Local Rhythms – Music Rising

music-rising.jpgThe spectacle of U2 and Green Day joining forces to mark the return of NFL action to the Superdome a year after Hurricane Katrina, was an inspiring display of solidarity in support of one of the capitals of American music.

It also showed just how enmeshed rock music and sports have become; it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Longtime Saints quarterback Archie Manning stood on the sidelines, while two bands’ worth of punk acolytes and a horn section caroused in the center of the field.

The Saints are Coming,” the late 70’s Skids song that Bono and Billie Joe chose to co-cover, exuded English soccer more than American football. The tune’s lead-in riffed “House of the Rising Sun,” and the re-worked verse, “there is a house in New Orleans, that’s called the Superdome,” provided some waiting-to-exhale comic relief.

There are many Gulf houses much smaller than the Superdome still in ruins; rebuilding a sports stadium is simply a gesture, the dome but a symbol. Symbols are powerful things, though, to a city in need of all the hope it can muster.

I doubt that any celebration marking New Orleans’ soggy rise could happen without music, and the league deserves praise for putting the city’s party for itself and the world in the proper context.

Turning the event into a showcase for Music Rising, the charity begun by U2 guitarist the Edge, was another classy move. Much has been made of the fact that the downtown tourist district, which includes Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, mostly survived the storm’s fury.

Unfortunately, many of the musicians who perform in that storied area lost all of their equipment to the swelling levee waters. Music Rising raises money to replace the many horns, guitars, drums, and amplifiers claimed by the storm.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up one day and not have my guitar,” says the Edge. Since late last year, the organization has helped over 2,000 musicians regain their livelihood.

Fans can get involved by downloading “Here Come the Saints” from Rhapsody, making an online donation at http://www.musicrising.org, or even purchasing a $600 limited edition Les Paul Custom guitar festooned with Music Rising art.

How can you support local music this weekend? I’m glad you asked:

Thursday: Spectris, Lowell Brewery Exchange – Speaking of music foundations, one of the area’s best progressive bands is performing a show presented by the New England Art Rock Society, or NewEARS. Their goal is to “create a community of music enthusiasts dedicated to sharing and promoting progressive rock” throughout the region. Fans of Yes, Pink Floyd, Dream Theater and Nektar – are you listening?

Friday: Aimee Mann, Lebanon Opera House – Whatever quirky charm “Magnolia” had was in no small part due to Mann’s contribution to the film’s soundtrack. The wan singer writes with disarming simplicity, but go beneath the surface of songs like “Amateur” and “Driving Sideways,” and you’ll find a dangerous world.

Saturday: Little Big Town, Eastern States Expo – The band’s hard luck story makes for great press releases, but their music is what keeps them vital. “Boondocks,” their debut album, is simply good country pop, an easy melding of shimmer and sawdust. Watch for their “CMT Crossroads” turn with Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham in December.

Sunday: Sunapee Chowder Challenge, Sunapee Harbor – Regional eateries put their best bowl forward from noon to three. Bistro Nouveau won last year, and they’re back again, along with Sophie & Zeke’s, the Old Courthouse, the Ship and others. A quaint lighthouse quilt is up for raffle, there’s music and kid’s activities. The event is located right on the harbor, with tents spreading up the hill to the bandstand.

Tuesday: Tool, Verizon Wireless Center – One of a handful of hard rock bands with the star power to fill arenas like this. Their most recent album, “10,000 Days,” was five years in the making, though lead singer Maynard James Keenan spent some of that time fronting A Perfect Circle. They combine hardcore and grandeur, with their best songs clocking in at over 10 minutes.

Wednesday: Michael Civiello, Old Courthouse – The ambience at Newport’s finest dining establishment is subdued in a quaint and charming way. The food is first-rate, and Civiello’s piano playing serves to accentuate the overall experience rather than call attention to itself. Look for jazz standards like “Mood Indigo” along with a few modern classical pieces. A artisan meal and a fine glass of wine deserve a good soundtrack.

