Monday, July 21, 2014

After nearly six decades, Charlotte gospel group releases debut

The Charlotte-based vocal ensemble Men Standing for Christ was founded in 1956 after pastor Dr. Leon C. Riddick asked one of his deacons to prepare a men's choir for Sunday service on Father's Day. It would be almost 60 years before the longstanding gospel group would record an album.

"Men Standing for Chris Live from the Joy Performance Center" was recorded over two shows in Kings Mountain in 2013 and 2014 when the group played award nominated, Cherryville-based bluegrass-gospel couple Darin & Brooke Aldridge's annual festival. The recording was made at the behest of longtime fan Rick Dancy, who presents concerts at the Joy.

"I've loved Men Standing For Christ for twenty-plus years and hoped to find a way to expose them to more people," says Dancy via email.

He says the 20-member vocal group was apprehensive about releasing an album, but allowed him to record the April 2013 set. He did so again during their return in April 2014 and combined the best of both recordings for the live release. All 500 copies are almost sold out and the traditional group does not yet have a website where fans can buy copies. For now you can email MSFC director Gary Carter at to purchase one.

"They are regular people using their talent to continue a musical tradition and to profess their faith," says Dancy. "Their type of music has always been one of my favorites and I am so glad that these guys are preserving it for us."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Kiss and Def Leppard rock the rain away Saturday

Always a good draw on their own, the pairing of Kiss' 40th anniversary tour and Def Leppard's hit-filled Heroes Tour (named for the tour's involvement with the Wounded Warrior Project) filled PNC Music Pavilion with generations of rock fans Saturday night despite rain.

Having both played swelling 20-plus song headlining sets before, the co-headlining format kept each band's set to 14-songs each. While this meant dropping a lot of fan favorites, - no "Strutter," "Beth," "Crazy Crazy Nights," or "100,000 Years" in Kiss' case for instance - having shorter, more concise sets seemed to conserve the overall energy especially in the older band's case.

When I saw the original lineup of Kiss at Charlotte Coliseum in October 2000, two days before drummer Peter Criss quit for good, I felt like I was watching them in slow motion - not the high energy showmen I'd been watching on TV since I was three. I felt a similar detachment when they played Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre with Aerosmith on another co-headlining jaunt in September 2003, but Saturday felt like a return to form. Maybe that's due to the outdoor setting or that I have much better seats now, but maybe it's due to a show that fires quickly (and literally) without filler and doesn't completely drain its aging performers.

Following a set by female-fronted Canadian metal band Kobra and the Lotus (who record for Gene Simmons' label), Def Leppard took the stage morphing its own intro music (The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again") into "Let It Go." It was odd to see the usual headliner relegated to the front portion of the stage. Fans are accustomed to seeing them prowl a two and three tiered stage. Kiss' stage didn't use multi-level walkways either, instead both bands relied on multiple screens and lights and, in Kiss' case, pyro and an impressive moving giant spider light rig.

The appearance of guitarist Vivian Campbell - who is undergoing a new form of chemo therapy to treat Hodgkin's lymphoma as part of a clinical trial in Los Angeles -  was the first thing I noticed. Although bald - far from the dark curly mane fans have seen since his Whitesnake days - and wearing sunglasses, the newly married Northern Irishman looked fit and smiled without a hint of illness.

For a band in its fifties, all the members looked incredibly well. Baring his muscular chest through a black vest, guitarist Phil Collen doesn't look a day older than he did in the "Pyromania" videos aside from a few wrinkles. The still babyfaced bassist Rick Savage paid tribute to Tommy Ramone in a cut-up white Ramones' t-shirt. In their bedazzled rock wear he and singer Joe Elliott, who traded a white leather military style jacket for a longer black one (just like Lionel Richie did Thursday), must keep stores like Revolution in business.

Def Leppard plowed through hits "Animal," "Love Bites," "Foolin'," "Let's Get Rocked" and "Hysteria." They pulled out acoustic guitars for "Two Steps Behind" and the massive sing-along "Bringing on the Heartbreak." Its abbreviated set relied heavily on "Hysteria."

