Back Porch Boppin’

Signature Sounds, a label that launched Josh Ritter, Lori McKenna, Crooked Still, Tha Mammals and other great roots acts, is equally astute at presenting live music. This talent was on display over the four day Back Porch Festival, at multiple venues in and around Northampton.

Friday’s show at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke was a Mardi Gras themed party led by Zydeco royalty – CJ Chenier, son of Clifton Chenier, the first Zydeco artist to win a Grammy. The “Crown Prince of Zydeco” fronted his Red Hot Louisiana Band, playing familiar favorites like “My Toot Toot” and “Jambalaya” along with his own great material.

Chenier’s band spoon player Tony “Gumbo” Brown, whose kinetic energy kept the crowd jumping when Chenier wasn’t whipping it up (which didn’t happen often), rounded out by fiery guitar playing and a solid rhythm section.

A high point came when Chenier and his mates moved into the crowd for a song. Who knew a wireless squeezebox even existed? The Red Hot Louisiana Band lived up to its name, and kept the crowd dancing through its 90-minute set.

Vermont-based Green Mountain Playboys played a well-received opening set.

Signature label honcho Jim Olsen held forth throughout the night, serving up traditional New Orleans King Cake and awarding prizes for the costume contest. Grand prize was three-day passes to this year’s Green River Festival, which kicks off July 12. 

Royalty of the bluegrass variety was on display the following night, as the Earls of Leicester performed at the Academy of Music in downtown Northampton, playing only songs by legendary duo Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys. Dobro player without compare Jerry Douglas is the most famous name in the six-man band, but all are the best of the best.

The show was marked by humor and hot licks – more than a few metal bands could benefit if this bunch offered speed lessons. Douglas, Shawn Camp, Barry Bales, Johnny Warren, Charlie Cushman, and Jeff White roared through classics like “Salty Dog Blues,” “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and the hilarious “My Mother Prays So Loud In Her Sleep” while seamlessly trading leads. It was a master class in the genre.

Preceding the headliners were rising stars Twisted Pine, a Signature Sounds artist, and Asheville based Town Mountain, along with banjo player Danny Barnes. All were superb.

According to Olsen’s Facebook page, the festival – named for his weekly Back Porch radio show – included 22 sets of music and sold over 1,900 tickets. Pretty fine for a small town shindig. Can’t wait for next year, also the official 25thanniversary of Signature Sounds’ first release.

To be Rebecca Loebe

The title of Rebecca Loebe’s new album Give Up Your Ghosts is a mission statement for the singer-songwriter: nothing is impossible. Fearlessness is in her DNA, so it’s really a continuing idea. Loebe (pronounced low-bee) made it into Berklee Music College at 16 years old, landed on Season 1 of The Voice (she’s the only non-champion with a track on the show’s compilation album), and is indie as it gets; the latest release is part of her first-ever label deal.

This time around, courage paid artistic dividends. When asked to compose a couple of very specific songs for a television show, Loebe initially balked. “I was reading the email and thinking, ‘no, can’t do it, that’s not how I work,” she said from her home in Austin. “I’m inspired organically; I’m not just this monkey who can crank out a song.”

Spurred by a big potential payout, Loebe relented. Though neither song made the show, both became standouts on the new album. “Tattoo” is a lovely breakup ballad, while “Got Away” rocks with edgy danger. Writing them taught Loebe “a concrete lesson about self-limiting beliefs; what is actually true, or what is me being afraid that I can’t do something, and therefore telling myself it’s impossible.”

Loebe’s previous four albums were arduous and time consuming to create. The new one, however, came in a creative burst that lasted only a few months. “It was just wild, I never experienced anything like it before,” she said. “Rather than write for the art of crafting songs over a several year period and choosing the ones that feel the strongest, it was a process of expressing what was currently happening, currently on my mind, my heart … it felt very cohesive and timely, right now.”

She’s something of a reluctant songwriter and performer. Although she’d established a reputation in her hometown of Atlanta before setting out for Boston, Loebe shied away from performing at Berklee. She majored in sound engineering, and took a job at a studio upon graduation.

