One of Shana Morrison’s final comments during my recent phone conversation with her struck me as odd. The words made me realize that maybe Salt Lake City isn’t so bad after all.
I’d asked her about the availability of her CD Caledonia, and about Everybody’s Angel, the CD she’d recorded with Roy Rogers. Both discs are hard to track down in Salt Lake City. (Special ordering is pretty much required. The discs are available on her website at www.shanamorrison.com, which links to Rogers’ website at www.roy-rogers.com.) I’d commented on how difficult life as a musician is these days, after we’d discussed the importance of the Internet in both information and marketing.
Then she said, “I think it seems like less and less people are going out to see live music. It seems like a lot of series have been cut, and there’s just fewer shows going on now than there were 10 or 20 years ago.”
As much as people complain about Salt Lake City’s live music scene, we are still quite fortunate here, especially during summer. Clubs are booking shows and there are outdoor concerts all over the place. Maybe the big amphitheater tours skip Salt Lake, but very few cities will get a glimpse of the Roy Rogers & Shana Morrison Trio. Very few cities will ever see James Solberg jamming with Magic Slim, as was the case at the Dead Goat Saloon recently.
Shana Morrison is, of course, Van Morrison’s daughter. She has appeared on-stage with him, and her voice is present on a few of his recordings, but she isn’t using the name as a springboard for her own career. Caledonia is the name of her band and the name of her first self-released CD. That disc appeared in 1999, and while the release escaped mass attention, some circles gave it much praise. Morrison even received a Joan Osbourne comparison, although I doubt she’ll ever receive the famous Bill Frost “Led Joplin” tribute unless she cuts lose during “Therapy” as Rogers rips the strings from a hollow-body guitar. (The song “Therapy” appears on Everybody’s Angel.)
Caledonia doesn’t fit any comfortable niche. Like so much independently released music today, the term “Americana” probably fits best. Everybody’s Angel, Morrison’s duet recording with Rogers and the reason I spoke with her, is even harder to place. The disc is a cabaret affair with very little actual blues, which is kind of surprising since Rogers isn’t the one famous for riding Trigger. This Roy Rogers is better known for his blazing slide guitar, and for his production work on John Lee Hooker’s The Healer and Mr. Lucky.
Everybody’s Angel is laid back and jazzy; songs and vocal performances are the focus, and most of the songs are collaborative efforts. The opener, “Molly O and Dog Boy,” describes life on the seamy streets of the Bay Area—a street musician and a dancer live shadowy lives in dark places avoided by all law-abiding citizens. The rest is more upbeat. “Joey” more than hints at Morrison’s Irish heritage, but no one is going to rock out while listening. It’s a KRCL type of disc, a National Public Radio listen, a disc filled with timeless music that will never go out of fashion and yet, music that will probably never become fashionable.
Obviously Morrison is well-connected, or could be given her lineage, but I was still curious about how she wound up making an album with Rogers. The answer was unexpected: “We both participate in benefits for the American Legends Foundation here in Oakland, and that’s where we first met. He was playing with Norton Buffalo and I was playing with my band. That was a few years back. About a year and a half ago we decided to write some songs together. That’s what the album came out of. We didn’t have any intention of writing for a record, but we wound up writing enough songs and enjoying the collaboration enough that we decided to do a duet kind of album.”
As Morrison explained, the American Legends Foundation helps older blues artists who didn’t make as much money as all the people copying them did. “When they get older, they have hospital bills and things to pay, so all the other artists from the Bay Area get together and have concerts for them.”
Because neither Morrison nor Rogers typically perform in a trio, I asked her about the performance. “It’s just Roy and I and Scoop McGuire, who is my bassplayer from my band,” Morrison said. “We decided to do the trio because Roy and I both have electric bands, so we thought to keep it acoustic and to keep it small would make it really different in a way that’s very intimate.”
The performance will combine songs from the Everybody’s Angel album with songs from both Morrison’s and Rogers’ solo work. “It’s very bare bones,” Morrison said. “So we can offer something that’s extremely different from what we do with our bands.”
Morrison’s voice is quite robust on her recordings. She can move from a deep bluesy growl to higher ranges with ease. On the phone she sounds fragile, which makes the next question relevant. Because Morrison’s first singing engagements were onstage with her father, in huge venues, an interviewer once asked her how she’s adjusted to the club scene. Morrison came back with a second-hand smoke comment. Smoking is outlawed in California nightclubs, and Morrison likes the law. In Salt Lake City, clubs are the only place smoking is allowed. Does she hope people attending the show refrain from smoking?
“It would be better for me if they don’t, because I’m not a really fast, wispy singer. I really push it when I sing. It’s really hard on the voice if night after night you’re ingesting a lot of smoke. It just goes downhill after a while. The voice is really an instrument, and I worry about it because I want to give everybody the best performance. The smoke is always a concern to me, but I understand also that we’re there as entertainment and people should enjoy themselves. It’s a fine line. I don’t know if I want to be militant about no smoking, but it really helps if people step outside.”
That’s good enough for me. I promise not to smoke while Shana Morrison is at Dead Goat Saloon if the rest of the patrons will promise not to chatter their brains out. It’s an acoustic performance, after all!
Shana Morrison will perform at the Dead Goat Saloon Saturday, Aug. 19, at 9:30 p.m.