"Rocket" was the visual standout with the band performing before screens of tiny televisions (pictured above), but "Armageddon It" held the most thematic weight as statistics about world hunger, HIV, the environment, and cancer, ticked up on a giant screen behind them. The climbing stats pitted the number of overweight people in the world against the number of hungry and the rate at which forests are being pummeled with the time with which the world's oil will run out - all quite interesting stuff. I'm not sure how many in the audience - fists raised, singing along wholeheartedly - were "really getting it," but it was quite a powerful way to present a 25-year-old pop-metal hit.

The only time Elliott's voice faltered was during the encore of "Photograph." The entire band kept the "oohooohs" on the lower end. But after a spot-on show, his struggling with range could be easily forgiven.

After a brisk 30-minute changeover (thank you, crew) which included the introduction of the Wounded Warrior roadies (veterans hired for the tour) and an award presentation to retired Marine Sargent Tim Aldridge (who received a house in Waxhaw), Kiss blew up the stage with deafening fireworks. I was glad the children in the audience, which there were many, wore ear protection. White streamers shot from the sky. At this point while holding my five-year-old, I was clobbered by an adult man who charged three rows from behind to grab for streamers. With my lip stinging, I was left thinking, "Man, it's a streamer."

"Psycho Circus" gave way to "Deuce" and "Shout It Out Loud." Paul Stanley bragged of the band's recent Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame induction and thanked fans for their persistence in securing Kiss' nomination. He preened and posed for pictures on the left of the stage as Gene took lead vocals on the apocalyptic "War Machine" (a photographer/music writer friend recently told me this is why he likes shooting Kiss - he knows he'll get the shot).

With the addition of fire and booming fireworks, the sound wasn't as clear as during Def Leppard's set, but the production is as much a part of the show as the music is with Kiss. The group hit on all the familiar spots. Simmons blew fireballs from the tip of a sword, he spat blood, and flew like a bat into the rafters for "God of Thunder." He looked truly possessed.

Stanley zoomed over the crowd to a rotating platform in the middle of the pavilion for "Love Gun." He must do yoga. He wiggled in his new sequined striped jumpsuit and fringed boots (he and Gene wore revamped versions of their classic costumes), played guitar through his legs, and teetered on one knee.

Although some hits were obviously missing, the Stanley-led 1990 pop anthem "Hide Your Heart" was a surprise that won over the crowd. It didn't get the mass sing-along of "I Love It Loud," but fans definitely remembered all the words.

The show ended with the expected "Detroit Rock City" and "Rock n' Roll All Night." Die-hards  - many with faces painted and fully costumed - were undoubtedly left wanting more. I have no doubt they'll get it - next year. Although Kiss has threatened to quit before, neither band shows signs of stopping.

Check out The Observer's slide show here.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

CLT's Late Bloomer drawing national ears with sophomore album

Charlotte indie-rock trio Late Bloomer celebrates the release of its second album "Things Change" tonight at Snug Harbor. The album has enjoyed a nice national roll out with Stereogrum and Noisey premiering tracks before the July 1 release, Brooklyn Vegan exclusively streaming the record, and Pitchfork giving it a seven star review.

The AV club debuted the video for "Dr. Abernathy" earlier this week. You may even recognize faces from other Charlotte bands, the Milestone Club, and Lunchbox Records (You can watch it in this week's hot concerts, scroll down).

The first time I saw Late Bloomer I was drawn to the stage from across the room by a style of music I hadn't heard in a while. The moody dynamics, angry sung/shouted male vocals, layer of fuzz, and methodical, yet expressive rhythm section pointed to the late `80s and `90s indie rock I grew up on. It was as if we shared history.

There's obvious comparisons to Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. on "Things Change." When wailing, but not overlong guitar solos and disaffected vocals (which were always a preferred counterpoint to grunge era emoting in my book) kick in, I can't help but think of J. Mascis. There's an equal fondness for noise and catchy pop hooks that echo a lot of Bob Mould's work, especially on songs like "Black Patches." If you can hold still as that song escalates through the urgent bridge, then you may have unnaturally strong self control. It's as urgent as Japandroid's last few incredibly catchy singles.

