On The Radio

Okkervil River, Mokoomba, Curtis McMurtry, David Amram & Joe Pug on Mountain Stage

Week after September 29, 2017

Okkervil River
Mokoomba
Curtis McMurtry
David Amram
Joe Pug

Press Release

Okkervil River - Okkervil River formed in 1998, a band made up of singer and songwriter Will Sheff, drummer Seth Warren, and bassist Zachary Thomas. They gigged around Austin, TX for awhile and self-released a debut EP before finally attracting the attention of a small Indiana label called Jagjaguwar, who released their debut LP 'Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See' and its follow up 'Down the River of Golden Dreams.' Critics took note of Sheff's creative drive and his dense, novelistic lyrics; Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the New York Times that "Mr. Sheff uses a rickety voice to disguise wild ambition," and Rolling Stone's David Fricke added that "Singer-songwriter Will Sheff of the haunted-country quartet Okkervil River is ready for worldwide renown." But worldwide renown eluded Okkervil River, and by 2004 they were running out of money and worn out by a relentless touring schedule. Drummer Seth Warren had moved to California, and bassist Thomas was transitioning out of the band to spend more time with his family. Sheff decided that if the next Okkervil River record didn't find an audience he'd quit playing music. He returned from the road and rented a shack out by the Austin Airport, and the new lineup of Okkervil River -- now augmented by drummer Travis Nelsen and bassist and multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper -- would rehearse there by day and Sheff would sleep on the floor by night. The material they were working up was dark and sometimes disturbing, with a deep romantic undercurrent; it was inspired by a turbulent relationship Sheff was going through at the time, by the political climate of the mid-2000s, and by the life story of influential folksinger Tim Hardin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1980. Sheff decided he'd name the album after Hardin's tune "Black Sheep Boy." On 'Black Sheep Boy,' Sheff unpacked Hardin's two-minute recording into an expansive song cycle, woven through with themes of violence, abuse, oblivion, and longing, with periodic appearances by the title character, depicted on the iconic cover (by longtime Okkervil River illustrator William Schaff) as a grotesque horned creature with burning fire for eyes. Recorded in the dim, rickety garage studio of producer Brian Beattie, Black Sheep Boy overlaid raw electric rock, off-kilter pop, and sprawling balladry with a melodic and lyrical sensibility drawn from old American folk music. It blended acoustic textures like pump organ and mandolin with analog synths and manipulated electronic soundscapes mailed to Sheff by Seth Warren from his apartment in Berkeley, California. It sounded rough and handmade, raw and emotional, and unlike any record of its time. Released by Jagjaguwar in early 2005, 'Black Sheep Boy' is now regarded as Okkervil River's breakthrough album. NY Times raved, "[Sheff] writes like a novelist. His songs are full of elegant phrases and unexpected images." Pitchfork named it one of the "Greatest Albums Of The Decade" and The Guardian declared it "a work of riveting ambition." Packed tours and festival dates followed, and the album's first single "For Real" found its way into the ears of Sheff's idol Lou Reed, who named Okkervil River one of his favorite contemporary bands, asked them to open for him and told Sheff, "You have a classic rock and roll voice." On a break from touring, Sheff and a now completely reformulated Okkervil River recorded 'Black Sheep Boy Appendix,' an EP that combined re-tooled outtakes from the original sessions with new material to create a seamless whole piece, a new take on the 'Black Sheep Boy' saga. In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of this iconic album, Jagjaguwar is proud to present the 'Black Sheep Boy Anniversary Edition,' a three-LP set combining the classic 'Black Sheep Boy' album and its counterpart the 'Black Sheep Boy Appendix' with an all new unreleased album entitled 'There Swims a Swan': full-band recordings made six months prior to the release of 'Black Sheep Boy' which illuminate the album's roots in the traditional American songbook. Featuring beautiful, emotional readings of songs popularized by such artists as Washington Phillips, Lead Belly, the Louvin Brothers, and Roscoe Holcomb, 'There Swims a Swan' takes the listener on a trip through the songs that inspired Sheff while composing 'Black Sheep Boy' and reads like a run-through of that album's themes. 'Black Sheep Boy' is celebrated for its album artwork as well as its music, and the Anniversary Edition collects that artwork in a meticulously reworked package, combining every previous element of William Schaff's imagery with a large new piece by Schaff depicting an updated 'Black Sheep Boy.' The release also includes lengthy liner notes by Will Sheff walking the listener through the circumstances surrounding the album. For Okkervil River fans (the most high-profile of whom was recently revealed to be President Barack Obama, who included "Down Down the Deep River" on his 2015 summer playlist), the Anniversary Edition is a loving, comprehensive, richly expanded presentation of a record many consider to be one of the band's best. For those new to the band, this might be the best place to start, the first step on a long road, the opening to a forest you can get lost in.

