Artist Focus, Live Shows

Ben’s Back: Ben Shaw Gracing the Valley Once Again

I really didn’t know who Ben Shaw was. I came across his 2016 release, Feet to the Fire, last year and dug it from the very beginning. I thought to myself, “Who is this new guy in the Eau Claire music scene?!” As I listened more, I could tell this was no beginner, no young buck just starting to do this music thing. There is grit in his voice and experience in his lyrics.

Well, apparently, I missed it when Ben was helping shape Eau Claire music as a part of The Embellishment, among his other projects, to my chagrin. Thankfully, I’ve finally experienced Ben Shaw’s music for myself. I listened to Feet to the Fire quite a bit over the last year and was privileged to hear Ben play as a part of last year’s Sounds Like Summer event at Phoenix Park. That experience cemented my fandom.

This summer, Ben’s back for a more extended visit back home. I was able to catch up with him recently and gather some of his thoughts about his career and his tour in the upper Midwest.

Ed
What drives/inspires your songwriting?

Ben
As to inspiration, probably a bit of healthy narcissism in that when I look back, once a song is complete, it is almost always written about some sort of personal experience, spiritual longing, emotional catharsis, or a lovely muse whose attention I am seeking.

As to what drives my songwriting I would have to say the song drives me. It is an organic process, which begins with me noodling on the guitar or a piano. At some point I make a mistake that catches my ear or I discover a new lick that resonates internally. At that point the song dictates, usually a melody comes up first in my head, then I hear vowels in the melody, and lastly words that correspond with those vowels begin to form. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes 20 years. The one thing that is always certain is my heart knows when the song is complete.

 

Ed
Describe the relationship between your previous musical “life” and/or following in Eau Claire with your newer musical pursuits/following?

Ben
I haven’t noticed too much of a disconnect. My new stuff is a more mature, possibly mellower version of my old stuff – vocal/emotion-centered with multi-layered metaphorical lyrics but with fewer jamout sections. I definitely (became) a better songwriter once I discovered the art of using a bridge in songs (hahaha). There are fewer people singing along to the new stuff but that is more from lack of exposure. Fortunately, they can hear the old favorites when I reunite with The Embellishment at Grenfest this year. In all honesty, the Eau Claire music scene faithful have always been supportive of whatever I’ve done starting with solo gigs at the Cabin to my various bands: Lawnmower, Ala Balik, the Tree Huggers, and the Embellishment.

 

Ed
Do you have any new releases in the works?

Ben
I have over an album’s worth of songs written but am not sure if I will record them as an album or release single by single. It depends if the album is a cohesive statement. I’m not a fan of albums that are a non-flowing collection of singles. I have 1 track in the can and another in progress. I also have been collaborating on 3 separate projects with some excellent songwriters (Bonnie Piesse, Evan Brau, and Jeff Lipinski, respectively) that should release early next year.

 

Ed
Who are your most significant musical/artistic influences?

Ben
For recording production influences my tops are the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Grandaddy, and Bon Iver. Musically, I’d say the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, Radiohead, and again, the Beatles. As far as songwriting goes, the list is numerous, but my tops are Procul Harum, Roger Waters, Dylan, Beethoven, Tom Waits, Handel, and most of the classic Outlaw Country writers (Willie, Waylon, Merle, Kris, and Hanks I & II).

 

Ed
What are you looking forward to the most this time around in Wisconsin?

Ben
A cup of coffee at Racy’s, sipping a “Slit Spritzer” in the barber chair at the Joynt, seeing my first Packers practice, and, most importantly, playing more shows in the EC area with my sidekicks Eric Thompson, Adam Nussbaum, and Paul Brandt, all of whom are phenomenal musicians and great people. Last year was a whirlwind of a week of rehearsals yet we only played 2 shows. We were just hitting our stride and having so much fun playing together. Everyone in the band, myself included, wanted to play more. So this year, I made sure to have more gigs for us. We will play 7 shows this year (4 in various Eau Claire locations, 1 in Menomonie, and two in the Twin Cities).

Ben Shaw and band are playing the following dates over the course of the next week or so here in the Valley:

Thursday, August 10, 8pm at The Mousetrap (21+; with The Rattlenecks)
Thursday, August 17, 6:30pm at Phoenix Park as a part of Volume One’s Sound Like Summer
Thursday, August 17, 10:00pm at The Firehouse (21+)
Saturday, August 19, 2pm as a part of Grenfest 2 (email for more information)

If you’re not familiar with Ben’s sound, take a listen…

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million

There’s a pretty good chance my feelings about Bon Iver’s new album are a bit tainted. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed Justin Vernon’s music for a while, whether it’s Bon Iver, Shouting Matches, Volcano Choir, or any other of his projects. However, in August of this year, I truly became a fan when I experienced Bon Iver live at Eaux Claires. Not only was it my first time seeing him perform live, but it was the debut of all the songs that make up his new record, 22, A Million. And, admittedly, every time I listen to the first track on the album, 22 (Over Soon), I am immediately emotionally transported to that moment, to that amazing experience. So, I bring some baggage into first impressions of Vernon’s most recent creation.

Those considerations aside, the most definitive thing I can say about the album is that it moves me deeply. I resonate with the words of one of my favorite artists, Derek Webb, who when describing 22, A Million, simply stated, “mind/heart blown.” Yep. I get that. Me too, brother. Me too, brother.

