needed to do was to switch on the radio. FM radio definitely played an important role in the start of my music journey, along with my sister’s vinyl collection and my terrific guitar teacher. But back to Rick!

I met Rick last Sunday at Sarah Street Grill in Stroudsburg, Pa., while attending The Acoustic Singer-Songwriter Series. Organized by Rick, the event features a rotating lineup of New Jersey singer/songwriters and acoustic musicians. I was primarily there to see John Hathaway, a singer-songwriter from Asbury Park, N.J., who also fronts a great Neil Young tribute band called Decade. I’ve previously written about John, most recently here. John introduced me to Rick.

Rick Barth

In addition to organizing this great event, Rick is a Jersey singer-songwriter himself. In 2015, he released his studio debut Hand Me Down Soul. After having listened to the album a few times, I like what I’m hearing – a nice mix of rock and acoustic-oriented roots music, delivered with a slightly rugged voice. I can hear a little bit of Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Steve Earle here and there, who are all artists I dig. Interestingly, according to a previous review by Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog, Rick started out his music career with hard rock and metal. He has certainly come a long way!

Hand Me Down With Soul kicks off with Wherever You Are, a nice mid-tempo rocker. Like all tracks except for one tune, the song was written by Rick, who also plays acoustic and electric guitars.

Another mid-tempo rock tune I like is Another Time With You.

The title track takes things slightly down a notch. In particular, I like Rick’s soulful vocal delivery of the tune.

I Love You (Now Go Away) is another standout to me. One of the country-oriented song’s defining features is the bluesy harmonica provided by Lou Tambone.

One of the all-acoustic songs on the record is Beautiful, an appropriate title. In addition to Rick’s vocals and acoustic guitar, the tune only features some organ by Jim Reeber in the background – really all that’s needed.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the album’s closer Invincible, another acoustic-oriented song. Rick co-wrote the lyrics with Darren Parker.

Hand Me Down was produced and engineered by Brian Csencsits at his studio Supreme Sound in Woodland Park, N.J. Apart from the above, other musicians on the record include Ralph Heiss (bass), Jeff Bridi (bass) and Mari Byrd (backing vocals on Good Old Days). Hand Me Down Soul is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and via Rick’s website.

Rick told me he is currently working on his next record. He joked he wants it be acoustic-oriented but that the folks who work with him keep suggesting to add drums and other instruments. According to his website, the album will be called Fade.

Sources: Rick Barth official website, Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Johnny Cash/I’ve Been Everywhere

Can you sing 20-plus North American cities and other locations at break-neck speed in one song verse? Some artists did. Johnny Cash was one of them. I was reminded of The Man In Black, when I saw a post earlier today from fellow music blogger hotfox63 about the tune Jackson.

Written by Australian county singer Geoff Mack in 1959, I’ve Been Everywhere was made popular in 1962 by Leslie Morrison, professionally known as Lucky Star, another artist from Down Under. The original version included Australian towns and was later adapted by Canadian country artist Hank Snow for North America.

Cash recorded his version of the tune for the 1996 album Unchained, the 86th record in his catalog! Although country music generally is not my first preference, I think there was something special about Cash with his deep bass-baritone voice. I also dig this particular song, which is a nice country-rockabilly cross-over.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Neil Young/American Stars ‘N Bars

Young’s eighth studio album is best known for the epic rocker “Like A Hurricane”

Why American Stars ‘N Bars? And why now? To start with, it includes Like A Hurricane, one of my all-time favorite Neil Young rock tunes – well, make that ’70s rock songs! And second, because of that, I grabbed the record yesterday on vinyl in a great small store close to my house, which buys and sells used vinyl records and vintage stereo equipment, a place in which I could get lost, but that’s another story! Since other than Like A Hurricane I didn’t know any of the other tracks, yes, it was at least in part an impulse purchase!

When spinning the record for the first time, I noticed two things. I was reminded how short vinyl records used to be. Side one clocks in at less than 18 minutes. With just over 20 minutes, side two isn’t much longer. The second thing I realized is that most of the songs on the album are country and folk-oriented – of course, Young has always done acoustic music, and I consider many of these tunes to be among his best work. Still, I guess because of Like A Hurricane, I expected more such rockers.

Neil Young American Stars 'N Bars Record Sleeve

Looking for background and some inspiration, I started reading up on American Stars ‘N Bars, Young’s eighth studio album, which was released in May 1977. Most reviews characterized the record as a hodgepodge and highlighted Like A Hurricane as the standout. One exception was a take by the Observer, which revisited the record in late May this year on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, calling it “in many ways…the quintessential Neil Young album.” I think they made a good point.

Throughout his career, Young has been known for making impulsive decisions. This has not always exactly endeared him to others. As an Ultimate Classic Rock story notes, in the mid-’70s, he recorded various albums that were ready to release but at the last minute changed his mind. For example, Young aborted Homegrown and instead decided to pursue and release Tonight’s The Night. American Stars ‘N And Bars is another example of Young’s unpredictability. Instead of this record, the retrospective collection Decade had been slated for release. Unlike Homegrown, which never appeared, Decade was delayed and came out in October 1977, five months after American Stars ‘N Bars.

