Now Playing: The Big Takeover

It would be easy to label New York six-piece The Big Takeover a reggae band — and a damned good one, mind you — and leave it at that. After all, they’re led by powerful Jamaican-born singer NeeNee Rushie, their music is suffused with authentic island rhythms, and they’ve opened shows for what Rushie describes as a “who’s who” of reggae legends, from the Wailers to the Skatalites to Inner Circle to the Slackers, and so many more.

It would be easy to do that, but it would be lazy. Derelict, even. Because TBTs music also encompasses reggae’s close cousins, ska and rocksteady, along with a slew of soul and R&B influences from several eras, the whole of it spiced with the occasional deft flurry of blues-rock guitar.

“We like the idea that we can’t quite be pinned down,” says Rushie, during a recent phone interview. “We like the idea of falling into a not-quite-defined area, because we have so many different influences, reggae and ska and ’60s pop, soul.”

The band took off about 10 years ago, in the small college town of New Paltz, New York. Having come to the Hudson Valley area from Jamaica for college, Rushie hit it off with longtime friends and reggae enthusiasts Rob Kissner (bass) and Sam Tritto (drums). The three of them recruited three more members and haven’t stopped since.

They’re a solid six-piece outfit, with a chemistry that comes across in their unshakeable grooves. It’s hard not to single out Rushie, though, with her dynamic stage presence and versatile vox, as the beating heart of the Big Takeover. In person, she comes off with a winning mix of confidence and child-like glee, as if fronting a six-piece touring act were a brand-new gig, and not a ten-year-old endeavor.

That charming effervescence comes off in her singing, too. Her vocals are very much steeped in reggae tradition, and yet infused with something more — Rushie is a joyful, unfettered performer; she alternately coos, croons, banters and brays, calling forth a dozen stylists from as many different eras, sometimes in the space of a single verse.

Rushie says singing came naturally to her, growing up in Jamaica, listening to the ska and reggae records so beloved of her mother. She began singing in church, and later, in high school — “We had a really competitive choir,” she says. “I sang a lot of lead parts.” — but she considers her catching on with The Big Takeover as her serious singing debut.

“I never had what I would call formal training,” Rushie says. “I grew up surrounded by older reggae sounds. And I would try to sing like the singers I heard on those recordings. When I finally found a real outlet  to sing for people, with this band, I jumped at the opportunity.”

The Big Takeover have now released four full-length albums in 10 years, with a fifth one now in the works. “The next record will be a collection of acoustic versions of songs we’ve already released before. We’re giving the songs a more organic feel, and what’s coming out is pretty interesting. But our most recent record (“Silly Girl”) just came out in January. Maybe we’ll release this next one this year. But it’s still a work in progress.

“”We’d like to take this wherever it’s going to go. We’d love to go to Europe; I understand there’s a strong scene for what we do over there. We’ve been growing this project from a really tiny seed, and it’s starting to flourish. We love to see where it goes.”

The Big Takeover will play Preservation Pub Tuesday, April 11 at 11 p.m. with special guest Jonny Monster.

Now Playing: The Mallett Brothers

The sons of well-traveled Maine troubadour David Mallett, Luke and Will Mallett always knew they’d end up in the music business, just like dad. Yet it wasn’t until 2009, with the two siblings were well into their 20s, that they finally collaborated musically, forming the core of six-piece rock ‘n’ roll/Americana outfit the Mallett Brothers.

“I’d been in a ‘party band’ with some other guys, and that was starting to wind down,” says Luke Mallet. “Then my brother came back from college with a handful of songs, and we started running with it. We’d come from a musical household, but we never played together when we we were kids.

“Once we did, it was really cool, right from the get-go. And we haven’t looked back since, because we’ve been having too much fun.”

Luke tells that, early on, he and his brother were on separate musical trajectories. Following in father’s footsteps, Will trafficked in classic country, traditional string-band music, and singer-songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s. Luke, meanwhile, was a stone ’90s rock ‘n’ roll kid, weaned on Pantera and the hip hop of Wu Tang Clan.

Brother Will’s influence told, though — “He introduced me to a lot of the stuff I rely on in my songwriting now,” Luke says with a hearty laugh — as the Mallett Brothers evolved a sound that melded folk and rural/traditional musics with the heartland rock of artists like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty.

