Middle Earth – It Ain’t About The Money

chrisjonessml.jpgIf I were a decent guitarist (not even close), I’d probably be like my friend Brian, who spends his every spare minute playing in a band. Most of the time, though, he’s helping people select lumber or providing counsel on paint and caulk selection at the local building supply store.

That’s his day job. Damn near every musician I know has one.

I write about music, an avocation with a time-to-dollar ratio that’s likely on a par with the money my friend makes on the coffee house/private party circuit. Computer software consulting pays my bills, but music stokes the bank of my soul.

Looking at box office receipts from bands like the Stones and Aerosmith, it would appear that the music business is a no-brainer road to catered backstage parties, with overflowing bowls of brown M&M’s everywhere. The truth is that most musicians are like my friend Brian, playing for love and barely breaking even after expenses like gas, meals and guitar strings are tallied up.

Thus, I was amused when someone asked me recently why Chris Jones, the embattled owner of Middle Earth Music Hall, seemed content to operate at a loss.

“What kind of person,” he mused, “is proud that he’s never made money?”

He was no doubt referring to a Valley New story where Jones admitted that the club had “never been profitable.” Jones went on to say that he viewed Middle Earth as a refuge for people who’d “given up on the bar scene” but still wanted to listen to good music.

Interestingly, the person asking the question about the club’s profitability is affiliated with an ostensibly charitable organization. He, of all people, should know it’s possible to think of “profit” in non-financial terms. Chris Jones got into the music business for an altruistic reason I can entirely appreciate. In an interview, he told me:

We were at a show one weekend and I liked the band. It was the New Nile Orchestra. I wanted to see them in Bradford, so I asked around and found a way to book them myself. We did it in a 300 seat auditorium. One thing led to another, and every two weeks I’m doing shows in the auditorium.

Eventually, he had to move the shows from the auditorium (Bradford’s town hall), and opened Middle Earth in order to have a permanent location. In the last four years, he’s presented some wonderful, often unheralded, talent to music lovers everywhere.

To my mind, it’s as much a church as a club. What emanates from it cleanses the soul.

Via Lefsetz, Al Kooper weighs in on a career that’s been satisfying for him in spite of the way it worked out financially:

FYI, I don’t get any artist or producer royalties for Child Is Father To The Man, Super Session, Live Adventures, I Stand Alone, (They didn’t even give me a friggin’ gold record for Oddesey & Oracle). No royalties for Free Bird, Sweet Home Alabama, Gimme Three Steps, etc. Obviously I didn’t come into the biz for the money. I came in for the love of music and when the sharks smell that, you’re through financially.

It ain’t about the money, it’s about the music. People who are passionate about it understand. People who aren’t don’t – or worse, as Kooper indicates, they’re in the business of screwing money out of people who are.

Middle Earth Music Hall and Shiloh’s Head To Court

middleearthbarsml.jpgUpdate: Middle Earth wins court case

What started as a promising cohabitation has become an increasingly bitter dispute between the Middle Earth Music Hall and its upstairs neighbor, Shiloh’s Restaurant. Each has filed suit against the other, and the spat threatens the future of both Bradford, Vermont businesses.

Shiloh’s claims the music from Middle Earth is so loud that it’s driving away customers. Owners Nicole and Miranda Fenoff began withholding rent last July. When landlord Vincent Pacilio sued, the Fenoffs counter-sued, naming both Pacilio and Middle Earth owner Chris Jones as co-defendants for what court documents allege is “constructive eviction” – a concerted effort to drive them out of business.

Nicole Fenoff claimed in an interview that she was “set up” by Pacilio, who “wanted us to do renovations and then take over.”

As for the Middle Earth’s music volume, Fenoff says, “Vince never, ever said it was going to be a problem.” She claims “people told us it was just bluegrass,” but admits that she never actually listened to the sound levels prior to opening Shiloh’s.

“This is not about music,” counters Chris Jones. He says the noise is a “phantom issue” being stoked by David Lund, leader of Victory In Jesus Ministries, who he claims “pulls all the strings” for Shiloh’s, even though he’s not the owner. Jones has named Lund as a co-defendant in his own suit against Shiloh’s.

