Local Rhythms – Radio Bob

Born in 1956, the year Elvis Presley went nationwide; Bob Rivers’ life has spanned the arc of rock-era radio.  Legend has it that, barely a teenager, he built a 5-watt transmitter in his basement.  In his twenties, he worked at just about every station in the Northeast, ending up a huge success at WAAF-FM in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Bob was a national star in his thirties, with hit records and People magazine stories about his antics in Baltimore, and later Seattle.  He’s been the toast of that town for nearly 20 years, and with good reason.  In an era of shock radio, he’s funny without being vulgar.  His “Twisted Tunes” franchise is frighteningly prolific, with hilarious seasonal send-ups like “I Am Santa Claus” (done to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”) and “White Trash Christmas.”

At Bob’s 50th birthday celebration this weekend in Ascutney, we’ll recall his personal and professional triumphs.  Someone will undoubtedly roll out his Tom Petty remake, “You Don’t Know How It Feels (To Be Old).”  They’ll wonder if the line, “let me get a tube of ointment/let’s rub my achy joints,” seems less a parody than when he wrote it 10 years ago.

I’ll remember him as the man who brought me to Claremont, gave me a full-time radio job, and introduced me to my future wife.

He downplays his Program Director stint at M-106 (now Q-106) as the culmination of a successful campaign “to make every mistake possible” in the business.  Bob also (falsely) claims to be a management washout; he saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

On election night 1980, I had the inspiration to play “Show Biz Kids” by Steely Dan during my six to midnight air shift.  Ten seconds into the track, Bob called, telling me to fade it down early.  Not that he was a newly minted Reaganite – I’d forgotten the F-bomb in the final verse.

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that a career in radio fed an ego better than a family.  This was partly due to the fact that the station’s money guy viewed the talent the way Barnum & Bailey does their elephants.

I received no severance pay until Bob intervened on my behalf with a few thinly veiled “suggestions” for his then-former boss.  I never learned the exact details (something about plausible deniability), but he proved himself a good friend and a creative manager that day.

It’s reassuring when a nice guy like Bob Rivers finishes on top.   What’s tops in terms of choices this weekend?

Thursday:  The Gully Boyz, Middle Earth Music Hall – The latest of several local bands, including Conniption Fits and Dr. Burma, to get a serious listen in this friendly room, located in Bradford, Vermont.  Well regarded for their layered jam band approach, they have a solid following in the Upper Valley.  It’s nice to see them moving up in the world.

Friday:  Pete Merrigan, Sophie & Zeke’s – He’s back from Florida, and ubiquitous as ever.  During his Murphy’s Deck Sunday, Pete was a one-man “Cheers” – he knows everybody’s name.  It’s an amazing thing to watch.  Tonight, he’ll play his first set in downtown Claremont in many moons.  Lots of boat drinks and sing-along songs will ensue.  Nothing says “summer” like Pete Merrigan.

Saturday:  Jay Ungar & Molly Malone, Windsor High School – A popular NPR favorite, this folk duo hosts a swing dance as part of Windsor’s Vermont Heritage Days celebration.   Tightly linked with Ken Burns’ “Civil War” miniseries (their “Ashokoan Farewell” was featured on the Grammy-winning soundtrack), they’re as real and honest as Americana gets.

Sunday: Basin Bluegrass Festival (Brandon, VT) – Day three of this down-home gathering features a who’s who of regional pickers, including Blistered Fingers, the Pine Hill Ramblers and Cabin Fever.  A short day today, running from 9 AM to 3 in the afternoon.  Friday and Saturday’s performances last from early in the morning to 10 PM.  Aspiring players can bring a banjo or fiddle for the workshops.

Tuesday: Ani DiFranco, Pines Theatre – The queen of DIY has a new record, “Reprieve,” due next month.  Two advance tracks – “hypnotized” and “half-assed”  -suggest the romantic smackdown attitude of her earlier work has mellowed a bit.   Maybe that’s because she started work on it last fall in New Orleans, but had to finish elsewhere when Katrina washed the studio away.

Wednesday: The Flames, Sunapee Harbor – A four-piece led by local stalwart John Lovejoy on keyboards and vocals.  They sounded quite polished at Claremont’s 4th of July bash, with searing saxophone solos and smooth three part harmonies for songs as varied as “Not Fade Away” (the chugging Grateful Dead version) and a fine little Motown medley right before the fireworks.  This show is part of the regular Wednesday night series at the Ben Mare Pavilion.

Local Rhythms – Look Up, America – It’s Our Birthday

I love the Fourth of July more than any other holiday. It’s not
religious like Christmas, vague like Thanksgiving (thankful for what –
everything? Be specific) or the ephemeral day of convenience Memorial
Day became when we began to lose sight of its’ original intent.

No, Indpendence Day celebrates something everyone agrees about – it’s
great to be an American in America. OK, there are perhaps 260 million
versions of that sentiment, but for one day, we set those differences
aside. We choose a beverage, stare up at the sky, and wait for the
fireworks.

Winston Churchill once said, “democracy is the worst form of
government – except for all those others that have been tried.” Of
course, he also said, “the best argument against democracy is a
five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The miracle we
celebrate every July is that this undeniable, inchoate internal
squabble has characterized and sustained the grand American experiment
for 230 years, not destroyed it.

I heard a song a few weeks back, a typically great fade-out from a
“Sopranos” episode, that hit me like a comet. I ran to my computer to
track it down. “The Fourth of July” is a Dave Alvin song, but the
version I heard was by X, America’s greatest punk band. It’s about a
relationship that clearly holds more memories than magic, and is
probably doomed – done in by confusion, not the dying flame of desire.
“She gives me her cheek when I want her lips,” laments the singer.

