Sunday, 26 October 2014

CCP MUSIC | INTERVIEW: Former members of The Explorers Club join forces in Honeysmoke

PHOTO BY Shannon Cunningham Oleksak
Honeysmoke doesn't claim to have created its own genre, but we think the local band's blend of bluesy guitars and breezy island instrumentation is pretty unique. The foursome uses lap steel, ukulele, harmonica, resonator guitar, upright bass, and the occasional accordion to achieve a sound that's ripe with both Mississippian as well as Hawaiian flavor. And it's all quite fitting for Charleston, a place that can certainly appreciate sunshine-meets-swamp music.
Though the band officially formed last summer, frontman Dave Ellis, slide guitarist Justin James, and bassist Michael Rogers played music together for years as former members in the Beach Boys-esque band The Explorers Club. Their new project — the trio is joined by drummer Oleksak — is heavily inspired by the Delta blues.
For Ellis, the musical change of direction started while he was browsing around a music store. He saw something shiny and knew he had to have it.
"I bought one of these resonator guitars," Ellis says. "I was always kind of interested in them, and I was getting into the Robert Johnson thing, and there was one at Ye Olde Music Shop for cheap. So I bought it, and it inspired the whole idea [of Honeysmoke]."
When it came to scratching the itch, he wasn't alone. "Justin was really into the blues and plays a really great slide steel guitar, so we just jammed some blues standards. Justin came and had upright bass, and Mike started figuring it out and learned it. And then Jake joined us in August, so I started doing some recordings of some songs I had previously done in this style, and that's where the album kind of came from."
Honeysmoke released its self-titled debut this month, a simple seven-song disc. The record contains covers of Tom Waits ("Jockey Full of Bourbon") and Robert Johnson ("Come on in My Kitchen"), plus the band's own tunes, like "Sullivan's Blues," a song Ellis co-wrote with James. "The Ballad of Honeysmoke" is the leadoff track and a basic blues jam. "My wife was cooking dinner, and I thought it might be fun to just have a straightforward 12-bar blues kind of song, so I just pulled it out at rehearsal and it worked," Ellis says. "It's just about the person you love cooking you dinner in the kitchen. It's about just feelin' in love, you know, and coming home from a hard day's work and the person you love is there with you."
The album's fourth track, "Sunny California," is a song Ellis penned about a past relationship while he and The Explorer's Club were in Los Angeles. The influence of his former band is obvious in this particularly laid-back tune, which is probably best heard under the haze of a setting sun. "On Holiday" is in the same vein, and like Ellis' blues excursion, it was inspired by an instrument.
"That one I wrote last summer while on vacation with Justin and his family in St. John," Ellis recalls. "I was there for 10 days, and I bought a ukulele before the trip and just learned it while I was there. I wrote that song on the second day.
For Ellis, learning a new instrument inspires creativity. "An unfamiliar instrument can sometimes inspire you creatively, because you don't really know all the rules yet, and you haven't really gotten locked into a typical way of playing it. It's been that way for both Justin and myself on ukulele," Ellis explains. "And a lot of the material we are currently writing has started on the ukulele. Sometimes it takes getting away from the everyday grind of life for me to be inspired."
As for the band's name, Ellis feels it's a remarkably apt way to describe Honeysmoke's sweet but bluesy sound.
"I was just researching blues terminology and stuff," Ellis tells us, "and there was this one [reference] called the Honeydripper, a guy who was just a smooth-talking guy with the ladies or something. So I liked that, but Robert Plant actually had a group in the '80s called The Honeydrippers. So we couldn't use that. And then [the research] also talked about smokestacks, so I decided to put the two together."
He adds, "Honey and smoke has a kind of cool little image of something sweet and something smoky —something that drips, something that rises — like two opposite ends of the spectrum put together. And it's kind of weird how it worked out with our group because we do the sultry, smoky blues, but we also like the sweet, mellow sound of the islands."

CCP MUSIC | INTERVIEW: Vlado Meller has mastered records for a long list of legends

When Vlado Meller was 21 years old, he turned up at CBS Studios intent on doing one thing with his life: mastering records. Rather than pursue the more popular careers of mixing or producing, Meller was resolute on becoming the record's sound enhancer, and his perseverance paid off. The big boys took him in that day back in 1969. They trained him on the job, and before Meller knew it, he was cutting vinyls and working with one of the most impressive musical catalogs imaginable. His first big client — Pink Floyd. From then on he worked with everyone from Michael Jackson and Weezer to Metallica and Duran Duran.
"I'm not a genius or anything," Meller says of his remarkable resume. "I just worked for the labels, and they fed me work. I had a huge clientele in every genre — classical, country, rock, Broadway, Christian music. I mean, whatever they had, I worked with them. So in the morning, they'd drop Streisand off to me, in the afternoon, Johnny Cash — next day, Aerosmith. So I was used to this catalog. I didn't know any better — I thought this was normal. I was just constantly fed the top-line music. It was delivered to me on a silver plate. They sold millions of records, and it worked out very nicely."
Meller hasn't skipped a beat for the past four decades, despite leaving New York City back in March. After visiting the Lowcountry often while his daughter attended the University of South Carolina, one day he decided to trade the skyscrapers for steeples. A colleague of Meller's had also told him about Truphonic Recording Studios in West Ashley.
"I thought, 'Who has a studio in Charleston?' I was very skeptical," Meller says with a smile. "And he said, 'No, no, you have to see it. It's a little gem. It's behind a liquor store. I said, 'Behind a liquor store?' I'm used to Fifth Avenue, you know. So I came over here, and I was pleasantly surprised."
Now with a growing number of local clients like The Royal Tinfoil and Dangermuffin, Meller is comfortably settled in the new space here in the Holy City. Massive speakers reminiscent of jet engines swallow his studio whole, while gold record after gold record line the walls of the lobby — it's like a museum in there. He points to a Paul McCartney record and recalls working with him while the Beatle's kids were in a playpen. There's a story with every artist: Wham, Oasis, Elton John. The list is seemingly infinite.
During the height of the record-selling business — back when a hit meant selling millions of records rather than the laughable six-digit numbers of today — Meller even went on vacations in exotic, far-flung places with successful clients, the names of which he keeps under wraps.
One of only eight professional mastering engineers in America, Meller has also picked up a couple of Grammys (via Shakira), though many more of his clients were Grammy winners. Meller says that his eligibility to get the award is only a relatively recent thing. Since mastering is the final step in the recording process, the role of the audio mastering engineer is an important one. And these guys are finally getting proper recognition. But in order for the engineers to get a Grammy, the clients have to win Album of the Year. Take Kanye West, for example. Meller mastered six of West's hit albums, and the musician picked up a slew of Grammys, but never for Album of the Year. Instead of trophies, Meller has a stack of certificates — not that he's complaining. He is more than content with what he's accomplished.
"It's a very interesting job," Meller says. "It's a very beautiful job, and I enjoy every minute of it. I've never had any regrets. Now in my later years, I hope I can also help teach the younger generation."
Meller instructs mastering workshops at the studio now. He's led two so far, with one three-day class planned for December. Next year, he plans to expand to a five-day workshop where students can learn tracking, mixing, production, editing, and mastering. Today, he can comprehensively pass on his extraordinary knowledge while continuing to do what he loves, and that helps make the move down South another triumph for Meller.
"I've made my transition, and this is my life now," Meller says. "I never worked in any other industry. I never did anything else except mastering. Many are mixers for a few years and they move on to producers, and some master for a year or two, then go back to mixing. I stick with what I do, and I'm very happy that I stuck with it."
Vlado Meller Mastering is located in Truphonic Recording Studios, West Ashley and can be reached at

