DEBI SMITH: A SONGBIRD KEEPS FLYING

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 15, 2014 by midliferocker

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A local singer/songwriter keeps flying high amidst a blend of truly eclectic experiences.

By Steve Houk

It’s not surprising that a talented, seasoned songbird like Debi Smith titled the majority of her records after birds.

Bluebird, Mockingbird, Road Runner, A Canary’s Song, Red Bird, and even a family memoir titled Look Up At The Hawks, it’s like she’s connected with birds because her voice is, well, as true and pure as birdsong. Or it could be that there’s a family connection to birds. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

“When we were growing up, my Dad always had bird feeders in the backyard,” Smith told me from the Falls Church home where she grew up and now lives with her husband and son. “So I love to watch birds, just like my grandma did, too. These days, my Dad has a blue jay that he’s named Freddy that lands on his arm and he feeds it by hand. I just find birds to be…inspiring somehow.”

Whatever is inspiring the versatile Debi Smith seems to be working, and has for a long while. Smith has had a successful career as a folk-pop singer/songwriter for going on 30 years now, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. She began her musical life as a successful duo with her sister, and today remains an accomplished solo artist who has performed at venues like the Kennedy Center and Epcot Center, toured in Canada, Europe and Russia, and has appeared on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, Mountain Stage, and World Café, to name just a few. She is also a current member of the critically acclaimed Four Bitchin’ Babes, a well known folk ensemble that has gained a reputation for blending satirical, humorous and traditional music together in an engaging and memorable way, for almost 25 years. And as a holiday treat, Smith will be bringing her “If I Were An Angel” holiday show to the Birchmere on December 21st, accompanied by the esteemed National Men’s Chorus.

So yes, versatile is an understatement for Debi Smith.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, Smith’s family wasn’t necessarily musically inclined. But as with many families, music was a part of her home, school and church life, which helped her discover a talent for singing. And soon after she found her own voice, she was surprised that her sister also had the knack, and lo, a recording duo was born.

“My parents put on some Broadway stuff, and some of the folk music,” Smith said, “so I was influenced by that, but it wasn’t that they were musical. And my sister Megan, I didn’t even discover she could sing until after I had gone off to college and had been singing for a while. All of a sudden I heard her singing my songs downstairs, and I’m like, ‘What’s up with that?!’ Everything kinda just unfolded, as opposed to me having a design.”

Once they realized they had sister act potential, Debi and Megan started playing bars in DC and then hit the college circuit, and eventually Columbia Artists booked them as The Smith Sisters and they began to tour nationally. And meeting some folk legends along the way seemed to give Smith the bump she needed to take it to the next level.

“We met Doc Watson and his son Merle Watson, they sang on our first CD,” Smith said. “Merle produced our first records, he was a good guy, he really tried to help other artists, and Doc was the same way.  I’ve met some wonderful people along the way, Tom Paxton is another one who helped us early on, he’s always helping young musicians.”

Like many other successful singers, heartbreak was a catalyst for Smith’s earliest songwriting efforts; as is often the case, love and loss was a great springboard for a creative outlet she had yet to tap.

“Originally I didn’t play guitar,” Smith said. “What did it was I broke up with a boyfriend and I was eating my heart out, and I picked up the guitar and a book of Joni Mitchell songs, and also Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and that’s how I kind of cut my teeth. And then eventually I just started writing. I’d always written poetry and stuff but I’d never written songs until I had a guitar in my hands.”

Adding to her resume of five records with her sister and her seven solo CDs, Smith also has the popular Four Bitchin’ Babes as part of her repertoire. She joined the Babes in 1993 and regularly records and tours with them.

“I used to go see the Babes perform,” Smith said, “and I’d always say, ‘Man, I would kill to be in that group.’ Then, they asked me to join them, and it’s a riot. I mean, the offstage stuff is just as much fun as the onstage stuff. It’s alot of comedy, but we’re always singing about whatever part of life we’re in, so it’s meaningful too. The group has grown right along with us. It’s geared towards women but we also have alot of Man Babes come out to our shows, too. It’s alot of fun.”

As if her multi-faceted musical career wasn’t enough, Smith also took time out to write Look Up At The Hawks, a memoir about her family that spans three generations. Smith speaks of that poignant experience fondly and with a healthy dose of family pride.

“Before grandma passed away,” Smith says thoughtfully, “she had a packet of papers that she handed to Mom and said, ‘Take this, please do something with it, I can’t do it anymore.’ She and my Dad grew up on a Nebraska farm during the Dust Bowl years, and so it’s all of her writings, her recollections, of that period of life during the Depression. The Dust Bowl, swarms of grasshoppers, floods, you name it. It’s alot of really amazing memories. And it wasn’t originally a book, Mom and I performed it at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery and toured around the United States with it, and then finally about two years ago, I thought, ‘This has to be a book.’ It’s just so beautiful, and I’m very proud of it.”

