John Hiatt: In Conversation

Transcript of interview done in June 2022.

John Hiatt

MW: Thanks for your time today, I’ve been a fan since 1979, when I saw you open for Ian Hunter at the Berkeley Community Theatre.

JH: Right, Mick Ronson was in his band then.

MW: Yes, he was, and Nick Gilder was on the bill playing his song, “Hot Child in the City.”

JH: Yes, of course, how about that?

MW: How long has it been since you’ve toured with the Goners?

JH: We did a tour in 2018 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Slow Turning, played that record top to bottom, and some songs from Bring the Family, which are the two records we toured pretty extensively back in the late 80s.

MW: How easy is it for the Goners to slide back into form?

JH: Well, we’ll see, but it seems like, yeah, we don’t like rehearsing too much. Save it for the night. We’re kind of a weird, I don’t know, punk band, except for Sonny who’s a virtuoso, but the rest of we’re good at what we do but we just do one or two knuckleheaded things. So it seems to work.

MW: I understand from your biography that Sonny brought the band to you.

JH: He did, originally Ray Benson was the guy who called me about Sonny and he spoke of him in terms of “he’s the other slide guitar player” – he knew Ry wasn’t coming out with us so he was recommending Sonny as the other guy who could do the job and indeed it turned out to be the case.

MW: What’s your favorite cover of one of your songs, and what’s the strangest?

JH: Wow, a bunch of them. We could be here for a while. It’s hard to say, I found just as you said that I was thinking of the Neville Brothers ‘cause I love them so much and them doing ‘Washable Ink’ was kind of a thrill, but there’s been a lot of thrills, and spills and chills getting songs covered.

MW: Yeah, Bob Dylan covering you, that’s gotta feel pretty special.

JH: It was pretty nice, yeah.

MW: Do you have a favorite song of your own?

JH: Well, no, they’re like kids, you know? You don’t have a favorite child. It’s against the law, isn’t it? I love them all, they grow up and go out, and some of them excel in different ways than others, but again it’s like children, you love them all until the bitter end.

MW: Well as a father of three, I heartily concur.

JH: There you go – I’m about to be a grandpa. It will be our first. Our youngest, Georgia Rae, we’re thrilled for her, and her betrothed, Aaron, is a wonderful guy and yeah, we like them.

MW: As you head out on tour are there any songs you want to bring out that you haven’t touched in a while?

JH: Yeah, and I wanted to keep it to stuff that we recorded together. So we’re extending out to them with the exception of the first A&M album, Bring the Family, but we toured that so extensively, it feels like it’s theirs in my mind. We’re taking some songs from Beneath This Gruff Exterior, which is a record we made in 2003 together and The Tiki Bar Is Open, which we made back in 2001. Mainly drawing from those four records. And there are there are things included in those records that I haven’t played in a long time. So we’re kind of excited about that.

MW: You mentioned the Tiki Bar is Open, and the first time I heard it was at a Jimmy Buffett concert and I didn’t even quite connect it to you and I thought, did you write that with Jimmy Buffett in mind?

JH: No, I don’t often have Jimmy Buffett in mind, but that’s just me (laughs). I daresay he doesn’t have me in mind very often either. No, no, I’m just joking. I think it’s great but no, I didn’t but I was very grateful that he recorded it and he was delighted to do so and it came out just really good.

MW: Speaking of records and recordings, your most recent record is Leftover Feelings, made with the great, inimitable Jerry Douglas. A wonderful, wonderful record – any plans to follow that up and I also wondered what it was like working in RCA Studio B with that band?

JH: Studio B was a thrill. We made a really cool little documentary out of it and it’s making the rounds of the film festivals and actually getting selected in many of them, people seem to like it, but yeah, we did almost fifty shows last year with that iteration, Jerry and his band and he and I have talked about maybe going out, and doing some duo shows, so who knows? As far as making another one, you know, time will tell. I got all kinds of records I’d like to make until I can’t anymore.

MW: One of the questions I was going to ask you, with such a monumental catalog of songs is the muse harder to summon, or easier? Does having written so many songs make it easier to write more?

JH: Yeah, you know I don’t know if it’s changed that much. The biggest problem I think you have to get by is you gotta get past that guy, John Hiatt, who writes songs, you know what I mean? Maybe that’s getting easier as I get older, it’s like, so what , let’s write a song, you know, but, but I do remember when I was younger and I got a little bit of notoriety, the sort of modest career that I’ve had, you kind of get scared by your own ghost, you know? So in that respect, I think it’s easier. But they’re maybe fewer and farther between, but dammit, Jesus, I don’t think anybody’s on top of their game, so to speak right out of the gate coming out here after two and a half years of craziness. So, but that being said, I’ve almost got enough for a new record and talking about going in the studio sometime in the next six months.

MW: Any producers you’ll work with, you doing it yourself?

JH: You know, I’ve been thinking of all kind of ways. I mean I really haven’t settled. I’ve always had a home studio. When we lived out on the farm, it was a bunch of analog gear in an outbuilding that I sort of collected over the years and when we moved out of the farm in 2014, I sold all that stuff and then I set up basically a bedroom studio, but this bedroom had a closet which I turned into an isolation booth. I’m pretty into full on computer recording with the exception of a few outboard pieces, just a few analog pieces, but these plug-ins and recording systems that that have been developed over the last twenty plus years have gotten really, really good, so I could make a record right here at home, which I probably will do at some point. I don’t know what it would be, if I’ll do it acoustic, just me, a solo record, I’ve always wanting to make just a solo record. So but there’s also a couple of studios in town that I like, one way out in Pikesville, Tennessee where I made The Eclipse Sessions back in 2018. So I might go back into there and work with the McKendrees, Kenneth and Patrick O’Hearn, who played bass on a couple of my records. I don’t know. I have thought about getting The Goners back together with Glyn Johns and making a record.

