Gypsy Tailwind: Grace

Better days

Gypsy Tailwind show power and Grace

Gypsy Tailwind have been a slow build. Though Halo Sessions was one of the best local albums of 2008, it seems no one really heard it until 2009, thanks largely to the radio success of “So Lonely,” a single whose melancholy bounce was heartbreakingly honest: “I’ll tell you a secret: I drank myself to sleep last night.” Their shows, too, have been measured out to increase anticipation and capitalize on opportunity. No one who wound a way down Market Street to the Big Easy after Ray LaMontagne’s Merrill Auditorium show [in June of 2009] was disappointed with Gypsy’s similar combination of roots and soul.

And they’re just getting started, really. Halo Sessions’ spare and measured arrangements weren’t necessarily by design. They were in some ways simply sketches by two vocalists, Dan Connor and Anna Lombard, who were trying to figure out just what kind of art they could make together. Over the past year they’ve decided they sound pretty great together, thanks, and they’ve collected themselves a band to fill things out: Max Cantlin (This Way) on guitar, Tyler Stanley (Sly-Chi) on keys, Colin Winsor (Jaye Drew and a Moving Train, Jason Spooner) on bass, Chris Dow (Band Beyond Description) on drums.

That done, Gypsy Tailwind re-entered the studio with Jonathan Wyman and produced Grace, released last week and celebrated with a show this Saturday at the Port City Music Hall. It is bigger and bolder and more true to the stage presence the band now evince, something akin to a modern-day Fleetwood Mac, if they’d been formed in Nashville instead of London, raised on Dylan and Emmylou Harris instead of John Spencer and Howlin’ Wolf.

If you’ve spent 100 listens with Halo, Grace will necessitate something of a recalibration, however. From the get-go, “Way to Here” opens with soaring minor-key strings (a four-piece section of Anna Maria Amoroso, Heather Kahill, Julie Anderson, and Tim Garrett), and though Connor’s voice is as velvet smooth as ever, when the full band enters it does so with a confidence of belonging. In fact, while Connor and Lombard trade verses, creating a narrative dynamic like you’re peeking in on an intimate conversation (“I’m going to grab the things I own and move away”; “With all my love I wish you were still here”), there are times where they aren’t the most important thing happening, and the finish is a 30-second play out of active cello and trilling strings that is wholly ignorant of them.

Remember Ray Lamontagne’s maturation with producer Ethan Johns? The difference between Old Crow Medicine Show before and after Don Was? This progression with the band is similar. It is more, but it’s also different from whatever that first blush was.

And it’s almost like they’re getting it out of the way in a hurry. The new album’s second track, “The Letter,” opens with a horn section (Rustic’s Ryan Zoidis and Dave Noyes, naturally, along with Mark Tipton, Joe Parra, and John Maclaine), for criminy’s sake, for a song that’s all lonesome-heart Lombard: “So here’s your letter/ I’m gonna sing it cuz it’s my way.” She’s definitely more aggressive throughout the album, at times projecting some major volume. She goes toe to toe with Cantlin’s throaty electric guitar in “Silver and Gold” without a petal wilted (and listen there for Bob Hamilton’s banjo — a great melancholy foil).

For the album’s heart, though, Lombard and Connor settle into comfortable territory. “Better Days” is a great complement to the first album’s “Long Drive Home from Baltimore,” with Connor getting out of the gate alongside slide guitar by trying to get out of San Francisco, and “the next flight out is Tuesday night/ I get my things and be polite … didn’t want to follow you.” Under three minutes, it’s a postcard of cautious optimism. Lombard, accompanied by an alternating organ, believes there will be better days, but Connor is “so scared of what my dreams say.”

“Barrel” is further stripped, a simple ballad that gets downright Jim James (a la his “Going to Acapulco” cover on the I’m Not There Soundtrack) in the finish as Lombard and Connor are personified by a trumpet and violin that wander off into a setting sun and fade to black. The lyrics are among the album’s best here, working to acknowledge the listener’s desire for the two voices to make like a short film: “We laughed about all the of the inside things/ We talked all night, till someone would drift to sleep/ Are you awake my dear?” At 3:40, it’s too short.

As is the album, I guess. The eight songs here make for a crisp package, but with the arrangements and production lending such a different feel to the band, I’d have liked to hear a couple new takes on the first set of songs, especially “Two and One.” Maybe as a bonus hidden track or something.

