Monday, August 31, 2015

American Idol Live! tour concert review: Riverside, Calif.

photo by George A. Paul

On Friday night in Riverside, Calif., the "American Idol Live!" tour concluded its six week summer run. The top five finalists proved they were definitely up to the task of putting on a highly entertaining evening without cameras, song length limitations and other restrictions.

Before the doors opened at the historic Fox Performing Arts Center, some teenage fans waited in line with bright handmade signs. All age groups were represented in the crowd, but seniors and kids made up a sizable quotient. 

The two-hour, 15-minute set comprised two dozen songs that were mostly culled from the 1990s-2010s. A relaxed atmosphere gave the three guys and two gals more of an opportunity to connect with the "Idol" faithful and reveal more about themselves as artists in unscripted fashion.

One key example was this year's winner Nick Fradiani (pictured above), who revealed that he really wanted to perform "No Diggity" (the Grammy-winning  No. 1 single from 1996 by Blackstreet featuring Dr. Dre.) but was constantly rebuffed by staffers. Here at the Fox PAC, it was a feverish, acoustic guitar-based workout that fit Fradiani like a glove. 

All five singers kicked things off with a high energy group take on Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" backed by a solid four-piece band.
photo courtesy Ken Phillips Group
Fittingly, Fradiani was first in the solo spotlight. Front and center playing acoustic guitar (fellow Idol Clark Beckham handled piano), his take on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' "American Girl" was just as exuberant as on the TV show's American Classics theme week. Then Fradiani mostly kept a low profile until near the end of the gig.

Beckham was voted "Idol" runner up, but he sure had a loud cheering section in Riverside. Sharply dressed, he shared the most of anyone else about his background, pointed out his father in the audience and showed how he used to keep himself amused while playing piano at weddings. Then he tore into a stunning "Georgia on My Mind," popularized by Ray Charles in 1960.

Female spitfire Jax emerged onstage with a vengeance to The Who's "My Generation" which segued into an equally raucous cover of Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My (Guy)." She went out into the audience and shook herself all around. 

Rayvon Owen gave shout outs to his sister and cousins in the crowd, talked about singing in church and how he persevered by auditioning for "Idol" seven times (!) before making the cut.
Owen got a chance to display his heavenly falsetto amid a smooth "Jealous" by Nick Jonas, with Beckham and Tyanna Jones on backing vocals. It went down a storm, as did those two guys' passionate version of Sia's "Chandelier."

photo courtesy Ken Phillips Group
After a costume change (there were many all evening) into pure white to match her hair, Jax sat at the piano and reprised Dido's "White Flag," still as breathtaking as the TV show with her sustained vocal note. 
Beckham was in fine bluesy electric guitar form for Jonny Lang's "Lie to Me," aided by Jax, Owen and Jones. 

Seated on stools, Jax and the guys segued from Rascal Flatts' somber "Bless the Broken Road" into Imagine Dragons' joyful "I Bet My Life." It was a standout. 

Returning to electric guitar, Beckham did an impressive original breezy pop/rock tune, which bodes well for his eventual debut album. Fradiani nailed Andy Grammer's "Honey, I'm Good."

Teenager Jones did well during the infectious throwback vibe of Meghan Trainor's "Lips are Movin." Owen, seated on a stool, pulled out all the vocal stops with his elastic voice (and sustained note) for the mash up of Katy Perry's "Wide Awake" (his San Francisco "Idol" audition song) and Frank Ocean's "Thinkin 'Bout You."

photo by George A. Paul
Upping the ante, Beckham (pictured left) wowed with a laid back acoustic guitar-based take on Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning" and bluesy electric "Give Me One Reason" by Tracy Chapman. 

Fradiani kept his back story chat to a minimum, but said he was thankful for "Idol" and "tried really hard for a decade to get to this stage" of his career.
Anthemic "Idol" coronation song "What a Beautiful Life" (penned by Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba) soared live and the final group number "Some Nights" found them traversing the audience and having, well, fun - just like the song's authors.

Who needs "The Voice" when you still have "American Idol" contestants this strong?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Music streaming suggestions: Riverside, Calif. musicians

Nowadays, a large percentage of music is consumed via Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, iTunes and iHeart Radio, Tidal, Google Play Music as well as the just launched Apple Music.

While listening to your favorites, many of these streaming platforms will suggest similar artists that could become a regular part of your future playlists.

