Virginia and the Slims, Young Mister release new albums

MOUNTAIN VARIETY: On their latest respective albums, Virginia and the Slims, left, embraces its ensemble sound while Steven Fiore reimagines past recordings of his solo project Young Mister by himself. Slims photo by Annie Heath. Young Mister photo courtesy of the artist

Sporting a name inspired by ’70s-era cigarettes marketed to women, Asheville-based ensemble Virginia and the Slims has endured a convoluted history. Musicians have come and gone — to the point where only one founding member remains with the jump blues/swing band — and with those changes came shifting musical perspectives. But the current lineup has persevered and celebrates the release of the LP Busman’s Holiday with a Friday, Oct. 23, show on the Asheville Guitar Bar patio.

Virginia and the Slims got their start in 2013 when vocalist Virginia DeMoss put together a group to play catchy, danceable blues. Sometimes considered the missing link between big band and rock ’n’ roll, jump blues enjoyed its main period of popularity during and after World War II. Small combos played scaled-down arrangements of swing jazz numbers, emphasizing a driving beat.

Though the group developed a loyal following, constant personnel moves meant that the musical character of Virginia and the Slims would change as well. For a time, the band even shifted its focus toward Chicago-style blues. Today, the group is fronted by Joanna Best and features founding member, saxophonist and primary songwriter James Kamp. The lineup is rounded out by bassist John Davis, drummer John Barrett and guitarist Howie Neal, who joined in September, just in time to lay down parts for Busman’s Holiday.

Best believes that despite the revolving-door quality of the band, there’s a strong thread running through its history. “There’s an enthusiasm and curiosity about vintage jump blues,” she says. “Everybody who comes through wants to take that on and learn about it.” She dismisses any notions that a consistently changing lineup is a problem. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Each person brings their own little bit of expertise and experience, and that colors [the music] in a new way.”

Kamp composed seven of the 10 songs on Busman’s Holiday. And while the songs are new, the vibe is intentionally vintage. “The song layouts came first: words, choruses — all that,” Best says. “Then [the arrangements] are tweaked with the stylistic aspects.” The results balance modern musical sensibilities with the retro quality of classic jump blues and swing.

A highlight of Busman’s Holiday is the Kamp composition “Let it Go.” With a saucy melody and a familiar blues structure, the song showcases the straightforward simplicity of Virginia and the Slims’ current configuration. The tune has been in the band’s repertoire since at least 2016, but the new recording takes the song at a faster tempo and showcases newest member Neal’s lead guitar skills.

Live onstage pre-pandemic, Virginia and the Slims’ repertoire favored classic covers over band-written tunes. But the album release party’s set list will feature Busman’s Holiday in its entirety — an approach that Best says may point toward the group’s post-pandemic future: “I wouldn’t mind if it got to where [we played] two originals to one vintage song. But we’ll see what happens.”

One-man band

After nearly a decade of toiling as a staff writer for Universal Music, Steven Fiore embarked on a solo music career. Under the moniker Young Mister, he self-released a self-titled album in 2016, and four years later is dropping his third album. As its title telegraphs, Same Songs But Different features new arrangements of previous work — specifically the eight songs from his debut.

The self-quarantine that came with the spread of COVID-19 spurred Fiore to revisit his back catalog. “This pandemic has been this weird thing where all of us creatives feel like we’re in this fog,” he says. “One day, I just woke up and thought, ‘I gotta do something.’” He adds that making Same Songs But Different “was a good way to take something I’d already done and make something new out of it.”

On Young Mister, Fiore’s songs featured standard rock band instrumentation: electric guitars, bass, drums and overdubbed vocal harmonies, plus subtle production touches, such as brass section stabs that add tonal color. Songs like “The Best Part” have a chiming, midtempo power pop feel not unlike Fountains of Wayne or Gin Blossoms.

But at his home in Tryon — and occasional performances throughout Western North Carolina — Fiore developed spare arrangements of those songs that fit better in the context of one-man shows. “I’ve been playing these songs solo for years now,” he says.

His new relationship with these older songs eventually led to the idea of recording new versions. And his concept was as simple as the new arrangements. “The only thing I really thought about the old songs when making Same Songs But Different was, ‘Make it sound completely different, if you can,’” he says.

In that regard, the album is a major success. The new recording of “The Best Part,” for example, may share the lyrics and chord structure of its 2016 counterpart, but it drops the rock arrangement in favor of a folk feel that emphasizes the wistful, romantic and melancholic qualities that lay at the song’s core.

“It’s almost like I was covering my own stuff,” Fiore says. “Because when you do a cover, you should try to make it your own as much as possible. So I took on the mindset of someone [else] covering my songs.”

Fiore’s facility at doing all of the above on his own — which he also accomplished on the full-band-sounding Young Mister and 2019’s Sudden Swoon — makes the results even more impressive. In some ways, his solitary approach is a reaction to his years composing with artists such as Grammy-nominee Lori McKenna and pop singer/songwriter Ryan Cabrera. “They’re lovely people, but I sort of burned myself out on co-writing,” Fiore says.

Add in the challenge of collaborating with other musicians during a pandemic, and it made even more sense for Same Songs But Different to be a solo album in the truest sense of the word. “One of the themes of the pandemic is self-sufficiency,” Fiore says. “So I did it all myself, at home.”


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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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