As a visual artist, Broken Arrow, Okla., native JD McPherson is well versed in the process of working within clearly defined formal parameters, and he employs a similarly rigorous discipline with his music. On Signs & Signifiers (Rounder, April 17), McPherson’s seductively kickass debut album, produced by JD’s musical partner, Jimmy Sutton, this renaissance man/hepcat seamlessly meshes the old and the new, the primal and the sophisticated, on a work that will satisfy traditional American rock ’n’ roll and R&B purists while also exhibiting McPherson’s rarefied gift for mixing and matching disparate stylistic shapes and textures.
“There are little subcultures within the roots scene, where people are really into rockabilly, traditional hillbilly stuff or old-timey music,” JD points out, “but there aren’t a whole lot of folks making hard-core rhythm & blues hearkening back to Specialty, Vee-Jay or labels like that. That’s what Jimmy and I really like, and our only intention going in was just to make a solid rhythm & blues/rock ’n’ roll record. But I didn’t want to make a time-machine record, so we tried to make something relevant but with all the things we love about rock ’n’ roll and rhythm & blues and mesh it all together. We both have eclectic tastes; Jimmy likes the Clash as much as he likes Little Richard, and I like the Pixies, T.Rex, hip-hop and all kinds of stuff. So we came up with a couple of weird songs and put them on the record, hoping that it wouldn’t scare off any of our ultra-selective fanbase.”
JD needn’t have worried. It’s highly unlikely that even the most discerning listeners would guess that the arrangement on his cover of Tiny Kennedy’s R&B chestnut “Country Boy” incorporates not only the tambourine beat of Ruth Brown’s 1955 Atlantic single “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” but also Raekwon and RZA’s “abstract, out-of-tune piano loops” on Wu-Tang Clan’s innovative ’93 LP Enter the Wu-Tang; or that the mesmerizing churner “Signs & Signifiers” is powered by an unchanging tremolo guitar figure modeled on Johnny Marr’s part on the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.” Then there’s “Firebug,” which JD “wanted to sound as if Stiff Little Fingers had recorded at Del-Fi Records.” And while it may not have been specifically what McPherson and Sutton were going for, the haunting dreamscape “A Gentle Awakening” seems to chart a course from “Heartbreak Hotel” through Terence Trent D’Arby to Amy Winehouse.
Never has an album of so-called “retro” music been laced with such a rich payload of postmodern nuance. But that was precisely the intent of what JD describes, only half-facetiously, as “an art project disguised as an R&B record.”
“It’s weird,” says Sutton, “when you grow up being a fan of ‘older’ music and all of a sudden you’re making a record, you’re thinking, are we just recreating something—a museum piece—or are we actually bringing it forward? It’s interesting, because if you make something today and it moves you today, in that sense it’s contemporary. I like that juxtaposition of classic and fresh, something old yet new that can actually take you somewhere now.”
Of course, pushing the genre envelope doesn’t work unless the artist has the chops and feel to capture the form in its pure state to begin with. Check out, for example, “Dimes for Nickels,” McPherson’s vital evocation of the very moment when R&B and hillbilly music had a baby and they called it rock ’n’ roll, or the Jackie Wilson-meets-Elvis exuberance of “Scratching Circles,” or the lascivious ecstasy of the Little Richard doppelganger “Scandalous,” (although the “gold-capped tooth” reference in the first line is lifted from the Leiber-Stoller Coasters classic “Love Potion #9”). But for all we know, these tracks, too, may have been secretly embedded with elements from far afield, their stylistic twists hiding in plain sight. This cat is wicked-clever—and man, can he ever deliver this righteous shit.
McPherson took a circuitous path to get to this point. Broken Arrow butts up against Tulsa, a cultural oasis in the Heartland that has long been not only a musical hotbed but also a bustling center of the contemporary arts. “Tulsa’s got a lot of resources for people who are into weirdo art,” JD points out. And he gravitated toward it. “I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Oklahoma in experimental film,” he says. “I wanted to paint, do installation, make video art, performance stuff, sculpture. I’ll bet I’m the only person to have received graduate credit hours in card magic.” He wound up with an M.F.A. from the University of Tulsa in open media, a discipline designed specifically for his interests and ambitions.
