Jay N. Miller
The abundance of free music event is one of the joys of summer. And one of the best every September is the Narrows Center Music Festival. This year it’s happening on September 4 at the Gates of the City on Water Street in Fall River, right around the corner from the Narrows Center on Anawan Street. The venue is right across from Battleship Cove and easily accessible from the various highways. The fest will run from 3 to 7 pm and will also feature food trucks and refreshments from Troy City Brewery (which is located in the Narrows Center building), as well as various artists’ displays.
This year’s lineup is particularly enticing, with blues and soul princess Shemekia Copeland, whose latest album on Alligator Records just arrived two weeks ago; Scituate’s alternative-country ambassadors Ward Hayden and the Outliers; and Rhode Island rocker Mark Cutler, founder of 1983 WBCN Rumble winners The Schemers, as well as the 1990s rockers The Raindogs.
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Copeland’s 11th album, “Done Come Too Far” was released on August 19, and like her recent work, it includes not just blues and blues-rock in a contemporary vein, but lyrics that deal with topical issues. “Too Far to be Gone,’ for example, decries the seemingly slow pace of civil rights and the push in some quarters to negate them, with one piquant phrase echoing the late John Lewis’ call for “getting into good trouble.”
The tune “Pink Turns to Red” is a stunning rocker that depicts school shootings on a visceral level. Later in the album, “Done Come Too Far” is an acoustic re-worked version of “Too Far to be Done” with different lyrics focused on the history of Black Americans. And “The Dolls Are Sleeping” is a harrowing account of abuse. It’s no wonder Copeland also includes “Dumb It Down,” an indictment of a music industry that tries mightily to avoid music that makes people think.
But Copeland also included some lighter fare, such as the Cajun romp “Fried Catfish and Bibles,” the soulful torch song “Why Why Why?”, the gospel-inflected potboiler from Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Barefoot in Heaven,” and the comic “Fell in Love with a Honky,” delivered as a rowdy two-step that reflects her love of country music. Guests on the album include guitarists Sonny Landreth and Cedric Burnside.
“I kind of looked at this project as a continuation of the last two albums I did,” said Copeland, on a recent tour break. “’America’s Child’ (2018) and ‘Uncivil War’ (2020) were both similar, in attempting to talk about some of these things. I had done ‘Uncivil War’ at the end of 2019, and then all kinds of hell broke loose in 2020, and we kept writing. So, it ended up being a trilogy. These records do deal with a lot of difficult issues, but they are also very hopeful too, and that’s what we all need – hope. I firmly believe if we can’t be honest about these issues then we can never move past them.”
Copeland said the two versions of the title cut were deliberate decisions.
“We ended up with a rock version and an acoustic blues version, but the lyrics are different, telling the story from different perspectives,” she said. “I wanted to be mindful of all the different ways we can look at these things. Like ‘The Talk’ is something that every Black parent knows about, but how many white parents really understand?”
On the lighter side, Copeland is married to a white man, and if “Fell in Love with a Honky” isn’t exactly autobiographical, it is a marvelously funny jump back to her country roots. (Copeland was one of the female roots stars showcased by Jason Isbell last year in his eight-night stand at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium.) Lines like “I got a man who’s tall, dark and hunky, And every day, he gets a little more funky…” make the tune irresistible to all kinds of music fans.
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“That song was meant to be funny,” Copeland said with a laugh. “We wanted to make people laugh. I also wanted to give it a little bit more country feel than I usually show. I think that’s the first song where I’ve really gone full-country and it felt great.”
In that general area, the Texas iconoclast Hubbard is an unexpected source for a Copeland tune.
“Oh, I really like Ray Wylie Hubbard, and I love the idea behind that song, ‘Barefoot in Heaven’,” said Copeland.
Fans know a long-standing Copeland tradition is that every album includes one of her late father’s tunes, and here it is Johnny ‘Clyde’ Copeland’s sizzling live song, “Nobody But You.” It is yet more proof that not only was her dad a hellacious guitarist and vocalist (and big Boston-area favorite), he was a pretty darned good songwriter.
