It had to be a thrill for Tucson Americana favorites Tierra del Fuego to play the steel guitar and harmonies for a crowd of producers and sound-heads from across the country. Likewise, hometown rock-royalty the Modeens got the opportunity to receive some much-deserved attention for their amped-up scramble through the best music ideas of the last half-century.
But it turned out that the vocals of Lonna Kelley owned the crowd. Her lyrics were loaded with new perspectives, and her music was as unpredictable as her surprise accompanist, Howe Gelb.
Did the word get out? Plush was packed for that set.
Conference highlights included a panel discussion and keynote speech laying out contrasting views about analog versus digital recording technology, and a discussion, moderated by Boston producer Pete Weiss, about how to get the best performance from an artist.
Inherent in that discussion was the trick of injecting juice into a performance when there's no audience for feedback. There was also a slippery definition of the producer's role versus that of the artist. It was almost possible to hear the wheels turning in the minds of producers in the audience at Plush: How might they handle Kelley as a newish artist? And what about her fragile vocals? How would they set up? Would they keep the blips, or process them over—analog or digital?
Kelley has a backup duo now, and she knows how to use them. They lend texture and heft to her new songs, and give more depth to old ones. She's taking risks with instrumentation, too, finishing one song accompanied only by a trumpet. Even more striking, she did the entire set without drums.
Pete Weiss was another crowd favorite, with the producer showcasing his inner guitar-player with the Weisstronauts, an instrumental outfit featuring winning solos by guitarist Ken Lafler. The quartet started out surfing, but turned country in spots, then jazzy and even Pat Metheny-like. Some songs included a range of influences. Underlying all of them were the backbeats that have been kicking the dancing machine into motion since time immemorial.