Smith’s latest project, the holiday CD If I Were An Angel, was a labor of love for her, blending a nostalgic love of the season with some of her favorite types of music.

“I was in the chorus back when and the madrigals. That’s what we used to sing in church, the chorale kind of stuff, and I love Christmas, so I was excited to do this latest record. I kinda tried to write some stuff that sounds sorta like what’s out there, but aren’t the same songs. I really loved writing it.”

So between all of the many genres and combos Debi Smith has been a part of  — with her sister, the solo stuff, the Babes and the holiday fare — is there a type of music right now that fills up Smith’s songbird heart more than another?

“Now, at this stage in my life, the kind of singing I did on this new holiday CD, I love.” Smith said. “There’s something about when I can sing in my soprano voice, you know, when you’re trying to make it in pop music and you’re using a soprano voice, you have to rein in it a little bit here and there. But I didn’t on this CD,  I just use it wherever I feel like it. I love singing in that voice. It just feels good.”

Debi Smith performs with the National Men’s Chorus on Sunday December 21, 2014 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here

LUCINDA AND JOHN: BRILLIANCE IN THE TWILIGHT

Posted in Uncategorized on November 20, 2014 by midliferocker

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For any singer/songwriter, success as an artist can often be fleeting at best, and unattainable at worst.

You might last five years if you’re real lucky. A few more if you’re very lucky. If you get to ten, you’ve hit the jackpot. Beyond that, you just might land in legend status, that is, if your work, your craft, your ideals, the thing that makes you so special, stays on course at the very high level that you’ve established over your long career. It’s a rarity, a bigtime one, but it happens. And when it does, it’s pure magic.

In the span of five days, I had the incredible privilege of witnessing that magic first hand with two very special artists at virtually the same stage in their life and career, Lucinda Williams, 61, and John Hiatt, 62. In many ways, these two masterful songwriters have not only a very similar vibe and feel to their writing — one of honesty, grittiness, irony and self effacement — but despite their personal struggles, tragedies and surviving the mortal enemy of any musician, getting old, they have both reached that often unattainable pinnacle with their integrity and soul intact.

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As for the inimitable Ms. Williams, she just released what could be considered her finest record yet, a double length collection of songs right in her wheelhouse, songs of hope, struggle, perseverance, falling short and rising up, called  Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Williams stays true to form on her 12th album with exquisitely written songs that exude suffering and redemption, all delivered with her trademark smoky Louisiana drawl, and even throws in a tune from recent headlines, West Memphis, about the West Memphis Three. But overall, she is still able to transport us into her dark yet somehow still hopeful world, a world where you can just feel the ache, the pain and the glory all at once. Her live performance at the Lincoln here in DC held true to her stunning past live shows with a slew of deep meaningful songs, as she along with a stellar band ran the gamut from her fabulous catalog. The show was delivered with a humility and sincerity rarely seen from musicians, ever. Unexpectedly, via serendipity and the generosity of some newfound friends at the show, I was able to spend a good 20 minutes hanging out with Lucinda backstage at the show, just talking one on one, and it was a rare and exceptional experience. I could sense just by that very personal time with her why she is able to be so candid and honest in her songwriting. It’s because she is a humble and caring human being.

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Five nights later,  almost as if the songwriting gods were shining brightly down on me, I got to sit front row for John Hiatt at the Birchmere in Alexandria, and in some ways, I felt like I was seeing Lucinda’s male counterpart, her songwriting doppelganger. I’ve never heard the two compared before, but there is a definite similarity as far as not only their age, longevity and sheer rare talent, but in the depth and breadth of the emotion and stark realism and honesty in their lyrics. Monday night, Hiatt walked out onstage by himself, armed with only an acoustic guitar and several harmonicas sitting nearby, and let us into a cross sectional world of his indelible music. I felt like I was being allowed into another world of struggle and redemption similar to Williams’. We got to hear some of Hiatt’s breathtaking poetry about the Seven Little Indians, Ethylene, the Tiki Bar and others, including songs from his latest record issued this past summer, My Terms of Surrender. And all through his performance, he smiled his wry smile, like he was proud that we were so thankful to be a part of his world.

After having lost his brother to suicide and father to illness before he was 12, and then his wife years later who also took her own life, Hiatt has always let us in on the deepest of his feelings, as has Williams, who has had her share of hard times and has addressed suicide and other dark subjects on most of her albums. The righteousness and truthfulness of their stunning bodies of work is almost unparalleled in its starkness and candor. You always feel when you hear a Hiatt or Williams song that you are being told a story that is somehow related to their lives, and sometimes, your life as well, and you always feel honored to have been given that opportunity. That’s the mark of a rare and gifted songwriter. There are others who have also opened that rarified door to their listeners, but few have laid it all out as deeply and candidly, and for as long, as these two.

