Ones to Watch Presents
ZZ Ward at Skyway Theatre
Alpha Rev, James Bay
711 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN, 55402
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
This event is 18 and over
ZZ Ward is someone you haven't heard before.
Hold up, let's amend that: With early praise from Esquire ("damn near NSFW") and Marie Claire ("will raise goose bumps down your spine")—not to mention buzz-building appearances at South by Southwest and on Last Call with Carson Daly—this bold new voice may indeed have captured your attention already. And if that's the case, then surely you know the deal: ZZ Ward is doing something all her own.
She calls it "dirty shine": the bone-deep wail of old-fashioned blues crossed with the big-city gloss of cutting-edge hip-hop. Currently based in Los Angeles, Ward forged her one-of-a-kind sound growing up in small-town Oregon—"out in the sticks in the middle of nowhere," as she puts it. "There was nothing to do, so that gave me a whole lot of time to play around with music."
Her dad owned a pair of Hammond B-3 organs, and she learned to play those; guitar came a little later, as did the remarkable vocals she first honed singing with a blues band at the age of 12. (Yes, she sometimes had trouble getting into the clubs she was booked to play.) Then, at 16, Ward entered the world of rap—which she'd first discovered thanks to her older brother's CD collection—in a scene that sounds like something out of 8 Mile: She drove an hour and a half to Eugene, walked into an underage hip-hop club, found the dude in charge and proceeded to tell him she should sing his choruses. "And, of course," Ward remembers, "he was like, 'Who the hell are you?'"
Soon enough, the members of Oregon's hip-hop scene knew exactly who Ward was, as she crafted hooks for rappers and proved her mettle as a songwriter in her own right. Part of that meant developing the confidence to be herself—to accept that her style doesn't slot easily into any of the music industry's current categories.
"People wanna know what my music is, because they're comfortable with what they know," she explains. "But I'm just doing what's authentic to me." It's that sense of commitment she inherited from some of her idols: Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and especially Tina Turner, whom Ward says sings in a way that "leaves no separation between her and the song—she puts everything she has into her performance. That's what I wanna do."
A chance meeting with A-list tunesmith Evan "Kidd" Bogart—who'd run across ZZ's MySpace page while checking out up-and-coming artists from Oregon—resulted in Ward's signing to Bogart's Boardwalk Entertainment Group. Once there, she began work on her debut album—as well as a four-song EP,Criminal—with a jaw-dropping array of collaborators, including Ryan Tedder, Pete Rock, Theron "Neff-U" Feemster, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest), Ludwig Goransson, Blended Babies and Fitz (of L.A.'s Fitz and the Tantrums).
"Being in the studio with these people I've looked up to for so long was completely incredible," Ward says. In fact, the experience was so inspiring that even as she assembled her EP and album, Ward found herself itching to make more music. So between studio sessions she cranked out Eleven Roses, a free mixtape on which she offers her interpretations of recent tracks by Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and Tyler, the Creator. For "Criminal" she borrowed the beat from "Oil Money" by Freddie Gibbs, who was so impressed by Ward's remake that he asked to contribute a guest verse to the official version on the EP; something similar happened with Kendrick Lamar, whose cameo in "Cryin Wolf" comes after Ward used his "Look Out for Detox" on Eleven Roses.
Other album standouts include "Til the Casket Drops," inspired by Ward's love of Alan Lomax's influential field recordings, and the provocative "Charlie Ain't Home," which the singer conceived as a response to "Waiting for Charlie" by the great Etta James. And in "Put the Gun Down" Ward reaches back to her blues-bar roots in order to address a "woman trying to take my man from me," as she puts it. Strong cuts, all—yet they scarcely prepare you for "Last Love Song," a stunning soul ballad that the singer calls the final tune she'll write about the heartbreak that led to so much of her current work. "The title pretty much says it all," she admits with a laugh. "It started to make me cry as was I writing it—that's always a good sign."
And so it is. But for this exciting young artist on the cusp of a breakout, those tears also serve as a reminder of where she came from. ZZ Ward hasn't forgotten anything. Now you won't forget her.
"I want the band to mark a moment in time, to celebrate the being of something new;
The light at the end of the tunnel, the first step toward revealing something that needs to be seen," says singer-songwriter Casey McPherson of Alpha Rev. Following the Triple A Radio success of New Morning (2010), the band's third album Bloom (March 19, 2013 on Kirtland Records) is a set of personally transformative and redemptive songs, born in the spirit of creative expansion, and a mandate to blossom and grow.
