Husband and wife, singing and playing together.
And they’re each deft instrumentalists, and they’ve spent years playing in others’ bands before coming together as a unit. They’re bound by music and an uncommon depth of companionship, they’re good enough to make Steve Earle swoon, and all of that sounds quite nice.
Until 16 and a half seconds into track one, when Eleanor Whitmore begins singing, “The twitch in my left eye came back today.” “Yeah, we’re not exactly gazing lovingly at each other while we’re playing these songs,” says guitarist Chris Masterson. “Sometimes the ‘couple’ thing can seem a bit schmaltzy. We’re more a band than a duo, and we’re not going to be George and Tammy. We might not even be John and Exene.”
That’s not to say that these folks don’t love each other, or that they aren’t of a piece. It’s just that listening to The Mastersons – either live or on their immediately engaging, musically expansive debut album, Birds Fly South (due out April 10 on New West Records) – isn’t akin to eavesdropping on two soulmates’ impossibly intimate conversation. This is more fun than that, with bright melodies that lead to dark lyrics, inventive harmonies and enough sparkle and twang to fashion a Porter Wagoner suit. Together, Whitmore (who plays guitar, violin, mandolin and most anything else with strings) and Masterson arrive at a singular blend that Emmylou Harris speaks of as “the third voice,” one distinct from its individual elements.
“Eleanor on her own has a beautiful voice, far better than mine,” Masterson says. “But when we come together, something bigger happens.”
That “something bigger” is captured in full on Birds Fly South, an album with soul and groove and teeth and not an ounce of schmaltz. Like the Jayhawks or Buddy & Julie Miller, it exists in an expansive territory that encompasses rock, pop, blues and country, but this is not an “If you like x, then you’ll like y” kind of record. It’s an unexpected and frequently astonishing melding of sensibilities, from two unique yet perfectly-matched artists.
Both the Denton, Texas-born Whitmore and Houston-reared Masterson have been musicians for as long as they can recall. Whitmore’s parents were both musicians, her mother an opera singer and her dad a folksinger who piloted Delta airplanes for a living. She began playing fiddle at age four, and she and sister Bonnie (now a touring songwriter) played in the family band as kids, and she studied fiddle with Texas swing master Johnny Gimble. Masterson was playing searing blues in Houston clubs at age 13, and he spent his adolescence as a disciple of blues greats Big Walter Price and T-Bone Walker.
“We were both doomed from the start,” Whitmore laughs. “Actually, we were lucky. It’s rare to have supportive parents that believed and expected we would play music and be successful. Most people that have a passion for music aren’t that fortunate.”
Whitmore and Masterson apprenticed for years with other musicians, she with Regina Spektor, Susan Gibson, Kelly Willis, Diana Ross, Will Hoge and others, he in the bands of Jack Ingram, Son Volt, Bobby Bare Jr. and more. They met in 2005 and each released solo debuts (hers was 2008’s Airplanes and his was an EP called The Late Great Chris Masterson), but found themselves compelled to write and sing together.
“It all started coming together organically,” Whitmore says. “And the songs started to sound like a band, not like a song swap.”
To capture that sound, The Mastersons headed from their Brooklyn home back down to Texas, where they worked with a core group of close friends (Grammy-winning engineer Steve Chrisensen, bass man George Reiff and drummer Falcon Valdez) to co-produce Birds Fly South. To capture the harmonies, Whitmore and Masterson sang together, into one microphone. That didn’t mean the proceedings were free from arguments or eye-twitching.
“It’s weird working with someone you love,” Masterson says. “The highs are higher, and the lows are lower. The way Eleanor and I treat each other, you’d never treat someone else on a session or gig. There’s a candor there that’s insane sometimes, and we both believe in what we’re doing so much and neither is willing to back down.”
With the album complete, Whitmore and Masterson headed back to New York, and in May of 2011 they joined Earle’s group, The Dukes and Duchesses. Each night on the world tour, Earle moved aside to let his spotlight shine on The Mastersons, whose efforts were met with reviews like “scintillating” (London’s The Telegraph). Whitmore and Masterson remain integral players in Earle’s band.
“Playing with Steve has been so great for us,” Masterson says. “We’ve both learned so much from working with other people. We’ve learned to have something succinct to say onstage and learned a whole lot about work ethic. And we’ve learned to handle so many many different scenarios.”
