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Hannigan Finds Groove Of Her Own

For almost seven years, Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan collaborated with Damien Rice. She toured with him, sang on his albums, played piano and served as his muse.

Then, after one fateful night in Germany, it all came to a screeching halt. Rice fired Hannigan just minutes before a gig in Munich, and the couple have hardly spoken since, if at all. But that was 2007.

Although working here and there, Rice has released nothing of his own in the past four years, and recently broke a multiyear silence only to declare that he’d trade it all to “still have Lisa in my life.”

Hannigan hasn’t spoken much about the split, but she seems to have used the time far more productively.

She released her solo debut, “Sea Sew,” in 2008. The album was well-received by both critics and fans, and landed her a Mercury Prize nomination. It also led to a supporting slot on a 42-date U.S. tour with Jason Mraz. But perhaps most important, it taught her that she was a pretty decent songwriter and got her some much-needed exclusivity under the spotlight.

She just released the Joe Henry-produced follow up, “Passenger,” last week and started a three-continent tour on Tuesday to support it.

“We’ve been playing in Ireland this summer,” Hannigan said recently from her home in Dublin. “When the record was done and was being finished here, we went out on tour just to play the songs live and see where they go. It’s such a different experience than the studio. And I was anxious just to get the new songs out there. But it all just means we’re ready. I can’t wait. We’re ready and excited.”

Hannigan has a lot to be excited about. But it also seems like a lot of things are going well for the 30-year-old songstress. And the way she hooked up with Grammy-winning artist/producer Joe Henry is one of them.

“It was very serendipitous,” she said. “I was doing a tribute concert for (folk singer) Kate McGarrigle in London, and he happened to be doing a gig next door. He popped his head in, wanted to pay his respects, and I was the person he happened to catch onstage. He sent an email to my manager and we met.”

The pair exchanged demos and ideas for months before meeting to record the album in Wales earlier this year.

“Lucky me,” said Hannigan. “Straightaway, I fully trusted him. We never, at any point, discussed the record while we were sending things back and forth. There was such a great trust there that it never even really occurred to me to talk about it. He’s such a wonderful man and musician and listener. Everyone just played their socks off trying to impress him, really.”

Good fortune also intervened for Hannigan when talk show host Stephen Colbert came across her name while doing research online and immediately booked her for a rare performance on “The Colbert Report.”

“He was looking up Sean Hannity,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how it happened. Luckily, my name is only a few letters different. And we were on tour in the states at the time. They wanted us to play in New York and we were going to be there in a week. It was amazing.”

That was the same feeling Hannigan had when singer Ray LaMontagne agreed to appear on the new album. She didn’t feel she knew him well enough to ask outright, so she did it through a friend. And their duet, “O Sleep,” is part of the travel-inspired, 10-song collection that the charming singer and her five-piece band are out promoting across the U.S., Australia and U.K.

“You can think of themes almost in retrospect,” Hannigan said. “But because I was away for so much of the writing, there was that sense that you get when you’re away from home, that strange nostalgia. If it ever comes into focus, it’s that true idea of home and all of its preoccupations from faraway places. It can really become the portrait of your mind. Looking back, I think it ties together that way. And the traveling really got under the skin of the record.”

Hannigan will be traveling again for the next few months. It’s impossible to know what inspirations will come from it, but it is likely to cement the idea that front and center is the perfect spot for her to stand.

“I feel absolutely comfortable doing what I’m doing now,” Hannigan said. “But it has been weird. I had never stood in the middle before. It’s such a different feeling. And there was a period of mourning. That band was such a part of my life for so long.

“But now it’s been years, and I have such a wonderful band and crew, everyone around me are friends. And that makes it so much easier. I don’t regret anything that’s happened along the way. It’s all just led to me doing what I’m doing now. And I love it.”

First published by The North County Times on September 29, 2011


Blues Still Alive In Guy

Maybe Buddy Guy is a robot.

Or maybe he’s from an undiscovered planet where everyone is exceptional.

But there just doesn’t seem to be a likely explanation for how the 75-year-old blues legend has been able to accomplish all that he has since first picking up a two-string, hand-me-down guitar nearly six generations ago.

In a storied career that has spanned well over 50 years, Guy has released nearly 65 albums, won six Grammy Awards, was bestowed with the National Medal of Arts, picked up 23 W.C. Handy Awards, been named “Greatest Living Electric Blues Guitarist” by Billboard Magazine, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

And perhaps more important, Guy has been a direct influence on people such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck.

Yet, despite his numerous contributions to music, Guy has barely slowed over the years. He still owns and operates Buddy Guy’s Legends Club in downtown Chicago, and just released one of his strongest records in a long time, “Living Proof,” late last year.

Although the album opens with the track “74 Years Young,” Guy’s blistering solos throughout hearken back to what many would call his glory years.