Moodier tracks like "Dr. Abernathy" and, at times, "Mirrors" remind me of dreamy, bordering-on-psychedelic Thurston Moore-led, mid-period Sonic Youth. Watery shoegazing verses give way to Jade Tree Records-style post hardcore choruses. Snappier, more upbeat melodies emerge through the playful bass and strumming guitar interplay on "Anesthesia" and "No Mistakes." The album closes, as it began, with a chunky distorted slice of punk that nicely bookend the record.

Through all the `90s musical references, one thing that stands out is Kris Hilbert of Legitimate Business' clean production. Sure, there's distortion, but the vocals are high enough in the mix to remain audible. The abum sounds good on my laptop speakers and in the car while similar records that were actually recorded in the `90s are often harsh and nearly unlistenable via MP3 (some of the original Superchunk albums are painful to listen to on my iPod. Yeah, I know some of these were reissued. Maybe I'll get around to getting them someday).

'Things Change" is charmingly lo-fi, but not in quality. It may wear its influences on its sleeve, but manages to sound new in this era.

The record is available digitally as well as on candy colored, two-color vinyl (see below). Also of note is that the release is a collaborative release between Tor Johnson Records, Lunchbox, and Self Aware Records.

Tonight's show starts at 10 p.m. and includes sets from Totally Slow, Del Rio, and Black Market. Admission is $5. You can also pick up a copy

Free panel on album release strategies Sunday

Sunday I'll sit down with four music industry professionals at Old House Studio to discuss the business of releasing an album from mastering and distribution to marketing and promotion. The panel, which is free for local musicians, agents, managers, and other interested parties, is hosted by Chris Garges of Old House Studio.

Panelists include myself, Dave Harris of Studio B Mastering in Charlotte, producer Jeff Powell,, and Kari Estrin, who has worked in artist management, radio promotion, concert and event production, booking, and music writing. The idea is between the four of us we'll have some insight on different aspects of releasing an album from what format to release it in to building a release party and reaching out to press.

Powell worked at Ardent Records for many years and has worked with Bob Dylan, Afghan Whigs, and Big Star and is now an expert at cutting vinyl masters on an old school lathe. He's in town working with local rock band Alternative Champs.

Estrin is also offering hour-long consultations on Monday at Studio B (821 Louise Ave.). You can read more about both the free panel and Estrin's consulting sessions here.

The two-hour panel starts at 6 p.m. and Old House is located at 6128 Brookshire Blvd., Unit A. Refreshments will be served.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lionel Richie wows on comeback tour, first CLT show in 28 years

Absence does in fact make the heart grow fonder. Lionel Richie hasn't had a runaway pop smash in years. Until recently he hadn't toured the United States in a decade. And, until Thursday at PNC Music Pavilion, the 65-year-old Grammy winner had not played Charlotte since 1986. If you grew up during those 28 years, it might come as a surprise what a charismatic, dynamic, and funny performer Richie is.

Sure, fans know him as an accomplished singer and writer. Many knew him as a star of early MTV. Anyone with knowledge of pop music over the last four decades knows his songs, which he played one after the other.  But those hits don't tell the whole story. It was the energy, glee, and humor with which he delivered them that made Thursday's show so memorable.

Ceelo Green (above), who was backed by a mostly female band wearing Olivia Newton John's skintight black pants from "Grease" in what may be the best and worst fashion statement in recent memory, opened the night with a combination of covers and hits like Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Green, who hit on everything from "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" to "Jungle Boogie," knows how to start a party. But it's strange to see an artist as well known as Green having to order a crowd to its feet for a hit as big as "F*** You." The crowd complied and Green left the stage a gracious host giving ample credit to his band.

Wearing sleek all black and flanked by large screens and a top-notch band, Richie opened with 2007's "All Around the World," before reaching into his catalog of solo and Commodores hits. The crowd swooned for "Penny Lover," "Easy," and "Ballerina Girl." "You Are" was a bouncing sing-along that seemed to capture happy, carefree youth for longtime fans who raised their arms, sang and danced.