“The average age of a freshman at Berklee when I was there was 25,” she explained of her reticence to perform. “I felt like basically still a high school kid who sneaked in off the street. So overwhelmed by the talent around me, and a little intimated.”

Focusing on production turned out to be a good choice. “If I had been trying to divide my attention between performance and engineering, I wouldn’t have gotten as far in either,” she said. “It also gave me a way to participate in the school, to be a member of the community and the ecosystem there by helping other students, by having something to offer that wasn’t musical but I was comfortable with.”

Fortunately, an instructor coaxed Loebe into finishing the many songs “secretly” written at Berklee in her spare studio time, so the world wasn’t deprived of her talent. She got back into her performing groove and by 2009 she’d won the New Folk prize at the 2009 Kerrville Folk Festival. Having established herself as a songwriter, her singing led to a spot with Team Adam on The Voice two years later.

On Give Up Your Ghosts, Loebe hits many lyrical highs, looking at social anxiety with the inspirational “Popular,” riffing on fame with “Everything Changes,” sounding soulful and scrappy on “Growing Up” and, on the title song, casting off demons that are “never holding you as close as you are holding them.” It’s solid effort from start to finish.

The new disc builds on success achieved last year with Nobody’s Girl, a supergroup including Loebe, Betty Soo and Grace Pettis. The trio began as a three-headliner package tour, but grew bigger. “Something magical happened in the planning phases,” Loebe said. “We got together to try writing one song, for a show finale. At the end of the writing retreat… they offered us a record deal as a band. We hadn’t even played a gig together yet.”

This originally appeared in the 21 February 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene

BOX ME

Rebecca Loebe w/ BettySoo

When: Thursday, Feb. 21, 8 p.m.

Where: Windham Ballroom, 36 The Square, Bellows Falls, VT

Tickets: $15 at popolomeanspeople.com

Talking with John Lodge of the Moody Blues

This originally appeared in Hippo Press, 7 February 2019

Although he wasn’t an original member of the Moody Blues, John Lodge holds founder’s stock in the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers. As a teenager, he was in band that included Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder, but he declined an invite to enjoy the edition of the Moodies that scored a hit with “Go Now” so he could finish college.

Lodge came on board along with Justin Hayward in 1966 and helped create Days of Future Passed, an album that changed   music’s landscape upon its release a year later. He’s remained with the band ever since; when the the group’s not touring, Lodge plays solo. His latest release is Live from Birmingham: The 10,000 Light Years Tour.

Lodge performs at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry on Feb. 13. He talked via Skype from Barbados.

How did it feel to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

It’s a great honor. You know, rock and roll came from America and it was sent to England – to be honest, we repackaged it and sent it back … for me to be honored and stand tall next to my heroes, my icons – Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Little Richard – when I was 12 or 13 looking at them on stage in Britain and thinking, “how on earth can I be part of that?” Buddy Holly came along and showed me and lot of other English people how to become musicians, how to write songs and perform. You didn’t have to be this huge larger than life icon.

Your 2017 live album marks many high points of your career. Is your current show similar to it?

Well it is in a way, and it isn’t – I’ve just expanded it a bit further … there are songs that I’ve never played with the Moody Blues like “Candle of Life” and “Saved By The Music.” I think the show’s got a lot of energy, incredible energy. It’s got keyboards, guitar, but I’ve got a cellist in there. I love cello, it’s an integral part of my sound. Songs like “Isn’t Life Stange” feature cello. Also on this tour – Ray Thomas and I were great friends; I met Ray when I was 14, and we’d been working together ever since. Unfortunately Ray passed away… I wanted to keep his music alive, so I’m doing “Legend of a Mind” on stage in tribute to Ray; I’m also doing a song of Mike Pinder’s. I think it’s really important, because they’re not playing those songs anymore – the Moody Blues will never play them.

“Saved by the Music” was on your duo album with Justin Hayward, Blue Jays. Will there ever be a follow up to that?

