On Friday, October 2, Drive-By Truckers will release The NewOK [ATO Records], the band’s second 2020 release and its 13th overall studio album. The album’s title is taken from the phrase, “I’m OK – the new OK,” a phrase vocalist/guitarist Patterson Hood found himself repeating throughout 2020. In a year that found the Truckers’ touring plans derailed by COVID – while combating anger and depression over the country’s well-documented turmoil – Hood and company have turned these raw emotions into nine songs. Produced by David Barbe (DBT, Amy Ray, k.d. lang), The New OK was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. In addition to a large dose of Hood compositions, guitarist/vocalist Mike Cooley contributes the song “Sarah’s Flame” and bassist Matt Patton shines on a cover of The Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” A horn section rounds out the band’s sound on two tracks, “Sea Island Lonely” and “Tough To Let Go.” In a challenging year for all of us, this surprise release is a helpful cure for the 2020 blues.
Two things I never saw myself doing:
1. Attending one of those rock music fantasy weekends where mostly middle-aged guys
and gals relive their glory days by jamming with the legends of yesteryear.
2. Listening to a copious amount of Billy Joel tunes in one sitting.
I swore off the Piano Man’s entire catalog after hearing his tenured and faithful sideman
tell the most heart-wrenching tale of betrayal this side of Bill Shakespeare’s version of
“You scratch my back and I’ll stab yours”. I figured it was safe to assume I’d never again
be in a New York State of Mind.
But now, mere days into my fifties, both of the above items have been scratched off a bucket
list I never knew existed – and in one fell swoop.
On a night when I would have otherwise watched my umpteenth Atlanta Braves game, I was
instead asked by a fellow writer to cover a Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp Master Class featuring
Liberty DeVitto, the long-time Billy Joel drummer and session timekeeper for the likes of Carly
Simon, Stevie Nicks, and Paul McCartney. Given the state of the world, this event would be
conducted via Zoom, so no need to pack my drumsticks, blue jean jacket and bandana and head
off to some school of rock for big boys and girls. Instead, I spent a couple of hours wearing
earbuds doing homework for my first ever writing assignment. And as I navigated the vast Billy
Joel hit parade with a more critical and mature ear than I had from ages 7-16, I realized the
truly versatile, musical, and stylistically-diverse nature of Liberty DeVitto’s drumming.
According to the email I received from the event, each of the handful of participants in the one-
hour online drumming workshop was promised at least one question, so I came up with a query
designed to get the studio vet talking about how he came up with so many nifty beats for songs
that ran the stylistic gamut from raucous and hard-hitting (“Say Goodbye To Hollywood” and
“Pressure”) to upbeat and swinging (“You’re Only Human”) to those which featured tastefully
textured and understated percussive parts (“Just The Way You Are”).
And so the Zoom screen appeared, and already sitting behind his kit visibly eager to take on our
group of adoring rock fans and/or drummers, was the man I had seen so many times perched
on the riser behind the Long Island legend. The man who enthusiastically anchored arguably
one of the best backing bands in rock history: Mr. Liberty DeVitto. There he was in my drum
As a bonus, the event’s unofficial host was Billy Amendola, Editor-At-Large for Modern Drummer magazine, founding member of ‘70s disco group, Mantus, and the session man
responsible for the drum tracks on some of Debbie Gibson’s biggest smashes.
Before I had the chance to click the “raise hand” button, Mr. DeVitto was already answering my
unasked question as he shared stories about his legendary experiences working with famed
producer Phil Ramone. It was in those fateful recording sessions that the man behind the
control room glass would go back and forth with Mr. Joel’s band members allowing them to
workshop different ideas for what DeVitto called “pieces of songs” that were brought into the
studio. The drummer then discussed experimenting with various feels for a song and described
the process during which ideas would ultimately become a shuffle, or have a Latin beat, or be
built on a traditional two-four rock chassis. He made the point that this means to an end
differed drastically from the production style of a standard Nashville hit factory. In that neck of
the woods, musicians are typically told exactly what to play and precisely how to play it. For the
most part, he established that Music City producers hire musicians to record songs as
instructed whereas Devitto and his fellow Joel sidemen were fortunately paid to first help build
songs from the ground up – and then lay them down on tape.
Since my question had been properly addressed, I warmed up to the online group dynamic
secure in the knowledge that my planned topic of discussion was the first bullet point our
online mentor felt compelled to share with our intimate group of fewer than ten pupils. But I
needed to dig a little deeper.
