Coming Zune

There’s something so American about competition, that it doesn’t seem absurd for Microsoft, the largest company of its kind in history, to be an underdog in a scrap with Apple.

The digital music niche is all but owned by iTunes and the iPod. Microsoft has been a feeble player in this game. Their alternative to MP3, WMA, is a format most noteworthy for its restrictiveness, not technical superiority. Digital media players from Creative, Philips and others aren’t nearly as sexy as the iPod (which doesn’t work with WMA-only services like Napster and Rhapsody).

Their solution, not surprisingly, is to take Apple’s approach. Microsoft announced Zune the other day – a “brand,” due this November, that so far includes an iPod-killer portable music device and a download service to replace the listless MSN Music. It’s described as “one part MySpace, one part iTunes and one part Xbox Live,” so the buzz on web sites like Engaget and Gizmodo is that in addition to accessing digital music, the Zune might also play video games – “connected entertainment” in Microsoft parlance.

Ripping another page out of Apple’s playbook, there are rumored plans for Zune-enabled “smart phones,” continuing the long march to total digital convergence.

To sweeten the pot for iPod addicts (like yours truly), Microsoft is falling back on a technique they perfected with products like Outlook and Internet Explorer – giving away the store. Zune will scan your computer for songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store, and automatically grant a license for them on the new music player.

Of course, that doesn’t address the 95 percent or so of music on digital music on portable players that wasn’t bought online.

First looks at the Zune player are promising. The screen is at least 25 percent bigger, and it’s equipped with wireless integration that works not only with Microsoft but several other legal download sites. That’s quite gush-worthy.

Like the VHS/Beta video format wars of 20 years ago, consumers will be the ultimate winners in this fight. For the moment, Apple is the leader, and it’s going to take more than a bigger screen to change that. This particular competition is more like the battle between cable and satellite television, an incremental one that’s ultimately allowed more people to enjoy previously unavailable entertainment, and more cheaply besides.

I can hardly wait to see what Steve Jobs has up his sleeve in response.

Here’s what’s cooking this weekend:

Thursday: Meetinghouse Readings, Canaan – This is a change of pace recommendation. There’s no music involved, unless you count the cadence of beautiful words. Built in 1793, the Meetinghouse exudes a civilizing force. Over the years, writers like John Griesemer, Chris Bohjalian and Alice Munro have taken listeners to beautiful imaginary worlds. Tonight, NH Poet Laureate Patricia Fargnoli and memoirist Mary Childers read from their work. It’s free, as well.

Friday: Carey Lee Rush, Bistro Nouveau – Long on the local music scene, going back to the original lineup of Last Kid Picked, Carey makes his Bistro debut tonight. He’s played with everybody everywhere it seems, but these days he’s trucking around town as a “one man blues band.” With any luck, the weather will cooperate. Last Saturday, Pete Merrigan had to take the show indoors after the deluge closed the new patio.

Saturday: Incognito, Claremont First Congregational Church – A benefit show in the church sanctuary to raise money for new hand bells (you’d be amazed at how much they cost). Incognito is a group of local guys who play for the love of music, everything from Pink Floyd (the mellower stuff in church, I presume) to Fleetwood Mac.

Sunday: Lowell Folk Festival Day 3 – This is the 20th incarnation of the free festival, begun in 1987. Today, Peruvian masters Inca Son perform, along with the Bullock Brothers, the jazzy Hot 8 Brass Band, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys and others. It starts at noon, running on four stages until 6 PM.

Monday: Blue Monday, Salt Hill Pub – The latest innovation from this music-friendly bar is a series of blues sessions, with three bands sharing a weekly rotation, Larry Dougher, Mike Benoit, and tonight Have Blues Will Travel. Unlike Tuesdays and Thursdays, this isn’t an open mike or jam session, just solid blues played on a day that’s perfect for it, when you think of it.

