Magic City Mix


Who’s driving the Birmingham music scene right now…

Photography: Liesa Cole Writer, Producer, Band Wrangler: Lee Shook Styling: Team Forecast

Studio Goodlight location manager: Stan Bedingfield Photo Assistance: Joel Valencia

Design: Robin Colter

Bitter Calm

Tragedy is almost always a transformative experience. Especially when it comes to what we cherish the most, whether it be through the loss of a loved one or the untimely demise of a promising young band. Sadly for local indie rockers Bitter Calm, it was a combination of both that led to their genesis as a group, yet also provided the cathartic creative spark for their emotionally-charged debut LP, Good Grief, on Birmingham and Boise-based record label Earth Libraries. Born out of the ashes of DIY dream pop outfit Velouria, and led by musical wunderkind Michael Harp, the group began their life as an outgrowth of the tumult surrounding the untimely death of Harp’s father just days after returning home from Velouria’s final tour in 2015. Luckily making it back to Birmingham in time to say a final goodbye before his passing, it was through the mourning process that Harp would find the inspiration for the song cycle and concept album that would make up the band’s initial repertoire. Utilizing songwriting as a vehicle to channel his inner turmoil while overseas in Spain studying music following the departure of his dad, he would subsequently reconvene with Velouria’s original bass player and drummer, fleshing out the ideas that would eventually make it onto their first record. Finalizing their original lineup with the addition of local violin player Meg Ford, the band would begin crafting a moody and textured sound that owes as much of a debt to Pinback as it does the chamber rock of Carissa’s Wierd and Broken Social Scene.

Recording most of Good Grief here in Birmingham with local producer Brad Timko, and connecting the songs with audio taken from old family videotapes, including his mother’s bat mitzvah, the entire album would serve as a both a lament and celebration of his own coming of age through adversity and the perspective he gained on the beauty and fragility of life that came along with it. And although the past few years have been a trying time while grappling with both the fallout and impact of the experience, it’s also been a rewarding one. Having found receptive audiences both here and on tour, and recently adding new drummer Ethan Standard, things are finally starting to look up for both Harp and the band as a whole, as they turn troubles into triumph and look forward into the future. And with a second album already in the works, there’s no telling where they might go from here, which makes them one of the most interesting groups to watch on the local music scene. And one can’t help but wonder whether Harp’s father might be looking down on it all with us with a smile, which is one of the things that makes it all that more special.

Wilder Adkins

From Elvis, Dylan and the Byrds, to Sam Amidon and Sufjan Stevens, there’s no shortage of modern day artists who have explored religious hymns and themes as part of a greater canon of Americana in search of meaning and a good song. In fact, in many ways, it’s already an integral part of a long-running tradition in popular music, albeit one that can divide both fans and critics alike. Which is why it’s so frustrating being an artist like Wilder Adkins in the Magic City. With a large internet fanbase, yet substantially smaller local following, despite being a presence here since 2008, Adkins has never quite fit in with the current surge of creative talent populating the greater Birmingham area. And it’s easy to see why. Grounded in faith, yet never didactic or over-zealous in his approach to his own spirituality, his music is a reflection of a deeply personal pilgrimage that presents more questions than answers when it comes to broader philosophical inquiries about his relationship with religion and the idea of a higher truth. Mining a devotional folk idiom that’s split between his own original material and reimagined contemporary takes on Gospel-based tunes dating back a century or more, his introspective yet hopeful demeanor has gained him national recognition for his earnest songwriting abilities, landing him on revered stages from The Nick and Sundance Film Festival in Utah to the Kennedy Center in New York City. Originally from Georgia and a onetime high school bandmate of Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt, since settling here Adkins has also gotten to work alongside some of Birmingham’s leading lights, including everyone from country blues picker Early James to producers Les Nuby and Brad Lyons, releasing five albums and an EP, including his latest, 2019’s In This Pilgrim Way.

“I find it difficult because I was never wanting to label myself in any particular way,” he says in response to the seeming schism between the public’s perception of his music and his own personal vision. “I just want to share with people how I feel, and if I talk about faith or something, usually it’s like, ‘Let me tell you how this makes me feel.’ It’s not like, ‘Here’s what you need to realize, brother,’ or something like that. If it helps someone else to know what my experience is like then I’m glad some people connect with that.”

