Album at a glance: Hawk – I’m On Fire

Hawk - I'm On Fire

Hawk wears their influences on their sleeve and there is nothing wrong with that. A ton of their sound is inspired by the classic rock roots many musicians have, Hawk just is very direct about them. On “Mother Road” you can hear that they like the Crazy Horse version of Neil Young better than his “solo” releases. The mood the album lives in is similar to the Black Crows, you can hear it on the song “I’m On Fire” most but also throughout the album. On “You & Me” the band stiffens their throttle foot and rocks hard around a nimble bass line. You can hear the classic rock FM radio stations pumping in the veins of this record and it isn’t a bad thing.

Key Track: “Mother Road”

This album is a re-release originally from 2014, Hawk is working on a follow-up record due in 2017 featuring notable guest appearances and a new group of songs.

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Coming Soon: Robbie Fulks in Kansas City 2/14/17


WHO’S PLAYING?  Robbie Fulks (Chicago, IL)

Robbie Fulks will play Knuclehead's Saloon in Kansas City on 2/14/17

WHAT TO EXPECT?  Classic country and engaging storytelling…

Robbie Fulks is a professional and accomplished musician. At 53 years old his latest record “Upland Stories” was recently nominated for TWO Grammy’s (Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song) along with wide critical acclaim. Being over 20 years after the release of his first album Fulks is extremely refined and and a renowned stage performer. From his spot on instrumental performance to his alluring storytelling within his songs his shows are consistently enchanting. The Grammy awards on on 2/12/17 so everyone will know if Fulks wins the Grammy’s he is nominated for by the time of the Kansas City show.

Here is the VOCALS ON TOP review of his latest Grammy nominated album “Upland Stories”:

Robbie Fulks - Upland Stories

Robbie Fulks flexes his alt-country versatility on Upland Stories. He can turn up the twang with banjo laden tunes or put together a soothing vocal performance adorned by hesitant acoustic strums.

Possibly the most striking thing about this album is how good of singer Fulks is. On “South Bend Soldiers On” the melody and vocals make you think of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” while “A Miracle” may be his best vocal performance on the album. On songs like “Needed” and “Never Came Home” you can clearly hear how Fulks could have paved the way for current alt-country superstars like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. On the more raunchy “Katy Kay” and “America is a Hard Religion” he plucks tunes out of what could have been contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, singing them with a yearning vigor. More bluegrass ensues with some snark humor on “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man.” What also helps this album flow so well is his Steve Earle like songwriting where the words flow so smoothly and effortlessly out of his mouth that you feel like any alternate order for them would just sound wrong.

Good albums have a flow to them and Upland Stories definitely fits the bill. It’s a well balanced record and is rough and smooth in all the right places. If you like storytelling you’re in luck too, the songwriting is the glue that holds this whole thing together.

Key Tracks: “America is a Hard Religion” “Needed” “Alabama At Night”

WHERE IS IT?  Knucklehead’s Saloon (2715 Rochester, Kansas City MO 64120)

WHEN IS IT?  Tuesday, February 14th 2017; 8:00 PM, $15

Here is a link to buy your tickets right NOW.


  • Fulks is nominated for TWO Grammy’s… GRAMMY’S!
  • He’ll be sure to do his Grammy nominated song “Alabama At Night”
  • Concerts aren’t always the best Valentine’s Day idea but this would be a nice chill evening with a great performer, it’s guarenteed to be moshpit free.
  • Knucklehead’s is one of the best venues in KC, it sits right beside the train tracks
  • Do you really want to stay home on Valentine’s Day?
  • You can pick up Fulks’ GRAMMY NOMINATED album “Upland Stories”.
  • The Grammy’s are two days before, you might be one of the first people to congratulate a Grammy winner in person.
  • Fulks will put on an excellent show, this is a given.

You should RSVP on facebook to the event so you don’t forget, here is the link: FACEBOOK EVENT PAGE

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Vocals On Top’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

I love doing top albums of the year lists, why are they all so early though? Well, 2016 is officially over so I’m proud to unveil my list now. Here are the lists from the last few years if you are interested in further reading:

My list from 2010, headed up by Jason Collett’s Rat-A-Tat-Tat

My list from 2011, headed up by Tom Waits’ Bad As Me

The 2012 list belonged to The Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits 

The 2013 the top of the mountain belonged to Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

The 2014 list belonged to Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone

The 2015 list was spearheaded by Courtney Barnett’s – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit.

