Music Abounds, In Jim We Trust: Day Two at the Signature Sounds 20th Anniversary
Eilen Jewell on
Signature Sounds’ unofficial mantra is “Music Abounds.” It says so on the right edge of 20th Anniversary insignia, printed on a 5-foot-by-5-foot circular sign that sits high above the center of the Academy of Music stage. The set design is minimalist, with lights occasionally changing from their standard white to a soft purple or a glowing orange. Three humbly lit chandeliers hang above, and an expansive white sheet is set at the back with two white curtains on either side.
And that’s about it.
It’s Saturday night, and true to the mantra, music is in abundance. Music colors the space more than any effect or celebration.
The bill is bursting at the seams, a mini-festival that starts earlier and ends later than any of the other four shows, but with names of less repute to the casual fan. Friday was Chris Smither’s 70th birthday party, and Sunday will have two shows: a matinee for the Crooked Still reunion show, then a night headlined by Lake Street Dive, the label’s hottest current commodity. Saturday doesn’t have any specific billing, but it deserves one.
In retrospect, the mantra should b “In Jim We Trust.”
Before Heather Maloney's set, long-time Pioneer Valley radio personality Johnny Memphis takes the stage for some warm words. He tells a story about being at the Green River Festival, which Jim Olsen - Signature Sounds founder and owner -- has organized for the better part of twenty years. At the beer tent, a women said, "I don't know any of these bands, but I'm having such a good time!" Johnny's brother-in-law was behind her, and said, "You don't have to know them; Jim Olsen knows them!"
It's true. After 20 years, Olsen's recommendation has become a guarantee of quality, and it's obvious on Saturday. Friday was a look back, but Saturday is a step forward. The strength of the Signature Sounds catalog is obvious as it takes center stage, with six acts playing over five hours, each leaving their stamp on the set. It's a repurposing and reinvigorating of roots music that turns into a new-fashioned hootenanny, making the Northampton of Academy of Music feel like the Ryman Auditorium, albeit devoid of pomp and circumstance.
It's not a surprise, and it shouldn't be. "Music abounds." (It should.) "In Jim We Trust." (We should.) Music has overrun the town, and on Saturday night, it's at its most copious.
After Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers play a set fit for a Texas jukebox, Olsen takes the stage to introduce the next act, and he quips about the strangeness of today's musical landscape, joking (but not really) that "all the best country bands are from Brooklyn."
The curtain rises to the Sweetback Sisters, who are (numerically) a big band and (aesthetically) a big band, or some neo-country-version of a big band. Emily Miller and Zara Bode sing, swing, and sway in matching black-striped dresses, while their backing band sets pastel cowboy flannels against guitars, an upright bass, drums, and a fiddle. They bring a dancey honky-tonk Vaudeville vibe to the stage, especially on "Looking for a Fight," where Bode mock-flexes and balls her fist. On the trucking song “Be Back Home Tonight," the band trades vocals and drives on rockabilly licks that now sound ironically authentic. They harken back to before Top 40 country, but with a modern twist and energy that only a full ensemble can bring ... especially one anchored by Bode's soul and Miller's harmonies.
Again, the curtain falls and rises, this time to Barnstar! (The exclamation point is theirs, not mine.) They stand five in a line, and five microphones mirror the quintet, who pass singing duties up and down over the course of the set. Each has strings in hand, all but one in a suit. Olsen calls them "the best dressed band in bluegrass"—Charlie Rose dawns a cowboy hat and banjo, Zachariah Hickman wears a curled-mustache and a stand-up bass, and guitar-player Mark Erelli has an unsurprising smile and Stetson-covered head. At the end of the line is the father-son duo of Taylor "Old Train" Armeding on mandolin and Jake Armeding on violin; the family resemblance is obvious in their tall, wiry frames and Americana acumen.
Barnstar! are bluegrass traditionalists in appearance and set-up, but in action, they have a sense of humor that equals their time-honored ways, playing a sly, polished set with a wink. The quintet launches in to a cover of Dawes's "When My Time Comes," Patty Griffin’s "Flaming Red," and a re-imagined bluegrass version of the Hold Steady's "Sequestered in Memphis," where the pop-punk chorus fits the motley crew:
In bar light, she looked alright
In daylight, she looked desperate
That's alright, I was desperate too
I'm getting pretty sick of this interview
Subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis.
They end on a cover of "Stay" by Rod Stewart, where the five are joined by the Sweetback Sisters, and invite whomever else is backstage to come join them before the curtain falls for intermission. But Barnstar! is not gone long. When Heather Maloney reignites the crowd following the break, she invites Hickman and Erelli out, and they help her on a cover of Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball."
"You might think different of me after this," Maloney warns. "I just ask you don't picture the music video."
The three give the song the depth of a folk standard, especially Maloney, who radiates passion, singing with her eyes closed, lost in the words. Those who have consciously avoided Cyrus can't suspect that the song was made famous by a Disney-star-turned-media-pariah. They're too busy being enchanted.
