Many of the musicians featured in these Saturday Soundtrack posts are like old friends who have been in my life for a long time. I have also committed to discovering music that wasn’t a part of my youth, highlighting musicians brought to my attention recently via recommendations by friends, readers, and other sources. Those new discoveries are gifts, if you will. Since we are in the gift-giving season, I want to revisit a few of those “new favorites” that may be well known to some of you, but that I just discovered in 2021.
The Avalon Jazz Band (see March 6th review) is fronted by Tatiana Eva-Marie, a Swiss-born and Brooklyn-based singer who grew up in an eclectic musical family. She used the variety of musical styles heard during her childhood to move toward swing jazz. As a long-time fan of the gypsy jazz made popular by the Hot Club de France, I am always pleased to find new (and not-so-new) groups such as the Avalon Jazz Band playing in the swing jazz style of 1930s and 1940s Paris.
Eva-Marie has a wonderful voice and captures the spirit of the Zazous, the “swing kids” of Paris, albeit with an American twist. She is “what many people would call a ‘triple threat.’ She’s brilliant, beautiful, and talented. She’s basically a Swiss fairy princess, with soul.” And the band is pretty hot as well! To prove both points, take a listen to Runnin’ Wild — and make sure to check out the break by the guy on the washboard rhythm section at the 1:35 mark.
Yasmin Williams (see January 30th review) has a sound and style that stands as “her challenge to widespread preconceptions about the music made by young Black people or acoustic guitarists. It’s Williams’s achievement that she makes that challenge sound so calming and beautiful.”
Williams released her second album, Urban Driftwood, in January, and although it was partially recorded in Takoma Park, Maryland — home to self-styled “American primitive” fingerstyle pioneer John Fahey — her music doesn’t sound like Fahey’s and it certainly isn’t primitive. Her piece Juvenescence is a lyrical, technically challenging tune, played with simple beauty and impressive virtuosity. Since first discovering her music, I’ve heard Williams playing in multiple settings over the past few months. She is clearly an artist on the rise.
A gay and Black performer working in Appalachian music, Jake Blount (see February 6th review) features “historically informed, beautifully played old-time music.” As noted on his website, “Blount specializes in the music of Black communities in the southeastern United States, and in the regional style of the Finger Lakes. A versatile performer, Blount interpolates blues, bluegrass and spirituals into the old-time string band tradition he belongs to. He foregrounds the experiences of queer people and people of color in his work.”
“I felt the need to go back to the songs my ancestors had sung, initially in the form of spirituals, and then eventually in the form of banjo and fiddle music to sort of understand how they had seen the world because songs are the only direct record they left us,” notes Blount. It is his way of responding to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone opens the 2020 album Spider Tales. “The tune comes from Lucius Smith, a Black banjo player from Sardis, Mississippi, who often performed in a band with Sid Hemphill.” In this video, Blount is playing the banjo while Nic Gareiss performs with his feet.
Low Lily (see March 27th review) is a Vermont-based band exploring the roots and branches of American folk music. This exploration takes place “with traditional influences and modern inspiration that weaves together a unique brand of acoustic music. Liz Simmons (vocals and guitar), Flynn Cohen (vocals, guitar and mandolin), and Lissa Schneckenburger (vocals and fiddle) are masterful players with deep relationships to traditional music styles ranging from bluegrass to Irish, Scottish, New England and Old Time Appalachian sounds. When you combine this with stellar composition skills and inventive arrangements you get music that is rooted yet contemporary.”
While the band members handle their various instruments with great skill, I was very much drawn to their vocal harmonizing. Hope Lingers On is a personal favorite, with an optimism that comes through even in “our darkest hour.”
Guitarist Charlie Rauh (see June 5th review) is an Alabama-born, New York City-based musician who was influenced by Duke Ellington and his “wonderfully lyrical melodic sense intertwined with dense, idiosyncratic harmony.” Rauh notes that “Playing guitar really opened up a lot of creative momentum for me, as I could play chords as well as melodies and form more developed ideas.