CCP MUSIC | REVIEW: Shovels & Rope craft a sublime new LP, Swimmin' Time

This has been one long summer waiting on Swimmin' Time, the third release from Charleston's favorite sloppy-tonkin' husband-and-wife pair, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. A teaser video was posted on Shovels & Rope's YouTube channel way back in April, taunting fans with a mere 30-odd seconds from the title track. Then in June, the band introduced the single "The Devil is All Around," a tasty treat that went a ways in satiating the ShoRo public until the album's release on August 26. And now? It's finally time for Swimmin' Time. And boy was it worth the wait.
Listen Now: NPR currently has "Swimmin' Time" available to stream in its entirety as this week's "First Listen"
The liner notes alone are fascinating. Vintage photographs of flooded scenes from landmarks like the Ashley and Edisto rivers accompany the lyrics. Judging from the album's title, images, and much of the language used in the songs, it's clear that the Johns Island couple, and indeed Swimmin' Time, is massively inspired by the waters seeping through the Lowcountry. We can't wait to dip our toes right on in.
"Swimmin' Time" liner notes - SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence
  • "Swimmin' Time" liner notes
It's obvious you're in for a spiritual experience when the record kicks off with the tones of an organ before Hearst and Trent launch into "The Devil is All Around," a deceivingly uplifting song about getting your life back on track despite your former sins. The twosome's incomparably powerful harmonies excite and calm the soul when they sing "I'm going down a long road/ Maybe it's the wrong road/ But either way I gotta find my way back home again." Another survival anthem "After the Storm" is a slow and stunning track, glued together with hopeful words and those two voices that know one another like only lovers can.

With a rattlesnake hum and talk of fire and floods, the ominous title track is a Revelations-like warning ("I can see it coming/ In the distance is the gloom of the end of days") and the most haunting of the water-themed songs. Another tragic aquatic tale is told on "Thresher," where a 1963 submarine sinks while an "unending black sea held everyone's gaze in a quiet humility." "Stono River Blues" is another swamp-filled song and a history lesson about the 1739 Stono slave rebellion that'll make locals want to re-enroll in school. "The mayor borrowed all of the money he need/ To put in a bridge with deliberate speed/ They cut down the oaks with a tip of his hat/ And God will never forgive him for that."
Cary Ann and Michael play a show at Charleston Music Hall in January 2014 - JOHN A. ZARA FILE PHOTO
  • John A. Zara file photo
  • Cary Ann and Michael play a show at Charleston Music Hall in January 2014
Dark undertones continue to weave in and out of the record, again notably with "Ohio," a good and grim New Orleans-style tune that's all brass and bullets. And the silly side of Shovels & Rope is everywhere, too, like in "Fish Assassin'," a song that genuinely needs no further introduction except to say it's a stomping, fiery railroad-style hymn about fussin', fishin', and fryin'. "Coping Mechanism" is a sassy, 1950s ditty that saunters, sways, and tells the clean truths about dirty drugs.

Another standout track is "Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan," the most joyful, terribly sweet song we've heard in a long time and a wedding tune if there ever was one. This story about an ex-soldier/current writer and his circus waitress soul mate brought a few — OK, a ton — of tears to our faces, even after a dozen listens. Then there's "Save the World," a song that's not so much an Earth Day ode, but rather a poignant reminder that simply carrying out small, kind gestures is the sort of action that'll save mankind.
While influences from Jack White to Tom Waits are evident throughout the record,Swimmin' Time is uniquely Hearst and Trent through and through. Full of raw energy, homegrown spirit, and rock 'n' roll magic, this whole album sublimely balances the bright with the bleak. Every note leaves us baffled as to how these two miraculously found each other, but we're awfully glad they did.
Monster Music and Movies is having a Swimmin' Time listening party Aug. 25 at 6 p.m. Free pizza will be on hand and probably some free beer, plus the store will give away a few records that day. The first five people to purchase the new album that morning when the doors open at 10 a.m. will get a free Shovels & Rope seven-inch Johnnny 99 record the twosome recorded at Jack White's Third Man Studios last year. There will also be a drawing that evening for five additional free copies of the 45, which features ShoRo covers of Bruce Springsteen's "Johnny 99" and Tom Waits' "Bad as Me."

