Len's Lounge
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Len's Lounge

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Music

The best kept secret in music

Press


By Steve Wildsmith

Jeff Roberson, guitarist, mandolin player and vocalist for the Cincinnati Americana outfit Len's Lounge, struggles to be heard over the background noise during a recent phone interview.

However, it wasn't the buzzing crowd of some faraway bar or the din of electric guitar from an other-side-of-the-wall recording session. It's the shriek of children.

``Hang on, I'm at a soccer game,'' the full-time dad told The Daily Times this week.

A few minutes later, away from the roar of fellow parents and the whistle of the referee, Roberson is ready to discuss his other occupation, music. He's not the prototypical singer-songwriter, but that's fitting, since Len's Lounge isn't exactly the prototypical Americana outfit.

``I guess Americana has become more of a blanket term of stuff that uses American song forms as a starting point, and really that can be anything in rock 'n' roll and folk,'' Roberson said. ``To me, it's an American song format that's decidedly not pop music. Do I like the term? Not really, but what else is out there? Alt-country, but what does that mean? I guess there's roots rock, which is fine if you're American, but if you're Jamaican, roots rock means something else entirely.

``For me, Americana starts with people who can play acoustic instruments before they can play electric ones. It's about the songs -- will it have the same earnestness and intensity on the front porch as it does played through a 1,000 watt PA? Myself, I started playing on street corners with a mandolin and a guitar myself, and later on, I knew that if I felt comfortable doing it there, I would feel comfortable doing it anywhere with any and all instruments at my disposal.

``That's what Len's Lounge has been about -- working with the songs and the musicians rather than trying to define what we want the instruments to do for us,'' he added.

What Len's Lounge delivers is a gritty, melancholy brand of Americana played by Roberson; Jen Shepherd on backing vocals and violin; Paul Cavins on bass; and Katie Monnig on drums. The songs and the intensity of the delivery cut a ragged and sometimes harrowing edge across the country, folk and rock genres.

The band took its name from a Cincinnati bar that sat beneath Ultra Suede Studios, Roberson said, a local musical landmark built in the 1980s by the college rock outfit Afghan Whigs. Soaking up the bluegrass from Kentucky, just across the Ohio River, and the influence of mountain-music migrants from Virginia and West Virginia, Len's Lounge quickly established a foundation in Appalachian music.

``I started out as a mandolin player because I love bluegrass, but when I got smoked by too many 8-year-olds I was like, `Damn, maybe I should find something else to do with my time,''' Roberson said. ``The guys around here, they're players from the get-go, and certainly that helps me appreciate being able to play well. There's a strong scene here, and people play this kind of music because they love it.''

Last year, the band released ``The Longest Night,'' which chronicles 12 years in the Len's Lounge song catalogue. The band will undoubtedly draw from that record when it performs at The Pilot Light tonight.

``We're very spontaneous, and I think we like to jam without noodling,'' Roberson said. ``We're good musicians without being flashy or wallowing in our proficiency, or lack thereof, and we don't talk a lot between sets. We just get up there and play the tunes and put it out there, and hopefully people enjoy it as much as we enjoy doing it.'' - Maryville, Tn. Daily Times


While Len's Lounge has always been a forum for writer Jeff Roberson's "mongrel Americana" musings, he's been ably augmented the past two years by a core group that includes bassist Paul Cavins, violinist Annette Ellis and vocalist/guitarist Annie Winslow. With Winslow moving away this fall, what better way to take a musical snapshot for the Lounge's rotating family album then memorializing its most cohesive, productive lineup with a live disc. Recorded at Jack Quinn's last December, The Longest Night judiciously chooses from recent studio efforts, while mixing in rare early tracks ("Whirl") and new songs. While no career oeuvre, it's a generous helping of what the Lounge does best.