If you streamed Richie's Bonnaroo set in June then you knew what you were in for. He hit all the beats from scrunching his face while sipping wine to hilarious introductions for the trio of love songs tracing the trajectory of a relationship - "Still," "Oh No," and "Stuck On You." After a breakup "you call on your album, your CD, your cassette, your 8-track. You call on Li-o-n-el Ri-chie," he said before each one. The crowd (including my five-year-old) howled with laughter at his stories and the way he enunciated his own name.

The sound was so flawless, at least from the center of the covered pavilion, that I didn't even think about sound until the seventh song. If there was one flaw I noticed all night it was that the backing vocals were too low coming back from the bridge during "Running with the Night" - a minuscule complaint, indeed.

The place erupted for an extended version of "Dancing on the Ceiling" complete with showy guitar and sax solos. It ended with the sax player propped upside down against Richie's piano. The animated musicians seemed as enthused about playing Richie's hits as he was. They played off each other and their band leader, especially sax player Dino Soldo who Richie sprayed with Off! after someone in the front handed him a can when he complained about mosquitoes.

Retro lighting and video (pictured at top) gave way to the Commodores' "Sail On," "Fancy Dancer," "Sweet Love" and "Lady." He had the audience carry Diana Ross' lines on a verse and chorus of "Endless Love" after teasing that he'd invited her ("She said, 'No!'"). "Say You, Say Me" served as another strong sing-along while "Brick House/Fire" had even the wait staff serving the VIP boxes dancing in the aisles.

The show closed with "Hello" and the calypso beat of "All Night Long." Before Richie paid tribute to his friend Michael Jackson with the encore of "We Are the World," he promised to come back next summer. After such a fantastic performance I doubt he or Charlotte can wait another 28 years.

This week's hot concerts

Dave & Phil Alvin
Friday  8 p.m., Visulite, 1615 Elizabeth Ave., $20-$24,  
The Alvin brothers, who co-piloted the legendary California country punk outfit the Blasters before guitar whiz Dave left for a solo career, spent 30 years apart before a health scare brought them back together. Their reunion tour hits on their storied musical pasts and the recent tribute album to honor Big Bill Broonzy.

Half Strangers/The Hot Gates
Friday  8 p.m., Evening Muse, 3227 N. Davidson St., $10, 
Former Charlottean Devon Elizabeth formed this new act after the soulful singer-songwriter moved to Charleston. The rootsier Americana suits her. She’s paired with Jason Scavone’s rollicking pop-rock band. Scavone produced Elizabeth’s 2013 solo EP “The Loneliest Dream.”

Kiss/Def Leppard
Saturday  7 p.m., PNC Music Pavilion, 707 Pavilion Blvd., $38.50-$186.50,
Kiss celebrates its 40th anniversary by hooking up with UK classic rock co-headliners Def Leppard’s Heroes Tour. Both bands churn out about 14 tracks that rely heavily on older material from Kiss’ `70s and `80s albums and Leppard’s chart topping “Hysteria” and “Pyromania.”

King Buzzo
Saturday  9 p.m., Visulite, 1615 Elizabeth Ave., $12-$15,  
Following the release of his solo debut, “This Machine Kills Artists” the eccentric Melvins’ frontman embarks on a solo acoustic tour, but don’t get the wrong idea. He may be a candid storyteller and exhibits a broader sense of melody when the sludgy distortion subsides, but he hasn’t gone soft. It’s a daring departure, but one you’d expect from him.

Saturday  10 p.m., Snug Harbor, 1228 Gordon St., $5,
The Charlotte lo-fi indie-punk trio’s sophomore album “Things Change” has drawn attention from Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan (thanks in part to bassist Joshua Robbins and his wife Sarah’s growing indie label Self Aware Records). If you miss old Dinosaur Jr. and Husker Du, the group’s grasp of messy, noisy punk and more expansive moodier tracks should light your fire.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
Sunday  8 p.m., The Fillmore, 1000 NC Music Factory Blvd., $38.23,
The Grammy winning `90s hip-hop collective, whose sense of lyrical melody and rapid-fire delivery influenced a generation of lightning-tongued lyricist, reteamed earlier this week to reveal plans for a 2015 farewell album which - like Wu-Tang Clan - they plan to auction off for a hefty sum.

