The Lil Smokies take on SF & burn down the house

The Lil SmokiesBy Benjamin Wallen //

The Lil Smokies with Michigan Rattlers //
Slim’s – San Francisco
April 19th, 2019 //

With spring in the air, Montana progressive-bluegrass outfit The Lil Smokies rolled into Slim’s on a Friday night and graced the Bay Area with some of their sweet sounds.

The intimate venue allowed for a more personal experience as the crowd fed off the energy of the LA-based Michigan Rattlers, who opened the show with their meticulous playing and sent the audience into a frenzy with their heavy-hearted folk rock.

The Lil Smokies, meanwhile, gave us quite a treat to close their headlining set, performing a cover of The Beatles’ 1966 single “Paperback Writer”, the last new song to be featured on the legendary band’s final tour. Nevertheless, the five-piece crushed as it always does and we’re sure glad we were there to witness it. If you weren’t unfortunately, don’t miss either of these acts the next time they visit your town!

The Mother Hips celebrate a Merry ‘Hipmas’ with their hometown fans at Great American Music Hall

The Mother HipsBy Benjamin Wallen //

The Mother Hips with Paula Frazer and Tarnation //
Great American Music Hall – San Francisco
December 14th, 2018 //

SF rockers The Mother Hips were back at the Great American Music Hall last Friday for their annual holiday shows, commonly dubbed “Hipmas” by the three-piece band. Quite fittingly, the venue was decked out in Christmas decorations and the stage was lit by Hunter Pipes.

Paula Frazer and Tarnation got things started, easing us into the night before The Hips took the stage. The SF-based singer-songwriter and her backing band played music that was both deep and soothing, serving as a perfect warm-up to the rock ‘n’ roll that soon awaited.

For The Mother Hips, this performance was specifically dubbed as an “Ultimate Setlist” show where fans could submit their dream setlist and they would choose one to play. Although the contest’s winner, Dave Berman, is actually currently living in Thailand, the group’s Bay Area fans still got to enjoy his amazing song selections.

The Mother Hips

Having been at it for more than 25 years now, the Hips are showing no signs of slowing down, and at GAMH, they really brought the heat and tore it up for two full sets, plus an encore.

One year, I hope to make it to one of their “Hipnic” getaways in Big Sur. As a fan at the show told me, “It’s the best band in one of the most amazing places on Earth.”

After a very Merry “Hipmas” in SF, we’ll take their word for it.

Set 1: Can’t Sleep > Sleep Eyes > At All, Two > Whiskey River > Blues, Are You Free? > Freed From a Prison, Old Man From the Mountain > Mountain Time > Time-Sick > Seaward Son > Of a Grizzly Bear, Honeydew > Do It on the Strings

Set 2: Emotional Gold > Gold Plated, Stoned Up the > Potrero Road, The Cosmo > Not So Independent, Best > Friend of the Devil > In Town, Precious O > Put Us All Together, Third Floor > Stories We Could Tell

Encore: Mona Lisa and the Last > Superwinner

Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band emanate plenty of positivity during their two-night run at The Fillmore

Josh Ritter & The Royal City BandBy Benjamin Wallen //

Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band with The Dustbowl Revival //
The Fillmore – San Francisco
January 20th, 2018 //

SF welcomed Josh Ritter for a two-night run at The Fillmore last week. While Friday’s show featured Bay Area singer-songwriter Nicki Bluhm as opening support, the next evening saw one of Los Angeles’ finest, The Dustbowl Revival, showcase their vintage Americana sound.

Ritter & The Royal City Band subsequently hit the stage and flashed numerous smiles as they emanated a positive energy across the room. With this gig marking my first time seeing Ritter perform with his backing band, it proved to be a fun-filled night with a range of genres being blended together onstage. If you missed Ritter and his cohorts on this occasion, make sure to catch them the next time they come to town.

Chris Robinson delivers chills at The Chapel

Chris RobinsonBy Benjamin Wallen //

Chris Robinson with Mapache //
The Chapel – San Francisco
June 21st, 2017 //

It was about eight years ago when a girl messaged me on an online dating website.