Jones claims the real purpose of Shiloh’s suit “is to cause as much financial harm as possible” to his business in an attempt to force them out. “I don’t think they ever wanted to run a restaurant, they had eyes on the building,” he says.

Both Nicole Fenoff and David Lund deny Jones’ claim.

“He didn’t realize the strength of the community,” says Jones. “It’s international.” An e-mail appeal sent to Middle Earth patrons has generated a lot of financial support. Two benefit shows to raise money for their legal defense fund have been very successful, with more planned.

“When this first hit the fan, I thought we’d just give up,” says Jones. “But everyone stepped up. There’s gonna be so many benefits, people will get sick of them.”

“I’m overwhelmed,” he adds, noting the encouragement comes from “not just performers, but the community itself, even people who haven’t been our customers. They recognize that it’s an asset to the community.”

On Saturday night, as Phil Celia and Friends jammed onstage, a customer from Norwich approached Jones and handed him a wad of twenties. “I took up a collection at work,” he said. Mike, a bartender who doubles as a sound technician, stuffed his tips into a ceramic vase with a “Legal Defense Fund” card taped to it. “They usually go in there,” he said.

David Lund is a polarizing figure in Bradford. Some in the community claim Victory in Jesus is a religious cult; others praise Lund for his charitable work on behalf of Haitian orphans.

Lund started his evangelical organization in the mid-1980s. He also began a construction company, Nikao Concepts, to provide jobs for his congregants, whom Lund refers to as “fellowshippers.” The company filed for bankruptcy in January 1992, leaving over $200,000 in unpaid bills. Lawsuits stemming from Nikao’s demise, and Victory In Jesus’ hasty relocation to Hollywood, South Carolina, have fueled much of the local ire against Lund.

David Lund insists that his personal history should have no bearing on the Fenoff sisters’ attempt to run a business.

Of his problems 14 years ago with Nikao Concepts, Lund says simply, “this town destroyed the company. The Attorney General of Vermont went over the case with a fine tooth comb and found nothing wrong.”

“The game is that Dave Lund’s got a bad reputation so let’s hang it on him,” he says. “I’ve never fought back and I don’t believe in retribution.”

What’s really at issue, says Lund, is that “people don’t want to eat when that sound is going on. “

Lund said in an interview that he has no financial stake in Shiloh’s. His name doesn’t appear on corporate documents for the business or for First Trust Construction, the company formed by the Fenoffs to build the restaurant.

“Those girls’ names are on the certificate and they can do whatever they want,” he says. But he does allow that he designed the business for them, has been a mentor throughout.

“I was involved with this restaurant, that’s no secret,” he says. “We designed the soups, set up cooking and training their help. We also provided spiritual counseling.”

If they’re successful, he hopes they will contribute to his work in Haiti, though he says they haven’t yet.

“They’re taught to give to the church. We work with each other because we believe in giving, and they,” he says, referring to Jones and others in Bradford, “try to slander us.”

Behind the legal issues, which are due to be heard in Orange Country Court on November 6 after being postponed from last week, are a series of escalating skirmishes which have made amicable reconciliation all but impossible. The Bradford Merchants Association offered to intervene, but was rebuffed.

Both Shiloh’s and Middle Earth claim the other defaced their common entryway. Lund accuses Jones of deliberately producing an odor “like boiled sneakers” to drive customers away from Shiloh’s. Jones denies it, but says someone from the restaurant put up a sign in the entryway that read “The Stench Comes From the Middle Earth.”

Last April, an electric hammer being operated in Shiloh’s interrupted a performance by Solas and led to an angry confrontation between Jones and Lund. Lund claims there was planned construction, and attributes the dispute to a misunderstanding with the contractor. Jones insists it was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the show.

What everyone seems to agree on is that a hoped-for synergy, akin to “Cheers” and the Hampshire House in Boston, has been irretrievably lost. Early on, Nicole Fenoff considered providing food to Middle Earth patrons, an idea she says Vince and Chris suggested.

“Before the whole situation happened, we would send people down there,” Fenoff adds. “We wanted to promote Bradford.”

Chris Jones is less circumspect. “They really had a chance to be part of something special,” he says, “and they blew it.”

