Local Rhythms – Odds and Ends

Shows!

I get giddy when announcements for the summer music season begin to hit.  Two local opera houses have once again ordered up some fine talent for their “pre-season” shows.  In Claremont, a musical pioneer in both rock and country, Leon Russell, performs August 6.  Famous for songs like “Tightrope” and “Out in the Woods,” he also made a mark with his alter ego Hank Wilson, performing down-home material with the likes of Willie Nelson and the New Grass Revival.

Cape Breton fiddle master and mad clogger Natalie MacMaster returns to Lebanon Opera House July 29 to once again whip the locals into a frenzy.  MacMaster, a road warrior like no other, has a new CD due and plans for more regional shows (teaming with gonzo banjo man Bela Fleck, no less) around New England later in the summer.

TV Tunings

Americana fans like myself should welcome the latest change on the cable dial.  VH1 Country, a video channel that’s lost a lot of its bite lately, is gone, replaced by CMT Pure, a more adventurous all-clip channel.  “Wide Open Country,” a two hour spotlight show that airs in the morning and evening, leaves aside the black hat/white t-shirt clichés, serving up a healthy helping of Alison Krause, Rodney Crowell, Pat Green and other great rebel yellers.  There are also exclusive live videos from the CMT-produced “Studio 333” show.

Watch the members of Nickel Creek wander into a Nashville guitar shop and hook up with Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo for a bang up version of “Smoothie Song,” one of the best bluegrass instrumentals of the last 10 years.  That’s melting pot America, and it’s on TV (Adelphia channel 143).

Windham Winds Down

The final shows at the Windham in downtown Bellows Falls were recently announced, with this admonition from proprietor Gary Smith: “Something better will happen after this, I promise.  Why would we close?  Because it’s time for something new.”

On June 9, two artists from Thursday’s Fredfest New Faces opener, Sam Baker and Anäis Mitchell, join Mike Plume (who also has a Saturday main stage set). Local rockers Mr. Burns play June 15, and the gypsy jazz group Ameranouche set up June 22.  The final weekend happens June 30-July 1, with talent to be announced.

As for the here and now:

Thursday: Jeffrey Foucault, Iron Horse – The Wisconsin troubadour just released “Ghost Repeater,” with a fuller band sound, thanks to the help of guitarist/producer Bo Ramsey.  This is Foucault’s only area appearance until early August, when he joins a great lineup including Rosanne Cash, David Gray and Madeline Peyroux at the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival (Rhode Island, not New Hampshire).

Friday: Stone Cold Roosters, Middle Earth – OK, they’re not Cream, or even the Thorns, but this loose amalgamation is a supergroup in my eyes.  They’re musician fans of American roots artists diverse as George Jones and Creedence, led by songwriter Colin McCaffrey (who stops by solo at Claremont’s Sophie & Zeke’s June 16).  The band includes Northern Spy fiddler Thal Aylward and Dr. Burma’s Ted Mortimer.  Mortimer’s talented bride Linda Boudreault sometimes joins the fun.

Saturday: Stonewall, Claremont Knights Hall – Against all odds, they’re still Stonewall.  In fact, I think that’s a great name for them – “Still Stonewall” – don’t you?  Tonight’s show is hosted by Rock 93.9’s Steve Smith, and includes DJ Matt Cross’s band.  DJ Stax and Broken Mindz also perform.   Stonewall leader Josh Parker tells me that the band will head to the studio in the coming months.  I’m looking forward to that.

Sunday: Jazz Brunch, Courthouse – Young improvisational jazz pianist David DiLorenzo entertains diners at this downtown Newport landmark.  An upscale menu, including goodies from North Country Smokehouse, and cool blue music – it doesn’t get more sophisticated than that.  This is a regular weekend affair, and a welcome new addition to the regional music scene.