Finally: After the Chowder Challenge, make sure you’re at Claremont’s Opera House for Hal Ketchum, and be on time. The opening performer, Liz Carlsle, is a rising country star in her own right,

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Paul Westerberg & Lemonheads – Simple Songs Are Hard

openseason.jpgAlice Cooper once observed that writing simple songs is hard work. Two long-time practicioners of the craft are back on the scene with new albums. The Lemonheads and Paul Westerberg attempt to prove that axiom. One is successful, the other less so.

The Paul Westerberg-fronted Replacements were indie-pop darlings through much of the 1980s, famous for raucous performances and three-minute pop gems like “I’ll Be You.” Their irreverance was nearly as renowned as their music – they named one album (“Let It Be”) after the first song that came on the radio during a drunken ride home from a gig.

With his solo career, Westerberg has traded excess for a kind of punk elder statesman status. For his latest project, he’s headed down the same path as Jack Johnson and Ben Folds, scoring and providing the soundtrack for an animated film – the upcoming “Open Season.”

Only a couple of the soundtrack’s tunes seem direclty connected to the film. The rest could come from any Replacements disk. “Meet Me In the Meadow” leads the record off with Lennon-esque harp and bouncing guitar. “Right To Arm Bears” is wonderfully dumb, with lines like “Mr. Bruin, whatcha doin?” The most buoyant of the bunch, “Love You in the Fall,” represents a band reunion of sorts, with Tommy Stinson contrbuting bass and harmonies.

Westerberg’s well-turned phrasesn give “Open Season” its’ charms. “Better Than This” starts with the glib, “I’m a knight in shining armchair/I’m a guy who’s got it made,” accompanied by pennywhistles and goofy, sing-song harmonies..

 

The moody “I Belong” is done twice on the record, first by a Plastic Ono Band-inspired Westerberg and then starkly by Pete Yorn. Westerberg’s “Wild As I Wanna Be” is covered by Cake spinoff Deathray, who also contribute their own “I Wanna Lose Control (Uh Oh).”

Inspired by recent parenthood, Westerberb brings a child-like exhuberance to the project. Most of the songs were written after he previewed the CGI film, Sony’s first full-length animated feature. But the album isn’t a simple souvenier of a kid’s movie. It’s as a spirited as anything in Westerberg’s catalog. With the innocent beauty of songs like “Whisper Me Luck” and “I Belong” it’s in many ways even better.

lemonheads.jpgThe latest reconstitution of Evan Dando’s Lemonheads might better be termed “Descendents Plus One,” as he’s joined by that band’s Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez. Their contribution, along with guitar work on a couple of tracks by J. Mascis (Dinousaur Jr.) give the eponymous record a punkier edge, often to its detriment.

When the formula works, there are few craftsmen deft as Dando. “Become The Enemy” is an almost perfect distillation of pop and angst, one that sits right alongside such gems as “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” from the mid-90’s gem “Car Button Cloth.” “Let’s Just Laugh” hints at the same genius, but sputters when it tries to be too many things at once. Broken into three distinct components, the main chorus does feature a classic bit of Dando wordplay: “Let’s just laugh/We can never do anything about anything anyway/Whatever will be/I guess we’ll see/let’s just laugh.”

The record is split into happy-go-lucky pop songs and pre-punk double time; the two melt together in “Poughkeepsie” and “Black Gown,” which leads off the record with slashing guitar chords and feedback reminiscent of the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer..” Oddly, the Band’s Garth Hudson has a keyboard credit on the song; it’s an open challenge to the best set of ears to identify it.

The melancholy “ Baby’s Home,” with ironic music box chimes leading in to a crushing tale of marriage gone woefully wrong, is a little too literal, with a clunky chorus and odd synchopation. “In Passing” has the clever opening couplet, “time goes by so very slow when you are fasting,” but like most of the record, it twirls out of control before too long.

Simple songs, at least the good ones, are distinct and memorable. That’s the main complaint to level at “Lemonheads” – it’s well crafted, but with the exception of “ Become the Enemy,” it gone ten seconds after the song ends. Dando’s best work has an insinuating quality that’s missing here. It’s punky, frenetic and forgettable.

That absence becomes all the more clear when considering Paul Westerber’s return to form. “Open Season” has plentiful hooks, and words that are easy enough for preschooler to learn. For parents, that may be both a blessing and a curse. For pop fans, it’s bliss.