Blending earnest storytelling with a liberating rawness gleefully devoid of folksy pretentiousness, Night is grass roots 'n roll with a side order of down home soul. Sidemen Mick Stapleton (drummer for The Stapletons) and keyboardist Ben Doepke of Homunculus help give Night the full(er) band treatment. With Doepke's Hammond organ lending an occasional elegiac air, the results sound looser and more immediate. The whole band coalesces on "After Image" with a muscular eight-minute workout that's almost like a lost Allman Brothers' track. At the centerpiece of the disc is one of Roberson's thematic best -- the haunting "Road Dog" -- with its Southern gothic imagery and almost mythical evocation of life on the rails/run. Night also features three Winslow compositions, including the gorgeous, bittersweet "Green."

After some delays, The Longest Night gets "CD release partied" on Friday at the York Street Café in Newport, with special guests The Thirteens and Appalachian Cancer. (Sean Rhiney) - Cincinnati City Beat


At their worst, live recordings could be reclassified as an act of international terror -- flat, hollow money-grabs by greedy execs looking to cash in on a band's sudden stardom. At their best, live albums are a revelation, capable of transporting a listener to places inside an artist's music that are otherwise unavailable. The Longest Night, as an introduction to the expanding twelve-year catalog of Len's Lounge (coincidentally the finest name for an optometrist's office yet), lies somewhere in between those poles.

Class, musicianship and taste are the hallmarks of this Cincinnati roots-rock outfit, which features Annette Christianson on violin, Paul Cavins on bass, Katherine Monnig on drums and Jeff Roberson on vocals and guitars. (For these recordings from Jack Quinn's Emerald Ballroom in 2003, Ben Doepke of Humunculous was on Fender Rhodes electric piano and Hammond organ and Mick Stapleton of The Stapletons was on drums.) The large ensemble in this case means a bigger, richer sound -- not necessarily complex arrangements. Roberson's "mongrel Americana" is occasionally growling, sometimes grinding, and throughout the disc the band is relaxed and loose without sounding sloppy. From the foot-stomping "Tennessee by Moonlight" to the epic jam of "After Image", The Longest Night is a pleasant, unpretentious document of a sophisticated band rollicking in its element. It feels a bit like a night out that ends too soon.

-- Evanston Wade - Splendid Magazine


Len's Lounge's latest disc shows band's new dimensions.

Len's Lounge's earlier disc, Road Dog, was pretty much a solo album by lonesome troubadour Jeff Roberson. But as the title hints, String band is a real group effort. After countless local gigs, Len's Lounge has coalesced into a solid working unit.

Mr. Roberson's dry, world-weary vocals and downhome acoustic guitar remain the bedrock of Len's Lounge. But with a steady group of players, there are a few more dimensions to the band. Mr. Roberson has wisely kept it low-key. There's nothing flashy here, just simple songs (even one called "Simple Song") played and sung with sincerity.
Annie Winslow steals the show with her "Time Can't Take Away", an alt-mountain song that recalls Julie Miller, and her hopeful ballad, "You'll See The Sun Again." She's a talent to watch. Guests include Ass pony's Dave Morrison, Ed Cunningham, Swarthy and, on banjo, Newky Stapleton.

The 11-song CD ends with the anthemic "Big Spring Church", a slow, hypnotic ballad that gets a psychedelic edge from Toby Ellis' dreamy, arpeggiated guitar.

String band is a portrait of a group heading into some interesting new directions, and fans of rootsy, contemporary music should come along for the ride.

Larry Nager, Cincinnati Enquirer - Cincinnati Enquierer


It's going to be a Roots Rock/Folk music lover's dream night at the Southgate House on Saturday. Local label 3rd Silo Records will see the release of its first two CDs in one record release party extravaganza. The label -- which recently changed its name from Northern Aggression to reflect its focus on Americana and Roots music -- is putting out the brand new disc from The Stapletons (see "Locals Only," below), as well as String Band , the new long-player from Len's Lounge . On Saturday, Len's Lounge plays the Southgate's upstairs parlour, while The Stapletons headline the club's ballroom. A $6 cover gets you access to the whole shebang.

