The Billings Outpost

Weather won’t stop Friday’s Downtown ArtWalk

Winter ArtWalk chases away the snow, ice and doldrums of short, dark days on Friday, Feb. 6, from 5–9 p.m. More than 30 galleries, museums, studios and other “art-worthy” venues in downtown Billings will participate. Many sites offer music and refreshments. Featured artists are often in attendance.

Winter ArtWalk will proceed, regardless of the weather. Participation is free. Maps are available at all participating sites and More information about participating artists is on and the website.

Artists interested in one-time showings at available downtown venues during future ArtWalks may contact Virginia Bryan at 696-7121 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Here are the season members and participant list for Winter Artwalk (alphabetical order):

• Anderson Art Studio and Gallery brightens Minnesota Avenue during Winter ArtWalk with work presented by six Billings area artists. Part of the Rural Yellowstone Cohort Montana Artrepreneur Program and a project of the Montana Arts Council, the artists, all women, include Dana Zier (oils), Dixie Yelvington, Jennette Rasch, Terri Porta, Bonnie Eldredge (landscapes) and Laura Marie Anderson (portraits). MAP helps artists develop a sustainable business in art and creates an artist network to address isolation in rural areas.

• Apple Gallery at Good Earth Market welcomes Carol Lindahl Murray and her mixed media works to ArtWalk. Murray collects vintage and lot photos, paints over them and them embellishes them with beadwork. Her titles come from notations on the backs of the photos. The emerging images bring other cultures alive and tell stories in a fresh, new way.

• MIXX9, a collaborative, curated exhibit by nine regional and contemporary artists, offers a unique view of different disciplines, media and forms at Billings Open Studio.

Curated by Jane Waggoner Deschner, and showing for one night only, MIXX9 includes work by Mark Earnhart and Tracy Linder (sculpture), Jon Lodge and Jane Waggoner Deschner (mixed media), David Knobel and Neltje (painting), Jodi Lightner (drawing) and Patrick Smith and Sarah Knobel (photography).  Neltje is from Wyoming. All others are working artists from Billings.

• Robert Martinez (Northern Arapahoe) joins Alaina Buffalo Spirit (Northern Cheyenne) and Ben Pease (Crow and Northern Cheyenne) at the Chinatown Gallery for a showing of contemporary American Indian art. The trio incorporate traditional images, myth and tribal Indian traditions to address contemporary and historic issues. Martinez uses air brush techniques with acrylic and pencil drawings. Buffalo Spirit works on ledger paper; Pease works in acrylic and mixed media.

Other artists at Chinatown for Winter ArtWalk include Elena Larson (felted wool), Dan and Tammi Capron and Peter Herzog (photography).

• CTA Architects Engineers showcases AIA student works during the Winter ArtWalk. This exhibit, shown at CTA’s Helena office and at Cheever Hall on the Montana State University Bozeman campus, includes presentation boards, models and photographs retained by the MSU School of Architecture from student works created during the 2014 school year.

• Eight creative women, self-titled “604,” debut their collective work at the Downtown Billings Alliance during Winter Artwalk. Bonded by their shared creative drive, each artist has her own style, medium and approach.

Artists and their work include Lynne Thorpe’s large, surrealistic landscapes in oil; Carol Welch’s colorful, abstract watercolors on canvas; Brownie Snyder’s “The Lesser Ruins” encaustic series; and Carrie Hannah Sharp’s new functional and decorative pottery. 

Scotta Anderson’s paintings “capture a sense of the quiet and solitude hidden and unnoticed in the everyday.” Julie Pederson’s graphite drawings find the “extraordinary” in the “ordinary.” Lisa Hall ventures into new territory with several playful encaustics. Susan Stone exhibits her “Los Santos Negros” abstract series based upon historic events. 

• Gallery Interiors will open at its new location, 2814 Second Ave. N., for Winter ArtWalk. Most recently, this location was home to Bottega Clothing. Before Bottega, it was Nicholas Fine Art Gallery, where many of the artists now showing at Gallery Interiors began their careers. It is a terrific space with tall ceilings and a mezzanine to showcase fine art and lovely home furnishings.

• Connie Dillon introduces a playful new series reminiscent of simpler, long, warm summer days as she explores the color, light reflections and intricacies of “cat-eye” marbles in several works displayed in Gallery Nine on the second

floor of the Carlin Hotel.

• Melissa Burns inaugurates her new studio, Girlwood, during the Winter ArtWalk. She features wood burning, or pyrography, in her art. She draws each piece on wood, burns it and finishes with a stain or color accent. Pieces include jewelry, signs, functional items, and just about anything made of wood.

Girlwood is in the middle of the block between First and Second avenues North on North 30th Street. It is one-half block south of Kennedy’s Stained Glass, above the soon-to-be open Art House Cinema.

•The Potter’s Guild of MSU Billings, a student ceramic organization, comes downtown during Winter ArtWalk to show and sell its functional and sculptural pottery at Global Village. Global Village guarantees a festive ArtWalk event, no matter the weather.

• Harry Koyama Fine Art unveils new canvas giclee prints and new original paintings by Harry Koyama during Winter ArtWalk.

Harry Koyama Fine Art is located between Toucan Gallery and Tompkins Fine Art on Montana Avenue. 

• HeARTstrings Gallery makes it downtown debut with a small works show centered around February’s theme of love. The show includes paintings by a range of community artists, from youth to seasoned. Each artist received the same canvas; the only given instruction was to include a heart in the composition.

• Jason Jam continues his pursuit of wit and whimsy with new illustrations in his popular, “Still Friends?” series. The series chronicles the unintentional destruction caused by a giant robot attempting to play the games that his small human friend enjoys. New ink and watercolor comics and new watercolor paintings are also displayed.

• Jens Gallery & Design showcases the drawings of Billings artist Gerald Kindsfather with an opening artist reception during Winter ArtWalk. Kindsfather is described as a minimalist who knows how to “take a line for a walk.” His exhibit, “Four Lines to a Lady,” captures the essence of the female form with pen, pencil, or charcoal and very few lines. “The challenge,” he says, “is to make what’s hard to do look very easy.”

• Kennedy’s Stained Glass introduces Valentine hearts and new mosaics at Winter ArtWalk.

Winged horse bowls, enameled cherry pit jewelry, photos on metal, horse ranch clay teapots and other eclectic works are part of the Northern Hotel’s Winter ArtWalk roundup hosted in the hotel’s historic lobby. Artists include: potters Cassy Crafton Kramer (504 Pottery), Tana Patterson and Wayne Smily (Rockin’ xxxx Pottery), photographer Ashley Prange (Sadfish Creative) and jewelers Lori Miller (Cherry Pit Jewelry) and Cindy Lou Smith (Stillwater Spirits). Also on display are landscapes by Karen Johnson.

