Delete your Ticketmaster app and go see Black Flag

Greg Ginn, founder of Black Flag, performs at Gas Lamp in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 26. Photo by Fred Love

Corporate rock still sucks, and Black Flag is still the best antidote to the stage-managed Ticketmaster thralls headlining your local arena.

The seminal hardcore band set out on a major tour to mark the 40th anniversary of ‘My War,’ a landmark of independent rock that saw Black Flag break all the rules they’d just codified scarcely three years earlier on their debut full-length. The My War 40th anniversary tour hit Gas Lamp in Des Moines on April 26, and I made sure to get to the venue early enough to stake out a spot right next to guitarist Greg Ginn’s corner of the stage so I could get as close as possible to one of the true giants of underground rock and roll.

Mission accomplished.

My wife and I literally had to step aside so Ginn, who founded the band back in 1976, could make his way to the stage and remove his guitar from its road case. We spent the entire performance inches from Ginn, staring straight up at him as he swayed back and forth in front of his megalithic amplifier. I didn’t take the time to do a systematic head count, but the venue felt packed and was certainly near capacity, which is about 200.

Long story short, I sat at the feet of a punk icon for a $25 general admission ticket. The corporate rock industry just can’t compete with that kind of experience. Every week seems to bring a new wave of stories about outraged fans getting fleeced by Ticketmaster for Bruce Springsteen nosebleeds or whatever. Skip all that. Delete the Ticketmaster app. You can have a far more rewarding experience at your local rock club for a lot less money. I promise.

Black Flag performed two sets on the evening. The first consisted of the entirety of ‘My War,’ while the second set drew on the rest of Black Flag’s legendary catalog and included some of the greatest anthems in the punk canon. 

Mike Vallely, a professional skateboarder who now lives in Des Moines, has served as the lead singer for several years now. It takes serious focus and intensity to credibly channel the aggressive energy of Black Flag, and Vallely delivers. He contorts his muscular frame in time with Ginn’s twisted riffs and coils like a snake near the kick drum between songs as if replenishing his energy for the next number. Sweat rolled down his shaved head from the opening moments of the first set.

Mike Vallely delivers a high-energy performance as frontman for Black Flag. Photo by Fred Love.

Obviously, anyone who takes on frontman responsibilities for a ‘My War’ anniversary tour is going to receive comparisons to Henry Rollins, who sang on the record. I wouldn’t say Vallely possesses the same combination of menace and charisma that made Rollins one of the most recognizable faces in the history of heavy music, but Vallely more than holds his own. 

But let’s talk about Greg Ginn a little more, because this stuff’s important. Not only did Ginn form Black Flag and mastermind the band’s direction through the decades, he also founded SST, one of the most important independent record label in the history of rock. At its height, SST was a cultural powerhouse that released some of the most influential rock music of the 1980s, laying the foundation for the Nineties alternative rock explosion. According to Jim Ruland’s “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records,” Ginn burned some bridges and made some questionable business decisions, and SST today is little more than an online storefront for merch and reprinted vinyl. 

It’s my sincere hope that, despite the controversy Ginn generates in some quarters, he’ll get his due as one of the true visionaries of independent music. The sheer scope of the revolutionary music he helped to release as the founder of SST will melt your face. Soundgarden, Bad Brains, the Descendents, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, the Minutemen, the Screaming Trees and Dinosaur Jr. all spent time on SST and benefited from the label’s imprimatur. He played a crucial role in the DIY ethos that drove punk and indie music of the 80s and 90s, and he flouted the rules of the music business at every step in the process.

Take Black Flag’s first few records as an example. With “Damaged,” the band’s first full-length album released in 1981, Black Flag created a blueprint for hardcore punk that would inspire countless copycats across the country. And it’s easy to see why. Anthems like “Rise Above,” “Six Pack,” and “TV Party” deliver the fist-pumping speed, volume and aggression that define hardcore. Then, less than three years later, Black Flag would turn the loud-and-fast formula on its head with ‘My War.’ Or, more accurately, with side 2 of ‘My War.’