Today’s Free Download – Stonewall

stonewall1.jpg“Blessings for Pearls” is the first single from Stonewall’s demo disc. The band spent several fruitful weeks at Exsubel working with Shamus Martin. There are more to come, but this is currently streaming at MySpace, and I’ve taken the liberty of making it easier to download. It’s got the punch and crunch I’ve grown fond of, and I’m sure it will translate well live.

I’ll find out how well tonight when I check the band out at Electra with Hexerei. Old home night, with costumes and everything. Don’t expect I’ll dress up though – I think 40’s the cutoff age. Maybe a baseball jersey, who knows?

It’s funny, Stonewall reminds me mostly of Mountain, Three Man Army and Cactus. I’ve talked to Josh Parker and mentioned these bands, and I get the distinct impression he has no idea who any of them are, but he’s polite about it. God bless the young whippersnapper.

Deep Catalog Experiment Works For UMGI

stuart_a1.jpgIt happens all the time.  I get a craving to hear some old, forgotten song.  A few weeks ago it was “The Saints Are Coming” – the original version by the Skids – and it’s nowhere to be found online.  Wal-Mart, the closest so-called “record store” in my small town, obviously won’t have it, and even if Newbury Comics did, it’s not worth the hour-plus round trip, and I want the song, not the whole album.

So I fired up LimeWire and stole it.  I felt bad, but music junkies like me are unaffected by guilt when confronted by such situtations.  What else was I supposed to do?

I’m fine with buying songs, though I prefer to hear them on Rhapsody through my subscription.  Either way, copyright holders are compensated.   But when the track’s not available through legal channels, what’s a music fan to do?

If, on the other hand, record companies digitized everything and made it available online, things would be different.  Universal Music Group International sensed this, and in January launched a program to see how unlimited availability might affect demand for music too marginal to keep in physical release as compact discs, releasing thousands of out-of-print songs as digital-only tracks:

The UMGI programme is open-ended, expected to extend well into the future and involve substantial investment, particularly for the excavation and digitisation of older, rare analogue material.  Planned for delivery before the end of 2006 are thousands more deleted tracks.

Last week, the company made public the initial results of this experiment:

Online music fans have downloaded more than 250,000 tracks of previously out-of-print recordings by European artists since the launch of Universal Music’s pioneering digital catalogue reissue programme earlier this year.

Consumers bought music by a diverse, eclectic range of performers, including rock bands such as France’s Noir Desir, Germany’s Accept, and the U.K.’s Del Amitri, Cast and Eddie & the Hot Rods, as well as household names Chris De Burgh and Nana Mouskouri, and cultural icons Jacques Brel and Brigitte Bardot.

Interestingly, the top album download was “Steeltown” by Big Country, the band Stuart Adamson formed after leaving the Skids.

The programme validates the theories explored in Christopher Anderson’s “The Long Tail: How the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” says a Universal executive:

It’s easy for our consumers online to find and download current artists and current hits, but through this deep catalogue reissue programme, we are now able to respond to and quantify the appetite for more eclectic, diverse recordings from the past.  It’s clear that this is a ‘tail’ worth chasing.

“We are now able to respond to and quantify  the appetite…”

This approach exposes demand where no one suspects it exists.  I won’t reproduce Anderson’s work here.  Everyone should read his book.    “The Long Tail” reinforces the fact that once content is digitized and published, its value increases with each purchase.  If it’s unavailable, it has no value.  Once the revenue from purchases exceeds the cost of digitization, the value curve moves ever upward.

It’s interesting, as Tower Records shutters its doors, what’s most lamented is the lack of a retail establishment that has, literally, one of everything.  The physical space required to make it possible is too cost prohibitive for the business model to work.  With digitization, all that’s needed is cheap hard drive capacity and, I suppose, encryption to control piracy.

Closer to home, a local band held a CD release party the other night that was marred by their distributor, who didn’t ship the disks in time.  Had the band digitized the record and published it to a digital music store, they might have simply collected email addresses and sent links to everyone who bought the record.  As it was, they had to schedule ANOTHER release party in three weeks, and apologize profusely to their fans.

With those email  addresses in hand, they’d also have a mechanism for reaching fans with music and news later on.

This only works as digital distribution becomes the norm.  We’re not there yet, but it’s getting closer every day.

Local Rhythms – Spooky Night

hallown.GIFHalloween brings out the child in adults who never got over playing dress-up in grade school. Their affinity is likely due in no small part to the fact that, as holidays go, Halloween is just about the best there is.

