By Leilani Clark
With the death this week of Levon Helm, the world lost one of country-rock’s finest ambassadors. As drummer and singer for The Band, Helm was at the forefront of a musical movement, along with The Birds, Bob Dylan, Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and even Led Zeppelin at times, that combined, to fine effect, the rough-and-tumble feel of rock with the rangy, winsome tones of country music.
Fortunately, Sonoma County has produced its own country-rock ambassador in John Courage. On Saturday, April 21, at the Last Day Saloon, he celebrates the release of Don’t Fail Me Now, his first album to feature the bona fide, full-blown band known as John Courage and the Great Plains. A springtime release date is perfect for this smooth-toned, solidly produced album. Just like the black velvet drawing on the back by local artist Mica Jennings, the album is a prime soundtrack for poolside hangout sessions with a cold drinks and friends, or maybe long stints on the road driving to deserts and mountains.
While some of the lyrics are in the vein of “yearning for a pretty, long-haired lady in a short skirt who understands that behind my stoic, highway-burned face is a man who just needs real love,” the songs have an expansiveness that probably comes partially from the time Courage (nee Palmer) spent in living in New Mexico’s high desert a few years back. In one of the album’s best moments, on the song “Heartbreak Man,” the unapologetic narrator says goodbye without looking back, in the morning, or “under cover in the middle of the night,” and the lady and town about to be left behind are gifted with this caustic observation: “I miss my life back on the West Coast/I forgot my true identity/No one here knows my god-given name/They’re just in love with the fantasy.”
“Old Faithful Pulse” explores the three M’s: mortality, mystery, and misery. It sets the tone for the ensuing set of songs, well-crafted melodies that build up to crackling, sing-a-long choruses, of the type to be sung in hot, southern bars, where the only requirement is a beer in hand and a lost love lingering in the shadows near the jukebox.
The song “Middle Man” is a bluesy juke-joint tale of lies and cheating. “If it all ends tonight,” Courage sings, “how it all went down.” Money trees, devil tea, and bad men on the horizon, it’s all in there, sung with an convincingly burning sarcasm. It tells a story, and reminds us that often times the best music is told from the distant third, not necessarily the close first.
On many songs, Courage’s voice carries the languid, passionate, caramel tones similar to Chan Marshall from Cat Power, and though at times the songs are as world-weary—filled with hustlers and heartbreakers— as the famously world-sick front woman’s, the album’s 21st-century wild-west territories are subtly optimistic, bathed in golden California sunlight. The title track has a surprisingly poppy bridge, kicked up a notch with dulcet bell tones that might have come straight off Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. “You take the mountain, I’ll take the crown,” sings Courage, simultaneously giving in and remaining hopeful.
On the last track, Courage wails, “I sold my soul for rock-and-roll” in a somber, nearly cracking voice that belies his age, singing softly, sadly—seeming over it before he’s even started. “It ain’t paying up,” he bemoans in the chorus. Yet, in actuality, with this new album, music’s melodic riches have truly bestowed themselves on this particular lanky, red-headed West Coast son.
The North Bay Hootenanny presents the album release show for John Courage and the Great Plains on Saturday, April 21, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 5th Street, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $10-$12. 707.545.5876. CDs will be available for $5.00.
Here’s a video for Courage’s home demo “Game of Charades.” It’s not on the album, but it’s a nice, pensive tune.
Let's Guess the 2010 Outside Lands Lineup: Phoenix, My Morning Jacket, Furthur, Al Green, Social Distortion, The Strokes, Levon Helm, Bassnectar, Cat Power, more
I just noticed that the Outside Lands Twitter page has been dropping hints all day about the lineup for the 2010 Outside Lands festival this year, running August 14-15 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
It’s essentially an early lineup announcement—the clues aren’t that hard. Let’s figure them out.
1. Louisville, KY: “Ranger Dave’s winter hibernation is now over.”
Obviously My Morning Jacket, who were inactive all this past winter. Plus, not too many other festival-type bands from Louisville.
2. Fort Collins, CO: “Ranger Dave will be serving white russians.”
I’m thinking this is Devotchka, from Colorado with a Russian name. Update: The clue for Fort Collins is actually “Ranger Dave loves feasting on big city burritos in the town where the rams roam.” Big City Burritos and the CSU Rams are in Fort Collins, and so is Pretty Lights.
3. Woodstock, NY: “Ranger Dave loves hanging in Woodstock, NY around midnight.”
It’s gotta be Levon Helm. He holds infamous “Midnight Rambles” at his studio in Woodstock, and his tour itinerary shows him playing in L.A. on Aug. 15.
4. Los Angeles, CA: “Ranger Dave used to be a robot.”
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. (Alex Ebert used to sing for Ima Robot.)
5. Fullerton, CA: “Ranger Dave loves his Southern California punk rock from Fullerton.”
You can’t say Fullerton punk rock without saying Social Distortion.