“Our first record was more acoustic, with banjos and mandolins,” says Luke, describing the band’s evolution. “But from there, our live show really started dictating what we sounded like. At that point, the band turned into another animal, one with more of a rock ‘n’ roll feel to it. The road became our biggest influence very quickly.”

The brothers’ home state also looms large in the band’s creative process. The Malletts hail from a small town in mid-state Maine — “very much logging and papermill kind of country,” says Luke. For their fourth record, 2015’s “Lights Along the River,” the band hauled studio and band equipment into a wooded backcountry just outside their hometown, and recorded the entire album lakeside, in the shadow of a mountain peak.

“We built our own studio in the middle of nowhere, in a camp with boat-only access,” Luke says. “It took six trips to get all of the equipment up there. It was perfect; it was October, and the lake was empty. We were the only people up there.

“We had the mountains behind us and the lake in front of us. We just wanted to catch the natural reverb and see what happened. One hundred miles of wilderness and the woods and mountains of Maine. That’s probably my favorite record for us as far as writing is concerned.”

For their latest record, 2017’s “The Falling of the Pine,” the brothers looked to an aging tome on the family bookshelves, a work entitled “The Minstrelsy of Maine.” Compiled by a local archivist in the 1920s, the book is a compendium of lyrics from folk songs passed around the lumber camps and fishing villages of the region in the 19th century.

Luke says the band had to make up their own melodies for the songs — the original melodies being lost to time, or else conforming to stock Irish folk-tune structures. “It took us nearly two years of down time to finish the project,” says Luke.

“For the most part, we had to imagine the melodies. Most of the lyrics were just swapped interchangeably into traditional Irish folk songs. We took the lyrics and made our own arrangements, trying to modernize them in some respect. Kind of: ‘What if they had electric guitars in the old lumber camps?’

“The lyrics were really heavy; there was a lot of dangerous stuff going on in those camps back then. So the stories were the important thing for us. We didn’t want to go the route of making a traditional-sounding record. We wanted to make a rock record, using these traditional song lyrics.”

The Mallett Brothers will play Preservation Pub Thursday, April 20 at 9 p.m. with opening act Matt Urmy.


Now Playing: Indighost

The foothills of Southern Appalachia are better known for nurturing bluegrass and traditional string music than for birthing trippy hard-rock outfits. But Dan Fehr, guitarist for the Bristol-area five-piece Indighost, believes the region’s alternately lush and brooding rural scenery is a perfect fit for his band’s haunting brand of neo-retro psychedelic rock.

“I think our approach to this type of music is very much, ‘This is how it is in the Southern Appalachian region,'” Fehr says, speaking from home in a recent phone interview. “For me, the hills and hollers — I get influenced by that, by being in nature. I love getting out and riding my motorcycle through the hills. I think the atmosphere of the area inspires people in different ways.”

Indighost began a couple of years ago, co-founded by Fehr and fellow guitarist Cody Gilner, both of them late of the Bristol act Rickshaw Roadshow. Fehr notes that Rickshaw Roadshow had already been evolving from its initial folk roots to “more of this Led Zeppelin III rock-folk thing.” Fehr says he and Gilner were interested in doing something “a little wild and dangerous,” and began listening to a raft of new music.

“We were listening to a lot of music we thought was new and exciting,” Fehr says. “We got a lot from the Obelisk (a Maryland-based stoner/doom/psychedelic rock blog) — that was an amazing source of cool, exciting bands that are making things happen. We immersed ourselves in what was around. I believe that big part of being a musician is subjecting yourself to lots of different art and music.”

The two guitarists recruited drummer Taylor Cogdill and bassist Quentin Garrett. But while Gilner and Fehr were both capable singers in their own right, they wanted someone else to take the vocal helm of their new band. Then singer Randi Denton submitted her aural resume.

Fehr had already seen Denton perform a couple of years before, when she sang a lead role in a stage performance of “The Rock Horror Picture Show.” She made a lasting impression with both her evocative, weirdly beautiful voice, and with her savvy stage presence. After listening to her mix CD, Fehr felt Denton’s own music was a good fit for the band he and Gilner were trying to create, and quickly brought her on board.