With that in mind, we’ve paired some high profile national acts from across America with recommendations of compatible independent ones who have ties to Riverside, Calif.

photo by Bob Steshetz

Charlie Musselwhite

Background: A master blues harp player since the mid-1960s, the Grammy and W.C. Handy Award winner (pictured above) reportedly inspired Dan Ackroyd’s character in the “The Blues Brothers” movie. He’s gained a new audience lately, thanks to recent collaborations with Ben Harper and Cyndi Lauper.

Latest album: “I Ain’t Lyin’” (Henrietta)

photo by Kim Martin

LOCAL MATCH > Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers

Background: Among SoCal’s prominent blues practitioners for decades, Piazza formed the Mighty Flyers in the late ‘70s. Since then, the singer/harmonica player has racked up accolades and put out nearly 20 albums. His current effort adeptly mixes originals with old school covers by Johnny Ace and Lee Dorsey.

Latest album: “Emergency Situation” (Blind Pig)

Where to hear: Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Radio

photo by Steady Jenny


Background: The zany LA funk/rock/ska band’s 1985 single “Party at Ground Zero” was in heavy rotation at KROQ, but came to national prominence six years later when “Everyday Sunshine” and “Sunless Saturday” became top 20 alt-rock radio hits. They’ve made several film appearances over the years. Paul Hampton of Riverside’s The Skeletones currently plays keyboards live with the band.

Latest EP: “Intrinsically Intertwined” (Fishbone)

photo by Mike Presser

LOCAL MATCH > The Debonaires

Background: Now celebrating its 20th Anniversary, The Debonaires returned in a big way last year. The ska/reggae band opened for the English Beat at the Orange County Fair and put out a long-awaited, highly recommended new album featuring guest appearances by members of Fishbone and The Slackers.

Latest album: “Movin’” (Jump Up)

Where to hear: Spotify, iTunes Radio, Pandora 

photo by Clara Balzary

Red Hot Chili Peppers 

Background: Best known for such platinum-selling hits as “Under the Bridge,” “By the Way,” “Dani California,” “Snow (Hey Oh),” the veteran alt-rock band from Los Angeles co-headlined Coachella Festivals in 2003, 2007 and 2013.

Latest album: “I’m With You” (Warner Bros.)

LOCAL MATCH > Soul of the River

Background: Together since 2002, the laid back, four piece group specializes in spirited funk and compact jam rock music that frequently recalls the Chili Peppers, Jack Johnson, Sublime and Marcy Playground. Both KCXX and KUCR have also given airplay to Soul of the River, which regularly plays Relay for Life events.

Latest album: “Soul of the River” (909 Records)

Where to hear: Spotify

photo by Don Miller

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Background: One of the few bands that found success amid the mid-1990s swing revival and is still active today, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy appeared in the film “Swingers,” had a minor hit with “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three,” played the Super Bowl XXXIII Halftime Show and did the theme to TV show “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

Latest album: “Rattle Them Bones” (Savoy Jazz)

photo by Mike Ingram

LOCAL MATCH > Big Papa and the TCB

Background: Led by Chris Thayer (a graduate of Riverside’s La Sierra High), the award winning swing quintet incorporates old school rhythm and blues into its sound. Big Papa and the TCB has performed at the Fox Theater and many other IE venues and saw the song “Go Big Papa” featured in a national TV ad campaign for Papa John’s Pizza.

Latest album: “Six Pack of Cool” (Inland Blue)

Where to hear: Spotify, iTunes Radio 

Shanachie Records


Background: The highly popular smooth jazz saxophonist/flautist started putting out albums in 1986; several have topped the contemporary jazz chart, gone platinum and earned Soul Train Music Awards. Najee has toured and recorded with Prince and countless heavyweight musicians. The new album features sleek Ambrosia and Antonio Carlos Jobim covers and guest turns by Alex Bugnon and Robert Damper.

Latest album: “You, Me and Forever” (Shanachie)


Background: A frequent performer at local schools, where he sometimes plays sax while riding a skateboard (!), Boykin served as a behind the scenes musician on Fox TV show “Glee” and has shared stages with John Legend, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Ledisi and others. His 2013 disc is a mélange of jazz, R&B and gospel, which the artist says captured a “fresher essence” than prior efforts.

Latest album: “Pink Sand” (Boykin Music Group)

Where to hear: Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Radio

My article originally appeared in the August/September issue of Riverside Magazine, which can be viewed at

Jenny Lewis concert review: Santa Ana, Calif.

Listening to Jenny Lewis music can bring out the inner punk rocker in some people.