MW: I imagine Let It Be inspired some of that.

JH: Wasn’t he amazing in that? And no different, no different, that’s what’s so great about him. I mean, you know, we’re no Beatles and he was a much younger man, but he was just as sort of forthcoming and easy going with us back in eighty-eight as he appeared to be on the on the Let It Be tapes. So he’s a great guy. He’s holding a lot of cards.

MW: Yeah holding a lot of cards. Now not only are you a great performer but you have given birth to a great performer, your daughter Lilly.

JH: She’s something else, man. We just went to her – they closed down this old rock and roll club here in Nashville called The Mercy Lounge after thirty-plus years, it’s unfortunate – she was there last night and I hadn’t heard her in about a year. And man, she just burned the house down. She’s got a great new band – well, the bass player has been with it for a while but the drummer and guitar player are pretty new – and she just tore it up.

MW: I was interested in knowing what it was like for you to hear her song The Imposter for the first time?

JH: I was very touched, yeah, it’s beautiful.

MW: You wrote a song for Leftover Feelings, Light of the Burning Sun, about your brother, and I wondered if your experience hearing Lily’s song and her honesty in dealing with that difficult subject informed the creation of that song?

JH: Hearing her singing about the Imposter, did that have anything to do with it?

MW: Yeah.

JH: I’m sure it did. It comes in one ear and comes out the other end a vocal or a set of guitar chord changes, that’s kind of how songs happen. But that was a song that that was I was due to write and it just took me 59 years. It just took me that long to put the story together and write it, and that’s all it was pretty much. Just telling the story of what happened. These things come when they’re due.

MW: I find it so powerful with the biography made public a lot of things that as a fan I didn’t know until I read them in that book and then listening to the song having read the biography, you’re right. It was almost like reportage in the form of a song.

JH: Yeah, it’s hard, you know, I tried it a couple of times when we were out with Jerry Douglas and it kind of goes over like a lead balloon. It’s just so dark, I guess people they don’t know what to do, which I understand.

MW: Yeah, it’s like having someone sing a William Faulkner novel or something.

JH: I don’t know, but it’s a bit dark for most folks, but I was happy to write about it because it’s stigmatized so much, you know, death by your own hand, and it happens even now, more so than we care to admit. People need to talk about that because they have had that experience, people they love, friends, family, have decided to take their own lives. So I figured I’m just going to put it out there.

MW: It’s powerful. Thank you for that, for all of the great work, the fun stuff and the serious. I remember driving from California to New Hampshire in 1987 with Bring The Family playing over and over, and my alternate cassette was Rosanne Cash’s Kings Record Store. I didn’t make the connection then.

JH: Great record, yeah, man.

MW: It helped expose your song The Way We Make A Broken Heart, and Rosanne was one of the earliest proponents of your records, covered a lot of things early on.

JH: God bless her, both she and Rodney supported me. I moved back to Nashville in 1985. I’d been in L A for a few years and I was welcomed like a prodigal son. I mean I was shocked, really, that people would even remember me, but anyway, it was very sweet and I remember she and Rodney. I was touring in Europe, we were in Italy somewhere and I get a call at the butt crack of dawn and it’s Rose and Rodney telling me that The Way We Make a Broken Heart had just gone number one on country radio. It’s still the only number one I’ve ever had, and so I was excited – a little something you can tell your grandkids, right?

MW: Well, I probably have taken up too much time. I really was excited to do this, and I hope I haven’t come off as a complete fan boy.

JH: Not at all. Nope, it’s been lovely and painless and I hope you come out and see the show.

Greg Copeland – The Tango Bar

“Something in my heart has changed,” sings Greg Copeland on the title track of his third album, The Tango Bar. It’s true – its mood is brighter, the sonic textures warmer and more inviting than 2008’s Diana and James, which opened with the Faulkneresque  murder ballad “Muddy Water” and featured a burning Conestoga wagon on its cover.

The new disc, out in June on Franklin & Highland Recordings, kicks off with “I’ll Be Your Sunny Day,” and guest singer Inara George crooning a promise that “this long, dark dream is ending.” On the next song, “Let Him Dream,” a vagabond wanders into church and finds the Almighty sounding “just like East L.A.”

Happiness abounds, and even the darker songs are limned with scuffed optimism. The rustications that marked Copeland’s return after making Revenge Will Come in 1982, then retiring for 26 years, are gone. There’s nary a fiddle.

The Janus mask decision to use female lead vocalists on nearly half of the album’s nine songs is a bold stroke that works. Singer songwriter Caitlin Canty channels him perfectly on three tracks, with a standout the harmony drenched “Better Now.”

Overall, there’s a modern sheen, with electric guitars pulsing, like Greg Leisz’s “chainsaw chord” on the bracing “Lou Reed” and longtime Jackson Browne sideman Val McCallum trading fierce licks with Leisz’s pedal steel on the bluesy, brilliant anti-Trump song “Scan The Beast.” 