Westerberg: 4 stars out of 5 //Lemonheads: 2 stars out of 5

Today’s Free Download – The Who

live.jpgI literally stumbled on to this one in the course of trying to figure out why my DVD-Audio of “Tommy” lacked a vocal track. Never did puzzle that one out, but in Googling for answers I found a British fan site with some cool stuff. The guy who runs it is a big fan apparently – there’s a picture of him and Pete Townshend featured prominently on the home page.

There’s only a few downloadable tracks on the site, each very rare, and each lovingly converted to MP3 from obviously pristine vinyl. There are a few MIDI files and a movie shot in 1973, without sound, of the band playing live in Long Beach, California.

“Young Man Blues” is one of ballsier tracks on what I consider the most important live album ever made, “Live At Leeds.” Why is it the most important? At the time of its release, rock concerts were for cognoscenti; a hundred to a few thousand fans witnessed them, and sold-out shows were uncommon.

“Live At Leeds” communictated the Who’s essence as a live band. That, combined with their almost mystical appearance at Woodstock (c’mon, the SUN ROSE on cue to Daltrey singing ‘see me, feel me’) made them superstars. It also compelled a lot of curious fans, myself included, to buy their first concert ticket.

Today’s free track was only released on a British compilation album, “The House That Track Built.” I’m pretty sure it was a promotional album, which means only a few hundred were even made. This version of “Young Man Blues” is much more restrained than “Live at Leeds” or even the supposedly original take contained on “Odds and Sods.” The band learned from the success of “Live at Leeds” to hit the throttle in the studio just as hard as the stage, coming up just short of smashing their instruments. Rock was certainly better for it.

Local Rhythms – Greed Bites Babs

ticketbastard.jpgAdapted from an earlier post, from the September 21 2006 Claremont Eagle Times

Ticketmaster, king of the concert cartel and ruiner of live music worldwide, is now in the innocuously named “secondary” market. Meaning that they’ve started carving off their best seats and marking them up ahead of ticket Mafia rackets like StubHub.

They even host a web site for customers to re-sell tickets. Now, instead of fans waiting on line for a chance to see their favorite performers, or cheer on the home team, speculators compete for a chance to hit the lottery. Ticketmaster keeps a percentage of every sale, what Tony Soprano might call a “vigorish,” if he were less cultured.

But apart from big dogs like Streisand, Madonna, Clapton and their ilk, the concert market is actually tanking. Oh, there’s a Dane Cook or two every year, but nothing lasts for long. Ask John Mayer, whose double bill tour with Sheryl Crow this summer played to half-full houses.

You wouldn’t know it from Ticketmaster’s bottom line, but most musicians are learning a hard truth. Ticket sales are falling while total revenue is climbing. There are big shows, but fewer of them, and going to see live music has turned into a trip to Disney World for most people. Sadly, that experience now has about as much to with music as Jack Sparrow does with naval history.

Barbra Streisand invented this kind of gouging back in 1994, when tickets to her MGM Grand shows passed a then-unprecedented 100 dollars. It seems like most shows have cost north of that forever, but Babs opened the floodgates.

Conservatives hate Streisand for her politics; I despise her for that.

Now she’s out on tour, for one last cash grab before her pipes sag along with everything else. But it’s not 1994. Her die-hard fans are, to put it as gently as possible, dying.

Worse yet, it seems that Barbra’s also losing her money mojo. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that with $750 face prices, “sales have been slow, with excellent seats going unsold in Atlanta, Columbus, Ohio and other cities. This, in turn, has undercut Ticketmaster and Ms. Streisand’s efforts to sell some of those seats at auctions for even higher prices.”

Streisand and Ticketmaster passed the century threshold by rationalizing that if scalpers were getting big money, they were entitled to some too. Now they’re marking up marked-up tickets, and whining when no one wants to buy them. Meanwhile, some performers have a hard time selling seats at any price.

Tom Petty was right. Thank god for the clubs, where real music, not money, is still king:

Thursday: Richard King & Friends, Sunapee Coffeehouse – Still in their temporary quarters at the Knowlton House, this area resource is putting the call out for community support. Without it, their last show will be November 9. Tonight, it’s a mix of oldies and folk, with a few originals as well. Cosy Sheridan, a well-known and talented folksinger, is due October 12. Interested supporters should call 603-763-2668.

