Don’t Dixie Chick Me – Local Rhythms

This appeared in the Claremont Eagle Times, April 27, with a slightly different headline.

Performers should keep their politics to themselves – so says Arnold Schwarzenegger, or was it Ronald Reagan? Actually, it might have been Ron Silver describing his response to a Toby Keith/Ted Nugent concert.

Seriously, it’s hard to imagine the musical world without an opinion about world events. Remember that country singer who, right around the start of the Iraq war, torched a controversy by criticizing it? Recently, that same artist released a song and video, which unapologetically revisited those issues.

Really, Merle Haggard should learn his place. Not only that, the song, “Let’s Rebuild America First,” sounds a lot like his current touring mate Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.”

The next songwriter in the crosshairs of the “shut up and sing” crowd will likely be Neil Young, whose new record, “Living With War,” begins streaming on his website tomorrow. The album, with songs like “Let’s Impeach the President,” should get a certain element’s blood boiling.

Neil Young isn’t an easy target, though. The author of “Ohio” also made “Let’s Roll,” a tribute to the heroes of United Flight 93, in the wake of 9/11. That’s bound to confuse the zealots over in Amen Corner.

Those jingoistic cries are strangely faint these days, however. Given the number of claims, dismissed as stupid three years ago, that turned out to be true, their absence of bluster isn’t exactly shocking.

If Clear Channel blackballs the Dixie Chicks’ new record (admit it, you thought it was them, not Haggard, who I was talking about earlier), they’ll do it quietly, with little fanfare. The Chicks’ song about their 2003 media gang rape in the wake of lead singer Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush remarks to an English audience is an emerging hit. “Not Ready to Make Nice,” with over 2,000 fan reviews, has a four star rating on iTunes.

It’s hard out there for a Prez – but that’s not my point.

It bothers me that artists on one side of the political spectrum face resentment when they refuse to surrender their First Amendment rights. What’s worse, their detractors see no contradiction in drafting quarterbacks, second-rate actors and trust fund babies as candidates to actually run the country.


What’s great about rock and roll is also what’s great about America – anyone can step up to the microphone and sing whatever moves them. We’re free to listen or look away.

Here are a few worth listening to:

Thursday: Colin McCaffrey, Canoe Club – With an exceptionally soothing voice and an easy songwriting style, it’s a mystery why McCaffrey hasn’t broken out to a bigger audience. His 2003 release, “Make Your Way Home,” is a roots bluegrass gem. Canoe Club recently announced some menu fine tuning, so if you haven’t been in a while, here’s your excuse.

Friday: Stonewall, Royal Flush – The new home for rock in Springfield has moved from four band Sundays to two band Fridays or Saturdays. My favorite power trio has had a lot of success there. They haven’t made a record yet, so the only want to appreciate their music is live. It’s also the best way, as it turns out. Look for Stonewall in Claremont early June.

Saturday: Punk Rock Show, Canaan Speedway – This is a 3-band show led by Jonee Earthquake Band from Manchester, who remind me of the Buzzcocks or the Damned – full frontal fun. The Rosens and Redlight America, both from the local area, round out the show. It’s a benefit for both the Upper Valley Haven and the Mascoma High Class of 2008.

Sunday: Damone, Webster Underground – I wish this band was playing closer than Hartford, but I have to recommend them anyway. If you miss the chance to see Damone in a gritty club, you’ll be sorry. This is one of the punchiest rock bands to come around in a long time, a Boston-based powerhouse that sounds like Suzi Quattro, AC/DC and the Cars thrown in a blender.

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt Hill – Dave Loney and friends continue this weekly tradition. If you haven’t experienced it, makes plans for an early dinner and pint. The music is always a surprise – there’s no telling who will join Dave to play, or what exactly will result. That’s the best part.

Finally: Fans of comedy should check out Hullabaloo in Claremont tomorrow for some good stand-up. Also Friday, Ingrid’s Ruse plays at the Windham. Reports of the Windham’s imminent demise are premature, according to Fort Apache’s Gary Smith. The Bellows Falls establishment will have shows at least through June, maybe even July, he says. With the likely sale of the Windham Hotel property, however, music lovers should make a point of enjoying a performance there while they can. Sadly, it’s just a matter of time before one of the area’s premiere venues closes for good.

by Michael Witthaus

Tia’s Time – Tia McGraff Opera House Preview

Appeared in Claremont Eagle Times, April 27, with different headline:

The next month is a lively one for the Claremont Opera House, beginning with the “Magic of Lyn” this weekend, and ending with a raucous night from the North Shore Comedy troupe May 20.    There’s also a real buzz of anticipation for Tia McGraff, the Canadian singer/songwriter appearing Saturday, May 6.  