During the latter, Copeland snarls, “You want to speak the truth? Shall we begin? You fall so far, you don’t get great again.” It’s a tonic to those who recall the angry writer of “El Salvador” and “Used,” and his rage as the Age of Reagan dawned.

McCallum contributes a cowrite on the sinister “Mistaken For Dancing” – the title references a minefield ballet – which name checks Diana and James’s star-crossed lovers. But it’s producer and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Chester at the center of The Tango Bar’s tender heart, as well as Copeland’s droll attempts at whistling on a few tracks.

The Tango Bar is a better record than Copeland’s last one because he sounds more at ease this time around. Writing after decades away from the craft, Diana and James seemed to be daring a lost id to reappear. Which happened; but its artfulness at times felt exhausting.

Having proved he can create, Copeland has loosened his grip; the results are exhilarating. Even better, he has more songs ready, and promises a follow-up won’t take another dozen years to complete, but may arrive in 2021. 

One hopes he’ll finally bring the unreleased beauty “Pretty Girl Rules The World” to the studio, and re-record a few songs from Revenge Will Come, which is unavailable on CD or streaming services due to being held hostage by Geffen Records since its release.

Greg Copeland is to more than a few fans a criminally overlooked artist, with unfortunate luck. Revenge Will Come was due to receive a glowing review in Rolling Stone when it came out, but critic Paul Nelson left the magazine before it went to print. He then became an early victim of “cancel culture” when FM stations refused to play the song “Full Cleveland” in solidarity with an offended city.

His record dead on the vine, Copeland understandably retreated. To see him making music, and joyful music at that, after such an experience is a pleasure. The Tango Bar is one of 2020’s best records, and the promise of more is tantalizing and delightful.

March March

The Chicks are this moment’s soundtrack – blessedly so.

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“Half of you love me, half already hate me.”

The only question worth asking is, what took them so long?

A maelstrom of misogyny and toxic patriotism sank the careers of Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer and Marie Maguire in the early 2000s. Nothing they did deserved the calculated, deliberate response they received by a hate industry that had the perfect enemy – jihadism – and needed a sacrifice at its altar. 

I’ve always admired The Dixie Chicks for remaining steadfast – “Not Ready To Make Nice” is a wonderful thumb in the eye of anyone expecting contrition – and I consider Natalie Maines especially an icon for free speech and the spirit of rock and roll that propelled the 1960s. 

Their just released song, and the video that accompanies it, reinforces that conviction, as does the fact that with it, they finally tell the Deep South to fuck all the way off. From this moment forward, call them The Chicks; Dixie can die a deserved death.

Tell the old boys in the white bread lobby what they can and can’t do with their body.”

“March March” wasn’t written for this moment of BLM, voter suppression, white supremacist terrorism and a government turned against its own people. The lyrics name-check Parkland shooting survivor turned activist Emma Gonzalez and climate science crusader Greta Thunberg; the track’s been around a while.

Dropping it now, however, along with the name change, makes “March March” feel like it could have been created last week. It’s reminiscent of Springsteen’s “My City Of Ruins” seeming new when he played it during the bunker show broadcast a fortnight after 9/11, though he’d knocked around a version of it in concert at least a year earlier.

Knowing this about “March March” merely provides a reminder that contemporary rage isn’t a new thing, though the revolution that appears to be in progress is definitely a welcome surprise. Watching “March March” is something else entirely, though.

The Seanne Farmer directed video starkly proves the struggle is old as Reconstruction, women’s suffrage and the freedom marches.  It then shifts into the here and now, the uprising of a resistance that may prove enough to extinguish the old order.

With a searing Maguire fiddle solo providing the soundtrack, demonstration, confrontation and police violence spool across the screen. Then the names of the dead – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Marin, et.al. – roll slowly across the screen. When Strayer joins in on banjo, the letters begin to move so fast they’re almost unreadable.

All the victims can’t be contained here.

“What the hell happened in Helsinki?”

Leave it to The Chicks to ask a question no one’s put so succinctly in a song before – why is our country’s leader acting like a traitor? Just yesterday, we learned that Russia paid Islamic terrorists a bounty to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Knowing this, the President still continued to coddle that country’s leader, begging they be welcomed back into the G-7, weakening allied defenses in Germany, and spending an hour and half on the phone with Putin.

What the hell did happen?

We are in a fight for the life of our democracy. The Chicks have delivered an anthem.

Headcount / http://www.headcount.org

Human Rights Campaign / http://www.hrc.org

American Civil Liberties Union / http://www.aclu.org

Supermajority Education Fund / http://www.supermajority.com

March For Our Lives / http://www.marchforourlives.com

Mi Familia Vota / http://www.mifamiliavota.org

Native American Rights Fund / http://www.narf.org

Planned Parenthood / http://www.plannedparenthood.org

White People For Black Lives / http://www.awarela.org

Innocence Project / http://www.innocenceproject.org

Black Lives Matter / http://www.blacklivesmatter.com

Proclaim Justice / http://www.proclaimjustice.org

Man of the people

“I do not sit down with a pen and paper and think, ‘what can I do to really piss people off tonight?’ That’s not comedy!”