It’s all somewhat hard to believe for someone who didn’t even pick up an instrument until he was in his teens.

“I didn’t even know what a guitar was for the longest time,” Guy said recently from his Chicago home. “But my momma used to get a catalog from Sears Roebuck. I’d see a guitar in it every year around Christmas because that’s when she’d order our clothes and shoes. We finally got a radio and I heard John Lee Hooker on it. I knew I wanted a guitar, but there wasn’t no shopping out there where I was. My daddy finally paid two dollars for one that had two strings on it. And that was my first. I was about 16 then. But I didn’t even know what running water was until I was about 16 or 17.”

Guy played the blues throughout the ’50s, but it was an underground, segregated style until the British Invasion of the ’60s co-opted it. And while many look at those bands as ripping off the blues, Guy sees it another way.

“The British gave a big lift to black-man blues,” he said. “When they started playing it, that’s when our names started coming up again. White America certainly didn’t know about it. They didn’t know who someone like Muddy Waters was until then. And when the Rolling Stones were getting bigger than bubble gum, they did a show called ‘Shindig!’ and brought Muddy with them. And Mick got really offended when they didn’t even realize that the band was named after one of his songs.”

Although Guy can look back on an unmatched run of his own, he’s also trying to lay groundwork for the future. He recently self-released an album for 12-year-old guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan and has taken the youngster under his wing.

“Producers and managers take advantage of us all unless you know what they’re doing,” Guy said. “In this business, you need all the education you can get. I’m trying to school Quinn with this street sense I … learned from the Muddys, the Walters, the Wolfs, the Sonny Boys, the B.B.s, and everyone else who got ripped off. The alligators and crocodiles are out here and they will bite you.”

Adding mentoring to the list, it makes you wonder how he finds the time for it all. But his efforts have not gone unnoticed. Chicago just named a street after him.

“I think it was the most surprising thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” Guy said. “But Chicago is where I first met Muddy, B.B., Clapton, Hendrix, and all of the other greats. I thought they were kidding when they told me. I’m too old to cry. So I held the tears back until I got home.”

With so many things going on with him, it would seem hard to keep track of it all, but Guy just tries to keep things simple.

“I’m divorced,” he said. “So I don’t have to come home and report anymore. I mostly go to the club and just enjoy it with all of the people. I’m really trying to keep all of this alive. There just aren’t the blues clubs out there in the world like there were in Muddy Waters’ or my younger days. They’ve all but disappeared. So far, we’re surviving in mine. I’m just trying to keep the music playing.”

Guy is also trying to do something much bigger. He wants to make sure that blues itself lives on past the lives of its true pioneers.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “But if you were interviewing me 20 years ago, I’d have said there’d be at least a handful of us blues players left by now. But the hand’s not even full anymore, man. Me and B.B. talk about it all the time. And we’re no babies anymore. We’re just trying to carry this as far as we can.”


Fishbone Doc About More Than The Music

“Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone” opens with a 1992 performance from the eclectic band at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco.

The venue is packed and the crowd chants, “Fishbone is red hot!” Clap, clap. “Fishbone is red hot!” Clap, clap. And while this is something that Fishbone crowds have chanted, and been prompted to chant, at their shows over their 30-plus years, it’s doubtful the audiences knew just how appropriate it was.

Fishbone is a band that has burned brighter than many, but also one that hasn’t been able to touch people in the way that they should have.

This point is driven home by filmmakers Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler in the very next scene, when it flashes forward to 2007, and the Los Angeles funk outfit is playing for a sparse crowd of curious onlookers in Hungary. That continual juxtaposition permeates the film and gives it a compelling, tangible humanity.

“We wanted to capture their life, the beauty, the pain, the dysfunction, everything,” said Anderson recently from his Orange County home. “The life of aging rockers scraping to get by is not glamorous. And we, as an audience, can probably relate more to that than to other aspects of the rock ‘n’ roll world. We wanted to move beyond the stage and treat them as unique individuals working to overcome the various obstacles in their lives. And to see them struggle, but staying on their own creative course, is heartening and even heroic.”

The film showcases the uncompromising band’s ascent to stardom alongside fellow L.A. rockers Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the ’80s, and documents the myriad factors —- race, label problems, marketing, in-fighting and desertion —- that prevented them from following their peers to widespread popularity. The film deftly mixes historical context with the band’s personal story in a way that operates successfully on multiple levels.

“Race was a part of Fishbone’s story,” Anderson said. “There just weren’t many black rock bands at the time, and that may explain how such a talented band may have struggled to find a wider audience. But there were other parts of the story to be told, because these are compelling figures in their own right, irrespective of race.

