There is an alt-rock Americana revolution taking over the music industry—but it’s not moving as fast as the current overproduced pop-and-rap craze, where beats are manufactured and spit out of vending machines.
The troubadours leading the charge are musicians like Margo Price, Nikki Lane, Becca Mancari, Chuck Prophet, Dead Man Winter and Aaron Lee Tasjan (ALT)—who turned Off Broadway into a backwoods, honky-tonk juke joint on August 15th.
What’s great about these musicians, especially Tasjan, is that they aren’t skewed by the straight-line mentality that you have to be defined by one sound or genre. Like ALT, many of these musical reformers are coming out of Nashville—a city that is rapidly changing the preconceived, outdated notions of outsiders who think they know all they need to know about the Nashville music scene.
Tasjan's 100-minute set felt like a VIP private concert. He opened with the appropriately titled third track off of his new album, Karma for Cheap, with “The Rest is Yet to Come.” Its heavy, Tom Petty-inflected vocals with a Warren Zevon-esque organ backing a grungy guitar was the perfect table setter for what was yet to come.
Only stopping to say, “Hi, I’m Aaron Lee Tasjan,” he went right into a funky little psychedelic trippy tune called, “It’s a Hard Life,” that sounded something like a hip Jim Croce.
Like ALT’s two previous albums, the new album has a sound all its own, which broadens his discography and adds a bit more punch to his live sets. Winding through old tunes like “Get Gone” off of 2015’s In the Blazes and “Drugs and Junk Food” off of his 2014 EP Crooked River Burning was a nice change-up before delving into “Heart Slows Down.”
photos: Cory Weaver • Click for more images
ALT’s storytelling ability is what makes him a great performer—putting the proverbial icing on the cake. At the midpoint of his set he told a story about his next song, “Memphis Rain,” a tune inspired by a show he played at Lafayette’s in Memphis a few years ago. With his cowboy hat resting on his brow and his eyes closed, he explained to the crowd that at this show a woman in tight, leopard-print pants kept yelling something about Ryan Adams at him on stage. He never understood why, but as the woman left, ALT looked up and saw rain pouring outside through a small window illuminated by a neon sign, which ultimately inspired the song. “Memphis Rain” channels the Traveling Wilburys, and ALT has somehow navigated and laid claim to a vocal threshold that sits firmly between that of Vince Gill and Tom Petty.
Next he energized the crowd with “Little Movies” and “Dime,” making you glad you got your beer during the slower songs because you needed to be free of anything that would hamper you from nodding your head, stomping your feet and clapping your hands.
Rounding out his 13-song set was “Ready to Die,” a song with a No Country for Old Men unapologetic vibe to it, which sums up everything ALT is—a musical vigilante with just a bit of badassery attached.
I'm ready to die for a worthy cause / It's cause I'm tired of living bad / One of these days I'm gonna lose my mind / Can't wait to see what that'll help me find / Been sitting on the couch with the house on fire / Gonna be one hell of a funeral pyre
It’s hard to follow a song like that. Guitarist Brian Wright was drenched in sweat; drummer Seth Ernest’s black feather boa’s feathers were barely hanging on, and the bearded bassist hiding in the shadows on stage, Tommy Scifres...well, he was just simply rock steady throughout the night.
ALT ended the set with the relentless funky, jingle-jangle tune “Success” from the album Silver Tears. Performed live, the song took on a new life and turned Off Broadway inside out. It features thick, bluesy rock riffs and allowed ALT to show off his guitar prowess (he was once lead guitarist for a late incarnation of the New York Dolls) in a five-minute dueling guitar jam with Wright.
ALT, who is quite the raconteur, peppered the set with two more great stories, which were almost as entertaining as the music. The first came late into the set and was about how Peter Frampton blocked him on Twitter. Check out the story here (yes, it's as funny and ridiculous as it sounds):
The second was a beautiful homage to Judee Sill, a 1970s American singer-songwriter who was the first artist signed to David Geffen’s first record label and sold songs to bands like the Turtles. I’m sure Judee would’ve agreed that ALT was the perfect person to shed light on her story and put it into a tune called “Judee was a Punk,” off of In the Blazes.
ALT is more than a witty, formidable musician performing Americana rock tunes across the U.S.—he’s a can’t-miss act. While visiting with fans at his merchandise booth after the set, I heard five people tell him that they drove three or four hours to see him play in St. Louis.
Enjoying ALT on CD, vinyl or on Spotify is great, but seeing him live is unlike anything he’s put down on a track. He’s playing in Nashville, Indianapolis and Tulsa in the coming weeks…road trip, anyone?