Friday: Spiral Farm Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – Named after their Putney, Vermont farm, this group deftly channels “O Brother Where Art Thou.” They’ve become so popular at this downtown Claremont restaurant that the third Friday of the month is now theirs for the playing. The music starts at eight, and it’s such a hit that reservations are recommended if you want to sit close to the band.

Saturday: Stonewall, Heritage Tavern – Former Ingrid’s Ruse drummer (and famous organ donor) Shamus Martin has been working with Stonewall on a new album, as well as putting the finishing touches on his former band’s first and last CD. There’s a Ruse release party scheduled at Heritage October 21. Tonight, it’s straight up rock from a great three piece band.

Sunday: Chris Smither, Higher Ground – This should be a special show. Opener Ollabelle worked with Smither on his latest CD, so the chemistry should be right. But the best reason to see this show is Smither, who’s making the best music of his career right now. The man’s living proof that there’s life after 60.

Tuesday: Aerosmith/Motley Crüe, Tweeter Center – A major double bill like this is a certain sellout, right? Nope. There’s still tickets left, even though each of these bands once had the star appeal to fill larger buildings all by themselves. Steven Tyler had some health scares earlier this year, but his singing at the Hatch Shell last Fourth of July was entertaining, though a bit surreal.

Wednesday: Thomas Dolby, Iron Horse – Here’s a fun fact: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first clip aired on MTV, was originally recorded by Bruce Wooley & the Camera Club, Dolby’s first band. Later, Thomas managed to get his own stuff on MTV, and be a mystery keyboard guest on Def Lepperd’s “Pyromania.”

Elton John – The Captain and the Kid

captainandkid.jpgFor six years starting in 1969, Elton John released no fewer than nine albums of original material. His latest, “The Captain and the Kid,” is an autobiographical echo of those heady times, a follow-up to the most successful record of he and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s run, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” which entered the charts at number one in 1975.

“I see no brakes just open road and lots of gasoline,” Elton sings as the journey and album begins on “Postcards From Richard Nixon.” The rest of the record proves there’s plenty left in the tank. There’s much nostalgia contained here, from the bemused “Old ‘67” (“Honest, it’s amazing/that we can get together at all”) to the title track’s take on their explosive success (“I’ve seen it growing from next to nothing/into a giant eating up your town”).

The revved-up welcome-to-LA boogie of “Just Like Noah’s Ark” rocks with his best work, and also takes ownership of their history: “we wrote it as we saw it from the centre of the stage… the truth is never quite the same as what the papers say.” “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way (NYC)” recalls another ode to New York, Honky Chateau’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.”

In a first, Taupin is photographed with Elton on the album’s cover, and most of the record is viewed through two sets of eyes. At times, it’s eerie how well Elton’s thoughts are articulated through Taupin’s words. “And The House Fell Down” describes his battle with drug addition (“I’m more paranoid with every little sound…Three days on a diet of cocaine and wine”); “Tinderbox” looks at the highs and lows of a 40-year working relationship.

“Blues Never Fade Away” is the centerpiece of “Captain and the Kid.” When he asks, “how did we get so lucky?” it’s both a question and a lament for the many friends lost to drugs, disease and assassin’s bullets: “and there’s marble markers and little white crosses/along the beaten path/and I’ve spread their ashes on the wind/and I miss John Lennon’s laugh.”

Musically, this is Elton John’s strongest record since 1988’s “Reg Strikes Back,” but it stands shoulder to shoulder with his best mid-70’s work. It’s extraordinary – at a time when nostalgia tours and greatest hits retrospectives are the norm, that the duo has something so strong to offer at what should be the end of the line. Elton John recently told a journalist that he doesn’t expect to release any more hits. The mantle, he says, has been passed to a younger generation of talent.

If he keeps making records like “The Captain and the Kid,” he could be forced to eat those words.
Five Stars

Chris Smither – Leave the Light On

smither.jpgFor much of his career, Chris Smither’s had a reputation as a musician’s musician, a polite euphemism for toiling in relative, if comfortable, obscurity. He’s best known for giving Bonnie Raitt “Love Me Like a Man.”