CCP MUSIC | INTERVIEW: Local indie songstress Grace Joyner cites Jeff Buckley as her biggest influence


Formerly known for singing backup vocals for bands like fellow Hearts & Plug label mates Elim Bolt, Grace Joyner stepped out of the shadows earlier this year to claim the spotlight for herself with the release of her debut record Young Fools, a sentimental six-song EP she composed during a difficult breakup. Her full band features percussionist Nick Jenkins, bassist and Hearts & Plugs founder Dan McCurry, and keyboardist Camille Lucy Rhoden. The music that Joyner, an organist, and her band make comes off as beautifully simplistic.
It could have been a lot different, though, had six-string guitars been present.
Tracks like "Wasted Time" and "Love of Mine" are full of narratives that have listeners wanting to hear every word — and that's not hard to do either. With the subtle beat of an electric drum here and dreamlike tones of a keyboard there, the focus remains on Joyner's controlled and emotive vocals.
"I didn't have any idea when I went into the studio what would come out at the end," Joyner tells us. "At first when we were recording, it had guitar, and it sounded a little bit more rock band-ish. And then we recorded 'Wasted Time,' and it was just very minimal, and I knew it was exactly what I wanted. And I love guitar. I'm thinking of learning to play actually, but I just didn't think it was right for those songs necessarily.
"I know what I do is different than what a lot of female artists in Charleston have been doing lately," Joyner admits. "I love and respect so many musicians in this town, but I never felt like that was the route I wanted to take — I don't play guitar so I don't know how to write music like that. I just felt like maybe my influences pushed me in a different path."
Joyner credits her close friend and producer Wolfgang Ryan Zimmerman with knowing her well enough to help capture her sound and guide her in the right direction. The album was recorded at his Line Street studio, The Space. "It was important for me [to record with Zimmerman], because I'd never done that before," she says. "I always sang background for other people. I'd just come into the studio, they'd tell me what to sing, and I'd sing it — so that was pretty easy. And it wasn't really emotional for me, because they weren't my songs. But when it's something you write, it's different — especially if you aren't sure how people are going to receive it. But at The Space, he made me feel really comfortable. And he was really very honest with me. We just have a very comfortable dynamic."
Because Joyner was busy with classes at CofC, as well as her day job with American Apparel (she's currently a district manager), it took a whole year for Young Fools to come to fruition. But she's got a different plan for the making of her first full-length record. With her eye on October, Joyner hopes to get a fresh batch of songs recorded in only a month. And though we imagine the tunes may be on the tender side, she says the theme won't be as heartache-y. "I haven't been romantically inspired lately," she says, "so I use work problems, or you know, friend problems, and they kind of end up sounding like it's a romantic story— and it might not necessarily reflect what I'm feeling about the situation.
"With the new songs, I'm basically rehashing old things. I sometimes draw from past experiences," Joyner says. "I can still really connect with things I've dealt with in the past. I'm not going through it anymore, but I can still feel the same feelings so that really helps me write."
Deep-seeded influences guide Joyner, too. The heavy stuff of Jeff Buckley helped shape Joyner's sound, particularly her strong vocals. "I love the way he used his voice like an instrument," Joyner says. "There was a review [of Young Fools] that said that I sounded emotional, but not theatrical, and I love that because that's exactly how I feel about him. You can hear the emotion in what he's saying, but it's not over the top or too much. It doesn't sound contrived. It's natural, and that's something that really appealed to me when I listened to him when I was younger."
Proof of her affection for the late great Buckley can be found on Joyner's forearm, which reads "Grace is what matters." And no, it's not a self-indulgent motto. "Well my mom wanted to name me Grace, and my dad wanted to name me Amber so they compromised and named me Amber Grace, so that's kind of why I did Grace Joyner for the band project, because I thought it would be special for her.
"And I love Jeff Buckley and his album Grace," Joyner continues. "This quote is one of my favorites. He says grace is what matters in everything — in death, in tragedy, in pain. And I got this after sort of a rough patch when I was younger. Well, I thought it was a rough patch, but in hindsight it's probably not really that bad," she laughs, "But I got it to remind myself to forgive people and give people grace and give yourself grace, because I'm not perfect either."

CCP MUSIC | INTERVIEW: Dad-country crooner Jonny Fritz discusses ups, downs, and nicknames

Jonny Fritz, the artist formerly known as Jonny Corndawg, rides a bicycle over a busy bridge in Montana with a record under one arm as he navigates with the other — all while conducting a phone interview with the City Paper. Fresh from an epic international tour with stops in Australia, Japan, and the Philippines, Fritz is so transparently joyful we can hear the smile in his voice. "I'm about to go for a run and jump in the river before our show tonight," he says between breaths. "It's so beautiful here. It's insane how nice it is. I don't want to go to sleep. I don't want to miss any of it."
Once Fritz finds a safe place from traffic and tricky turns, he gets us caught up on the past couple of years since he was last in Charleston. "I've had some ups and downs. The ups have been really up, and the downs have been pretty down. One of the ups is that I bought a motorcycle, and I've been riding the shit out of it just all over the country," Fritz says.
But the main reason Fritz is high on life is because of his involvement with the recently filmed documentary Heartworn Highways Revisited. The original film took a close, fascinating look at the outlaws of the Nashville music scene in the mid to late '70s. It featured legends like Townes Van Zandt, David Allan Coe, Steve Earle, Steve Young, and Guy Clark, who were merely outsiders during that time. They made up their own rules. Now as the 30th anniversary of the film nears, the original producer catches up again with Clark, Young, and Coe, in addition to a bold new breed of musicians who have lived or currently live in Nashville, like Shovels & Rope's Cary Ann Hearst (who is from Nashville) and Michael Trent, plus Justin Townes Earl, Bobby Bare Jr., and of course, Jonny Fritz.
"I got to meet my hero Guy Clark," he says. "I got to hang out with Guy a lot and have dinner with him and go to his house and pick his brain on things, and that was honestly one of the highlights of my year, my life. I feel like I've gone up to another level, from playing shows with friends to meeting Guy Clark and being filmed. That's been really nice, and it feels like my work has really paid off."
The funny thing is that even though Fritz marches to the beat of his own drum with his humorous country tunes, he doesn't feel like the outlaw label is a correct one. So, he coined his own term for the music he makes — dad country. "People were calling me outlaw country, but I'm anything but an outlaw," Fritz explains. "I like reading, exercising, education, and travel. It was fun to say 'No, I'm really not an outlaw. I'm more like someone's weird dad or something.'"
But maybe Fritz is still a rebel in his own way. The aforementioned downside of the past year or so has to do with his health, but that still hasn't stopped him. "I went to a voice doctor because I was having a lot of trouble. I get sick a lot and lose my voice a lot, so apparently I've got polyps on my vocal chords." Though the musician has been ordered to take it easy, Fritz is too restless to rein in his uncontainable energy. "They basically say you need to spend about six months in silence and not talk and not sing and not run and not exercise and just rest, and I just can't sit still to save my life. I'm trying to figure out how to continue and heal at the same time and not lose my mind."
Rather than follow his doctor's orders, Fritz hit the road again and kept on singing songs. Last year, he also changed his stage name and released a fresh set of country tales — the sometimes serious ("Have You Ever Wanted to Die"), sometimes goofy ("Trash Day") record, Dad Country — under his new moniker. Fritz previously released two records —Down on the Bikini Line and I'm Not Ready to Be a Daddy — as Jonny Corndawg, a name that just may stick no matter what, not that he minds much.
"Corndawg never bothered me," Fritz says. "I never thought anything of it. And then recently we're starting to make records, and some record label people said, 'You know, you really should change your name.' So I thought about it a lot, because I don't want to be this nicknamed little kid forever. But what actually happened after I changed it is it brought a ton more attention than before, and now that's all I talk about. It's a funny problem to have that I sort of asked for.
"So I took the advice of a big music executive, which I don't think I'll ever do again. But I don't regret it," Fritz says. "I also changed it because Jonny Corndawg gave a lot away. When you go up there and your name is Jonny Corndawg, everyone knows kind of what to expect. And I hate when people know what to expect of me."

