Smiling through

Upbeat Jonathan Edwards hits Ogunquit for birthday show

Though born in Minnesota, raised in Virginia and college educated in Ohio, Jonathan Edwards is a New Englander all the way. He came here in 1967, hoping to get a record deal with his bluegrass band Sugar Creek. “We didn’t know at the time that we were about three years too late for that,” Edwards said in a recent phone interview; the scene had peaked. “But we stayed here anyway.”

Their first show after a long drive from the Midwest was on the Harvard Green; a humbling experience, Edwards recalled.

“We found a place to park right in front of the stage, and there was Earth Opera playing,” a seminal Boston band including  David Grisman and Peter Rowan. “We had never seen nor heard anything like that in our little parochial life in Ohio… it was like, ‘uh oh, we’re in some high, deep cotton here, boys.’”

Sugar Creek did make, 1969’s Please Tell A Friend. Other than that, though, the band gained little traction, and Edwards went solo in the early 1970s. “I liked the sound of bronze strings on rosewood better than steel strings on magnets,” was how he explained the decision in one interview.

It’s that spirit Edwards is bringing to his shows of late. All are solo, apart from longtime piano player Tom Snow joining him on his birthday July 28 in Ogunquit – “he’s giving me himself,” Edwards said with a laugh.

“It brings me back to how I started out,” he continued. “The first night I walked out on stage, I wasn’t 20 feet from the microphone and somebody yelled out, ‘you suck!’ I figured I no place to go but up from that point.”

That he did – his first record spawned the monster hit “Sunshine,” and found him opening for the Allman Brothers, B.B. King and other greats. Edwards has made 15 albums since, including the buoyant Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy and four other 70s LPs, a bluegrass collaboration with Seldom Scene, and a children’s collection called Little Hands.

His most recent is Tomorrow’s Child, which came a relatively short time after his first studio collection in over a dozen years, 2011’s My Love Will Keep. What sparked the creative burst?

“I had taken some time off to be on the road and enjoy that aspect of creativity, but the stars all fell together,” Edwards said, crediting songwriter and producer Darrell Scott for inspiration. “We got together and he made this amazing dinner; we started talking songs and playing guitars and pretty soon we had an albums worth of tunes right there on the table.”

Many were deeply personal songs, touching on Edwards’ experience as an adopted child, and his public revelation that in the mid-1960s, he’d given up a child for adoption. “They all fell into this category of family and love and reunion… all these things that I was going through pretty hard at the time,” he said. “It all fell together really magically and that’s what you’re left with on the sound of that record.”

Few interviews with Edwards fail to touch upon his biggest hit. “‘Sunshine’ was a perfect song for the Vietnam era and what my generation was going through,” he said when the subject came up. “It’s still clinging to it today, and I’m proud of that. I’m glad that my one hit song in the world wasn’t ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I Got Love In My Tummy.’”

Were it not for a producer accidentally erasing a song called “Please Find Me” (seriously), “Sunshine” wouldn’t have been on the record at all, causing all manner of cosmic dominoes not to fall.

“It probably would have come out on another album, had I had a chance to do another album,” Edwards said, adding that if a first record stiffs there’s no guarantee of a second. “These are the hands of fate that come in and mix up the pot, and point you in a direction that you have no control over… you have to be aware of those course corrections, and take advantage of those moments, because they’re important.“

Mountain sound

Denver trio brings Dream Rock to Manchester

Anyone claiming that electronic music is just kids with laptops hasn’t witnessed a performance by Evanoff. Sure, there are two Ableton-equipped MacBook Pros onstage, synched together like twin minds and packed with loops, effects and other studio created sounds, but when band namesake JJ Evanoff plays guitar, icons like Hendrix, Zappa and Jeff Beck come to mind, not Skrillex.

Don’t let the gear distract; Evanoff is a music machine.

The Denver trio calls its sound Dream Rock, a melding of classic influences and modern wizardry. “It has a very cinematic feel, a lot of very big synths and cutting edge electronic production, but we’re still very rooted in rock and roll,” JJ Evanoff said in a recent phone interview. “A lot of our songs have a dreamy ethereal feel, and a hard edge.”