Have they both lost a tad of the vocal range of their youth? Maybe a little bit, but who doesn’t? If you haven’t, then you’re hoarding a fountain of youth somewhere, and I want a taste. But witnessing both of them within days of each other this past week, it’s not a measurable loss, and it is very easily overcome by the continued sincerity and realness of their most recent recorded work as well as their live performances that sets them apart from many of their peers, young and old.

If we’re lucky, we’ll have them both around for a while yet.

 

CONCERT FOR VALOR: MUSICAL BLEND KEEPS MESSAGE OUT FRONT

Posted in Uncategorized on November 13, 2014 by midliferocker

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Throwing an eclectic and varied A-List mix of musicians into a huge emotionally charged live concert environment is always a risky endeavor. And you had that mix in spades for last night’s massive Concert For Valor on the Mall, as everything from pop to hip hop to rap to hard rock to metal to country to classic rock, to whatever the Black Keys classify as, was stunningly represented. But even with the very best intentions, that swirling cacophonous blend could have easily overshadowed the main message of the night: a big thank you to our veterans on their day. 

But thankfully, due to a combination of factors — like the well-produced emotionally charged video vignettes that aired on the big screens between acts that caused us in the audience to watch in tear-inducing silence, and a thoughtful (for the most part) song selection and sincere vibe from the performers and presenters — the three hour Concert For Valor, aired live worldwide for free on HBO, came off largely as it should have, as a love letter and sincere tribute to our veterans, who deserve all the love we can muster every day, especially with the recent V.A. nightmares that have grabbed front page news right here in DC. Standing amidst many veterans and their families as well as civilians who largely knew why they were there as well, you could feel from the beginning that this was going to be a powerful and memorable night befitting the magnitude of not only the level of performers, but actually what it’s like to serve your country. I think I saluted 4 or 5 times myself, and I’m not even current or former military. Hope that was OK.

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After a stunning “Star Spangled Banner” from Jennifer Hudson to kick things off, Ms. Hudson remained on stage to join pop sensation Jessie J for a rousing version of David Guetta and Sia’s 2011 hit duet “Titanium.” After Hudson departed, Jessie followed with “Bang Bang,” the recent summer hit she did with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj. Jessie J’s biggest asset is killer pipes and they were in fine form on these two pop nuggets that had the younger girls in the audience giddy. No real vet’s day messages from Ms. J, but hey, the night was also about good music, and this was a well-delivered pop tart appetizer.

Next up (introduced by Meryl Streep, who has veterans throughout her family, who knew) was Dave Grohl, who seems to be everywhere these days, but somehow always seems to make his appearances and message relevant each time. Armed only with an acoustic guitar instead of his loud Foos, Grohl registered the first powerful and targeted moment of the night by playing a beautiful version of his song “Hero,” followed by another Foos tune “Everlong.” Grohl continues to show the world that he has become even more impactful and thoughtful since his Nirvana days than many thought he might after Kurt died.

One of the evening’s best moments came next from country’s rock solid Zac Brown Band, which clearly drove home the emotion behind the concert throughout their brief set. A country band that doesn’t really look like a country band, Brown’s sound skirts the edge of country rock, and tonight, he geared it towards the event with much success. Opening with a soaring fiddle prologue followed by a solid roll of the band’s 2008 tune “Free,” Brown then ramped up the event targeting by doing a moving and unexpected rendition of “America The Beautiful,” followed by “Chicken Fried,” his wildly popular fist pumper that was perhaps the most direct homage to veterans all night, with the lines, “Salute the ones who died, the ones that give their lives, so we don’t have to sacrifice, all the things we love…like our Chicken Fried…”

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That would have been Brown’s crowning moment of the show, well, until he brought out Grohl and Bruce Springsteen for arguably the concert’s most provocative and rousing performance, CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”  Grohl and Springsteen have covered this song before, Brown may have also at some point, and the three together provided a 1-2-3 punch that made this 60’s-era Vietnam protest song a perfect choice for this 2014 veteran’s day show. Why? It’s a song primarily about how privilege keeps some out of the agony of war, and for the ones who’d been there, this tip of the hat worked beautifully.

Despite a well-played performance, Ohio’s own The Black Keys didn’t really seem to fit all that well into the event’s DNA. Their three song set was competent and illustrated the prowess and power that has made them one of America’s top grossing live acts of late, but it didn’t seem to resonate entirely with the crowd, especially after Brown’s dead on set.

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Speaking of power, Metallica delivered without a doubt the loudest and most in-your-face performance of the evening, and it totally worked. Introduced fittingly by Jack Black, the heavy metal quartet took no prisoners in ripping through an adrenaline-inducing set including “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, “Master of Puppets” and ending with a truly delirious “Enter Sandman”: I mean, fists were pumping and singalongs were plentiful. The best part of their performance might have been a small bleacher full of military Metallicites set up behind the band, who conveyed the ecstatic power of the band perfectly, dancing and undulating to every note. I have a feeling you could hear this set at my home in Fairfax, miles away the Mall.

