Sound Advice: : Minus Story, Tracy Grammer and Violent Femmes

Upcoming concert previews of note

Jul 5, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Minus Story

Minus Story with Old Cranes

Thursday · Southgate House (Parlour)

A lot of bands can claim long relationships stretching back to teenage band aspirations, but Minus Story's seeds go back to a Boonville, Mo., kindergarten class where guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Jordan Geiger and bassist Brian Phillips became friends after discovering their mutual dinosaur joneses. As childhood marched on, the duo met drummer Nick Christus via video games and guitarist Andy Byers through Little League and, when music supplanted their other interests, a band was formed.

The quartet grew up and relocated to Lawrence, Kan., where they expanded with kindred spirit Mark Sanders, who added his guitar expertise to the mix. Minus Story was complete.

In 2001, Minus Story self-released their debut Belle Ame and indie-d out their sophomore album, Moebius Syndrome, the same year. It was during this naive time that Minus Story developed a studio technique they referred to as the "wall of crap" sound, which essentially involved covering up their relative lack of recording sophistication and decent equipment with an obsessive layering of eccentric and yet oddly appropriate sounds as a foundation for their distinct and experimental playing style.

Earlier this year, Minus Story teed up the EP Make the Dead Come and then followed it two weeks ago with My Ion Truss, recorded with renowned knobber John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, Polyphonic Spree) in their first collaboration with an actual producer. Without the constraints of having to concern themselves with the technical aspect of the sound (wall of crappy as it might have been), Minus Story were able to fashion songs that were expansive and anthemic, bringing to mind everything from Brian Eno and Roxy Music to Queen and Pearl Jam as filtered through a defiantly artsy Midwestern sensibility. In the live arena, Minus Story are even more epic, cacophonous, compelling, strange and wonderful. (Brian Baker)

Tracy Grammer

Sunday · Taft Museum of Art (2:30 p.m. start)

Born in Florida and raised in California, Renaissance woman Tracy Grammer comes by her musical gifts naturally, as her grandmothers and parents were fluent on keyboards, accordion and guitar (she even had a cousin who played with Lawrence Welk).

Grammer learned harmony singing as a child from her guitarist father, which led to choral and violin lessons at age 9 and positions with regional and school orchestras until she began classes at UC-Berkeley nearly a decade later. Grammer shunned musical pursuits in college, earning a degree in English lit and becoming both an administrator and graphic designer for the university.

During a semester break, Grammer's father introduced her to former New Christy Minstrels member Curtis Coleman, who convinced her to join him on stage for a handful of bar/coffeehouse gigs. The performances reignited Grammer's musical passion, inspiring her to revisit the violin and learn guitar. In the mid-'90s, Grammer co-founded a Pop band called Juicy and recognized a studio affinity while recording their only demo. She relocated to Portland, Ore., and in early 1996, she saw Folk singer/songwriter Dave Carter at a local songwriter's showcase and was instantly mesmerized by his songs and presentation.

They met after that show and within weeks had assembled a band and were working up arrangements of Carter's songs. The duo played locally for over a year before embarking on their first tour in late 1997; the following year saw the release of their first album, When I Go, recorded in Grammer's kitchen. The album was a sensation within the Folk community, leading to the duo's signing to Signature Sounds and their sophomore release, Tanglewood Tree, which became the No. 1 most played album on Folk radio in 2000. The following year, Carter and Grammer released Drum Hat Buddha, signaling a shift in vocal priorities as Grammer took the lead on at least half of the album's tracks. It was eventually revealed that Carter intended for Grammer to ultimately sing the lead on all of their songs.

In early 2002, Carter and Grammer did double duty as opening act and band members for Joan Baez, who covered some of Carter's songs in her set, which further cemented their reputations. In the midst of their summer 2002 tour, Carter went out for a run prior to their Massachusetts date and returned to their hotel complaining of chest pains. Before any assistance could be administered, Carter suffered a massive heart attack and died in Grammer's arms.

Rather than withdraw in the face of Carter's tragic passing, Grammer gathered her strength and honored their bookings as a solo artist. In 2005, she released her debut solo album, Flower of Avalon, containing nine Carter compositions, following in 2006 with Seven Is the Number, the last album that Carter and Grammer had recorded together. Grammer is currently at work on a seven-song EP tentatively slated for late next month that will naturally feature a couple of Dave Carter songs as a continuing tribute to the brilliant songwriter who loomed so large in her career. (BB)

Violent Femmes

Tuesday · Coney Island's Moonlight Gardens

I've written a lot about "underappreciated" artists this week (see the reviews of new CDs by Bad Brains and Sinead O'Connor). The Violent Femmes, a should-be-legendary "Folk Punk" trio from Wisconsin, would certainly fall into that category. The old proclamations that everyone who saw The Sex Pistols or Velvet Underground or The Ramones in their early years started a band should also extend to the Femmes.

If your formative pre-teen and teen years were in the '80s and you strove to find music outside of the norm — i.e. "College Rock" — the Violent Femmes' first few albums are (or at least were at one time) likely in your record collection. Yet it often feels like the Femmes are forgotten about in the grand pantheon of Rock history. But if I ran the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they'd be first-ballot entries without question.

Part of the Femmes' appeal to young, aspiring musicians and songwriters was their music's deceptively simple quality. New guitarists could figure out the chords to "Add It Up" or "Blister in the Sun" as easily as they could "Smoke on the Water" or "Louie Louie." But if you listen deeper to the music, there's a peripheral complexity that's totally engrossing. Bassist Brian Ritchie is one of the best Rock bassists of all time, bringing a Jazz-like sensibility to his finger-stretching, constantly wandering bass lines. Drummer Victor DeLorenzo —- he of the soulful, soft touch — used the sparsest of trap kits to create perfectly suited backbeats for singer/songwriter Gordon Gano's intense songs, shuffling with brushes or banging a crisp snare, depending on the mood of the composition.

And then there's Gano's distinctive vocals, which define "nasally" yet somehow manage to convey emotion like a great '60s Soul singer. The band's well-known origins as street musicians seemed to inform their wooden fervor and grace — their tight interplay makes them appear to be a three-headed hydra when they play together, not just a collection of three fantastic musicians.

The Femmes were never restricted by any genre boundaries, which also adds to their long-lasting appeal. They could improv with the best of them, and they deconstructed various forms of Roots music and made them their own (from Gospel to, most obviously, Folk music) while retaining a Punk fire through it all.

The Femmes might be in the twilight of their career, but they're still able to play "legit" gigs and not the church festival circuit (they still tour constantly and globally). In concert, despite some auxiliary musicians to fill up the space, they appear to have not aged a bit. Unlike most bands still kicking a quarter century after their first album, seeing the Femmes play live now still gives you the same sense of fire, freedom and free expression that they pimped so masterfully in the early '80s. (Mike Breen)