The release of Birds Fly South should provide for some more of those scenarios, though The Mastersons aren’t making any predictions.
“I’m not in the outcomes business,” says Masterson. He and Whitmore are more concerned with the action than the consequence, more about the offering than the reception.
Eye-twitching or no, Birds Fly South is a lovely offering.
Husband and wife, singing and playing together.
There’s room for a little bit of everything in HOA, yet the music never feels like a kitchen-sink contrivance. Superb songcraft and a delicate touch allow Mlee to create music that is at once astonishingly heavy and gossamer-light; under her spell, seemingly disparate concepts and styles play nicely with one another. Dense noise provides the perfect foil for power-pop sugar; cheaply effective Casio beats underscore stabbing waves of pseudo-shoegaze psychedelia. This is musical magical realism to turn Gabriel García Márquez green-eyed with envy.— Nicholas L. Hall
Steven Higginbotham – Vocals, Guitar, Ukelele
Jason Williams – Bass Guitar
Craig Wilkins – Guitar, Keyboard
Allison Wilkins McPhail – Keyboard, Vocals, Theremin
Since late 2010, The Wheel Workers’ crisp sound and intelligent lyrics have earned them growing recognition in Houston’s active indie rock scene. Signing to ZenHill Records in late 2011 just before the national release of their debut album Unite, The Wheel Workers enjoyed substantial success, earning airplay on more than 200 radio stations across the US and charting on over 20 CMJ reporting stations.
The Wheel Workers have played regularly around Texas, performing at SXSW in Austin, enjoying the honor of playing on the same stage as The Flaming Lips at Free Press Summerfest in Houston, and opening for national touring acts such as Miniature Tigers, Elf Power and The Coathangers.
The band is currently promoting its second full-length album, Past to Present, recorded at SugarHill Studios with producer Dan Workman and released by ZenHill Records. Looking towards a busy 2013, The Wheel Workers will be touring throughout the summer to support the release of Past to Present.
Improvisational jazz performance with some of the city’s best artists:
Sandy Ewen Projects
Damon Smith-Double bass, Improviser.
There’s nothing better than some jazz on a Saturday afternoon.
“Fresh Hell, the latest offering from Houston grind squadron Omotai, breaks from the assault pattern of 2012’s Terrestrial Grief on a number of fronts. The hulking snow-mountain trudge of opener “Get Your Dead Straight” pointedly establishes that the band is just as at-home pounding out molten, doom-laden jams as any of the hyperspeed sludge on which they’ve established their name. The relentless drive of “Leglifter” oscillates between indie sophistication and crude stoner metal, the lyrics betraying an uncharacteristically political bent (though the ultimate intent remains elusive). Closing track “We Don’t Have to Be Strangers” echoes Shellac with its stabbing stutter-riff before launching into a dirge centered on social isolation and substance abuse.
The vocals are manifestly evolving, as well, with Ryan’s pixieish wail climbing to the lead on several tracks. Waters and Vallejo still gleefully indulge in the wolfpack howls that made for some of the eeriest listening on Terrestrial Grief, though it’s clear that each has become more acclimatized in his role as co-vocalist.
All told, Fresh Hell should not be taken as Omotai’s masterpiece. What’s clear, however, is that it’s an exploratory outing on the way there, pushing boundaries and expectations set by the band’s previous two efforts, and I’m willing to bet cash that we can expect some pretty stellar accomplishments from the trio in the years ahead.”
Some of the Gourds (Claude Bernard, Jimmy Smith), all of the fun! (Mark Creaney)
LIKE A MODERN-ERA WANDA JACKSON
Nikki Lane turns the vulnerable singer-songwriter stereotype on its ear, crafting songs that crucify ex-boyfriends and have no problem with one-night stands as long as she can bolt town right after. Her cooing-yet-brutal vocals are a perfect fit with an aching, mournful guitar. Her upcoming album, tentatively titled Seein’ Double—produced by, yes, Dan Auerbach—is one of Nashville’s most anticipated releases. “My songs always paint a pretty clear picture of what’s been going on in my life, so this is one moody record,” she says. “There’s lots of talk of misbehaving and moving on.”
