You’re a musician, so what do you do when locked down during a pandemic? Well, you certainly can’t tour. In the case of many musicians, you make a record which is exactly what the two artists in this week’s Ear Bliss spotlight accomplished. First up is the latest album from Sturgill Simpson called Cuttin’ Grass. If you are looking for the blues and rockin’ Sturgill Simpson shredding Hendrix-like on electric guitar, his latest will not be your cup of tee. Shredding on acoustic guitar, banjo, and fiddle is more like it with Cuttin’ Grass on which Simpson goes bluegrass reprising some of the best songs from his previous albums. From there we head to Sweden for an album by a newcomer to these ears named Christian Kjellvander. Titled About Love and Loving Again, it was recorded in May of 2020 at a time, when of course, much of Europe was under strict lockdown, with the famous exception of Sweden. The lack of COVID restraints allowed Kjellvander to enter a Stockholm studio with a three-piece band and make music in a normal fashion in these unprecedented times. The resulting album is one of atmospheric grace. Let’s take a look.
Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1-The Butcher Shoppe Sessions
High Top Mountain Records
Go back to his days with the band Sunday Valley and then onto his debut solo album High Top Mountain and it was pretty obvious the mighty Sturgill Simpson sure had a fondness for the bluegrass sounds of his native Kentucky. With the new 20-track Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1-The Butcher Shoppe Sessions, Simpson gets back to basics and takes a deep dive into bluegrass music. On it, he re-imagines songs taken from four previous albums including the aforementioned High Top Mountain, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and his early band Sunday Valley. Simpson cooked up the idea for the album while being homebound after being hospitalized with Coronavirus. His first album after a short-lived major label stint with Atlantic Records and a period during which he soured on music, The Butcher Shoppe Sessions reflects his renewed passion for music for which he credits bluegrass for the jolt. Said Simpson in an email to his fans announcing the album, “Doing a bluegrass album was always in my heart and in the back of my head. I had it in my mind for a long time that someday I wanted to cut as many of these songs as possible in that fashion, just organic and stripped down to the raw bones of the composition, without any heady production. If you can’t sit down and play the song like that, it’s probably not a very good song.” For the album which is an all-acoustic affair, Simpson went through his back catalogue and selected songs he thought would work best in the bluegrass setting. He and producer David Ferguson then went about enlisting a top shelf collection of talent from the bluegrass ranks to make it all work and work it does. It was Simpson’s grandfather who introduced him to bluegrass as a tyke. Whereas he didn’t quite take to it, his grandfather said to him “One day it’s gonna get in ya, and it’ll never get out.” As Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1-The Butcher Shoppe Sessions so aptly proves, his grandfather was right. Simpson sounds relaxed and in his true element returning to these organic sounds. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess.
About Love and Loving Again
Whereas musicians here in the United States were mostly locked-down last spring as far as any studio recording was concerned, in Sweden it was a different story. Adopting the “herd mentality” approach to the COVID virus made things business-as-usual in that country. The songwriter Christian Kjellvander certainly benefited from it gathering three musicians in a Stockholm studio in May to create his new album About Love and Loving Again for the Hamburg, Germany-based label Tapete Records. Born in Sweden, Kjellvander actually grew up in Seattle before making tracks back to his native land in the 1990s where he formed a band called The Loosegoats who went on to become the best-selling Americana band in Sweden lasting until 2000. In the time since there was a collaborative album with his late brother, a reuniting of The Loosegoats, and solo albums the latest of which is About Love and Loving Again released this past October. Atmospherics with an Americana flavor define the sonic landscape of this latest which is a balm to the ears when the sounds settle into a groove and wrap perfectly around the calm and rich voice of Kjellvander which at varying times recalls artists such as Bill Callahan, Leonard Cohen, and Sean Rowe. The seven songs of About Love and Loving Again, most all extended affairs pushing the seven-minute mark, move methodically striking with a subdued sort of intensity. Kjellvander’s lyrics can be heavy taking the listener from the sexual politics surrounding “Cultural Spain” to “Actually Country Gentle” which touches the recent demise of his 13-year marriage to leadoff track “Baptist Lodge” which is a farewell to the chapel-turned-recording-studio in the wilds of Sweden where he made much of his previous music. Whereas Kjellvander’s name will no doubt be unfamiliar to many on these shores, he has created with About Love and Loving Again an album worth seeking out. Visit www.tapete.de.
With the holidays nearly upon us and the COVID cases continuing their upswing, in-person live music events are beginning to dwindle in these parts. Venues that have been presenting live music include the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston, The Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich, the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, MA, and the Stadium Theater in Woonsocket with several of them also presenting live streams. Steely Dan cover band Hey Nineteen performs a live streaming event for the Courthouse Center for the Arts on Saturday evening at 8 pm. The Narrows Center for the Arts continues to host a mix of live in-person events with limited seats and streaming. Boston-based roots rocker Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles plays a live stream direct from the Narrows stage on Friday night at 8 pm. Check the Narrows web site at www.narrowscenter.showare.com for details and ticket availability. The Stadium Theater on Saturday, December 19 presents The Billy Joel Experience - Songs in the Attic at 5 pm. The Common Fence Music series based in Portsmouth is presenting periodic live stream events. Their next event is scheduled for this Sunday, December 13 at 7 pm with the song stylist Samoa Wilson with her duo the Four O’Clock Flowers. Upcoming on December 20 is award-winning harpist, singer, arranger and composer Aine Minogue. Visit the Common Fence web site at www.commonfencemusic.org for streaming information. If live music indoors is not your thing at this time, there also continues to be a steady flow of artist and venues streaming live music on various online platforms. One of the best sources for information on live streaming events is the web site Bandsintown (www.bandsintown.com). Other platforms offering streaming are Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram. Some venues offering live streaming performances worth checking out include Signature Sounds Records’ “Parlor Room Home Sessions” which live streams on most Thursday evenings, Americana Highways, and Outpost in the Burbs. Locally, Mark Cutler hits the Facebook Live stage every Wednesday evening with a show from his home at 7 pm.
Dan Ferguson is a freelance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.