6. Montreal, Canada: “Ranger Dave is part Arab, part Jewish and a little French Canadian.”
Chromeo, without a doubt.
7. San Francisco, CA: “Ranger Dave worships this infamous Black Rock DJ.”
Bassnectar, I’m sure, who’s a staple at Burning Man in the Black Rock desert.
8. New Orleans, LA: “Ranger Dave digs brass bands from Treme.”
The television show or the actual neighborhood? Either way, it’s probably the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, since their tour itinerary puts them in Los Angeles on Aug. 18.
9. Versailles, France: “Ranger Dave is wondering what Glendale, Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale have in common.”
Phoenix, which will make lots of people stoked.
10. Santa Cruz, CA: “Ranger Dave likes his grass from Santa Cruz via Vermont.”
Definitely the Devil Makes Three, a bluegrass trio from SC by way of Vermont.
So there you go. I think it’s interesting the festival is condensing down to just two days this year—not enough big-name headliners, possibly? Realize in years past they’ve had mainstream staples like Radiohead, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam, Black Eyed Peas and Dave Matthews, and this tiny trickle of a lineup seems meager, Billboard-wise. It’s just a trickle, though—it’s not to say they won’t bring out bigger names when they announce the full lineup June 1.
But everyone knows it’s the smaller-stage bands that really make this festival. I’m rooting for Superchunk, who only leave their hometown these days for large festivals. Everyone else besides me seems to want Faith No More.
Two-day tickets are on sale for $115, plus the usual service gouges, here. (“Sold Out,” which only means they’re temporarily off sale for a while. Golden Gate Park is huge, so don’t get too worked up about it.)
UPDATE: More clues just in!
11. Memphis, TN: “Ranger Dave is the reverend of love with single stem roses for the ladies.”
Easy—that’s Al Green.
12. Newmarket, Ontario: “Ranger Dave is in a Japanese fraternal order with Steve Guttenberg.”
That’s gotta be Tokyo Police Club. (Steve Guttenberg starred in the Police Academy movies.)
13. Niafunke, Mali: “Ranger Dave has to travel to Mali to find the blues.”
This could be any number of people, but it’s Vieux Farka Toure, Ali Farka Toure’s son, who lists the Outside Lands date on his website.
14. Warri, Nigeria: “Ranger Dave will then backpack to Nigeria on his way to Germany to cleanse his soul.”
Most likely Nneka, from Warri, whose mother is German.
15. Melbourne, Australia: “Ranger Dave raises dionaea muscipula with bad attitudes.”
That’s gotta be the Temper Trap.
Also, in early March, Kings of Leon sent out tour dates to fans that included Outside Lands. Whoops! So Kings of Leon is probably a safe bet—they have the date open on their tour itinerary. Weirdly, they’re going to be in San Diego, Irvine and Los Angeles in July, but they conspicuously aren’t playing Northern California. Most likely because Outside Lands has them for August.
UPDATE: Even more clues.
16. Los Angeles, CA: “Ranger Dave is getting frisky. He’s scared of the ghosts on the roof.”
There’s five zillion bands in L.A. and this clue is so vague, I can’t wager a guess.
17. New York City: “Ranger Dave has smuggled Ukrainian books through Staten Island.”
If this is not Gogol Bordello I will eat my hat.
18. New Orleans, LA: “Ranger Dave is floating on the other sea.”
??? Again, large field, bad aim. Galactic? Allen Toussaint? Zzzzzzz.
19. Kansas City, KS: “Ranger Dave is a fan of this French impressionist painter.”
Most likely Janelle Monae.
20. “Ranger Dave is a friend of felines big and small.”
As Tall as Lions?
21. “Simon says Ranger Dave is cruising on the Pacific Coast Highway in West LA county.”
Hmm… “Pacific Coast Highway” is the current single by Hole?
Relix Magazine published a lineup including Black Star and the Gossip this week.
And another big whoops: Rolling Stone just leaked Furthur as a headliner.
UPDATE, JUNE 1: Well, that was fun. Here’s the official press-release lineup:
Kings of Leon (Sunday Headliners)
Furthur featuring Phil Lesh & Bob Weir (Saturday Headliners)
My Morning Jacket
Nas & Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley
The Levon Helm Band
Empire of the Sun
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
The Temper Trap
The Devil Makes Three
Tokyo Police Club
Rebirth Brass Band
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub
The Budos Band
Garage A Trois feat. Stanton Moore, Marco Benevento, Skerik & Mike Dillon
Mayer Hawthorne & The County
The Pimps of Joytime
People Under the Stairs
Vieux Farke Touré
The Soft Pack
“More acts will be announced soon,” says Mr. Press Release. Two-Day tickets go on sale June 2 at 10am PST and Single-Day tickets go on sale Sunday, June 6 at 10am PST via the Outside Lands site.