Music Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Hi all!

Somewhere, the music gods are smiling over the holidays. The stars aligned and brought classical music together with Bluegrass, achieving some truly astounding results. But let me take a step back.

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-class cellist who has made a career not only out of gorgeous classical music, but for pushing boundaries and collaborating with musicians of any and all genre – from A Capella maestro Bobby McFerrin to one of the pre-eminent violinists of the last century Itzhak Perlman – not to mention working with orchestras around the world and helping out with music education efforts worldwide. Thankfully, the world has recognized his efforts and he’s been awarded multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, and serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities.

And now he can add a collaboration with Bluegrass artists Chris Thile (mandolin – member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). The result is a collection of songs in The Goat Rodeo Sessions that not only debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass, Classical, and Classical Crossover Billboard charts, but has made it to #18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at #11 on Soundscan’s Digital Album Chart. And if all that attention isn’t enough to get you to listen this album, I encourage you to watch this video of their performance on The Colbert Report:

Though I’ve listened to my share of classical music over the years, one of my more recent discoveries has been the life and energy in Bluegrass music. Groups like Crooked Still and the Greencards have brought a new joy to my ears in recent years. So I think I was on a collision course with this album from the first time I heard the quartet play in the videos on Colbert.

What blows my mind is the control of these musicians and the dynamic passion that ebbs and flows through every note. Sure, there are some slower songs – but damn if these folks don’t fly across the strings. Chris Thile sums it up nicely – “The arrangements on the record are ‘like a reverse game of Jenga‘” he says, “trying to get all the players to land at the same place at the end of the songs.” It’s rare these days that I’ll find that a song is so quiet that I need to turn it up to hear the beginning, and yet with songs like “Here and Heaven,” I had to just that – and then to have it build to such a satisfying crescendo with the vocals and harmonies of Aoife O’Donovan and Thile… I literally am in heaven every time I hear it.

“Quarter Chicken Dark” has a groove that just sticks in my brain long after the song is done, forcing me to go back and listen to it again before too long. Meyer’s bass merged with Ma’s cello drives this song from the bottom up. And it’s one of those grooves that rises and falls and I swear they could just keep playing this one song from sunset to sunrise and I’d still be listening. “Less is Moi” has the same addictive quality with a different riff that uses Duncan’s plectrum banjo and Thile’s mandolin to drive things forward.

So just what is a “goat rodeo” you may ask… Mr. Ma puts it like this – “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” I don’t know about you, but this album proves that sometimes you can put lightning in a bottle. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is now among my favorite albums to listen to for no reason at all but the sheer pleasure of doing so. I can only hope that the success of this album will lead to more collaborations in the future!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.com here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: She Remains the Same – Andrew Ripp

Hi there…

A little over a year ago I wrote about Andrew Ripp’s debut album – Fifty Miles to Chicago – and absolutely loved it. The beauty of a debut album of that caliber was its honesty. You could tell with each note and word that he believed passionately about his music. So when I had an opportunity to give his sophomore album a listen, I jumped on the chance. Though sometimes new artists will suffer from the “sophomore slump” as they go from the album they had years to produce and hone from the pressure of the music industry pushing them to roll out the next record, occasionally you’ll find an artist so at home with their style and sound that their sophomore album sounds more like they’ve been doing this for years…

She Remains the Same keeps the honesty of that debut album but offers so much more to fans. Ripp continues to surprise, with an album that dives deeper into his own personal truths. From the bluegrass rock feel of “Growing Old Too Young” to the acoustic folk ballad “Forever After Love,” there’s something here for everyone.

As I listened from beginning to end, I was struck by the shared themes turned on their head… Where Fifty Miles to Chicago was more about having fun and finding your path while you enjoy the journey, She Remains the Same focuses on arriving at a destination and dealing with settling down a bit. The truths found by each of us finding a place to call home…

“Savior”‘s message provides an interesting counterpoint to “Dresden Wine” on the last album. We go from “I don’t want to be your savior / I can’t be the one to hold you down…” as a powerful piano ballad to “I found my savior…” and “I found my Jesus on a city street / he gave me freedom through a trash can beat…” with a strong rock/blues guitar song that absolutely rocks as my favorite song on the album. The message is clear – “Don’t worry ’bout me… ‘Cause I know where I’m going when I’m gone…” He’s found his way and it’s awesome.

Savior – Andrew Ripp by SidewaysMedia

The song “Rider” is another favorite. This one is less upbeat, but all about lessons learned. The Rider in this case is riding down the line trying to find something… “And I did all my time seeking gold / But this line that I’ve drawn / Is long and taking its toll…” In the end, the goal he’s been seeking on the road is where he’s always been – “Been looking for freedom / When freedom’s been here all along…” And with this message, there’s a driving bass and guitar like the dotted lines of the highway, backed with Ripp’s vocals in minor keys. Like with “Dresden Wine” – there’s a passion here and you can tell it’s personal.