The new list will have the greatest American rock band of all-time on top of it. Wilco’s Schmilco is my 2016 album of the year.

Thank you – Clint at VocalsOnTop (vocalsontop at

1.Wilco – Schmilco



What do you say about the best living band and greatest American band of all-time at this point? On their 10th record they once again operate at near perfect levels. The experimental “Locator” and “Common Sense” are contrasted with the direct americana numbers “Normal American Kids” and “Someone To Lose.” They just do everything so well it seems like in the year 2016 they have very few comparable peers.

Key Track: “Someone To Lose”

2. Jason Collett – Song and Dance Man

Jason Collett - Song and Dance Man


Collett continues to be one of the most criminally underrated songwriters with his latest album. The Canadian doesn’t get much attention from the States but has consistently churned out gems of records and songs for years now. Look no further than the simplicity of “Love You Babe” and “Provincial Blues” to see why. With a gift for melody and songwriting he should be getting much more attention than he does.

Key Track: “Love You Babe”

3. Drive-By Truckers – American Band

Drive-By Truckers - American Band


The Drive-By Truckers are no newbies to year end lists and creating albums that outlive their release schedules. This politically charged album was a real surprise. DBT had become a band that had leveled off and held few surprises it seemed. They stepped outside of their own shadow on “American Band” and recorded something very new for them. There are anthems like “Surrender Under Protest” alongside tender sweetness like “Sun Don’t Shine,” all together they really nailed this one when perhaps most people thought they had seen the band at their best.

Key Track: “Surrender Under Protest”

4. Lydia Loveless – Real

Lydia Loveless - Real

Country music is coming back. It’s not Kenny Chesney and other pop-country crap, it’s Lydia Loveless, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. Loveless puts together a real gem with her record “Real.” It’s got the sentiment you’d expect from a country siren. On “Longer” she pines for an ex-lover and on “Same To You” she threatens to leave. The balance of country twang and pop sensibilities is dead on here. Expect many more big things from her in the future.

Key Track: “Longer”

5. Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are



Big Star has a lot of bands carrying the torch they lit so many decades ago, it turns out it’s possible that nobody is doing this better than Nada Surf. Yes, they had that semi-obnoxious hit in the 90s but are nothing like that song, they are way better. They craft crunchy guitar riffs and surround them with Matthew Caw’s sweet and gentle vocals and songwriting and it appears they are going to be making extremely solid records forever.

Key Track: “Friend Hospital”

6. Austin Miller – Engine

Austin Miller - Engine


Austin Miller is one of thousands of singer-songwriters trying to capture your eardrums but there is something special about him. It’s probably his natural gift for melody and his great vocal performances. On his latest release “Engine” he proves he is a great writer and consistently creates hooky choruses that become ear-bugs and keep you coming back.

Key Track: “Bags at the Door”

7. Mike Doughty – The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns

Mike Doughty - The Heart Watches While The Brain Burns


It’s hard to explain why the ex-Soul Coughing lead singer’s music is so appealing. It’s probably in the way he sings and creates rhythms. His off-kilter delivery and songwriting methods are extremely interesting and build layers of music for a listener to dig in to. On “I Can’t Believe I Found You In That Town” he writes a straight forward, catchy rock song. It is surrounded by wonderful weirdness here as he proves he’s in charge and is going to make the kind of music he wants to make.

Key Track: “I Can’t Believe I Found You In That Town”

8. Under The Big Oak Tree – Local Honey



This midwest bluegrass trio is smart and eclectic. Kids can sing along and you can tap your toes or you can dig deep into the lyrical content and find hidden treasures. Sometimes driven and focused and other times light and playful you can feel the diversity of their music. The band may be local to St. Joseph but their talents are among all the big swingers, it holds up to any release you’ll hear from 2016.

Key Track: “Tracks of the Train”

9. Conor Oberst – Ruminations

Conor Oberst - Ruminations


This Oberst record came out of left field, it is very quiet and adult. It is his most personal work since the heyday of Bright Eyes and it is reflected in how good this album is. It grows on you slowly and has a major impact. Dealing with real life, heavy-hitting issues and delivered in such a vulnerable and honest way makes for a great mixture.

Key Track: “A Little Uncanny”

10. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth



Outlaw country is finally getting the attention it deserves. Simpson’s “Sailor’s Guide” is the poster child for this. While it hardly seems worthy of the Grammy nod for album of the year it got, this is still and excellent album. It’s funky acid-rock country and very unique. Much like Shooter Jennings’ “Countach” it is a beacon of how stimulating the real new country music can be.