Tuesday night at the Observatory, one gal snuck onstage to grab a hug, dove off and then landed with a thud. It surprised the singer. "No one has jumped at any of my shows before," she admitted later, slightly bemused. "These are sentimental melodies."

While a relaxed atmosphere does envelop Lewis' alt-country and pop material, the songs often sport a more serrated edge in concert thanks to longtime guitarist Mike Bloom (also part of The Elected with her former Rilo Kiley bandmate Blake Sennett). 

The first of two Santa Ana, Calif. shows served as a world tour finale in support of last year's excellent "The Voyager." Lewis' third solo album was chiefly produced by Ryan Adams, with Beck and her boyfriend/music collaborator Johnathan Rice overseeing a few tracks. Members of Maroon 5, Dawes, Sebadoh, First Aid Kit and Watson Twins were among the high profile studio contributors. Additionally, Lewis and Rice penned "Cold One," currently heard in the new Meryl Streep film, "Ricki and the Flash."

Before Lewis and her five-piece band appeared onstage, a female mariachi group (plus male trumpeter) did the mournful title track to "The Voyager." Once they left, the two-hour, 20-song concert started with a sleek "Head Underwater" as Lewis smiled broadly and clapped along. Confetti shot in the air and the singer said, "We’re going to land the ship." But not until the musicians soared awhile.

Sassy rocker "The Moneymaker," where Lewis strutted around with authority, was an early standout (four more Rilo Kiley tunes were peppered throughout the set). Changing into the pastel pantsuit that matched her album cover, Lewis teasingly sang "The Next Messiah" alongside the female keyboardist. Rice guested on guitar, handled a verse and everyone thrashed about.

Backed by just Megan McCormick on acoustic guitar, the ladies gathered round a bullet microphone for the subtle "With Arms Outstretched" from 2002.

Fans sang along loudly to it and another oldie, the energetic Pavement-esque "Portions for Foxes."

Then more confetti filled the air. "The New You," like a bulk of the latest album performed, was blissful until Bloom seared through it. Another highlight was the Eighties Fleetwood Mac vibe of "She's Not Me."

Sharing her experience attending one of the recent Grateful Dead reunion shows, where there was "so much joy," Lewis and company went into a groovalicious cover of that band's "Shakedown Street." Elsewhere, solid harmonies elevated a stark "Pretty Bird" and buoyant "Love You Forever" (huge inflatable were thrown into the crowd). The anthemic main set closer "A Better Son/Daughter" was uplifting.

Come encore time, Bloom handled pedal steel during the sprightly, relationship-minded "Aloha & the Three Johns" and Lewis tossed out copies of a new comic book based on it. Two new songs came across well. The acoustic folk of "Acid Tongue" provided a final spotlight of the band's seamless vocal blend.

A version of my review originally appeared at
Photos by Drew A. Kelley  

Thompson Square, Leaving Austin concert review: Anaheim

Whenever male and female singers do romantic songs together, you're often left wondering "what if it was real?"

That onstage connection gains authenticity when they are a couple in real life too. Such is the case with Keifer and Shawna Thompson.

Over the past five years, Thompson Square have racked up five top 20 country singles, plus two ACM and CMT Awards.

The husband and wife duo recently appeared on DIY Network series "Salvage Dogs" and Blues Traveler's latest album, "Blow up the Moon." 

In Anaheim, Calif., the band delivered an engaging 70-minute performance that ranged from rousing country rockers to riveting ballads. Since the House of Blues concert was being web streamed Thursday night via Yahoo! Screen Live (look for immediate replays at, fans throughout the venue were treated to sharp, close up views of the proceedings on multiple TV monitors. 

Thompson Square launched the 13-song set with vibrant hit "I Got You" from its eponymous 2010 debut. The slinky "Just Feels Good" prompted some audience call and response action. A racing "Here's to Being Here" featured a Who-styled guitar intro and perfect lyrics for the occasion: "let's crank it up to 10/live tonight like it's never gonna end." Shawna constantly smiled and like her bandmates, had a good old time.

"Lay it on Me" was the first of four promising new tunes scheduled for a forthcoming studio release. Here Keifer sang about "honeysuckle sugar" kisses to a swampy banjo accompaniment. Another one revolved around small town ways to "raise the roof" outdoors and contained metal-tinged guitars (some songs got a triple axe attack). Keyboard accented "Play with Fire," inspired by the Thompsons' first date, found the pair singing face to face as smoke plumes rose, adding to a palpable sense of sexual tension. 

