Now Playing: Kerchief at Funny Ears Fringe Festival

Singer-guitarist Brittany Hill started her current three-piece touring unit Kerchief as a solo project in 2014, as an outlet for the creative and songwriting instincts given only partial vent in her previous outfit, the Springboro, Ohio-based Vanity Theft. Three years, two EPs, and one full-length release later, Hill is close to realizing Kerchief as an ongoing collaborative — not a solo project, but a full-fledged band.

“My initial goal was to start my own project and keep making music that I wanted to make,” says Hill, who moved to Cleveland, Tn., from Ohio in 2013. “The band itself was somewhat of a rotation for a while, with seven or eight different members who passed through. Then last fall I found a couple of people who’ve been steady with me, and hopefully they’re going to stick.”

Hill began her musical career earlier than most, becoming the lead guitarist in the aforementioned Vanity Theft at the tender age of 16. Toggling between three and four members over the course of its career, the band offered up an energetic brand of pop-rock equally indebted to ’80s rock and new-wave/electro pop, a hybrid of the Runaways and the Bangles tinged with just a hint of post-millennial emo and indie.

After signing a small record deal and releasing one album on Adamant Records in 2011, the band members went their separate ways, with Hill joining family members in Cleveland and pursuing her solo muse.

Hill’s first Kerchief release, the “Demonstrations” EP in 2014, introduced a beguiling mix of alt-rock, electro-pop, and singer-songwriter aesthetics. Elaborating on the antecedents of Kerchief’s style, Hill says she was weaned on ’80s and ’90s indie rock, and that she took a special interest in strong female performers who came up through the 1990s. “I always looked up to Gwen Stefani,” she says. “I’ve followed her career. Like me, she’s gotten more into electronics as she’s gone farther.

“I really get into pop music, too. I’m a big Lady Gaga fan.”

In fact, Hill’s influences are heavily told on all three Kerchief releases — including 2015’s full-length “Machines and Animals,” and the “Corner House” EP from last year — each of them redolent of the 1990s and the dawn of commercial alt-rock, an era when female frontwomen like Stefani and Poe and Shirley Manson and Kim Deal abruptly stormed into the public eye. Like those women before her, Hill has a quirky, distinctive vision, an impeccable sense of phrasing, and an ear for a pleasing melody.

Given that Kerchief began life as essentially a one-woman show — Hill has played most of the music on her three releases — the arrangements on these early records are often sparse, defined by skeletal keyboard frameworks and colored by intermittent swaths of guitar.

As Kerchief becomes more of a group effort, Hills says the character of the music may change, too. “When we play those songs live, there’s kind of a balance between the electronic and acoustic elements,” Hill says. “We have a sampler that the drummer triggers for certain parts. We don’t have a keyboardist right now, so live, the music is different from the recording. But we think it’s different in good way.

“As we move forward, I want to see us become more of a band. My bass player also sings, and we’re going to start writing songs together. Kerchief began as a solo project as more of a necessity, than from me expressly wanting to be a solo artist. I see it evolving into a solid, permanent three or four member group down the road.”

Kerchief will play Preservation Pub Saturday, March 25 at 7 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.

Now Playing: Step Sisters at Funny Ears Fringe Festival

Most young rock ‘n’ rollers turn down the volume as they age, dropping the three-chord punk schtick in their later years in favor of blues and singer-songwriter gigs, or maybe for a cover band or two.

But when members of Nashville’s Step Sisters got together in 2015 — most of them having crossed the 30-year-mark and the unofficial threshold of adulthood — it was for the purpose of effecting an abrupt collective U-turn and re-embracing the louder, more lethal sounds of their youth.

“We had all been in other bands,” says bassist Matt Johanson. “And we all wanted to do something heavier, because we had been playing in blues and blues-based projects. We figured that even though we’re veterans, we’re still young at heart.”

Two loosely-organized do-it-yourself recording sessions later — one of them taking place in the back room of a local brewery — and the freshly-dubbed four-piece Step Sisters had enough music first for a four-song local cassette release, and then for a proper five-song EP, “Thick,” available now on the Sisters’ Bandcamp page.

“Thick” showcases an outfit strongly influenced by Nirvana, and the heady, early days of Sup Pop Records. Frontman Clint Wilson sings in a ragged-yet-melodic howl, and the band churns through adhesively tuneful song structures with an intensity that bridges the fraught divide between frenetic punk-rock scrappiness and authoritative metalloid heft.

But there’s something else in the mix, too, a patina of modern alt-rock psychedelia overlaying the familiar grunge-punk core. Johanson admits that the Step Sisters have drawn very deliberately from a melange of modern influences, though the band’s core mission is still vested in more traditional metal and punk.

