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Heartland Rock Legend Sam Llanas Goes Deeper into the Country

It wouldn’t be fair to let the year go by without giving a spin to perennially estimable tunesmith Sam Llanas’ 2018 album Return of the Goya Pt. 1, streaming at Spotify. The title refers not to a painting or a can of frijoles but the acoustic guitar that Llanas wrote many of his former band the BoDeans’ biggest hits on. It was stolen decades ago. Recently, a fan found out about it and bought him a new one. The unexpected acquisition jumpstarted what would become Llanas’ most country-flavored record so far.

The opening number, Follow Your Heart is a lighthearted shuffle with Tex-Mex hints and bursts of pedal steel from Sean Williamson (who also produced the album). Matt Turner handles bass; throughout the record, Kevin Dunphy and Ryan Schiedermayer take turns behind the drumkit.

The band keep the good vibes shuffling along with Recipe. All Day, a droll band-in-the van scenario, is one of the album’s catchiest tunes and is the first Llanas recording to feature brass (in this case John Simons’ trombone). Heroes, which alludes to the Bowie classic, is one of the album’s more muted songs, but Llanas’ portrait of the Women’s March on Washington packs a punch.

The blithe doot-doot-doots in Little Song contrast with its thoughtful narrative about a hometown pal who ended in the war in Afghanistan. They follow that with Little Song II, a wry mashup of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash. All Alone Again has the gravitas of a forlorn Merle Haggard honkytonk ballad, while Rio on the Run, an older song, finds new life with a much more upbeat arrangement, a soulful shout-out to a hardworking lifer out on the rock & roll highway.

Long Way Home, with its half-whispered vocals, is one of those late-night road narratives Llanas writes so well: it’s the hardest rocking track here. Down the Line is a brooding, soul-searching, mutedly syncopated ballad from a guy who admittedly “Likes to drink – and I’m kind of a stoner.” The final track is Big Ol Moon, a tellingly poetic reminder that trauma hits everybody the same way, whether uptown or downtown. Llanas’ 2014 album The Whole Night Thru, with its fiery noir ambience, remains the high point of his post-BoDeans solo work, and his 1999 album A Good Day to Die, with Absinthe, may well be the highlight of a hall-of-fame career. This one is calmer, Llanas’ voice is a bit more flinty, but when it comes to matching lyrics to catchy melodies, he’s undiminished.

Former BoDeans Frontman Sam Llanas Returns with a Vengeance to Fiery Electric Rock

There’s no small irony in the fact that when the BoDeans broke up in the mid-zeros, guitarist Kurt Neumann brought in four new members to replace co-founder Sam Llanas. While Neumann continued touring the band with more of an emphasis on cajun and C&W sounds, Llanas concentrated on brooding, mostly acoustic songwriting. But now Llanas is back with a vengeance, with the best BoDeans album since the 90s…except that it’s not a BoDeans record, it’s a Llanas solo album. On the brand-new The Whole Night Thru –  streaming at Spotify – he’s assembled a smoldering electric band: Sean Williamson on guitar, Matt Turner on bass and Ryan Schiedermayer on drums, with Gary Tanin on keys. The result is the best studio project anybody associated with the BoDeans has probably done since before the band’s iconic double live album, Joe Dirt Car back in 1995.

And it’s got everything that made the group a stadium rock favorite across the country for so long; big singalong anthems, volcanic guitar sonics and the same burning, impassioned vocals that made songs like Feed the Fire and Still the Night such audience favorites. This is definitely one for the diehards, and ought to draw in a new generation of fans who missed Llanas in his previous incarnation.

The opening track, Deja Vu, like many of the songs here, opens with suspenseful atmospherics and builds to a classic, anthemic Llanas chorus. It’s a lurid song: Llanas references Edgar Allen Poe and might or might not be addressing the breakup of his old band with the line about the “vultures waiting for your body to fall.” Williamson adds an all-too-brief solo, playing searing lines against a single resonating string.

