As a visual artist, Broken Arrow, Okla., native JD McPherson is well versed in the process of working within clearly defined formal parameters, and he employs a similarly rigorous discipline with his music. On Signs & Signifiers (Rounder, April 17), McPherson's seductively kickass debut album, produced by JD's musical partner, Jimmy Sutton, this renaissance man/hepcat seamlessly meshes the old and the new, the primal and the sophisticated, on a work that will satisfy traditional American rock 'n' roll and R&B purists while also exhibiting McPherson's rarefied gift for mixing and matching disparate stylistic shapes and textures.

"There are little subcultures within the roots scene, where people are really into rockabilly, traditional hillbilly stuff or old-timey music," JD points out, "but there aren't a whole lot of folks making hard-core rhythm & blues hearkening back to Specialty, Vee-Jay or labels like that. That's what Jimmy and I really like, and our only intention going in was just to make a solid rhythm & blues/rock 'n' roll record. But I didn't want to make a time-machine record, so we tried to make something relevant but with all the things we love about rock 'n' roll and rhythm & blues and mesh it all together. We both have eclectic tastes; Jimmy likes the Clash as much as he likes Little Richard, and I like the Pixies, T.Rex, hip-hop and all kinds of stuff. So we came up with a couple of weird songs and put them on the record, hoping that it wouldn't scare off any of our ultra-selective fanbase."

JD needn't have worried. It's highly unlikely that even the most discerning listeners would guess that the arrangement on his cover of Tiny Kennedy's R&B chestnut "Country Boy" incorporates not only the tambourine beat of Ruth Brown's 1955 Atlantic single "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," but also Raekwon and RZA's "abstract, out-of-tune piano loops" on Wu-Tang Clan's innovative '93 LP Enter the Wu-Tang; or that the mesmerizing churner "Signs & Signifiers" is powered by an unchanging tremolo guitar figure modeled on Johnny Marr's part on the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now." Then there's "Firebug," which JD "wanted to sound as if Stiff Little Fingers had recorded at Del-Fi Records." And while it may not have been specifically what McPherson and Sutton were going for, the haunting dreamscape "A Gentle Awakening" seems to chart a course from "Heartbreak Hotel" through Terence Trent D'Arby to Amy Winehouse.

Never has an album of so-called "retro" music been laced with such a rich payload of postmodern nuance. But that was precisely the intent of what JD describes, only half-facetiously, as "an art project disguised as an R&B record."

"It's weird," says Sutton, "when you grow up being a fan of 'older' music and all of a sudden you're making a record, you're thinking, are we just recreating something—a museum piece—or are we actually bringing it forward? It's interesting, because if you make something today and it moves you today, in that sense it's contemporary. I like that juxtaposition of classic and fresh, something old yet new that can actually take you somewhere now."

Of course, pushing the genre envelope doesn't work unless the artist has the chops and feel to capture the form in its pure state to begin with. Check out, for example, "Dimes for Nickels," McPherson's vital evocation of the very moment when R&B and hillbilly music had a baby and they called it rock 'n' roll, or the Jackie Wilson-meets-Elvis exuberance of "Scratching Circles," or the lascivious ecstasy of the Little Richard doppelganger "Scandalous," (although the "gold-capped tooth" reference in the first line is lifted from the Leiber-Stoller Coasters classic "Love Potion #9"). But for all we know, these tracks, too, may have been secretly embedded with elements from far afield, their stylistic twists hiding in plain sight. This cat is wicked-clever—and man, can he ever deliver this righteous shit.

McPherson took a circuitous path to get to this point. Broken Arrow butts up against Tulsa, a cultural oasis in the Heartland that has long been not only a musical hotbed but also a bustling center of the contemporary arts. "Tulsa's got a lot of resources for people who are into weirdo art," JD points out. And he gravitated toward it. "I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Oklahoma in experimental film," he says. "I wanted to paint, do installation, make video art, performance stuff, sculpture. I'll bet I'm the only person to have received graduate credit hours in card magic." He wound up with an M.F.A. from the University of Tulsa in open media, a discipline designed specifically for his interests and ambitions.