Lenny Clarke keeps the fire burning

This story appears in the Nov. 14, 2019 Seacoast Scene

Few comedians are as closely bound to Boston as Lenny Clarke. When a movie was made about the burgeoning late 1980s scene that produced Dennis Leary, Steven Wright, Bobcat Golthwaite and others, Clarke was both a focus and a de facto historian for the project.

One time, he even tried to run the city – and it got him into comedy.

It began when his friends encouraged him to run for mayor. “I didn’t realize that they were kidding,” the ever opinionated Clarke recalled recently. He ran, lost, then got a job with the city as a janitor. “I kept my word, because I said I was going to clean up city hall!”

One night, Clarke and his fellow broom pushers went out for beers, ending up at an old bar called the Springfield Street Saloon.  “It  was a western décor restaurant in a Portuguese neighborhood in Inman Square… they had Steve Sweeney and a couple of other comedians. The guys went, ‘geez Lenny, you’re funnier than them.’ Not Sweeney, but the other guys.”

A week later, he returned and did his first-ever set. “They loved me, and I just kept going back,” he said. Soon, he was a regular at area clubs. “I started as the Grand Wizard of Comedy; I used to wear a turban on my head and a multicolored sport coat; I had shoes that would change color when you poured water on them. I did a ventriloquist act with a skeleton; I was insane.”

Clarke parlayed his schtick into a CBS sitcom, but television success was brief. Lenny debuted in the fall of 1990 opposite Wonder Years, only to be shuffled to a new time slot a few months later. It died when the Gulf War broke out and replaced his working class character with videos of exploding buildings.

“It brought my career to a screeching halt,” Clarke said. “It was very humbling losing everything. I went from a shithouse to a penthouse. I had a Playboy model wife, servants, a mansion by the beach out in Marina Del Ray. I had it all, and I lost it all. Divorced, lost the television show, went bankrupt. I’ve been climbing back ever since.”

Clarke did all right on the rebound. His movie roles include Fever Pitch and the Boston Marathon docudrama Patriots Day. On the small screen, Clarke had supporting roles on The John Larroquette Show, The Job and It’s All Relative. His Uncle Teddy character was a key ingredient in Rescue Me’s eight-year run.

His friendship with that show’s star and creator, Dennis Leary, is one he treasures. “Dennis has helped me mentally, physically, spiritually, monetarily, he’s been an incredible great friend. I love him,” he said.

Most recently, Clarke appeared at Leary’s annual Comics Come Home benefit for the Cam Neely Foundation at TD Garden. He’s been to all but one of the galas since it began. “25 years we’ve been doing this,” Clarke said in amazement. “You do golf charities, and after five or six years, they tend to tail off.  This gets bigger every year, and I’m really excited about doing it. Plus, I’ve been to the Neely House – I actually stayed there when my wife was recovering from breast cancer for the second time. So it’s all come back 100-fold.”

Through it all, Clarke maintains a rigorous schedule as a standup. On Nov. 23, he’ll perform in Dover for the first time. He’s a regular in the Granite State, however, praising the audiences for getting his occasionally irascible act. “I find New Hampshire is much more accepting of me,” he said. “And I love the ‘Live Free or Die.’ But think about that… Live Free or Die? I’d pay a little.”

He remains ever weary of audiences that go to shows seemingly intent on dinging performers for crossing one line or another. “They’re only words,” he said. “I do not sit down with a pen and paper and think, ‘what can I do to really piss people off tonight?’ That’s not comedy! I’m just trying to make you laugh, and pointing out the absurdity of what we’re laughing at.”

Lenny Clarke

When: Saturday, Nov. 23, 8 p.m.

Where: Stand Theatre, 20 Third St., Dover

Tickets: $35 at thestranddover.com

Nobody’s Girl

With the arrival of Nobody’s Girl, Austin may have its own Crosby, Stills & Nash – in female form.

Rebecca Loebe, Grace Pettis and BettySoo supergroup comes to Portsmouth

To a generation of musicians, Austin is the new Laurel Canyon. Every day, at almost any hour, music pours from hundreds of venues across the Texas city. It’s the product of a seemingly nonstop influx of creative souls flowing in from across the globe and colliding with a vibrant local scene that deservedly calls itself the Live Music Capital of the World.

With the arrival of Nobody’s Girl, Austin may have its own Crosby, Stills & Nash – in female form.

Each member hails from elsewhere. Grace Pettis grew up in Alabama and Georgia, Rebecca Loebe was born in Virginia, raised in Atlanta. BettySoo is the closest to a native; she came from Houston to Austin in 1996 to attend the University of Texas, learned the guitar and started writing songs, then never left.

“Austin is like the bat signal for all the weird kids in the South,” Pettis said in a recent phone interview. “We all just kind of end up there.”

All three have solid solo careers; each is a winner of the coveted New Folk Competition at Kerrville Folk Festival, where they first hung out together. But when the longtime friends joined forces for a brief “in the round” tour together dubbed Sirens of South Austin last year, alchemy occurred.

First, they worked up a version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” as a show closer, and posted an iPhone video. It promptly got thousands of views. Inspired, they set out to write an original song. “What’ll I Do” leads off Waterline, a six-track EP released in September 2018. It features a near-acrobatic triple descant that coalesces into spine-tingling a capella harmony at the close.

Thankfully, the trio didn’t stop at one tune. When the studio owners heard what they’d done, they responded with an offer of a record deal. “We hadn’t even played a gig together yet,” Loebe said in a February interview. “We all just went along with it; we weren’t going to slow down something that had momentum on its own.”