• Billings photographer, Eric M. Jones, makes his downtown debut at Prohibition Clothiers during Winter ArtWalk. Many of his photographs, whether landmarks or commonplace, are set against the vast and majestic Montana blue sky.

• Sandstone Gallery welcomes Powell, Wyo., photographer, Pat Honstain, to its cadre of artists. Honstain is a lifelong Wyoming resident who spends “a good portion of her time wandering its back roads in search of images.” Her work is “guided by light, inspired by color and captured by texture and shape.“

• Stephen Haraden continues to “cut ‘em up” and “glue some together” to create new images at his working studio. Always affable and animated, Stephen looks forward to talking with you about his works in progress and showing selected “keeper” paintings from the series “How I got to this point.”

• Susan Germer’s working studio and gallery are on the second floor of the historic Carlin Hotel at 2501 Montana Avenue. Her neighbors are Jason Jam Gallery and Gallery Nine @ connie dillon fine art.

• Tompkins Fine Art features the vibrant, colorful work of Montana artist Sarah Morris.

Now living in Ennis, Morris continues to hold a loyal fan base in Billings, her former home. For Morris, “nothing is so natural and comfortable as a paint brush in her hands.” Look carefully at her work and you will see the influence of Kevin Red Star, one of her early mentors. 

Also showing at Tompkins Fine Art is Powell, Wyo., artist Janet Bedford. Bedford relocated to Powell to follow her childhood dream to live in the West. The West still captures her imaginative spirit. Her focus, she says, “changes often like the ever changing light on the vast terrain.” 

• The Toucan Gallery, birthplace of ArtWalk Downtown Billings, mixes art, music and recycling in its presentation of the music duo, Plots and Rocks, for Winter ArtWalk. Artisans and musicians Mark and Erica Millard perform spirited selections from folk, to Americana and bluegrass, on guitar, mandolin and other one-of-a-kind instruments made from cigar boxes, cookie tins and wine boxes.

• Silent and live auction items for the Yellowstone Art Museum’s Art Auction 47 are up for Winter ArtWalk. Works included in the Art Auction 47 include Carol Hagan’s “Head Honcho,” Kevin Red Star’s “Little Hawk,” and Arin Waddell’s “Poppy and Polka Dots No. 2.” Works by Billings Public Schools fifth-graders are showing in the Young Artists Gallery and works from the Montana Women’s Prison art program are also on view. Free admission, music and refreshments and a complimentary drink for new YAM members during ArtWalk.

• Ten members of the Underground Culture Krew will show their work at the Winter Artwalk. Weather permitting, there may be some live art as well. Gallery artists include Crystal Rieker (canvas), Jenna Martin and Ellen Kuntz (photography), Gloria Mang (fused glass) and Tina Jensen (pottery). Five area graffiti artists are also featured.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 February 2015 16:25

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Gary Small brings band back here

By SCOTT PRINZING - For The Outpost

While people in Billings may be more familiar with the Magic City Music Awards than the Native American Music Awards, those Nammys are a bit more prestigious. A national award show that celebrates numerous genres created by indigenous musicians across North America and its outlying islands, the Nammys have been held annually since 1998.

Northern Cheyenne guitarist and singer Gary Small is one of several Montana Native musicians honored by this institution. He will be showing a bit of why he has won three Nammys at the Garage Pub this Saturday, Feb. 7.

Gary Small and the Coyote’ Bros. just returned from the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn., where they made it to the semifinals. They are reigning Wyoming Blues Challenge winners, two years running.

Billings’ last opportunity to hear them in person was opening for Huey Lewis and the News at Magic City Blues at South Park in August.

But while this is one tight unit, “Purveyors of Fine Boogie Woogie,” they are also versatile enough to play rockabilly, Cajun and surf music. The trio consists of fellow Northern Cheyenne bassist Jobe Jennings and Bozeman-based drummer Mike Gillan.

Growing up as a Montana Native in Wyoming, there were only so many outlets for Small to ply his wares, so he spent several years performing in Portland, Ore. While there, he led the Gary Small Band, melding a blend of rock, reggae, Afro-Cuban and Latin music.

His soulful and fluid soloing style was often favorably compared to Carlos Santana, so it is no surprise that former Santana drummer Graham Lear, who was also based in the area, joined forces. The larger ensemble also included a keyboard player and the percussion of Bobby Keyes, whose career reaches back to a stint with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen era.

Small won his first Nammy, Songwriter of the Year, in 2002 for his CD, “Wild Indians.” Subsequent Nammys have been awarded for Male Artist (2011) and Best Rock Recording (2007).

Other Montana Native musicians who have won Nammys include Blackfeet powwow drum groups Blackfoot Confederacy and Black Lodge Singers; fellow Northern Cheyenne flute player Joseph FireCrow; Blackfeet singer and songwriter Jack Gladstone; and Crow rapper Supaman’s former group, Rezawrecktion. Other Montana nominees have included Exit Wound (Northern Cheyenne guitarist Paul Underwood) and Crow hip-hop artist Evan Lee Cummins.

Small’s CDs include “Blues from the Coyote,” “Crazy Woman Mountain,” “Hostiles “I Don’t Play by the Rules” and the humorous “Wyoming (for Dummies).”

In 2006, Small led a tribute to Hall of Fame inductee Link Wray, the highly influential Shawnee guitarist known as the creator of both distorted guitar and the power chord.

The Garage Pub at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. will be open from 4-8 p.m. Music starts at 5 p.m. Cover is $5 at the door.

Expect to be entertained by one of the region’s top performers.

To learn more about Gary Small and the Coyote’ Bros., go to or check out a video profile at While there, check out profiles on Crow guitarist Jared Stewart and Crow hip-hop artist Supaman.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 February 2015 16:08

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Website covers Native musicians

By KRISTEN PRINZING - MusEco Media and Education Project

A new website,, provides basic information to the public about outstanding contemporary Montana Native musicians.

The site features links to the musicians’ websites, music videos and to the videos in the Montana Indian Musician Profile Series. The series is produced by MusEco Media & Education Project in collaboration with the Indian education department at Montana’s Office of Public Instruction.

Drums and flutes are important instruments in the musical traditions of Montana’s Indian tribes. They carry on rich cultural traditions and are a vital part of many Native families’ daily lives.

But there is even more to American Indian music than drums and flutes. Many Native musicians in Montana and all across the country are creating music on more modern instruments. Guitars, basses, keyboards and even digital devices are used to make music that is more contemporary in origin.

Yes, the drum and flute are still often incorporated into the blues, rock, soul and hip-hop that is created in this modern era, but the music is definitely contemporary.

The Montana Indian Musician Profile Series is a series of videos about the music and stories of the contemporary musicians of Montana’s Indian nations. This project was initiated to enable a broader public awareness of the diverse musical contributions of Montana’s American Indians to the culture of our state and region, and to introduce the public to these individuals as role models of citizenship, creativity and entrepreneurship in the arts.

