Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Frontier Ruckus/Cary Ann Hearst - House of Blues

By Jon Stone | @jwstone - Jul 17, 2010

Last week I reviewed the new record Deadmalls and Nightfalls by Michigan band Frontier Ruckus. I like the record and thought it would be fun to catch their show Thursday night in Chicago. So I did. It was a fun night -- we had family in town and I took my father-in-law (who is a wonderful musician/songwriter in his own right) to the show. He was so excited to be going to the House of Blues. So, despite the venue's kitsch, it made me excited that he was so excited; good times were sure to be had.

Good times were had. Frontier Ruckus employ interesting instrumentation: banjo, horns, the saw and even their straight-ahead percussion is interesting with those other instruments in the mix. The band is tight and at its best when they are kicked into uptempo songs like their new album opener "Nerves of the Night Mind." When the whole band is in full effect they have an intensity, as I mentioned in my record review, not unlike Mumford and Sons.

Their slower songs, for me, lack that power. My hang-up here is related to lead singer, Matthew Milia's, voice. It’s unique. And when competing in an ocean of bands, I recognize the importance of having a distinct vocal sound, so it’s with the disclaimer of my own personal taste (and with the hypocrisy of loving The Tallest Man on Earth yesterday at Pitchfork) that I say that Milia's voice isn’t my favorite. He has the kind of high nasal tenor that might have sounded perfect in a traditional bluegrass band (which isn’t far off from where they started) – its Ben Kwellery without the endearing southern drawl. These dudes are from Michigan after all.

That may seem harsh, but it doesn’t change my affinity for the band. These things have a way of growing on you. Here, though, is where I admit to one of the happy hazards of concert review: though I was there to review FR, my heart was stolen by the openers, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent (click here for their collab site). The romantically-partnered, country/blues duo took the stage, started playing and had me grinning before they'd even finished a song. I love that. And maybe my vocal quality hang-up that I mention above was due to the fact that Hearst's voice was so incredible. She is equal-parts Loretta Lynn and Bonnie Raitt, and Trent, who closed the set with some of his own great songs, offered back-up as vocal harmony, percussion, and delta-blues lead guitar.

These are the kind of performances that are both surprising and confusing. I've already shown my surprise (and delight!), but the confusion is related to the crap-shoot that is the music industry. Why is it that Cary Ann Hearst -- an incredible vocalist and songwriter -- is struggling just to get her stuff out there at all while artists like Sharon Van Etton (also great, but I think Cary Ann is better) are playing Pitchfork? To fight the power, Hearst and Trent started their own label (Shrimp records) to release stuff because they can't get a deal. Anyway, at the very least, give their Myspace pages a listen and try to catch them next time they come through your town. Maybe they'll introduce you to their dog, Townes, who is on tour with them as well.

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