Without a doubt, String Band is Len's Lounge's finest recorded effort in its 10-year existence, from the crispness of the production quality to the richness and proficiency of both the performances and the songwriting. Lounge frontguy Jeff Roberson leads the accomplished band through 11 tracks of mountain Folk that comes across more direct and pure than past efforts, due in large part to the organic, acoustic nature of the performances. The band's current lineup is also its strongest, with each member doing the most with their roles, from Annette Christianson's sublimely slithering violin and Paul Cavins' anchoring bass bounce to the tuned-in guitar/mandolin/banjo interplay between Roberson, Toby Ellis, Ann Winslow and guest Newky Stapleton, which makes the disc's title oh-so appropriate.

Song-wise, Roberson's "West of the Wabash" and "Big Spring Church" are majestic album high-points, guided gracefully by his sonorous vocal presence. The songs, with their visceral imagery (both lyrically and sonically) and distinctly Appalachian vibe, sum up Len's Lounge's strength and power. Besides her savory harmonies, Winslow emerges as a not-so-secret weapon on String Band , with two outstanding songwriting contributions, "Green" and "Time Can't Take Away." Where previous Lounge efforts have had a "gruff but loveable" appeal, String Band finds the band's edges exquisitely whittled into a direct point. - Cincinnati City Beat


Len's Lounge is out with "String Band," a title that sums up the group's full sound featuring mandolin, guitars, fiddle and upright bass. It's a great evolution from the first release from the band's main singer-songwriter, Jeff Roberson, which was essentially his solo project. Now it's a true band with an intricate wall of sound. The addition of sweet-sounding vocalist Annie Winslow is a great counterpoint to Roberson's earthy, gruff vocals.

Roberson bills his sound as "mongrel Americana, a slow-burn countrified folk rock." "There's definitely country tendencies to music I make -- mountain or Appalachian, or whatever you want to call it -- but there is so much more in the stew."

Roberson's great storytelling is the real soul of the sound. He can be at his "mongrel" best expressing frustrations with people who are "Soul Suckers," then moving to pensive storytelling on "Tennessee by Moonlight." It's a hauntingly beautiful song Roberson said he was inspired to write driving one night through Lookout Mountain in eastern Tennessee singing of his ancestors in the region who fought against each other in the Civil War.

Overall, "String Band" is the most complete roots package of the year on the local scene with great songwriting and excellent musicianship. - Cincinnati Post


Last year, when I happened to be in Chicago, I met up with Splendid editor extraordinaire George Zahora, and the two of us ruminated a bit on what has changed in our musical tastes as we have aged. Mr. Zahora made the rather piquant observation, when we were discussing our mutual fondness for country music, that one of the reasons he was more likely to go see a country band he had never heard than an unknown-to-him punk/indie/electronic or other band is the sort of base-line musicianship one is virtually guaranteed by a band's inclusion in the genre. If you go to see a newly-minted country band, the likelihood of their being all attitude and no substance is lessened, simply because there is an unspoken understanding that, however DIY your band is, there's no such thing as a country band without chops.

It's precisely this fact that makes it easy to forget how much better the musicians in a band like Len's Lounge are than the vast majority of their rock-and-roll peers. However, that forgetfulness doesn't excuse missing a country/bluegrass record as finely crafted as String Band .

While, as the title suggests, Len's Lounge is indeed composed of stringed instruments only, the album also features the talents of a guest drummer. While the whip-crack snare of "Soul Sucker" isn't technically vital, it's a perfect addition to the close harmony and smooth violin line that carry the tune. On "West of the Wabash", the perfect nuance is delivered by a classic banjo line (also a guest musician). Lead vocal duties are handled by gravel-voiced Jeff Roberson and the dulcet tones of Annie Winslow, both of which are beautifully expressive and rich.

The songs range from wistful to sassy, "drinkin' and cryin'" to "I don't need you". There are songs about travelling and songs about never wanting to leave. While none of these subjects is radically new to the genre, they still have plenty of legs when played with conviction and skill -- two qualities Len's Lounge has in spades.

