November 2009 Web Edition Issue #3
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CELESTIAL CHORISTERS: CALICO the band
Being a report of the live Album Release Show
at Hotel Café September 5, 2014, and CD review
Those who enjoy fresh, bright, upbeat and thoughtful acoustic music with subtle instrumentation and lush harmonies in the folk, California Country and Americana tradition will love the music of CALICO the band. They are not exactly newcomers, but they are still new.
CALICO the band has been in existence for almost two years with founding members Manda Mosher and Kirsten Proffit (both fine singers, writers, and accomplished guitarists), together with a prior singer/guitarist/songwriter, lately departing the group. Melodist Aubrey Richmond, well-experienced singer, fiddler and tunesmith, has stepped into the front line, after having been an occasional player on fiddle in the former lineup. They have played clubs, festivals and shows since the April 2014 lineup change, to a favorable critical and popular reception, with some music available on YouTube.
Having had the pleasure of a February dinner at The Polo Lounge with Ms. Richmond to prepare a Musician Profile on her here in the pages of MondoCult.com, I have followed her career development with some interest. When I was advised of this Album Release Show at Hollywood’s Hotel Café for Friday, September 5th, I jumped at the chance, for the YouTube videos of this group that I had monitored suggested a trio with smart, wise songs, flawless instrumentation and the voices of angels (hence this article’s title).
Going far enough back in time, Texas and even Louisiana were once the wild West, as suggested by the 19th Century traveler’s folk ballad Oh, Susanna. The frontier kept pushing until it hit the Pacific. Recognizing the influence of California Country took some time for me, as a recent addition to the Southwest. But we see that Jack Guthrie and his cousin Woody came here in the 1930s bringing a rich Oklahoma folk and country tradition with them, which eventually spread nationally. In the 1940s, the West Coast also welcomed Western Swing, best exemplified in Texan Bob Will’s residency in Los Angeles beginning in 1943, again finding a national audience. At the same time, “the West Coast was the most prolific area for country boogie recordings.”1 Naturally, country boogie opened the way for honky-tonk, rockabilly and psycho-billy, formats which still exist. There have been many California-based or California-formed folk, country-rock, country and Americana musicians since the 1960s, too numerous to mention here.
At the fresh end of this stream of tradition intermixed with innovation we find CALICO the band. Kirsten Proffit owns a song when she takes it up, with an undoubted authority and firm self-confidence. Her clear, direct voice might have been nurtured in the same rich mid-lands loam as that which supported Gretchen Wilson, but Kirsten is a Californian. Manda Mosher has a soft voice at times, nearly as soft as Norah Jones, almost as diffident as the early Marianne Faithful before she met and was “corrupted” by Mick Jagger, but never timid nor doubtful, always perfectly intonated and elucidated, sometimes humorous and never to be ignored.
Both these two started as solo rock musicians, Manda more along the lines of Karen Carpenter than Kirsten, who brought more of a folk ethic to her rock efforts. But when they met, their styles morphed and converged into the elegant California Country found on this album. Aubrey Richmond dishes out beautiful, evocative melodies via her fiddle, and plays every vocal role (double and triple harmony, backing vocal, duetist, scat singer, lead singer), bringing richness and smoothness to the harmonic synergy that Kirsten and Manda create.
I arrived at Hotel Cafe at 8:20 and took a seat at a table near the stage, an advantage I enjoyed later, the advantage of some space to take notes. I could not quite find the groove of the first band, though they were competent in terms of pitch and meter. Rod Melancon and his band followed, with a very tight story-telling set of rural Louisiana and other rustic songs infused with vitality from his earnest vocals. The young Johnny Cash seems to have been the mold in which Rod was cast. His bass player also sings very well, while the drummer, keyboard man and electric guitarist made a very tight, polished ensemble. I was sad to see them depart the stage, they were that good.