The first side of ‘My War’ delivers the kind of hardcore punk fans expected from Black Flag. The second side, however, gets considerably slower and weirder. Black Flag’s first official release, the Nervous Breakdown EP, features four songs with a combined runtime of just 5:23. Of the three tracks on side 2 of ‘My War,’ the shortest song clocks in at 6:02. That’s positively interminable compared to the band’s earlier output. The riffs churn downhill like a slow-motion avalanche. They’re brutal and unstoppable – and they owe more to Sabbath than to the Ramones. It’s no wonder the album proved polarizing among the punk scene at the time.

The reissued copy of ‘My War’ that I’ve been spinning compulsively in recent weeks. Ordered from the SST Superstore. Sounds good to my heathen ears.

Side 2 of ‘My War’ opened new possibilities for the punk world, and its influence can be heard all over the Pacific Northwest bands that would take over the world in just a few short years. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say you can draw a direct line from Black Flag’s “Nothing Left Inside” and “Scream” to “Floyd the Barber” and “Sifting” on Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’ or pretty much everything on ‘Gluey Porch Treatments’ by Melvins.

Black Flag’s double-barrel sets at Gas Lamp last week showcased the impressive scope of the band’s development and vision. It was a little like watching the Beatles perform Sgt. Pepper’s in their brightly colored psychedelic regalia, take a 20-minute break and then come back onstage in black ties and moptops to perform “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Maybe that comparison is anathema to the punk purists of the world, but that would be in keeping with Ginn’s willingness to thumb his nose at punk strictures. Whiplashing between ‘My War’ and a second set of punk classics reinforces just how much Ginn wrote and rewrote the rules of underground rock.

What could be more punk?


Fred’s Best Music of 2022

If you’re anything like me, you compulsively read those end-of-the-year music lists to see what songs, albums and artists you missed the previous 12 months. I thought I’d do something similar, but rather than categorize everything by genre or rank everything one through ten, I just made up some categories so I can talk about music I liked in 2022 without having to worry about coherent organization or smooth transitions. I admit it’s kinda arbitrary. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.


Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Nightroamer

This album covers more sonic territory than either of Sarah Shook & The Disarmers’ two prior albums. As on previous efforts, Nightroamer boasts a handful of quality cowpunk country songs, such as the waltz-timed title track, that simultaneously embrace and subvert the conventions of traditional country music. But the pop earworm “I Got This” and garage rocker “Talkin’ to Myself” expand the musical palette and give the album a sense of growth and experimentation.


Zach Bryan – American Heartbreak

Look, triple albums shouldn’t even exist. And double albums probably shouldn’t either, for that matter. But this one almost makes a believer out of me. After spending time with it, I’m hard pressed to find much filler among these 34 songs. And for an artist having a real moment on country radio, the production of this album is refreshingly understated, which only adds to its stark emotional impact. Many of the songs completely lack a rhythm section and leave all the emotional heavy lifting to acoustic guitars and Bryan’s impassioned vocals. If this album’s success foreshadows the direction of the country music industry, I wouldn’t complain. Well, that’s not true. I reserve the right to complain, but I’ll probably do it a lot less than I have these last few years.


Nikki Lane – “First High”

“First High” was the lead single from Lane’s excellent album Denim & Diamonds. The song tells Lane’s rock-and-roll origin story set to a greasy headbanger of a groove. The lyric “I tried cheering for the Wolverines/I took a shot at being pageant queen/But I wound up hanging with the punks at the park” encapsulates much of Lane’s appeal. She’s planted one foot in the world of fashion and glamour (see her collaboration with Lana Del Rey) while the other foot can’t help but slink off the beaten path with the leather jacketed rebels and misfits.  The Springsteen reference in question begins the chorus: “Take me back to the first dream/501 blue jeans tighter than goddamn Springsteen.” You need only take one look at the cover of Born in the U.S.A. to sense the energy Nikki Lane’s got on this song.


Drive-By Truckers – “Welcome 2 Club XIII”

Seedy rock clubs are my natural habitat, and the title track to DBT’s latest album drops the listener right into the middle of the local scene, complete with Foghat cover bands, girls with artificial tans and plenty of cheap coke. The tune pays tribute to a real club where DBT songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley cut their teeth with their first band, Adam’s House Cat. Here’s how Hood sets the scene:

“Welcome to Club XIII/All the usual suspects are acting weird/The bartenders can’t be bothered/We’re all glad you’re here

“The door guy’s got an attitude/The disco light’s obscene/The crowd is sometimes rude/Welcome to Club XIII”

I’ve spent a more than a few nights “acting weird” in joints like Club XIII, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.