I’m not too sure. All these things you have to have someone who really believes in you to do these things. It’s never just been the artist writing the songs. You have to have a record company that really wants to be with you. We were very fortunate coming up in the years we did by the music men that were part of our lives, people like Sir Edward Lewis and Walt Maguire and Davey Braun and Jerry Weintraub. We had music people who loved what we did and they would be first in line to come and listen to any new songs we made. So if you could replicate that, perhaps we could do something.

What are your memories of joining the Moody Blues after Denny Laine left?

Ray rang me one day and said – he always called me Rocker – he said, “hey, Rocker, have you finished college yet?” I said, “why?” and he said, “Denny’s left, and I’d like it if you came and joined again – let’s get the old band back together.” So when I turned up it was like going back to see my friends again and playing music together, which we’d done before for so long. So it progressed from there… one of the things I didn’t want to do was be in blue suits and perform songs written by other people because I’d done that for five years before. I’d started songwriting and I wanted to perform my own songs.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nod came 50 years after Days of Future Passed was released. How did it come to be?

Decca Records… also built music consoles [and] wanted to make this stereo record to go along with their record players so it could show you how great having two speakers would be. So they came up with this idea of trying to put a pop band and orchestral music together. They wanted to use Dvorak’s Symphony and they asked us if we were interested, because we were signed to them. We had a meeting and talked about Dvorak and then we met Peter Knight. He came along to see us at a concert [and] he said it would be better if we recorded our own songs… we said to [Decca founder] Edward Lewis, “can we have a studio 24 hours a day for a week?” He said yes, and we went into the studio and didn’t allow anyone in there but us. At the end of the week we had a playback for the executives of the record company and all our friends and girlfriends… the record company didn’t know quite what they got or what to do with it, because it wasn’t the sampler type of record that they thought they were getting. But there were two people there – one was Hugh Mendel, who was the head of classical music at Decca Records, and an American guy, Walt Maguire from London Records in New York. They understood what we were trying to do. They became our mentors, really, and kept telling everyone else, “yep, this is it, this is so different” – and then the rest is history, I suppose.

The Moody Blues’ John Lodge

When: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 8 p.m.

Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A St., DerryTickets: $55-$60 at tupelohall.com

Border Song

Alejandro Escovedo brings vital new album to Portsmouth

This story appeared in the 24 January 2019 edition of Hippo Press

When he toured Europe in 2017, Alejandro Escovedo needed a local band. He chose Don Antonio, an all-Italian septet led by guitarist Antonio Gramentieri. The assembled group played 35 shows in 40 days, across 10 countries, and Escovedo called the trip “triumphant.”

The final dates happened on the southern tip of Italy, a place that recalled Escovedo’s Texas roots. “The food was spicier, a lot of it reminded me of Mexican food, the dialect is different and it seemed very economically challenged down there,” he said by phone from a North Carolina tour stop. “They also have a lot of immigrants, coming from Africa.”

That correlation was the spark for a project that resulted in one of last year’s most powerful albums. Made jointly with Don Antonio in the band’s hometown, Escovedo’s 13th album The Crossing explores the immigrant experience through the eyes of two young men; one Mexican, the other Italian. They love punk rock and the idea of America; the latter will come to tragically disappoint them.

It’s an unflinching portrait of the present national moment. The record opens ominously with a tableau of migrants fleeing drug wars and poverty, often colliding with something worse. “There’s danger in the air,” Escovedo sings. “These men who hunt us know nothing of our lives, so please step lightly.”

There are moments of joy, too. “Outlaw for You” and “Sonica USA” are two songs that name check a long list of Escovedo’s heroes, from Johnny Thunders to seminal Mexican-American rockers Thee Midniters. “I wanted the boys to have this aesthetic like when I was growing up and loving these bands,” Escovedo said. “They don’t want arena rock, what they want is the real thing in sweaty clubs and stuff, and all those bands were part of that for me growing up.”

Adding to the punch are guest appearances on the record by The Stooges’ James Williamson, Wayne Kramer of MC5 and other punk heroes. “Wayne is on fire, he’s so great right now,” Escovedo said. “His guitar playing is just masterful and he’s such a great guy; he’s got such positive energy and he’s an activist… the MC5 are a great example of bands that put everything they believe in on the line.”

