Patrick Warren

Joe Henry & Sam Phillips at Largo (Feb. 21, 2014, Los Angeles, CA)

[Below you can read my thoughts on the (historic?) pairing of Joe Henry and Sam Phillips at Largo at The Coronet last weekend.  You can also check out the recap from Randy Lewis of the LA Times (thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for the link).]

I suppose I’ve tried to make it somewhat of a personal tradition to attend a Joe Henry show when it happens to be at Largo in West Hollywood.  The Coronet Theatre is, in my opinion, the finest listening room in the world, and JH has a long association with Largo, dating back to its original club location on N. Fairfax.  These days, it is sometimes the only place where you can see him collaborate with the highly respected (and in-demand) musicians who have appeared on many of his records.

Sam Phillips shares this association – and many others – with Joe Henry, and their pairing last Saturday at Largo was even more natural in reality than it would seem on paper.  These two extraordinary artists share not only common tastes in musicians but simply appear to have been cut from the same cosmic cloth as songwriters and performers.  The audience might have been fairly evenly divided between the artists’ respective (and devoted) fan bases, but their purpose felt entirely united throughout the evening.

The evening featured two shows, both topping two hours.  The first was a sold-out marathon, and the second was a more intimate reprise attended largely by diehards from the first performance.  The sets were similar, though the first likely was stretched a bit longer by the first public performance of JH’s “Sign” from Invisible Hour, easily one of his best and most epic songs.

Highlights from both sets included:

  • Sam Phillips opening each show with Stephen Merritt’s “Underwear”
  • Daughter Simone’s angelic vocals filtered with ethereal echo for “Cameras In The Sky”
  • Sam and Simone’s rendition of JH’s “Stop”, accompanied only by Eric Gorfain’s looped violin parts
  • The transition to Joe’s portion of the show with an acoustic duet on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”
  • The acoustic arrangement of “Trampoline”
  • The touching tribute to both Malcolm X and Nina Simone (murdered and born, respectively, also on Feb. 21) with “All Blues Hail Mary”
  • JH’s rendition of Sam’s “Reflecting Light,” with a melody, according to Joe, “worthy of Nat Cole”
  • The encore featuring all players on Sam Phillips’ “One Day Late”

And, of course, to the surprise of nobody in attendance, the musicians onstage were the true highlight: Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos, Levon Henry, Patrick Warren and Eric Gorfain.  To those who recognize those names from their numerous collaborations with Joe and Sam, you already know that these players are truly miraculous.

I will admit that each time I’ve spent all morning on a plane from Texas to LA (usually with a turnaround the next day), I’ve wondered if it would be my last such trip.  Of course, humility should render the answer unknowable, in any case.  But so long as I have any say in the matter, I’m sure you’ve guessed that my answer is: no, probably not the last.

Bettye LaVette’s ‘Worthy’ out today

BettyeLaVette_WorthyWell, I’m only about three listens in to the exceptional, Joe Henry-produced new album by Bettye LaVette, but I’m more than comfortable placing Worthy in my personal Top Five Joe Henry Productions.  A true master class of song selection, production, pacing and performace, Worthy lives up to its title and then some. It’s hard to know where to start — certainly the additional decade of experience between JH and Bettye LaVette is on full display (remember that back in 2004 JH was actually a somewhat new name among hired producers).  As always, the players on a JH production play a key role.  Along with stellar support from Doyle Bramhall II, Chris Bruce and Jay Bellerose (and yes, Levon Henry contributes a horn arrangement to one track), I’d have to give the MVP nod to Patrick Warren’s piano, which adds perhaps the most unexpectedly distinctive voice to the songs. Of course, nothing can compare to LaVette’s uncanny ability to transform others’ songs into something quite her own.  Her interpretive gifts are a wonder to behold and this record more than justifies her place among the elite singers of our time. A few release day notes…

  • Bettye LaVette was slated to begin her two-week residency at Café Carlyle in NYC, but I believe tonight’s performance has been postponed or canceled due to the ongoing blizzard in the Northeast.  Check with the venue for confirmation and word on the rest of the week’s performances.
  • Jim Farber has a nice article on LaVette in the New York Daily News.
  • There’s a great piece in this month’s Mix Magazine, with JH and Ryan Freeland discussing the recording of Worthy.
  • You can hear the record in its entirety over at The Wall Street Journal.
  • Mark Deming has a rave review of the record on All Music Guide.
  • PopMatters’ Colin McGuire give Worthy and 8 out of 10.
  • Blurt’s Michael Toland delivers an insightful, four-star review.
  • Photos from Wednesday’s performance at Café Carlyle (Bettye was also interviewed by Paul Schaefer).
  • A recent interview with The Guardian.
  • UPDATED:  Josh Hurst contributes his review to Medium.

BTW, my autographed copy arrived yesterday, which can be purchased from LaVette’s website, in both the standard edition and deluxe edition (which includes a DVD performance from July 2014 in London).