Marcus King – Young Blood

Something about the sound of an incendiary electric guitar played through a dimed tube amp just makes me start sweating, and I have to reapply my Old Spice every time I listen to Marcus King. Maybe you spotted King thrashing his Gibson ES-335 with Zac Brown during this year’s CMAs or caught his performance of “Hard Working Man” on the Tonight Show. If you did, you no doubt noticed his blues-rock guitar heroics and soulful vocals.

I can’t pretend there’s anything revolutionary here. But this album’s full of apocalyptic guitar playing and propulsive rhythms sure to steam up the lenses of your glasses.

Honorable mention in the sick riffs category goes to Larkin Poe’s Blood Harmony.


Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver

Billy Joe Shaver is among the very best songwriters in the history of American music. If you don’t believe me, ask Bob Dylan, who riffed memorably on Shaver’s “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me” in his recent book “The Philosophy of Modern Song.” (Dylan calls the tune “a riddle” that “seems to have ulterior motives.”)

This year, an all-star Americana cast got together to record new versions of some of Shaver’s finest compositions, resulting in Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver. George Strait took on the aforementioned “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me.” Miranda Lambert turned in a stomping version of “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal.” And Steve Earle’s grunting and groaning vocal delivery was tailor made for the outlaw lament “Ain’t No God In Mexico.”

But I’ve got to talk to you about Willie Nelson’s version of “Live Forever,” which kicks off this album and is my favorite song of 2022. Nobody knows how many more years we’ll have Willie around. I hate writing that, but that’s just facts. So when he sings “I’m gonna live forever/I’m gonna cross that river/I’m gonna touch forever now,” it’s like a salve applied directly to my anxious soul. This is truly a generous song that can provide real comfort for those struggling with the fleeting nature of life. It’s not an exaggeration to say that listening to this song the first time was a spiritual experience for me and a highlight of my year.

Willie received a Grammy nomination in the category of best country solo performance for “Live Forever,” in addition to three other nominations. So let’s just all agree that he should win every award for which he’s nominated and make sure we take some time to recognize his monumental contributions to music and humanity at large.

An ode to Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country

NOTE: This is a repost of a message I wrote on Facebook on Nov. 4, shortly after Haggerty’s death.

Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country performs at London Underground in Ames on March 13, 2022. Photo by Fred Love

One of the most courageous voices in country music went silent this week with the death of Patrick Haggerty.

Under the moniker Lavender Country, Haggerty wrote and recorded what is widely regarded as the first openly gay country album nearly 50 years ago. The songs on that album are empathetic, tough, funny and unflinchingly honest – just like the artist who created them. The album honored the musical conventions of traditional country music, but its subject matter was decades ahead of its time and so it vanished into obscurity until a 2014 reissue landed with an audience ready to embrace its message. Haggerty didn’t record a follow up to the original Lavender Country album until the release of “Blackberry Rose,” another gorgeous collection of queer country songs, earlier this year. Haggerty died on Monday at age 78 after suffering a stroke.

My path crossed with Haggerty’s on March 13, 2022, just as the tour for his new album was getting underway. An all-star troupe of queer country and Americana artists accompanied him on the tour, including Austin Lucas, Lizzie No and Paisley Fields. The tour was stopping at London Underground, a pub on Main Street in Ames that does not have a dedicated PA system. I was invited to play an opening set and was asked to provide a PA for the show. I was familiar with Lavender Country and knew Haggerty’s story since Lavender Country played the Maximum Ames Music Festival several years earlier in the wake of the successful reissue of the 1973 album. As a straight man, however, I wasn’t sure I was the right fit for an opening act, and I worried that I’d be intruding in a space that wasn’t mine. On the other hand, if the venue didn’t find a PA, the show couldn’t go on at all. That wouldn’t do, so I said yes.

But here’s the thing. I’m not a sound engineer by any stretch of the imagination. What I know about running sound, I’ve learned from running a PA at my own gigs. I know what works for me, but I’ve received zero professional training. The thought of running sound for Haggerty and his tourmates, who have played thousands upon thousands of gigs combined, sent my anxiety into overdrive.

I shouldn’t have worried. Haggerty and co. showed me great kindness and patience throughout the evening. I became instant fans of all the musicians on the tour and have enjoyed following their work in the months since.

