An Interview with Roanoke Hip-Hop Artist Harvest Blaque

Harvest Blaque—the Roanoke hip-hop artist also known as Bryan Hancock—has a show Saturday night from 8 to 11 at The Bazaar of Roanoke record shop. The bill features Equally Opposite from Charlottesville, as well as Knuckleheadz (Grandmaster Jax & Ol’ Dirty Dada) who will “open the evening with a short but memorable set,” according to Blaque.

The artist, who blends multiple genres, including rock, country and blues, to form his original hip-hop sound that he terms “soul hop,” also emcees a regular Poetry Slam at 16 West Marketplace. Blaque recently sat down with Blue Ridge Rocks to discuss his approach to music and his career.

Tell me a little about how you first got started in music?

I have to give my dad the credit. He played a lot of great band records. I remember growing up as a kid and listening to his music and wanting to express myself through music. My parents divorced when I was five and my aunt told me to keep a journal of my feelings. I would record shows and do lip sync battles and write my own verses. I always wanted to rap and do music one way or another.

Jason Isbell

An Evening with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Review with Photo Slideshow

Two-time Grammy Award winner Jason Isbell and his backing band the 400 Unit returned to the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre last night. On a stage immaculately lit, with a beautifully balanced sound system, the atmosphere was set for an intimate evening with the singer-songwriter. The music was a blend of acoustic Americana, southern rockabilly jams, and some harder-edge classic rock ‘ roll, all of which showcased Isbell’s gripping vocal qualities.

The 100-minute set was comprised mostly of songs from Isbell’s two most recent solo albums, “Southeastern” (2013) and “Something More Than Free” (2015), opening the show with “Stockholm” and later performing such hits as “Cover Me Up,” “Different Days,” “24 Frames,” “Speed Trap Town,” and “Super 8.”

Much of Isbell’s success as a singer-songwriter comes from his ability to create complex compositions filled with harrowing lyrics and emotion. Isbell writes about himself, honestly, openly, and brutally, without holding back.  His brilliant, yet accessible, songs cover universal topics of loss, loneliness, and love, and his personal struggles with addiction and the substance abuse that held a powerful grip on him in his early career. That early career included a six-year stint as lead guitarist and a principle songwriter for the Drive-By Truckers.

The evening performance previewed several songs off the band’s upcoming album “The Nashville Sound,” as well as a couple of songs written and performed during those years with the Drive-By Truckers. The new album, scheduled for release June 16th, delivers a heavier dose of rock than the award-winning “Something More than Free.”

Throughout the night, Isbell provided lots of love to his backing band, the 400 Unit, a name derived from the colloquial term for the psychiatric ward of a hospital located in Florence, Alabama, located in the Muscle Shoals region where Isbell and many of the band members claim roots. The band features former Drivin’ and Cryin’ member Sadler Vaden on guitar, Derry deBorja, formerly of Son Volt on keys, Jimbo Hart on bass and Chad Gamble on drums.

In true singer-songwriter fashion, Isbell was engaging and jovial with the audience, even pointing out the differences between singer-songwriters and other musical performers, impersonating what it might have been like had Michael Jackson introduced himself between songs. “Hi, I’m Michael Jackson and this song is called Beat It”. Isbell joked that sometimes he likes to rewrite history that way, before launching into “The Life You Chose” followed by “Traveling Alone,” two songs that include deliberate lyrical repetition to deepen the audience’s understanding of the music.

The three-song encore opened with “If We Were Vampires,” a slower ballad from the new album, that speaks to the mortality of life and marriage, and that eventually one of the lovers is left behind. Two rock songs completed the evening, “Flying Over Water,” and “Never Gonna Change,” which featured plenty of Isbell’s and Vaden’s intricate guitar skills.

From here, Isbell and the 400 Unit play a handful of shows in early May before embarking on an intense six-month American and European tour to promote their new album. That tour kicks off June 17th in Asheville, NC, followed by a show in Raleigh.

Before leaving the stage last night Isbell promised an eventual return, stating, “See y’all real soon!”

Story Behind the Song: Poe Mack

While this may come as a surprise to some, the genre of rap music is highly coveted by most songwriters. I happen to REALLY enjoy just listening to hip-hop, but as a songwriter (of primarily folk music), I can’t help but be in awe of the ability to create so many internal, clever rhymes in a 3-4 minute span.

Poe Mack, a hip-hop artist from Roanoke, has been making music for over 20 years. He tours up and down the east coast, from Maine to the country music capital, Nashville, all the way down to Florida. Mack, who is signed to Roanoke-based Rawsole Records, is a man of many talents. Not only is he a lyricist, but he produces, records and engineers his own tunes. He produces for others as well in his home-studio and has been working at Flat Five Press and Recording Company since 2005. Mack is also active in the community, performing in benefits for ovarian cancer, Hurricane Katrina disaster, and the victims of the Virginia Tech Massacre.

Fabulous Dramatics: Finding new sounds among the sounds

Almost exactly one a year ago we featured a new (to the area) singer songwriter, Kris Piemonte, and his quest to find innovative “sounds between the sounds” in his music. His goals were simple and brave: create meaningful sounds and lyrics that revealed universal truths, then bring them to the stage such that others felt it.

He was also searching for bandmates who could share in that vision.

One year later, and Piemonte is well along his path to realizing those goals. With the addition of guitarist/ keyboardist Marc Verica, a recent transplant from Charlottesville, the Fabulous Dramatics are set to launch a new album this Saturday at Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers.

