AARON LEE TASJAN
Saturday, April 2
with special guest brian wright
Saturday, April 2, 2016
Doors 7:00 PM / Showtime 8:00 PM
Pre-sales for all shows end at noon on the day of the show. Tickets are will call only, nonrefundable, but transferable to another person (for the same show).
Truth in advertising—In the Blazes finds Aaron Lee Tasjan more than just one toke over the line. But it’s cool. The charmingly self-deprecating underdog of an East Nashville songwriter can handle his business. Instead of the munchies, young gun Tasjan—who cut his teeth playing lead guitar in late-period incarnations of The New York Dolls and Drivin N Cryin—wound up with one hell of a debut LP.
“I read something about Guy Clark getting high and just making songs up, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll do that,’” Tasjan says. “So I wrote the record in the haze of being stoned all the time. Probably too stoned—like, shoulda-gone-to-the-doctor-a-couple-times stoned. But overdoing it allowed me to understand why that’s not such a good idea. I was learning things along the way.”
In December 2014, Tasjan spent a week recording In the Blazes at New Monkey Studio in Los Angeles, the same hallowed space where Elliott Smith cut his final record From a Basement on the Hill. At the helm for the sessions was Tasjan’s good buddy Eli Thomson of the band Everest, whom he’d met on tour while pulling a stint with Brooklyn indie-folk outfit Alberta Cross, and who produced Delta Spirit’s Ode to Sunshine. “Eli is a very grounded dude, personality-wise—he has a zen way of being,” Tasjan says. “On a subconscious level, that’s a comforting thing to be around during the creative process. You’re relaxed enough to try new things and blow it. And for better or worse, part of my thing is messing up—I have to mess it up first to do it great.
“Really, that idea permeates my life, far beyond being a songwriter,” Tasjan explains. “I always identify with the underdog. Some people, if you look at ‘em, you wouldn’t think much of them, but then they surprise you. It turns out there’s something about them that blows your mind. And that’s kind of the overarching theme of most of the songs on In the Blazes.”
The well-connected Thomson brought in some simpatico players for the sessions, including Father John Misty drummer Dan Bailey and solo artist/multi-instrumentalist David Vandervelde, who played guitar, piano, added backing vocals, and filled in as backup engineer whenever Thomson needed to focus on producing. In just seven days, working almost entirely live, Tasjan and the band breathed life into a sound that’s been mostly out-of-vogue for the last decade, one that doesn’t use reverb as a crutch—one that’s rooted in the sounds of the mid ‘70s.
“What I was listening to most going into this record was John Prine’s Common Sense,” Tasjan says. “He made it in Memphis in 1975, and it’s got all that Leon Russell stuff happening. I love the sound—it’s a much more dry kind of thing than a lot of what’s happening today. There was definitely an effort with In the Blazes to capture the music as it came out and not add a lot of effects—to go for something really pure. Only backing vocals and piano were overdubbed. The guitar, drums and every lead vocal were cut totally live, and there’s not a single vocal edit on the entire album.”
Stylistically, In the Blazes runs the gamut of American roots music, from folk, country and blues to rock & roll. It calls down the quiet thunder of Kristofferson & Prine, with lyrics that’ll snap you out of the deepest trance and make you listen up. There’s fanboat bayou swamp-soul boogie, Fillmore West buzzing-bee Quicksilver guitar mayhem, sweltering latenight R&B shuffles, twangadelic California country, and plenty of good old chiming American rock & roll. Through it all, Tasjan seems to be traveling the same heartworn highways as his hero Guy Clark and that whole ‘70s Nashville outsider gang, only 40 years down the road. In the Blazes is funny, heartfelt and honest. It stars The Ramones, America, girls, trucks, booze, trains, Skynyrd and plenty of other survivors surviving themselves, not to mention a great little turn of phrase around every corner. What becomes undeniably apparent through it all is that Tasjan is the kind of singer-songwriter who will win the hearts and minds of those who are normally bored out of their minds by singer-songwriters. Here’s how he ended up this way…
Aaron Lee Tasjan was raised in Ohio. He started playing guitar at age 11, mainly to sing Oasis songs and get middle-school chicks. With these goals in mind, he learned to play by ear. He cut his teeth in teenage garage bands and was eventually persuaded by a hip chorus teacher to get respectable and join the high-school jazz ensemble. This gig led him to a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center, where he won an award for playing Duke Ellington without adding any flashy guitar solos, which put him square on the path for a jazz-guitar scholarship to Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music. First semester, though, Aaron Lee realized he liked smoking weed and listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with his buddy across the street more than going to music school. So he ditched Berklee, moved to Brooklyn and joined poppy rock & roll band Semi-Precious Weapons. They scored a major-label deal, and wound up on MTV. That shit made Aaron Lee nervous, and honestly a bit surly toward his musical compadres, so he quit the band, who promptly went on to tour the world opening for Lady Gaga. But Aaron Lee was like, “Nah, it’s cool,” and started a new band called the Madison Square Gardeners. Before long, he got that call to play lead guitar on tour with legendary cult rock & rollers The New York Dolls. When he got back from the road, he befriended another rock & roll cult legend, Drivin N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney, and started backing him on solo gigs. Before long, Aaron Lee was invited to join DNC. He calls Kinney, Kev. He also calls him his best friend.