Tuesday: Jim McNeely & the Discover Jazz Festival Big Band, FlynnSpace – The downtown Burlington Discover Jazz Festival gets better every year.  Tonight, pianist and composer McNeely, who’s helmed tributes to everyone from Frank Zappa to Miles Davis, is himself in the spotlight.  The BDJFBB, under the direction of UVM Professor Alex Stewart, includes many long-familiar faces from the Vermont jazz scene, along with new, fresh up-and-comers.

Wednesday: Jeremiah McLane, Canoe Club – Music lover and Canoe Club owner John Chapin personally recommended this, something I don’t take lightly in that he presents 362 nights of music a year.  This is a CD release party for McLane’s “Freetown” project, a tribute to African music.  Chapin cites McLane as “a good example of why you should not go into the music business.”  In other words, he does it for love, not money, playing a diverse collection of roots music, from Celtic to Cajun to African.

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James McMurtry’s Plain Talking

James McMurtry’s songs sketch the lives of characters at the fringes of America. With caustic wit and devastating poetic economy, he measures the distance between the gated communities, and the dead-end dives with “drains in the floor.”

On his latest studio album “Childish Things,” the Texas singer-songwriter turned away from metaphorical storytelling with the blunt “We Can’t Make It Here,” one of the greatest protest songs in a generation.

On June 10, McMurtry returns to Vermont for the annual Roots on the River Festival. He and his band, the Heartless Bastards, play a set right before headliner Fred Eaglesmith.
Last Memorial Day, as he washed clothes in an Austin, Texas Laundromat and prepared to head out on tour, McMurtry talked about the record, his musical influences and songwriting style, and his thoughts on music’s role in the world.

Was there a backlash for “We Can’t Make It Here?”

Oh, instantly. I took it down to KGSR, because I knew the morning DJ would let me walk in and spin whatever. I had nasty emails on the web site before I got home from the radio station. We posted all the opinions – we had a whole forum going for a while there.

What was the consensus?

I got a lot more positive response than negative. There was one guy at a show in San Antonio actually gave me a thumbs down when I mentioned Cindy Sheehan and Camp Casey. He didn’t realize that he was surrounded by a bunch from Veterans for Peace. They’re the ones who actually ran that camp. One thing that the press missed about the whole deal is that most of the people who marched down that road with her were veterans.

Where do your songs come from?

I hear a couple of lines in my head, a melody and maybe it grows into a verse. There comes a point where I have to think, who’s telling this story? That’s where the character comes from.

How often is that character you?

Almost never – you could say they’re all part of me since I made them up, but they don’t necessarily express my opinion. It gets kind of tricky. There’s a song (“Twelve O’clock Whistle”) with a reference to “Niggertown.” That one is kind of autobiographical since it’s a phrase that came from my grandmother’s mouth. If I could have used a different word and made it work in a song I would have. But I couldn’t, and I never dreamed some idiot would put it on the radio. It’s sung in my voice, so they’re basically mad at me.

It’s a song about poison of various sorts, and part of the poison in the white world is we have grandmothers who think it’s OK to say “nigger” in front of kids. That’s how we make our racists, but you’re not gonna get that form hearing the song once, and you’re definitely not going to get it by hearing it in rush hour on a bad day.

Were you always a songwriter?

I tried to write prose, but it’s a chore for me. My mother taught me to play guitar. I started writing songs about ten years after. I had to write a bit of prose in school growing up, every now and then I spit out a page or two … I listened to a lot of songs, but I didn’t read a lot of books.

What songwriters attracted you?

I listened to Johnny Cash, when I was a young child, at some point someone turned me on to Kris Kristofferson and that’s the first one I recognized as a songwriter. He had that Rhodes scholar verse craft.

Does music have the power to change things, move them forward?

No, songwriters just illuminate. “We Can’t Make It Here” has gotten more attention than anything I’ve ever put on a CD. It’s not by virtue of it being a great song, I just happened to write something people were already thinking. It gave them a place to put what they were feeling about it. You might write something people maybe missed – if you’re lucky.