“Hey, I don’t think we’d be a good match, but I got an extra ticket to the Chris Robinson Brotherhood show in Oakland,” she wrote. “I see you like the same kind of music. Do you want to go with me?”

“Why not?” I thought. I had no idea who Chris Robinson was, and I said so.

“Never heard of him, but why not?” I replied. She informed me that he was a member of The Black Crowes.

I thought to myself, “Wait, a country band?” So, I did a quick Google search.

I had always thought that Chris Robinson Brotherhood were a country band, but boy, was I wrong. Instead, I came to find that they were an amazing rock band and quickly fell in love with their music. I wrote back to the girl, “Hell yeah! Let’s do this!”

Chris Robinson

That night, I fell in love even more with Chris Robinson as he blazed through a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. It was one of the most memorable nights. Not only was it an amazing show, but I also met a new friend and fell in love with a whole new band.

Well, years have past and I was able to see Chris Robinson Brotherhood on a couple of other occasions, including at High Sierra Music Festival and again at The Chapel last Wednesday for a solo acoustic performance — something that I imagined would be incredible and absolutely proved to be.

Robinson’s voice gives me chills and seeing him at a venue as intimate as The Chapel was truly amazing. You always worry about solo acoustic shows being hard for the audience to keep its attention at or that it doesn’t feel quite as powerful as when a band performs live.

Well, I can say that Robinson is even better as a solo acoustic act. The sound at the first of his two SF shows was impeccable, and the vibe was all smiles. Even in a near-silent room, you could feel it.

From start to finish, it was an amazing night. Mapache, an acoustic duo from Los Angeles, kicked things off with great songs that were led by wonderful harmonies. I’ve since added them to my “must-see again” list, but in the end, the wonder that is Chris Robinson stole the show. While the crowd politely kept it down, the music took to the air and enchanted us all. The highlight for me was when he played “Sunday Sound”, a song by Chris Robinson & The New Earth Mud, midway through the set.

If you get a chance to catch Robinson perform solo, do it. You will not be disappointed. Just keep it down and get as close as you can. You won’t regret riding the rail for this one.

Hotel Illness (The Black Crowes song)
Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye (The Black Crowes song)
Someday Past the Sunset (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
Fables (Chris Robinson & The New Earth Mud song)
Silver Car (Chris Robinson & The New Earth Mud song)
Shadow Cosmos (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
Blonde Light of Morning (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
Hark, The Herald Hermit Speaks (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
Glow (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
Train Robbers (Chris Robinson & The New Earth Mud song)
Sunday Sound (Chris Robinson & The New Earth Mud song)
Good Friday (The Black Crowes song)
Blue Star Woman (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
If You Had a Heart to Break (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
Beware, Oh Take Care (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
California Hymn (Chris Robinson Brotherhood song)
Jealous Again (The Black Crowes song)
Appaloosa (The Black Crowes song)

High Head Blues (The Black Crowes song)
Oh, The Rain (Blind Willie Johnson cover)

With Nicki Bluhm joining them at The Fillmore, The Infamous Stringdusters kick things into overdrive

The Infamous StringdustersBy Benjamin Wallen //

The Infamous Stringdusters feat. Nicki Bluhm with Della Mae //
The Fillmore – San Francisco
February 20th, 2016 //

The Fillmore welcomed Charlottesville’s Infamous Stringdusters to SF for a fun-filled night of bluegrass tunes last Saturday, and opening the show was Della Mae. These ladies from Boston have been delivering quality music for bluegrass lovers across the U.S. and around the world. In fact, their self-titled third LP was my favorite album of 2015.

Della Mae is what we all love about bluegrass, a perfectly tight group playing with roots and wisdom shining through on every song. “Old souls” would be a great way to describe their sound, but it’s also richly filled with life and energy. The last time I saw Della Mae they filled The Chapel, and this time they returned to a packed Fillmore — not a bad way to make your return to SF if you ask me. Although the six-piece lost out on a Grammy to the legendary Del McCoury in 2014, I imagine we will see them back up on the pedestal again sooner than later.