But it’s good to be kept wanting, and there certainly aren’t any throwaways here. “Madeline” is Connor’s best vocal turn, rising up in the register as his emotion carries him, and the trumpet-guitar handoff of the melody in the bridge is terrific. The Aimee Mann cover “Coming up Close” has Lombard more reserved, dispelling any worry she might be becoming a bit of a yeller: “We thought for once we really knew what was important.” And “The Last Song” has her doing pure pretty, crisp like Christine McVie doing “Over My Head.”

There’s talk of dueling solo albums and Connor is known as a prodigious songwriter, so don’t think this will have to tide you over for too long. If anything, this is just a taste of things to come.

Ryan McCalmon: Come Home

Home is where the heart is

Ryan McCalmon skips town with an R&B lovefest

It would be hard to pile up a better local-music resume than Ryan McCalmon has over the past five years:

  • 2001 – Hooked up in Inside Straight, with Rustic Overtones Dave Noyes (horns; Seekonk, too), Ryan Zoidis (horns; Soulive, too), and Tony McNaboe (drums, lead vocals; released a solo album in 2003); hip-hoptress Sontiago; Relishgruv and Five Above’s Andi Fawcett; the Awesome’s Katherine Albee and Pete Dugas, and various and sundry others to play guitar and sing in a Motown/soul band that packed the Big Easy for about 100 Mondays in a row.
  • 2003 – Played guitar and collaborated with singer/pianist Tony McNaboe, whose Destination was one of the best local albums of the year, with a couple singles getting full rotation on WCLZ.
  • 2003/2004 – Toured with McNaboe, at one point having Ray LaMontagne open for their band. Hosted solo nights at the Big Easy.
  • 2005 – Wrote and recorded an album of solo material, getting help from Averi’s drummer, Matt Lydon, and Gruvis Malt’s Gavin Castleton on keyboards (we’re stretching New England-wide here; they’re from Boston and Providence, respectively)
  • 2006 – Played CD-release shows for Come Home (mixed by Jon Wyman and mastered by Adam Ayan at Gateway) in Portland and Boston.

Still, does McCalmon have a full-time gig occupying your attention?

Probably not.

It’s possibly because he’s no big personality. He sings soulful and thoughtful R&B, pop, and soul and he belts out lyrics like, “Had to lose you before I learned to love you.” For his press photos, he’s got his hands in his pockets while he walks anonymously along an overcast beach. No doubt, there’s a sensitive-guy-loving clique of gal fans who just can’t get enough of him, so there’s no need for him to be out there flogging the press for attention.

True crooners demand attention, they don’t ask for it. Come Home is McCalmon’s dropping of the gauntlet.

The disc is amply filled with a robust eight songs that comfortably extend past the five-minute mark, without bothering you or recalling jazz or jam. Everything’s languid, but it’s sultry Couvossier languid, not groggy morphine languid. Fireplace-in-front-of-a-bear-rug languid.

This album could easily get you laid.

There’s no need to read his resume to get his McNaboe connection. These two clearly developed a similar musical taste, enamored of ’70s soul and dropping Donny Hathaway references (Nigel Hall’s another guy in town doing the same thing). The result is the fork in the road where soul music branches off into hip-hop and R&B. Where MCs clip syllables with a staccato delivery, McCalmon rounds everything up and out, with a breath of finish, like watching a soap opera where everybody’s just a little bit fuzzy like you’re looking through a slightly fogged window.

It’s always snowing outside, while candles burn and everybody wheres silk pajamas.

On “Had to Lose,” you can feel the soft leather of remorse when McCalmon tells us, “I still smell her sweet perfume of the collar of my winter coat.” A cymbal-only backbeat and a finger-picked acoustic with some atmostpheric keys open the song before opening up into a moog-filled chorus. That’s right: “I had to lose before I learned to love you.”

Organ fills and crescendos combine with a glockenspiel mirrored by bits of acoustic and classical guitar picks. The levels in the production are pretty interesting, a subtle touch guiding what’s to the fore and what’s sitting just a breath below. The drums ring out crisp and assured while McCalmon reaches for the falsetto. Every once in a while you can hear the room that surrounds his vocals, like he’s bending away from the microphone.

Castleton’s spacey keys, like Jamiroquoi aping Stevie Wonder, keep the song moving late, as McCalmon does a lot of that R&B style of singing where’s he’s just doing it to have the voice stay in the mix and so repeats the same lyric over and over.