But all along the way, music was an integral part of McPherson's life. His dad introduced him to Delta blues and jazz as a kid, and after getting into Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and punk rock during high school, he picked up a Buddy Holly box set. "Something about that scratched an itch," he says. "Then I started getting into the black side of rock 'n' roll: Larry Williams, Little Richard, Art Neville's stuff on Specialty, then soul and Jamaican rocksteady." While studying visual arts, he also played in bands, doing everything from punk to western swing. JD was still scratching that itch when he recorded some originals with his previous band and took a shot in the dark. Well aware of Sutton's status as a heavy hitter on the roots scene and the leader of R&B group the Four Charms, he fired off a MySpace friend request and asked if the producer/bassist would listen to his demos.

"I get sent stuff all the time, and it's always the same," says Sutton, "but I checked JD out and there was definitely something there. He wowed me—his voice, his songwriting. So we started talking, and we were always on the same page about the music we dig and where we wanted to take it. He had great ideas but he was still an open book. I was just trying to push him to stay true to himself. So the idea became to create a record that was honest and live."

Six months into their budding partnership, JD arrived at Sutton's newly completed home studio in Chicago—a sort of working shrine to all-tube recording as it was practiced a half-century ago, right down to Jimmy's collection of vintage mics and his early-'60s Berlant/Concertone quarter-inch tape machine. Also on hand was Sutton's go-to guy Alex Hall, "a Brian Eno type" according to JD, who multitasks as engineer, drummer and keyboard player.

"I showed up and I said, 'I got this song 'Dimes for Nickels,' and I want it to be like a Chess Chuck Berry thing, slowed down, with a flat-tire beat,'" JD remembers. "Jimmy and Alex are from Chicago—they know that stuff backwards and forwards—and we nailed it in two takes." Within a week, they'd banged out a dozen tracks, recording during the day and writing at night with a guitar and a laptop.

In order to make sure the album got heard by JD's potential core audience, Sutton threw some chum in the water, pressing up a limited run on his brand-new Hi-Style label and directing it at the roots community. JD and Jimmy, who's also a visual artist, then applied those skills to the making of a striking video for opening track "North Side Girl," which has now registered well over 350,000 YouTube views.

"When the album came out, we immediately got a really strong response from that crowd," JD recalls. "Then we put that video out, and it went all over the place within a week. Not too long after that, we started getting calls from managers, prospective booking agents, and it turned into this weird journey. By early last year, we were talking to some major labels and the folks at Rounder, who found out about us from the video. What made it the perfect storm was, as all that was happening, I lost my job—I was a middle school art teacher. I loved that job but, sign of the times, they started laying off the art department and I was part of the fallout. So I collected my paycheck through the summer and toured." After which he signed with Rounder.

Having finally decided on his artistic direction, JD isn't looking back. "Although I grew up wanting to be a visual artist, I'll tell you what: the most satisfaction I've ever had as an artist is right now," he says. "Because as much as I love artists like Joseph Beuys, I love David Bowie and Little Richard more. I was doin' OK, I had some things going, but I'd rather do this, make music the priority. There's more instant gratification—you play a show and right away you feel like it's something worthwhile, and a lot of people are in on it. So I'm definitely into continuing to explore all this stuff. It's really exciting—knock on wood."

JD has no doubts about the viability of the choice he's made. "Working within a genre has been done in all kinds of mediums—look at Alfred Hitchcock," he points out. "It's been established that rock 'n' roll is a viable form—it's hard-wired into American brains to understand swinging blues stuff. So it's not surprising to me that kids are into the Black Keys and Adele. It just had to be presented to them."

So now it's JD McPherson's turn to step up to the plate and give it a good whack. Go get 'em, tiger.

Hayes Carll is an odd mix. Wildly literate, utterly slackerly, impossibly romantic, absolutely a slave to the music, the 35-year old Texan is completely committed to the truth and unafraid to skewer pomposity, hypocrisy and small-minded thinking.