Don a costume, grab a bag and go door-to-door, demanding candy. How can you beat that? Why would you want to stop? Trick or treating will likely get you big kids arrested, but there’s still fun to he had. Saturday is the unofficial pumpkin day for the over-21 set. Most of the area’s pubs have masquerade balls planned, with prizes and, probably, candy.

Salt hill Pub welcomes About Gladys, with costumes “all but mandatory” for the bash. Owner Josh Tuohy promises a “trick or treat bag full of funk” for all attendees. Across the river at Shenanigans, the Conniption Fits play, along with a “pagan ritual that involves a chicken.”

Seven Barrels has the Gully Boys and a costume contest, complete with door prizes. Their very different neighbor across Interstate 89, Electra, has two DJs hosting a party that goes until 4 AM, with prizes for scariest and sexiest get-ups, if you have the stamina.

In Springfield, Royal Flush has Intercept and cash prizes for their winners.

Halloween offers plenty of fun for youngsters, beginning on the weekend with 13th Annual Family Halloween Celebration at Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock. There are children’s games, pumpkin-carving, horse-drawn wagon rides and a costume parade.

Tuesday, of course, is all about the kids – and any parents who’ve re-channeled their inner child by devising ways to scare the neighborhood moppets witless.

Claremont’s Hallowesta has settled in as a local tradition. The gathering begins at 4 PM in front of Twisted Fitness on Pleasant Street. There’s a costume parade to Monadnock Park, a hot dog roast and hayrides. The fun lasts until 5:30.

Up in Lebanon, the Fire Department throws open their doors for an Open House. They can’t toss candy from the engines any more, but you can walk up and ask for it.

Adults looking to kick the fear factor from threat level orange to red might consider heading to “Drinking Liberally” at Murphy’s in Hanover from 7-9 on Halloween night. It’s a social gathering for those of a left-leaning political bent. From what I see on TV, liberals are probably the scariest creatures in the world.

Seriously, here’s what the rest of the weekend looks like:

Thursday: Devil Music Ensemble, Latchis Theatre – An appropriate start to the Halloween weekend, with this inventive group providing the musical score for a re-screening of the 1920 silent film “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” John Barrymore plays the London physician with a split personality. Devil’s Music Ensemble has done rock, folk, orchestral and even country music. Last year, they did the score for “Nosferatu” and Brattleboro asked them back.

Friday: Hexerei & Stonewall, Electra – A “Metal Bash” costume party with two purveyors of great hard rock together on the same stage. Stonewall just completed work on a demo with Shamus Martin at the controls. Their MySpace site has one of the songs, “Blessings for Pearls,” up as a free download. It’s got all the punch and crunch I’ve come to expect from them, and then some.

Saturday: Phil Celia, Middle Earth Music Hall – Under assault by an organization with a reputation for frivolous lawsuits, many of the recent shows at this well-regarded Bradford, VT venue have turned into benefits for their legal defense fund. They’re being sued for “noise pollution” – how ridiculous is that? Last week, Dr. Burma donated their take to the cause; Saturday the leader of Acoustic Philosophy presents a band reunion of sorts.

Sunday: George Carlin, Lowell Auditorium – No comedian has the ability to illuminate life’s absurdities quite like Carlin. From proposing golf courses as a solution for the homeless (“plenty of good land, in nice neighborhoods”) to his take on tattoos (“nothing like waking up drunk with the Last Supper on your chest”), he always brings the laughs. That’s why he’s been filling halls for 40 years.

Tuesday: The Decemberists, Calvin Theatre – Newly signed to a major label, their latest, “The Crane Wife,” continues the storytelling chamber rock that made indie fans mad for “Picaresque” and “Her Majesty.” Hopefully, their new imprint won’t cost them in street cred. Decemberists live shows are, according to most reports, pretty faithful re-creations of their records.

Wednesday: La Bohème, Claremont Opera House – OK, if you’re looking for the truly majestic, this is for you. The opera used as a basis for “Rent” comes to town, with a 30-member chorus, 40-instrument orchestra and 7 soloists. Where will everybody else sit? Even though it’s all sung in Italian, this story of love and poverty should resonate. Finally, there’s an opera at the Opera House.

