Friday, September 26, 2014

CLT rapper Stranger Day brings community together on new album

Hip-hop has been on my mind a lot lately. The story I did earlier this month on Charlotte rapper Deniro Farrar got me thinking about where hip-hop is heading, especially locally. Then there was the three day history lesson/nostalgia trip that began with DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist's tribute to Afrika Bambaataa, which explored hip-hop's origins through its forefather's record collection. The next night I was reminded of my own introduction to rap via Funk Fest where some of its earliest purveyors Salt n' Pepa and LL Cool J provided a childhood musical flashback ("Going Back to Cali!").

Outkast's Friday night Funk Fest set was a reminder of how universally far reaching hip-hop came from those early years to the point where Outkast ruled pop radio. The entire practice of categorizing music attempts to marginalize hip-hop, but when Doug E. Fresh blasts through a couple decades worth of hits it’s a reminder that hip-hop is some of the most universal music out there. And as stylistic borders continue to breakdown, genre-hopping music that blurs these lines reflects more accurately how people actually listen to and enjoy music. Not by genre, but personal preference and quality (I guess we still have some devout metalheads, goths, purists, and punks, but the average listeners tastes aren't that limited).

So to close out a month rich-in-hip-hop, here comes "Graves," an eclectic, versatile, yet cohesive new album by Charlotte rapper Stranger Day (pictured). Like Farrar and our own Mr. Invisible (whose Justin Aswell appears on "Graves"), musically the Joel Khouri-produced album often builds on futuristic, textured, ambient, beat-driven tracks (as well as rock, blues, and soul) that have as much in common with indie-rock and electronic music as what we think of as "mainstream."

Stranger Day celebrates the album's release tonight at Neighborhood Theatre.

With a delivery that embraces his Southerness, rapper Shane Coble (aka Stranger Day) often hones in on what it's like to be a product of the modern South - the push and pull of open-minded, forward thinking youth in an area that holds fast to its conservative roots. The line "Never held on to a Bible, but I've held on to a rifle" is probably true for a lot of younger people in the South and simultaneously encompasses what both liberals and conservatives think is wrong with youth in the South. 

On that same track, "Sea Full of Lions," he writes of his love/hate relationship with the city ("I love where I'm from/But why do I stay in town/Because I hate this ******* city/But I love who I’m around").  I think this is a struggle a lot of Charlotte artists deal with - the struggle to leave for opportunities in other more arts and entertainment-focused cities verses the human ties that bind (veteran rapper Supastition, who I covered this summer, left Charlotte for Atlanta - not just for music, but for a day job).

"Graves" illustrates these human ties as well as the strength of our music community through a number of local and regional guest musicians.  When rappers (especially lesser known ones) stack their albums with famous guests I get the impression that it's a marketing ploy to build exposure and play on known names. The guests on "Graves" aren't famous though. Yet they are some of the most active and talented musicians in town and their input feels like true collaboration. Getting back to that Southern identity theme, Jams F. Kennedy's brilliantly relatable closing spot on the NC-themed "Thunder Road" for instance simultaneously skewers Carolina stereotypes while honoring them.

By bringing musicians from a variety of styles into the fold, Coble not only expands the scope of the record but reveals what else these artists are capable of beyond their own bands. Alex Kastanas and Ally Hoffmann, for instance, bring more than just hook singing to their respective roles. They infuse those tracks with their identities as well. It's great to hear Kastanas, who plays live frequently but still seems to be getting started as an opening act live, step up in the studio. She has an incredible, unique voice and brings bluesy soulful sass to "Process." Ally Hoffmann (formerly of rock band Center of the Sun) brings an ethereal presence to "Razor Blades." Terrence Richard, who's known for fitful howls and shouts in Junior Astronomers, turns in a soulful, laid back vocal on "Trade Standoff" but still sounds very much like himself.

