Gazing Into the Fire

There’s a plaintive thought in an as yet unreleased new song, “Rest,” by the recording artist Sam Fowles, that speaks of being in the wind, longing for shelter, but accepting there are places we still have to go, so we go anyway, hoping for rest, traveling on. The Swiss poet and Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse famously wrote about the moment he ceased to question the stars and began listening to the teaching of his own blood. Hesse said we should all let ourselves be carried away, “like the clouds in the sky.” Sam FowlesHe was a poet, and a romantic seeker, so being carried away was his way of saying we’re over-thinking everything in our modern lives. He wrote, years ago, that the world then was losing its way, which of course it did, many times, with tragic results. Hesse worried that we were losing touch with something elemental that we all possess, but give little credence to. He believed that something was our only real chance at the finding the truth.

Like poetry, for those who write songs, who speak only through their music, they have to let themselves be carried away by it, alone with their tentative explorations, without the strength of bands to back them up, in the wind, to find out what they need to say, and to say it the best way they can. To connect, and to be free. It’s the journey of the wandering heart, the journey of the life tested, the risks taken, the loves and wounded hearts. It’s what Hesse argued was the only real path to personal and spiritual awakening.

Sam FowlesSince 2007, recording artist Sam Fowles has been adding his light to another band, traveling some of the same dusty roads poets travel, with his musical clan, the Portland, Oregon-based Parson Red Heads, a tightly woven little group who, to an outsider, almost feel like a group of childhood friends who came of age making music together because it’s what they did with their time. When a group like the Parsons releases so many cohesive LPs, three full-length collections and at least seven EPs and live records, each maturing them as a band, it’s easy to think of them as one force rather than the result of synchronicity between several gifted contributors who could easily all have successful solo careers.

Sam FowlesFowles, as a founding member of the Parsons, has forged an almost blood-brother relationship with Evan Way, the principal songwriter for the band. Together, they’ve invented a stylish retro, psych-pop sound that’s perfect for Portlandia: hip, sensual, personal, and somehow aged to fit with a town that isn’t fully in agreement with modern life. They like it that way. As a band, they have an electric sound pushed by Way and Fowles with their guitars. With Evan Way as their primary singer as well, Fowles’ vocal role has been folded into the Parsons’ overall sound. On stage, the Parsons have always been as comfortable trying out new songs as well as backlist favorites. So there’s history there, more than seven years, as seekers, risk takers, and dreamers.

Sam FowlesNow, as a journeyman performer, Fowles has stepped into the light, to take some of the biggest chances of his career: to make a solo record that speaks about who he is as a songwriter. Simplifying his sound, he’s also moved his new solo work forward with acoustic guitar. For the first time, his voice is center stage as well: honest, searching, confessional. His synchronicity with the spiritual and mystical songwriting of Bill Fay, an artist he has covered live in performance many times, combined with lyrics filled with a kind of letting go feeling from the likes of Bill Callaghan, Fowles is performing a body of new songs on his own letting go, and being carried away.

Hesse would be proud. Tender, open, and vulnerable, these new songs from Fowles’ new solo project make their declaration: Sam Fowles is a recording artist and a seeker prepared to explore new territory, wherever it takes him.

[Sam recently played live at Mississippi Studios in Portland, Oregon, where I took these pictures. He opened for The Maldives and Rose’s Pawn Shop.]

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The Parson Red Heads at the Tractor Tavern

When I think about the art of the Portland-based band The Parson Red Heads (Evan Way, Brette Marie Way, Sam Fowles, and Charlie Hester), two distinct landscapes take shape in my mind. One is an orderly urban setting, modern and articulate, let’s say Portland, where their music lives indoors, sometimes confessionally, sometimes defiantly, but always orderly and tuneful (be sure to track down the episode of Portlandia in Season 2 where The Parson Red Heads appear in 1890s frontier costume, which works surprisingly well on them). The other landscape is one of open country, changeable as the sky changes, with vast sight lines and the unmistakable presence of “wild,” let’s say the Ponderosa Pine country of Central Oregon (in keeping with my Oregon motif).

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The practicalities of the recording studio, with its focus unavoidably defined by clean, balanced tracks and restrictions of the release medium keep The Parson Red Heads contained and controlled. But in the wide-open spaces of a live venue, like the Tractor Tavern, in Ballard, Washington (and indeed the Shakedown Tavern in Bellingham, Washington, where I also saw and wrote about The Parson Red Heads opening for Sera Cahoone), The band takes their songs out into the open, letting their sound loose to wash out into inventive riffs and solos, achieving an almost retro guitar performance style. Big guitar sound and big energy unmatched in their recordings. Playing live, this band comes into their own.

