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.