Country superstar Carrie Underwood provided her usual beautifully sung if not formulaic country superstar performance, clearly she was one of the most popular acts on the bill with fans, and she returned it with endearing waves and smiles. Underwood, clearly pregnant, has come a long way from her American Idol days and really knows how to cozy up to a huge crowd. Her set — including “See You Again” which did allude to the vibe at hand —  was standard and well-played, but largely unremarkable.

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Like Grohl, Bruce Springsteen took the stage next with only a guitar, and in this environment, he came off as he should have, as the event’s elder statesman, its sage, its conscience, or dare I say, its Dylan. Having been a vocal supporter of the military for many years, as well as an outspoken detractor of war, Springsteen’s stunning set of typical E Street Band-accompanied tunes turned on their ear was as expected the evening’s most poignant and resonating. Opening with 1978’s “Promised Land,” he took a song about a belief in better times to a new place, as a pleading ode. He then did a masterful and dark take on “Born In The USA,” replete with a screeching haunting slide treatment on guitar. One of Springsteen’s most misunderstood songs (thank you Mr. Reagan), the deep pain of loss during war was never more evident than during this stirring version. Springsteen concluded with a stunning “Dancing In The Dark,” leaving the Courteney Cox-dancing version way behind and evoking a deeper version of perhaps a military couple struggling to get the magic back after a long tour of duty. Springsteen shines in these moments, and despite calls for him to be more rousing and dynamic, he chose to send a message with quieter though deeper resonance.

The evening ended, appropriately enough in an urban-heavy market like DC, with whirlwind performances by R & B uberstar Rihanna and rap king Eminem. Opening with a lovely “Diamonds In The Sky,” the lovely Rihanna proved why she is where she is with superior yet smoky vocals and an aire about her that befits a pop music queen. She hit one of the evening’s most emotional high notes with “Stay” as heartstring-pulling pictures of military family reunions and departures played on video screens onstage. Eminem joined Rihanna to reprise their duet “The Monster” and even though there was little real chemistry between the two onstage, the powerful song about facing demons and the trappings of fame did not dissapoint, and seeing these two monsters of their genre dueling was a powerful sight.

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Rihanna then stepped aside, and the once ubiquitous but most recently reclusive Eminem took over, stalking the stage in a hooded coat and a black baseball hat, I mean, it was Slim Shady at his finest and although some people filed out to beat the crowd to the Metro, many stayed and pumped and gyrated to the Marshall Mather beat. Yes he dropped a few F bombs which has somehow offended people, but what would you expect from him and really, who cares? It wasn’t a kid’s event although there were kids in attendance, and part of his appeal is his daring and often profane delivery. The Detroit born superstar rolled three of his best known tunes that to many could resonate with this audience: “Guts Over Fear, “Not Afraid” and he finished with the haunting strains of the 8 Mile epic “Lose Yourself” with the message: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.” In fact, many lyrics throughout his riveting three song set could have spoken directly to many of the veterans in the house.

So amidst the last couple days of Monday morning quarterbacking about Eminem’s F Bombs (please, this is Eminem we’re talking about here, get over it), whether “Fortunate Son” was a good choice (yes, it was actually a perfect choice for this event), or whether Bruce was too mellow (um, NO, he’s often as impactful solo as he is with a band and was here as far as I’m concerned), the Concert For Valor exhibited its own sort of bravery Tuesday night, by taking on a hugely emotional experience such as Veteran’s Day and largely nailing that emotion through song, while helping the rest of the world realize how important veterans really are.  Here’s a civilian salute to the vets and the organizers for a mission accomplished.

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KAT DAHLIA: READY TO POUNCE

Posted in Uncategorized on November 9, 2014 by midliferocker

 

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A driven young hip hop singer on the cusp of superstardom uses life…and a little rock and roll…to keep it real.

by Steve Houk

Is the world ready for Kat Dahlia? Well, no matter, because this supremely talented and driven 24 year old singer/songwriter/rapper is clearly more than ready for the world.

It’s a time of firsts for the former Katarina Huguet: her first official nationwide tour begins this week, and her first record My Garden drops January 13th. After a successful release of  two EPs and some well received videos last year, including the unforgettable and autobiographical “Gangsta” which got heavy play on MTV (yes, they still have music) and was featured on an episode of Law and Order SVU, Kat Dahlia is uber-poised for the next big step in her career, and sees interacting with her soon-to-be-even-bigger legion of fans as the biggest excitement on the horizon.

“I’m so excited, honestly, this tour is so overdue,” Kat said from Miami. “I’m most excited to be able to see the fans, and to have my first show, a show that is mine, and be able to connect with the fans finally and see them in person. I can’t wait to just get out there and feel them and get the music out.”