"Graves" does step out of the trippy, electronic mode several times. "God Shaped Hole" creates a sort of electronic goth hip-hop hybrid with Charlotte's Little Bull Lee's assist. "Please Tell 'Em" rides on gnarly Hill Country blues. The slide rubs grittily against metallic resonator guitar which creates a parallel to lyrics that describe the similarly opposing relationship between a carefree, party-minded lifestyle and authority.

Coble addresses authority and corruption (which comes up more than once) directly on "Raw For Profit" ("What’s the price tag on your conscious?"). Given everything from Ferguson to NC politics, his lyrics are often timely and he touches on those ideas throughout. 

Musically he flips from the Southern swagger of "Please Tell `Em" to citified synth on "Death is A Killer" then grows ever darker on the stark "Hi Fives for Low Lifes" and winds up in complete party mode with the Elevator Jay and Lotta-aided closer "All In Together Now." The often dark album ends on a colorful up note and showcases Charlotte emcees bonded by the party and the scene with Scott Weaver (BabyShaker) added a punchy trumpet line.

It's not often an album is considered in the context of what's going on locally and nationally in a musical sense, as well as a broader social one. But with all that's going on in Charlotte hip-hop now, maybe we're nearing a place of national consideration.  

Stranger Day's album release concert tonight at Neighborhood Theatre will feature many of the guests on the album, so it should be a rare showcase for all sorts of Charlotte talent. Admission is free before 11 p.m. and $5 after that.

(Tintype photo by Jeff Howlett)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

This week's hot concerts

Stranger Day
Friday  9:30 p.m., Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St., Free before 11 p.m., $5 after 11 p.m.,
The Charlotte rapper stacked his new album “Graves” with an eclectic mix of area musicians including Junior Astronomers’ Terrence Richard, Modern Primitives’ Travis Phillips, Little Bull Lee, Alex Kastanas, Ally Hoffmann, Scott Weaver, Justin Aswell, Elevator Jay, and Lotta - many of whom join him on stage to celebrate the record’s release. (Adult language in the above video)

Uncorked: Wine Tasting and Live Music
Saturday  1 p.m., US National Whitewater Center, 1000 Whitewater Center Pkwy, Free (tasting $35), 
Following the Wild Vine half marathon and trail race, runners and sunners can unwind with 15 local, regional and national wineries (one ticket is good for 12 samples) and some of the finest blues and Americana around courtesy of blues vet Bob Margolin, Americana royalty Alejandro Escovedo, and jazz grass combo the Jon Stickley Trio.

Ben Folds
Saturday  8 p.m., Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St., $55-$89,  
The NC native will perform the 25-minute three-part concerto that he composed for piano and orchestra and premiered in his hometown of Nashville in March with the Charlotte Symphony, who will also accompany him on re-orchestrated versions of his many pop hits.

The Wood Brothers
Saturday  8 p.m., McGlohon Theatre, 345 N. College St., $18.50-$26.50,
Together brothers Chris (of Medeski Martin & Wood) and Oliver (of King Johnson) make twangy, bluesy roots  music that resonates with a richness and worn-in authenticity. It remains modern in its vibrant color and emotional depth - qualities often so unique to sibling projects like their album “Muse.”

Scythian with Josh Daniel/Mark Schimick Project
Saturday  8 p.m., Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St., $15-$17,
The DC-based festival favorite calls its lively world roots music “immigrant rock” and infuses it with Celtic, gypsy, and its band members’ Ukrainian roots . It returns on the heels of the new album “Jump at the Sun” before heading to Ireland. The opener features the New Familiars’ Daniel with mandolin virtuoso Schmick of Larry Keel’s band.

Saturday  9 p.m., Tremont, 400 W. Tremont Ave., $10-$13,
There’s more to this Charlotte rock band’s geekery than just the apt description “atmospheric sci-fi metal.” The band draws musically from the Deftones and Tool while taking a visual cue from comics-tied Coheed & Cambria. It celebrates its debut album and the corresponding comic series, “The Ghost Children Chronicles” which acts as a companion to its music.