The swaying, catchy, shuffling Cold n’ Clean will be familiar to those who’ve followed Llanas’ solo performances: with its wishing well imagery, it manages to be sardonic and poignant at the same time. Everywhere But Here brings back the noir of the opening track, addressing a mystery New York girl against an ominous, 80s-tinged gothic rock backdrop: “I’ve been chasing your ghost around Miltown,” Llanas laments, “You’re everywhere but here.” Again, Williamson’s guitar takes the intensity to redline.

With its layers of guitars and shifting vocals, Dangerous Love ponders what kind of price a femme fatale’s going to extract. By contrast, I’m Still Alive paints a somber portrait of a hurricane survivor facing hard times, alone and alienated. Then the band picks it up with Somethin’ Comin’ as the song rises from a simmering intro to roaring, slide guitar-fueled anthem: it’s one of the loudest numbers Llanas has ever recorded, and he makes it worth the effort.

Addicted to the Cure returns to Llanas’ familiar theme of whether or not to resist the advances of a woman who’s obviously got an agenda. The Best I Can gives the chance to work Llanas’ signature catchy chord changes dynamically, back and forth against a roaring blend of distorted guitar textures. The elegant, regret-laden final cut, To Where You Go paints an achingly vivid picture of the solitude of a cross-country night drive. It’s everything a fan of Llanas’ old band could possibly want. Four-on-the-floor rock records don’t get any more satisfying than this.

An Intimate Tour of NYC with Sam Llanas

Sam Llanas has been in town the past week, supplying the music for playwright Doug Vincent’s harrowing, suicide-themed performance piece, A Day For Grace. In between those gigs, Llanas has been playing a series of intimate club dates. He’s at Iridium on Monday the 17th at 8 PM, singing classics with Les Paul’s trio plus veteran jazz guitar stars Bucky Pizzarelli and Gene Bertoncini. For those who always thought Llanas had the chops to go further than the Americana rock he made a name for himself in, this should be a revealing and rewarding evening.

It’s interesting how the co-founder of Waukesha, Wisconsin’s legendary roots rockers the BoDeans has done some of his most memorable work outside that band. His 1998 Absinthe project, with original BoDeans drummer Guy Hoffman and the Shivvers’ Jim Eanelli, among others, ranks as one of the most powerful dark rock records ever made. Many of those songs appear in abbreviated versions in A Day for Grace, so it’s no surprise that he left that material out of shows this past Tuesday at Zirzamin and Wednesday at Rockwood Music Hall. Playing acoustic guitar and backed by the terse beats of Ryan Schiedermayer on cajon (and the Dog Show’s Jerome O’Brien guesting on bass at Zirzamin), Llanas took his time with a diverse mix of new and rare solo material as well as a handful of BoDeans crowd-pleasers. And even those he reinvented. Zirzamin was the fun set, with the singalong Still the Night done as a swaying, hypnotic nocturne in the style of the tracks on Llanas’ deliciously atmospheric solo album, 4 AM. At the end of the set, Llanas launched into All Along the Watchtower, and then a medley of songs using that same three-chord progression that began with Don’t Fear the Reaper and then went further and further into cheese, with the Violent Femmes and then Tom Petty and at that point everyone including the band was cracking up. In between there was a lot of new or unreleased material: a wickedly catchy reggae tune straight out of late-period Bob Marley; a suspensefully bouncy singalong about a vet returned from Afghanistan; the haunting, elegaic To Where You Go; and the title track from the solo album, about the kind of headspace that’s “surely beautiful, but ice is cold.”

