Eilen Jewell w/ Opener Zak Trojano - 6/6/19Thursday, June 06 2019 6:00pm Doors / 8:00pm Start / Ends 9:30pm
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Eilen Jewell w/ Opener Zak Trojano - 6/6/19
at City Winery Boston
Eilen Jewell laughs when told her label’s president called her a musicologist. But she confirms she and her husband and bandmate, drummer Jason Beek, have a passion for studying American music.
“We really love to uncover the past. It’s almost like digging for buried treasure,” she says. “For me, that’s where music is at. I like all kinds of music as long as there’s the word ‘early’ in front of it.” For her new album, Down Hearted Blues, released Sept. 22, 2017 on Signature Sounds, she and Beek unearthed 12 vintage gems written or made famous by an array of artists both renowned and obscure, from Willie Dixon and Memphis Minnie to Charles Sheffield and Betty James. Then, like expert stonecutters, they chiseled them into exciting new shapes and forms, honoring history while breathing new life into each discovery.
Known for what allmusic.com describes as a “country-flavored and blues-infused version of contemporary folk (which also can include healthy doses of rockabilly and surf),” Jewell’s discography includes several albums of original material and one of Loretta Lynn covers. Jewell has also recorded two albums with her eight-piece gospel-group side project the Sacred Shakers. But this latest effort, which she and Beek co-produced, with engineering by pianist/banjo player Steve Fulton and Pat Storey, is her first collection of blues — despite the fact that she credits the genre for igniting her musical curiosity in the first place.
That’s because, even though she’s dreamed of recording a blues album since discovering Howlin’ Wolf as a Boise, Idaho, teen, Jewell had to convince herself she could — and should.
“I’ve always had this sense of self-doubt about it,” she admits. “Like, who am I to sing the blues? I’m a white girl from Idaho. I don’t know if I have a right to do that.” But she also remembers an old friend’s advice: “Everyone has the right to do what they love in this world, regardless of who they are and what background they come from.”
Finally, she tired of waging her internal battle and decided to let the “do what you love” side win. It was a wise choice — particularly because she’s hardly appropriating or imitating anyone’s style; on the contrary, Jewell makes each song her own, while paying homage to her beloved inspirations. It also should be noted that American blues music, like its country of origin, is a melting pot of influences, and that all music evolves from what came before — and that, by recording these songs, she’s helping to strengthen the legacy of those who created and popularized them.
Some of them she heard while listening to her husband’s Radio Boise show, Spoonful. The pair also cite John Funke’s Backwoods, on Cambridge’s WMBR-FM, as a source of discovery. In fact, the couple’s mutual attraction to musical obscurities led directly to their relationship. A friend who knew of their common interest made the introduction, correctly guessing they’d hit it off.
That happened in Boston, where Jewell lived for nine years after leaving Boise to attend college in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then migrating to Los Angeles and finally, to the East Coast. Jumping into Boston’s roots-music scene, she began hunting for a guitarist. Beek pointed her to Jerry Miller, a bona-fide Boston legend known for his versatility. They’ve been playing together ever since; she chose some Down Hearted Blues tracks, such as “Crazy Mixed Up World,” a Dixon tune recorded by Little Walter, and Albert Washington’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” to showcase Miller.
On the latter, his notes bend around her supple, dramatic minor-key vocals, which slide in after a punchy sax and bass intro. Jewell, who titled a previous album Queen of the Minor Key, says its “scary, creepy” tone fit right in with so many songs they’ve done, it already felt like an old friend the first time she heard it. That horn, by the way, comes courtesy of Curtis Stigers, a fellow Boisean who had several soul hits before segueing into jazz. A fan who pumps her music through the PA before his own shows, he also sits in with her band when they’re both in town. (Jewell and Beek moved to Boise in 2012 to be closer to her family and start their own.)
