Overstanding Album Review
Billy Iuso can be hard to sum up.The New York native has played his way around the world as a guitar player, singer, and bandleader before settling down in the Big Easy
He has been embraced by the jam band community and has responded accordingly, but, unlike most jammers, he strives to tell lasting stories through his songs.He often sings about love and understanding, yet his natural temperament tends to bring him closer to confrontation.
Although he lives every bit the musician’s lifestyle of dive bars and late nights, he is a devoted family man and concerned father. So it can be hard to understand Billy Iuso sometimes.
That’s okay with him. He prefers “overstanding” any day. The term, which has its origin in Middle English as a synonym of “overreaching,” has taken root in Jamaican culture as a more positive form of understanding, which is how Iuso first encountered it. “I always thought it was better than ‘understanding,’” Iuso said. “‘Understanding’ seems like we don’t know what’s going on, but ‘overstanding’ seems to explain it a little better.”
Iuso, now 46 and with a son set to attend the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship in the fall, has been trying to overstand a lot about life lately. So when it came time to record his latest album, it seemed natural that the term would become the name of the album as well as the name of the first song on the album.
“That’s where everything kind of stemmed from,” he said. “It’s kind of a positive way to look at things, I think, but it also points out a lot of things that are going on.” The title track actually came together with the help of Iuso’s longtime friend Art Neville, who also contributed the bouncy organ part that seems to kick the album off in a burst of sunlight. “I had written most of that song, maybe 80 percent of it,” Iuso said. “All of the music is me, and then Art came and played on it. I said ‘man, why don’t you help me finish the lyrics since you played on it?’ So I went over to his house one day and just sort of picked his brain and showed him what I had. He shouted out a few things, and they ended up being lyrics, so we wrote the song together.”
“Overstanding” the song seems to set the tone for the whole album, which is unusual for an Iuso album. “I never set out to create a ‘concept album,” but it kind of turned out that way,” he said. “Pretty much all of the songs have a focus on a general theme, except maybe ‘She Moves That Way,’ which is a little different. I feel this album is probably the closest to my personality and what I’m about these days.” And while the worldview may not always be sunny, it isn’t all dark either.
“I don’t hear it as a dark album, I hear it as a realistic album,” Iuso said. “That first song is really just about coming to grips with your surroundings and how you interact with other people and how you’re effected each day. It’s kind of positive, I thought, but it also points out a lot of things that go on.” One reality of life in New Orleans is that it isn’t for everyone, and especially not for those who are easily consumed by the darker side of our famed nightlife, as the girl who is the focus of “She Moves That Way” finds out. “There’s a bartender in town, an attractive young girl, who I saw in a bar one night, and the line in the song ‘way too young to be playing with fire/dens of thieves and caverns of desire’ just came to me,” Iuso said. “That’s kind of how the whole song started.” While Iuso said he created a fictional character around that one line, the truth of the song can be found in his reaction to seeing the real life bartender in action. How Iuso reacted really shines a light on where he is today as opposed to 20 years ago. “As a man, I looked at her as ‘wow, that’s an attractive young lady,’” he said. “But, on the other hand, I have a daughter. I know the ropes. In my 20s, I definitely would have looked at that in a whole different way.” That sense of grown-up pragmatism overlays much of the album’s songwriting, from “Inner Demons,” to “Been Through Hell." “I’ve been really into the storytelling of songs lately, which I think has really become lost art, especially in my genre with the jam band thing,” he said. “I mean, what happened to songs? Nowadays, it’s just jams. That’s disappointing to me.”
Iuso responds to that trend with an album of 10 concise and focused tracks, the longest coming in just short of five and a half minutes, and each telling a story about change.
“I can’t change the whole world, so I just focus on my neighborhood and the people close by,” Iuso said. “I’m just growing up. I’m learning how to deal with other people.”
And he is understanding how to overstand the world in a whole new way.
