Local Music Reviews

By on 13 February, 2012 in Art, City Living, Fun with 3 Comments

Photo by Andres Ruada

We are music lovers. We have lived, in our brief adult lives thus far, in Austin (“The Live Music Capital of the World”), Seattle, New York City, and Los Angeles. We’ve been (small) parts of some vibrant live music scenes. We have a large music collection, still buy CDs (dinosaurs!), and we try to see quality live music as often as possible. Still, Montgomery does not have a great reputation as a music town.

Sure, we celebrate Hank Williams with a statue, a museum, and a much-visited gravesite, even though he isn’t a native son. Still, he’s a legend and his final resting place attracts tourists. Nat King Cole was born here, but you wouldn’t really know it. He only lived here until he was 4.

But when it comes to modern music, we’re still working on it. There’s a big difference between knowing great musicians closely associated with our city and scouring Wikipedia looking for someone who might have been born here before going off to some mildly successful career in some other city. So, yes, we know that the lady from Captain and Tenille and the guy from Styx were born in Montgomery. Those facts don’t rebut our case.

Those of us living in Montgomery are still trying to hammer out some high-quality, smoke free, all ages venues. We’re trying to find people who know how to book shows of well known touring acts, and people who know how to get the public to attend such shows in exchange for money. And we’re still working to cultivate and support a local scene of any number of genres that absolutely do not include soft background music played while people hang out in a bar.

In this vein, it’s important to actually, you know, listen to the music of some local artists. Forays into Montgomery’s hip-hop scene have thus far been less than productive (except in following the recent cross town shooting war waged by two rap groups/factions/gangs). As such, we’ll start our explorations with two local albums more squarely in the genre of “rock.”

The first is by a band called Black Racers. The album is self-titled and came out last summer. Recorded at the Rutledge Primitive Baptist Church, it opens with a crushing sonic attack. “Are You Vonnegeddon It” feels Fugazi-inspired, although the title calls to mind the terrible Def Leppard song “Armageddon It.” So, up front, let me be clear: If you think Def Leppard rocks, this is not the band for you.

Black Racers are a band that blend core-rattling guitar riffs with throat-ripping vocals. The lyrics on some of the songs are nearly indecipherable, so it’s helpful that the songs come along with transcriptions. That’s a good thing because the verbal content, by local music icon Rudy Banes, contain some powerful imagery and poetic beauty. But as any fan of hardcore music knows, sometimes the words have to be screamed and can therefore require dedicated effort to interpret. The results are rewarding, although there’s no reduction in the power of the music if you just let it wash over you.

The songs come in a variety of flavors, all of them pretty hard and aggressive. Banes hits high notes over car alarm slides on “Liars and Sirens.” “Tractorbeam” may be the best song ever written about Alabama’s new anti-immigration law, a political screed near-chanted over a jagged guitar landscape. The lyrics filet open political debate in a way that would cause comic cringes in the purveyors of contemporary soundbytes. Banes’ targets are not unusual for this sort of music — bigots, hypocrites, etc. — but the angles at which he penetrates the prevailing conversations are what set his lyrics above his contemporaries.

The best song on the album is “debate.” The staccato riff by Kenny Johnson punctuates the lacerating lyrics and the mixing, especially of the drum tracks, gives the whole thing a living hand grenade feel. We have not yet made it out to see the Racers on one of their (far too infrequent) live performances, but the next time we see them listed as performing (likely at local venue Head on the Door), we’re likely to rearrange plans to make it out.

Montgomery is lucky to have a local band that makes a listener think about bands like Television and MC5. Black Racers aren’t there yet, and the album is disjointed enough that you’d like to hear them decide to take a jump step in the direction of coherence and accessibility, but the album contains enough of a passionate stomach punch that you’d give it multiple listens … assuming you’re into that sort of thing. Banes is a smarter Henry Rollins without the loutish Libertarian chest beating, willing to jump down into a gully full of kudzu and flail around. And with the Racers behind him, the results are memorable.

For a totally different feel, yet from a similar root on the Montgomery rock genealogical tree, it’s highly worth checking out Jeff McLeod’s Under Dim Self. Where the Black Racers album provides a series of abrupt high volume political bursts, McLeod offers up a dissonant soundtrack for meditation, a collection of droning sonic mantras suitable for a wide variety of (mostly solitary) settings.

Under Dim Self opens with a sound that calls to mind the weird pseudo-science of vibrational healing by way of some kind of Brian Eno workshop. The title track comes off as one of those Pink Floyd songs that never really takes off, but it sets the stage for an eight-track experiment that makes you say to yourself, “Whoa. Wait. What? This was made in Montgomery?!?”

I don’t know anything about McLeod except that insiders describe him in pretty reverent terms as a long-time fixture on Montgomery’s music scene. He appears to have been involved in some kind of improvisational music co-op, which may or may not still be a thing.

But as the second track’s muffled background loop begins to work its trance-like effect (think Trent Reznor meets, say, T. Rex), you wonder if this is some sort of locally produced chaos magic text, something that may have been intended as the soundtrack for a ritual to which you were, in fact, not invited.

