Rewind: It’s 1998 and I am in Amsterdam for the second time. As I sit in one of the cities famed “coffee houses”, high on hash and space cake, music comes on over the speakers and I pause amid the smoky conversations around me and listen closely. Something about what I am hearing affects me deeply. It began with these deep beats that set a hypnotic groove then segued into mind-blowing wah-wah guitar riffs. And then this chocolate-syrup voice starts in, all silky smooth and warm, and it carries me on a river of sound. The album I was hearing for the first time in my stoned-out state of mind was Big Calm by the British trip-hop band Morcheeba, and from that moment on I was obsessed with their music.
Morcheeba, in my mind, is Old School. Founded by guitarist Ross Godfrey, his brother producer/DJ Paul Godfrey, and singer Skye Edwards, the longevity of their sound has been blazing the pathway for mixed-genre electronic music since the mid-1990s. Over the last 25 years, the tumultuous history of Morcheeba included Edwards leaving in 2003, which led to the Godfrey brothers to utilize other singers. Eventually, everything fell apart in 2014 when Paul Godfrey left, leaving Ross Godfrey to reboot their music as Morcheeba with Edwards joining on as singer once more. With nine studio albums under their belt, including the 2018 release Blaze Away, the band continues to create incredible down-tempo grooves that ease your mind and energize your body. The current lineup of the band also includes Edwards’ husband and son, bassist Steve Gordon, and drummer Jaega Mckenna-Gordon, with Dominic Pipkin taking on keyboards and electronic gadgets.
The band’s 2019 American tour included a stop at one of the Bay Area’s newest venues, The Midway, a massive art and music complex housed in a sprawling old warehouse in an industrial area of San Francisco. Morcheeba fans waited with excited energy, as it had been awhile since the band last toured. The lights dimmed, atmospheric smoke created an air of mystery as the band took the stage and started in on many songs from Big Calm, including the ska-vibe of “Friction”, and the soaring grooves of “The Sea. Edwards played with the audience during “Part Of The Process” by getting us to sing along with her with she beamed her magnetic smile while she aimed her mic our way. “Trigger Hippie”, with all its various electronic beats and slide guitar, flowed into the air as Edwards seduced us with her voice. The band showcased “Blaze Away” from their newest album of the same name and put forth an amazing, trip-hop version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” that sent the audience into an intense state of ecstasy. Morcheeba closed out their incredible set with the slow-groove of “Crimson", then dug in one more from their past with the high-energy, disco-pop romp of “Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day”.
Often when I witness shows with major international acts, I feel that the band doesn’t do much to actually try connect with the crowd, that they play their music by rote and forget that we are there watching them. With Morcheeba, this was not the case. There were stories, explanations of songs, sing-alongs, banter and laughter as the band played into the night. Even amid the decades of turmoil and the various fracturings of the band, Morcheeba still has a grasp on what’s important to us and to them; the songs, the music and the words they sing.
Chemistry is an interesting thing. There are those moments in time, like when you are watching some musical act on the stage, where you discover that you can’t take your eyes off the music makers before you. You are mesmerized by their presence as you can literally see the energy flowing through those before you as they produce sounds that positively affect your brain. In the case of Bay Area musicians Danny Uzilevsky and Essence Goldman, the energy you may witness between them is sizzling, palpable and truly magical. With the duo’s newest venture, Johnny & June Forever, Uzilevsky and Goldman embody the music created by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, but they do it in a way that is not about “doing covers” or even “paying tribute”, but about fully making the music their own by channeling the forces that Cash and Carter used themselves in performing songs.
Goldman and Uzilevsky came together when Goldman recorded her latest album in 2018 at Uzilevsky’s studio, Allegiant Records in San Anslemo, CA. A sparking fire was ignited around shared lyrics and chords, a magnetic energy acknowledged, and the two began a magical musical journey with the first notes sung in harmony. Both Goldman and Uzilevsky are incredible songwriters in their own right, but when a few Cash/Carter songs were sung, the pair knew they hit on something great and decided to embark on bringing those old school country songs to life with their project Johnny & June Forever: The Greatest Love Story Ever Sung.
With fate and luck being on their side, the duo was asked to perform and premier their act at Sweetwater Music Hall in conjunction with the Mill Valley Film Festival’s release of the documentary “The Gift: The Journey Of Johnny Cash”. The sold-out show was alive with the energy and anticipation of a crowd excited to hear many well-loved songs. The set was opened with “I Walk The Line”, just Uzilevsky singing with his strong and deep voice while playing off the amazing (and dapper) band, drummer JT John (Danny Montana & The Bar Association), bassist Joe Kyle Jr. (Koolerator, Howell Devine) and guitarist Phillip Milner (Jenny Kerr Band). Enter the beauty that is Essence Goldman, all five feet of her, with an electric smile and a high and clear voice that sends shivers up your spine. It was then that we became aware of the special vibe between the two as they locked into the songs and the band then took off without a look back into the dust. The band fired up songs such as “Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man”, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”, the Hank Williams tune “Lovesick Blues”, “Ring Of Fire”, “It Ain’t Me Babe” as well as Loretta Lynn’s “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly”. Essence's solo numbers the June Carter penned "Ring Of Fire" and Carter Family classics "Keep On The Sunny Side" and "Wildwood Flower" were (insert adjective), and Jenny Kerr joining the band on banjo for "Wildwood Flower" was a unexpected highlight.
Uzilevsky and Goldman do their best to not take on the personas of Carter and Cash, but their dynamic stage presence definitely reminds us of the playfulness and enjoyment the country King & Queen had on stage during their heyday. With Goldman showcasing various vintage dresses and Uzilevsky with his slicked-back pompadour and rockabilly style, the pair invoked the force of Carter and Cash without camp and pretense. The talent that these two have honed with each of their long and expansive musical careers is apparent as they blend their own songs and styles in with their act. The whole experience of Johnny & June Forever is more than just a showplace for Carter/Cash songs; it’s a golden carriage for two incredible and shining musicians to make a mark on the musical scene in the Bay Area with panache and style.
Check out the slideshow of the evening's magic...