When I was finally called on by the group’s moderator, I felt the “why” of Liberty’s drumming
approach had already been answered. The featured guest had pointed out that Billy Joel wrote
tunes that covered so many different styles, and that as his drummer, he was encouraged to
contribute his take on how each track should pulsate. But I still needed to know about the how.
How was Liberty DeVitto, a self-taught drummer who eschewed formal lessons from day one so
able to masterfully sculpt an assortment of spot-on rhythms for countless hits? How was he
able to be a veritable Swiss-army knife for Joel’s production team and effortlessly add just the
right flavor of drumming to so many different styles of songs? From whence did all that
inspiration and talent come?
His answer could have come off as predictable if not for the passion with which he expounded
on it. For the next several minutes, DeVitto humbly explained away any sort of mastery of
technique stating: “I’m not a drummer – I just play one on stage”, and that his experience
covering myriad genres in wedding bands provided a solid foundation for eventually being able
to comfortably insert numerous styles of drumming into the record-making process. Then he
went back further. Back to when he was a kid in Brooklyn wanting to master the traps without
actually suffering through so much rudimental learning. Like nearly every drummer of his
vintage, the desire was ignited after seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. DeVitto
explained that he learned how to play the drums by simply listening to the lyrics of songs. Not
the drum parts nor the bass lines or guitar riffs. The words. Coincidentally, he attributed Ringo
Starr’s method to the same madness.
It was this holistic song-based approach that prepared him to most aptly suggest the feel for
countless Billy Joel songs – but only after the prolific hitmaker discussed his lyrics with his
drummer. Moreover, Liberty said he still learns more about music from friends who aren’t
musicians than those who are – a statement a less-grounded professional would never dare
admit. And when the names of drummers like Stewart Copeland (The Police) and Alan White
(Yes) were tossed about in our group discussion, it wasn’t us wannabe-rocker attendees whose
pulses quickened, it was Liberty’s. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and Devitto proudly
owned up to the saying: “Good drummers borrow and great drummers steal.” After all these
years, Liberty Devitto is, at his core, one of the world’s biggest fans of multiple genres of music
and of those who made it come to life. Throughout the Zoom session, his unbridled enthusiasm
was both contagious and inspirational.
DeVitto, who turned 70 last month, is a consummate journeyman who continues to make music
and has recently released his autobiography, Liberty: Life, Billy, and the Pursuit of Happiness,
with a foreword written by none other than his former boss and would-be Brutus, Billy Joel. The
Rock and Roll gods have obviously smiled and the two have reconciled, an achievement that’s
not surprising after witnessing the humility and gracious appreciation Liberty showed us, his
apprentices for the evening whom he’d just met. His enthusiasm for drumming and music is
matched only by his warm, amicable personality. In fact, after viewing the segment of the
rockumentary film Hired Gun, in which Liberty explains how the suddenly-bankrupt Joel
abruptly fired him in order to staff his band with less-expensive players, I swore I’d never listen
to another song by the former Mr. Christie Brinkley as long as I lived. Fortunately, DeVitto
wears his earnestness on his sleeve like so many patches on the satin tour jackets of days gone
by. After assimilating his accounts of how he helped create the very songs I had perhaps
unjustly sworn off, I decided to retract my ban on all things Joel because that catalog has
DeVitto’s thumbprint all over it. Truth be told, before I ever logged on to my computer, I had
already ventured down 52 nd Street, checked out some Glass Houses, and pulled back The Nylon
Curtain in order to properly prepare for what I hoped wouldn’t be my last writing
assignment…nor my last Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp Master Class with a gentleman such as the
great Liberty DeVitto.
Beau Jones is a seasoned drummer and freelance music writer. For more information on Rock’n’Roll Fantasy Camp, visit www.rockcamp.com.
