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.

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Discover your New Favorite Band during the Maximum Ames Music Festival

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Diego Danger plays at Morning Bell during the 2018 Maximum Ames Music Festival. That’s the author seated at right, realizing that Diego Danger had just become his New Favorite Band. Photo by James Dean.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the Maximum Ames Music Festival is the high likelihood I’ll discover my New Favorite Band.

The festival, which runs from Thursday through Sunday at multiple venues all over downtown Ames, has featured a sweeping range of genres and artists throughout its existence. The festival has hosted rock hall of famers, grunge legends and country trailblazers. It’s drawn traditional folk troubadours and EDM experimenters. Virtuosos and beginners, nationally touring headliners and local heroes.

And this year’s lineup, the ninth iteration of the festival, follows suit. Indie rock. Americana. Power pop. Dance. Jazz. Blues. All that adventurous music can be yours for the cost of a $20 wristband. And, even if you can’t afford that, the festival slate includes a half dozen free and all-ages offerings. There’s really no excuse to stop you.

So here’s my challenge to all my fellow central Iowa music fans: Discover your New Favorite Band during the 2019 Maximum Ames Music Festival.

Last year, my New Favorite Band was Diego Danger, a swampy blues outfit currently from Omaha. They played at Morning Bell, a coffee shop on Main Street that needed a PA system brought in for the festival. I volunteered mine and loaded it in that evening without any knowledge of the acts that would be playing Morning Bell. I assumed, judging strictly by the name, that Diego Danger was a solo act, probably a singer-songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar. To my surprise, when it was time for Diego Danger’s set, a handful of guys set up drums, electric guitars and keys. Then they let loose with a groovy set of bluesy originals.

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The full schedule for the 2019 Maximum Ames Music Festival

The blues does this thing to me that no other musical form manages. A good blues band hijacks my brainwaves and makes it nearly impossible for me to pay attention to anything else happening around me. I think it probably has a lot to do with the shuffle rhythms so prominent in blues music. It’s just irresistible to me.

Diego Danger induced this blues-trance almost immediately. Long-time Maximum Ames photographer James Dean actually captured the moment in a couple shots that night. Diego Danger played a tight, polished set and wrapped up just as their allotted set time was about to expire. They clearly knew what they were doing, and I knew I’d discovered my New Favorite Band. So I bought a couple of their CDs and a sticker and told them I hoped they would return to Ames. And, as fortune would have it, Diego Danger is among the 50+ acts playing the Maximum Ames Music Festival this year. You can see them Friday night at Time Out, along with Equal Parts and Origami Animals.

But they can’t be my New Favorite Band two years in a row. That title will belong to a new act, probably one I know next to nothing about as I write this. And that excites me.

So come out to Maximum Ames this weekend with an open mind and take a chance on some artists you’ve never heard of. The odds are good you’ll discover your New Favorite Band.

I’ll see you on Main Street!

Hinterland 2019 from a kid’s perspective

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The author with his 7-year-old son Michael at Hinterland 2019

Few things put a damper on the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle like parenting.

Rock shows usually go late, and toddlers always wake up early. Accordingly, I’ve passed up countless shows that I otherwise would have jumped at because they simply weren’t compatible with my responsibilities as a husband and father to two kids (ages 7 and 2).

Sometimes that reality frustrates me, but I try to share my passion for music with my family whenever possible. Hinterland, a three-day outdoor music festival earlier this month near St. Charles, Iowa, provides the most recent example of my struggle to balance those two sides of my life. The incredible lineup – including Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves, the War & Treaty, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Colter Wall and others – was simply too good to pass up. Taking my 2-year-old daughter along seemed out of the question, on account of her stubborn insistence on throwing epic tantrums without warning and for no discernible reason. But my nearly 8-year-old son Michael, a thoughtful and compassionate lad who has been to several big concerts, acted excited by the prospect of going. So we sent our toddler to spend the weekend with my wife’s parents and decided to initiate our son into the music festival experience.