Their name is shared with a Bonnie Raitt song (originally written by Larry John McNally), but the moniker is also a commentary on the trio’s purpose and place in the world. “It sort of sounds like a pop group’s name but it also sort of doesn’t, it’s a little more grown up,” Pettis said. “You know, none of us are 20; we know who we are and we’ve been doing this a while.”

Lucky area music fans will have a chance to see Nobody’s Girl before they hit warp speed, on November 15 at Portsmouth Book & Bar. The show is part of their first official tour as a group, though it’s not a New England debut – they did Me & Thee in Marblehead, Mass. in late 2018, and played Vermont’s Roots on the River Festival last June.

A two-sided holiday single dropped in October. The old chestnut “Merry Christmas Baby” gets some Muscle Shoals soul, while a cover of the Jackson 5 hit “Someday At Christmas” hews closely to the original, but adds a re-imagined chorus and soups up the melody to give it a unique stamp.

Michael Ramos produced the new songs; he also helmed Waterline and is supervising their long player, hopefully due out in 2020. Pettis gushed about Ramos, who’s worked with many of her heroes – Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams. “He puts together his dream team and lets the chemistry of the players create a lot of the magic,” she said of the backing group used for the session. “It’s like cooking; he knows what ingredients are gonna work… I think he got it just right.”

Amidst other projects – Loebe released an album, Give Up Your Ghosts, in February, Pettis put out Blue Star in a Red Sky, a duo EP with Calloway Ritch, last fall, and BettySoo performs frequently, both solo and with her trio – Nobody’s Girl continues to gel as a group. Pettis expects their first full-length will draw from this maturity.

“We’re going to be really intentional about harmony lines, descant and lead parts on this record,” she said. “I love that everybody is the lead singer in the band – I think that’s one of the things that kind of separates us. We’ll be spending a lot of time trading off within songs, and our goal is for people to not necessarily know who is singing what part. We all do all the parts – we do low, we do high. I love that about our group.”

Nobody’s Girl

When: Friday, Nov. 15, 8 p.m.

Where: Portsmouth Book & Bar, 40 Pleasant St., Portsmouth

Tickets: $20 at bookandbar.com

Medicine Mama

Newly rocked-up Melissa Etheridge hits Hampton Beach

On her latest album Melissa Etheridge leads off rocking, with a title song focused on a favorite topic. It’s what Queen’s “We Will Rock You” would sound like if it was about legal weed, and its anthemic chorus is a singalong staple at shows.

The Medicine Show, Etheridge’s first collection of originals since 2014’s This Is M.E., is also one of her best. Standouts include “Faded By Design,” which echoes her hit “Come to My Window,” the grownup love song “I Know You,” and “Last Hello,” a tearjerker written to honor victims and survivors of the Parkland mass shooting.

A recent phone interview began with discussion of a new song that finds Etheridge calling on people’s better angels.

Your idea for “This Human Chain” came from real events, right?

Yeah. The last couple of years I was kind of taking the temperature of America, and we have a fever. I was looking for something good and [found] this story of this guy who was drowning and people on the beach formed a human chain and pulled him in. I thought human chain, I like that… I was thinking at the time they came together, I’m sure no one asked about their sexual preference or who they voted for, they all just grabbed hands and saved someone, because that’s what we do. We’re humans. Later, because I wanted to talk about it in concert, I said maybe I should find out what beach that was, so I Googled [and] found about 10 stories of different times that people were drowning and people formed a human chain, and thought oh my God, this happened more than once…

“Faded By Design” sounds like you’re telling the hounds of hell they’re barking up the wrong tree, and it’s also a way of saying every day is a treasure. Is that a good read of what you were trying to get across?

Absolutely! It’s like… I know you might not understand plant medicine is medicine, you might not understand these choices I’m making, might not understand why, it might be scary to you but don’t worry. This is something that’s been around for thousands of years, and it’s a choice. This is by design. 

When you got the cancer diagnosis and began self-medicating, was it new to you?

I was just a social sort of smoker. If someone else had it, maybe I’d take a puff.  I didn’t understand it as medicine until my good friend David Crosby, when I was started chemo, said, ‘look, you gotta take the marijuana… my friends say that’s the only thing.’ I thought well, I’ll look into this. After the first chemo they handed me all these pills – ‘this one’s for pain, this one’s gonna make you constipated, so this one’s for that’ – and I thought, oh my God I’ve already got all these chemicals that they just pumped in me, this is insane. So I started smoking regularly, every day, all day long. Yet it wasn’t to get high, but to feel normal… when I realized that, I just came out and said I have to be an advocate, this has to be a choice. 

It’s been 15 years since your cancer diagnosis; how do you feel today?

Cancer free for 15 years! I am happier – healthier than I’ve ever been.  I have a clear understanding of how important my health is. That it is my number one priority every day, because if I got that I can handle everything else. If I don’t have that, I can’t handle anything. So taking care of myself is the best thing I can do for my loved ones and of course for myself. 

“Love Will Live” is a very defiant song; you’re saying, ‘the world is moving forward whether some people want it to or not.’ What do you think of the cultural changes that have happened since you came out? 