CCP FOOD | REVIEW: Has Boxcar Betty's mastered the chicken sandwich?

The first time we tried to go to Boxcar Betty's for lunch, we wound up eating somewhere else. An unassuming white building buried in a mix of cash loan joints, tattoo parlors, and car lots, it was easy to miss the restaurant along the crowded Savannah Highway in West Ashley. But that was a few weeks back, and now after several visits, it's safe to say we could never pass it by again — and we wouldn't want to. Fair warning, though, things can get a tad messy at Boxcar Betty's, so this is no kind of food for first or second dates.
As we reported back in April, owners Ian MacBryde and Roth Scott met working downtown at Magnolias and eventually decided to bring Charleston something they felt the city had long been lacking: a quick and casual place to eat a truly great fried chicken sandwich.
Chicken and not-so waffle - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Chicken and not-so waffle
Fittingly, Boxcar Betty's decor reflects the rustic simplicity of life on the rails. With a minimalist color scheme that's all grays and beige, plus chipped paint and battered boards, the space is shabby chic in a way that's honest and believable. Small, clear vases hold sprigs of rosemary adding a touch of whimsy to the tables. One long yellow bench and a few Shepard Fairey prints add subtle pops of color. And nice and easy folk music plays overhead, making you forget that this is essentially a fast-food joint — and I do mean fast. We timed one visit for two of us at half an hour total. That may also speak to how hungry we were, but still, that's quick.
The theme of going back to basics is also underlined with the limited menu. Boxcar Betty's is so confident in their chicken sammies that you only get three choices — the Box Car, Buffalo, and Chicken & Not-So Waffle (all $7). A build-your-own-sandwich option ($7) is there, too, and they also serve killer fries — both hand-cut sweet potato ($2.50) and regular ($2). Chicken tenders ($4.50) are available and seem to be popular with kids. Also under the Extras menu is a small side of fried green tomatoes ($3), which were pickled then fried in the house batter — a unique and delicious take on the normal FGT. The three modest slices were small enough to eat before the batter had a chance to slide off.
The Box Car sandwich is served with pimento cheese that's not drowned in mayo, peach slaw that only faintly tastes of peaches, housemade pickles, and spicy mayo. Oh, and fried chicken. We've read one complaint online about the chicken being too salty, and call me Southern to the core, but I couldn't disagree more. The flour-based batter is mild and once fried to a golden-brown crisp, it's a bit like the texture found in tempura, and the content is juicy and full of flavor. How it's all accomplished is a mystery but somebody must've spent some time in their grandmother's kitchen, because the taste is certainly reminiscent of what can only be described as finger-licking good.
Boxcar Betty's owners Ian MacBryde and Roth Scott met while working at Magnolias Restaurant - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Boxcar Betty's owners Ian MacBryde and Roth Scott met while working at Magnolias Restaurant
There's also the Chicken & Not-So-Waffle and the Buffalo Chicken sandwiches. The latter is bathed in a not-too-hot buffalo sauce and topped inevitably with blue cheese, plus lettuce and tomato. That tomato is unlike anything you'd come across at the fast-food chicken competition down the road. With its color a vibrant red, the garden-fresh flavor is the kind you could enjoy on its own with a dash of salt and pepper — the taste of Southern summers. It all made sense when I learned the restaurant started sourcing produce from Joseph Fields Farms on Johns Island. The Chicken & Not-So-Waffle comes with a bun (not a waffle) and their signature fried chicken, plus pimento cheese, tomato, maple bacon sauce, maple syrup, and, the kicker — bacon jam. Made up of teeny-tiny bits of bacon bound together with what tasted like brown sugar, the jam is more like a bunch of bacon than a traditional jam. It's dreamy, and is what makes this sandwich the star by far. It's difficult to distinguish the syrup from the sauce, but that didn't matter. It all coalesces into the perfect condiment and, paired with the chicken, proves that sometimes the waffle may be a bit much when all you really need is a drizzle of maple syrup. Pairing all of this with pimento cheese may sound crazy, but it totally works. It also confirms that the sweet-and-savory marriage is a groovy thing.
A later visit proved just as pleasant. One of the chefs who's always smiling remembered me, and I noticed he was familiar with several others as he rushed outside to greet a couple of kids with their dad. After ordering Boxcar Betty's only salad, another guy appeared from the back to offer it with candied pecans as they're considering adding it to the recipe. And it made a great addition. The salad also comes with a bed of cool Bibb lettuce, watermelon radishes, thinly sliced shallots, and a surprisingly light agave buttermilk dressing. You have the option of adding chopped fried chicken or a pimento cheese-stuffed Portobello mushroom, and I opted for the latter. It was battered up and fried, negating the otherwise healthy salad. As a self-respecting Southerner, I enjoy nearly anything fried, but I also felt it would have been just as great if the mushroom had been served baked or grilled.
Stuffed Mushroom Salad - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Stuffed Mushroom Salad
Speaking of fried things, the smiling chef came out again to let me try a possible addition to the menu — fried pimento cheese balls. I thoroughly appreciated the hot cheese spheres as well as the gesture. And no, he didn't know I was reviewing the restaurant. As I've observed on several visits dating back to April — as I live not far away — his generosity reaches out to every person that walks through the door.
The only desserts on the menu are the vanilla ice cream float ($3.50) and the pecan pie in a cup ($4). I tried the pie, a gooey bottom layer of pecan topped with vanilla bean ice cream and served, you guessed it, in a to-go cup. If the corn-syrup goop is your favorite part, then you'll dig it, because it's mostly made of that good, sugary goo. Though it does gel well with the ice cream, like a caramel syrup, I wish there'd been more pecans holding it all together.
Some places try to pull off the rustic, country-living look because it seems the trendy thing to do, but then fail when the prices are high and the satisfaction level is low — not here. The dishes are all recyclable, there are no servers, no silverware, and no frills — and none are needed. The portions are plenty, the flavors are present, and the price tag is right.