"To bloom implies something beautiful is going to happen, but it's a process---just like our own journeys," says McPherson.
"Casey and I met when we were really young, and have been playing music with each other off and on over the past 13 years," explains guitarist Zak Loy. "That growth comes across in the music the group is creating now," he says. Rooted in lyrical wisdom, the more recent addition of drummer Tabber Millard---trained by master percussionists---is credited for the band's contemporary tribal rhythms. "Tabber means drummer boy in Arabic and his life revolves around this gift he has," says McPherson. Newest Alpha Rev addition Jeff Bryant rounds out the band, playing pedal steel, piano, organ, and bass.
With a glistening rock sound that is at once fragile and tough, Bloom picks up threads from the past while it takes a big bite into the eternal here and now. Drawing from the wellspring of American history, the grandeur of its landscape, and life's sweet and tragic mysteries, McPherson leans into his personal challenges as well as the wages of the 21st Century and emerges with a triumphant statement on the ways in which music can serve as a constant source of strength and inspiration.
The shimmering, hymn-like "Sing Loud" - created with songwriter/producer Jamie Kenney ("He's cut from the same stone I am," says McPherson) - confronts a failing relationship, "But with the belief that you're going to experience freedom again," McPherson explains.
Love and death informs the heart-wrenching "Lexington," based on actual historical love letters from Civil War soldiers to their wives and families. "The amount of pain they were in to be away from those they loved while their lives were at stake was incredible," says McPherson.
"'Black Sky,' is about dealing with losing everything you have from a fire. 'Lonely Man,' is about losing your family from working too much and 'When You Gonna Run,' is about losing the ability to look good in front of somebody," he says.
"Alpha Rev is a collective of musicians," explains McPherson, "Once you join, you're never really gone." On Bloom, Alex Dunlap holds down the bass, while Brian Batch (violin, viola) and Dave Wiley (cello) serve as the band's string section. The players were joined in the studio by a longtime friend of McPherson's, Dwight Baker (Brandi Carlile, Bob Schneider); he oversaw the project in his Austin studio. Producer Jamie Kenney (Marc Broussard) also worked with the band for two songs on Bloom. "Austin is a great city that takes care of musicians; it helps foster ideas and creativity," says McPherson. Producer Jamie Kenney (Marc Broussard) also worked with the band for two songs on Bloom.
Since his beginnings in Jackson, Texas, where he was classically trained on piano, McPherson has traveled the distance: Working in a recording studio by age 16, at 17 he was touring overseas as a keyboard player; at 19 he formed Endochine, its name translating from its Latin and Greek roots as "to explode from within." Turning once again to ancient alphabets for his band's handle, "Alpha Rev is a combination of the Greek word for the beginning, and the incredible Latin prefix rev, as in revolve, revolt, reveal," he says. The band's Hollywood Records debut, New Morning (produced by David Kahne) rose to #3 on the Triple A chart, reaching an audience 40 million listeners-strong. The title song and "Phoenix Burn" also entered the charts.
Yet while scaling his own dreams, McPherson lost both his father and brother to suicide. Forming in 2005, Alpha Rev, became a vehicle to grapple with the outpouring of grief that results from losses of that magnitude. Today, McPherson helps others who've lost family to depression and suicide as a volunteer spokesperson for the National Institute of Mental Health organization, Mental Health America of Texas [http://mhatexas.org].
"Music changes people," says McPherson. "We're trying to find happiness in music as opposed to self-destruction," he says. "It's my desire, and has always been to be a part of our group, that we make each other better musicians, we make each other better men, we challenge each other, we fight and we forgive. Everybody in the band has really adopted that ideal," says McPherson. "Alpha Rev is more than a band name---it's a motto."
James Bay is a 22 year-old artist who possesses that untarnished strain of talent that many newcomers lose as they develop over time. His raw expressions and graveled voice work in a magical unison that captivates audiences and strips pop melodies back to a skeletal efficiency. Bringing his own twist to the music of his heroes Carole King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne and James Taylor, James Bay is a young singer-songwriter hailing from the small town of Hitchin in the UK, who has already gained a great reputation thanks to stints at London's Blue Flowers club, supporting Laura Mvula, and the Communion monthly night at Notting Hill Arts Club. He recently opened for Rae Morris across the UK and is about to embark on his first dates across America in support of his debut EP (out in Summer 2013) and will be opening for The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, London in July.