Born in Miami Beach in 1990, Kat was raised by Cuban-born parents and had to become self-reliant early on, her parents divorced and her life as a young girl was not an easy one. But her passionate love of performing helped to fill her time and ease the pain, and was a definite springboard to the next phase of her life.

“Ever since I was little, I remember going in front of the mirror and performing,” she said, “and just being really into fantasizing about performing on a stage. I would sing to Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, I was like a pop kid, you know what I mean? Fantasizing and dreaming about performing to a bunch of people. I always acted that out even when I was performing with friends and would get so serious about it, there were no games to be played. But I always had a passion for entertaining. I always knew I would do it, but I wasn’t sure how to get to that next point.”

At 18, she needed a change of scene to keep chasing the dream, so she took her waitressing savings and up and moved to New York to see what would come next.

“It was a very fast paced decision,” she said. “I lost my job on Independence Day and by August 2nd, I was up in New York. From one thing to the next. I needed to leave the beach, it can get so small. The place you grow up in, you get very comfortable and it can get so monotonous. Soon I found myself in a rough situation in a relationship, but ultimately going up there was a great thing for me.”

The profound experiences she has had, even during her brief young life, have been directly transferred to her music, and it has fostered some deeply emotional expression. Take a first listen to “Gangsta” for example and you won’t be able to shake the emotion, let alone the groove, anytime soon. And Kat hopes to carry that emotional thread further with My Garden.

“Music tends to be a therapy, there’s so much to talk about, there are so many emotions, so you have alot to write about,” she continues. “My first EP was all feeling, all emotion, it was things I was feeling because of what was going on. And that’s what music is, right? It’s emotional and it’s deep and it’s real and it’s raw.”

On the surface, Kat’s music can be described as a pop/hip hop/rap hybrid, but the subtle yet marked difference with her is not only the tremendous power of her songwriting, but also a more unexpected influence she heard blasting out from a car stereo a decade ago.

“I give it up to my brother, he was a classic rock, ya know punk rock, kinda kid, and he introduced me to all that stuff, “she said. “We would drive to school and he would be playing Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and The White Stripes and The Doors, and that’s when I started to fall in love with all that stuff. That’s when I started opening my musical pallette. Getting into The Casualties and The Sex Pistols, then I started discovering the blues and B.B. King, and jazz and pop-jazz. I always loved listening to all that music from different times, it takes you there, to another world.”

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And she credits some of that rock and roll washing over her in giving her a different voice than your typical pop-hip-hopper.

“I think there are some things in my music that tend to be a little rock,” she said. “My voice, sometimes, doesn’t have so much of a hip-hop voice, I think that I got alot of my influence from alot of rock people, like Janis Joplin and BB King, who is more bluesy, and Robert Plant. I got alot of my influence from that, vocally, at least. The music is rhythmic and has that feel, but my voice does find that rock thing alot.”

So what really separates Kat Dahlia from some of her peers in the highly competitive world she hopes to conquer? For her, it’s not a hard question to answer, and is part of her inherent charm and sharp edge.

“I guess the only thing that really separates me from anybody else…is ME,” Kat said. “Right? It’s just me being myself. And that’s the only thing I can do to not be similar to anybody else, just tell my story. Nobody has the same story, not everybody feels the same things. So when I stick to my story and stick to who I am, that’s how different I can be from anybody else.”

SHEILA E: THE STEADY BEAT OF RESILIENCY

Posted in Uncategorized on November 8, 2014 by midliferocker

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In her new memoir, percussionist Sheila E. celebrates success and stares down her demons.

By Steve Houk

It’s the 1960s in San Francisco, and the times they are a-changin’. America is erupting in a lava flow of upheaval…spiritually, politically, culturally, and yes, musically, and San Francisco is the epicenter. The Dead, Airplane, Santana, Janis, Sly… it was a time.

In the Escovedo household, the magic of the beat is what really mattered. Hanging around their house, you easily could have heard any number of instruments at any given time, new and exciting sounds made by a cream of the crop group of percussionists and musicians, many of whom would be future successful recording artists. Some would become downright legends. Papa Pete Escovedo, uncles Coke (of Santana fame), Javier, Bobby, Mario and Alejandro (yes, him), all creating a cacophony of amazing beats and sounds. Over there shaking it by the window might be godfather Tito —  as in Tito Puente. As far as raw percussive instinct and musical talent in a changing musical landscape, this was an extended family that was at the core of a new movement.

In the middle of it all was a little girl. Sheila Escovedo, whom Carlos Santana would later affectionately nickname “Butterfly.” Sheila became immersed in all those wondrous beats and rhythms. Amidst the light and the dark of her childhood, she would absorb it all and eventually embrace that legacy, creating a life and career that surpassed even her and her family’s wildest dreams. And it all began right in the heart of San Fran.

“You could catch a bus and go down the street or watch on a couple a different corners and just hear music constantly,” she said. “We used to hear Sly rehearse while sitting out on the street. Everyone had a band. And I was always like, ‘Hey can I sit in, can I sit in?’ and they’d say, ‘Get away, little girl,’ ya know?”