Crooked Still’s New Take on an Old Sound

When Crooked Still perform next Thursday at the Roots on the River “New Faces Night,” fans will hear old-time music done in a very newfangled way. If you love American roots music, you may know their songs – everything from the Sacred Harp hymn “Ecstasy” to “Railroad Bill,” a skiffle tune learned, says bassist Corey DiMario, “from a old scratchy Hobart Smith record.”

But you’re never heard them done this way before. Take “Come Into My Kitchen,” a slow, menacingly seductive blues number originally done by Robert Johnson. In vocalist Aoife (pronounced EE-fa) O’Donovan’s hands, it’s all sweet femininity, with cellist Rushad Eggleston’s low moan replacing Johnson’s pulsing guitar. Sprinkle on Greg Liszt’s banjo notes like juju holy water, wrap it in DiMario’s stately double bass line, and the result is more than a generation removed from its traditional origins.

But it sounds unforced and natural, the result of “an organic process,” says DiMario. “Often when people try to be progressive with traditional music, two things are obvious – add a drum kit an electric bass. Our way is a little more like working with what we have instead of imposing something new on it.”

Crooked Still transforms a song like “New Railroad (Been All Around This World)” from a lament to a lusty romp. For the Bill Monroe standard, “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” done straight up by countless pickers for decades, they pare it down to its bluesiest elements.

The influences are the same, though, explains DiMario. “What we do is different from that but it still sounds like it’s coming from a deeper tradition.”

Three of the band’s four members are classically trained – Rushad attended Berklee Music College, while Corey and Aoife studied at Boston Music Conservancy. But “we didn’t grow up in the mountains of North Carolina, we grew up listening to rock and roll,” says DiMario. “There’s no way that’s not going to come out in the grooves we play.”

For a bluegrass band that calls their sound “grooves,” it makes sense that they hooked up with a well-regarded jazz producer and flew to California’s wine country to make “Shaken By A Low Sound,” their debut record for Signature Sounds.

“We wanted to work with Lee Townsend,” says DiMario. “We had the sensibility from the kind of artist he works with that he wasn’t going to tell us what to do, but just capture it.”

The record, due for an early August release, maintains the soaring energy of Crooked Still’s live shows. With texture added by fiddler Casey Driessen, and background singing from Laurie Lewis, John McDonald, Tom Rozum and the Mammals’ Ruth Unger, the record’s much like a fine wine – all the elements breathe, yet none dominates.

For Thursday’s show, Seattle banjo player Wes Corbett will sit in, as Greg Liszt is currently touring with Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome” tour. Liszt auditioned early this year after Springsteen heard about him from one his side projects, and joined the Pete Seeger tribute band at the end of April.

“It’s weird,” says DiMario, “we see a picture of him on stage with Springsteen and joke that it’s been Photo Shopped in.”

He’s talked with Liszt off and on since the tour started. “He says it’s very cool, but surreal. For Greg, he’s a banjo player, there’s not many gigs like that, to play Madison Square Garden and fly around in a private jet.”

Will Liszt demand his own trailer when he rejoins the band? “No,” laughs DiMario “He just rolls with it, he’s got no ego. It’s great.”

Three Pissed-Off Chicks

Taking the Long Way
Dixie Chicks

By Michael Witthaus

It’s impossible not to view a new Dixie Chicks record though the prism of “the Incident” – singer Natalie Maines’ on-stage denunciation of George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War.  The band squarely faces the two-year firestorm born from that event on “Taking the Long Way.”  But this record isn’t a continuation of those public sentiments, in the manner of Neil Young’s recent release, or a poetic meditation on nonviolence like Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust.”  The closest the Chicks come to that here is “I Hope,” which, though it will please some pacifists, is a genial, essentially innocuous song.