The missus and I, along with my way-cool music-loving parents, have attended three Hinterland festivals now, and it’s been a highlight of our year each time. Our first exposure to Brandi Carlile’s live show took place at the first Hinterland in 2015. Carlile put on such an energetic, life-affirming performance that my wife and I swore we’d never miss another chance to see her. We’ve taken in all-timers like Willie Nelson at the Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater and newer favorites like the Turnpike Troubadours, who have perhaps burned out before their time and may never tour again.

But leaving the kids with the grandparents the two previous trips to Hinterland allowed us to pretend we were just a couple kids in love, living in the moment without worrying about whether our son had applied the proper amount of sunscreen or having to carry his snoring form through the darkened parking lot because the last set went way past his normal bedtime (Fun fact: my son is the only person I know who has dozed off in the middle of Bob Dylan AND Willie Nelson concerts). So I think it’s fair to say the decision to bring our son along caused us both some real anxiety. It pleases me greatly, however, to report he did really well – for the most part.

Saturday afternoon, as we dealt with withering early August heat, disaster struck when my son’s melting ice cream cone dripped all over his clothes. This set off some tears from Michael, and I worried that we’d made a mistake. Maybe he wasn’t ready for the rigors of a weekend-long music festival. As his mood nosedived, I felt certain that my worst festival nightmare was coming true, that we’d have to pack up and leave without seeing any of my favorite acts on the bill.

But it was Hinterkids to the rescue. Hinterland organizers anticipated just this sort of emergency and put together a slate of activities just for kids. Children and parents could retire to a tent in a quiet corner of the festival grounds for some shade, and Michael got his photo taken for a nametag that looked like a backstage pass for a 90s Nickelodeon cartoon. Kids could complete activities in a workbook specially designed to feature all of the musicians on the festival lineup. He also painted a picture of an alien that got added to a mural featuring artwork from all the kids who visited the tent.

Michael went into the tent on the verge of a breakdown and came out ready to rock for the rest of the day.

The sun set, and the boiling temperatures eased into a much more comfortable range. St. Paul and the Broken Bones took the stage and delivered an irresistibly funky set. My family and I sat on a blanket, close enough to see the stage but far enough away that we weren’t overwhelmed by dense crowds. Michael, without saying a word, climbed into my lap and watched St. Paul and the Broken Bones in hushed awe. Paul Janeway, the dynamic lead singer, pulled off the most thrilling moment of the entire festival by climbing down off the stage during the last song and making his way back to the VIP area, which was situated on top of the sound booth. Janeway climbed the stairs to the balcony and finished the song standing on top of a folding chair, a couple stories above the audience, conducting the band to an exquisite crescendo. And Michael and I were right there to share the moment together.

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Paul Janeway of St. Paul & the Broken Bones delivers a riveting performance atop scaffolding at Hinterland 2019.

We ended up leaving about halfway through Jason Isbell’s headlining set because Michael was clearly running out of steam. Of course, I ended up carrying him through the pasture that served as the general admission parking lot as sleep overtook him. My arms ached by the time we got him in the car, but I honestly didn’t mind.

I’d learned a lesson that night. When it comes to finding that balance between parenting and experiencing all the great music I can, it’s okay to make some compromises if it means sharing a few unforgettable moments with my family. My son got too tired to hear Jason Isbell’s finale, but we’ll always remember Paul Janeway precariously balancing on that chair high over our heads.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a way of thinking as much as it is a musical form. It’s a rejection of the prevailing way of doing things in favor of thinking for yourself. Rock ‘n’ roll, at its purest, challenges the corporate and commercial priorities of our culture in favor of strengthening our ties with the humans around us. In that sense, introducing my son to his first music festival at a young age may have been a pretty rock ‘n’ roll thing to do after all.

Iowa music you gotta hear: Miss Christine’s ‘Conversion’

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Christine Moad, the songwriter, singer and bassist for Miss Christine

Time, Christine Moad knew, was of the essence.

Moad, the creative force and bassist for power-pop outfit Miss Christine, decided she needed to record her album quickly in February 2018. Taking time to agonize over every tiny detail could derail the entire project, she reasoned, and keep her songs from ever seeing an official release. So she gathered some charts and demos of her songs and showed them to a group of musicians who had never heard them before.