The album ends on the hauntingly beautiful "Big Spring Church", a song that resonates long after it's over. Check out this string band. They'll show you what a steady picking hand can do. -- Brett McCallon - Spendid Ezine


Len’s Lounge is a country/bluegrass band out of Ohio that has been at it around eight years and a couple full-lengths. Singer, guitarist, and mandolinist Jeff Roberson and bassist John Curley, who is best known for playing with the Afghan Whigs, formed the band. Roberson has continued on with the band with various members coming and going, and all of whom being very musically talented. The band diversify there sound very nicely sometimes sticking to tried and true roots music, other times branching out to heartbreaking pop.

“Soul Sucker” starts the disc off with a beautiful rolling melody with some wonderful moaning violin and a mix of different vocals with nice and different instrumentation. Jeff Roberson’s country-tinged vocals mix very nicely with the soft understated tones of Annie Winslow. “Green” takes the band into a more pop-oriented approach, dropping the country leanings of prior songs, allowing Annie Winslow to take the song to another level. Winslow’s vocals are very pleasant on the ears and are also very captivating, some nice unobtrusive playing backs her. There is a great violin break lending the song a little bit of a mourning sound that is interjected nicely.

“Simple Song” lopes along with big bouncing bass, rapidly picked mandolin, and very well-played slide guitar. Roberson’s vocals are very solemn, but the lyrics, though heartfelt, are a little bit of a misstep. “Time Can’t Take Away” has Winslow to the fore again, and her strong but wispy vocals again steal the show. Winslow has the ability to take a song to places it would otherwise not venture; it shows what a very good vocalist can do to pleasant music. “Tennessee by Moonlight” is a very strong performance here with some nice interplay between all the instruments. Some very strong drum work and guitar’s blending well with the soaring and crying violin accompany this song.

This is a very competent disc full of wonderful country tunes that is pretty diverse as well. There is a nice mix of different styles involved here, and breaking up the vocals with Roberson and Winslow works to their advantage. Winslow’s sweet vocals are a nice break from the rougher country inflection of Roberson. The musical backing is perfect here, and the musicians mix up the use of traditional instruments very well. This is the perfect disc for driving through open country and loping hills, or any time you’d like to listen to relaxed and authentic country with pop melodies. - Delusions of Adequacy


It’s quite telling looking at press releases when you look down the list of who a band have opened for in the all important support slot - and Cincinnati outfit Len’s Lounge have more than their fair share of eclecticism when it comes down to support - they’ve played with everyone from David Gray and Clem Snide to Peter Case and Will Oldham. It’s safe to say that the music’s not comparable to any of the aforementioned artists, but has more than a hint of each - David Gray’s ear for a tune, Will Oldham’s darkness, Peter Case’s lingering depictions of landscapes, and Clem Snide’s hybrid of indie and country. That said, “Road Dog...” actually kicks off things in a fairly subdued fashion with “I Guess You Lay” and well into proceedings, you’d be forgiven for thinking the band are competent if not inspiring - but that’s on first listen. Things do get better once you spend time with the record - the unexpected strings of “Illinois Central,” the wonderful Johnny Cash-esque vocals of “This Train” and the sublime chord changes of “USS Wichita.”  Jeff Roberson’s lyrics are vivid and descriptive too, conjouring up atmosphere even when accompanied by the sparsest of arrangements, and very much akin to the Handsome Family on more than one occasion. Not every track hits the mark every time, but safe to say that it’s a well produced thoughtful record that deserves a place in every thinking person’s americana collection.  MW - Americana UK


Sublime and ripe with melancholy but ultimately uplifting, Lens Lounge's Road Dog and More Train Songs is a crafty travelogue that rides the rusty rails across the Midwest, stopping to peek in every house and little piss ant town along the way to uncover the true stories that lie within.