Early winter Joe Henry update

First, apologies for the light blogging.  I suppose it’s time to crawl out of the woodwork and pass along some of the recent happenings in JH’s universe.

Many thanks and kudos to Stefan for keeping the flame burning in my absence and holding down the European front.  He’s been tireless in his efforts, and much of what you’ll read here I heard about from his blog.

  • In that spirit, be sure to check out Stefan’s interview with JH regarding his passion for vintage guitars.
  • Stefan also first tipped me to JH’s production work on a marvelous new Christmas record by Irish artist Caitriona O’Leary called The Wexford Carols.  For this fascinating collection of nearly forgotten Christmas folk ballads, she is joined by Rhiannon Giddens, Tom Jones and Rosanne Cash.  What a beautiful and surprising holiday collection.  It is available only as an import stateside, but it available in the U.S. iTunes store.
  • Speaking of beautiful Christmas music, Over The Rhine have released their new collection Blood Oranges in the Snow.  Though JH lends no production to this one, frequent collaborators Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos and Eric Heywood hold down much of the musical support for the album.  And nobody does Christmas music quite like OtR!
  • The first exciting JH production news for 2015 is that Bettye LaVette will release her new album, Worthy, on Jan. 27.  It features that talents of Jay Bellerose, Doyle Bramhall II, Patrick Warren and Chris Bruce and will available as a deluxe edition with a live performance DVD (pre-order regular edition here, and deluxe edition here).
  • Big, big live performance news for 2015:  JH and Sam Phillips will join forces for two nights (Feb. 21 & 22) at Largo in West Hollywood.  They will share the stage – and a band – for the two evenings.  I’m pretty sure names like Bellerose and Condos will be involved (tickets for Feb. 21, Feb. 22).
  • As a reminder, JH will also have a string of live performances in January.
  • Nell Robinson recently released an interesting CD that was produced by JH at Garfield House.  Rose of No-Man’s Land is Robinson’s tribute to her family’s long tradition of military service, woven together from letters and reflections by her Alabama family.  Ramblin’ Jack, Kris Kristofferson and John Doe all make guest appearances.
  • One final related note… Jay Bellerose continues to be a go-to player for most of T Bone Burnett’s projects.  Therefore, it will come as no surprise that his percussive stamp is all over The New Basement Tapes’ Lost on the River.  Jay can also be found (shyly) in front of the camera for the accompanying Showtime documentary about the project (previous notes on this project here).

Joe Henry at Largo at The Coronet (June 21, 2014)

IMG_4614This was my third Joe Henry show at Largo in Los Angeles, and if you’ve ever attended one of these shows, you know they are something special – a hometown show in front of a rapt audience, including many friends and family.  Saturday evening’s performances – an early acoustic solo set followed by a full band show – were no exception while also being quite exceptional.  The chance to see two unique performances in one evening is rare enough; to see JH perform with some of his most trusted allies – Patrick Warren on piano, Levon Henry on sax and clarinet, Jennifer Condos on electric bass, Jay Bellerose on drums and percussive racket and Greg Leisz on acoustic guitar and lap slide guitar – is nothing short of amazing (not to mention increasingly rare due to the demand on these players’ schedules).

Naturally both sets featured many songs from the new release, Invisible Hour.  JH was bristling with energy, humor and confidence during both sets, an impressive feat considering he’d played the night before in San Francisco.  Largo audiences are simply the best listeners I’ve ever encountered at any venue in the United States, and I can’t really tell you anything about this show that isn’t obvious by my description so far.  It was announced that Joe would sign CD’s after the show, and true to form, he sprung into the courtyard mere minutes after walking offstage to greet a sizable number of friends and fans.  I said a very brief hello and goodnight, and I imagine that he was there until the early morning hours, friendly and courteous as always.

I’ve tried to recall the general setlist from my bleary-eyed memory (please send me corrections and omissions if you have any).  I’ve denoted the songs as follows – *both sets, +acoustic set, ^band set:

  • Odetta*
  • Eyes Out For You*
  • Believer (new song described as a cross between “Amazing Grace” and “Let’s Get It On”)+
  • Sparrow*
  • Invisible Hour*
  • Grave Angels*
  • Swayed*
  • Monkey (piano)*
  • Our Song (piano)+
  • Lead Me On+
  • After The War+
  • God Only Knows (piano)+
  • Plainspeak*
  • Progress of Love^
  • Stop^
  • All Blues Hail Mary (really awesome – probably my fave of the night)^
  • You Can’t Fail Me Now^
  • Every Sorrow^
  • Unspeakable^
Encore – acoustic set:
  • Trampoline (with 14 yr old Charlie Hickey – really beautiful)+
  • Kindness of the World+
Encore – band set:
  • Plainspeak*
  • Slide^

And, of course, JH and Levon are back on the road this week, starting with The Birchmere in D.C. this Tuesday.  Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion will be joining him, and they are well worth catching as well.

UPDATE:  Fantastic review from The Hollywood Reporter.  Full setlist included in the article.