The notion that American Stars ‘N Bars is a hodgepodge is not entirely unfounded. In fact, Young himself was very transparent about it by indicating the dates of the four different recording sessions on the album’s sleeve: November 1974, November 1975, May 1976 and April 1977. Side one lists Young, his long-time band Crazy Horse and The Bullets as the performers. The latter was a spontaneous name and included pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, violinist Carole Mayedo, as well as vocalists Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson. Side two indicates Young and Crazy Horse as the performing artists. All tracks were written by Young, except Saddle Up The Palomino, which he co-wrote with bassist Tim Drummond and singer-songwriter Bob Charles.

Neil Young_American Stars 'N Bars Side 1

All tracks on side 1 were recorded in April 1977. The opener The Old Country Waltz is a traditional country tune that features fiddle and pedal steel guitar, along with Ronstadt and Larson on backing vocals. The lyrics describe how Young received the news that his first wife actress Carrie Snodgress was leaving him. The topics of love, loss and lust also prominently feature on other tracks.

This is followed by a more upbeat sounding Saddle Up The Palomino. According to the above Observer story, Carmelina, the woman mentioned in the song, supposedly was the wife of his neighbor. The tune features more pedal steel guitar, fiddle and backing vocals by Ronstadt and Larson. Apparently, the giggle at the beginning of the song is from Larson, who would later become Young’s next girlfriend.

Neil Young_American Stars 'N Bars Side 2

Side 2 kicks off with Star Of Bethlehem, which was recorded in November 1974 and initially had been slated for Young’s never released Homegrown album. It’s a typical Young acoustic track, which could have appeared on an album like Harvest. The song prominently features him on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Country artist Emmylou Harris provides beautiful harmony vocals.

While I like the album’s acoustic tunes, the clear crown jewel to me remains Like A Hurricane. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for this epic tune, I wouldn’t have bought the record. Recorded in November 1975, Young initially had in mind to put this track on Chrome Dreams, yet another unreleased album. Referring to Young’s biography Shakey by Jimmy McDonough, Songfacts explains that while recovering from vocal cord surgery and unable to talk, Young went to a bar with some friends. One of them, Taylor Phelps, said: “Neil, Jim Russell, David Cline and I went to Venturi’s in La Honda. We were really f–ked up. Neil had this amazing intense attraction to this particular woman named Gail – it didn’t happen, he didn’t go home with her. We go back to the ranch and Neil started playing. Young was completely possessed, pacing around the room, hunched over a Stringman keyboard pounding out the song.”

The last track I’d like to call out is the record’s closer Homegrown. Originally, it was supposed to become the title track to Young’s above abandoned album. While not as hard-charging as Like A Hurricane, the tune still has a rock feel to it thanks to Young’s distorted electric guitar. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was recorded at the same time as Like A Hurricane.

American Stars N’ Bars reached no. 21 on the U.S. Billboard 200, and was certified Gold in October 1977 by the Recording Industry Association of America. Undoubtedly, the album’s performance was largely fueled by Like A Hurricane. The track was also released separately as a single and became one of Young’s best-known songs and a staple of his live shows. In a 2011 Rolling Stone readers poll, it was ranked no. 4 among the top 10 Young songs.

Sources: Wikipedia, Observer, Ultimate Classic Rock, Songfacts, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Muddy Magnolias/Broken People

Muddy Magnolias is one of the most exciting acts I came across last year when I read about them in Rolling Stone. I was reminded of this powerful urban-R&B-meets-country-and-delta-blues duo when listening to Memphis soul and blues act Southern Avenue, which I’ve done quite extensively over the past few days. I’m not saying the two sound the same, but there are some similarities.

Broken People is the title track from Muddy Magnolias’ excellent full-length debut album, which was released on Third Generation Records in October last year. It was produced by Rick Beato, with support from Mario Marchetti and Butch Walker, and recorded in Atlanta and Nashville in late spring 2016. Last Friday, the album’s latest single Shine On! appeared.

Muddy Magnolias was formed in Nashville in 2014 by two singer-songwriters: Brooklyn, New York native Jessy Wilson, who has an R&B background and is a protegee of John Legend, and Kallie North, who grew up in West Texas, listening to country and folk music. After their performance at CMA Music Festival in August that year, Rolling Stone called them the best unsigned duo, comparing their blend of styles to The Rolling Stones inhabiting Indigo Girls. Looking forward to more music from this act.

Sources: Wikipedia, Muddy Magnolias web site, Rolling Stone, YouTube

John Mellencamp Continues Stripped Down, Acoustic Approach On New Album

For “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” Mellencamp teamed up with Carlene Carter to create an album full of warm, stripped down roots music.

Initially, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was supposed to be a collection of spiritual country duets with Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. While prominently featuring Cash on duet vocals for five of the 13 songs, John Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album only includes one tune the two artists wrote together.