This is a record primarily about fame and its consequences, and it’s not a contrite, measured effort.  No, it seethes with indignation at a world that would put them in their place.  “I could never follow … or kiss all the asses they told me to,” from the title track that opens the record, is a blunt rebuke to the band’s critics.  “Easy Silence” follows, initially teasing at being a simple love song before exposing the bruises beneath its long silk blouse sleeve: “Monkeys on the barricades/are warning us to back away/they form commissions trying to find/the next one they can crucify/and anger plays on every station.”The break with their country music past isn’t nearly as shocking as overheated press reports would have it.  The Dixie Chicks represent a melting pot inclusive enough to welcome Kid Rock, Nelly and Sheryl Crow.  For all the white shirt/black hat posturing, the genre’s direction has long been moving away from Nashville, and the Chicks started leaving a long time ago.
Working with producer Rick Rubin, who is to his artists as Dr. Melfi is to Tony Soprano, the band delivers their first entirely self-authored effort.  For Rubin, who coaxed late career masterpieces from Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, brilliance lies outside the studio.  He has a unique ability for stripping away pretense before a word is written, or a note is played.

Thus, the record also describes their refuge from the cauldron of public scrutiny as well as their response to the experience.  All three had babies during the hiatus, and there are several references to family life.  “Lullabye” sweetly evokes the simple beauty of parental love (“Life began when I saw your face”), while “So Hard” explores infertility’s impact on a couple (“Something a woman is born to do …And I'd feel so guilty/If that was a gift I couldn't give”).

“Silent House” deals with the subject of Alzheimer’s disease, while “Voices in My Head” is a Sheryl Crow-sounding song about self-doubt.  Crow participated in the project, co-writing “Favorite Year” with Maines and Maguire, and the slide guitar on “Voices In My Head” sounds suspiciously like her.  Frustratingly, though, no song-by-song performance credits are given with the record.  That’s too bad, as stalwarts like the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, Bonnie Raitt, Pete Yorn and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris also participated, and one can only guess at where their contributions are on “Taking the Long Way.”

But it’s raw, exposed nerves, on songs like “Everybody Knows” and the rocking “Lubbock or Leave It” that power “Taking the Long Way.”  “Bitter End” best embodies these sentiments, a song that angrily dismisses their former friends:

“You had a good time
Drinking all of our wine
After the show
We all rode the wave
Of that crazy parade
Oh where'd you go?
What happened to
The ones we knew
As long as I'm the shiniest star
Oh there you are”

The Dixie Chicks never asked for notoriety beyond their music, and this record is an eloquent and necessary response to the scorn they received for simply speaking their minds.  It’s also proof that nothing about that experience made them any less willing to continue doing so, though it did show who their true allies are.

Local Rhythms – May 25, 2006

Local Rhythms
By Michael Witthaus

Music is a Family Value

Watching my daughter’s spring concert the other night at Bluff School, I’m reminded of how important it is to start kids early on music. This thought also occurred to me as I listened to some jazz on the hi-fi one cool, pleasant evening recently.

My father was a complicated man, and we didn’t always understand each other, but with music, we were in harmony. My earliest recollections of him are these – watching him practice on a bulky Hawaiian steel guitar, us singing along to folk groups like the Kingston Trio, or the whole family relaxing with something like Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” He encouraged my own youthful forays, too, be they fleeting (the Monkees) or indelible (the Beatles), and bought me many Burl Ives and Limelighters records besides.

In high school, our relations stretched and strained, I gave him a gift that surprised even me – the Grateful Dead, a band he embraced with a fierceness I never quite understood. Mine was a pale offering, I think, next to the free-ranging, inquisitive mind he’d equipped me with. Inspired by him, I’d sought out everything from the honey-throated folk of Judy Collins to jazz guitar masters like Wes Montgomery.

Early on, I’ve tried to instill in my own kids a love for music and an urge to seek out strange new fruit. My oldest daughter’s tastes range from Phish-y jam band sounds to things too experimental even for my ears. The youngster, in addition to playing clarinet and singing, is quite the pianist. It tickled me when she recently asked, “Dad, can I download some Beethoven from iTunes?”