Della Mae

Della Mae

The Infamous Stringdusters, meanwhile, brought the heat and along with it, Bay Area favorite Nicki Bluhm to sit in on a few songs. Bluhm, the singer-songwriter who hails from Lafayette, Calif., and has collaborated with Chris Robinson, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes, Grace Potter, The Avett Brothers, Keller Williams and Galactic, proved to be a great fit, blending in perfectly with the group’s “jamgrass” sound — something different from the more traditional Americana rock/soul she usually cooks up as a solo artist — like the perfect amount of spice.

The Stringdusters blazed The Fillmore and whipped up a great double set that was incredible to witness. The last time I saw these guys was at Winter Wonder Grass in Lake Tahoe almost a year ago, and they definitely kicked it into overdrive at The Fillmore. I cannot wait to get back out to see them soon, and if they come through your town, make sure you don’t miss them.

Glen Hansard casts a spell on his SF fans

Glen HansardBy Benjamin Wallen //

Glen Hansard with Aoife O’Donovan //
The Masonic – San Francisco
November 10th, 2015 //

Glen Hansard is a gem. I first discovered his music in the film “Once” as many Americans did, and I quickly became enamored with it. The music to “Once” was the first soundtrack I had bought in years, and I played it regularly on repeat.

Hansard’s gentle music felt so very real, far more real than so much of the American music that came out at the time of “Once”. Authenticity oozes from Hansard’s music, and seeing him at The Masonic, my first show there since the remodel, was a real treat.

Opening the show was Aoife O’Donovan, a singer and guitar player in the folk-rock realm. A spotlight and a guitar was all she needed to command the crowd’s attention with her soft, pillowy voice warming everyone up. The sound at The Masonic was on point for O’Donovan’s set and really showcased the venue’s acoustics. Since the show, I have been falling backwards into O’Donovan’s other work, which includes the music she creates with the Boston-based progressive bluegrass/string band Crooked Still.

Hansard took the stage with a single light blasting from aside the stage. The mood inside the room was haunting and somber as he sang with no mic, summoning the crowd to a silence. Last time I saw someone with this much power was Bonnie Raitt singing “I Can’t Make You Love Me” at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2013.

Glen Hansard

I am a sucker for Irish music and the voice that comes with it. I found out about The Clancy Brothers, the influential Irish folk group popular during the 60’s, while watching a Bob Dylan documentary that convinced me to listen to more folk and Irish music. There is something about the Irish that is incredibly welcoming. After visiting Ireland a few years back, I fell in love with the rolling hills, the pubs and the people. My first night waiting in a lobby for a friend had my first encounter with a drunken Irishmen. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but it was a magical moment between the number of laughs and smiles that came from both of us in that fun, yet challenging conversation. There is no doubt a great amount of love to an Irish laugh.

Listening to Hansard and his band is a soul smile. His ability to play music with delicacy and power is astounding. The night was beyond magical. The Masonic was the perfect venue for Hansard and his band. The vibe onstage felt as though you were standing on the corner in Dublin watching a street band playing music at night under street lights.

It is easy to say magic when you speak of music, but there is something also hauntingly exhausting about Hansard’s music. You can feel both the struggle and the hope dancing around, but it feels so good. You don’t ever feel alone while listening to his ballads. He must be seen live. You can listen to his music constantly at home, but that feeling you will take away from his live show will stay with you for days and weeks, like a warm sweater of good.

With Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, Slash rocks the socks off of his SF fans

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The ConspiratorsBy Benjamin Wallen //

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators with RavenEye //
The Warfield – San Francisco
October 18th, 2015 //

Slash returned to The Warfield with Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators once again for a monstrous Sunday night show. It may have been a Sunday, but you couldn’t tell by looking around at the packed house and energy in the crowd. Starting off the night was RavenEye, an epic three-piece band from the UK, hand-picked by Slash to come on his U.S. tour in support. This trio was insanely great and was one hell of a start to the night. I am sure we will seeing more of these guys in the U.S. soon.

Slash and Kennedy have been playing together for a while now and have released some great music. When they come to town, they bring a perfect mix of new and old. From Guns N’ Roses to Velvet Revolver songs, they continue to rock the socks off of people. Slash is showing not one sign of slowing down, and Kennedy still belts out the vocals with powerful precision. I am more certain after this show and the crowd’s energy that this kind of rock is so very much alive and kicking.