The band arranged and recorded each song in the studio, quickly turning out the 12 tracks that would form Miss Christine’s latest album, Conversion, released earlier this summer.

“I’m a perfectionist and knew this was the only way I could record my album without getting too much in my head,” Moad said via email. “This approach was terrifying but so rewarding.”

Moad said she hopes the creative energy unleashed when she and the band members figured out the arrangements would saturate the recordings. The approach allows the listener to discover the songs alongside the musicians.

“My idea is that music is most powerful when it’s first created,” she said.

Moad is an Iowa native. She grew up near Allison but moved away at 17 to study electric bass performance at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. From there, she moved to Nashville, where she found work as a session and touring bassist. But Moad moved back to Iowa when she decided it was time to focus on her own compositions, and she currently lives on a farm near Iowa City.

“I found myself at a crossroads and decided I wanted to do my own music,” she said when discussing her return to her home state. “I moved back to Iowa to finish writing my album and do some self reflection. It has been great to reconnect to my roots and enjoy the beauty of Iowa.”

Despite the compressed recording process, the songs on Conversion don’t sound hurried or sloppy. Rather, they feature a diverse range of instrumentation and textures. Album opener “Be Present” crackles with delightfully punky guitar tones and horn swells, while the title track strikes a more dramatic tone with somber keys and ominously whispered background vocals. Breakup song “Without You” dials up an r&b-inspired groove and guitar part and a big-time singalong chorus.

The album covers a lot of lyrical ground as well. Numbers like “Be Present” and “The Millennial Paradigm” take on social and philosophical topics of relevance to modern life. “Green Walls, Red Trim” and “Without You” are more character based. “Nightmare In the Daytime,” in which the narrator finally works up the courage to confront a manipulator, contains some scorchingly cathartic kiss-off lyrics.

“But I can see right through it to the root of your lies,” Moad sings on one of the catchiest choruses of the entire album. “You’re a horrible person with the worst disguise.”

Miss Christine is wrapping up an East Coast tour and will almost certainly play some gigs closer to home in the near future. In the meantime, stream Conversion and check out Miss Christine’s website for official music videos for album tracks “Conversion,” “Entitled” and “Skinny Jeans.”

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

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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.

10 summertime live music events for Iowa music fans

Large_Outdoor_ConcertSummertime was made for live music. I believe this to be true without question.

So it’s high time we talked about all the killer live music happening in Iowa the next couple months. I’ve handpicked 10 shows, listed here by date, that cover a lot of musical ground. The list includes blues, country, rock and hip hop artists, some of whom have attained legendary status while others are promising up and comers.

But this list doesn’t come close to capturing every worthwhile musical experience Iowa has to offer this summer, nor was that the intention. Get out there and experience your own adventures in Iowa rock and roll, and let me know what you find!

July 11 – I’m With Her, Codfish Hollow Barnstormers in Maquoketa
As I’ve written before, Codfish Hollow is one of the coolest music venues you’ll ever experience. This Thursday, the dazzlingly talented trio I’m With Her take the stage in rural Maquoketa. Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan team up to spin enchanting songs with mostly acoustic instrumentation. Their music will scratch your bluegrass itch, but they push the boundaries beyond traditional bluegrass as well.

July 16 – Robert Earl Keen, Englert Theater in Iowa City
Keen’s songs of desperados and criminals on the run conjure a cinematic Texas landscape that feels so realized and romantic that I want to just dive in and live alongside the characters in songs like ‘Corpus Christi Bay’ and ‘The Road Goes on Forever.’ His shows are a little bit country, a little bit rock and a lot of Lonestar.

July 27 – Red Dirt Country Fest, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Sioux City
I honestly try not to be the guy constantly ragging on the country music mainstream, but this year’s country representation at the Iowa State Fair grandstand is going to smother a lot of brain cells. Toby Keith, Dan + Shay and Luke Bryan don’t do it for me, and if you’re reading my blog, you probably agree. (Zac Brown is ok, but just barely.)