Sarah Borges/Girls Guns & Glory
Saturday  10:30 p.m., Evening Muse, 3227 N. Davidson St., $10-$12,
The Boston roots rock singer/guitarist’s new album “Radio Sweetheart” (her first without band the Broken Singles) finds her growing more confident as a sassy frontwoman and rock guitarist. Having teamed up for a seven inch vinyl single of duets (including “I Got You Babe”), Borges’ label mates also serve as her backing band.

My Brightest Diamond
Tuesday  7 p.m., Visulite, 1615 Elizabeth Ave., $15,
Musician Shara Worden, who kicked off her tour this week in her hometown of Detroit, creates one of the most exhilarating records of the year with “This is My Hand,” which skirts world music, bright, bold electronica, sprightly jazz, and avant garde rock topped with Worden’s dreamy, layered vocals.

Charli XCX
Tuesday  8 p.m., Amos’, 1423 S. Tryon St., $18-$20,  
After guest spots on Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (both tracks she co-wrote), the British pop writer/performer enjoyed her own hit in “The Fault in Our Stars’” lead single “Boom Clap.” She stops in while readying her next full-length, “Sucker,” for October release and before heading to Europe to open for Katy Perry.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Watch Belk Theater's recent face lift

Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's Belk Theater completed its renovation earlier this month. The overhaul includes new seats, a new women's restroom, and a new look. You can get a preview of what theater and concert goers experience in the above video, which illustrates the transformation from ripping out the original chairs to installing new ones.

"The new theater seats are state of the art with built-in lighting and cup holders, but above all the seats are comfortable and will not squeak during performances," said Blumenthal President and CEO Tom Gabbard. The original seats were installed when the theater was built in 1992.

The orchestra level women's restroom was expanded and is now double its former size.Other additions include new lighting, paint, and color scheme.

Belk hosts celebrity chef Paula Dean's tonight and Ben Folds performing with the Charlotte Symphony Saturday before Once begins its Charlotte run next week.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Turnstiles lean on classic country and rock playbook on new album

Cleaning my house recently (which probably means I was obsessively arranging my four-year-old's toys as if for a window display - we all have our quirks) my iPod shuffled to the song "Thinking Back" from Charlotte band the Turnstiles' new album "Souvenir Summer." My first thought was, "Is this the new Son Volt? It's really good."

Frontman and chief songwriter Brad Thomas doesn't have Jay Farrar's signature low twang, but there's certainly something Son Volt-ish about his phrasing. For me it summons images of John Travolta and Madolyn Smith on the dancefloor at Gilley's in 1980's "Urban Cowboy" (if it's any indication of the Turnstiles' material, classics like "Lookin' For Love," "Lyin' Eyes," and "Look What You've Done to Me" all appeared on the "Urban Cowboy" soundtrack).

The honky-tonk numbers on "Souvenir Summer" remind me of Dwight Yoakam (especially "The Bright Lights of Elkin") - meaning they could've have a shot at hits in the `80s and `90s before mainstream country was so indistinguishable from pop music that it defied its own genre (honestly, how many current country hits are built on a sample and loop?). "Souvenir Summer" is closer to the country-rock of old which places it snugly in that current Americana neighborhood.

It's more textured than simple categorization implies though. "Casino Pier," for instance, is the album's wild card. It's a dark, somber tale with a flitting guitar fill that hints at the band and Thomas' versatility. The opener "Southside" charges with country-rock drive. Thomas peppers his compositions with curious images that provide a visual map of the stories he's telling, especially on songs like "Southside," "Casino Pier," and the haunting "Hillside Grave." Just the title "Guardrail Vaportrail" provides a stark image and creates curiosity - does it not?

The Turnstiles can rock with Eagles-meets-Replacements fire too ("Trustafari Safari"). They aren't just well written lyrically, but they're written musically with a sort of familiarity. That would indicate the Turnstiles, some of who I see at shows and have hosted touring bands at house shows, have done their homework when it comes to writing and arranging. Many of the songs are easily put to memory making it easy to tap a foot and sing-along on the chorus while leaning in to hear the lyrics during the verses.