JJ Evanoff cites David Gilmour and Pete Townshend as key influences. He learned the entirety of Pink Floyd’s The Wall in middle school, and his first public performance was a rendition of “Pinball Wizard” that resulted in his friends carrying him off the stage in triumph like a game-winning athlete.

A few years later, he attended a Sound Tribe Sector 9 show and saw his future. “In high school, I got very into electronic music, and the other guys here (keyboard player Brennan Forrester and drummer Jake Hall) also did,” he said,. “When I saw that (STS9), I knew it was possible to merge those two worlds into one cohesive musical experience.”

An Evanoff show is a body moving experience, sweaty and energetic, all the while showcasing astounding musicality. Programmed lights add force to the overall presentation, waves of synthesizers and space age sounds punctuated by JJ Evanoff’s tastefully frenetic fretwork. The recently released single “Dahlia” is a tour de force, layer upon layer of keys, and acoustic guitar samples set atop a pulsing rhythm bed, leading to a soaring Evanoff solo worthy of his guitar heroes.

Sometimes, the tribute as more direct, as on the Hendrix/Funkadelic mashup, “We Want The Foxy Lady.”

Huge in their hometown, often selling out big venues, Evanoff is calibrating its efforts for a national stage. A force at festivals, they’re busy cultivating audiences city by city. An upcoming  show in Manchester is their second this year.

“It honestly was one of our favorite shows, the crowd is very lively,” JJ said of their January appearance at Penuche’s Music Hall in the Queen City. “We’ve had a lot of a social media engagement from fans around the area, and we’re really excited to come back.”

As he talked, JJ Evanoff and his mates were motoring east from a gig in the Rocky Mountain town of Crested Butte, on a tour that would start with a show in New York City followed by their first appearance at the massive Camp Bisco Festival.

“It has a lot of our idols,” JJ Evanoff said of a festival bill that includes The Disco Biscuits, Bassnectar and Umphrey’s McGee – not to mention STS9. “We get to network, meet people, and we’re getting to  kick off the festival at the space by the wave pool. Which is supposed to be one of the better sets, because everybody is just chilling there during the day. So we think it’s gonna be a pretty big opportunity for us.”

Taking a net-savvy approach to building a national following, Evanoff is releasing a song a month on Facebook, Spotify, Soundcloud and other platforms; “Dreamin’” is the latest; it came out in early July.

“The typical jam band model, where you tour as much as humanly possible so you get a chance to play for fans in all these little cities, is very different from the rest of the music industry,” JJ Evanoff said, adding that the group’s goal is “to tour where our fans are…  gradually lean more in that direction [and] and see if we can really grow our online presence.”

Heavy music

Balkun Brothers play two Cisco shows

Appears in 11 July 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene

Fuhgeddabout Greta Van Fleet, veering from homage to pastiche as it attempts to be the next Zeppelin; the future of rock and roll past is Balkun Brothers. The Connecticut sibling duo’s sound is a molten melting pot of blues, punk, metal and psychedelic swamp boogie. It’s how the Black Keys with Johnny Winter and Lemmy Kilmister might have sounded.

Steve and Nick Balkun have lately stamped their passports at many key stops on the sonic highways. They jammed with Watermelon Slim in Clarksdale, Mississippi, visited Jim Morrison’s Paris grave, cut a live LP in Memphis at Sun Studio, and played the Mountain Jam Festival.

For the two, it’s a journey of both creation and experience.

“We’re fans first,” Nick said by telephone while driving to Summerfest in Milwaukee and a gig opening for Black Crowes front man Chris Robinson. “You just get a respect for what it is to be in an underground art form – rock and blues is very underground in my opinion. I like studying all about the old blues and rock guys. We’re huge fans of the genres that we’re in; we’re living it.”