CCP MUSIC | INTERVIEW: Local folkie Avi Jacob gets honest in So Hard to Reach You


The night of his father's funeral, Avi Jacob found himself inside his old man's house in Nashville with a banjo, a heavy heart, and the words to a song. But those words didn't come from Jacob.
"I felt my father coming through, and I don't think it was a ghost as much as me trying to express something from him," Jacob says of his song "Simple Man." It's one of the tracks from the Charleston folk musician's upcoming release So Hard to Reach You, an album that deals mostly with Jacob's relationships. "The whole song is from his perspective, and that's something I never have done. All of my songs have been so uniquely from my own perspective and so self-involved, but that's what I have — my experiences. But that song is the first time I've ever been able to write something for someone else."
In the chorus, Jacob sings "I'm a simple man, but I try." It's the voice of his father, a once prolific writer who penned over a dozen books. "We had a lot of misunderstandings, me and him," Jacob explains. "He moved down South and we were up North, me and my sister. And I was angry because I have a little sister and she was without her father, so I was angry at him for that. And now I understand you can't hold that shit over people. He had to live his own life, but that day I apologized for holding it against him."
That was over four years ago, but Jacob's been composing his debut record for even longer. It took a lot of soul searching and moments of clarification — mostly about his separation from the mother of his now five-year-old son. The album's final track "Take Me Home" is a very honest recollection of the way it was when they first met. She was a 19-year-old college freshman while Jacob had just graduated.
"I had two or three different girlfriends at the time," Jacob recalls. "I was lying to her about it, cheating on her and stuff like that. And she found out about it, as did my other girlfriends — I still don't know how. I wrote that last song after they found out about each other, and you'd think they'd be like 'Fuck this guy, he's awful.' But they both still wanted to be with me. They wanted me to choose.
"It's so fucked up," Jacob laughs. "But at the same time I'd been in that situation with a girl before, and I was her fool. I loved her, madly. And she fucked with my mind and made me unsure of reality. So that caused me to start fucking with girls. Love, to me, was a game I tried to win by fucking over someone before they had the chance to fuck me over. Now I'm trying to unlearn that."
To Jacob's surprise, that relationship lasted over five years, and it was always a struggle. What came of it was not only Jacob's son, but also a series of songs. In the title track "So Hard to Reach You," Jacob's in Portland while she's pregnant in Boston. It tells the story of their failed attempt at communication, daily phone conversations that always ended in anger. Another song "Settlin' Down," was also written not long after Jacob began dating the girl who would unwittingly become the inspiration for an entire album. On it, he sings, "Don't go thinkin' 'bout settlin' down/ I might be here but I ain't around."
"I really thought there was no future in our relationship. I could foresee even then all the problems we had," he says. "I'm not dumb, and I don't think she is either, so it's weird how I saw those problems then but kept getting sucked into it."
In a way, his father's death helped Jacob face his past — warts and all. In "Simple Man," he sings, "How you gonna act like you were born with no work to do." Jacob says it's a stab at his own sense of entitlement and shallowness. And in the bridge, he sings "Tell my wife I'm all right/ Tell my son to be good." He knows for certain where the words were coming from and why.
"I really thought it was my father talking to me, because that's not something that I could say. And I hadn't been good at all," Jacob says. "I'd been a bad son by all accounts."
The song also advises Jacob's sisters not to settle for men that don't treat them right. "Sorta the way I didn't treat girls right," he admits.
But girls are why Jacob got into music in the first place, though they're not the reasons he's still pursuing it.
"When I was younger, kids made fun of me because I was an asshole and unsure of myself and insecure," Jacob says. "I started writing music because I wanted girls to like me, and I kept doing it because it made me feel good."
You can buy a digital copy of So Hard to Reach You now at