Yeah, I’ve been very inspired by the last couple of years, the movement forward, how we treat each other. The secrets that so many women, and men also, had to bear, and the burden of shame, all the crazy stuff; it’s all coming out and it’s intense but it’s so good for us. I wanted to stay out of victimhood, that part of it. It’s a fine line between a victim and a judge, and for this song I wanted to write right in the middle. Make it just be about my own power so that someone maybe who was going through this or has this situation can find strength and not be pulled under by it and that is why it’s like, ‘things are gonna change RIGHT NOW!’ I love being able to scream that on stage, just rock it; it just feels really good. 

On a lighter note, you put out The Medicine Show on vinyl, did you pay a lot of attention to track sequencing?

Sequencing took a long time. The heavier songs, certainly the last song, ‘Last Hello’ – I just couldn’t follow it up, couldn’t put another song after it. 

Well, you’re famous for heavy last songs on your records

Thank you! You’re just gonna be sitting there going along, and then, ‘oh, man’ (laughs). I wanted to greet you with ‘The Medicine Show’ – Wake up, stand up, this is serious, I mean this, wow this is huge… I didn’t want it to be too choppy or too heavy at one point or too light, so I really worked on sequencing it. I can’t help but think that people, at least once, are going to sit down and listen to it all the way through. 

Final question; you went to Berklee College of Music early on. What are your memories?

I loved my time at Berklee. It was 1979, there wasn’t a whole lot of women there, so it was a little difficult; that certainly changed. But the best part was this girl from the Midwest coming into New England and just feeling at home. It was a great experience for a small town girl to get to know the New England way of life. I really appreciated it. 

Melissa Etheridge

When: Wednesday, August 21, 8 p.m. Where: Casino Ballroom, 169 Ocean Blvd., Hampton Beach Tickets: $29-$69 at casinoballroom.com

This story appears in the 15 August 2019 issues of Hippo Press and Seacoast Scene

Idiot show

Wry LA indie pop rocker stops in NH

It’s a story old as summer: a troubadour treks across the country, guitar in tow, playing wherever he can, emboldened by warm weather and no small amount of wanderlust. These days, a looping machine is usually packed with the merch case and sound gear in the Prius.  

For Rees Finley, it’s an essential piece of equipment. Playing solo, he said in a recent phone interview, is a “challenge to overcome.” The LA-based indie rocker’s new album, A Tale Told By An Idiot, is an emo-limned romp with a big sound built around two guitars, bass and drums.

“I’ve always been in bands,” he explained. “My music is solo in that I’m the only person who’s writing it.”

Playing solo can be a lofty job, one Finley cheekily touched on in “The Band Broke Up,” a song from his first EP. “I’m afraid I’m not enough on my own,” he sings. “Did I lose my edge trying to do it all? I’ve been writing the gospel, but I’m John, not Paul.”

He’s doing fine, really.

Finley’s packing the gigs on a tour moving from his native Ohio to locations throughout the Northeast. “Playing a show every night all the way up until August 22,” he said. “Keeping very busy.” He has two New Hampshire dates – a dinner hour set at Hermanos in Concord on August 8, and a listening room show two days later at Milford’s Union Coffee Co.

Musically, Finley’s wide ranging, citing influences from his father’s Beatles albums to Prince – for both artistry and one-man band chops – along with 90s emo and punk rock basement shows seen as a teenager in his Midwestern hometown. “My desire to go from genre to genre is honestly that I just have a short attention span,” he said. “And I always find it interesting when I see an artist who is very eclectic and never repeats themselves.”

Finley cites his original song “Kill The Lizard” as a good example of where he’s coming from.

“It has synthesizers, computer elements, but also big heavy rock guitars and some country, blues influenced guitar work and funk stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot going on, and it’s also an example of a song where I played and wrote everything… every instrument you hear is something that I put into it.”

Growing up “obsessed” with music, Finley learned several instruments at a young age. By high school, he was wrestling with whether to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston or USC. Both accepted him; he chose the latter because it offered a major in pop music performance.

The goal was a school doing more than “100 year old classical music or jazz that you’re not going to hear on the radio,” he said. “I wanted to be able to work on contemporary stuff, and this was one of the only programs that could do it.”

By the time he graduated, Finley was immersed in the SoCal music scene, and he’s lived there since.

“The people that I met in school are the people that I continue to work with,” he said. “I think it has been really good decision for me to kind of position myself there, and the community has been really such a part of my life.” A CD release show in late June at the Peppermint Lounge was packed with friends, providing a nice sendoff for his nomadic summer.

He’s energized by the tour, which is taking him to many places for the first time. “I want to meet and reach new people that haven’t heard of me before,” he said. “I’m also am really excited about traveling and seeing a lot of America that I haven’t been able to check out before… seeing different walks of life. It’s really inspiring as an artist.” Even better is keeping it all about playing songs. “It’s such a blast to be able to really focus on being the best musician I can full time.  Living in LA, I’m sometimes doing other things like teaching to help pay the bills. Being on the road, I really get to focus on performance. That’s been really great.”

Rees Finley

When: Saturday, August 10, 8 p.m. | Where: Union Coffee Company, 42 South St., Milford | More: reesfinley.com

Also appears August 8, 6:30 p.m., at Hermanos Cocina Mexicana, 11 Hills Ave., Concord (226-2635)

All in the family

New Kingston brings progressive reggae to Salisbury Beach

New Kingston Perform Live

The roots of Jamaican music go back further than Bob Marley and Johnny Nash, or even Desmond Dekker, whose 1968 hit “Israelites” was the first taste of the island’s music for much of the world. Prior to all that, before Jamaica had gained its independence from Britain even, singer Alton Ellis recorded with producer Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, early home  to many vital reggae artists. In the early 1970s, Ellis’s “Get Ready To Rock Steady” named an entire movement.

