Local Rhythms – Music Festival’s a Journey to Discovery

My first trip to Rhode Island for the Newport Folk Festival set the tone for years to come. I went to see headliner Nanci Griffith and came away a newly minted Mary Chapin Carpenter fan. The following year Chapin’s return was the drawing card, but after the 1991 Festival I promptly bought CDs by Patty Larkin and David Wilcox, two wonderful discoveries among many.

Subsequently, the two-day gathering, which commences Saturday in Fort Adams State Park after an Irish kick-off concert at the Tennis Hall of Fame Friday, has been a constant source of great new talent. I’ll never forget the year Moxy Früvous, the self-anointed “Canadian Beatles,” played an unannounced set and completely upstaged every act that followed. Or when an up-and-coming Alison Krause opened Sunday morning and made me feel like a member of an amazing new church.

Another highlight happened when Joan Baez, who’d introduced Bob Dylan to Newport fans in 1963, showcased then little known Dar Williams and Richard Shindell in a mid-90’s “Celebration of Song” performance.

The big names deliver as well. Joan Armatrading had the crowd swaying and singing in unison in 1996. Two years later James Taylor made a triumphant return – he was a “New Voice” in 1969, along with Van Morrison. Dylan’s 2002 appearance featured a fake beard and utter musical ferocity, and remains to this day the best performance I’ve seen on the Newport stage.

This year promises more eclecticism. I’m intrigued by Beolach, a young Celtic group from Cape Breton, and can’t wait to see 17-year old chanteuse and piano prodigy Sonya Kitchell. Rosanne Cash is co-headlining with David Gray. The latter seems to be coasting comfortably on an old album (“White Ladder”), while the former recently released arguably the best record of her 30-year career (“Black Cadillac”).

I’ve heard Darrell Scott’s name in a number of rarified circles, so the Nashville songwriter’s appearance on the Harbor Stage (there are three separate Festival performing areas) alongside long-time favorites Jeffrey Foucault and Chris Smither should be great.

It’s called a folk festival in the “music made by folks” sense of the word. This year, it’s leaning toward jazz and blues, though, with the astounding Madeline Peyroux, New Orleans groove-meisters the Meters, slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth and Grace Potter. Potter and her band, already quite familiar to local crowds, could be a breakout act.

On Sunday, purists will welcome Patty Larkin, David Rawlings (performing without longtime partner Gillian Welch), and the pioneering Odetta. Perennial Newport headliners the Indigo Girls close out the show.

What other great discoveries await for this weekend?

Thursday: Eliza Gilkyson, Colburn Park – This singer-songwriter proudly proclaims that she’s got “miles on her tires” – and a mature musical outlook to match. An Austin native raised on music (her father, a songwriter, wrote “Bare Necessities” for Disney, and her brother played in the punk band X), she has a sweet, soulful voice – a softer Lucinda Williams. This is a free show, so what’s holding you back?

Friday: WRSI “The River” 25th Anniversary Concert, Pines Theatre – This fine Northampton station is the radio equivalent of Newport Folk, and then some. Tonight, Los Lobos headlines a celebration show that also includes roots rockers the Mammals and the high lonesome sound of Amity Front. You can’t get this station outside of Massachusetts, but their web site is the next best thing, with free downloads of podcasts and artists you haven’t heard yet, but should.

Saturday: Rock the Whale, Whaleback Mountain – The biggest day of the year for local rock fans, and a great chance to get out and support a vibrant, growing music scene – sponsored by a Clear Channel station and the Army, no less! Hexerei headlines the all-day show, with sets from Stonewall, Broken Mindz, Spectris and several others. The forecast for Saturday – abundant sun and sound.

Sunday: Leon Russell, Claremont Opera House – A big name, a music legend, kicks off the Opera House season with a mix of growling, straight up “Okie Rock” and honest Americana. If you want a sense of what Mr. Russell is capable of, rent “Concert for Bangla Desh” and check his “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley for his boogie bonafides, and his backing turn on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” for his softer side. His work with Willie Nelson and New Grass Revival will undoubtedly have some time in the spotlight Sunday as well.

Wednesday: Pete Merrigan & The All-Stars, Sunapee Harbor – A few times every summer, Peter Merrigan puts his much-loved solo act on standby and invites some old friends by for a jam session. Tonight, former Mad Beach Band pal Lenny Austin stops by, along with Bob Gagnier and Sandy Alexander, for a show on the Ben Mere Bandstand, located on the harbor green. Bring your boat drinks!

