Pulling Up Roots 

Local singer-songwriter finds new label, more comfortable sound

Local singer-songwriter finds new label, more comfortable sound

Greg Trooper

Straight Down Rain (Eminent Records)

Playing April 28 at The Sutler

Nashville-based singer-songwriter Greg Trooper had recorded four albums of accomplished country-rock before heading into the studio with producer Phil Madeira for his fifth record, Straight Down Rain. It was to be Trooper’s first time working extensively with Madeira—as well as his first time recording for the Eminent label—and the veteran troubadour decided to take advantage of his new situation to reconfigure his sound into something new. Not that Straight Down Rain is a radical departure from his last record, the rootsy, Buddy Miller-produced Popular Demons, but Trooper says that he did trust Madeira’s “vision” of a 21st-century folk record made with 20th-century instruments (including Madeira’s own guitar, piano, pennywhistle, organ, accordion, melodica, lap steel, and cello). “We had an open-door policy on how we approached this stuff,” Trooper says. “We might’ve had too much fun.”

The refurbished Trooper sound is most apparent on the tracks “Doghouse” and “Staring Down the Night,” which are based on minimal, percussive backing tracks that move in tight circles. Those effects, Trooper explains, are “a loop...but we all went in and played our parts.” Madeira recorded the live instruments and then reduced them to the skeletal, circular groove heard beneath Trooper’s tremulously conversational vocals. In the case of the troubled-mind song “Doghouse,” Trooper says that the spooky, late-night-at-the-junkyard atmosphere of the loop “gave it a sense of humor. It’s like walking on the edge of a cliff.”

The rest of Straight Down Rain is largely traditional, particularly on open-air country tunes like “Real Like That” (a duet with Julie Miller) and “Over the Moon.” But even on those cuts, Trooper’s style is somewhat elastic, with the former featuring a fuzzy stand-up bass line and the latter graced by bongo-like percussion. Elsewhere, Trooper launches effortlessly into bright guitar-pop tunes like “You Love Your Broken Heart” or winsome ballads like “I’m Dreaming.” “To me it’s just loud folk music,” he says, though he acknowledges that his freeform attitude toward genre means that his recordings “have a hard time finding their niche.”

He’s confident that he’ll have more luck getting heard with Eminent than with his previous label, Koch, about which he says only, “It wasn’t a good match.” Trooper’s early relationship with Eminent has brightened his outlook considerably. “I never thought I’d say this,” he chuckles, “but I’m really happy with a record label.” With the proper effort, he thinks, Straight Down Rain can get “out into the world where the niche doesn’t matter...[and] to people who listen to what they damn well please.”

Trooper and Madeira will be joined by guitarist Dave Perkins and other members of his pickup band Saturday, April 28, at The Sutler, for a gig celebrating the release of Straight Down Rain. The show is recommended to those who like music.

A moving experience

Anyone who attended last Thursday’s sold-out performance by the Afro-Cuban All Stars can tell you that it was hot. The music, which pulsed and undulated against the insistent beat of the clave, was at once sensual and locomotive: It made couples want to dance together; it made singles look about longingly for another lonely set of limbs in Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium.

The band seemed intent on encouraging the capacity crowd to enjoy the music properly, both by dancing onstage and exclaiming loudly the feats of individual performers. While the audience had reason to applaud for engaging saxophone, trombone, trumpet, and violin solos, it was only after a rousing ensemble piece—which provoked a standing ovation midway through—that the show seemed to get started.

It was at this point that one of the veteran singers motioned encouragement to the audience to stand and dance. This was all people needed to discard their inhibitions and start moving. While some tentatively marked time in their seats, others confidently bumped in the narrow theater aisles. A few women brazenly took the stage to dance against the conjugal thigh of one of the singers, who came off as a cross between Tom Jones and a gangster rapper.

The grand achievement of the Afro-Cuban All Stars is that they provide a setting in which people feel safe to let go. Although the music itself offers plently to pontificate and beardstroke about, it can’t be enjoyed fully unless taken as a downright visceral experience. To that end, the band members showed people how they themselves enjoy listening to the music. When the bandleader and conductor TK demonstrated how to clap the clave, the rhythmic backbone of all Afro Cuban music, he was teaching us in the audience how to hear the music—how to appreciate its technical virtues and its purely physical pleasures.

If audience reaction is any indication, those in attendance certainly did hear the music. Vanderbilt’s concert committes should take notice and offer more demanding performances. With events booked for 2002 that include minimalist giant Terry Riley performing with Paul Dresher’s electo-acoustic ensemble and readings by superb young writers Sarah Vowell and Dave Eggers, it looks as though the school is indeed on the right track.

—Chris Davis

Road worrier

The good news: Air, the ambient French electro-pop duo who supplied the lush pseudo-’70s score for last year’s The Virgin Suicides, will be dipping into the Southeast on its 16-date U.S. tour starting in June. The bad news: The tour skips right over Nashville, zipping from Austin on Jun. 15 to Atlanta on Jun. 18, then on to Washington, D.C.

As for that rumored Tortoise date in Nashville, it doesn’t appear on the band’s jam-packed itinerary on the Thrill Jockey Web site. The art ensemble from Chicago comes to Chapel Hill May 20 and spends about a week down South, moving at decidedly un-turtle-like speed from Atlanta on May 24 to Newport, Ky., May 25. Once again, Music City gets screwed.

Was it this time last year we were writing about how much rosier the local club scene seemed to be getting for touring national and regional bands—and the local audiences that resent driving to Atlanta and Chapel Hill to see them? Let’s hope these are incidental lapses, and not the start of a long, dry summer.

—Jim Ridley

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