Today’s Free Download – “Have You Had Enough?”

rickielee.jpgTwo weeks before the election, AlgoRhythms waxes political with a link to a lovely little ditty recorded by Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher (with Andy Paley producing). “Have You Had Enough” bops along like the Squirrel Nut Zippers (whose own song “Hell” is an apt sountrack for the last six years, come to think of it), a call-and-response swing skat unlike anything heard in protest music for many moons.

This tune’s been out since August, but here’s some up to the minute news related to the song:

Hey y’all,

Me, Kenny and Rickie Lee are going on a three day bus tour November 2-4 with Ned Lamont, performing “Have You Had Enough.”

I’m pumped. Howie’s already told the BBC, but I wanted y’all to know.

Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary, now he’s facing an uphill battle in the general election against … Joe Lieberman. The Nutbag from the Nutmeg state is, in my opinion, the biggest tool in the history of politics. George W. Bush couldn’t have won without him in 2000, and he’s embarassed himself consistently over the years since the Supreme Court coronation with his boot-licking, cowardly fawning.

If there is a God, please make Joe lose so he can assume his rightful place as a member of W’s lame duck cabinet – how’s Minister of Information sound?

Don’t forget to vote November 7, wherever you live. To paraphrase the RNC’s recruiting film for al Qaeda, the stakes are high.

Addendum 11/6: This is why we need MP3 liner notes.  Ken and Tom ARE from the Squirrel Nut Zippers.  Hence the uncanny resemblance – DUH.

Sansa Rhapsody Caveat – SD Expansion Worthless

sansarhap1.jpgOK, I love my new S250R, but today I learned something that made me love it less. Sandisk advertises the MicroSD expansion slot as a way to add memory to the device. The documentation describes a process for dragging and dropping tracks to the card.

First of all, the supposed device integration breaks down here. Why do I have to open File Manager to add tracks to the card, why not do it in the Rhapsody program?

Leave that aside for an even worse surprise. Only unprotected content can be added to the card. Sandisk tech support said I can purchase tracks from Rhapsody and move them to the card using Windows Media Player, but Rhapsody To-Go tracks can only be stored on the main flash drive.

I tried that – purchased a track, opened Media Player, and atttempted to import it. Surprise, surprise, Media Player doesn’t understand RAX (Rhapsody DNA-encoded) tracks, and it didn’t work. Maybe the Sandisk support guy meant that I can burn the track to CD, re-import it and THEN copy it over. If I wanted to do that, I’d buy another iPod.

Besides, I’ve always thought of “memory” as an increase in the overall size of the workspace or the storage area. Sandisk apparently treats it as a completely separate space, and places restrictions on what can be done there. Worse, nothing in their documentation reflects this. The fact that only unprotected MP3 and WMA files will work on the device should be written in bold letters anytime MicroSD is referenced in the manual.

This would be annoying but understandable if it weren’t for the purported tight integration between the hardware and content vendors. Sandisk and Rhapsody get equal billing on the E250R, but when it comes to memory expansion, the functionality is unchanged from earlier players.

I’ve complained to Sandisk about this and am waiting for an engineer to explain it to me. If and when that happens, I’ll post more here.

For now, though, I’d advise anyone looking to expand the E250R or any other E2xR player for anything other than your own ripped CDs or purchased content to save their money.

Today’s Free Download – Ingrid’s Ruse

ingrid.jpgIn honor of Saturday’s show at the Heritage, here’s a taste of Ingrid’s Ruse, one of the finest bands around these parts. You’ll need to go to their MySpace page, where three out of four songs are available for download. My favorite is their cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” but “Dimming of the Day” (another Thompson selection) and “Everybody Knows” are also excellent (and free).

But don’t slurp up the complimentary stuff and leave! Come to the show Saturday and get your copy, or if you can’t make it, head to Bulls-Eye Records in downtown Bellows Falls and pick it up.

Shamus Martin, drummer, producer and record company mogul, emailed me a track list yesterday:

  1. Vincent Black Lightning 1952
  2. John Barleycorn Must Die
  3. The Dimming of the Day
  4. In the Pines
  5. Everybody Knows
  6. Matty Groves
  7. The Immigrant Song
  8. Surprise hidden track

Local Rhythms – Farewell, Ingrid’s Ruse

ingridsfinal.jpgThe good news is that Ingrid’s Ruse, one of my favorite area bands, is finally putting out an album. The bad news is that their CD release party, which happens this Saturday at the Heritage Tavern in Charlestown, is also their farewell show.

