JD McPherson and Nikki Lane
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JD McPherson is a rootsy, singer/songwriter with resonant vocal chops and a vintage '50s rock & roll vibe while Nikki Lane reinvented the nostalgic sounds of 60s country music for a modern audience, mixing Southern twang with the occasional pop/rock hook.Buy Tickets
Ticket Price: $25 advanced and day of show / $44 reserved seating
You could mistake JD McPherson for a revivalist, given how few other contemporary artists are likely to assert, as he boldly does, that “’Keep a Knockin’ by Little Richard is the best record ever made. It’s so insanely visceral, you feel like it’s going to explode your speakers. If I’m listening to that in the car, I find myself having to brake suddenly. I can listen to that and it makes me feel like I’m 20 feet tall. And the feeling of joy I get from that record is always going to be the real push behind trying to make music.”
But in a very real sense, McPherson is much more a pioneer than roots resuscitator. He’s knocking at the door of something that arguably hasn’t yet been accomplished—a spirited, almost spiritual hybrid that brings the forgotten lessons from the earliest days of rock & roll into a future that has room for the modernities of studio technique and 21st century singer/songwriter idiosyncrasies that Richard Penniman would not recognize. Let the Good Times Roll, his second album, is a stranger, and more personal affair than its Fats Domino-redolent title might at first suggest, but the name isn’t exactly ironic, either. If you, too, brake for pleasure, you’ll screech to a halt at the enrapturing sound of these Good Times.
His first album, 2012’s Signs & Signifiers, was hailed as “an utterly irresistible, slicked-back triumph” by Mojo and “a rockin', bluesy, forward-thinking gold mine that subtly breaks the conventions of most vintage rock projects” by All Music Guide. The Washington Post wrote that, “he and his bandmates are great musicians taking ownership of a sound, not just mimicking one.” That same review remarked upon how, “the album sounds as if the band is in the same room with the listener.” But for the follow-up, McPherson wanted to maintain that raw power while also capturing the more mysterious side of the records he loves. To that slightly spookier end, he enlisted as a collaborator Mark Neill, known for his work as a producer and engineer with versed-in-the-past acts going back to the Paladins in the 1980s, but, most recently, for recording The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach—a friend of McPherson’s who co-wrote the new album’s “Bridge Builder.”
Talking up one of the freshly minted tunes, “Bridge Builder,” McPherson describes it as being “the psychedelic Coasters.” That no such thing really existed prior to this album doesn’t deter him. “This is something I actually talked about with Mark at the beginning of the record: ‘I want to make a ‘50s psychedelic record!’”
Neill was up to meeting that seemingly oxymoronic challenge. “It’s still a rock & roll record, but the borders are expanding a little bit,” McPherson explains. “With some of the writing that came out this time, it became apparent the songs weren’t going to lend themselves well to our usual process. So as we sought out a producer, we took aim for a slightly wider—I guess hi-fi is the word—sound, and got more experimental. Mark Neill certainly has all the tools in his hardware shop with which to produce any range of sounds from vintage Capitol Records stuff on up to…gosh, we listened to so much David Bowie making this record. We’d play Primal Scream’s Screamadelica to listen to how they suddenly started making dance records, and then Mark would play us Marilyn McCoo singing ‘Marry Me, Bill’ over and over again, I guess trying to re-wire our brains.”
Amid this flurry of possible influences, a few production approaches stuck. “I find that the records that I like to listen to over and over again are the ones that have those strange engineering choices, or weird sounds. I was very attracted to the idea of using plate reverb. So whereas the first record was really informed by New Orleans rhythm and blues, where everything was very dry and up-front, I really was listening more this time to a ton of Link Wray, and the Allen Toussaint-produced Irma Thomas stuff, and all the early ‘60s rock & roll that is saturated in plate reverb.”
McPherson certainly doesn’t begrudge the attention that Signs & Signifiers unexpectedly brought him. “If it hadn’t been for the ‘North Side Gal’ video, this probably never would have caught on,” he says, recalling the fame he found on YouTube even before Rounder picked up his indie release. “That’s how we found our label and found our management. I was still teaching school, and here I am with got this video that’s like a million hits. I’m like, what? I had no plans to quit my job. Luckily, I lost it.” A middle school art department’s loss was Rounder’s and the rock world’s gain.