Sad Clowns & Hillbillies wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo. They started working together in 2012 in connection with Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical for which Mellencamp collaborated with author Stephen King and veteran producer T-Bone Burnett. He subsequently invited Cash to sing a song he had written as part of the music score for Ithaca, a drama motion picture released in Oct 2015 and directed by his then-girlfriend Meg Ryan. “That was when we became friends, when I went to Indiana and recorded with him and the guys this really cool song called Sugar Hill Mountain that’s in the movie,” Carter told Songfacts.

Carlene Carter

Carter also joined Mellencamp as the opening act on his extensive 2015-2016 tour in support of his previous album Plain Spoken. It was during that tour when the initial idea for Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was conceived. “It started out like ‘Look, lets go back and do an old country religious record,” Mellencamp said during an interview with Yahoo! News’ Katie Couric. “‘We’ll try to write songs that sound like those songs, but they’ll be new.’ And then it just kept evolving and evolving and evolving, and the songs that she was bringing and the songs that I was bringing – they weren’t so religious. I write a lot of sad songs, so it’s like Sad Clowns & Hillbillies – that’s where it came from.”

The album pretty much picks up where Mellencamp’s previous 2014 studio release Plain Spoken left off, featuring mostly acoustic, stripped down, front porch type roots music. This record is not for the multi-tasking generation; instead, it’s an invitation to sit down and listen. The album is also very different from Mellencamp’s ’80s rockers like Hurts So Good, Jack & Diane, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., which I dearly love and which attracted me to him in the first place. Of course, his departure from the straight rock sound these songs represent started a long time ago. It was 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee that for the first time introduced more traditional folk and country music instruments like accordion and fiddle to Mellencamp’s songs.

Martina McBride & John Mellencamp

The one exception that sounds more like vintage Mellencamp is Grandview, the album’s second and current single, for which Martina McBride is joining him on vocals. You could easily picture the tune on 1985’s Scarecrow or 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. That’s not a surprise – Mellencamp co-wrote it with his cousin Bobby Clark in the 1990s. He told the Indianapolis Star the current version “includes some vocals he recorded in the ’90s and some recorded this century.” The song also features Guns N’ Roses’ co-founder and former rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m not gonna deny it – I wouldn’t have minded, if Mellencamp had included one or more rockers like this one!

The opener Mobile Blue pretty much sets the tone for the album. The combination of violin (Miriam Sturm), Hammond-like keyboards (Troye Kinnett) and of course acoustic guitars, some mandolin-like, creates a beautiful, warm and rich sound. Written by American country singer-songwriter Mickey Newbury, the song is one of the two covers on the album. The other one is Early Bird Cafe, a folk song from Lane Tietgen, which was first recorded by the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood in 1970. Mellencamp saw that band in the early ’70s, has liked the song ever since, and has performed it solo on acoustic guitar on various occasions throughout his career.

John Mellencamp & Carlene Carter

Indigo Sunset is only tune co-written by both artists. Carter and Mellencamp alternate lead vocals. Her traditional country voice and his rougher instrument that briefly join toward the end of the song are a perfect match. Together with the great Hammond-like keyboard (not sure whether it’s an actual Hammond!) and the seductive violin sound, this makes the tune another standout on the album. Damascus Road is the only song Carter penned all by herself. With biblical-like references throughout the lyrics, it’s evident the tune reflects the record’s original idea.

The closer Easy Target presents Mellencamp with his most raspy voice – one review I can no longer find compared it to Tom Waits after he had cleared his throat! Mellencamp’s gravelly singing certainly fits the dark lyrics of the song, which addresses racism and income equality and was initially released on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration – certainly not a coincidence. An excerpt:

Here’s an easy target/With just one quiet pop/Shot to hell anyway/No reason to stop/In the streets and the gutters/The cotton fields in this land/Here’s an easy target/With a trigger in your hand/

So, Black lives matter/Who we tryin’ to kid/Here’s an easy target/Don’t matter, never did/Crosses burning/Such a long time ago/400 years and we still don’t let it go.

John Mellencamp

Unlike his previous three studio albums Plain Spoken (2014), No Better Than This (2010) and Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008), which were produced T-Bone Burnett, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was produced by Mellencamp. The album was recorded at his studio in Belmont Mall – funnily, as an NPR story pointed out, that studio is located in Nashville, except it’s Nashville, Ind., not Nashville, Tenn. The art work on the album’s front cover is from Mellencamp, who is also a painter. It was taken from Twelve Dreams, a painting he created in 2005.

Painting has become a very important aspect in Mellencamp’s life, which also impacts his songwriting. In the current print issue of Rolling Stone, he explained how songs come to him while being all by himself and painting in his Indiana compound. “A voice in my head will go, ‘OK, put your brush down and write these words down’…And I’ll be like, No, I don’t want to write a fucking song.’ Then the voice will go, ‘You better write it down, you idiot.’ Then I forget about it, and I find it and I go, ‘When did I write this?’ It’s a wonderful way of writing songs.”

For more on Grandview, Easy Target and Mellencamp’s upcoming tour in support of the album, see my previous post. And, of course, I couldn’t help myself – here’s a great clip of Carter and Mellencamp perfoming Indigo Sunset together live.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Yahoo! News, Indianapolis Star, NPR, Rolling Stone, YouTube