Sheila E., as she became known worldwide, finally did sit in with the boys, despite the typical gender backlash, and became a miraculous product of a mix of good genes, hard work, and, by her own courageous admission, the darkness of abuse. Forty-plus years later, she has established herself as a gifted, world-renowned musician boasting hit records and A-List collaborations with Marvin Gaye, Prince, Ringo Starr, Kanye West and Beyoncé among many others, finding a level of success few ever do.

In town this week to promote her new memoir, The Beat Of My Own Drum, Sheila E. will be at Barnes and Noble in Bethesda starting at 7pm on Thursday. She is scheduled to perform Friday, November 7, with her father at the National Museum of African Art’s 50th anniversary. The evening celebrates Bill Cosby’s donation of some of his private art collection to the museum. And last but certainly not least, she remains very involved with her Elevate Hope organization, which raises funds to improve student academic achievement and attendance through music and arts programming.

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After decades of success and triumph, Sheila E. said she was finally prepared to put it all out there for the world to see. Given what she’s been through, it has taken some time to be able to let it all out in a memoir.

“I started to write it when I was in my 30s,” the sweet and affable Sheila E said by telephone during a brief stop in Los Angeles. “I realized I wasn’t ready to do it. It was too painful. But then I sat down for a couple of hours and started writing my testimony. … It just took the wind out of me. I couldn’t realize that I was actually reading about myself. But that was the beginning of the healing process for me, as far as figuring out who I was, what had happened to me.”

Amidst the satisfaction and release of recollecting her many achievements, Sheila had to explore every side of herself during the writing process, and like many victims of sexual abuse, that meant delving into parts of her life that were very difficult to face. Yet, they needed to be confronted in order to help her as well as those who don’t have as large a pulpit as she has.

“I carried around anger all the time. I was mad and I didn’t understand why,” Sheila said. “That’s why I go back to talking about how important music was in my life. I mean, my childhood was amazing, it was great. But when you go back, really, it’s like having a therapist, you go back and you start thinking about why I was so angry and mad at people. Once I realized that, it was like learning who I was and really starting over again. When you confront the truth, it allows you to grow and heal. We all carry things, but once you let that go, things peel off of you like an onion, or the bags of guilt and shame and all these other things start coming off you. You just live your life the way we should live it. I’m not the only one.”

Amidst the creative release of crafting her memoir, Sheila found inspiration to write more music, and her new album Icon was born. She said she found many of her stories were ideal as songs.

“Often there was just acoustic guitar and no melody or lyrics, but the story of it made sense,” she said. “It just happened to be the right time. I couldn’t have planned it, and if I could have, it would be different.”

Sheila E. has found a comfortable place in her illustrious and hard-fought career. She can look back, acknowledge her experiences and move on. It’s all about acceptance and resilience for this very special by-product of the Escovedo percussion dynasty.

“The things that happened to me, I won’t forget them, I’ll never forget, but I have forgiven,” she said. “That’s an important part of being able to really look at how awesome my life has been. And I would not change anything.”

ERIC JOHNSON: THE QUEST TO STAY SATISFIED

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 2, 2014 by midliferocker
Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson in 2014 (Photo courtesy Max Crace)

Eric Johnson’s reputation as one of the world’s most adventurous guitarists wasn’t gained by accident. 

By Steve Houk

You’d think such a revered, respected and just plain out-of-this-world guitarist like Eric Johnson would be fine being just who he always has been musically. Ya know, routinely turning out the kind of groundbreaking music that is expected of him, the music he is best known for. Yeah, you’d think that.

But along with his standing as one of popular music’s most daring and dynamic guitar players, Johnson is hell bent on keeping things very fresh and always new, even if that means breaking the mold from time to time. And so just what kind of adaptation, what kind of discipline, does acquiring that kind of freedom take?

“Just trying to reach and maybe just let go of whatever I’ve done, or whatever I am, or whatever the alphabet I use musically is,” said Johnson last week from his home in Austin. “And to be brave enough to step out on a limb and kinda come up with something new and fresh, and take a different approach as if you didn’t already have a buncha stuff in your history bag. I think whenever you do that, you get pleasantly surprised, and you get inspired, and it becomes like a thrill, a much more enthusiastic thing. It’s just whether we allow ourselves to do it. So whenever I have the bravery to allow myself to do that, I think that’s really exciting.”

Johnson, 60, is in that class of uber-rare guitarists who have gained a sterling reputation for taking the art of guitar playing to a new and different level, and the accolades and achievements are many, including Guitar Player magazine once labeling Johnson as “one of the most respected guitarists on the planet,” collaborating with Carole King and Cat Stevens, garnering the Best Rock Instrumental Grammy for his astonishing 1990 tour de force album, Ah Vie Musicom, and jamming live frequently with other guitar gods like Eric Clapton and BB King.