The new website,, introduces Montanans of all ages and interests to the outstanding talents and perspectives of some of our state’s most accomplished American Indian musicians. This will serve both the larger Montana community as well as Montana’s tribal communities.

Many people – if not most people - have no idea of the variety of contributions to contemporary music that American Indian artists are making, despite the large and vibrant population of American Indians in our state.

This project will finally begin to introduce the breadth of the ear-catching creativity of the Indian musicians of our state and region. The website and first three video profiles feature bluesman Jared Stewart and rapper Supaman of the Crow Nation, and songwriter/guitar player Gary Small of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. Two additional episodes in the series are currently in production, supported in part by grant funding from the Greater Montana Foundation.

Series producer and MusEco Education Director Scott Prinzing is a member of the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau, through which he is available to give presentations about contemporary American Indian music and musicians anywhere in Montana.

Presentations are multimedia and their length can be anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours.

The curriculum guide that Prinzing wrote for OPI about contemporary American Indian music and musicians, “American Indian Music: Even More Than Drums and Flutes,” can be downloaded as a PDF at

For more information about the website, the Montana Indian Musician Profile Series, or MusEco Media and Education Project, contact Scott Prinzing at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at 598-0575.

Excerpts from www.EvenMore.TV:

Who is Jared Stewart?

Jared Stewart is a member of the Crow (Absalooke) Nation of Montana and is probably one of Eastern Montana’s hardest working musicians. He has served as a representative to the Crow Nation’s tribal legislature and is a motivational speaker, but when playing the blues, he lets his guitar do much of the motivational speaking. He has won numerous local awards for his playing, singing and recordings in the Billings area. His CDs include “No Color in the Blues” and “Indian Summer.” Jared pursues fitness of mind and body by competing in Mixed Martial Arts.

Who is Gary Small?

Gary Small is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana. Gary Small and his bands (The Coyote Bros. and The Gary Small Band) have won multiple Native American Music Awards (NAMA or Nammy) and Small himself, raised in Montana and Wyoming, won the Songwriter of the Year Nammy in 2002. He is a versatile musician who plays blues, Latin, reggae and rockabilly with equal authority.

Who is Supaman?

Supaman is Christian Parrish Takes the Gun and is a fancydancer and hip-hop artist. He has dedicated his life to empowering youth and educating listeners with a message of hope by being a cultural ambassador and by sharing his music. He is also a member of the Crow Nation, is a strong advocate for living drug and alcohol free, and encourages others to follow that path. After keeping his fancydancing and rapping pursuits separate for over a decade, he combined them in the 2014 video, “Prayer Loop Song,” which received almost 700,000 plays in nine months on YouTube. This much-in-demand dancer/rapper/comedian performs all over North America. He is also in high demand for his school presentations.


Last Updated on Thursday, 05 February 2015 16:07

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Rimrock Opera brings ‘Susannah’ to NOVA

The ensemble for “Susannah”
By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost

I’ve often thought that opera is like liver: You either love it or hate it.  Thanks to the work of Doug Nagel and the Rimrock Opera Company, I’ve discovered I love it. You might, too.

If you’ve never experienced opera, Rimrock Opera’s interpretation of “Susannah” is a great place to start. The libretto is in English, and it adapts melodic themes from recognizable American folk and gospel tunes.

“Susannah” is an American work by Carlyle Ford that won the New York Music Critics Circle Award for Best New Opera in 1956, debuting during the McCarthy witch hunts. The fictional town of New Hope Valley is a microcosm of the national malaise of the period.

The name Susannah references the Bible story of Susannah and the elders in the Apocryphal book of Daniel. A lovely young woman bathes in the pool in her garden, watched by lustful older men. They attempt to blackmail her into having sex with them. When she refuses, they accuse her of adultery.

However, a young man, Daniel, comes to her aid and the elders are executed instead.

The modern opera story unfolds in the fictional town of New Hope Valley, Tenn., a small Appalachian town with a population of even narrower views than the landscape. The heroine, 18-year-old Susannah, played by Amy Logan, earns the censure of fellow townspeople because of her beauty and innocence. She is convicted by gossip and ostracized.

Instead, the citizens flock to the services of a smooth talking, traveling evangelist, the Rev. Blitch, (yes, Blitch, not the other word,) sung by Doug Nagel. The reverend, not so holy, has his way with the hapless Susannah.

Susannah’s brother Sam, played by Montana State University Billings student Jason Scarborough, becomes his sister’s avenger. You will recognize all of these classic characters: heroes, heroine and villains.

For this production, Professor Nagel has cast many of his MSU Billings voice students, most of whom he’s introduced to opera.

“I love teaching,” he said. “Right now, I have 18 voice students. I want to believe that I’m making a difference.” His students agree.

“My mom used to send me Rimrock Opera programs to try to get me to come home,  (to Billings)” said Kristy Dallas. “I came back and Doug got me interested in opera in 2010. He’s an amazing teacher.”

“He recruited me,” said Gavin Hayes. Hayes drove weekly from Miles City to study voice with Professor Nagel. Now he’s in the opera.

Mikayla Burpee is in the MSU Billings Connections Program and a senior in high school. She’s already been in “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables.”

“Live (opera) is a lot of fun,” she said. “I did ‘Aida’ with Doug and it was a blast.”

Kate Meyer is a counter-contralto, a very unusual voice, with the lowest female range.

“I was a theater major,” she said. “One semester with Doug, and I’m a voice major. It was happy surprise.”

“It’s my 11th opera,” said Kelly Deiling. “Doug and Amy Logan (her choir teacher at Skyview High School) got me into it.”

Baritone Jason Webster was a backup for a messenger in ”Aida” and stepped into the role at the last minute. He sings the part of Elder Gleaton in “Susannah.”

“Jason’s voice is growing,” said Professor Nagel. Expect a lot of youthful enthusiasm to add zest to this production.

Rimrock Opera’s first 2015 production also represents a new beginning for Professor Nagel.

“This is my return to the stage after my mother, Helen, dying,” he said.  “There’s something about being on stage that changes your perspective.”

Anyone involved with opera in Billings knew Helen Nagel. Some of us have to strive to be women of dignity and honor. Mrs. Nagel did not. She was a quiet support at every performance and is missed.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 January 2015 12:31

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Film retells story of push for freedom

By STEPHEN DOW - For The Outpost

In the 50-some years since Martin Luther King Jr. campaigned for African-American rights, some aspects of his legacy have begun to fade from memory. Many people know King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by heart.

However, few can remember concrete details about the March on Washington or the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Even fewer can tell you much about King himself.

Of all the virtues of Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma,” perhaps the most important is that it brings an important and slowly forgotten story from the Civil Rights movement back to the forefront of the public consciousness 50 years after it first occurred.

Selma chronicles the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches that took place in order to raise awareness of the need for African-American voting rights. African-Americans were legally able to vote, but local governments in the South often put up barriers that prevented them from voting.