Tuesday: Kim Richey, Iron Horse – There are a handful of female performers out there who defy classification, but demand to be heard. Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin … and Kim Richey, probably the most underrated of the bunch. She’s known in country circles for writing Radney Foster’s “Nobody Wins” and Trisha Yearwood’s “Believe Me Baby (I Lied).” But it’s her more esoteric work that I love – moody little vignettes like “Girl In a Car,” “No Judges,” and the should-have-been-a-hit “I Know.”

A Whale of A Good Time for Local Music Fans

Plans for the biggest gathering of area bands in recent memory are coalescing nicely, says “Rock The Whale” organizer Steve Smith.

“It’s like this frantic slow pace of making sure everything’s in order, “ Smith reports on preparations for the all-day August 5 show at the Whaleback Ski Area in Enfield, “but the word on the street is really huge.”

Some of the buzz came from a contest to choose the final performing slot on the show.  The Bradford, Vermont-based Denton Affair won by handing out over 1,000 leaflets at their shows, and urging fans to vote for them on their MySpace site.

“I was really impressed with these guys, they blew me away,” says Smith, adding that he was also pleased to add a punk band to the show.  “They remind a bit of Bouncing Souls – it’s a different genre we didn’t have on the bill.”

“I feel bad for the bands that didn’t make it in,” he added, “because I always get emotionally attached to them.  I’d like everybody to come.”

Overall, there’s an eclectic mix of music for the show.   Curst, from Bellows Falls, plays multiple guitar, melodic hard rock influenced by Motley Crüe and Black Label Society.  The recently re-formed Spectris, which includes founding members Chris Bergmann and Todd Westfall along with a new bassist, recall Yes, Pink Floyd and others from the progressive band era.

Power rockers Stonewall anticipate a high-energy afternoon.  “It’s the biggest local music event of the year,” says bandleader Josh Parker.  Stonewall cites Primus and Stone Temple Pilots as influences, but they also recall power trios from the classic rock era like Mountain, Gun and Cactus.

Stevens High graduate and Rock 93.9/101.7 air personality Matt Cross will perform with two bands – StandStill, a rock trio in the vein of Pearl Jam and Staind, and Snox & the Voodoo Henchmen, a project that he and fellow DJ Steve Smith play mostly for laughs on songs like “Shannon Burned the Cookies.”

Bands with a harder edge make up a large portion of the lineup.  The show starts at 11:30 with Undying Breed, a take-no-prisoners outfit who cite Pantera and Killswitch Engage as influences.  Hitchelfit and Sarvela are also on hand.

Hexerei, with a polished metal-with-a-message sound, headlines the show.  The band should be in top form after a recent tour, as they prepare for a big show the following weekend – Locobazooka, where they’ll share the Tweeter Center stage with Alice in Chains and several other bands.

“Rock the Whale” is the creation of Rock 93.9/101.7 Program Director Smith.  Until late last year, the station’s evening spotlight, “Local Licks,” showcased area bands.  With that gone, an all-day show seemed the perfect choice to, in Smith’s words, “give back to the local music community.”

“I’m excited to bring the community together and do something,” he says, “for the bands and for the area.  Just to have a huge concert is really decent.”

The U.S. Army is co-sponsoring the event, bringing a climbing wall and a Hummer simulator for music fans to try.   There’s also a BMX bike demo, and Green Bandit Productions, a group of skiers and snowboarders from Rutland who film their activities and set them to hardcore rap, will show some of their latest video projects.

“The whole thing has a very X-Games feel to it,” says Smith.

Whaleback will offer food and beverages, including a beer tent, for concertgoers.  Most of the bands will also be selling merchandise and CDs.

Finally, a guitar, donated by Soundtown Music and signed by all the performers, will be auctioned off, with the proceeds used to buy phone calling cards for troops stationed in Iraq.  “It costs a fortune to call home,” says Smith, “we like to support them any way we can.”

Tickets for the Rock the Whale are $15 and can be ordered on the station’s website, http://www.wvrrfm.com, or purchased locally at Rick’s Tattoo in Kelleyville, Soundtown Music in Lebanon or on Thursday through Sunday nights at Whaleback Ski Area.