After a while, though Tasjan—who’d been playing solo acoustic gigs the whole time in between his work as a hired gun—felt confident enough in his songs that he was compelled to go off on his damn fool crusade as a solo artist. “I’d always wanted to try it out,” he says, “but it’s such a daunting task. I really had to work up to a place where I felt comfortable stepping out on my own.”
He put out his first EP, Crooked River Burning, in 2014. It was produced by Anton Fier (Lounge Lizards, The Feelies) and reached #1 on the iTunes singer/songwriter chart. Now, with In the Blazes, Tasjan’s got a proper full-length, and a record that has the makings of classic debut. So what has he learned on the long road to get here?
“At some point, if you’re going to keep playing music, you have to reconcile what your reasons are for doing it. It’s often such an up and down kind of thing. For both the New York Dolls and Drivin N Cryin, it was like, ‘Holy crap, we’re on top of the world,’ and the next moment you’re totally destitute. When I think about Kevn, and why he does it—he’ll say to me, ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’ve had, when I go up there and sing, I feel so much better. And I can tell that’s why he’s doing it. It happens to get him by in the world, as well, but he’d be doing it either way. I’ve learned that you’ve got to be in it for the right reasons—and so long as your heart’s in the right place, nobody is gonna judge you too harshly.”-Steve LaBate (Paste Magazine, Baby Robot Media)
Imagine diving after a pearl of great price, only to find that it rests within a double-tough shell you must crack open with two opposing attempts: one about strength, the other surrender.
That’s how it went down for Waco, Texas native Brian Wright as he labored to land his gem, the new album Rattle Their Chains. That’s not to say he started on the wrong foot: far from it. He convened last summer in a Los Angeles studio, surrounded by a trusted core of country sharpshooters. And he brandished 18 songs, demoed and arranged meticulously so the musicians could follow his lead. Those who heard the resulting recordings hailed them as lean, tough and dynamic. They were also sure to enhance Wright’s reputation as an amazing live performer who doesn’t so much sing his songs as he leans into them, rides them bareback … telegraphs them with the intensity of a Steve Earle and the go-get-’em spirit of locomotive driver feeding one more coal scoop to his steam engine.
But when Wright reviewed the rough mixes, he had his own thoughts, and they weren’t positive.
“I didn’t like the songs once I heard them, so I scrapped all but three or four,” he says. “It was clever but it didn’t say anything. It had hooks and melodies but it was empty. It was too precise. It didn’t feel or sound right at all. Maybe I’ll look back a year or two from now and think differently about it, and do something with it. But it sounded like me trying to be the Rolling Stones, when I don’t sing like Mick Jagger or talk like Mick Jagger. I was reaching for something that wasn’t honest.”
So for dive two, Wright retreated – literally. He headed north to the Pacific Coast enclave of Lincoln City, Oregon to hole up in a friend’s hotel just a few weeks shy of Christmas. Once there, Wright followed the same ritual for a week: breakfasts fueled by copious coffee and eggs sunny-side up; long beach walks listening to Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies; hunkering down with his Gibson J-45 acoustic, letting lyrics and melodies surface as if culled from the ocean deep.
