|Many an artist has embarked on a journey of duality, to further explore the contrasts between two concepts, i.e. success and failure, struggle versus hope, and self-doubt versus empowerment. New York City based singer songwriter Kirsten Thien titled her new album “Two Sides” after discovering her tunes fitted into this premise. She assembled them akin to the A and B sides of vinyl ’45-singles’, which further inspired her to release this collection on a vinyl long-playing LP (October 2020). The eight new tracks on her fifth release showcase many sides of the accomplished performer as she moves easily from rock to blues, gospel to soul, her throaty alto beautifully in sync with her skills on acoustic and electric guitar.
Well known for her provocative solo shows, the album has Thien firmly placed as a band leader in front of an ensemble that includes bassist and producer Erik Boyd, drummers Steve Holley and Alex Alexander, guitarist Arthur Neilson, Tommy Mandel on keys, and some very special guests; Raul Midón, Doug MacLeod and vocalists Tarriona Tank Ball and Jelly Joseph, aka “Tank and Jelly,” from New Orleans. The sessions and collaborations for the album took place over a few years, with the final masters completed just as the darkest months of the NYC pandemic lockdown approached, along with its soundtrack of sirens. The lyrics speak to the current moment despite having been completed, in most cases, years ago, as is the gift of second sight given to many an artist willing to be receptive to the muse.
Thien boldly declares her sense of purpose on the acoustic driven roots rock opener ‘Shoulda Been’, shrugging off any notion of not meeting anyone’s expectations by being the strong woman she is, punctuating her point with sharp slide guitar stabs (including a rare slide bass solo). Next, she implores us to embrace the power of positive thinking on the easy swinging ‘Sweet Lost and Found’, backed by Tank and Jelly in the choir. The bump and grind blues ‘After I Left Home’, plays out as a mini soundtrack for the memoir “When I Left Home” from Buddy Guy, whom Thien credits for the inspiration and subsequent dedication to one of her real life mentors and hero, with Neilson putting his keen familiarity with the Chicago Bluesman to great use on his blazing and inimitable guitar solo. A playful Bo Diddley beat from Alexander fuels the feel-good anthem ‘Say It Out Loud’ with Tank and Jelly adding New Orleans spirit along-side Raul Midón’s confidence-inspiring solo. On the gritty blues rocker ‘I Gotta Man’, Thien trades guitar solos with Neilson as her seductive vocals speak of yearning in her restless heart.
The collaboration with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and guitarist, Raul Midón, leads Thien to push herself further as an artist. She sings in Spanish for the first time on the lovely Latin Blues-Mambo ‘Montañas’ that features fine piano work from Fabian Almazan and South American guitars by John Benthal to accompany her enchanting vocals. The legendary Doug MacLeod sits in on resonator guitar for the Delta blues sermon ‘Better or You’re Gonna Get Burned’, with Nashville ace studio drummer Wes Little dropping in a hill country blues parade march, propelling the much-needed message forward. Thien and company close with the Leon Russell’s soul blues classic ‘I’d Rather Be Blind’, first recorded by Freddie King in 1972, proving yet again that the power of love is a universal theme that knows no boundaries.
In the singles-driven era of the music biz at hand, Kirsten Thien challenges us to listen to the whole of “Two Sides” like the LPs of yesteryear, so we may enjoy the whole, as well as the parts, of this strong release with equal measure. To use an old adage, there may be two sides, but there is only one coin.
Rick J Bowen
Kirsten Thien’s unlikely path from a Georgetown University Business School graduate to a blues and roots rock singer/songwriter began just weeks before college graduation when she decided to forgo career on Wall Street for a life in music. Since then she has released four albums and toured the USA, Canada and Europe extensively including festivals in Belgium, France, Netherlands, Germany and Norway. Kirsten appears with her band, as well as in more intimate solo and duo arrangements. She has opened for Dickey Betts, Shawn Colvin, and one of her favorite artists of all time, Buddy Guy. Kirsten was the first female artist to record a studio track with blues guitar legend Hubert Sumlin (“Please Drive” on Delicious). The album received acclaim from Guitar Player Magazine, Downbeat, and Keyboard Magazine. It captured the attention of New York City DJ Pat St. John who said after seeing Thien’s live show, “The album is flawless. She’s gonna be a big, big star.” Thien has toured the world with her band as well as solo. One of her solo powerhouse shows yielded Solo Live from the Meisenfrei Blues Club.
More recently, Thien has developed an Early Women in the Blues edu-tainment program, taking audiences through the music of the 20s blues women, with historical and anecdotal aspects of their lives and careers. She adds her own perspective on just how groundbreaking the work of these important women was at the time, and how they popularized blues music in recording and on the stage, while inspiring the generations to come.
Kirsten went back to working a ‘day gig’ a few years ago, among other reasons, to fund the efforts of her record company (Screen Door Records) and various recording projects in the new financial realities of recorded music. Like many of her musical heroes, as long as she worked day and night, this did not slow down her touring or playing shows, and fueled her ability to release the Two Sides project as envisioned. Two Sides began with a session at Grand Street Recording in Brooklyn with Erik Boyd, Arthur Neilson, Steve Holley, Tommy Mandel, and ended up as a journey of exciting musical explorations and collaborations.