Balkun Brothers are a two-man band for the same reason they’re rooted in the blues – necessity and sheer will. “The only club around us in Hartford that would let underage musicians into the open mics,” Nick said, was a blues joint. “If we wanted to play live and get our chops, we had to go there.”

The duo move happened after multiple tries to augment Steve’s guitar and Nick’s drums failed. Bass players either quit from exhaustion or got fired; different combos sputtered. “We had a horn section, other guitar players, we had a five-piece band for a while,” Nick said. “Then we had a bassist on a tour opening for Eric Sardinas, a huge influence of ours. He kept getting drunk every night, and we were like, ‘screw this – we’re just going to be a duo.’”

They’d just been signed to a French blues label, who loved the idea, “because it would be cheaper to put us on tour as a two piece,” Nick said, adding that they faced a few challenges in the new stripped down format. “We both have to play leads now. I have to play a lot more, do more double bass, more stuff that is really full sounding.”

His brother, a certified luthier, got to work. “Steve built himself two custom baritone guitars that have dual outputs so he goes to a bass amp and guitar amp and cranks them up to a million,” Nick said. “I have a drum machine too, so we have some crazy stuff going on onstage. It sounds like at least a three person band.”

Because they’re as honest as they are relentless, some gadgetry is verboten. “We improvise way too much to loop,” Nick said. “The most exciting part of a show for us can be writing songs on stage… we do it all the time, every night. Looping can be awesome, too but it’s just not our thing.”

A new studio album was just completed, produced by Steve Albini, who worked with Nirvana, Fugazi, The Breeders, Iggy and many more. Due for release early next year, it ups the ante for the already intense band. The title track, “Here Comes The End Of The World,” is jet-fueled punk fury at its finest. The other six songs don’t pull any punches either.  

The forthcoming disc was mastered at Third Man Records, and when the two arrived in Detroit to complete it, they were greeted with some news. “Jack White was at the studio, and the producer was like, ‘hey man, just wanted to let you know the boss is here,’” Nick recalled; they’d been double booked.

White  broke the ice by coming over to say hello. “He was super cool, and apologized about interrupting our session with his producer. So we got some magical rock and roll dust sprinkled on the album.”

Balkun Brothers

When: Friday and Saturday, July 12 & 13, 7 p.m.

Where: Cisco Brewers, 35 Corporate Dr, Pease International Tradeport, Portsmouth

More: balkunbrothers.com

Family Band

“…hardscrabble poetry, with a finger on the pulse of profound realities contained in ordinary struggles.”

On the road with Shovels & Rope

Shovels & Rope at Pickathon 2018

There’s a moment in the 2014 documentary The Ballad of Shovels and Rope when Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst sit at a kitchen table and muse upon what success might bring. “I’d like to see the world… and have it be paid for by a song,” Hearst says. “The ultimate goal is to keep on being able to do it, keep on liking to do it, so we don’t have to do something else to be happy.”

Trent agrees. “It’d be nice to make a living at it,” he adds, “maybe have some rug rats; curtain climbers.” Hearst smiles beatifically in response, her back to a wall decorated with hand drawn band logos and photos from the road.

With tenacity, it all came true.

The scene was from 2010; two years later, the duo’s debut album O’ Be Joyful was released, and the autobiographical “Birmingham” helped bring their dream to life. The tune won Song of The Year at the 2013 Americana Music Awards; it depicts the desire required to break through in a grave new world of streams and social media. “Making something out of nothing with a scratcher and our hope,” they sing, “with two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”

It was hardscrabble poetry, with a finger on the pulse of profound realities contained in ordinary struggles.

Shovels & Rope have since made three studio albums. The last two, 2016’s Little Seeds and the newly released By Blood, reflect their lives as parents to a three-old daughter and newborn son. One song on the new LP tells the story of a magical horse reuniting torn apart families; “C’mon Utah” will become a children’s book later this year.

With prescience typical for a duo that filmed its rise while one of them still had a day job, the tune came before news of border camps and cages caught the public eye. “Michael brought that song to the pile really early in the writing process,” Hearst said during a recent joint interview. “At the time there wasn’t an epidemic of families being separated from their children.”