Key Track: “Keep It Between The Lines”

Every Year a few albums just barely miss the cut. This year those albums for Vocals On Top were Ashley Raines – King of Nothin’, David Bowie – Blackstar, Okkervil River – Away, Hard Working Americans – Rest in Chaos, Shooter Jennings – Countach, Pixies – Head Carrier, Joey Kneiser(technically 2015 but deserves a mention somewhere, it would be top 3 on this list if released in 2016.)

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250 word album review: Taj Mahal -Labor of Love

Taj Mahal - Labor of Love


Everyone knows what Taj Mahal brings to the table. There won’t be many surprises but you still know it will be quality. One of the most experienced bluesmen in history keeps on track with his 47th album Labor of Love. This album is a compilation of sorts, featuring some of his well know material that has never been released, all of the material is officially previously unreleased however. The record is littered with guests from the Music Maker Relief Foundation making this a collaborative yet still stripped down release.

This record finds Mahal having lots of fun, sounding surprisingly spry and playful. On songs like “Fishin’ Blues” his inflections are light and bouncy, setting a pace for the song possibly just faster than he can comfortably keep up with. On “Hambone” with the help of John Dee Holeman he works his way through the hambone driven song cracking jokes and never taking the silly song too seriously (see his spelling out “B-U-T-T” leaving out the last “T” to make the song flow better.) It not all fun and games though, on his cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s “My Creole Belle” hits a sincere note and delivers a quite nice love song. His vocal performance on the song rises above the rest of the tracks here and stands out. On “Spike Driver’s Blues” he toys with a little he-said, she-said with a memorable chorus. There’s a lot of fun and good songs here, no surprise but Taj is still delivering quality music.

Key Tracks: “Spike Driver’s Blues” “Fishin’ Blues” “Hambone”

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Coming Soon: Handpicked with Under The Big Oak Tree

Under The Big Oak Tree's "Handpicked" concert poster

WHO’S PLAYING?  Under The Big Oak Tree (and guests) (St. Joseph, MO)

WHAT TO EXPECT?  Billed as “Winter Greens” this is another very unique concert that will feature songs related to the winter and the holiday season. The event will be part of the First Saturdays celebration for December in downtown St. Joseph, Missouri. If it is anything like the first installment of the Handpicked series expect an eclectic mix of cover songs and maybe a couple originals.

Under The Big Oak Tree are a local traditional bluegrass band. Their brilliant musicianship has impressed crowds over the last couple years while supporting their self-titled debut album and their latest release “Local Honey.” The 3 piece group features the sweet vocal stylings on Kristin Hamilton who also plays acoustic guitar, stand-up bass player Doug “Sluggo” Ward and multi-instrumentalist Simon Fink.

Like the delightful “Autumn Spirits & Spice” that took place on October 1st (see full review below) earlier this year a special guest is scheduled to help out the hosting group. The group set the bar high with the first installment of the Handpicked series but thoroughly takes on each project with full concentration so expect nothing but the best.

Under The Big Oak Tree sounds like: traditional bluegrass, music you would hear on a Victrola, hot cocoa early in the morning on a cold December Sunday.

WHERE IS IT? The Paradox Theatre, 107 S. 6th Street, St. Joseph, MO 64501

WHEN IS IT?  Saturday, December 3rd, 2016; 2:00pm, FREE to all ages


  • It’s a family friendly event, no babysitter required
  • It’s at Paradox, they have a pretty good coffee shop too
  • It’s cold outside, come warm yourself up at Paradox
  • It’s short, at likely under an hour it should be over before the kids even lose their patience
  • It’s a FREE show, it’s hard to beat FREE family entertainment
  • This is the second of three installments of the “Handpicked” series
  • It’s a classy event put on by really good people
  • On a Saturday afternoon it shouldn’t conflict with many other plans, it can be a small part of a busy day
  • There will be a gathering of good spirits in a fun environment to enjoy some holiday and winter songs.

You should RSVP on facebook to the event so you don’t forget, here is the link:

Under The Big Oak Tree concert review: Handpicked #1: “Autumn Spirits & Spice” at The Paradox Theatre in St. Joseph, MO on 10/1/16

To help promote the upcoming “Winter Greens” installment of the Handpicked series, here is a look back at the first show from October.

The first of three shows in an extremely ambitious project by St. Joseph, Missouri band Under The Big Oak Tree was nothing short of thrilling. Focusing on “Autumn Spirits & Spice” for the first installment the three piece band took aim at some well known songs originals and some obscure and intriguing covers to fill out their short 40 minute set.