The film tells us that, in 1965, 50 percent of Alabama’s population was African-American. Only 2 percent of those people were able to vote.

However, the issues at stake were much bigger than simple voting rights. As King (played here by the talented David Oyelowo) tells us in the film, voting rights were directly connected to ending the persecution of African-Americans. Whites who committed crimes against blacks were not indicted because the white jury almost always voted in their favor.

Only when African-Americans could serve on a jury could there be true justice for these criminals. And they couldn’t serve on a jury if they couldn’t vote.

The film begins with King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and ends with passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In between, it shows the many struggles faced by King, his family and his followers.

In so doing, DuVernay is careful to not idealize King or any of the other marchers. In the film, King is shown to experience moments of doubt and fear. It also hints briefly at the man’s extramarital affairs.

However, King is also shown to be courageous, charismatic and committed to his cause. The man’s religious faith, often overlooked and forgotten, is shown to be the catalyst for his campaign for social justice.

He is also shown to be unexpectedly shrewd. “Selma” tells us that King’s use of nonviolent methods wasn’t just about taking the moral high road (although that is a part of it).

Rather, King wanted to show the world that African-Americans were taking abuse. King knew that, when people around the world saw this, outrage would follow. Outrage would, in turn, be followed by change.

Though King is the central character in DuVernay’s film, the director also remembers other historical figures who played a key role in the fight for voting rights. Some, such as Malcolm X and President Johnson (played here by Tom Wilkinson), have been remembered by history, while others have been forgotten.

For example, consider white pastor James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), who comes to Selma because “I can’t stand by while God’s people get hurt.” Reeb was one of two people killed during the events leading up to the marches.

Through the depictions of these and other characters, DuVernay provides a stark reminder that the people who instituted change in the U.S. 50 years ago were men and women just like us. They simply chose to stand up and do what they felt was right.

“What happens when a man stands up and says enough is enough?” King asks a friend.

“The world knocks him back down,” the man replies sadly.

Indeed, King and his followers were knocked down many times. However, they never failed to get back up, dust themselves off, and continue marching for what was good, right and true.

Selma is playing four times daily at Shiloh 14. The two-hour long film is rated PG-13 for “disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language."

Last Updated on Sunday, 25 January 2015 15:27

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Owl Cafe revives Saturday bluegrass tradition

Highway 312 band members, from left, Clayton Olson, Jim McGowin, Larry Larson and LaLonnie Larson, perform Saturday at the Owl Cafe.
Story and Photos - By ED KEMMICK -

LAUREL — Next to the cash register at the Owl Café, there is a framed menu from the restaurant’s grand opening on Aug. 13, 1916. At the bottom of the menu it says: “Patrons will be entertained with music.”

Kathy Boyd is the new owner of the Owl Cafe. Now, just shy of 100 years later, new owner Kathy Boyd can make the same promise, at least on Saturday mornings. She has revived the “bluegrass Saturday breakfast” tradition that made the Prairie Winds Café in tiny Molt so popular from 2001 until it closed in 2013.

Bringing in the bluegrass was suggested by John Letcher, a Laurel resident who has been a fan of Boyd’s cooking for years.

“She has quite the following,” Letcher said. “She’s a pretty famous cooking person around Laurel.”

Letcher was also friends with Larry and LaLonnie Larson, residents of Molt who cooked up the idea of playing music at the Prairie Winds. Letcher figured the Larsons’ band, Highway 302, would be perfect for the Owl.

He suggested it to Boyd, and she was game. As Letcher put it, “I knew her and I knew Larry and those guys, so it just kind of clicked.”

Highway 302 kicked off the new tradition on Saturday, Jan. 10, then played again last Saturday. As in Molt, the music will run every Saturday from 9 to noon. The first week there was a good crowd, but last Saturday, after small blurbs ran in newspapers, the place was packed.

Spur of the Moment is scheduled to play this Saturday, and other bluegrass bands from the area are making arrangements to get a performance rotation going. Boyd said Larry Larson “got me hooked up with all kinds of other bluegrass bands.”

Among the crowd last weekend were Lynn and Bill Solberg of Laurel, who showed up with their granddaughter, Ember. Ember got up at one point and plucked along on LaLonnie Larson’s upright bass as the band played “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Lynn Solberg said they don’t normally venture out quite so early, and her husband added, “But we got up for this.”

Boyd said her first job in Laurel, when she moved there from Nebraska 20 years ago, was cooking at the Owl. The café has been through several owners over the years, and Boyd started working on calling it her own more than a year ago.

She worked at other restaurants in Laurel before buying the Owl, and lots of people who followed her from restaurant to restaurant are excited that she’s found a home.

“I’m pretty proud because I feel like I have groupies,” she said.

She said she’s taken the menu back to basic ’50s and ’60s offerings, and “just about everything we do here is homemade,” including bread pudding and cabbage rolls. She serves lots of side pork at breakfast and lots of burgers and fries at lunch. Dinner standards include chicken-fried steak, pork chops, liver and onions and “wonderful cod for fish and fries.”

The Owl is about three times bigger than the Prairie Winds, with seating for 130, not counting seats in the banquet room behind the main dining area.

The café is open seven days a week at 203 E. Main St., next door to the old Sonny O’Day’s bar. It opens every day at 6 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m., except on Sunday, when it closes at 3. Starting in February, Boyd plans to stay open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays.

Boyd said the Owl has been “a mainstay around here forever. I’m very proud of the tradition, and that’s what I’m trying to bring back.”

LaLonnie Larson knows about that tradition.

“My mom was born in 1923,” she said, “born and raised in Belfry, Montana, and she said she remembered riding the bus to music festivals in Billings and stopping at the Owl Café to eat. The Owl Café — it’s just been there.”

As at the Prairie Winds, musicians get a free breakfast and whatever tips are thrown their way, usually into an open mandolin or guitar case. LaLonnie said Highway 302 had a fine time at the Owl and is looking forward to more Saturdays there.

“Musicians need a place to play,” she said. “They just only want to be warm and dry. And if it’ll help that little gal get her place off the ground, that’ll be great.”

Last Updated on Sunday, 25 January 2015 14:59

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What were best albums of year? Not radio pop

By ALAN SCULLEY - Last Word Features

As I started to ponder my picks for the top 10 albums of 2014, the 2015 Grammy nominations were announced. I couldn’t help but notice how much the nominations mirrored my thoughts on the year in music.

Mainstream pop radio has reached historic levels for being vapid and disposable. And it’s telling that only Beyonce’s self-titled album got a Grammy nomination in the marquee album of the year category – in which commercial performance of the albums factor into the voting. Not to diss nominees Ed Sheeran, Beck and Pharrell Williams, but it looked obvious that Grammy voters had few options in this important category. The only album of the year nominee on my top 10 list is Sam Smith’s “In the Lonely Hour,” and Smith should clean up come Grammy night. (FYI: Taylor Swift’s “1989” won’t be eligible until 2016.)

