In the summer of 2018 I was just in the process of putting the band together — what would eventually become The River South®. Incidentally, it was during my promotion of this album that I had a very disappointing experience with Obscure Sound that prompted me to start CHILLFILTR®. But that's another story entirely.
So we had just arrived in Ashland, I had some gigs booked, and I reached out to my local community. I was thrilled to be invited to the studio in Medford for a short live performance. I recorded two different songs, and they were both on the website at one point, but I guess one of them got pulled eventually and that was before I was able to get a copy for myself. But I did manage to scrape this performance of "Weightless Heart," and incidentally, the Mail Tribune is shutting down permanently sometime this week. So if it wasn't for this blog post, that entire experience would be lost forever.
What I love about this moment is that it really encapsulates the person I was when we got to Ashland; so much changed over the years, from the impacts of climate change to my own trials and tribulations as an entrepreneur and indie developer. I eventually lost much of the innocence that is on display here: I'm just happy to be performing, and this was really the height of my abilities on Weissenborn.
The show that is being promoted in the article was the last time I was able to perform with a full band. I found a guitarist and drummer, who seemed pretty excited to be part of the group, until the day of the performance we heard from the drummer who was stuck somewhere in northern California, because of a snafu with his girlfriend. The guitarist called in a favor from another drummer, who drove up from Weed, California and played the show completely blind. It was a magical moment but also a lesson in how difficult it is to keep a band together: a lesson I learned in Los Angeles, and again in southern Oregon.
As an artist, Krister Axel sees himself as a case of what happens when ambition falls between the cracks.
Born in Paris, schooled in White Plains, New York, and Madison, Wisconsin, he’s written and performed roots and blues since he was a kid. He was in his 20s when he made the move to Los Angeles.
“For so long, I felt like some big thing was going to happen, and I would get noticed,” Axel says. “Now I’m in my 40s, and I’ve never let go of that dream. Though I haven’t reached any massive level of fame, I’ve been able to touch certain things that were exciting.”
Now based in Ashland with his wife and two small children, Axel continues to progress as a singer, songwriter, musician and producer. His album, “Follow the Light,” was released in 2017. He’s put together a new lineup of regional musicians for his band, The River South, and after piano, then rhythm guitar, his newest passion is the Weissenborn.
“It’s roughly like a lap-steel guitar,” he says. “Other people know it as a hollow neck Hawaiian guitar played on their laps. That’s what I perform with now. It’s like a boomy acoustic guitar with a slide, and it has that surfy Hawaiian sound.
“I believe there was a guy named Herman Weissenborn who invented the original model with a hollow neck and raised nut,” he says. “The one I have was built by a luthier in Colorado. They’re made one at a time, and they can be difficult to track down. Ben Harper made the Weissenborn popular about 20 years ago. He was the last guy to do pop and blues with the instrument. That’s what I’m doing with it now.”
Axel and his band will perform at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 30, at Belle Fiore Winery, 100 Belle Fiore Lane, Ashland. Admission is free. See bellefiorewine.com or call 541-552-4900.
“I’ll start the set with solo interpretations of songs from the new album, ‘Follow the Light,’ and from my catalog,” Axel says. “I’ve got a bass player I work with named Michael Zuzel. He and singer Jinnee Joos will provide backup vocals.”
The second half of the set will feature a new rhythm section he’s been working with, he says. Guitarist Sammy Kovic (The Evening Shades) and drummer Nick Johnson (Father Doug) will join Axel, Zuzel and Joos for songs from his 2015 eponymous EP, ‘The River South,’ and other originals from Axel’s repertoire.
“Our sound is roots-based,” Axel says. “There are elements of folk, a little bit of country, and straight rock ’n’ roll. It’s very acoustic and American sounding, blues-based music, There are layers of folk influences with three-part harmonies by me, Jinnee and Michael on a few of the songs. That’s my favorite sound. When it’s really sort of thick, the choruses jump out because there’s some harmony there.
“I write all the lyrics, the chords, the arrangements, the only input I get from the others in the band is about the harmonies. They work out how they want to sing a song,” Axel says.
The songs on “Follow the Light” were written at Axel’s home in Ashland, then recorded last fall at Austin Signal Studios in Austin, Texas.
“I have a friend who lives in Austin who is a musician, as well. He did the production for me and allowed me to borrow his band. He works with a rhythm section and a guitar player he likes a lot. So I just kind of borrowed all those guys.
“We did the recording in three or four days,” he says. “It’s a very live production. We didn’t do too much with overdubs. Pretty much what happened in the room is what you hear.”
Hear tracks from the album at theriversouth.com.
Axel’s next project is an album tentatively set for release in early 2019.
“I still have songs to write,” he says.
The 2019 release will showcase music written on the Weissenborn.
“It’s my new favorite thing,” he says. “I might go back to Austin to record it, frankly, just because it worked out so well the last time. My friend, Shawn Pander, is still there, and I would want to work with my old friend, drummer Adam Marcello, who I knew in Los Angeles. He played the drum tracks on ‘Follow the Light.’ He worked as drummer and music director for singer Katy Perry. Now he plays drums in the house band for ‘American Idol.’ When he and Shawn and I get together, it’s pretty special.”
Axel studied creative writing and earned a degree in poetry at the University of Madison, he says with a laugh.
“I say it in jest, but it actually helps me in my whole life. I think it’s important to have a command of the language. I don’t regret my choice.
“I guess I just see myself as the story that doesn’t get told because so much energy is spent looking at the Top-40 artists who have made it through that veil,” he adds. “There are so many musicians who are making a life out of it, who don’t get a lot of the spotlight. I feel like I represent those people.”