While I, like many, still hope to fulfill a childhood dream of seeing Guns N’ Roses live with Slash and Axl on stage together, this group has carried the torch for now and constantly refuels my love for rock ‘n’ roll.

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators

High Sierra celebrates 25 years in grand fashion

2015 High Sierra Music FestivalBy Benjamin Wallen //

High Sierra Music Festival //
Quincy, CA
June 30th-July 3rd, 2015 //

High Sierra is an intimate music festival nestled in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains. Held every year around the Fourth of July in Quincy, Calif., people come from all over to get down in the sun and have some fun.

Celebrating the festival’s 25th year brought the return of jam-band giants The String Cheese Incident and Umphrey’s McGee, both of which are no strangers to High Sierra. Tearing the roof off of festivals and causing the earth to shake from fans dancing is what String Cheese and Umphrey’s do best, after all.

2015 High Sierra Music Festival – The String Cheese Incident

The String Cheese Incident

San Francisco locals The Sam Chase & The Untraditional were another highlight at the festival. The Wood Brothers, meanwhile, brought their special sound to Quincy and had lots of new fans talking about them afterward. The Word, a mash-up of amazing musical talents from John Medeski to Robert Randolph, impressed by surprisingly only playing instrumental gospel tunes.

Pennsylvania bluegrass band Cabinet also left a heavy mark at High Sierra, as did T Sisters, who seemed to be everywhere. Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO), Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers, The Brothers Comatose, Steve Poltz and Surprise Me Mr. Davis shared the stage for a memorable, mid-day set of California-inspired tunes in the indoor, air-conditioned music hall. On the final day of High Sierra, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead closed things out on the main stage with two full, vibrant sets.

On the whole, this year’s festival was very well-handled and maintained. High Sierra is a special event, made special by all of those who make it what it is. The festival never feels too crowded or overpopulated — it’s just right between the music, the people and the area amid everything else. It’s exactly what many want in a festival and so much more.

Loop master Keller Williams keeps his fans guessing at Sweetwater Music Hall

Keller WilliamsBy Benjamin Wallen //

Keller Williams //
Sweetwater Music Hall – Mill Valley, CA
April 17th, 2015 //

The one-man music-making loop master Keller Williams performed a full solo set at the Sweetwater Music Hall only a few days before the launch of his 21st album entitled Vape.

Many of Williams’ songs are road-tested before they are recorded, and this album is no different. However, there were a few tracks not road-tested that were some really tasty treats last Friday night. One in particular called “Jesus’ Gun”, Williams’ take on the gun-toting nuts who live in the U.S., started off the show and got the crowd relaxed.

Keller Williams

Sprinkled in were some new renditions of classic Grateful Dead tunes that had this fan laughing and applauding at the same time. Just when you think you know how the songs are going to play out, Williams spins them on their head and kills it. He certainly doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and seeing a full solo set in the Bay Area was a fantastic treat.

With an All-Star supporting cast that includes none other than Phil Lesh, Scott Law, Jackie Greene, Jason Crosby and Alex Koford, Williams will grace the other Grateful Dead shrine in Marin County for his record release party at Terrapin Crossroads on April 20th in what will surely be another magical performance.

Aussies take over The Independent as The Preatures display uncontainable energy

The PreaturesBy Benjamin Wallen //

The Preatures with The Bots, Bloods //
The Independent – San Francisco
April 7th, 2015 //

Australia invaded The Independent with The Preatures and Bloods bringing their unique brand of rock ‘n’ roll and high energy to SF on a Tuesday night. Tagging along was two-man indie-rock powerhouse The Bots out of Los Angeles, although it sounded at times like they had four members on stage.

Bloods kicked off the night with their first SF show, and these young guys are sure to do great things. With The Bots following them, it was a great run up to The Preatures and leading lady Isabella “Izzi” Manfredi tearing the roof off the venue with an uncontainable energy and a welcoming, fresh sound.

The last time The Preatures were in town, the Giants were playing in the World Series. Let’s hope their return and the mark they left at The Indy was a good omen for this upcoming season. A repeat of last year, with The Preatures included, would be mighty tasty, after all.