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Indie Spotlight: Cactus Blossoms, Billy Hubbard, Steve Robinson and others highlighted

This month's picks for the Indie Spotlight column by Lee Zimmerman.

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By Lee Zimmerman 

No one has been more responsible for source material over the past 60 years than Bob Dylan. Thats hardly surprising. While Dylan's vocals may have blurred the accessibility factor at times, the melodies themselves resonate well beyond any initial incarnation. It’s hardly surprising that bands like the Byrds and the Band brought a clarity that was sometimes lacking in Dylan's seminal versions while still retaining the same devotion to both tone and tenacity. Consequently credit the Cactus Blossoms for distilling four Dylan songs down to the essence of true folk finesse, courtesy of their new EP If Not For You. In the process, they eschew any hint of posturing and pretense, channeling charm and grace with their remakes of the title track, “To Ramona,” “Went To See the Gypsy” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True.” Subtitled Bob Dylan Songs Vol. 1, it promises the possibility that a second volume will follow. If this initial offering is any indication, it can’t come soon enough.


Singer/songwriter Billy Hubbard has spent plenty of time on the business side of the music industry — as a producer, promoter, A&R representative, and venue developer — but with his eponymous debut album, he steps behind the microphone with a compelling set of songs that reflect his verve and vitality. Written and co-produced by Hubbard, the new album features an impressive array of talented guest musicians — among them, Grammy winner and Country Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy (harmonica) and Shawn Camp of the Earls of Leicester (mandolin and fiddle). In the process, Hubbard takes an emphatic first step towards establishing himself as an important player in today’s American environs. The songs resonate with empathy and emotion, while Hubbard’s expressive, sandpapery vocals and precise arrangements set the tone, ensuring that the songs themselves resonate with warmth and resilience. Taken in tandem, Billy Hubbard adds up to a stirring set of songs, one that marks its maker as a superb talent and one to be reckoned with. Hopefully, this is the first of many offerings Hubbard will have for us in the future. Anything he offers will be well worth waiting for.


Delaney Hafener, who goes under the nom de plume The Belle Curves, is well adept at channeling the sound of classic country music and putting it in the context of contemporary Americana. The new Belle Curves album, Watershed, is a joyful and uplifting set of songs, and while the subject matter sometimes touches on sadder subjects, such as the homesickness that’s gleaned from life on the road, it’s a remarkably resilient album and one that captures attention straight from the get-go. While certain songs focus on reflection and remorse, the tone and tenacity rings with anthemic intent overall. The articulate arrangements and solid songwriting belie the fact that this is only the second Belle Curves album to date, especially when one considers the fact that Hafener sounds so effortlessly informed. Every single song resonates through her compelling approach and the finesse and focus that’s invested in every offering. Watershed is indeed an apt title considering the emotional input, but at the same time, it also signals the fact that even this early on, The Belle Curves have proven their prowess.


“I moved away but never moved on,” Rachel McIntyre Smith sings on “Glory Daze,” the opening track of her new EP by the same name. It’s an exceptional effort, one that asserts her independence while marking the arrival of an assured and impressive new talent. Smith channels her rural East Tennessee upbringing into a set of songs, one that’s flush with absolute enthusiasm and clear conviction. A concise blend of contemporary country with an Americana essence, it finds her sharing emphatic emotion with a mix of both innocence and intent. In a sense, it reflects a journey that finds Smith coming of age and dealing with the need to retain small town values even while addressing the need to find a fit within a society that often imposes unreal expectations. In a sense, her’s is the story of anyone who comes from rural environs and attempts to find their way forward in an often unfriendly world. An inspired set of songs, Glory Daze conveys a narrative that stays true to its title and makes its point in the process.



Steve Robinson's backstory is impressive. A onetime sidekick of former Byrds mainstay Roger McGuinn and leader of his own band, the Headlights, Robinson comes to this current collaboration with the equally renown Ed Woltil — Robinson’s former colleague in the Headlights and one time leader of his own Tampa Florida-based band the Ditchflowers — with some impressive credentials. Of course as anyone with any knowledge of the music biz knows, one is only as good as their latest effort. Happily then, the duo's new album, Shadow Play, is an assured triumph, a set of illuminating, upbeat songs that cross the transom from power pop to essential Americana. While several songs delve deeply into some otherwise unsettled emotions, the overall approach is elevated by the articulate arrangements and an illuminating attitude. The follow-up to their last collaborative effort, Seize the Day, released in 2015, it proves to be another perfect partnership and a critical and credible follow-up to the various efforts the two have released individually as well.


The Green Pajamas are dedicated disciple of archival psychedelia, the sort of sounds that were particularly prominent in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. They’ve been on that musical mission since the mid ‘80s, courtesy of an essential line-up that includes singer, guitarisr, keyboard player and chief songwriter Jeff Kelly, singer, bassist and guitarist Joe Ross and vocalist and keyboardist Eric Lichter. Kelly, who also performs as a solo artist, takes the lions share of responsibility these days, credited on the band’s new album Forever For a Little While as the chief performer and producer. If anything, that primary role is reflected in an increased drive and dynamic overall, but echoes of their traditional psych sensibilities (one song is actually titled “Psychedelic Sun”) still permeate the effort overall. As a result, Forever For a Little While rings with resilience and resolve, ensuring the fact that nearly 40 years on, this Seattle-based band is as vital as ever. So too, with 19 tracks, quality and quantity find equal standing.