Sunday, May 14, 2017

Austin City Limits: Gary Clark, Jr. and Courtney Barnett; LIve from the Belly Up: The Tilt and Dead Feather Moon (PBS, KRLU, KPBS, 2013-2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I stayed up until 1 a.m. to watch an Austin City Limits episode featuring modern-day blues singer-guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. (whom I’ve previously watched on the show billed with the great new band Alabama Shakes — PBS ran that one just after the documentary on Sister Rosetta Tharpe and damned if Alabama Shakes’ lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, Brittany Howard, didn’t come off as a virtual reincarnation of Rosetta Tharpe and the logical person to play her if someone makes a biopic!). Last time I thought Clark sounded like Jimi Hendrix as a guitarist — or at least like Hendrix lite (he seems to have picked up Jimi’s bizarre project of turning an inherently staccato instrument like the guitar into a legato one) — but was considerably more lyrical and pleasant as a singer. This time around I wasn’t quite so impressed; Clark is still a dynamite guitarist but his songs seemed less interesting and I got very tired with the falsetto he was using on most of them, which only made him sound thin and weak. He’s got four horn players and three backup singers, all of whom drowned him out at times, and the Black woman in the middle of the three backup singers seems to have a stronger and more powerful voice than he does! What’s more, the songs were pretty standard I’m-in-love-with-a-girl-and-she’s-in-love-with-someone-else stuff — even a song called “Church” (Clark only announced the last two of his five songs and so I had to guess at the titles of the other three) turned out to be yet more dreary mopiness about romantic frustration. Things perked up with his last song, “The Healing,” from a CD he’d just put out when he did this program (2015) in which he created an artistic alter ego, “Sonny Boy Slim” (he said these were nicknames he got as a boy, the first from his mother and the second from friends, though I’d always assumed he got them from Sonny Boy Williamson and Sunnyland Slim!), and pretended to be a newly rediscovered old-line blues musician. I bought that CD but wasn’t all that impressed with it, though this time around it seemed like the “Slim” material brought a fire and a sense of commitment to him his songs as “Gary Clark, Jr.” hadn’t. The second half of this Austin City Limits featured an intriguing Australian rock singer-songwriter named Courtney Barnett, whom I quite liked even though her act seemed awfully derivative — she sounds like a cross between Chrissie Hynde and a female version of Lou Reed (and the way she makes her sounds out of fragments of urban scenes and tells her stories in a dispassionate, almost journalistic manner also shows Reed’s influence), and she even wears her hair like Hynde did in the early days of The Pretenders. She leads a trio — just herself on voice and guitar, Bones Sloane on bass guitar and Dave Madie on drums — just the basics, and she has them all dress in black T-shirts and black jeans. She dresses that way herself, and the only way you can tell her apart from her two male bandmates is she’s the one with breasts and no facial hair. I liked her, though I’d have liked her even better if she’d sung with more of Hynde’s passion and power instead of lapsing into a Reedian monotone on all too many of the songs; still, she’s basically strong enough as singer, guitarist and songwriter to have a shot at stardom.

I might have been more impressed by the acts on Austin City Limits last night if I hadn’t watched the local version, Live at the Belly Up, the night before and seen a band that totally blew me away: The Tilt, a local group (based in Pacific Beach) built around its two lead members, singer Jesse Malley (a woman, even though she uses what’s normally the male spelling of her first name) and guitarist Jeff Irwin. The Tilt opened with “Oil Man,” an incredible song that featured just Malley on vocals — like at least a couple of other singers I’ve heard recently, Idina Menzel and Maren Morris, she sounds astonishingly like Janis Joplin, not just the timbral quality of her voice but the raw emotion Janis so legendarily projected — and Irwin on slide guitar. He didn’t play slide on the other six songs The Tilt played but he’s a strong player anyway — Malley and Irwin hooked up musically through a Craigslist ad she put up asking for “a blues-rock guitarist that can shred,” and she found one. The other two members of the band, bass guitarist John Urban and drummer Abel Vallejo, joined on the remaining six songs, “South,” “Going ’Round,” “Vulture Mind,” “Pandemonium,” “The Flood” and “Goin’ Down,” and The Tilt proved to be an excellent hard-rock band with blues underpinnings even though Malley towers over her bandmates as much as Janis did with the other members of her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Tilt’s Live at the Belly Up appearance was taped November 5, 2012 (though the copyright date on the show is 2013) and the second half of the program featured a fairly large group called Dead Feather Moon, whom I probably would have liked better if they hadn’t had to follow The Tilt. They seem to be working the same vein of Native American rock as Grant Lee Phillips (whose mid-1990’s album Mighty Joe Moon, under the band name Grant Lee Buffalo, is one of the unsung masterpieces of the era), but lead singer Justen Berge has a rather whiny falsetto voice that’s hardly in the same league as Phillips’ and their songs tended to sound all too similar.