Fortunately for him and us, the songs stand on their own and have made for a great addition to our already robust list of independently-minded musicians, particularly among singer-songwriters. And at the end of the day that’s what being a great artist is all about, whether you’re a theosophical troubadour or just making a joyful noise along the way, as we’re all just wayfaring strangers in the end. And, for our part, we’re just glad to be on the journey with him.

The Pearl

Whether exploring funkified aquaboogie, deep ambient ocean vibes, or the crests and waves of soaring instrumental rock and roll, The Pearl have slowly started to establish themselves as one of the more polished gems of the local jamband scene. Helmed by veteran bassist Beck Hall, guitar phenom Taylor Goodwin, and percussionist Charles Gray, the trio’s infectious and improv-heavy grooves have made them a new favorite among live music lovers everywhere from Avondale Brewery and Saturn to Zydeco and Little Italy’s. Well-versed in the tension-and-release dynamics of bands like Phish and jazz-fusion outfit Snarky Puppy, the group’s wide-ranging mix of original material alongside inventive covers of everything from ’80s movie themes, to Prince, Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney tunes, have seen them inch ever-closer to peaking their heads above the surface to a more mainstream audience, while still staying rooted in a close-knit community of like-minded artists and musicians from around the city. Happy to share both songs and the stage with acts like Little Raine Band, Tragic City and Winston Ramble, the band has made a point of helping foster a strong camaraderie among fellow travelers, collaborating with— and even covering— their musical brethren.

As a longtime fixture among older players from the area, Hall first got his start playing around town at the age of 14 before eventually finding himself in the company of people like local jamband icons Matt Slocum and Chris Fryar from Oteil and The Peacemakers, honing his low-end skills alongside some of Birmingham’s most talented musicians in his early-20s. Having also played in several other improvisational Birmingham bands like The Stop and Looney Mill, it wasn’t until he hooked up with Goodwin and Gray after returning from a stint in Nashville that his current musical aspirations found a proper home. Combining Goodwin’s background in country and bluegrass with a shared love for the musical stylings of the Dead, Hendrix and Allman Brothers, it wasn’t until the addition of Gray’s gospel and jazz-influenced rhythms that the trio truly gelled and found their “energetic feng shui.” And although the group has yet to put out a proper release, with plans for a live and studio album on the way, it’s only a matter of time before their kinetic sonic conversations in concert find their way out into the world at large, dropping hard-won musical wisdom in a fun and dance-friendly setting. And whether their playing shows set to the backdrop of nautical-based visuals like David Attennborough’s Deep Blue documentary or for local live video sessions like Ryktor, there’s a lot to love about these up-and-coming jewels of the sea.

Salvo

They say time heals all wounds. Even those that cut the deepest and are sometimes self-inflicted, which is what makes the redemption and return of one of Alabama’s most beloved ’90s pop punk bands such a great comeback story. Having already achieved minor success in the post-grunge era under the moniker Pain during their original heyday from 1994-2000, this cheerful band of musical misfits has seen its share of ups and downs over the past 25 years, going from a popular mid-level touring group at the top of their game and with a rabidly devoted fanbase, to a 19-year hiatus that saw their members spread out around the country in search of everything from spirituality to more mundane careers as collegial educators. Recently rechristened as the “goblin orchestra” known as Salvo, despite their nearly two decades apart, there may be no better time than now for these hilariously cheeky and horn-driven madmen to make their way back into mainstream culture and the hearts and minds of both old and new audiences around the country and world.

Originally started in Tuscaloosa— by way of Mobile and Jacksonville— in 1994 by founding members Dan Lord and Mark “Pose” Milewicz, Pain first made a name for themselves as an almost impossibly unclassifiable musical entity that seemed wildly out of step with most of their peers from the time. Fun, uptempo, and with an energetic live show that combined humorous onstage antics alongside amusing-yet-pointed lyrics that touched on everything from anthropomorphic cartoon characters to midgets with guns, there was little about them that seemed in touch with the more dour acts of the day, whether it was the heroin chic of groups like Alice in Chains or the dystopian rock of Radiohead. More in line sonically with groups like Blink-182, but with an affinity for the idiosyncratic pop and inventive instrumentation of They Might Be Giants, they were never easy to truly pin down, which is one of things that always made them so interesting. Yet despite gaining national notoriety through plugs on both the Cartoon Network and NBC sitcom NewsRadio, by the time the new millennium rolled around, this band of merry pranksters would come to an abrupt end following the departure of lead singer Lord, who would leave the group at the height of their popularity to study theology and start a family.