All that is great, but along with that kind of stunning talent comes a reputation for pretty intense perfectionism, and Johnson certainly has lived up to that rep. He has only recorded seven albums between 1978 and 2010, and took three years alone to start, abort and return to Ah Vie Musicom’s follow-up Venus Isle. Johnson admits he probably deserves this rap, and agrees that even at this stage, his outlook could maybe use a bit of a revamp.

“I think my process has usually been to belabor over stuff in the studio forever,” said the affable and candid Johnson, “and not think it was good enough. But it’s all so subjective, ya know, it’s hard to see all the attributes and aspects of what might make music good to the listener when you’re just looking at it through a magnifying glass. You have to leave a little bit to chance, a little bit to mystery, and a little bit to just the spontaneousness of the moment, and the human interaction, and if you do that, the best way to do that is to record more spontaneously, more live. But yeah, I should kinda maybe speed all of that up a little bit.

“But I do think I’m in a transition period,” he continued, “where I’ve just lost interest in trying to spend two years making a record over and over and over, thinking it’s gonna turn into something great. It could end up being good, but to make something really better in an emotional sense you gotta leave a little bit to the mystery, because we don’t have all the answers. You spend your life with a clenched fist and all of a sudden you just go, you know what, I’m just gonna have to let this go, and just let it happen. And if you do that, you can make records quicker, and you can make more records and have a bigger discography of music.”

And as for the well-known almost OCD-esque tinkering Johnson does with his equipment? It’s all in the quest for the betterment of the sound he’s trying to achieve, and judging by the sheer brilliance of his work, it’s a very forgivable sin.

“I’m always fiddling with stuff trying to get the sound better. I guess it’s from when I was a kid, and the records I listened to always had really great guitar tone, so it always kinda stuck in my mind that the first note you hit is what it’s all about. It’s like, does it sound great, is it inviting, and does it, you know, make people want to listen to the thing.”

Those records Johnson listened to were part of the music-filled house in Austin that he grew up in, and as with many great musicians, that ever-present influence helped pave the way for his love of music and what would come after.

“I used to watch my Dad when I was three years old,” said Johnson, “and he’d be dancing around and whistling and singing along to all these records. He was constantly playing records, a lot of great records, old swing music and great show tunes and rock and roll, he loved Elvis Presley. He’d play the gamut of music and it was all good stuff and I could see how much it meant to him and how happy it made him. I remember being always really on him to get me a little plastic record player so I could just play records all the time.”

Johnson began his playing life on the piano, but because of the burgeoning era of guitar-driven music, he shifted his focus to the axe using the piano as a guide, and thankfully for music history, never looked back.

“I studied piano for six or seven years,” said Johnson,”but it was in the 60’s and that was an exploding time for guitar. The Ventures, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Yardbirds, all that stuff was happening, so it was just the thing to do. Soon as I saw catalogs of electric guitars, I thought, oh man, this is what I wanna do. I think at some point I figured out hey, wait a second, these frets, I can sit down at the piano and I can find these notes from the piano, so I kinda sat down and transposed what I had learned from piano onto the guitar.”

Johnson is in the midst of a tour co-headlining with longtime collaborator Mike Stern, who himself is also regarded as one of music’s top guitarists and has played with giants like Miles Davis among others. The appropriately titled “Eclectic Guitars” tour brings the two virtuosos to the Birchmere on November 6th. Playing with Stern gives Johnson a chance to bounce things off someone else both in the studio and on stage, and speaks to the ever-changing challenges he always puts himself up to.

Eric Johnson (L) with current and longtime collaborator Mike Stern (photo courtesy Max Crace)

Eric Johnson (L) with current and longtime collaborator Mike Stern (photo courtesy Max Crace)

 

“I think that’s why Mike Stern and I got together, “Johnson confides. “It’s always nice to get with other people and have that dynamic, to where you’re part of a bigger picture. You’re still doing your thing, but there’s another counterbalance to the band. That’s always kind of challenging and I enjoy it.”

As people continue to discover him and his relatively small yet miraculous body of work, Eric Johnson continues to gain more fans both in and out of the music industry. But it all comes back to keeping things new and fresh that motivates him the most. If he can do that, it’s only great news for the millions of those who appreciate his genuinely astounding artistry and true guitar magic.

“I try to count my blessings, and be happy I get to do what I love to do for a career. But I mean, artistically and creatively, I’d like to become more free, where you just kinda play anything that might be in your imagination. It’s hard to get to that point, some people maybe have it natural, other people have to blow down all those walls. I’d just like to get more free, and be able to play…whatever.”

RICHARD MARX: EUPHORIC MYSTERY

Posted in Uncategorized on October 31, 2014 by midliferocker

RM_2014

An ’80s-’90s pop rock hit machine has way more to him than meets the eye, though there’s a lot there, too. 