But all along the way, music was an integral part of McPherson’s life. His dad introduced him to Delta blues and jazz as a kid, and after getting into Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and punk rock during high school, he picked up a Buddy Holly box set. “Something about that scratched an itch,” he says. “Then I started getting into the black side of rock ’n’ roll: Larry Williams, Little Richard, Art Neville’s stuff on Specialty, then soul and Jamaican rocksteady.” While studying visual arts, he also played in bands, doing everything from punk to western swing. JD was still scratching that itch when he recorded some originals with his previous band and took a shot in the dark. Well aware of Sutton’s status as a heavy hitter on the roots scene and the leader of R&B group the Four Charms, he fired off a MySpace friend request and asked if the producer/bassist would listen to his demos.
“I get sent stuff all the time, and it’s always the same,” says Sutton, “but I checked JD out and there was definitely something there. He wowed me—his voice, his songwriting. So we started talking, and we were always on the same page about the music we dig and where we wanted to take it. He had great ideas but he was still an open book. I was just trying to push him to stay true to himself. So the idea became to create a record that was honest and live.”
Six months into their budding partnership, JD arrived at Sutton’s newly completed home studio in Chicago—a sort of working shrine to all-tube recording as it was practiced a half-century ago, right down to Jimmy’s collection of vintage mics and his early-’60s Berlant/Concertone quarter-inch tape machine. Also on hand was Sutton’s go-to guy Alex Hall, “a Brian Eno type” according to JD, who multitasks as engineer, drummer and keyboard player.
“I showed up and I said, ‘I got this song ‘Dimes for Nickels,’ and I want it to be like a Chess Chuck Berry thing, slowed down, with a flat-tire beat,’” JD remembers. “Jimmy and Alex are from Chicago—they know that stuff backwards and forwards—and we nailed it in two takes.” Within a week, they’d banged out a dozen tracks, recording during the day and writing at night with a guitar and a laptop.
In order to make sure the album got heard by JD’s potential core audience, Sutton threw some chum in the water, pressing up a limited run on his brand-new Hi-Style label and directing it at the roots community. JD and Jimmy, who’s also a visual artist, then applied those skills to the making of a striking video for opening track “North Side Girl,” which has now registered well over 350,000 YouTube views.
“When the album came out, we immediately got a really strong response from that crowd,” JD recalls. “Then we put that video out, and it went all over the place within a week. Not too long after that, we started getting calls from managers, prospective booking agents, and it turned into this weird journey. By early last year, we were talking to some major labels and the folks at Rounder, who found out about us from the video. What made it the perfect storm was, as all that was happening, I lost my job—I was a middle school art teacher. I loved that job but, sign of the times, they started laying off the art department and I was part of the fallout. So I collected my paycheck through the summer and toured.” After which he signed with Rounder.
Having finally decided on his artistic direction, JD isn’t looking back. “Although I grew up wanting to be a visual artist, I’ll tell you what: the most satisfaction I’ve ever had as an artist is right now,” he says. “Because as much as I love artists like Joseph Beuys, I love David Bowie and Little Richard more. I was doin’ OK, I had some things going, but I’d rather do this, make music the priority. There’s more instant gratification—you play a show and right away you feel like it’s something worthwhile, and a lot of people are in on it. So I’m definitely into continuing to explore all this stuff. It’s really exciting—knock on wood.”
JD has no doubts about the viability of the choice he’s made. “Working within a genre has been done in all kinds of mediums—look at Alfred Hitchcock,” he points out. “It’s been established that rock ’n’ roll is a viable form—it’s hard-wired into American brains to understand swinging blues stuff. So it’s not surprising to me that kids are into the Black Keys and Adele. It just had to be presented to them.”
So now it’s JD McPherson’s turn to step up to the plate and give it a good whack. Go get ’em, tiger.
To borrow a phrase from heaven's new poet laureate, Leonard Cohen, Nicole Atkins was "born with the gift of a golden voice." But somewhere along the way she misplaced it. Goodnight Rhonda Lee is the story of Nicole finding her voice, and how, in doing so, she went a little crazy.
Great Art is born of struggle and Nicole was struggling. The problem was that she felt nothing. Her fans responded to her performances with the same fervor they always had, but Nicole felt nothing. Her new husband loved her and doted on her, but she felt nothing. She traced it back to her drinking and decided to try to learn to live without booze. But that first day of sobriety brought with it an unexpected additional test -- Nicole's dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. This Jersey girl, whose big voice was tethered to a big heart, and whose reaction to the mundane setbacks of everyday life had always been equally overblown, suddenly faced a real problem. "It toughened me up," she says.