Mokoomba - Mokoomba is a 6 piece band that plays a unique blend of Tonga and Luvale traditional rhythms fused with dashes of funk, ska and soukous. Hailing from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, the band has toured over 50 countries around the world and has won a few awards as well as appearing on Later with Jools Holland.

Curtis McMurtry -​ Curtis McMurtry writes about villains that think they're victims. Influenced by Fiona Apple, Billy Strayhorn and Leonard Cohen, Curtis' music combines piercing lyrics with lush chords and unusual arrangements. His first solo album Respectable Enemy  was released in August 2014, and drew comparisons to Calexico and John Fullbright. His sophomore album The Hornet's Nest is was released in February 2017, and continues to garner critical acclaim. Curtis was born and raised in Austin, Texas and grew up listening to local musicians Warren Hood, Ephraim Owens, Seela, and his father, James McMurtry. Curtis studied music composition and ethnomusicology in college, primarily writing contemporary chamber music for banjo and strings. After graduation, Curtis moved to Nashville to sharpen his songwriting by co-writing with elder statesmen including Fred Koller and Guy Clark. He has since moved back to Austin where he performs as a quartet with cellist Diana Burgess (of Mother Falcon), upright bassist Taylor Turner (of Magia Negra) and trumpeter Nathan Calzada.

David Amram David Amram started his professional life in music as a French Hornist in the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, D.C.) in the early 1950s, as well as playing French horn in the legendary jazz bands of Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton. Appointed by Leonard Bernstein as the first Composer In Residence for the New York Philharmonic in 1966, he also composed the scores for the films Pull My Daisy (1959), Splendor In The Grass (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). He composed the scores for Joseph Papp's Shakespeare In The Park from 1956-1967 and again worked with Papp on the comic opera 12th Night in 1968. He also wrote a second opera, The Final Ingredient, An Opera of the Holocaust, for ABC Television in 1965. From 1964-66, Amram was the Composer and Music Director for the Lincoln Center Theatre and wrote the score for Arthur Miller's play After The Fall (1964). A prolific composer for over 50 years, his most recent symphonic compositions include This Land, Symphonic Variations On A Song By Woody Guthrie (2007), commissioned by the Guthrie Foundation and recently performed by the Colorado Symphony with Amram conducting and recorded by Newport Classics in 2015; Giants of the Night (2002) commissioned and first premiered by flutist Sir James Galway; Kokopeli, A Symphony in Three Movements (1995), premiered by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with Amram conducting; and Three Songs, A Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2009). He has also collaborated as a composer with Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, Eugene Ormandy, Langston Hughes and Jacques D'Amboise and as a musician with Thelonious Monk, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Betty Carter, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Paquito D’Rivera and Tito Puente. In 1957, he created and performed in the first ever Jazz/Poetry readings in New York City with novelist Jack Kerouac, a close friend with whom Amram collaborated artistically for over 12 years. Since the early 1950s, he has traveled the world extensively, working as a musician and a conductor in over thirty-five countries including Cuba, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan, Israel, Latvia and China. He also regularly crisscrosses the United States and Canada. Amram is the author of three memoirs all published by Paradigm-Routledge Press, Nine Lives of a Musical Cat (2009), Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac (2005) and the highly acclaimed Vibrations (1968, 2007). His archive of professional and personal papers were recently acquired by the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts Branch of the New York Public Library. And, he was recently the subject of the full-length feature documentary David Amram: The First Eighty Years, which is available on Vimeo On Demand. In 2011, Amram was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame as recipient of the The Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2013 he was presented with Clearwater’s Pete and Toshi Seeger Annual Power of Song Award. In 2015, The Theater For The New City honored him with their annual Love & Courage Award. And in recognition of his enormous achievements and continuing contributions to the cultural life of New York City, Brooklyn College presented David Amram with an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts and chose him as their commencement speaker. In 2016 he received several awards for his lifetime of work as a classical composer, improvising multi-instrumentalist and pioneer of World Music. as well as touring internationally and premiering Three Lost Loves for alto saxophone, violin and piano, commissioned and performed by the New York Chamber Music Festival who have chosen him as their composer in residence for their 2016-2017 season. In 2017, he is composing a double concerto for violin, cello and orchestras and making a string orchestra version of his Greenwich Village Portraits for saxophone and orchestra as well as composing a ballet piece for choreographer Jacques d’Amboise. While composing, he continues to perform as a guest conductor, soloist, multi-instrumentalist, band leader and narrator in five languages. 