But sitting on his porch and looking up at the night sky, he finds his
resolve. “Whatever happened, I apologize,” he calls to her. “So dry
your tears and baby, take a walk outside – it’s the Fourth of July.”

Whatever our differences, together on this day we turn our eyes
upward, all staring at the same thing.

Happy Birthday, U.S.A.

This year, we’re blessed with a four day weekend, filled with music
and (I’m keeping my fingers crossed) sunshine.

Thursday: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Dartmouth College – Born of swing
sensitibilities, but infused with the breathless gonzo humor of bands
like Oingo Boingo. Their execution of perennials like “Minnie the
Moocher” and “Big Time Operator” is dead-on. But just when you think
you’ve got them pegged right down to their pants, they take something
like “I Wanna Be Just Like You” from the “Jungle Book” and spin it
into gold. “You and Me (and the Bottle Makes Three)” is the greatest
good-time going to hell song ever recorded.

Friday: Take Your Pick in Claremont – One of those rare times when I
can’t make up my mind. You’ll likely see me in three places tonight.
First, Bistro Nouveau christens their new patio with local reggae
favorites Saylyn, along with a special outdoor menu featuring plenty
of finger food. After that, it’s off to Sophie & Zeke’s for Josh
Parker’s “Stonewall Unplugged” set. Later, I’ll wrap things up at the
Hullabaloo Martini Bar with Dave Davis. Claremont – I’m lovin’ it!

Saturday: Drunk Stuntmen, Heritage Tavern – A child-friendly barbeque
starting at 5 PM, with outdoor music from a fun-loving band. The
Stuntmen recently received a cool honor – induction into WRSI-FM’s
Hall of Fame. They’re one of 250 bands “who have made the station
what it is,” according to Program Director Johnny Memphis. More
commonly known as “The River,” WRSI is the only reason I turn off XM
while driving through western Massachusetts.

Sunday: Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Hidene Meadowlands – I’m going to
Tivo the Boston Pops Esplanade Fourth, just to see what kind of
mischief Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry get into. But if
you’d like to see the 1812 Overture, cannons and all, without the
trafficand crowds, head to Manchester, Vermont (or Ascutney,
Middlebury or Shelburne, and a few others in the next six days) and
enjoy a patriotic display of fireworks and classical music.

Monday: 35th Parallel, Colburn Park – Interesting free stuff. The two
man group calls its music “MediterrAsian,” a blend of Middle East,
North India, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the United States.
Playing a lot of percussion instruments you’ve likely never heard of,
and weaving electronic sounds with bazouki, dijeridoo and old
fashioned guitar, it’s a unique, heady excursion.

Tuesday: Wings & Wheels, Hartness State Airport – There are a number
of local celebrations, but I like this one for sentimental reasons.
It marks the final area appearance, for a while anyway, of Ingrid’s
Ruse. What a shame – as their “Roots of the River” set proved, the
band was really finding their groove. Fortunately, they’re making a
record as a parting gift to area fans, and Ingrid Ayer-Richardson
isn’t ruling out a release party show later this summer. This gala
also includes Stonewall, Broken Mindz, fireworks, and a $100 a ticket
2006 Corvette raffle.

Giving Back at Whaleback

It’s been on Steve Smith’s mind for a long time – an outdoor concert,
featuring some of the area’s best bands, free from noise ordinances
and time constraints. On August 5, it will happen, when “Rock the
Whale” becomes a reality.

“I have this dream,” says the Rock 93.9/101.7 Program Director, “of
people driving by on Interstate 89 and seeing a see of black shirts
and tatoos.” Whether they slow down out of curiosity or speed up in
fear, they will appreciate the message.

The local area has a vibrant music scene, and August 5 is their day.

“Nobody does anything for music in the community,” he says. ” I
wanted to give back and showcase what we’ve got.”

With “the perfect symmetry” of last year’s Whaleback Ski Area
re-opening, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place – securing a
venue. With that taken care of, Smith assembled a who’s who of his
nightly “Local Licks” feature, including Hexerei, Stonewall, Curst,
Sarvela, Undying Breed and Hitchelfit. Fellow DJ Matt Cross’s band
StandStill will appear, as well as Dollface, and the mysterious Snox
and the Voodoo Henchmen, a band “that might as well be headlining,
they’re that good,” according to Smith.

Actually, Snox et.al.is Cross and Smith’s own group, a fun project
that will entertain fans during set changes. Still, the next big
thing may really be out there. A Fan Favorite band will be selected
from entries to the radio station’s web site, wvrrfm.com. Fans can
vote, and the winner earns Rock the Whale’s coveted final slot. Smith
recently took a week off, and on his return, he already had three Fan Favorite entries. Interested bands have until July 7 to enter.

The work of planning the festival plan has Smith “excited, nervous,
scared and stoked. There’s so much involved,” he says. The U.S. Army
is helping out by co-sponsoring the event. Smith hopes they provide
something special for families of troops and the troops themselves. .
“I don’t know what they’ll bring, but hopefuly some of the fun stuff,”
like climbing walls and simulation games.

With over a month to go, the show is “still a work in progress,” says
Smith. He envisions a summer day filled with variety, “not just a
music festival.” Tickets aren’t priced yet, but they are expected to
be reasonable, “in the 15 dollar range.” Plans also include food,
beer, and other interesting vendors. Area businesses interested in
showcasing their wares and looking to run a booth at Rock the Whale
should contact the radio station by telephone or email.

But above all, there will be rock, from noon until well after dark,
played loud and proud.

As he scurries to put details in place, Smith tries not to think about
the recent soggy weather. When he does, he’s optimistic. “The good
thing about rock is if it rains, nobody cares,” he says. “Woodstock
’94 was legendary, and it was a great big mudfest.”