Bass player Courtney Panton, a first generation Jamaican-American, performed with Ellis in his band Kingston Crew. He  and his wife had three sons, and in their teens, Panton steered each toward a different instrument – Courtney, Jr. took up drums, Tahir found keyboards, and Stephen Suckarie picked up a guitar.

Toward the end of Ellis’s life, all four Pantons played in Kingston Crew. After Ellis passed, the name changed to New Kingston in tribute. Since the release of a debut album in 2010, the Brooklyn band has become a force in reggae, with a sound that melds urban influences to roots music.

Courtney Panton, Jr. is a whirlwind of energy behind the kit, singing, rapping and dancing on his stool. He frequently DJs, and acts as New Kingston’s spokesperson. In a recent phone interview, he spoke of the band’s mission, and an upcoming show at Salisbury’s SurfSide ocean bar.

“There are so many things that we think about every day,” he said. “But our common goal is the music keeping us together as a family more than anything.”

They began playing together in middle and high school, jamming in their Brooklyn basement. This offered a way to keep them from playing in the streets. “It was at a deciding point, a definition point,” Courtney Jr. said, recalling when his dad brought home a bunch of instruments and told each boy to pick one. “Injecting music right there at that moment was like alright, this is cool [and] he actually paid us to practice… so we don’t have to get a job.”

Dad played bass and picked songs for them, beginning with The Wailers and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy.” Eventually, after shake out shows in cabarets and neighborhood parties, they were writing originals. When New Kingston released its first album, it was fittingly named In the Streets.

Their 2013 follow-up contained another nod to their father’s influence – it was called Kingston University. “A lot of people don’t know our past history… with his extensive background, he pretty much put us in college in terms of that,” Courtney Jr. said, noting that many of the genre’s greats were also his peers. “More like friends and family; we got the opportunity to meet them and play for a lot of them. It kind of seasoned us.”

In 2014, they signed with Easy Star Records, and the following January released Kingston City, a breakout effort that hit Number One on the Billboard Top Reggae Album charts. A Kingston Story: Come From Far arrived two years later. Made in a Brooklyn nightclub during a tour break, it reflected the band’s “Brooklyn, Jamaica” live show energy.

Courtney Jr. said a new album is in the planning stages, and will be a more deliberate effort than the last one, a five day jam distilled into a record’s worth of songs. “We played everything like we used to back in the day, and got like 40 jams out of it,” he said of the band’s previous disc. “We kind of laid the ideas out, and just chopped it down.” Asked about the potential pitfalls of being a family band, Courtney Jr. laughed and called unity part of the common goal. “Every man is a lion, that’s a saying… but we try to understand each other,” he said. “That’s the thing; we’re a family, we’re gonna be together for our lives, so we gotta figure it out.”

New Kingston w/ Over the Bridge and Green Lion Crew

When: Sunday, August 11, 5 p.m. | Where: SurfSide,  25 Broadway, Salisbury | Tickets: $16 at ticketmaster.com ($20/door)

Bringing it all back

Jim Messina performs at Tupelo Music Hall

There’s not enough time in a Jim Messina concert for all the music he’s been part of, so selections from his early 60s surf band won’t be included when he plays Tupelo Music Hall on August 2. His show does include cuts from seminal folk rock band Buffalo Springfield, along with Poco, which doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves for helping create what’s now known as Americana. Messina also dips into his eponymous 1981 solo album, another overlooked gem.

Of course, fans can count on hearing “Angry Eyes,” “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” “My Music” and other hits from his time  with Kenny Loggins. Interestingly, the decade defining duo came together more out of professional necessity than musical kindredness, Messina explained in a recent phone interview.

Though it’s not obvious from the many Top 10 hits he’s played on, Messina began as a sound man who happened to play guitar and sing. In 1965, still in high school, he took a job at Ibis Records in Los Angeles. A few years later, an imploding Buffalo Springfield asked him to produce their final album. In a trend to be repeated with Loggins & Messina, he joined the group, replacing bassist Bruce Palmer when he was deported for drug possession.

Following the release of Last Time Around, he and Springfield  singer/guitarist Richie Furay formed Poco with pedal steel player Rusty Young, future Eagle Randy Meisner and drummer George Grantham. Messina lasted three albums, growing tired of hearing radio stations say either the band was too rock for country or too country for rock.

“Poco could sell out a show no matter where they went,” he said, but airplay and sales didn’t follow. “Those two areas are like part of a line going through New Mexico and Arizona to California… to make that journey, you have to cross through different environments.” The record company loved Poco, but couldn’t close the deal where it counted, on the air.

So Messina headed back to the studio, signing to do artist development and produce at Columbia Records. He turned down Dan Fogelberg as a client because he was too interested in recreating Poco’s sound. He chose instead the raw but clearly talented Loggins, who’d shown up to his first session with Messina with some great songs – and no guitar.

Undeterred, Messina grabbed a catgut six-string from his closet and handed it to him with a “show me what you got.” He  heard “House at Pooh Corner,” “Danny’s Song” and “Vahevala” in reply and decided he wanted to work with Loggins, but wasn’t sure how the green performer would fare once an album was done.

