by JOEL HARTSE & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & obby Bare Jr. is not a good singer. Which is what makes him a great singer. See, despite the fact that he's lived in Nashville since forever and his dad is a country legend and he was nominated for a Grammy at age 5 (for a duet with dad), Bare seems to have deliberately avoided smoothing his voice's rough and ragged edges, or anything resembling vocal training. You might call it "cracked" or "broken" if it didn't sound so absolutely real. He's a dude you believe.
"I try to put emotion into what I do," says Bare, while going through a tollbooth in Maryland on his seemingly endless tour. "If you sing something perfectly, you should be on Star Search. It's like trying to be the world's strongest man."
Bare's not trying to be the world's strongest anything. He's had his brushes with rock stardom -- maybe you remember his major-label albums with his rock band Bare Jr., or their song "You Blew Me Off" that plays like a cross between Gary Glitter's and Marilyn Manson. "The Biz" was unavoidable for Bare, he says, his own musical family notwithstanding.
"I studied music business in college before I got my degree in psychology," he says. "All my friends in college were in really good places like William Morris and publishing agencies. It had nothing to do with my father; all my friends from college were in the right places in the music world."
This led to a deal with Epic Records before Bare had played even a dozen gigs with his band. Tours, soundtracks and the trappings of "success" followed, even if the trappings were a tad frustrating.
"I think it's impossible for me to complain about someone wanting to spend almost a million dollars on my little songs," says Bare of his major-label past. "It was madness, crazy, waiting for your record to come out. A month, a year, two years... the people that worked at the label would be sincerely excited about my music, and five minutes later on the phone, I'd hear them talking about Mariah Carey to another radio station."
Venerable alt-country indie label Bloodshot Records has been a much more comfortable home for Bare, whose solo albums with his band, the Young Criminals Starvation League, are loose, free and fragile -- except when they rock, which they occasionally still do. He's firmly rooted in country music, but open to experimenting. Take his most recent record, The Longest Meow, which was recorded straight through in 11 hours.
"I knew with the amount of talent I had that we could do it, I knew it would be the most fun I would ever have in a day," Bare says. "And it was. I guess I should make up some big lie about how it's some big part of a master plan ... I knew it'd be a lot of fun, and I knew that it's unnecessary to spend more than a day or so on a record."
Bare rounded up collaborators, including members of My Morning Jacket, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Lambchop, and Clem Snide, and blasted through 11 tracks. The band feels tight but relaxed (they did do a little pre-production), rocking through the bombastic "Heart Bionic" and the playful vocal gymnastics of "Sticky Chemical," but it's still Bare's voice, that strained, raspy tenor, standing at the center, demanding you take it seriously even on the goofy "Snuggling World Championships."
And impossibly, Bare makes the Pixies' "Where is My Mind" his own, playing it as a solo ballad, just barely squeaking out its wordless refrain. It shouldn't work, but it does. There's just something not quite right about it, something that -- somehow -- makes it oh-so-right.
Thursday, July 19 - 5:30 pm
Omar Torrez, Little Big Man, and Ether Hour
Omar Torrez is a singer, and he has a rock/jam band, but you can tell he cares most about his guitar, whether it's because there's basically a constant guitar solo during most of his songs, or 'cause he's the kind of guy who actually says "guitar!" before he comes in with it. Little Big Man, like Torrez, are from Seattle, and they do a lot of jamming, too, but they play straight-up reggae.
Friday, July 20 - 5:30 pm
The Mother Hips and Bobby Bare Jr.
Playing with Bare (see article) are San Francisco's Mother Hips, a rock band that belongs in the 1960s (in a good way, mind). Their new album Kiss the Crystal Flake, is classy power-pop a la Big Star, The Kinds, and yes, even The Beatles.
Saturday, July 21 | 5:00 pm
Mavis Staples, Carl Rey and the Blues Gators, Kelly Riley and Zugunrue, and Brian Gill
Mavis Staples' new album We'll Never Turn Back is already shooting to the top of Best of 2007 lists, and rightly so. Staples, whose group was intimately involved with the Civil Rights movement, still has a deep, powerful voice that commands authority as she sings the spirituals of the 1960s -- which remain relevant -- and is as demanding as the justice and mercy of God.
Sunday, July 22 | 3:00 pm
The festival wraps it up classically in the Recital Hall at the Lionel Hampton School of Music, with music by Haydn and Leonard Bernstein, and guest violinist Philip Wharton.