Leon Russell – A One-Man History of Rock and Roll

50 years into a career that’s touched down at many important junctures in rock history, Leon Russell shows no signs of slowing down. Sunday, August 6, Russell and his band perform at the Claremont Opera House. The piano-playing “Master of Space and Time” is hard to pin down. He doesn’t give interviews – “Leon Russell speaks through his music,” his web site proclaims.

His sound crosses so many genres, however, that it’s difficult to know exactly what he’s saying.

Perhaps that’s the point, because whether it’s pop, gospel, country or his own funky stew of Oklahoma boogie rock, Leon Russell inhabits each style effortlessly. If he were talking, he’d probably just call it good music – like so many of his fans.

As an arranger, songwriter and session player, Russell helped shape a generation of music before he’d even released an album of his own.  As a solo artist, he continues to influence artists to this day, from Elton John to Bruce Hornsby.

In 1956, Russell quit school and lied about his age to get a job in Jerry Lee Lewis’s band.   He was only 14 at the time, but his destiny was sealed. “I’d just spent three days, twelve hours a day, taking entrance exams to Tulsa University and I just thought, well, it’s a waste of time,” he said in a 1971 interview.  “I figured this was my chance to eat in a lot of restaurants and travel around, play some rock and roll music, which I decided was easier and better.”

Later, Russell was a member of the “Wrecking Crew” house band that created so many hits for Phil Spector.  He also arranged “This Diamond Ring” for Gary Lewis and the Playboys and “River Deep, Mountain High” for Ike and Tina Turner.  In the mid-Sixties, Lenny Waronker recruited him to round out a stable of renegade artists tasked with making a new kind of music.  “We wanted hits,” said Waronker, “but we wanted them on our own terms.”

Russell went to the West Coast, where he joined the likes of Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Brill Building alum Jack Nietzsche to become what rock critic Robert Christgau termed a “Super Sideman.”

Leon Russell was a big part of the “California Sound” of the era.  That’s his stomping honky-tonk piano outro on Jan and Dean’s “Surf City;” he also helped on Sonny & Cher’s early singles, and played on the Beach Boys’ iconic “Pet Sounds” album.

He appeared on so many records that he had trouble remembering them all. “I may have played on parts of the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and their second single as well,” says Russell, “I can’t remember.”  His piano playing is unmistakable, though, on “Live With Me” a standout track on the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” album. He later did session work for Delaney & Bonnie, and served as musical director on the “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour, which helped Joe Cocker emerge as a star.

With the help of friends George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, Russell’s eponymous 1970 solo debut was an immediate smash, its influence felt far and wide.  The hit single, “A Song For You,” has since been covered by a multitude of artists.  Elton John called Russell “my idol,” and cited the record as source material for his breakout hit “Your Song.”   “I copied Leon Russell and that was it,” Elton told a journalist in 1971.

A second album and a show-stealing appearance at the “Bangla Desh” benefit concert cemented Russell’s reputation as a solo artist.  His gospel-fueled “Okie Rock” dominated the airwaves, with “Roll Away Stone” in the charts, and “Delta Lady” a smash for Joe Cocker.

With a steady string of hits, including his cover of Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Tightrope,” and “This Masquerade,” Russell’s star steadily rose.  By 1973, he was the top-grossing concert attraction in the United States and, on the strength of the audacious three-disc “Leon Live,” regularly sold out stadiums.

The next year, he decided to shift gears with an album of country standards and Hank Williams covers that confounded old fans, but won him a lot of new ones.   He followed “Hank Wilson’s Back” with the more mainstream “Will O’ The Wisp,” which yielded the hits “Back to the Island” and “Lady Blue.”

By the end of the decade, he’d wholeheartedly embraced country music, moving to Nashville and recording the live “One For The Road” with Willie Nelson, and winning a CMA Album of the Year award.  “Willie is a national treasure,” says Russell, “When it comes to music and music business, he knows so many things that I have no idea about.”

Since then, Leon Russell has toured with the New Grass Revival, Edgar Winter and collaborated further with Nelson.  In 1992, Russell acolyte Bruce Hornsby produced “Anything Can Happen.”  Russell’s also released two more Hank Wilson records, the most recent, “Legend in My Time: Hank Wilson Volume III” in 1998.