The show would start with a healthy and patient crowd that worked their way through the Paradox Theatre’s coffee shop to find a few rows of seats in front of the impressive stage that lies within the building. As the show time approached the curtain behind the seating was closed creating a cozy environment for the attendees that came in, most of which after enjoying other First Saturday activities in the downtown area. With the curtain closed The Paradox Theatre transformed into a much more intimate environment paving the way for strong show.

The group started with a somber retelling of Kansas City’s own Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear’s “Dead Daffodils” and following it with the Neil Young classic “Harvest Moon.” Taking the harshness of fall head-on they tackled Tom Waits’ beautiful “Last Leaf” with a wonderful take on the resilient song. The best moments of the show were still the band’s originals somehow. Even with the great choices of covers the originals “Farewell Forever Eleanor” and “Deeper In The Wood” easily stole the show.

The mysteriousness of “Farewell Forever Eleanor” is captivating in itself with its classic storytelling but the addition of special guest Lory Lacy would even further raise the bar for the show. Lacy approached the stage to play her flute and helping out with some vocals that brought the song “Deeper In The Wood” an impressive climax. It could easily be measured by the crowd’s intense reaction and applause that the song was the clear high point of the afternoon show. They would close by turning Nick Cave’s “The Willow Garden” green with its Irishness capping off one of the most eclectic 40 minute sets you will likely see.

Under The Big Oak Tree’s Handpicked “Autumn Spirits & Spice” setlist:

  • Dead Daffodils (Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear song)
  • Harvest Moon (Neil Young song)
  • We Are Going To Be Friends (White Stripes song)
  • Last Leaf (Tom Waits song)
  • Bringing In The Sheaves
  • Farewell Forever Eleanor
  • Wind and Rain (Gillian Welch song)
  • Deeper Into The Wood (with Lory Lacy)
  • The Willow Garden (Nick Cave song) (with Lory Lacy)


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250 word album review: Ashley Raines – King of Nothin’



The black album cover should tell you a lot about what you need to know about Ashley Raines’ latest release. He has traditionally kept his album cover barren when it comes to his name and album title but this takes it to a new level. The album is titled “King of Nothin'” after all, isn’t this exactly what the cover of it should look like?

The mood of Raines’ music may not be a ton different here but the sound is. After some characteristic acoustic picking on “I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You” for the short sub 1:00 opening track, a bass line leads the dark and desperate “Good Things Happen To Bad People.” Then up next for the title track things take a bit of a turn. Keyboards coat the song giving it a different ecosystem to exist in. The sound takes center stage on “King of Nothin'” giving it a more produced and refined sound, something that Raines has consciously avoided in the past. Throughout his career Raines has thrived on down and dirty recording that only added to the direct and desolate nature of his music but on this album there is an effort for a cleaner sound. On “Keeps Turning” a simple drum backing drives the song while some relaxed guitar helps the song settle to a calm conclusion. On “Repent” the backbone of the song is once again the keyboards as they hover about in the song.

“King of Nothin'” may be a bit of turn in Raines’ catalog, the mood is mostly consistent with his other work but stylistically it is an interesting shift giving him more dynamics to play with and this album is a great example why that isn’t a bad thing.

Key Tracks: “King of Nothin'” “Keeps Turning” “Good Things Happen To Bad People”

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Album at a glance: Preston Ott & Glass House EP

Preston Ott & Glass House EP

Preston Ott is a lyrical driven singer/songwriter from the Kansas City area. It being very early in his music career it’s difficult not to think he is off to a great start. He writes with the heartbroken verses of Ryan Adams and adds some crunchy guitars that resemble power pop at times. On “This Back and Forth” his voice sounds weathered and worn only adding to the song. A solemn dobro burns on “Broken Hearts and Broken Guitars” as Ott rattles a dark tale while you can hear fingers sliding on strings in the background. On “Grew Up In The Grew” he falls somewhere between Bob Dylan the Old 97’s maintaining a folky sound while still injecting some pop hooks. After just a listen or two to this EP you’ll be convinced Ott is just on his way to making even better music.

Key Track: “This Back and Forth”

  1. Say GoodbyeStraight Into The Earth
  2. This Back and Forth
  3. Grew Up In The Grey
  4. You Can’t Expect Much
  5. Broken Hearts and Broken Guitars
  6. Straight Into The Earth
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