My son’s working on a degree in media arts, which leads to lots of “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” comments.

Studies suggest that a child’s love for music benefits them as students and citizens. It’s my belief that diverse tastes in music lead to greater tolerance for a wider range of ideas. Intellectual curiosity in one realm tends to spur similar urges in others.

So, when you can’t understand your kids, try giving the gift of music. There’s a fringe benefit – when you’re all listening, no one’s talking, so there’s nothing to argue about. You might also join them the next time “High School Musical” is on Disney Channel. The sequel’s due any day.

Here are my picks for the long weekend:

Thursday: Dicky Betts & Great Southern, Colonial Theatre – “Hand Picked,” a song from his solo “Highway Call,” was the first bluegrass song I ever grew to love, sandwiched into a collection of the easy-tempo, guitar-centered rock Betts is best known for. The energy behind “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica,” to name but two greats from his long Allman Brothers career.

Friday: Lock Down and Weapon III, Music Matters – The last of the independent records stores continues its free Friday night live music series with hip hop from a duo that recently released a record. I don’t know a whole lot about them, but think of it as an excuse to expand your horizons while browsing through the cool t-shirts, lunchboxes, body paint and other trinkets MM carries in addition to CDs and DVDs.

Saturday: Brooke Brown Saracino, Sophie & Zeke’s – I caught this young lady’s scintillating set at Canoe Club last week. A tasty combination of early Joni Mitchell tempered with Beth Orton’s world-weariness – quite a feat for a 22-year old. This set kicks off a regular weekend series of original folk music, with Ingrid’s Ruse and foreverinmotion due in June.

Sunday: Memorial Day Picnic, Heritage – Sad to say, the chances to see Ingrid’s Ruse are fading, with Ingrid Ayer-Richardson’s recently announced Maine relocation plans. She and her husband are moving to Portland in a matter of weeks, and the region will be poorer for their leaving. This all-day affair (2-10 PM), which in addition to the Ruse also features Highball Heroes and Space Monkeez, looks even more promising with the current forecast for sun and temperatures in the 80s. There’s buffet BBQ, too.

Monday: Strange Creek Campout (Day 3), Greenfield – If you plan on going to this musical gathering of the tribes, be aware that 90 percent of this event takes place Saturday and Sunday. Monday’s really the load-out day. That said, great bands like Strangefolk, Max Creek, the Zen Tricksters and the amazing Ryan Montbleau play literally round the clock beginning Saturday at 10, even roaming around the campsites like minstrels after the onstage fun ends.

Tuesday: Irish Session, Salt hill – To quote Oscar Wilde: “Work is the curse of the drinking class.” Let’s welcome the start of a 4-day week with a few pints and enjoy the region’s best Celtic music tradition. Host Dave Loney’s band, Steampacket, is also slated for Sh’s 3rd anniversary celebration June 17.

Local Rhythms – May 18, 2006

Being a cutting-edge guy and all, I’m naturally inclined towards original music. When this column started, I entertained the idea of not mentioning cover bands at all. Times change, and I no longer draw such a hard line. It’s not simply that there are too many to ignore, I’ve actually developed a taste for song interpreters.

Take Al Alessi, an area singer-guitarist who’s built something of a cottage industry performing as the ghost of Frank Sinatra. He even headlined the Claremont Opera House as Roy Orbison a few years back.

Pete Merrigan is another good example, a guy I like to call the Upper Valley’s Jimmy Buffett. Though he wrote some fine originals both as a solo artist and a member of the Mad Beach Band, people seem to enjoy him the most when he sings “Margaritaville.” Pete’s fans will be happy to hear that he’ll be back in late June to play weekly sets in Eastman, Sunapee and Claremont until the autumn leaves fly.

There’s some fine cover bands in the area, like Last Kid Picked and Conniption Fits, who tend toward the modern rock sound, and Sensible Shoes, one of my favorites for their wonderfully eclectic song list.