CCP MUSIC | INTERVIEW: Oakland's Quinn DeVeaux delivers a retro sound

Musicians are so often inspired by familiar places. Woody Guthrie had Oklahoma, for instance. And where would The Clash be if not London? However, the same isn't really true for Gary, Ind.-born soulman Quinn DeVeaux.
"The South influenced my music the most, even though I've never lived there," says DeVeaux, who has spent the past 12 years in Oakland, Calif. "I mean everything I listen to, other than Chess, is from the South — Stax and everything from Memphis, New Orleans, and Nashville."
DeVeaux's sound is indeed all over the Deep South. Fats Domino's New Orleans is evident throughout 2013's Originals, recorded by Deveaux and his band, the Blue Beat Revue. It's an album that's also influenced by ragtime, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and most certainly the Memphis soul of Stax Records. That's all embodied in the album's standout track "Left This Town," a song that really combines 1930s swing, piano, and brass with 1950s rhythm. But Deveaux doesn't refer to any place in the South when he sings, "All my cares are gone, gone, gone/ Since I left this town/ And all my days are twice as long/ Since I left this town."
"That's about Los Angeles," DeVeaux laughs. "Yeah, I lived there for about nine months, and it was terrible. It's a really impersonal place to be. No one talks to anyone, everything is spread out, you can't go anywhere. It takes a certain kind of person to take it. There's no city like it; it's its own thing. I have friends in Los Angeles, and I get it now, but at the time it made no sense."
Also from last year, Late Night Drives has the kind of blues that touches back down in Memphis, this time via Sun Records. With harmonica, slide guitar, and a little twang, DeVeaux even sounds a little bit country, proving the musician is cool with blending it all to find his own niche.
"They talk about soul being country, gospel, and blues — those are the ingredients of soul basically, soul in its early form," DeVeaux explains. "And it's really gotten me into taking elements of a country tune and colliding it with gospel music and some of the early Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers stuff and Mahalia Jackson and mixing things up to come up with something new.
"There's definitely an old schoolness there," DeVeaux says of his sound, "but it also doesn't sound old. It's like I'm writing new songs that sound like they're written back then, but they're not — and it's not what I'm trying to do. I just love that music, music from the '50s and '60s and '70s and the '40s, and it's kind of what happens. So when I call [my music] 'blue beat,' I feel like I'm sort of searching for something that hasn't happened yet. Because that's when you get an interesting thing, when you blend types of music that hasn't been blended — not in the way that you're doing it. That's when you can come up with a new style, a new way to interpret music."
Though he's all about getting his own thing down, DeVeaux's also known for doing covers that venture away from his usual style. He collaborated with San Fran musician Meklit Hadero in 2010's Meklit and Quinn, an album that tackled such contemporary tunes as Arcade Fire's "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and "Electric Feel" from MGMT. DeVeaux also released Under Covers with the Blue Beat Revue in 2011, this time paying homage to old-time heroes with tracks like Fats Domino's "I'm in Love Again" and "Tiger in Your Tank" from DeVeaux's all-time greatest inspiration, Muddy Waters. But the California musician still spends plenty of time coming up with originals, too.
DeVeaux says that creating his sound is a progressive thing. The album he hopes to record in the spring will likely be full of songs he's been composing on the road, walking around Memphis, or hanging out in Nashville. He writes every day, which is why DeVeaux released his last two records at the same time in December.
"I just have a lot of tunes," he says. "And those particular tunes had to happen, although I have been getting better at stemming the flow. There's a certain shelf life with tunes. The sentiment remains for a period of time, so if you're writing about a lover or an ex-girlfriend, there's a shelf life there, so those tunes just all have to happen. I'm getting a little better now at being able to hold on to that, but I'm still anxious for that [next] record. I don't know what this waiting three years to release an album thing is about.
"In three years, people lose interest," DeVeaux continues. "In three years, we're just different people. Three years ago, if you think about yourself, the basics are still the same. But in terms of, like, your sentiments and the emotional happenings, it's very different, you know?"

CCP FOOD | REVIEW: Chic Brasserie Gigi upgrades the Market with French faves


The space at 102 North Market St. sure looks different these days. Once a three-story jazz, salsa dancing, and cocktail destination called Mitchell's and later reincarnated into Italian restaurant Mercato, the same walls are now home to the chic Brasserie Gigi. With its rounded brown leather booths, antiqued mirrors, and European-style tiled floors, Gigi brings its own personality as downtown's new French eatery.
The brasserie was opened in April by restaurateur Hank Holliday and chef Frank McMahon (both of Hank's Seafood). Named after McMahon's wife, the new venture is a chance for the Ireland-born Culinary Institute of America graduate to showcase some of the foods he loved as the son of a European-trained chef. His menu reflects that nostalgia with traditional dishes found in Parisian brasseries, like moules frites (mussels and fries, $14), steak tartare ($14), and soupe d'onion gratinee (a.k.a. French onion soup, $9) — all available during both lunch and dinner.
The menus are prettily written on chalkboards in the entryway, and the sweet, white half-curtains in the front windows add more charm. Inside, the seating is ample, and a long bar with fitted stools dominates the main room. Its decorative line of Veuve Cliquot bottles behind the bar coupled with Gigi's late weekend hours (till 11:30 p.m.) certainly inspire champagne sessions with upscale snacks or sweets. The wine list travels to places like Sancerre and Bordeaux, but there are other domestic locales represented, such as the Oregon Witness Tree "Chainsaw" pinot noir ($45) that we had, which had the earthiness we were looking for without the Bourgogne price tag.
The drink menu boasts fancy French cocktails like an Apple Side Car with Calvados apple brandy from Normandy, Cointreau, and a lemon squeeze and twist ($9). There's also a surprisingly diverse beer menu, with everything from large format Belgian beers to Bud Light bottles, proving Gigi wants to stay away from stuffiness and cater to all kinds, which I like.
Gigi began brunch service at the beginning of this month, and though we haven't made it in yet ourselves, we hear the small menu of beignets, crabcake Benedict, brioche French toast, seafood crepe, and mushroom, gruyere omelet is worth checking out. Lunch items are offered at brunch, too.
Tiled floors and cozy tables recreate French cafe culture at Gigi - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Tiled floors and cozy tables recreate French cafe culture at Gigi
As for lunch versus dinner, the former differs in its lack of appetizers (some dinner apps are lunch entrees). A good list of salads are on both menus, plus an attractive variety of sandwiches like the croque monsieur ($13), chicken paillard ($12), and the Gigi burger (also on the dinner menu, $13).
Monk fish is served tender with a nice simple crust - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Monk fish is served tender with a nice simple crust
Also on both menus is the duck confit ($16) along with salads like a beets, beef, and blue ($16) and lobster option ($18). I found the confit a hard one to rival, with its perfect crust and complements of sauteed mushrooms, goat cheese, leeks, shallots, and mustard seed. The apple cider vinegar sauce finish gave the dish a subtle, sweet kick and paired extraordinarily with the duck. The beets, beef, and blue salad was a beautifully presented bowl of butter lettuce with rare beef just barely seared and served with Roquefort and roasted beets, a combination that was relatively simple but remarkable nonetheless. The steak seemed to be seasoned only with salt, which is all it needed. Together with the blue cheese, the fullness of flavor coats the palate and lingers for a while.
The lobster salad seemed an appropriate dish for our hot and muggy Charleston climate. Chilled chunks of lobster were mixed with chives, shallots, finely sliced fingerling potatoes, red peppers, and a roasted tomato tarragon aioli. Served with toasted garlic bread bites and crisp, cool lettuce, the salad was full of incredibly light and harmonious flavors.
Shellfish offerings like the shrimp cocktail; oysters, clams, mussels, and shrimp sampler for one; and a shellfish tower (all at market price) are available day and night, prepared for all to see behind the raw bar upstairs.
Lobster salad - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Lobster salad
If you want cooked seafood, look to the dinner entrees for options like shrimp Provençal ($20); swordfish with citrus vinaigrette, shallots, crushed cilantro, and truffle oil ($28); and scallops with creamy chive mashed potatoes, and black truffle vinaigrette ($29). I tried the roasted monkfish bourride ($28) and found the outside of the fish had the same incredible, slight crust as the confit. Its texture was tender but dense while the flavor was sweet, and its mildness made the fish a good pairing with the roasted potatoes, leeks, parsley, thyme, lemon, white wine, and aioli.
Carnivores can rejoice in options like the pork schnitzel ($22) and New York strip ($29), but remember there's also the burger, plus more beef options in the starter menu.
Desserts stay simple with fresh sorbets ($8) and pot de crème ($8), the latter of which was a light chocolate custard that was quickly devoured. We also loved the refreshing trio of mango, lemon, and raspberry sorbets, drizzled with a vanilla bean champagne syrup. There's also crème brûlée, lemon tart, and a daily special, which was a blackberry tart on our visit.
The service was attentive, helpful, and kind, and if anyone cared that our table was the last one to leave, we were completely unaware of it. And while the dining room experience is one wonderful way to enjoy food and friends, don't forget there's also a beautiful bar with a fun vibe and plenty of Veuve.