“We drawn on some modern stuff like Goner Records out of Memphis, and especially (garage rocker) Jay Reatard,” Johanson says. “And a lot of the West Coast psychedelic sound played a big part in who we are, stuff like Ty Segall, and Thee Oh Sees.

“I think our main influences, though, are the bands we heard in our younger days; those were the sounds we really wanted to recreate. Clint and I love Nirvana. Adam (Swafford, guitarist) is from the Led Zeppelin school of thought. And then there’s Black Sabbath. Sabbath, and heavy metal in general, is what got me into picking up an instrument in the first place.”

Johanson promises those influences will figure even more prominently on the band’s next release. Between touring jaunts around the Southeast, he says the Sisters managed to log some heavy studio time in February, laying 12 new tracks for a yet-untitled new album, tentatively slated for release at the beginning of summer.

“The new record will be us really laying into some heavy, psychedelic songs,” Johanson says. “There’s not a lot of let-up there. It’s pretty heavy, and it’s fast. We’ve got a new tag line for the release of this one — ‘You can breathe when the record’s done.'”

The Step Sisters will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, March 24 at 11:30 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.

Now Playing: Martha Spencer at Funny Ears Fringe Festival

When Martha Spencer takes the Scruffy City Hall stage March 23 for the Honky Tonk Nighttime Ball, trading riffs on guitar, fiddle and mandolin with old friends Matt Kinman (Old Crow Medicine Show) and Alex Leach (Bill Stanley’s band), don’t be surprised when she suddenly drops her axe and starts cutting the proverbial rug in the middle of the show, engaging mountain music fans with a nimble display of traditional flattop dancing.

“There will probably be lots of trading instruments going on, and I’ll probably dance,” Spencer explains in a recent phone interview, speaking with a distinctive Appalachian drawl. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s an interactive thing. In a lot of the bands I’ve played in, the crowds are dancing, so there’s often some give and take.”

Flattop, Spencer explains, is a dance form with Scots-Irish derivations, in which the soles of the performers’ feet usually hover no more than a few inches from the ground. It differs somewhat from its close cousins, clogging and buck dancing, in that it is quieter than clogging, and less high-kicking and physically demonstrative than either.

The West Virginia Encyclopedia online calls it “the mountain artistic reaction to hard-driving fiddle music.”

Though still a young woman, Spencer is already a globe-trotting veteran performer, having grown up as a member, along with her parents Thornton and Emily Spencer, of the long-running Whitetop Mountain Band — so named for a tiny town in the highlands of Virginia. Through her childhood years and over the course of innumerable music festivals and fiddle competitions, Spencer developed her alternately sweet and baleful singing style as well as her flattop dancing skills, and mastered every stringed instrument relevant to the traditional mountain repertoire.

“I never took lessons,” Spencer says of her flattop abilities. “I just picked it up from people that would come over to my parents house, or who I saw at festivals. I’d watch, and then I’d join in.”

In the years since, she’s toured extensively both stateside and overseas, playing a mix of traditional mountain music, bluegrass, and throwback country in a variety of contexts and configurations. “I grew up in the old-time mountain tradition; those are my roots,” she says. “But I love a lot of different music. I love bluegrass. I love George Jones and Merle Haggard, too.”

The upcoming Honky Tonk Nighttime Ball show will not be the first time she’s crossed paths with either Kinman or Leach. The three musicians have a considerable history together, Spencer says, having shared stages and guest-starred on one another’s solo records many times over the last few years. They have collaborated so often, in fact, that Spencer says the March 23 show probably won’t require much in the way of advance rehearsal. “We’ve played enough together that we can come up with a good mix of songs almost on the spot,” she says.

“We’ll probably do a variety of music — including some old-time mountain music with a little bit of dancing,” Spencer continues. “We’ll probably do some bluegrass, because bluegrass banjo is Alex’s thing. We’ll probably do some country and honky tonk as well. I’d say we’ll probably put some of our own stuff in there, along with traditional things that people might recognize.”

Martha Spencer will play the Honky Tonk Nighttime Ball at Scruffy City Hall on Thursday, March 23 at 8 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.










downtown dirt by manhole: FEFF

bunny-435170_640Our time here is short today, but in the precious moments allotted to us, we would remind you that February is nearly done. Which means March is on the way, and with it, the new tradition hereabouts known as Funny Ears Fringe Festival, a weekend-long multi-band concert extravaganza offering a sort of local and (ahem!) less expensive counterpoint to a certain better-known music fest running concurrently the same weekend, that being March 23 thru 26.

