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.

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.”