Catherine Backus: Finalist in Prestigious Songwriting Competition

Sometimes you hear a song and it just lights something up in you. I remember the first time I heard Ray Lamontagne’s song “Jolene”. I listened to it over and over again, because something about it made me feel all the feels. I didn’t necessarily relate to every word he sang, but the emotion was so strong, that I didn’t need to share the experience, to experience the experience with him. As a songwriter, you go one step beyond just feeling a song. You study chord progressions, the rhyme scheme, the brilliant prosody it may contain, and at the end of the day, you just think, “damn, I wish I wrote that song.”

I love finding a song that does that to me, and I get even more excited when that song is written by someone in our own backyard. Catherine Backus, a 25 year-old from Bedford, VA, has just been announced as a finalist in the national Chris Austin Songwriting Competition, for her song “Tomatoes” The Chris Austin Songwriting Competition has been a staple at Merlefest, a roots festival in Wilkesboro, NC, since the 90s, and is known for its quality of entrants. Past winners include Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, Sam Quinn, and Adrienne Young, just to name a few. Backus, who’s day job is an activity director at an adult day care center, is a name who I believe will be just as well-known as those aforementioned.

Luke Church

Luke Church, An Americana Facilitator

If you haven’t noticed it yet, you need to check out the “Roots Down” music show Fridays at 8 p.m. on WVTF. The local NPR affiliate offers a fun, unvarnished look at postmodern Americana music in and around the region. The show, hosted by Luke Church and themed “Americana Without the Quilts,” has stacked up an impressive catalog of appearances by national and regional acts.

Church first joined WVTF in a part-time role in 2014 after working in promotions for a classic rock radio station in Charlottesville, where he lived for 18 years. In January of 2016, he went full-time with the NPR affiliate. It was that May when station program director, Josh Jackson, approached Church about the idea for Roots Down. Jackson, whose radio career started in New Orleans and then moved to New York, was instrumental in getting Christian McBride to do Jazz Night in America, and was also the founding producer of the NY concert series, “Live at the Village Vanguard” and “The Checkout,” a live performance of the music magazine he created.

Another Roadside Attraction

More than just “Another Roadside Attraction”

Duo, Lucy de los Rios and Lucky Buttons, make up Another Roadside Attraction, a band whose sound flows like an eclectic carnival. To get that unique melody, the duet play a wide range of instruments, including ukuleles, resonator guitar, melodica (I didn’t even now what that was), musical saw, harmonica, kazoo, and the under-appreciated guitarron, as well as a variety of DIY washboard and percussion rigs, to craft original music that is a constantly evolving blend of Americana, Acoustic, and what they have dubbed “Blue Ridge Cabaret.”

A couple on and off the stage, de los Rios and Buttons have enjoyed making music together for the past seven years and have shared that joy with audiences all over our region. Buttons got his start playing in a dive bar in Durham, NC, where there were house instruments available, and the patrons were invited to regularly jam together. The bartender kept strings on the instruments, and rocked out periodically. “Once I learned what it was all about, I went there every time I could. That place really lit my fuse.”

His partner, de los Rios came from a musical family, and started writing original tunes in 2008, when she fell in love with that unique little instrument, the ukulele. Once she connected with Buttons in 2009, they took on the challenge of opening for other local bands and playing with other musicians.

The Story Behind the Song: “Road Dog Blues”

The Panini Brothers got their name from a random ordering of the same sandwich at dinner with their wives.  The ladies “thought it was the dumbest possible name for a band, and that sealed it,” said Mike DeGiorgi, one of three guitarists for the Paninis. DeGiorgi, Larry Sakayama, and Chip Conway originally just got together at Larry’s Smith Mountain Lake (SML) home to jam on cover tunes, but considering that Larry and Mike are two of the most gifted local songwriters that I personally know, their ambitions exceeded the not-so-simple cover.  Joined by keyboardist, Mark Earnhardt, and drummer, Scott Thomas, the Paninis started feeding the locals with their own special blend of blues, rock, folk and jazz.

Their debut CD, “Eyes on the Water”, is a tribute to the band’s self-admitted randomness: It “makes a certain kind of collective sense. Our tastes are very different. Each songwriter trusts that input from the other brothers will make a song better,” said DeGiorgi.  It’s only fitting that this SML band recorded their first album at Blackwater Recording Studio with Harold Thompson.

John McBroom

John McBroom: Playing from the Heart

From Community High School music teacher, to FloydFest production manager, to local band member, John McBroom’s footprints are everywhere in the Southwest Virginia music scene. A self-professed father and family man, McBroom started dabbling in music as a kid, an early hobby that would become a defining passion of his life.

“All my brothers and sisters were older than me and I had their record collections. I would listen to the Beatles and knew I wanted to do that. Music pays huge dividends to my soul. I consider myself a very spiritual person, and music is the closest thing to my religion. Philosophically, I land somewhere between Buddhist and Native American. The only thing I have found that is real in this world is our connections and our relationships with others. In the grand scheme of things, we are all just small specs of dusts, swirling around others. Music and teaching, is what gets me up every day, it has shown me a purpose in this life. It’s my way of giving my soul back.”

Morgan Wade

Story Behind the Song: “Let Me Rest” by Morgan Wade

Living in Roanoke, we’re all #blessed to be surrounded by a myriad of incredible musical talent.  From bluegrass to metal, to Americana to reggae, there’s a little something for just about everyone.  One such talent comes from a young lady from Floyd, VA.  Her name is Morgan Wade and I’ve been following her for a few years now.    I remember listening to her music for the first time and thinking that she’s got that “something” that all writers, singers, and artists hope for:  She sounds exactly like who she is.  There’s no misrepresentation; her songs are the truest form of her pure self.  I like that honesty in a songwriter.  Being brave enough to put oneself out there is half the battle of writing relatable songs.