Prior to recording, Escovedo and Gramentieri traveled through Southern Texas, talking to immigrants and learning their experiences. “It’s through those stories that we began to see what it was really like to be a DREAMer in this time,” he said. The tale that frames “Texas is My Mother” came from young man who paid a hard cost to complete his journey. “He carried his sister across the river… his aunt was behind them, and did not make it.”

Some tracks are personal, like the spoken word “Rio Navidad,” an angry recollection of a racist encounter at a wedding in the 1980s. Escovedo said his songwriting flowed easier because of where The Crossing was produced. “There’s something liberating about making this record in Italy that allowed me to really kind of just say things that I hadn’t said previously, in a way that was a lot more direct and … I guess edgy might be a word for it. It’s not filtered in any way.”

Playing the first dates of The Crossing tour last fall, Escovedo often cribbed from a lyric book while on stage, but that’s changed. “I think at this point it’s definitely hitting our stride and it sounds better than it ever has,” he said, adding “I remember Townes Van Zandt said it took him like a year to really learn the songs that he wrote… it sometimes can be very a emotional release when you finish a record.”

The cross cultural connection of Escovedo and Don Antonio is both brilliant in its result and a rare occurence. “How often do you have a guy from Texas going to Italy to make a record with an all Italian band in an Italian studio and then coming back and presenting it not just as a record, but a statement on the condition of the country as it is now?” Escovedo said. “It’s not something that happens very often. I encourage everyone to come, because I think you come away with not just having seen a rock concert.”

Laugh in the New Year

Six comics help Portsmouth welcome 2019

When comedian Steve Scarfo booked his first New Year’s Eve event in Portsmouth, he was doing what he’d always done. He’d gotten into stand-up in the mid-90s, and was promoting within a few years. “When you start out, you’re really just chasing spots, chasing time,” Scarfo recalled recently. “So we said, ‘why wait around? Let’s do our own shows.’”

So that first First Night, it was Scarfo and few pals; but from those humble beginnings a tradition was born. 2018 marks the 10th anniverary of the Live Free or Die Laughing event, and the stars have aligned to make it memorable. Five comics, led by Jimmy Dunn, will ring out the year with jokes and smiles.

Getting Dunn, who lives in nearby Hampton Beach, is a big deal. A veteran of the Boston comedy scene, he’s known for his role on the CBS sitcom The McCarthys, Red Sox commercials and Comedy Central specials. “I can’t say enough good things about him,” Scarfo enthused. “It makes it a little more special for the 10th anniversary, having someone who’s a local celebrity.”

Feature comic Abhishek Shah, who appeared on NPR’s storytelling series The Moth and is a regular at Laugh Boston and Giggles, precedes Dunn. Also featuring is Mike Whitman, a 10-year comedy veteran who’s been on Fox’s Laughs and headlined The Stone Church in Newmarket last month. Ryan Gartley, who was goaded into comedy by his friends on a Portsmouth booze cruise in 1999, and newcomer Mark Moccia round out the lineup.

Though there are two shows scheduled, but the early one is already sold out. Tickets are still available for the late show at 10:30; $38 admission includes a champagne toast at midnight and party favors. As in each past year, Scarfo will host.

Scarfo got into standup after going to grad school in Virgnia. “A friend of mine said he was going to try it,” he said. “Up to that point I didn’t even know it was something you could do. I always loved comedy; I grew up listening to Bill Cosby. I don’t know if that’s in vogue to say, but his bits were the first thing I memorized. Then came Steven Wright and Robin Williams in high school.”

For his first time out, Scarfo worked up a tight five minutes. He went to the Comedy Vault in Boston – “I brought 30 of my friends to see me, which is kind of crazy in itself” – and killed. Added to this first time fortune was a Boston Globe writer in the audience who was doing a story on new comics. He ended up featuring Scarfo as one of the night’s funniest.

“It was pretty cool but it was also, as the old cliché goes, a blessing and a curse,” he said. “Looking back, I can’t believe I had such a good set on my first time out, but it was also what hooked me. The adrenaline rush of coming on stage and people actually laughing and enjoying it, it’s like the best drug on the planet that you don’t have to pay for.”