Frankly, in a vacuum, it would be surprising to me that I am so drawn to this music. Vernon employs so much Autotune and constantly manipulates everything electronically. There are times when it seems like I’m listening to a warped cassette tape. I’ve gathered that’s what he was trying to create, but that kind of stuff usually grates on me. For instance, one of my favorite tracks on the album is 29 #Strafford Apts. It builds a little and offers a high-note crescendo, with emotive movements throughout. But, just as we’re getting to the main crescendo, the payoff is muddled by that warped tape sound. Again, this would normally turn me off… and yet I continue to be drawn in. And then there’s the whole principle of using current technology to make sounds reminiscent of older technology, and specifically it’s failings. Yeah, usually, that’s not for me… and yet I can’t walk away.

There is something magnetic and provocative about 22, A Million that I can’t even really describe. Certainly, Vernon and his team have worked hard to build some mystique and intrigue around its release. When he debuted the album at Eaux Claires, each song was accompanied by vivid, yet distorted video imagery. And as each song began, the official Eaux Claires app would inform us of the name of the song. Throughout the first day of the festival, Sam Amidon and his Guitarkestra walked the grounds, teaching everyone the words and melody of the album’s finale, 1000000 Million, “where the days have no numbers…” so we could all sing along later that night. Then, there were the “unique” listening parties a couple of days before the release in which hundreds of people would show up to catch an audible glimpse of the album as it was played on a small boombox (a fairly fruitless venture, from my personal experience). Certainly, the cryptic artwork on the cover/liner notes add to the mystique as well.

Another element contributing to this mystique is the utter unpredictability of the album. I mean, seriously, the first few times I listened, I had little idea what was coming next, not only between songs, but in the middle of each individual track. It is all over the place in the most precise, intentional manner. It leverages unique samples, traditional rock/pop instrumentation, incredible creativity, and Vernon’s signature falsetto to create a meandering, yet purposeful work of art.

I don’t know what the lyrics are really about, other than to say it certainly seems as though Vernon is tackling some deep and heady subjects. There’s God, the Devil, numerology, hope, and despair, among other such issues. All of this seems to come together in a central message. I’m not sure what that message is yet…but it seems to be something powerful. Something meaningful. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

As an Eau Clairian, it is incumbent upon me to be at least interested in Bon Iver. I’ve gone from being interested, to liking, to being an all-out fan. My 22, A Million experience has solidified that. And even now, as I listen to the emotive closing anthem of the album, 1000000 Million, my heart is captured and held in suspense. The emotional tension and grip is almost palpable. I expect that captivity, suspense, tension, and grip to hang on for a while to come.

 

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Artist Focus, Music and Healing, TS10

Kalispell Helps Me Find Home

 

Eau Claire is home. That may sound like an insignificant little statement. But, for me, it means much.

I grew up in a different place with different people. During my childhood years, my family moved about ten times. We were almost always in the same city (Chesapeake, Virginia), but it seemed as though we were always restless. In such an atmosphere, it was hard to ever feel truly at home. Along with the constant movement, I was an isolated kid, up to so many things my folks never knew of. I was very much alone and seldom, if ever, felt the warmth and connection that home is about. My sense of home was really, really broken.

When I moved to Eau Claire in 2005, it didn’t take long for me to hate it. I’m serious. I literally hated Eau Claire. My false sense of home rejected what I experienced here. And then, I slowly began seeing the good things here. I began connecting with some people, especially through Valleybrook Church, that loved me, spoke truth to me, and helped me to start discovering the warmth, security, and safety of home.

Local music has played a large role in this healing process. In 2012, I heard Kalispell, Shane Leonard’s project, play at the Volume One Sounds Like Summer concert series at Phoenix Park. Leonard’s music was so rich, so emotive, so warm. At the time, I did some freelance writing for the Visit Eau Claire blog and I knew I needed to write something about Leonard and Kalispell. I met with Shane at Racy D’lene’s Coffee Lounge  on Water Street shortly after that concert to talk with him about his music and his story. It is not overstatement to say that the conversation we had that day altered my life’s course and was a deeper invitation to come “home.”

As I sat with Shane, I was overcome by his warmth and generous spirit. To be honest, I was a little star-struck at first. Yeah, maybe he wasn’t this nationally-recognized artist, but he was obviously immensely talented and he created art that deeply touched my soul. But, his unassuming way disarmed my sense of awe that day. In fact, he seemed far more interested in learning about me than talking about himself. As our time together at Racy’s went on, I felt more and more comfortable, more secure, more at home.

Around that same time, I bought his recently released “Westbound” album. It is a beautiful work of art. It is warm, honest, and inviting. Again, these are elements of a healthy sense of home. My wife also fell in love with the album, as did my then 3 year old son. We listened to it non-stop. It became the soundtrack of the Hudgins house in the second half of 2012. And, it was healing.

Sometime later, I drove to Mondovi from Eau Claire, passing through some serene and beautiful rural scenery. While I am not really a rural kind of guy, I so appreciate the beauty of the Chippewa Valley. It can be, if you let it, breathtaking. And, it is a central part of our community identity. So, I drove along, taking in the beauty of home, both visibly and audibly.

Kalispell’s “Westbound” became the background music for the restoration of home in my life. It spoke to me in its notes, melodies, instrumentation, movements, and lyrical content while I was growing deeper and deeper in relationships with people I could trust, and with the city in which I lived. I cannot separate Kalispell’s influence from the rest of this healing experience. It has been an integral part.

One of the major emphases of Tomme Suab is connecting the reader with the emotionality of music. To me, the reason this is so important is because I believe it can be healing. It can help you find the broken places in your heart, engage with deeply held feelings, express those feelings, and find healing and freedom you have never known. I say this as someone who has personally experienced this dynamic. Thanks in part to Shane Leonard and Kalispell, my heart has been healed and I now know what “home” feels like. And, I never want to leave it.

Kalispell’s “Westbound” is this week’s Gateway Record. Stream it in its entirety here.

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