If rugged, guitar-driven country is more your speed, skip the fair scene and hit up the Red Dirt Country Fest in Sioux City, with headliner Cody Jinks. Jinks is a fire-breathing reformed metalhead who has produced some of the hardest-hitting country albums of the last decade. Listen to ‘Holy Water’ from his most recent album Lifers if you don’t believe me.

Aug. 1 – Wu-Tang Clan, Stir Cove in Council Bluffs
They performed in Des Moines for the 2013 80/35 Music Festival, and Iowans will get another chance to enter the 36 chambers of Wu-Tang in August. We all miss Ol’ Dirty Bastard, but the legendary NYC hip-hop group still brings serious swagger to the stage. Legends in their own time.

Aug. 2-4 – Hinterland Music Festival in St. Charles, Iowa
Brandi Carlile and Kacey Musgraves are fresh off Grammy-winning years, and they’re only a fraction of the talent worth taking in among this year’s staggeringly good Hinterland lineup. Jason Isbell, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Brent Cobb, Colter Wall and John Moreland all have produced thrilling work in recent years. And Hozier and Hippo Campus have you covered if you prefer pop and indie rock to Americana and roots.

My sleeper pick among this year’s field is The War and Treaty, a powerhouse vocal duo with a penchant for old-school soul. If you’re in need of an instantaneous energy transfusion, listen to the title track off their 2018 album Healing Tide.

Aug. 10 – Twins of Evil: Rob Zombie & Marilyn Manson, US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids
Dig through the ditches and burn through the witches on your way to the dope show. I’ll be pretty disappointed if this show doesn’t turn out to be the weirdest on this list.

Sept. 3 – Kiss End of the Road Tour, Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines
I usually shy away from arena shows, but Kiss – with all the pyrotechnics and theatricality – represent the pinnacle of the form. I remember when their Psycho Circus album came out in 1998. Rock 108, my local radio station of choice, played the hell out of it, and I thought it was pretty rad. I gather that rock critics didn’t regard it as highly as I did at the time, but maybe it’s due for a critical reevaluation. (Probably not.)

Sept. 10 – Social Distortion and Flogging Molly, Water Works Park in Des Moines
A couple of punk rock’s most stalwart acts will take the new Lauridsen Amphitheater stage at Water Works Park on Sept. 10. Flogging Molly mixes heavy doses of Irish folk music into its sound, while Social Distortion has leaned on rockabilly and country throughout its four-decade(!) history. This show should provide a satisfying one-two punch for rockers and punks who like their summertime jams cranked up loud.

Sept. 18 – Soccer Mommy, the Mill in Iowa City
One of the most exciting indie rock acts to emerge in the last few years, Soccer Mommy is the vision of singer-songwriter Sophie Allison. Soccer Mommy’s studio debut, 2018’s Clean, features a hazy, intoxicating mix of teenage vulnerability and pop melodies. Iowa City feels like a fitting stop for any Soccer Mommy tour.

Sept. 23 – Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters and Lillie Mae, the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake
Technically, this show lands on the fall equinox, but how many people living on the planet right now can make an honest claim to be a bigger rock legend than Robert Plant? Like, maybe a half dozen? Maybe. Plant’s still making adventurous, thrilling music, and he’s playing one of Iowa’s most iconic rooms. This is a pretty big deal.

Also, don’t sleep on opener Lillie Mae, whose 2017 album Forever and Then Some released on Jack White’s Third Man Records. Lillie Mae is a combustible fiddle player with a voice capable of inflicting maximum emotional damage.

The end of music? DG’s Tap House goes silent

exteriorDG’s Tap House, the Main Street bar that became the best-known rock club in Ames for the last decade, went quiet last Saturday night.

A liquor license suspension, brought on by systemic management failures, spelled doom for DG’s, as well as two other Ames establishments under the same ownership. Stories in the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register detail some of the management issues that got us here, but the truth is, predicting the demise of DG’s became something of a parlor game among Ames music enthusiasts for the last couple years.

Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding its closure, I’ll miss DG’s Tap House one hell of a lot.