But all was not lost in 2014. Rock, country and Americana had strong years, and 2015 Grammy nominees from those genres are littered across my list of top albums. It was such a good year that albums from the Black Keys, Tom Petty, the New Pornographers and Jack White - which would have cracked the top 10 in many other years – only made my honorable mention.

So let’s celebrate a year that was deep in superior albums. They didn’t all light up the charts, but these albums sure brightened my year.

1. Eric Church: “The Outsiders” (EMI) – One of mainstream country’s boldest artists, Church not only breaks new ground on “The Outsiders” – at times he completely obliterates it. “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” delivers more than its title promises, as Church injects grimy funk, rap and good ol’ Southern rock into this tasty track. The title song, with its heavy texture and an adventurous instrumental passage that almost qualifies as prog-metal, is unlike anything anyone’s ever put on a country album. The sassy “Cold One,” subverts the expected theme (“She had her feet up the cooler/As she put our love on ice”) and then tops things off by erupting into a furious fast-picking segment that would make Charlie Daniels envious. Such brave and creative moments make the “The Outsiders” my album of the year.

2. St. Vincent: “St. Vincent” – The artist otherwise known as Annie Clark goes even deeper into a synthy/electronic sound on this, her fourth album. And underneath the cool sonics, she combines killer hooks and a left-of-center edge on prickly pop-rock tunes like “Birth In Reverse,” “Regret” and “Digital Witness”), and smart, sometimes provocative lyrics (“Prince Johnny”). Her earlier albums were good, but “St. Vincent” suggests Clark is really hitting her stride now as a songwriter and performer.

3. Lana Del Rey: “Ultraviolence” – On “Ultraviolence,” Del Rey sounds like she walked out of a scene in “Blue Velvet,” part seductress, part scarred survivor, yearning to tempt the thrill and hurt of love all over again. The music fits the “Blue Velvet” motif, too, as ballads like “Shades of Cool,” “Pretty When You Cry” and “The Other Woman” are the musical equivalent of film noir, filled with sensuality, danger and beauty. And Del Rey, with her striking and silky voice, is ideally suited to the dramatic darkly hued songs that make “Ultraviolence” such a captivating work.

4. The Black Keys: “Turn Blue” - Once you get over the shock of hearing the dreamy Pink Floyd-ish textures of “Weight of Love” or the sleek synthy soul of the title song and “10 Women,” the depth and creativity – not to mention quality – of “Turn Blue” shines through.

Bits of the Black Keys’ familiar gritty garage blues-rock surface in the grooving soul-rock of “In Time,” and the uber-catchy “Fever.” And “Gotta Get Away” gives “Turn Blue” one stellar rocker that reaches back to the Black Keys’ earlier sound. But mostly, “Turn Blue” is the sound of this duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney exploding any expectations or limits created by their earlier music and emerging with a fresh and exciting album.

5. Rosanne Cash: “The River and the Thread” – With “The River and the Thread,” Cash explores her roots in the South – both geographically and in the music of the Delta region – specifically reclaiming her Memphis roots, while also tipping her hat to Alabama and Mississippi.

Her perceptive and emotionally resonant thoughts are expressed in a collection of melodic rough-hewn ballads (balanced by the occasional friskier tune), making for a rich addition to Cash’s catalog of excellent albums.

6. Sam Smith: “In the Lonely Hour” – With his falsetto to die for and several genuinely stunning soul-laced pop ballads – “I’m Not The Only One“ is as good as a ballad gets – Smith sounded destined for big things before he hauled in a half-dozen 2015 Grammy nominations.

Several songs could have easily gotten Manilow-esque over-production, but Smith’s producers wisely kept things fairly restrained, leaving space for Smith’s amazing voice to work its magic.

7. Ty Segall: “Manipulator” – Eight releases into an adventurous career, Segall’s wide ranging influences – punk, psychedelic, glam, metal, prog rock – coalesce into his most focused song set in “Manipulator.” Seventeen songs deep, “Manipulator” covers lots of ground – the acoustic glam punk on “Tall Man Skinny Woman,” stunning Lennon/Bowie-esque drama on “The Singer,” driving dirty blues-rock on “Feel” and intense psychedelia on “Susie Thumb.” Nearly every song is a winner from a bold and talented artist who just keeps getting better.

8. St. Paul and The Broken Bones: “Half the City” – If “Half the City” had come out in the late 1960s, it might have gone down as one of the era’s better soul albums. Instead this auspicious debut introduces us to a talented new band fronted by a powerhouse singer (Paul Janeway).

The group simmers sweetly on ballads like “Grass Is Greener” and “It’s Midnight,” gets jazzy on “Don’t Mean A Thing” and evokes classic Memphis soul with the killer horn riffs of “That Glow.”

9. Miranda Lambert: “Platinum” – Lambert’s earlier albums established her as a whip-smart, take-no-you-know-what country rabble rouser. And that spirited and downright funny gal (“What doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder” from the song “Platinum”) is very much present on this ambitious 16-song set. But Lambert also finds room for a wistful ballad with “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” (a collaboration with Little Big Town) and ponders a time not long ago when people didn’t seem so entitled (on the song “Automatic”). Could a little more maturity and wisdom be creeping into Lambert’s music? Yes, and it adds some welcome color and depth to Lambert’s artistry.

10. Taylor Swift: “1989” – Swift had already gone pop on her 2012 album, “Red,” but the glossy, synth-heavy sound of “1989” puts her squarely in step with today’s commercial pop trends. And Swift is aiming for a blockbuster with this album, working with several hit-making co-writers/producers (Ryan Tedder, Max Martin, Jack Antonoff), to create songs with maximum accessibility and (fortunately) more smarts than most of fluff dominating pop radio. Sorry, Charli (and Ariana, Iggy, Miley), there’s a new queen of pop, and she came from Nashville.

Honorable mention: New Pornographers: “Brill Bruisers,” Foo Fighters: “Sonic Highways,” Rodney Crowell: “Tarpaper Sky,” Weezer: “Everything Will Be Alright in the End,” Tom Petty: “Hypnotic Eye,” Sharon Van Etten: “Are We There,” Jackson Browne: “Standing in the Breach,” Against Me!: “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” John Hiatt: “Terms of My Surrender,” Gaslight Anthem: “Get Hurt,” Jenny Lewis: “The Voyager,” Jack White: “Lazaretto,” Spoon: “They Want My Soul,” Leonard Cohen: “Popular Problems,” The Both: “The Both.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 January 2015 16:14

Hits: 1516

Here are CDs you may have missed in 2014

By ALAN SCULLEY - Last Word Features

With literally thousands of albums getting released each year – let’s thank computer music programs, affordable home recording equipment and internet marketing for enabling just about anyone who wants to make a CD to get it done and release their music – it’s getting harder for artists to be heard and harder for fans to find the good albums hidden in the mass of mediocrity that each year floods the marketplace.