“He played with us at a local festival and we loved what he did so much we asked him, very spur of the moment, to come to the studio and record with us. He literally dropped what he was doing and said, ‘I’ll be there in 15 minutes,’” she recalls, marveling about how he created a horn section with overdubs — chartless, on songs he’d never heard.
He’s also on “You Know My Love,” another Dixon tune popularized by Otis Rush. Jewell’s torchy rendition emphasizes its spooky message: “You think you’re gonna get on with your life, but there’s this thing between us that will never die; it’s always gonna come back and haunt you.
Laughing, she says, “I can definitely attest to that being a real thing in life.”
Other picks, such as Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine,” have a more personal connection. She came to it through Howlin’ Wolf, whom she found while rooting through her dad’s garage-stashed album collection. The minute she heard him, she says, “I knew what I was supposed to be listening to.”
By then, she had absorbed the classics — Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors — and noticed her favorite rockers had something in common: they were influenced by early blues artists. Down the rabbit hole she went, finding Bessie Smith, represented here via the Lovie Austin and Alberta Hunter-penned title tune Smith turned into a hit, then Memphis Minnie (“Nothing in Rambling”) and “Big” Maybelle Smith (“Don’t Leave Poor Me”).
“I’m always drawn toward anything that women accomplish in the musical world, especially of previous eras,” Jewell says. “It was amazing that women could do anything back then, when it was so frowned upon.”
Jewell, who also plays guitar and Hammond organ on these tracks, claims she’d be happy singing nothing but Big Maybelle songs — if they weren’t such a heavy vocal workout. On the propulsive “Don’t Leave Poor Me” she practically dares her voice to leap up high and swoop down low before stepping aside for the pulsating guitar-and-percussion bridge.
Her easy glide from note to note on the back-porch picker “Nothing in Rambling” contrasts with that style — and with lyrics expressing the difficulties of life on the road (a life that now includes daughter Mavis, already a world traveler at age 3) — further highlighting the smooth/raw dichotomy inherent not only to this album, but the genre itself.
While Jewell doesn’t exhibit whiskey-scratched vocal tendencies, she can certainly make a gutbucket lose some splinters — or beguile with silky sexiness. It’s as if she’s doing a one-woman play, slipping into a different persona with each song — a feat that becomes even more impressive when she reveals these tracks were recorded in only two days, live, and that Miller and upright bass player Shawn Supra hadn’t even heard some of them beforehand. That’s how spontaneous it actually was. They just happened to book some studio time during a free day in Boise, and had so much fun playing these songs they decided to make an album.
“It really felt serendipitous, like what was supposed to happen was happening,” Jewell says. “I finally gave myself permission to do what I wanted to do, and the universe supported me.”
Zak Trojano is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, a finger- style guitar player, a fly-fisherman, and a beer drinker. He watches more than he talks, the guy at the end of the bar nursing a drink while the afternoon light angles in, letting the conversation pile up around him like snowfall. He grew up in New Hampshire, outside of town in a cabin built by his parents.
His father was a drummer who held down a regular country gig and nights after work he would loosen his tie and show his son the finer points of Ginger Baker and Elvin Jones. In New Hampshire they drove around in trucks, and Prine and Dylan cassettes showed up in most of those trucks. Zak made Eagle Scout, got his knots down. Then it was college and out, wandering the country from the desert Southwest to Great Plains until he ran out of money, washing windows to work up the bus fare home. After a while it seemed like he ought to write some songs, and he did: heavy songs with a light touch; an AM radio throwback voice and an intricate finger-style technique framed by a drummer’s rhythm.
Since then, Trojano has found a variety of outlets for his diverse musical interests: co-founding the much acclaimed folk trio Rusty Belle in 2006, appearing on records by Chris Smither (Time Stands Still, Still on the Levee), Jeffrey Foucault (Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes), Peter Mulvey (Letters From a Flying Machine) and Chris Pureka (How I Learned to See in the Dark). All while touring and releasing his solo records (Two Lines, Yesterday’s Sun, I Took Molly to See the Butterflies).