As for Haggerty, his performance was spellbinding. London Underground is a small space. Musicians set up in a corner near the main entrance, meaning patrons pass within inches of the band as they come and go. With virtually no separation between the audience and the performers, Haggerty, clad in his trademark lavender cowboy hat and western shirt, stepped into the crowd and sang to members of the audience, making direct eye contact with them and even offering the microphone to fans who knew the words to his songs.

“I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You,” perhaps his best-known composition about the barriers to intimacy in queer relationships, took on deeper resonance for me as I watched people in the crowd sing along with Haggerty into his microphone, causing the entire room to get heavy with complex emotions. As a straight guy, I can’t say I’ve experienced exactly the kind of relationship dynamics described in the song, but the performance guided me into the emotional core of the song’s truth and made it universally relatable, which is precisely what great art does.

At one point, I expressed to Haggerty my doubts that I should be opening the show. He waved my reservations aside and insisted I play some songs. He even offered up his band to accompany me on some classic country tunes, a proposal I accepted with great enthusiasm. When we launched into the Hank Williams tune “Mind Your Own Business,” Haggerty grabbed a microphone and sang along with me. Later, he told me he would send me a list of classic country songs he loves so we could play an entire set together the next time he came through Ames.

Another memory I treasure from that evening was spending time with J.B., Haggerty’s husband of many years. While the band ate dinner in the back, J.B. and I sat together at a table near one of the pub’s few windows, watching people go by on Main Street. He was full of light and kindness, and he complimented one my original songs. That meant a lot to me.

Between sets, I got the opportunity to talk to Haggerty one on one, and I asked him why he chose country music as his preferred medium. He responded matter-of-factly that he loved country music deeply, that he grew up listening to country radio stations while working in the barn on his family’s Washington dairy farm. The sound of country music was simply woven into the fiber of his consciousness. I told him that it was the same for me. I told him I couldn’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know the sound of Merle Haggard’s voice, and that something about Hank Williams’s songwriting took hold of me in elementary school and never let go. He nodded like I’d told him something he already knew.

I spent only a few hours with Patrick Haggerty, but those hours turned out to be highly meaningful in my life as a musician. I’m grateful I got to perform with him and to watch him perform. I’m grateful for his courage and talent. And I’m grateful for the exquisite country songs he left behind.

Independent music venues are hanging on by a thread. Let’s not let them go without a fight.

Paradise Rock Club, Boston. Photo by John Phelan and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported without change to the original work.

Friends, I love rock clubs. I love squeezing up to the stage, shoulder to shoulder with a mob of fellow music fans. I love hearing the squeal of an electric guitar through the mains of a big sound system. I love getting as close as possible to my favorite artists, watching and learning as they ply their trade onstage.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the pandemic threatens to annihilate that experience for the foreseeable future. Independent music venues face extinction, and we have to do everything we can to see them through this crisis.

Virtually all music venues, from stately auditoriums to sticky dives, have had to scrap their entire calendars, and their futures are stuck in limbo.

Here’s a passage from a May 6 New York Times article by Ben Sisario:

“This is an existential crisis,” said Dayna Frank, the owner of First Avenue in Minneapolis, a regular spot for Prince, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü that opened in 1970. “Independent venues have no financial backstop. We do not have corporate parents. There are no financial resources we can turn to.”

The same article imagines a future in which concert venues will have to reduce their capacities and install privacy shields in whatever post-pandemic world emerges. One venue owner quoted in the article floats the idea of dividing audiences into sections for fans who can prove they possess antibodies for the novel coronavirus –  a possible indication of immunity – and sections for those who don’t have antibodies.

In Iowa, Codfish Hollow in Maquoketa has launched a GoFundMe in the hope of raising $25,000 to help pay bills. Lefty’s Live Music in Des Moines recently completed a GoFundMe campaign that brought in over $5,000.

From Codfish Hollow’s GoFundMe page: “Our monthly bills are still due and although, as of right now, the few shows we had scheduled are postponed and not cancelled, we still have to pay the bands and the bills. We have no way to make money without people in the barn – alcohol, merch and ticket sales are our only sources of revenue.” 