There’s no way for one person to hear every worthy album, but I came across my share of obscure gems and stellar releases that got some attention (Sturgill Simpson, Manchester Orchestra), but not nearly as much as they deserved. Here are my favorite 20 albums for 2014 that flew under the radar.

1. Old Monk: “Posing as Love” – Take some early quirky Talking Heads, some of the angular punk of Pavement or the Velvet Underground, then spice things with a little of the Buzzcocks’ spiky punk and a touch of the punchy pastoral rock of Blitzen Trapper and you may get an idea of what to expect from Old Monk on its second CD, “Posing As Love.” Songs like “Volcanic,” “Alta Rush,” “Seymour,” “Art Heist” and “Fowl and Foe” are edgy, offbeat - even a bit weird – but they possess hooks that embed themselves in the brain and have an energy that’s undeniable.

Old Monk may never make the impact of a Talking Heads or a Velvet Underground, but this band bears watching – and enjoying – both now and as it continues to explore its unique musical path in the future.

2. Parquet Courts: “Sunbathing Animal” – The band’s second album offers more of the kind of jagged, taut, melodic and at times spastic punk rock that earned its debut album, “Light Up Gold,” plenty of critical raves. “Sunbathing Animal” is just as fun, as it ping pongs between frenetic rockers like “Always Back in Town,” “Black and White” and the title track, more measured Velvet Underground-ish tracks like “Dear Ramona” and “What Color Is Blood,” and angular, offbeat tunes like “Vienna II.”

3. Hannah Aldridge – “Razor Wire” – Falling somewhere between being a rockabilly-ish raver and introspective Americana singer-songwriter, Aldridge shows a gift for strong, uncluttered melody and plain-spoken lyrics that cut to the bone, yank at the heart and sometimes take no prisoners (“I miss you like morphine” – how’s that for an opening line in “Lie Like You Love Me?”). If Aldridge can maintain the standard set by “Razor Wire” she could emerge as the next great singer/songwriter on today’s vibrant Americana/roots music/country-soul — whatever you want to call it – scene.

4. Ex Hex: “Rips” – The debut album from this band is a brash, extremely catchy collision of punk energy and psychedelic quirkiness. The raucous feel of songs like “Beast” and “You Fell Apart” is matched by the big guitar and vocal hooks that make them irresistible. On “Waste Your Time,” Ex Hex dial back a bit on the intensity, while “Waterfall” has more of a chugging tempo that suggests a rootsier influence lurking under the band’s punky exterior.  “How You Get That Girl,” meanwhile, has a bit of a girl group pop thing happening. The latter three songs bring just enough changes of pace to keep “Rips” from becoming too much of a one-trick sugar rush. As it is, this is a sweet introduction to a promising group.

5. Manchester Orchestra: “Cope” – On “Cope,” Manchester Orchestra calms down some of the chaos and cacophony that sometimes muddied its first three albums.

The band has by no means gone soft, but the slightly more settled feel of “Cope” allows the potent and catchy riffs that drive songs like “Choose You,”  “The Mansion” and “All That I Really Wanted” to shine through. This is loud, arena worthy rock done right.

6. The Rural Alberta Advantage: “Mended With Gold” – Forget the images of dusty prairies and bluegrass evoked by the band name. A rock and roll heart beats loudly throughout “Mended With Gold,” the group’s third full-length album. Yes, there are hints of Americana in the airiness built into tunes like “On the Rocks” and “Terrified” or the acoustic strumming of “Runners in the Night,” but these are brisk, and energized songs. And “This City” delivers a visceral two-and-a-half-minute blast of U2-on-steroids arena rock, while “45/33” has a big riff that would make the Who proud.

7. Sturgill Simpson: “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” – “Turtles All the Way Down,” the opening song on this album, evokes a bit of Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman.” It’s a fitting way to start an album that reaches back to what many consider the “real” country of the ’60s and ’70s – a sound that seemingly had disappeared from the music landscape. Sturgill, though, brings that sound roaring back to life with this first-rate collection of dust busters (“Life of Sin” and “A Little Light”), ballads (“The Promise” and “Voices”) and everything in between.

8. Temples: “Sun Structures” – Mixing together gauzy psychedelic rock, Beatles-esqiue Brit-pop and some Middle Eastern overtones and a little pop jangle, Temples carve out a distinctive and intoxicating sound on “Sun Structures,” the band’s full-length debut. The songs, though, are even more striking than the sound. Standouts on the album include the Byrds-ish opening tune “Shelter Song,” the dark, dreamy and irresistibly catchy “Colours to Life,” which has an appealing bit of the aforementioned Middle Eastern accent to go with its thumping rock sound, and “Keep In The Dark,” a song which blends pop, acoustic folk and some strong echoes of the Led Zeppelin epic “Kashmir.” Obviously, Temples can be a bit hard to pin down stylistically, but just forget about labels and enjoy the music.

9. Crookes: “Soapbox” – This third full-length album from this Sheffield, England, band is a consistently engaging and entertaining collection of songs that evoke a few eras of Brit-rock/pop. The songs on “Soapbox” range from the thump and shimmer of Play Dumb” to the Oasis-ish driving power pop of “Before the Night Falls” to the ringing Smiths-ish rock of “Outsiders,” to the shimmering balladry of “Howl.” In a time when the rock/pop scene is getting inundated by new synth/electronic acts, it’s good to have a band like Crookes to remind us of the virtues and timeless appeal of guitar-based Brit-rock.

10. Trigger Hippy: “Trigger Hippy” – With a lineup that includes such established talents as singer Joan Osborne, guitarist/keyboardist Jackie Greene and Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, this debut release should have drawn more attention than it has so far. The music more than lives up to the resumes – and the stylistic backgrounds – of the band members. The rootsy soul of the luminous “Heartache on the Line” and the easy-going “Rise Up Singing” are right in the wheelhouse for Osborne, who delivers her trademark lovely and sensual vocals, often in combination with Greene. “Turpentine” and “Tennessee Mud” are Southern-tinged rockers that hang with the best of the Black Crowes’ songs. Perhaps the biggest changeup is “Adelaide,” a folky Neil Young-ish ballad written by bassist Nick Govrik, who is a main part of the songwriting mix throughout the album. If Trigger Hippy can maintain the quality of this debut, this won’t be considered a side band for long.

Honorable mention: Eagulls: “Eagulls,” Alvvays: “Alvvays,” Ought: “More Than Any Other Day,” Moonlight Towers: Heartbeat Overdrive,” Joyce Manor: “Never Hungover Again,” The Safes: “Record Heat,” Delta Spirit: “Into The Wide,” Hans Chew: “Love & Life,” Ume: “Monuments,” Hard Working Americans: “Hard Working Americans.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 December 2014 12:26

Hits: 1720

Look to Dylan, Wilco for topnotch holiday gifts

By Alan Sculley - Last Word Features

This year’s bounty of box sets is a strong one, with plenty of great choices for holiday gift giving. Here are the prime candidates for your shopping lists.

