The Deep Dark Woods are at the Casbah on January 25
Blame the Lumineers and Alabama Shakes for pop music’s sudden and unlikely fascination for turned-on-bluegrass, that blend of prairie folk and electric Appalachian blues that nowadays turns up everywhere from top-40 radio to the soundtrack of The Walking Dead. Adding a fever-dream overlay of psychedelia isn’t the most original transmutation of that sound, with freak-folk bands like Comus already doing the pagan stoner folk thing back when the Beatles were still together. But there’s an interesting grunge approach to the way the Deep Dark Woods have tossed their hat into ring, with a more versatile and accomplished vocalist than one expects to hear from Canadian alt-country rockers in the person of singer-guitarist Ryan Boldt. Their earlier tracks from the mid-2000s had a tendency toward jam-bandying, but things became more grounded in Americana as they lost founding members in 2012, 2014, and earlier this year, with only Boldt and keyboardist (since 2009) Geoff Hilhorst remaining from their most-recorded lineup. Something about the Genesis-like shrinkage seems to have had the same sort of distilling effect on the Woodsmen, at least judging by their newest full-length that dropped at the end of October, Yarrow, by far their more-focused effort, treading a poetic line somewhere between early Richard Thomson and latter-day Leonard Cohen. You can preview their newest video for the song “Fallen Leaves” to get an idea whether you want to make it out to see them at the Casbah on January 25.
Grace Mitchell, Next Big Thing in the female singer-songwriter category
We’re coming up now on the first generation of female pop songwriters whose main influences are dreamy post-teen retro crooners like Lana Del Rey. Portland-born Grace Mitchell was 16 when she signed to fading label giant Casablanca Records, soon relocating to L.A. in order to maximize her studio time and play keyboards, guitars, and drums on her debut 2014 EP, Design, produced by occasional Backstreet Boys songwriter Morgan Taylor Reid. Her next EP, co-produced by alt-electronica icon Rich Costley (Muse, Franz Ferdinand), was more or less of the same, so expectations weren’t exactly high when she was announced for festival appearances at X-Fest 2016 and this year’s Coachella. Who knew that she’d take those stages and own them — and own them like Joplin at Monterey, as seen in a series of must-share viral videos that were just joined by equally impressive footage of her recent solo headlining performance at New York City’s Mercury Lounge. While several singles that the 21-year-old released earlier this year are synth-heavy electro-pop productions that come across like 21st-century Missing Persons, the concert persona she’s bringing to the Soda Bar on January 25 is more akin to Norwegian songstress Dagny or New Zealand pop star Lorde. The personal nature and power of her lyrics tend to get lost in singles when buffed for mass consumption, but onstage, especially when it’s just her and her guitar, is where she lays claim to her stake as potentially the Next Big Thing in the increasingly crowded female singer-songwriter category.
You can hear X Ambassadors everywhere, including the Soda Bar
Around the time you read this, you’ll be hearing X Ambassadors everywhere, from the November 21 episode of NCIS: New Orleans (where they’ll be seen playing new singles “Ahead of Myself” and “The Devil You Know”) to the trailer from Will Smith’s Netflix feature Bright, which includes a new single collaboration with Machine Gun Kelly and Bebe Rexa called “Home.” With a sophomore album in the works, the Ithaca, New York–based rockers just announced a two-week run of small-venue dates that includes February 23 at Soma, where they’ll be working out new songs like “Joyful,” which just made its concert debut a few weeks ago at the Cayuga Sound Festival, and the recently released single “Torches.” Their anti-Trump track, “Hoping,” debuted this month on election day, with proceeds donated to the American Civil Liberties Union. Singer Sam Harris told Billboard, “We will continue to fight against sexism, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the pervasive intolerance being encouraged under our current administration…our resistance is one of love and hope.” You can talk Trump and the resistance with Smith himself, thanks to variations on a VIP “experience” offered by Soma that includes photo ops with the band, a new music listening session, a USB wristband with band-shot photos and videos, a signed poster, commemorative laminates, early entry, and “pre-show access to the X Ambassadors-themed photo booth.”
Walter Trout returns to the Belly Up for the fourth time in six years
I first caught blues-rock guitarist Walter Trout back in the late ‘90s at a now-defunct Mission Beach bar where approximately half the venue was “obstructed view” seating, and yet there were at least 50 people milling around the parking lot trying to score tickets to the sold-out showcase. Though I was already familiar with his music, the passion of his playing and his rapport with the fans impressed me enough to start seeking him out on all his subsequent tours. Trout’s star has continued to rise, though he was almost derailed around five years ago when he suffered liver failure, but fan-funded support enabled him to receive a transplant and keep paying his bills until he could return to touring in 2015. He returns to the Belly Up for the fourth time in six years on March 18, as he hits the road in support of his newest full-length released in September, We’re All in This Together, a 14-track all-star project that includes guest turns from Warren Haynes, John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Edgar Winter, Randy Bachman, and others.
Umphrey’s McGee, more Rush than banjos
When I first heard the music of Umphrey’s McGee, it was on a radio station that failed to identify the band, leaving me to assume I’d just heard one of the best Rush tunes since “A Farewell to Kings.” Imagine my surprise when I plugged a few of the lyrics into Google later that day and discovered I’d been grooving on a progressive jazz-rock fusion band named Umphrey’s McGee, which I previously assumed from the name to be just another folkie Americana group with too much banjo and not enough cowbell. Now that they’ve been around for 20 years, with over 2000 concerts to their credit, they’ve evolved into a Grateful Dead–like cult-rock road show that matches an immersive high-tech presentation with an old-fashioned gospel revival. Their 11th studio album, It’s Not Us, is due in January, with its lead single “The Silent Type” now streaming online. The support trek hits Observatory North Park on March 25, which at least for now looks to be the final date of the tour (though they keep adding shows, so that may not remain the case for long).