“Also, this is a band that has never broken up. They’ve lost members, but have never taken even 6 months off for almost 30 years. They are working artists, still making music, and we did not want to treat them as if their story was over. A lot of credit goes to our editor, Jeff Springer, who managed to create a coherent flow that has its own kind of rhythm.”

Using narration from Laurence Fishburne, and interviews with admirers Gwen Stefani, Ice-T, Branford Marsalis, Tim Robbins, Les Claypool, and a slew of others, it becomes undeniably apparent, aside from the band’s success or lack thereof, that Fishbone has had a major impact on popular music.

“It was pretty easy to get everyone to agree to do interviews,” Anderson said. “Most of them were either friends of the band or were fans of their music. The challenge was more in the scheduling. Mr. Fishburne was great as a narrator and was happy to do it, because he has been a friend with the band since the early ’80s.”

Another thing that helps to separate the film from stereotypical docs is its creative use of art to tell the story. The fascinating way the band originated, and much of its auspicious beginnings, are told through cartoon montages., and oil paintings are used later to help tell a more serious period in the band’s history.

“We wanted to add a little extra texture,” Anderson said, “an extra layer of visuals that would help enhance the story beyond the use of photographs or other typical devices used in documentaries. The cartoons depicting the band forming in junior high seemed like a fun way to illustrate their storytelling and to introduce the characters. And making them in that ‘Fat Albert style’ helps place the audience in the time period of the late ’70s and early ’80s.”

The film has been playing on the festival circuit since last year and will make an appearance in Temecula this weekend. In the first week of October, it will premiere in New York and Los Angeles.

The film’s crowning achievement is that it is compelling and eminently watchable, regardless of one’s familiarity with the subject. And for Fishbone, a band that deserves to have its story told, every day may not have been sunshine, but they’re refusing to give up.

“We did not know where the story was going,” Anderson said. “Would there be a happy ending or some big moment where they are thrust back onto the big stage? Or would they crash and burn, like so many rock bands? After a while, we realized that their story would go on, and that seemed to be an appropriately optimistic feeling to end the film with.

“The band will be releasing a new album in October and they continue to tour all over the world. They will keep rocking regardless, if the film helps folks discover or rediscover the band. Part of the fun is we’ll get to watch what happens along with everyone else.”


Armistead Burwell "Zach" Smith IV

All Systems go for Pinback’s Smith

If the conversation turns to San Diego music, it’s hard not to mention Three Mile Pilot and Pinback. For the past 20 years, the indie-rock groups have been staples of the San Diego scene. The bridge —- and the constant —- in those bands is Armistead Burwell “Zach” Smith IV.

Armistead Burwell "Zach" Smith IV

Armistead Burwell "Zach" Smith IV of Pinback and Three Mile Pilot is converting his solo project, Systems Officer, into a full-fledged band. (Courtesy of Temporary Residence Ltd.)

Smith is still working with both of the long-running groups, but it’s his on-again, off-again solo project, Systems Officer, that he’ll be putting front and center when he kicks off a nine-date West Coast swing (with a newly assembled trio) Sept. 21 at the Casbah.

Completed during pockets of downtime during the past few years, Systems Officer’s 2004 EP and 2009 “Underslept” LP did not get the same exposure as his other two bands. But Smith is determined to spend the time touring and recording to turn it from solo project into something else.

“This has always been something I wanted to do,” he said recently from his home in Little Italy. “I’ve never had the chance to not throw ideas through the meat grinder before. In Pinback and Three Mile Pilot, it’s a lot of ‘Well, let’s try this!’ And I love that. But Systems Officer just lets me do whatever the f— I want.”

With friends Chris Prescott (Pinback drummer) and Kenseth Thibideau (ex-Pinback/Sleeping People) in tow, Smith hopes to pick up where he left off after the last album under his lesser-known moniker.

“Systems Officer hasn’t put out a record since 2009,” he said. “And I didn’t tour on it. Truth is, I just didn’t want to wait anymore. We’re just going to see how the West Coast goes and really start being a functioning band. These are good friends. It should be nice and simple. Solo things are so often a project. I really want this to be more than that.”

Part of Smith’s plans will be to branch out sonically from his previous albums. It’s something that he said hasn’t happened very often.

“Not yet,” Smith said. “I think you can’t help a similar artistry cutting through on all three bands. I think there’s a certain style that can be found in all of them. But I do think it will happen between now and the new records from Pinback and Systems Officer. … I do think they’re similar right now, but they also have their own identities and will get more and more that way.”

There are other prospective changes on the horizon. Long known as a studio guy (he’s recorded many of his albums), Smith hopes to start bringing in outside help.

“It will be nice to go back in the other direction,” he said. “It’s just so much work. It’s hard to focus on both the engineering and the producing. And I was doing show mixes and writing on top of it. I would love to get some engineers in the future. Free up some time. I want to just focus on the writing and not have to worry about things like EQ and the lows.”