Others feature leaders who do double duty as solo artists. Ted Mortimer and wife Linda Boudreault trade Dr. Burma’s classic rock sound for something cool and blue when performing as a duo. Wherehouse’s Jason Cann spends more time solo and working open mike nights than with his power trio.

Cann is particularly noteworthy, a rare talent who can take a song like “Please Come to Boston” and make it sound like it was written for him. With a fine upper register voice and first-rate guitar skills, he’ll transform “Friend of the Devil” or Dave Matthews “Stay” with his personal stamp. He’s at Bistro Nouveau this Saturday if you’d like to see for yourself.

So I’m more flexible about song interpreters now, reminding myself that Aretha Franklin’s biggest hit, “Respect,” was a remake of an Otis Redding song. Heck, “John Barleycorn Must Die,” which Traffic made popular and Ingrid’s Ruse does so well, was written in the 17th century.

So what’s good in the 21st century?

Thursday: Brooke Brown Saracino, Canoe Club – Artists like this are why I love my job. A young lady just out of college with an emotive songwriting style and haunting voice – the hollow ache of Beth Orton melded with Norah Jones’ polished jazz. “Treading Water,” a 10-song demo she made last year, is brimming with bruised romance and modern anxiety.

Friday: Amity Front, Middle Earth Music Hall – An old-time sound infused with modern sensibilities. Erik Alan’s bluesy voice wraps comfortably around just about anything. The results suggest “Workingman’s Dead” Americana, with a natural ease and timeless sound. They recorded their most recent record, “Highway Bound,” at the Windham.

Saturday: North Shore Comedy Club, Claremont Opera House – Headliner Rob Steen brought the house down last year, and the Grinning Lizards provided memorable musical entertainment. They’re both back this Saturday, along with Caroline Plummer and Larry Myles. I can’t say enough about the prescriptive quality of stand-up comedy. The only thing better is seeing a comedian in a sitcom later and saying, “I remember them when.”

Sunday: Al Kooper, Stone Church (Newmarket, NH) – Mostly known for his studio work, he supplied the memorable keyboard riff on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” even though at the time he didn’t know how to play organ. Kooper just wanted to be in the studio so badly that he faked it. He also launched two great groups, the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Sunday, he plays solo.

Tuesday: Allan Holdsworth Trio, Iron Horse – This guitarist’s resume reads like a who’s who of progressive rock. He spent a few years with the Soft Machine, Gong and Tony Williams He was part of U.K., a supergroup featuring members of Yes, King Crimson and Roxy Music, who made an album Guitar World named one of the 10 best guitar records of all time. Holdsworth has mad skills; his only weakness seems to be that he’s a bit of a moving target. Personally, I find that endearing.

Wednesday: Heart of Gold, Hopkins Auditorium – Jana Marx will be pleased that this film is finally playing closer to home. It’s Jonathan Demme’s loving portrait of Neil Young, filmed in concert at Nashville’s Ryman Theatre last fall on the eve of Neil’s hospital admission for brain surgery. Featuring much fine collaboration, including an appearance by Emmylou Harris, it’s reportedly one of the best concert films since “The Last Waltz.”

Finally: Email me – mwitthaus@gmail.com – and tell me your favorite radio station, music video channel or Internet streaming site. You may win an iPod Shuffle.

MySpace and Fox Cross-Market Online Video

The first and fifth season of 24 wil become available for download next week on MySpace. Burger King sponsors the effort, which has the first two episodes available for free (along with no-cost content from the Speed and Fuel networks):

“MySpace is the largest video site on the Web with more video uploaded every day than any other site on the Internet,” said Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media in a press release. “Our members are avid fans of these shows and are consuming video at a rapid pace, making MySpace the perfect distribution channel for programmers looking to innovate new models.”

Subsequent episodes will sell for $1.99. The math doesn't add up – 48 bucks for a season when the DVD box set is cheaper, with better quality. Episodes can't be burned to disk, either. Better to follow the porn industry, a historical trendsetter in video and the Internet.