I played my first show there around eight years ago. I’d just moved back to Ames after a stint in Washington, D.C. I didn’t know many people in the music scene anymore, but I got an opening slot at DG’s as a solo singer-songwriter. I brought my cutout Alvarez acoustic and a handful of original songs that I’d later record with the Colt Walkers. I took the stage at DG’s a handful of times every year thereafter. It was as close to a musical home as I ever had. I felt comfortable on that stage, and I developed a lot as a performer as a direct result of the experience I gained there.

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The men’s room stall door at DG’s Tap House, exactly as a rock club bathroom should look

Perhaps even more importantly, I took in some incredible shows as a fan at DG’s. I remember practically swimming my way through the crowd to get a spot at the bar the night Meat Puppets played at DG’s for the 2013 Maximum Ames Music Festival. Nate Logsdon, the Max Ames mastermind who booked Meat Puppets, doubled as a booker and bartender at DG’s at the time. Nate manned the bar with unrelenting (and sleeveless) energy and positivity. I flagged him down to thank him for bringing the Meat Puppets to my favorite little rock club. He paused just long enough to grip my hand and shout “Rock and roll legends!” before moving on to the next customer.

A few years later, I dragged my wife along to see Wayne Hancock, the world’s finest purveyor of juke joint swing, at DG’s. When Liz and I arrived, Hancock and his band were standing on the sidewalk, at the foot of DG’s stairs, having a smoke. The show was far from a sellout. Liz and I sat at a table on the dance floor, and I remember fighting the nearly irresistible urge to get up and dance when Hancock’s band launched into his more energetic honky tonk tunes.

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Katlyn and Vincent behind the bar at DG’s Tap House one last time.

And for every incredible show like the Meat Puppets or Wayne Hancock, there are maybe a dozen shows I remember with less clarity, most likely due to too much PBR and Ten High. But I cheered on old friends, met plenty of new ones and tried to buy merch from the touring acts whenever I had some extra cash in my wallet.

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Wilderado, the final band to grace the stage at DG’s.

I went to the last show at DG’s on Saturday night. I’d never heard of Wilderado or Duncan Fellows, the two acts who played the last show. That didn’t matter all that much to me though. I just wanted to be there for the last song. Both bands, as it turned out, played good sets. Duncan Fellows did a really faithful version of “Don’t Let Me Down,” and the lead singer for Wilderado told the crowd he felt bad his band would be the last one to grace the DG’s stage, despite never having played there before. I appreciated that, and it turns out Wilderado is a tight indie band with a bright future ahead. For the record, the very last song they played was “Siren.” I confirmed the title with one of the band members when he went out to smoke after the set.

The show drew a respectable crowd but not an enormous one. The dance floor was full much of the evening, but plenty of tables and booths were available at various points. Sound guy Evan Taylor made sure both bands sounded good. He even asked me how I thought the show sounded at one point, which I found strangely touching.

Taylor, who ran sound at DG’s for over three years, said he learned a lot working at DG’s. He acknowledged “stupid decisions” made by the bar’s ownership, but he stressed most of the staff did their best to give Ames a quality music venue.

“It’s a really mixed bag,” Taylor said. “I’m happy to have been part of this experience but really bummed out because the place meant a lot to me.”

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Evan Taylor behind the sound board during the last show

Bartenders Katlyn and Vincent kept the drinks coming as best they could. Plenty of the taps were empty and much of the space reserved for liquor was bare. After Wilderado’s final song, Katlyn stepped up to the mic to announce the availability of $1 pints until all the beer ran out.

I left feeling a touch disappointed there wasn’t more pomp and circumstance to mark what looks to be the last show ever at DG’s Tap House. But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the music won’t stop in Ames just because one venue closed. Too many talented musicians and too many passionate music fans live here for the scene to wither away. But it certainly won’t be the same without DG’s.

Sing it with me now: Hey hey, my my…dgsheart

Iowa music you gotta hear: Crystal City’s ‘Three-Dimensionality’

3dimensionalityCrystal City throws a lot at the listener on their new album Three-Dimensionality.