Of all the acts thus far, Maloney seems the most poised for stardom: she has the wide-eyed energy of youth, the most impressive vocal range of the last 48 hours, and her originals (including "Nightstand Drawer" and "Dirt and Stardust") stand up lyrically to any of the more experienced acts. When she plays "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell, Maloney takes ownership of the song in a way that makes it feel like she wrote it. She is Happy Valley’s Mitchell, filling the stage fully even when she plays solo (though she doesn't often, inviting out Ryan Hommel from the Sweetback Sisters, the aforementioned members of Barnstar!, and Flora Reed and Philip Price from Winterpills, whose set follows Maloney's).
Winterpills has the longest standing relationship with the label of any act in the catalog: singer and guitar player Reed has worked with Olsen for 17 years, and her arrival at the company allowed Signature Sounds to go full-time. The group is a pleasant change from the more traditional sounds, with an indie-rock style that's not present in the other acts. Winterpills has had a five-album run on Signature Sounds, which Olsen glows about in their introduction. It makes sense; Reed and Price's vocals are dreamy and whimsical, almost tonally engrained in each song. They sound like what would happen if the Shins and Explosions in the Sky started a folk band.
Tonight’s headliner is the Eilen Jewell Band, but any of the other names could have run on the marquee and fulfilled the promise. Jewell and her band are no different, and their energy and attitude is contagious: dressed in all black, they look and sound like an outlaw country lounge band, bringing a smooth wrecklessness on every song.
This is their first show in six months, after Eilen "went and had a baby” with husband and drummer Jason Beek. But, motherhood hasn't softened Jewell too much; she still wears the crown of The Queen of the Minor Key, showing so on "Where They Never Say Your Name."
Following the haunting barroom anthem, Jewell says, "Let's do a violent little song right now," with her soft Boise-drawl.
The band launches into the sassy, pounding "Bang, Bang, Bang," a song where Cupid totes a gun instead of a bow and arrow:
He was bragging about his sawed-off six gauge
Hidden right up his tattered sleeve
I asked him if the gun had a sight
How can you hit your mark that way
Little cupid, he just laughed outright
He said I don’t take aim I just bang bang bang.
Greaser-chic bassist Johnny Sciascia drives the deep thump of the song. He's "America's bass player" (self-billed), and is a joy to watch count each number in, crack wise between songs, spin his stand-up like a top, and kick his feet with the final drum rolls. Guitarist Jerry Miller uses the distinct Grestch sound on his orangze electric to praddle off dizzying solo after dizzying solo, occasionally slowing down on Jewell's more melancholy numbers (which are few and far between during the celebration).
Jewell is laugh-out-loud funny through the course of the night, with a dry, unassuming wit. A fan shouts out "Santa Fe!" and Jewell asks back "You wanna hear 'Santa Fe?'" When the the crowd cheers approvingly, with a smirk, Jewell says, "Well too bad, cause I don't remember it.”
The set rolls on through "High Shelf Booze," the new "Rio Grande," and "Drop Down Daddy," played for Jim Olsen. But the set becomes a true new-fashioned hootenanny when the band does a cover the Ronettes' "Be My Little Baby" with the Sweetback Sisters, then ends with the Gospel standard "I Saw the Light.'"
On "I Saw the Light," the stage is full with the night's performers, the better part of six different acts trading choruses, trading verses, and passing around solos; despite the six month hiatus, Jewell and her band glow in being back on stage, even after the transformation of motherhood. It’s a good thing, too: in just over 12 hours, the whole cast will be back with more musicians for their all-Gospel outfit the Sacred Shakers, who have a set of their own at the Sunday matinee.
At one point during the raucous evening, Jed Hilly gives Olsen a momentary break from his Master of Ceremonies duty. Hilly is the Director of the Americana Music Foundation, and his organization is sponsoruing Sunday night's performance. But Hilly has arrived a day early to witness the music that currently abounds and punctuates his stay.
Hilly enters stage right with a black jacket, oversized scarf, weathered jeans, square-framed glasses, and a fully, scraggly mop of formerly brown, now salt and pepper, hair. He looks as he should—a man who runs a non-profit, in the name of down-home American art.
Hilly begins his introduction of Barnstar! by telling the crowd something they seem to already know: how lucky they are to have Signature Sounds in their community, and how lucky they are to have a label that believes in the music they produce and promote.
But he goes further, clarifying new terminology for old music. Americana, as he says, is a "beautiful umbrella" to cover the types of storytellers on display this weekend. It's an all encompassing term for a genre that is, first and foremost, about artists: "Artists that create the best art they can create,” says Hilly. “We believe it's fine art, not commercial art ... it's the music that will last for generations."
Saturday's music is played in a style that dates back generations, and the hope is that it will last for generations going forward. Things look bright. Right now, that music is alive and well, thanks to people like Hilly, Olsen, and Johnny Memphis.
But above all, this fresh air in Americana is a credit to the artists, whose names we might not have known before entering, but who we now won't soon forget. We're no different than the woman in the beer tent: we may not know all the bands, but that doesn’t keep us from having a good time. And we don't have to know them, because Jim Olsen does.
On Saturday, music abounds. In Jim We Trust.