In a world of shallow and shallower, where it’s all groove and gloss, that might seem a hopeless proposition. Last year, “Another Like You,” Carll’s stereotype’s attract duet of polar opposites, was American Songwriter’s #1 Song of 2011 – and KMAG YOYO was the Americana Music Association’s #1 Album, as well as making Best of Lists for Rolling Stone, SPIN and a New York Times Critics Choice.

But more importantly than the critical acclaim is the way Carll connects with music lovers across genres lines. Playing rock clubs and honkytonks, Bonnaroo, Stones Fest, SXSW and NXNE, he and his band the Gulf Coast Orchestra merge a truculent singer/songwriter take that combines Ray Wylie Hubband’s lean freewheeling squalor with Todd Snider’s brazen Gen Y reality and a healthy dose of love amongst unhealthy people.

“I guess you could say I write degenerate love songs,” Carll says. “That, and songs about people who’re wedged between not much and even less; people who see how hopeless it is and somehow make it work anyway. “And the best kind of irony, sometimes, is applying no irony and letting reality do the work.”

Letting reality do the work has sure worked for the lanky Texan who walks slow and talks slower. Born in Houston, he went to college at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas – getting a degree in History, then heading back to Crystal Beach to play for
a wild assortment of people either hiding out, hanging on or getting lost in the bars along Texas’ Gulf coast.

After releasing Flowers & Liquor in 2002, Carll was voted the Best New Artist of 2002 by The Houston Post. He would go on to release Little Rock, on his own Highway 87 label, which became the first self-owned project to the top the Americana charts.

It wasn’t long until Lost Highway, home of Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, Van Morrison and the Drive-By Truckers came calling. Trouble in Mind yielded the tongue firmly in cheek “She Left Me For Jesus,” a know-nothing redneck send-up/beer joint anthem somewhere between “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” and “Up Against the Wall.” “Jesus” was the 2008 Americana Music Awards Song of the Year.

All the accolades, all the facts and all the stats are awesome, but they don’t tell the story. Fiercely individual, Carll’s banged-up take on classic country is honed by the road – sometimes as a man and guitar, sometimes with his scrappy band, but always taking in the vistas and humanity before him.

“It comes down to the songs and the people,” he says. “You write about what you see, the things that cross your mind… and then you wanna get out there and play it back to ‘em. You kinda know how you’re doing when you see how the people respond.”

See above. Hayes Carll is the transmutable jester whose incisive songs and funky beats play as well in shitkicker bars as they do hippie festivals, somewhere as organic as American Public Radio’s “Mountain Stage” concert series and middle America as “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

Maybe it’s the influences – Kerouac, Dylan, Guy Clark, John Prine, Hubbard… Maybe it’s the fact that somebody has to say something… Maybe it’s just the fact that some people are born to play…

But for whatever reason, ten years into a recording career, Hayes Carll shows no signs of having arrived at his creative apex. Each album expands on his already extreme vintage country, extreme thumping bad road boogie, extreme heartbroken ache – and finds new ways to take on the fate of the nation. Whether it’s the GI protagonist in the propulsive title track of KMAG YOYO, the train wreck objet d’amour of “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” also recorded by Hubbard, the road warrior of both “I Got A Gig” and “Little Rock” or the stoner liberal and the uptight Republican vixen of “Another Like You,” Carll paints vivid pictures of humanity as it really is.

Thick-headed. Avaricious. Squalid. Hungry. Angry. Getting by.
Like so many Texans before him, there’s no agony in the ecstasy – just the wonder of capturing the perfect character in the song. When you’re 6 beers down on a 12 pack night, you know Hayes Carll understands. At a time like that – whether in your own backyard or some jam-packed bar – that’s the best kind of friend to have.

$20.00 - $35.00

Tickets


Show :: 8:30pm (times subject to change)

Advance $20 | Day of Show $22 | Door $24 | Mezzanine (21+) $35

There is a $2 fee that applies to each ticket purchased at the Cain's Box Office.

No re-entry! No smoking! No refunds!

Oklahoma Joe’s will be serving their full menu from 7pm – 9:30pm.

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JD McPherson, Hayes Carll

Friday, December 27 · Doors 7:00 PM at Cain's Ballroom