Vanessa Carlton remains true to the many causes she champions (animal rights, environmental concerns), and has nurtured her own creative spirit ever since she first found fame when the vibrant “A Thousand Miles” soared up the Billboard charts. 

VANESSA CARLTON PHOTOGRAPHED BY ALYSSE GAFKJEN IN NASHVILLE, TN

A multi-talent, Carlton initially utilized dance as a means of expression, a medium which continues to inspire her video work and writing. But it was after her singer/songwriter/pianist demo intrigued a major label producer that she concentrated primarily on her musical gifts. 

Her positive traits are represented exceptionally well on her sixth album, Love Is an Art (Dine Alone Records), which serves as a riveting follow-up to 2015’s Liberman. Although all of her music features expressive vocals, demonstrative piano playing and a myriad of emotions, followers may witness a unique side to Carlton at this point in her career. 

One cut, “The Only Way to Love,” for example, was inspired by author/philosopher Erich Fromm’s classic, The Art of Loving, written back in 1956. To write this ballad, Carlton found herself exploring the intricacies of interrelationships, which ranged from familial to platonic to romantic. “The coast is clear. You’re the edge of my ocean,” she croons on this experimental track. To say she lays her soul bare on this latest work is an understatement.  

Unafraid to venture into uncharted territory, Carlton premiered on Broadway after being asked to depict singer-songwriter Carole King in the bio-musical, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Clearly well-cast, she received rave reviews and was able to reach new audiences who had not been familiar with King’s classic hits but left the theater as committed fans.  

Refreshingly open, Carlton dug below the surface, too, when writing late 2019’s single, “Future Pain.” Carlton describes this beauty as a “homage to past mistakes.”. The gentle but forceful song encourages the listener to not merely hum along but look inward and emotionally participate. Another soon-to-be favorite pick is “Let Go of Fear.” Few can elaborate on such a theme with such honesty and passion. 

The current leg of this promotional tour will feature Carlton drawing from her new album, but she will undoubtedly come armed with an arsenal of seasoned hits. Never one to rest on her laurels, she will embark on the second leg of this ambitious tour in May.  

Vanessa Carlton is an intrepid artisan who embraces growth and change. Her work speaks volumes about her character. Catch her April 5 and 6 at Chicago City Winery. 

For more information on the Love Is An Art tour:

Vanessa Carlton

 

A Midwesterner from Lima, Ohio, guitarist/songwriter Al Jardine and his family relocated to California where the talented rhythm guitarist/vocalist/songwriter met up with Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, and David Marks. Little did they know that their new breed of music would sweep the charts and bond a country of restless youth. 

Their 1961 hit “Surfin” sealed their fate as soaring harmonies resounded from transistor radios nationwide. Teens couldn’t get enough of The Beach Boys’ catchy bass lines and riffs, celebratory harmonies, and carefree themes. 

Jardine co-wrote or wrote popular songs on four Beach Boys albums. Many critics and fans say that his most memorable lead vocal of all time appeared in “Help Me Rhonda.” 

Jardine left the Beach Boys in the late 1990s after a landmark run but continued to keep the band’s great music alive thereafter vis-à-vis the Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Reunion, as well as his participation in the revival of the award-winning and influential “Pet Sounds” tour.  

His solo career began in 2018 with the studio recording of “Live in Las Vegas.” His next album, A Postcard from California, featured notable guest artists: the likes of Flea, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Glen Campbell. Many of the tunes paid homage to the glorious west coast landscapes that Jardine encounters daily in his adoptive home. 

When Jardine returns to the City Winery Chicago on March 31, he’ll be supported by singer Matt Jardine, his son, and keyboardist Debbie Shair. No doubt, when he draws from A Postcard from California, he will illustrate his remarkable career through anecdotes and powerful visuals. Always one to appreciate his admirers, he’s known for greeting longtime and new fans post-concert. 

After his return City Winery appearance, Jardine will finish his American tour and join up with the Brian Wilson band for a grand European tour before he and his colleagues circle back to the American East Coast in early August.

Al Jardine Tickets

 

Did I walk into a “burnin’ ring of fire?” Um, no, it was actually Carol’s Pub in Chicago, an outrageously friendly country-western themed saloon, where a packed room full of locals and a couple of Nebraskans swing-danced along to FOLSOM’s greatest hits as a curious table of South Americans looked on.  

FOLSOM

These factors pooled together formed the perfect marriage of band and venue. Carol’s walls boast dozens of celebrity photos and eye-catching portraits of Parton and Nelson. An empty gasoline jug with dollar signs sat on the stage unbeknownst to the band members. The setting alone rivaled Nashville’s Tootsies, but it was when FOLSOM appeared that the real alchemy began. 

FOLSOM is comprised of lead vocalists Pete Berwick and Jennifer McCleary Botka, guitarist/ musical director Jason Botka, bassist Johnny Gadeikis, and drummer Luke Smith, all of whom came aboard chalk-full of experience. Prior to FOLSOM, McCleary Botka earned her chops in multiple bands, as did the other members, but also enjoyed a career in musical theater. Berwick is a film actor and popular singer/songwriter/guitarist with forty years in the business. His most recent album, Island, on which FOLSOM musicians played a huge part, has received critical acclaim. 