This year’s FEFF will feature some 45 bands (give or take) across our two favorite venues — those being Scruffy City Hall and Preservation Pub, natch — representing a range of genres too dizzyingly long and diverse to recount in the short space of a single internet post — trad-country and Americana and experimental indie and psychedelia and funk-ska and reggae-surf and pirate rock (!!!), and on and on…

Watch this space for more information on the event sometime in the next couple weeks. But in the meantime, here’s a hint of what you can expect from our fair city’s youngest and weirdest and bestest downtown music festival in 2017:

— Hillbilly hair farmer Andrew Dale Pirkle, singer-guitarist of Knoxville honky-tonk heroes the Barstool Romeos, will curate the Funny Ears Honky Tonk Nighttime Ball, beginning at 8 p.m. Thursday March 23 at SCH. Expect plenty of bearded, beer-swilling redneck foolishness from Emcee Pirkle, in addition to performances from the likes of Matt Kinman (Old Crow Medicine Show founder) and Alex Leach (banjo player for Ralph Stanley).

— Sultry soul chanteuse Yasameen Hoffman-Shaheen and keyboard/piano ace Ben Maney will open the lineup at SCH on Friday March 24 with their 6:30 p.m. performance. Yas is best-known as the lead singer of neo-soul outfit Electric Darling, while Maney has been one of the city’s most in-demand instrumentalists since forever.

— What the hell is Gypsy Folk-Funk? Damned if we know. But if you’re as curious as we are, be sure to show up at the Pub on Saturday, March 25, for a performance from GFF artists Sirius B. out of Asheville, N.C.

— Last but not least, the weekend closes out at SCH on Sunday, March 26 with Bristol-based stoner-psych outfit Indighost. Trust us when we tell you that these guys are worth the (low) price of a weekend’s admission all by themselves.

And those are just a few of too-many highlights to name. Again, see us here in two weeks, for more in-depth dope on FEFF, plus more on March goodness yet to be named.

Now Playing: Fireside Collective

When asked about the genus of his four-piece string-band outfit Fireside Collective’s music, bandleader/singer/mandolinist Jesse Iaquinto replies that the answer may vary from moment to moment, and from one observer to another.

“Depending on where you come from and your experience with folk music, you may think we’re very traditional, or on the other hand, consider us a progressive act,” he says. “We appreciate both ends of the spectrum and may lie on a different end on any given night.”

Based out of Asheville, N.C., the three-year-old outfit began as a sort of solo project for Iaquinto. Having drifted from Greenville to Asheville at the end of his college career at East Carolina University, Iaquinto tells that he was looking to delve into bluegrass and traditional musics after playing in a Greenville-based jam band for a number of years.

Tapping his former bass player Carson White for the project, Iaquinto began working through a cache of songs he had been writing over a period of years. The duo recruited, then parted ways with, several potential bandmates before settling on the current lineup, which includes dobro player Tommy Maher and guitarist Joe Cicero.

The goal upon which the band was founded, says Iaquinto, was “to play bluegrass, and to make it presentable to a larger audience.”

And while, at times, the band approaches the music with due reverence for its traditions, the Collective is unafraid of pushing the boundaries of those traditions when the moment is right. “When we play big bluegrass jams at clubs in Asheville, what we do goes beyond what some of the other more traditional players are doing,” Iaquinto says. “We do a lot of jams, extended parts, improvisations like you might hear from the Grateful Dead.

“Those things aren’t typical of the bluegrass world. We want to honor the traditions, but we also want to be able to step outside of them.”

In fact, Iaquinto argues that bluegrass, as it was conceived by principal pioneer Bill Monroe, was never intended to be a hidebound, rigidly structured art form. Rather, it was a novel melding of old-time and country and pop music — a sort of backwater musical experiment, rendered with an iconoclast’s flair.

“The original vision was truly progressive,” Iaquinto says. “But then over time, it became about how accurately you could cover what’s already been done. To me, that stifled the genre.

“I’m a folk music enthusiast. I once read a book about folk that put forth the argument that the folk musician’s job is to take the struggle of the common man and present it in a way that’s relevant to the time, albeit with acoustic instruments. It’s important to stay relevant. It’s 2017; you can’t be singing about working on the railroad all the time.”

It’s worth noting, too, that, according to Iaquinto, his bandmates are united by their universal fondness for classic rock, beyond even their love for bluegrass; their live repertoire includes a handful of rock cover songs from the likes of Paul Simon and Tom Petty.

“We all have a deep love of classic rock music, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin…,” Iaquinto says. “We’re always finding ways to incorporate that into the music we play. We do some interesting covers, and we also have something we do where we slow the music down and put a bit of a groove underneath it. We call it ‘funk-grass.'”

Next up, Fireside Collective plans to release an album of 12 new original songs in May, then take to the road, with an eye toward the festival circuit. “We’re kind of an ideal festival band,” Iaquinto says. “We’re acoustic, and we’re very in touch with our roots.

“But also — and this gets back to our rock influence — we really honor the show. We want to put on a performance. To us, it’s about putting on more of a rock ‘n’ roll type of show than just playing bluegrass on a stage.”

Fireside Collective will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, Feb. 24 at 10 p.m.