Only time will tell what changes ultimately end up happening. But one thing is for certain —- Systems Officer is going to be taken seriously.

“I’m looking at it as just as important as the other bands,” Smith said. “I’m 41 now. I can’t play at the Casbah for the rest of my life. I love that place and I want to keep both Pinback and Three Mile Pilot going. But there are other things I want to do with my life as well. Systems Officer allows me to do things quicker and not take so long in between it all. And it’s definitely something in the forefront of my life. It’s my swan-song band.”

Although he laughed at that last statement, it may not be that far from the truth. Regardless, Smith can rest assured that he’s left an indelible mark on San Diego’s musical history.

“It’s all about the love of music,” he said. “And when I think of San Diego, I think of my favorite bands —- Drive Like Jehu and Rocket From the Crypt. I’m just lucky to have had people interested in what I’ve done over the last 20 or whatever years. It’s been great to be part of the scene. And hopefully I can keep it going.”

Back in Black at Belly Up

Lately, Vancouver, British Columbia’s Black Mountain and Austin, Texas’ Black Angels have been two of the most buzzed-about bands in rock ‘n’ roll.

Everyone from online hipster outlet Pitchfork to print stalwart Rolling Stone has toasted Black Mountain’s classic rock riffs and the Black Angels’ psych-rock drones.

And somewhat coincidentally, the bands are playing together, co-headlining the appropriately titled Dropout Boogie Tour in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

But despite their differences in style and the 2,300 miles that separate their hometowns, these two bands share far more than similar, color-specific names.

“There are a lot of coincidences,” said Black Mountain bandleader Stephen McBean recently. “We both just put our third record out and they came out on the same day. We both worked with (Grammy-winning producer) Dave Sardy this time. We’re both pretty close in size. And we’ve both been tagged with the ‘trip down memory lane’ thing and mine different but similar fields. There’s a lot of stuff happening with us. But the shows have been great, and they definitely feel bigger than either of us on our own.”

Black Angels frontman Alex Maas shares the feeling of camaraderie and sees the partnership as something that was bound to happen.

“It’s something that we had wanted to do for a while,” said Maas from a Chicago tour stop. “They’re just really nice people. We toured with (McBean’s other band) Pink Mountaintops before and had talked about doing a tour with Black Mountain at some point. But with everything going on, we didn’t think we’d be able to work it out. But it seems that now is the right time.”

While each band has its own unmistakable sound, their musical paths have shared even more uncanny similarities as of late.

Not only did Sept. 14 mark the date of each respective outfit’s third full-length release, both albums marked the first time that either band had left their hometown to record. And while both groups had shown a penchant for long, extended jams in the past, each of the new records feature shorter, more focused anthems and distinct changes in sound.

“It was good for us to change things up and take a chance this time,” said Black Mountain’s McBean. “It’s nice to work with a bit of conflict and fear of failure. We don’t want to just replicate the albums. We always want to add new life to them. But it certainly wasn’t a plan at the start. The songs just led us in that direction. As much as it’s a challenge to write a 17-minute song, it’s also a challenge for us to whittle it down. But it’s awesome to have something that encapsulates everything that we do in four minutes.”

Maas has similar feelings about the Black Angels’ process.

“It was all about the situation,” he said. “It wasn’t as much about getting out of Austin as it was working with Dave Sardy. I think we would have made the same record in Milwaukee or Denver. But we didn’t want to make something entirely different like a hip-hop record or anything. Yet, at the same time, we didn’t want something that was easy or just more of the same. We thought it was healthy to do a lot of things that we’d never done before.”

Whether it’s serendipity or some kind of rock ‘n’ roll mind meld, it’s obvious that the two bands are sharing more than just the stage every night. Both of their albums have been well-received by critics and fans alike, while those excited to catch both acts in a single night have seen a tour where both acts are completely enjoying themselves.

“I think the new songs add a different dynamic to the live show,” Maas said. “And we look forward to playing them every night for that exact reason. It pushes us to try things we’ve never done before. This whole thing has just been a blast.”

Not surprisingly, McBean echoes his counterpart’s feelings.

“It’s been fun,” he said. “I always like it when you go and see a band and they change things live. It just makes it more exciting. And there’s always going to be people who like one record better than the other. That’s fine. But you shouldn’t let the fans dictate where you go. Hopefully, you do what you do, take some chances, and bring your fans along for the ride.

“There may be some arguments between fans on which band is better, but between the bands, there are no issues about who’s got the bigger rider or backstage area. For us, it’s just a celebration of music.”

Black Mountain and the Black Angels

When: 9 p.m. Nov. 23

Where: Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach

Tickets: $15-$17

Info: 858-481-8140


Web: blackmountainband.com; theblackangels.com

Originally printed in the Preview section of the North County Times, November 18, 2010.