In the futuristic tale, a wall has been built and fallen; in its wake, the lost wander the rubble looking for loved ones. “Our vision was that it would be a story that folks would be telling their kids around a campfire,” Hearst continued. “To ease their anxiety in the night, like, ‘don’t worry, there’s this magic horse… he knows how to find who you’re looking for.’”

Puerto Rican artist Julio Cotto Rivera is illustrating the book. “His drawings are awesome, unique – extreme symbolism,” Hearst said. “It’s suitable to read to children but more like an art book or graphic novelette… in theory it will be out before the end of the summer.”

Currently, the duo are opening for Tedeschi Trucks Band as part of their annual Wheels of Soul tour. Michael and Cary Ann’s  kids are with them on the bus, with a nanny. “The first one broke us in the saddle pretty well, so two hasn’t been a huge change on the road,” Hearst said when asked how it was going. “It’s more interesting at home because we don’t have any help.”

That last point was felt during recording of By Blood. To better focus, the two built a separate studio outside their house.

“It was our responsibility to ourselves,” Trent said. “The last record was a big time learning experience. With Little Seeds, we had a little person for the first time in our house, and the scheduling was a little bit jarring… We thought, ‘oh, yeah, we’ll just have a neighbor come over and they’ll hold the baby for two hours while we go up and cut the vocals.’ Just because the neighbor is holding the baby doesn’t mean that the baby isn’t screaming in the next room.”

“The first one was a crier,” Hearst interjected. “We should predicate.”

“Anyway,” Trent continued, “we’ve gotten a little bit savvy over the past few years and figured out how to balance regular lives with making music. It’s tricky, but totally doable.”

When: Saturday, July 13, 7 p.m.

Wheels of Soul 2019

Where: Bank of NH Pavilion, 72 Meadowbrook Lane, Gilford

More: $39.75 – $135.75 at banknhpavilion.com

Fire starters

Rising star band Honeysuckle celebrate new release

Deft instrumental interplay, gorgeous three-part harmonies, preternatural timing; Honeysuckle possess all the elements of a stellar acoustic roots band. Four consecutive Boston Music Award nominations, culminating with a win in 2018, and a nod from NPR (2016 Bands to Watch So Far) are among the accolades backing up this notion.

On the just released third LP, Fire Starter, there’s extra mojo as the band – Holly McGarry, Chris Bloniarz and Benjamin Burns – probe the modern world with stunning emotional intelligence. Take “I Love My Phone,” which complains about how technology begets alienation – “illuminated faces I used to know” – but ultimately takes a longer view.

The McGarry written “To The Grave” describes a buried secret and wonders if it’s held out of courage or cruelty, finally unburdening it with a declaration that, “time won’t heal you.”  Another, “We’ll Die Young,” is a 27 Club bit of gallows humor wrapped around memories of friendship. On it, the three voices melt together like fine whiskey, sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters.

The closest thing to a love song is “MissYou,” a rocked-up kiss-off that starts the new album.

“Thematically, we write about relationships, but typically the non-romantic kind,” McGarry explained in a recent phone interview. “A lot of mine is processing family… Ben is writing more about some friendships that have impacted him in a similar way. It’s not just blood family that shapes you, but that chosen family as well.”

Honeysuckle came together at Berklee College of Music. McGarry grew up in Sand Point, a musically rich town in the Idaho panhandle. She began gigging in her teens, playing shows with Shook Twins, a popular local band, planning to continue after high school. Until her father mentioned that Gillian Welch, her favorite songwriter, was a Berklee alum, and suggested she apply.

“It felt like an on a whim thing, this huge music college so far from home but I thought why not? They offered me a partial scholarship, so at that point it seemed like it would be silly not to give it a try. I was very lucky, but it was… a really hard year of being so far from home.”