• Bob Dylan and the Band: “The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11” (Columbia Legacy) – Dylan’s comments over the years suggest he never viewed “The Basement Tapes” as being that important. But this six-CD set, which documents the summer 1967 writing and demoing sessions by Dylan and his backing group that would soon be known as the Band, proves otherwise.

There is a loose and relaxed quality to the recordings and at times the sessions get downright goofy – especially on several of the many covers of old folk, country and blues tunes. But there are also dozens of Dylan originals. Some, such as “I Shall Be Released,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “The Mighty Quinn,” were covered by other artists, and also became staples of the Dylan live repertoire.

Others, such as “Odds and Ends,” “Too Much of Nothing,” “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and many more, had potential, and one wonders why they weren’t developed into finished studio tracks. A very good – and logical – follow-up to Dylan’s classic 1966 “Blonde on Blonde” album could have been made from this material. Instead, Dylan decided to explore the simpler country stylings of the “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline” albums.

In any event, the many discoveries, curiosities and just plain good songs, make this an important addition to the official Dylan catalog. – Rating: 4 ½ stars

• Wilco: “Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014” (Nonesuch) – To celebrate its 20th anniversary as a band, Wilco has given fans quite a gift – this four-disc set of unreleased music from the vaults. Many of the unreleased original songs (such as the perky country honk of “Tried and True” and the hooky pop-rocker “Glad It’s Over”) deserved release before now. Some alternate versions of familiar tunes (“Camera” and “Hummingbird”) are eye openers. And the live tracks show why Wilco is so good in concert. No surprise here, but Wilco’s leftovers are better than the A-list material of most bands – Rating: 4 stars

• Johnny Winter: “True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story” (Columbia/Legacy) – This set traces the late bluesman’s career from late 1960s blues beginnings into the early 1970s rock albums that gained him major popularity and through his return to the blues that began with his 1977 album, “Nothin’ But the Blues.” Drug problems slowed Winter’s output beginning in the late 1980s, but he regained control of his life and returned to form over the final several years of his life. – Rating: 4 stars

• Michael Bloomfield: “From His Head to His Heart to His Hands” (Columbia/Legacy) – To the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Miles Davis Michael Bloomfield was one of most talented, versatile and soulful guitarists going. This three-CD/one DVD set shows why Bloomfield so impressed fellow musicians, as it brings together performances from his work with Al Kooper on the Super Sessions projects, his time in the groundbreaking Paul Butterfield Blues Band and various session work. He died too soon, but Bloomfield left an indelible mark on rock history. – Rating: 4 stars

• Rod Stewart: “Live 1976-1998: Tonight’s The Night” (Warner Bros./Arnold Stiefel Entertainment) – Stewart’s best work – with the Faces and on his early solo albums – was behind him by 1976. Nevertheless, Stewart was (and is) an accomplished performer, and particularly on the ‘70s recordings, he shows plenty of grit, sass and swagger. He also shines at making the many covers here sound like his own songs. And the best news: the set stops before Stewart tried going Sinatra with the Great American Songbook. – Rating: 4 stars

• David Bowie: “Nothing Has Changed” (Columbia/Legacy) - This three-CD set summarizes Bowie’s adventurous 50-year career by collecting the singles (and a few key album tracks) from across his career. Because the excellent 1989 box set “Sound + Vision” featured demos and live versions of some of Bowie’s best known songs, the single versions of the classic hits featured here make “Nothing Has Changed” more essential than that earlier set. – Rating: 4 stars

• Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “CSNY 1974” (CSNY Recordings/Rhino) – In 1974, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young launched a historic stadium tour famous for rock star indulgences and tension. Along the way, as “CSNY 1974” shows, some great music got performed. The electric songs here are full of energy and creativity, while the acoustic set was varied and strong enough to keep stadiums full of people entertained. The shows include CSNY favorites and solo songs (some of which weren’t yet released such as Young’s “On the Beach” and “Pushed It Over the End”). – Rating: 4 stars

• Miles Davis: “Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, Miles at the Fillmore” (Columbia/Legacy) – Previously available in heavily edited form on a two-album set, this four-CD set presents the great jazz trumpeter’s four-show June 1970 run at New York’s Fillmore East as it went down. There’s plenty of inspired soloing and cohesive playing – and moments when the playing feels chaotic and aimless. But that was part of the bargain with Davis, who was continuing to break down song structures and redefine jazz.  – Rating: 3 ½ stars

• Joni Mitchell: “Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced” (Reprise/Asylum/Nonesuch/Rhino) – This project started as an attempt by Mitchell to assemble songs from her catalog for a ballet about love. She couldn’t make it work within the time constraints of a ballet, but it evolved into this four-disc set using love (with its many highs, lows and complexities) as a connecting thread. This isn’t exactly a best-of anthology (some of Mitchell’s famous songs are omitted – presumably they didn’t fit the theme). But the compelling and at times challenging music – encompassing folk, jazz, pop, soul and rock - coupled with Mitchell’s own insightful liner notes, should give fans a new level of understanding and appreciation for her work. – Rating: 4 stars

• George Harrison: “The Apple Years 1968-75” (Universal/Apple) – If you don’t own the former Beatle’s early albums, this set is for you. It features the 2001 expanded reissue of “All Things Must Pass,” which remains the finest post-Beatles album from any of the members of the Fab Four. Harrison didn’t match that excellence on his three follow-up albums. , “Living in the Material World,” “Darkhorse” and “Extra Texture,” but each album had its moments.
This set also lets fans discover two obscure pre-“All Things Must Pass” instrumental albums. “Electric Sound” was his soundscape experiment using the then-new Moog synthesizer. It’s a snooze. But “Wonderwall Music,” which was largely recorded with Indian musicians in early 1968, is a fascinating journey into Indian music, cross-pollinated at times with pop. – Rating: 4 stars

* John Denver: “All of My Memories: The John Denver Collection” (RCA/Legacy) – Critics may have bashed Denver for making lightweight country pop, but he had millions of fans. Whichever side of that fence you occupy, this four-CD set does a good job chronicling Denver’s best material. – Rating: 3 ½ stars

* Soundgarden: “Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path” (A&M/Ume) – The unreleased originals, cover tunes, remixes and instrumentals that make up this three-disc set may not match the best material on Soundgarden’s studio albums, but core fans will find enough to want this collection. – Rating: 3 stars

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 December 2014 11:37

Hits: 1927

Veteran muscians have best of holiday albums

By ALAN SCULLEY - Last Word Features

Many years, when November arrives, it’s time to brace for the onslaught of Christmas albums, fearing the selection will be filled with the usual by-the-numbers versions of holiday standards that add nothing to the hundreds of holiday albums that have come before them. This year, we get a break. Sure, there are a few predictable releases. But just as many boast some truly inspired and original approaches to Christmas music. Here are some releases to add – and delete – from your holiday album shopping list:

• Taj Mahal/The Blind Boys of Alabama: “Talkin’ Christmas!”  (Sony Masterworks) – This holiday summit between blues legend Mahal and the equally venerable gospel/soul vocal group, the Blind Boys, is a rousing success. “Talkin’ Christmas!” features several songs co-written by the Blind Boys, including “The Sun Is Rising” (which sounds a bit like Hawaiian gospel) the funky and perky title track.