More than 1,200 venues and promoters have banded together since the beginning of the pandemic to form an advocacy group called the National Independent Venue Association. NIVA is currently lobbying Congress for federal help for independent venues as the House and Senate hammer out another round of stimulus spending.

I spent several years working as a communications director for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, so I’ve seen my share of politics. I changed careers shortly after the birth of my son, and I’ve limited my political activity since then to voting and reading the news every day. But seeing something I so dearly love dangling by the thinnest of threads motivated me to reenter the political realm. I sent letters to each member of my congressional delegation urging them to remember independent music venues when they consider further stimulus spending as a result of the pandemic.

I don’t know what difference it will make, but my conscience demanded it. If you love live music like I do, please consider doing the same.

There will always be music as long as there are humans, and I take comfort in that. But I’m far less confident about the future of local rock clubs, which are among my preferred ways of experiencing music. I can’t imagine my community without dedicated spaces for musicians and music fans to gather and celebrate. Iowa stands to lose much of its cultural and artistic tradition if we don’t act to help our independent music venues survive this pandemic.

‘Old-school’ record shopping at the Analog Vault in Cedar Rapids

Analog Vault owner Jeremy Vega with a copy of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’ album

I heard Led Zeppelin the moment I walked through the door and immediately felt at home.

I spent an evening in Cedar Rapids last week and decided to make a stop at the Analog Vault, a record shop in the city’s resurgent NewBo neighborhood. The store moved to its current location earlier this year after it grew out of its old space. The shop features new and used vinyl and audio equipment, and owner Jeremy Vega does repair work on audio gear as well.

Led Zeppelin II played on the store’s speakers as I entered the shop, a particularly tasty pick to my ears since it was my first Zeppelin album, which I bought on CD during junior high. The album had progressed deep into side 2 by the time I stepped into the shop, but I enjoyed ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Bring it on Home’ while I flipped through shelves full of vinyl.

Vega talked music with customers while I picked out a couple selections to add to my collection. A careful sweep through the bins identified maybe a half-dozen candidates, but I decided my bank account would allow me to go home with only two. So I selected Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian by Johnny Cash and I’m Ready by Muddy Waters and took them up to the counter to pay and ask Vega some questions about his shop.analogvault

Music-themed décor covers most of the walls, and Vega said he tries to provide customers with an “old-school record shop,” like the kind that made a deep impression on him as a child.

“I remember being waist-high to my old man, and we’d go to record stores around town and I’d just be awestruck,” Vega said.

He hopes his store can provide a similar feeling for kids today. He said a common sentiment he hears from his adult shoppers is, “Whoa, this takes me back.”

I asked him if there were any records for sale in the shop that he would point to as particularly interesting, and he went over to a bin and returned with a copy of Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, priced at $64.

Classic atmosphere, wide selection and a friendly owner. Check, check and check. The Analog Vault gets my full recommendation. And for anyone wondering, those Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash albums sounded fabulous on my home setup.

Craft brews and Buddy Holly: A new frontier for Iowa musicians

Back in June 2018, I played a solo show at Fat Hill Brewing in downtown Mason City. I keep a fairly consistent set list for shows like that, which usually require several hours of music. Somewhere near the middle of my performance, I launched into “Well All Right,” a Buddy Holly classic that I first heard as a kid, without giving the song much thought ahead of time. It was simply the next entry on my set list.

And then a strange feeling hit me, right before the first chorus, as I realized I was playing a Buddy Holly number in Mason City, just a stone’s throw the last town Holly ever played before the tragic plane crash that ended his life at 22. It’s a famous story, and you probably know most of it, but here are the pertinent facts: Buddy Holly took part in the 1959 Winter Dance Party, a tour of the upper Midwest that also included a handful of other early rock ‘n’ roll performers. Following a Feb. 2 concert at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, a chartered airplane carrying Holly, Ritchie Vallens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed into a field near Clear Lake. None of the passengers survived, and the tragedy has taken on a mythic status as “The Day the Music Died.”

Fat Hill Brewing in Mason City, IA

And there I was, playing “Well All Right” in Mason City about 10 miles from where Holly’s last show took place nearly 60 years later. It left me feeling as if I were some kind of small link in a great chain connecting guitar-toting songwriters through the ages. It was certainly a highlight of my gigging schedule last year.

