Review – Concert Performance: An Evening with Jeffrey Dean Foster and Friends featuring Special Guests Greg Humphreys, Sam Frazier and Snüzz (Britt Harper Uzzell). April 29th, 2011. Hanes Brands Theater, Winston-Salem, NC. Photo Credit: Merch Mike.
As we become a distributed culture, one of the things that, instead of being eviscerated as I’d once hoped, has become perhaps more pronounced is the “siloing” of artists. Writers, visual artists – and especially, musicians – get categorized by some aspect of their artistic vision that more often than not is either idiosyncratic to the categorizer or, worse, convenient for “marketing.” My own sons are struggling with this issue as we speak.
You know what marketing music is – or rather, was. Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman explained the process to us some years ago in their classic, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star”:
Then it’s time to go downtown
Where the agent man won’t let you down.
Sell your soul to the company
Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware.
These lyrics, of course, presume a world where gatekeepers representing powers with vast media resources and near complete hegemony over public interest, taste, and access can make stars. As I said, those days are over. Most of the artists in this review flirted with that world – as I, a musician myself, did. All came away (as I did) disillusioned in some way with “the business,” as that side of the musician life is called in the parlance. They could have, as I have done for long stretches, walked away and found something else to solace themselves with/find success of a sort in – as I did with writing fiction and teaching.
But these artists continue to fight the good fight and make music. Great music. To hell with marketers and silos and disappointments and distributed cultures. Let’s spend some time celebrating their love of music – and their great work.
The night began with a solo acoustic set by Greg Humphreys. Humphreys was the lead singer and driving force behind one of NC’s most interesting bands of the 1990′s, Dillon Fence. His set ranged from a “faux tradional” number, “Way Over Yonder” (with guest musician claw hammer banjo master Riley Baugess) to the focal song from Humphreys’ recent solo effort Realign Your Mind, the samba-influenced “21st Century Existential Latin Blues.” Humphreys ended his set with a terrific sing along to the Solomon Burke classic, “Goodbye, Baby (Baby, Goodbye).” Here, to whet your appetite for his work, is a nice video he did for the above mentioned “21st Century Existential Latin Blues”:
Next up were local wonder boys Sam Frazier and Snüzz (the erstwhile Britt Harper Uzzell), who currently work together in a project called The Numbers. Their too-short set consisted of alternating tunes from each man: Snüzz’s trademark, call it what it is, is smart-assed country-tinged power pop (think Ben Folds lyrics with Buffalo Springfield melodies) crossed with the rootsier but no-less-witty tunes of Frazier (think Todd Rundgren meets Flying Burrito Brothers). From the irresistible “Call Me Baby” to the truly squirrelly “My Flying Squirrel Crime Fighting Buddy,” they provided a refreshing counter to Humphreys’ soulful set.
Here are Uzzell and Frazier doing their thing:
BTW, Snüzz has a wonderful solo record out called Big Potatoes. Check it out.
Then it was time for Jeffrey Dean Foster.
Foster is a local treasure who should be a national one (that takes nothing from the artists previously mentioned – all are worthy national talents in a just world, if not the bizarro one we inhabit dominated by the trainwreck Lady Gaga). His set offered several new songs (including the opener, a lovely new piano based tune called “Lucky Man” and a wonderful, adventurous new critique of those Middle Eastern wars we keep hearing about called “Young Tigers Disappear”) as well as some of his best work from both Million Star Hotel and The Pinetops’ Above Ground and Vertical.
Two moments in the show haunt me. One was a slightly diffident (even dismissive feeling) treatment of one of his greatest songs, “The Summer of the Son of Sam” (with a Stevie Nicks tune drop-in that ruined the song for me). I looove this tune, to use a Woody Allenism, and I despise Stevie Nicks’ work [sorry Jeff], so I was truly disappointed.
The other moment, a transcendent one, came two songs later, when Jeff, the brilliant vocalist Lynn Blakey, and the band (more on them shortly) turned in a heart-wrenching performance of “Break Her Heart” from Million Star Hotel. I saw several people in the crowd wipe tears away – including my own charming companion. The word I heard murmured more than once was that grand old chestnut of the tragically hip – “awesome.” For once the term fit the moment.
Jeffrey Dean’s players included long-time side man John Pfiffner, who played lap steel, omnichord, and guitar wonderfully; the aforementioned Riley Baugess, a wizard of claw hammer-style banjo playing who is the most relaxed guy I may have ever seen on a stage (and that includes Dean Martin); and Ecki Heinz, a clearly classically trained violinist who doesn’t let that stop him from fiddling the hell out of his instrument if the circumstances call for it. The musical moment that brought the house down came during “Young Tigers Disappear,” a sequence that combined banjo, violin, omnichord and Jeffrey Dean’s guitar in a sonic barrage that reminded me of a cross between an Indian raga and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” It suited the song perfectly. Can’t wait for the record….
The show ended with a heartfelt rendition of Hank Williams’ “Thank God” that brought everyone back on stage and had the audience on its feet singing along.
It was a terrific evening of music. In a better world, you’d be looking forward to this show in your town.
As a kindness and recompense, I’ll leave you with Jeffrey Dean and company doing one of the tunes from the show, the lilting and lovely “Corner of My Eye”:
My thanks to these wonderful musicians for the great music and great memories. Support local music, ya’ll….