If there was ever an artist primed for a moment in the spotlight, it’s Birmingham’s own Les Nuby. Local music scenesters know his backstory but for the uninitiated, here goes: Nuby is the former drummer of Verbena and has since spent time with Idlewild, Amy Ray and Vulture Whale. Currently, he produces and engineers numerous artists from his Birmingham studio, Ol’ Elegante. Nuby is also guitarist/vocalist with the quartet Holiday Gunfire. Clouded [Cornelius Chapel Records] is his debut album and is his album in the truest sense. Nuby produced, engineered and performed every instrument on the album’s 10 tracks, a lush and layered collection of Pop/Rock gems. The ability to play multiple instruments, the luxury of unlimited studio time and his production skills allow Nuby to craft an album that plays exactly as he chooses. The guitar work of “Standing Still” and the single “Never Falling Away” best exemplify what can happen when an artist knows his way around both sides of the recording studio. Ultimately, Clouded is a concise account of the music that has influenced Nuby along the way coupled with his own style. Let’s just hope a follow-up album is already in the works.
The following is a reprint of 0ur story from 2019:
BY CAREY HEREFORD
Marc Martel never thought his career would ever be centered in the world of tribute bands. With vocals sounding similar to legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, the Nashville-based singer was tasked with the job of recording the vocals for the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. These days, Martel fronts the Black Jacket Symphony’s new project Queen:A Night at The Opera. On Friday, June 26, the renowned tribute ensemble will bring the album’s sounds to its “Concerts from the Car” series at the Hoover Met Complex. Recently, Martel spoke with us by phone about his experience with Black Jacket Symphony and the career path that led him there.
Birmingham Stages: Marc, thank you for your time. Why do think that tribute bands are more prevalent and high-profile these days compared to 10 or 15 years ago?
Marc Martel: I got involved when I saw an advertisement for when Roger Taylor of Queen was starting a tribute band called “The Queen Extravaganza.” I decided to audition and got the part for the singer and that opened up a whole new world for me. We ended up doing a whole tour of Europe and North America. But nowadays it has become so common – like apparently there is a Pink Floyd cover band that sells out areas consistently in Australia.
Birmingham Stages: Do you perform the Queen songs as they were recorded or do you change them to make them more of your own?
Martel: That depends on which band I am playing with. I am obviously with Black Jacket Symphony and a tribute band of my own called the “Ultimate Queen Celebration.” The goal of the Black Jacket Symphony is to reproduce the album’s sound as best as possible and the second part we start to let loose a little bit and have more fun with the arrangements. On the first part, that is where I will stick to the script. I do not explore different ways in that part of the night. When I am with other bands, it can have a more of a free-flowing feel. You have to find new ways to keep these songs fresh every night and still give liberty to Queen and the songs themselves. I know people come to hear how they listen to these songs and then see that live.
Birmingham Stages: Which song on the Black Jacket Symphony setlist do you think is performed best live so far?
Martel: “Under Pressure” – that song holds a special place in my heart because I get to share lead vocals with somebody. There is just a really fun camaraderie built in that song because there is such an interesting chemistry built into that song. But, all in all, I think it puts out a positive message. You know, “Fat Bottomed Girls” may not be my favorite Queen song, but to the audience it really gets people on their feet so that’s really awesome every night.
Birmingham Stages: How did you get the role of recording the vocals for the movie Bohemian Rhapsody?
Martel: Well, like I said, I have had a relationship with Queen ever since 2011. I’ve worked closely with them for several years now. So when the movie was finally funded, they needed someone to do the vocals for the parts of the recordings that were lost or could not be used. So that’s how I fit into the mix, when the movie got green lit they reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be a part. That part and my involvement was such a huge honor to me.
Birmingham Stages: What was your reaction to Bohemian Rhapsody winning a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture and being nominated for a Oscar?
Martel: It was pretty crazy. You know, when the movie was made that was my first time being involved in the movie industry in any shape or form. There were whispers of Oscar nominations before the movie was even out yet which blew me away. I was thinking it through logically – Queen is one of the biggest bands to this day. On top of that, Freddie Mercury was one of the best performers of all time. So if any musical biopic is going to do well, it would be this one. This is because you cannot go anywhere on this planet where people haven’t heard of Queen. So I already knew it had potential to do really, really well. Just to talk with all of the producers and people on the set and knowing how dedicated they were to this movie. Just when that much passion goes into a movie like that, you just know it is destined to do very well.
Birmingham Stages: Whose music influenced you growing up?