Real life calls many a talented musician home. Singer/guitarist Ingrid Ayer-Richardson earned a degree in mathematics, and an opportunity in Maine gave her a chance to put it to use. After a bang-up appearance at this year’s Roots on the River festival, she and husband Micah packed up and headed north.

Saturday’s show will be a bittersweet coda to a promising chapter in area music.

The roots-folk foursome formed in the summer of 2005, immediately winning fans with a sound that sat between the modern baroque of Richard Thompson and the easy pop of Fleetwood Mac. The band’s namesake was also its focal point, with a voice that could rise stealthily from the mist and suddenly engulf a room.

Ingrid had stopped by one of Ezra Veitch’s open mike nights at PK’s Tavern in Bellows Falls, and Ezra liked what he heard. They quickly put a band together; Veitch played bass and contributed some of his songs.

He and drummer Matt Parker eventually left, ace guitarist Josh Maiocco (who inherited PK’s open mike when Ezra left town last summer) and ex-Stonewall bassist Kam McIntyre joined up. Drummer Shamus Martin anchors the Ruse’s sound.

Martin runs Exsubel Records in Saxtons River, and he handled production chores for the record in addition to playing on it. Fans who buy the CD this weekend will also receive a copy of the final live show.

It will be great to hear them again after so long, and their unique interpretations of songs that range from Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” to U2’s “One,” along with the odd Nirvana or Joni Mitchell cover.

My favorite, though, is their gender-bending take of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which paws like a cat at the opening, then roars to full speed like the über-motorcycle of the title. It’s the perfect distillation of Ingrid’s Ruse’s soon to be missed sound. Do yourself a favor, and join the hometown crowd to give them a good sendoff.

What else is on tap for the weekend? I’m glad you asked:

Thursday: A New Kind of Blue, Sophie & Zeke’s – Wm. Kinsella famously wrote, “If you build it, they will come.” They did, and now word is out about Thursday and Friday night music in downtown Claremont. This fine jazz combo, led by vocalist Emily Lanier, is the de facto house band Thursdays. Tomorrow, it’s bluegrass with the Spiral Farm Band, who gets more popular with every appearance.

Friday: Keith Hollis & The Po’ Boyz, Salt Hill – If you’re a fan of the Allman Brothers Band circa 1970, you’re going to love these guys. Hollis plays the Hammond just like Gregg, and slide guitar ace Cory Williams is a scary-good Duane disciple. How reliable is their pedigree? When Hollis was starting out, he played in a band with Elijah Blue Allman – yeah, that one. He’s even done the Leno show.

Saturday: Kurious, Claremont Opera House – Christian music has evolved (perhaps not the right word, I know) from the tambourine-shaking shiny happy people of yesteryear into something with a bit more, shall we say, teeth. Creed and Jars of Clay are good examples of this trend. Pennsylvania-based Kurious blends edgy, melodic rock with spiritual reverence, and does a pretty good job. This is a free with donations accepted show.

Sunday: Kaki King, Iron Horse – Prestidigitation with a guitar master. Known for her percussive guitar styling, reminiscent of Ani DiFranco and La Guitara cohort Patty Larkin, she’s made a couple of changes this time around. She’s singing for the first time, and plugging in with a band. With a reputation that’s already earned her the title “Queen of the Guitar” in some circles, this could be her moment.

Tuesday: Lisa Rogak, Canoe Club – An area writer who is best known for biographies of famous people like “Da Vinci Code” writer Dan Brown and the late low carbohydrate diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins. Like Stephen King, she uses music to unwind. Unlike the Down East Bard, she prefers eclectic jazz and smart classical to garage rock. That’s a perfect fit for the Hanover supper club crowd.

Wednesday: Bo Diddley, Lebanon Opera House – A member of the second class of performers inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, the man with the square guitar has been making music for over 50 years. Famous for the rhumba beat in songs like “Mona” and “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger,” he’s joined at the Opera House by blues ace Alvin Youngblood-Heart and the soulful Ruthie Foster.

