Iowa Music You Gotta Hear:  ‘Dream On’ by TWINS

101134804_342061003425902_8355098802595561472_nTWINS, the longstanding Cedar Valley rock band with a reputation for electrifying  power pop, took a hard turn on their latest album, Dream On. Or, rather, a softer turn.

And principal songwriter Joel Sires says it was all by design.

The new nine-song collection, officially released on June 5, dials down the electricity while pushing Sires’ acoustic guitar and lyrics to the forefront. The songs retain the hooky melodic sense of previous TWINS efforts, and the arrangements are still lush and atmospheric. But the new approach showcases a vulnerability that may have been overshadowed by the bombast of the old TWINS. The result is a delicate and sometimes haunting album that draws the listener closer, like a whisper you have to strain to hear.

“I wrote a good majority of the record alone on my acoustic and I figured the songs just translated better with the acoustic being sort of the backbone of the recorded versions,” Sires told Rock Roads. “I also specifically wanted it in the songs to make it as hard of a turn as possible from our last record, “Square America.”

“Buffalo Snow,” the first single released from the album, accurately previews what listeners can expect from much of the record. A carefully plucked figure on an acoustic guitar does most of the lifting on the introduction while the rhythm section — Luke Sires on drums and Devin Ferguson on bass — remains tastefully restrained throughout. Toby Sires’ lead guitar enriches the atmosphere without stepping on the vocal. An organ, played by newcomer Ben Randall, thickens the sound and adds warmth.

“I just wanna be your vapor trail/Follow you around like a tail,” Sires sings. 

The theme of life’s impermanence pops up again and again on the album. Sires’ lyrics make use of fleeting imagery like shooting stars and fresh-fallen snow. Blink and you’ll miss it. Or, at least, blink and it won’t be the same as it was before. The delicate arrangements enhance the ethereal, misty nature of the songwriting.

“Reminds Me of the Rose” is perhaps the high point of the album, featuring rich harmonies and a dynamic structure that climaxes with Sires chanting “You remind me of the rose” as the instruments swell around him. The song urges the listener to slow down and appreciate the miraculous beauty of the everyday, which, like the rose, never lasts long. 

Flashes of the old TWINS shine through the wintry clouds at various junctures. “So Far Gone,” the second single released ahead of the album’s debut, features a Stonsey groove that’s reinforced by an overdriven anti-solo. “Passenger,” a bouncy slice of pop rock with a singalong chorus and lyrics about “hangin’ round a burger shack,” recalls previous TWINS efforts as well.   

TWINS recorded the album at Chandler Limited in Shell Rock. Recording close to home allowed the band to stretch out and take their time, though Sires said the band worked to preserve a live feel as much as possible. 

“We have polished off the rough edges on previous records, and I knew this time I didn’t want to do that at all, if possible,” Sires said. “Because that’s the type of band we are. Sort of like Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang if they had a garage band.”

Dream On will be available on streaming services on June 5. Pre-order a physical copy on the TWINS Bandcamp page.


The Science of Things: Uncertainty Fest 2019 kicks off on Thursday

The scientific process relies on experimentation to push beyond the limits of human knowledge and into the unknown. The organizers of this weekend’s Uncertainty Festival hope live music can perform a similar function.

The 2019 Uncertainty Festival includes nine events at three venues on Main Street in Ames beginning on Thursday and extending into Sunday. Each showcase features a different twist on a scientific theme, and attendees will be able to take in a sweeping range of musical styles. A “universal festival pass,” available through MIDWESTIX, costs $20.

uncertainty2019posterSingle-show passes are available as well, but you’ll get the most out of Uncertainty if you make an effort to take in some acts you haven’t heard before, said festival organizer Rachel Dudley.

“I hope that people go and have an opportunity to see musicians they ordinarily wouldn’t have checked out and get their minds blown,” Rachel Dudley said.

Rachel and her husband, Bryon, have spearheaded Uncertainty since the festival began in 2017. Rachel and Bryon described themselves as “nerds” who thought a science-themed music festival sounded like fun. Accordingly, each show associated with this year’s festival comes with name like “Cosmic Expansion,” “Planetary Motion” or “Particle.”

The names suggest an experimental quality to the festival, as if Bryon and Rachel are gathering data and testing their own theories on the periodic table of rock ‘n’ roll.

This year’s festival has grown considerably larger than the previous two iterations. Last year’s festival hosted three showcases, while this year’s festival will feature nine events, including a meet and greet for musicians and fans on Sunday afternoon. The expansion resulted from Bryon and Rachel working on last September’s Maximum Ames Music Festival and gaining confidence in their ability to organize a larger event, they said.

Uncertainty Festival doubles as a spotlight for acts that have released music on Nova Labs, the independent record label that Bryon and Rachel run out of their house. Nova Labs has helped dozens of Iowa musicians release music and find a larger audience, and Bryon said he takes that responsibility seriously. That means he makes sure everything about Uncertainty Festival, from the acts to the venues, reflects positively on Nova Labs.

“If this is something I’m going to put the Nova Labs name on, I want it to be something that I believe in very strongly,” he said.

That approach carries over to the all-local list of festival sponsors, including London Underground, Prints Copy Center, Smiles Food Carts, Alluvial Brewing Company and the Tom Russel Piano Service.

And once it’s over, Rachel and Bryon will head back to the lab again with a fresh set of data to analyze and new hypotheses to test.