More sensuality arrived amid the dramatic buildup of "I Can't Outrun You." Both singers slowly inched together from opposite stage corners and segued into A Great Big World's "Say Something." Equally intense was the top 10 charter "If I Didn't Have You" with a double guitar solo. Fans sang along loudly and watched the couple embrace at the end.

Before the set's usual Johnny Cash cover slot, Shawna recalled early career days playing Nashville club Legends Corner and their lone acoustic take on "Ring of Fire" fared well (last year, I saw them do an even better "Jackson" live). 

For the encores, Thompson Square did their latest single "Trans Am," which was propelled by crunchy rock guitars. Keifer introduced their double platinum No. 1 single "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not," by proudly boasting "this song's been getting people lucky since 2010 and helped make a lot of babies." The concert closer resulted in one last singalong.

Leaving Austin opened with a satisfactory half hour dose of modern country music. 

The Central California band had several young gals clamoring to touch lanky frontman Austin Machado (one almost swiped his ring). "Take Your Breath Away" and "Just My Type," from a 2013 self-titled album, made the biggest impression in OC.

A version of my review originally appeared at 
Photos by Kelly Swift. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Bonus Q&A with Cracker's David Lowery

Here is more from my interview with Lowery (pictured right) earlier this year...

Q: Have you found most of Cracker's radio airplay these days comes from the outlaw and lost country stations on SiriusXM and other specialty programs?
A: That’s true. It’s the one place we get played pretty consistently. There’s four of five of those satellite channels that play us, [but we still get] played on [terrestrial] radio...It’s a lot like the way it was when Camper [Van Beethoven] started: we weren’t played on the radio. We built a grass roots following. We had a newsletter before email that we sent out to our fans about road stuff and they passed it along to their friends. It was just a slow motion version of what people do with the web now. There was a good time lag on it. Like, ‘ok, we’re going to mail this newsletter today. Maybe in three months we’ll find out what people are saying about it.'

Q: Do you enjoy having the immediate reaction to things you do from social media?
A: Yeah. I still think it can happen quickly with your most engaged fans who are following you. They’re actively engaged in everything. It’s immediate stuff with them. But because there’s just so much stuff out there – I think it’s technically called ‘the tyranny of choice’ – if you’re anything other than a Taylor Swift, any sort of niche music genre, it requires, just like it did in the old days, 6-9 months of going out there and touring and promoting your record. Because there’s so much stuff. You get immediately to your fans but then the general public, they’re overwhelmed by all of the choices. It’s harder to get through to them.

Q: Does the old school method of recording you used on the new double album - with all the band in the same room as opposed to putting together a song piece by piece - result in a more authentic sound for Cracker?
A: Most of our records are done that way. It’s kind of part of our sound. The ‘Berkeley’ disc is basically the entire ‘Kerosene Hat’ lineup. We did it in Michael’s studio up there with all of us live in the same room. A couple of those tracks – “El Comandante” and “You Got Yourself into This” are pretty much completely live. No fixing anything. The ‘Bakersfield’ disc was done with the band we built in Athens, Georgia where I live these days. But ‘Berkeley to Athens’ didn’t really sound like a good album title. Since the Athens, Georgia lineup is more Americana-oriented, they played with the California country sound. Then it gave the whole record a narrative life. Prompted us to divide it into two discs. It’s been a really good thing. It’s got a good story to it. A lot of people talking about it. It seems like every summer there’s this procession of ‘90s bands out touring together. We’re going to be one of the few of those bands out touring this summer that has new material. That’s still exploring new territory and doing new stuff.

Q: On ‘Berkeley,’ which song has the wild guitar solo by Johnny that he said went out of tune but you guys all liked it and decided it was a keeper?
A: “El Comandante.” He did an overdub one but it didn’t have as much energy.

Q: What was it like recording with Michael and Davey again after so long for ‘Berkeley?’
A: They’re world class players and basically people we grew up with [Davey is also from Redlands] and really good friends with. We’ve had those guys playing with us off and on. Those guys went off and became the big session cats. Around the time of the ‘Kerosene Hat’ album, they were playing on everything: Third Eye Blind, Sheryl Crow, Smashmouth. All the hits of the ‘90s. Then Davey became Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ bass player. A lot of people regard him as the master bass player in the rock world. We basically created the [‘Berkeley’] record in three days. I had to come up with lyrics for a lot of the songs, backing vocal overdubs, put the vocals on it and mix it. It was in Michael’s project studio where people email him files and he adds drums. It’s a little room about the size of a bedroom.