Joe PugIf the opening notes on Joe Pug’s new LP “Windfall” are a bit disorienting, his fans won’t likely be surprised.  The Austin, TX singer songwriter has made a habit of defying expectations so the piano-driven “Bright Beginnings” and the atmospheric rumination of “Great Hosannas” are just further indication that he’s quite comfortable stepping outside of the guy-with-a-guitar trappings of the genre. His rise has been as improbable as it has been impressive.  After dropping out of college and taking on work as a carpenter in Chicago, he got his musical start by providing CDs for his fans to pass along to their friends. This led to a string of sold out shows and a record deal with Nashville indie Lightning Rod Records (Jason Isbell, Billy Joe Shaver).  As he toured behind “Messenger” (2010) and The Great Despiser (2012) it was with a band that looked as much like a jazz trio as an Americana band.  “I never quite found a live band that captured what I was aiming for until I connected with Greg [Tuohey–electric guitar] and Matt [Schuessler–upright bass].  It was an arrangement that maybe didn’t make a ton of sense on paper but 10 minutes into the first rehearsal I knew this was going to be my band.”  The following years would have them on the road for over four hundred shows, including stops at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and The Newport Folk Festival. The relentless grind of four years of nonstop touring had taken its toll though, and by late 2013 he was ready to call it quits.  The tour that fall was a runaway success but his personal and creative lives were a different story.  “It was this surreal dichotomy. Everyone kept congratulating me on how well the tour was going, and the mood was probably the best it had ever been on the road. We finally got two hotel rooms in each city instead of one. We’ve got this incredible group of die-hard fans that somehow make each show bigger than our previous trip through town. Meanwhile my relationship was in shambles and creatively I was at a dead end.  There was absolutely no joy left in playing music.  So we walked off stage after a particular show when I played terribly, and pulled my manager aside in the green room and told him to cancel the rest of the tour dates and that I was essentially through.” But studio time was already scheduled and deadlines had been set for a new record, so after a few weeks Pug was back to the business of writing songs. “In retrospect, I was in a very unhealthy place. I was sitting in a room with the blinds shut and a notebook, forcing out words that weren’t there and drinking astonishing amounts of bourbon. I was looking at it as a job….as a business obligation, and that is a very slippery slope.”   At that point he decided to make good on his promise from the previous tour. The album was put on indefinite hold. “I just needed to start behaving like a human being again.  I needed to reconnect with my girlfriend. I needed to eat healthy food.  I needed to go enjoy live music as a fan. I really needed to make sure I still loved making music, because I really had my doubts at that point.” The resulting layoff paid dividends in spades. When Pug set up camp in Lexington KY in 2014 to record, he did so with some of the best songs he has ever written.  The agenda was much simpler than previous albums. “The aim on this one was very straightforward.  We wanted to capture the music just the way we play it, with minimal production.  It was a very back to basics approach because ultimately that’s what I love about music, and that’s what I love about making music. I wanted to record these songs the way they were written and put them out in the world.”  The result is a collection of songs that are as close as we’ve gotten to a road map to Pug’s ambitions. He has collected plenty of the requisite Dylan comparisons over his young career but on this record it’s easier to hear the sway of more contemporary influences like Josh Ritter, Ryan Adams and M.Ward. The theme of resilience plays a central role throughout Windfall.  The weary protagonist in “Veteran Fighter” wills his way further down the highway despite the gloom that seems certain to overtake him.  “The Measure”, a song inspired in part by Frederic Buechner’s novel Godric, marvels at  “every inch of anguish, laid out side by side” but ultimately finds that “All we’ve lost is nothing to what we’ve found.”    “I never really write songs with a specific narrative in mind,” Pug explains. “When you’re sort of pushing through a dark period of your life it’s probably inevitable that some of that is going to find its way onto the page.  But in the same way, by the time we were in the studio the process had become very effortless and joyful. And hopefully you can hear a lot of that on the record as well.” This duality appears perhaps most overtly in the album-closing stunner “If Still It Can’t Be Found”, which features Pat Sansone of Wilco guesting on mellotron. As the saying goes, “All’s well that ends well.”  Joe Pug didn’t call it quits after all.  He’s engaged to be married and still drinks bourbon on occasion.  His new album, Windfall, will be released March 10, 2015 on Lightning Rod Records in the US and Loose Music in Europe.