The Turnstiles play the Bathtub Gin in downtown Mooresville tonight, Friday, September 19. Admission is free.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

This week's hot concerts

Brad Paisley
Friday  7 p.m., PNC Music Pavilion, 707 Pavilion Blvd., $38.91-$81.13,
Following the release of his latest album “Moonshine in the Trunk,” the country guitar whiz whose concert tours are big, show stopping productions, returns with his Country Nation World Tour. Randy Houser, Dee Jay Silver, Leah Turner, and Charlie Worsham open the show.

Jeremiah Wilde
Friday  10:30 p.m., Evening Muse, 3227 N. Davidson St., $5,
This Charlotte rock band is the next step for frontman Jeremy Vess and guitarist Jeremy Mullis, who gained local recognition in the band Vess. The new quartet (with Kevin Dudley and Joe Reese) celebrates the release of its dramatic, driving new single “Momentum.”

Saturday  7 p.m., US National Whitewater Center, 5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy, Free,
The busy family band, which has been spreading its spirited folk-pop nationally since the major label release of “Montibello Memories” in May, returns home briefly (before heading on tour again in October) for a free show - one of the last of the River Jam series’ season.

Astronautalis/Sarah Jaffe
Saturday  9 p.m., The Milestone, 3400 Tuckaseegee Rd., $14,  
The acclaimed alternative rapper and the dreamy pop-rock singer-songwriter may seem an odd pairing, but imagine a young, more hip-hop-steeped Beck and a modern, less whimsical Kate Bush playing dingy clubs together and you’ve got a recipe for “don’t miss.”

Scowl Brow
Saturday  10 p.m., Snug Harbor, 1228 Gordon St., $5,  
The punky Charlotte trio boasts the unapologetically frank and sometimes controversial biographical songwriting of frontman Robby Hale, who slings hard truths with a grain of hope like a young, yet grizzled Axl Rose. It celebrates the release of its new six-track EP that’s built on Hale’s scratchy voice, driving tempos and distorted hooks.

Lydia Loveless
Sunday  9 p.m., Double Door, 1218 Charlottetown Ave., $10-$12,  
The Ohio singer-songwriter may be the best true country songwriter out there today making non-commercial country for young women who can’t relate to the new Miranda. On her third album “Somewhere Else” her gnarly, world weary heartache and dark sense of humor come across like a twangy, raised on riot grrrl Stevie Nicks.

Coheed & Cambria
Sunday  8 p.m., The Fillmore, 1000 NC Music Factory Blvd., $40.23,
The progressive metal act recently rereleased its breakthrough 2003 album “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3,” which spawned the singles “A Favor House Atlantic” and “Blood Red Summer.” The group will revisit the album in its entirety live.

Joshua James
Sunday  7 p.m., Stage Door Theatre, 130 N. Tryon St., $18,  
Discriminating singer-songwriting junkies love this Utah transplant’s pastoral folk-based rock, which resonates with the spiritual beauty, thought, and simplicity of the life he lives as a farmer, father, husband, and brother in the mountains outside Mormon music mecca Provo.

Greensky Bluegrass
Thursday 8 p.m., Visulite, 1615 Elizabeth Ave., $17-$20, 
On its new album "If Sorrows Swim," the Kalamazoo, Mich. raised jam-grass outfit doesn't make your granddaddy's bluegrass, but the progressive band can pick with the best of them. Its live show mixes jam band improvisation, pop-rock, singer-songwriter originals, nibble fingered picking, and unusual covers.   

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Third time's the charm for Kings of Leon

In 2011, Kings of Leon cancelled the remainder of its tour right before the Tennessee band was scheduled to play Charlotte. But Charlotte obviously doesn't hold a grudge. Enthusiastic fans that sang along in all the right places packed PNC Music Pavilion Tuesday for the band's first Charlotte show since 2010.