CCP MUSIC | INTERVIEW: Marcus Amaker and Quentin Baxter bring poetry and music together in The New Foundation


Local poet Marcus Amaker invited the City Paper to join him at Local 616 for a catchup during possibly the most unbelievable World Cup match to date. The score is a baffling 0-6 to Germany by the time jazz musician Quentin Baxter arrives to chat about their recent collaboration, and the atmosphere is wild — in the bar and on the big screen, too.
"It's like a video game," Amaker jokes as he texts goal updates to his German best friend. With the winner firmly decided at half-time, it's the perfect time to put sports on the back burner and talk about music and, coincidentally, the importance of finding quietness from a world of distractions. That's the whole point of the album the two artists made together this year pairing poetry written by Amaker with Baxter's jazz and production know-how.
"My goal in writing those poems was for it to really be this sort of a meditative thing," says Amaker. "I don't know if people are used to listening to music, or being active in something, that calms them down. Everything seems to have this energy behind it. So I remember somebody was asking me about the album, and they wanted to listen while they were doing stuff. And I thought, 'no; I don't think it works that well as background music.' You have to stop and listen to it. I admit I had a little fear about that because people aren't used to stopping, but that's what this CD is for."
The New Foundation, released July 1, meticulously entwines Baxter's renowned percussion skills with Amaker's calming words — his voice conversational while also rhythmic and magnetic. Indeed, this isn't stuff you can absorb while cleaning the house. The tracks at once draw you in and force your world to stop for a moment.
Baxter admits that this quieting power helped him compose the music. Though the album idea was born in 2013 and a release date was set for early this year, the composition proved more complex. The words and the intricately placed sounds forced patience upon the musician.
"Originally we said March, and then we said April, and then I said, 'Oh, shit,'" Baxter admits. "It took me for a different turn, but I ended up learning a lot from the direction of the message. Marcus' words kind of transcend exactly what you think, so if you listen to it three times, the third time you're gonna say, 'Oh, damn. It's still going somewhere.'
"And so it never stopped for me," Baxter continues. "Every time I listened to it I was trying to apply music to it, and it just kept evolving and I kept missing things. I would play stuff, and it probably would have worked, but something about it wouldn't have felt right. And we stuck with it until it felt right. The one thing I learned was, it was a natural rhythm, a natural delivery on his part that I had to figure out musically. It was tough."
During the recording of the album at the Simons Center Recital Hall, Amaker would show up and lay down the tracks in only one or two takes, to Baxter's amazement. But Amaker could see Baxter's talents at work, too.
"I didn't realize — and this isn't me talking down to musicians — but I didn't realize the amount of thoughtfulness that would go into making music to go with poetry," Amaker says. "I'm very used to working with cats who just want to get up there and play stuff. But the fact that he almost wrote like musical poems to my words was really cool. And I think that folks are gonna hear things if they listen to it 10 times that they won't hear on the 30th time or on the fifth time. You know what I mean? There's a lot of stuff involved; there's a lot of thoughtfulness involved in what he did as well as in what I wrote."
Every detail from the album art by Nathan Durfee to the sleeve's layout Amaker designed was as important to them as the composition itself. Amaker admits he's been living with these poems for a while, so it was a proud moment when the project was finally ready for release. The result is a work that can be performed live as a seamless energy with the tracks free of manipulation. It's also an album that's meant to be enjoyed as a complete work, like most albums should be. "It's hard to take one song out of it as a single so that was important for me to make it like a musical story," Amaker says.
The twosome will celebrate the piece and perform The New Foundation in its entirety on Aug. 14's Word Perfect night at the Charleston Music Hall during the venue's weekend-long event, The Summer Harvest: A Weekend Celebration of Local Art and Music. A total of 14 other poets will share the stage for an evening of spoken word. A meet-the-artist listening party and discussion is also set for 5-7 p.m. on Aug. 3 at the Mezz (276 King St.). The album is now available on iTunes and Amazon.