It’d been a while in coming. “I started getting obsessed with this stuff when I was in high school,” McPherson says. “There wasn’t much to do where I grew up in rural southeast Oklahoma, where I lived on a 160-acre cattle ranch.” When he discovered early rock & roll and R&B, “it was like finding a treasure no one else knew about. Nobody around me had any interest whatsoever in Little Richard except for me and my friend. Once we started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, and to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, which was the best thing you could ever find, everything started to change. I’ve got a videotape of us playing at a pool hall in the early ‘90s in Talihina, Oklahoma, and it’s cowboys and criminals and people that are cooking meth up in the hills standing around playing pool, and here we are with our greaser uniforms on, playing Buddy Holly’s ‘Rockin’ Around with Ollie Vee’ followed by ‘Clampdown’ by the Clash, and all these people are really confused. Those were happy times.”
The covers and the grease got dropped along the way to adulthood, of course, even though he knows what he does now is likely to wind up with some inaccurate revival tags. “There’s never going to be a point where I’m not going to hear the word ‘rockabilly’,” he says with a laugh and a sigh, “even though it’s not anthropologically correct, because it’s separate from rhythm & blues and rock & roll. Not being able to be perceived as how you sort of define what you’re doing is frustrating, but you just have to understand that not everybody is a nerd about this stuff. What it comes down to is that you can’t expect for people to listen if you’re not doing something personal. I mean, you can’t just do covers of Johnny Burnette Trio songs, because that idea has already been expressed, and it was actually moved past pretty quickly. Rock & roll music changed really quickly when it started becoming ubiquitous youth music and the President’s sister started doing the Twist. Yet there’s something intrinsically valuable about a lot of those ideas that haven’t fully been explored yet. And you take everything you love about it and write personal music and hope it translates into its own thing. I always hear ‘Man, bringing this stuff back is really important,’ but I have goal to bring rock & roll back in some reactionary way to battle something else. I want it to just kind of nudge it into its own little place alongside what’s happening now.”
Since the debut album came out, McPherson has played for a lot of those aforementioned genre nerds who pick up on every single influence. But he and his band have also opened for acts ranging from Bob Seger (getting a standing ovation at an arena in Detroit, the headliner’s hometown) to the Dave Matthews Band to Nick Lowe to Eric Church (who sought him out to write some songs together). For a Halloween night 2014 show at the Forum in L.A., super-fan Josh Homme, one of McPherson’s biggest supporters, handpicked him to open for Queens of the Stone Age. These may not all seem like natural pairings, but the music is primal and melodic enough that, after a few minutes, it never fails to make sense even to audiences with the least of expectations and musical educations.
“Man, people may not even know it, but they all like that stuff,” McPherson declares. “I’ve seen it happen over and over again. You’re in a record store where they’re playing some weird underground amorphous electronic record that has no configurable beat per minute, and then they put on a Sam Cooke record, and everybody is just like ‘Ohhh’— like a weight lifted. All kinds of music are interesting, but man, there’s something about the 1/4/5, 12-bar blues form that’s just hard-wired into American brains. And I shouldn’t say just American brains, because this stuff is still really huge in Europe, too. Everybody likes rock & roll. They just either won’t admit it or don’t know it yet,” he laughs, unshakable in his faith that the whole world is or will be on a roll.
Nikki Lane’s stunning third album Highway Queen, out February 17th, 2017, sees
the young Nashville singer emerge as one of country and rock’s most gifted
songwriters. Co-produced by Lane and fellow singer-songwriter, Jonathan Tyler,
this emotional tour-de-force was recorded at Matt Pence’s Echo Lab studio in
Denton, Texas as well as at Club Roar with Collin Dupuis in Nashville, Tennessee.
Blending potent lyrics, unbridled blues guitars and vintage Sixties country-pop
swagger, Lane’s new music will resonate as easily with Lana Del Rey and Jenny
Lewis fans as those of Neil Young and Tom Petty.