Since then, Indighost have released 2015’s “Treeline” EP, and last year’s full-length “Heirophant.” Both albums present a take on modern psychedelia not too far removed from that of Austin-based outfit the Black Angels. But whereas the Angels mostly mine the territory of classic ’60s psychedelia, Indighost infuse the music with additional elements of heavy blues-rock, stoner fuzz and post-millennial indie.

For his part, Fehr describes the Indighost sound as “taking ’70s hard rock and mixing it with the West Coast psychedelic scene… We’re trying to push the envelope. If it’s new, we’re interested.”

The band has also created a stage show appropriate to the music’s psychedelic bent. “We have lots of visual elements to our music,” Fehr says. “Live, we have almost a liquid light show, where we use a projector and a screen. Our goal is to elicit a very specific feeling with our music.”

Fehr says the band is already at work on a follow-up to Hierophant, a record he says will be at once darker and more rock-centered, more reflective of the puissant energy of the band’s live performances.

“We played a lot of shows in 2016, and this record will be a synthesis of what we’ve learned,” Fehr says. “Rather than being high-fidelity, we want it to be raw, like you’re standing three lines back at our live show.

“We’re going for a darker vibe; it will be more aggressive, while maintaining the sense of mysteriousness that drew people in on our other records. If (Hierophant) was sunny, this one is the moon. It’s definitely midnight.”

Indighost will play Scruffy City Hall Sunday, March 26 as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.

Now Playing: Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin and Ben Maney

Most people recognize Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin (aka “Yas”) as the brassy, big-voiced frontwoman of popular Knoxville neo-soul-rock outfit Electric Darling. But more recently, she’s gained additional traction with her side project, a duo (and occasional four-piece) she began with longtime local keyboard ace Ben Maney.

One of their earliest shows — and their first public performance — was at the opening ceremony for last year’s Big Ears Festival, a gathering at downtown’s Square Room. “Ben has been a teacher at the Community School of the Arts for a long time, and I attended the school from the age of five through age 18,” Yas explains. “So last year, the school asked the two of us to pull something together, to represent them for the opening.

“They sort of pitched it as ‘just a little thing at the Square Room,'” she laughs. “I figured we’d be background music. But when we got there, there were all these big performers from the festival attending and playing, too. It was very ‘official.’ But it was for the best, because the audience turned out to be very receptive. And Ben and I realized we might be on to something.”

Now in her mid-20s, Yas has already enjoyed an impressive career as a performer in Knoxville. As a child, she sang in church and at community events. Upon entering college, she majored in opera production at the University of Tennessee, and sang with both the UT and Knoxville opera companies, both before and after her graduation.

Then she started sitting in with rock and R&B bands at area clubs. “I was singing with the Knoxville Opera Chorus, and I was singing at jam nights at different places,” she says. “And I had a regular gig singing at Second Presbyterian. So I was singing R&B, rock, classical, sacred music, sometimes all of that in the same week.”

Yet it wasn’t until 2015 that she became a permanent member of a band, when now-fellow Electric Darling members Cozmo Holloway and Kevin Hyfantis recruited her for their new project, having themselves experienced her vocal prowess at various open mics.

As for her new work as part of a duo, Yas says she and Maney have taken the stage together perhaps eight times over the last year since Big Ears — sometimes as voice-and-keyboards duo, and sometimes as a four-piece backed by drummer Alonzo Lewis and bassist Daniel Shifflett.

“We do everything from old standards to our own take on modern electronic and R&B,” says Yas. “We do ‘Summertime,’ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ We do some Fiona Apple songs; we do Solange. Anything that moves us, we’re willing to adapt to piano and voice.

“I’d say that the things we collaborate best on are jazz-pop, or adult contemporary. We do some of Ben’s original songs, too, which have kind of a Jamie Cullum kind of sound. Those work well, too.”

Yas explains the creative sympatico of her partnership with Maney as a combination of comfort and chemistry. “I think we’re really comfortable playing with each other,” she says. “Together, we create this free and open creative space. It’s a passionate, fun, play-anything-you-want kind of situation.