Martel: Well, I remember growing up my main memories of music were being alone in my bedroom waiting for a certain song to go on the radio with my tape recorder. When that song would come on, I would record it and then later try to mimic the vocals the best I could. Especially with George Michael’s music – I was a big fan of him. I grew up doing music mostly in church – that was a huge part of my formation as a musician. My father is a pastor, so I was on stage whenever I wanted or sometime when I did not necessarily want to either. I really dove into music in the early ’90s, and that is when grunge hit really hard. I was huge fan of Pearl Jam, Jeff Buckley, and Richard Marx. Richard Marx was the one who inspired me to try a more raspy voice.
Birmingham Stages: How did digging deep into the lyrics and foundation of these songs change your perspective of Queen’s music?
Martel: When I started listening to Queen’s Greatest Hits, to be honest I did not love the lyrical content at first. Maybe because before this I was in a Christian band for 13 years and all of our content was meant to inspire. Even when we dealt with darker subjects, there was always a light at the end of tunnel. But, that is not the case with all of Queen’s music, maybe on the surface though. It took me awhile to really appreciate the lyrical content. Now I have a better understanding, there maybe a little bit more and it helps knowing Roger and Brian a little bit, too, as well as knowing more about Freddie’s personal story helps appreciate that much more.
Birmingham Stages: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you and your career?
Martel: I just would like them to know that I have some records of my own. There is a Queen covers album I just put out recently called Thunderboltand Lightning. It is my own take on some of the Queen songs that are my favorites. As well to check out my social media and all of that good stuff!
The Black Jacket Symphony will perform Queen’s A Night At The Opera at the Hoover Met Complex on Friday, June 26. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show can be purchased at www.blackjacketsymphony.com.
Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famer Dion has taken a career path similar to fellow stalwart Boz Scaggs by going to back to his love of the blues and no longer chasing radio hits. Dion’s latest, Blues With Friends [KTBA Records], could also be titled Blues With Legends given its stellar lineup of guest artists. Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Brian Setzer are but a few friends that stop in along the album’s 14 tracks. Shunning tired cover versions in lieu of original material, Blues With Friends only includes songs written or co-written by Dion. The material touches on several styles that meld together in a cohesive manner. As Dion himself says, “Great songs, great guitarists. What more do you need?”
At this stage of his life, Jimmy Buffett doesn’t need to release new music in order to annually sell-out amphitheaters all over the country. But pop music’s most laid-back figure – who probably works much harder than any of us suspect – has consistently given us new songs throughout his career. His latest and 30th studio effort, Life On The Flip Side [Mailboat Records], is a 14-track collection that finds 11 of the songs written or co-written by Buffett. Equal parts tongue-in-cheek (“Cussin’ Island”), philosophical (“Oceans Of Time”), gritty (“The Devil I Know”) and self-congratulatory (“Mailbox Money”), Life OnThe Flip Side is another welcome entry into the singer’s Country-meets-Caribbean catalog. Along the way, Buffett is supported by guests including Lukas Nelson, Paul Brady, collaborator/fellow Alabama native Will Kimbrough and his ever-loyal Coral Reefer Band. If Buffett’s sound isn’t your thing, this album likely won’t convert you. But if his music is the soundtrack to your endless summer, Life On The Flip Side is a worthy addition to the fold.
With an honest storytelling approach, searing guitar lines and crack backing band The 400 Unit, Jason Isbell has released a string of albums that have garnered deservedly positive reviews. And while the four-time Grammy winner could have released another collection of country-tinged, sobriety-centered tunes to the delight of critics and fans alike, Isbell instead takes a departure on his latest release, Reunions [Southeastern Records]. While keeping his partnership with producer Dave Cobb, Isbell opts for a more “produced” approach over the album’s 10 tracks. Politics (“Be Afraid”), Classic Rock (“Overseas”) and nostalgia (“Dreamsicle,” “Only Children”) are all sonically wrapped in a layered sound that can’t be heard on previous releases such as Southeastern and The Nashville Sound. Even rock icon David Crosby joins the fold, adding background vocals on opening track “What’ve I Done To Help.” A recent, must-read interview that Isbell gave The New YorkTimes (written by David Peisner) offers insight to the personal and professional matters that plagued him during the album’s creation. Like Reunions itself, the article is a sobering reminder that Isbell – while seemingly sitting on top of the world – still faces the same doubts, fears and pressures as those listening to his songs.
Note: On Friday, May 15, Isbell and wife/collaborator Amanda Shires will celebrate the release of Reunions with a livestream acoustic performance on Fans.com. Showtime is 7 p.m. Central.