Luke Smith

All that experience and love for the stage came through loud and unquestionably clear as their musical tribute to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash commenced, with Berwick assuming the part of the Man in Black, and McCleary Botka portraying the part of June Carter Cash. 

Berwick, with slicked-back hair, donned a long, black leather for the first set and bantered between numbers with McCleary Botka — their good-natured (and sometimes bawdy) asides adding to the fun. McCleary Botka was dressed to the nines in a black, sparkly, A-line dress tightly cinched at the waist, heels and fashionable fishnets. While singing, she played a variety of rhythm instruments.  

“Get Rhythm” with its memorable hook set the vibrant tone for the evening. “Folsom Prison” featured Berwick’s gritty Cash-infused voice. Somehow this Illinoisan captures J.C.’s unique phrasing without sounding like a carbon copy. Renowned late Chicago author/songwriter Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” was an absolute crowd-pleaser and on the infamous “I Walk the Line,” Botka and Gadeikis downright nailed those groaning riffs. 

The tone shifted to winsome when “June” and “Johnny” traded verses on Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” which Cash recorded back in 1964. But the beat ramped back up again for the riveting “Cocaine Blues.” 

Production manager Ric Radick kept the dynamics balanced and concise. Adding also to the ambient landscape was the swirling disco ball which fed an array of colors as bright as Fruit Loops across the rustic room. 

“I Won’t Back Down” by the late Tom Petty more than retained the authority of the original. The generous set was sprinkled with a few lesser-known tunes such as “Rock, Salt and Nails” composed by Utah Phillips and made famous by Waylon Jennings. 

All night, Berwick maintained his comedic complexion: “When you’re a little kid, a nap is punishment. For me, it’s a vacation” and to “June”: “Could you take the wheel for this next verse?” When “June” grabbed the spotlight for a few solo numbers, such as “Harper Valley PTA,” she was flawless.  

Jennifer McCleary Botka

“(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” brought Berwick to the foreground once more with an all-around captivating performance. By this time, dancers felt comfortable enough to two-step in front of the cozy stage. Berwick’s contagious baritone and posturing gave the steady stream of steppers even more of an incentive to circulate up front to sneak a peek at his barre chords. 

Perhaps “Jackson” was the real stunner, though. Penned by the Cash couple, the lyrics brought home the cleverness of their craftsmanship; hearing the vocalists harmonize was a genuine treat.   

Fortunately, the set list of Cash/Carter favorites (and covers by the famed couple’s songwriter friends) promised each player a starring role: from Smith, “driving the train on drums” to Gadeikis, whose bottom lines faithfully moved at a fevered clip.   

During the second set, more mainstream chestnuts were performed: FOLSOM renditions of Denver’s soulful “Take Me Home Country Roads,” Prine’s pristine “Angel from Montgomery,” Parton’s anguished “Jolene,” and Kristofferson’s tearful “Help Me Make It Through the Night” swayed emotions. Even Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” sent out flares. But for my greenbacks, “Ring of Fire” and “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” showed off the band’s personalities the most.   

That said, FOLSOM at Carol’s Pub executed much yippiee-yi-yay Friday night, or as Johnny and June might say, “That band, FOLSOM, played “hotter than a pepper sprout.” 

Jason Botka
Pete Berwick

Johnny Gadeikis

*All photos © Philamonjaro

 FOLSOM Cash Tribute

 

 

Saturday, February 22, at Old Town School of Folk Music – The show opener, singer/songwriter Peter Oren, thrilled with his deep baritone, compelling guitar work and friendly demeanor. His set included a dreamy tribute to clouds and some clever call-outs to cows. Oren, who lives in rural Indiana, waxed rhapsodic about freeing himself from overwhelming social media, “phones and stuff.” His “Gnawed to the Bone (Come By)” got an especially good response.  

Peter Oren

James McMurtry’s 2015 masterpiece was entitled “Complicated Game.” He’s a darn wizard when it comes to composing chilling narratives, such as the spooky-titled, “Where’d You Hide the Body.” These references might make one believe this Texan’s the consummate tortured soul, one on the verge of a nervous breakdown, yet when this singer-songwriter-guitarist stands in front of the Old Town School admirers, he comes off pretty much as everyman. 

James McMurtry

Of course, “everyman” can’t do what McMurtry does on a consistent basis all across America and beyond on his ambitious tours, which take him from the big skies of Bozeman to Baton Rouge, Jackson, and Petaluma. And luckily for Midwesterners, one of the most prominent teaching centers in Chicago: the Old Town School of Folk Music. 

McMurtry’s true-blue fans are the kind who do their homework. And that’s the kind of hard work that pays off, as the beauty of already being acquainted with a performer’s repertoire is that the fan gets to soak up the stories and genuinely enjoy the nuances.