The album’s 12 tracks experiment with crunchy rockabilly, dreamy jazz, sugary pop and even some power balladry along the way. But songwriter Dave Helmer’s creative vision combines with the band’s live energy to tie the songs together into a cohesive listening experience. The result is a dynamic and ambitious rock album that’s well worth your time.

“See Thru,” the album’s closing track, best illustrates the impressive ambition on display throughout Three-Dimensionality. The song begins with stark piano chords that give way to a funky R&B groove for a couple verses before the song soars to a jazzy guitar-driven crescendo that crashes into an ethereal fadeout in the closing seconds. Crystal City packs all that dynamism into a dense and intoxicating four-and-a-half minutes, making it the longest track on the album. Other standout tracks include forceful rocker “All Gone South” and the blissfully infectious pop tune “You in the Morning.”

Crystal City’s most distinct sonic hallmark is the way Helmer’s gruff vocals, which remind me of Mark Knopfler, mix with those of bandmate Sam Drella. At some points, Drella sounds as if she’s singing the same melodies as Helmer, giving tracks added thickness and urgency. At other points, Drella sings harmonies that add color and nuance, reinforcing the multi-dimensionality hinted at in the album’s title. Drella’s harmonies elevate the material, particularly on “Cigarettes for Breakfast,” where her “ooohs” during the verse call the to mind Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders.

Helmer’s lyrics often center on down-and-out characters facing up to difficult circumstances. “I ain’t got a dollar in the bank/I ain’t got a gallon in the tank,” Helmer and Drella sing on the title track. But the relentless energy of the songs inspires hope and motivation.

“I want this album to make people feel good and energized,” Helmer said in an interview. “We touch on a lot of themes people deal with on a regular basis, so I want people to feel like they’re not alone.”

This is the third album from the Iowa City-based band, following 2014’s Change and 2017’s Bartenderly. Helmer said the band recorded a handful of the album’s tracks in his home studio, while the rest were recorded at Flat Black Studios outside Iowa City. Engineer Luke Tweedy mixed the entire album, expertly handling the various configurations and approaches Crystal City utilized for the record.

Three-Dimensionality will sweep you up in its intense energy, precise musicianship and sheer ambition. The album is streaming online and is available on vinyl through Crystal City’s Bandcamp page. Crystal City will perform at the Mill in Iowa City on May 18 and at the 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines on July 13.

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Crystal City’s Sam Drella and Dave Helmer

The answer to one of live music’s biggest drawbacks and other scenes from Mission Creek 2019

Live music can test your patience.

Sometimes it’s the exquisite torture of those last few moments waiting for your favorite band to take the stage when the house lights dim. Sometimes it’s the monotony of waiting for a band to load its gear off stage so the next act can set up. Sometimes there’s a sound check in there too, which slows the proceedings down even more.

But this is all just an unavoidable part of the experience, right? If you take in a lot of live music, you’re going to slog through some downtime.

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A copy of Tanya Tucker’s TNT that I bought between acts at the vinyl market during the 2019 Mission Creek Festival.

Friends, I’m delighted to report Mission Creek Festival, the annual music and literature celebration held in Iowa City, may have found the optimal solution to this age-old problem: vinyl records! The festival brought in a bunch of record vendors to set up shop at Big Grove Brewery, allowing listeners to comb through crate after crate of the good stuff while waiting between acts. The lines to snag beer and food were prohibitively long most of the evening I was there, but I barely had to wait at all to score a good deal on old records. It was a brilliant diversion to keep boredom from setting in.

My wife and I spent Saturday evening in Iowa City. It was the only night of the Mission Creek Festival our schedules permitted us to attend, so we missed a bunch of great programming from the other days of the festival. But I want to highlight some of the excellent stuff we experienced and congratulate the Mission Creek crew on a successful event.

For the uninitiated, Mission Creek takes place every spring in downtown Iowa City. The festival is presented and produced by The Englert Theatre. In addition to music, the festival also features a full slate of literary events, reflecting Iowa City’s reputation as one of the world’s premier destinations for literature.