This can be grating on some people, but I like the Police and the White Stripes, so that kind of thing is clearly right up my alley.

He could take a breath every once in a while, though. After the great second part of “Walking Away” chorus, where he alters his delivery like he’s changing his mind, he launches right into the next verse when I would have really liked a ripping solo. There should definitely be more ripping solos on this album. It could be more fun than it is. It’s a little down in the mouth, when it could be a little up in the corner of the mouth.

The song finishes with a great bridge leading into a final chorus that includes just a dash of backing vocals for the first time in the song, lending a narrative character. He introduces a swagger, bending his vocals where he’s normally pretty even keeled.

If there’s anywhere he breaks from McNaboe, it’s in a reluctance to go full on gospel.

The lack of theatrics reminds me of Percy Hill’s most recent album, After All. I couldn’t pick a song for a single. It’s not about the hook. These songs play out and are enjoyable as dinner music (or after dinner music, for that matter), but you might not be bumpin’ this on the headphones while you work out.

[bonus content: For this column, written in 2006, the news bit section we used to run in the Phoenix was at the bottom of the Word file I saved. Kind of fun to see what was news in Portland in 2006. Plus, another Dave Noyes reference.]

Sibilance starts now

The big news on the local live-music front is the new management at the Asylum. Steve Woitasek, once manager of Colepitz and a Wonderdrug Records/Mass Concerts guy who runs Eye90 Productions, has been running the city’s most perplexing venue for the past five years or so. As the only midway point between a room like the Big Easy and a cavern like the State Theater, the Asylum never could seem to figure out what it wanted to be. All-ages punk and hardcore shows mixed with ’80s DJ nights and WRED hip-hop and the early salad days of Wilco and G. Love and Maceo Parker seem to have faded away. For 2006, however, Tim Reed has taken over management and booking. A “new floor has been put in,” he writes in an email, and “the walls and bar are being painted. We are redoing the bar itself.” He also reports new DJ sets, new security, and a “more upscale feel.” One Friday, Reed found himself co-hosting WBLM’s morning show with the Captain! That’s so not Steve Woitasek, for better or worse.

There’s a brand-new Web site at http://www.asylumlive.com you can check out, which as we write features a February 3 gig called “Aural Fixation” (nice graphics, by the way), with sets from hip-hoppers Sontiago & Moshe, Ill Natural, Bread, Meat & Potatoes, and DJs Moshe, Mayonnaise, Mike Clouds, Deejay Mota, and Newscreen. Moshe will also be hosting every Saturday night, with his Mr. T’s Old School 2 New School Hip Hop Dance Party. We pronounce that a mouthful. A glance at the upcoming gigs hints at some continuance of the Asylum’s schizophrenic nature. Or you could call it variety. Depends on your perspective. You’ll find Boston punk, Assembly of Dust, a “white trash BBQ and Beauty Pageant,” Paranoid Social Club, Wheatus, Comedy Central’s Todd Barry and Nick Di Paolo, even Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips. We were disappointed by Phillips’s collaboration with Nickel Creek.

Matt Shardlow (8 Track and Zeno’s Arrow; once and current soundguy for Inside Straight), checked in to say guys from his other old band, Zion Train, including Mike Taylor, Nate Soule, and Pete Dugas of the Awesome and Seekonk’s Dave Noyes, are teaming with Gary Gimetti (I-Rates) and Lucas Desmond (Esperanza) to kick out the jams doing “real reggae” at the Big Easy every other Thursday, starting Feb. 2. Combine this notice with the “Beat Report” and try to empathize with the “Sibilance” staff if we screw things up every once in a while. We mean, jeez, how the frig are we supposed to keep track of all these people and their bands? Are we supposed to, like, have a database or something? We can barely check our email in a timely fashion. Also, Shardlow tells us that he’s got a bunch of recordings of the old Clash of the Titans nights the Big Easy featured last winter, with local artists putting on musical costumes to battle it out between, say, AC/DC and ZZ Top (the Top didn’t have a chance; how do you fuck with “Hells Bells”?). There’s talk of these recordings becoming commercially available. Should you happen to chance upon one of these gems, do the smart thing and buy it. There’s a bunch of fun classic rock to be had played well by lots of locals despite huge amounts of booze and little practice time.