And I likely would not have gotten that opportunity were it not for Fat Hill Brewing and the growth of Iowa’s craft brewing industry in recent years. Locally brewed craft beer contributed $100 million to the state’s economy in 2014, according to a study from the Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board. The 2015 study, the most recent I could find, also predicted Iowa’s brewing industry to triple its production between 2014 and 2019. Those numbers are maybe out of date now, but they clearly show a rapidly growing industry. And the best part for DIY musicians like me is that many of these local breweries like to host live music in their taprooms. This has created something of a new frontier for Iowa music.

Because what goes together better than good beer and good music? I can’t think of many things.

Last year, I played Firetrucker Brewery in Ankeny and two shows at Shiny Top Brewing in Fort Dodge in addition to two gigs at Fat Hill. This year, I’ve got gigs lined up at Shiny Top and Fat Hill, as well as the Iowa Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids. These aren’t dedicated music venues; they’re breweries that decided, correctly, that live music enhances the enjoyment of their products. Accordingly, few of them own sound systems. That means the acts they book have to provide their own sound. That reality has taken a serious toll on my back, since I have to lug my two 15” main speakers out of the basement every time I play one of these shows. But the extra effort is worth it. I really enjoy getting out to explore new towns, taking in the local atmosphere and, of course, sampling some locally brewed beer.

The taproom at Fat Hill

Seeing these local businesses innovating and providing new spaces for Iowans to get together as communities really excites me. These breweries are igniting new economic and cultural opportunities in rural stretches of the state, and many are booking talented musicians who might not come to your town otherwise. It’s my sincere hope that everyone involved – from the brewery owners to the musicians to the local music fans – will continue to embrace that.

So here’s my modest request. To the brewery owners, keep booking live music, and, whenever possible, try to find local Iowa artists to feature alongside your local Iowa beer. To the musicians, get out there and try to play a new city or two in 2019. You can find new audiences and make connections in new communities. And to the customers who like hanging out in the local taproom, let the musicians know you appreciate their talent. Buy some merch the next time a musician plays your local brewery. Welcome them to your town, and tell them you enjoyed their music. It’s a lot of work loading up a bunch of gear, driving a couple hours and then putting on a quality show. Sometimes a word of encouragement makes all the difference.

Shiny Top Brewing in Fort Dodge, another area favorite of mine

Some of my favorite musical experiences in recent years, including that one last summer at Fat Hill Brewing, have occurred in local taprooms. There were 54 craft breweries operating in the state in 2014, according to that Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board study. Today, Iowa boasts more than 80 brewery locations. As a local musician and Buddy Holly fan, I hope that trend will not fade away any time soon.

The Top-10 Iowa musical acts you need to hear

First, a disclaimer.

Yes, this list is purely subjective. Yes, it leans heavily on guitar-driven blues, roots and rock acts. Yes, there are plenty of other Iowa artists not on this list worth your attention who are defying conventions and innovating in all kinds of genres. But sometimes you gotta plug an old guitar into a tube amp and crank that bad boy. That’s what most of this list is about.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I can confidently and righteously assert that these ten acts, without exception, absolutely thrash. All of them perform regularly across the state, too, so look up their gig schedules and catch a show! You can’t go wrong here.

twins10) TWINS – This Cedar Valley outfit cranks out an undeniably hooky flavor of pop rock that lands somewhere between the Byrds and the Replacements. Their most recent album, 2016’s Square America, deserves a place on any Iowa record collector’s shelf. The album crackles with bratty teenage attitude, clever arrangements and tight musicianship. Check out the searing guitar tones on “Hot Stepper,” the retro jangle and harmonies of “Breakin’ Up,” and the pedal steel-tinged pop punk of “Lovesick Romeo.”

pinkneighbor9) Pink Neighbor – The relatively new upstarts on the list (you might even say including them here is a sly declaration of new-classic status slipped into a list of old safe ones), Pink Neighbor hail from Grinnell. Their live show oozes highly infectious, 60’s psychedelic charm. I saw them play the opening show for last year’s Maximum Ames Music Festival and immediately fell under their spell. They’ve released a couple EPs and three singles, but I can’t wait to hear a proper full-length album from them.