My wife and I arrived at Big Grove just in time for the start of Middle Western’s set. Middle Western includes some fabulous Iowa musicians, including David Zollo and William Elliott Whitmore. They put on a terrific show, featuring a couple Les Paul-toting guitarists and Whitmore handling most of the lead vocals while playing a Gibson SG bass. Zollo took lead vocals on a few songs as well, his bare feet sliding around on the floor beneath his keyboard.

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Middle Western plays at Big Grove Brewery in Iowa City during the 2019 Mission Creek Festival.

After Middle Western wrapped up their set, I meandered into the adjoining room for some record shopping. I scored an excellent deal on a nice copy of Tanya Tucker’s TNT album from 1978 while East Nashville songwriter Lilly Hiatt set up.

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Lilly Hiatt

Hiatt’s set turned out to be the highlight of the evening for me. I’m a big fan of her 2017 album Trinity Lane, and she and her road-tested band served up sizzling renditions of all my favorite tracks from the album, including “The Night David Bowie Died,” “Records” and the title track. The band delivered a spirited version of “Get This Right,” a track from Hiatt’s 2015 album Royal Blue with which I was unfamiliar, but I’ve been playing the song on repeat in my house all week. Hiatt also took home the award for “best guitar tone” with her gorgeous Rickenbacker plugged into a Princeton Reverb. The way her tone broke up on her louder material was just gloriously unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll.

Also of note: Between songs, Hiatt referenced a mysterious incident in Fairfield, Iowa, as one of the best nights she and her band had experienced on the road, but she didn’t elaborate further. The cryptic remark left me curious to learn more.

After Hiatt’s encore, we made our way to the iconic Englert Theatre to take in Hurray for the Riff Raff, our final show for the night. The Englert is one of those classic venues that every Iowan should visit at some point. Some true legends have graced that stage over the course of the theater’s 106-year existence.

Alynda Lee Segarra, the singer and main songwriter for Hurray for the Riff Raff, delivered an electric performance, particularly when she put down her guitar to roam the stage. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s set drew mostly from The Navigator, the band’s most recent album, which delves into political themes such as colonization and oppression. The songs demand action from the listener, while also providing hope, such as on “Pa’lante,” which Segarra told the audience translates to “move forward.”

For those keeping score at home, that’s three righteous shows (plus a sweet deal on a classic Tanya record and enough time to grab a burger for supper) in a span of less than five hours. Well played, Mission Creek. I’ll see you next year.

Have you hugged your sound engineer today? A conversation with Adam Brimeyer

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Adam Brimeyer, sound engineer extraordinaire

According to Adam Brimeyer’s best guess, he’s run sound for something like 2,000 live shows over a span of about a decade. Brimeyer has manned the board for rock legends, local heroes and just about everything in between. Most of those shows occurred at DG’s Tap House, a venerable rock club in downtown Ames, but he’s worked in outdoor and festival settings as well.

He’s also an accomplished guitarist in his own right, shredding for acts like Electric Jury and Drunk N Disorderly among others.

So if you’re looking for an expert on live sound, particularly as it pertains to Iowa rock music, Adam Brimeyer’s credentials are unimpeachable. I caught up with Adam for a beer and a chat recently at London Underground and picked his brain on live sound, his experiences in the music industry and how he wishes every band approached sound check.

Read on for a glimpse into the sound booth. Just don’t spill your beer on the board.

Origins of a sound engineer
Brimeyer grew up in Maquoketa, Iowa, where he cut his teeth on Black Sabbath and played guitar in garage bands before moving to Ames in 2002 to study physics at Iowa State University. Around then, Brimeyer joined a band that also included Dennis Haislip, owner of Alexander Recording Kompany, an Ames-based recording studio. Brimeyer picked up the basics of audio engineering from Haislip and started filling in both at DG’s and Headliner’s, a Campustown club that closed its doors years ago. DG’s offered Brimeyer a steady job in 2008, which he held until 2017. Nowadays, he does the booking and handles some of the live sound for Gas Lamp in Des Moines.