There were some in the house I recognized as musicians I had seen on YouTube, other artists whom Aubrey had played with. The crowd had been quietly building, filling all the available tables and chairs. The stage crew brought a great variety of instruments to the stage for CALICO the band’s set. Audience anticipation grew and the crowd swelled to the walls as an acoustic bass, guitar bass, an accordion, a few mandolins and a clutch of acoustic and electric guitars, plus Manda’s resonator guitar, were set up at key points. Drums, piano and pedal steel guitar were already on stage, of course.
The place was standing room only before any of the singers took the stage. There was one empty seat at my table. In short order, a lady named Rhoda and a friend had drawn in an additional chair and were sitting with me. They knew of Ms. Richmond and they knew of CALICO the band but they had come for Shooter Jennings, who was going to close down after CALICO the band played their set. Rhoda persuaded me I should stay for Shooter’s performance; thank you, Rhoda, I did.
Kirsten appears to be the spark plug of the group. Watch the Stones play Honky Tonk Women, Midnight Rambler or Satisfaction on YouTube and it is obvious that no matter what else might be going on, the song does not really start until Keith Richards starts it. Just so, Kirsten shows as the leader in kicking off a tune with this band.
The first song was Never Really Gone, a lovely and loving elegy to a musical mentor of Manda’s who has since passed, but leaves a lasting influence. Carl Byron played accordion, while Aubrey’s fiddle sounded like bagpipes, making a beautiful introduction for the excited audience.
This was followed by High Road, a nearly mystical piece with a supernatural quality akin to that of Ghost Riders in the Sky, only less doleful and more spiritual. This song expresses a philosophical bent, relating to that higher creed as it does. This may become an iconic tune, one whose future seems hard to predict. With the vocals mixed forward enough in live shows, this song has the potential to become an anthem of sorts, of the nature of Teach Your Children, Crossroads, Gimme Shelter, Born in the USA, All Right Now, Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys, or the like. But it is more of the nature of a Mission Statement. Foreseeing its larger place is a challenge. Recording an extended dance mix would make sense, as would producing a call-and-response gospel version.
Fools’ Gold followed, with luscious harmonies interspersed. Drummer Tripp Beam should be commended for his power and control, just excellent work, while bassist Ted Russell Kamp, on both upright and guitar bass, proved himself a master at providing not only rhythmic propulsion and harmonic support, but on occasion reaching into the melody department.
Runaway Cowgirl came next, which was followed by Can’t Let Go, a Randy Weeks song most famously performed by Lucinda Williams. Ms. Williams is a favorite of and an inspiration for CALICO the band. This rendition features a dramatic, high-energy duet between Aubrey and singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Charles Miller, a seasoned practitioner of outlaw country.
This extremely lively performance featured a dynamic very similar to that displayed between Steven Tyler and Carrie Underwood performing Walk This Way as a duet at the Country Music Awards in Vegas a few years ago, or Mick Jagger with Fergie and U-2 performing Gimme Shelter at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Aubrey and Jason team up in an intense and amazing male/female exchange that gives this tune real life and interest.
San Andreas Shake, with a nod to California’s propensity for earthquakes, came next, with Johnny Hawthorn shining brightly on lap steel guitar. The group then performed Lone Ranger, the song that brought Kirsten and Manda together with the idea of forming a group in the first place. Manda plays a mean blues harp when the tune calls for it! The live show included some but not all of the tunes on the CD.
Considering the question of authenticity in a comparative way, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons was born in Houston. ZZ Top’s drummer Frank Beard owns up as a fifth generation Texan, helping authenticate ZZ Top as a Texas band. Dusty Hill comes from Dallas. ZZ Top’s claim to Texan-ness is complete.
Likewise, Manda Mosher was born in Pasadena, a sixth generation Californian. Aubrey Richmond was born in Sacramento, raised in Eastern Washington’s cowboy country on a rural spread where she learned to ride horses and play Old Time Fiddle at a young age, and then moved back to California for high school and college. Kirsten Proffit was born and lived in Santa Cruz, then went with her family to Spain for some years, before returning to Orange County. The wanderers returned home. Thus, the claim by CALICO the band to be authentic California Country is as good as that of ZZ Top to be authentic Texas blues. And California Country cannot be held back by borders!