The Rockwood show was more intense, Llanas’ baritone imploring and brooding and occasionally evoking the sly, rakish persona that fueled much of the BoDeans’ more upbeat catalog. He moved through the shadows with the morose All the Blues (from his next-to-last release with the BoDeans, Mr. Sad Clown), then the practically breathless desperation of Down at the Wishing Well and then the rich noir ambience of Shyne, one of the standout tracks on the solo album. After a wryly casual take of the big BoDeans concert hit Something’s Telling Me, he went back to the dark stuff for Dangerous Love, a swaying, bolero-tinged anthem, picked up the pace with the big radio hit Closer to Free and then took it down again for an audience request, 617 (from the 2004 album Resolution), a chilling portrait of alienation and isolation. “They say that time will heal everything – I don’t know if that’s true, down on Third Avenue,” Llanas crooned ominously. He and Schiedermayer wrapped up the set with a particularly intense, vengeful take of the solo album’s catchiest track, Cherry-O, kept the aching intensity going with 4 AM and Two Souls, ending with fiery singalongs of Feed the Fire and Still the Night. With just an acoustic guitar and a simple beat, Llanas brought the energy up to stadium level and made it look easy.

Brooding Nocturnal Ambience from Sam Llanas

As the co-founder and frontman of legendary heartland rockers the BoDeans, Sam Llanas built a deep catalog of singalong Americana rock anthems along with many darker, more pensive songs. Like any good songwriter, Llanas can evoke pretty much any emotion he wants. Yet even on his most upbeat upbeat hits with the band – She’s a Runaway, Still the Night, Feed the Fire, etc. – there was usually some undercurrent of unease. That came to the forefront in Absinthe, Llanas’ 1999 side project which released a single, riveting concept album, A Good Day to Die, a haunting series of songs inspired by the suicide of his older brother. Llanas waited til late last year before releasing his first album under his own name, the aptly titled 4 AM: he’s playing songs from it tonight, Sept 11 at 10 at Zirzamin, tomorrow the 12th at 8 PM at the small room at the Rockwood and then Monday the 17th at 8 at Iridium.

“I poured a small bourbon and water, and toasted the Clash,” Llanas sang on Cold Winter’s Day, one of the BoDeans most evocative nocturnes. That same atmosphere pervades the solo record, right down to the inside cd booklet shot of Llanas reclining in murky half-light, glass in hand, revisiting the ghosts of the past. Where he really nails the atmosphere is less with the spare, mostly acoustic insrumentation than with the vocals: instead of going down into his raw, emotionally charged baritone, he goes way up to the top of his register for a breathy, sometimes raspy, soulful timbre. Who knew he had that kind of range! While he’s still writing in an Americana rock vein, this is his soul record: there are hints of 70s artists like William Bell in his casually imploring, emotionally-charged vocals. Llanas plays acoustic guitar, backed tersely and tastefully by band of mostly fellow Milwaukeeans including guitarist Terry Vittone, bassist Matt Turner, Bukka Allen of the BoDeans on accordion, percussionist Ryan Schiedermayer and the one-man string section of Gary Tanin.

Oh, Celia sets the tone, a laid-back yet insistent come-on fueled by Allen’s lilting accordion. Shyne, a backbeat-driven breathy noir 60s pop nocturne, sounds like R. Dean Taylor but with digital production: “I want to dance with the devil’s daughter under the city lights,” Llanas croons, completely deadpan. The title track lingers wistfully but purposefully for just a little over two minutes, lowlit by accordion and gently ringing lead guitar.

The coyly titled Nobody Luvs Me has Tex-Mex tinges while the bittersweet, brooding Fare Thee Well works a western swing vein, underscored by Llannas’ powerful, low-register harmonies. By contrast, Janey is the most stark, minimalist song here: “It’s been a hell of a wonderful fight,” Llanas remarks, out on a late-night walk, trying to cool off. He follows it with the album’s most vivid cut, The Only One, contemplating a crushingly solitary 4 AM “hour of truth” against Vittone’s biting but judicious lead lines.

The song that harks most closely to the BoDeans’ anthemic style is the cynical Cherry O – “I never meant to hurt you as bad as I did,” whispers the vengeful cheater as the catchy chorus subsides. That’s the one song here that really screams out for a loud rock version. Llanas goes back to an understatedly noir, Orbison-inspired vein for Oh How I Loved You, then follows with the suspensefully quiet, symbolically-charged The Way Home. There’s also a cover of Jules Shear’s All Through the Night. This album doesn’t hit you over the head, but it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be: a good late-night listen.