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Artist of the Month
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December 2015
Mikal Shapiro
"The Musical
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Singer-songwriter Mikal Shapiro’s perfectly titled latest release, The Musical, is a collection of not merely songs, but 10 short stories set to wonderful music. The album is a work—or multiple works—of art that are just as mysterious and intriguing as any paintings you will find in a gallery. Shapiro’s palette is splattered with the complete spectrum of colors. There are dreary gray tones and bright whimsical flashes, melding together to create a soundtrack to life—one that touches many musical genres, including rock, folk, jazz, old-school country, and even gospel.
 
The Musical's opening act, “Nope,” is an airy, ethereal fantasy. Odd, evasive lyrics over a folk sound made jazzier by a muted trumpet give the listener a sense of drifting in and out of a dream on a rainy Sunday morning. Drums and crashing cymbals briefly end the slumber, until you are lulled back to sleep as the song comes to a close. Several tracks share this jazz feel, including “Out on the Town,” “Two String Blues,” and the wonderfully whimsical "Hot Cool." Shapiro's vocals are poised and effortless on each of these. 
 
“Here and Now” explores rediscovering love and a desire to forget (or never remember) the past. A dull snare beat blanketed by beautiful steel guitar rivals the purest of cry-in-your-beer country songs. Similarly, “This Way to Heaven” is country with an emphasis on gospel. It begins a cappella and, as the band joins in, becomes the loveliest song on the album. It is simultaneously serene and haunting.
 
Matching the mystery and irony found throughout the album, “Daniel,” the catchiest and most up-tempo tune, is also possibly the saddest. Daniel himself is an enigma. The storyteller, who acknowledges being a “friend” of Daniel’s, clearly knows little more about him than that he can “sleep like a Christian” and “drink like a demon.” The song turns dark when the protagonist is found dead, presumably by suicide. “But on that Saturday, Daniel was down / They couldn’t say where he was found, or how he was found.” Brilliantly, the listener is left to decide how Daniel may have met his demise, and why.  
 
Shapiro is fortunate to be backed by Chad Brothers (guitar and vocals), Johnny Hamil (electric and double bass), and Matt Richey (drums), along with a small army of additional local musicians. This adept team provides a canvas that Shapiro expertly fills. My interpretations of The Musical may differ from other listeners. As with any painting, the artist is not only revealing her emotions, but is also attempting to provoke a response—and Shapiro certainly does. My response may be lost in translation, as the peculiar, personal songs will pierce each listener differently.

--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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