Born in South Carolina, Lane moved to New York City and, after a messy breakup, picked up a guitar and set her sights on a music career. But the cost of living in New York proved to be too high an obstacle, so she turned to Nashville, a city she had visited extensively. “I was hell bent on living in a big city and I just couldn’t work up the nerve to come back to the South,” she says. “[When I did,] Nashville was the obvious choice for me because of my fondness for it.”
Once in town, she released the 2011 album Walk of Shame to rave reviews, as well as opening High Class Hillbilly, a pop-up vintage clothing stall, where a chance meeting with Auerbach turned into a full-fledged partnership. “During the first round of recordings, I was in an awkward mood every night I left the studio,” she says. “It was hard for me to trust that Dan was right when he said I should move a verse around or add an extra chorus. He pushed to find the right feel for each track one by one, and a few months later I found myself with a damn good record.”
“Ume immediately won me over with their raucous bursts of guitar-driven art rock, with front woman Lauren Larson threatening to take the whole thing off the rails with the abuse of her guitar strings. Still, underneath this Ume possesses an air of intelligence and depth rare in a genre known primarily for its copious drug use. When it comes to art, psychedelia, and rock and roll, it doesn’t get much better.” —Village Voice
“Distortion-heavy jams (and the whole marriage thing) invite comparisons to Sonic Youth, but Ume do more headbanging and wailing.” —Rolling Stone
“This band is ready to break out in a whole new way… A little like fuzzy shoegaze, raw garage rock and irresistible pop all rolled into one fiery package” —Nylon
“Ume attacked the stage with an intensity on par with Mastodon and a vulnerability reminiscent of PJ Harvey.” —Artist Direct
“Some people love The Joy Formidable, but I’ll take Ume, thanks.” —Brooklyn Vegan
“When Touch & Go had its 25th anniversary celebration in Chicago two months ago, the old and abrasive cognoscenti – Shellac, Scratch Acid, The Jesus Lizard – gathered with the label’s new blood, a hit-and-miss convocation of bands that can only fuck with Austin’s best indie rock trio, Ume, in their nightmares.” —The Independent
“How could I have not known about Ume? An Austin trio fronted by a whirling dervish of singer guitarist who in the standard PR band head shot looks like she wouldn’t hurt a fly; yet give her a guitar, a Marshall stack and a mic and stand back, way back. She shreds. File under – Do Not Overlook and Go Tell Your Friends…” —Dave Allen, Gang of Four
“It wasn’t the ’90s that Ume’s set brought to mind, but the late ’70s. On studio tracks like “Captive” and “Rubicon,” Ume pulls off a glistening indie-pop sound gentle enough to land the group on the soundtrack of The Vampire Diaries. Their live sound is much thicker, like Black Sabbath covering a Smashing Pumpkins tune. They’re a power trio, complete with smokin’ guitar solos and trashcan endings. It’s a righteous sight to behold… When I went to check out Ume’s merch after the set, there was a line. These three are definitely on their way up.” —Houston Press
“The group, led by powerhouse singer/guitarist Lauren Larson, has merged the sounds of heavy rock and ethereal indie pop with deft precision, ﬁnding new ground somewhere in between Warpaint, Metric and Mogwai.” —Relix
“It sounds dangerous and sexy like French kissing over an electric fence.” —Tom Tom Magazine
“Bandleader, guitar virtuosa, and straight up bombshell Lauren Larson runs around stage like a firecracker ready to explode at any given moment, pouring all of what she is into the performance. Bassist Eric Larson and drummer Rachel Fuhrer round out the group, creating tight grooves… It’s rare these days to see a band so talented, with such unbridled passion, who are also completely down-to-earth and modest.” —Brooklyn Vegan
“Live, Larson’s an ambivalent siren, letting the crowd feed on its own objectifying presumptions – of sexuality, admiration, innocence, vulgarity, or vulnerability – only to shatter all of that upon the rocks of her own complete immersion in the music, the melodic lull and devastating pummel of Ume…” —Austin Chronicle
“Ume’s Lauren Langner Larson – a diminutive blonde rocking opposite her bass-playing husband, Eric – may be the most promising female voice to smack the indie rock world in years.” —Independent Weekly
+ Priority line placement is reserved for fans who purchase Eric’s new album “Europe Live”. Fans in the priority line can have two additional items signed by Eric.
+ Eric will sign autographs for remaining fans as time permits. Autographs may be limited to one per person.