That may not change with his latest, and it’s a shame. “Leave the Light On” is packed with wry wit and rugged charm. It’s full of touching moments like “Father’s Day,” where he arrives at a beautiful understanding of tenuous, yet enduring family love, along with passages of buoyant optimism.

The record’s tone is set with the leadoff track, “Open Up,” which melds a bemused sensibility to a jaunty Texas swing beat. He sounds a bit like John Prine when he reports “I don’t think for pleasure/it’s just hard not to do/my thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue.”

“I’m still flying blind,” he continues, but if that’s true, he still sees quite clearly.

Smither faces his own dark history on a few songs. “Shillin’ for the Blues” revisits his alcoholism and the resentment it fueled, while “Seems So Real” plunges him deeper into the abyss, as he sings, “if down were up you couldn’t get much higher.”

He also covers Lightnin’ Hopkins “Blues in a Bottle,” but with 21 years of sobriety, most of the record is a hopeful look forward rather than a ruminating backward glance. In the title cut Smither wishes he’d noticed “the taste of endless time,” but makes it clear he’s more concerned about what’s left to be gained when he sings “I’ve got plenty left I’ve set my sight on/don’t wait up, leave the light on.”

David “Goody” Goodrich’s stellar production and backup playing propel the disc. Enlisting help from Americana darlings Ollabelle, along with string wizards Tim O’Brien and Sean Staples, he gives “Leave the Light On” plenty of texture, but doesn’t bury Smither’s earthy essence beneath it.

Anita Suhanin, who’s done session work with Goodrich before, shines on “Cold Trail Blues,” her wind-tossed soprano the perfect counterpoint to Peter Case’s sad song of romantic loss. She also enlivens the title track.

On other highlights, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” is transformed into a waltz to surprisingly good effect. “Origin of Species” is a hilarious send-up of the intelligent design movement, and “Diplomacy” is perhaps the most good-natured protest song anyone’s written in years. With his latest, Chris Smither proves that age and experience are reliable incubators of artistry.

Five Stars

More info: Chris Smither performs Thursday, September 21 at the Somerville Theatre and Saturday September 23 at the Iron Horse Music Hall

YouTube/Cingular Deal – That’s More Like It

you.jpgAs I’ve written elsewhere, the YouTube/Warner Music deal will likely the cause the reverse of its intended purpose. On the other hand, the buzz-rich, cash-poor web site looks poised to leverage their cool factor with YouTube Underground, the battle of the bands announced earlier today.

YouTube’s strength is viral; marginally talented, attention-starved kids, weaned on reality television and rap lyrics with more brand names than verbs, upload their personal “American Idol” auditions to YouTube and pray that someone, anyone, will care. Out of the millions, a few lucky ones creep to the top.

On the other hand, the YouTube revolution has breathed new life into a dying art form, the indie band video. The most ironic moment of the 21st Century thus far has to be the appearance of OK-Go! on the MTV Video Music Awards. The band NEVER HAD A VIDEO AIR ON MTV before that night. OK-Go! owes most of its success to YouTube.

YouTube Underground promises that kind of cult explosion to an unknown, unsigned band. Of course, keeping true to irony, the winner will play on ABC’s Good Morning America.

I’m noticing a trend here. Large media outlets, be they record companies, TV networks, publishers or studios, can’t seem to tap the underground on their own. They’ve lost the ability to locate and nurture new talent. So they wait for talent to nurture itself, and for hordes of cash, pick the low-hanging fruits of someone else’s labor.

Somehow, that doesn’t seem like a viable business model. At some point, these artists will raise their price too high, or decline to share their bounties altogether. But what do I know? I’m just a blogger.

YouTube, like MySpace and other online communities, is simply a great host who demands very little from its guests – and everyone wants to come to the party.

YouTube Underground is the perfect vehicle – original, undiscovered talent flowing like cream to the top.

Contrast that with Warner Brothers. By hoping to collect copyright royalty fees from vain teenagers, they’re preparing to shoot fish in an empty barrel.