Having recently reconvened this past year at Ol Elegante studio in Homewood to record a new album of material at the behest of Lord and longtime member Adam Guthrie— alongside other original bandmates, new recruits and minus Milewicz— the group hasn’t lost a step and are poised to once again bring their raucously joyful music back into the public sphere. Having played a recent sold-out revival show at Saturn that saw fans come from all over the country and was filmed, along with their studio sessions, for a new mini-documentary called Anthem For A Middle Aged Band, the group couldn’t be more excited about what’s in store going forward, all of which Birmingham has been a big part of making possible. And with a release date for the new songs set for this month and designs on touring, they may just be ready to pick up exactly where they left off so many years ago, adding yet another chapter to their quirky and enduring legacy of subversive rock and roll.

Giant puppet heads by Véro Vanblaere

The Yellow Dandies

With one foot firmly in the past and the other planted somewhere in contemporary Grand Ole Opry performance art, it’s easy to be confused by just exactly where The Yellow Dandies stand when it comes to their music. Equally inspired by modern humorists like Frank Zappa and John Hartford as they are by traditional bluegrass artists like Bill Monroe and world folk songs, there’s a lot to take in at any given concert and in any given context. Comfortably fitting into everything from old timey jam sessions to humorously theme-based concert experiences that riff on age-old tropes while simultaneously turning the form inside out and upside down, these string-based aficionados effortlessly combine ace musicianship with an absurdist worldview that straddles both South Park and Southern Appalachia in one fell swoop, which is no small feat.

Formed in Birmingham in 2016 by high school friends and multi-instrumentalists Bailey Hill and Ben Ayers, and originally starting out as a duo, the bluegrass quartet finalized its current lineup after a chance encounter at Good People with 2007 Georgia Fiddle Queen Aerin DeRussy who would officially join the group the following year, followed soon after by bassist Ryan Brown. Discovering a unique chemistry based around deep institutional knowledge and a shared irreverence for sacred cows, the group has been making a name for themselves around town as a must-catch live act on stages all around the city. Having recently released a new five song EP with producer Emanual Ellinas called, appropriately enough, Warning Shot, and featuring cleverly comedic songs like “You Knew I Was Crazy” and the instrumental “Dip Spit in the Milk Jug,” there’s a lot to laugh about when it comes to these cosmopolitan country court jesters.

“One of the things I think that makes our approach to this genre of music unique to a lot of bands out there is like, there are things that we will do that will be considered traditional bluegrass or traditional old time, but when we try to do that stuff we make a point of sticking to the roots in a lot of ways when we’re playing traditional stuff,” says Hill, “But the thing that we’re updating and changing is what’s being sung about and the attitude people have, not necessarily towards how the music’s played, but what the music’s about.” With DeRussy adding, “We feel comfortable thumbing our nose at it a little bit because we know that our foundation is strong. I think that’s one of our goals: is that no one should walk away and be like, ‘Man, they took themselves really seriously and that made me enjoy it way more.’”

And that’s really all part of the fun and farce for these surprisingly serious-minded young musicians. Responding to the age old Zappa-ism “Does humor belong in music?” with a nod and a wink, according to the Dandies, the answer is and always will be a gleeful and resounding yes.

Brooke Mitchell

21st-century pop chanteuse/producer by day and Dark EDM diva by night, composer and singer-songwriter Brooke Mitchell is something of an enigma here in Birmingham. Which is a good thing, despite her lack of notoriety. And whether she’s churning out music for horror film trailers and television shows, lush ambient soundscapes, or thumping dance floor grooves, there’s very little this shadowy-yet-striking local artist can’t do. As one of the Magic City’s best kept musical secrets, over the past 15 years Mitchell has quietly created a career for herself through both an online presence, as well as collaborations with licensing companies and artists like Finland-based beatmaker Mechanik Project, whom she would win the 2016 Independent Music Award with in the Electronic/Dance category for their song “Coming Home.”