Brimeyer stressed the “wild west” nature of the live sound industry. He said there are few accepted standards or regulations in the profession, meaning young sound engineers should take every available opportunity to make connections and learn from more established engineers. Acts like Leftover Salmon and Railroad Earth would bring their own audio engineers on the road with them. When they’d play DG’s, Brimeyer said he jumped at the chance to watch them in action and ask questions.

The unpredictable nature of the live music industry also comes with some pitfalls, including a decided lack of security, he said.

“You’re only as good as the last show you ran,” he said.

To his credit, Brimeyer has run sound for some excellent shows. He points to Meat Puppets, who played at DG’s for the 2013 Maximum Ames Music Festival, as one of the highlights of his sound engineering career. The band, perhaps best known for appearing on Nirvana’s famed MTV Unplugged in New York release, has produced several decade’s worth of idiosyncratic rock that mixes alternative with roots and psychedelia. Brimeyer said he grew up listening to Meat Puppets and was delighted to learn the band members were gracious, down to Earth and easy to work with that magical night in September 2013.

“Imagine taking your heroes off the pedestal and just hanging out with them,” Brimeyer said.

But for every transcendent musical experience with someone like Meat Puppets, Brimeyer can tell just as many horror stories. He recounted the time a certain EDM artist played DG’s and required Brimeyer to show up at 9 a.m. to load in audio and lightning equipment and then stay until 5 a.m. the following morning to load everything out after the show. That might not have been so bad if the artist hadn’t pushed the volume to disastrous levels during the show. Brimeyer asked the tour manager to pass a note to the artist to get him to lower the volume, but the note went ignored.

“He starts playing and we’re running all of his stuff through DG’s board,” Brimeyer said. “And he just takes his DJ rig and cranks it all the way, and it just redlines the input channels 100 percent. Nothing we can do, and it sounds awful, just crunched.”

Brimeyer said the show wrecked every tweeter in DG’s PA system, and the artist didn’t even apologize. Instead, the artist spent the rest of the night avoiding Brimeyer at all cost.

(Author’s note: Brimeyer, without hesitation, named the EDM act in question here. We’ve decided to withhold the name out of an abundance of caution. If you ever see Adam, he’ll most likely be happy to tell you the name of the artist, along with several other choice words.)

The perfect soundcheck
The soundcheck is a critical component of any smoothly run rock show. Get it right, and everyone – from the audience to the performers to the sound engineer – enjoys the show. But, when done poorly, it can devolve into a frustrating mess, particularly if it’s happening while the audience is already seated and watching.

Brimeyer stressed the importance of punctuality and communication for a successful soundcheck. He urged bands to follow the schedule for loading in, setting up and loading out. Once a band is onstage and ready to soundcheck, he said musicians should follow the sound engineer’s instructions and resist the temptation to noodle away mindlessly on their instruments.

“You’re not there to play ‘Free Bird.’ You’re not there to jam out,” he said.

Once each musician has had a chance to check the levels on their instruments, Brimeyer recommended every band identify a single song as the go-to for soundchecks. The soundcheck song shouldn’t be something the band intends to play during their regular set, and it should be kept short, ideally less than a minute. Brimeyer said the soundcheck song simply allows the musicians to make sure everything is working and that they’re comfortable onstage. Once that’s settled, there’s no need to keep playing, no matter how righteous that new Fender Twin sounds.

And, if a musician discovers they’re not comfortable with something, soundcheck is the time to iron that out, Brimeyer said. If you don’t communicate your needs to the sound engineer, then the problem won’t get solved.

“The one pet peeve of every sound guy, and it’s probably universal, is when someone complains about not having enough of something in the monitor but they never told you once they wanted it,” Brimeyer said with an exasperated chuckle.

Bottom line, a good rock show usually needs some functional audio gear, and few people on this planet have the necessary skills to make the best use of that equipment. So here’s to Adam and sound engineers everywhere. You make rock ‘n’ roll work. And I’d like to extend a personal apology to every sound engineer I’ve ever worked with for all the times I interrupted soundcheck with my incessant guitar noodling.