In recent years, Trojano’s solo work has found the spotlight with discerning listeners everywhere. Stage by stage, in clubs, music halls, bars, and coffeehouses across the country, he has honed a live show that keeps audiences glued to the stage, like a rare conversation with an old friend who doesn’t usually say much, but plays a mean guitar.
Wolf Trees is a record with live performance at its heart. The songs were written as movements in a larger piece, with textures and themes resurfacing in longer arcs to bind the whole together. A wolf tree is a stoic figure, a passed over remnant of a distant, wilder world, where there was more space between things. The third album from Zak Trojano, Wolf Trees is a move towards high definition from a songwriter whose pictorial lyrics are lauded by many for their vivid and cinematic imagery. While recently gaining wider recognition from audiences across the country, Trojano has been known for some time by the best in the business as a writer who, “...lights up the darkness and gives it definition.” (Chris Smither). From the very first driving notes of “Kid’s Got Heart” and early scene setting lines (the poets take it on the chin for the bells that ring right through you), Trojano draws the curtain, with able hands, on a production that provides shape and a deeper motion to the screenshot temperament of life in the modern world.
In over a decade writing, recording, and performing music professionally and sharing studios and stages with his band Rusty Belle, or supporting touring acts like Chris Smither, Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, and Peter Mulvey, Zak Trojano has evolved his own thing: A warm baritone supported by an old Martin guitar and low tuned Weissenborn lap steel. His complex finger style technique was born out of the country blues tradition through years of immersion in the work of players as diverse as John Fahey, Chet Atkins, and Merle Travis.
The guitar shares the spotlight on Wolf Trees, shining through simple arrangements that coalesce around Trojano’s lyrics for music that, “is made from a whole cloth, it’s from a long time ago that feels like yesterday” (Peter Mulvey). From listening to old records and the trading stories over many miles and sequestered greenrooms with greats like Smither and Foucault, Trojano has found that illusive voice that can produce a record that looks forward as much as it looks back.
It was the exploration of solo performance that led to the guiding aesthetic of Wolf Trees. Trojano opted to leave behind the lush string and horn arrangements of his last record (Yesterday’s Sun) in favor of a true solo album on which he plays and sings every note. All guitars were tuned to a low C modal tuning, and sent through various amplifiers to combine their acoustic and electric properties into a large, dark, and open sound. With the help of longtime friend and producer David Goodrich (Chris Smither, Jeffrey Foucault), and engineer Justin Pizzoferrato (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth) they captured a record delicately balanced between the acoustic intimacy of a coffeehouse and the wild volume of a midnight rock club.
“Nowhere Shuffle” is a dark, minor, ballad with a halftime groove reminiscent of some lost 70’s acoustic Pink Floyd album; an oblique commentary on the modern addiction to electronic devices (Bowed heads and praying hands/nowhere with everyone at once) through the eyes of someone witnessing a Zombie apocalypse. The playful introspection of “My Room” deals with the ups and downs of solitude, the vacillation of the hermitic spirit between feeling safe and feeling alone (I’ll be fine here in my room while the roses bloom outside/how come they never come to me unless they’re cut down in their prime? I’ll bide my time). “Everyone Knows You” is epic by nature. A telescopic view of a world where everybody is famous and the worst among us have risen to the top. It’s a rock anthem with an unusual form propelled by a rising vibrato and half-smiling social commentary (It’s the march of the egg man/boiled and white/pale as a junkie at noon watch him roll). The title track is a reconciliation of dreams with reality; an adventurous melody that holds the listener through the trials of finding an anchor in the world (How could I begin to tell you how/easy it would be to find a place for now/in the soft light of the almost dark/where the wolf trees howl through the park for you).
On Wolf Trees, Trojano has woven nine songs into an album that’s very form calls attention to the thin rapidity of modern life. Like admiring the forest view from atop a white pine cell tower, or losing yourself in the colors of a flat-screen sunset, Wolf Trees dares us to hold tight to current beauty while we remember a different time.