Labels matter. Record labels, that is.
I came of age when my go-to labels were Flying Fish, Rounder, and ECM. They had not just an identity, a personality, they had taste. They knew what was good and filled in the cracks where the majors feared to tread. Sure, there were other labels, and the majors had some very fine folks, but it was the indie labels that stayed true to their mission.
Even though things have become splintered and self-releasing has been on the rise, labels, as well as albums, still matter. One such label that matters is Yep Roc.
Yep Roc Records
Yep Roc had earlier celebrated its 15th anniversary with a bash featuring many of its artists, and due to a conflict, I declined. But I promised myself if they had another one in five years time I was going. So when Yep Roc 20 was announced I made my plans. And I am glad that I did.
Wesley Stace, whom I had seen several times, was the MC for the three days. He not only performed a few songs here and there, he was a natural at hosting. His self-deprecating and irreverent manner, and his jokes and texts from his young daughter, fit right in with the crowd that had come as far away as Seattle and California, and even from a radio station in northwestern Canada. That is dedication.
There were two notable announcements from the stage that weekend: Alejandro Esccovedo had just signed with them, and Jim Lauderdale’s album with the legendary Roland White (mandolin player with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and so many more) would be released next year. Both big wows for me.
All three nights were held at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC, just down the road from the label’s offices, and next to Chapel Hill. It was a private party every evening, with special cans of beer provided by Mystery Brewing featuring the likenesses of Nick Lowe, the Alvin brothers, and others. So it made perfect sense when Tift Merritt came on stage, popped a top, and exclaimed, “I’m having a Nick Lowe” before imbibing and beginning her set. Recently moved back to the area after years in New York, and just a day before she would leave for a European tour with baby in tow, Merritt set a high bar for the long weekend with an inspired set that followed.
Nick Lowe, Phil & Dave Alvin, and Alejandro Escovedo rose to that challenge, and then some. Lowe had a solo set Thursday eve and a set the next night with Los Straitjackets. Both Lowe sets pleased the crowd to no end. Especially ending Friday night encore of the “Batman Theme” followed by “Peace, Love and Understanding.” Lowe, it seems, is the Godfather of the label, appearing two nights.
The Alvin brothers, with Phil center stage, can still blast their way out of any club and make every show essential, which they did on Saturday night. In covering Big Bill Boonzy and James Brown, as well as originals, you knew they are royalty. They were joined for the last song by Jimmie Dale Gilmore (who's on tour with them) covering the Youngbloods’ “People Get Together.”
As effective as those sets were, Escovedo pulled out all the stops on Friday night. With a cello, violin, pedal steel, horn, as well as a regular band, he put on one whale of a rocking show. It was his way announcing that he is back, and in a big way. The audience was in full agreement.
WUNC and Hillsborough Park
Our “club” opened itself up Saturday, in partnership with local NPR affiliate WUNC and some local supporters. After a late Friday night, Saturday morning came pretty early when WUNC taped a podcast featuring the Stray Birds, Jim Lauderdale, Kim Richey, and Chuck Prophet and one half of Mandolin Orange (Emily Frantz was running a half marathon) performing songs and talking about their origins. It was an intimate performance, even if most of us were only half awake.
That afternoon, all of them, plus a tanned and playful Tony Joe White and Frantz freshly showered from her run, were part of a free concert outdoors at a local park in nearby Hillsborough. It was a sunny, relaxed autumn afternoon filled with families, dogs, and picnic blankets. Yep Roc also sponsored a silent auction of eight test pressings with signatures of the respective artists. At last look, the Rockpile pressing with Lowe’s signature was up to $275. All proceeds went to four local nonprofits, including Girls Rock NC, which empowers young women in music.
Closing Night Extras
But the festivities were not all love and understanding. Dressy Bessy gave a set that reminded me of my CBGB days, with a tongue-in-cheek scowl and hard-edged guitar. But the best line of the event was delivered by one of the guys in Jeremy & the Harlequins (a fab Philly soul-inspired rock band from New York that played it as if Dylan and the Beatles had never existed, whose lead singer had a red bandana hanging out of his left hip pocket): “In these troubled and uncertain times, it is OK to beat the crap out of a Nazi.”
With that in mind, scroll though some delicious pics of Yep Roc 20. They just might cause you to plan five years ahead for YR’s silver anniversary. I know I am.