Artist of the Month

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October 2015
The Grisly Hand
"Flesh and Gold
Few Kansas City bands have been not only respected but embraced by critics, fans, and fellow musicians of many genres the way The Grisly Hand has over the past few years. Formed in 2009, the band released the album Safe House in 2010, Western Ave. EP in 2012, and then followed those with the stellar and regionally successful Country Singles in 2013. The latter cemented The Grisly Hand’s position as one of the best acts in Kansas City, and probably should have launched them onto a national stage.
There may be just one slight problem—they don’t exactly fit the mold of any one genre. Typically billed as Americana, the band’s first three releases were undeniably country music. Not the contemporary crap you avoid at all costs on your radio dial, but more traditional twang, with perfectly harmonized vocals, pedal steel guitar, mandolin, a potent walking bass, and shuffling beats. It’s not cry-in-your-beer country, but mainly up-tempo tunes that—like a lot of old-school southern music—contain elements of rock, soul, and pop. Music that, despite its wide local appeal, is not exactly sought after by major record labels.
The Grisly Hand’s latest offering, Flesh and Gold, is a different direction for the group. There is an obvious attempt to lessen the country feel by moving to a more straightforward rock ‘n roll sound than present on previous albums. There’s a bit less twanging and a little more banging, but the songs are still well-crafted. Lead vocalists Jimmy Fitzner and Lauren Krum (Ben Summers takes the mic on the third track, “Regina”) harmonize like two people who have spent their entire lives singing together. The musicianship of Fitzner and Summers (guitar and guitar/mandolin, respectively), along with Mike Stover (pedal steel/bass), Dan Loftus (bass/keys), and Matt Richey (drums) continues to be top-notch.
Flesh and Gold opens with the familiar, beautiful ring of Fitzner and Krum, singing in front of a lone electric guitar on “Get in Line, Stranger.” The rest of the band soon kicks in, and the song proceeds to become what the majority of the album is—a very solid collection of catchy, mid-tempo, alt-country tunes; some of which could be accused of leaning towards (gasp) pop rock.
Possibly the most enjoyable cut on the album is the no-nonsense, driving rock song, “Regina.” Summers’ vocals, though not quite as refined as Fitzner’s, are laced with passion as he sings about the insecurities and immaturity of youth. “You probably don’t want to follow me down, because I’m a fucked up kid without a plan / Shows me why you do the things you can.” The track is vibrant and pulsating—Krum’s backing vocals give Summers’ voice some added depth, and Stover’s killer steel guitar solo supplies just enough southern touch. This could be a very radio-friendly song.
Some risks are taken by tackling a couple of heavy topics. “Brand New Bruise,” a ballad turned barroom blues rocker, is about a woman with an abusive partner. I was prepared for a clichéd country triumph about a gritty woman teaching her old man a lesson. Instead, the song reveals a sad dose of reality; a worn woman who doesn’t know where to turn. “You can say you’re sorry again, you can bury me down in the ground / Just know whichever way you choose…either way I lose.” “Satan Ain’t Real” is perhaps a jab at Christianity and the guilt it causes, or maybe just a way of telling people not to be too hard on themselves or each other. “Satan ain’t real, it’s just what we blame when we can’t explain why fellow men hurt us like they do, without remorse / Just know it’s all in your head, and it ain’t ever too late for you to break away.” The song is also one of the more intriguing numbers musically. Somewhere between a Bossa nova and a Cajun ditty, the relaxing groove, filled with mandolin and steel guitar, implores the listener to set their troubles aside.
“Regrets on Parting,” the record’s final track, is by far the most surprising. It is a soul song at heart, and could be mistaken for something coming out of Memphis in the ‘60s. Fitzner and Krum’s harmonizing is at its best here. The real surprise is the addition of a horn section comprised of Nick Howell (trumpet), Mike Walker (trombone), and Rich Wheeler (saxophone). It’s a fantastic, if completely unexpected, song. Maybe it’s no accident that this is the last song, as it could be foreshadowing of things to come on future recordings. (Editor’s note: Flesh & Gold is the first part of a double album that is slated for in early 2016)
Flesh and Gold is a very good standalone album. There isn’t a single song that isn’t thought out and dialed-in, as any fan would expect. Had I never heard any of the The Grisly Hand’s previous work, I would go as far as to call this output great. However, I know what the band is capable of, and couldn’t help longing for a few of the things that made Country Singles so special. For example: the dialogue between Fitzner and Krum on “(If You’re Leavin’) Take the Trash Out [When You Go],” the infectious energy of “If You Say So,” or the moving beauty of “Coup de Coeur.” Despite this, I understand the need for change, applaud the band for moving outside of their comfort zone, and feel extremely confident about the future of The Grisly Hand.

