Live albums can be hit or miss. The strongest concert recordings capture artists in their best, whether it's a musician busting out a fiery and expressive solo, a singer confidently belting a high note, or an amusing shared moment between a group and its audience. The weakest albums sound dull, uninspired, sloppy, and, at times, inebriated.
Boston-based singer/songwriter and rhythm guitarist Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade — Danny Weller on upright bass, and Matt Meyer on drums, and a rotation of guest guitarists — feel more comfortable recording and releasing concert albums than standard studio fare. They did it in 2009 with a disc titled Live on the Road. Their current road trip leads them back to town behind another live collection — the newly-released, two-disc Live Across the Mason Dixon Line.
The new album features two live shows — one from the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Mass. (with Raphael McGregor on lap steel guitar) and one from Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Ga. (with Will Graeffe on electric guitar). Both sets sound crisp and dynamic with an intimate feel and vibrant applause from smallish crowds.
"I like doing these live albums because part of me likes to just document what's going on with the band because we're always touring and the songs are always developing and evolving. We often work out new arrangements. Another thing is the difference between songs in the studio and on stage. A lot of people have told us that they likes the albums, but they liked the music even more in a live setting. That's important to demonstrate that we have great musicians who can play well together on stage."
Miss Tess and her fellas seem obsessed with crossing the line, both musically and geographically. Packaged separately, the artwork on the album sleeves is a colorful, hand-drawn map of the East Coast that splits at the Mason-Dixon Line (along the Maryland/Pennsylvania border). Tess likes to describe the music as a "modern vintage" mix of jazz, swing, blues, and Americana.
Some of the stand-out tracks include the slinky, drowsy swing tune "Stoned," the upbeat country romp "Train Ride to Caroline" (with rapid-fire brushes on the snare), the three-chord pop ditty "Love," sassy rockabilly number "I Don't Need That Man," and the romantic/bittersweet heartbreak songs "Darling, Oh Darling" and "Dreams Aren't Meant to Die."
The lineup on the Live Across the Mason Dixon Line features her usual rhythm section, but Tess' backing combo on the spring tour includes Meyer, bassist Jared Engel, and lead guitarist Thomas Bryan Eaton, who also handles a bit of pedal steel. All of them have the chops to handle the new songs and the older material.
"We've always had a rotating lineup of players," says Tess. "I've actually got about four or five bassists and four lead guitarists that I use, which sounds kind of ridiculous, but playing from New York to L.A., it makes good sense."
Fortunately for Miss Tess and her repertoire, all of the musicians are well-trained in jazz and well-versed in American popular music in general. Each musician's technique is impressive, but their ear for Tess' songs and their tasteful embellishments make the music hum and groove.
"We might have some lap steel or extra fiddle, but it all works, which is great," says Tess. "Everyone has to know how to swing and be familiar with traditional styles of jazz, blues, and country. They all have to sing, too. It's a chameleon band."
Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade already have a new studio album titled Sweet Talk ready for a June release. Who knows what lines they'll cross on the forthcoming disc.
"I wanted to be a jazz singer for a while, but I've been feeling more aggressive lately," Tess says. "I do think my singing has changed over the years. I've been more drawn into old country music, and that has effected our style a bit. The sound on the upcoming album still has some jazz elements, but it's actually pretty edgy. I think we're going into a rough 'n' tumble direction."
Let's hope they document that next step with a few more maps and live recordings.