If You’re Going:

What: Rock The Whale All-Day Local Music Festival
When: August 5, 2006 11:30 AM – 10:00 PM
Tickets: $15.00
Where: Whaleback Ski Area, Enfield, NH

Band Line-Up:

Hexerei
Stonewall
Dollface
Sarvela
Spectris
StandStill
The Denton Affair
Hitchelfit
Curst
Undying Breed
Snox & The Voodoo Henchmen

This Gadget Pushes All My Buttons

The holy grail of tech nuts everywhere – the all-in-one device – got a bit closer this week.    RadioIO (pronounced “radio eye oh”) is one of the earliest Internet radio services, and currently sports an eclectic array of niche channels, everything from an all-Grateful Dead station to “Rock,” whose generic moniker might shock boomers unprepared for its mix of Broken Social Scene, Rilo Kiley, Snow Patrol and the English Beat.

That’s cool enough so far.  But the big news is IO2Go, the company’s latest offering, which streams Internet radio to certain so-called “smart phones.”  All it takes is a web-enabled cell phone, like a Treo or a RAZR, to enjoy great music.  It’s in beta, but IO2Go works like a champ on my Treo 650.

For the moment, it’s a free service.  Be warned, though – RadioIO’s ad-supported website is stuffed with the sort of cheesy pop-up come-ons you’d happily pay to make disappear, and commercials interrupt the webcasts every 20 minutes or so.  For five bucks a month you can buy a pitch-insulating “Sound Pass” – it’s not 100 percent effective, however.

But the music is sublime.  In 1982, I worked for KFAT, an FM station in Gilroy, California that played a then-unprecedented hybrid of country and rock.  On a given night, my air shift might include George Jones, Woody Guthrie and Elvis Costello, with Utah Phillips’ “Moose Turd Pie” thrown in for comic relief.

Listening to “RadioIO Country” brought back those days, with Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” Gretchen Wilson’s cover of the Kris Kristofferson gem “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Lubbock It Or Leave It,” a sweaty rave-up from the Dixie Chicks’ latest, all keeping perfect company there.

All of RadioIO’s stations apparently share the essential ingredient for good Internet radio – good lawyers.  I assume that’s the case, given the number of big names on their pop playlists.  Even the Beatles, though bands like Big Star, Sweet Thursday and Caravan tend to get me more excited.

You don’t need a phone to listen, either, just an Internet connection.  But to me, the notion of the cell phone I already use to surf the web, track meetings, grab email and instant message becoming my iPod is bliss defined.

I admit that I’m an extreme example, thoroughly seduced by technology, right down to the Bluetooth bug in my ear.  But 15 years ago, everyone told me no one cared about the Internet, and that e-mail was for geeks.  Look how wrong they were then.

Onward to music – what’s happening in the next few days?

Thursday:  Dave Mallett, Colburn Park – One of Maine’s finest folksingers plays a free show on the Lebanon common. Everyone from Emmylou Harris to the Muppets have covered Mallett’s songs.  He does his own work best, though, with a baritone voice that’s equal parts soothing and sad.  The well-traveled “Garden Song” is just about an American classic.  Sing with me – “inch by inch, row by row, I’m gonna make this garden grow.”

Friday:  Spiral Farm Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – After an epiphany at a Bela Fleck concert, soft rock fan Peter Dane-Dickenson became a bluegrass convert.   His band channels “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” with purity and reverence, performing around a single microphone and trading leads with aplomb, like a polite Southern family passing the black-eyed peas.  This is honest, pure music.

Saturday: Tom Pirozzoli & Gerry Putnam, Flanders Stage – Pirozzoli reminds me of Gordon Lightfoot without the morose overtones.  He co-wrote the raucous “Jesus on the Grille” with Willy Porter, about a truck driver’s divine highway vision, so he knows how to have fun.  He’s also a talented guitarist, and tonight he performs a free show in Sunapee Harbor with sound engineer Putnam.

