…Beneath Potomac Skies
All songs written and arranged by Ken Francis Wenzel
Recorded at Sucker Punch Recording Co., Bethesda MD, July 2012 – November 2013
Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by Mark Williams
Mastered by Jeff Dykhouse
©2014 Ken Francis Wenzel/BMI
– 2016 Nominee, “Best Roots Rock Album” – 30th Annual Washington Area Music Awards
Scroll down for album liner notes…
“…Beneath Potomac Skies” is my first full-length, full-band record. It’s meant to be a broad document – a compendium of travels, moments, vignettes, scenes, dreams, triumphs, yearnings, and regrets, all coming into focus through this collection of songs. Although mostly set in my current home in the Washington, DC area, these stories reach back to touch on my Illinois hometown, the years I spent in Los Angeles, and even harken back to my old days in Las Vegas. It’s been two years in the making, and features guest appearances from many of the DC area’s finest musicians. And this is the record that finally brings together two sides of my musical personality that, up to now, I’ve kept separated: the saxophonist/ soloist and the singer/songwriter/bandleader. So, here it is… read on for some thoughts on each song.
I’ve always been fascinated by the unique power dynamic that exists in the DC area, and the types of personalities that are attracted to it. I’ve been visiting the city since I was a kid, and after living in Los Angeles and Florida, it seemed like the perfect move to relocate here. After a while, I began to realize just how ambitious and driven (read “workaholic”) many of the folks in this region are, and I began to wonder about the often-hard choices all of us – whether lawyer or artist, musician or politician – have to make between career, love, and money, and what really makes us happy: “I don’t wanna spend my life trying to win it / all I ever wanted is in your eyes / I just want to love you beneath Potomac Skies”. Jon Carroll (Starland Vocal Band, Mary-Chapin Carpenter) kicks the song off with some sunny, jubilant organ, and my producer/guitarist Mark Williams rips out some rootsy, gritty leads. “Potomac Skies” is given added weight by the appearance of my friend and former band leader, guitar blues legend Bobby Parker. He was a DC favorite since his start with the Paul Hucklebuck Band in the late 1950’s, and influential to several legendary musicians – including John Lennon, Carlos Santana, and Chuck Brown, among many others. I played saxophone and toured with him for many years, and this turned out to be his last studio appearance before passing away suddenly in late 2013.
After leaving my home town of Champaign, Illinois, I spent the better part of 14 years living pretty much all over the place. The more I moved, the easier it was to move again. It’s been pretty hard to break this habit, although I’ve managed to keep it at bay for most of the last ten years or so. Cross Kentucky member Bobby Birdsong plays some appropriately-wandering pedal steel here, and The Sweater Set’s Maureen Andary sings a soaring harmony with me: “I’ve been flying for so long / I’ve forgotten what the landing’s like.”
Screaming In Stereo
I wrote this song in the back seat of a car on the way back to DC from Pittsburgh. It first appeared on my 2010 solo acoustic release, “…This Is Cross Kentucky”. Since then, it’s become something of a fan favorite, so I wanted to give it the full-band treatment. It starts with acoustic guitar and builds steadily through a huge, magnetic chorus to a thundering crescendo, before falling off with a finger-picking release, which is sometimes how I end the song when performing it solo acoustic. It’s blissful, ecstatic, in-the-moment… play it loud in the car, driving fast, with the windows down.
Red Letter Days
I used to play saxophone on cruise ships, during what now seems like a different life. Leaving town for six months at a time never does wonders for relationships – and I’ve never been good at the long-distance thing. Still, while gone, I’d inevitably think about who I’d left behind. I’d glorify our times together, while hoping to recreate those moments together – those Red Letter Days – when I got back. Of course, trying to pick up the pieces of an old life, instead of moving forward and building a new one, never did seem to work out very well. This song marks the debut of me on electric guitar, playing the intro and rhythm tracks.
Leave The Light On
Dating a musician is never easy – just ask any of my exes. I wanted to write a simple love song, one without angles, but of course there’s always angles in love. So I just addressed the gorilla in the room, from a musician’s perspective: the late nights, the weird hours, the long drives that can separate two folks in love when one of them plays music for a living. This one rocks out in the end with a double-time jam, featuring a fiery Mark Williams guitar solo.
(Let’s See) What Happens On The Highway
I think everyone, at some point, wants to run away from all the responsibilities, pressures, and bullshit of their lives, and just take a damn road trip. Of course, that includes me – I spent the better part of fourteen years just taking off. At the drop of a hat. Like, let’s go already. Guest fiddler & harmony vocalist Audrey Hamilton plays a great lead melody here that guitarist Buddy Spier plays off of nicely. Hello, Nashville!
At some point, you have to come home. For me, that’s the DC area. As those who live here know, it can be tough to wake up to some of the downsides of living in the nation’s capitol: beltway traffic, politics, and the day-to-day pressure of keeping your shit together. Sometimes I can handle it, sometimes I can’t… Lots of guests on this one. Singer/songwriter/local favorite Ted Garber’s harmonica banters with Charlottesville dobro master Jay Starling, and the whole thing gets anchored by award-winning banjoist Mike Munford.
The Wisdom of Flowers
Some things in life come easy, some things just look easy, and some things come pretty hard. For me, opening up to someone is damn hard. Bobby Birdsong plays some beautiful, haunting pedal-steel melodies in this one, and I love the quiet atmospherics and soundscapes he creates. My friend Maureen Andary returns to duet in the second half of the song. “If I could learn the wisdom of the flowers / Maybe I could finally bloom for you.”
This Disaster Zone
My saxophones, both alto and tenor, make their first appearance on the album in “This Disaster Zone”, giving the chorus a warm Van Morrison-style feel. The title speaks for itself: sometimes you just gotta walk away. If only it were that easy.
Come Read My Heart
Jay Starling and Mike Munford return with some fantastic dobro and banjo work in this uptempo stomp of a tune. It’s an imagining of a conversation with a woman whose ten sisters were separated by the State of Illinois during the war years. Reunited as adults, the sisters wrote a book about their experiences, a copy of which she hands me, along with the admonishment: “If you got it bad / You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Sunsets & Glass
I’m still torn about my time & experiences in Los Angeles. It’s been a while now since I’ve lived there, and this song conjures up a hazy LA memory of years past. It’s a melancholic, country-ish backdrop for the bitter realization that the glitter and dreams people move there to chase aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Audrey Hamilton’s fiddle and Maureen Andary’s harmonies provide a lush dose of unfortunate reality: “If you’re looking for your soul / Don’t bother looking here.”
This song, the album closer, is very near and dear to me. Its message is simple and honest, and I seldom perform it live. It’s a beautiful, seven-minute meditation, perfect for unwinding to during a late-night, solo drive home. DC singer/songwriter Laura Tsaggaris joins me for a quiet duet, and Jon Carroll and Bobby Birdsong spin some amazing musical colors to set up my saxophone solo, which ends the song with its final note ringing out alone into the silence of the night.
So there you have it, a musical journey through the last fifteen-or-so years of my life. I thought it fitting that the saxophone, the instrument that started my journey in music way back in fifth grade – the instrument that took me all over the world, that has given me so many experiences in life – ends the record, all by itself. Because all the rest of it – writing, singing, arranging, playing guitar, indeed most all of my musical sensibility – stems from the saxophone. So it’s natural that after all the stories, songs, singing, and guitars, the last thing you’ll hear is my tenor. It all comes back to that.
At least for now, that is. This record isn’t an ending, it’s the start of the next chapter of my life. Hope you’ll come along.