Like most everyone else, Jack Sledge has seen his spring plans derailed. A slate of tour dates booked across the South – including a stop in Birmingham – must now be rescheduled. But while we won’t see the New Orleans-based Sledge live in the near future, we are fortunate to have his new EP, Notes of a Drifter, available to us. Offering a timeless musical sound that has drawn comparisons to Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and The Band, the singer/songwriter’s style rings fresh and familiar at the same time. Recently, Sledge spoke with us by phone from his New Orleans home.
Birmingham Stages: Jack, thanks for your time. How are you holding up during this unbelievable situation?
Jack Sledge: It’s pretty crazy. I’m a teacher and I send the kids emails – I’ve still got a job thank God. I teach music at a small school – I’m just sitting by the computer and sending videos.
Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying Notes of a Drifter. Are the songs on the EP older compositions, newer ones or a combination of both?
Sledge: Usually, there’s about a year lag on songs. Typically, I’ll have songs ready about a year before they’re released just because the recording takes a while. Drifter is probably from 2016.
Birmingham Stages: This is the second time you have lived in New Orleans. If you will, talk about your decision to return to the gulf coast.
Sledge: As a musician, there’s a lot more work not only in New Orleans but in the South. Believe it or not, you get paid better as a musician down here. There are more bars that have live music down here for some reason. That was part of it. Also, going to college down here, I have a lot of friends that play different instruments. I just have a network down here that I didn’t have in New York even though I’m from New York.
Birmingham Stages: I know that every region of the country has musical history, but there is something special about living in the South. The fact that New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals and the Mississippi Delta are all within a few hours of each other is something that you can’t take for granted.
Sledge: Oh, yeah. My favorite music comes from here and I’ve always been drawn to it because of that. As a kid, my parents were obsessed with Elvis and we went to Tupelo and to Graceland – we did the whole Elvis pilgrimage in that area. So I was always drawn to it as a child.
Birmingham Stages: There will be a full-length album coming out later this year, correct?
Sledge: Yeah, it’s finished and the COVID-19 changed a lot of plans so we’ll see. I’ll probably put it out sooner because touring is going to be put on hold for a while.
Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the state of music in the age of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and Spotify? Some artists tell me that it’s a great time given the ease of reaching listeners. Other artists say that the current model makes it difficult to be found among the crowd.
Sledge: I’m on both sides. Anybody can hear your music and connect with you and I think that’s great. But at the same time, it clutters the playing field. I guess I fall on the side of the gatekeeper argument – that there should be someone [to vet artists].
Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process? Do you set aside certain times to write or wait until inspiration strikes?
Sledge: I guess I’m a little bit of both. Right now I’m writing every day because I’m working less. I try to be more disciplined about it than I used to. I used to do it when inspiration would strike, but in the last couple of years I’ve been more into drafting. I’ll write five drafts of the same song and work with it and not pressure myself into having this lightning-strike of inspiration.
Jack Sledge’s Notes of a Drifter is available at www.jacksledgemusic.com and across all digital formats. We will update readers when the rescheduled Birmingham show date is announced.
When a 13-time Grammy winner produces an artist’s debut album, you take notice. Such is the case for Logan Ledger – a Nashville-by-way-of California singer/songwriter – in pairing with T-Bone Burnett on his eponymously-titled debut release [Electro Magnetic/Rounder Records]. Performing his self-described “Country Noir,” Ledger offers up traditional country music with darkened tinges. Burnett’s production style is the proper fit for Ledger’s vision as highlighted on the album’s first two singles, “Starlight” and “Imagining Raindrops.” Across the album’s 11 tracks, Ledger is aided by a cast of musicians that have backed Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. On his debut, Logan accomplishes the difficult task of sounding reverent and relevant at the same time.
Though he has traveled the globe with the likes of Alice Cooper, Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders, we still consider Damon Johnson to be one of Birmingham’s own. The Alabama native – and current Nashville resident – first put his name in the national spotlight as Brother Cane’s frontman. Since then, he has been active as a sideman, songwriter and solo artist among numerous other projects. On Friday, March 13, the vocalist/guitarist will return to WorkPlay. Currently, Johnson is touring in support of his 2019 release Memoirs of an Uprising [Double Dragon Records]. The Ladies Of… (featuring James Hall) will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance show tickets are $20 – Meet & Greet/VIP tickets are $50 – and may be purchased at www.workplay.com.