Hands-On With Sansa Rhapsody

sansarhap.jpgThe new line of Sansa Rhapsody portable media players represents the strongest challenge yet to Apple’s market supremacy.  One of the iPod’s key strengths is its’ integration with the iTunes Music Store.  The Sansa devices, ranging from the 2 GB E250R to the 8GB 280R, are built to work seamlessly with Real’s Rhapsody music subscription service.

The Player

The Sansa Rhapsody is slightly shorter and somewhat thicker than a comparable iPod Nano, but it’s packed with more features.  A built-in voice recorder and video playback capability, for starters.  It’s light but substantial, with a scratch-resistant steel back and smooth matte black front.  The interface mimics the iPod’s click wheel, though the arrow buttons are separated from the raised ring used to navigate through selection lists.   Best of all is the small menu button at the bottom left of the keypad, used to quickly return to the top level; it’s also an on/off switch.

The screen is bright, and the main interface looks like the Mac’ OS X “dock,” with icons inflating like balloons as they move into the select position.  It’s neatly organized; most users will be navigating it easily within minutes.  The only complaint is that backing up from choices isn’t quite as easy as moving forward.

Rhapsody Channels

The player’s main innovation is integration with Rhapsody Channels, genre and artist-themed playlists designed to encourage musical discovery.  The player comes standard with a few already built in, and its’ easy to add favorites.  Each channel contains up to 200 songs, which are discarded after they’re played.  Synchronization with Rhapsody adds new tracks.  If you want to save a song for later use, it’s a click away.  Tunes can be added as subscription tracks that expire when the monthly credit card charge stops, or purchased outright.

Once a song is added, it’s immediately available on the device.  Upon computer synchronization, it’s placed in the music library.  So far, the Sansa Rhapsody is the only player to offer this kind of on-the-go functionality, though some integrated portable satellite radios let users click on songs and sync to a PC.

Channels can explore a certain theme, like alt-Country, Classic Rock or Acid Jazz, or present like-minded music for fans of particular groups.  The Rolling Stones Channel, for example, included selections from Bo Diddley, Humble and Eric Clapton, along with a healthy dose of Stones.  If a certain song offends your sensibilities, you can skip it or use the player’s rating system to ban it from ever being played again.

DNA is the new DRM

Another interesting element introduced with the Sansa Rhapsody is Real’s new Digital Rights Management (DRM), known as Rhapsody DNA.  Unlike Apple’s DRM, which only works on iPods, songs with DNA DRM will work on other players.

Playing encoded songs on DNA-enabled devices like the Sansa Rhapsody enhances the user experience with additional metadata such as album artwork and artist notes.  This information adds particular value to the Channels feature.  When the Small Faces’ “Itchykoo Park” came on, a quick click revealed a mini-band biography and the song’s release year.

Digital music often provides a bloodless listening experience, all bits and no bite.  Real DNA’s metadata doesn’t supplant liner notes and CD booklets, but it illuminates the experience better than anything offered by any content provider to date.

With the ever-present tether to the Internet, one can only expect metadata quality to improve.  Sansa routinely updates the player’s firmware, adding new functionality to the device.

Priced to Move

Prices for the players range from $139 for the 2 GB (500 song) E250R, which costs 10 dollars less than a comparable iPod.  The E280 is priced the same as an 8 GB Nano.   Feature for feature, however, the Sansa leaves the Apple player in the dust – though the inclusion of an FM radio makes no sense at all.

Currently, the Sansa players are only available through Best Buy.  The big box retailer is bundling a store-branded version of the Rhapsody music service with a two-month trial to entice customers.  The player’s free content, which fills up half the device, syncs fine with other versions of Rhapsody.

There have been many pretenders to Apple’s throne since the iPod was introduced six years ago.  Microsoft’s wireless-enabled Zune player, along with a dedicated music service, is due next month.  The Zune Marketplace may be the player’s undoing, though, as content bought there won’t work anywhere else.  Apple, for its part, also insists on keeping iTunes songs exclusively tied to the iPod.

By opening their new players enough to work with other services, and allowing Rhapsody content to work with other devices, the Sansa Rhapsody performs a neat balancing trick.  Loyalty is rewarded with an improved user experience – but it’s an added benefit, not a requirement.