Uncertainty Festival 2019 programming

April 18

Hypothesis: Piano
7 p.m., London Underground
Elizabeth Zimmerman, Holly Figueroa,
 Evelyn Davis &
 Lizzy Poppyseed

April 19

Particle Showcase
8 p.m., DG’s Tap House
, Matt Woods, Ducharme-Jones Band, Brother Trucker

Cosmic Expansion
8:30 p.m., The Angry Irishmen (formerly Deano’s 119)
Obsidian’s Dream
, Moonrabbit & 
Other Brothers

Hypothesis: Beat
7 p.m., London Underground
SLICE the Celestial Sorcerer & 

April 20

Wave Showcase
1 p.m., DG’s Tap House
Free The Snakes
, Bleujack, 
Fred Love & 
Dylan Boyle

Hypothesis: Dance
7 p.m., London Underground
Pink Kodiak
 & DJ Saturn Savant (aka Austin Robert)

Light Showcase
8 p.m., DG’s Tap House
Bitter Canyon
, Pink Neighbor
, Wiitch Tiit & 
Linear Symmetry

Planetary Motion
8:30 p.m., The Angry Irishmen
Great Caesar’s Goat, 
Mountain Eats Mountain
, Kickstart The Sun & Electric Jury

April 21

Hypothesis: Interaction (musician meet and greet)
1 p.m., London Underground
Starlight Therapy
, Tom and Will (Tom Russell and Will Pett), 
DJ Strooya (aka Zee Krizhan)

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.

Maximum Ames Music Festival: The most DIY punk rock thing I do

If you’re reading this, then you’re most likely a music fan living somewhere in or near Iowa. Or, you’re my mom or my wife or a friend reading this blog out of some sense of obligation. In either case, I want you to read carefully. Please go to your calendar or your planner or whatever app you use on your phone to keep track of all your plans and reserve the four days from Sept. 5 through Sept. 8. Plan to be in Ames during that time with your gnarliest pair of party pants because the 2019 Maximum Ames Music Festival is going to change your life.

It’s already changed mine, and it’s still six months away.

Lionessa performs at London Underground last Sunday during the Maximum Ames/Ames Pride date reveal party.

Last year, I volunteered to handle some of the promotion, communications and social media for the 2018 Maximum Ames Music Festival, then in its eighth year. The experience turned out to be one of the most inspiring, life-affirming grassroots efforts to which I’ve ever contributed, and this year’s festival promises to be even better. We just announced the date of the 2019 festival last Sunday at London Underground on Main Street in Ames. It was a ferocious party with Free the Snakes and Lionessa providing live music (look them up!), but that’s a story for another time.

Let’s talk about why the Maximum Ames Music Festival is so important to me.

Reading Michael Azerrad’s ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’ during my high school years changed my perspective of rock ‘n’ roll in some pretty radical ways. Before that book, I thought playing rock music was only for stars like Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger.

But reading stories about the do-it-yourself attitude that pervaded underground punk and indie rock throughout the 1980s opened my eyes to a whole new approach. Reading about straight-edge punks at Dischord folding and gluing their own record sleeves, or a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia putting together cassettes of avant-garde acts and self-publishing a fanzine, made me realize you don’t have to be Mick Jagger to make rock and roll. In fact, it might just be that average citizens – schmucks like me with jobs and bills to pay – expressing themselves through music might be a more revolutionary and subversive act than anything those celebrity musicians ever did.

That belief inspired me to volunteer to help organize last year’s Maximum Ames Music Festival. The festival, held last September, hosted more than 60 acts in a dozen venues near downtown Ames. The festival also synced up with Ames Pridefest, which occurred Sept. 29 in downtown Ames. The confluence of events reinforced the Maximum Ames mission of “providing a safe, inclusive environment that fosters creativity and understanding through music and art.” It’s precisely the sort of event our communities need nowadays, with division cutting so deeply and compassion for one another in such short supply.

Free the Snakes performs during the date reveal party.

I spent several months leading up to the festival planning media relations and promotional efforts, and I coordinated with a team of six other volunteers to take care of all the necessary arrangements to make an event like that happen, from fundraising to booking acts to making sure all the venues had functioning PA systems. It struck me at every meeting that all seven of us in the core team were all pretty much regular folks who just happen to think putting on a music festival in our small Iowa town enriches the entire community and advances the crucial values of inclusion, acceptance and creativity. More than any other music-related endeavor I’ve undertaken, volunteering for the Maximum Ames Music Festival made me feel like I was walking in the footsteps of the DIY heroes featured in ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life.’

And the festival itself is always a blast. Past acts have included the Mountain Goats, Meat Puppets, Wanda Jackson and Lavender Country. The Zombies, who were just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, are Max Ames alums. Last year’s lineup covered a dizzying range of genres, from guitar-heavy rock to hip hop to jazz to blues.

If any of this appeals to you, I invite you to attend and participate in a truly awesome community experience. If you’re a musician, apply to play at the festival. If you’d like to volunteer, we’ll need people to man the doors at venues, to deliver payments to the acts and photographers to document the experience. You don’t have to be a rock star to get involved. In fact, you don’t have to have any experience whatsoever in the music biz. All we’re looking for is a positive attitude and some DIY spirit.

I hear a lot of folks use slogans like ‘eat local’ or ‘shop local.’ Absolutely, let’s do that. But, while we’re at it, let’s rock local too. And remember! #MAMF9 Sept. 5-8!