With a new tour and full-length debut album, Alice Howe will bring her 2020 vision to Ann Arbor’s Black Crystal Café Friday.
The Boston singer-songwriter will make her first live appearance at the intimate 48-seat music club with world-renowned bassist Freebo, who’s performed with Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“Freebo and I have been working together for the last three years. He produced my last record, ‘Visions,’ which came out in May of last year, and he and I have been touring together a lot. For this show, we’re billing it as he will be my special guest, so he’ll do an opening set, and then he’ll back me on the bass,” said Howe about her set with Freebo for Friday’s sold-out show.
“It’s really fun because I get to sing harmonies on his songs, and it’s a really collaborative thing that we’ve put together that just works out really well for both of us. We’re excited to take that to Black Crystal.”
Howe forged a fateful partnership with Freebo nearly four years ago at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference. After meeting and chatting with him, she went through her record collection at home and discovered his musical collaborations with Raitt, Young and a host of other rock legends.
“That was a very cool moment for me where I realized, ‘Wow, I’ve met somebody,’ and we had a lot in common as far as our taste in music and production styles and singing styles and all this stuff was so in line with each other,” Howe said. “I grew up listening to the era of music that he really came up under, so for me to meet somebody from that time was like, ‘Oh my god, I felt like he was sent to me.’”
Having Musical ‘Visions’
Those similarities quickly led Howe to enlist Freebo as her musical mentor, collaborator and producer for “Visions,” a 10-track, introspective folk-blues expedition filled with striking originals and smashing covers from Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan. It’s a gorgeous extension of her 2017 debut folk EP, “You’ve Been Away So Long.”
For “Visions,” Howe relocated from Boston to Bakersfield, Calif., to record her full-length debut with Freebo, Fuzzbee Morse (electric guitar), John “JT” Thomas (keys) and John Molo (percussion). In fact, her creative expedition begins with the nature-inspired “Twilight” and includes a much-needed Michigan winter sonic escape to a serene world dotted with dirt roads, sunlight, ocean and trees.
“Twilight” is a welcoming soundtrack of mesmerizing acoustic and electric guitars, fretless bass and peaceful piano melded with Howe’s honeyed vocals – “There’s nothing like being along at twilight/The ocean and I each approaching high tide/Held aloft on the waves of pride/I’m better off walking along at twilight.”
“It’s the first one that I actually began composing for this album. I was just at a moment of really deciding to commit myself to those tasks that can be so uncertain and just this path of pursuing art and music as a career, which is not something that anyone in my family had done and none of my friends,” said Howe, who features Freebo’s signature fretless bass threaded throughout the album.
“It just felt like I was really going out on my own. It was also the first song that I co-wrote with Freebo actually or that I co-wrote with anybody. I’ve never done any co-writing before. I had to kind of let go of feeling very protective of that process.”
Howe recorded a beautiful video of “Twilight” with videographer-photographer Jim Shea, who’s also famous for shooting Linda Ronstadt’s iconic 1977 “Simple Dreams” album cover. The video features Howe wearing a flowing red dress while walking through Jackson Browne’s breathtaking childhood stone home in Los Angeles.
“For me, it was just very meaningful to be able to spend some time in that space and just walk around and explore. We kept it all really simple, like the whole production team was me and Jim just wandering around together. He’s just a joy,” Howe said.
Next, Howe provides exquisite lyrical spring imagery on “Still on My Mind,” a romantic reflection on a lost love from the past filled with delicate, deep acoustic and electric guitars and soft percussion – “Looking out into a sea of green/Thinking on the years and miles that lie between/It seems so long ago/But you’re still on my mind you know.”
“Albums capture a moment in time, and in my life, it was a year of a lot of change and reflection, and I really like to explore a lot of the same themes. In my songs, I like to speak about people in my life who’ve influenced me, and I often access that through nature or being outside and looking at a scene and letting my mind wander to wherever that’s gonna go,” Howe said.
“That’s kind of why I called the record ‘Visions’ in part because there are a lot of visual elements to the songs on the record, and it shows you different visions of me as an artist.”
Celebrating Influential Artists
While “Visions” celebrates several Howe and Freebo-penned originals, it also pays tribute to brilliant renditions of timeless classics by Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan. Howe credits her mother with spinning blues records when she was growing up in Newton, Mass. She also sang along with her brother and father, a gifted painter turned successful architect and designer.
“There was this old school tradition in my house of putting on an album and listening to it all the way through, and there was a soundtrack of different times of the day, and I just feel that was really in me from the beginning. I would sit and listen and read along, and I always had a memory for lyrics, so I would really focus on that and memorize everything,” said Howe, who’s influenced by Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.
Howe brings a stellar blues swagger to Muddy Water’s 1951 track, “Honey Bee,” as electric guitar, electric piano, bass and drums magically fuse together – “Sail on, sail on my little honey bee, sail on/ Sail on, sail on my little honey bee, sail on/I don’t mind you sailing but please don’t sail so long.”
“I thought about, ‘What about this Muddy Waters tune?’ and at that time, Freebo didn’t know that I even sang or was interested in singing blues or anything like that. He was like, ‘Whoa, wait you know that?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know that,’ which kind of opened up this whole new realm of stuff for us to explore,” Howe said.
Another beautiful cover includes Bob Dylan’s 1963 classic, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” as a vibrant acoustic guitar and deep bass form a timeless musical partnership – “When the rooster crows at the break of dawn/Look out your window and I’ll be gone/You’re the reason I’m traveling on/And don’t think twice, it’s all right.” It’s also the first song Howe ever learned on guitar while attending summer camp at age 12.
Most importantly, writing and recording tracks for “Visions” allowed Howe to pay homage to her first mentor, her late father, who passed away when she was 18. As her creative champion, Howe’s father promised to go on the road with her and be her manager when she was young.
“I would love nothing more than for him to be able to hear it, but I have the feeling that he is with me in what I do. He would be totally all in with what I’m up to, and I think he would be thrilled to hear my songs with a band,” Howe said.
Bringing ‘2020 Vision’ to a New Project
For Friday’s Black Crystal Café show, Howe and Freebo will debut new material they’re currently writing and recording for her second full-length album in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
“I’ve been trying out some of those songs. I think it’s really fun to test them, and it’s like a chance to really learn them and get inside the songs before you put them down for eternity,” she said.
After playing several shows along both coasts, Howe and Freebo will return to Muscle Shoals this spring to record additional tracks for the new album, which will come out next year. Together, Howe and Freebo will record with former Bonnie Raitt guitarist Will McFarlane and former Edison Electric Band member and keyboardist Mark Jordan.
“It’s going to be a really interesting next step from ‘Visions’ with a band down in Muscle Shoals,” Howe said. “I feel so fortunate now. These people are pros, and they’re there for me, and it’s really exciting.”