Back in the days when we had live music, I found myself standing one night outside the Pearl Street Warehouse in Washington, D.C. with an extra ticket to see Kasey Tyndall. I spotted two people standing together and when I caught their eye, walked over and told them I had an extra ticket if they needed one.
“Oh no but thanks,” they said. “We’re opening the show.”
That was how I was introduced to Kentucky Avenue, the duo of Dave Ries and Stella Schindler that has been playing together for the last six years in the District, Maryland and Virginia area that locals refer to as the greater DMV area. I later learned that Schindler once rented a room in a house and was forced to leave when a new owner bought it. That person happened to be Ries though they wouldn’t discover this until they met until twenty years later. Coincidentally it is also the name of a Tom Waits song and if you look for the band Kentucky Avenue on YouTube you’ll get myriad versions of Waits’ song. Kentucky Avenue Music will yield several songs that the band has been slowly releasing over the last few months culminating this week with the digital release of their second album The Ballad of The Past ( kentuckyavenuemusic.com).
As I first wrote, Kentucky Avenue is built around the two acoustic guitars of Ries and Shindlet and tight nit harmonies that evoke the best folk tradition. On the new album produced by the full ensemble gives the songs a contemporary feel that alternates between the rootsy western sounds and the poppier melodies. In addition to Schindler (vocals, acoustic guitar and Ries who electric guitars, dobro, Kentucky Avenue includes Grew Watkins (upright and electric bass); Michael Robert Taylor (violin); John O’Reilly (drums); Daniel Clarke (piano, organ) and Tom Hnatow (pedal steel, banjo, dobro, farfisa).
Taylor’s harrowing violin frames the soundtrack of “Pennsylvania,” the story of Centralia, PA, where a decades-old underground coal mine fire still burns today. Shot on location in and around central Pennsylvania, the song’s narrative evokes the weariness of its victims who are on the run, unsure if they’ll ever find peace. Ries and Schindler pop up as characters in old Western stage sets (“Eugene”) and ballads of fatalism (“Mountain Song”) and in the intrigue of the title track.
In “Miracle,” the band comes fully together led by the propulsive rhythm section of Watkins and O’Reilly and Ries’ guitars against a driving melody and Schindler’s soaring voice. Clarke’s organ and Taylor’s violin add beautiful accents to her rueful celebration of self-realization and the album’s centerpiece, the showcase performance of “Enough.”
The record also evokes a kinder, gentler Seventies-era groove in the coaxing “Record Playing Days,” with Schindler’s vocal range soaring through the bridge while Ries follows her along on electric guitar. Maybe they’re not quite the characters who stay up all night anymore in “Rockstar Way,” the duo’s homage to Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon and anyone who’s taken their dreams with a voice whispering in their ear to go west. But the songwriting duo has paid enough dues that they know of what they sing evidenced in the song’s best line “the canyon’s are still burning but the bodies will never be found.” And when they harmonize in a slowed down waltz-line take of Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender,” they give it another dimension, less of the pact of school age friends than life partners looking back with the vantage of time and distance.
Framed against the album’s title all of these songs seem tied to the album’s theme. Maybe they’re all ballads of the past. In the end, The Ballad of The Past feels like a book of short stories set to music with Ries and Shindler weaving in and out like lead characters. You could say It’s a great read. For more information, visit http://www.kentuckyavenuemusic.com