And you can tell that Ripp has found a home in Nashville with a few of these tracks. From the slow, guitar-fueled ballad of “She Don’t Lie” – telling the story of how everything around him is dead, dying, or a lie, but his girl remains the same and doesn’t lie… “I’m breaking at the seams / And my American dream is dead and gone / (But it’s alright cuz) / She don’t lie…”

Then “The Good I’ll Do” focuses on losing the girl… “I touched your heart and turned it black / You swear that it ain’t coming back / But I’m made of more than what I lack…” Broken promises, hope gone up in flames, the girl is gone – but someday he’ll prove he’s worth the trouble.

There’s a spiritual quality to this album as well, as though his time on the road made him find something deeper to draw on. “You Will Find Me” would feel as home in church as on a stage. “When you come thirsty / when the well’s dry / when your soul’s dirty / I am by your side…” With a bit of guitar and steady beat on a single drum in the background, the piano and Ripp’s voice drive this one with a positive message. You are never really alone. And that’s an important thing to remember on the road just as much as it is at home.

If you’re looking for a rock album with a heart, check out She Remains the Same on iTunes or at your favorite retailer. Andrew Ripp may have left Chicago, but he’s continuing to bring his fans a great variety and sharing more of himself in the process.

For more information about Ripp or for a current tour schedule, check out his site – AndrewRipp.com.

This review first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Red Velvet Car – Heart

Hi again…

Nothing beats live music. Hands down, the live experience trumps any audio or video recording I’ve ever seen of an artist performing. That said, the next best thing is a concert recording, preferably video so you can see the actual performance instead of simply listening to it.

I have never seen Heart live other than the occasional performance I’ve seen on television. It’s on my list of things to do. But their album Red Velvet Car is probably more intimate than I could possibly be, even if I was sitting in the front row. From beginning to end, I felt with each track like it was recorded in my living room. It might have been a LOUD living room at times where the windows rattled, but you know what I mean…

The sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson have been queens of rock and roll since Dreamboat Annie hit radio waves in 1975, but Red Velvet Car is their first release in six years. This album manages to not only capture the classic Heart sound – from the style of “Barracuda” to that of “Dog and Butterfly” – while adding the new dimension that only age and experience can provide. From the duo’s voices that sound as good as 35 years ago to the guitars, songwriting, and harmonies that only they can create, it’s damn good to hear them rocking out again with some new tunes.

And with ten new tracks, we got a lot of new music to enjoy. I don’t know whether it’s the quieter tunes like “Hey You” and “Sand” or the rocking tunes like “There You Go,” “Wheels,” and “Death Valley” that echo in my mind long after listening… But whether you enjoy the fierce energy of electric guitars or the solace of getting lost in acoustic guitars and voices emotionally telling what can only be personal tales, there’s something for anybody who enjoys good music on this album.

The opening track – “There You Go” – tells a cautionary tale about losing control and being burned. With guitar melodies and rhythms sounding barely under control, you feel like the train is rushing forward only to crash in a ball of flame… “There you go again / Walking straight into the freezing flame / There you go again / There you go in the media insane…” The band is telling some poor innocent soul to be wary of the whirlwind of fame, to watch out for herself.

“Wheels” is another song that just drives along like a freight train in the dark… Again, the guitars and bass lines simply pound the song forward to some unknown destination. As they sing “Just close your eyes now / And breath a sigh now / Out of here” – like some great escape on the rails or open road. It’s impossible not to tap your toes as it drives on. (Note to self – don’t listen to this song while in the car with a known speed trap… )

But it’s “Sand” that sticks with me the longest. The last song on the album, it’s a story of endings or loss. The acoustic guitars set the stage and Ann’s expressive voice felt like I was listening to a song played at a funeral. Something private shared with a crowd to let them know whomever it was that left them is still with them, like sand in the wind. “I asked a distant star / I wonder where you are / the shadow at my door / the friend who is no more…” I couldn’t help but think of a friend I’d lost years ago… “Surely this sweet sand will run out by and by / and while the days come down to you / you are just a traveler passing through…”

It’s the intimacy that just floors me each time I listen to the album. I truly felt as though I had somehow slipped into a jam session as a fly on the wall… soaking up the music and the tales.

Red Velvet Car will be released on August 31, 2010 and I would encourage anyone who’s heard Heart in the past to pick up a copy. It’s another great album from Anne, Nancy, and the band to listen to over and over again.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great Heart albums below!

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