Sunday: Dave DiLorenzo, Court House – I finally had a chance to check out this downtown Newport restaurant.  It combines the charm of a B&B with the elegance of a multi-starred bistro.  The Sunday brunch, with young DiLorenzo’s subtle, capable piano playing as a backdrop, is terrific.  For more upscale dining, try the 5-course Italian dinner, complete with wine pairings tonight (Thursday).

Tuesday: Dickey Betts & Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Hampton Beach Casino – The old and new order of blues-rock share the stage.  Betts parted ways with the Allman Brothers Band (the second, and apparently final time); his “Ramblin’ Man” was recently named the second greatest Southern rock song of all time by CMT.  Shepherd studied at the feet of Stevie Ray Vaughn and carries on his blues tradition.

Wednesday: Tammy Jackson, Sunapee Ben Mere Bandstand – Pure country from a local favorite, and a free show at that.  They’ve opened shows for Alan Jackson (no relation), Charlie Daniels and others; their set list includes favorites from those artists.  TJB originals tend towards ballads in the Patsy Cline vein – “Like I’m Cryin’ Now” is a particular standout.

Boundary-Hopping Twiddle Lands at Salt Hill

For all their youth, Twiddle has assimilated a lot of music.  Though they’ll be entertaining bar patrons at Lebanon’s Salt Hill Pub tomorrow night, it will be two years before any of them can order a drink.

But the four-piece band, based in Hubbardton, Vermont, is musically wise beyond their years.

Twiddle draws from a stylistic palette of jazz-fusion and booty-shaking funk, with spice thrown in from across the spectrum.  Versatile guitarist Mihali “Mickey” Savoulidis’s playing references everyone from George Clinton to Jerry Garcia, though the easiest comparisons are the ones best avoided.

“We often get compared to Phish, which we hate,” drummer Brook Jordan told a journalist recently.   But Twiddle could do worse, and the parallels are there for anyone to see.  The four met in college, and like Phish, they try to juggle musical and academic goals.  They share a house together, and spend much of their waking hours working out arrangements; they’re proud that two shows rarely sound the same.

But the jam band persona is deceiving.  Though songs like “Zazu’s Flight” and “King Gatsby the Great” have an improvisational, free form feel, the band works out every note with an exacting detail.  The results are more Weather Report (the band) than “Weather Report Suite” (the Grateful Dead song).

Their hopes for success have received a lot of encouragement of late.  Twiddle’s steadily growing fan base nabbed them multiple return engagements at South Burlington’s Higher Ground club.  They’re holding down a near-residency at the Sidelines Club in Rutland, where they recently became only the third band to charge an entry fee.    Last weekend, they “blew away” the main stage audience at last weekend’s SolarFest show, according to manager Neil Jordan, who’s also the drummer’s father.  They’re also set to open for the Gin Blossoms at Rutland’s Paramount in early October.

Guitarist Savoulidi and keyboard player Ryan Dempsey met their first day at Castleton College.  In a sign of things to come, they skipped orientation that day to jam, and formed the beginnings of a band when school started.  Bassist Billy Comstock came along when he and Savoulidi worked together in a Castleton production of “Hair.” Drummer Brook Jordan knew Comstock from high school; both attended the Stafford Technical Center’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program.

The band’s chemistry solidified with surprising speed, and after 18 months together, a comfortable, crowd-pleasing “Twiddle Sound” has pleased audiences throughout the region.  Summer park shows, recently in Rutland, and upcoming in Manchester and Bennington, are now a regular part of their schedule.  That’s quite notable for an original band, particular one with the adventurous leanings of Twiddle, but their music plays to all age groups, says manager Neil Jordan.

At Salt Hill, they’ll play songs from the recently released “Queen City Live,” recorded in and around Burlington.  They do a few covers; one of the more interesting ones is a reworking of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” with Dempsey’s keyboard substituting for the original’s acoustic guitar.

Their website, twiddlemusic.com, debuted recently.  Curious fans can go there to check out Twiddle’s unique brand of hyphenated, caffeinated modern music.  Their Salt Hill set begins at 9 PM.