THE BLACK LILLIES

Psyko Steve Presents

THE BLACK LILLIES

SAMANTHA CRAIN, JIM BACHMANN

Sun, December 16, 2018

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

$12.00 - $15.00

This event is 21 and over

THE BLACK LILLIES
THE BLACK LILLIES
As The Black Lillies reacquainted fans with the band’s new look and sound through a series of videos over the course of 2017, a few questions began to percolate in their minds:

Is a new album in the works? Was this an indication of the band’s new sound? Does Sam Quinn — the band’s bass player, harmony vocalist (with an occasional lead) and a partner in the songwriting duties of frontman Cruz Contreras — own a shirt?

The short answers: Yes; kind of but not really; and … yeah, but he prefers the weather fine enough to go without.

“The Sprinter Sessions” were a series of live videos recorded at stops around the country, from the frozen cityscape of Philadelphia in late winter to the side of a Midwestern backroad with fallow fields stretching to the horizon. In various combinations, the Lillies — Contreras, Quinn, guitarist/songwriter Dustin Schaefer and drummer/songwriter Bowman Townsend — committed themselves to recording a brand new song every week. They weren’t lavishly orchestrated or fully fleshed out; sometimes lyrics had been written mere minutes prior to the broadcast. The songs were performed on acoustic instruments still grimy from shows the night before, and the guys didn’t bother to pick out their finest threads. Quinn, more often than not, played shirtless. Hence the aforementioned question.

“You’re putting songs out there that weren’t finished, weren’t perfectly arranged, and we might barely have been able to perform them,” Contreras says. “We might be tired or hungover, playing them at a truck stop or wherever. It wasn’t glamorous — but it held us accountable to that a rate of productivity that was really important, and it kept our fans up to speed with the evolution of the group — even if a lot of them did offer to send us clothes or food!”

More than anything else, “The Sprinter Sessions” set the stage for “Stranger to Me,” the new album by the Lillies that drops Sept. 28 on Attack Monkey/Thirty Tigers. It’s been a slow roll-out, but the new record is the sound of a band that’s been renewed and reinvigorated, anchored to the traditions that made it so beloved by so many but chiseled down to the bare essentials:

Four men. Four friends. Four artists, each of whom could rightly put out a solo record tomorrow, tied together by a bond to something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

“Going from a six-piece to a four-piece, it’s given these guys space to shine and grow and evolve, and the chemistry has gotten better,” says Contreras, who in another life was the mandolin-shredding bandleader of Robinella and the CCstringband, once signed to both the Columbia and Dualtone labels. “These guys have become not just sidemen or guns for hire; they’re invested. Their opinions count, and their creativity is as much a part of this record as mine. There are songs that I wrote; that Sam (a veteran of the Americana group The Everybodyfields) wrote; that we wrote in any combination and all of us together.

“It’s pretty simple, when you get down to that romantic notion of having a band. We rehearse together, we travel together, we hang out together because we’re dedicated, and I think the music is really showing that now. For me, it’s been years of learning to set your ego aside, but experience teaches you that you have to.”
Making room for other voices in the band was vital in rekindling Quinn’s creative fires. The winner of the 2006 Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest and a respected solo artist after The Everybodyfields folded, the well had dried up for him back home in Knoxville until a spot opened in The Black Lillies. Working with Contreras, Townsend and then Schaefer, Quinn says, was akin to tossing gasoline on the smoldering embers of his songwriting chops.

“It’s like, when the itch hits, that’s the time to scratch it,” he said. “Office Depot is now my favorite place. I’m always buying paper and pens and destroying them, because I write all the time. Right now, I’m looking at four legal pads, a notebook, a journal and a bunch of stolen hotel paper. It’s a bit of a neurosis, I’m afraid, but I want to be a better writer, and this band is an outlet to become that.”