By Steve Houk

Picture this: A cute dimple-faced, 5-year-old Richard Marx, standing in the family living room, singing some of the oh-so memorable advertising jingles his jazz musician/jingle writing father Dick Marx had just composed (like the ones he did for Doublemint Gum, Dial Soap and Raisin Bran among others), and absorbing and enveloping his father’s uncanny knack for writing memorable music.

Fast forward over 45 years or so, and a still-cute yet clearly grown-up Richard Marx sits up on a pretty high pedestal as one of popular music’s most prolific and successful songwriters, not only penning multiple hit songs for himself, but also for a myriad of music’s biggest names. Does he believe that his parents’ unique musical talent and interests helped him to become one of the most sought-after songwriters around?

“Yeah sure, absolutely, I can’t imagine it didn’t,” Marx, 51, told me recently from New York City. “My Dad had this knack for memorable melodies. He didn’t write any of the lyrics to those jingles, those were all written by the advertising agencies, but he wrote the really catchy tunes that went with them that made you remember them. It wasn’t premeditated, that was just something that was in his blood. He found that he had the talent. My mother, on the other hand, is an incredible singer to this day at 79. I think whatever talent I have as a singer I certainly inherited from her and much of the same with my Dad and songwriting. So when I started writing songs, instead of them being these very esoteric, complicated songs, I just instinctively write melodies that I guess tend to be memorable. And I love that.”

Memorable for sure, but surprisingly profound might be an even better description of his overall career. Marx burst onto the music scene in 1987 with his self-titled debut album and very quickly dominated the pop charts (he’s the first solo artist to have his first seven singles hit the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart) and has maintained a successful solo career decades later, selling over 30 million records worldwide. He’s also toured with Ringo Starr in the Beatle’s All-Starr Band and has even dabbled in acting. Currently, he has a new album out, and his “Whatever We Started” tour hits the Birchmere November 3rd.

But it’s his songwriting and producing prowess for other artists that have gained him possibly an even bigger reputation. We’re talking collaborations with some truly big names like N’Sync (on “This I Promise You”), Luther Vandross (on his tear-inducing “Dance with My Father” that won two Grammys including Song Of The Year), Keith Urban (on his 2010 chart-topper “Long Hot Summer”) and many other industry giants. In fact, Marx admits that his first solo hit “Right Here Waiting” was originally written for Barbra Streisand but she turned it down. Marx later wrote two songs that appeared on Streisand’s 2002 album Duets. Given this string of ongoing success, Marx has the unique and impressive distinction of having a song he wrote or co-wrote top the charts in four different decades — no small feat to be sure.

Sometimes in the past, Marx has actually reached out to some of his favorite artists to collaborate, but the biggest success he’s had seems to be when artists have approached him. “I’ve found that over the years, there have been a few people that I have courted, people that I’ve made a point to try to get with and write with and work with, but I’ve found that [with those people], either it hasn’t happened at all or it just wasn’t fun or hasn’t been successful,” he said. “Every single hit or experience that’s been really great for me was them coming to me. So I stopped pursuing people. I just let whatever comes to me, I generally say yes to.”

Saying “yes” to many different artists means he hasn’t had to pigeonhole himself into a particular genre. Instead, he’s been able to spread the wealth across many different musical landscapes, with success at almost every turn.

Josh Groban’s first hit, oh 10 or 12 years ago, that was called ‘To Where You Are,'” Marx recalled, “that song was more steeped in classical music which I had never really dabbled in, but I knew enough about it that I could compose a song that fit his genre. Working with Barbara Streisand was incredible, I’ve gotten to work with her several times. As blessed as I’ve been in my performing and artist career, it’s probably tenfold when it comes to the people that I’ve collaborated with. I mean, some of these people were my heroes. When I was a teenager, my vocal hero was Kenny Loggins, and also Steve Perry. Now, Kenny Loggins and I are not only great friends but I’ve produced with him, written many songs and performed with him. It’s just amazing, it’s really cool.”

Successful collaborations aside, Marx was very excited to be able to get back into the studio and do his own thing again, releasing his 11th studio album, Beautiful Goodbye, earlier this year.

I missed being in the studio and making a new album,” Marx said.” Then I got an idea for a whole new concept for an album, and the writing came pretty easily from there. I loved making this record. I’m really proud of it. I love that the reaction’s been so great to it. I love collaborating with other people, but I also love just sitting in a room and writing a new song by myself.”

Marx clearly has a gift and hasn’t lost that spark, that magic, that thing that enables artists to write great songs. Yet, he admits he’s still surprised that it all comes so easily and always has.

“I’ve never lost the excitement for writing, you know, and making and creating new music,” Marx said. “I mean, it’s still this mysterious, euphoric thrill. I don’t know how many songs I’ve written at this point — probably in the thousands — but every time I write a new song that I love, I’m mystified by it, I don’t know how it happened. But I’ve never become jaded by it.”

 

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