Friday, June 30, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1022: Tami Neilson

As promised, here is the review of the new Tami Neilson album. Below that, you’ll find a review of the show she played at Distrikt earlier this week.

Disc 1022 is…Don’t Be Afraid
Artist: Tami Neilson

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? Sort of an old-timey throwback cover from back when they printed a bunch of the songs on the cover. Also an art photo that I am calling “Tami’s Head, in Three Treatments.”

How I Came To Know It: I had previously purchased Tami’s 2014 album “Dynamite!” and liked it. When I bought tickets for her live show earlier this year, I figured it made sense to get her new album as well, since concerts are way more enjoyable when you already know the material.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have the two Tami Neilson albums. “Don’t Be Afraid” is the lesser of the two. Sorry, Tami – but you’re still great!

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

Tami Neilson has come a long way since her time in the musical Neilson family, carving out a career with a big voice and an ebullient personality that comes across loud and clear even on studio tracks.

Neilson’s voice is the star of this record, and she tackles multiple styles with equal grace. She can croon a fifties-style country ballad like Patsy Cline, or belt out a sixties-style soul track with the brass and attitude of Shirley Bassey without missing a beat. Is she as good as Cline or Bassey? Not quite, but it is close enough to put herself in the conversation, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

“Don’t Be Afraid” is less country and more soul than her previous record, but shifts styles often. These changes of pace aren’t disruptive, and keep your ear interested. Even on “Laugh Laugh Laugh” where she does some kind of flapper vaudeville number, she throws herself into it with such gusto you forgive the self-indulgence of it all.

Neilson is the mother of two children, and this album features a couple of songs that I assume are about her kids (both the title track and “Loco Mama”). Neither track connected with me emotionally, maybe because I don’t have kids myself.

Neilson’s father also passed away recently, and these themes resonate through the album as well. “The First Man” is heartfelt enough, but I found it slathered the emotion on a bit thick to the point of being slightly uncomfortable. Not so, “Lonely” a song found on father Ron’s hard-drive after his death and finished by Tami and her brother Jay. This song is easily the standout on this record, with an old-time country amble, punctuated by reverb, steel guitar and some of Neilson’s strongest vocals. You can see her in a smoky lounge singing this song into one of those big steel microphones that looks like the front grill of a forties Cadillac.

Making it even better are guest vocals from New Zealand singer-songwriter Marlon Williams. Williams is a folk treasure and if we see less of Tami Neilson since she moved to New Zealand, we are the richer for it through her association with Williams.

The standout on the other side of the ledger is “Holy Moses” a cross between an R&B love anthem and a church revival. Religious imagery (and straight up devotionals) are a big part of Neilson’s repertoire, and “Holy Moses” is a fine entry in the canon. Less so, “Bury My Body” which has great vocals but lacks the crossover charm and ends up feeling just a bit too preachy.

Also, while the songs are consistently strong on “Don’t Be Afraid”, the lyrics are uneven in quality. “Lonely Tears” is supposed to be a throwback to old crooners of yesteryear, but with lines like…

“Only Tears – take a grain of salt or two
Add a little water you got tears”

…it just feels dated. Yes, salt and water make tears, but it is not that interesting as a metaphor and the song would benefit from a bit less literalism.

My last review was the Byrds, which sought to meld country and rock into something new. “Don’t Be Afraid” doesn’t mesh two styles, so much as present them in their original forms, side by side, for you to enjoy.

For the most part I did enjoy it, but if I’m being honest when I want to hear Tami croon traditional country, I’m more likely to put on “Dynamite!” and while her soul side is inspiring vocally, musically I’m more likely to default to Sharon Jones. With limited space on the CD shelves, I must therefore reluctantly part with “Don’t Be Afraid” and let it go to a home where it will get the airplay it deserves.

Best tracks: Holy Moses, Lonely,

The Concert: June 27, 2017 at Distrikt Nightclub, Victoria

I barely made it to this show – I had forgotten it was even happening. I was sitting around in an old Times Colonist 10K t-shirt eating a burrito when my buddy Casey called to ask when I’d be arriving. Tonight. In an hour.

I dusted myself off, changed into my best pair of red jeans (yes, I have more than one pair) threw on a pair of Fluevogs and a band shirt and got down to the show.

I’m glad I did, because Neilson did not disappoint. The show started 20 minutes late, but at a nightclub, this is better than usual. When she did take the stage, Neilson immediately commended your attention. Bright, brash and decked out in sparkly pink, she has a natural banter with the crowd, no doubt honed through her lifelong relationship with it (Neilson began performing at the age of 13).

Neilsons vocals on her albums are great, but you don’t get a true appreciation of her power until it is blowing your hair back from a distance of twenty feet. I particularly like that she doesn’t resort to runs, relying on her steady power and thick, rich tone to make the song lift you on its own merits, and not some goofy vocal gymnastics.

I like Neilson best when she is belting out old school country or crooning a lounge tune. Maybe it was the pressure of being part of Jazz Fest (Neilson is not jazz) but the set-list was heavy on the R&B/Soul side of her repertoire, with only a few country moments sprinkled here and there.

She also played a lot more covers than I would have wanted. I like to hear an artist perform mostly their own material, and Neilson ranged through a lot of other content, obviously chosen from a heartfelt love for those that have come before and helped pave the road for her. That said, her cover of Mahalia Jackson’s “Lord Don’t Move the Mountain” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” were both amazing, so I’m glad they were part of the experience.

Neilson played two sets and almost two full hours of music, and I felt like I got my money’s worth. Her banter was solid, although I would have liked to hear a little bit less about her kids, and maybe a little less about the Lord above as well but these were minor quibbles. For the most part, her talk led naturally into each song, giving them context without over-explaining what we were about to hear (take note of that last item, open mic performers: less is more).

In terms of her backing band, the first song had them way too high in the mix, but the sound guy fixed it almost immediately, and they did a solid job of accompanying her from there. Duets where Marlon Williams would ordinarily have sung weren’t quite the same with the bass player singing along (he was not a natural vocalist) but so what – we were all there to hear Tami belt it out anyway. The guitar player (her brother Jay) was just OK, and was a bit exposed on solos, but when he stayed in the groove of the music he got the job done.

The crowd was an odd mix. Mostly older, it felt like a lot of them were Jazz Fest dilettantes  who were just taking in whatever the festival made available, with a few diehard fans clearly there for Tami as well. Those latter folks did a lot of positive heckling, by which I mean the message was good (“you tell ‘em, Tami!”) but the timing of their shouts was disruptive at times.

The dance floor, which at Distrikt is sunken in front of the stage, was the best vibe in the house. Dancers did their thing, dancing like no one was watching but still looking good. An older guy with grey hair had perfect rhythm, and a woman in a blue pant-dress grooved with a smile that was genuine and heartfelt. Closer to me, a couple alternated from swing to tango, as the music demanded. It all made me feel good to be alive.

Less exciting was the pushy nature of the crowd jockeying for good seats. Casey and I got there early and had one of the better spots, and there were a series of people trying to move in on it after the fact. “Can you move your table a little to the left?” “Can I leave my wine hear while I go dance?” “Can I stand beside you?” Argh. My answers to these questions were “Sure,” “Fill your boots” and “buddy, that’s just a little too close” respectively.

Overall, I would definitely see Neilson again. She is a born performer who clearly puts full effort into every show. She also has an amazing voice, and just being in the room, you will feel your spirits lifted when she hits those pure and powerful notes.

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