Eric Johnson’s stature as one of the premier guitar players in contemporary music is his artistic trump card, backed by a Grammy Award and five nominations, platinum album, Top 10 hits like “Cliffs Of Dover,” praise from critics and the esteem of his peers. But the full hand of his talents marks him as well as a gifted songwriter, dynamic live performer, singer, pianist, song interpreter, and creator of a rich and diverse musical legacy.
His myriad and distinctive musical gifts are vividly evident on Johnson’s aptly titled new album, Up Close, released on his own Vortexan Music label via EMI Distribution. The new 15-track disc finds the noted master craftsman cutting loose, roaming through variations on the rock, blues, pop, country and jazz all found at the core of his sound, pushing the dynamic range of his artistry, and mixing it up with such friends and peers as guitarists Jimmie Vaughan and Sonny Landreth and guest singers Steve Miller, Jonny Lang and Malford Milligan.
“I decided to let go a bit and allow things to happen and just go with the flow,” explains Johnson of his approach to the album. “I think that’s a direction that works better for any artist, and especially for me. I like my work to have a high proficiency, but I also wanted to go for the energy and magic of the performances.”
That vitality and vivid musicality brims from such hook-filled numbers as the hard-rocking instrumentals “Fat Daddy” and “Vortexan” and the driving vocal song “Brilliant Room” (sung by Milligan). “Gem” is splashed with bright and painterly six-string colors, “Soul Surprise” finds Johnson weaving a picturesque tapestry of both his guitar and piano gifts, and “Arithmetic” summons up a swirling and spectral kaleidoscope of guitars, keyboards and Johnson’s singing. His early years and influences are explored on the Mike Bloomfield/Buddy Miles-composed blues song “Texas” (from the 1968 Electric Flag album A Long Time Comin’) on which Miller sings and Johnson’s and Vaughan’s guitars engage in stirring interplay, and “Austin” (sung by Lang), which looks back to his teens in his hometown as a budding player and avid music fan who would be allowed to slip underaged into music nightclubs and “go sit in the back and listen to bands.” “On The Way” is a delightful Texas meets Tennessee twang romp, and “A Change Has Come To Me” opens with a six-string nod to Jimi Hendrix (a prime Johnson influence) that carries through the track as it burgeons into a celebration of the pleasures of the deep and soulful groove. Interstitial instrumental snippets like the spellbinding Indian music-flavored opener “Awaken” and the dreamlike “Traverse” and “The Sea And The Mountain” plus “Change (Revisited)” weave the collection together. And Johnson caps the CD with the uplifting grace note of “Your Book” on which he and Landreth interweave their playing (including Johnson’s stately piano work) with emotive elegance.
The lyrical themes of reflection, emotional revelations, personal growth and fulfillment are underscored on the album by Johnson’s most daring, urgent, progressive and at times raw and fervent guitar work to date. With its sonic immediacy (thanks to a mix by engineering legend Andy Johns) and openhearted musicality and songwriting, Up Close truly lives up to its name as Johnson continues to forge fresh and compelling new dimensions of his artistry.
Johnson leapt to the forefront of contemporary music some 20 years ago as “an extraordinary guitar player accessible to ordinary music fans,” as the Memphis Commercial Appeal hails him, with his landmark million selling 1990 album Ah Via Musicom. Lauded as a “recording [that] has reached near-classic proportions within the guitar community” by All Music Guide, it was preceded by dedicated groundwork as a live performer that marked him as a talent bound for great things. And it’s been followed by a diverse and fascinating musical journey that inspired The New Age Music Guide to rave that “Eric Johnson plays guitar the way Michelangelo painted ceilings: with a colorful vibrancy that’s more real than life.”
His many achievements include being enshrined in Guitar Player’s Gallery of Greats and named one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century by Musician magazine alongside numerous other awards. He also enjoys the admiration of many of his fellow players and has performed and/or recorded with such notables as Chet Atkins, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and others, and follows the release of Up Close with an acoustic Guitar Masters tour sharing the stage with six-string masters Peppino D’Agostino and Andy McKee. He was tapped by Eric Clapton to appear at the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival and plays his second stint of the Experience Hendrix tour in fall 2010. He has paid homage in song to such players as Jerry Reed (“Tribute to Jerry Reed” on his album Bloom), fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan (the Grammy-nominated track “SRV”) and Wes Montgomery (who Johnson saluted in his Ah Via Musicom song “East Wes”), and boasts both a signature Fender Stratocaster electric and Martin MC-40 acoustic guitar. “Cliffs of Dover” is featured in the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock as the final winning challenge. And in addition to his recordings, tours and DVDs under his own name, Johnson also plays with his side project Alien Love Child, which released an in concert album in 2000, Live and Beyond, that earned an instrumental Grammy nomination for the song “Rain.”
