Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stole My Heart, John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons Build a Bigger Home

"I've had the chance to say a lot of cool things into the microphone over the past couple of weeks but nothing as cool as what I'm about to say," John Velghe stated, smiling and looking at the back of the house mid-set Saturday night.  Just returned from the South by Southwest (SXSW) Austin music conference, where he played with his old friend Alejandro Escovedo in a show with guests like Lenny Kaye and Garland Jeffreys and a surprise appearance by Peter Buck and Mike Mills, Velghe knew how much weight he was putting on whatever came next.

"I'd like Abigail Henderson and Chris Meck to come up," he said, and the crowd at the Record Bar broke into applause, hoots and hollers. Henderson and Meck are the first couple of the largest community of interconnected musicians I've ever seen in Kansas City. Their organization, the Midwest Music Foundation, also just hosted its third annual MidCoast Takeover--this year featuring 32 of Kansas City's finest performing for two straight days at Austin's Shangri-La. The buzz from those shows has reverberated on many levels (32 band stories for starters), and they received a sizeable mention (and picture) in USA Today.

But this moment was about the stand-out performance on John Velghe's debut solo EP released last year, his duet with Henderson on a cover of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog."  Everyone on earth plays that song for the broiling assault it wants to be, but Henderson and Velghe hold back.  Saturday night, as on the record, they luxuriated in the sensuous simmer of the thing, Meck providing an equally controlled guitar part, shimmering stardust, hinting at a crown nebula.

Eventually, Velghe's guitarist Mike Alexander [I hope a relation] began to push the song toward a rock crescendo, and everyone--Henderson and Velghe included--performed the final refrains with building bravado. Almost as soon as the song began to sound like the Stooges (or Jett or Escovedo), it came to an end.  This was the Henderson/Velghe version, and nothing outshines that thing they can do. [I hear Escovedo did Henderson's part at SXSW, and I'm sure it was great, but it wasn't that.]

To say Saturday night's show was, first and foremost, heralding the first CD by John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons (Don't Let Me Stay) is also to say the show was about mixing things up.  After all, the Prodigal Sons ("and daughters" as Velghe pointed out, since two different women performed with the band live, and three play on the album) features guitars from the punk band Hipshot Killers propelled by the drums that give (first) name to Mike Dillon's self-described "jazz, funk, rock, crunk" Go-Go Jungle, Mr. GoGo Ray.  The Sons' three horns come from funky hip hop big-band Hearts of Darkness, reggae's New Riddim and the night's opener, Diverse, a jazz band born out of Bobby Watson's UMKC program and intent on reinvigorating the sound of Kansas City. Lawrence-raised singer-songwriter, Kirsten Paludan joined Velghe on the mic numerous times, as she does on the album, and cello and violin players came from, respectively, the UMKC conservatory and Missouri Western. This intersection between traditional and avant garde jazz, funk, punk, reggae, and classical all merge seamlessly in Velghe's music.

In some ways, that story's in the artists he covers.  That night, Velghe and family covered the Jam at that band's greatest pop moment, The Gift, with the song "Town Called Malice"; and they covered the Replacements at that band's greatest pop moment, Pleased to Meet Me, with the song that serves as the apex of that moment, "I Can't Hardly Wait," and they covered Bruce Springsteen with a song that could also be given the same distinction, "Hungry Heart."  Velghe introduced that song, dedicating it to the Ramones (for whom Springsteen wrote it), underscoring the pop impulse at the heart of most rock revolutions. The pop impulse is an effort to open the door to those who are shut out.  Some punks may not remember why we were drawn to that music in the first place, but Paul Weller, Paul Westerberg and that guy from Jersey do. The rock and roll circus canvas was held open for them by the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Smokey Robinson and John Lennon--the biggest tent artists imaginable.

Velghe descends from that line, particularly the way John Lennon could take all the enormity and raw power of the rock and roll that came before him and deliver it in a lullaby. Both that scope of vision and that intimacy, after all, are the elements that most obviously connect Lennon to Velghe's mentor Alejandro Escovedo in part by way of Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople (so, then, yes, David Bowie, too).  Those same elements tie Lennon to Alex Chilton and both of them to the Clash and Velghe's early and apparent inspiration, Paul Westerberg and the Replacements.

You can hear all those folks in Velghe's CD (which I had to, I mean needed to) buy at the show.  But you can't really isolate them.  Suffice it to say, "I Can't Hardly Wait"--with all of its punching horn urgency and almost crippling vulnerability--would fit beautifully on this record.  For me, though, the song that sums up where this line can go is maybe the record's quietest moment, "Iron Skin." That one is a lullaby, a dark and seemingly ancient lullaby, all the more beautiful for the way it fingers despair.

From beginning to end, Don't Let Me Stay, is a warm and brilliant record.  It starts off diffidently flirting with the risk of relationships, having lived long enough to know things tend to end badly.  By mid-record, it's finding comfort in the fact of hope on the country-flavored "Heaven's Waitress" and the ability to dream on the exuberant rocker "Austin (You Sorta Stole My Heart)."  After the climactic paranoia of "Owe My Soul" and the wounded triumph of "Mumbling Town" (a riot act aimed at indirectness), the last three songs sing of solidarity in the face of loss. The characters in these songs have pieces gone forever, but as this closes, they've found ways to work with the contradictions and the pain.  Ghosts, too, are part of this community, a rock and roll town pitted against malice.

I write a lot about community, so much so that I worry about using the word for fear of being cliched.  I'm not sure I've ever written the names Abigail Henderson and Chris Meck without attaching that concept, which is one reason they are heroes of mine, so much so I grow self conscious in their presence.  As Velghe's record recognizes from verse one, part of life is that we let each other down. Whatever approximates redemption lies in how we fight forward together anyway. John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons, in their live show and on record, embody that vision as only the finest groups can.

Postscript:  One of the many highlights of the show that can't go unmentioned came as an opening act.  Hermon Mehari's trumpet adds plaintive, searching touches to many of Velghe's songs when he plays his role of Prodigal Son (particularly on "The Occupier," "Assume the Ground," and "Mumbling Town"), but his band Diverse Trio delivered an exciting opening set.  Both bassist Ben Leifer and drummer Ryan Lee maintain the urgency of each moment while making sure the band swings.  Mehari, meanwhile, manages to eloquently state beautiful melodies while playing with a sense of boundaries as daring as any free jazz.  That set closed with Kirsten Paludan and John Velghe coming out for one song before Hearts of Darkness frontman Les Izmore and drummer Brad Williams (Ryan Lee went to keyboards) managed to turn the house out with anthemic KC hip hop. Expect a Diverse blog in the not-too-distant future. I needed to buy that CD, too!

The Prodigal Sons and Daughters, once again (cause a couple only got indirect mention and everyone deserves it)--

John Velghe, singing with a guitar
Mike Alexander, lead guitar
Chris Wagner, bass
GoGo Ray, drums
Hermon Mehari, trumpet
Sam Hughes, saxophone
Mike Walker, trombone
Kirsten Paludan, vocals
James Mitchell, cello
Katie Benyo, violin (live)
Whitney Williamson, violin (on record)
Catherine Root, violin (on record)