Maybe the struggles that led to that tour cancellation three years ago have made Kings of Leon a better band because Tuesday's concert eclipsed its previous Charlotte shows. Back then its sets were either outshined by opening acts (the Black Keys and the Whigs in 2010) or lacked fire (2009's Bojangles' Coliseum show). But the reinvigorated band was on Tuesday aided by a spectacular light show and visuals.

Opening acts Young the Giant and South Africa's the Kongos made good showings. The former's Sameer Gadhia is a formidable frontman with animated moves (headbanging to shoegazer guitars for instance) that match his soaring vocals. The California band is one of few acts that seem comfortable performing for a massive amphitheater audience while still relegated to the narrow front of the stage.

Rained drenched the crowd on the lawn between bands, but that didn't seem to deter anxious fans. Kings of Leon delivered on its promise of a visual spectacle matched by a more intense live show. The opening visuals of "Supersoaker" with the lights from the giant LED backdrop bleeding through images of splashing water and paint were nothing short of stunning (see below). A series of flower petal shaped lights lowered and shot beams down at the band for "Taper Jean Girl." It was the kind of extravagance they probably could only imagine when the track (from its second album) was written.

The first half of the set was marked by Nathan and Caleb Followill's brotherly harmonies and trippy visuals ("The Immortals"). The Kings presented themselves very much as a band with Matthew taking the focus for bluesy guitar solos or playing with his teeth ("Closer"), Still recovering from last month's bus crash Nathan, who always appears the most laid back, blew bubbles, smiled and winked at the camera. Younger brother Jared Followill's crisp bass was an ever present factor continually cutting through the mix. The group is criticized for taking itself too seriously, but smiles crept across all four members' faces at some point in the night.

As promised it unearthed an older, rarely played track (which its doing in every city). Ours was the punky, driving "Happy Alone" from its debut album "Youth and Young Manhood." It kicked off the escalating latter half of the show where KOL gained momentum with each song from later era "Temple" and "Radioactive" to the older track "Molly's Chambers" and back again to the brooding "Beautiful War." During "Don't Matter" one concert goer was knocked out cold by another two rows ahead of us and reportedly hit his head on a chair as he plummeted into an unsuspecting row of fans. After a few minutes of uncertainty and mild chaos, he was revived by security and carted away giving the two teenage girls in front of us an added concert memory. The band didn't notice as it introduced the next song, "Cold Desert."

Like most acts touring amphitheaters this summer, KOL didn't utilize a tiered stage. Instead it opted for a full size screen projecting artful imagery from psychedelic swirls to fast cars, sparks and smoke (for "Pyro") and retro footage.

Despite over 20 songs, the show whizzed by quickly - another indication of renewed energy. A mix of teenage girls, frat boys and even a couple Carolina Panthers joined in for the chillingly unified group-sing of "Use Somebody," which closed the regular set.

It returned for a handful of encores, but stuck to its own material instead of doling out a surprise cover (like at Lollapalooza). It may be a far cry - and practically a different band - than the chaotic Southern blues punks that played a furious, noisy set at Neighborhood Theatre years ago, but it finally feels like Kings of Leon has grown into its arena rock shoes.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

After stormy delay OutKast rules Funk Fest stage Friday

Thankfully for patient but wet ticket holders, day one of Charlotte's second annual Funk Fest didn't succumb to rain Friday at Metroline Expo. The concert promoter and performers waited it out through the storm and didn't cancel the show despite a two hour delay for the headliner. Because really? Who wants to tell thousands of fans that they aren't going to see OutKast after waiting, not just two hours, but for well over a decade for the group to even tour again much less play Charlotte.

Until mid-evening it looked as if the outdoor festival might dodge the rainy forecast completely. The sun was beating down during Salt N' Pepa's late afternoon set during which the duo capped a string of hits with Kirk Franklin's fiery gospel anthem "Stomp." By the time Fantasia went on the schedule was already 45 minutes behind, but for those stuck in traffic getting into the parking lot when Salt N' Pepa were scheduled to hit the stage the delay was a blessing.