Then there was the vision: “I was picturing this band playing these songs – my friends – and I could hear what was going to happen: a band in a room, guys who really love each other and are really tight.” The premonition was fitting, given that Wright’s music translates so well to a live stage. To hear him describe it, a peak live experience finds Brian and the band unfurling a monster feedback loop of energy and good feeling, multiplied by audience energy. When it works well, you’ll find Wright strumming away without a care, eyes squeezed shut, smiling his way up the summit.
Back in an L.A. studio for take two – with a dozen new songs to learn on the spot without any prep – Wright and his buddies nailed it. He sought that spontaneity of a live show, a roots-rock hoot to smolder and sting, and he got it. But the resulting album also reflects something more: a shadow-grapples-light intensity where regret and hope square off like already-bruised boxers staggering through another tough round.
Take “Weird Winter,” a mournful minor-key masterwork that blends images of transition, desperation and graveside grief in best Guy Clark fashion – rich and evocative, yet leaving enough space for the listener to fill in the blanks with their own backstory and reverie. The lyric also proved an artistic premonition of sorts, as Wright would experience the loss of his father not long after it was written. (In roughly the same time period, he lost his father-in-law and brother as well.)
Yet Wright also experienced luminous changes through the sessions for Rattle Their Chains. He moved his family from Los Angeles to Nashville, the decision made even as the record took shape. “It definitely informed the music,” he says. “I was thinking a lot about where I was from; I was thinking about Los Angeles. I came through there as a naive kid and I learned a lot about being an artist. I lost love, and I found love, and then I started a family – and I also made a lot mistakes.”
So yes, the songs on Rattle Their Chains are personal, but they also invite the listener to settle into them with all the pull of a beloved, broken-in couch. “I try to write a little less about me and a little more open to interpretation, so people can relate,” Wright says.
Besides Dylan and the Band, Wright also found himself drawn to “the storytelling of Texas songwriters. I find myself really into Townes Van Zandt; he had so many beautiful songs. Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson all lived there; there’s something in the water in Texas that yields a poetic, left of center style of writing that seems unique to so many artists from there. It’s where all these great stories come from. But I’m also influenced by great rock and roll: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks and other bands like that.”
Wright’s songwriting savvy shines on the ragged country waltz “Haunted,” which contains the lyric that gives the album its title. Its intoxicating mix of slide guitar and honky-tonk rhythm summons up a vision of Gram Parsons’ ghost, riding shotgun with Keith Richards: “A ghost is an angel, an angel with nowhere to fly. And I’ll be a stranger until the day that I die.” Then there’s “Rosalee,” which starts with just Wright and his acoustic guitar evoking a plaintive simplicity to do Johnny Cash proud. The drums kick in and the tune blossoms into a swirl of images conjured for the narrator’s beloved: “Your favorite position, the hit man’s conviction, the hitcher’s best whistling tune, your favorite sweater, the break in the weather you hoped would be getting here soon.”
Speaking of favorites, the song is one of Wright’s most beloved on the new album. “It’s the best example in my mind of the trip up to Oregon, leaving my family at home so I could go to Oregon and be an artist for a week. It’s a love song and I laid myself bare for that.”
That Wright has arrived at this point in his artistic journey surprises even the artist himself. After spending his early twenties on the Austin/Waco/Dallas bar circuit, playing everything from punk to covers, Wright moved to Los Angeles over New York on a coin toss. He built his reputation over a series of fine albums, including Bluebird and Dog Ears, both recorded with a live band in the studio in feverish three-day spans. Then came 2011’s House on Fire, where Wright holed up in a home studio, accompanied by only a producer and some personal demons to excise. On that disc, “I played most of the instruments; I just wanted to hole up and make a record by myself.”
But this new record, he says, was just the opposite. “I was in a really good place, going out and playing bar gigs with my friends, and that’s what I wanted this record to sound like. And when we come together, it’s a sound like no other.”
That sound now rests in your hands; let it work its way into your heart. Albums pursued with so much abandon and persistence do not come around all that often. Wright’s deep diving in and of itself is a rare and beautiful thing. That it yielded a treasure so brilliant and hard makes it all the more remarkable.