I've recently enjoyed the oppor-tunity to play with a new band assembled by guitarist and songwriter Bekkah McAlvage.
After performing for years as a solo act and as a duo with guitarist and bass player Sage Meadows, McAlvage has gone electric. The new band features McAlvage on guitar, Meadows on bass and Kyle Coroneos on drums.
I've been playing the extra guitar parts and trying not to screw them up.
McAlvage is a prolific songwriter and a great collector of obscure songs. For her, putting set lists together isn't a matter of what to play so much as what to leave out. Her songs aren't easily pigeonholed into one particular style or sound.
In the liner notes of one of John Prine's collections of greatest hits, he recounts an unintentional compliment he once received from the great Bill Monroe. Apparently, someone introduced Prine to Monroe as "the guy who wrote that song about Muhlenberg County," referring to Prine's song "Paradise," which mentions Muhlenberg County in Monroe's home state of Kentucky. Monroe allegedly claimed to have thought that Prine's song was an old folk tune that he'd somehow missed when he was growing up.
I recount that long-winded anecdote because McAlvage's songs tend to have a similarly timeless quality. She manages to write about real people and events and to express ideas she has about the world and all the while still sound like she's simply dug up and dusted off old classics that you've never heard before.
She writes folk-sounding songs and country-sounding numbers and rock songs and up-tempo R&B tunes. She also sprinkles her sets with well-chosen covers that audience members (not to mention band members) may never have heard before.
She delivers her material in a strong and heartfelt singing voice and with a deft touch on the guitar. Where many songwriters seem to use the guitar as the most basic of accompaniment, McAlvage showcases a rich and textured flatpicking technique. She uses the pick to separate key notes and melodic lines from the chords — as well as to highlight the natural bass lines within the chord progressions.
When she performs solo, she takes guitar breaks between verses, spelling out thoughtful, complete guitar solos without ever abandoning the chords. So far, even while performing with the full band, she opens her shows with a solo set. Take my advice and arrive early enough to hear her open the evening without the band.
A high point of listening to the whole band play is the chance to hear Meadows sing harmonies with McAlvage. The two have been singing together for more than a decade, and the long musical friendship shows. They made two self-produced records together as The Maybe Sometimes (these are still in print and usually available at shows) and still perform one Sunday morning a month at Downtown Coffee in Talent.
The band simply gives McAlvage's songs a boost in volume and a slight stylistic shift away from the coffee house and toward more of a roadhouse feel.
As I said to a member of the audience at a recent show, Bekkah's songs and performance stand alone. She could get any group of musicians up there to accompany her and, as long as they didn't actively screw the songs up, the band would sound good.
Still and all, I think this particular unit works well together. Meadows is a solid bass player who lives "in the pocket" (that's bass player talk for "plays real good") and who brings to the project her long-standing musical rapport with the bandleader. Coroneos, who also plays with Meadows' High Country and with Justin Gordon's Wrecking Ball, is a particularly musical drummer who has a knack for playing to the specific song, adding color and texture rather than simply acting as a human metronome.
For my part, I'm just happy to be here. The great benefit of writing this column has been the obligation to get out and interact with an ever-wider cross section of local musicians. I've been lucky enough to get to sit in and play music with several of the people I've met through writing the column. It's helped me to remember how important it is for musicians to interact with one another in different combinations.
McAlvage and her band play Saturday, Aug. 10, at Paddy Brannan's Irish Pub, 23 S. Second St., Ashland.
Reach Jef Fretwell at firstname.lastname@example.org.