McGarry and Burns began writing together for school projects, and she started dating Bloniarz; the two men are in a band called Grey Season. They came together as a trio organically, McGarry recalled, when Burns played a harmonized line in a song and Bloniarz jumped in with his instrument, and an a-ha moment happened. “There was this third part that we didn’t know was missing until we heard it instrumentally and vocally.”

Early on, Honeysuckle reworked many of McGarry’s songs – she’d released two solo albums before coming to Berklee – with unified results. “Chris and Ben play off each other in a really interesting way,” McGarry said. “The interplay between the two of them and what they’ve done arranging wise is what really made it a band instead of just solo artists with guest musicians. It’s just as much theirs as it is mine now.”

McGarry is also glad for being able to share the ups and downs of touring. “At a festival you’ll get a thunderstorm, or your car’s gonna break down on the way to the biggest gig of your life,” she said. “It’s more fun to be in a band than solo when something goes wrong… otherwise, you’ve got no one to laugh it off with; you have to sit and carry it.”

Cohesiveness rises to another level on Fire Starter. “I actually did more cowriting on this record with Chris; in the past it was more Ben and I collaborating,” McGarry said. “It’s been really interesting because Chris comes from a little different musical background, a little more rocking, I guess. He loves Metallica, unlike Ben and I. It’s brought a slightly different flavor to things… which is sort of fun.”

Brotherly Love – Edgar Winter remembers Johnny in tribute album

Memories abound as the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaches. Edgar Winter sees the three-day festival as a catalyst for his career. At the time, he was a member of his brother Johnny’s band, but had no real ambitions of his own. Then he stepped on stage and everything changed.

“I just remember this moment of looking out over this endless sea of humanity and thinking ‘wow, this is really something amazing,’” Winter said in a recent phone interview. “Just the whole thing being set against the social backdrop of the civil rights and the peace movement. Seeing all those people united, brought together in that unique way just changed my whole perspective on music.”

It was a “transformative moment,” he continued. “I decided I would really apply myself, and that’s when I got interested not just in the type of music that I would play for my own enjoyment – which wasn’t going to find much of an audience – but thinking about communication, other than just something to satisfy myself.”

Growing up in Texas, the two brothers jammed together from an early age. Johnny emerged as an ace guitarist; Edgar did the rest. “I was the weird kid that played all the instruments,” he said. “I liked to figure out the arrangements and show everyone what to play. There wasn’t any sibling rivalry; I just loved music in and of itself, not as a means to an end.”

“I just loved music in and of itself, not as a means to an end.”

Johnny, though, wanted to be a star, and desire led him to New York City. Edgar followed. He expected the music scene there to intimidate him, but something else happened. He found a new appreciation for his home state. “I had no understanding of what a special area that was musically,” he said. “Real cowboys playing country music, authentic old blues guys; it’s close to the Mexican border, so you’ve got hot Latin rhythm players.”

He also spent a lot of time in Louisiana, with its adventurous music and 18 year old drinking age. “The Bible Belt is a couple of notches looser there,” he said with a laugh. “We called the French Cajun sound swamp music, and then the term Zydeco came into vogue. I loved all that New Orleans stuff as well, Dr. John & Allen Toussaint. And North Texas is a great music school, with an infusion of really educated musicians… it’s all indigenous music, it’s real.”

The most important factor remains his older brother, who passed away in 2014. “He and I were so close as kids,” he said. “We did everything together, and he’s my all-time musical hero. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am. I might have been a struggling jazz musician, an engineer, or a teacher.

Edgar is now at work on a tribute album, something he resisted doing for many years. “I always got the feeling that it was business people that wanted to exploit Johnny’s name and memory and I didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” he said. Bruce Quarto, a rock fan who made millions in technology and used it to start a record label, changed his mind. “He wanted to do it for all the right reasons.”

An all-star cast includes fellow Texan Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Joe Walsh, Edgar’s old bandmate Rick Derringer, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Slash and Joe Bonamassa. He’s excited to add Buddy Guy and singer Bobby Rush – “I wanted to do a tribute to Muddy, which I know Johnny would have wanted, and the whole Chicago blues thing,” he said. “I decided to do ‘Mojo,’ which is pretty much a Muddy signature song.”