rushcleveland8) The Rush Cleveland Trio – Rush Cleveland’s voice sounds like pure authenticity. He’s paid his dues with a lifetime of gigging and devotion to the guitar. Another Cedar Valley entry on the list, check out the Rush Cleveland Trio’s last two releases, American Music vols. 1 and 2. Both albums are full of blues, honky tonk and rock ‘n’ roll, stripped down to the bare essentials. When Rush sings a line like, “Liquor, lines and ladies, that’s lessons learned,” in his gravelly warble, you don’t doubt a word of it.

surf zombies7) The Surf Zombies – Brook Hoover, the Cedar Rapids guitar virtuoso who leads the Surf Zombies, taught me nearly everything I know about the guitar. I took lessons from him for about three years during high school and college. The man lives and breathes guitar, and he infuses everything he does with his relentless enthusiasm and goofy sense of humor. The Surf Zombies, a surf-rock instrumental band, provides Brook and his bandmates a platform for plenty of guitar heroics and attitude, and they’ve done a terrific job over the years carving out a unique niche in the Iowa music scene. The Surf Zombies catalog includes a handful of albums, all of which brim with classic guitar tones and interesting musical arrangements that are always catchy but never obvious. You won’t find a tighter – or weirder – band on this list.

SLB6) Strong Like Bear – This long-time Ames band includes some of my favorite human beings in the world, but that’s not why I put them on the list. SLB has existed for over a decade now, producing a solid discography of alt. rock that strikes me as a cross between the Pixies and Fleetwood Mac. The combination of influences lends the band a versatility and adventurousness that keeps each of their five albums sounding fresh. But the secret ingredient is the chemistry the band members have established through a decade-plus playing together. I highly recommend Passing Through the Waves, the band’s latest album, released in early March.

mattwoods5) Matt Woods – One of the finest blues guitar pickers the state has produced, Matt Woods has certainly put in the reps. The lanky lefty has produced a consistently excellent discography of full-band and solo work over the years. Two common denominators tie all of his music together: his impeccable fretwork and his gruff vocals. His 2018 album Tired & Dirty casts life in rural Iowa squarely in the blues tradition. And anyone who’s suffered through a Midwestern winter can relate to the white-knuckle thrill of 2015’s “Snow Drivin.” Contender for the most Iowa song lyric of all time: “It keeps on snowin’ like a sonofabitch, and I can’t tell the edge of the gravel from the bottom of a ditch. Snow drivin!”

4) Brother Trucker – On Brother Trucker’s most recent album 5, a song titled “Bar Fight” leads into the next track, called “Who Called the Cops.” And that’s a pretty good indication of what you get with Brother Trucker: a bunch of rugged Americana rockers about misfits and outlaws. Principal songwriter Andy Fleming possesses a terrific eye for lyrical detail, and the band raises hell with the best of them. Fleming is one of Iowa’s hardest gigging singer-songwriters, but don’t sleep on keyboardist Matt Jesson when he takes lead vocals on “Powderfinger.”

whitmore3) William Elliott Whitmore – I first saw William Elliott Whitmore at the Maintenance Shop in Ames back when I was a sophomore at Iowa State, most likely 2005 or 2006. His voice alone stopped me in my tracks, and his rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” remains etched in my memory as one of the most powerful musical displays I’ve witnessed. Since then, the great Iowa troubadour has been writing, recording and touring relentlessly. His most recent album, Kilonova, came out on Bloodshot Records, the scrappy Chicago indie responsible for some of my favorite alt-country of the last decade. His smoky blend of folk, blues and country all wrapped up in a punk rock attitude and old-soul vocal delivery is absolutely essential listening for Iowa music fans. Whitmore’s side project with Dave Zollo, Middle Western, is worth your time too!

pietabrown2) Pieta Brown – Iowa City-based Pieta Brown is the one artist on this list I have never seen live, but I’ve listened to both of her most recent albums – Paradise Outlaw and Postcards – extensively. Her crystal-clear vocals, her literary-yet-immediate songwriting and the haunting atmospherics of her recordings combine to give her work a quiet, swirling depth that’s easy to get lost in. In an interview, Brown explains that the inspiration for “Rosine,” my favorite composition of hers, came to her in a dream about Bill Monroe. The more I thought of it, the more a dream about the ghost of one of Appalachia’s greatest musicians seems like the perfect image to accompany Pieta Brown’s music.