CALICO the band occupies the intersection of folk music, California Country, and Americana, composing and performing sweet, subtle music. Being present at the inception of Crosby, Stills & Nash must have been a very exciting time, the formation of The Dixie Chicks likewise, or the original foursome of The Eagles. Since meeting her, I have wondered where Aubrey Richmond was “going to end up.”
If CALICO the band can avoid small private aircraft (and the attendant fates of Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Lynryd Skynyrd, Rick Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan), maybe we can see this group rise to the heights of music, for all the ingredients, including talent, energy, intelligence, synergy, drive, mutual support, respect for and whole-hearted support of fans and the requisite dose of good fortune seem present.
The quality of back-up from the host of studio and performing professional musicians was the highest. Mark Christian, Carl Byron, Ted Russell Kamp, J.C. August, Tripp Beam, Johnny Hawthorn, Jason Charles Miller, Scott Kinnebrew, and Steve Berns, together with an involved and delighted audience, supported CALICO the band with enthusiasm and energy, making a tremendous love-fest of this centerpiece of the evening.
Kirsten, Manda and Aubrey all have first class instrumental performance skills. Any one of them could hold a stage as singer/songwriter/instrumentalist. Their creative collaboration brings synergy to a full boil, while cooperation remains the watchword.
When the last song ended, the members decamped to the “ticket booth” area where I bought some Rancho California CDs as gifts for friends and got a few things autographed. Then I went back in the big room with the stage and sat near Rhoda to check out Shooter Jennings.
I was pleasantly surprised to have Aubrey bound past me and jump onto the stage, where she performed a handful of tunes with Shooter Jennings and his group, both fiddle and vocals. She can stand and duel with a lead guitarist very well, as she showed with a number of the guitarists over the evening. Manda and Kirsten also join in on one Shooter Jennings tune, showing they have good outlaw country chops along with their other skills. Finally, knowing I had to be up at 6:00 Saturday for a Jeep trip to Death Valley’s Panamint Mountains, I departed for the night.
As I write this, I am listening to several playbacks of the Rancho California CD. At least four of these tunes deserve heavy rotation on FM and XM radio. Very fine recording skill captured these beautiful vocals. And the backing instrumentals by the host of artists listed in the Liner Notes perfectly augment this lovely production.
Four shows I have attended left me exhilarated in that way that takes hours to “come down from.” These were the second Humble Pie concert I went to, the Rolling Stones, the incredibly intense hard-rock duo known as Deap Vally, and CALICO the band. I left CALICO the band very happy, and I am still smiling and laughing with pleasure at the goodness of it all, two days later. The next time they play locally, in late October, I will bring a claque of friends and cheer this band on with renewed energy: what a fine group!
Who would be the closest competition? Tucson’s Run, Boy, Run comes to mind, with Jen Sandoval (also playing mandolin), Bekah Sandoval-Roland (also playing guitar and fiddle), and Grace Roland (also playing cello) in feminine triple harmony, backed up by Jesse Allen on string bass and Matt Roland (Bekah’s husband) on fiddle and guitar. This young group has a good thing going with stellar vocals and a growing following. They have played together since their student days at University of Arizona, plus which, the sister-sister pair of the group and the brother-sister pair of the group have lifelong familiarity. Of course they are smooth with that much common background. However, this is a string band, one which could be imagined playing Vivaldi or Bottesini at the drop of a hat.
CALICO the band in its current rendition is not six months old, yet already smoother than whole cream. When working at five members, CALICO the band is a dance band, capable of getting that barn dance, roadhouse, or hoe-down rocking and reeling, with them boots a-scootin’. Better still, the three singers can also stand alone as a trio and keep an audience well entertained with their beautiful vocals and skillful instrumentation. These are the early days where something wonderful is happening. Welcome to Rancho California.
1) Page 14 of liner booklet to Hill Billy Boogie boxed set, Proper Records, Ltd., London, EN.