OFFBEAT REVIEW OF NAKED by JOHN SWENSON
New York-born Billy Iuso, like so many musicians of his generation, moved to New Orleans in search of a musical grail. A guitarist by trade, he became part of the neo-funk movement that dovetailed with the ascent of jam-band culture in America. His loose-limbed blues rock approach to soloing was tailor made for the jam-band aesthetic and in New Orleans he was able to put together rhythm sections that allowed him to extrapolate for chorus after chorus. Like many New Orleans players Iuso works best as a live performer capable of delivering multiple-set concerts that gurgle into the wee hours. He is also a voracious collaborator, working his way through various Mardi Gras Indian concert lineups over the years. But it wasn’t until he hooked up with another guitarist who came from far away, Anders Osborne, that Iuso’s conception coalesced. Fans of his previous albums will find Naked a marked departure from the Iuso they’ve come to know. After playing and touring with Osborne, and recording with him on last year’s excellent Three Free Amigos EP, Iuso has finally emerged as a songwriter. Iuso has written originals before, but Osborne, who plays and sings on the album, co-writes “Valerie” and shares production with Iuso, has clearly brought his friend to a new level. On “I See You,” “The Spark” and “Why Away” we are aware of the lyrics, Iuso’s well-recorded vocals, and the structure of the song. Guitars are in the mix to help frame the story and to accelerate the narrative, not for the sake of the jam. Iuso delivers a nuanced vocal on John Fohl’s brilliant “Do Or Die” and pays homage to a departed friend, Jaik Miller, with “Berkeley Blues/Nola 428” and two versions of “Your Kind of Fool,” one included as a bonus track. He employs some of the city’s best players, including steel guitarist Dave Easley and tenor/baritone saxophonist Jimmy Carpenter, as well as Little Feat’s Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett. It’s a tribute to Iuso’s growth as a musician that this much firepower could appear on an album that stays resolutely in service to the song
Billy Iuso spent a chunk of his adolescence following the Grateful Dead. But his appreciation for jam bands does not extend to the Dead’s descendants.
“I didn’t even get into Phish – that’s not my world,” Iuso said this week. “And these newer bands, like Sound Tribe Sector 9, I can appreciate what they do, but it loses me quick. I need a song attached to a jam.”
That is clear on “Naked,” Iuso’s new album. He and his band, the Restless Natives, curtail the improvisatory tendencies of past projects and instead focus on songs. Most clock in at around three minutes. Arrangements are carefully assembled, melodies sturdy. Iuso’s hearty voice – think a less sandpapered Gregg Allman – takes center stage throughout.
Billy Iuso & the Restless Natives headline the free weekly Wednesday at the Square concert downtown in Lafayette Square on May 15. They celebrate the release of “Naked” at Tipitina’s on Saturday, May 18.
The new album “is me broken down,” Iuso said. “This is me naked.”
Iuso was born in New York. He lived in multiple states as a child, thanks to his stepfather’s job with Eastern Airlines. His sophomore year in high school, he settled with his father in Connecticut. From 1984 to ’87, he traveled to just about every Grateful Dead show. “My dad is a Deadhead, so he was sympathetic.”
He eventually phased out of the Dead scene, in part to concentrate on making his own music. He founded the funk/jam band Brides of Jesus in Providence, R.I. The Brides relocated to Athens, Ga., where, unfortunately, the musical talent pool did not include many players well-versed in funk.
After the Brides opened shows for the Funky Meters, bassist George Porter Jr. suggested Iuso move to New Orleans. “I was a risk-taker,” Iuso said. “I always went where the music was. I wasn’t afraid to leave things behind to do it.
“When I didn’t know anybody down here, the Porters and Nevilles helped me. They were really, truly family.”
Around 1997, he went to work for the Neville Brothers, Funky Meters and Runnin’ Pardners as a tour and stage manager. For the next four years, he largely lived on the road, performing his own music only sporadically.
In 2002, he formed Billy Iuso & the Restless Natives and recommitted himself to his own career. He also developed a side career as an “artist at large.” Festivals around the country commission him, often in conjunction with Porter, to be on site and sit in with various bands.
He developed a fruitful creative partnership with Anders Osborne. He appears on the two most recent Osborne albums; Osborne helped produce “Naked.”
“He steered me in that direction to get back to my voice, instead of the jam-y thing,” Iuso said. “My voice is my main instrument; my guitar has always been secondary to me. He got me back to it.”
On “Naked,” Iuso is joined by regular Restless Natives Thomas McDonald on bass, Michael Burkart on keyboards, and Eddie Christmas on drums. Saxophonist Jimmy Carpenter and trumpeter Ian Smith contribute. Osborne guests, as does Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere and mandolinist Fred Tackett. Iuso met and befriended Barrere and Tackett when he organized a benefit concert for Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, who died of cancer-related complications in 2010.