But the treatments of familiar holiday tunes are just as original. “Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn” becomes a playful romp, while “Do You Hear What I Hear?” gets a pleasant grooving swagger. Simply put, this is 2014’s best holiday album. – Rating: 4 stars

• Earth, Wind and Fire: “Holiday” (Legacy) – The veteran group does exactly what one would hope with a holiday album – it remakes a set of Christmas classics (“Joy To The World,” “Winter Wonderland”) in its own rousing horn-laced R&B image. A couple of originals, the spirited “Happy Seasons” and “December,” a variation on the group’s hit “September,” round out this enjoyable set. – Rating:  3 ½ stars

• Farmer Jason: “Christmas on the Farm” – Jason Ringenberg (otherwise known as the frontman of the turbo-fueled country-punk band Jason and The Scorchers) adapts his kids music persona for this collection of originals and standards. The title track opens things in fine style, mixing country and mariachi and setting the humorous tone that carries through the album. Ringenberg keeps things fun and clean for the kids, but also rocks enough and shows enough cleverness that grown-ups will also get some kicks out of “Christmas on the Farm.” – Rating: 3 ½ stars

• Heart and Friends: “Home For The Holidays” (Frontiers) – This CD/DVD set captures a special December 2013 holiday concert in the veteran band’s hometown of Seattle. With a smartly chosen set that draws from songs written by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Harry Nilsson, the group (joined by several notable guests) presents a warm and inviting set of holiday-related songs. Before the proceedings end, though, Heart kicks things into overdrive with “Barracuda,” “Even It Up” and a cover of “Stairway to Heaven.” Then Train’s Pat Monahan, Richard Marx and Shawn Colvin join in on Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” a stirring finale for a fine – and unique – holiday show. – Rating: 4 stars

• Over The Rhine: “Blood Oranges in the Snow” (GSD) – It’s actually a stretch to call “Blood Oranges in the Snow” a holiday album – even if it’s being marketed that way. Instead, it’s more of a collection of mostly original songs set to a backdrop of the holiday season. So don’t expect cheery covers by the long-running Ohio duo. Instead, these are tales of everyday struggles, small joys and wishes for better days ahead, set to the elegant folk-pop sound that remains Over the Rhine’s musical signature. “Blood Oranges in the Snow” may not conjure Christmas cheer, but it’s a compelling, and frequently lovely, listen. – Rating: 3 ½ stars

• The Roys: “Bluegrass Kinda Christmas” (Rural Rhythm) – There’s nothing “kinda” about things here. The Roys have made a true bluegrass Christmas album. It happily leans toward lesser-known tunes (”Santa Claus Looked A Lot Like Daddy,” “Christmas Time’s a Comin’ “) done up in lively style - while several solid originals, including “Santa Train,” “There’s a New Kid in Town” (not even remotely the Eagles song) and the title track, are welcome as well. – Rating: 3 ½ stars

• Home Free: “Full of Cheer” (Columbia) – Winners of NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” this a cappella group sounds like a cross between the Oak Ridge Boys and Straight No Chaser on “Full of Cheer”– only with a bit of a comedy bent (note the title track, a rare happy Christmas breakup song). The vocal arrangements are fun and frequently inventive, making for an entertaining album that lives up to its title. – Rating 3 ½ stars

• Dave Koz and Friends: “The 25th of December” (Concord) – The smooth jazz star’s latest holiday effort is a star-studded vocal-oriented affair. Johnny Mathis does a fine job on a jazzy version of his signature holiday song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Several other guests, including India.Arie (“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”), Heather Headley (“My Grown Up Christmas List”) and Jonathan Butler (“O Holy Night”) give particularly inspired performances. They help add some sizzle to a nice mix of traditional classics and newer holiday songs. – Rating: 3 stars

• Jim Brickman: “On a Winter’s Night” (Green Hill) – This is Brickman’s eighth holiday album, but he continues to seem invested in holiday music. Here, he puts the famous poem “Night Before Christmas” to music (with John Oates doing a credible job with the vocals). Kenny Rogers pitches in on “That Silent Night.”  Much of the rest of the album is instrumental and features Brickman’s signature gentle piano stylings. But he does a nice job reinventing “Blue Christmas” (made famous by Elvis Presley) and the Mariah Carey hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” – Rating: 3 stars

• Darius Rucker: “Home For The Holidays” (Universal) - It’s so tempting to call this album “Hootie For The Holidays” – even though Rucker, I’m sure, is tired of explaining there was no Hootie in Hootie in the Blowfish (and Hootie is not lead singer Rucker’s nickname, either).

Anyway, Rucker, who has gone country as a solo artist, plays it safe, doing agreeable, if predictable, versions of standards like “Let It Snow,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” – Rating: 2 ½ stars

• Idina Menzel: “Holiday Wishes” (Warner Bros.) – The Broadway/film star’s entry into this year’s field is mostly standard issue holiday stuff. “Holiday Wishes” is heavy on the usual staples given familiar orchestrated treatments.

To be sure, Menzel has a voice that should make most of today’s pop divas jealous, but she frequently crosses the line with vocal acrobatics, over-singing her way through most of the songs. Of course, Broadway isn’t a bastion of vocal nuance and subtlety, so maybe that’s to be expected. – Rating: 2 stars

• Celtic Thunder: “Holiday Symphony” (Legacy) – The male Irish vocal group is back to cash in on the holiday CD season with its third holiday album (and second in two years). “Holiday Symphony” doesn’t sound particularly Irish, either vocally, instrumentally.  A few lesser known selections (“Gaudete,” “Fairtytale of New York” and “Comfort Ye”) help, but they don’t save this calculated effort. – Rating: 2 stars

• Various Artists: “Christmas at Downton Abbey” (Warner Bros.) – There’s no reason this album exists except to sell it to fans of the excellent BBC series. If whoever put this double album (talk about over-indulgence) together really wanted to evoke the feeling of Christmas in England in the early 20th century, why wasn’t the album recorded in a studio with equipment from that era and pressed on 78 rpm so we could listen on a vintage crank-handle hi-fi? Otherwise it’s just a group of actors singing (some competently, some not quite that well – often with choirs carrying the performances) songs that have nothing to do with the television series. Skip “Christmas At Downton Abbey” and just watch the show. Rating: 1 star

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 November 2014 12:07

Hits: 1900

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