I mean, you’ve got this quasi-Middle Eastern sound and some person (people?) saying:

“East of Heaven lies an impulse to forget and spread the path with poison seed sown by ageless and malignant cautious spectres just not ready to be freed by your passing and you’re passing yourself slowly in the meantime right through me . . . energy that’s not worth feeling, not worth having, not worth turning like some key.”

Suddenly, you feel like you’re a long way from saying that Hank Williams is a good example of Montgomery’s musical tradition. Suddenly you feel like you are in the basement of some cult, looking around anxiously for the exit as some weirdo wants to show you one more guitar effects pedal.

McLeod has real talent. He makes guitar squiggles swim upstream against rivers of distorted current, like salmon hopping along towards a spawning ground. The track “laughingmatter” is anything but. You feel surrounded, while Al Jourgenson points and mocks your discomfort.

Still, this is inspiring stuff. Although if I owned the album, I’d skip “Christmas Curse” 99 times out of 100, the idea that someone from our town would spend this much time working on an album (and ultimately decide that this was the finished product) suggests that we’ve got some creative (and obsessive) weirdos in our midst. And I mean that in the best possible way. This is not an album for someone who wants to hear a peppy Broadway musical at the MPAC. This is a highly experimental exploration into the darker places of the human mind. And being able to say, in this age of saturated information, that you’ve never heard anything quite like this, well, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

Both McLeod and Black Racers are music from Montgomery that have almost nothing to do with this particular place. The Racers’ album may come from a particular local milieu, but both albums are accessible to much wide audiences than locals. And that is both the blessing and curse of the producing “local” music in the digital age. People that live in Montgomery can relate to the abstractions, the brutality, and the anger of artists like Black Racers and Jeff McLeod. But that’s because they touch on universal human themes. There are no references to local street names or customs on these albums. They both veer towards parts of the human spirit that could be recognized in places that don’t even speak English.

Yet, these artists are our artists because they live among us. And here’s hoping that we can continue to dissect, analyze, and (gasp) even pay money to support their evolutions and efforts.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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There Are 3 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Amber O'Shea says:

    Nice to see someone else out here trying to help support the local music scene in Montgomery! Keep up the great work! ^_^

  2. Bee Frederick says:

    From what I’ve been told, Montgomery had quite the local music scene at one time. I understand the point of this post is to express interest in the local music of today, which definitely needs to be done, but I feel like looking back at the past just might inspire people.

    From the 70’s and 80’s check out this really neat site detailing the history of a local Montgomery band Harvest/Harmony depending on the time (http://www.eddiewohlford.com/Harvest%20page.htm). It is compiled by Eddie Wohlford, who I think is still around and is an extremely talented musician. It details his time with Tommy Shaw and Tommy’s involvement with the band. Additionally, it talks about Beth Neilson Chapman who spent a considerable amount of time with the band in Montgomery and has gone on to do great things in the music industry (http://www.bethnielsenchapman.com/index.php). Lastly, Montgomery native Bill Hinds spent some time with the band. Bill is still playing – He plays with Muscle Shoals’ Paul Thorn. This link details more about him and his accomplishments (http://www.billhinds.com/bio.html). He is quoting on the site saying: “It was a great time and place to learn the craft; Montgomery was crawling with talent, work was abundant, and in the Seventies, with artists like Steely Dan and Yes selling lots of records, it was okay – even profitable – to play adventurous music.”

    If you use the first link and click on the “return to band links” hyperlink, it will take you back to Eddie Wohlford’s page where he posts some incredibly interesting links to bands he played with, information about them, and even some music you can listen to. They had some pretty well-known musicians sit in with them in various visits to Muscle Shoals.

    Every now and again, Harmony (or Harvest) will reunite. Here is cool video showing how talented Bill Hinds and the others are. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mQwfIa2I3U

    Relatively more recent local Montgomery music – Blues Old Stand (http://web.mac.com/scottcrompton/Site/Bio.html). Definitely a band worth seeing live, very talented musicians who frequent 1048 jazz and blues still. Idella Soul falls in the category as well, but unfortunately they are no longer together. They were another great group to see live (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZaDxwbJhfo). Not sure about all of them, but some of those guys are still in Montgomery and know all there is to know about the Montgomery music scene.

    As for the here and now, there is still great local talent around. See Goat Hill String Band, Distant Kin, Davis Nix and one of his many projects, Alex Craig, Hellakopta of Love, Zac Martin, and I am sure there are many more.

    Here’s to hoping we can embrace local musicians, old and new, in every way possible.

  3. Jay Croft says:

    Yes, Eddie Wohlford is still around! I saw him about a year ago. I know his whole family rather well.

    Eddie’s mother was a most remarkable woman. She was Deaf and had a fascinating story. She eloped with a hearing man and they lived in Saudi Arabia for several years. Her children and grandchildren are very talented sign language interpreters.

    Louise Wohlford was “the life of the party” at any gathering of the Deaf community, even when she was well into her 80s. I miss her.

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