Highway Queen is a journey through heartbreak that takes exquisite turns. The
record begins with a whiskey-soaked homage to Lane’s hometown (“700,000
Rednecks”) and ends on the profoundly raw “Forever Lasts Forever,” where Lane
mourns a failed marriage – the “lighter shade of skin” left behind from her
wedding ring. On “Forever” and the confessional “Muddy Waters,” Lane’s lyrics
align her with perceptive songwriters like Nick Lowe and Cass McCombs.
Elsewhere, “Companion” is pure Everly Brothers’ dreaminess (“I would spend a
lifetime/ Playing catch you if I can”). She goes on a Vegas bender on the rollicking
“Jackpot,” fights last-call blues (“Foolish Heart”) and tosses off brazen one-liners
at a backroom piano (“Big Mouth”).
“Love is the most unavoidable thing in the world,” Lane says. “The person you
pick could be half set-up to destroy your life with their own habits – I’ve certainly
experienced that before and taken way too long to get out of that mistake.”
In 2014, Lane’s second album All or Nothin’ (New West) solidified her sandpaper
voice beneath a ten-gallon hat as the new sound and look of outlaw country
music. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the record’s bluesy Western guitars paired
with Lane’s Dusty Springfield-esque voice earned glowing reviews from NPR, the
Guardian and Rolling Stone. In three years since her Walk of Shame debut, Lane
said she was living most of the year on the road.
Growing up, Lane used to watch her father pave asphalt during blistering South
Carolina summers. She’d sit on the roller (“what helps smooth out the asphalt”)
next to a guy named Rooster and divvy out Hardee’s lunch orders for the workers.
“My father thought he was a country singer,” Lane laughs. “He partied hard at
night, but by 6:30 AM he was out on the roads in 100-degree weather.” That’s the
southern work ethic, she says. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but I was
privileged with the knowledge of how to work hard, how to learn and to succeed
when things aren’t set up for me.” Creativity was an unthinkable luxury, she adds.
“When people told me I should try to get a record deal for songs I was writing, I
was like, ‘that’s cute – I’ve got to be at work at 10 A.M.’”
“Becoming a songwriter is one of the most selfish things I’ve ever done,” Lane
says plainly. She describes writing her first song at age 25 like it was a necessary
act of self-preservation after a devastating breakup. Many of her early songs, she
said on Shame and Nothin’, were about the fleetingness of relationships she
believed were permanent, she says. Lane’s main line of work in those days was a
fashion entrepreneur (she’s currently the owner of Nashville’s vintage clothing
boutique High Class Hillbilly). It brought her to cities around the country, New
York to Los Angeles to Nashville. And like a true wanderer, Lane’s sound
crisscrosses musical genres with ease, while the lonesome romantic in her
remains. Even a soft song like, “Send The Sun,” with its lilting downward strum,
is flush with bittersweet emotion. “Darling, we’re staring at the same moon,”
Lane sings lovingly. “I used to say that to my ex,” she says with cheerful stoicism,
“to try to brighten the long nights, stay positive.”
Highway Queen is poised to be Lane’s mainstream breakthrough. “Am I excited
to spend years of my life in a van, away from family and friends? No, but I’m
excited to share my songs, so they’ll reach people and help them get through
whatever they’re going through. To me, that’s worth it.”
“Lay You Down” is one of those unexpected moments for Lane. “That song was
inspired by something Levon Helm’s wife posted on Facebook when he was sick
with cancer,” Lane says. “I was just so moved by her telling the world how much
love he felt from people writing to them, and moved that because of the Internet,
I was able to see that love – even from a distance.” The song became surreal for
Lane and her band when her longtime guitarist, Alex Munoz, was diagnosed with
cancer while they were playing it. “It deepened my perspective and the
importance of keeping everyone safe,” says Lane.
On the record cover, Lane looks out on wide, unowned Texan plains, leaning on
the fearsome horns of a massive steer. Wearing a vintage Victorian dress, the
stark photo invokes a time before highways existed. The symbolism isn’t lost on
Lane. Highway Queen was a pioneering moment for her as an artist.
“I was always a smart girl, always had to yell to be heard,” she says, “But this was
the first time in my career where I decided how things were going to go; I was
willing to take the heat.” Lane included the bonus track “Champion” as a small
testament to that empowerment. “It makes a point,” Lane says with a smile, “That
I appreciate what you’re saying, but get the fuck out of my way.”