The Black Lillies were conceived during a particularly emotional period in Contreras’ life. A divorce, a disassembling of his old band and a 9-to-5 job driving a truck left him with days of turbulent thoughts and nights alternating between pen-and-paper and a guitar to put them into some semblance of order. “Whiskey Angel,” released in 2009, was a springboard to a whirlwind career revival, and within two years, the band had notched several national tours, landed on the hot list of countless publications and appeared everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry stage to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Other records — “100 Miles of Wreckage,” “Runaway Freeway Blues,” “Hard to Please” — helped define a sound that was rooted in distinct male-female harmonies, intricate instrumentalism and emotionally charged lyrics that look toward the hope of a new day dawning, regardless of the darkness of broken hearts and bereft spirits.

Around the making of “Hard to Please,” however, the band faced its biggest challenge to date — losing key members, integrating new ones and facing a future that meant changing musical directions. Contreras, however, rose to the challenge, drawing inspiration from some of the titans of the genre in which the Lillies often find themselves categorized: The Eagles and Wilco, just to name a few.

“We think about those favorite records of ours, those masterpiece records, and they’re no filler, all killer,” he says. “We grew up listening to records like that, so we thought, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s stack it.’ It should be nothing but keepers, and there really shouldn’t be five seconds of, ‘Oh, they didn’t know what to do here.’ Everything should be purposeful.”

When the dust settled, he found himself with the right set of players: Quinn, who won songwriting awards and was once a labelmate of the Avett Brothers during his time in The Everybodyfields; Schaefer, a guitar wizard and a veteran of the Texas alt-country band Mickey and The Motorcars; and Townsend, the youngest member of the band who was brought in on drums in 2005 and has quickly become the group’s veteran anchor.

“Bowman brought that positive attitude, that work ethic, and for me, he’s been the guy,” Contreras says. “When Sam joined the band, we were getting a rock star. This guy’s been around the block, done it all and succeeded. He’s written great songs, played big stages and had the band that will go down in music history as one of the seminal ones in the genre. With Dustin, he had moved to Nashville to pursue a solo career, but when he joined up, we all got along and played well together.

“With all of these guys, we kind of hit the ground running. I think there’s mutual respect there on a creative level — we’re very different personalities, we make very different types of music and have very different writing styles, but we recognize that when we work together, we come up with something new and different that none of us could do on our own.”

Although “Stranger to Me” is a distinct milestone in a career arc that continues to climb, lead-off track “Ten Years” is the bridge to the band’s previous efforts. A gentle country rocker gives Contreras room to croon, and his vocals — reminiscent of a young Randy Travis or Dan Tyminski — demonstrate just how much he’s evolved as a singer since he stepped up to the mic for the first time on “Whiskey Angel.” By track two — “Midnight Stranger” — the guys lasso a classic rock groove in the vein of Bad Company, and listeners will realize that any governor on the throttle of this remodeled machine has been yanked and discarded. By track three — “Weighting,” one of Quinn’s three leads — the Lillies are waist-deep in a maelstrom of new tricks that both dazzle and satisfy.

“This is Sam out of the gate — he wrote all of the lyrics, all of the chords, the entire arrangement,” Contreras says. “It’s a rocker from the beginning, and thanks to Jamie (Candiloro, a veteran producer of Ryan Adams and R.E.M. who shepherded the making of “Stranger to Me” at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C.), it became something more. He’s an engineer, so he can come in and engineer this thing in a way so that it captures the natural intensity of a live Black Lillies performance with the quality of a studio production.

“Jamie forced us to all sing all the vocals at the same time — ‘When you sing together with people, you sing differently than you do alone,’ he would tell us — and before, it would be me singing solo and then the guys adding their voices. For this one, I was singing with Sam and Dustin at the same time, and it became more cohesive, more robust. Bigger.”

For Quinn, moving from the contemplative folk of The Everybodyfields into the bigger, bolder arena of the Lillies has allowed him to tap into a more vigorous style for which his skills are equally adept.