“Little Feat turned me onto New Orleans music,” Iuso said. “To have them play on my stuff, and to hear Paul’s quintessential slide guitar on one of my songs, is pretty cool.”
Osborne suggested Iuso cover “Do Or Die,” a song written by former Dr. John guitarist John Fohl. Initially, Iuso liked the song, but didn’t think it was right for him. “Anders sold me on it. We went for that Jack Johnson-y, reggae, acoustic vibe.” They nailed it on the first take.
Iuso and his wife have three children, including a son studying drums at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. “The Spark” and “Song for Aria” were inspired by his children.
Several cuts were written or co-written by Jaik Miller, a New York-based musician with whom Iuso frequently collaborated. Miller died of a heart attack in early 2012 at age 42. “This record is the last of us collaborating, unfortunately. I felt like I needed to finish these songs.”
When recording funk-oriented albums, Iuso generally started with the bass and drum parts. For “Naked,” he first laid down a bed of acoustic guitar. He also fully developed the songs in the studio, rather than expecting them to evolve onstage.
“They get stretched a little bit, but I’m trying to represent the songs as best we can. I’m not jamming like I used to. The jams are more selective now.”
Anders Osborne with Billy Iuso closed the day at the beautiful and intimate Garden Stage. This stage, a much smaller timber frame platform, was set back in the woods. Many of the trees had rope lights spiraling up their trunks and branches. The gatherers could not have looked more content as they sat in chairs while sampling the day’s fare from the beer and wine tents.
Over the last couple of years, Anders has morphed his show to feature more of his brilliant song writing than his explosive guitar playing. This show was not that. This show was much more of a throwback with muscular guitar playing and a band that was speaking in one solid and energetic voice.
Anders has played a long time now with bassist Carl Dufrene and drummer Eric Bolivar, and both seem to know where Anders wants to go before Anders even does. The addition of guitarist and song writer Billy Iuso really helped make this gig electric.
The two guitarists never seemed to get in each other’s way, backing each other’s solos with tasty playing and trading solos at the peak of extended jams. All four musicians listened intently to each other, keeping the ship moving in whatever directions Anders was inspired to go. Though all gigs take on their own feeling and some are more inspired than others, this set was brilliant for its high energy and collaborative spirit.
While Anders did the majority of the lead vocals, he did give Billy the opportunity to take on a few songs while both Carl and Eric sang backgrounds. The small stage was alive with these guys as they stomped around through one powerful jam after the next. By the end, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy, screaming, happy and danced out.
Across-the-Way Productions continue to develop this festival site into becoming Virginia’s premier music festival destination. Each year they add new permanent structures, each appropriately designed to fit into the mountain top setting and Floyd Fandango was a well spent weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia.
Live at Sandpiper Lounge Album Review
How could you possibly go wrong with an album that starts with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”? On top of great cover selections, Bill Iuso and the Restless Natives deliver some funky original material and an overall groovy live performance with Live at the Sandpiper Lounge.
Michael Burkart gets things going with some funky keys to start the original “Two Deep in the Shadows.” Iuso has a nice vocal range and definitely performs with deep, soulful conviction. The rollicking piano that kicks things off on “Crank It Off” keeps the action hot and the sound signature “N’awlins.”
Yet another great cover, The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” starts off somewhat familiar, with spooky keys and a snappy drumbeat, before Iuso drops those unforgettable Byrne lyrics that completely seal the deal. This is one funky version of an iconic song, and though it feels different from the original, it still has a respectful semblance. Nearly two minutes in, Iuso begins to destroy his guitar with a massive solo. Crunchy riffs soar over top of Burkart’s funk filled keys and Thomas McDonald (Bass) and Bryan Besse’s (drums) backbone.
Track after track this album just continues to get better, a fun-filled effort showcasing great original material like “Earle” and stellar covers. If you love the Crescent City and have never heard the Restless Natives, this is a great place to start. If you have heard these cats, then you know you need this one. Either way I highly recommend picking it up.
And next time you are in “N’awlins” take a stroll away from the norm and catch these good timing local heroes.