“And it makes for a very lush sound. As a keyboardist and pianist, Ben fills up a lot of space. And I’ve always thought of my own voice as an instrument. So there’s a lot of things going on, even as a duo.”

Yas says she and Maney have tried writing songs together on a couple of occasions, but that their schedules don’t allow for too much collaboration. Maney has been an in-demand teacher and sideman around town for at least 20 years, and Yas has been busy recording a new EP with her Electric Darling bandmates. “That doesn’t make for a lot of down time,” she says with another chuckle.

“Maybe we’ll write together more in the future,” she continues. “We’ll definitely be playing more together. And who knows? Maybe we’ll end up recording one day.”

Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin and Ben Maney will play Scruff City Hall Friday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.


Now Playing: Ben Maney w/ Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin

For those of us who’ve been around for more than a minute, it seems inconceivable that soft-spoken improvisational ace Ben Maney has been lending his colorful keyboard strokes to artists all over the spectrum of the Knoxville music scene for something like 25 years now. Indeed, Maney’s musical history goes all the way back to popular early-’90s fusion-jam outfit Free Formula, to late-’90s rockin’ blues act Michael Crawley and the Mac Daddies, to the prog-rock band People of the Square, to the mid-‘oos jazz-fusion group fronted by local guitar player Mitch Rutman.

Hell, Maney even did a stint with the circus, when he departed the University of Tennessee music program in 1995 to sign on with the traveling band for Ringling Brothers, joining fellow Knoxvillian and former Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes bassist Dave Nichols on the road.

Nowadays, Maney says his teaching work keep him busy enough that he no longer has to scrounge for the next job. Maney teaches piano and keys privately, and also with the local non-profit Community School of the Arts.

“I’m not hustling for gigs these days, which is kind of nice,” Maney says with a laugh. “I’ll still do some private shows from time to time. But it’s not ‘wait ’til the phone rings, then see what happens’ anymore.”

Maney does have one project he’s happy to tout, however, that being his collaboration with the talented Electric Darling vocalist Yasameen “Yas” Hoffman-Shahin. With Maney being a teacher for the Community School of the Arts, and Yas having been a longtime student there, the two teamed up after CSA executive director Jennifer Willard recruited them to play a special one-off show together at a school function some time back.

“It was fantastic,” Maney says of his first musical summit with Yas. “We played a couple standards. She was amazing. Jennifer kept calling us, so we did an event or two after that. Eventually, we started doing shows outside the school.

“We definitely clicked. When you click with someone musically, there’s not much need to think too hard about it. And there’s a real spontaneity to our collaboration.”

Maney notes that while he and Yas were trained in opposing disciplines — at UT, he was woodshedding jazz under local piano ace Donald Brown and his assistant, pianist Matt Fries; Yas was trained in classical music at the university, singing with the opera company — they both picked up plenty of other tricks along the way, playing a host of different genres at venues of every description, churches and local clubs and sundry open mic nights.

Still, Maney says the foundation of their successful collaboration is rooted more in a mindset than a skill set. “She’s a seasoned and educated musician, as well,” Maney says. “And we talk about form and structure from time to time. But we can also just get by pretty well without those conversations, sometimes surprisingly well. That allows for a lot of creativity and expression to emerge.

“I’ve always had an easier time when I’m not tied down to a particular structure. I’m used to letting arrangements flow according to what I’m feeling. And Yas is very good at adapting to that. She’s intuitive, with an amazing sense of timing and a very good ear. It makes things very comfortable.”

And while both he and Yas have played extensively in the blues and rock idioms, he says their work as a duo — which has largely consisted of either interpreting jazz and pop standards, or on readings of Maney’s original compositions — shines best in more contemplative contexts.

“There’s a nuance in what we do, and when we go uptempo, we seem to lose some of that nuance,” Maney says. “There are things she does with her voice when we play that she can’t do with a full band, and I feel the same way with my keyboards. When we do peppy, jangly numbers, it just doesn’t work as well.

“The direction we’re heading is a place where we can explore space a little bit more. We’re starting to get into more brooding, darker sounds and arrangements. I’m experimenting with electronics too — you’ll get a taste of that at our next performance.”

Ben Maney and Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.