joe and vicki1) Joe and Vicki Price – I’ve often heard people describe Robert Johnson’s guitar playing as if it sounds like two guitarists rather than just one. I’d argue that Iowa blues legends Joe and Vicki Price sound like two guitars being played by a single, unified mind – with tone that would make Hound Dog Taylor blush. And their live show is an absolute joy to behold. Their warmth and humor draw the audience in to make everyone feel like they’re at a party with all their best friends. I never tire of watching the way Joe stomps and slides his feet around with all those irresistible rhythms. Listen to “High Blood Pressure” from their 2015 album Night Owls to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

Welcome to Rock Roads, a blog exploring Iowa’s rock ‘n’ roll experience

J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. playing Codfish Hollow on July 27, 2016

The sheer volume almost made me wish I’d brought ear plugs.

I’d read about how impossibly loud Dinosaur Jr. plays, most memorably in Michael Azerrad’s seminal ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life,’ but that didn’t prepare me for the experience. I’m not sure anything can. It was so loud, I found myself thinking for the first time in my life that a set of ear plugs might actually improve the experience.

The crowd at my back pinned me to the lip of the stage. Lou Barlow loomed directly above me, furiously wielding his bass. He was so close, I could read the set list taped to the stage at his feet. Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy thrashed at his drums a few paces away, wiping sweat off his bald pate between songs. And, on the far side of the stage, J Mascis stood behind his trademark Fender Jazzmaster, a mountain chain of Marshall stacks behind him, punching a hole in space and time with hairy, Big Muff-drenched leads.

It was glorious.

The best part was that this show didn’t take place in an arena, or auditorium or club. Rather, it was in a remote barn, situated along a gravel road, in rural eastern Iowa. The venue, called Codfish Hollow Barnstormers, is a true Iowa gem. Seeing Dinosaur Jr., one of my absolute favorite bands, in such a distinctive setting ranks among the very best rock ‘n’ roll experiences I’ve ever had. And I’ve had my share.

Lou Barlow, the bassist for Dinosaur Jr.

Welcome to Rock Roads, a blog that will attempt to spotlight the unique elements that make up Iowa’s music scene and rock heritage, such as the Iowa-to-a-tee Codfish Hollow. The venue is located a few miles outside of Maquoketa, accessible only by gravel roads. Concert goers park in a pasture and then walk or ride a tractor-pulled shuttle to the barn where the show takes place. It’s difficult for me to imagine a more powerful musical experience than that late-July night in 2016 at Codfish Hollow, when Dinosaur Jr. nearly tore apart that old wooden barn in the Iowa countryside.

I plan to examine the many things associated with rock ‘n’ roll music that I sincerely and unabashedly love, giving them an Iowa-centric spin. This blog will take you on tours of Iowa’s dingiest rock clubs, help you navigate the state’s growing music festival landscape and highlight cool vintage guitars and the Iowans who play them. If it’s rock ‘n’ roll and Iowa, you’ll find it here.

So who am I, and why should anyone care what I have to say about the Iowa music scene? A brief introduction may be in order.

I’m a 33-year-old family man, communications pro and musician in Ames. I grew up in rural northeast Iowa and currently work at Iowa State University, where I write news releases and conduct media relations on science-related topics. I’ve got a wife and two children, ages 7 and 2. And I’ve been playing music, both solo and in bands, going back to my college days. But more than all of that, I’m a music fan on a lifelong quest to get as close as I can to the music I love. Thank you for joining me on that quest.

Murph, left, and Lou Barlow, right, thrashing their way through a Dinosaur Jr. set.

Recalling that Dinosaur Jr. show at Codfish Hollow brings back a few vivid memories. I remember getting so sweaty that my glasses slid off my face and I had to get down on my knees to retrieve them before they got stomped. I remember J Mascis telling the crowd that if anyone wanted to hear the lyrics over the roar of the instruments, they should probably go outside the barn. I remember briefly considering scrambling onto the stage after the encore to nab Lou Barlow’s set list before someone else beat me to it.

And I remember stepping back out into the cool country air after the show ended. It was a perfect, late-summer night, and my wife and I felt refreshed as we made our way back to the car. And maybe it was just the post-show buzz, but I remember thinking there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than in rural Iowa on a rock road.

Let’s make it loud, Iowa.

J Mascis’s guitar amps loom backstage at Codfish Hollow in July 2016.