Q: Why did you decide to revisit “Where Have Those Days Gone?” and “San Bernardino Boy” from Johnny’s solo album?
A: The thing about “Where Have Those Days Gone?” is I was really just getting sounds in the studio in Georgia. I started playing that chord progression and thought, ‘what is this? This is one of our songs.’ But I was playing it totally different, like in a Creedence, California country rock [style]. There’s a nickname for it, called the ‘heartbeat.’ Sort of a way of strumming the guitar in the way the bass and drums play together. It’s in a lot of Tex-Mex stuff. So I was doing the chord progression and thought, ‘I know this is something’ [then figured it out]. By that time, everyone had joined in on it. So I said let’s re-record this and figured it would be a B-side. When we got to the end of the album, Drew - who mixed the record - said ‘please put this on the record.’ I said, ‘we recorded that back in 2005.’ He has to be a smart ass and says, ‘you mean when I was 15?’ It closes the record well and is so descriptive about California. It just had such a good vibe that we had to do it.

Q: When you wrote these songs, did you find that some of them begged for a country arrangement?
A: I wrote those specifically to be country. The reason they sound the way they do is you can sing and play them on an acoustic guitar. That’s the essence of the song. Something like Led Zeppelin, Rage Against the Machine or Third Eye Blind – rock songs, you don’t necessarily hear the song you’re just playing acoustic guitar and singing. So much has to do with the arrangement, the drums and the bass. The ‘Bakersfield’ side was largely written like I wrote the chord progression, vocal melody and words and was basically written in advance. Country’s a highly stylized form. You have things you can do with it like say, a flat tire shuffle or up-tempo Texas shuffle or 6/8 waltz. It has these specific forms that you fit it into. In some ways, you could look at it as limiting or you could look at it as using the classic forms with the creativity of the words and vocal melody and other elements. So when you do country rock/Americana music, you have to be able to do it on an acoustic guitar. For a little bit of the record, I basically method-acted it. I went to Nashville and went around in rooms in the Nashville style where you go and make an appointment with one or two other songwriters, meet up at the publishing company, go into a room, spend 2 ½ hours and you [might] make up a song. ‘California Country Boy’ came out of one of those sessions. That was Trent Sommer. ‘Waited My Whole Life’ came out of one of those sessions, but in the end, I threw it to Davey and Michael because I thought it was more interesting with them playing it as soul rock instead of country.

Q: Which reminds me, who is doing the really soulful backing vocals on the first disc?
A: That’s Davey. Typically, he makes Johnny sing in falsetto high and Davey sings the next part down [reminiscent of older song ‘I See the Light’].

Q: These days when fewer people buy albums as a whole, does it make it more difficult for you to sequence the physical CDs?
A: You do the sequencing for the 30,000 people on your email list who are your hardcore fans. The other people are just going to get suggested a song and played on Spotify and it will get played out of order on whatever streaming service people are using. You really can’t help that. I definitely do think about sequencing. I think it’s still important.

Q: Do you think it’s important to get a rise out of listeners by getting political on songs like you do on some of “Berkeley?”
A: That’s part of the “Berkeley” element. It was known for its protest and frmovements, all that really radical punk rock that’s always been based around Gilman Street - the little punk rock co-op that’s still there. It needed to be in there for that to represent Berkeley.

Q: Anything new about the long-gestating Cracker documentary “Get Off This?”
A: It’s not ours. I think they’ve been editing it for about six months. I hope it comes out soon.

Q: Did the fact that you rejuvenated Camper Van Beethoven around 2000 keep things fresh for you when it was time to focus on Cracker again?
A: Yeah. For me, it’s good not to try and fit every single one of the songs I write or my creative ideas into the framework of Cracker. It’s good to have other outlets. Otherwise it gets kind of frustrating. I’m sure that’s helped. It’s not like one takes away from the other. I just went through this period of in 2009, did a Cracker album, then a solo album, two Camper albums then Cracker. This is six discs now. Nobody’s putting out albums at that speed. Having both bands together I think there’s more creativity going on.

Q: Then of course you have the teaching gig at University of Georgia when you need a break from music.
A: I’ve always had another job when I was in a band, whether it was producing other people’s records, running the recording studio, consulting, advising. I’ve always been doing other projects. It’s fitting for me to be around 18-22 year olds.

Photo by Bradford Jones