Self-described country/folk/rockers, Lens cites American songwriters like Phil Ochs and Willie Nelson and moody Brit Nick Drake as touchstones, but the sound is more expansive and modern than you would imagine. Alternately comfortable on Austin City Limits or providing the soundtrack for something like David Lynch's haunting Twin Peaks' series, Lens mixes up slices of Americana storytelling and post-modern soundscapes with pleasant results.

Formed in 1992 by singer/songwriter Jeff Roberson and Afghan Whigs' bassist John Curley, the band serves primarily as a vehicle for Roberson's plaintive, personal songs. However, the communal collective that has comprised Lens since its inception has been a revolving door for some of the area's finest musicians. While Curley and original drummer Tony Franklin are no longer with the band, Roberson has time and time again assembled a unique, talented cast of characters. The bulk of the album was recorded with guitarist Chris Carero on lap steel along with drummer Chris Brown, guitarist John Renner and bassists Curley and Tom Callahan. Former Plow On Boy songstress Niki Buerhing was an early supporter and provided guest backing vocals. Currently, Lens' alumnus Paul Cavins (Bassist/organist) of Throneberry serves as the bridge between past and present along with recent live additions violinist Annette Christianson, guitarist Toby Ellis (Tremolux) and guitarist and backing vocalist Ann Winslow. Over the past year, the drum throne has been alternately manned by frequent Lens' associate Michael Horrigan (Throneberry, Afghan Whigs) and Dave Purcell (Pike 27), Roberson's partner in crime in the successful Uprooted Showcases. The constant however, has always been Roberson, an anti-folk singer studied in the rich music traditions of the Heartland but as comfortable with the aggressive bite and bile of punk rock. His songs are earthy, personal tales intertwined with twisted dark stories about ordinary people whose outward simplicity belies some unsettling truths within.

Recorded and mixed by Denny Brown and Curley at Brown's Ground Control Studios and Curley's Ultrasuede Workhouse, Road Dog saw its initial release two years ago as a limited edition disc now long out of print. At the request of Northern Aggression label head Josh Asbury (who targeted Road Dog for his fledgling label's third offering), Roberson has re-released the disc with a few added bonuses. While the retooled Road Dog eliminates covers of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, it adds Guy Clark's fantastic "Dublin Blues" and includes three new Roberson originals: "Illinois Central," "Rivers No More" and "U.S.S. Wichita." Revamped sequencing and new artwork courtesy of Roberson rounds out the new package.

Disc opener "I Guess You Lay" quietly paints the aftermath of a domestic murder scene that's obliquely hidden beneath the gentle melody of the chorus ( "so close so far away it seems"). Roberson's caustic wit is in tact on the smack down "Cross Dressers and Acquaintances," a nose thumbing nod at someone with little understanding ("Always one more ego to climb. Always one more person to use and then just leave behind").

"Illinois Central" portrays the unrealized life of a small town girl who grows up but never out. The story is buoyed along by Roberson's aching, edgy vocal, which is part Leonard Cohen, part Captain Beefheart and part Kenny Rogers (without the schmaltz). Alternately growling, then sadly intoning ("she raised her two boys, but she wanted six but that was god's will, not some devil's tricks") the tale is one of the disc's most affecting.

Trains conjure up much for Roberson. Weaving thematically throughout the disc, they inspired the album title and provide fodder for two great tracks on Road Dog . "Waiting For A Train" is an old Jimmie Rodgers tune that fits nicely along side Len's songs. "[Rodgers] always intrigued me on several levels. He wrote many train songs and I've always had a fascination with trains as transportation and carriers of lonesomeness. Waiting For A Train is that lonesomeness," Roberson notes. "This Train" is Lens' own rail-themed cut which popped up on Northern Aggression's compilation release last fall. Shuffling along like its namesake, the train in question serves as metaphor for the protagonist who upon coming to each town decides whether, as in life, it is better to stop in or just pass on through.