Even before his breakthrough with Ah Via Musicom, Johnson made his indelible musical mark with his 1986 first album release Tones. It landed him on the cover of Guitar Player magazine, which hailed the album as “a majestic debut,” and earned him his first Grammy nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance with the track “Zap.” Ah Via Musicom won Johnson a Grammy for “Cliffs Of Dover,” which was one of his record three Top 10 instrumental hits from a single album alongside “Trademark” and “Righteous.” Following three years of concerted touring that established him as a continuing popular concert attraction, Johnson recorded Venus Isle, which on its release in 1996 garnered him another Grammy nomination. In 1998, his previously unreleased first album recording from 1976, Seven Worlds, was finally issued. A limited-release collection of demos, outtakes and live tracks, Souvenir, hit the streets in 2002. His most recent studio album, 2005’s Bloom, yielded a fifth Grammy nomination.
Johnson’s success over the last 20 years was presaged by a grassroots rise in which he made his bones and burgeoning reputation as a formidable musical talent and player since he first became a local sensation in the Austin clubs as a teen with the psychedelic rock band Mariani. Trained on classical piano as a youth, he switched to the guitar after the stateside arrival of the Beatles in 1964. As a young player he delved deeply into blues, jazz, country and other styles that inform his music. By the mid-1970s, Johnson began touring and sparking a buzz about his astonishing talents in the jazz-rock outfit Electromagnets, whose recordings and a live TV performance from that era were released in the 1990s to critical acclaim. He cut his teeth in the studio on sessions for Cat Stevens, Christopher Cross and Carole King, and by 1984 his stature in Texas and beyond was so strong that the unsigned artist was tapped to make his first appearance on the prestigious PBS concert show “Austin City Limits.” At the urging of such stars as Cross and Prince, Johnson was signed to a major label deal with Reprise Records and emerged onto the international recording scene.
His dynamism as a live performer is captured on the 2008 DVD Anaheim as well as the 2005 DVD/CD release of his second “Austin City Limits” show in 1994, Live From Austin, Texas. His 1996 G3 tour with fellow guitarists Joe Satriani and Steve Vai yielded a best selling album and platinum DVD, G3: Live in Concert.
Johnson’s eminence as a musical artist goes well beyond just his stunning guitar mastery. His keen compositional sense and lyrical playing create instrumentals that speak to listeners and convey thoughts, emotions and imagery, and Up Close also spotlights his singing and sure way with words. “It really boils down to the music and the song at the end of the day,” he explains. “If it doesn’t have that it gets boring for me.”
On his new release, “I wanted to bare myself a little further and show myself more,” says Johnson. “As you evolve as a person and artist, you reach forks in the road where you look at what it is you really want in life and to bring out in yourself and thereby affect other people. What’s most important to me is to grow as a person, and because of that, I want my music to also grow and have more of a profound meaning and impact.” And Up Close finds Eric Johnson continuing to expand his artistry with compelling and enriching results.
Ever think to yourself – “Self, isn’t the platypus such a strange creature? I wonder what people really thought of it way back when it was first discovered? They are just so weird, I am perplexed and fascinated!”
THEN THIS IS THE PUPPET SHOW FOR YOU! Platahontas uses shadow puppetry to chronicle the life of one of these semi aquatic mammals after it is kidnapped and sold into scientific slavery (or what they refer to as “research”).
Platahontas doesn’t remain under his captors’ microscope for long; he is soon sold to a circus where his freaky features garner top dollars from curious onlookers.
Platahontas could be one of the most interesting characters BooTown has had on our bill. (Platypus also have bills, so that’s funny.)
Conceived and directed by Emily Hynds.
Built by Lindsay Burleson, Peter Zama, Larkin Elliott, and Stephen Walker.
With an original score performed live by Joe Wozny.