Rauh’s music is soft, slow, and beautiful. Here he plays a gorgeous composition, Arolen, from his 2017 release Viriditas.
Kyshona (see September 25th review) — a “music therapist gone rogue” — has a message for a broken world. I absolutely love her music and approach to healing. Kyshona (pronounced Kuh-Shauna) Armstrong began her career as a musical therapist, writing her first songs with the students and inmates under her care. As she began to write independently, she lent “her voice and music to those that feel they have been silenced or forgotten,” making her a unique figure in Nashville’s creative community and songwriting culture.
In the liner notes to Fallen People, she writes:
“In a time when we are all so divided, this song was written as a reminder that each and every one of us has an obstacle we’re trying to overcome, an emotional wound we are living with and a struggle that we’re walking with everyday. THAT is where we can all be united… in the hurting.“
Over the last few years, Kyshona has shared the stage with a host of top-flight performers. I especially enjoy her collaboration — alongside Adia Victoria, Allison Russell, and Kam Franklin — with the talented alt-country singer Margo Price in this spell-binding version of Hey Child from Price’s That’s How Rumors Get Started. When you go past the mass market in Nashville, you will discover some unexpected performances.
Speaking of Adia Victoria (see October 9th review), the South Carolina-born and Nashville-based blues singer-songwriter “wants to make the blues dangerous again” and has important stories to tell.
South Gotta Change is a powerful 2020 single produced by T. Bone Burnett (who also produced her album A Southern Gothic) that Victoria described in a release as “a prayer, an affirmation, and a battle cry all at once. It is a promise to engage in the kind of ‘good trouble’ John Lewis understood necessary to form a more perfect union.”
Trout Steak Revival (see October 23rd review) is “the quintessential Colorado string band. Defined more by expressive songwriting and heartfelt harmonies rather than any one genre, Trout Steak Revival crosses over and blends the bounds of folk, indie, bluegrass, and roots evoking its own style of Americana.”
This band can really swing. While everyone in the band jumps in on vocals, I am especially drawn to those by Bevin Foley, as heard here on this live version of Go On.
Tre Burt (see November 13th review) comes from a working-class background, just like his songwriting hero John Prine. Sacramento songwriter Burt is one of a talented group of musicians today who uses his personal experiences and perspective to reconnect folk music with its African American and protests roots.
In this mini concert from Paste Studios recorded in September of this year, Burt plays three songs live off his most recent You, Yeah You album.
Maggie Rose (see December 4th review) is a new favorite who a consulting client/new reader brought to my attention. Her vocal talents are stellar, and she both writes and interprets songs in a variety of styles. Rose was raised in the DC area and now lives in Nashville, where she is among the growing number of artists broadening the city’s musical palette.
Another friend, in commenting on the post, mentioned that she was listening to Rose cover Carole King’s hit I Feel the Earth Move. Rose puts a different twist on the song in her arrangement, which is worth a listen.
MonaLisa Twins (see November 27th “Sharing the covers” review), with real-life twins Mona and Lisa Wagner fronting the band, are from Austria and seem to be strange ambassadors for the music of the Swinging Sixties. They were 16 when they released their first album (well after the 60s were in the rear-view mirror), yet the connections to groups like The Beatles is clear. In fact, as you look on their online shop, they have released a number of albums of Beatles covers. They are not technically roots or Americana artists, but they often perform these covers using instruments one finds in those genres.
Take, for instance, I’m Looking Through You from Rubber Soul, which they posted earlier this month. It may be the only version of this song where the banjo (actually a banjo-guitar) takes George Harrison’s iconic lick (played along with an organ on the original) and makes it work.
But be careful. These young ladies can drive you down the You Tube rabbit hole if you aren’t careful (says the voice of experience). And you may even come up with something — especially if you’ve had twins — that will make you cry.
I hope you can find a gift or two you enjoy in this collection. Let me know your thoughts.
More to come…
Note: Here’s the post on New Favorites uncovered in 2020.
Image: By Mike Gattorna from Pixabay.