--Brad Scott  

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3 Steps From La La

Album review: Ernest James Zydeco - 3 Steps From La La

(Photo by Bill McKelvey)

The sounds of zydeco are catchy, instantly danceable, and tell stories of a culture that long ago adopted southern Louisiana as its American foothold. For a great many of the music-loving populace of the Kansas City area, the most consistent exposure to the music of New Orleans can be found Friday and Saturday nights on KCUR’s The Fish Fry. The diverse musical tablet of KC doesn’t include very many practitioners of the Cajun soundtrack; Louisiana Grammy-Award winner Chubby Carrier plays at Knucklehead’s so frequently, he may have been given honorary citizenship status here. There is one gentleman, however, who strives to share the sounds of the Crescent City with his fellow Kansas Citians: Ernest James, leader of Ernest James Zydeco, who is releasing the band’s third CD, 3 Steps from La La.

The Ernest James Zydeco version of Cajun music relies less on the flamboyant showmanship of such legends of the form as Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco, and more on the roots-and-folk-music influence of the hill country. This approach seems better suited for a Midwesterner’s touch, as James and his band incorporate jazz and blues in this festive mix. The result may be a little more contemporary than one would expect to hear on Bourbon Street, but it’s no less faithful to the genre.
3 Steps From La La kicks off with “Shake It Sugaree,” the kind of song one would expect to hear walking into the door of a jumpin’ and jivin’ fais do-do; no dance floor would be left unattended with the sounds of Ernest James Zydeco pouring through the speakers. The traditional jump-shuffle of the accordion leads a band with a solid rhythm and brass section (featuring über-musician Mike Stover on bass, banjo, and slide guitar), as James beseeches the listener to get their dancing shoes on (“all that I want / all that I need / shake it right now, sugaree”), and anyone with a pulse would have no choice but to comply. “Lookin” and “Whoa Sally” will keep the party movin’ and groovin’, and when it’s time to put a slowdown on things, James follows with “Supposed To Do,” a grimy blues burner that tells of one’s decision to put their needs ahead of another’s (“I know what you want from me / but this ol’ boy’s gotta be free”). The rest of the album spotlights the diversity and variety of music that James and his band are capable of: a straight-up Howlin’ Wolf-inspired blues (“Zydeco Mother’s Day”), music of lament and longing (“Man Across the Street”), zydeco-meets-The-Wilders (“Pearlie Pearl”, with the fiddle and vocal stylings of the indomitable and inimitable Betse Ellis), and the closer, the gospel standard “Glory Glory,” which James retooled a bit to reflect his own views. “I had to rearrange the lyrics to be comfortable singing them,” he said. “I’m not a Bible thumper; they’re kind of a ‘I don’t know where I’m going ... if there’s a God, have some mercy!’ kind of message.”
Whether there’s a message contained within the music of 3 Steps from La La is up to the listener. If so, it’s being delivered by a tight, authentic, fervent group of musicians led by a man who has been sharing the joyful noise of the Big Easy for years. Ernest James Zydeco delivers on their new CD, and they have a history of bringing it home during their live performances as well, whether they be in a quiet bookstore or a raucous club. Lovers of well-crafted and no-pretense music of any style or genre would do well to add this to their audio libraries.
As Ernest James might reply, “Yeah, you right!”
Ernest James and his band will be releasing 3 Steps From La La tomorrow, November 30, with a show at B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ. Join them for a fun evening; they will be performing the album in its entirety.
--Michael Byars
After much soul-searching and contemplation, Michael Byars has decided not to run for office in 2016. If there had been any money left from his SuperPAC, he would have given it all to the Midwest Music Foundation—but there was only enough to buy a candy bar, so there you go.

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