Unlike a lot of other comics, the married father of two performs close to home. “I looked around at the guys who were doing comedy, and the full time comics were doing all road work,” he said. “Being in a hotel room, on the road and away from your family wasn’t the life I wanted to have.”

He opened a club in Kittery, Maine that lasted a couple of years. “When that ended up not working out, there was a moment in time where I almost moved to California, but I chose not to do that, or do road trips” he said. “I never even pursued working on cruise ships, though I think it would be a lot of fun… I definitely respect the guys that do it, because not only are they pursuing their dream, there’s personal sacrifice too.”

Live Free or Die Laughing 10th Annual New Year’s Eve Comedy Show

When: Monday, Dec. 31, 10:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. show is sold out)

Where: Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel, 250 Market St., Portsmouth

Tickets: $38 at LiveFreeOrDieLaughing.com

Starring Jimmy Dunn, Steve Scarfo, Abhishek Shah, Mike Whitman, Ryan Gartley and Mark Moccia

This story appeared in the 19 December 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene

Finding Ben Orr

“Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars is unique in a genre where tawdriness and tell-all are common.”

NH writer publishes bio of late Cars bassist

Once upon a middle school Christmas, Joe Milliken asked his dad for a Cars album. He became a fan first via the pages of Creem, Trouser Press and other rock magazines, later as the band became ubiquitous on late 1970s radio.

Born in Boston and raised primarily in North Walpole, New Hampshire, Milliken grew up to be a writer. He freelanced for the record collector magazine Goldmine and other publications, and runs a web site calle Standing Room Only. Recently, he published his first book, about the band that made such an impact on him as a youngster.

Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars is unique in a genre where tawdriness and tell-all are common. Instead of focusing on rock stardom and its trappings, it tries to learn how a young Benjamin Orzechowski – “Benny Eleven Letters” to friends – grew up to be Ben Orr; Cars bassist, singer and general hearthrob, as well as the first Cleveland native inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

It took 11 years for Milliken to complete Let’s Go!, primarily due to a fact he learned early on – Orr was a very private person out of the spotlight. On top of that, he’d passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000. “It’s not like I had a chance to talk to him myself and draw insights,” Milliken said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t have that luxury.”

Many of the people he interviewed were reluctant. “My biggest challenge was as much as they liked what I was doing and thought it was a cool thing, they were also very apprehesive. They’d say to me, ‘Joe, I’m sure you’re a nice guy and your intentions are good, but … I’m a little hesitant to talk to somebody I don’t even know about this man’s life.”

One by one, he won them over, from grade school pals to members of the house band Orr performed with in the early 60s on Cleveland’s version of American Bandstand. Milliken spoke to a huge swath of the Cars’ orbit, though Orr’s bandmates Ric Ocasek and Elliot Easton declined interviews, as did producer Roy Thomas Baker and Maxanne Sartori, a Boston DJ who was key in launching their career.

Milliken did manage to talk with Orr’s two ex-wives, a long term girlfriend, the mother of his son, and the partner at the end of his life, who later managed his estate. “I’m pretty proud to say that all the significant women in his life in the end trusted me enough to participate in the book,” he said. “That really meant a lot.”

The interviews draw a portrait of a young man driven to play music from an early age, first on drums and later guitar. Anyone who’s ever wondered about the journey from musical aspirant to rock star will find many clues in Milliken’s book. It also contains a wide range of photos, from baby pictures to his final appearance with The Cars before his death in 2000.

“A lot of people have asked if I’ll follow up with a book of just photos,” Milliken said at a hometown book launch in October, adding that more than a few women readers who followed his progress on Facebook were a bit crestfallen that Let’s Go! contained more words than images. “I ended up with hundreds of pictures from Ben’s friends.”

His timing is fortuitous. Published by Rowan & Littlefield, it arrives during the holiday gift giving season in the year The Cars were inducted into the Rock Hall. In the spring, Milliken traveled to the ceremony as a menber of the media, and a guest on television and radio stations.

As a native New Englander who grew up admiring one of the region’s most successful bands, it was a dream come true.