And last night there were many nuances to enjoy. His massive set list included rough-hewn, tender and sometimes cynical homages to everything from “crystal meth,” an “Airstream trailer” and a “Holstein cow,” courtesy of “Choctaw Bingo.” Gulfs between generations were underscored in “Copper Canteen,” virtue of powerful imagery: “We grew up hard and our children don’t know what that means.” Certainly that line struck a bittersweet chord with the older patrons; and of course, the epic plea, “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun” just seems designed to fire up the coolest senses.  

McMurtry was dressed head-to-toe in denim — his long, dark hair and steady gaze contributing heavily to his cool, confident, tough-guy with a soft-center image. He focused completely on the task at hand, tearing off song and song, often with poker-faced comments in-between. All the while, he conflates tragedy with humor. Even as he tuned an acoustic guitar (switching between two), he made damn sure the fourth wall was kept down. And although it was easy to drift and get blissfully lost in his tuneful conversations, his fine instrumental work was of equal import and deserved full attention as he finessed beautiful tones and allowed for striking hammer-ons and pull-offs from his twelve-string. The sound, overseen by musician/soundman Tim Holt, was also superb. 

Anyone who has heard McMurtry play with a full ensemble (Austin locals get to hear him weekly), or on his multi-layered albums, might wonder how it feels for the man to play unplugged for several hours solo. Does he consider it a challenge to perform the fierce, rockabilly-infused “Choctaw Bingo” without the support of a dynamic rhythm section? Perhaps for some. But McMurtry, an accomplished instrumentalist who strummed his first guitar at age seven, tore up and down that fretboard with extreme vigor — keeping the beat, wailing catchy phrases, and balancing harmonic highs and lows with precision. 

Venturing into the arena of love, a songwriting topic recommended by his grandmother, he garnered lots of appreciation for “These Things I’ve Come to Know,” which illustrates how opposites can still attract even when the odds are against it: “She likes the two-step, she likes to waltz,” he sang, but soon added, “I can’t dance a lick but sometimes I can flat rock and roll.” 

“Red Dress” stood in warm contrast to the other material — a heady mix of blues and grit. In his quieter rendition of the winsome “No More Buffalo,” his austere tale spoke volumes about our current state of environmental gloom. And as for pure linear craft, the vocal drone of “Levelland” was beyond moving. “State of the Union” probably got the biggest reaction. Although the words can apply to any time in history, the message may strike some as especially potent now.

As for other inspirational/political anthems, the one surprise was that McMurtry failed to play “We Can’t Make It Here,” a brainstorm that intrepidly describes the despair of so many Americans and that has fueled campaigns.  

That said, McMurtry gave his all. Even after holding court for such a long time alone, he graciously returned to the stage after a passionate standing ovation. At one point, he mentioned a concert where the audience was less than appreciative. “They’re idiots,” yelled a fan. Yeah, I’d say that’s true. 

*All photos © Philamonjaro

James McMurtry  

Shortly after ringing in the New Year, troubadour Nicholas Tremulis, prodigal son of a jazz pianist and blues vocalist, will be blowing out Chicago City Winery candles in celebration of his 60-year birthday (not to mention three decades in show business!) and the release of Rarified World. 

Long-term fans will be also be pleased to know that special cuts from Island Record’s chestnut, More Than the Truth (one of eight studio albums Tremulis recorded with Chris Blackwell’s reggae-plus-more label), will balance out the explosive set list. 

To help him rejoice, of course, will be the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra’s Derek Brand, Rick Barnes, Larry Beers, and John Pirruccello as well as Prodigal 9 players: Renee Robinson, veteran NTO musician, Roger Reupert, Jose Rendon, Isiah Oby and James Perkins — with whom he’ll be recording a brand new album in the coming year. 

But on the evening of January 9, imagine sipping wine and enjoying great sight lines, while enjoying a host of players that have shared the stage with the likes of Albert Collins, Aretha Franklin and Ringo Starr. That said, Tremulis alone boasts performing/recording gigs with super stars: Marianne Faithful, New York Doll, David Johansen, “Be My Baby” Ronnie Spector as well as blues stalwart Hubert Sumlin and Windy City-based Wilco.  

Anyone who has witnessed Tremulis pack a local venue, can testify how his raw magnetism attracts and inspires fellow musicians. To that end, his thrilling side work with Candy Golde, The Fauntleroys (with Alejandro Escovedo) and the Chi-Town Social Club (including Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones, Vince Wiburn Jr. (Miles Davis) and Shawn Christopher (Chaka Khan) requires no further exposition. 

Tipping his producer hat, Tremulis stepped into the studio to curate local folk group Bittersweet Drive. In addition, he served up some mean guitar on Bobby Whitlock’s current project. But his skillsets don’t begin and end with those projects. After Tremulis scored a documentary on architect Carlo Bontempi, he waltzed away with a coveted Emmy. And his reign as radio host for half a decade on WXRT’s The Eclectic Company secured a whole, new audience. 

But as far as the upcoming City Winery concert, be prepared not only to rock, but to acquire truth from this native son’s astute observations. Wielding unparalleled street cred, defiant prose, and traffic-stopping vocals, Nicholas Tremulis is arguably one of the most transparent storytellers of his era. And with his all-star band that story can only grow richer.   

City Winery Ticket Info