Lens' retelling of Guy Clark's "Dublin Blues" (from Clark's 1995 release of the same name), is a weary drinking song that takes a page or two from novelist Charles Bukowski's boozing bender persona. Roberson is pleased at its inclusion on Road Dog , noting "I've always loved the - Cincymusic


Discography

2005 - iLove, Tokyo Rose Records compilation
2004 - The Longest Night, 3rd Silo Records
2004 - The Hoss: A Tribute Waylon Jennings, CB Records compilation
2002 - String Band, 3rd Silo Records
2001 – Road Dog and more train Songs, Northern Aggression Records
2001 – Bitter Sweet Relief, Northern Aggression Records CD compilation
2000 – Twisted Roots, B-Side Records CD compilation
1997 – Pets, self released CD
1994 – single, Monocat 7 Records
1993 – Natural Alternatives,WNKU CD compilation
1993 – lenslounge, self released tape

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

Founded in 1993 by Cincinnati, Ohio folk singer/songwriter Jeff Roberson and Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley as a diversion from their two very independent careers, Len's Lounge has become the vehicle for the exploration of Jeff's plaintive songs that cut a ragged edge across country, folk and rock genres. Featuring Mike Sortoff on bass, Katie Monnig on drums, and Jeff Roberson on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, the songs hang on imagery and metaphor found throughout the southeast and midwest United States, mining rich, seemingly unfamiliar territory in what many folks consider to be the geographically boring parts of the United States. Dry cracked fields, slow moving rivers with deep muddy shores, gabled homes surrounded by acres of soy and corn fields and two or three southwesterly facing trees.

We've been honored to play the 2003 Tall Stacks Music and Arts Heritage Festival, the 2003 Newport Music and Arts Festival (Kentucky) and the 2002/2003 Midpoint Music Festival, been blessed with 3 consecutive nominations for a Cincinnati Entertainment Award in the folk/country/bluegrass category, played all over the southeast and midwest and seen our late 2002 3rd Silo Records release, String Band, gain critical praise and radio play from Anchorage, Alaska to Cadiz, Spain. New for 2005 is a live album recorded at Jack Quinn's in Covington, Ky entitled The Longest Night. Len's Lounge is currently writing and recording songs.

Jeff is active in the Cincinnati music scene, booking and promoting Americana shows at the Northside Tavern, Coopers On Main and Southgate House and had a hand organizingthe 2001 and 2002 The Uprooted Music Festival and the 2004 two day Americana extravaganza, Rivertown Breakdown.

Places We've Played
*more then once
Acoustic Cafe, Johnson City, Tn.
The Hideaway, Johnson City, Tn.
Pilot Light, Knoxvlle, Tn.
The Poor House, Raleigh, NC
The Town Pump, Black Mtn., NC *
The Comet - Cincinnati, Oh. *
Northside Tavern - Cincinnati, Oh. *
Sudsy Malone's - Cincinnati, Oh. *
Bogart's - Cincinnati, Oh. *
Barrelhouse - Cincinnati, Oh. *
Southgate House - Newport, Ky. *
York St. Cafe - Newport, Ky. *
Barking Spider - Cleveland, Oh. *
Trinity Theater - Lavonia, Mi.
Speak Easy - Bowling Green, Oh.
Patrick Sullivan's - Knoxville, Tn.*
The End - Nashville, Tn.
The Watershed - Black Mountain, NC *
The Westville Pub - Asheville, NC. *
Puckett's Farm Equipment - Charlotte, NC *
Sadlack's Cafe - Raleigh, NC
The Cave - Chapel Hill, NC *
The Garage, Winston-Salem, NC
Clifton's - Louisville, Ky *
Twice Told Coffeehouse - Louisville, Ky.
Uncle Pleasants - Louisville, Ky
Madison Theater - Covington, Ky.
20th Century Theater - Cincinnati, Oh.
Jack Quinn's Emerald Ballroom, Covinton, Ky*.
Arnolds Bar, Cincinnati, Oh.