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“With all this stuff we’re all going through, you always have to end up with love,” said Copeland. “That’s true on the individual level and beyond.”
The start of this whole trilogy of topical themed albums began with the birth of Copeland’s son, Johnny, now 5, and her concern about the world he’d be growing up in. Johnny started kindergarten a couple weeks ago and fans continue to seek out Copeland to tell her they appreciate her music and its urgency in these times. And of course that powerhouse voice makes all those songs resonate even more, so Copeland’s headlining stint should make the Narrows Music Festival an unforgettable treat.
Copeland is also performing at City Winery in Boston on Saturday, Sept. 10.
Scituate’s Ward Hayden & The Outliers
Speaking of topical things, hopefully it won’t be too much longer before we can avoid having to note that Scituate songsmith Hayden and the Outliers are the band formerly known as Girls, Guns and Glory. That tongue-in-cheek goof on cowboys became misinterpreted and a burden for the band in some places, so they became The Outliers. They are surely out beyond normal country music realms, but happily in the tradition of outlaw country-rockers (like, say, Ray Wylie Hubbard), and Hayden has the sweetest vocal warble this side of Dwight Yoakam.
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The Narrows Center has always been a big booster of the band, and for several years hosted its January show where they’d perform a night of all Hank Williams Sr. music. Hayden and the Outliers, still riding high off the glittering reviews of their new album, “Free Country,” just headlined the Plymouth Waterfront Festival last weekend. But local fans might be well advised to catch them this weekend, or at their remaining area gigs before they spend October touring Europe. (Ward Hayden and the Outliers also perform at Askew (formerly The Call) in Providence on Sept. 23, and outdoor at The Monaplex in North Andover on Sept. 24.) The band’s European jaunt begins with 11 dates in Spain, so we may be trying to stow away on that trip.
Mark Cutler and songwriting
Rhode Island Musicians Hall of Fame member Mark Cutler has led The Schemers, The Raindogs and The Dino Club, all of which were built around his incisive songwriting. These days Cutler leads the sextet Men of Great Courage, a mainly acoustic group of roots-rockers who play throughout New England, and call Nick-A–Nee’s in Providence their home base. Cutler’s style has been likened to that of Tom Petty, or perhaps Bob Dylan-with-a-dash of The Velvet Underground’s insouciance. In later years his tunes have depicted the struggles and triumphs of working class Americans, with empathy and raw emotion.
Aside from his performing career, Cutler has been a founding pillar of The Same Thing Project, which tries to support and inspire disadvantaged adults through songwriting workshops. Simply put, Cutler helps a group of a dozen or more people discuss and brainstorm their way to write a song, and the results can be cathartic and empowering in many ways. The big news last week was that The Same Thing Project has launched a Community Songwriting for Mental Health College Tour, where the goal is to bring that “emotional alchemy” (as music writer Bill Flanagan called it) to college kids. The initial plan is to focus on colleges in southern New England, but there is nationwide interest, so the future is unlimited. Meanwhile, Cutler and his band always create compelling contemporary rootsy rock in their performances.
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Van Morrison & more weekend gigs
Friday has some cool options, with The Jake Ash Band at The Jetty, Munk Duane rocking the Wollaston Golf Club, Irish traditional trio The Alt at The Spire Center, U2-tribute The Joshua Tree at Soundcheck Studios, and a benefit youth bands at The C-Note in Hull. Saturday finds Van Morrison at Leader Bank Pavilion, while Jake Ash band hits Cabby Shack in Plymouth, Munk Duane leads Tenderheds into the Lansdowne Pub, 14-time Grammy winning bluegrass legend Dan Tyminski is at The Spire Center, Booty Vortex discos away the night at Soundcheck Studios. And take note: The South Shore’s homegrown country-rockin Dalton & the Sheriffs headline the new MGM Music Hall, and if you’ve seen the ticket prices at that venue, you know $37 for Dalton & Co. is a super bargain.
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