By Ryan Evans
April 19, 2018
The show will be a rare chance for a Lincoln audience to see a three-hour set with the full band behind Cox, who has more often played shorter, sometimes solo gigs in town. But it’s great timing for the Omaha songwriter, as High Places is driven by the rich, full sound of the four-piece group that includes Cox on guitar, banjo and harmonica, Colin Duckworth on guitars, Eric Elworth on bass and Jarron Storm on drums.
High Places is the follow-up to Cox’s excellent 2016 album, The Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing, which was recorded with acoustic instruments, mostly during a “glorified rehearsal.”
“I think we spent a whole weekend, about 12 hours a day, just playing whatever came to us,” he said of the sessions for that record. “It was raw and its own thing, different from what I’ve done before. This one (High Places) is the other side of it.”
The process for the new album was similar, in that there were only a couple of sessions and they recorded live as much as they could. Working with Jeremy Garrett at Hidden Tracks Recording Studio in Omaha, the band’s intention was to create something that more resembled the feeling of its complete, plugged-in live show.
“Full drums give it more energy and kind of more of a rock feel to go along with the country and blues stuff,” Cox said.
That much is clear from the opening moments of the album when “18 Wheels,” the first of a few honky-tonk barn burners, kicks things off with the fast-driving rhythm, harmonica and knife-sharp guitar licks that put the listener in the seat of the rusty-chained Freightliner.
Next up, “Rockwell” starts with only Cox’s banjo and powerful vocals before the rest of the band effortlessly slides in around him, settling into a groove that brings to mind Ray Wylie Hubbard. Combined with “18 Wheels” before it, this one-two punch at the outset of the record is a reminder of Cox’s knack for handling many different forms of roots music so well.
Like his last several projects, Cox’s songwriting shines at the forefront of High Places. The Shenandoah, Iowa, native continues to draw on his own life experience here, as he did on The Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing and 2014’s Nishnabotna — an album that should arguably be considered the best Nebraska roots music release of this decade.
For instance, on the High Places standout, “Granite Angels,” Cox vividly brings to life the actual Marine Band harmonicas that belonged to his grandfather, right down to “grandpa’s sweet pipe tobacco smell.” The song reflects on self-doubt but with a sense of hope and gratitude shining through.
I used to go to church on Sunday, but now they all just hurt like hell
I don’t think I’d ever make it up in heaven
Maybe time will tell.
I used to think that the longer the life, the slower the death
But I wish there were some place in the middle
Where we could keep on dreaming.
-Matt Cox, “Granite Angels”
Another tender moment is the atmospheric “Medicine Man,” when Cox and the band slow things down more than anywhere else on High Places. Duckworth really stretches out the pedal steel and Telecaster work here, to outstanding effect. It’s a beautiful song that serves as the perfectly placed finale to side one of the vinyl LP as well as a testament to the band’s collaboration in the studio.
“We had a real hard time deciding what the instrumentation should be on that song,” Cox said of “Medicine Man.” “Sometime that day or evening, Colin sat down at the pedal steel and Vern (a.k.a Eric Elworth) sat down at the Rhodes and both of those two things together just gave it … a really nice touch, a lot of color. That was all them, they sat down and made that happen.”
In addition to Cox’s regular bandmates in Duckworth, Elworth and Storm, it’s great to hear Omaha’s Dan McCarthy (McCarthy Trenching) lending superb, often honky-tonk-style piano to a number of songs on the record. Omaha’s Gino Meyer also contributes charango on the emotional, Latin-tinged “Palace of the Sun.”
From top to bottom, High Places is diverse in styles, ranging from country to blues to rock to folk. At the center of everything is authenticity. It’s found in Cox’s voice, in the tightness of the band and in the quality of the songwriting. The album confirms his place as one of the great ambassadors of roots music in the region and Friday’s Zoo Bar show will no doubt showcase the clear passion that he and his band have for what they do.
If you miss Friday’s show, the Matt Cox Band will play an acoustic in-store at Homer’s in Omaha for Record Store Day the next morning and the official Omaha release show will be at The Waiting Room on April 27. You can learn more about Cox and order his music at http://mattcoxmusic.net/.
Matt Cox – High Places Release Show
Friday, April 20, 5-8 p.m.
The Zoo Bar
Listen to Matt Cox discuss his new album, “High Places” on KZUM Wednesday:
Ryan Evans is KZUM’s program director and hosts “Tree with Roots” every Wednesday from 8 to 10 a.m. on KZUM.