Also on board for a duet are Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal, along with veteran guitarists Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. There is no release date for the ever-expanding effort. “Bruce said to do as much as we want; we’ve got 16 songs and may wind up recording more,” Winter said, adding he’d love to get Jeff Beck.

“When Johnny passed away it was so totally unexpected,” he continued. “Playing his music turned out to be a great source of strength and healing to me… making this album is totally a joyous experience; it’s really something I feel I was meant to do, and I haven’t had that feeling in a long time.”

Edgar Winter performs Sunday, June 23, 7 p.m. at Tupelo Music Hall (10 A Street, Derry) . Tickets are $40-$45 at tupelohall.com

This story appears in the June 20, 2019 issue of Hippo Press

Rising Above – The indefatigable MB Padfield

What does it take to be a musician? That’s an oft-heard question, but equally important is another: Is there anything that  could cause a performer to give up and walk away? For MB Padfield, the answer is an emphatic no. 

Adversity simply made Padfield’s psychic fingertips more calloused and ready for the fretboard of life. She was playing full-time in her teens, becoming a habitué of bars she couldn’t drink in, and battling alcoholism anyway. A year and a half ago, she put her belongings in a U-Haul and moved to Los Angeles, only to have her life’s work stolen when she arrived. 

It’s all she ever wanted – a life in music.

The experiences merely made Padfield double down on the only plan she was certain life had for her. Now over five years sober, she’s juggling a career that includes playing gigs and recording her own music while jingle writing and performing behind the scenes of countless endeavors that quietly pay the bills.

It’s all she ever wanted – a life in music.

Recently, Padfield posted a short manifesto on her Facebook page, writing of struggle and triumph – the Berklee professor who tried shaming her into another career, and the sweet taste of financial independence she left in his wake. “I’ve played 1000+ shows. Yes, really. You’ve probably heard my writing/voice/work and have had no idea,” she said, ending joyfully, “we’re just getting started – don’t sleep.”

Bravado aside, losing all her songwriting to a thief was a hard blow, Padfield recalled in a recent phone interview. “I was pretty depressed,” she said. “When you have stacks of notebooks, you’ll remember some stuff, but you’re never going to write that same song twice – and why would you ?  You’ve already created it.”

She bounced back by plunging into unknown territory. With the help of musician friend Joe Sambo, she got work singing on commercials. “I started getting more involved with them, then I was in their audio department, writing jingles, learning how to craft the choruses,” she said, adding, “the world of advertising is very similar to writing pop music.”

Her credits include two spots for Subaru, commercials in Japan, and most recently a Mickey Mouse 90thBirthday ad for Disney that’s also running in Japan. “I’m tapping into a lot of different music income streams,” Padfield said. “It all pieces together to let me do what I do.”

That “do” is making her own music, which is a challenge amidst relentless gigging. “What some people don’t necessarily understand is how creatively demanding writing is,” she said. “I can’t play six nights a week AND write… that’s how we get a lot of really sad songs about being on the road.”

One solution is coming back home to New England for a marathon of performing every summer. From the start of June until mid-September, Padfield has no fewer than 83 appearances booked, including nearly two dozen at Bernie’s Beach Bar in Hampton (if any club owners are reading, she’d love a Wednesday residency – hit her up on mbpadfield.com).

“It’s very hard, and obviously I’m a one woman operation,” she explained. “I don’t necessarily have a couple band mates that I can delegate tasks to either, which has its pros and cons. But it’s very difficult for me to be creative to the level that I want… of course, I could write whatever, but I want to write stuff that I am passionate about.”

Playing mostly cover songs on the beach, Padfield uses a loop pedal and changes up her set list frequently to keep things interesting. She plays requests, and loves to be thanked with largesse. “The tip jar pays my groceries, helps get my songs mixed,” she said. “I really want to take things to the next level, and I’m completely unable to do that without people.”

This story appears in the June 20, 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene