This weekend on Music City Roots, we’ve got a load of live sets from The Loveless Cafe on tap just for you from Black Violin, The Hillbenders, April Verch, The Greencards, and Matt Butcher & The Schoolyard Band. Jim Lauderdale hosts.
About the artists:
It’s hard to think of another African-American violin player to make their mark in popular music, so classically trained South Florida twosome, Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste and Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester, who go by the name Black Violin are a welcome revelation for their ability to meld highbrow and pop culture, “Brandenburg” and “breakdown,” into a single genre-busting act. The band’s most recent album, Classically Trained, is the follow-up to their 2007 self-titled debut on their own Di-Versatile Music Group label, which is as good an introduction to their groundbreaking blend of classical, hip-hop, rock, R&B, and even bluegrass music. Live, they are often accompanied by their crack band, featuring ace turntable whiz DJTK (Dwayne Dayal), drummer Beatdown (Jermaine McQueen) and cellist Joe Cello (Joseph Valbrun).
“We’re the biggest independent group that no one has ever heard of, “ says Kev.
Wil B and Kev Marcus are classically trained viola and violin players who first met playing in the high school orchestra in Fort Lauderdale, FL. After graduating college, they joined up as hip-hop studio rats in the South Florida, working with several different acts before returning to their roots by fusing the two genres in a groundbreaking collaboration that has seen them play their music for everybody from the troops in Iraq to both the official President’s Inaugural Ball and the Kids Inaugural in Washington, DC, where Barack Obama himself gave each a hearty hand-shake and man hug, as First Lady Michelle Obama looked on approvingly. The pair also headlined 40 shows in two stints at the New Victory Theater on Broadway, including 16 sold-out shows over two weeks last November. Along the way, they’ve wowed audiences at the legendary Harlem Apollo Theatre, accompanied Alicia Keys’ performance of “Karma” at the 2004 Billboard Awards, and appeared with Gym Class Heroes and Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump playing the hit song, “Stereo Hearts,” for VH1’s Unplugged.
Since starting Black Violin a decade ago—named after an album by preeminent African-American swing era jazz violinist Stuff Smith—Wil B and Kev have performed an average of 200 shows a year in 49 states and 36 countries as far away as Dubai, Prague and South Africa, while appearing at official NFL celebrations for three Super Bowls and last year’s U.S. Open in Forest Hills with Jordin Sparks. The pair has played with the likes of Linkin Park member Mike Shinoda’s Fort Minor, while opening for Fat Joe, Akon and the Wu-Tang Clan. Individually and together, Black Violin has collaborated with the likes of P. Diddy, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin and The Eagles. Kev supplied strings for a track on Lupe Fiasco’s Grammy-nominated Food & Liquor 2 album, and appeared on the Meek Mill cut “Maybach Curtains” with John Legend, Rick Ross and Nas. Wil and Kev also scored an episode of CSI: New York, adapting the finale of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly for an on-screen murder.
“It’s now time to spread the word about Black Violin,” insists Kev. “The groundswell is just beginning.”
“It’s something everyone can enjoy, whether you’re an 80-year-old grandmother or a kid in kindergarten,” adds Wil B. “It’s classical, hip-hop, rock, R&B, pop… just good music.”
Take a listen to songs like “Jammin’,” “Dirty Orchestra,” “Virtuoso,” “Rock Anthem” or “Brandenburg,” which puts the “backbeat” to Bach’s famed concertos, or check out Wil B and Kev Marcus strut the stage with their instruments like rock stars on their YouTube page, effortlessly combining different forms of music. With Wil B’s smooth vocals, Black Violin has even begun to explore R&B and soul on songs like the dreamy “End of the World” and the plaintive ballad, “Interlude (Tiffany).” The result is inspiring to all ages, though Black Violin remains particularly committed to turning young fans on to their own potential through a tireless schedule of appearances at schools, where they constantly stress the importance of arts education. Their “triumph” is the outcome of a decade-long effort that has seen them bridge the gap between the worlds of classical and popular music.
“We’re passionate about it because we realize how fortunate we were to grow up having access to that,” explains Wil B. “It’s something in which we take a great deal of pride. We encourage kids to think creatively, to take what they love doing and try to come up with something no one has ever done before. And that doesn’t just apply to playing violin or even music, but whatever it is you decide to do. Expand your mind. Once we get their attention with the music, that’s the message we want to deliver.”
The video for the song “Triumph” illustrates the concept perfectly, as a young boy is faced with choosing between the temptations of the street and picking up a musical instrument at school.
“Black Violin is all about overcoming your obstacles and staying strong,” says Wil, something he and Kev have achieved in their decade together.
“It takes 10 years to become an overnight sensation,” nods Kev. “This is just the beginning for us. Our best selling point is, we could be anywhere in the world before any kind of audience, when we pull out our instruments, people stop what they’re doing and watch.”
“We’re looking to break out of our own box and grow the brand,” concludes Wil. “We’re living proof that people can overcome their obstacles and triumph. This is something new and fresh. We want people to see what we’re all about.”
Once you do, you will never forget Black Violin.
“This is awesome – Ladies and gentlemen, once again, The HillBenders!” The shouts and cheers of the 2012 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival attendees fill the tent as the band tunes up for their encore. The guitarist, sporting a headband and John Lennon sunglasses, approaches the microphone. “Folks, we apologize in advance if one of us falls into your tent…we plan on playing all night tonight!” The supercharged crowd roars in response.
This is the typical energy of any HillBenders performance. The dynamic bluegrass quintet from Springfield, MO with their high-octane shows, tight harmonies and stunning instrumental prowess, have been winning fans and making waves at every festival they have been invited, and consequently re-invited to since their formation in 2008. Recently signed to Nashville-based roots music company the Compass Records Group, the HillBenders will release their new album Can You Hear Me? on September 25th, presenting an intensely charismatic album imbued with the spirit and energy of their live shows. “Our music appeals to anyone that can enjoy a fun performance. We share a passion for the music, a passion to perform,” says guitarist Jim Rea, “It’s evident we have fun on stage. People come up to us and say sarcastically, ‘liven up!’”
Thus the challenge in recording Can You Hear Me? was clear — the band had to capture their undeniable live appeal on the twelve tracks, eight of which are originals. Lead singer and mandolinist Nolan Lawrence with Jim Rea and his cousin Gary Rea on guitar and bass respectively, banjoist Mark Cassidy and Dobroist Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves channeled the rawness and intensity of bands like Newgrass Revival into the carefully executed arrangements. They worked closely with roots music engineer and producer Bil VornDick for an album that aligned their diverse tastes and styles while showcasing the collective talent of each band member, including a grassified cover of the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” and Hal Ketchum’s country hit, “Past the Point of Rescue,” which includes a samba-grass breakdown after the second chorus.
The album-opening “Train Whistle,” is a rambling train song, a staple to the bluegrass band, though the band hesitates the genre distinction. “Bluegrass is where we found our voice as performers, so we feel like we owe a lot to it. We have one foot in bluegrass all the time while the other is reaching out and exploring our interests in rock and roll, jazz, funk and Americana,” says Chad. By winning the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition in 2009 and the National Single Microphone Championship the following year, the band became favorites on the bluegrass festival scene with their own brand of acoustic fusion. “A lot of people, even at the more traditional festivals, tell us ‘You guys are so fun to listen to!’ This comes from the die-hard traditionalists. They are saying that it is really refreshing to see something new. At the same time we’re not afraid to be looked down upon – all of that formality melts away when we just be ourselves.”
The HillBenders recognize their ability to bridge the gap between the common music consumer and the bluegrass genre, selecting material for the album that defies any hillbilly stigmas. Nolan comments, “With our widely varied influences, we’re all trying to bring in songs that unify. We wanted to pair bluegrass with the other American music we grew up with —rock and roll!” Their festival appearances also reflect the crossover; the band recently played the very traditional Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival and the esteemed Philadelphia Folk Festival on back to bay days on the same weekend.
Still, the heart of the new album draws from the band’s live performances. Nolan adds, “If the music isn’t played with intensity, you can tell. You have to play the music with that passion or it just isn’t going to sound right.” Can You Hear Me? is an album that showcases a young band with ambition and talent at a volume that comes across loud and clear.
April Verch has never sounded more comfortable in her skin than she does now, in the second decade of her career as an internationally touring Canadian fiddler, step dancer and singersongwriter. Her ninth album, Bright Like Gold, captures a woman who’s fleshed out her identity and is in full command of her gifts, a woman who’s grown from a prodigy into an enduring artist—one of music’s most unforgiving public transitions—with grace and grit to spare.
The April Verch Band—rounded out by bassist and clawhammer banjo player Cody Walters and guitarist Hayes Griffin, who has a Masters in jazz improv from the New England Conservatory—is an energetic, virtuosic, tradition-celebrating outfit, not to mention one that’s not soon forgotten when they depart the stage. It doesn’t hurt that the thrilling grand finale involves Verch fiddling and step dancing—and often executing two entirely different intricate rhythmic patterns—at once.
Something else that’s downright impressive is the range of material Verch, Walters and Griffin inhabit on the new album. She’s so fluent in folk traditions—the Canadian ones she was born into and the American ones she later found her way to—that old fiddle tunes like those featured in the Canadian medley “Dusty Miller,” “Fiddle Fingers” and “Grizzly Bear” and the Appalachian medley “Edward in the Treetop,” “Yellow Jacket” and “Quit That Tickling Me” sound positively reinvigorated. Originals like her instrumental waltz “Morris & Boris” and country courting number “The Only One” are clearly made to last.
What makes the latter song even more special is that Bluegrass Hall of Famer Mac Wiseman’s voice is on it, and he’s not the only guest of note. Premier old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky joins Verch for some handsome dual fiddling on “Evening Star Waltz,” and bluegrass banjo icon Sammy Shelor appears on “Davy Davy” and “Folding Down the Sheets.” Griffin’s “Foolish Heart” offers a playful take on western swing, Walters’ “Raven In the Hemlock” unfurls melodic surprises and Verch’s “Broken” and “Sorry” have real emotional heft. The fact that she also chose to include “No Other Would Do”—the only song her dad’s ever written—perfectly completes the musical circle.
Verch, leader of this self-assured ensemble, is claiming her power as an artist and a woman, and taking charge of her recording process. Produced by Verch, Walters, Griffin, and their engineer Chris Rosser, Bright Like Gold is, quite literally, the album of Verch’s life.
It’s a wonder to behold Verch pulling off those pristine double-time triplets with her feet, and the myriad other ways she’s made good on the promise she showed at a tender age by becoming an artist in touch with roots and in her element. She won’t be the one to mention her championship titles to you, or even the fact that she represented Canada’s fiddling tradition by performing in the Opening Ceremonies at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “The accolades are important and noteworthy and special to me,” she says, “but what I think is most impressive to me is that I’ve been doing this full time since 2000. We make a living playing music that we love and it touches other people. I feel like we’re extremely lucky to do that, but also I work really hard, not just at the music, but at every aspect of our career, to make that happen. That we find a way to make it work, and have had that kind of longevity, that’s impressive to me.”
And rightfully so. Verch has perfected the art of winning fans for life.
From their first down-beat in 2002, through tours with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, The Greencards have won hearts and acclaim for their multi-dimensional Americana vision.
Their new album, Sweetheart of the Sun produced by Gary Paczosa (John Prine, Alison Krauss, Sarah Jarosz) is filled with songs that reference water, along with the often-related concepts of motion and travel. The Greencards co-founders Kym Warner and Carol Young focused on those aspects of their lives to craft a unified sonic document, one that catalogues their journeys while transporting listeners to a beautiful, welcoming world.
Drawing on their Aussie upbringings, their American experiences and their restless natures, The Greencards use imagery and instrumentation to evoke moods and suggest movement; the songs themselves ebb and flow like tides.
Young and Warner have traveled far, literally and metaphorically, since forming The Greencards in 2003 after transplanting themselves in Austin TX. Their debut album, Movin’ On, earned them a deal with Nashville-based Dualtone Records, so they headed east. Weather and Water, Viridian, Fascination and The Brick Album followed, along with two Grammy nominations, a 2006 Americana Honors & Awards win as New/Emerging Artist Of The Year, and a number one position on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart.
Not only does the guest list in this wonderful body of music contain some of Nashville and Austin’s finest, Sons of Fathers, Aoife O’Donovan and Gusters’ Luke Reynolds, it’s also a short-list of The Greencards’ favorites – purposely gathered together as a gift of sorts to their supportive fans. The band’s last release, 2011’s The Brick Album, was a collaboration with those fans; donors who helped get it made even got their own “bricks” in the album art. But this time, says Warner, “We wanted to turn the tables and give back.”
Yes, Sweetheart of the Sun is one special voyage. The time to book passage is now.
“This imported band is making some of the finest Americana around.” –RollingStone.com
“Laid-back tunes that land in a sweet spot halfway between Americana and bluegrass.” – TIME MAGAZINE
“Their album is simply stunning.” –BUDDY MILLER
Matt Butcher and The Schoolyard Band are a rock n roll trio based in Nashville, TN. Members include Matt Butcher on vocals and guitar, Cullen Tierney on bass, and Pete Pulkrabek on drums. Their debut album, The Kids are Gone will be released in early 2014. The album was recorded at the Fry Pharmacy in Old Hickory, TN and produced by rockabilly legend Chris Casello. The songs were cut live to two inch tape and are brimming with classic influences. It’s a ragged affair that brings to mind the work of The Faces, Lou Reed, and The Kinks. A reminder that rock n roll, above all, is gloriously dumb. Says Butcher, “We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, just put our own spin on it.”