It's a little too fitting that B-Sides gets a hold of the Bowerbirds as the band was driving around in the dark, looking for a campsite in western Ohio. The Raleigh, North Carolina, trio of Phil Moore, Beth Tacular and Mark Paulson plays small, shivering acoustic symphonies to the dark heart of nature — and to the darker heart of those who would fiddle about as the world burns. With sighing accordion, barely tuned gut-string guitars, the steady thunk of a bass drum and the creaky intimacy of an old Airstream trailer (Moore and Tacular make their home in one), the band's Burly Time debut Hymns for a Dark Horse has a Basement Tapes soul and a not-so-freaky folk air of mystery and wonder. Songwriter Phil Moore lit the way through the band's past and present.
B-Sides: Are you all still living in that trailer?
Phil Moore: We live in an Airstream currently. We're trying to change that as fast as possible.
But it makes for such good copy.
It's really not that romantic. It's a little cramped, is all.
You've had reviews in Spin, Pitchfork and every blog on the planet. Does all this attention surprise you?
Definitely. We're quieter than [Moore's previous band] Ticonderoga ever was. We don't really have a drummer. And I thought that the songs came from places that weren't meant for much of an audience, at first especially.
Did you have any role models for this album?
Other recordings? Gosh. With old bands, the process was track by track, with some things live, but I've always liked the romantic notion of recording a bunch of people playing acoustic instruments in a room together, rather than piece by piece, and making a collage.
When it's just the three of you, and you can do anything you want with a recording, is there a temptation to keep building and adding?
That temptation was present in my old band. This band is a reaction to that, to simplify in every way. In Ticonderoga we'd layer all kinds of sounds — piano plucks, drums — things that you can't recreate live. I really enjoy that. But I've gotten a little sick of trying to make that work. I'm just trying to focus on basic elements and still have the music be interesting.
So the next record will be a reaction to this?
No. I feel like I hit upon something that I didn't realize was such a part of me. That acoustic-instrument sound and simple melodies and voice. I didn't realize that I was trying to do that all along. I always go back to Simon and Garfunkel and early Bob Dylan. I've cycled back into that every year, for months at a time, ever since I was young. But I've always been in rock bands where I felt I couldn't really go back to that. — Roy Kasten
8 p.m. Saturday, November 10. The Billiken Club, 20 North Grand Boulevard. Free. 314-977-2020.
A Case of Blue(s)
From a truck stop in western Pennsylvania, Peter Case runs down the route he's traveling: "[I'm] just about to jump on Highway 81, down to Chattanooga, switch to 40 then jump on 75 and then I'll be in Knoxville in about eleven or twelve hours." Case knows the roads. He's been on them since he was a kid — hitching, bumming, hustling, stealing, busking and writing some of the finest songs in the American vernacular style. Don't remind him of the Nerves or the Plimsouls, as those bands were a lifetime ago (even though he reunited the latter just last year). His solo work is just as catchy, just as rocking and even wiser. His latest CD, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, is in name an homage to the blues great; in its acoustic soul and substance, it's a timeless rotogravure of a man absolutely locked into his folk blues muse. Case hopped back on the highway and let B-Sides know where he's heading.
B-Sides: What was your connection to Sleepy John Estes?
Peter Case: I lived on the street in San Francisco, when I was a street musician as a teenager. I had one album: Sleepy John Estes' Broke and Hungry on Delmark. I carried it around with me just in case I ran into someone with a record player. He was a great lyricist and a really soulful singer.
Would you disagree with me if I called this an elemental record?
No. I'm not sure what you mean. It's a pure folk record, as opposed to a pretend folk record, which you hear a lot of these days.
What's the difference?
The difference is they're all sweetened up! You know, the first Joan Baez record, the first Bob Dylan records, Bert Jansch's first record, even Donovan. They weren't demos. They were full performances. But maybe I should ask you what you mean by elemental.
Getting down to the elements: storytelling, truths, even the natural and moral elements.
I haven't looked at it that way. I look at what I do as trying to capture vivid pictures of life. I use American roots music elements to get that across. But they're pictures of life now. A lot of the stories are about people who are hard hit, and a lot of them are about the road. I haven't written much about the road. I thought Jackson Browne had pretty much drained the subject, you know, Bob Seger and those guys. But the way I go out on the road is so much less insulated than those versions. People used to say, "Troubadours traveled around and sang the news." But then we had news so we didn't need them anymore. But now we don't have the news again, so maybe there's a job for me still.
Do you still teach songwriting?
Yeah, I do workshops three or four times a year in Los Angeles, and sometimes on the road.
I wouldn't say this to your students, but don't you think that's kind of impossible?
I do think it's impossible. I only have people in my class who can already write songs. I'm not teaching them how to write songs. The workshops help people get over their problems. If they don't have a feeling for it, you can't teach it.
What's the biggest problem?
It's more important how you say it than what you say. You have to pay attention to the sound of the words. People get very focused on trying to get a sentiment across. But everyone in the world's got a story. A songwriter needs to know how to tell a story. — Roy Kasten
8 p.m. Friday, November 9. The Focal Point, 2720 Sutton Avenue. $15. 314-781-4200.
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