CCP FOOD | REVIEW: Ristorante LIDI gets it right with housemade delights

The Manila clam ragu is cooked in a white wine broth and served with sausage crumbles
The Manila clam ragu is cooked in a white wine broth and served with sausage crumbles
The thought of an Italian restaurant tends to conjure up images of tiny tables adorned with red-and-white tablecloths and preset with tall bottles of olive oil. This proves to be true of Ristorante LIDI (Little Italy Daniel Island). The traditional Italian restaurant was introduced to Daniel Island diners in March by owner and Chef Jason Colon, who hails from Cambridge's Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and helped to open the now-defunct 'Cesca restaurant in Charleston.
On both recent visits, the restaurant was bustling and full of energy. My guests and I felt at ease with the nice-but-casual ambiance made obvious by the servers' blue jeans, exposed brick walls, and simple Italian decor. We loved the loudness, too. LIDI is the kind of delightfully boisterous place where friends can catch up, laugh, and linger for a while.
Orecchiette sausage and broccoli rabe - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Orecchiette sausage and broccoli rabe
On one visit, my guest and I chose a Venetian Rosé, the Pinot Nero ($26) to start our meal; however, our server returned with Prosecco. After the mistake was brought to her attention, she immediately made it right by producing the juice we wanted, the sparkling pink stuff that tastes like summer. The process was perfectly smooth on the second visit. We sipped wine while perusing the lengthy list of starters, like choose-your-own antipasti plates ($4-21), Italian wedding soup ($6), and arancini (fried rice balls with mozzarella, bolognese, and pea filling, $8). We snacked on warm crusty bread and olive oil during the short wait for the food.
Our server recommended the caprese ($9) and rightly so. The thick slices of housemade mozzarella —and the accompanying red-and-ripe tomato slices and fresh basil leaves — were delectable. The dish was finished off with LIDI's own first-press extra-virgin olive oil. On a second visit, we had the iceberg wedge ($8), the standard sort with crispy pancetta, pecans, and a creamy Gorgonzola dressing. The pecans didn't seem toasted to us, as described, but we liked the salad anyway. Meanwhile, LIDI's angus beef carpaccio ($10) was a beautifully presented plate of raw meat pounded perfectly thin, although our portion in particular was a tad too fatty. We felt the caprese and carpaccio would have benefited from a dash or two of sea salt. It was dressed up nice and pretty with the usual suspects of capers, arugula, EVOO, and lemon aioli, but another crostini or two would have made more sense as it's only served with two small triangles — the same goes for the mussels marinara ($10). The latter were from Prince Edward Island and served in a simple but garlicky marinara sauce somewhat reminiscent of tomato soup. The flavor of the mussels sunk in after a few minutes and really made the sauce shine. The final starter was the Manila clam ragu ($12). The clams were tender and tasty in a white wine broth with spicy Italian sausage crumbles and arugula, topped off with shaved garlic. It worked.
The red-checkered tablecloths of Lidi mirror the low-key vibe - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The red-checkered tablecloths of Lidi mirror the low-key vibe
Shortly after we finished off the apps, our entrees arrived. Some of the options were pasta standards like eggplant parmesan ($13), lasagna (with housemade pasta sheets, $15), gnocchi bolognese ($15), ravioli (house pasta recipe made locally by Rio Bertolini's, $14), and veal marsala ($18), plus grilled Scottish salmon ($16) and cacio e pepe (their take on mac 'n' cheese, $13). On a following visit, we had shrimp scampi with linguini ($17) and pork ossobuco ($21). I'd wanted to try their housemade gnocchi, but the kitchen was out of bolognese. The ossobuco was easily consumed as it fell right off the bone. The buttery mashed potatoes were appropriately understated with the rich veal demi glace gravy. Admittedly I may not have been able to appreciate the depth of flavor in the ossobuco were it not for the robust tastes of Merlot our kind server surprised our table with. It was a first-class move that took the dish, as well as our experience, to another level. The shrimp scampi was simple in presentation, but proved itself in the butter-packed white wine sauce — although with a tad too much lemon for our palates. On a previous visit, we tried chicken milanese ($16) and orecchiette sausage and broccoli rabe ($15). Although perfectly thin, well-breaded, and crispy, the chicken lacked flavor; once again, a little salt would have gone a long way. It was beautifully covered with arugula, capers, tomatoes, red wine vinaigrette, and big slices of raw red onion. Although it was listed under a section that indicated all selections there came with linguini, none was served with this dish. My orecchiette was imported from Italy via New York City, and the soft pasta shells were delicious, alongside the sausage, garlic, red pepper flakes, and broccoli rabe. However, I'd have loved more greens — for both the flavor as well as the presentation.
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Veal Milanese
Although the portions were just right, we had the entrees boxed up so as to make way for dessert. The flourless chocolate torte ($8) sounded decadent, but we opted for the New York cheesecake ($8) and cannoli ($8). The crisp-fried cannoli tube shells are imported from New York and filled with blended housemade ricotta and mascarpone cheeses finished with crushed pistachios and dusted with powdered sugar. The cheesecake was made of housemade ricotta, plus fresh whipped cream and blueberries — a wonderful and weird blend of light and heavy, with hints of citrus zest. The crust was soggy, but the flavor of blended graham crackers and amaretto there was ace and tasted pleasantly of gingersnaps, too. On our return, we shared a tremendous tiramisu, the hints of coffee completely opened up by the small glasses of intensely sweet and potent Evil Twin Biscotti Break Porter our server decided to let us try, again by surprise. We also learned that the Netherlands-based Evil Twin sources regional breweries across the world to create their beers, with this one made locally at Westbrook Brewing.
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Tiramisu
Our server on our first visit was very knowledgeable and quick to answer our questions, with the overall service swift but not rushed, attentive but not intrusive. The same is true of our second-visit, with someone who was also thoughtful, calm, and funny. He was willing to go to the trouble of providing special extras that made the evening even more memorable, which is how a night out should be. He also offered to bring every dish out individually since we were sharing.
Some foodies may be put off by the simplicity of the traditional dishes, but I'm certain that LIDI is accomplishing what it wants to do, which is providing a casual and comfortable place to enjoy good food and company. With more attention to some presentations and a little more salt, the restaurant is on to something even better. In the meantime, it's nice to know where to go on the island for refreshing Italian grape juice, some darn fine homemade mozzarella, great service, and some good and loud conversation