“Kenny was not yet a boss; he didn’t know how to set up rehearsals or give direction,” he said, adding promotion, label relations and tour logistics to the list. Further, as producer, Messina’s success was intertwined with Loggins. “I thought, who is going to do this for Kenny, and really for me? To get a hit record, I gotta know this band’s going to be performing and working, and everybody’s got the confidence that they need.”

He poured himself into the project, offering songs like “Peace of Mind” and “Same Old Wine” to help un-folk Loggins’ sound; gradually, a solo effort became a duo album, though Messina insisted to label head Clive Davis it was temporary.

“In order to make Kenny and his band work, someone has to be there to help direct it, and at first Clive did not want me doing that,” Messina recalled; Davis had experience with one and done groups. “I explained to him this isn’t a band that is going to break up, this is me sitting in with Kenny… just like Leon Russell did with Delaney & Bonnie.”

The album’s title – Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In – made this intention clear, he stressed to Davis. “I said my object is to get him out on the road performing, and help promote this album in a way so he can get consistent… and then I’m out of there.”

Happily, that’s not what happened.

Five more studio albums followed, and a pair of live discs, before the two parted in 1976. Reunion tours in the 2000s and a one-off benefit last year help keep the fire alive; Messina hints more shows could happen. Loggins’ health is an issue; a sore neck makes touring difficult. “When Kenny and I play together, it’s there… it all depends on Kenny,” Messina said, adding a pun and a laugh, “When the stars line up, all planets are somewhere away from Uranus; we’re okay.”

When: Friday, August 2, 8 p.m.

Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A Street, Derry

More: $45-$50 at tupelohall.com

This story appears in the 1 August 2019 edition of Hippo Press

Lucky guy

Chris Smither performs in Portsmouth

In the late 1970s, hard living nearly stopped Chris Smither cold. For 10 years, he didn’t perform, spending the hiatus, he said, “retreating into a whiskey bottle.” Fortunately, Smither survived and thrived. Now 74, he’s making some of his best music. Call Me Lucky, released in March 2018, finds him both reflective and cantankerous, with his pulsing fingerpicking guitar style right in the pocket.

“It all comes down to the sound of something longing to be,” he sings on one of the new collection’s best songs. Smither continues to write like his life depends on it, deftly addressing mortality on “By The Numbers” and raging about modern ennui with “Nobody Home,” a raucous complaint about technology, and the current state of politics.

Along with strong new originals, Call Me Lucky also contains a few well-chosen covers, including a faithful version of the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” born from a missing a John Lennon tribute concert in New York City due to heart surgery. “It’s always been the song that convinced me the Beatles were actually on to something,” Smither said by phone recently.  “I didn’t get really involved in them until Revolver came out; I would just play it over and over again. It was haunting.”

Smither finds sadness at the core of two more covers, the early blues standard “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” The latter is especially revelatory; who knew what a sad, desperate song it was? “I know!” Smither exclaimed, crediting longtime producer David Goodrich for suggesting it at a planning meeting for the new album a few months before Berry’s death in 2017.  

“He had turned 90 and just put out a new record,” Smither continued. “We’re wondering what on earth does Chuck Berry sound like at 90? Kind of laid back? Changed; depressed? Then Goody leans over to me and says, ‘hey, play ‘Maybelline’ and see if you can do it in a minor key.’ We sat around and played with it for about ten minutes. Then we just looked at each other and said, ‘oh, we gotta do this, this is amazing.’”

Smither’s first new effort in six years was also one of his most enjoyable projects. Done at Blue Rock Studio in Austin with a tight band including Goodrich, Billy Conway, Matt Lorenz and engineer Keith Gary (who also played piano), it stretched into a double album with B Side transformations of Smither originals. “Everything On Top” is startling, moving from a blues shuffle to a raver worthy of Alejandro Escovedo.

“That’s easily the most rocked out thing I’ve ever done,” Smither said. The retakes were done after hours, motivated by his producer’s desire to hip more artists to him. “Goody has this thing where he thinks nobody covers me enough.” Offers are rebuffed by claims that Smither’s guitar style can’t be imitated. “He keeps trying to tell them, ‘you don’t have to play the guitar, you can do these songs any way you want.’”

To prove the point, early in the sessions, the band laid down a wild musical track while Smither slept. “I walked in the next morning and it was playing through the speakers,” he recalled. “I said, ‘what the hell is that?’ and they said, ‘it’s ‘Everything On Top’ – see if you can sing it.’ It took me about two tries, and it was a lot of fun.”

Five more cuts got the late night treatment. “They’d just take one of the songs we had done that day and redo it, entirely differently,” Smither said. “I’d come in the next morning and they would dare me to sing it; the whole point of it was that on none of them was I playing the guitar.”

Through it all, Smither remains a steady troubadour, touring with more stamina that many artists half his age.

“I love the playing;  I don’t like the going as much as I used to,” he said. “The traveling… is a little bit daunting, but once I get out there, I’m fine. I did this tour in January of this year and it was about as busy as I care to be, Ireland and the UK, 19 shows in 22 days. But halfway through it, I’m starting to feel pretty strong. You get all honed up, and put one foot in front of the other; before you know it, you’re back home.”

When: Friday, August 2, 8 p.m.

Where: 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth

Tickets: $30 at eventbrite.com ($35/door)