Old-fashioned, well-written, and well-performed honky-tonk has a cheerful new champion in San Leandro's Tom Armstrong, a modern-day master of the booze-soaked ballads that echoed throughout America's beer halls in the '50s. Hick-music patron saints such as Wynn Stewart, Ray Price, and Webb Pierce surely hover over Armstrong's personal turntable, as the soft-spoken songwriter delves deep into the sounds of a bygone hillbilly era. While many of today's crop of twangcore artists wade in waters an inch deep, Armstrong dives headlong into the swirling current of authentic pedal steel- and fiddle-driven Texas shuffles. His new record, Songs That Make the Jukebox Play, takes its title and cover design from an old album by Jimmie Skinner; his last LP featured covers of songs by Onie Wheeler, another '50s singer whose work is little known outside of the hard-country faithful. But though Armstrong has nailed the look and sound of days long past, his latest disc is packed with fab new material, original songs that are worthy of old masters like Harlan Howard and Leon Payne. These are clever, tongue-in-cheek ballads of broken hearts and romantic misadventures, performed with a nudge and a wink, and tailor-made for auditioning with a beer under your belt. For the CD, Armstrong gathered local roots music vets Mike Wolf, Les James, Greg Reeves, and David Phillips, who collectively go by the handle the Jukebox Cowboys. Together, these Bay Area pickers breathe life into a classic sound that once was called hokey, but now sounds pretty darn hip.
Dave Gleason's Wasted Days
Though the members of Dave Gleason's Wasted Days got their musical starts in '90s groups like the Loved Ones and the Glee Club, the East Bay outfit's spiritual roots go all the way back to the Nashville scene of the '70s. At that time, country "outlaws" brought a renegade, honky-tonk spirit to Music City, creating a new kind of country music that was both soulful and gritty. Dave Gleason adds his own spin to the work of that era's seminal songwriters -- Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Gene Clark, Clarence White -- combining that spirit with the warm country-rock sound popularized by bands such as the Eagles and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Burrito Brothers reference is an especially apt one, as Gleason's voice evokes a reedier, seedier Gram Parsons. But Gleason sings with more fire in his belly and a lot more heartache on his mind, an emotional quality that also comes out in his lead-guitar playing. Gleason's Telecaster work is the stuff of legend, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone else in the Bay Area who can coax such perfectly heartbreaking notes of liquid loneliness from a fretboard. Joined by Michael Thereau on bass, John Kent on drums, and Dave Stark on tenor saxophone, Gleason has opened for acts ranging from Jerry Jeff Walker to Dwight Yoakam. Whether Dave Gleason's Wasted Days is the opener or the headliner, though, the group has a tendency to steal the spotlight, flooring audiences with its sometimes-reverent, sometimes-raucous revisiting of country music's recent golden age.
Mark Growden's Electric Piñata
Mark Growden is the kind of songwriter who only comes around once in an age. Endlessly, deliriously creative, Growden has recorded and released two full-lengths (Inside Beneath Behind and Downstairs Karaoke), written and performed a myriad of theater pieces, scored music for videos and films, and contributed to Bob Weir's Sun Ra tribute album. His work has earned him a deluge of praise throughout his career, including the Isadora Duncan Award for Best Original Music for a New Dance Piece and two Best Song awards from the Northern California Songwriter's Association. Hailed as "a contender for Beck's throne" by Alternative Press magazine, the restless Growden is one of those musicians who will play anything that gets in his way -- from pawnshop hallmarks such as the accordion, banjo, and saxophone, to a host of freakish home inventions and non-instruments like PVC pipes and scissors. His inventive, imaginative lyrics are as wide ranging as his instrument choices, evoking Tom Waits' ragged theatricality, but on a more charming and personal scale. Growden's stories -- about Ted Nugent, a shuttered factory that made wooden crates in an era of cardboard, and feeling like a piece of meat at a vegan potluck -- are at once contemporary and timeless, funny and heartbreaking, surreal and lucid. It sounds like an impossible set of contradictions, but Growden is born to achieve the inconceivable; for a man with his talents, the impossible is just a starting point.
With an ear honed by more than 20 years of scratching, and a reckless, genius disregard for the alleged limits of a turntable, DJ Disk has been one of the trendsetters in a movement that has transformed the record player from a simple playback device into something far more diabolical. Whether he's working his magic on his own peerless projects -- such as 1998's mind-melting Ancient Termites and 2001's Phonosychographdisk vs. The Filthy Ape Mooch Moose -- or as a guest scratcher on works by Bill Laswell, Disk catapults the act of vinyl manipulation into the lofty realms of experimental art. Tchaikovsky, Hendrix, Coltrane, Laurel & Hardy, and old Disney soundtracks are all fair game for this sonic scientist -- though source material has a tendency to, uh, undergo some changes at the hands of the maestro. Disk doesn't just scratch records, he sculpts them, freaking his sampled sounds with an arsenal of effects, amplifications, and weird delays. Through this laborious process, Disk manages to create a pastiche of rhythm and noise that is much more than just the sum of its parts. As an original member of the seminal Invisibl Skratch Piklz crew (which also featured DJs QBert, Mixmaster Mike, and Shortkut) and on his solo albums, Disk continues to display jaw-dropping talent, most recently on Tabla Beat Science's Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove album.