“When I was in my late teens and 20s and early 30s, I was sponge-like absorbed into sad or depressing music, but this is the other side of the spectrum,” he said. “This was making a rock album — having to get yer ya-yas out, using lots of piss, lots of vinegar … just real groovy stuff. And then when Dustin joined up, he was originally hired as a shred guitarist, but what we didn’t know that the secret weapon was, are his wicked high harmony vocals. That was just pivotal, and it kind of changed the name of the game.”

The band wears its influences on its sleeve for every song of the new record. Laurel Canyon breezes blow up dust from the SoCal desert on the Eagles-tinged “Out of the Blue,” Townsend pounds out a methodical rhythm that sets the stage for glorious harmonies on “Don’t Be Afraid,” and “No Other Way” sounds like a distant cousin of Wilco’s “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” with its freight-train hooks, courtesy of Schaefer’s six-string alchemy that manages to lift every song from great to sublime. “Snakes and Telephones,” another lead by Quinn, swirls with psychedelic overtones and torch ballad longing.

“We put 13 songs on it, but we had trouble pairing it down to 13 — and that’s a good problem to have, because we’re already talking about doing a follow-up, acoustic EP of the ones that got cut,” Contreras says. “Will we do it? Who knows. Will Sam be wearing a shirt when we do it? Who knows!

“We just don’t want to be a throwback band. We want what we do to sound new and fresh and modern, and I think even the album cover of ‘Stranger to Me’ represents that. It’s sharp, and it’s smart, and the mountains are a nod to both recording in Asheville and the house we did a lot of the pre-production in, which was this 1960s, modern-nouveaux place that looks like it belongs in the Hollywood Hills. And that ties back into the fact that while there’s a mountain quality to this record, it’s a departure as well.

“We’re venturing out from a pure East Tennessee sound, and hopefully that comes through,” he adds. “Our voices, especially mine and Sam’s, are unique to that region, but production wise, we wanted this to really reflect the direction in which we’re going.”
SAMANTHA CRAIN
SAMANTHA CRAIN
You Had Me at Goodbye, the fifth full length studio album from Samantha Crain, finds the literary tendencies of her songwriting allowing room for a wink and a nod. This wildly original album stands as the authoritative statement thus far from an uncommonly insightful and intrepid musician. Crain, who recently turned 30, has often been pegged an “old soul” by reviewers and music writers, beginning at her first release at the age of 19. Crain found that for some time, she yearned to fit that mold. As she puts it, “That label permeated me: my songwriting, my demeanor, my aesthetic. I acted older than I was, or how I thought older people acted, because I was unsure of myself, as any young person can be, in many ways.” Coming of age, for Crain, probably seems counterintuitive to longtime fans---flame colored hair, increasingly comical stage banter, and, most notably, a new embrace of something previously absent in her catalogue so far: the pop song.

She returned to the Bay Area in California to record, once again, a completely analog record at Tiny Telephone Studio (this time, however, at the newly opened Tiny Telephone Oakland annex studio). The project was recorded in 7 days and mixed in 5 days, consecutively, in August of 2016. Her lyricism is, as always, in turns clever and startling, her signature voice stands boldly out front and unambiguous due to the characteristically audacious, otherworldly production of John Vanderslice (Spoon, The Mountain Goats, Strand of Oaks). The songs feel at once untouchable and welcoming—a lively party full of complete strangers, one of whom chooses you to confide in. This sonic juxtaposition of warmth and cold is apropos. Crain says, “I just wanted to have some goddamn fun and make an album that was a picture of me: searching and whole, confident and paralyzed, happy and sad.”

You Had Me at Goodbye opens with the uptempo, sixties-inspired, chamber pop tune “Antiseptic Greeting” in which Crain, over jaunty percussion and fanciful, dreamy keys, details a battle with “resting bitch face.” The series of anecdotal encounters portrays an assumed failure to be a woman de rigueur: expected to be pleasant to others instead of engrossed in one’s internal thoughts. The feminist tone will be familiar to fans of Crain’s last album, 2015’s “Under Branch & Thorn and Tree,” a heart-wrenching series of social narrative songs.