Backed by a full band that included horns and backup singers and wearing a sequined white Vegas showgirl-meets-Tina Turner mini dress and headband, Fantasia (above) wowed a hometown crowd and brought a bit of funk and old school soul to Funk Fest. When she dropped a snippet of Drake's "Started from the Bottom" into "Without You" my friend said, "Now that means something!"

Fantasia's past may make it hard to shake her underdog status, but she's become a Grammy winning pro whether giving her vocals a break and letting her band take the lead on an `80s medley of "Nasty Girl," "In My House," "Glamorous Life," and "The Bird" (the latter in Morris Day's absence) or raising the crowd to its feet during the modern classic "Lose to Win."

Doug E. Fresh (above) again proved that he doesn't bill himself as the World's Greatest Entertainer and the Human Beatbox for nothing. He soared at both as part emcee, part rapper, part comic, and marathon beatboxer. He appropriately adopted Cali Swag District's "Teach Me How to Dougie" and had the entire crowd on its feet as he closed his set.

It was during Fresh's set that a man in front of me folded up his lawn chair, packed it in its bag, looked me in the eye and said, "In 30 minutes, this place will be shut down." Thankfully he was partly wrong. As clouds loomed and lightning struck in the distance, an announcer informed the crowd that they were herding upper level ticket holders into the buildings on the Metrolina Expo's grounds (where they regularly hold flea markets). Those with general admission tickets were encouraged to find shelter. They huddled under metal awnings between buildings, while others braved the rain - which eventually did come - under umbrellas debating when and if promoters would cancel the show.

Roughly an hour and a half later B.O.B. (lighting up above) took the stage in a drizzle. He had his work cut out for him given the soggy, tired crowd, but won over those who, as his DJ said, consider him more of "pop star" than a rapper. His breakthrough hit "Nothin' On You" was as pop as he got, opting not to include "Airplanes." And anyone that was still on the fence as he waded into the crowd for the finale of "Still In This Bitch" was probably bouncing up and down with fists raised along with him as he shouted "They tried to shut us down about an hour ago/But we still in this bitch."

The wait for OutKast was tiresome, but worth it once the duo took the stage backed by a full band at 11:20 - two hours and five minutes after its advertised start time. Five months into their reunion Andre 3000 and Big Boi (pictured at top) were already more enthusiastic, comfortable and energetic than during their Coachella debut in April bounding into the fitting opener of "B.O.B."

They charged through "Gasoline Dreams" as the rain started back up. Dancing lasers appeared to sparkle above the crowd reflecting drops of rain. Images of Gene Kelly came to mind in the sea of umbrellas dancing in the rain. One fan pulled a detached Power 98 banner over their head. The rain came and went, but no one really cared. It somehow gave more power to the image of Andre 3000 crooning tracks like "Prototype" projected through lines of rain on the big screens during his solo portion. Wearing a black jumpsuit with the words "Hiders of Pain" printed on it, he seemed to revel in performing again. He even restarted "Hey Ya!" with a grin when the crowd didn't start dancing the first time.

Longtime collaborator Sleepy Brown joined them for "SpottiOttieDopaliscious," for Big Boi's "The Way You Move," and during an old school medley toward the end of the show. Of course they hit on all the expected "Ms. Jackson," "Roses," "Rosa Parks," and "So Fresh, So Clean" before the finale of "The Whole World."

It was approaching 1 a.m. - which honestly echoes the vibe of a Coachella or Bonnaroo - and the crowd left wet and tired, but they got their OutKast and that was really all that mattered in the end. Sadly some fans that arrived during the wait just to see OutKast were under the impression that the show had been cancelled and returned home.

Funk Fest continues Saturday with LL Cool J., Ice Cube and the Roots headlining following sets from 112, 69 Boyz, and War. There's a fifty percent chance of rain all day. Let's hope it's not enough to derail the show.

Photos by Lukas Johnson.