And the songs started to come. Little bursts of therapeutic creativity. Thorny feelings transubstantiated into melodies. Beginning with "Listen Up," a wake-up call to a lucky girl who hadn't realized how lucky she'd been, Nicole started to find her redemption in these songs. They rang true in a way no songs ever had before. They came from a deep, vulnerable place. If Nicole had been living an unexamined life, she wasn't anymore.
She needed her newfound toughness though, as in the midst of all this turmoil, she prepared to move from her native Asbury Park to Nashville. Having spent more than a decade as the de facto queen of Asbury, Nicole was finally leaving the warm, but often stifling confines of her hometown. During one of her final nights before the exodus, a song came to her in a dream. “I Love Living Here Even When I Don’t” summed up the complicated feelings she experienced as she said goodbye to the only real home she'd ever known.
In Nashville, Nicole's once hectic life was very different. Left home alone as her tour manager husband plied his trade out on the road, Nicole found herself writing songs that examined "feelings of separation and being scared of new surroundings." In particular, the songs "Sleepwalking" and "Darkness Falls" echo like ghosts through an empty house.
Unsurprisingly, her sobriety faltered. She drifted in and out of it. Nicole knew the wagon was good for her, but she had a hard time staying focused on what was good for her. As it went on however, the clarity of those sober days started to shine through. And she was able to string them together in longer stretches. For the first time, she was able to offer a shoulder for others to lean on, rather than always being the one in need of a shoulder. It helped that she had to be strong for herself in order to be strong for her dad. Much of what she was feeling was painful, but it beat the hell out of feeling nothing.
She reconnected with her old friend Chris Isaak who encouraged her, in the midst of all the soul- searching and soul-baring, to write songs that emphasized the one trait that most sets her apart from the mere mortals of the industry, telling her, “Atkins, you have a very special thing in your voice that a lot of people can’t or don’t do. You need to stop shying away from that thing and let people hear it.” To that end, the two of them collaborated on Goodnight Rhonda Lee's standout track, the instant classic, "A Little Crazy.”
Great Art is a journey -- and Nicole Atkins traveled quite a distance to bring us Goodnight Rhonda Lee. As Nicole explains it, "This record came to me at a time of deep transition. Some days were good, some not so good. What I did gain, though, from starting to make some changes and going inward, and putting it out on the table, was a joy in what I do again. Joy in the process and a newfound confidence that I don’t think I've ever had until now. The album title, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, also came from those feelings. Rhonda Lee was kind of my alias for bad behavior, and it was time to put that persona to bed."
The direction in which these songs were headed was obvious. Nicole's voice had always recalled a classic vinyl collection. She is the heir to the legacy of "Roy Orbison, Lee Hazelwood, Sinatra, Aretha, Carole King, Candi Staton." She is untethered to decade or movement or the whim of the hipster elite.
In order to capture the timelessness she sought, Nicole enlisted a modern day Wrecking Crew: Niles City Sound in Fort Worth, TX, who had just risen to national acclaim as Leon Bridges' secret weapon. "We spoke the same language. We wanted to make something classic, something that had an atmosphere and a mood of romance and triumph and strength and soul." The album was recorded in five days, live to tape. The album that Nicole and the boys came up with in those five days, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, is nothing less than Great Art and a quantum leap forward for Nicole Atkins who, no matter how much she grows up, will always be a little crazy.
This cruise is aboard THE LIBERTY BELLE and will depart from Pier 36 - 299 South Street.
We will be boarding and departing at the times listed on your ticket and are not able to allow refunds if you miss the boat. So don't be late - it sure ain't pretty to be standin on the dock, watching the party sailing away!
There are cash bars on board so make sure to swing by the ATM on your way to the boat. There will be food available for purchase. All cruises are 3 hours unless otherwise noted. If you have any questions about the show or your purchase, please contact Sancho Dominguez at email@example.com or check out our FAQ page on www.rocksoff.com
Please note that all shows are 21 and over and ID will be required upon boarding the boat
*RAIN OR SHINE!*
Delicious Eats by Sancho's Cantina!
We have delicious food available for purchase on all our boats! Menu items vary slightly but typically include empanadas, chicken, rice, salad, pasta, and the like! Cash only, so come hungry and with your pockets stuffed!