That album employed a Crain songwriting signature also found in spades on the new album: using verse to paint a narrator’s personal encounter with vivid characters. “Oh Dear Louis,” from the new album, is another written through Crain’s lens. In this realm, Crain tries---and fails---to help a friend but cannot quite get there. “It seems like I’m always loyal, but completely inept” she admits. The song’s smart orchestral arrangements (written throughout the album by James Riotto) and powerful rhythm frame the refrain: “Oh dear Louis / I wasn’t too far to hear you cry.”

During the beautiful slow-burner “Loneliest Handsome Man”, clarinets and strings saunter and careen in jazzy ways around Crain’s story of a friend completely sucked into an ideal of an personal image, while the following song “Wise One” explores the coexistence of pain and joy in the realm of love and picks up the pace again with a bit of distortion and ethereal helium background vocals.

For “Red Sky, Blue Mountain,” Crain, who is a tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma , took on the significant task of writing a new traditional in the Choctaw language. “I've had many conversations with fellow Native American artists and musicians about their worries of not being traditional enough or attached to their heritage enough to seem legitimate. Many tribes have been stripped of their original songs and their languages and traditions because of colonization, and those left behind in the rubble of culture have little resources or education to bring them back to life.” The hymn, translated from Crain’s lyrics with help from Choctaw elder, Dora Wickson, deals with a lack of connection to Earth and how our intuition about the land has dissipated in the face of modernity human behavior.

“Smile When” buzzes and clicks with an art punk spirit even though the subject matter is an ode to the imagined lover of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”. The humorous, robot-like chorus of vocals acknowledges Crain’s sense of humor and faithfulness to experimentation.

Last year, Crain’s friend, Oklahoma based songwriter Beau Jennings, tasked her with writing a song about Oklahoma’s Will Rogers for a documentary and recorded album he produced. When she was unable to find any songs about Rogers’ wife---also his business partner and confidante---she wrote “Betty’s Eulogy.” “They seemed so fit for each other, so connected. I felt there would be a missing piece to have this anthology of his life without including her thoughts.” Crain said. “I wanted to write a song that was more or less her eulogy and remembrance of him after his death.” Crain again touches on her Oklahoma roots with a somber and exploratory take on “When the Roses Bloom Again,” her first cover to be included on a record, with lyrics by Will D. Cobb and music by Jeff Tweedy, found in the journals of Woody Guthrie, an Oklahoma folk figurehead and famed political commentator—perhaps a nod to Crain’s previous incarnation, the troubadour dragged across the country by wanderlust.

“Windmill Crusader” pleads, “You have to believe me / you have to believe me,” touching on the “prophet without honor” trope as in Greek mythology’s Cassandra, who had the gift of foresight and a curse bestowed upon her that prevented people from heeding her warnings. The song modulates and changes keys and vibrates as it follows the frenetic desperation of trying to warn and then the battling guilt and peace of being proven right in tragedy.

The lilting album closer, “Wreck,” details the frustration of being full of love with nowhere to direct it; think of it as a gentler rendition of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” After listeners are taken on Crain’s zig-zagging stylistic journey throughout the album, “Wreck” serves as the destination, the sudden stop at the end of a winding road she has taken you on: an expansive view of the album’s overarching theme, not one that can be found in only lyrics or musicianship, but the soul searching of the artist herself.

In total, Vanderslice’s production choices feel unexpected until well into each song, where his vision strikes a modern balance with Crain’s familiar expressiveness, which is uniquely audacious for someone in her position. Wandering and static, joyful and lamenting, You Had Me at Goodbye takes listeners down a back alley, away from the easily definable and comfortably digestible, but on a tour of music being make just for the sake of expression and inspiration. It’s not storytelling so much as an invitation to search for more. Crain on record, as in life, does not mistake vulnerability for weakness. She’ll leave you in the dark and let you in on a secret in the same breath.
Venue Information:
The Rebel Lounge
2303 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ, 85016
http://www.therebellounge.com/