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First, a few words about their latest full recording, “Yearling” (2011, Parson Farm Records). Some critics have noted the connection The Parson Red Heads have with the work of Gram Parsons, and that’s certainly present, especially in their earlier recordings. The label “alt-country,” however, doesn’t sit comfortably for me for the worlds that The Parson Red Heads inhabit. Granted, in the studio they have reclaimed and modernized the pedal steel, as many bands have done in the past few years, which I suppose gives them the automatic alt-country association.

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But for me, Evan Way’s smart, personal lyrics and voice keep this band firmly in the alternative space. Of course, being compared to Parsons is natural and fitting and flattering. “Yearling,” track for track, makes a powerful and professional songwriting statement for a band that’s released a lot of good material. Take the song “When You Love Somebody,” one my favorite tracks on “Yearling” because of its confessional and touching lyrics. Heard live, it grows in stature and emotional impact and surpasses the already great record version. And I’ve found that true for their other songs, as well.

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The Parson Red Heads’ website says that an extended version of “Yearling” is forthcoming in January, with six bonus tracks. I’ve not had a chance to preview these additional studio songs, but I do know the band will be back out on the road early in 2013 to support its release. It’s a grind, building a career as a band these days, and it takes a lot of live shows to build a fan base. As I briefly noted in my review of the Cahoone live show, you won’t want to miss the “Murmurations” EP (2012, Timber Carnival Records).

This is a band that’s coming into its own with several impressive releases. I’ve heard them cover “Punctual As Usual” from “King Giraffe” (2008, Yukon Records) a couple of times now and once again, it fills the room in a live setting. “King Giraffe” remains an important record in this band’s career. At The Tractor show, they covered “When You Love Somebody” (“Yearling”) and closed with a strong version of “I Miss Your Smile” (from the EP “Early Birds,” Parson Farm Records, 2010).

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The only live recordings of this band I’ve been able to track down are two from several years ago (2006 and 2008, both part of the influential and underground-feeling Spaceland Recordings series in Los Angeles). The 2008 set, “Live: Mondays In Spaceland, Vol. 6,” is closer to their current approach to live shows. In the intervening years the band has grown considerably in their sound and stage presence, projecting even more energy and experimentation. To my ear Brette Marie Way’s drumming has also grown to where it makes up a large part of The Parson Red Heads’ sound. And bass player Charlie Hester delivers powerful bass lines and backing vocals.

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Now, a few words about the “wild” landscape inhabited by The Parson Red Heads when they take the stage. I’ve recently become interested in how a song arrives as it’s being written, perhaps a bit more than what the lyrics of a given song say. The Parson Red Heads explore a lot of romantic and personal territory in their lyrics. It’s that emotional impulse that’s creating and pushing the song into shape. This curiosity about the source is frequently shared by other music reviewers, I think, because we’re always searching for the bigger meanings in cool songs. Reviewers often ask themselves the question about a song’s source. And related to that idea is the question of how a song wants to be played live, how it reveals itself and changes in front of an audience. I’ve come to believe that even the band can’t know what songs want until they take them out onto the road.

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The Parson Red Heads’ recent show at The Tractor had them rolling out some new songs not yet committed to recordings (“Small Change” and “TV Surprise”). Thinking about the Spaceland recordings and what I saw at The Tractor, I heard a big difference in the band’s sound. The confidence of these players working so closely together for a few years now, with lots of miles on the road, has their songs growing live into sprawling, beautiful soundscapes, with openings for Evan Way and Sam Fowles to add beautiful and energized riffs.

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Watch this band live and you can feel them lost in the moment, drifting with the sound they’re creating. It’s exciting to see people do what they love doing. Evan and Brette Marie Way direct the flow of each song, with Brette Marie contributing powerful drum lines and structure, and the two of them leading the band out into the wild spaces and then back home again. The Tractor show saw The Parson Red Heads once again opening for another band, but it won’t be long before they are the headliner. It’s also time for this band to release another live recording that better reflects the energy they now project on stage. The safer studio releases are fun, but I personally prefer The Parson Red Heads live. Every now and then you have to get out of the city and get a little lost in some open country, to rediscover things inside yourself that you thought you already knew.