I Am the Avalanche
Tuesday  9 p.m., The Milestone, 3400 Tuckaseegee Rd., $12,
The Brooklyn band returned in March with its third album, “Wolverines” - a blast of hard hitting blue collar punk that’s equal parts Gaslight Anthem and Avail. It draws on very different circumstances from its six-year stalled 2011 comeback sophomore album. Frontman Vinnie Caruana wrote much of the album while suffering a debilitating spinal injury.

A Sunny Day in Glasgow
Thursday  8 p.m., Snug Harbor, 1228 Gordon St., $5,  
The experimental art-pop sextet kicks off the four day Recess Fest, which takes place across multiple Plaza Midwood venues. The buzzed about underground group represents what the festival is all about with innovative songs that often sound like blurry shoegazer compositions resting atop sweetly neurotic pop music.

Lee Bains & the Glory Fires
Thursday  9 p.m., The Milestone, 3400 Tuckaseegee Rd., $5-$7,  
Music fans would be hard pressed to find a live band that rocks harder per dollar and the Alabama quartet’s Sub Pop debut, “Dereconstructed,” plays less on leader Bains’ literate writing and soulful delivery and more on the band’s raw live intensity with its soul singing and Southern rock grooves cutting through buzzing, noise-punk distortion.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charlotte's Ancient Cities celebrates debut album tonight

Ancient Cities released its self-titled album earlier this week and celebrate the release tonight at Visulite. 

The first single and the album's opening track "Juice" marries a jamming, bluesy boot stomper with the haunting element that colors much of the album. "Juice" sounds like it was accidentally left off a Black Keys record, but that's not necessarily an indication of who Ancient Cities is or where its self-titled album goes next. 

With a looping carnival feel, handclaps, and subtle banjo, the second track, "Novella," is like the musical equivalent to steampunk (think Victorian cowboys in space or Jules Vern-meets-"Hellboy 2: The Golden Army"). Much like band leader Stephen Warwick's solo album "Talking Machine" and his previous band Secondhand Stories, Ancient Cities conjures dust bowl carnivals and late `60s and `70s psychedelic folk-rock while managing to sound current. 

The song “Station” glides on hippie folk harmonies delivered in a British lilt that place it somewhere between Nick Drake and the Beatles, but then the horns come in and take you out of that mindset and directly into the next track. I'm a visual listener and my mind jumps to new scenes with each track. Am I watching minstrels outside a medieval castle as the court is introduced in "Ostinato in D Major?" Or, as the next horn-led song "Edie Sedgwick" indicates, am I in Central Park sunning in the early `70s? Wherever it takes me, there's something natural, woodsy, and pastoral about Ancient Cities. Maybe its the root in folk music and storytelling, which is never overshadowed by production or more modern electronic instrumentation.

"Werewolf" kicks off side 2 (the record is available on vinyl). With direct, wordy phrasing the standout track lays restrained beats and quirky synth over a folk-based story song that plays up that aforementioned darker, haunting side. It's usually a friendly haunting by the way, created largely in the arrangements and through production that's not afraid to give the songs space and airiness. 

"Velvethead" and the final track "Wild" finds the band back in the pastoral countryside. The former glides on flowery finger picking, trippy synthesizers, and high harmonies singing of a creature in the night. Darker themes of monsters and transformation give way to a more uplifting end in "Wild" which swells from delicate strumming, piano, and distant vocals to a kaleidoscope circus of big, bounding orchestral indie-rock.

Warwick and New Familiars' Justin Fedor have been playing as Ancient Cities for a couple of years now having added Noises 10's Jonathan Erickson (and a cast of guest musicians from cellists and horn players to members of Matrimony for the album). It's nice to see a band taking its time with a project. That care is evident in the arrangements, the layers, and the songwriting. With their collective experience Ancient Cities could've thrown something together quickly, but it's debut benefits from the slow build
Saturday's show at Visulite with Sam the Lion and Batsheet begins at 9:30, admission is $8. A free art show featuring Warwick's collages opens at 7 p.m.