A Magic City native, whose love of ballet and dance found her attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts as a young teenager, it was also there that she would discover an interest in both classical music as well as the brooding electronic textures of industrial rock bands like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, all of which would go on to become hybridized touchstones for her later compositional work. Leaving ASFA at 17 to pursue music and study psychology at UAB, it was also during this time that she would acquire her first 4-track, teaching herself the basic ins-and-outs of home studio production before graduating to a digital audio workstation and the modern software she employs to great effect in her current musical arrangements. Largely self-taught, aside from a few early guitar and voice lessons, Mitchell initially started her career on outlets like MySpace, gradually growing her audience online before making the transition to a TV and film composer in her early-30s at the recommendation of a friend who thought it might be something she would excel at. And excel she did. From having her tracks featured on everything from MTV and Oxygen to the E! network, as well as winning the 2017 International Horror Hotel Trailer Scoring Competition, her unique combination of everything from trip hop, house and dubstep, to orchestral hybrid music and covers of people like Gary Numan and Twenty One Pilots, have seen her star continue to rise, albeit largely out of the spotlight of most local music media.

“For me it’s just a spectrum,” she says today looking back on her unorthodox path and progression as an artist. “I think all music, when you listen to like these covers— especially in trailer music and these blends of say, take a pop song and then combine it with this massive orchestration— it’s like smashing together these two worlds of music and it works, and it sounds fabulous.” And she’s right, now it’s time for the rest of the world— and Birmingham— to catch up with her.

The  Shure Shot

They can’t, they won’t and they don’t stop, and although they don’t rock the mic, they most definitely know how to make the beats drop. Which is all part of the appeal when it comes to Birmingham’s newest DJ tag team The Shure Shot. Featuring the turntable skills of longtime local radio personality and BamaLoveSoul crate curator DJ Rahdu, alongside West Coast transplant and haircut chemist/producer Suaze, who doubles as one of the in-house barbers at Newman’s Classic Cuts at Seasick Records, the duo’s penchant for old school flavor coupled with new school grooves and a wide open musical palette, have made for a logical pairing and partnership that’s hoping to try and push Magic City DJ and hip hop culture forward into the future. And whether they’re dropping Brazilian funk, reggae, neo-soul, or Dilla-inspired breakbeats, the party and groove are always at the forefront of their musical minds and journey, creating sonic connections that thread the needle between the samples and sounds that make up the roots of rap.

“Anything I know about music— like jazz, funk, soul— I learned through hip hop and through samples and stuff like that, so it’s always underlying everything all the time and is always there,” says Suaze. “There’s really no boundaries and that’s why I think what we do works, because we kind of think that way.”

“It’s all like puzzle pieces,” adds Rahdu, “In my mind I can see how it all fits together. Like I can start out with hip hop, and most times the breakbeats of the original samples are things I can use to segue from like a traditional hip hop set, to a sample of Michael McDonald and then some neo-soul. It’s just a way to travel pathways without having a set that’s predominantly hip hop, but still have it be hip hop.”

Inspired by the legendary LA-based Sunday DJ party known as the Do-Over, The Shure Shot’s mission is to bring a more inclusive and international vibe to the local music community here, providing both themselves and other DJs a chance to show off their chops while highlighting different styles and approaches to turntablism. Having just gotten their start, the duo has already dropped well-received sets at Mom’s Basement and Art on the Rocks, with hopes of creating an ongoing musical adventure and conversation at other venues around the city. Yet despite being a newer entity around town, their aim is true, which is what makes them a potent new force as part of a world and culture that places a premium on both authenticity and attitude. And with any luck they’ll be rocking the dance floor for years to come, but for their part they’re locked and loaded and ready to go, just waiting to find an audience for their 21-gun salute to the hip hop canon.

One Response to “Magic City Mix”

  1. Shamaral Thomas says:

    DJ Rahdu is awesome!! Great job you guy’s!

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