“Here I am at media day before the ceremony. I’ve never been to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even Cleveland, and I’m there doing a TV interview,” he said. “It was surreal; I’m a little local guy, being able to participate in all that. Every once in a while I had to pinch myself – am I really doing this?”

Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars
Author: Joe Milliken
Price: $34 hardcover, $29 e-book
More: standing-room-only.info

This story originally appeared in The Hippo, 6 December 2018

Join the band

Danielle M & the Glory Junkies put it all together

Appeared originally in Seacoast Scene, 20 September 2018

Playing alone, Danielle Miraglia is a dynamo; all stomp, holler and fiery slide guitar; with a voice like Janis Joplin’s – if the late singer had mixed honeyed tea with her Southern Comfort. Miraglia has built a solid living as a solo performer, leaning toward the blues and earthy folk with a probing world view.

But growing up in Revere, Mass., she’d locked onto J. Geils Band and The Cars; the first album she bought was the Stones’ Tattoo You. Someday, Miraglia was bound to be in a band.

So a few years ago, with the help of husband and fellow musician Tom Bianchi, she enlisted violist and longtime duo partner Laurence Scudder, guitarist Erik White, drummer Chris Anzalone and bass player Jim Larkin. Borrowing the title of her then-current solo album for the band’s name, she unleashed Danielle Miraglia & the Glory Junkies on the world.

The five meshed immediately. “We have this chemistry because everybody is in a band with someone else,” Miraglia said in a recent phone interview. Scudder, White and Larkin are in Spotted Tiger; Anzalone is ubiquitous around Boston, along with a steady gig playing in Roomful of Blues. “I just love these guys, enjoy their company, they’re my friends for a long time, so it’s a no brainer. It’s my favorite thing to do right now.”

Towards the end of last year, the group released its debut album, All My Heroes Are Ghosts. Recorded live in the studio, it’s badass to the bone, blending crunchy power chords, rootsy harmonies, Americana shuffle, swampy blues and straight up rock and roll.

Highlights include the churning rockers “Everybody’s Wrong” and “All on Fire,” both songs lamenting the modern world, and the whimsical “Aim Low.” The latter questions the notion of hard work as its own reward – “don’t set the bar too high” is its refrain – or whether it’s worth it to try hard at all. “I was probably feeling lousy about where I was in life … it was a quick write,” Miraglia said. “I stand behind everything, though.

The title cut is a tribute to the many musical greats lost in recent years, leaving “smoothed out edges” and “a pile of dusty records.” It came to Miraglia shortly after Tom Petty’s death, and it name checks her biggest hero. “Prince is gone, you can burn the stage, he’s the only one they’ll ever make,” she sings, while proclaiming to remain a “grown woman with a child in her heart, reaching anywhere and everywhere to find that spark.”

“Rock Star” is a charming love song dating back to her earliest days with Bianchi; they’ve been together 15 years, married for seven. One line, “you look at me like you understand/you’ve been right in my shoes,” hits at why their union is the only possible dynamic for Miraglia.

“It’s probably easier for a man to be married to a woman who’s not a musician than the other way around,” she said, adding it takes a person “at least in the arts to understand why I’m driving to Pennsylvania to play an hour gig … what the point is for that.”

Miraglia spoke those sentiments as she prepared to play a set in Hershey’s Chocolate Town Square, after a showcase in Stroudsburg, but constant touring isn’t her ideal. “I have a lot of little projects [and] I love to be home doing that stuff, like giving lessons,” she said. “It helps me not have to take a crap gig I don’t want. I know people who are willing to live on the road and I have so much respect for that, but a lot of us want a balance. … having many irons in the fire makes it easier.”

Like most performers, she uses crowdsourcing sites to rally her fans. Lately, Miraglia launched a Patreon page. “I’m still figuring out how it all works,” she said. “I like the idea of putting exclusive stuff and covers that I wouldn’t want to post for the world … it will grow as it goes along. So far all the people on there are generally good supporters. They’re willing to be patient with me while I figure out what I’m putting up there, and why.”

More: http://www.thegloryjunkies.com