The performer, who cites Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell as her influences, plays with producer/guitarist Tommy Parham.  Jon Michaels, another country-flavored singer, will open the show, and join Tia and Tommy during their set.

Tia McGraff’s sound straddles the line between traditional country, pop and the roots rock of singers like Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow.  That’s fitting given her history, the past several years of which have been spent on a sort of musical Acadian trail.

“When I started it was in country music,” she says.  “I entered a contest, and won.  But I didn’t want to be a country singer, so I recorded a rock album.”    That record, “Small Town Life,” won awards in Europe, and received plenty of airplay in Canada … on country outlets.

“That was funny, because it opened doors for me in Nashville,” she says, where she moved to work primarily at songwriting in 1999.   There, her success blossomed.  In 2000, she released the well-received “Jewel’s Café,” which took its’ cues from crossover successes like Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill.   The following year, she was featured prominently on “One Less Tear,” a cancer awareness project organized by several Nashville artists, sports and movie celebrities.  Tia wrote two songs for that record, including the title cut.

With 2005’s “Outside the Circle,” McGraff moved towards a more organic musical style, something she plans to embrace wholeheartedly with her next record, due in 2007.    “Love Lies Bleeding,” bursts with moaning fiddles, and the storytelling of “Life Lines” has the stripped-down honesty heard in the best Americana.

Her musical evolution helped build an overseas audience, with the help of “Whispering” Bob Harris, the legendary BBC announcer who hosted the “Old Grey Whistle Test” on British television in the 70’s.  She and Tommy made two trips to the U.K. last year.  “We met Bob on one of those tours,” she says  “He listened to my CD, and in November we taped a BBC show for him.  Emmylou Harris was on the week before.”

In mid-April, they went back to do a brief series of shows, and attended Harris’s 60th birthday, along with rock luminaries like Robert Plant and Thea Gilmore.

From the start, Tia’s taken a very hands-on approach to her career.  She’s made all her music on Bandana Records, the independent company she began with her first release in 1994.  

“ I’ve never been a major label girl anyway,” she says of her DIY style.  When she started Bandana, it was a bit anachronistic.  “Now, it’s the cool and hip thing to do.  People in Nashville call me and ask how did you do this and how have you done it so quickly?”

It’s hard work, though. “I’m at the computer most of the day, writing at night, and then performing, booking gigs, and everything.”

Lately, she’s given thoughts to moving her base back to her native Port Dover, Ontario.  Fellow musician Fred Eaglesmith, known to area fans for his “Roots on the River” weekends, traveled that path himself.  He and McGraff have been friends for several years (though they haven’t collaborated musically).

When they first met and talked about the business, she says, Eaglesmith steered her towards home.  “I asked him what he was doing,” she explains, “and he told me, ‘when I moved back here, and started running my whole camp out of Port Dover, that’s when it all started happening.’  He says you need to get your head out of the Nashville cog.”

“He’s been steered away from the co-writing thing that Nashville likes,” she says.  “He’s focused on writing for himself, and not Music Row.”

With so much great roots music emanating from the North, it begs the question — why is such a wealth of Americana found in the Northern woods of Canada?

Though it’s a bit colder, the same bucolic life that moves writers in the American South speaks to Canadians, says Tia. “The smaller towns, countryside – you grow up writing about your experiences there.  It’s so geographically beautiful that we tend to be inspired by that.  For me it was growing up on Lake Erie.”

Asked what Claremont Opera House patrons should expect from her performance next weekend, she says it’s “very honest, song-oriented.  I like stories and feel-good songs.  I like to share with the audience and have them leave feeling better.”

When she was in England last year, a fan came up to her after a performance.  “I don’t quite know how to say this,” he told her,  “but your music brought my soul peace.”

by Michael Witthaus

The Last Petty Show?

Renowned filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich recently announced plans to film Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as they tour the country; the kick off date for the "Highway Companion" summer run is June 9 in Charlotte, NC.

"I'm not an expert on Tom Petty, I'm just a fan," the 66-year-old director said. "But what appeals to me is that he's a real American artist – an impressionist – very much of the American grain."

Petty recently stated his intentions/inclinations to leave the road, so this is likely a piece of that plan. I admire him immensely, not just for his music, but for being one of a very small group of well-known musicians to call the industry out for their greed, homogenization, and gradual marginalization of the working class fan.

Granted, tickets for the "Last DJ" tour a few years back hovered at around 50 dollars, and most people can only afford one or two big shows like that a season. But the low end tickets for this tour start at 30 bucks, and the co-headliner shows with Pearl Jam range from 45 to 75 at the high end. Not a bargain, really, but it's certainly not the vulgar moneygrubbing of Madonna and the Stones.

Note to folks in the region – there's a Tweeter Center show in June with Trey Anastascio, but fans may want to wait until August. The Hartford and SPAC dates include the Allman Brothers Band.